I consider Barbadian poet/historian Edward Kamau Brathwaite the greatest living poet in the western hemisphere. Period. In the early eighties I did a brief interview with Brathwaite.


            KALAMU YA SALAAM: What are you trying to do with your poetry now?


            KAMAU BRATHWAITE: My poetry has been concerned, for a long time now, with the attempt to reconstruct, in verse, in metric and in rhythms, the nature of the culture of the people of the Caribbean. This involves not only discovering what I would call "new poetic forms" -- a breakaway from the English pentameter -- but also, and more importantly, discovering the nature of our folk culture, the myths, the legends, the speech rhythms, the way we express ourselves in words, the way we express ourselves in song. That has been my concern for about ten years and is increasingly so. One has to develop technical resources of a very complex nature and at the same time one has to get an increasing knowledge of who our people are, where they come from and the nature of their soul.


            SALAAM: What's so important about that?


            BRATHWAITE: Well, what's important is that until we can do that we remain "ex-selves," we remain nobodies, we remain just imitations of those who had colonized us. Considering that the man in the street, our own people, the common man has always been himself, it is ridiculous that the artists have remained a shadow of that self. What we have to do now is to increasingly bring the artist and the people together.


            SALAAM: Do you prefer working on the page or would you like to do more recordings?


            BRATHWAITE: Both. I wouldn't separate them. My poems start off as rhythms in my head, as patterns of songs which also have an objective. The patterns of songs have to say something, address themselves to some problems or go through some dialectical process. From my head they have to be transferred onto the page, because that's how I started, but then from the page I instinctively transfer it on to song. In other words, every time I write a poem I have to either have it read or read it myself to some kind of audience before I'm satisfied that it's a real poem. The recordings are a necessary part of the whole process.


            SALAAM: What's the importance of the audience in that process?


            BRATHWAITE: The audience gives me feedback. The audience completes the circle. The audience are the people I'm writing about and for, and therefore, if they can't understand what I'm saying it means that it might be that I've failed. There are some cases where I think I'm ahead of the audience but then I would know that and they would know it too, but you've got to start from a base that the audience and yourself agree on and move from there.


            SALAAM: Who is this audience that you speak of, obviously you don't just mean people in general?


            BRATHWAITE: I start off with a Caribbean audience which is representative of the people who have been down-pressed. The audience is usually a mixed audience, moving in terms of class from college educated to middle class right up to the laboring class because that is how our society is composed.


            SALAAM: What immediate reactions do you find valuable as verification and what long range reactions do you find valuable as verification?


            BRATHWAITE: The immediate reactions are one of ascent or descent. You can tell from face and feeling, body movement, if you are saying the right thing. That is clear. but the long range reaction is very interesting. I'll give you an example: I'm starting to use a lot of possession (religious) sequences in my work. Because the work is culturally accurate, instinctively when people come to it they want to perform it, they don't just want to read it, nearly all my work in the Caribbean is done as a performance with groups. Now, a young group of actors recently came into contact with my latest poem which was essentially involved with religion, native religion, Afro-Caribbean religion. They were not themselves fully aware of what I was talking about but they could tell from the descriptions, the external aspects of the descriptions, the kinds of churches I was talking about. They went to those churches in order to experience for themselves what was happening and many of them have now become members of those churches. As artists they find themselves now being fulfilled as members of those people's churches. I think that's a very significant long term effect because it is really motivating people not just to talk about their culture but to become participants in its root basis. The Haitians have done it too. The Haitians are increasingly returning to vodun as a central experience. With the African person the religion is the center of the culture, therefore every artist, at some stage, must become rootedly involved in a religious complexity.


            SALAAM: How do you deal with the mystification inherent in much of the religion?


            BRATHWAITE: It is not mystification at all, that's the thing about it. The religion is so natural, it is so vital, it is so socially oriented, so people oriented that there is no mysticism -- mental mystification -- in it al all. That is really the difference between an African oriented religion and a European one. Theirs is very mystified because they  are not dealing with a living god, they're not dealing with man in relation to god in relation to community.


            SALAAM: They're not people centered.


            BRATHWAITE: Right. In the African sense the religion is medicine, it is philosophy, it is martial arts, it is everything, holistic.


            SALAAM: In that sense the work you are doing is people centered work as opposed to idea centered?


            BRATHWAITE: Right. As opposed to art centered work, art for art's sake.



(for Staceyann in the space/time continuum)

a fear expressed is a fear reduced
don't let anxieties about the future, curdle 
the sweet of tasting in the present 

every "now" has its own joys, its own 
sorrows. every lived moment is now. it is 
not the water but the bridge that ages 

precisely because the water is 
constantly renewing... and so, keep running
be water, renew and run, run and renew and

where ever, whom ever you touch, build
build bridges, links, one to the other
whomsoever the other is, we should create

a crossing, a way to connect, a bridge
built by each of us to the other of us
as we flow on and follow our own paths

and so to be whole is to be both:
be water constantly running
be bridges constantly built

life is motion/movement. keep going. 
share the beauty of your flowing, the beauty
of your bridges connecting everywhere 

howsoever old you grow, share your beauty, 
build more bridges. be both water and
bridge, flow & connection—a luta continua...



saul williams, my generational son, the punk-hop poet/musician


new orleans, 22 nov. 2004. when he got in my car, i told him i was proud of him, “very proud, really.”

it hardly seemed over a decade ago when we sat on the carpeted floor together in a barely furnished apartment in atlanta. he was at morehouse. my daughter kiini was at spelman. and their small group of friends, the red clay collective, was groping forward toward a glorious future, or more accurately groping toward a gloriously-hoped-for future. they were poets and writers, photographers and dancers, some were into the hard sciences, not saul williams, he was a philosophy major.


they published a journal and i contributed writing and advice. after graduation when a hard core of them, kiini included, moved to new york, saul would go to graduate school at nyu in acting. kiini traveled for a year and then did a masters in publishing at pace university.


i would visit them in new york, not often but whenever i visited it was good to get together with them. their energy was energizing to me; always left me with more to contemplate, inspired to do more. at one program they asked me to read poetry in a feature spot—kiini cried that night, so happy, so proud.


in later years, as saul’s star rose, he and i would sometimes share platforms and panels—once in boston i stood with him as old heads attacked what they perceived as the irrelevance of these black youth for whom blackness was neither a badge of honor nor courage; indeed, from the youth perspective, their blackness was, in fact, not a badge of any kind.

many of us, the black power generation of parents, never dreamed of children who were not focused on the color, culture and consciousness of their/our blackness.


now, in 2004, our future has arrived but the reality of our social landscape is no dream zone; bitterness sours our intergenerational relationships. it’s complex. it’s blatant. it’s infuriating. it’s tough being black in the 21st century if you were born before the sixties. and it’s even tougher relating to today’s young people, particularly those born in the eighties or later.


we old heads figured that if richard pryor could publicly give up the word nigger, well nobody had an excuse to keep slinging that epithet. but little did we know that eddie murphy, crouch-grabbing, cursing and generally acting like a, well, like a niggah, was only the beginning. murphy was cool compared to martin, and def comedy jam, and gangsta rap, and shit, what the fuck is going on? these young negroes really are crazy!


i once asked a group of young people what they thought was the biggest problem with “today’s youth.” one perceptive young man fired back without a moment of hesitation: “today’s adults.”

and i knew precisely what he meant. there is not only a disconnect, there is also deep disappointment. young and old look at each other and are thoroughly uncomfortable with what the other has become. are these our children/are these my parents? what happened to them?


except for the older men still trying to hit on the younger women, most of my peers are uncomfortable around young people. whereas, i tend to be uncomfortable around many of my nostalgia-loving, over-50 peers, a significant number of whom are former rebels now turned responsible citizens.


as saul and i sat in café nicaud, he drinking a latte and eating a portabella mushroom and avocado sandwich with a fruit salad cup on the side, me chugging down nantucket lemonade, our conversation unfolded at a leisurely pace.


i asked him what he was up to.


he was in town for a gig at the house of blues with his band.


same band as amethyst (which was a rock group he led for his first album)?


no. this was stripped down, a quartet. he was now into “punk-hop,” kind of a mixture of punk and hip hop. violin, turntables & bass, i believe he said drums, and i know saul said he was doing guitar.


i didn’t know he played guitar.


he didn’t really play. he kind of just played what he wanted to play.


ok, i thought, i’m sure that’s an interesting aggregation.


we talked on about his daughter saturn, his son (i forget his name). i had met saturn in new york, but never met his son. they have different mothers. saul is a twice-time, proud father/single parent—he had been the primary care-giver for his daughter for two years while marcia returned to college for a masters.


i asked saul about acting. he said he really wanted to continue acting, if he could get good parts. he was signed on for a handful of films he looked forward to but none of them had yet been “greenlighted.” actors actually spend more time waiting for other people to get their act together than they do actually acting.


saul’s music career was not so interesting to me because i’m not into the type of music he’s making. saul views it as a role he’s developing for himself, a role that gives him a platform, partially because, as saul explained, actors don’t have a public platform. even when they get a hit movie, as he had with slam, they don’t get to interact with their audiences and say whatever they want to tell folk.


i was more interested in his writing career. saul told me about his next book, which he is committed to delivering to his publisher (mtv, yeah, mtv is publishing books) in late may 2005. i won’t give away the subject matter, except to say it is a mix of fiction and autobiography (parts of the book are literal transcriptions from saul’s journaling). as saul described the structure of his book, a point snapped into focus.


then saul got a cell call from frosty, his tour manager, he had to get back to check out early because they were going to get on the road right after the show rather than leave in the morning as originally planned. but before we left, saul urged me to finish making the point about the differences going down.

our relationship to race was radically different. he with his dark skin and nappy-headed fro—you know, not neatly trimmed like a superfly, more like the raggedness of a runaway whose head knows neither comb nor scissors. i, with my dark skin (although a shade or two lighter than saul), and my grey beard and uncut-but-not-uncombed afro, we could easily have passed for father and son, except we were talking amicably, laughing, and enjoying each other’s company.


i explained that in the seventies there was a major clash between the black power folk and the integrationists. we believed in nationtime and worked hard at creating alternatives: political organizations, schools, musical groups that didn’t include whites, hell, some of our venues didn’t even allow whites in the audience. and also at the same time we were doing that, there was a major push to counter our every move with mainstream supported, integrationist organizations. thus, at the height of the black arts theatre movement, rockerfeller and/or ford funded, in a major way, the “negro” ensemble company. how much clearer could they make it that there was a battle going on for the hearts and minds of black folk? moreover, the mainstream did not intend to concede one iota, indeed, they intended to win. and win they did.


i pointed out to saul that i recently read that the venerable dance theatre of harlem was defunct, kaput, finished, stick-a-fork-in-them; they started up in harlem teaching ballet at a time when blacks in modern dance were doing eleo pomare or else following chuck davis into institutionalizing african dance among african americans. and it was but a short pirouette from n.e.c. and d.t.h. to the modern day golddust twins, colin & condi. as i pointed out to saul, the twins had been groomed to do the jobs they were doing and they were good at it.


we have a whole generation of black folk who are deep into americanism, which reductively means into western values: fundamental christianity, winner-take-all democracy and global capitalism. but that was a choice and that was their right to choose to do so, even as i felt it my responsibility to chart a separate course. a course which includes a complex relationship to whites in general.


i recalled attending the sixth pan african conference in tanzania and meeting liberation leaders and seeing their european spouses. we had thought the struggle was for black freedom. both saul and i laughed as he said, yeah, it meant to be free to marry europeans.


