Info

Kalamu ya Salaam's information blog

When I was in sixth grade at Phillis Wheatley school, around the corner from the Dooky Chase restaurant, back in the fifties, I had class mates who routinely passed for White after school. We got on the New Orleans public transportation busses together, headed to Canal Street, where the main shopping and business district was.

One of the widest streets in America had trolley cars running up and down the median and was lined with stores and offices on both sides. The thoroughfare also was the place where the majority of the diverse bus lines from both uptown and downtown would meet and turn around. Additionally, Canal Street was an accessible and common meeting location known to most New Orleanians. “I’ll meet you by. . .” such and such store, corner, or bus stop. . . “you know, where the Peanut Man be.”

Pamela, Gilbert and a number of other friends boarded and sat in front of the screens; we trooped on to the back (occasionally one of us would throw a screen out the window). The wooden plaques had metal pegs on the bottom that fit into holes on the tops of bus seats. When Whites boarded the buses, if there were no open seats available, they would lift the screen and move it to seats further back. Blacks who were seated in front of where ever the screen was moved, were obliged to get up and move to a seat behind the screen. If there were no empty seats behind the screen, you had to stand. Segregation wasn’t nothing nice.

When I saw the movie Passing, based on the short novel by Nella Larsen that focused on former childhood friends who had both grown up to become women of means in New York City (one living in Harlem, the other visiting while her husband was doing business) during the Jazz Age twenties, Jim Crow memories sullied my consciousness.

The moneyed among us was a tiny minority within a minority. Petite bourgeois class components were even more glaring to me than were the obvious racial conundrums. In no particular order, racial, and in some cases racist, elements twirled around as if on a merry-go-round, class issues were ignored, and the supremacy of patriarchy was assumed.

In that situation, if you are Black, poor and female, you silently did the work while saying little if anything besides “yes, mam” or “no, mam” and “yes, sir” or “no, sir”.

This austere black and white movie is never solely what it seems to be. The cinematography is rich in its shadings that reveal tensions while hiding secrets. The color white dominates throughout and especially so in the conclusion in the snow that is immediately followed by a white-out ending.

Significantly, in the personal aspects of Irene’s life, blackness dominates. Check the skin tones, especially of her children; the dark interiors of her home, which are never portrayed as menacing or forbidding but rather as natural and comforting. In contrast to Clare, who luxuriates in Irene’s world, Irene is made ill by the pretense and contradictions she chooses to endure. This is a subtle and devastating subversion of a placid surface covering an interior life full of turmoil.

The aesthetics of the film present the color white as a source of conflict and the color black as a source of comfort. Whiteness dominates the setting when Irene and Clare are first reunited in a hotel restaurant. Most significantly, upon inserting herself into Irene’s domestic life, Clare is shown now obviously feeling at home; easily interacting with Irene’s children; quietly conversating with Irene’s husband; sitting in the back yard, sharing a relaxing, Indian summer afternoon with “Zu” (i.e. Zulena), who is Irene’s dark-skinned maid.

Obviously the director paid particular attention in employing a color palette on which white is presented as sterile and darker shades as fecund. The dialogue is sharp, always peeling back an exterior to reveal the true, albeit hidden, meanings of words, individuals, situations. In the light of darkness we are shown the realities of black, white, and various shades in-between.

Significantly, the soundtrack features solo piano passages by Ethiopian pianist and composer Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou. In the Harlem party sequences jazz predominates, especially when a raucous trumpeter joyously subverts the nuances of the film’s thematic music. The director’s musical choices are no accident. European elements are not presented, instead African and African-American musics provide a tapestry of meaningful sounds.

The scriptwriter and director, Rebbeca Hall, whose grandfather passed for white, has produced a subtle expose of the dangers of passing, particularly when one is outed. Preceding the tragic conclusion, rather than deny or denounce her Black interior, Clare escapes her racist, husband’s wrath the only way she can. He has accused her of being a liar and as he advances in demonic rage, she flees, or is she pushed?

However, before we get to the conclusion, we have to negotiate a maze of psychological feigns and thrusts. This movie is far from a one-trick pony, especially in the interrogation of the behaviors and intentions of the duo of leading women.

1. Repressed Irene Redfield, brim of her hat pulled down, hiding who she thought herself to be: a Black self, she presumed, Whites would peep if she weren’t careful when around them; a self-manufactured identity that was a paragon of both progress and psychosis. She was a light-skined stalwart of racial uplift organizations and, at the same time, mortifyingly afraid of exhibiting real feelings for her family, or displaying the actualities of her social status, and she especially had a reluctance to reveal her deep, complex, and often contradictory notions of self-identity.

2. Libertine (although far from liberated) Clare Kendry is a sell-out who furtively longed to return back as an in-sider. She dyed her hair blond but it was no permanent cover for her unfulfilled desire to actualize her authentic Black self even though she had chosen to live White. She had it all and still wanted more–what more? Why, dreams of Black freedom. How “they” danced through life. She stood the tragic mulatto on her head, desperately wanting both to enjoy the fruits of a forbidden White lifestyle and to be true to her own Black self.

3. Irene, talking around having “the talk” with her two sons, both of whom were too dark to ever pass; trying to keep her physician husband who wanted to escape from home by sailing off to Europe; engaging with a “colored” maid who keeps the homestead working; and, most of all, bereft of friends with whom she could engage in honest girl talk.

Reenie is truly a bird trapped in a gilded cage. In a passing moment of frank, to the point of bitter, conversation with acclaimed writer Hugh Wentworth (played by Bill Camp), Irene momentarily drops her guarded speech and reveals the vapidness of material success, noting that in one way or another we are all passing for something we are not.

