(featuring Walter "Wolfman" Washington - guitar)


sometimes i never

think of you

other times seems

like i never get through


seasons pass, rain falls

i never think of you

some recorded singer sighs

i wonder how you do


the ache in my heart

got a key

to my mind’s back door

comes and goes

as it please


i don’t miss you all

a the time




—kalamu ya salaam

POEM: the past predicts the future

the past predicts the future

            (for narvalee)



when you get closer to yr relatives

you will be surprised


at how black they are,

they feel


the fit and familiarity of their emotions in the twilight

how much of your pain they understand

with a knowing smile, and how much of their pain

you never knew, thus you frown

embarassed by your ignorance

and turn to yester-world

altared on the mantle piece:


ancestral photographs, amazingly graceful figures

whose dominant features are boldly ironic eyes

which seemingly float effortlessly just above the surface

of the cream colored paper, inscriptions in unfading black ink

on the reverse "me & shane, dec. 1934"


a small, soft purple, velvet box enshrining a plain gold ring

a slip of torn paper from another era unthrown-away

seven quickly scribbled numerals, the abacadabra key

to a birth, a midnight move to another town, or even

a pledge cut short by accidental death, "oh, it's just a number,"

the slow, quiet response to your investigation


so you pick up a pencil gilded with the name of a 1947 religious

convention attended and delicately place it down beside

an 87-year-old hand mirror (you resist the impulse

to look at your reflection, afraid that you might see

unfulfilled family aspirations), this mirror is atop

a piece of lace, pressed, folded, ancient matriarchal adornment


you will be surprised to learn,

as the years go on, everything

your people say sounds like something

from your life story, something

you wondered about sitting in the car

the other day in the hospital parking lot before the visit,

before the treatment


especially if you are intelligent

paid more than $10 an hour

carry credit cards rather than cash

and climb aboard a flying machine more than three times a year


you will be surprised that although you live in some other city

there is a spot with your familial name

blind embossed and hand engraved in the heart-home

of people you seldom see, surprised

that much of your life had already been accurately predicted

by an aunt who knew you before you were born, i.e.


when your mother

and father were courting, staying out later than curfew

and clutching dreams tightly in the naked embrace

of yr conception


—kalamu ya salaam

ESSAY: JOCKEYING FOR POSITION-A Review Essay of Two Anthologies



By Kalamu ya Salaam


The Vintage Book of African American Poetry (2000)

Edited by Michael S. Harper & Anthony Walton

Vintage Books


Giant Steps: The New Generation of African American Writers

Giant Steps—The New Generation of African American Writers (2000)

Edited by Kevin Young

Perennial, An Imprint of HarperCollins



Some people love anthologies—they are a good way to introduce a wide range or cover a specific genre, period or grouping of authors. Others hate anthologies—they misrepresent the whole of a given subject because of the particular biases and agendas of the editors and too often give a woefully incomplete or misleading representation of included authors. The Vintage Book of African American Poetry and Giant Steps—The New Generation of African American Writers fall squarely in the middle of this debate. Each of them has glowing strengths and glaring weaknesses.


The Vintage Book is the weaker of the two mainly because the book has too many factual errors. Vintage is a venerable press—where were their fact checkers and proof readers?


Surely, the Vintage book will be seriously considered for classroom purposes. The head notes, resultantly, will be accepted by literally thousands of students as statements of fact, however:


*"With the posthumous appearance of Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral by Phillis Wheatley in 1793, Wheatley became the first African American to publish a volume of literature." Wrong. Wheatley's book, Miscellaneous Poems (which was the basis for the reprint twenty years later) was the first book published by a Black person who lived in the United States but the book was published in London in 1773. Perhaps the editors meant the 1793 edition was the first book printed in the United States, but if so, they don't make that clear. Phillis Wheatley is claimed as an African American writer but she was in fact a British subject and was published prior to the founding of the United States. Moreover, there is a real legal question as to whether she ever became an official citizen of the then newly formed United States.


*"During the Vietnam War, Kaufman fell into a prolonged silence…" Kaufman did not "fall into silence" but rather took a vow of silence as a protest against the Vietnam war. Why did the editors obfuscate instead of highlight Kaufman's politics? The head note also asserts "Kaufman wrestled as well with literary convention in a way that can infuse his work with a startling tension." That's an odd slant on Kaufman because he did not write down the majority of his poetry; most of his work was transcribed from performances and tapes by his wife and other friends. Reveling in creating neologisms, employing music references and structures, and stylistically adapting surrealism in the oral delivery of his poetry, if Kaufman were alive today, he would be considered a quintessential performance poet rather than a text poet tussling with the conventions of the page.


*Amiri Baraka did not begin "his literary career under his original name, LeRoi Jones." Baraka's "original" (i.e. birth) name was Everett Leroy Jones. According to his autobiography, "…after my first year at Howard I spelled my name with a capital 'R' and an 'i' on the end. LeRoi."


*Haki Madhubtui was not "raised primarily in Chicago." He was reared in Detroit and moved to Chicago after leaving the U.S. Army.


*Toi Derricotte was born in 1941. The head notes give both 1940 and 1941 as her birth year—a proofreader should have picked up that discrepancy.


But more troubling than factual errors such as those cited above is the grossly uneven number of pages devoted to each poet. Why have two poems (4 pages) from Haki Madhubuti and one poem (4 pages) from Sonia Sanchez, juxtaposed against 5 poems (6 pages) from Joseph Seaman Cotter, Sr. and 4 poems (five pages) from Marilyn Nelson. Is the inference that Cotter is more important than Madhubuti and Nelson is more important than Sanchez?


While every poet is obviously not of equal weight, why is there such a disparity between allotments to two poets (Madhututi and Sanchez) who have been a major influence on the tradition of Black poetry, especially given that this is a survey of the whole African American literary tradition? There is no Mari Evans, Nikki Giovani  or Ntozake Shange, but we do get relatively unknown writers. Are we surveying the field or are we making judgements about the quality of influential writers? Additionally, why include Derek Walcott, who is a Caribbean writer, among 50 African American writers? Are the editors suggesting that Walcott stands in the same position vis-à-vis the African American poetic tradition as does Claude McKay, who was born in Jamaica?


Moreover, given that this book is obviously aimed at the educational market, why is there only a "selected" bibliography in which some poets receive a full listing of their poetry books and others an incomplete listing? Again, for a Vintage series, a complete bibliography is to be expected if the press is serious about making a contribution to the literary tradition.


The main strength of the Vintage anthology is the representation it gives to seminal pre-sixties poets: Langston Hughes, Sterling Brown, Robert Hayden and Gwendolyn Brooks. A chronologically broad range of work is included for the aforementioned poets and the head notes argue persuasively for each poet's importance.