part of me understood. during the civil rights era, the union of interracial couples was a very specific, and often very brave, political statement, a statement that could not be easily dismissed (even though many of us were often casually contemptuous of such relationships). and, as i told saul, today i co-direct a writing program in the orleans public schools. my fellow co-director and founder of the program is jim randels, a twenty-year-veteran public school teacher and union organizer. we work at black high schools. some of the kids call jim “jesus” because of his appearance: beard, long hair and white skin: the irony, of course, is that jim does not really look like jesus looked, only like the picture that europe has enshrined of how racists wanted jesus to look. many of the older teachers hate jim, for them he represents white supremacy still asserting itself in what they perceived is the guise of benevolence. yet, their politics is the flip story.


on the one hand, white-skinned jim is opposed to the status quo. on the other hand dark-skinned colleagues want to force our students to conform to the american way. i know where i stand on that issue, but i also know that race camouflages the major class, cultural and identify contradictions. this is a hard issue to deal with because of the emotional buttons that integration continues to push, less so with the youth, more so with the adults.

saul grunts and relates experiences in brazil where folk were asking him what did it feel like to be fire-hosed, and he had to explain that it was his parents’ generation who were fire-hosed, not him. but the brazilians with their history-lives tradition, found it hard to understand saul saying he and his parents were fundamentally different.


likewise, we, the parents of the saul williams-es of the world, wanted our children to be free of the burden of racism, but at the same time we tacitly expected them to wave the flag of racial solidarity—an action our children rightly perceive as equally burdensome. but there was more.


i got around to one of the harder aspects of our relationships while driving saul back to the hotel, which once had been a major department store and was now remolded as a luxury french quarter location. tourism is how new orleans’ makes its money. saul had wondered aloud about the young kids tap dancing on the sidewalk, hustling chump change, their bare torsos shinning, their air jordan sneakers with bottle caps embedded in the soles as surrogate taps. what could one say: don’t dance for your supper? in one way or another, don’t we all dance to the system’s piper in order to receive money?


“i believe we males are divided by the absent father syndrome.” saul quietly listened. it’s the dominant social reality of black family life. we older men are not there. and i wasn’t saying it as some lofty abstraction—i am in my second marriage. although i have a good relationship with my offspring, there was a time when i was not there.


far too many of our young men wouldn’t recognize their fathers if they were confronted at gunpoint. this male alienation, youth from elder, also too often unavoidably leads to a psychosis of self-hatred as young men father children but are estranged from the mothers of those children, except that the manifestation of the self-hatred is actualized in a visceral hatred by the single-father young black man for the absent-father older black man.


as we pulled up to the hotel, saul tentatively asked if i had time to attend his show, he would put my name at the door, although he knew i was really busy and probably didn’t have… i told him i would try to make it. we both knew a 10:30pm, punk-hop show wasn’t my particular cup of herbal peppermint tea.


i had forgotten that saul was coming to town, so i was pleasantly surprised when he had called me before noon the morning of the show. it was a touching act of filial respect. he didn’t have to reach out. i immediately suggested we go out for coffee, tea, or whatever. he agreed. now he was inviting me to go out. would i agree?


finding agreement is the question confronting our respective generations: can we agree to support each other, agree to participate in each other’s lives, even as we recognize that although we are both black, we are actually born of two different worlds, actually see each other and our respective futures in two different and sometimes contentious ways?


* * *


embracing black stacey


new orleans, 22 nov. 2004. when he came off the stage, even though i was standing near the steps, he didn’t see me. they had done a high energy set for over an hour, i knew the spaced-out look that was in his eyes.

at such moments you don’t really be seeing what is physically before you. you are seeing everything you remember from those past moments of using the power of performance to hurl yourself into the way-out-a-sphere, you are still immersed in that floating feeling, remembering your imagination boosted by the adrenalin of art creation. as he turned to head to the green room, i caught up to him quickly and shouted out a greeting. he turned. recognized. and embraced me like a lover, full body press. we were lovers and my presence made clear, in a way that no words or nothing else could: i care. i love. you. brother. son. man.


i’m glad you came.


i’m glad i came.


and we smiled at each other saying nothing for a couple of seconds. just smiling.


i was glad i got a chance to see the set. the punk element was really strong, as was the spoken word. saul is really figuring a way to mix it up. there were a number of moments i really, really liked although approximately 25% of the time the music, the beats, were so loud the words were indecipherable. but when you could hear, saul gave you an earful.


one headbanger had the hook: where my niggaz at? and the answer was incarcerated, in the military (“some benefits and a gun”). then there was a song called african student movement, during which saul cajoled us: instead of fighting for them, why not fight for health care, education… you get the point. but it was not all protest and hard beats, there was a tender moment—which is oxymoronic to talk about tenderness and punk-hop in the same breath, but tender is what it was.

saul started off making a point of what he saw as a difference between emcees and poets, the image of being hard and the reality of being human. he spoke out against “motherfuckers” whom he defined as anyone/everyone that denigrated and disrespected the feminine. saul challenged us to have the heart to acknowledge our human hearts. beautiful.


i watched the audience of approximately 120 people on a monday night in the ‘parish,” which is the new orleans house of blues’ small upstairs venue. the three-fifths filled room was approximately 75% white and 99.9 percent young. yours truly was the .1 percent that was old. at one point when saul was talking between numbers, someone asked for more beats and less talk. saul talked on. another time someone was on a cell phone, no, they were taking a picture...


another interesting note is that there was a hard core of saul-heads down front. on more than a few occasions, as saul recited a number they knew, the followers would loudly declaim the hook lines in unison with saul. it was undeniable: saul had found a way to penetrate into the consciousness of a core of folk in new orleans without the aid of radio and television, which was in fact one of saul’s objectives. earlier when he told me that going commercial was a way to reach folk, i nodded but retained reservations—how many times had i heard musicians say when i get famous i’m going to really come out with some stuff. my experience and analysis suggests that if you ain’t doing it when you’re unknown, you would not be likely to do it when you had fame and fortune at stake. but saul is not weighted down with my perspective.


for me, punk-hop is far, far removed from anything commercial, but saul has a recording deal, has a video about to be aired on mtv, has a book publishing deal, is making movies. so, the reality is: he’s commercial. and the reality also is he’s saying something and reaching people. more power to him. still, this is not my kind of scene, not the kind of venue i desire nor the type of music i enjoy.


but, even so, i realize, not only should i tolerate it, i should also embrace it and learn from what saul is doing. why? simply because when i was him, i too was striking out in startling new directions, directions that my parents would not have explored. he was black like i had been, i was then and am now no blacker than he.


for my money (i had a complimentary admission, but if i had paid to get in, for my money…) the best number was black stacey, an autobiographical number about growing up the son of haitian parents, his father a minister, and he dark-skinned and skinny. he talked about some of his more self-depreciating moments, and then hollered out the chorus: blaccckkkk stacey (which is his middle name).

he left nothing on the stage. was holding back nothing. gave it his all. the veins on the side of his neck buldging. his eyes bugging. throwing himself spastically into some of the more hyper-energetic numbers.


once again i was proud of what he was doing, even though it was clear he couldn’t play guitar (thankfully he only stabbed out chords on one number, wisely relying mostly on his mouth chops rather than his non-existant guitar chops—yet, wait a minute, this is punk, and it doesn’t matter that you are still learning some of the basics of your craft.


even though we had been standing at the foot of the stage steps less than five seconds, a bunch of stuff ran through my head in the brief interval. the crowd was hollering wildly, they wanted more.


saul leaned into me. “you know that piano poem?”


he was talking about my cecil taylor homage, “let me ‘splain it to ya.” i had to tell him no, i didn’t know it by heart. he asked me, you sure you don’t know it. i knew where this was going. he wanted to call me up to do a number with him for the encore. i declined. i told him, no, i didn’t remember it.


earlier while he was performing, there had been a couple of mili-moments when i thought about what i would do if i was on the stage, but no, this was saul’s night, this was his time, not mine. i didn’t need to be out there, especially since performing in this kind of venue was not something i wanted to do.


saul jumped back on the stage with his band. acknowledged me on mic and then they did two numbers. since i was now standing backstage, behind the bank of speakers, it was even more difficult to hear the words, but i watched the drummer. he was pounding full force, but while knocking out the hard rock rhythm, he was also mouthing the lyrics, clearly enjoying playing as much as the raucous crowd enjoyed receiving the music. it was a moment of oneness.


afterwards, saul asked, you want to come back, i said, no. i was headed home to get some sleep. i didn’t need to hang out with the band and the other young people who would invariably be there surrounding saul, one of the major voices of their generation. this was their time to step forward, and, in that specific context, my time to offer background support.


i didn’t need to hang out. it was sufficient that i had come and seen him perform, and had been there to embrace him when he came off the stage.


—kalamu ya salaam


i have my mother's hands

 (featuring composer/guitarist Frank Edele)


though cancer claimed

my mother's body decades ago

inola's reincarnation remains within me

a deeply treasured and unerring auditor—

an inquisitive, music loving child

with eyes wide bright and earth brown

whose trusting reach upthrusting

to clasp a helping man's hand

unclenches the maleness of my fist

and continually causes my essence

to cup the strength of masculine fingers

into the soft of a flesh spoon

emulating and saluting the feminine

gesture of giving unconditionally


—kalamu ya salaam




[People might think this is crazy, but I don’t remember when I interviewed Baraka. I know this is actually one of two in-depth interviews I did with Amiri. This was probably, but not definitely, in the nineties. The only other thing to note is that this is not just some random questions. Amiri and I had talked, over the years, about a lot of this stuff. All those references to the early writing came out of conversations and a lot of reading. This is a rough transcript, unedited. That’s it. Enjoy. —KyS]



KALAMU YA SALAAM: When you wrote A System of Dante's Hell, at one point you decided just to start with memory. You sat down and just started to write your first memories -- without trying to make any sense of them or to order them, but rather just to write whatever were your first memories. Is that correct?

AMIRI BARAKA: Yeah. That's essentially what it is. I was writing to try to get away from emulating Black Mountain, Robert Creely, Charles Olson, that whole thing. It struck me as interesting because somebody else who had done the same thing was Aime Cesaire. Cesaire said that he vowed one time that he was not going to write anymore poetry because it was too imitative of the French symbolist and he wanted to get rid of the French symbolists. So he said he was only going to write prose but by trying to do that he wrote A Notebook of a Return to My Native Land. It's incredible when you think about that. For me it was the same thing, I was trying to get away from a certain kind of thing. I kept writing like Creely and Olson and what came to me was: "I don't even think this." What became clear to me is that if you adopt a certain form that form is going to push you into certain content because the form is not just the form, the form itself is content. There is content in form and in your choice of form.


SALAAM: Is there content or is there the shaping of content?

BARAKA: No, I'm saying this: the shaping itself is a choice and that choice is ideological. In other words, it's not just form. The form itself carries...


SALAAM: If you choose a certain form, then the question is why did you choose that form.

BARAKA: Exactly--Why did you choose that form?--that's what I'm saying. That's the ideological portent, or the ideological coloring of form. Why did you choose that? Why does that appeal to you? Why this one and not that one.


SALAAM: You said you were consciously trying to get away from the form?



SALAAM: So, why call it A System of Dante's Hell?

BARAKA: Because, I thought, in my own kind of contradictory thinking, that it was "hell." You see the Dante--which escaped me at the time. It shows you how you can be somewhere else and even begin to take on other people's concerns--I wasn't talking about Dante Aligheri. See? I "thought" I was, but I was really talking about Edmund Dante, The Count of Monte Cristo. You see, I had read the Count of Monte Cristo when I was a child and I loved the Count of Monte Cristo. Edmund Dante, that's who I was talking about and I had forgotten that. Forgotten that actually it was Dante Aligheri although I had read that and there was a professor of mine at Howard, Nathan Scott, who went on to become the Chairman of the Chicago Institute of Theology. Nathan Scott was a heavy man. When he used to lecture on Dante, he was so interested in that, that that is how he interested me and A.B. [Spelman] in that. He would start running it down and we would say that damn, this must be some intersting shit here if he's that in to it. So we read it and we got into it. It was like Sterling Brown teaching us Shakespeare.