4. Clare, the blond bombshell, is always on the verge of exploding. She has a daughter, whom we never see and who is sent off to Europe for an education. Another complexity is the deep, subliminal lesbian desire (including kisses and discrete touches) between the former classmates; the taboo feelings are evident and evidenced in exchanges between the duo who are friends “without” benefits.

In different ways they both desire to “be” the other, while at the same time, for divergent reasons, they are frustrated as they elect to never actually fulfill their mutual desire to “be with” each other. Nevertheless, Clare articulates that if her deception is discovered, then she is willing to move in with Irene (and with Irene’s husband, children and all). That hopeless situation would be a dream that would quickly curdle into a mishmash nightmare.

This austere black and white movie is never solely what it seems to be. The cinematography is rich in its shadings that reveal tensions while hiding secrets. The color white dominates throughout and especially the conclusion in the snow that is immediately followed by a white-out ending.

Significantly, in the personal aspects of Irene’s life, blackness dominates. Check the skin tones, especially of her children and husband; the dark interiors of her home, which are never portrayed as menacing or forbidding but rather as natural and comforting. In contrast to Clare, who luxuriates in Irene’s home, Irene is made ill by the pretense and contradictions she chooses to endure. This is a subtle and devastating subversion of a placid surface covering an interior life full of turmoil.

The aesthetics of the film present the color white as a source of conflict and the color black as a source of comfort. Whiteness dominates the setting when Irene and Clare are first reunited in a hotel restaurant. Most significantly, upon inserting herself into Irene’s domestic life, Clare is shown now obviously feeling at home; easily interacting with Irene’s children; quietly conversating with Irene’s husband; sitting in the back yard, sharing a relaxing, Indian summer afternoon with “Zu” (i.e. Zulena), who is Irene’s dark-skinned maid. 

Significantly, in a nod to Ruth Negga’s paternal Ethiopian heritage, the soundtrack features solo piano passages by Ethiopian pianist and composer Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou. On the other hand, the film also offers Harlem party sequences, including a raucous, jazz trumpet solo, which joyously subverts the nuances of the film’s thematic music. The director’s musical choices are no accident. European elements are not presented, instead African and African-American musics provide a tapestry of meaningful sounds.

The scriptwriter and director, Rebbeca Hall, whose grandfather passed for white, has produced a subtle expose of the dangers of passing, particularly when one is outed. Preceding the tragic conclusion, rather than deny or denounce her Black interior, Clare escapes her racist-husband’s wrath the only way she can. He has accused her of being a liar and as he advances in demonic rage, she flees, or is she pushed?

The climatic denouement of the movie features figures trotting up six flights of stairs to offer salvation only to conclude with Clare flying out of an open window, falling to her death.

As is the case throughout both the book and the movie, ambiguity reigns. When one attempts to live as other than what we are, clear cut clarity is never achieved. Was Clare’s death a suicide, a homicide, or just an accident. Except for an insightful explanation by Lucas Blue, most of the many reviews I’ve read do not highlight nor definitively explain the meaning of this morbid and ambiguous ending. Indeed many reviews of the movie do not even acknowledge Clare’s death.

For African Americans of that era, the cost of living White was to kill the Black self. Dr. DuBois perceptively diagnosed the problem:

The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line, the question as to how far differences of race-which show themselves chiefly in the color of the skin and the texture of the hair-will hereafter be made the basis of denying to over half the world the right of sharing to utmost ability the opportunities and privileges of modern civilization.

In Passing the racial, class, and gender issues and conflicts are subtly presented even when explicitly alluded to. This was the end of an era: circa 1929–the beginning of the great depression and also the publication year of Nella Larsen’s dystopian novel the secret of which is that nothing is what it appears to be or, to put it another way, appearance is no substitute for substance.

Divorced from the social issues of their time period, the conflicts raged internally: sickening Irene and killing Clare. Thus, illustrating the tragedy Fanon so famously explored in Black Skin, White Masks, except here the masks are “light skin” and upper class financial largesse–money is not a problem for either woman, yet life is unbearable for both.

As this movie makes clear, regardless of how high up the social ladder we ascend, we seldom fully escape. Given accidents of birth, regardless of what side of the fence we gravitate toward, the deadly gravity of White supremacy eventually touches, and in far too many cases, entraps us–and that is especially the case for those of us who believe the self-delusion that we have somehow successfully evaded the terror.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When they hit, all who heard, who caught the vibe, got down with it. Funky dreads from across the water. It was the late eighties. They were a deep Camden town amalgamation of dance sounds lead by Jazzie B (Trevor Beresford Romeo).  

Over twenty years later they were still deep in the pocket. Not just a hit in the studio, they were an aggregation that could do it live, featuring the exuberant vocals of Caron Wheeler.

Soul II Soul had an upful, feel good sound: massive vocals, pounding beats, and treacherous dance moves–howsoever your tastes might flow.

Enjoy.

 

 

The 21st century is the age of movies. And the 20th century was no slouch, that was when the Garvey era arrived with all its street ceremony and Black daring. Put another way, between the Civil War and the so-called Roaring Twenties (after all, establishment America was hardly ready to celebrate brother Garvey, hence the Negro Renaissance is what the powers that be conceded).

Any hoo, most school textbooks completely ignored Black existence in the period between the Civil War and World War I, sliding right on up to the celebrated so-called Jazz Age. But what is left out is not surprising: us! We were seldom acknowledged.