Why not do what you do best? Rather than encase the selection of seminal poets within the context of an alleged broad survey, why not give us a well-researched, critically annotated (with full bibliographies) anthology of major Black poets? Give us your list, argue your case and be done with it.


While it does not have the obvious factual errors that plague the Vintage book (except the typo in the introduction which lists "Charles Powell" as the editor of Callaloo when it should have been Rowell), Giant Steps is also skewed. The Vintage book focused solely on poetry, Giant Steps includes fiction and non-fiction as well as poetry; so clearly we are getting only a sampling of the next generation—but actually, this is not really a selection of young writers because all of the 26 writers are in their thirties or just turned forty except for Terrance Hayes and Natasha Tarpley, who both are 29. The work in Giant Steps is uniformly strong but like the Vintage book it is equally narrow in its short list, especially of poets.


Here is where the question of canon formation comes in. Are we really to believe that the only post-sixties Black poets worth "reading" are MFA graduates? Whether intentional or not, every post-1960 poet in the Vintage book and all of the poets in Giant Steps are academically trained MFA grads.


The African American poetry tradition has always consisted of two trains running: one formally trained and adhering to Euro-centric literary conventions and the other poets who gravitated toward Black oral & aural traditions with a heavy use of the vernacular. I am not arguing against the writers included but there needs to be a wider selection, especially since the resurgent popularity of Black literature in general and Black poetry in particular is largely predicated on the popularity, influence and work of writers who do not appear in either of these anthologies.


For example, four-time national Slam champion Patricia Smith is not included in either the Vintage anthology or Giant Steps. Why not? Could it be because the editors were not looking in that direction even though "that direction" (i.e. the spoken word movement) laid the groundwork that created the current market for these anthologies?


I am not arguing for a longer, short list of writers to anthologize, but rather for a more diverse short list, and for selections that are a more accurate correspondence to the contemporary reality of the Black literature scene. And, if not diversity and accuracy, then at least let the editors state straight up: we choose the people we like, we are arguing for the academic. Don't even pretend to survey a genre (African American poetry in the Vintage case) or a time period ("the next generation" in the Giant Steps case). While both anthologies are composed of very good writing, neither adequately fulfills its stated mission as a truly representative survey.


I doubt that the average reader or, for that matter, the average English professor would have any way to know the limitations I have cited. While I am overjoyed that these anthologies were published, I am deeply concerned that we are witnessing a deliberate (even if unconscious) skewing of the African American literary tradition. Are these anthologies literary brown bag parties?


Among African Americans, there used to be a set of light-skinned Blacks who excluded from their circle any Black person who was darker than a brown paper bag. This was an intra-racial color-caste bar. When we focus mainly on graduate-level poets, is this not a class-based bias that is just as pernicious?


The African American literary tradition is much broader and much more politically oriented than these two anthologies would lead the uninformed reader to believe. I respect the right of the editors to select what they consider the best by whatever criteria they choose to use, but don't throw a rock and hide your hand. Don't pretend to represent the whole and put forth only one part. There are two trains running through the African American literary terrain and it does a disservice to both for one to pretend that the other does not exist.


Earth Day


daily, once we arrive

we should ask ourselves what are we doing

to make the earth glad

that we are here


walking its face

breathing and being


does our living

help or hurt other

life forms


every time we celebrate

a birthday we should use the

occasion to reaffirm our pledge


to make the earth

glad that we are here


—kalamu ya salaam


Miles Davis

(featuring Kenneth D. Ferdinand - trumpet


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


CONTACT _Con-3ACA0F1F1 \c \s \l Kalamu ya Salaam

ESSAY & POEM: Guarding The Flame Of Life & "Spirit & Flame"


The Funeral of Big Chief Donald Harrison Sr.

By Kalamu ya Salaam


It was a summer day in December (1998). The sky was clear, high, an almost pastel blue dotted by mere wisps of clouds. The shine of the sun bounced beaming off the white of the church building facade. Coming around the corner, brother man pushed a blue shopping cart that held a yellow fifty gallon trash can with an ice pick stuck on the top perimeter of the plastic container. Dude had a fist full of dollar bills in his left hand. I knew what he was doing. He was selling beer.


"Yeah. Probably that old cheap Budweiser," my good buddy and internationally-exhibited visual artist Willie Birch wisecracked. About three-quarters of an hour later, the vendor had acquired a couple of cases of Lowenbrau in the bottle; had them stashed on the bottom rack of the grocery buggy now improvised into a moving beer kiosk.


I spied a man in brilliant yellow shirt -- it does injustice to the shirt to call it yellow, just as it does injustice to the sun to call it hot. The man was standing still, no breeze was blowing but his shirt looked like it was moving. The hue of the deeply mellow, vibrant yellow fabric was so intense that it made gold-dust jealous. Turns out, as we talk, the brother reminds me we graduated from high school together.


Then Roger Lewis, a founding member of the Dirty Dozen Band, walked up holding his baritone sax. New Orleans musicians have a tradition of resplendent cleanliness -- as in mean, clean and beautifying the scene. Roger's sartorial eminence was such that just the hipness of his presence was musical. He stood on the sidewalk with a slight rearward lean, angled just enough to let you know he was hip and not so much that he looked like he was posturing or calling undue attention to himself. I heard strange and wonderful melodies in his insouciant stance, a bluesy riff in the way he unhurriedly unfurled a slow smile when I walked up to congratulate him on maintaining impressively high standards of beauty vis-a-vis male attire.


But before the praise song to Roger was fully out of my mouth, nightclub bouncer and renown gospel singer Joe Cool strolled by in a righteously pressed walking suit. The trouser hem draped softly over the tops of a pair of mustard colored, burnished, kid-glove leather kicks that looked so comfortable he could have worn them on his hands -- as I dapped him I bent down and commented, "look at that," pointing with my chin to his lovely loafers, "leave it to you to give them something to look at when they bow down." Joe Cool has a beautiful grin when he is pleased.


Moments earlier, across the street I had seen our consigliori relaxing on the stoop next to one of Treme's most responsible business people (as they were incognito I will not divulge their 9-to-5 identities but I will say they were not visiting, this was their resident neighborhood and everyone who passed them spoke and were spoken to). The three of us were passing pleasantries for a minute when up pops union organizer and environmental racism activist Pat Bryant dress in a black suit, looking like a Baptist preacher. In response to my ribbing about his get-up Pat joked he had a Bible in his back pocket. With a straight face I asked, "what caliber?" He just smiled and showed us neither Bible nor gun. After giving me a conspiratorial glance, Pat said something to our mutual  counselor-friend about the low nature of lawyerly work. The attorney calmly parried, "Like Booker T. said, it beats working in the sun." Yeah, that made sense; we knowingly head nodded. Pat leaned toward the counselor to discuss a personal matter, I bid them adieu and re-crossed the street to the church.