SALAAM: So the Count of Monte Cristo is what you were remembering?

BARAKA: Right. Absolutely.


SALAAM: But you were saying A System of Dante's Hell. Explain the title.

BARAKA: I had come up on a kind of graphic which showed the system of Dante's hell. You know, hell laid out in graphic terms showing which each circle was. First circle, second circle, etc.


SALAAM: That was Dante Aligheri.

BARAKA: Right. But seeing that, I wanted to make a statement about that, but the memory itself was not about that. See what I'm saying? I was fascinated by Dante's hell because of the graphic but when I started reaching into Dante, I wasn't talking about that Dante. I was talking about Edmund Dante. Remember, Edmund Dante, as all those Dumas characters--you know all of Dumas' characters get thrown down, get whipped, somebody steal their stuff and they come back. All of them do that. Like the Man in the Iron Mask, that could be Africa sitting up inside that mask. The same thing with Edmund Dante, who I didn't think was hooked up to the earlier Dante, but who was disenfranchished. Despised and belittled. And then his son, the count of Monte Cristo, puts all this money and wealth together. He's got an enourmous fortune, and he vows revenge on the enemies of his father. That is what was in my mind. What's interesting about that is first of all that it is Dumas, which I had read as a child before I read Dante Aligheri. I had read Dumas not only in the book but I had read classic comics, you dig? I had read all of that, the whole list in classic comics. That Count of Monte Cristo made a deep, deep impression on me. I think what it was is that I always thought that Black people generally, particularly my father, Black men like him, I saw a parallel with that. They had been thrown down. My grandfather...


SALAAM: And it was on you. You were vowing revenge on those who had thrown down...

BARAKA: Absolutely. My grandfather was "Everett"--which always reminded me of "Edmund"--my grandfather's name was Thomas Everett Russ. He was the one who owned a grocery store and a funeral parlor and the Klan ran him out of there. Then he got hit in the head by a street light, that's what they said when they carried him in, and he spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair spitting in a can. You understand? So Everett/Edmund, all of that shit. I always remembered him. Like the night that Dutchman came out. I went down to the corner to look at all these newspapers. They were saying all kinds of crazy things: this nigger is crazy, he's using all these bad words; but I could see that they were trying to make me famous. I said, oh well, I see.


SALAAM: What do you mean "make you famous"?

BARAKA: I could see that this was not a one night stand. They had some stuff they wanted to run about me, either on a long term negative or a long term positive. I said, oh, in other words you're going to make this some kind of discussion. For some reason the strangest feeling came over me. I was standing on the corner of 8th Street and 2nd Avenue at the newspaper stand reading. I had a whole armful. At the time there were a lot of newspapers in New York: The Journal American, The Daily News, The Post, The New York Times, The Herald Tribune, The Village Voice, The Villager, I had all of them in my hand. A strange sensation came over me; the sensation was "oh, you're going to make me famous," but then I'm going to pay all of you people back. I'm going to pay you back for all the people you have fucked over. That was clear. There was no vagueness about that. That came to my mind clear as a bell. That's why I think that whatever you do, there's always some shit lurking in your mind and if the right shit comes together--you know the difference between quantitative and qualitative, you know that leap to something else. It could be liquid and suddenly leap into ice, it could be ice and suddenly leap into vapor. When I got that feeling, it was a terrific feeling. It was like some kind of avenger or something. It was: Now, I'm going to pay these motherfuckers back!


SALAAM: Like, all of sudden you now know why you were put here.

BARAKA: Yeah, that's exactly right. Because until then people wanted to know about the village. I was kind of--not totally, but I was a little happy go lucky kind of young blood down in the village kicking up my heels. I mean I had a certain kind of sense of responsibility. I was involved in Fair Play for Cuba and those kinds of things. I had even worked in Harlem. But I had never determined that I needed to do something that personal and yet that general as pay some people back.


SALAAM: So this was not only personal; it was also taking care of business?

BARAKA: Exactly. I never saw that it was connected specifically to me...


SALAAM: So before your work, your writing, was personal?

BARAKA: Yeah, it didn't have nothing to do with nobody because it was just me. But then it was, now that people would know my name, I had a sense of responsibility. As long as I was an obscure person, I was going to kick up my heels and be...


SALAAM: Obscure.

BARAKA: Right. Whatever I wanted to do. Althought that's not a static kind of realization because you were moving anyway. You can't come to this new conclusion unless you have moved quantitatively over to it. So that was a big turning point because I said, God damn, look at this!


SALAAM: Was that when you got the idea for System? When did you get the idea to write System?

BARAKA: I had written System already, but the point is that that was actually a kind of a summing up of one kind of life to make ready for another. I can see that now.


SALAAM: So System, in a sense, was what made it possible for you to look forward because now you had looked back.

BARAKA: Yeah, it sort of like cleaned up everything.  You know how you want to clear the table. I had dealt with all of the stuff, now I can deal with the next phase of my life. Also, there's this guy, I think his name is Brown, he's an Englishman. There's a book called Marxism and Poetry, a very interesting book, but anyway he says that drama is always most evident in periods of revolution. In other words when you get to the point that you're going to make the characters so ambitious that they are going to actually walk around like they are in real life that means you're trying to turn the whole thing around. That had been happening to me. I started writing poetry that had people speaking. It would be a poem and then suddenly I would have a name, a colon, and then a speech, then a name, a colon, and another speech. This would be within a poem. The next thing I know I was writing plays. You could see it just mount and mount and mount. You wanted realer than the page. You wanted them on the stage, actually walking around saying it. I had written a couple of plays before Dutchman but the way Dutchman was written was so spectacular that what happened with it didn't surprise me. I came in one night about twelve and wrote until about six in the morning and went to sleep without even knowing what I had written. I woke up the next morning and there it was. I had written it straight out, no revisions. I just typed it straight out.


SALAAM: So where did it come from?

BARAKA: I don't know. My life at the time. Whatever was interesting is that whatever had promoted it, I just wrote it.


SALAAM: When you came in did something tell you to write this or did you have a routine that you would write every night?

BARAKA: No, I didn't do that every night. Most of the time I would get up and work in the morning or the afternoon, even though I did work at night a lot too, but on this particular night, I don't know. I just came in sat down and started, and typed until I finished. I didn't even know what I had written. You ever had that kind of experience where you are in that zone or whatever, you just do it til you're finished, then you go to bed. I said I'll look at that tomorrow, I'm too tired to look at that tonight.


SALAAM: Had you named it at that point?

BARAKA: Yeah. At first I was going to name it The Flying Dutchman and then I said, it ain't really the "flying" Dutchman, so I just call it Dutchman. You know the "Dutchman" was really the train, that was the flying in it. But then there was a lot of ambiguity in it in my mind. I didn't know if I wanted the train to be the Dutchman or the dude to be the Dutchman or the woman to be the Dutchman. So I just said, fuck it, it's all Dutchman. I had nothing really fixed in my mind; what I'm saying now is all hindsight. At the time I just felt like writing some stuff, wrote it, went to bed and got up the next day trying to understand what I had written. You know how that is.


SALAAM: After you looked at it again did you do revisions on it?

BARAKA: No, not really. I just looked at it. I didn't understand it.


SALAAM: What do you mean you didn't understand it.

BARAKA: I understood the lines, the words, but I didn't really understand what I was really saying. You can understand the words but not understand what you are saying, like: this is a car. You know what that means, but why are you saying that. What does that mean? I didn't know. So, I left there a couple of days. Then it occured to me the best thing to do with this thing is to look at it. So I submitted it to this workshop I was in. The great benovolent Edward Albee who had made some money off the Zoo Story and Bessie Smith had started this workshop. In fact, Adrienne Kennedy and myself were in that workshop, and quite a few, I thought, intersting white playwrights. Israel Horowitz, a guy name Jack Richardson--Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Momma's Hung You In The Closet and I'm Feeling So Sad--, McNally, and a couple of other interesting playwrights. I had got up in there because I had started writing this drama and I thought that maybe it would help me. I had written about three or four plays before that, The Baptism, The Toilet. I had written some plays and lost them. We did one of them on the radio, The Revolt of the Moon Flowers. I don't know what happened to them. Somebody will come up with it.


SALAAM: At this point you were doing a lot of what some people would call automatic writing?

BARAKA: Yeah, but I always do a lot of that. I always allow myself to be as free as I can be within the context of what I think I want to say. I always feel that whatever is in you is probably a little more knowledgable about you than you. The best thing you can do is make sure it doesn't get crazy; it's like you're releasing something out of yourself. It's like you turn on a faucet and stuff starts pouring out of you but you can't let it just run wild, but it's certainly something coming out of you and the best thing is to let it flow but at the same time guide that flow. You can't just be completely unconscious.


SALAAM: So you want to organize the flow of the outpouring of the self?

BARAKA: Right. You don't want to just be...


SALAAM: Dissipated?

BARAKA: Right. You want to keep some kind of hand on it, some kind of consciousness. It can't be completely unconscious.


SALAAM: You had written Blues People, which is a formal study, you had done this major fiction piece, A System of Dante's Hell, you were doing the poetry, and you had gotten off into the drama. Why were you working in so many different forms?

BARAKA: Because I never thought I shouldn't. To tell you the truth, I like that I could do that. That intrigued me as a person. No, there are no restrictions on any of this, that's someone else's problem, it's not mine. I do what I want to do and I always thought what gave me that liscense to do that was the fact that I said that, that I had that feeling. I also felt that I never had any kind of strict need to be governed by America in that way. Even as a little boy I always felt that, I ain't yall cause if I was yall, I wouldn't be going through these changes I'm going through. I wouldn't have to be this Black outsider. If I was in the shit with yall, I wouldn't have to be me, so since I am me, fuck yall in terms of that. I will determine what I do. If I want to write plays, poetry, essays and anything else, I'm going to do that. Why? Because I can do that and I don't see any reason not to do that. My view was that I'm not restricted by yall because I'm not with yall. Yall have told us that: we ain't yall, therefore why should we be restricted by yall? I had that sense real young.


SALAAM: But at the same time, when you were first writing that stuff. Like the interview with you about Kulchur and Totem press and the guy was asking you about that. He asked you about being a "negro writer." The line you used was something like, If I'm looking at a bus, I don't have to say that I'm a negro looking at a bus pass by full of people, I can just say there's a bus passing by full of people.

BARAKA: Well, you see, the point is that I could understand that what I felt was in that anyway. What I felt was going to be in that. I could say, I am a negro looking at that but, but even if I said, I'm looking at that bus, it's still me. The point was how do you invest that actuality into what you have created. How do you make sure that's in there? It is in there formally because you said it's in there and you are actually a negro, but how do you make sure that's in there? Well, once the whole Malcolm thing came about, we got super on top of being Black. I think what I said then was correct except that later on we wanted to make sure that it was actually in there, that it was actually functioning, because it doesn't change the object. If I say look at that lamp or if I say I am Black, look at that lamp, it doesn't change the lamp but the question is what recognition of yourself do you want and what interest does that recognition serve. The insistence of Blackness might be its own worth. The real consciousness of being Black might affect your description of the lamp even if you don't say that. It might affect how you perceive the lamp. That's what I was wrestling with; yeah, there's still the bus but it's also still me saying it. But it is true that the degree to which you want that to be in that description is important.


