the beauty of bechet


sax moans river strong

spurting song into the sea

of our aroused souls


the cornet and its first cousin the trumpet were the first solo instruments of jazz, the first horns to carry the tone of defiance, slicing the air with the gleaming sassiness of a straight razor wielded with expert precision on someone who was dead but didn’t know it yet (the hit was so quick that the head fell off before the body knew it had been cut). these brass siblings were the hot horns that caught the feel of august in the sun, a hundred-pound sack shading the curve of your aching back. especially the trumpet with its ringing blare which could be heard cross the river on a slow day when somebody in algiers was practicing while a bunch of other bodies was sweating, toting barrels and lifting bales on the eastbank riverfront.


the second brass voice was the nasty trombone. you stuck stuff up its filthy bell. it was not loud but was indeed very lewd. a toilet plunger its regular accessory. of course you had drums and some sort of harmony instrument, a string bass where available, a tuba, sousaphone, banjo or even a piano in certain joints.


now the reed of choice was the clarinet. long. slender. difficult to master. the snakelike black reed. and that was the basis of your early jass bands.


everybody had a part. bechet was a clarinetist. an excellent clarinetist. extraordinary even. but no matter how well he sucked on that licorice stick he could never get it up the way he wanted it. get it to make the sound inside bechet’s head. until he heard the sound of the soprano saxophone. the fingering was similar so he was familiar with covering and uncovering the holes. familiar with the right stiffness of reed and the just tough enough strength of embrochure. what the soprano saxophone did was enable him to challenge the trumpet—just ask louie armstrong or give a listen to clarence williams and his blue five when bechet and louie took turns walking them jazz babies on home.


this mytho-poetic orpheus sired by omer soaked his reeds in mississippi muck and washed down the horn’s bell in bayou goo.


what bechet did was press the humidity of crescent city summers into every quivering note he played with a vibrato so pronouced it sounded like a foreign dialect.


what bechet did was alter the course of history, the clarinet faded after bechet switched and the saxophone became the great horn of jazz. sure there were a couple of great trumpets in years to come (little jazz, fats, dizzy, brownie, and, of course, miles) but none of them turned the music around like the saxophonists did, like bechet, like bird, like trane not to mention hodges, hawkins and the prez, and the list can go on and on. the point here is that bechet was the one, the first, the progenitor of a royal succession that is all but synonymous with jazz as an instrumental music.


and what was even more incredible back in the twenties and thirties was bechet’s sense of africa as source and blues people as the funnel through which the source sound was poured. bechet speaks of that specifically. in bechet’s autobiography he goes on for pages (pgs. 6-44 out of 219 pages of text) talking about his grandfather who danced in congo square, overlaying the legendary bras coupe (a runaway, maroon warrior of the early 1800s) story onto the life story of his grandfather handed down to bechet through bechet’s father, thereby insuring that the statement of resistance was made, the resistance that fuels the internal integrity of our music.


bechet was an early african american griot. one of the first to consciously understand the music he played so well. to articulate the ancestral worship implicit in the call and response. or as bechet describes the music: “It’s the remembering song. There’s so much to remember. There’s so much wanting, and there’s so much sorrow, and there’s so much waiting for the sorrow to end. My people, all they want is a place where they can be people, a place where they can stand up and be part of that place, just being natural to the place without worrying how someone may be coming along to take that place away from them.” in brasil they call this feeling “saudade,” this longing to be whole again, this we know that we were whole once and with all our being quiver with an anxiety, an almost unbearable longing, to be whole again, this hope—dare i say this optimism colored by the reality of the blues—that, yes, someday, someway, we will be whole in some soon come future.


like a mighty river which never ceases to flow and which has seen it all before, bechet’s sound was an ever unfurling cornucopia of lyric delight, its alluvial melodies inundating us, fertilizing our spirits, rendering us both funky and fecund.


bechet’s music was brazen, was brilliant, was growling sun bold. startling in its intensity. powerful in its keening. knowing—he was a philosopher of sorrow, was both intimate with hurt as well as on a first-name speaking terms with joy. while life had its ups and downs, bechet played it hard at both extremes and always with a sparkle of hope shining irrepressibly behind and through whatever tears temporarily clouded his eye.


all of that, all of his life, his individual self and his people’s birthright, all was played through the bell of bechet’s horn, so strong and unmistakable. unmissable. one listen and you got it. the force hit you. you felt it. bechet. bechet. he seemed to be that special sound you had been waiting all your life to hear.


—kalamu ya salaam



jelly’s boast (backed up in writing)


i started jass with

latin tinged, cafe colored

keyboard handicrafts



if buddy bolden—or someone black like that—started jazz then how could ferdinand lementh “jelly roll” morton fix his mouth to boast that he “invented jazz in 1903”? simple, my man was the first to write it down, to figure out where and how the notes go when put on paper just so a musician trained in the reading of music but untutored in the ways of the raucous folk could play these wild new sounds or at least a rough approximation, or at least play the heads, the melodies.


and while a lot of folks like to claim that jelly’s skill was because of the creole in him most of those same folks know nothing about the deep draughts jelly drank from the brackish bottom of the blues’ most funky well. jelly had songs that could make a prostitute blush and a pimp hide his face in shame. storyville wasn’t no conservatory and jass wasn’t no waltz. jelly knew this. he knew about the blacks. he knew about the whites. and especially about everything that went down in between. like all good blues folk he also had a mean streak, that cut-you-if-you-stand-still and shoot-you-if-you-run temperament necessary to survive saturday nights in the roughest parts of town.


no doubt it was because of jelly that the story freely circulated that jazz was born in a brothel, specifically the cathouses of storyville. but all that’s said ain’t necessarily so. sure, jelly played jazz there, but  just cause jelly played for tricks and whores that don’t mean that’s where his songs came from. the music was actually made outside elsewhere and later on brought inside those doors. which is not to take nothing away from jelly because figuring out how to write it down was no mean feat, especially those lusty sounds his brothers uptown would just let rip, day after day and night after night, pouring their sacred souls into the secular atmosphere. jelly would listen, and listen, and grin, and hold those sacred riffs inside his jaws and against the crown of his mouth and later spit out onto paper those notes which a bunch of others had written in the air. i’m not saying jelly wasn’t original, i’m just saying a good scribe can always write more than he or she individually knows, especially when they are present at the creation and have the initial shot at drafting up tunes taken down from the motherlode.


given the mixed nature of jelly’s pedigree and his back-a-town, alley-crawling cravings, he was able to create music for all occasions. music for right now if you were ready to get it on and music for later after all the squares were gone. music colored by what jelly suggestively called the spanish tinge.


and what was this latin tinge that jelly so glowingly spoke of? was it african rhythms run through the backyard of the caribbean? one critic talks vociferously about the arab influence—what he maybe means is the moorish number that spain slyly claimed as an original contribution, or mali’s twist on the islamic prayer chant—arab influence, huh? arab sounds altered by contact with african souls and soil, and rearranged caribbean stylee (which “stylee” is just africans in the west reinventing our ancient selves). that mambo, that rumba, merengue, clave, son and so forth. those pentatonic scales, modes, falsettoes and nasal drones. yeah, it’s all arab straight from the heart of africa. jelly knew, that’s why he said the tinge in the latin rather than the whole roman enchilada.


anyway, as much as he wrote and as important as his compositions are, in the final analysis we remember jelly because jelly didn’t forget the import of what he heard, because jelly found a way to write without emasculating the music’s swagger, without perfuming the funk, without covering the flesh in a veil of false modesty.


we remember jelly because jelly accurately remembered us. and lord, lord, lord even if he had never written a note, just one quick listen will confirm how marvelously potent his playing was. that mr. jelly, mr. jelly, he sure could play that shit.


—kalamu ya salaam


photo by Alex Lear



(something like how nia feels to me, xcept, this one is not really abt her)


god sent me / here / she said / & smiled / when we first met


glowing / & unblinking / she looked me / brown eye to brown eye / which wasn't easy / seeing as how she was only five-three / maybe / sneaking up on five-four / one of them no make-up / womens / wearing a mixture of clothes / tie dyes / silks / colored cottons / whatever gave the impression / the vibe of red / yellow / gold / green / & a couple of blues / nobody has a name for yet


i wanted to say / well / god / must have been / mistaken / cause i ain't sent for nobody


well, not really sent / it's more like / i was called


oh shit / i thinks / to myself / she's one of them / touched people


later / when she reads / some of her poems / honey nectar tart sweet aromas / explore the air / around us / fill my ears / & it is i / who am touched / by this woman


this woman / i'm with / this woman / i will always be with / no matter / what happens / whether we separate / or stay together / there are people / places / experiences / that become you / contribute to / making you be you / people you can never unfeel / un-be / leave behind / even when they are gone / they are there in your particulars / the rush of your breathing in the dead of sleep / the timbre of your sound / singing to yourself / speaking to another / they are there / anyone who has been truly intimate / remains / impressed inside


later i learn / how this woman / has a way / of appearing before me / with every vision i get / like, i wake / in the middle of the night / to play a dream tune / & she is already up / waiting for me / with the lyrics for our next song / fresh ink on soft paper / she knows where i'm going / before i get there


what i mean / is not simply / her physically being there / because sometimes her body / still be in bed / but her inspiration / in my head / be tongue licking my imagination / how else could i conceive / except impregnated / by some emotion seed / she dropped / into my soul / when i was busy / not consciously paying attention / to how she was subconsciously / moving me


so what / could i do / but submit / to the beauty / touch / spirit intellegience / of this hip / bundled laughter / looking up / at me / one soft autumn day / in the late years / of my life / ? / you dig?


