photo by Alex Lear





Anyone Who Has A Heart




On the ninth day Akim woke up before the sun. Today he was going home and his family would be there to greet him and to thank him. Akim was a hero.


Akim greatly enjoyed basking in the new day sunlight. He sat on a rough, stone bench and remembered when the bus had pulled away to bring him to this cold place that made him shiver—for the first time in his life he had slept under a blanket.


Unconsciously, Akim flashed a warm smile as he recalled the way Kuji had waved to him, her slender arm twisting like palm trees sashaying to and fro in the sea breeze. His sister and their mother had been standing side by side, each with one arm wrapped around the other’s waist. Mother hailing him with her right hand high above her head and Kuji rocking her small left hand back and forth at the height of her shoulder.


Mother had been sporting her best red skirt that was short enough that it would even be short if Kuji had been wearing it, even though, at fifteen, Kuji was half a head shorter than her mother and did not have long legs like her mother. Their mother also had on those black shoes with the pointy toes that she only wore when she went out at night. She did not have on much of a top, it was something black-colored, thin, and tight that stretched over her bulging breasts. But she did have on a red wrap artfully arrayed on her head covering her short hair. Akim was glad mother had not worn her wig, like she usually did in public. The wig made her look so different, made her look like a lot of other women. With that wig on, it was sometimes hard to tell she was their mother.


Kuji had on her plain red-and-white striped dress and rubber sandals, her hair tightly corn-rowed. Regardless of what she wore, Akim would always recognize Kuji’s circular face, round as the bread loaves the women sell in the market.


Early this morning when the nurse had handed him his small bundle and told him to get dressed, Akim put on the same clothes he had worn when he came to this place: a dingy but freshly-washed Nike t-shirt and long shorts that had once been some one’s jeans but had been cut off just below the knees so the leg bottoms could be used for patches.


Akim wondered if that man who brought him here would take him back home. That man, who had given his mother a brown envelope, had had on clean clothes and new shoes. Akim could tell the shoes were new when he saw the bottoms. At first Akim thought he was the bus driver, but when that man had walked up to them to talk to his mother, Akim realized his mistake. This man did not labor. He smelled like some kind of soap Akim had never smelled before. He had a sweet smell, too sweet for any man who worked hard and nothing like the sweat, or smoke, or liquor, that most men smelled like. But then, this man also spoke clean words. He talked with a clipped, flat sound obviously proud of how distinctly he could pronounce each part of every word he uttered. This man even made the short words sound long when he assured his mother, “Is going to be A-OK. You will see. A-OK.”


Akim had followed directions and found a seat next to a window near the rear of the bus. His mother had given him a small bag of peanuts and some smoked fish wrapped in a piece of paper. Once the bus had left the familiar neighborhood and lumbered away from the coast, Akim clutched the cloth pouch that secured his dinner, and anxiously pressed his face against the window while looking at all the sights he had never seen before.


Now it was time to return home and Akim tried to imagine what his family would look like when he got there. Akim could clearly envision Kuji waiting, tall, standing with her feet close together, looking like that pole in front the old barbershop while wearing her dress-up dress with the torn sleeve.


Akim flashed back to when they had decided one of them would do it. They had agreed to toss a beer cap for the honors. She got to choose, he got to flip the cap high into the air. He was so fearful of the outcome, he couldn’t bear to look. When Kuji stomped her bare foot on the hard-packed dirt floor and exclaimed, “haa,” then sucked her teeth before pouting, “you always win,” that’s when Akim opened his eyes and let out a long sigh—his prayers had been answered.


“The next time, it will be your turn to go.”


Kuji had not been listening to him, instead she had plopped down on her little stool, sulking, her face turned to stone as she stared at the paper-covered wall. “No fair. You would not even know if I had not told you.”


Akim had hesitated. Kuji was right. She had been the one to find out about the offer. She had been the one to tell him about her plan to help their mother. But he had been the one bold enough to go into the big building and ask questions. Kuji was brave but she was shy. Akim had almost said he would swap turns with her, but, no, a deal was a deal. He was to go first.


Who else would be there to welcome Akim home? Who else was there? No one really. There was no other real family that he knew of. He had never met his mother’s people. They lived so far away. In the north. They never came to the city.


Do pictures have family? Akim had always wondered, ever since his mother silently showed him the fading photograph that revealed One-Eye with a grim grin that made the man look hard, at least Akim thought the face was hard, maybe it was because you could not see his teeth, or maybe it was the way he was clutching Akim’s mother. One-Eye had a big python grip almost crushing her into his side, and she was not smiling, just looking straight at the camera. What kind of family would a huge arm have? Who would claim a man whose smile showed no teeth?


Akim recalled how once, when his mother was away, he had snuck into the basket to examine the little photo in detail—the stiff paper hadn’t even covered his tiny ten-year-old palm. When he put his finger atop the man’s face, the face disappeared.


The picture was not too clear, so you could not really make out One-Eye’s features. He had big ears—Akim had touched his own ears, they were not big like the man’s ears. And Kuji’s ears were the same size as his own ears, which was natural since they were twins and were alike in almost every way, except she stuck out at the top—her breast poked out like little ant hills, and he stuck out at the bottom, sometimes, almost big as the small orange bananas that he liked to eat.