SALAAM: At this point, your work was not autobiography in the sense that people talk about formal autobiography, but it was autobiographical in the same sense that a musician's solo is autobiographical. You had your voice and you were telling a story, much of which happened to you but a lot of which happened to you on an imaginative level and not necessarily on what would be called a factual level.

BARAKA: Yeah, it's like a doubled up kind of thing. Certain things that actually happen give you a certain kind of experience, part of that experience is just a recounting of what actually went down but certain parts of it is just a result of what happened. The experience gives you an experience, the actual experience gives you another experience. So now you're dealing with what happened and with what that happening made you think. That's the double up thing. Now, if you try to talk about what happened and about what that happening made you think without roping one off from the other, you know, without trying to separate them then you are creating another kind of form. But let me tell you about the form of Dante. What I thought of--and this is really a musical kind of insistence--I thought I'm going to get something in my mind but I'm not going to talk about it directly. I'm going to get something in my mind and I'm going to talk about what it makes me think about. Like if I think about New Orleans but I don't mention New Orleans directly but I let whatever kind of imagery comes out of that New Orleans just course as freely as it can while keeping my own hand on it to a certain extent. That is what I called my "association complexes"--I thought up a name for it for some reason. I would say this and whatever came off of that, I would run it. And that's what Dante was actually about. I was trying to run through the literal to the imaginative. That's what I was doing: taking an image and playing off of it. I thought that was something like musicians who take harmonies and play of it or taking the melody, dispensing with the melody and playing some other stuff.


SALAAM: You were doing the Cherokee/Koko thing?

BARAKA: Exactly.


SALAAM: You might alter the changes a little bit, but you were definitely changing the melody?

BARAKA: Oh yeah. I didn't want the melody. The melody was old, auld lang sgyne. I didn't want that. I figured that whatever I was going to play was going to come up in the same changes but it was going to be relevant.


SALAAM: What was your thinking about what people had to say about System? The reason I'm asking that is because the plays people could relate to as plays, the poems they had references for, particularly the early poems that they could deal with from an academic perspective, but System was a whole other kind of thing.

BARAKA: Like I said, I was trying to get away from what a whole bunch of people were doing, so it didn't make any difference to me. I saw this magazine for the first time in, I don't know, twenty or thirty some years, the magazine was called the Trembling Lamb. They published the first five, six or seven sections of Dante and I thought it was a breakthrough because I thought it was something different from what the little circumscribed community of the downtown hip was doing. So recognizing that, or at least what I thought I was recognizing, well, whatever people think, they'll think differently after awhile. It didn't make any difference to me what they thought.


SALAAM: So after it came out and you started getting reactions from people, what did you think?

BARAKA: Well, I never got any bad reactions at first. I got some reactions from critics whom I didn't think knew anything anyway, so that didn't mean anything. But in terms of my peers, I never got any bad criticism that would make me think I needed to do something else.


SALAAM: You describe it as a breakthrough...

BARAKA: A breakout!


SALAAM: So you make a breakout but all of sudden it's like you stopped writing fiction as far as the reading public goes?

BARAKA: I didn't see it that way.


SALAAM: I'm not saying you stopped writing fiction, I'm saying as far as the reading public goes what fiction came out after that?

BARAKA: Tales. But then when I look at it--well, the first couple of pieces in Tales are from Dante. They were written in the same period. And then a lot of those things that are post-Dante are still making use of the Dante technique. As a matter of fact Tales covers three periods, there's stuff from downtown, from Harlem, and even stuff from Newark. But it is the same kind of approach.


SALAAM: Ok, but then what? With the fiction--the reason I'm asking you specifically about the fiction is because publically we can trace Amiri Baraka the playwright. The plays are there, even the ones that haven't been produced that much, the scripts have been in circulation and in many cases published. The same for the essays and definitely the same for the poetry. Even when they weren't published formally, informally they were circulated around. But the fiction, not so. And at the same time, if we talk about a major breakthrough in terms of form, you probably made the biggest breakthrough with the fiction.

BARAKA: Hmmm. I guess you're right. But, you know, nobody ever asked me to write a novel.


SALAAM: What about the Putnam thing where they asked you to write...

BARAKA: Yeah, but then I wrote it and they didn't like it. See, the point is this is how I can guage what I can do. I'm a poet. How do I know that? I write poetry all the time. Can't nobody say shit to me about poetry. That's where I am. But if you want me to do some other stuff, you're going to have to say something about that. Like I wrote a lot of pieces of fiction in the last couple of years but that's because I decided to do that. I had some other stuff on my mind. I thought that maybe--and I still believe this--I shouldn't write fiction and I shouldn't write plays unless they are a form of poetry, that's my view of it.


SALAAM: What do you mean by that?

BARAKA: I mean that's the only way I think of writing. I would not think of writing a play or a piece of fiction unless it was poetic in the sense of investing the same kind of attention to the lines, and the rhythm, and the imagery. That's why in the last couple of years I've been writing fiction just to see what that's about. I'm very curious about things like that. I know that as far as the day to day America of my own mind, I'm a poet. That's the only thing I will do without nobody bothering me or asking me to do. I don't need nothing or no one to do that. I will write poems because I am alive. I will write them on envelops, books, paperbags. I'll write on anything in the world, newspapers, paper towels, toilet paper, anything. That's got something to do with your own obsession, your own modus operandi.


SALAAM: What I'm getting at is that you were conscious that you made a breakthrough with Dante and you were consciously trying to do something different. You were consciously trying to be different and you succeeded at being different.

BARAKA: Which allowed me then to continue doing what I was doing in the first place. In other words, once I discovered that I had gotten past that, then I could write poetry if I wanted to do it. For me, although I am interested in anything at any given time, poetry is the fundamentaly interesting things because it's the shortest and the most intense.


SALAAM: Yeah, but you write some long poems.

BARAKA: That's because I can sustain that, but I still believe that poetry is the most intense and the most direct.


SALAAM: In terms of what you do technically, at one point you were trying to write a certain way. Now that you have proved that you can write a certain way, do you still try to write in specific ways or do you just write?

BARAKA: I just write. It like that Billy the Kid story. Billy the Kid was walking down the street and his nephew said he wanted a whistle, so Billy pulls out his gun and pee-owww, shoots a reed through. And they said, how do you do that, Billy, without aiming. Billy says, I was always aiming. The point is that you get skills and understanding that is part of your whole thing and that gives you the confidence to do it, once you know you can do it. Whatever you need to do you can do that because you have already done it, you have thought about it, and you know what that is. To me that's the initial gratification. I think there's a lot of gratification in that people don't even know about. People see the results of it, but there's a lot of stuff about form and content that nobody will ever really know why they did it. It's a matter of actually feeling your own self. For instance, Art Tatum. They say Tatum would practice twelve, fourteen, sixteen hours a day. Now somebody practice the piano sixteen hours a day, when it comes time to play, playing ain't nothing. It's effortless. But what was he doing in that crib for sixteen hours.


SALAAM: So what kind of shedding do you do?

BARAKA: Shedding? Well I do that all the time. I throw a lot of stuff away. I mean I write a lot of stuff and throw it away, but it don't be a long thing, it might be a series of short things. I mean experiments with stuff, with voices, tenses, the abulative, the past perfect.


SALAAM: So you try all kinds of things?

BARAKA: Why not? I don't want to be held down by the language. In other words, if you just know one thing, well that's all you can do, but if I know that in this tense I can do such and such, then there's all kinds of stuff that can come to you imaginatively.


SALAAM: Are you viewing it like music then? You take a given theme, but you know that if you play it in a minor key you will get one feeling and if you put some major chords in it, you will get a different feeling?

BARAKA: Absolutely, absolutely. It's always music in that sense. I always use the reference of music to justify anything wild that I might want to do in writing. I mean I could go from James P. Johnson, to Duke Ellington, to Monk and be playing the same tune, but it come out different sounding. Listen to Liza for instance. How much more stength do you have to know all three of those references, to have all that laid out in your mind...


SALAAM: And not just to know it abstractly, but to be able to do that. To be able to play like that. That's one thing about using the music as a reference: all the cats who were innovators, who make a breaktrhough and made a contribution and created a new form, they had first mastered a previous form.

BARAKA: I would agree with that, yes.


SALAAM: So in a sense you were working at mastering the previous shit, so you could do the out shit?

BARAKA: Oh yeah. Absolutely. At a certain point when you get to that (he mimics running scales on a piano), that itself provides the logos for doing the next. You keep saying well I did that shit, so what's next? if you were free to do what that suggests, what would you do? Play backwards, play it upside down. What if I took just those two notes? You know what I mean? What are the feelings that come out of there.


SALAAM: So then you're talking about the freedom principle?

BARAKA: That's what it is. It's nothing else but that.


SALAAM: Did you ever decide to be a writer and if so when?

BARAKA: I think I decided when I got back to New York from the service. When I first came back I was thinking that maybe I would be a painter.


SALAAM: You were really thinking about being a painter?

BARAKA: Yeah, but at the time I said, well, that's too much work to buy the canvas, and then to have to buy paints, framing shit and having shit all stacked up in the studio. I thought that, finally, that was too much trouble.


SALAAM: Did you like painting?

BARAKA: Oh yeah.


SALAAM: What did you like about it?

BARAKA: The question of interpreting something from real life and making it into an image of it. That was interesting. Plus, my mother had sent me to all these different classes. I took piano lessons, drum lessons, trumpet lessons--I must have taken piano lessons three different times. I went to drawing and painting lessons. That was when Newark was a real city and they had these classes with teachers all over the place, but then the middle class left to pay us back for burning Newark down around `66. Anyway, that's why I had a broad kind of aesthetic and knowledge about creating stuff.


SALAAM: Ok, you had all those music and art classes, but you only had one creative writing class and that was in high school. Is that right?

BARAKA: Yeah, but my mother used to have me reciting the Gettysburg address once a year in a Boy Scout suit, and she would have me singing, there was always some kind of approach to word, image and music. I always had that in my mind as points of a triangle.


SALAAM: Of the three, which one held the most interest for you early on?

BARAKA: The music because I always wanted to do that but the word was always closer. I always had more control and more understanding of the word.


SALAAM: So why did you go to New York thinking about being a painter if the music was what you liked and the word was what you could deal with the easiest?

BARAKA: Because I had given up the idea of being a musician when I went away to college. I used to play the trumpet locally until I went away to school. When I went away to school, I never picked it up again. I figure it must have been something. Maybe it was the closeness to the word that relieved me of that other need to deal with the music. It was the closeness to the word and then a beginning to see the word as a kind of music that I could control as opposed to the instrument.


SALAAM: Which you could play but which you couldn't control as much as you could the word?

BARAKA: I didn't have the kind of facility. The things I had in my head as far as music, I never got close to except with words.


SALAAM: So what you were carrying around in your head, you tried to get it out with the horn and it wouldn't come but with words it would come out?

BARAKA: Yeah. With the horn I could just hear it, I heard what I wanted. I heard trumpet players who sounded like I would have played like that if I could have played. I would hear people say, damn, that sound something like Miles, but Miles was a paradigm rather than what I wanted to sound like. As a kid I used to try to play like Miles and be like Miles but actually it changed at different times. At one point I thought Kenny Dorham was closest to what I wanted to sound like, then parts of Don Cherry, than parts of this kid named Norman Howard who played with Albert Ayler. But it all was a kind of word making sound. That's what I liked about Kenny it would be (imitates a Kenny Dorham riff), that clipped, staccato sound, that sound of actually breaking it down to almost syllables and vowels rather than that logato sound. I guess it was more percussive and sounded more like spoken phrases.


SALAAM: So after Howard you went to the service.