& that's how / i met / my second / wife


—kalamu ya salaam


photo by Alex Lear


memories of death


my first unforgettable death scene was a man’s body all cut up. some man i didn’t know. i had gone to meet my father at his job. a laboratory technician, he worked on the third floor (or was it the fourth floor) at the veteran’s hospital. sometimes he would show us how he mixed chemicals with body fluids, mainly blood or urine. it was kind of fun but not really exciting once you had been there a couple of times. this particular time, i remember i was in seventh grade, and he told me he wasn’t ready to go. often i would go to the main library, which was only a few blocks from the hospital, and afterwards meet my father when he got off from work. on a few occasions i would get there earlier than his getting off time of 4:30pm and would sit around reading until he was ready. but this particular time it was after 4:30. he said he had some extra work he had to do. as most children do, i said, ok.


he told me, come on. follow me. and we got on the elevator and headed to the basement. i walked behind him trying my best to keep up. my father was a fast walker. i’ll never forget his story about walking to new orleans from donaldsonville, louisiana. we twisted and turned through the basement. down this corridor, through that door, into another hallway, through another set of doors. i really wasn’t paying much attention. didn’t read any signs or anything. i didn’t have to. i was following my father.  and then we went through the last door.


and there it was. a corpse. i balked about ten feet away. the naked body was laid out on a big table that had a ridge around it and pans on carts next to it. the chest was cut completely open with the left and right rib cage folded back. a pan with internal organs was next to the torso. and worse yet, the top of the head was gone. i mean completely sawed off. the brains was in another pan.


i don’t remember it stinking or nothing. my daddy said, you can watch me or you can sit over there. over there was only like five or so feet away. i sat way over there. pulled a book out and buried my head in the book while my daddy started messing with that body. it would have been ok except they were making a lot of strange noises. my daddy was sewing the body back together with a big old needle and thread as thick as twine. when he started putting that man’s head back together and sewing the scalp back over the skull, it made this sucking kind of sound.


i had, of course, been to funerals before and seen bodies laid out at church, but this was my first really memorable experience with death. at that moment, i was de-romanticized about any thing i thought about dead bodies. i realized that for my daddy, death just brought another job he had to do. in fact it was a good job because it paid him overtime.


so this is what happens to you when you die. this is what an autopsy is all about.


between that time and my next memorable death experience i graduated from high school. in fact it was february of 1965, the year after i graduated. and, no, kennedy’s assassination was not a memorable death experience for me. by the end of high school i had been active in the civil rights movement: sitting in at woolworth’s and schwegmann’s lunch counters, picketing on canal street, knocking on doors and doing voter registration work in the black community. kennedy had never been a hero of mine. so here i was up in northfield, minnesota, a small town whose claim to fame was that’s where jesse james did his last bank robbery. the local folk had laid a trap for mr. james and they almost caught him. the james gang was badly hurt in the resulting shoot out and disbanded after that attempt. anyway, i was at carleton college. i hated it there and would leave in less than two months, but i also learned a lot there.


i was working at the college radio station doing a jazz show. my show came on on sunday nights from 8pm to 10pm, if i remember correctly. part of my job at the station was to get there by 7:30pm and literally rip the news off the teletype. it used to come in automatically and there was this big roll of paper that fed into a box. all the news, weather, sports and whatever. and you had to gather up that long roll of paper and cut it up, or rip it, to separate the items you wanted from the ones you didn’t.


there were only 13 black students at carleton, and 8 of us were freshman, so you know how lonely we were. that particular night, linda, a girl from little rock, was visiting my show. as i remember we were the only two black students from the deep south. and when i started ripping the news, i got the first and all subsequent reports: malcolm x had been shot. dead. linda was crying and my eyes were kind of blurry too.


at first it was just a line or two, and then later more and more info streamed over on the loudly clattering machine. i’m ripping the news of malcolm’s death for some college  kid to read. i don’t know how much, if any of that news item was read that night on carleton’s radio show, but i was strangely very, very affected by malcolm’s death. i say strangely, because i was not a muslim. i was not a follower of malcolm in the sense of being part of any organization, but i was, like many, many people my age, an ardent admirer.


why? what was it about malcolm? over the years i have had time to think about it and rather than focus on him, i realize now the focus was on myself and parallels that i scarcely recognized back then, if i saw any of them at all. for one, we both rejected the civil rights movement.


i remember sitting on the steps of mt.zion methodist church before our weekly n-double a-c-p youth council meeting. we had been the main force picketing and leading the boycott on canal street. after close to a year of demonstrating, the merchants decided they wanted to negotiate. we said, sure. they said, stop picketing and we can talk. we said, let’s make an agreement and we will stop. the merchants balked. in response to the impasse the adult branch of the naacp, then led by the future first black mayor of new orleans, ernest “dutch” morial, instructed the youth council to stop picketing so negotiations could proceed.


we were adamant. we’d stop when the merchants met our demands. not before. the national office sent down wally moon, one of the main officials to instruct us, stop picketing or we will put you out of the naacp. they didn’t have to tell me twice. i decided to leave.


for close to two years, the youth council had been my life, consuming all my free time and a lot of my thoughts even when i was in school. i was a few years younger than the leading members, who were mainly college students but they were my gang, whom i hung out with, admired, wanted to be like.


i sat there on those church steps and finally decided: i couldn’t do it. anyone who has ever, for whatever reasons, abandoned a love can appreciate the pain of this voluntary separation. that was my first divorce.


malcolm had divorced himself from the muslims. also, malcolm was advocating internationalism and self-determination. i agreed with both. plus, malcolm had been a preacher--well, officially he had been a muslim minister, but anyone familiar with his oratory knew that malcolm was not just a master minister, he was a full blooded, get down preacher who spoke so eloquently both birds and angels hushed their singing while he was delivering the word. amen.


i had been groomed to hold forth in the pulpit, i knew a thing or two about public speaking, and i knew that malcolm was about the best we had, martin luther king notwithstanding. king had dreams but malcolm had the fire.


to paraphrase malcolm’s eloquent post mortem, the march on washington had been a picnic. the white man told those negroes when they could march, where they could march, how long they could march and when to leave town, and you know what, they came when the white man said you can come and they said what the white man wanted said and they left when the white man said go! malcolm. malcolm. el hajj malik shabazz, malcolm x.


knowing about the organizers’ attempt to censor the march on washington speech of john lewis, the chairman of the student nonviolent organizing committee, whom walter reuther (of the afl-cio) and others considered too militant was proof to me that malcolm had been right. the sell-out house negroes and their white liberal supporters were emasculating our leadership. i was a young man; speaking truth to power was a sine qua non of my definition of manhood, and in that regard no nationally recognized black leader was more man than malcolm.


plus as an insider, i knew all the stories, tales and gossip about our black leaders--king as a philanderer; this one on the take; the other one married to a white woman; on and on. but  when it came to malcolm there was nothing, and malcolm was so hard on middle class negro leadership, i knew that if anyone had anything on malcolm we all would have been made aware. malcolm was a model of leadership in a category unto himself. and now he was gone.


days afterwards, i tried to find out as much as i could. and when i saw one of the death scenes: malcolm carted out on a gurney, his head back and to the side, his mouth sort of open, i thought about that body my father had sewn up and wondered would malcolm be cut up like that. my subsequent thoughts were about the men who shot malcolm, how they could do it. death comes in many forms, but for us in the movement, the hardest to confront is the seeming endless cases of black-on-black killings. 


death makes you think. at first you just recoil in shock, but sooner or later, the philosophical aspects confront and confound. malcolm’s murder in particular initiated many hours of trying to figure out what, if anything, i could do to address, and ultimately stop, black on black murder. i was too young to know how old that particular problem was. fratricide has never been a racial issue, has never been anything but a human issue, and mainly a human male issue.


nevertheless, when your leader and hero dies at the hands of our own, you never forget. i don’t recall what music i played the night malcolm died. despite any nostalgia for my youth and the glory days of seemingly boundless energy and optimism (which two qualities are, after all, the hallmarks of youth regardless of the specifics of any particular time period), despite the fog of memory and the hunger for the good old days (isn’t it oxymoronic that we call the days of our youth “the good old days”?), despite any and all of that, all i remember about that sunday night is malcolm was assassinated. our movement was in crisis. i was in crisis. those were difficult days.


—kalamu ya salaam


James Baldwin (August 2, 1924 - November 30, 1987) 



INVENTORY / ON BEING 52 (parts 1, 2 & 3)

Music by David Linx, Pierre Van Dormael

James Baldwin – narration

David Linx – vocals, drums, percussion

Pierre Van Dormael – guitar

Michel Hatzigeorgiou – bass

Deborah Brown - vocals

Viktor Lazlo - vocals

Steve Coleman – alto saxophone

Slide Hampton – trombone

Jimmy Owens – trumpet, fluegelhorn

Pierre Vaiana – tenor saxophone

Diederik Wissels - piano





The Preacher Poet


I would like to use the time that’s left to change the world,

to teach children or to convey to the people who have children that

everything that lives is holy.

—James Baldwin




James Baldwin voiced us—articulated black experiences with a searing intensity that frightened some and enraptured others of us. Even if you could not read, once you heard Baldwin you were convinced of the power of words. His ability to move air was such that the vibrating oxygen Baldwin set in motion spoke to us as surely as if the words had issued from our own mouths.


Baldwin’s sermons (and that’s what his words were, instructions for living) entered us, vital as breathing.


Baldwin’s breath proclaimed what it meant to be flesh, and black. He told us of the here and now, told of barbarians who feared life in others and feared those who truly lived to love rather than to conqueror.


Baldwin spoke of racist hatred for black people, telling us that their hatred was but a mask for the intense hatred they felt for themselves and the sordid, twisted mess they had made of their own lives.


The gritty texture of Baldwin’s voice testified to the realities of black life, the ups, the downs, the terrors, as well as the hard-won tenderness found in our usually brief but nonetheless frequent stolen moments of exquisite and redemptive love. He was no romantic, but oh how he loved. He loved us all and gave his all in the love of us.


Indeed his very behavior posed the quintessential question: if not for the opportunity to love, what are we living for? Certainly not labor and toil, nor riches and fame, which we can never take with us when we inevitably exit the world; If we do not love our selves and our children, what will our living matter in the future? And if we do not understand that everyone’s child is our child, then how whole can we be as a human being?


When I was younger, when I thought I had a taste for anger, a yearning for retribution, I was always mystified and sometimes even miffed by Baldwin’s insistence on love. Now I am older, directed by the wisdom of age: sooner or later, most of us grow tired of fighting but we never tire of love.


What was bracing about Baldwin was his insistence that we be humans regardless of how inhuman our tormentors might act, and as Baldwin so eloquently reminded us, their behavior was an act, most likely a ruse to mask their fear of us, or worse yet a lie to camouflage their fear that they were not what they tried to make us believe they were; they were not gods, conquerors, lords and such. No. They were merely what we all are, human beings trying to survive and prosper.