Kuji had caught Akim just as he had lifted his finger off their father’s face. Akim had tried to wrap the picture up quickly, so she wouldn’t know what he was doing, but she saw. When he shoved the basket back into the corner, she darted over and grabbed the cloth and carefully re-wrapped the photograph. “You have to do it just like mother or else she will know you were trying to find out her secrets.”


Another time, when they were older, Kuji had asked, “do you think our father knows he is our father? I mean, do you think he knows we were born?” They were squatting together and Kuji was holding the picture with her thumb atop the man’s chest when she spoke so softly, almost like she was talking to herself, but since their heads were close together and it was so quiet that he could hear her breathing—they even breathed the same—he heard every word, every short pause between words, everything. “Do you think One-Eye has a picture of us and looks at it the way we look at him?”


“No, don’t you remember that day mother was crying. Remember she said, ‘Nobody cares about us. Nobody even knows we are alive’?”


“That was the day she was sick,” Kuji had made an excuse for their mother. And the saying stuck. Whenever their mother came home and they could see someone had beaten her, they would say she was “sick.” Akim wondered had their father ever made their mother sick. He looked like he might have.


In the picture, the man had his hat pulled so low and at such an angle that you could only see one of his eyes. That’s why Kuji called their father, One-Eye.


All their mother had ever told them was, “He is gone. His name was David.” Akim had wanted to ask where father-David had gone? But the sad way his mother said “was David,” Akim knew “was David” was not coming back. And when he had looked up from the photograph he was startled, frightened really, to see tears glistening on his mother’s cheek. Later he would learn, that’s always the way she cried: silently. The tears made no sound as they rolled over the cliff of their mother’s high cheek-bones, streaking her gaunt face like chalk marks scrawled on a blackboard by children who did not know how to write.


When Kuji told their mother how much money they could get, at first, their mother did not believe Kuji. “No more getting sick, mother. And we can get a house with everything inside—the water, the latrine…”


“They call it bathroom.”


Akim spoke up for the first time, “Why do they call it bathroom if the latrine is there?”


“Because, the room has a shower and a toilet…”


“What is to-let?” Akim innocently asked his mother.


“Akim, you are in school now. You must say it proper. ‘toy-let’.”


“Tar-let,” dutifully repeated Akim. “What is tar-let?”


“It’s a latrine that’s shaped like a stool.”


“Well, yes. We can get a room with one of those in it,” Kuji insisted.


“Kuji, I will have to find out more about this. I do not believe it is easy so to get plenty much money.”


“And they even pay you in dollars. Five hundred dollars,” Akim announced.


Ama had heard about this before. She had even gone to that man who knew about these things. He told her there was another man she had to go see. And she had gone. He stuck her arm and took some of her blood and told her he would let her know in a handful of days. When she had gone back to him, he said they did not want her. Her blood was wrong family or something like that. Other people she knew had tried, but the man did not want most of them either because either they were sick or they had the wrong family blood.


Ama was certain that if her blood was the wrong family, then most likely they would not want her children because they surely had the same family she had. When she went back to find out the twins’ test results, Ama saw the man smile for the first time. He said the twins had the right family blood and both of them were healthy. So, yes, they would buy a kidney—whatever that was. He had said everybody had two but you only needed one to live.


When the bus dropped off Akim back at the marketplace where all the busses came, only Kuji was waiting for him.


“Why is mother not here? Is she sick?”


“Yes.” Kuji’s eyes were puffy like she was getting over some man making her sick.


Akim looked away before he asked the question, “Kuji, have you been sick?”


“No. But we must do something. Mother is very sick.”


“Well, we have money now. So we can…”


Kuji cut off Akim before he could continue, “Someone took our money.”




“I came home from school one day while you were gone and mother was on the ground and she was very sick. Everything was broken and tossed about.”


They walked in silence for a while. Finally, Kuji resumed recounting what happened. “Akim, mother is hurt very, very bad and the money is gone. Mother had paid for my school and for your school too, but they took the rest.” Kuji took a deep breath, “Now, it is my turn to go and get us money.”


Akim’s side was beginning to hurt a little. “Kuji, please, I can not walk so fast right now.”


“Akim, I forgot, you are sick too.” Kuji slowed down and touched Akim lightly on the shoulder, “You must tell me what I need to do to prepare to make the money. Does it hurt when they cut you open?”


“I don’t know how it feels. I was not awake when they did it. They made me sleep through everything. Afterwards it feels like a goat hit you hard in the side. That’s why I can not walk so fast.”


They were not even half way home yet, but Akim had to stop to rest. He could tell Kuji was thinking something. “Kuji, what are you thinking? I will be alright. I’m just a little tired. Don’t worry about me. And I’m sure that mother…”


“I tried on mother’s red dress.” Akim looked at his sister and was afraid to ask her what she was thinking, but Kuji knew Akim wanted to know, and Kuji began talking before Akim could say anything. “I am too skinny. And too…” Kuji paused and then suddenly changed the subject. “Can I see where they cut you?”


“It is covered. When I change the bandage tonight, I will show you. Come on, I can walk now.”


It took them a long time to get home.


* * *


When Akim and Kuji got home their mother was dead.


* * *


“We nah need more kidney. Them need heart. You sell heart?”


Akim was surprised when Kuji spoke up, “How much heart be?”


The man thought about how much money he could skim off these kids and decided half, “Heart be plenty-oh. Two thousand dollars. American. You sell heart. Let me know.”