BARAKA: Yeah, after I got thrown out.  I wouldn't never read the stuff asigned for class, I was reading all the time but I wouldn't read assignments. I had taken chemistry, that pre-med stuff. I got very bad marks in chemistry. The only courses I really did well in was, perdicatably, English, the humanities, philosophy, that kind of stuff, although I got good marks in physics for some reason. But chemistry and all that other stuff, I bombed in that.


SALAAM: You were thrown out because of academic reasons?

BARAKA: Yeah. Plus, I had been thrown out two or three times for various things.


SALAAM: Like what?

BARAKA: Well mostly for academics but also for not being cool. I had a real bad reputation in the dormitory and my room was always filled with merrymakers. A whole crowd would be in there. So the dormitory director was always in there. We had like a crew actually. It was a combination of Jersey, New York, and Philly in the main, but we also had some Chicago people and we even had a couple of hip dudes from St. Louis and Detroit. I guess it was a big city thing.


SALAAM: So there is no currency to the rumor that you were thrown out for eating watermelon.

BARAKA: Well, that was one of my suspensions but that didn't get me thrown out. What happened was I was just sitting out on campus on a park bench cutting this watermelon in half. I wasn't even eating. Actually, I was just sitting there with it and was about to cut it because half of the watermelon belonged to another dude, Tom Weaver, who is now a lawyer in Philadelphia. Half of it was his, so I was sitting there. But, you know, we knew what we were doing. We were making fun of these negroes. I was sitting there with it and this guy comes up to me and says, hey, don't you know you're at the capstone of negro education and you're sitting there blah, blah, blah--get rid of it. I said, well, I'll get rid of the half that's mine--which was, of course, more bullshit. [Howard President] Bush figured that we were fucking with him all the time. I don't know if the watermelon qua watermelon was the real deal, although to be sure the negroes didn't like that, but I don't know if it was a regular colored person with watermelon and he said that to them and they just left, I don't know if it would have had the same impact.


SALAAM: when it was the leader of the merry pranksters?

BARAKA: Right. He knew we hadn't just wandered in off the fields with that watermelon. So he figured what are you niggers trying to do, you know you're trying to make a joke. That was funny to us because we thought they were corny anyway. Nobody there dug Charlie Parker. That's the way we estimated it. They didn't dig Charlie Parker so they didn't know what was really hip.


SALAAM: What year was this?

BARAKA: `54.


SALAAM: When you got kicked out what did you tell your parents?

BARAKA: I told them I got kicked out. There was nothing else I could tell them. That's when I went to the service, because I was really hurt and embarassed. I was embarassed because they were hurt.


SALAAM: Because you didn't mean to hurt them.

BARAKA: No, but I was their oldest son. I had scholarships when I went away from home. I wasn't supposed to just dive bomb like that. I don't know what they thought really except that they were surprised and disappointed that I had fucked it up like that.


SALAAM: And then you headed on in to the service which was a complete disaster.

BARAKA: Complete! I figured I had dive bombed into the underworld then. I even saw some of the guys I had been in college with who were now officers and I was like an airman nothing. I didn't have any stripes and then I got to be an airman third class and had one stripe, an airman second class with two stripes, while most of these dudes--hey, some of the dudes I was in school with are admirals and generals now. Andy Chambers the head of the naval something. Tim Bodie the head of air military command or some shit. A lot of these jet pilots was close friends of mine. The guy who was head of the secret service that guarded the president was my roommate in college.


SALAAM: You were kicked out of the air force also weren't you? What was the specific charge?

BARAKA: I was kicked out of the air force for fraudulent enlistment.


SALAAM: What was fraudulent about your enlistment?

BARAKA: That I hadn't told them that I was a red, that I had been fucking with people who were on the House Unamerican Activities Committee. It was largely bullshit, but you know. Remember they had the attorney general's list, which turned out to be completely unconstitutional, but the list which listed these organizations which were "out." Well, a couple of those organizations I had had affiliation with.


SALAAM: When they asked you or when you enlisted?

BARAKA: When they asked me later and when I thought about it, I told them.


SALAAM: These are your late teens and early twenties; was there any place that you could stay that was acceptable to you and you to them?

BARAKA: I don't know. I'm still trying to figure that out. When they kicked me out of the village, I thought that was complete.


SALAAM: What do you mean "when they kicked you out of the village"?

BARAKA: When I left. It's the same thing; when you figure you can't stay there anymore, when you figure that whatever they are doing you don't want any part of it, so what's the difference? In other words, when the management grows intolerable, you have to hit the road. If you don't hit the road then, that means you're just fooling around.


SALAAM: You were doing a Trane book a while back, whatever happened to it?

BARAKA: It's still around. The early chapters, about five or six chapters, are there, plus I've written reams of stuff on Coltrane that would go into it. So, I would do that early stuff and I would add all the stuff I written since and that would be the book.


SALAAM: Is Trane the only person you've done a book like that on?

BARAKA: No, I've got a book like that on Monk, and one on Miles, and probably Duke in a minute.


SALAAM: So what do you do, you just write this stuff? I mean, how do you write stuff like this knowing that it probably won't get published?

BARAKA: Some of it is published in small journals, some of it is published in Europe, some of it is fugitive stuff published in this review, that review, stuff all over, which when taken together would make a book. I would probably put a circle around it as an overview of the material, but I know there's enough material to make a book. Oh, I have a book on Malcolm X too. It's about thirteen or fourteen essays and some other stuff, seven or eight poems and a couple of plays. You know but it's li




my father is dead. again.

  (for my father-friend tom dent)




what are fathers

but measuring rods

to gauge our growth


walking canes

to aid our stepping

through vast unknowns


cylindrical vessels

who house ancestral links

the planting of which


into fertile soil

turns today’s sorrows

into tomorrow’s joys


fathers are more

than mere giants — they are

the “to be” promise


of germanating seed

the genetic baton

passing on


the history of our needs

our deeds, our soul





i was thousands of miles away

when tom’s tree fell


the weight of missing him

answers the age old question


does a falling sound

if no one hears


the crash -- yes

i know the answer, yes



his aftershock’s tremble


reverberates within

the chamber of my skull


at all

the oddest moments


like discovering a special person

within the skin of a child of mine


and discerning at the same time

a lady i used to love


a lady whose love

shaped me


there are periods

when our ability to perceive


presence and potential

is predicated


on having been groomed

by those who have gone before


on having been shown

how to see beyond


what is now

what is known, how


to appreciate the shape

of things to come


all this prescience a product

of learning the living wisdom


of a brusque old man

whose gruffness was so tender


so touching

in its honest intimacy


as he suggested that

there was something beyond


what ever was

and is, and yes, even will be


there is always

something more


something better

to be/come




english words were never meant

to adequately articulate

the anguish in our mouths, our hearts

when we lose the stretching part

of our selves — the stairs we climb

to see further, to descend deeper


as we look out and over

past the limits of horizon line


our vision is improved when we stand

on the shoulders of elders

whose height hoists us higher

than we could ever grow

if we remained flat-footed

married to the ground


the view from these human

balconies enables us to eye

not just near and far

but also back and down

into the wells

of our own personalities


trodding their path

we go beneath the undertow


surveying the superstructure

assaying our foundations

breathing the thin air

of emotional danger

where we are taught to distinguish

the essential differences


between bittersweet and poison

between weariness and resignation

between honesty and cynicism

between maturity and hubris

here, where self-assesment and frankness

are more important than speeches and homilies


if we are fortunate

here we have fathers

who help us

clearly see


as well as distances




in the new orleans

that tom knew

old griots die singing

they do not go silently

into some lonely night


in his new orleans

we do not kill our fathers

to prove that we have arrived


but rather we learn

from them that we can

crack open the kernel

of our own becoming

only by completing

the final maneuver

of life’s ultimate passage rite


the step of accepting the torch

and making of ourselves a light



to lift the father spirit

to shoulder the responsibility

of becoming beacon

for those newly born

and those yet to come


in our new orleans we do not stop

at simply burying aged bodies

we also dance forward

from funeral line

and accept the awesome

task of filling father shoes


if i really come from

the house of the rising sun,

if i really believe

in resurrection

if i am really

my father’s son

i must be reborn

be his life

after death



perhaps a moan

is the most profound

sound one can make

when a father is gone


when my first father died

i cried publicly

this time my tears

for tom are silent

words on paper


the two times

a man is most


are when


he loses

a father and when he

loses his own

life — his

beginning his end




in earth ways

my father is dead. again.


but yet again

he lives


the older i become

the more people i contain


another of my fathers

is dead


long live

my father


long live my father

in me


long live

my many fathers


long live

long live


all the fathers

i am


and all the fathers

i will ever be



—kalamu ya salaam





it is late in december 1998, the weather is uncharacteristically warm. there is much that is wrong. an old man has killed himself. 


if he had been an airplane and fell from the sky, the forensic engineers might have diagnosed: metal fatigue—the quality of structural breakdown when the weariness caused by the ravages of time destroy an object’s physical ability to bear the weight of existence. but this fellow was not a passenger jet. he was just a chestnut colored, elderly african american whom everyone said looked remarkably good for his age.


his eyesight was fit enough—without glasses he could drive day or night. and he would step two flights of steps rather than wait on a slow elevator. he was sensible about his diet and walked two miles every morning to keep his weight down. plus, any day of the week, he could out bowl his son. no, his age was not a problem.


so what was so disastrous in his life that the permanent solution of suicide was the action of choice to deal with whatever temporary problem he was confronting?


we are not sure what exactly was wrong, but we do know that when he resolved to end it, he was watching television. got up and said something to his wife, who was in the kitchen. shortly thereafter went into his back yard with a gun in his hand—no  one in the house saw him go outside. but what if they had? could they have stopped him? probably not. at best they may have been able to momentarily postpone the inevitable, but eventually life turns cold. or we are deluged with the dreariness of chilly rains. and we die.


what did the slow moving man think as he descended the steps into the back yard? indeed, did he think, or was his mind blank with certainty?


his body died there, but was he already dead in spirit? does it matter what happens to the body, once the spirit has been broken? this is a story about death.



i have often thought about those stark black and white photographs of lynching scenes. we know what happened to the lynchee, but what happened to all the lynchers? the ones standing around. some smiling into an unhidden camera—look, you can see that these people know that a photograph is documenting them. a number of them are looking at the camera full on, challenging the lens to capture something human in the grisly scene. a significant number are children, young boys and girls, leering.


i have heard stories of whites who were repulsed by those death scenes. those who were changed forever by witnessing a lynching, hearing about a lynching, backing away from their parents come back home chatting about the nigger who got what he deserved. ok. but what i want to know is what happened to the lynchers who did not back away. those who took in the murder scene as acceptable. later on in life, how did they raise their children? do they have flashbacks of lynchings—occasionally? often? never?


does watching a man or woman die a violent death diminish the person who enjoys the spectacle? can one revel in the fascinating flame of a human on fire and afterwards remain emotionally balanced? and what about memory, does the extreme violence of mob murder involuntarily replay years later triggered by scenes such as oj maintaining he did not slice nicole’s throat or wesley snipes on the silver screen bigger than life kissing a white woman who favors irma singletary, your daughter’s friend who divorced a black man after he beat her one night and she refused to press charges against him the next morning?


in many of those garish photographs there are a lot of people standing around. i wonder how many among those audiences are alive today, driving america’s streets and buying christmas gifts?



richard hammonds was a handsome man. he was moderately intelligent. could work hard but really didn’t like to exert his body to the point of sweating. believe it or not what he was really good at was leather work. give him a piece of leather and his tools and he could make anything from shoes to hats and everything in between. and he would do it well, so well that a number of people have been buried wearing shoes richard had made—their family knew how proud the deceased had been of richard’s handicraft, so that’s what the corpse wore at the funeral.