Racism left the average school child completely ignorant of the first great migration. No, not the one where millions of southern Black folk de-camped for northern Metropoli. That was an important population shift but that actually occurred a bunch of years after the massive “westward ho” movement of Jah people; as well as the simultaneous great migration of Confederate soldiers, their families, and fellow travelers. 

Of course I saw Gunsmoke, the Rifleman, and others of that ilk, but again, it never ever was impressed on me that media celebrated heroes were actually former Confederate soldiers. The “Wild West” was populated, post-Civil War, by literally tens of thousands of folk headed west with the active support of the federal government which gave away land rights–not to Native Americans, seldom to the formerly enslaved, but in a significant percentage to the former enemies of America. People who had actually picked up guns and fought against this country. (Many of them are still doing that–i.e. Kyle Rittenhouse is not an abnormality.) Here is where the story gets really tricky.

I had heard of the Buffalo Soldiers when I was a youngster, but it was not until my college and army years that I really understood who and what the “Exodusters” were, i.e. how Black people got to places such as Kansas and Omaha, Nebraska, Malcolm’s home town. 

Internet personality MoeDotJ offers excellent details on the life of the historic figures on which the movie is based. His series is a significant expose of the facts behind the cinematic presentations of: (in alphabetical order) Cherokee Bill, Rufus Buck, Nat Love, Stage Coach Mary, Bill Picket, Bass Reeves, Gertrude Trudy Smith, and Cathay “Cuffie” Williams.

That’s the historic gist of the time period in which The Harder They Fall takes place. The hit Netflix movie brings a slice of this history to life, however, in the interest of entertainment, historic figures are thrown together, most of whom never met each other, and some of whom did not even exist in the same time period.

Although most of today’s viewers are not aware, this movie is not the first Black western. There was Posse, Thomasine and Bushrod, and can’t overlook Buck and The Preacher, just to name three of the small group of films that focused on Blacks in the Wild West. Plus, it is important to point out that those movies were produced in the seventies, a period of massive activism.

Perhaps, what is most surprising is that this movie was written, produced and scored by an Englishman, Jeymes Samuel, and also stars another Englishman, with whom he grew up in London, Idris Elba. Although, reared in the USA but born in Berlin of mixed parentage (father German, mother African American), Zazie Beetz is one of the featured female leads in the movie. Westerns are the most quintessential American genre of movies and yet this movie stars the work of internationally born principals. 

Moreover, the movie’s soundtrack really shines. Throughout music and sounds are employed not simply as background, but also as exposition, cueing us on the meaning of what we are seeing. Towards the end of the movie, during the climatic fight scene between the female leads, all of sudden Fela Kuti bursts forth and it works so well even though I was watching scenes from a much earlier era while hearing an icon from a more contemporary era, I found the mix surprisingly appropriate. The combination of both sight and sound is both innovative and simulating.

This movie proves that the Black experience is not ipso facto simply a product of American exceptionalism. As much as many of us claim or assume that America is the pinnacle of human civilization, that’s not the reality.

The Harder They Fall confirms that you don’t have to be an American to make a great western and you don’t have to be a pan-Africanist to appreciate and be moved by Black history.

 

 

 

 


Painting by June Beer 

I was walking down a dirt street. Seemingly from out of the blue, I hear someone call to me. In English. “Kalamu! Kalamu!” As the man got closer I recognized the shouter. It was SNCC veteran, Willie Ricks. As we embraced each other, almost simultaneously, we each queried the other, “man, what are you doing here?”

Who in the hell knows I’m here in the northwest of Nicaragua, the city of Esteli, maybe about 150km (roughly 94 miles) away from Managua, the capital, where I flew into the country. Eventually I would visit Bluefields on the Atlantic coast.

Bluefields has a large African heritage population. There is where I met activist and politician Ray Hooker, who was recuperating from wounds he suffered in a recent armed attack.

Also in Bluefields, I just showed up at the front door of largely self-taught painter and poet June Beer. I did not know much about her and she certainly did not know anything about me, but there we were face-to-face. She invites me inside and we engage in a short tete-a-tete. I, of course, learn more about her when I return to the States. She is one of literally thousands, if not millions, of our people who, out of their sheer will to go far beyond simply surviving, decide to do something significant, especially culturally in the arts.

June’s life story reads like a Spanish language tele-nova television series, except that her life was real life, with all the ups and downs we invariably suffer as we bend, and even sometimes break, the bars restricting our life conditions, while we undertake daring efforts to leave a positive Black mark on the world. 


Painting by June Beer 

On the opposite side of the country, I visited Leon, an old municipality located near the Pacific coast side of the country. Leon is the second largest city and, early on, had been the capital. Although I don’t speak Spanish, I was comfortable everywhere. 

In Rama, a city located not too far from the center of southern Nica-Libre, as some of us fondly referred to the country newly liberated by the Sandinistas from the Samoza-regime, I was greeted by a woman in line in front of me. We were waiting to board the ferry that would take us up river to connect to a road that led to Bluefields.

I could not explain to the woman that I was not who she thought I was. My traveling companion, who did speak Spanish, had gone to purchase our transportation tickets. Eventually when he returned and engaged the woman in an animated conversation, she looked confused as he patiently explained who we were and that she was mistaken. I was not ignoring her by saying “no habla Espanol”–I didn’t speak Spanish. She was incredulous as she insisted she recognized me. She knew me and couldn’t understand why I was not talking to her.