Akim swiftly grabbed Kuji’s hand and tenderly tugged her away from this man he did not trust. Outside as they walked slowly Akim struggled to figure out what he would do to save Kuji from wearing wigs too big for her head and dresses too short for her legs. Plus, school would be out soon and then they would not have any more food.  Their plan for Kuji to sell her kidney did not work and now, there was… well, there really was nothing else since Akim knew he did not have two hearts.


—kalamu ya salaam



photo by Alex Lear









people get married all the time. but not in congo square. eight o’clock in the morning — there is a softness about that time of day in place de congo, the sun has not yet risen past the trees, barely cleared the rooftops of nearby buildings. the birds have recently finished feeding and are chirping their contentment.


though this late may morning is early summer, the atmosphere is still pleasingly cool. instead of a breeze, the new day gently air-caresses like a lover alternately kissing and blowing unhurried exhales on intimate skin through partially parted lips. big, full smiling lips. laughing lips. tickling. lips. like that.


there are moments when romance is real. when every little thing really is alright. when people do lean close and be touching—admittedly rare but nonetheless simply beautiful.


i quietly draped my arm over nia’s shoulders and cozied close. whispered something, anything.


i wonder how many lovers danced together here during slavery times, here on this meeting ground just outside what was then the city proper, beyond the ramparts, the city’s earthen defense line, out on the plain next to the bend in the canal where the houmas and choctaws came to trade, and where our enslaved ancestors assembled to barter food and handicrafts, and to make music, sing and dance?


i wonder how many lovers met here, secretly in public—secretly because their “masters” didn’t know the full import of these assemblies, didn’t know the get togethers were also trysts. and in public because the community of captives all knew juba loved juline, were aware elise was dancing for cudjoe, and had no doubt that esmé with her brown eyes round as spanish coins cast shyly toward the ground was glowing in the spotlight of josé’s focused stare as her slow twirling kicked up bouquets of dust. how many black hearts have been entwined here?


who can know the specific answer? look. we are still meeting here without the consent of the authorities — we woke up, journeyed here howsoever we travel, and voila, requesting no permit, we gather a community of lovers. love needs no permission, and certainly black love requires no government approval.



true beauty is elegant, a curved exhilaration without an iota of wasted motion or excessive flash. moreover, in an african aesthetic, elegance includes rhythm.


a straight line is monotonous, rhythmless. rhythm is but another name for diversity in motion, and in form, diversity is the curve. hence there are no straight lines on a beautiful human body, every would-be straightness arcs, curves.


cassandra is all curves. even ric with his honed physique, his steel-cabled arms, rippled with veins and muscular development: curves.


senghor said, the negro abhors a straight line. i would add, so does nature, and i would rather be in tune with nature than with rational abstractions. even light bends under the influence of gravity.


moreover, beyond the arc and the lean, when dealing with the human, surface prettiness alone does not give you beauty. physical perfection without inner warmth is cold, and all real human beauty is warm, reflects the rush of blood, the healthy heat of a passionate body, a beating heart…


cassandra is covered shoulder to toe in a sheath of dusky sorrel material embroidered with a flowered pattern in deep violet. she is holding a bouquet of velvety orchids in what appears to be an invisible basket: the soft off-white blossoms with delicate purple highlights dangle in an arrangement shaped like a stunning cluster of semi-sweet concord grapes. sand’s toenails are lacquered a burgundy to match the purplish-red (or is it reddish-purple) of her form-fitting, backless dress.


ric stands on two feet but leans majestically like a pine tree seeking sunlight. he is wearing cream (shirt) and brown (slacks), and i mean “wearing” those colors, in fact, he is wearing them out. plus, his skin has the smooth darkness of a country midnight. he is smiling without moving his lips. the luster of his skin is smiling. i imagine his eyes are smiling, but i cannot see his pupils through his shades. even the men are admiring how beautiful ric is. the women look at him and hold their breath.


i bet you two centuries ago, in 1799, on some may day a cool black man stood next to the enchanting winsomeness of a saucer-eyed, dark brown erzulie and their community of friends gathered around them. and smiled deeply felt, seriously contented smiles just like we are smiling now.



the formal ceremony, such as it is, is extremely brief—not much was rendered to ceasar on that morning. carolyn jefferson administered the vows and signed the paper the state uses to hold one legally accountable. but the real signification of commitment came not from a mark on paper but from a leap over a rod.


sand’s friend vera had crafted a broom done up in french vanilla-colored raffia wrapped on the handle and outer straws spray painted dark purple (what a soothing combination). the matrimonial staff lay in the dust between pale, pale yellow candles. ric lights one, sand lights the other. they stand. hold hands. and jump.


why would educated individuals carry on a tradition from slavery?—only those who don’t believe in either ancestors or community would ask such a hopeless question. only those removed from the security of community would sneer at jumping the broom. to jump together is not a reminder of slavery, but rather a declaration of self-determination.



afterwards we all went over to ric&sand’s apartment. we set up tables on the sidewalk, chairs on the front porch, and played music inside the house—hard wood floors, shiny with hand applied wax, buffed to an eat-off-the-floor sheen. candles in every room, flickering, some of them scented. here the quiet has a presence you can not ignore, like a precocious child, grinning, hands behind the back: guess what i got, and she stands before you until you tickle her or until he flashes deep dimples and covers his mouth where his front teeth are missing. inside ric&sand’s shotgun apartment, the rooms were happy like that.