It is easy to think of Baldwin as an Old Testament prophet, raining down fire and brimstone. He was, after all, a professional evangelist as a teen. It is easy to think of Baldwin as a Shakespeare in and of Harlem since his command of language is now legendary. But it is wrong to reference Baldwin solely from outside of black culture. Think of this black voice as a life-force, as the sound of us, as the sound of living, as a drum. A drum, an insistent beating drum whose rhythm was synchronous with our own heartbeats.


The fullest appreciation of James Baldwin the writer is not understood until James Baldwin the voice is heard. Only once your heart was moved by the way this man moved words could you fully understand the power he brought to us who were told time and time again, in a million ways, day, night and seemingly always that we were totally powerless, or at least powerless to prevent first our enslavement and now our ongoing oppression and exploitation.


The power Baldwin brought to us was a clear-eyed recognition of world realities, we, just as everyone else, were the range of behaviors and emotions, memories and dreams that it means to be human, and as such our task was to be the best human we could be, which best necessarily meant the embracing of other humans. You are a human and you must embrace other humans is a powerful message to give to those who have been taught otherwise.


And this fire to be wholly human that Baldwin breathed into our lives was no mere mental exercise. Baldwin went far, far beyond thinking because he spoke with a passion for life, a passion to get the most out of life even as he admitted that as we struggled on inevitably we would err, we would make mistakes, we would fail from time to time, even backslide, and knowingly do wrong, after all we are humans and that’s part of what humans do, but Baldwin would remind us as long as we are alive we have the opportunity, indeed we have the obligation to correct our mistakes and to strive to be better than we have been.


Baldwin was telling us: grow up. Of course, you’ve been done wrong and you’ve done wrong. We all have. We all have been done wrong. We all have done wrong. Grow up, face life. All the wrong in the world does not mean that you and I can’t do what’s right.


And ultimately, while James Baldwin the writer is important, James Baldwin the human voice is equally important, especially now that the technology exists so that we can all hear him, we can all experience the ways in which he manipulated human sounds of communication. In other words, the fullest appreciation of James Baldwin the writer is not totally understood until James Baldwin the voice is heard.


Baldwin was full of passion and the very fire light of life. To reduce him simply to books is to miss the music that this man made of words.


Thus, if you think you know James Baldwin, if you think you love our literature and you have never heard him deliver the word, and you do not have his spoken word CD, then you don’t really know the breadth and depth of James Baldwin.




Between September 19, 1986 and September 18, 1987, James Baldwin spent a year working on a spoken word CD with producers/composers/musicians David Linx and Pierre Van Dormael. Recorded in Brussels, Brooklyn and New York City, A Lover’s Question (Label Beu, Harmonia Mundi) is a masterpiece of merging words with music: a precursor to what is now a popular artform.


The producers succeed in more than providing a sonic backdrop for the words; they actually composed orchestrations that both complemented and mirrored the intent and expression inherent in Baldwin’s delivery of his complex poems. The success is then on three levels: the poems are phat, the music is tight, and the musicians respond with an exhilarating verve that let’s you know they too were giving their all, giving their love and not simply going through the changes to get paid.


Aside from a brief musical introduction and an elegiac solo rendition of Thomas Dorsey’s “Precious Lord” on which Baldwin talk-sings the famous gospel composition, there are only three poems on this CD. One poem, “The Art of Love,” features operatic vocalist Deborah Brown and is done as an art song, an interlude between two poetic suites.


The two-part “A Lover’s Question” continues in the vein of the Fire Next Time. Baldwin questions the citizens of his birth nation as to their desire to hate: “Why / have you allowed / yourself / to become so grimly / wicked?” and “No man can have a / harlot / for a lover / nor stay in bed forever / with a lie. / He must rise up / and face the morning / sky / and himself, in the / mirror / of his lover’s eye.” As Baldwin knew, true love is always honest even though honesty is seldom an easy fact to live with in a land where lies and commerce replace truth and reciprocity.


The concluding number is the three part opus “Inventory / On Being 52” and it is the introspective Baldwin fingering his own wounds (some of them self-inflicted). He does not flinch as he cross-examines his own life and realizes the terrible costs of his mistakes, the terrible beauty of embracing both the terrors and joys of being human. Baldwin manages in a stream of consciousness style to encourage us to live the good life, suggesting that the good life is a different life from the life/lie that too many of us live. Baldwin encourages us not simply to march to the beat of a different drummer, Baldwin tenderly implores us to be different drummers.


Tap out the real rhythms of life with our every footstep in the dark, our every embrace of what we and others are and can become. Reject the ultimately tiresome and ephemeral wisdom of materialism / accept the rejuvenating life-cycle rhythm of the earth. Thus Baldwin says “Perhaps the stars will / help, / or the water, / a stone may have / something to tell me, / and I owe a favor to a / couple of old trees.”


“Inventory / On being 52” is a deep song, but then, as he says, “My father’s son / does not easily / surrender. / My mother’s son / pressed on.” Every young poet needs this old man’s CD in their collection, this compass of compassion, this example of the passionate heights the spoken word can attain. If you as a poet do not know A Lover’s Question then you do not know the full history of your own human heartbeat.




James Baldwin. His life, his teachings, his commitment, his words embody one of the great paradoxes of the contradictions of life—and regardless of misplace beliefs in idealism, in an eternal anything, in a person being solely and only one thing or another, regardless of our worship of the false idol of ideas and dualism—experience teaches us, all life, every life is contradictory. In fact, to be alive is a contradiction, is a fight against death, literal death, symbolic death, the death of compassion, the death of our own humanity in terms of how we relate to others and the world we live in.


Life is a contradiction, and as such, isn’t it wonderful for us to realize that one of the most insistent prophets, preachers and poets of love was a queer, black man standing against the homophobia, standing against the misogyny (and surely hating women also means hating the earth), standing against the racism, and all the other -isms endemic to the place and time within which Baldwin was born.


James Baldwin. Clearly modeling for all of us what it meant to be a man, and more importantly what it meant to be human and live in a time of institutional war and inhumanity.


I love James Baldwin.


—kalamu ya salaam


[The first version of this essay, essentially most of part 1, was originally published in Mosaic Literary Magazine, Spring 1999. The second version of this essay, part 1 & part 2, was originally published as part of the booklet accompanying the 1999 reissue of A Lover’s Question.]





photo by Alex Lear







            He looks like Larry Fishburne. The jutting jaw. The cinnamon brown. The beard. The muscular frame.

            "What do we do with armed robbers?"

            Our second day in Accra, a crowd caught a thief and killed him.

            "We execute thieves."


            "These people driving these cars irresponsibly. Accidents? No. It's manslaughter. It's murder they're getting away with. Let the courts convict one of them. I will sign the execution."


            He had a script and he had some deeper stuff he wanted to get off his chest -- and brother man did go off. In addition to the prepared script he talks about family planning, sanitation, and some things in a language I don't understand but which delights the crowd.

            When he speaks, I look at the people.

            The shine of their eyes. The smiles set to break into laughter as the punch line is delivered.

            When he talks about executing irresponsible drivers, these people who spend a large part of every day walking -- walking with water on their heads, with food on their heads, with trays of vegetables, boxes of canned goods, chewing gum, walking, a load of firewood, maybe a baby on the back, oranges, pineapples, walking, bolts of fabric, walking, a sack of rice, walking, roasted corn, walking, walking, walking, through dust, down miles and miles of dirt road, walking, to the market, walking, pausing and backing up for speeding cars, the drivers leaning on their horns, walking, bus broke down, walking, car broke down, pushing and walking, waiting to sell to tourists coming out of the castle, standing, hoping to get closer to the president, standing, walking, sandals, walking, bare feet, walking, hopping cross open sewers, walking, legs bruised, open sores, walking, pants the wrong size, walking, lacy dress soiled, worn and torn, walking and then waiting, waiting and then walking, standing, silent, glancing at us up and down, whispering something to each other, teeth missing from big beautiful smiles, laughing, standing, shyly touching your hand, hello, akwaaba, welcome, siss-taa, braaaa-thaaaa, eyes looking up from the smoke fish fire, bread on the side of the road, walking straight up like some mothers used to make girls do with books on their head for posture practice, walking, pausing while suckling child, hawking wares, standing, looking, waving, bending, walking, lifting, working, sleeping, walking, eating, walking, eating and walking, walking to eat, walking, braiding hair, those dark skinned people, little girls with close cropped hair and their hands hiding the hope light of their smiling lips, walking, children and elders everywhere, walking, these people, these people, my people, walking, me, when he talks these people listen, and cheer, and clap.

            Execute irresponsible drivers.


            "Commitment." He says we have knowledge. We have skills. We need commitment. He says in the States a Ghanaian away from home wanted to know what the government was going to do to help all of the people who are moving from the rural areas into the cities.

            Rawlings encourages the brother to come home. Encourages all Africans to come home. Whether continental or diasporan, come home.

            In terms of development, it can be said that Africa is the rural area and the West are the cities. We need you in the rural areas to help us develop. Together we can develop our rural areas. Leave the cities. Come home.



             What do we do with thieves?

            This is Ghana. The streets are safe at night. And the people whom dark finds three hours walk from home, can set down their load and sleep where they are, wherever they are in Ghana.


            It's murder these people driving these cars irresponsibly.


            The people who walk love the President. The people. Who walk. Love. The President.


            When the President arrives he walks onto the field. He walks around the field and greets each king who has been carried in the Durbar procession of the kings, carried in these boats held aloft on the waves of muscular shoulders. Boats shaded by umbrellas. Preceded by the court. Followed by drums. The chiefs rode in waving and dancing. The President of the country walked around the soccer sized field and greeted each king individually. The President walked.


            The people who walk love the President who walks.


            Walking is the Ghanaian way.




            Surely there are those who hate this man. The wheelers have different values from the walkers.




            The people who walk.





            I have been to Africa before so I am prepared. I know that I am not going to visit an unspoiled land, and unsullied people. I know that I will encounter more than Africans in Africa. I know that I will also meet Tarzan there.

            He will be there to greet me. I know this. I know this because even though I am African, a descendant of those Africans who were enslaved, I know that I, like every African, especially we Africans in the diaspora, we carry Tarzan within us. Indeed, a major part of our value to the motherland is that we have African souls and Tarzan personalities, with all the positives of skills and technology that implies, and all the negatives of individualistic material and moral decadence it also implies.