I am a big Black man. Tall (five feet, eleven and a half inches) and stout (I easily weigh over two hundred pounds). Although this was my first and only time in the country, I had many of my preconceptions of Central America forever shattered. Prior to arriving, I never would have thought that I looked like a native Nicaraguan.

I spent about 18 days wandering around the war-torn country.

The first Sunday night during an assembly in Managua, I was in a small group that was sent north. Another group was sent south–they eventually were captured by the contras. Our travel was not a typical tourist adventure. In one small town the only two buildings that had been attacked were the school and the medical facility. It’s one thing to see newsreels and television reports, it’s quite another to hear gun battles in the night and sit in or walk next to buildings freshly pock-marked by bullets.

Near Esteli, our group was led by a handgun toting interpreter as we traveled by bus. In one church-building that served as both a school and community center, there was a poster on the wall picturing a man walking a road armed with a rifle. I asked the priest wether it was appropriate for the church to have a poster depicting an armed individual. The priest replied the people had a right to defend themselves. That was one of the major definitions of what “appropriate” really meant: self-defense.

Although I had been in the army, assigned to a mountaintop base located about fifty miles south of the DMZ in South Korea, I had not been involved in actual combat. Indeed, my MOS was electronic maintenance of the Nike Hercules Nuclear Missile, which included arming the warhead.

I was qualified with the forty-five automatic handgun, the fifty-caliber machine gun, and the M-79 grenade launcher, in addition to my training with the standard issue field rife. Moreover, I had been sent to a special school for chemical, biological, and radiological warfare. I was an intensively trained cog in the international killing machine of the U.S. military. 

Eventually, after my discharge, I traveled worldwide both as a journalist and/or as an activist. I felt emotionally comfortable everywhere I ventured: dancing in the streets of Rio in Brasil; walking the roads throughout numerous Caribbean islands, including Barbados, my personal favorite, but also St. Lucia, Martinique and Guadalupe among diverse others.

Trinidad and Tobago deserve special mention. Tobago was almost idyllic in it’s peacefulness and unsullied beauty, whereas the hustle and bustle of its big brother island, Trinidad, was almost like comparing New York City to a little family farm in Virginia.

Oil-rich Trinidad is, of course, widely celebrated for “steel pan” music. Once I experienced “Panafest”, I developed a deeper appreciation for how used oil drum containers had been turned into melodic/percussive instruments. The music they made was more than just a one-note wonder. They did everything from classical music, at an extremely high level, to popular music and jazz, and of course calypso.

As a music producer and event organizer, I was one of the people responsible for putting together the initial Pan-Jazz Festival, at which the reigning pan king, Boosie Sharp, traded improvised exchanges with trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, who also excelled at both jazz and classical music–in their improvised duet/battle neither man could totally best the other.

A notable excursion I really looked forward to was a trip to the South American country of Suriname where the official language is Dutch. Before we had the opportunity to travel inland, our visit was curtailed by an attempted coup that was successfully suppressed. Even amid bomb threats at the hotel and people literally jumping out of ground floor windows to escape potential explosions, which, thankfully, did not come, I totally enjoyed my brief stay there.

Without exaggeration, Suriname struck me as being akin to the mythical garden of Eden. When we visited a small island in the middle of the major river that flowed pass the capital city of Paramaribo, we were able to pick up succulent fruit off the ground or hanging from the abundant trees. I remember plums and all types of citrus plus many tropical fruits. I’ve always wanted to return but, alas, never did.

My travels in Suriname, Brazil, and throughout the Caribbean islands were facilitated and, on numerous occasions, made for a deeper experience by the intercessions and friendship of my dear brother, Jimi Lee, who became not only a valued guide and a man who shared his many human connections whenever and wherever we ventured forth.

Jimi was a trusted partner in diverse situations and far ranging excursions that otherwise might easily have gone sideways. My ramblings certainly would not have been half as fruitful were it not for Jimi’s knowledgable care and concern. He introduced me to socially important activists, organizers and situations that were previously unknown and unimagined by me. Moreover, as we traveled together, he always looked out for me, who was both a stranger and at the same time an insider in too many instances and situations to be named.

The first independent Caribbean country to significantly break ties with Europe holds a special place in my consciousness. I was on my own as an observer and at the same time enjoyed broad access as a journalist throughout French-speaking Haiti, a country I can never forget. I was especially impressed by the famous Citadel that was built perched atop one of the highest mountains and fitted out with cannons to protect the country should the French decide to counterattack in a vain effort to reclaim that fabled country after the successful uprising in 1804.

Historic Landmark France Citadelle De Corte Castle

The Citadel was a marvel of engineering and human effort. How the victorious  peasants of Haiti successfully constructed the Citadel at the start of the 19th century we will probably never know. That fortress undoubtedly is one of the wonders of the world.

On a different occasion on a different island, one of the vice-presidents drove us through the Blue Mountain ranges of English-speaking Jamaica, a part of the country internationally famous for its coffee but also the historic home territory of maroons who escaped enslavement on Jamaica’s plantations.

Once we descended to the north coast, we paused briefly for a lunch-time, pit-stop nearby the popular Blue Lagoon.

Although I enjoyed the length and breadth of my worldwide travels, I really marveled at and was enchanted by the Casbah-like marketplaces of Zanzibar and especially the sparkling blue-green waters of the Indian Ocean. In Tanzania’s major port city, Dar es Salaam, the activist in me could not resist standing astride the tracks of the then recently completed Tan-Zam railroad, which was built to free, copper-rich Zambia from an economic stranglehold imposed by the racist Rhodesian and South African interlopers.