Back standing next to Willie, I surveyed the scene. Shimmering and shimmying down the street a block away you could see the feathered form and also hear the drums of new style Mardi Gras Indian, Fi-Ya-Ya. The distance but distinct sound cut through the cacophony of the crowd. Seemed like there was a couple of hundred people milling around the St. Augustine's front entrance at the corner of Gov. Nichols and St. Claude.


Fi-Ya-Ya in all his Indian glory had his headgear on. The mask fitted over his head like a knight’s helmet, or like one of them old paper mache, black and white, skeleton skulls like, well, like community activist/professional agitator Randy Mitchell wore. Randy was belligerently waving a black, pirate-like flag and daring anyone to take a picture of his copyrighted costume.


As I turned to take in Fi-Ya-Ya's arrival, another advertisement for African inspired, colorful splendor stepped softly around the corner. A man whose face I recognized from secondline parades, strode confidently through the crowd, his head cocked upward like a rooster squinting at dawn sky. He had on a black pin striped suit, a blood red silk handkerchief gushed out of his breast pocket, and he was crowned with a white Stetson hat. His spotless skypiece had a small feather stuck in the side that made peacock feathers look dull. I ran up to him, "man, ain't no use in looking for the sun, cause you the only thing shining!" He waved at me good naturedly and laughed.


Earlier I had been inside the church for the musical tribute section but when the mass portion kicked in, the Indian drumming and chanting that was going on outside piqued my interest. Their sharp shouts and sounds that were unignorable as spear stabs periodically pierced the quiet of the church sanctuary. Seemed like the drums were calling me by name. And that’s how I came to be outside greeting a plethora of cultural stalwarts such as Greg Stafford, the Young Tuxedo Brass Band leader/trumpeter and founding member of the Black Men of Labor marching club. Greg was resplendent in white from head to toe, including a tall conical African-inspired headpiece.


While waiting for the body to be released from the church services many of us passed the time by greeting and hugging each other while reminiscing about good times and other great second lines. We were patient. Regardless of what was or was not going on inside, we knew Donald Harrison Sr. would be delivered over to us for a final procession to the burying ground.


(So far I have not talked about the women -- there were a couple of sisters so fine that when they strolled through the crowd, men stopped talking and just stood with their mouths gapped open. A little later when my wife Nia came outside and started hugging me as she leaned against my shoulder, Willie started babbling about how beautiful Nia was. With every syllable, Nia's smile got wider and wider. I know that the significance of this interlude of describing the beauty of the women is loss on some people, but at the risk of being misunderstood, I say to you that where ever there is no deep and profound appreciation of women and music, beauty and dance, in such absence you find a general pallor and dullness to existence, an existence that opulence and ostentatious sex only makes more sad. In any case, as clean as all the men were I described above, apply the splendor of their appearance to the pulchritude of the women.)


Inside the church Fr. LeDeaux had said, there is something in us that celebrates life, celebrates through "music and dancing." He said that: music and dancing. A Catholic priest conducting a mass lauds the centrality of “music and dancing” -- obviously this priest is a Black man (and I don't mean biologically, I mean culturally).


The church is decored with the usual artifacts of Christianity, but closer inspection reveals banners proclaiming the Nguzo Saba (the seven principles). Moreover, high up in the balcony, taking up the top wall, instead of a traditional cross there is what looks like a ten to fifteen foot ankh.


The ankh is a traditional African icon -- for those who would want me to specify that the ankh is Egyptian, I suggest that you miss the point that Egypt is African, or at least originally was before euro-centric scholars with cultural axes to grind kept trying to point to Greece to explain the science and culture of North Africa. Anyway, there, in St. Augustine Caholic church, the largest religious icon was an ankh.


The ankh represents not simply life in the abstract but also the male and female principle of life in balance. The shape of the ankh has the ovary over the phallus -- the circle (actually an upside down teardrop, the pear shape of the earth itself), or female, sits atop, the rod, or male.


Also, unlike most churches which have the pulpit at one end of the church, in St. Augustine the altar is in the middle of the congregational seating and what had originally been the dais and choir area was now where the musicians performed.


Need I tell you that this is a Black church? St. Augustine Catholic church is one of the oldest churches in the city and was build based on money raised by “gens libre de colouer” -- free men of color -- and by contributions from enslaved Africans who made money from trade and handicraft sales. Moreover, St. Augustine is located in Treme, which is the oldest continuously existing African American neighborhood in the United States.


For an hour before the formal funeral mass, there had been jazz and Mardi Gras Indian drumming, dancing and singing. Trap drummer Shannon Powell and djembe master Luther Gray traded funky pre-funeral licks. Bassist Chris Severin held down the bottom. Milton Batiste bested the younger trumpeters with some absolutely, hideously awe-inspiring trumpet flourishes that favored all the tones that hang around and in between but never at the center of the tempered scale -- although, I must say that “Twelve” (aka James Andrews, bka Satchmo of the Ghetto) was right up under Milton with some trumpet wah-wah effects he made by sticking his hand in and over the bell of his horn as if his flesh were a rubber or metal mute. The two Willies (Willie Tee and Willie Metcalf) played the keyboards like balaphons, that uniquely African mixture of melody and percussion. And only son, Donald Harrison Jr. was out front with saxophone -- he was on alto, his prettiest voice. And there were plenty more hornmen and drummers coming and going, including the ever effervescent vocalist/trumpeter Kermit Ruffins.


At the end of the musical tribute section I was called on to deliver a poem. I recited “Spirit & Flame.” Much of what I said was chanted, some was not even in English but, nevertheless and unfailingly, most of the people understood every sound I uttered.


On one side of the church sat All For One Records founder and former musical director for Sonny & Cher, Harold Battiste dressed in a formal length, black, white-embroidered top of African finery; his elderhood sagely complemented by the upside down halo of his magnificent white wisdom-beard. No one has made as significant an all-around contribution to New Orleans music as has Battiste who is prolific producer, composer and arranger in jazz, rhythm & blues, gospel, and pop music.


On the other side of the church, the Big Chief of the Yellow Pochohantas and a man who has masked for over fifty years, Tootie Montana and his wife and chief sewing partner, Joyce Montana sat side by side. They could wear sackcloth and look regal. Throughout the services people walked up to Big Chief Tootie and paid almost as much respects to him as to the Harrison family. Though Donald Harrison Sr. was widely acclaimed for his intellectual prowess and historical insight into the significance of Indian culture, Tootie Montana is considered the most accomplished Mardi Gras Indian suit designer.