for example, brother james sweet—his name was actually james anthony johnson but, with a twinkle in his eye, he would raise his left hand, flashing his ruby and diamond pinkie ring, graciously tip his every present gray stetson, and, in his trademark rumbling baritone, request that you call him “james sweet, bra-thaaa jaaaames sweee-eat, cause i’m always good to womens, treats children with kindness and is a friend to the end with all my brothers”—well, brother sweet had instructed everyone of concern in his immediate family to bury him in his favorite, oxblood loafers that richard had hooked up especially for sweet. there were no shoes more comfortable anywhere in the world and he, sweets, which was the acceptable short form of brother sweet, certainly didn’t want to be stepping around heaven with anything uncomfortable on his bunioned feet (nor, likewise, running through hell, if it came to that—and he would wink to let you know that he didn’t think it would come to that). of course, at a funeral you don’t usually see the feet of the recently departed but that was not the point.


the point is that people were really pleased with richard hammonds’ handiwork. unfortunately, in terms of a stable income, although richard hammonds excelled at making leather goods, what he actually loved to do was watch and wager on the ponies. and since he lived in new orleans and the fair grounds racetrack was convenient, well, during racing season, which seemed to be almost year round, richard spent many an afternoon cheering on a two year-old filly while his workbench went unused.


fortunately, richard hammonds seldom wagered more than he could afford to lose and on occasion won much more than he had gambled for the month. however, winning at the racetrack was uncertain. no matter what betting system he used, richard could never accurately predict when he would win big or how long a loosing streak would maintain its grip on his wallet.


routinely, richard would do enough leather work to pay the house note and give eileen an allotment to buy food and then it was off to the races. needless to say, had eileen not worked as a seamstress at haspel’s factory in the seventh ward, this would have been an unworkable arrangement.


but richard hammonds didn’t drink more than a beer now and then, went to mass every sunday morning, and was moderately faithful, so what could have been a precarious and intemperate social situation settled into a predictable and manageable state of affairs until richard was wobbling home one october evening—he had had a very good day and had indulged in a few drinks at mule’s, in fact, he had even bought a round for the guys and stashed a small bundle in his hip pocket for eileen and still had in his inside jacket pocket enough money to pay for every bill he could think of.


when the police stopped richard his explanations of who he was, where he had come from, where he was going and how he came to have so much cash weren’t sufficient to please the two officers who were looking for a middle-aged colored man who had robbed and raped a woman over in mid-city.


we do not have to go into any details. the focus of this story is not on the beating, the injustice of his subsequent death, or even the condemning of the two police officers. remember we are concerned with death, and the question is: when, if ever, did richard know he was going to die and what was his reaction, or more precisely, what were his thoughts about that awful fact, if indeed he ever realized the imminence of his demise?



everybody, sooner or later, thinks about dying. for many african americans there is even a morbid twist on this universal reflection on the inevitability of mortality. for us, it is not just a question of when we will die but also a more thorny question, a question we seldom would admit publicly but one that at some occasion or another consumes us in private: would i be better off dead? if you had been reared black in pre-sixties white america, sooner or later, you probably looked that thought in the eye?


however, the universality of death thoughts notwithstanding, there is a big difference between abstract speculation about the eventuality of death and the far more difficult task of confronting the stale breath of death as it fouls the air in front your nose. death is nothing to fuck with. indeed, actually facing certain death can make you shit on yourself, particularly if death not only surprises you but also perversely gives you a moment to think about crossing the great divide. like when a lover in the throes of getting it on, sincerity announces through clenched teeth that they are about to come, you respond as any sensible person would by doing harder, or faster, or stronger, or more tenderly, more intensely, more whatever, you increase the pressure and help usher that moment, well, when it’s death coming what do we do, do we rush to it, or do we withdraw from it? don’t answer too soon. think of all the people you have heard of who died as a result of being some place they really shouldn’t have been, being involved in some situation they should never have encountered, at the hands of someone whom they should never have been near. think about how often we die other than a natural death—and then again, what death is not natural, because isn’t it part of human nature to die, and to kill?


richard never expected to die on that day, especially since he had just experienced the good fortune of a twenty-to-one long shot paying up on a fifty dollar bet. even when the tandem took turns trying to beat a confession out of him, even after his jaw was broken and he could only moan and shake his head, even then richard still didn’t think of death. he was too busy dealing with pain. when they put the gun in his mouth, he perversely thought, “go head, pull the trigger, that would be better than getting beat like this,” but even then, richard didn’t really expect to die. he just wanted the beating to be over and if it took death to end it, well, he was feeling so bad he thought that death might be preferable. yet, richard didn’t really think he was going to die. in fact, as is the case with so many of us, richard died before he realized they were going to kill him.


we blacks wonder about fate and destiny, justice and karma. sometimes there seems that there is no god, or rather if there is a god then he is capricious with a macabre sense of humor—we grant him humor because to think of god without humor would be to concede that we are at the mercy of a monster who enjoys literally tormenting us to death.


which brings up another question, would we procreate if it were not so pleasurable? if sex didn’t feel good, would we bother with conceiving children? for many of us the answer is obvious; of course, we wouldn’t. that’s why birth control was created—to protect us from disease and children, to make it possible for us to enjoy the pleasure of sexual procreation with none of the responsibilities of child rearing. which means that the drive to have children may in fact not be as strong as we have been led to believe, or maybe, it’s simply that in modern times we have been conditioned to think only of ourselves—the personal pleasures. but the question i really want to raise is this: what if death were pleasurable would we end ourselves? what if it felt really good to die—not just calming but totally pleasurable?


of course, richard was not thinking any of these sorts of questions as the two officers smashed in richard’s face. formal philosophy is a task engaged in by those for whom survival is not a pressing issue.



every age, every people, every society has an ethos—a defining spirit. and this spirit expresses itself in sometimes odd and fascinating ways. for much of the 20th century the ethos of african americans was one of contemplating the future with a certain optimism. why else march through the streets of birmingham, alabama and sing “we shall overcome” to bull connor, a man who was not known for any appreciation of music?


the birmingham of bull connor was just about half a century ago. during that period when bombs regularly sounded throughout birmingham and the deep south, if you go back and look at the pictures of black people of that era when they posed for a portrait, especially if they were college educated, you will invariable spy among the men what i call the classic negro pose of hand to chin in contemplation. a variation is one temple of a  pair of glasses held close to or between the lips; then there is the pipe firmly grasped, not to mention the college diploma held to the side of the head like a sweetheart—these are iconic images of optimistic negroes, images that capture the ethos of their era.


today, the hand has moved from the chin. we no longer pose in contemplative ways, what is cropping up more and more is the hand to the crown of the head, not in a woe is me posture, but more like: damn, this is some deep shit we’re in.


unconsciously, during a recent photo shoot, i ended up in that pose. when the picture was published i was mildly surprised, i did not remember adopting that look of serious concern. but just because i don’t remember it does not mean that it didn’t happen. clearly it happened. there is my unsmiling portrait. and i see that pose more and more, particularly when i look at the publicity shots of writers. we are children of production—we are shaped and influenced, even when unconscious of it, by the prevailing ethos. a lot of us look like we are gravely weighing the upsides and downsides of both life and death.


and when people tell you how much they like that photo, then that tells you just how much the photo reflects our current contemplation of death. in those photographs rarely are we smiling. our eyes are wide open. we are not dreamy eyed romantics. we are not lost in meditation. we are looking at death. the disintegration of our communities, the fissure of our social structures, the absence of lasting interpersonal relationships, the proliferation of age and gender alienation. the death of a people.


and when i took my photo it was supposed to be a happy occasion. but obviously the myth of the happy negro is long gone.



i wonder when the old man put the gun to his head did he hold his head with his free hand?



richard couldn’t put his hands to his head because his hands were handcuffed behind him.



which story seems more plausible: the old man or richard? is it not odd that by piling up details and framing the story in a believable context it is relatively easy to believe that richard hammonds actually died as a result of a police beating and shooting in the late fifties in new orleans? and that the old man seems to be a metaphor. but an old man (whose name i don’t want to reveal because it would add nothing to our story) actually killed himself during the christmas holidays (of course i speculate and fictionalize a lot of the old man’s story, but the suicide actually happened) and the story of richard hammonds is totally fictitious except for the cops who killed him—cops did kill negroes in new orleans.



the old man and richard hammonds had gone to high school together, and gone to bars together, making merry, drinking and acting mindlessly stupid on a couple of occasions. they had double dated a couple of times, and had once even engaged in sex with the same woman (at different times, months apart, but the same woman nonetheless—she remembers the old man as the better lover because he was more tender, seemed more sincere.


(there had been this untalked about but often expressed rivalry between richard and the old man. close friends are often bound by both love and jealousy, so there was nothing unusual about them being attracted to the same woman. but remember richard was the handsome one. he was also glib, perhaps because he learned how to hold back his feelings. he could talk a woman into bed, or more likely the back of a studebaker—richard’s father worked as a pullman porter and made nice money for a colored man and had bought a car but was often not in town to enjoy the car and richard, though he didn’t personally have much money, did have access to the car. anyway, richard never thought about what the women he bedded in the back seat thought about before, during or after he bedded them. after all it was just a moment’s pleasure.


(but the old man, well, he was a young man then, he thought about how other’s felt about him a lot, and though he fucked mildred, it was not because she was available but because he was really, really moved by mildred and told her so. told her, “girl you moves me.”


(“i do?” she was used to men wanting to sex her, but not to men admitting that they were deeply affected by her.


(“yes, you does,” and he twirled her at that moment—they were dancing and he was whispering in her ear, dancing in a little new orleans nite club, to a song on the juke box—he twirled her. and smiled. and she had never been twirled quite like this gracefully dancing young man twirled her. and when she reversed the twirl and spun back into his arms, he momentarily paused and said, “i wish i could dance with you all night.”)


the old man had not been angling to get her in bed, he was just genuinely enjoying her company. he liked to dance. she liked to dance. they were having a good time. and when somehow they ended up making love on the sofa in her front room that night while her sister and her sister’s children soundly (he hoped) slept two rooms away, he had been a little nervous at first.


her softness felt so good, before he knew it, a little cry caught in his throat. he was trying to be quiet, but goodness and quiet sometimes do not go together. i mean, you know how good it hurts to hold it in? well the possibility that the sound of your love making will disturb and awaken others nearby, that anxiety about discovery adds to the covert enjoyment. so, instead of surfacing upward through his throat, the cry was redirected down into his chest, but it bounced back and was about to pop audibly out of his mouth. mildred felt that sound about to pour forth like a coo-coo clock gone haywire, and with the mischief that only a woman can summon she cupped one hand tightly over his mouth and with her other hand reached down and gently squeezed his testicles.


ya boy liked to died. he shuddered. he couldn’t breath. her hand tightly covered his mouth and partially blocked his nose. and he was coming like mad. and he moaned a stifled moan, air yo-yoing back in forth between the back of his mouth atop his throat and the near bursting constriction of his chest. finally, he wheezed gusts of exhales out of his distended nostrils, which flared like those of a race horse heaving after a superfast lap. and then he cried out and tried to call back the sound all at the same time. and that was followed with another terrible quake. in a semi-conscious state, he lay helpless, wrapped up in the murmured laughter of mildred’s playful passion.


but he didn’t hear her soft, soft laughter. he didn’t hear anything. he was totally out of it. he was struggling to catch his breath, in fact had almost slipped off the large couch—if her legs had not clamped around him so firmly, he would have tumbled to the floor. after that he didn’t distinctly remember anything until he woke up the next morning, at home, in his own bed and didn’t know how he got there. he must have walked home or something, but all he could remember was her softness, her touch, his lengthy orgasm (he had never come that long before), and the way her legs held him when he almost fell over. you can easily forget a short walk home, but there are some experiences that are so sharply etched in the memory of your flesh, those encounters you never forget.