Much further east in the orient, my vision was increased by standing atop the Great Wall of China and peering out over the adjoining countryside. We were shown the palaces and objects of antiquity but nothing matched witnessing literally millions of Chinese celebrating in Peking (now Beijing), the night Deng Xiaoping was rehabilitated.

And of course I should mention the amazing, forward thinking use of technology that was all over Tokyo, Japan, which we visited for a day, both coming and going, during our travel to China. I had previously, briefly been in Kyoto, Japan while in the army. I was wary of the tourist traps, especially for us soldiers, where young women sat at the bars drinking and smoking in an atmosphere of sex and drugs. One quick peep and it was back to the ship for me.

In an entirely different part of the world, I visited a museum in Munich, Germany and had the wonderful opportunity to stare, touching close, at paintings by Matisse, Picasso, Gaugin and others culled from Picasso’s personal collection. Most impressively, visitors were greeted at the front door by a carved head that stood at least six-feet tall, a massive West African statue that left me absolutely awestruck.

At a different time I was in Ghana–my wife was so impressed, she wanted to retire there. We attended the first multi-ethnic festival representing the diverse peoples of the country. Panafest was held partially to attract foreign tourism in addition to helping to integrate and unify the diverse elements of Ghana. While the music, dancing, and related festivities were really attractive, for me, the source of the most meaningful interaction happened when we visited the slave dungeons, known as slave castles, strung out along Ghana’s long Atlantic coastline. 

Most people only see these relics of that terrible time during the daylight hours but special arrangements had been made and we were allowed to go down into the holding cells at night with just small handheld candles for illumination. The eerie feeling, the dankness, the uninviting dark, the vividly imagined horror of the conditions suffered by our ancestors marked me in ways for which I was totally unprepared. At one point I fervently remember wanting nothing more than simply to escape the experience. 

My impressions of Europe, especially London, where I had extended visits at least four or five times, were far different from the unhospitable moments I had expected. Those sojourns were pleasant and consistently culturally rewarding. In retrospect, I realized that a major aspect of my embrace of the London town visits had to do with a factor that hit me by surprise, although it should not have. Similar to the United States, the metropoles of Europe are crossroads containing diverse African peoples striving to make a livable haven out of seats of exploitative and oppressive hell.

I especially recall walking through the snow one dreary afternoon trying to find a flat in north London where a South African freedom fighter was hold up while on a liberation assignment. Like a moment lifted from a semi-secret private meeting, well into the evening, we sat before a crackling fire and seriously talked.

I congratulated him as I related how important their anti-Apartheid work was worldwide. Breaking into my praise, he shushed me by relating how our civil rights and Black power struggles had inspired and catalysed their work. At that moment I realized that no matter where we were and what were the conditions there, we were engaged in struggles that had common elements. We were distant cousins.

A recent book, Afropean: Notes from Black Europe, by Johny Pitts goes much deeper into the why’s and wherefore’s of Black survival in European environs. While we emphasize political struggles and daily exploitative living experiences there are, nevertheless, also amazing moments of joy, or at least satisfaction, to be found anywhere in the world our people are.

On a different note, as mundane as it may sound, when I managed a band touring music festivals, there was something totally delicious upon eating freshly baked and buttered, French bread in combination with diverse cheese while in Nancy, France. Until I was there, it never occurred to me, that those crusty, long loafs of French bread were not just a stable of New Orleans po-boy sandwiches, but actually had their origin in France. Indeed, an even deeper example of an oxymoron that was actually historically explainable, was that some of the best French bread to be found in New Orleans is actually produced by Vietnamese bakers in their enclaves in a far flung section of the city, New Orleans East, locally known simply as “the east”.

While there was so much to hear, see, feel, smell and taste in parts of the world I had never previously visited, I also had the benefit of my broad travels around the USA, including a cold winter spent in Minnesota, which is where the head waters of the mighty Mississippi River gush forth. I am from New Orleans, over two thousand miles away, located in a bend in the river, just above where the river flows into the Gulf of Mexico.

I have had a wide variety of experiences. My history confirms that people may have divergent cultural practices and languages, but when you get right down to the street level and the daily interactions of people one to another, well, the warping of U.S. imperialism worldwide notwithstanding, people are people. We all laugh, we all cry, we all revere our families and stare, sometimes disbelieving, at the foreign ways of our fellow citizens of the world.

Everywhere I went there was something to learn; something instructive, or important, or at the very least interesting. This travelogue only skims the surface of my memories.

My political activism causes me to have a deep interest in the economic and political underpinnings of different peoples, nevertheless it doesn’t take long to embrace similarities or to successfully struggle to understand or appreciate differences.

Perhaps my most important macro lesson was given to me by Mwalimu (“teacher”–an honorific title), awarded to Julius Nyerere. In a small conclave I literally sat a few feet from the country’s president, who took me by surprise when he imparted an important observation.


Julius Nyerere, President of the East African federation (1964 -1985) of mainland Tanzania and island Zanzibar 

“All governments are conservative. . .” I respectfully sought to interrupted him, recounting the anti-apartheid measures undertaken by their country in overt support for liberation organizations throughout southern Africa. Nyerere hugely smiled at my naïveté and repeated himself, slowly and with appropriate hand gestures, “all governments are conservative.”

I learned a lesson that day that I have never forgotten. Whether revolutionary or reactionary, socialist or capitalist, upon obtaining office and practicing real politics, all governments are, or become, conservative.