After my threnody, members of Chief Harrison’s gang shake tambourines and sing over the coffin, offering a last testament of fidelity to the principles and beliefs of their Big Chief. Also on hand to pay their respects were a number of other Indian chiefs, including some who are from rival uptown gangs.


A veritable who’s who of Black street culture slow marches up and down the church aisle for the last viewing of a man, who perhaps more than any other, argued for full recognition of the cultural significance of Mardi Gras Indians -- a calling which significantly his children and grandchildren have actively taken up. His oldest daughter Cherice Harrison-Nelson teaches Mardi Gras Indian culture in the public schools and in community workshops. His son, Donald Harrison Jr. is a professional jazz musician who has constantly records Mardi Gras Indian music and his grandson Brian Nelson has become a Mardi Gras Indian chief. Though, thankfully, his work continues on, undoubtedly Donald Harrison Sr. will be missed.


These services are unlike Catholic funeral services anywhere on this continent. The presiding priest both sings and preaches as legendary blind pianist Henry Butler plays in accompaniment. A trio of women read scripture. The highpoint is Donald Harrison’s instrumental rendition of Amazing Grace. Predictably, this is truly a memorable New Orleans funeral.


Unfortunately, but also predictably, there were too many cameras (a couple of photographers had been requested by the family, but most were uninvited). Used to be you would only see the small, hand-held deals, now there are camcorders and video crews with ungainly boom cranes and artificial lights. All of this despite two big signs posted on the church's front door "no camera's inside."


Most of the picture taking was futile. No matter what they shot with, none of those pictures could show you the spirit swirling around this gathering for the send off of Big Chief Donald Harrison, the Guardian of the Flame. Only the human soul can appreciate the profoundness of the spirit. A machine at best captures but a pale reflection. If you really want to make a memento of such moments, you should go and osmose the spirit through your pores, inhale the bouquet of real emotions and deep sentiments.


After over an hour of church services, the second line finally began. For a block or so, I slipped inside the eye of the procession, pranced just behind the trombones, saxophones at my side and trumpets nappying up my kitchen with corkscrew tones blown at the back of my head. We proceeded up Ursulines past where James Black used to live (I believe it was his mama's house), where, when brother Black had passed on, the hearse stopped in front the door and the coffin was pulled out and literally thrown up in the air in ritual salute.


Earlier I had hovered at the heart of Indian drumming and chants as we prayed in our own secular way for Big Chief Donald Harrison’s safe journey to the ancestor realm. I am not an Indian nor a musician, but these are my people. I was here to bear witness with the vibrancy of my being, with my tongue chanting and body dancing, with my soul intertwined in celebratory resistance shout with all the others of us all in the street -- no building, no structure, no coffin, nothing could contain us. This is why we don't die, we multiply. Every time the butcher cuts one of us down, the rest of us laugh and dance, defying death. It's our way of saying yes to life, saying fuck you to death and his nefarious henchmen, poverty and racism.


The funeral of Big Chief Donald Harrison raises two important questions. First, when does spectacle overtake ritual and, second, in light of the significance of the transition of this particular Big Chief, where do we go from here?


From the beginning in Congo Square on down to the jazz funeral of today, there have always been two kinds of audiences: those of the culture who came to make ritual, to affirm and renew; and those who came to witness (a few to gawk) and be entertained. Both audiences understood something powerful was going on, which is why they both were there/are here.


The ritual participants came, some literally looking like they wore whatever they had worn to work yesterday or maybe even whatever they had worn when they fell asleep slumped over a bar table at three o'clock this morning; or, then again, they came like that fierce sister who wore a circular feathered, multicolored hat about which to say it looked like a crown belittles the splendiferous figure she cut every time she bobbed her head, don't mention when she would turn and smile.


The ritual participants were the beaters of wine bottles and the bearers of babies on their hips. They were those who raided deep into the hearts of their closets to come out with their hippest threads and they were those who just heard the commotion, threw open their front doors, rose up off stoops and porches, and ran to add to the assembly because in the marrow of their being they “feel to believe” they are “called” to join in. These often nameless and generally uncelebrated (outside of their turf communities), these indispensable spiritual emeralds are the standard bearers of street culture. They came.


These are the ones who would have been dancers and not just onlookers in Congo Square -- the musicians, the singers, the hip swingers, hollering until hoarse, and then shouting some more. These are the people whose existence in and of itself affirms the dynamic of the African way of knowing and celebrating life.


The others, the onlookers were there to be touched by the profundity of the ritual -- and while they are welcome to watch, we must understand that no matter what they think of what they see (or what they write or how many pictures they print up and put in books), the onlookers are an appendage and ultimately not even necessary for the functioning of this culture.


Sometimes there are clashes between these two audiences, sometimes there are mergers. These two groups of people are connected in time and place, but are separate in culture and condition. Harrison's funeral makes me pause and ask: when does the spectacle of it, when does the gathering of onlookers, gawkers (especially the wanna-be sly cultural vultures -- and you know who you are), when does this press of outsiders become so critical that they color, no, they mar the beauty and integrity of the proceedings?


It wouldn't be so bad, if the non dancers would step to the rear and sit quietly or move out the way, and walk on the sidewalk, but no, some of them are so bold as to want to be up front and personal. And please do not misunderstand this as a veiled referenced exclusively to so-called "white" people. There are a number of Negroes who show through and come back into the hood only when someone dies, and then only for a moment -- don't blink your eyes or you will miss them. Like Dorothy, sometimes I wish I could click my heels and make all of them go away. Forever.


African American culture has always had to function under the scrutiny of outsiders, however, the mix is becoming so disproportionate that you can’t hardly feel the heat of the Black fyah because of the damp of so much chilly water.


Sometimes Donald Harrison (both Donald the father and Donald the son) and I would talk about these and other matters.  In fact, more and more the nature and preservation of our culture is becoming one of the major topics of conversation wherever the culture bearers gather. Regardless of whether we are misunderstood, there are a significant number of us who will never liquidate our Blackness to indulge in indiscriminate integration, particularly integration of all things Black into anything White. Donald Harrison Sr. could hold court for days about this.


Big Chief Harrison was a studious man, who read voraciously, and thought deeply about being and the meaning of life. I shall not attempt to put words in his mouth, nor to project my own sentiments through him. We need only tell the truth about him. We need only note that he gave name to the "Guardian of the Flame."


What fyah was it that he wanted to keep burning?


The people outside the church was sparking like flint stones clacking against the hard rocks of our place and time. Mayor Marc Morial was inside expressing condolences. Outside Ferdinand Bigard had dressed his son in a Friday night, negroidal-red Indian suit. Donald Harrison, Sr.'s body was resting inside the coffin inside the church. Outside Indians were scurrying back and forth, chanting in the street. The fire was outside -- also inside to a significant degree, but mainly outside -- in the hearts and soul of the people who sang and danced during the musical tribute and retreated to the street to wait out the formal religious part of the funeral.


