photo by Alex Lear


Horace Silver


            Where is the orange pumpkin face with the lit candle inside? Where the wide snaggle tooth smile like the one Ma'dear used to beam at us? But she also used to bust our butts and that warm smile would turn to a grimace just like the one you got now, and just like I never pleaded with Ma'dear to slack up on whipping us, I'm not going to beg you to stay.

            You used to glow radiant like you were plugged into god's bright light when you first came here in that happy yellow dress I liked to see you wear. Although you arrived in December, in winter, your aura was so unwintery, plus you had yellow shoes with spaghetti straps. From the beginning you were always munching fruit.

            "You like jazz?" I asked. You nodded. I gestured toward the sofa and dropped a record on my system. You sat listening attentively to Horace Silver blowing the "Tokyo Blues." I don't know why I chose that album to play to you, or why I asked did you like jazz, or even why I invited you over.

            You were so thin, thinner than any woman I had ever been with at that time. I don't even like thin women, so I mean you were already way ahead of the game. Maybe it was the geisha girls on the cover with Horace sitting between them that caused me to pause while flipping through the stack searching for suitably impressive sounds to play. Maybe your bright red lipstick, the rouge tastefully spread on your cheek, and, of course, your quietness reminding me of the way I imagine Japanese women are, and your carefully painted fingernails, and the small amber ring you wore, with matching earrings, your legs crossed listening to "Cherry Blossom," saying you had that record in your collection.

            Before the LP was over you looked up at me. I was standing tall. You smiled and then sat back and looked away briefly, then looked back and gave me a full, big eyed stare like you had already figured what you wanted out of this. I was just steady looking at you, at how small your breasts were and trying to think was this going to be worth my time. If I knew what I know now, I never would have cared about you, but I didn't know. You let me fall in love with you, and now that I do, you don't care.

            I still remember standing in my living room the evening of the first day. It was already December dark even though it was only like a quarter to seven. You were admiring my African sculpture that my sister gave me from her trip to Ghana and I had on a cranberry colored sweater. Horace Silver was spinning exactly at 33 and 1/3 revolutions a minute. The orange lights on the turntable gauge where perfect squares standing still. I remember all that. I just kind of stood there listening to Blue Mitchell's exuberant trumpet calls and was wondering what all this was about.

            Yeah I'm a little upset. I mean I care. Yeah, I would prefer if we worked this out, if you would glow like you used to when you looked at me with your huge brown eyes telling me about some book you had read or how you liked the way I touched you, glow like you did that first evening when I was standing surrounded by Horace Silver's hip sounds washing over us and you returned your face to me and told me, "I don't want anything serious. I want this to be light. I want us to enjoy it. I'll stay as long as it's light."

            I suppose I was supposed to kiss you at that moment, but Horace was playing so beautifully I had to be more subtle than that. So I squatted in front of you, touched your knee briefly and simply said, "yeah, that's what I want too. As long as it's good." I never intended to really, really love you. I mean you wanted it "light," and I imagined this could be very convenient, us seeing each other and seeing other people too.

            I asked you if you wanted something to eat and you held up the apple you were chewing and smiled. You never liked to cooked. I never met a woman like you that was so open about not wanting to cook, about refusing to cook. I cooked more than you did and I can't cook, and my surprise to learn you were a school teacher. I guess I thought all school teachers were also supposed to know how to cook.

            You never corrected the way I talked so I couldn't imagine you an English teacher but I guess you had to be something. I never really knew you before that day you came over and right now I'm realizing that I have never really got to know you since.

            It's only a few months later. The weather has just turned to spring, nevertheless, here you are intoning in that husky voice of yours (a sexy huskiness that first attracted me to you, a voice which initially sounds too deep for such a petit body, that voice which tipped me off that maybe there was more to you than it looked like there was), here you are saying "Harold, it's not light anymore."

            When did it stop being light. It's still light for me. For a teacher you sure do get a lot of stuff backwards. Winter is heavy, spring is light. Look at you right now, you're hunched into that frog position you like so much lately: your heels pulled up on the edge of the chair, your arms wrapped around your legs, your chin on your knee.

            "Is this because I don't want to drive to Atlanta to see Nelson Mandela?" You answer "no," dragging out the short response, but it sounds like yes to me.

            "Was it about that AIDS walk I didn't want to go to and you went by yourself?" You answer me "no" but here we go again, it sounds like yes.

            "Is it because I don't want to use condoms? I mean it's mainly you and me right..."

            You slowly close your eyes.

            "I mean you did say you wanted this to be light, right?"

            I can hear you not listening to me.

            "What do you want? You want us to live together? You already said you don't want to be married. What, huh? I don't understand..."

            I looked at you. You are fading before my eyes. I reach out to touch you, to hold you. My hand goes right through your body and touches the back of the chair.