the walls were bare except for strategically placed photographs hung in carefully selected frames. one frame is green wood. there are two pictures. sand at two with a hat slanted jauntily on her head, and a boyish ric that looks just like mannish ric except the clothes are smaller and from an earlier era. but even then the angle of a budding lean is obvious.


there are trays of food on the tables prepared by a local african restaurant: plantain, a spinach dish called jama-jama, a coconut rice, and chicken on skewers with a red sauce on one table, fruit and drinks on the other. a gigantic multi-fruit cream tart in a white cardboard box (the pastry didn’t last beyond a quarter hour).


we started the reception with nuptial toasts (libationally, i poured a sip of my juice at the foot of a tree). then we read poems and afterwards toasted some more. sand’s friend vera impishly offers: here’s mud in your eye. we all laugh. most of us are black, but there are latinas here and a sprinkle of americanos who thankfully think of themselves as human rather than the aggressive/impossible purity of white.


if you passed us that morning, people lounging on the porch, sipping on juice or beer or wine or sucking the nectar from cold watermelon and chilled cantaloupe, if you had seen us you would have thought this was one of those impressionistic paintings of happy darkies deep in the south circa some idyllic antebellum era, except, we, of course, were culturally afro-centric, in love with life and each other, savoring the day and dreaming about nothing but a peace-filled future.


around three in the mid-afternoon, people begin drifting off, their spirits thoroughly rejuvenated, satiated and smiling. before leaving, we exchange hugs. everything beautiful deserves to be embraced.



so this is how we avoid insanity and suicide. we fly to love.


i had been thinking about ric&sand’s upcoming marriage as i drove around the city. that’s when an image gathered me into its center. you know how you will see something, know that the image is important but not be able to figure the specific meaning. this happened to me a day or so before the wedding. what i wrestled to understand then, is now so clear.


three green birds flew by. their feathered emeraldness disappearing into the sheltering palms that line elysian fields avenue. lime-colored bird feathers fusing with the camouflage of  drooping olive-dark tree leaves.


in urban climes free beauty is seldom seen. amid regimentation disguised as daily life, true beauty appears but briefly. we spend eight hours working, a hour in transit to and fro the yoke, another hour or so trying to cool out from the yoke, maybe two hours doing things we need to do for the house but can’t do cause we be at the yoke, and, of course, we spend at least six hours sleeping to get ready for, yep, the yoke. the yoke ain’t no joke. and we really think we are free?


actually, we are so harassed by being city dwellers in postmodern america that we can hardly be sure what we would be like if we were unyoked, what we would discover in the world. who knows how hip we would be if we were unyoked. at the reception i joke on the porch: if i was in charge, this (sweeping my eyes across the array of relaxing black folk, couples snuggled up, singles sipping red dog or nibbling on jama-jama), this would be what monday is like. well.


i have never before seen uncaged green birds flying through the blueness of crescent city skies. the rare wonder of such a sighting almost made me doubt myself. did i actually spy three pea green streaks threading through the plain of weekday? after all, i could have been delusional. optical illusions are far more common than the miracle of genuine beauty on the wing. maybe it was pigeons. maybe i was sun blinded. the day so bright, maybe my sun-stabbed eyeballs were incapable of clarity. maybe my perceptual acuity had been mutated into fantasy and silliness.


nah, i was there. clearly these creatures were flying. whatever they were. zip and gone. but that is the way of life in the urban jumble. anything original is rare. everything self-determined is even rarer than originality — and undoubtedly love and beauty had to be on the fly, dodging the black and white manacles of what this society pretends is the lassez faire of living color.


and why were there three little birds—not a couple, but a community of birds, free and green? actually the cluster of their existence is the answer to the question of the why of their existence. they were three because it takes a community to be free—one is a goner, and two won’t last long, it takes at least three to be free.



we will remember ric and sand’s wedding day—the first day we wore this couple as an amulet over our hearts. ric and sand’s first day becomes another jewel  on the necklace of black love.


people get married all the time, but rarely is there this much love quietly shared. these are the days we shall surely remember, the gauge we shall use to determine how good is whatever the next goodness we encounter.


thank you ric&sand, for a moment, for a morning when the universe was beautiful, and peace and love were more than a slogan optimistically signed at the end of a desperate love letter sent to someone far, far away.


—kalamu ya salaam 


photo by Alex Lear


time is a funny thing


there have been times when i found myself with literally nothing i could do like when i would sit at a stop sign for what seemed hours trying to figure out how to straighten out the mess i'd made of my marriage, tayari alone with our five young people & me alone at a stop sign, & eventually i just crawled on--it's not like i was the only man who had ever stumbled at that specific crossroads but when i was there the sun shone all night & i saw no one's shadow but my own forlorn form tangled in the rocks & weeds of my emotional life, & although then was years ago, occasionally i am still shook by an invisible hand, it could be when i pause in mid-embrace as i hold a comrade from back in the days i haven't seen in quite a while & they hurl me into a time machine when they innocently ask with a sincerity so certain "how are tayari & the kids, they must be grown now?"