You can take that to the bank all around the world; power always seeks to consolidate itself. That’s a basic law of science and sociology. Unless acted on by an outside force, governments are going to strive to be whatever they are, and more likely whatever they become due to their efforts at maintaining their status quo. Howsoever it may or may not benefit its citizens and foreign members, the ultimate goal of every government is staying in power.

 

The Duke Ellington [Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington (April 29, 1899 – May 24, 1974)] Orchestra’s signature theme song was composed by a noted musician-extraordinaire who was sometimes referred to as Duke’s alter-ego. Billy Strayhorn was Ellington’s resident composer and arranger. As a result, many of Strayhorn’s distinctive and invariably melodic songs (often hauntingly so) are usually associated with Duke Ellington.

Here is a fascinating and insightful, albeit no where near exhaustive, appreciation of William Thomas “Billy” Strayhorn (November 29, 1915 – May 31, 1967), written by Ronald E. Franklin and featuring ten of Strayhorn’s pulchritudinous originals. 

We are featuring so many versions of A-Train, some of them so totally different from each other that it is virtually impossible to pick an outstanding favorite. We include both vocal and instrumental arrangements, as well as historic takes contrasting to more modern interpretations. Directly above is a version featuring Billy Strayhorn at the piano making absolutely clear that the man was a monster pianist of impeccable taste who knew how to do so much more with less by employing judiciously chosen notes.

As the cliche goes: sit back and relax, we are going to be a moment enjoying sixteen versions of a song which defined the sound of the World War 2 Era as well as many of the sounds that followed in the fifties, sixties and well beyond. While most are in the swing genre, there are also some real surprises, including an avant garde reading by the inimitable Sun Ra.

I promise you, you won’t be bored by the broad variety of musical expressions: there is a sequence by three jazz violinists; The Delta Rhythm Boys undertake an exploration as a vocal swing quartet; Joe Henderson leads a four-piece progressive jazz combo that features South African pianist Bheki Mseleku; then there’s also a modern jazz work out by bassist Charlie Mingus; plus many other delights including a solidly swinging study by the Count Basie Band, an aggregation often thought of as Ellington’s chief competitor. Indeed, we even include an amalgamation of the two orchestras blowing in tandem, deep in the pocket.

There are many more musical treats aggregated here. I’m sure you’ll find at least one or two versions that are absolutely enchanting. And please don’t miss checking out the rock-steady jump up.

We end with an almost impossible to believe workout featuring tap dancer Michela Marino Lerman accompanied by the Wynton Marsalis ensemble.

Enjoy!!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Herbie Hancock wrote this song, along with Bennie Maupin who was a reeds master in Hancock’s bands–first the Mwandishi sextet and later in the more famous Headhunters aggregation. Butterfly became a standard of the seventies and then a jazz classic. The lyrics included the couplet: “and teach all our children not to lie / and maybe one day we’ll fly.”

Funky flying Negroes (the Garvey era capitalized the “N” in Negroes–get to that, if you can). Haven’t, at one time another, we all dreamed of flying. No plane, no jet, no balloon, nor any other kind of aerial apparatus, we were able to move through the skies based simply on our own will and desires to be in &/or experience another state of existence.

Here is the deep Jungian connection of our collective unconscious. More a subconscious feeling rather than a fully thought out (i.e. conscious) idea. After all, particularly in New Orleans (as well as in culturally related U.S. environs), we feel to believe, i.e. as mighty as the brain be, a body still needs feeling to fully be alive. Our ideas about living are not abstract. Real knowledge is not solely nor even predominately mental but rather also both a physical and spiritual way of being.

Nothing that “was” exists now. Whatever is coming is not yet here. We float and flow through life with all that being in the “now-time” implies. This is especially so for we African Americans, once called Negroes, the descendants of Africans forcibly introduced into new world Americas (north, central and south).

We brought African ways of knowing, exhibited aural and culinary cultures, during periods when reading and writing were prohibited for most of us and our innovative uses of the diverse plastic arts were both circumscribed and seldom allowed to fully flower. Moreover, don’t even get me started on dance, explicating the importance of kinetic bodily expressions.

For most of the years we have been here our culture was forced to remained mainly ephemeral or physically invisible, which is why our music is so powerful–damn near the whole of our American life experiences were put into and expressed through song.

I know, I know, this seems too philosophical for a brief popular look at music, but black music has always been deeper than well-tempered sound. Our soundz (with a “z”) have influenced the world to value internal feelings over obvious external hegemonies.

The master’s power could never match, nor curtail, nor completely extinguish the creativity of the nominally enslaved. Our life-affirming defiance/ignoring of authoritarian rules, regulations, restrictions, prohibitions and plain old bullshit, well, that’s the way we roll through square world constructions.

I’m going to stop here with just a little taste, but know there is much more than a mouthful waiting to be savored, eaten and digested.

Anyway, Butterfly is a slow, polyrhythm exercise with a beguiling melody floating atop. Here are two vocal versions and two instrumentals. Enjoy.

 

 

 

Women are often portrayed as the victims of war. Or as nurses. And maybe as spies. During armed struggles, mass media seldom portrays women as protagonists and almost never as leaders. Of course, within the world of resistance to colonialism there have been female icons and heroes: especially Queen Nzinga in Angola, Nanny in Jamaica, and Harriet Tubman in the United States, plus, so many others who are too often nameless in our history.

The women of Viet Nam are exemplary both as fighters as well as those who are overlooked. Their reality was significantly different from media-popularized examples. In Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, often considered the greatest Viet Nam era war movie, the woman warrior is a guerrilla who threw a bomb into a helicopter; but in that movie, women were never presented as soldiers in the field. In another famous war movie, Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, the female warrior is a sniper.