—kalamu ya salaam


photo by Alex Lear

when you said you loved me



what did you do with it

after you didn't anymore

after the rain of love dried

after laughs

after baths

after toast & watermelon

after cups of water in the night

after morning smiles & phone calls


i know what i did with mine

i have a wall of pain painted

  nigerian indigo,

  created lyrics for a howlin' wolf,

  fashioned a mask of brown sadness,

  & in a midnight hour

  buried love's corpse quietly

  watching dry eyed

  as the heart-red crypt slipped

  peacefully deep into

  the sea of my experiences

  where the brackish-green, obsidian

  sealed sepulcher shall sleep

  untroubled by resurrection attempts


when you said you loved me

i never thought of it in the past tense


what did you do with it

after you didn't anymore



Kalamu ya Salaam – vocals

Stephan Richter – clarinet

Wolfi Schlick – reeds

Frank Bruckner – guitar

Mathis Mayer - cello

Georg Janker - bass

Michael Heilrath - bass

Roland HH Biswurm - drums



Recorded: June 14, 1998 – "ETA Theatre" Munich, Germany


—kalamu ya salaam


photo by Alex Lear


flushing before finishing


before i was finished urinating i flushed the toilet. it was like my father was standing beside me. i know where i got this habit from. big val used to do that. he used to flush the toilet before he was finished. and they used to call me lil val. i don’t remember whether it was because we had the same first name, vallery, shortened by most folk who knew us to val, or did i really look like him, act like him? was i really a new generation of him?


there is no easy answer.


a few years ago i was commissioned to write an essay about family. i choose to write about the spirit family of the secondline. my words did not even mention my father, yet, something strange happened. well, not really strange, now that i think about it. but at the time i just went along with the unusual request and thought nothing about it, until months later someone made a remark that has left me wondering. “you look just like your father.”


what was the request? the photographer said, can i shoot you without your glasses on? i’ve worn glasses since i was in third grade—even when i sat on the first row, i couldn’t read the blackboard, and i was a good reader. so, i took off my glasses and patiently waited for the photographer to finish. afterwards, i forgot about it.


my daddy didn’t wear a beard. i’ve worn a beard since the seventies. yet, the older i get, the more i look like my father. what gives? did my unique and younger genes loose the fight with the older genes passed directly from my father? do we really change how we look as we grow older? am i a unique case? what’s up with looking like my father?


as i finish urinating i am forced to admit i don’t know how much of me is me as opposed to my father living in me; which, of course, begs the question how much of me is in my sons and daughters.


i used to think it didn’t make sense to flush the toilet before one is finished urinating, especially as sometimes relieving one’s self took longer than one initially thought it would and one would have to flush the toilet a second time to clear out the lemony-colored water from the bowl. and even more infuriating, sometimes, if it was one of those old house toilets, you had to wait almost two full minutes for the toilet tank to contain enough water in order to flush a second time. and yet, as stupid as i used to think it was to continue the habit of flushing before finishing, today i do it, even after congratulating myself in my youth for not following my father’s example. i do it and i know exactly from whom i got this habit.


what i don’t know is what all else i got from him. i’ve never done a complete inventory and the reason i never did this inventory is because even though i have one of his habits that i often thought didn’t make sense, and even though i look like him, today i am forced to admit i never knew him well enough to know whether there are other aspects of him that i keep alive. most of us never really know our parents personally as individuals, we only know them as the older people who had us and who, if we are lucky, took good care of us. yet is it not true that there is no future that is not intimate with the past?


whether we know our parents and forbears, whether we look like them, whether we have their temperament or proclivities, their way of walking or talking, way of bearing pain or grudges, whether we love them and talk with them often, or could care less and have not seen them in decades, whether they live now or have transitioned to ancestorhood, whatever, whether whatever, the simple truth is: an essential part of all we are is shaped by whatever our parents have been (even if we don’t know who or what they were)—their influence on our fate is inescapable.


—kalamu ya salaam



(to those who wish

she would shut up)



if yr life had

happened to a man, the

whole world would know abt it,

but you a big legged woman

breaking the monopoly of male writers

talking bold about what has kept

you from walking off the ledge of life

and what drove you out the window

in the first place, about to

silently hit the sky falling

like a dropped drum stick

during the middle of the big number



talk abt yrself

yr blkwomanself/neo-african

in the midst of a land caught up in

worshipping twentieth century minstrels


talk bout womanness and exaltations

and never uttering the lie about being

sorry not to be born a boy, talking

like you think, like you feel,

like you move through decaying urban america

pass fashions, kitchen recipes, modern romances

and mythical holy vaginal orgasms


talk like our moses spake

in the middle of headin' north night

pressing a slack-jawed man who

couldn't keep his pants dry:

"once we get started, ain't no turning



talk like that lil sister, can't

remember her name, who shot hot

breath all up in a white boy's face

and doubled dared him to fuck with her

 in the hallway, in class, after school, on

the bus or any other goddamn time, back in

1958, in one of their schools when,

at the time, you did good just

to stay proudly black and defiantly sane


talk like you an oracle

bearing witness to changing times

or the sphinx sitting on the secret

in the desert, not only was you blk

but, yes, possibly you were woman

when napoleon saw that he barked

the order for his battery

of cannons to commence

and left part of your nose,

and a piece of lip

pulverized and floating

a dusty cloud toward the nile


talk that talk

when the truth is revealed to the

light, the shysters will all scream

taint fair, they'll cry

foul, say you strikes smoking

clean down the middle are misses,

say you high, or low, or wide,

or you got spit on the ball,

you see you just ain't allowed

on the mound and there you

are talking like you ain't

never heard of being

quiet and pretty in the bleachers


talk Shange, talk

like a lioness putting

your jaw around a jackass' throat



to some men

the sound of blkwomansong

is noise


but no matter,

many of us are dancing anyway

and in time most all us will be waving

red bandanas and shouting: "amen, sister,

ain't it the truth, amen"





—kalamu ya salaam