there have been times when i felt i was drawing my last breath & about to bankrupt the bank, especially that sunday morning we went to face down the klan & the night before those hooded ones goose-stepping around garish flame cross light had shot at police in algiers without being arrested which we knew meant targets were pinned on all our chests but we had to go to high noon, such poot or get off the pot days give men & women no choice, & then there was the helpless waiting to exhale of the pulse pounding pause on the unforgettable creaking bus stuck to a motionless stop like a lamb patiently awaiting a slaughter somewhere in the middle of nica. libre between rama and managua, the u.s. armed contras on the other side of the hill, hard working people softly mumbling spanish prayers & attempting to hide anything that might call attention to themselves at the bottom a half mile or so from the peak & no sandanista soldier rescuing cavalry anywhere in sight, & me frankly more worried about the photos & taped interviews i might loose than about whether i would die & yet at the same time after having heard gunfire in the nights i was acutely aware, as fred sanford was fond of seriously joking, that this could be the big one, the one where the bullet singes your skin without a so much as an excuse me


there have been times i paused to count the endless ripples on a lake, to note the shape of each leaf on a tree so tall my myopic eyes could not clearly see the top, to merge my being with the azure luminosity of a spring sky, raise my closed eyes to sun warmth & be clearly seen by any passerby as i stand swaying in the breeze mindlessly enjoying the great goodness of nature's beauty


there have been times i have been so harried with details & overwhelmed by minutiae i must have looked like rockerfeller's accountant around tax time, dragging myself home mentally exhausted, nia reminds me i started to snore during the month we crammed in a half year's worth of work within six weeks when we did the jazzfest posters in 1993 & have not been able since to shake that sleeping disorder


there have been times i've shared with people events which are now noted in history, our names engraved into the consciousness of both friends & foes so audacious was our doing, we were the flesh levers which moved social mountains, the meaningful moments whose significance sometimes can only be read in hindsight because at the time we were just going with the flow doing what we did & such doing just seemed as right as warm rain & inevitable as darkness following sundown


there have been times when i have made statements so stupid there must have been a poltergeist in my mouth misguiding my tongue, i remember one utterance & each time i remember the cruelty of those words i pause & apologize, a friend was going for her phd at the same time she was dating this man she hoped to make her husband, a hope most of us recognized as a longer shot that a three legged horse beating secretariat in a derby run, but still she was proud of both & in one twisted indiscreet swoop i flung assassin words across a room: "yeah, then"--meaning when she got her phd--"then, you can buy a husband," oh the demons of disorder danced that night i'm sure, my only consolation is that i have not unconsciously done anything as callous as that since, & though i know each of us has been awarded an asshole of the month award for some act whose erasure is fervently desired, knowledge of others fucking up does nothing to dim the blemishes on the resume of my own heart


likewise, there have been times when i've made my ancestors proud, particularly my enslaved african ancestors who courageously & creatively figured ways to squeeze banquets from mustard seeds, times i've proved to be worthy of the sacrifices, guidance, love & understanding showered on me by the union of degreeless first black lab tech at va hospital-new orleans, big val ferdinand, whom friends lovingly called "ferd" with the preacher's daughter, quintessential third grade school teacher, inola, my physical & spiritual earth parents, & most significantly times i've caused a child, i've both fathered & inspired, to stick their chest out or cry joy tears to know that their flesh was connected to mine


but that's the way of the world, one day the weight of my big body will be light as dust, blood gone to rain, spirit gone to ghost, then the meaning of my life will be only in the quality & effects of what i did while traveling through, what creations i birthed, what constructs i destroyed or transformed, i will be measured by what i have meant to others & to the overall health of the earth, those nodes are not just mine but indeed are the arc of each generation & every individual, no matter how each of us consumes our time allotment, chewing cautiously deep in rational thought or wolfing the chow down, savoring the taste of each moment or swallowing several mouthfuls as swiftly as we can, fasting or being gluttonous, focused or totally random, the reality is our matter is only a mere morsel in the mouth of galactic motion, what does the sun care what we do with our little piece so small, so overall futile a wrestling with fate & destiny attempting to shape something significant from the brief ticket we purchase in this crazy lottery of living, only people care & that is the sole true way to identify one's humanness, do we care about being here & care about everyone & everything we encounter in time


time is such a funny thing, whether you think about it or not, whether exciting as tongue kissing an exquisite taboo or boring as olive drab painting of army equipment for the 300th repetition, regardless of what we don't or do, the funny thing is that time is a changing that is constantly the same, is both totally silly & movingly profound, is the depth of blue & the velocity of red, the density of black, the blankness of white & the spectrum scale of all the grays in between, no matter how big a ripple we cause plopping into the cosmic pond eventually the lake's face recomposes into smooth placidity, whether we spill piss or perfume, deposit tears or blood, no matter, the planet receives them all just the same because in the end, just as in the beginning, they all & we all, everything big, little, short & tall, equally slip right on away, ain't if funny?


—kalamu ya salaam



photo by Alex Lear



(and its passing so sad)


when the day transitions

it goes to night

first, before

there can be another




a day has been

so beautiful

that in the night

instead of looking


to another day

we can only grieve

for what is gone


but each day

is its own being

each being

has their own



whatever beauty

we find missing

tomorrow, whatever

we might miss

from yesterday

well, that beauty

we must become



we must be

as beautiful

as the departed day

we mourn in the anguish

of night


—kalamu ya salaam


photo by Alex Lear

LET'S GET MARRIED is a movie script written specifically for high school seniors and is based on student life experiences in post-Katrina New Orleans. The script was written during school year 2007 - 2008 with feedback from students at Eleanor McMain Secondary School and McDonogh #35 High School who were participating in English classes conducted by Students at the Center (an independent writing program that works in the public schools in New Orleans). The co-teachers were Jim Randels and Kalamu ya Salaam.