            Tarzan will arrive at the same time I do, if and when I am frustrated in my search for hot water to bathe or angry about the unavailability of iced, chilled drinks to consume. Or when I am turned off by dust and dirt everywhere, repulsed by hot sun and daily heat. Tarzan will be gleaming in my eye as I am aroused by all the opportunities I spy to run the con games and hustles which are the daily fare of life in the industrial world, especially when my schemes and dreams are clothed in the brotherly cloak of helping my people to develop the motherland. We could put up a hotel there. Open a specialty restaurant here. Put an import record store over there. Import this. Start up that.

            I can not help it, I was reared in America to be like Tarzan. My brothers and sisters on the continent were reared to believe they need a Tarzan.

            Tarzan, as the big White man can not revisit Africa, but I am coming weighted by the terrible knowledge that we all have a Tarzan to expel from the interior of our African souls.




            After the Revolutionary War when the American colonialists beat the British, some of us vanished from these shores. Thus, Sierre Leone, a british colongy in West Africa which was partially colonized by American born Africans reintroduced into Africa. Some of us had fought against the colonialists, had sided with the British. Had been promised freedom. When the British lost, we won a return trip to Africa.

            As has ever been our history, we African Americans always seem to be on both sides of the battle line. Crispus Attucks the first to fall, martyr defending American freedom. On the otherside, unnamed others boarded English ships fleeing America's freedom.

            Sierre Leone was our first major return. British subjects reinserted into Africa.

            The second coming was Liberia -- and a bigger mess could not possibly have been made. Tarzan was in full effect.

            The bible and the gun. Liberia. The so-called first Black republic. Liberia declared itself sovereign on 26 July 1847. From jump street it was a colonial missonary state.

            We went there (or more accurately, were sent there) for the expressed purpose of establishing a Christian colony. We were literally pilgrims in Black face. And true to our Christian creed, true to our God, true to our "native land" (i.e. the U.S.A. who sponsored us), we came, we saw, and we conquered. Committed all sorts of unspeakable cruelties.  Wallowed in all sorts of corruptions.

            Meanwhile, the American Colonization Society, peopled and funded mostly by Whites, acted on their conviction that the way to respond to the slave question was to take Lady MacBeth's advice: "out, out damn spot." In Historical Lights Of Liberia's Yesterday And Today, author Ernest Jerome Yancy, writing in 1954, breaks the history down. 

            ...Liberia is a by-product of the complex conditions of American society resulting from the American Negro slavery.

            A careful study of the American economic, political, and social conditions beginning in 1619 at Jamestown, VA.--a nursery of slavery--to the organization of the American Colonization Society in December 1816 at Washington, D.C., avails one the opportunity of knowing the conditions under which the colonization society was organized and that the founding of Liberia was an attempt to adjust those conditions. In this respect, Sir Harry Johnston wrote: "Its inception" (the American Colonization Society) "grew out of the institution of slavery and represents an endeavor on the part of early statesmen and philanthropists to solve a vexing situation in America which was confronting them."

            Historical data show that at this time there were free men of color in America and it is claimed that they had an evil effect on the slaves and menaced the institution of slavery. Many criminal acts were charged to these freemen of color and Negroes, and in some instances, we are informed, they were guilty of these charges. Under these two-fold conditions it became necessary for something to be done in order to save American society and the institution of slavery.  Therefore, with these dual motives, statesmen, philanthropists, and former slaveholdres joined in devising means by which they could solve the problem. As a result of these efforts, the American Colonization Society was organized for the purpose of assisting free men of color to return to the continent of Africa.


            The first president of the American colonization Society was Judge Bushrod Washington, nephew of George Washington, and among the founding organizers was Francis Scott Key, author of the "Star Spangled Banner." Their exclusive aim was to remove free folk of color from America.

            Back on the block, Negro leaders, principlely Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington, were intransient in their opposition to colonization. Wasn't going nowheres. Saw no future in it. No win. Wanted their piece of the rock. Insisted on making a home of where they were born.

            Of course, there was always a current that wanted to return to Africa, a current whose water level rose and fell at various junctures in history. The biggest problem was simple, most of us didn't know precisely where to return to and there was no welcoming committee specifically prepared to receive us.

            All other American immigrants could return to specific countries. Specific cities, towns and villages. Specific familes and friends. A church where they used to worship. A field where their fathers and mothers worked. A farm house where they were born. Or something specific.

            Most of us couldn't hit our nativity marks with a blunderbus at point blank range, i.e. land us in Africa, anywhere we wanted to go and we still couldn't find home. Once we got back to Africa we were literally lost.

            So much of Africa had been cut off from us. Amputated. When we went to scratch the Africa itch, we rubbed bare air. The nerve endings were tingling but the aching African leg had long ago been shot off.

            Amputees are we, dumbly trying to utter something sensible with the muteness of tongueless mouth. Our African tongue had been callously severed. The resultant loss of language was one of the major, literally unspeakable traumas of chattle slavery. Instead of a dark mother tongue, a mutant mulatto tongue grew and spoke an Africanized English. Which didn't do us a whole lot of good in Wolof, Akan, Fulani, Twi, etc.

            We wanted to return but... and those of us who went back? Well. Tarzan was with us. Even the most supportative of chroniclers had to note that we acted White, acted arrogant, inflicted on the indigenous "savages" the same indignities that had been heaped on us. For example, in Liberia the indigenous peoples were not considered citizens and could not vote. Sound familiar?

            Even the official and sympathetic chronicler Yancy notes:

            These backward conditions and slow progress as were found in Liberia prior to President W.V.S. Tubman's administration, in our opinion, may be attributed to the following four major causes or shaping forces, namely: (1) the lack of pioneering spirit and initiative to migrate on the part of the earliest colonists, (2) foreign aggressions, intrigues, and the absolute disregard for Liberian authority, (3) tribal or primitive problems of all types and complexities and (4) financial difficulties and entanglements. These four causes in the aggregate have been the shaping forces of Liberia.

            The pilgrim fathers being removed from the injustices of "the land of the brave and the free" found solace and repose in their new home and gave themselves to leisure, self-indulgence and little constructive work. They reclined, as it were, in the arms of relaxation, freedom, supremacy and authority; they concerned themselves chiefly with those things which they thought would demonstrate one's ability and capacity to govern himself, and those things which exhibit one's power and authority to rule and govern others. Whereas, they very sparingly attacked those things which are essential, and indispensable in any national sub-structure.

            The spirit of pioneering, self-initiative to migrate and the spirit of ingenuity akin to the spiritual equipment of the pilgrim fathers of the United States and those of other countries were apparently lacking among the first group of settlers of Liberia. This may, however, be accounted for when one considers the educational, cultural, social, economic background and preparedness as well as the purpose and philosophy of these settlers.


            Yancy believed that the Tubman administration would correct nearly a century of ineptitude and political backwardness.

            Therefore in 1944 the Tubman administration embarked upon an extensive Five-Year Economic Development Program, the like of which had never been attempted in the history of the country. It also undertook to make fundamental changes in the national structure and policies of government. Thus the indigenous element of the citizenry was granted representation in the national legislature; women were granted suffrage; election laws and practices were revised and tribal customs and traditions were given more consideration.

            The present administration, knowing that additional aid and zest resulting from new blood are very necessary to put over its policies and program, instituted an open-door policy for immigrants form all parts of the world.

            The early settlers found in Liberia thirty-three tribes with their several and different philosophies, customs, habits, practices, religious beliefs, forms of government and languages or dialects. These in themselves have presented many problems of baffling nature; the problem of lack of uniformity in language, customs, habits; the problem of education, and the problem of injecting into these tribes the spirit of the Western civilization.

            From the very beginning of the Republic there have been territorial fueds, disrespect and disregard for Liberian authority on the part of white aliens who, for the most part, were and are merchants.

            These problems, happily are being resolved by means of a vigorous national literacy campaign; universal education, economic developments and humane and liberal policies of the present administration.


            If you want the specifics, in all their gory and embarassing details, you'll have to piece it together. Although the whole story has yet to be told, an excellent place to start is African Americans And U.S. Policity Toward Africa 1850-1924, In Defense of Black Nationality by Elliott P. Skinner, an African American scholar and Franz Boas Professor of Anthopology at Columbia University and former United States ambassador to Burkina Faso.

            In any case, there is a reason that returning is so hard. Africa doesn't want Black face Tarzans swinging through it. I mean, why accept an imitation of oppression when the real deal is always waiting in the wings? One of the reasons that Africa has been so reluctant to reach out for the diaspora is because the diaspora can act so un-African once it gets back to Africa.

            Just to give you an example of how bizarre it can get, consider this. After the Civil War, the Liberian government thought it was an affront to them that the United States would send a Black ambassador. These transplanted Negroes wanted a White ambassador so that they could feel that they were being respected like other countries.

            The monkey jumped up with tears in his eyes. "My people, my people" the monkey cried.

            What can you said? You can't say nothing.

            So when the Liberian orgy of savagery kicked off in the eighties.  Charles Taylor's people hacking up Samuel Doe's people. Prince Johnson's people cutting off penises and ears. Doe multilated on video tape. Broadcast to the nation. Most of us didn't hear a mumbling word about it, nor see it. The few of us who did notice. Sort of recoiled in horror and wished it would go away. But the various peoples of Liberia, from the enclave of Negro colonialists who sold the country to Firestone and other moneyed interests, to the peoples of the interior who were mired in continuous wars against each other, to the ubiquitous military and mercenary types who wanted to assure themselves a line or two in the annals of iniquity commenserate with their heritage of being slave merchants, to the foreign diplomats and business people who feigned innocence and repulsion as if their respective nation states and corporate employers had no interests nor involvement in the Liberia entanglement, all of the parties contributed to the melange of African madness. A melange which makes it hard for any sensible African to naively advocate the return of African Americans to Africa.

            This is an ignoble aspect of our history. The diasporan fishbone that sticks in our continental craw. The mark of pestilence blighting our body politic. This is our closet and we've got to deal with these bones rattling around.

            At every juncture of my self-education, I reach a point where I think I have some sort of understanding of the meaning of my life. I step off, moving in a direction I consider forward, step off with knowledge, or so I think. And then I run into reality, run into a thick block of ignorance which lets me truly know just how much I don't know.

            If I hadn't gone to Ghana, I probably would never have learned very much about Liberia. And that's the whole point of a pilgrimage to Africa: If nothing else, Africa will teach you just how ignorant you really are.

             Just go. Go. GO!