In Viet Nam, the reality of female soldiers was far, far more complex. Women were both frontline fighters as well as active rear-guard operatives. Spike Lee’s movie, Da 5 Bloods, is a more recent example of the erasure of females as fighters in Viet Nam. Viet Nam has provided the setting for numerous seminal examples of American movies about 20th century men at war. In contradistinction to the male subjects, most of those movies minimize the role of women.

Here is a small example of the other side of the story: women fighters in Viet Nam. Written by Sherry Buchanan, this article presents the stories of Vietmanese women who fought for the independence of their country. Their story is not easy for us Americans to digest.

The essay is neither an anti-war homage, nor simply an anti-imperialism screed. This is a specific look at the role of female fighters. While western culture valorizes Joan of Arc, few of us focus on the literally thousands of women who were soldiers engaged in active resistance against 19th and 20th century “new world” domination in Africa, Asia, and the Americas.

Many of us who served in the military during the sixties and seventies, were forced to confront conditions that counterintuitively led to a major political education. This is especially true of Viet Nam era veterans. I was in South Korea on a mountaintop approximately 50 miles below the DMZ that separated that country into two. In later years, reflecting on my experiences and the larger social reality, I specificantly wrote about the women of Viet Nam.

MORNING CALM

For the women of Vietnam, patiently threading together their share, and more, of Third World struggle & solidarity

 

the eerie bright light

that shatters morning

dawn is the illumination

of bombs

 

death dropping like

acid rain from unseen

obscene clouds,

a deadly dew

dispensed by invisible

high flying arms

 

and so began the days

when Nguyen was new,

barely born between naplam runs,

anti-personnel explosives spewing

sinister silverous spikes

with thorny barbs which savagely

struck and cut, searing

into innocent flesh

embedding shrapnel into pliant

pre-pubescent sides, into

soft kidneys and slender

bamboo colored thighs like

gleaming iron fish hooks

piercing a jaw, lancing a gill

or slicing an eye

 

but who cares now

that the war was lost so

long ago

the high-tech cameras

no longer transmit onto tv sets

into our living rooms

the pain, the unsmelt

stench of flaming bodies or

the barely believable screech

of street side summary executions

as bullets shattered the skulls

of black haired suspected cong

so who cares now

the killers are back home

here in america

where we do not see nor feel

the innumerable silent shells

waiting to explode

upward maiming a peasant’s crouch

as ox drawn plow contacts

nor do we cross

oranged wastelands where

nothing green can grow

who cares, now that

the dear johns and joes

are gone, to the victors

have gone the spoilt

 

who remembers those naked little girls

running down the highway their mouths

silently stretched open in pain

those little girls who are

no longer girls but women now

women whose wombs may never conceive

women who can not dance without pain

women whose scars will not heal

women who can not give birth without surgery

women whose ears can not hear subtle string music

women who can not remember ever having rest

         filled sleep during long quiet summer

         nights nor sense the tenderness of a lover’s

         cautious touch caressing what’s left of a breast

 

who cares?

 

as you struggle in your homeland

a place bombed almost back

“into the stone age”

patiently reconstructing human beings

out of the survivors of war

a prostitute becomes a nurse

an orphan a teacher

a cripple becomes an administrator

and a blind woman an interpreter

 

Nguyen, it is the work of you

and people like you

which gives soft/strong certainty

to worldwide efforts at

social reconstruction

 

Nguyen, knowing you helps us

know that we are more

than our past,

less than our future,

neither animals nor gods

but oppressed people who can grasp

tomorrow’s dawns and create new days

from bomb cratered yesterdays

 

in the face of pessimism

your graceful smile

thaws our war hardened hearts

 

i salute

you who continue, all of you

who inspire hope, whose recovery

encourages all of us victims

to rise and fly like phoenix

ascending out of occidental ashes

 

i salute

you who move as in a morning sun

rising side by side, always rising,

never stopping, always rising, softly,

always, certainly, softly,

as in a morning

calm

____________________________

I do not usually explain my poetry but this post is special. The context of the poem is important to me. “Morning Calm” was written in the late seventies/early eighties and was originally conceived as part of a collection of poetry to complement essays I wrote and published under the title of Our Women Keep Our Skies From Falling. 

I had planned to publish a small book with both the poetry and the essays together but, as with so much in life, that never came to pass.

I served in the U. S. Army 1965 – 1968, the Viet Nam years, but I did electronic nuclear missile repair in South Korea. Korea was a major awakening for me about the international aspects of our struggle. I learned a lot from the women in Korea, most of whom were prostitutes who lived in a small village just outside the gates of our mountaintop base. 

I came out of the army fired up and ready to rumble, seeking far more than civil rights. By 1974 I was a delegate to the Sixth Pan-African conference in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The Chinese were already working in East Africa. Does anyone remember the Tan-Zam railroad and the effort to break apartheid’s economic stranglehold on central and southern Africa?

Three or so years later, I led a delegation to the People’s Republic of China. Twenty educators and activists from across the United States spent over two weeks traveling throughout China and engaging in serious ideological sessions with Chinese comrades. Again, my consciousness was raised.

The more I learned about the world and the more people I met who were struggling for self-determination, self-defense, and self-respect, the more I understood that our struggle was truly a global struggle and not simply a racial struggle, or even mainly a Pan-African struggle. Eventually, I moved away from advocating nationalism as a solution to the issues our people faced. I also became very, very clear that sexism and its attendant ills (such as homophobia and heterosexism) was a serious issue that had to be fought both internally and externally.