For more information, contact:



the grimace behind armstrong’s grin


they turned my birth place

into jail space—don’t bury

me in new orleans


new orleans can be an extreme case of domestic abuse, like they say, don’t take it, leave, don’t hesitate, ready or not pack your shit, don’t even think about going back, cause they don’t really love you, not them control freaks who think they are kings and you are a feudal peasant in blackface, folk are in denial about new orleans when you hear them say: it’s bad but not that bad, like as if he’s a good man and you know how hard they are to find, nephew just gets a little upset sometimes and smacks you around but he loves you, really, really do, really? don’t believe the hype.


louie knew. from the front gate to the back door armstrong had it straight, he was hip. home was where the heartbreak was. he had seen his father disappear; could have played hamlet looking for a ghost. had seen his mother tricked. had witnessed the best sound of an earlier generation sent across the lake to be housed with the mentally deranged—an enraged black man circa the teens and twenties was not insane, anger was a healthy response to what was being laid down. but anger and seven cents still wouldn’t get you on the front of the bus. behind a screen is where you sat if you were black. louis wasn’t no tom which is why he refused to be their token even after his spirit was gone: “when i die don’t bury my body in new orleans” is what he said and meant, and since louis has passed on and his wishes were fulfilled, i.e. he is buried elsewhere, since then there are some new faces in higher places, a darker hue holds the whip, plots the comings and goings of how the system systematically shits on the unstrong, the unknown, the poor without a pot to piss in and have to pay rent to a landlord for the window out of which they throw it. your eyes may roll, your teeth may grit, but none of the real power will you git. not in new orleans, not until there is some change for truth. it may sound like i’m preaching but i’m not macking, i’m just steady facting about the way she blows down round the gulf coast in a heavenly slice of hell some people call the most fun you can have anywhere in america you go to new orleans you ought to go see the mardi gras cause there ain’t much else hanging heavy in the air except the exhaust of used red beans and ricely yours and mine twenty-four hours at a time, big easy be steady bumping shit to the curb as they hustle every harry, dick and john out of whatever money they got cause the winners down here ain’t no saints and sinning ain’t no crime. and if you don’t know what i mean you better ask somebody cause new orleans may be big and easy but if you want to get ahead you’re better off leaving cause they’re most glad when you’re dead so a funeral they can hold, an image they can unhold uncontradicted by the reality of poverty and exploitation, the bayou is a cesspool and nobody comes through the slaughter without some stank clinging to their clothes.


new orleans may be the cradle of jazz but it’s also the tomb, they bury musicians here. louie knew, that’s why he flew to chi and vowed to be someplace else when he died. don’t bury me in, shit here is so low they got to bury you above ground, even while you still walking around trying to figure out your next move, which is why they razed louie’s pad, made the move to build a bigger jail, it’s called public housing for negro males. and if it sounds like i’m bitter it only means you just got a little taste of the special sauce, stale bread, po-boy seasoning in louie’s red hot wail. but then again, maybe it’s the bitter that makes the sweet so strong. whatever. no matter how you slice it, there ain’t but one way to do it and that’s to do it as best you can. morning, noon, midnight and dawn, can’t we all just get along? hell no, not in new o. where it’s legal to gamble but the majority ain’t got much to bet with or on, except the vicious ways we kicking our rolling songs, crazy cooking our deep-fat fried food, and trying to hit a home run with the slim end of a very short stick. just like in bid whist you got to play the hand you was dealt cause that’s all you got to fan with. some folks have ways and means, other folk got songs and dreams. and that’s the way it comes and goes way down yonder in new orleans. some of you might wonder what all this has to do with jazz, well it’s like louie armstrong says, if you have to ask, you’ll never really know. why was we born so black and blue? well our mamas birthed us black and the white folks made us blue, what else is left but to do what you got to do. throw me something mister they beg in the streets, but if you know like i know you best get your ass in the ring and swing like louie. you’ll never see the forest unless you climb down out of the trees, live your life the way you wanna, just don’t get buried by new orleans.


—kalamu ya salaam


nick larocca’s secret diary


anglos give dagos

money and fame for playing

negro’s music—wow


i’ll make this short and sweet: back in the days, new orleans anglos didn’t like “niggers” and wasn’t too particular about “dagos.” had italians living in the same neighborhoods with negroes, thus the many corner stores with retail establishments at the front door and living quarters either just behind or just above the one-room store. which is not to say that italians and negroes were viewed as one and the same or that the two got along fabulously with each other, but rather which is to say that the grey space between black and white was far broader than is often recognized, especially in retrospect when people now considered white are talked about as though they were always considered white. in fact, in some quarters, rather than the descendants of the romans, the italians were considered at best as “dirty whites” who had been mixed with blacks via hannibal crossing the alps, and thus, in the good old color struck usa, it took a couple of generations and unrefusable offers from the mafia for italians to be integrated as whites into the segregated black/white duality of american society.