            Whether you dig it or hate it, fall in love or get repulsed by dirt, dust, disease and underdevelopment. Go as a hustler looking to get rich off a business scheme, or as a romantic dreamer seeking ancestral roots; a committed Pan Africanist seeking to participate in development, or a tourist looking for a unique travel experience. It really doesn't matter how you get there, cause Africa will touch you. In one way or another. Touch you to the core.

            And once touched? Then you will decide for yourself what to do with the transformed self you've become as a result of feeling Africa's caress of your inner soul. For some nothing substantial will happen. For others it will be a life changing experience. For most it will be somewhere in between, an uneven mix. But it will be something. Something will happen. Just go.

            Clap your hands. Stamp your feet. Swing on the vine. In the jungle. The jungle that is Africa in your mind, in your heart, in your gut, in your groin. The Africa you imagine and the Africa you experience. Scratch the itch and watch what happens.

            No one should deny themselves a chance to touch the womb of their being.

            What follows touch? That is your choice to make.




            I really believe the best way to experience Africa is in silence.

            Don't talk too much. Just immerse oneself and by osmosis, let Africa seep into the pores. Don't think. Don't discriminate. Just go with the flow. If you feel something, heed the stirring.

            Africa is both extraordinary and just another day in the life. Both special and eternal. At core always simply about taking life and tasting life one day at a time. Birth. Life. Death. Rebirth. Over and over. That's all. Just specifically ours. Our birth. A chance to live our lives. To die natural deaths. And be reborn again in the embracement of a home from which we have been long time gone.




            I hoisted Tarzan's carcass atop the funeral pyre. And then climbed astride. Dropped my torch and went up in flames. My weeping cleansed my skin. The white dirt washed away. I stood naked. And had to make a choice.

            Walk out of the flames or die with Tarzan's tongue in my mouth. Uttering all kinds of inanities about how much better progress was, how much better it was to be in the West.

            Our singed skulls, flesh burnt off, faced each other. My skull as white as Tarzan's skull. Tarzan's skull, blackened by soot and ashes, is as dark as mine. Two heads facing each other, in death indistinguishable one from the other.

            African Americans have an intrinsic African dream. We dream of flying. Literally flying through the air.

            Flying. Our birdness could be sankofa, but only after the rise. First we must be phoenix. Fly up out of the ashes and return to yard to pick ancestral corn. First we must fly up.

            Get up out of the ashes of Western demise. Beyond the smoke. Away from the fascination with flame. Fire is to temper us. Fire is to free us. But fire is not home.

            Tarzan burns. Colonialism burns. Inevitably festering areas of our acculturated consciousness simultaneously go up in smoke. The only question is what is left. And where do we go from here.

            From the flames a pale hand reaches out to me. The skull calls: "don't leave me here."

            Tarzan's last words. "Don't leave me."

            From the forest, comes calls in languages I don't understand. Soft Black voices I don't understand. Inbetween me and my ancestral people are all the contemporary horrors: from Black male gun runners shooting up our nights to junior Tarzans/Black politicians picking over the bones of our desert days. The trauma of containment within colonial culture tumors our brains. Western addictions and fantasies direct our desires.

            The funeral pyre burns. Will I turnaway or turn toward the fire, enchanted by the flames, too fascinated to feel the heat?

            "Don't leave me."

            Or will I fly outward seeking self by burrowing forward into Africa. The Africa inside myself. And the Africa outside myself. Africa the people. Africa the land. The Africa that calls "Join us."

            And that has always been our destiny. The one choice, in either ignorance or consciousness, by active commision or inactive ommision, the one choice each African American makes in her or his lifetime. Fully flying forward or returning backward. Vacillating between. Or committed and cleaving to one end of the spectrum.

            Tarzan: "Don't leave me."

            Africa: "Join us."

            One way or another, we respond.

            Acknowledging what we hear or ignoring the pleas. Acting one or both calls, or rejecting one or both. One way or another; a third way or no way.

            We respond.




            The essential problem of twoness is that every journey is made one step at a time. So even if we go one step forward and then one step backward, one step up and one step down, even if we stand and rock from side to side. It's all still just one step at a time. And at every point we must ask ourselves: which way? Which call will I heed? Which direction will I turn?

            One way or another, our inner spirits always respond.

            Geronimo would ask, "where is your heart?"

            The old folks would say, "where you gon run to, all on that day." Standing at the crossroads, which way should I go. Lord, lord, lord, what should I do, which way should I go? And how shall I get there?

 —kalamu ya salaam


photo by Alex Lear




         OH, WHAT A FEELING. 


            Riding in a car or bus on the recently asphalted road up the coast from Accra to the Cape Coast Castle is rough enough. It is super hard to imagine being driven to the castle on foot, chains around your neck and your ankles, trodding barefoot through the bush. This is not "jungle" area, but heavy bush, rocky ground in some places.

            As we drive for better than two hours my eyes get tired and I doze. My ancestors herded like cattle, were force marched for hours beneath sun with whiplash licking their bare backs. They too were tired, but they were never allowed to doze.

            Standing in the magazine where they kept the powder and looking through the portal down into the dungeon where people are now standing with torch light in the very spaces where their ancestors were crowded, peering into those ancient spaces, I do not feel anger, I do not feel spirits calling me, I do not feel anything. I simply understand that we did not stand a chance. And that is a cold and helpless feeling.




            After one of the symposium I was talking to Kofi Anyidoho, complimenting his presentation, "Slave Castle, African Historical Mindscape & Literary Imagination".

            He touched my hand.

            I held his unforced touch.

            There are no words for all of this.




            My oldest child, my daughter Asante preceded me to Ghana. Back in August 1994 she went for six weeks. An opportunity to travel presented itself and she jumped on it. She and Jelsy, a Haitian born artist friend. The trip was important for Asante.

            Many, many years ago, in 1969, Tayari, Asante's mother and my ex-wife, spent a summer in Ghana with Operations Crossroads. And now I am crossing the sea to this place. What is it? Ghana calling? What?

            Asante laughs one day as we are talking about something and comments on how fragile men are. "Men are so fragile. They have this tough ego shell, but inside they're so fragile. They're just like all the shell creatures of nature. Without their shell, they can't make it."

            I am standing here holding a grown man's hand.

            It takes some getting used to.

            Reentry into Africa is an emotional strip search for self.

            Crawling out of my red, white and blue shell. Crawling out of my negro shell. Crawling out of my dominant male ego shell. Crawling out of my shell and wondering will I ever learn to fly -- where are my wings?


            And that's all I can say right now. Maybe.








            Our African identity, like all of life, is contradictory in nature. We have both great negatives and great positives that we must face. At certain periods of negritutinal reaction to racism and colonialism, we romanticize our positives. At other periods after fighting and sacrificing for so long, we wallow in the self indulgence of shams. Sham development. Sham socialism. Sham democracy. Sham capitalism. Sham nationalism.

            What we must face and embrace is the whole of ourselves and not simply those parts which are acceptable to Tarzan or those parts which make us feel big like Tarzan.

            Emulating Tarzan is easy, but what does that lead to but one or two junior European cities per country, with mayors and presidents who, on an international level, exhibit the same impotence as did traditional tribal chiefs who, when confronted by European military might, were forced to "negotiate" with, and eventually capitulate to, the kings and presidents, generals and mercenaries, merchants and bankers of Europe.

            What we must do is extract the lessons of history from our historic encounters with Tarzan, and we must do so realistically rather than romantically.

            Tarzan is a difficult character for us to deal with because we both hate and admire Tarzan. We want to expel him from our lives on the one hand and yet, on the other hand, the cumulative effect of our desires and fantasies is to recreate ourselves into an idealized Tarzan. Our national bourgeoisie, they are Tarzan. Most of our elected officials and nearly all of our heads of state, especially the dictators, they are Tarzan. Tarzan in Black face.

            The rub is that Tarzan taught us that we were all Black but he also taught us that being Black was a bad thing. There are too many examples of our contradictions to even begin enumerating. Every African's mirror contains at least one major contradiction, if not more. But at least one.

            Unfortunately for us, we African Americans have internalized the psychology of the oppressed. After fifteen generations or more of subservience, Black inferiority is all we know. A major corollary of our inferiority complex, is a high tolerance for suffering. Indeed, our tolerance of downpression verges on an addiction to suffering.

            I am no longer a Christian. I do not believe in the redemptiveness of suffering. Oh how they oppressed us with that one.  Under Tarzan's religious tutelage, suffering became such a great part of our worldview that we were not happy unless we were unhappy.

            "Woe is me" became our daily bread.

            "Deliver us from evil" we asked of Tarzan's god while we looked forward to an almost certain lifetime of hell and fervently believed in a hoped for eternity in heaven.

            "Deliver us from Tarzan" is what we should have said. But we were so good at suffering. And Christianity taught us that we were born to suffer. That "man is born of sin" and that Jesus will redeem us in heaven.

            Meanwhile, down here on the ground, Tarzan rules. And when Tarzan is absent, Tarzan's flunkies and trainees stand in for the master and rule. And when neither Tarzan nor his flunkies are present, Tarzan's ideas rule and we create our own Tarzans as we await deliverance to arrive from outside ourselves.

            Our deliverance as a people, however, cannot be given to us by others, nor passively accepted. Deliverance must be fought for and seized. Deliverance is a birthing process requiring hard labor, rupturing of the womb, and the flowing of blood if new life is to be created. Some of us have worked for deliverance for a long time, most of us have been awaiting deliverance for an equally long time. But, to date, howsoever long it has been, deliverance has not come.

            How long has it been, 500 years? In all this time, for all his omnipotence, Tarzan has been unable to deliver us. Tarzan's failure has taught us well. If we want to be delivered, we will have to deliver each other. Give birth to ourselves. The kingdom that we create in the here and now is the only kingdom we will ever enjoy in this life on earth.

            And to kill Tarzan we must desire to be ourselves. A truly revolutionary behavior.




            On the second morning in Accra, we were bussed to Drago's Restaurant for a breakfast. We assumed that it would be a program of some sort. That assumption was a mistake. Not only was there no program, everyone didn't even get to eat. But it did afford us the opportunity to meet and talk with some of the people attending PANAFEST whom we did not already know nor know of.

            One of the people at our table recognized me and helped me remember him: Balozi Harvey. One of the early members of Maulana Karenga's US Organization. Present at the founding of Kwanzaa. Present at the Black Power Conferences of the sixties. The Congress of Afrikan People. We began exchanging stories and reminiscences about people, places and events. Behind all we talked about was an assessment of our failure to make revolution in the United States and our hopes for Africa in the future.