People do not want to talk about this cultural separation of church and street, especially since the street is the more celebrated. Perhaps, such celebratory discourse sounds sacrilegious and most of us who write and publish in mainstream organs are either Christians or are very reluctant to do anything that might be construed as anti-Christian, but facts is facts. Those who maintain the street culture of New Orleans are mainly blues people who are often very spiritual but who are not necessarily very religious.


Yet, the street folk don’t deny the church it’s place in the community. A significant section of the Black community goes to church, and most Black people, be they Christian or not, believe in “God,” but spiritual beliefs on one hand and strict adherence to Christian doctrine on the other are two different concepts. This African-based spirituality sans Christian religiosity is the difference which demarcates the Black blues people from their fellow Blacks in the community. Moreover, the blues people are generally the marginals of society, the most impoverished materially, but, at the same time, they are the richest in terms of cultural creativity and integrity, and particularly in terms of African retentions (both conscious and unconscious).


New Orleans would be a piss poor place to live were it not for the presence and culture of the Black poor/blues people of New Orleans. The people who don't own a pot to urinate in nor a window to throw it out of (over sixty percent of them are renters!), these are the people whom Donald Harrison spoke of, with and for. These were the people who marched with him on Mardi Gras day. These and another element: the conscious brothers and sisters, kin and kind, who might work at City Hall or for the School Board but who dress out at appropriate occasions and shake their backfields like a saucer of Jello in the hands of a four year old. It is the poor and the conscious elements who align themselves with the poor who keep New Orleans Black culture alive -- the ones who will dance at the drop of a hat and can't imagine life without music.


This is what Donald Harrison asked us to keep alive, and this mission speaks directly to the second question: where do we go from here?


The best way to preserve New Orleans culture is to support the people who make the culture. Open doors for them. If you live or work in the big house, then throw food and resources out the window, pass on strategic information. But do it as a religious offering not as a material acquisition or purchase. Make your sacrifice and then go home. Let the spirit carry on. Let those who make music and dance, those who sing and chant, let them be and do what they gotta do without the interference of outsiders of whatever color who have a vested interest in becoming experts on what they have never and can never produce: a culture as vibrant and exultant as New Orleans street culture.


There is room for all at the table, but if you can't cook, get out the kitchen. Make whatever contribution you can and where you can't, get out the way and give the dancers room to do their thing.


Whether onlooker or participant, the passing of Big Chief Donald Harrison Sr. speaks to us, encourages us, cajoles us -- we must carry on: support New Orleans culture. Guard the Flame with the seriousness of your life, because that is precisely what the flame is: life. The flame is all about the joy and celebration of life. Be a guardian of life. Regardless of how cold it does or does not get, let the fyah burn full up!


—Kalamu ya Salaam





(for Big Chief Donald Harrison)


            you think this a costume?

            you think this a ball?

            you think this a lark?

            just for the fun of it all?


            Hoo Nan Ney!


the ancestors are enriched / our lives had been made stronger / the flame has purified us / if only / for a moment / the moment / of his flashing / his flaming / his wit / his anger / his upholdance of the legacy / of resistance / intelligence / seriousness / sun seriousness / hot pepper / cayenne colors / the shout of life in the face of whatever / the cultural tourists are calling themselves today / they / will be at the funeral / but who marched with him / when he was alive / who carried the flame / in their mouths / stepped in the sun then / when / no cameras were allowed / who waved hard high / the banner in their hearts / what men and women / sons, daughters / & lovers / who manifested / the dance walk of black shine / guarding the flame of our time / beaconing  bright / terrible / and badder than that / on our good days / in our wild ways / when nobody can't tell us nothing / not a goddamn thing / and we sing / and we shout / and we act out / black & red / african culture / of many colors / don't take no trail of tears to his coffin / donald harrison does not need your pity / your moans / about what we gon / do / now that he gone / the fire is not out / if you continue to carry the flame / if your are guardian / if you are in the groove / conscious of who / & what  we are / & all we come from / don't cry / don't you moan / stand tall / walk proud / let every waist wind up / let every foot kick forward / let every mouth shout / let every eye shine / don't bow down / go forth unbended / don't bow down / in sorry sorrow / you never saw him sad / as a negro / hoping to become white / by committing cultural suicide / he said feed the fire / keep the burning /grab some knowledge / be a scholar / know yourselves / honor your mother / honor your father / love your people / all they been / and had to be / while working through the slaughter / moving forward / keep on dancing / beat the drum / the drums of life / sing the songs / of who we are / follow his example / don't bow down / stand up straight / and guard the flame / the dark flame / of black fire / black fyah i tell you / fyah / & flame the spirit of struggle / spirit & flame / big chief / donald harrison / fayh chief / guardian / guardian of the flame / guardian of the flame / be a guardian / of the flame / the flame of life / shine on


—Kalamu ya Salaam 



Flying Over America


                        i'm flying home

                       flying, flying, flying, flying

                             flying home



this, ancient land was once

not unified but free to be

whatever the sun shone upon

not furrowed by industry

nor ribboned by concrete

but simply a life path

trod by bare and moccasined feet


now from coast to coast,

from great lakes to gulf

there is the mechanical roar of engines

the boom of bombs

the staccato stutter of hand guns

the quiet binary clicking of computers, and

the tortured cry of nature writhing

twisted by modernity


i am an african encased in aviated metal

surrounded by the sad contentment

of civilized progress anxious to maintain

its hegemony of coercion

as we fly forward into the future

unmindful of the feces we leave behind


intermittently dozing i dream

of appreciating the simple silence

of a heavy metal epoch rusting to dust

of meditating in the amber

of a muted spangled banner song


this land we jet across was ancient once

and though i know we can never again

atavistically return home

into a nostalgic past, still i long

to see this soil be ancient once more



by a social order so unrepentant

in its disdain

for the womb

of our earthly environment

that only its death

can justify the manifest destiny

of this nation's existence


only death

can possibly cover the debt &

repay the cost of creating

this hubristic nation state

which so wantonly & methodically murdered red,

so avariciously & cruelly enslaved black


if this is truly one nation under god

then surely their god must be a devil



—by kalamu ya salaam

ESSAY: Two Trains Running: Black Poetry 1965-2000


(notes towards a discussion & dialogue)

 By Kalamu ya Salaam


What is poetry? That is not a rhetorical question. What it is we are discussing? I define poetry as "stylized language." Within the context of what is generally called literature, I further specify that poetry is language stylized to have an emotional impact on its audience. Within the world of English-language poetry, the chief methods of stylization are: 1. meter and/or rhythm 2. the specific use of sound usually in terms of a. rhyme b. assonance/consonance c. alliteration d. onomatopoeia 3. figurative language, chiefly similes and metaphors.