in any case the reason there were so many italians and jews involved in early jass is not simply because the music was their alleged creation but rather because the music was the music of the outsider, and to a significant extent italians and jews were outsiders, especially as far as the upper reaches of twenties american society was concerned. while the italians and jews wanted to assimilate, they also celebrated difference, hence the predominance of blackface among this sector of a society which overall celebrated whiteness pure as the driven snow. think about it. what would cause someone who is on the periphery to risk access to the interior by going further out and painting their face black or playing music blackly?


don’t say i got the answer, but do say, at least i got the question. in any case, the important point to consider is that of all the branches of black music, jass was the one that whites (both anglos and wannabes) were more comfortable embracing. or should i say, jass was the form they were more able to embrace. (max roach jokes that frank sinatra’s first claim to fame was that he could snap his fingers on the beat and sing at the same time, just like black singers, and it didn’t matter how he sounded he could do it and thus is lauded as one of the great singers of all time except of course if you compare him to the authentic sounders of his time. think of a sing-off between sinatra and nat king cole.)


the white embrace of jass was significant. unlike the other forms of black music which were less flexible, jass was so malleable that literally anyone could play it, not necessarily well and certainly not in innovative ways that moved the music forward, but anyone could play it nevertheless and thus, unlike blues which took several decades for most whites to emulate, or various forms of gospel which are yet to be mastered by whites, jass gladly made room for the whole of humanity within its sounding.


Q: how were we repaid for creating a form which every human could use to sound their existence?


A: with so-called scholars, a few musicians, and a bunch of fans claiming that whites created or co-created jass. thus, when the odjb (nick larocca's 'original dixieland jazz band') cut those first victor jass sides, the question of creating and innovating was effectively conflated and confused with emulating and manufacturing. we provided the recipe, they made the bread. but then again this is america, and that was the jass age.


—kalamu ya salaam


the singing of a king/

oliver’s telegram


STOP—my horn so strong

i call louie to chi with

just an 8th note—START



the reason jim crow was so violent is that, after world war one, black folk refused to go silently back into what segregationists euphemistically called “their places.” instead we prefered to believe that any space we wanted to inhabit was our own, territory we had a right to, and didn’t really want to be up next to some cracker no way, just wanted a sweet spot we could inhabit in peace, but it was not to be. but by then we were fighting for our rights (or like when the sheriff tried to close down a garvey gathering in new orleans with the words that wasn’t no mark-us gra-vee going to speak here tonight, he was silenced by the uprise of black folk, arms in hand who insisted on their right to hear marcus mosiah garvey—and mr. garvey did speak that hot night in new orleans, thank you).


it was in this atmosphere that the “idyllic” southern scene, which never really was as romantic as popular culture portrayed, revealed its true colors: red, white, black and blue, as in beatings, lynchings, and assorted mayhem, as in we black and were fire driven by recalcitrant whites who by dint of terror herded us into tightly policed, economically exploited, physically oppressed, and psychologically damaging, blues-hued, segregated communities under social siege—especially intelligent black men, most of whom had never seen the inside of anyone’s school but who could figure, invent, innovate, create, construct, organize, rearrange, tend and grow with the best of anyone on the planet except they, these intelligent ex-slaves, were seldom allowed to demonstrate their innate capacities, thus geniuses were fated to empty spitoons, carry rice sacks and spend three quarters of their lives behind the butt end of a mule or on the working end of a shovel or, if they were women, the limited choices were: wet nurse, clean and cook for a pittance, or lie to some white john about how long his little was. except if one could play music. in which case the music gave you wings, actually was a ticket to ride, a way out of jim crow’s den of inequities. so people who might have been professionals of all sorts had they had the opportunity to pursue those professions, picked up horns or mastered drums, learned to do amazing feats with guitar string and a pocket knife or literally rewrote piano literature, gave new meanings to musical entertainment and captivated the entire planet with a dazzling display of aural inventiveness that significantly upped the ante on what was considered quality entertainment as well as what was possible in the realms of melody, harmony and especially rhythm—i mean how did armstrong play that horn like that, not to mention he sang an entire song without words. wild!


so the singers, dancers and especially the musicians were the first african americans to routinely travel thereby getting the then rare chance to check out the world scene. these men and a handful of women became the most famous people in their communities unrivaled by any other profession—including doctors and college professors, plus, they were overwhelmingly working class, didn’t need anybody’s sheepskin to certify that they knew what they knew, only needed to be able to blow that thing, sing that swing, or step lively while kicking up their heels properly keeping time with their feet, only needed to be themselves. yet, make no mistake, this self they were was not a simpleton who just happened to have a good voice or an ear for melodies. no, we are talking innovation at a level which no one previously conceived. (i mean, for example, nude dancing been around since there was human skin, but it took josephine to consider wrapping her black hips in the phallic curves of a couple of dozen yellow bananas and shaking that thing in such spherical sensuous ways that even the legendary lovers of gay paree tripped, flipped and damn near fell head over heels in love with a brownskin cutie who, without so much as working up a sweat, coolly demonstrated two dozen more ways of playing with a yo-yo.)


looking in the rearview mirror we sometimes get a backwards view. we think louie was loved because he was a clown but if we only knew. wasn’t a hornplayer no where around—especially not euro-trained—who could even so much as carry mr. armstrong’s horn case to a rehearsal for a pick-up gig not to mention engage in no out-and-out cutting contest. we forget that louie taught america how to both swing and sing at the same time, how to scat on the one hand and go to the core of the lyrics on the other, not to mention how to jump bar lines with melodic phrasing whose trapeze-like gambits from note to note left others stumbling along like they had two left feet and had never experienced the thrill of trilling a g over high c.