            Today, in the nineties, revolution is such a lonely word. Discredited. Rejected. Some even declare that following the collaspe of the Soviet Union, that we have reached a period which wishful thinking calls "the end of history." Third World failures are sighted as evidence of the failure of revolution.

            They talk. The spread of democracy. The coming of the superhighway. The world becoming a free market.

            They whistle past their own graveyards. It's well past midnight.


            Make fun of Castro. Bring out monster portraits of Mao.


            At the breakfast table someone asked for papaya. The waiter nodded. Returned a little later and said, "papaya finished."

            That's what the Republicans want us to believe. Revolution finished.

            That's why "we're" in Haiti. In Somalia. Thinking about Rawanda. If-ing at Bosnia. Finished?

            A man is confronted by his wife. This man, it seems, was a philanderer. He would runaround. Cheat on his wife. And lie to her. Constantly. Her friends told her. People she didn't know, told her. At some point it became unbearable. She confronted him. He confessed his errors. Begged for another chance. She started to put him out but relented. Then one day she visited his office and caught him in a compromising position with his secretary. Before she could say a word he told her: "It's not what you think." She replied, "what do you mean, not what I think? I'm looking at you." He loudly protested that she was wrong and concluded with this challenge, "who are you going to believe? Me! Or your lieing eyes!"

            Who are we going to believe? Our downpressors or our lieing eyes?

            Revolution, finished?

            One of the colloquium participants, in a bold self critique, noted that apparently Nkrumah was wrong when he said "seek ye first the political kingdom and all things will be added thereto." Political kingdoms absent economic revolution has proven to be bankrupt. Those of us forty and over, still alive, halfway sane, and with even a modicum of strength and stomach left for struggle, we know. The real deal is to figure out how to economically sustain and develop ourselves.

            The real revolution is self development. What we used to call "Kujitegemea" -- economic self reliance. Balozi runs the Harlem, New York based Third World Trade Institute. We talk about effecting trade and economic development in Africa.

            Finished? We've hardly just begun. There are questions of the environment. Questions of affordable and appropriate technology. Questions of mass transit and urban development.

            In the West there's a mess. Every major urban center of the United States has problems. The really big ones have really big problems. In Brasil there are horrendous problems: in the Amazon, the lungs of the world are being burnt up and children are systematically slaughtered in Rio. Jamaica is Hollywood: the "wild, wild west" but with real bullets, real death and real destruction. Eastern Europe is a cauldron that no detente can hold together. The end of history? Who are we going to believe: the West or our lieing eyes?

            The end of history? No. The end of his story? Yes. At last. Yeahhhh booooyyyyyeeeeee! It is really now our time to decide how to live our lives.


            To try to figure out how to get it together and move forward. And part of moving forward must be leaving a bunch of our badness behind. Jettison the European model. Fanon told us oh so long ago. But we did not really understand. Now with Paris looking the way it does. With London, with New York, with Moscow, Berlin. With all of that being what it is, which is not us. No map for our space. What we are faced with finally is a fight within ourselves to determine which way forward. And that's revolution.

            Why should anyone want to recreate the United States, England or France? How could we. Whom could we enslave by the millions? Which continents would we kill the indigenous inhabitants, remove most of the accessible mineral wealth, colonize, industrialize, pollute and declare to have reached the end of history? We have only ourselves and the spaces we occupy. The Caribbean isles are too small to sustain us. The West to covetous of what they have built up to share. We have only that which is yet to be developed.

            We have the dirt roads of Ghana. We have the hinterlands of Africa's West Coast. We have war weary central Africa. And the industrial jewel of South Africa. We have ourselves. We have a future. But it will take a revolution to actualize our dreams.

            A future for us requires a revolution in our lifetime. The real battle will be to overturn ourselves and become Black again, moving at our own pace, in our own space, in directions of our own choosing.

            And this is what we wrestle with at a breakfast without a purpose. We had the breakfast because that is what one does at conferences. Maybe we needed something else. Maybe what we need is to stop.

            Stop doing what has already been done. Create what does not now exist.

            Stop emulating the end of history. Honor the lives of our ancestors. Make and build a space where their spirits can be blessed by the smiles of future generations, walking in rhythm, living in harmony, enjoying the fruits (and vegetables) of a revolution that we accepted responsibility to wage.

            A revolution is more than simply a change of mind. Revolution is conscious engagement with the forces of history, the discarding or overthrowing of a dominating social order and the institution of a new social order. Every revolution fights two phases. First, the struggle (generally violent) to gain control of the productive forces and defend oneself from outside control and/or domination. Second, the struggle for social reconstruction and instituting the new social system.

            So far we have had no successful revolution of the second phase. From Haiti onward to independent Africa and the Caribbean, all of the revolutions which have succeeded in phase one have failed in phase two. In cases such as Mozambique or Grenada, phase two was aborted because they were not able to defend phase one against external aggression (Mozambique) or internal conflicts (Grenada). But the deal is to learn from, rather than be discouraged by, the mistakes and failures of our predecessors. Moreover, regardless of the outcome in the past, revolution is still what we need to built a secure future.

            One reason we need revolution is Euro-supremacist imperialism has no intention of leaving us alone. We can not simply withdraw into ourselves because they won't let us.

            Our oppressors and exploiters, our ex-masters and economic creditors, Western social engineers and scientists, dominate us even without their physical presence by actively seeking to incorporate us into the web of their influence either directly or through proxities and stand-ins. Without a revolution of our own making, we fight phase one and then simply end up with new masters trading places with old masters. The dominant and dominating systems staying in place, modified only in so much as necessary to accommodate the newly ascendant, and generally less competent, "native/petit bourgeois" ruling class.

            Western dominance is not simply a matter of ideology but also of institutions and individual behavior. Dominance is structural and behavioral. This is why Black faces in high places do not necessarily raise the level of life for the majority. Whether as heads of state and government functionaries for newly independent countries or as mayors and legislators in Western countries, more often than not, this new ruling elite ends up being caretakers of crumbling and disintegrating societies which are dependent on aid from the West. A flag and military don't make a country. Indeed, the maintenance of government bureaucracies and militaries often impoverish developing countries.

            To be real, a revolution must be able to improve the quality of life for its people by bringing about positive change at all three levels: ideology, institutions and individual behavior. This then is why and what a revolution is. A revolution of two phases leading to real power to define, defend, develop and respect our lives.

            Then, and only then, will we truly be able to know, taste, love, hold and procreate the whole of ourselves.

—kalamu ya salaam


photo by Alex Lear







            The castles were the seat of colonial government.


            The Ghanaians never had nor needed a word for jail or prison.


            The castles were where the prisons were.


            The Akan word for fortification is Aban.


            Along the coast where the castles were, the Akan coined a word for both the colonial government and for prison: Abanum.


            Literally, "inside the fortifications".


            Prison: the government has you.


            We have a hell of a lot of castles in America.








            There is something about this man thing.


            Tarzan was a man. Tarzan left his woman behind. Eventually they sent Jane, but Tarzan still dug Cheeta, the monkey. Tarzan and Jane didn't have any children. Then they sent boy. One child. Tarzan. Jane. Cheeta. And boy. Never a girl. The classic European nuclear family.


            Most Ghanaian men don't look or act anything like Tarzan. I'm closer to...


            Me, Tarzan. You, Jane. I'm in charge.




            I worked in my office literally until the last minute and there was almost no time left to return to the apartment, grab my unpacked bags, throw some clothes in (I'm sure I left something), stop to pick up my son who is caring for my car, and drive like crazy to get to the airport on time. Nia had already called me to let me know that I was late. This is her first trip to Africa. This is my first trip to Ghana. We make the Delta flight. With maybe two minutes to spare. No, I'm exaggerating. It was something like five minutes to spare.

            The plane stops in Atlanta. Stephanie Hughley is going. Steve Browser meets her there. He has recently returned from Ghana and gives her some pictures to take back to share with folk. Gives us both some good advice. I start feeling really, really good about this trip.

            Ghana Airlines is in the same terminal we arrive in on Delta. Everything goes smoothly. I've been up all night, so I slept from New Orleans to Atlanta. Slept from Atlanta to New York. And plan to sleep on the way over from New York to Accra.

            And then this Ghanaian brother gets on. He has on a big black coat. A big black hat. He's got all kinds of bags hanging off him. A little girl in tow. As he settles in, I see that one of the "bags" is actually a baby cradled against his stomach. The baby is two months old. Her older sister is 18 months old.

            Brother man carefully unstraps. Unpacks with precision. And for the next nine hours takes such loving care of those kids that everybody complements him. He wasn't the only one with kids on the plane. He wasn't even the only man accompanying kids. But he was so beautiful to watch.

            He says he loves his kids. He must. And they must love him. He fed them. Changed them. Rocked them to sleep. They were quiet.

             I mean when I first saw him coming down the aisle I almost passed him off as a hip cat dressed all in black with a felt hat cocked to a bad lean. After we got off in Accra, there was no doubt in my mind. This was a hip cat. A Ghanaian man. And his lean was straight and tall.




            To know the pear we must taste the pear. Knowledge is not the result of simply and solely thinking but rather the result of sensing and reflecting on our experiences. Regardless of whether the tasting is a result of our own direct experience or a vicarious tasting as a result of the experiences of others, some mouth has to taste the pear in order to fully know pearness, in order to fully conceive of the pear as a pear.

            There is a world of difference between thinking of (or imagining) how a pear tastes and knowing how a pear tastes. Obviously, it is both necessary and important to think, but thinking alone is insufficient. Moreover, if we start off any social investigation simply with thoughts then we have misled ourselves.

            We should start with "what is" (i.e. our social realities) and think of ways to either maintain or change reality. Maintain reality when it befits us and change reality when it is necessary. So while we argue that the battle is for the hearts and minds of our people, we also understand that ultimately that battle is a battle to influence the behavior of our people and to understand and celebrate the historic and hereditary aspects of our culture and ourselves, historic and hereditary aspects which are beyond our control to fundamentally change.

            The fact that many of us (including some of our most notable celebrities) have spent big bucks, long hours and suffered painful operations in order to physically change our appearance (e.g. the shapes of our nose and lips, the color of our skin, the texture of our hair) does nothing to alter the basic fact we are of a specific ethnic heritage. Genetically, we are still what we are, and, if we have children, they will not inherit our surgically changed features, but rather will inherit the features dictated by our ethnic DNA. The basic fact is that individual thoughts and actions, no matter how bizarre or deviant from the norm, do nothing to change our essential make-up. Our ethnic identity remains intact, regardless of how we alter our physical image. The same applies to our history.