The canonical standards for contemporary American poetry have their beginnings in England with Shakespeare and their most important developments in the modernist movement of the 1920s (T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, e.e. cummings and William Carlos Williams). The fountain heads of contemporary American poetry are considered to be Walt Whitman and Emily Dickerson.

When we look at black poetry, however, we find another, and equally important, source: namely black speech and music, a distinct and distinguished oral and aural tradition which predates America and stretches back to Africa. These two trains are the twin engines of African American, or what I would prefer to call African Diasporan poetry. Most literary criticism gives short shrift to, and very little critical understanding of, black speech/black music as a source of black poetry. Most literary criticism does not consider that our ancestral mother tongues were tonal languages, which to some non-Africans sound like singing rather than talking.

My argument is that the best use of our language is in fact song. Is song, not sounds like song. And this song essence, this musical emphasis informs what we know as poetry. Indeed, while we may be unique in the degree of our congruity of speech and song, within the context of poetry, the fact is, all poetry, I repeat all poetry, started out as sound rather than text, closer to song than to monotone talking.

Moreover, even the paragon of English poetry, i.e. the work of William Shakespeare (whomever he or she, or they, may have been), even Shakespeare was primarily working in an oral tradition using the vernacular of his day. It is not inappropriate to argue that Shakespeare created the English language as a vehicle for literature. During his day, most literature was written in Latin or French. Shakespeare elevated folk forms and the peasant patois of his era to a literary art form. Shakespeare took the vernacular and created high art.

This brings us to the  Black Arts Movement. I know it probably seems like a major stretch to go directly from Shakespeare to the black arts movement of the 1960s, but if you understand that the effort of the black arts movement was to make art based on the speech and music of black people, drawn from the everyday lives of our people and returned to them in an inspiring and potent form; if you understand that the vernacular was the basis for the development of the art; and if you understand that text was not the singular consideration but rather one of a number of considerations, then you can appreciate the Shakespeares of Harlem, of Watts, of Detroit, Chicago, D.C., so forth and so on. And by the way, this artistic elevation of the vernacular is not limited to Shakespeare and the black arts movement.

This same concern shaped the work of the aforementioned founders and fountain heads of modern American poetry. Indeed, this same phenomenon is evidenced in the work of Homer and particularly in the work of Dante, just to name two very important poets from a global historical perspective. While I acknowledge there are other perspectives and considerations, I nevertheless proffer the theory that what was new about the black arts movement was that we were creating our own path rather than following the paths of others.

I also need to point out that the development of the Black Arts Movement had roots and precedents in earlier movements within black literature, as well as roots from outside the black literary tradition. For a general overview of the black arts movement, I refer you to my essay in the Oxford Companion to African American Literature. For a detailed investigation of the black arts movement, I refer you to my forthcoming book: The Magic of Juju: An Appreciation of the Black Arts Movement.

With that background I will now offer observations for discussion and dialogue. This is not a position paper; this is not an analysis; this is not a summary, but rather is simply a sharing of some ideas and observations toward the development of an assessment of black poetry 1965 to 2000. The black arts movement proper covers the time period of 1965 to 1976. In February 1965 Malcolm X was assassinated and shortly thereafter in March of 1965 a small group of artists and intellectuals coalesced in Harlem to take up work that Malcolm X had outlined in his vision for the Organization of Afro American Unity, the Oaau. Malcolm called for the developed of a cultural center in Harlem.

Amiri Baraka, then LeRoi Jones, Larry Neal, Askia Muhammad Toure, then Roland Snellings, and numerous others responded directly to this call. It is important to point out that the concept for what became the black arts repertory theatre/school did not originate with Baraka although it was named and actualized by Baraka. The specific thrust came from Malcolm X, who in turn was influenced by the teachings of Elijah Muhammad from whom Malcolm had split and from the whole black nationalist tradition dating back to Garvey in Harlem, a movement which Malcolm had studied intently.

Moreover, although looking at the work of key individuals is extremely important, what is more important is to consider the ideas and institutions, the programs and production that is engendered by individuals in motion during a given era. In this case the black arts era is birthed with the death of Malcolm X and makes it's own transition in 1976 when its three major publishing institutions all, each for different reasons, cease functioning. The three major publishing institutions are Dudley Randall's Detroit-based Broadside Press (which by the way re-emerged and continues to operate today); Johnson publications, Hoyt Fuller editedNegro Digest/Black World; and The Journal of Black Poetry published and edited by Joe Goncalves, aka Dingane. Between these three institutions hundreds of poets were published and over thousands of poems distributed in the Black community of the USA and worldwide.
There has been no comparable output of published poetry by any other movement in the history of America. Negro Digest/Black World, with a circulation over 100,000 was the largest literary magazine in American history. White, black or otherwise. Period. Broadside Press with its poetry books, broadsides, tapes and lps, and short lived though very important series of critical monographs is without precedent as a publisher of American poetry. No other press was as influential in terms of poetry.

And finally, although its circulation was not as large, the Journal of Black Poetry which published 19 issues between the mid sixties and the mid seventies, is one of the most vibrant examples of an independently published, non-academic poetry journal in the history of American publishing.

This period also produced three major poetry anthologies: Dudley Randall's The Black Poets, Abraham Chapman's New Black Voices, and Stephen Henderson's Understanding the New Black PoetryBlack Speech and Black Music as Poetic References. Of course, there is also the seminal anthology for the black arts movement, namely Leroi Jones and Larry Neal's Black Fire.

The next major period of black poetry is undefined in terms of a movement per se. This era of retrenchment from the ideals and actualities of black arts poetic production and movement toward, and indeed embracement of, more mainstream modes of poetic production finds its fruition in the work of poet, professor and anthologist Michael Harper. General acclaim given to Pulitzer Prize winning poet Yusef Komunyaaka and to national poet laureate Rita Dove, are both partially the result of the behind the scenes and extremely far reaching work of Michael Harper.

From his position as a professor of creative writing in the graduate program at Brown University, Harper has been able to mentor two generations of poets; champion numerous poets; bring back into print and cause a reassessment of earlier black poets, chiefly Robert Hayden and Sterling Brown; and publish a number of influential poetry anthologies including: every Shut Eye Ain't Sleep: An Anthology of Poetry by African Americans since 1945 (published in 1994) and The Vintage Book of African American Poetry (published Feb. 2000). During this post-black arts period there has been a virtual proliferation of black poets coming through graduate programs in literature. One might call them mfa poets if it didn't have such an exclusive and exclusionary ring to it.