a couple of days later when richard asked the old man about mildred, whether they had done it, the old man had said, “no, we just had a good time dancing and i took her home. then i went home.” richard had replied, “you should have got it, she likes you. i got her drunk and got it once but she never would let me get no mo. but she likes you. you should get it.” the old man had said nothing further, merely looked away, certain that richard would not understand that what the old man felt for mildred, although initiated by the sharpness of their sexual encounter, was, nonetheless, a feeling deeper than a good fuck.


many years later, when the old man was watching the house of representatives vote to impeach bill clinton for lying to the american people about the monica lewinsky affair, something terrible took hold of him. although he continued to see mildred for over twenty years and even had a kid with her, the old man had never told his wife. and he felt intensely guilty. intensely.


he felt horrible. felt like he had felt at richard’s funeral. sitting in the catholic church before a closed casket. the body had been too brutalized to have a public viewing. the police had shot his good friend richard, shot him in the head.


while he sat between his wife and two daughters on one side and his young son on the other side, the old man was thinking about his dead friend when he looked up and saw mildred looking over at him with those large, limpid, brown eyes. nearly every time he stole a glance her way, she seemed to be looking directly at him. he could not read her eyes.


but his friend richard was dead. and his wife and legitimate children were at his side and his woman was across the isle staring at him, and the old man felt really guilty about how he was living his life, and he put his head in his hands and just wanted to ball up and die. and he didn’t realize he was crying until his wife daubed his face with her handkerchief.



a murder is a crime against society. we look at pictures of murderers and wonder about them. wonder what led them to do it. wonder do they have feelings like the rest of us.


what motivates one human to lynch another?


in the case of a suicide, everyone who survives wonders not only what led to the murder but also, particularly for those who were close to the victim, we wonder what could we have done, what “should” we have done to prevent the murder.


murder is a crime condemning society and suicide is particularly damning of those who were close to the murderer (who is also the murderee). if you think about someone close to you committing suicide, you have to ask yourself, what did i fail to do that would have prevented that person from committing self-murder? while sometimes we ask that question of a mass murderer—what could have been done to prevent them from acting the way they did—we always ask that question of a suicide. and why? if we can not stop people from committing large and impersonal murders, how can we hope to stop small murders, the most personal of murders: the suicide? the question is perplexing.


after awhile though, you come to an awful realization: maybe it is impossible to stop people from killing each other and themselves. indeed, is it not a certainty that it is impossible to stop suicide?



if you are shot in the head with a large handgun it can be messy.



if you shoot yourself in the head with a large handgun it can be messy.



the old man’s casket was sealed before the funeral mass just like richard’s had been. a closed casket is a terrible death for it is a death which suggests that this death is much more worse than ordinary death. this is a death you can not look in the face. and what can be more horrible than imagining how horrible death looks when the corpse is too horrible to look at?



mildred was at the old man’s funeral. so was their son who favored his mother but had his father’s skin color. mildred had not talked with the old man in over two months, and then it was only briefly over the phone. he had said something about being sorry he had never been brave enough to marry her. and hung up. mildred had waited in vain for him to call back. as anxious as she had been, she had never once broken their agreement. she knew where he lived, knew his phone number, but she never called. never. and now he was dead, gone. life is so cruel, especially when much of your life is lived cloistered in a box of arrangements shut off from what passes for normal life. to everyone mildred looked like the statistic of single mother with one child: a son, father unknown. but what she felt like was a widow, a widow whom had never been married but a true widow nevertheless, her de facto husband’s corpse sequestered in a closed box, not unlike her whole life, lived unrecognized outside of sight. issac (mildred and the old man’s son) used to ask who his father was, but he stopped asking after weathering junior high school taunts. and once he was married and had children of his own, he understood that what was important was not who his father had been but what kind of father he would be for his children. when his mother called and asked him to accompany her to the old man’s funeral, issac at last knew the answer without ever having to rephrase the question. mildred and issace both remained dry-eyed throughout the service even though inside both of them were crying like crazy.


you can not gauge the depths simply by looking at the surface. printed on the program was a smiling snapshot of the old man. next to the closed casket there was an enlargement of this same posed photograph. but what picture of the old man was in various people’s mind?


moreover, what does a self murderer look like whose death has left the corpse too gruesome to witness? certainly not like the smiling headshot on the easel surrounded by flowers.


was the look in the old man’s eye as he pulled the trigger anything like that wild look in the eyes of white people staring at a lynched negro—of course not? but what did he look like looking at his own death?



have you ever seen a picture of the man who was convicted of bombing the baptist church in birmingham, alabama and killing those four little girls? he looks like a white man. and once you get beyond the racial aspect of the murderer, he looks like a man. and once you get beyond the gender aspect of the murderer—a grown man killing four little girls—well, then, he looks like a human being. murderers are human beings. they look like what they are. it is a conceit to think that murderers look different from “ordinary” human beings. what does a killer look like? look at the nearest human being.



while i admit i have not seen a lot of pictures of white people—and then again i have undoubtedly seen more pictures of white people than of black people when you consider how the image of whiteness surrounds us and bombards us in school, in commerce, in television, in entertainment, in advertisements, everywhere—but anyway, i don’t remember seeing many white persons in the classic negro pose of yore nor in the contemporary iconic hand to the crown of the head pose.


in examining the photos of lynchings i see none of the concern for the future that the hand to the head would indicate. that hand to the head indicates that a person has a heart. that a person is feeling life, and though the life that is felt may not be pleasant, at least we are still feeling.


but when you watch and listen to and smell a person dying, and when you cut off your feelings for the fate of another human being, well...—and you know it is not biological. have you read about the civil wars in africa typified by the hutu vs. tutsi conflict? how literally thousands of people are hacked to death. it is one thing to fire a gun or drop a bomb, it is another thing to whack, whack, whack with a machete slaughtering a human being as though assailing a dangerous beast or a tree that was in the way of progress. when any of us, be we white, black, or whatever, when we severe our feelings to the point that not only do we methodically and unfeelingly commit acts of mass murder or acts of ritual murder, when we can watch murder and not feel revulsion then obviously we have moved to the point that death gives us pleasure.


when i first raised the issue about death and pleasure you may have thought, “oh, how absurd.” but the next time you are chomping your popcorn and sipping your artificially flavored sugar water while watching thrilling scenes of mayhem, murder and mass destruction on the silver screen (perhaps i should add that you have paid for the privilege of this pleasure), but the next time the bodies fly through the air, the bullets rip apart a young man in slow mo, the very next time you watch an image of death and get pleasure from it, see if you can remember to say “oh, how absurd.”


i think you won’t be able to, any more than at the moment of orgasm you would holler “oh, how absurd.” for you see pleasure in and of itself is never absurd, perverse perhaps, but never absurd. and taking pleasure in someone else’s death: oh, how... what? how do we describe that pleasure? what is human about enjoying death? or perhaps, since deriving pleasure from someone else’s demise seems to be a norm today, maybe i should ask, what is inhuman about enjoying death?


there is much that is wrong.


—kalamu ya salaam


Just Like A Woman

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

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

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

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

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

         “You want another beer?”

         “Yeah, give me another one.”

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

         “I got money, motherfucker…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

         “Who that dipping they lip in my business?”

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

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

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

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

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

         “Miss, you ok?”

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

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

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

         “Hey man…”

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

         “Yeah, but that lady is with me.”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

         “When you got out?”

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

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

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

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

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


—kalamu ya salaam



by Kalamu ya Salaam



French Quarter Intimacies


through weathered wood dark

on shadowed streets ancient voices

whisper history


   * * *

New Orleans Rainbow


from buttered gold to

purpled black, the sundry shades

of my people shine


    * * *

Our Natures Rise


hard core nights are so

erotic, a whiff of the

breeze is narcotic


    * * * 

Sunrise On The River


shy dawn tenderly

gold tongue kisses the rippling

river's flowing face


   * * * 

Quarter Moon Rise


soft moon shimmers out

of cloudy dress, stirred by night's

suggestive caress


    * * *

All Nite Long


amid dancing &

drinking til dewed dawn, nights stretch

24 hours long


    * * *

The Spice Of Life


cayenne in our blood

we dance, eat, laugh, cry & love

with peppered passion


    * * * 

St. Louis Cemetery Crypt


bones float in raised stone,

white, altared graves, blood transformed,

become black souled thrones


    * * *

Makes You Go Oohhh!


sing of lusty foods

so savory they buck jump

cross your tongue's dance floor






our sister is thin. she is leading her whole family down the street. her four year old is just ahead of her. she and her little man, two year old malik, walk hand in hand behind skipping and giggling sekou. she is not paying any attention to things in the streets: the cars, trucks and busses whizzing by in both directions. they had missed the bus they needed. the evening was nice. warm. so why not walk and why not take a short cut down napoleon avenue, a thoroughfare what used to be one of white folks' big streets?


a camera swung innocently on her hip beneath the medium sized windbreaker, which enveloped her. although out of sight, the camera was at the ready because she liked to shoot. most of the time without film. she would "see" a scene. compose an artistic comment from a chance encounter. but not being able to afford as much film and processing as she would shoot if she had the green to match her ambition, she would just flash the camera and capture the still in her mind's eye, the image frozen in her brain as the sound of the shutter-click indicated the shot was complete. some people did not understand taking pictures without film. they either were not deep into art or else they were not poor. but poor artists know, you've got to practice your art anyway you can.


cause she was on a family outing. listening to her boys be themselves. actually coming back from standing in line paying a bill and headed to the house that barely qualified as shelter, not to mention was a poor stand-in for a secure and loving place she could accurately call home. because her braids were in place and would not need rebraiding for another three or four months. because the essential bills were now paid. and she did have thirty dollars in her pocket for two weeks of food. because sekou was singing "space is the place..." his favorite sun ra song -- oh, she was proud that sekou dug ra. i mean, what parent would not be proud of a four year old with the sensitivity to embrace sun ra? because she was making sure she was walking slow enough so that malik could keep up but fast enough so that sekou would not outdistance them. because malik was just getting over the flu and she kept hugging him from time to time both to cuddle and to take his temperature. because she was enjoying her kids. and had taken fifteen shots of them already today. the last one a little shaky because she didn't use a flash and the shadows were getting long, which meant shooting at a slow shutter speed and her hand had shook a little as she focused on the look in malik's eyes and saw the man whose seed spawned malik. the hand shake was not out of hate or even any particular rememberance of love or passion, but rather because this little man looked so much like that big half-a-man and she could not help but wonder would little man grow to become the whole man that the older man was destined never to be. she knew that was her task. to somehow teach these little sweet knuckleheads to become men, somehow, in the absence of a steady man on the scene. if you are a young woman. attractive but not gorgeous. black in color and consciousness. poor as a welfare queen, except not even food stamps stuffed into your bra. proud in the classic "we may not have much but we're going to make it" way, estranged from your birth family because you have become, some-terrible-how, exactly what your upbringing and college education was supposed to prevent: a poor, single mother of two, head of household, fatherman long gone. if you have struggled with being a statistic for three or four years running. cooped yourself up. did odd jobs here and there. hung on by a thread. managed to hold on to your decency -- i.e. declined to live off of ocassional dollars left on the bedside by dawgs who liked the way you jocked their dick -- managed to stay physically clean of diseases (and you have found the easiest way to suffer sexual deprivation is to do without completely, except, of course, for the casual hand job in the tub or a particular good spliff of reefer every other week or so), so you’re clean and have managed to hold on to your pride. no begging back to mama. no buckling under to stern papa's patriarchal nonsense. if you were wearing synthetic clothes even though you prefered cottons and wools. payless sneakers when rockport walkers were really what you needed, especially given that you walked most places you had to go--a buck a throw to ride the bus added up to a tremendous deficit in the pocketbook, and besides, it was usually three bucks to ride because it was cheaper to take family outings then to even think about paying one of the kids in the block to be a babysitter, besides what sense did it make to let kids who were little more than babies watch your babies? if you had finally sold some photos to some magazine for less than you hoped but for as much as you could expect, cashed the money at the corner, paid your electricity bill, paid the rent, and still had thirty dollars and change left over to buy food for two weeks until next payday, because of all of that, if you were shooting a photo of your youngest son and you saw the last man who dispassionately screwed over you staring out of your son’s two year old eyes, your hand would quiver too. all of the above is why her hand shook a little trying while squeezing off that slow-shutter-speed shot.