            In order to influence how people think, we must first "recognize" and analyze our realities. Ignorance of our social, historical and ethnic realities is the biggest obstacle to our individual and collective development. After surveying the field, then and only then are we able to move forward with some degree of certainty in terms of influencing both "how" and "what" people think.

            The surest way to change one's mind is to engage in behaviors which indicate and reinforce the contemplated change. In fact, we have not actually changed our minds until we change our behavior, otherwise we have merely only "thought about" changing our minds. This is why the slave master is more concerned with controlling behavior than with controlling thinking.

            Among many of us it is popular to quote and misapply Carter G. Woodson's observation about educating a man to go to the back door and that once so educated, the man will always seek the back door, and if he does not find a back door, he will work to create a back door. This backdoor observation is used to illustrate the power of brainwashing the mind, but the truth is not to be found in the power of the mind, but rather the power of miseducation.

            We must realize that miseducation is not simply a thought in the master's mind put into the oppressed person's mind by osmosis, but rather is transferred through the process of dominant culture education which is itself a real practice designed to institutionalize specific behavior. The critical aspect of the backdoor theory is not what the backdoor man "thinks" but rather the "process of teaching" him to think the way he does, "and the social reinforcements" which make sure that he continues to think in backdoor ways.

            None of the above is to deny the power of the mind, the power of positive thinking (to use a well-worn catch phrase). However, the real question is what does it take to reach the hearts and minds of our people? How do we change people's mind? How do we change our own minds? Obviously, we must educate ourselves and reinforce the education. Education is process, a learned behavior.

            Moreover, from a philosophical standpoint, all thought should start with an assesment or appreciation of reality, then move to a critique of reality, then an application of the critique, and then an assessment of the success, or failure, of the application. This is not a linear process in the sense that everything happens sequentially, one, two and then three. Rather it is a dialectical process in the sense that starting with what is, we think about reality, move to change reality and/or change our behavior in response to reality, and then reevaluate reality in light of our "new thoughts" which thoughts are actually our new behavior and our new reality. So forth and so on.

            The Ghanian brother caring for his children is engaged in true revolutionary education. His thoughts about what it means to be a man, about the relationship of fathers to children, about the division of labor along gender lines, about nurturing as a male activity, all of that is profoundly affected by his behavior of actually caring for his kids on the plane from New York to Accra.

            Those of us who saw him were also affected. It may have caused some of us to reexamine our ideas, or seeing him may have reinforced some ideas we had. In any case, for him, for his children, for all of us who witnessed him, and for the future of the Pan Africa world, his social behavior was the critical intervention altering reality.

            On one level I don't know what brotherman thought about what he was doing. On another level, I know that his thoughts were profoundly human, profoundly caring, and ultimately inspiring. In fact, his thoughts were revolutionary, not because of what he thinks, but rather because of what he does and how his doing informs and reorders the social world. We need revolution in terms of social change, not simply philosophical conjecture about what was, is and could be. We need more brothers like brotherman, a baby strapped to his stomach, showering his daughters with nurturing attention that inculcates into them in particular, and all others who observe him, a new and revolutionary concept of African manhood.

            Did you ever see Tarzan feed boy, change boy's diaper, rock boy to sleep? Well?


—kalamu ya salaam


photo by Alex Lear






            In the absence of any physical landmarks of this historical journey into chaos, other communities of African people may seek refuge in collective amnesia as a natural defence against the unbearable trauma of the savageries of the slave trade. But for the people of Ghana, there can be no escape from a historical reality as palpable as the slave castle. Ultimately, Ghana's Pan African consciousness reaches far into a fractured, deeply wounded collective unconscious that insists on being uncovered so that it may be healed back to wholeness. The slave forts and castles are the most immediate though confusing gateway into the collective unconscious. To contemplate and, above all, to penetrate the puzzling, even frightening mystery of these mouments of enslavement is to come to terms with our history of fragmentation, the basis of Pan African consciousness and struggle.            

 —Excerpt from Slave Castle, African Historical Mindscape & Literary Imagination by Kofi Anyidoho, University of Ghana.




            Elmina - 1482. Built by the Portuguese, is the first of the slave castles. I ask questions. The more I try to find out, the less I learn. There is broad confusion as to how many castles there are in Ghana. In West Africa.

             Castles. These military forts which served as administrative centers for colonial government and the administration of the gold and slave trade, including the temporary housing of items of trade: guns, beads, alcohol, cloth from Europe and, sine qua non, gold and human flesh from Africa's interior.

            In Elmina I find one small book, Forts and Castles of Ghana by Albert van Dantzig, and one small pamphlet, The Castles Of Elmina by Tony Hyland of the Department of Architecture, University of Science & Technology, Kumasi.

            In her prescient manner, Nia somehow strikes up a conversation with Albert van Dantzig who just happens to be passing through at that time. I am upstairs in the little gift shop, feeling prideful because I have purchased these two writings and a few other books about Ghana. When I descend the steps clutching my catch, Nia introduces me to Mr. Dantzig. He is seventy some years old, from Holland, now living in Ghana. We talk briefly. He autographs his book for us.

            Danzig's book focuses on a chronological summary of the construction and administration of the 50 forts and castles of Ghana. Danzig suggests "To our knowledge the following list of castles, forts and lodges -- from west to east -- could be regarded as complete." Complete? Can there ever be a complete history of the slave trade and all of the institutions it engendered? For me Dantzig's book is a beginning, a point of departure, an indication, a partial map, the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

            Tradeposts, fortified or not, have been built in various parts of the world, but nowhere in such great numbers along such a relatively short stretch of coast. At various places, such as Accra, Komenda and Sekondi, forts were actually built within gun-range of each other. Within three centuries more than sixty castles, forts and lodges were built along a stretch of coast less than 300 miles (500 km) long. Many of these buildings are still in existence at the present, and if some of them could be regarded as important individual monuments, the whole chain of buildings, whether intact, runined or merely known as sites, could be seen as a collective historical monument unique in the world: the ancient 'shopping street' of West Africa. The 'shops' varied greatly in size and importance. If some could be  compared with department stores, others were hardly more than village stores. (P. vii)


            The essential purpose of all these buildings was to serve as store-houses for goods brought from Europe and bought on the Coast, and as living quarters for a permanent commercial and military staff. If the earliest of these buildings were mainly fortified on the land-side against enemies expected from that side, soon the real danger appeared to come rather from the side of the sea, in the form of European competitors. During the sixteenth century a growing number of French and English ships came to trade in what was supposed to be a Portuguese monopoly area. An even more serious threat to Portuguese supremacy on the Coast came from the Dutch, who had arrived in large numbers on the coast by the end of that century...(P. xii)


            It should be pointed out that the Europeans did not have any territorial jurisdiction beyond the walls of their forts; the very land on which they were built was only rented. Each European nation tried to reserve exclusive trading rights for itself with the local rulers. It is therefore not surprising that political disintegration set in all along the coast, and consequently the tradeposts had to be armed not only to drive competitors away, but also to protect the traders inside the forts or the people on whose territory they were built against attacks by neighboring African states.

            It was also for geographical reasons that all this European commercial activity concentrated in this relatively small area: first of all there is the obvious fact that Ghana is the only area where there are substantial gold deposits comparatively near to the coast. But Ghana's coast is also suitable for building forts because it is rocky, thus providing building material and strong natural foundations, and access from the interior to the sea is not, as in neighboring areas, interrupted by lagoons and mangrove swamps... (P. xiii)           

             The 96 page book has only eight indexed references to slavery, and most of those are cursory.




            Since 1876, down through the current administration, Christiansborg Castle has served as the seat of government.

            Some castles are used as prisons.

            Others as administrative offices, post offices and the like.

            Others are museums and national monuments.

            Some are in total disrepair.

            Some are merely decaying archeological sites.

            Elmina has been recently painted and remodeled. Ironically painted bright white. Whitewashed. Inside there is a photo exhibit with a narrative. The exhibit was created by the French. Plaques have been placed. Some original plaques have been preserved. A few new ones have been added. There is a sign listing the admission prices.

            All kinds of subterranean rumblings bash the stones of Elmina. Something, I can never get the straight of the story to say exactly what the "thing" was, but something about slavery was put up and then taken down. Taken down allegedly because the Ghanaians didn't want to offend whites.

            Didn't want to offend. Whites.

            Diaspora Africans living in Ghana are rightfully incensed by the vacillations.

            Outside Elmina there is a beach party.

            Butts shaking on sacred ground.

            Dr. Robert Lee who went to Ghana during Nkrumah's days. Whose son and wife died in Ghana. Dr. Lee who has spent over thirty years of his life in Ghana. Who operated a clinic for the poor of Ghana. Dr. Lee's pocket was picked during the solemn commemorative program at the castle.

             A brass band played. People danced. The procession was not so solemn.

            There was no written program. There were no informative speeches. No story telling. No rituals of remembrance.

            Frankly, this whole recognition effort is just now seriously getting underway and Ghana is not quite sure how to do it.

            I am told: If anything substantial is to happen with respect to the castles you people will have to make it happen. It will not be given to you. You will have to take it.

            They took the old door down. They painted everything pretty and new.

            When will the truth be told?




            Within the stones of the castle our ancestral spirits are entombed. They silently await excavation. Await our detailed investigation.

            A sankofa seed is planted. I want to return to Ghana and do a collaborative work with a Ghana scholar. I want to focus on the impact of the slave trade on Africans, both continental and diaspora. Towards the end of our trip, as the idea becomes clearer, I approach Kwadwo Tgyemang. He eagerly accepts.

            It's on. There is no concise, point of origin history of the slave trade, not to mention no afrocentric assessment of the impact of slavery. Let's look at the real history, who played what role. Let's investigate and meditate, confront and come to grips with the positives and negatives of our history.

            As significant as the castles are and as many of them as there are in Ghana, there is a paucity of documentation. This lack is a clear manifestation of Ghana's historic amnesia. But also a clear manifestation of diasporan ignorance. Yet what goes around, comes around.

            We were cast out. We shall return. Like a stone flung at the sun. Like a boomerang. Like a child separated from its mother.