the beautiful people called the twenties the jazz age because nothing else gave you the full feeling of being alive like black music did. and though they pretended paul whiteman was the king, beneath the skin everyone knew who the real creators of jazz were. worldwide these originators were in demand, and, as the history of america has always demonstrated, whenever and wherever there is a demand backed up by dinero, the supply shall definitely roll forth.


thus these colored troubadours swiftly moved from city to city, scoping out what was new and getting the down-low on the economic, political and racial picture in every place to which they might go. soon musicians started coming back home wearing clothes no one there abouts had ever laid eyes on before, with tall tales recounting command performances regaling kings and things, or swinging round the clock on ocean liners crisscrossing the seven seas, and not to mention jamming in countless places where english wasn’t even spoken. and of course these ambassadors of swing picked up on a variety of wild ideas about possible lifestyles. yes, they changed the world with their music but they were also changed by their contact with worlds they had never imagined.


and while it is true that each frog is acclimated to the waters where he was born, still, given the jim crow realities of the twenties, our people were always ready to jump and, as a profession, the musicians were the first out the pot. indeed, that was one of the reasons for learning to play in the first place, i.e. to get the opportunity to blow town and get paid at the same time. nice work if you could get it and back then the most certain way for the average negro to get it was to be into the music, which is why when king oliver wired the invite to louie there was no hesitation in armstrong’s step as he packed his grip preparing to split. how else could a poor, uneducated, but highly intelligent black man get to see the world?


armstrong, and countless others, came from a call and response culture and when opportunity knocked, these folk were wise enough to immediately answer the door, the same door beside which a packed travel bag was usually kept at the ready just in case such an unanticipated but nonetheless highly appreciated chance might roll by and allow an ambitious person with musical talent a chance to make a strategic exit.


given the realities of poverty, jim crow, and the general hard way to go handed out to people of color, it is easy to understand that jass didn’t just slip reluctantly out of town but rather cake-walked away singing a simple song: if you don’t believe i’m leaving, count the days that i’m gone. in fact, leaving town was a sign of this music’s intelligence.


—kalamu ya salaam



freddie keppard,

(unfortunately) fooling his self


keeps a handkerchief

cross my horn / don’t record a

lick—they won’t steal me


freddie was not the first and certainly was far from the last to think he could avoid being used by opting not to belly up to the capitalist roulette wheel of commercialization, not to get bumped to the curb by the pick-and-roll of economic exploitation combined with technical innovation. everytime the man comes up with a new machine, invariably the new machines end up being, among other things, another cash-generating tool—and all in the name of progress and progressiveness.


but paradoxically beyond the obvious remunerative inequities and the misplaced hosannas to pretenders posturing as kings, the real rough side of the mountain is the inevitable further behind we fall if we refuse to use what little opportunity the new technology presents. when we decline to play we are ignored, when we do play we are exploited; but at least when you play you get a hearing even if someone else’s echo of your sound makes more dough than do you the originator.


moreover, it was the technology of being heard that enabled jazz to spread its wings. the music could never have flown worldwide were it not for recordings, were it not for musicians everywhere being able to “hear” what these wild new sounds sounded like. our music could not be explained with words or written down with symbols, had to be eared to be appreciated. contradictions abound, were it not for the technology the music would not have spread and simultaneously the technology was used to exploit—a nutshell synopsis of african american relations to the modernist means of production. 


of course, some of us, saw the downside coming so we attempted to duck. working with the limited vision that we oppressed people often manifest, somehow freddie thought he could lessen the impact of cultural appropriation by refusing to play the game. fat chance. which is why few jazz fans know the name freddie keppard. don’t even know what instrument he played, when or where, or why he should be known.


the lesson of brother keppard is a hard dose to swallow but when you are on the black unskilled-labor end of america’s 20th-century economy you don’t have many choices. you can throw a hankerchief up over your shit if you want to, attempting to hide the specifics of your fingering, how you do the things you do, you can petulantly sit in the corner with your face to the wall while the parade marches past, you can even bark out curses at the seemingly endless procession of white rip-off artists, but as the poet said centuries ago, the dogs who hang in the camp may bark but the caravan moves on.


and though freddie keppard was the uncrowned king of new orleans trumpet playing in the wake of buddy’s incarceration and oliver’s departure, nonetheless his name is seldom mentioned in the chronology of jazz trumpeting precisely because he was eclipsed by nick larocca and crew who were wise enough not to pass up the opportunity to play their sincere but nonetheless insubstantial versions/revisions into a rca victor machine thus assuring themselves the “we-was-here-first claim”—the original dixieland jass band in 1917 was the first to record a jazz record while freddie keppard stood on the sidelines, smiling as he stuffed his handkerchief back in his pocket. you see, after one listen to the pale cacophony recorded by odjb, freddie was confident that they never were able to capture even an approximation of his sound. he won the authenticity battle but loss the jazz war. pale though they be, we know what larocca sounded like. and keppard, well he’s just a footnote fanatics and academics point to. time and time again, the truth marches on: even when we can’t win, even when the deck is stacked and our getting hustled is a foregone conclusion, even then if we don’t play, we’re worse off than if we play and lose. in the long run, our only chance is to play, to keep on losing until we win because if we don’t play for sure we will never win.


—kalamu ya salaam