The fruition of Harper's vision is one of the most important developments of the 90s, namely the Cave Canem grouping of poets led by Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eddy. Harper and Cave Canem are all academically-oriented, not exclusively so but in the main that is their orientation, and that means they are most concerned with text. Of course other currents were active during this period, and three of the most important figures in late 20th century poetry production in terms of editing, anthologizing, and championing the work of black poets, are Quincy Troupe, E. Ethlelbert Miller and the head of this crew Dr. Jerry Ward, whose 1997 anthology Trouble the Water-250 Years of African American Poetry is a quintessential embodiment of this viewpoint.

Additionally, from a pedagogic point of view, the most important of what I would term the third stream of modern Black poetry is found in the work of Joanne Gabbin with her furious flower conference and the extensions from that conference that include a four-volume video tape series, an online teacher's guide, an anthology of critical essays, and a forthcoming anthology of poetry.

Furious Flower represents an unparalleled summing up of mid to late 20th century Black poetry. Gabbin's vision embraces both trains of African American aesthetics, the text-oriented and the speech/music oriented, and manages to be both compact and comprehensive while acknowledging the strengths and importance of both schools of African American poetics. 

Here is text and context presented in multimedia appropriate for use in the classroom. The importance of the comprehensive third stream (as exemplified by Gabbin, Miller, Troupe and others) on the one hand and the academic poets (as clustered around Michael Harper and Cave Canem) on the other hand, are both eclipsed by the most recent development in African American poetry, namely the spoken word movement which began to dominate the production of black poetry in the late 1990s.

Watershed events in this regard are the nationally released motion pictures: Love Jones (1997) starring Lorenz Tate and Nia Long, and directed by Theodore Witcher, and Slam (1998) starring Saul Williams and Sonia Sohn and directed by Marc Levin. Although this movement was not started by these movies, these two films are collectively responsible for popularizing what is now the most dynamic movement in black poetry. If there is a watershed event it happened many, many years before: September 1979 with the release of Rapper's Delight by the Sugar Hill Gang. This was the beginning of rap recordings.

Rap, as an art form, is the single most important influence on Black poetry at the turn of the century. 1. Stressed the vernacular, and therefore was accessible to young people who were otherwise shut out of artistic production and most of whom (but not all) were excluded from higher education, and thus not likely to be directly influenced by the text tradition in a pedagogical way. 2. Had a strong performance orientation which stressed working with a live audience as opposed to a text orientation. 3. Had a commercial base which stressed popularity often to the detriment of development.

Many, many people in the text and some in the third stream camps are extremely critical of the spoken word movement. They make the mistake of focusing on the movement's obvious shortcomings and ignoring the strengths and potentials. (Read Lorenzo Thomas.) Mention Giant Steps by Kevin Young--all the poets included are mfa poets. The spoken word movement is an American movement and not a black poetry movement in that it encompasses blacks, latino/a, asian, indigenous peoples and whites. The black branch has yet to produce major anthologies or recordings, and thus is not easily available for study and teaching in the classroom.

Major figures of this movement on the black side include: Patricia Smith, Tracie Morris, Roger Bonair-Agard, Reggie Gibson and Staceyann Chin among many, many others. There will be a proliferation of work in this regard arriving soon. There has yet to be an anthology (which will necessarily have to include a cd) that exemplifies this movement. I have not touched on, but do want to mention the whole jazzpoetry movement, championed by Jayne Cortez, Sekou Sundiata, Kamau Daaood and yours truly. This movement works to bring together black speech and black music into a unified artistic whole. Each of the aforementioned have recordings that exemplify their work.

Finally, I want to end with a challenge: 1. Bring back Bam’s  major works Black Fire and Understanding the New Black Poetry, now out of print. If the books were being used in the classroom, they would still be in print. 2. Encourage students to study BAM and study spoken word the way we encourage (by the example of the books we write, authors we assign, and texts we canonize) the study of the Harlem Renaissance. 3. Put together a journal dedicated to the publication and critique of black poetry and black poetics. This activity could be expanded into websites, listservs, cd roms, videos, audio cds and the like. Which institution, which individuals will take the lead in the study and development of Black poetry? 

The further development of Black poetry is what is to be done.

*   *   *   *   *

>via: http://nathanielturner.com/whatisblackpoetry.htm


SHORT STORY: Could You Wear My Eyes?

Could You Wear My Eyes?

By Kalamu ya Salaam

At first Reggie wearing my eyes after I expired was beautiful; a sensitive romantic gesture and an exhilarating experience. For him there was the awe of seeing the familiar world turned new when viewed through my gaze, and through observing him I vicariously experienced the rich sweetness of visualizing and savoring the significance of the recent past.

I'm a newcomer to the spirit world, so occasionally I miss the experience of earth feelings, the sensations that came through my body when I had a body. I can't describe the all encompassing intricate interweave of spirit reality -- "reality" is such a funny word to use in talking about what many people believe is so unreal. I can't really convey to you the richness of the spirit world nor what missing human feelings is like. I'm told eventually we permanently forget earth ways, sort of like when we were born and forgot all those pre-birth months we spent gestating in our mother's womb, in fact, most of us even forget what it feels like to be a baby. Well the spirit world is something like always being a baby, constant wonder and exploration.

Reggie must have had an inkling of the immensity of the fourth dimension --which is as good a name as any for the spirit world--or maybe Reggie guessed that there was a meta-reality, or intuited that there was more to eyes than simply seeing in the physical sense. But then again, he probably didn't intuit that this realm exists because, like most men, centering on his intuition was difficult for Reggie, as difficult as lighting a match in a storm or imagining being a woman. In fact, his inability to adapt to and cope with woman-sight is why he's blind now.

I was in his head and I don't mean his memories. I mean literally checking his thoughts, each one existing with the briefness of a mayfly as Reg weighed the rationality of switching eyes. This was immediately following those four and a half anesthetized days I hung-on while in the hospital after getting blindsided by a drunk driver a few blocks beyond Chinese Kitchen where I had stopped to get some of their sweet and sour shrimp for our dinner. Through the whole ordeal Reggie never wavered. Two days after my death and one day before the operation, Reginald woke up that Monday morning confident as a tree planted by the water. Reggie felt that if he took on my eyes then he would be able to have at least a part of me back in his life.

He assumed that with my eyes he maybe could stop seeing me when he brushed, combed and plaited Aiesha's thick hair or sat for over an hour daydreaming at her bedside while she slept, looking at our daughter but thinking of me; or maybe once my chestnut colored pupils were in his head then my demise wouldn't upset him so much he'd have to bow his head like he was reverently praying when a woman jumps up in church to testify--like sister Carol had done the day before--and has on a dress the same color as the one I often wore.