            The history of people is movement. I can sense in the diaspora a slow turning. A serious seeking for alternative. In conversations throughout our stay in Ghana invariably the thoughts we expressed amongst ourselves pivoted on the notion of moving. Africa, in general, and Ghana, in particular, is a magnet.

            No news here, but certainly relevance. The communal implosion and resultant disintegration of social life in the United States will invariably fling individuals away from that center toward the peripheries where other realities exist.

            For practical reasons: life and development. For historical reasons: birth and essence. For cultural reasons: temperament and lifestyle. For the love of self and Blackness -- Africa. Africa, in all its contradictions, in all its weaknesses, revulsions, convulsions, repulsions, internal chaos and material un(der)development. Africa, remains a pulsing heart attracting her blood, her brood, back to herself.

            Most of us will not voluntarily go -- but more of us will return than have ever thought about it since the fifties. A significant number, providing leadership by example, will begin the pilgrimage back into ourselves. Of that number, some will remain and others won't, but life will go on. America will continue downward and Africa will keep struggling upward. This is not theory but the inexorable march of the life force.

            After maturity there is decline and death. Before maturity there is the opportunity for growth and development. Who is in a period of "decline after maturity" and who is struggling to develop? The distinction is plain. Especially when we look at the African world collectively, who we are, where we are, and what we have to live for.




            The forts are brute manifestations of penetration. Male movement into fecund  earth. Testimony to the mauling of Africa by marauders and by co-conspiratorial African merchants and mercenaries.

            Facing a fort, I feel my foreigness, my estrangement from this birth earth, but also I feel my essence, my connections. Both rupture and reproachment, as well as reentry and embracement.

            As an individual, I was born in a nation of immigrants, movement is my history -- and yet everyday, folk in America give you 57 arguments, 997 facts as to why going back to Africa is unrealistic. Just five hundred years ago the American migration started in earnest and now these conquering nomads argue that migration is an exercise in futility. The majority of Whites are less than five generations on American soil. Most came not speaking English and with only as much possessions as they could carry. When nomads consul that it is foolish to migrate, who should listen?

            Why are these forts here if moving here is so undesirable?

            There is more than gold in them there hills of Ghana.

            The old itinerant preachers and blues bards used to forcefully sing: "You got to move / When God get ready / You got to move!"

            Could it be that those castles, the last we saw of Africa, those prisons where we were held, could it be, that those symbols of slavery will become beacons, lighthouses, guiding us back into ourselves?

            Moreover, we are each other's completion.

            Africa may need the diaspora more than the diaspora needs Africa because Africa can never be whole until the diaspora is embraced.

            On purely a material level, our skills and resources are needed. On a social level, because we are without specific ethnic interest, we may be the only Africans capable of helping Africa transcend the limitations of tribalism. On a psychological level, we may be the lever to force Africa to turn over the rocks of colonialism and examine what has been hidden beneath. We may be the epiphany that sparks the memory, that shatters the amnesia, that cleanses the wound of slavery, that immense maiming that arrested the continent and continues to unbraid every developmental effort that does not confront this awfulness.

            If and when the diaspora returns, the returning will force the host to deal with a historic reality which, for so long, too long, has been ignored. Perhaps it's a larger plan than individuals in the diaspora returning home "to drink water from an ancient well" in hopes of quenching a thirst for completion that no other liquid can satisfy. Suppose that's only the romance.

            Suppose the real deal is that Africa can not rise without us. Suppose Africa needs us far more than any of us have yet admitted. Far more than any of us have ever imagined or thought about.

            Suppose we are the seed that must be planted in fertile soil, the only stone upon which the future can be built. I do not mean this as self flattery but rather as a reflecting on a most terrible reality: what continent can stand the removal of millions and millions and millions of its strongest and still develop?

            In some ironic manner befitting the convolutions of what it means to be African, the diaspora is the Africa that the continent is struggling to become. The Africa concerned with the whole of itself rather than self-defeatingly focused on specific and antagonist ethnicities and nationalities.

            I don't know. Fathomming this is more than my brain can contain. All I know is that I want to know more. I want to return and learn what I left, I want to return and understand the origin of what I brought over with me. I want to return. I am seeking myself.

            Rummaging through the history of a fort. Sitting next to a centuries old cannon. Standing in an empty storeroom, perhaps in the very spot a not too distance ancestor stood.

Everything I know is nothing compared to the immensity of what this fort teaches me I do not know. And the fort also teaches me an even more brutal reckoning: as ignorant as I am, I still know more about what happened then do the majority of Africans on the continent. As ignorant as I am, I am more aware of my Africaness precisely because I have no African nationality, no African ethnicity. I have no one tribe or nation. I have all of them, and in having all I transcend each one.

Both my consciousness and my ignorance are deep. Deep knowing. Deep ignorance. But that's no news; I'm African.




         STONE SONGS.



            the silent stone so

            full of voices, the spirit

            sound your insides feel




            i am tempted to

            go to the wall and tongue lick

            stone in search of words




            i want to piss on

            dungeon floor, spit on dungeon

            door, eye break stone down




            stone stand, stand stone, stone

            cold dead  at the auction stand

            stand  stone cold dead  still


 —kalamu ya salaam


photo by Alex Lear






            At the colloquium on the first day I heard a paper by Kwadwo Opoku Agyemang from the University of Cape Coast. "Culture Under Siege: The Making Of Africa's Heart Of Darkness" addressed the issue of how the slave trade affected those who were left behind. 

            A society that lives under a real and constant threat of enslavement consists of potential slaves; and a society of potential slaves will experience a psychological development peculiar to the environment. The culture of the besieged society will acquire certain characteristics and tendencies in order to fight, adapt to or in some way survive the catastrophe. When a society is so placed and must bend all its strengths to preserve its collective life and cannot grow beyond shrill survival, then its culture will fold into itself; it becomes a grim and conservative society, its people huddle together, furtive and afraid, in a state of shock and suffering traumata, a wounding. 

            He spoke about the phobias resulting from this trauma. He talked about moral breakdown. Moral stories that were told to children. In these stories the thief doesn't get caught nor punished.

            Kwadwo suggests that the point of the story was to teach children not to trust people. Why? Because, during the period of the slave trade, the people you trust just might be the ones to sell you into slavery.

            Some of the responses took exception. They offered no disproving evidence. They didn't even offer alternate theories. They just didn't want to accept that slavery had affected those left behind to that extent.

            Many Ghanaians are very, very proud of their traditions. But suppose a lot of what was created, was created in reaction and relation to the slave trade? Suppose significant aspects of one's proud culture wasn't really self-determined traditions but rather reactions to the slave trade? Suppose negatively reacting to the slave trade was a major part of one's cultural tradition?.

            Kwadwo talked about scarification. A concept almost indelibly identified with traditional Africa. Kwadwo searched for the beginning of scarification. He found periods where there was no sacrification. He found slave documents suggesting that slave traders avoided slaves with unsightly scars. He talked about "a little gem of a short story by the Senegalese writer and filmmaker, Sembene Ousmane," called "Tribal Scars or the Voltaique" in which a father brutally scars his little girl's face and body to protect her from slavery. He talks about the absence of scarification in the New World. He talked about how scarification was a survival tactic.

            During the question and answer period, I shared information I had read in The Bush Rebels, A Personal Account Of Black Revolt In Africa by Barbara Cornwall, a freelance, American journalist who walked through the bush with Frelimo in Mozambique and PAIGC in Portuguese Guinea. 

            Fortunately we were met by a Land Rover along the route and were soon rolling to a halt at the edge of a clearing where long columns of barefooted Mozambican civilians had set down their loads for barter. They were Makondes from a tribe in Cabo Delgado, a purportedly fierce people who at puberty carve geometrical designs across their faces and then rub charcoal into the fresh wounds. The scarring is done during a ceremony for both boys and girls and the final result on their dark skins is quite impressive. More startling at first encounter are two additional operations, both optional, during which a metal peg is driven into the initiate's upper lip and secured on each side by an iron disc, then the teeth are filed to points. The entire practice of maiming is a custom dating from the slave trade era when the Makondes hoped, often justifiably, that slavers would pass them over because of their grisly appearance. Their market price would not have covered the cost of their transport because few buyers would bid on a fanged slave when more presentable ones were available. (P. 20) 

            Kwadwo Opoku Tgyemany stated that when it came to analyzing the beginnings  and origins of some social practices, many, many Africans have an amnesia surrounding the slave trade. They simply say "that's the way things were always done."

            Kwadwo Opoku Tgyemany made me understand that "always" is only five hundred years long. Always is really not that long.

            Besides always is a Eurocentric concept used to justify their dominance. Nothing that is material or social is eternal. Everything must change. That law of life is our greatest hope. Always don't last forever.








            On 6 December 1994, the day Nia and I left for Ghana, New Orleans, the murder capital of the United States had reached 393 murders for the year. By the time we get back on 20 December 1994, the murder rate will surely be over 400. The overwhelming majority of these murders are "Black on Black."




            At first the major barter item was the gun. Guns came to Africa from Europe. Once in the hands of African mercenaries, then the slave trade began in earnest. Those who were without guns were preyed upon by those who had them.

            Soon guns were everywhere, even though everyone did not have a gun, and there was a complete breakdown of social order in the face of constant marauding, constant murdering and constant enslaving. The proliferation of guns historically has resulted in social chaos.




            The gun make you feel funny, feel like you different, almost invincible. Don't have to take nothing off nobody. Can do whatever you want.

            Gun culture is aggression and instantaneous obliteration of whomever troubles you.

            In a moment of anger, if you got a gun, you pull the trigger. Had it been a fist fight it would have been different. You may even have knocked the man down, kicked him once or twice, but rarely actually beat him to death with your hands. But with a gun, umh. Let that fellow look at you wrong, and, boy, he dead for sure. You fire him up.

            And the stuff happens so fast, so fast.

            Gun culture is swift death even before you have time to think about what you are doing. Put a gun in the hands of a man who feels less of a man than "the man" and the armed creature stiffens like an aroused prick.

            I watch the soldiers with guns in Ghana. You don't see them often. Around the President, at some official function when there are big people to protect. But wherever you see them, the hard stance is the same. Gun eyes look at you. Daring you to do something untoward, not to mention flat out wrong.

            Man with gun always speaks in bullets.

            Gun culture. The gun. You walk around with a perpetual hard-on, always ready to fuck someone.


—kalamu ya salaam