because of ruminating on all of that and because she just never would have expected it, she wasn't paying attention to the brother walking toward her until he stopped in front of them. went down into his pocket and began pulling out a pistol that was so long it seemed like it took two hours for him to keep extracting it from its hiding place. he just kept coming up, up, up with that thing.


why was he showing her his gun? was all she could think of at first.


brother was tall but not overly tall. just regular ghetto brother tall. tall enough to be playing ball instead of pulling a gun on her. was moderately attractive, except she did not pay too much attention to his looks because she was faced with the fascination of a lethal weapon about to be aimed at her chest. he maybe weighted as much as her whole family -- sekou was no more than forty-some pounds, malik was only about twenty-nine pounds, and she weighed ninety-eight pounds wringing wet -- she had weighed herself the last time she took a bath at her girlfriend's house, her girl friend, whom she hadn't seen or talked to in months now, kept a scale next to the tub, so when she stepped out, it seemed like the obvious thing to do, to hop on the scale and give it a go, the scale registered ninety eight and a half pounds, she had deducted half a pound for the water dripping off her and for the towel she was clutching and rubbing across her body as she dried herself -- so 98 plus let's say 30 was 128 plus say 45 was 163, no 173, yeah, he looked to weigh 200 or so pounds. shit. he didn't need no gun to rob her. he could have been like most men and just threw his weight around. but she couldn't help paying attention to that gun.


a gun is a funny thing when it's aimed at your chest, when it's in the hands of somebody who doesn't give a damn about your life, when it's loaded and maybe also loaded is the person holding the piece. a gun is funny in the macarbe sense that even though she was a statistic of poverty she had never thought of herself as eligible to become a statistic of homicide until she was confronted by a little piece of specifically twisted metal, phallic shaped and capable of spewing a metal projectile that can rent flesh, shatter bone and easily cause fatal harm.


we had embraced when we met, the huge of my bear hug almost wrapped completely around her twice, my right hand on my left elbow, my left hand vice versa, her living flesh encased against my chest, i could feel her breathing, her small breasts, the slenderness of her back, the top of her head not fully up to my chin, she didn't look sick or anything, or feel weak, but no one would mistake her for being at the top of her game, she had a semi-nervous gesture when i asked how she had been, both hands went to her hair and tugged the braids back on her head, hands over her ears like she didn't want to hear the question, and she looked down, away from me, before answering that she was just kind of coming out of seclusion. while she made those silent sad gestures, i was thinking about her children being sequestered in a cramped shotgun double, and, of course, trying to be a bit sensitive, i didn't ask how she was caring for her kids, i mean i was just another man who was not going to support her two young negro males, and if you ain't going to solve the problem what right do you have to tell a young mother that she ought to take better care of her kids, doesn't she know that every day she gets up, dresses them, feeds them, as best she can? i guess if i were she i too would have been in seclusion. and then she tells me that she almost got killed.


but that's life in the waning moments of the 20th century, everybody is almost getting killed, life, especially in new orleans a recent statistical murder capital of metropolitan america, life is murder. i could tell from the quiet, unhysterical, deliberate, clearly ennuciated, without eye contact at first but then the quick glance up into my eyes, i could tell that life is sometimes death from the way she said the word for the day around our way: killed. i could tell this was not an exaggeration.


you know the old saying, what goes up must come down? it's not the lift off that's scary, nor the arcing descent, what is scary is surviving the crash. i'm beginning to understand the anxiety of survival. sort of like how it felt surviving the middle passage. what am i living for? how come i'm still alive? when friends and kin fall all around you, you wonder why you're still standing. in this case, i was also wondering how she was still standing.


i mean it was difficult visualizing her on the sidewalk, pulling malik close to her with a firm hand that just moments ago was leisurely linked to his little palm. or how did sekou, big eyed and backed back against her thighs, how did he look while some original gangsta practiced his mayhem tactics on this family trio. sister got less than nothing--all the cash she will beg, borrow, earn and steal this year will not cover her annual debt, and some hardleg is trying to jack her up. what a tremendous disrespect for life this is. what kind of parasite would ripoff a whole family whose liquid cash is probably less than the cost of the bullets and the gun being used to rob them?


sister laughs nervously as she relates to me how big the gun was, pantomiming the gun being pulled on her, coming up out the dude's pants, she uses her hand with finger and thumb stiff at a perpendicular angle and just keeps raising her hand higher and higher until it's over her head. i imagine when all the money you've got is thirty dollars and it's secreted on your person, and your two young boys are scrunched up against you silently waiting for you to do something, and there's this big dude standing in front of you about to rob you or whatever, i imagine, at that moment, the gun do look like it will keep growing in size, bigger and bigger and bigger.


"i told him, you know you wrong for that. you see my kids..."


i could not imagine being bold enough to tell a robber he's wrong for robbing. but beneath the stress of crisis, she rose to protest the moment of her assault.


"i had to tell him, man, you wrong for that. and then i kinda instinctively backed toward the street. before i knew it, we were standing in the street. a car came along. the driver hit his brakes. leaned on his horn. swerved around us and kept going. i was yelling at the car: stop, stop. the dude hollered at me: give me your money or i'll shoot you. but by then i was standing in the middle of the street, my arms around my kids and then another car was coming. they was just going to have to hit me and my boys, or stop. fortunately the car stopped. i jerked on the passenger front door but it was locked. roll down your window, i begged. help me. please. help me. i pointed at the dude at the curb: that man is trying to kill us."


i watched her unconsciouly re-enact the escape as she narrated the scenario of resistance to assault. the unsentimental starkness of her words connected me to her like a fishhook in the flesh, each syllable held fast and pulled me closer because it hurt to back away from her. when i had asked how she had been, i had no idea how near she had come to not being and how out of it i would feel as she related to me the tale of her near demise.


although each one of her quiet words conjured up an image in my mind, everything i was thinking was abstract compared to the knot of feelings wrenching my gut as i stood transfixed by the mesmerizing sight of her pantomime, her body jerking through the survival motions: the desperate pulling at the car door, her braids thrashing as she frantically grasped for an opening; the fearless pointing at the assailant, her arm extended, ending in an accusatory finger aimed at some spot to the right of me; the protective collecting of her children, the hugging of open space with right arm and left arm, the hunching over, making a shield out of her body. i was hearing her words with one mind and watching her body with another mind, and both minds were marveling at what they witnessed. she sang and she danced. her words were warrior song, her motions, warrior steps. and yet she was unarmed, all she was doing was defending, defending her right to be, to be woman, to be mother, to be walking down the street with her children. you know we're in bad shape when a single mother and two children are viewed as easy prey, when a literally poor woman who obviously doesn't have big bucks can't take a family stroll through the afternoon without one of her brothers pulling a gun on her, threatening murder, demanding her money or her life.


i was simply standing there listening to her story, painfully aware that i was doing nothing but listening. she was not only doing the work of telling the tale, she had also first done the work of surviving the murderous maze of choices facing her that fatefilled afternoon. when a robber puts a gun in your face, most people's minds shut down and they become incapable of making calculated decisions, incapable of making any decision. most people freeze up and simply do what they are told. but this sister in the flash of a few seconds figured out how to be a survivor. threaded through the labyrinth of violence and somehow found a path to avoid the palpable possibility of getting murdered. this sister refused to go silently into the book of urban armed robbery and homocide.


i was emotionally exhausted as she continued the story of a murder that didn't happen. since she was here telling me about it, i knew that the story did not end with her murder, but as she revived the terror of the moment with the sound of her voice and the intensity of her movements, i felt the helpless chill of realizing just how fragile we all are in confronting the callous brutalities of contemporary life.


even though it would have been a tragedy had she been shot, the greater shame is that there was nothing, absolutely nothing, unbelievable about this story. if i didn't know it before, i knew it now: the realities of late 20th century new orleans had predisposed me to accept murder as a normal way of life. i wondered what i would have done had i actually been a witness to the attempted robbery. how would i have reacted if i were a passerby? would i have driven away, like the driver of the first car that almost hit them, or would i have simply stood motionless as a tree witnessing a black on black lynching, a black man assaulting a black woman?


"it was an older black man at the wheel of the car that stopped. i pounded on the window. i looked over my shoulder at the dude standing on the curb with the gun still out. please, help us, i shouted. the man unlocked his door. i pushed my kids in first."


then she addressed me. reminded me that i was not innocently an uninvolved spectator. by directly addressing me, she did not allow me the simple escape of observing her as though she was a television or a movie screen. she reminded me that i, a man, was looking at her, a woman. what was the relationship of my manhood to her? as "a man" i could be a perpretator or i could be a helpmate. she reminded me that manhood was no abstract choice. day to day, incident to incident, relation to relation, one on one, one to many, one to none, each man had to choose how he related to each woman. i didn't say anything as she interrupted the narrative flow, looked directly at me and made a parenthetical remark as she continued. what could i say?


"man, it was some shit like in a movie. it was happening so fast. but what was i going to do? i didn't want my kids to see me getting shot or nothing. or whatever that man with the gun intended to do to me." the awfulness of "whatever" hung in the air like the scent of foulness in a slaughterhouse. i said nothing and just waited for her to hurry up and get away from the man with the gun.


"at first i was going to tell the kids to run but they wouldn't move. they just kept clinging to me. so when i pushed them out into the street, they kinda was resisting. but it was the street and maybe getting run over by a car or else standing still and getting robbed and maybe getting shot. lucky for us, a car stopped. so after i got the kids in the car, i jumped in behind the kids. the man who was driving asked me what was wrong. i said just drive please. please drive. and he drove off. i didn't even look back. to this day i couldn't really describe that dude to you, but i can still see that big-ass gun."


and then it was over. she stopped talking. went into herself for a second or so to lock down whatever emotions that retelling and reliving the tale had set loose.


once she was back to the present, she looked up and into me in real time, swung her attention to my presence and calmly met my gaze without the terror of the past beclouding her bright brown eyes. she was no longer back at the scene of the crime, she was now standing in safety before me, a slight, very slight, smile creasing her face. silent. and then she said: "i'm alright now, but i been kind of staying inside, yaknow." and then she giggled nervously. i mumbled something about being glad that she was ok, and then recognizing that i had nothing substantial to add, i changed the subject.


days later, i find myself facing the question: what are you going to do about it? it's over but it's not over. murder marches on. armed robbery careens through our community unabated. no matter how i twist the combination of causes and effects, proactions and reactions, i don't come up with any great new insights into the problem.


in terms of dealing with our very real social problems, i am a beggar standing lonely outside a banquet of the damned. i don't possess any secret solutions or even any short term suggestions. but i know i must say something. so i raise up these few words and shout out to all my brothers: hey, my brothers, if you see a young sister, reed thin, dark skinned, walking down the street with two big-eyed kids, hey, please don't fuck with them. and brotherman, if you find them in trouble, please help them. that's the least a human being can do. help, and, most certainly, do no harm.


—kalamu ya salaam