Reginald was so eager to make good as a husband and father, to redeem whatever he thought was lost because of the way he came up. I am convinced he didn't really know me. He had this image, this ideal and he wanted that in the worse way. Wanted a family, a home. And I was the first woman he ever loved and who ever loved him. All the rest had been girls still discovering themselves. We married. I had his child. And for him everything was just the way it was supposed to be. For me, well, let us just say, some of us want more out of life without ever really identifying what that more is and certainly without ever attaining that more. So, in a sense, I settled -- that's the woman Reginald married. And in another sense, there was a part of me that remained restless. I hid that part from Reginald. But I always knew. I always, always knew me and yes, that was what really disoriented Reginald. He loved me and I could live with his love, but until he wore my eyes he never got a glimpse of the other me.

I used to think there was something wrong with me. I should have been totally happy. Of course, I loved our daughter. I loved my husband. I could live with the life we had, but... But this is not about me. This is about the man whom I married. I married Reginald more because he loved me so much than because I loved him back like that--I mean I loved him and all but I would never have put his eyes into my head if he had been killed and I had been the one still alive.

After we went through all the organ donation legal rigmarole, we actually celebrated with a late night seafood dinner; that was about eight and a half months before Aiesha was born. Just like getting married, the celebration was his idea, an idea I went along with because I had no good reason not to even though I had a vague distaste, a sort of uneasiness about the seriousness that Reginald invested into his blind alliegance to me. You know the discomfort you experience when you have two or three forkfulls left on your plate and you don't feel like eating anymore, but you have always been taught not to waste food so you eat that little bit more. Eating a few more mosels is no big thing but nonetheless forcing yourself leaves you feeling uneasy the rest of the evening. I can see how I was, how I hid some major parts of myself from Reginald and how difficult I must have been to live with precisely because he didn't really know the whole person he was living with, and he would be so sincerely worshiping the part of me that he envisioned as his wife, while inside I cringed and he never knew that despite my smiles how sad I sometimes felt because I knew he didn't know and I knew I was concealing myself from him. Besides, what right did I have not to eat two little pieces of chicken or not to go celebrate my husband's decision to dedicate his life to me?

In hindsight I came to realize I shouldn't have let him give me things I didn't want. Reginald would have died if he had known that having or not having a baby didn't really make that much difference to me. He wanted... You know, this is really not about me. When we went to celebrate our signing of the donation papers, I didn't know then that I was pregnant but even if I had, we wouldn't have done anything differently; stubborn Reginald had his mind made up and, at the time, I allowed myself to be mesmerized by the sincerity and dedication of Reg's declaration--my husband's pledge to wear my eyes was unmatched by anything I had previously imagined or heard of. When somebody loves you like that you're supposed to be happy and if you aren't well then you just smile and, well, I think when he saw the world through my eyes he saw both me and the world in ways he never imagined.

The doctors told Reginald there usually weren't any negative side effects, although in a rare case or two there were some unexplained hallucinations but, even for those patients, counseling smoothed out the transition. The first week after the operation went ok and then the intermittent double visions started. For Reggie it was like he had second sight. He saw what was there but then he also saw something else.

Sometimes he would go places he never knew I went and get a disorienting image flash from a source about which he previously would never have given a second thought, like the svelte look of a waiter at a cafe, a guy whose sleek build I really admired. Reginald never envisioned me desiring some other man. I don't know why, but he just never thought of me fantasizing sex with someone else and now suddenly Reginald looks up from a menu and finds himself staring at a man's behind. Needless to say, such sightings were disconcerting. Or like how the night I got drunk on Tequila would flash back every time I saw limes. Reginald is in a supermarket buying apples and imagines himself retching, well, he thinks he's imagining dry heaves but he's really seeing the association of being drunk with those tart green, lemon-shaped fruit. And on and on, til Reggie's afraid to go anywhere new, afraid he'll run into another man I had made love to that he never knew about, like this person he saw in a bookstore one day, a bookstore Reginald never went in but which I used to frequent. That's how I had met Rahsaan. Reggie just happened to be passing the place, looked inside the big picture window and immediately peeped Rahsaan. When he looked into the handsome obsidian of Rahsaan's face with it's angular lines that resembled an elegant African mask, Reginald got the shock of his naive life. He didn't sleep for two whole days after that one.

And when he closes our eyes to sleep, it's worse. A man should never know a woman's secret life; men can not stand so much reality. Their fragile ego's can't cope. It's like they say in Zimbabwe: men are children and women are mothers. Being a child is about innocence, about not knowing the realities that adults deal with every day. Men just don't know the world of women. So after Reginald adopted my eyes, you can just imagine how often he found himself laying awake at night, staring into the dark trying to make sense out of the complex of images he was occasionally seeing: awakened by the terror of a particularly vivid dream in which he saw how he had treated me, sometimes abusing me when he actually thought he was loving me--like when we would make mad love and he wanted me to suck him, he would never say anything, just shove my head down to his genitals. Sex didn't feel so exquisitely good to him to see his dick up close, the curl of his pubic hair.

Although the major episodes kept him awake and eventually drove him down to the riverside, it was the unrelenting grind of daily life's thousands of tiny tortures that propelled poor Reg over the edge. Looked like every time he turned around in public he felt unsafe, felt vulnerable to assault from men he previously would never have bothered to notice. Seemed like my eyeball radar spotted potential invaders everywhere Reg looked: how to dodge that one, don't get on an elevator with this one, make sure there's always another person nearby when you're in a room with so-and-so. And even though as a man Reg was immune to much of the usual harassment, it became a real drag having to expend a ton of precautionary emotional energy in the course of taking a casual stroll down the block to buy some potato chips. The strain of always being on guard was too much for Reg; he became outraged: nobody should have to live like this is the conclusion he came to.

He never knew when the second sight would kick in and the visioning never lasted too long but the incidents were always so viscerally jolting that they emotionally disoriented him. In less than two weeks it had reached the point that just looking at make-up made Reg sick. He unconsciously reacted to seeing some shades of lipstick by wetting his lips with his tongue, like there was something inappropriate about him having unpainted lips--a vague but powerful feeling that he was wrong for being like he was started to consume him. And he couldn't bear to watch cable anymore.

The morning Reginald blinded himself, he stood on the levee staring into the sun without squinting. Silent tears poured profusely down his cheeks. He kept saying he had always thought our life together was beautiful, and he never knew I had suffered so. And then he threw a twelve ounce glass, three-quarters full of battery acid onto his face, directly into our unblinking eyes. A jogger that morning found Reginald on his knees, shrieking. The runner ran to a house and begged the people who lived there to call an ambulance for a Black guy folded over on the levee screaming about he didn't want to see anymore, couldn't stand to see anything else.