“Morning Calm” is a reflection of my developing global consciousness and of my anti-sexism advocacy. In 2010, far, far removed from when I wrote this poem, I taught Vietnamese students in high school. A few of our students were born in Viet Nam. Most of them dealt in various ways with the issues of assimilation and retaining their culture, especially their language. This poem was written for the women who are today the grandparents, aunts, and perhaps a few mothers of those students. . .

One other thing, as I have said numerous times, I use music as my literary model. The rhythms and internal structure of this poem are based on John Coltrane’s version of “Softly, as in a morning sunrise.”

A luta continua (the struggle continues). . .

 

 

 

 


We sometimes forget that humans are multi-dimensional, that we can excel in more than one category and those categories can be unrelated. For example a supreme basketball champion can also be an insightful intellectual.

Meet Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Life ain’t easy when you are much taller than normal. Your genetics have significantly  ordained  your fate. If you’re over seven feet tall, you are destined to be on a basketball court, not in the library. If the authorities dis-allow the dunk, you invent and master the skyhook. Regardless of the rules made to limit you, you continue to excel.


You are the son of a cop, anti-social behavior is not tolerated in his house. You convert to Islam as a young adult and actively pursue developing your mind even as your physical talents tower over your contemporaries. You strive to be well-rounded physically, intellectually and emotionally. None of your contemporaries are quite like you.

 Your professional career has a short window. No one expects sports greatness from you after you reach forty, nevertheless, you conclude a twenty year NBA career as the all-time scoring leader with 38,387 points. Moreover,  off the court, you keep developing as a successful author and researcher.

People ask you questions–some of them quite dumb–but your responses, like your game, are often stellar. You are far more than simply a freak of nature.

You are a beautiful soul and the world is a much better place as the result of you being in it.

 

Call it what you will. There ain’t but three sides: where you were; where you at; and, if you’re lucky, where you will be. Tomorrow.

The great unknown. 

To be truthful about the self is to exam the past, be aware of the present, and to, yes, have dreams, have, uh, expectations. Sometimes great, other times viewed with trepidation: like will this work, can I last, is there really another side of this mountain?

All of us in modern America are junkies for something. Something, we believe we can’t live without. Some of what we need is real: food and water, a bit of shelter, and, somewhere along the line of living, a critical helping of love from another. But sometimes conditions are dire, the availability of succor is scant, and love is so far away; all we can see, all we can feel is pain. The pain of a life turned inside out. A life of, or approaching, emptiness.

When sugar turns to shit can we honestly look at our lives, at who we have become for whatever set of reasons?

Gil Scott-Heron (April 1, 1949 – May 27, 2011) did that in one of his most honest moments. A junkie walking through the twilight, on his way home. Knowing full well that home is only a dream. A supposed used-to-be that actually never was.

Gil Scott-Heron wrote this song of raw realization and no more need be said.

Which is not to say, everything is always fucked up. But. The reality is that life can be hard and if we are to be fully human, we will have to face death. Literal and metaphorical. Nobody gets out of here alive. If we are born, we must die.

Great artists know that every day we live ultimately brings us closer to death. That’s the way life is.

This is not just about Gil Scott-Heron. This is about all of us. And about having the fortitude to face the specifics of our personal addictions, whatever those addictions may be. Could be terrible, be tragic, but could also be that whatever good that is happening to us will eventually come to an end. We ourselves will end. 

We can never go back home again, be born again. Not in this life. Maybe in another life, a future plane of existence after we leave this one. But  we don’t really know.

Good, bad, indifferent, whatever–no one really knows if there is actually an other side.


“The Other Side” was first released on Gil’s album Spirits (1994-TVT). Here are two versions: the first in a studio and the second in live performance less than a year before his transition. Listen. Meditate on this.

 

 

 

 

 

Linda was crying.

My hands shook as I tore the paper scrolling from the teletype machine. Preparing for my weekly radio program. I too was having trouble seeing straight.

We were only thirteen Black students out of roughly 1200 at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. Sunday, February 21, 1965.

Such moments are so momentous that you can never forget them. No matter what occurs over the intervening decades. No mater how many milestones you approach and pass. Leave behind. There are some moments one can not forget. Never. Ever. Forget.

I will forever remember. Well over fifty years later. Long, long after specifics have faded, I still get emotionally shook.

Malcolm X was assassinated. Amid the clatter of the machine printing the news, the near silent, but nevertheless thunderous, crying of my classmate. I don’t remember any other specifics. Malcolm was dead.

Over a half century later, at odd moments, I experience something: could be a street sign passed on the boulevard, could be a sweatshirt someone is wearing, could be a television commercial on an unwatched show blaring in the background, suddenly that fate-filled Sunday is resurrected.

Sometimes, regardless of where I am or whom I’m with–I momentarily bow my head, look away. Malcolm is dead.

I know, everybody doesn’t feel this way. For some people it’s the moment they find out their mother died, or a spouse leaves home, or the bright joy of a graduation, moments that one never forgets. For me it was Malcolm.

Mere days after his killing, I saw a photo. His body on a gurney. His mouth hanging agape. Malcolm. Dead.

The sixties were tumultuous. The Viet Nam war. And all the assassinations. JFK-Nov. 1963; Malcolm-Feb. 1965; King-April 1968; Bobby Kennedy-Jun. 1968. A decade of death.

We soldiered on pass those ominous markers forewarning us concerning the killings to come. Regardless of the terrible trials endured in those days when so many of us died, some of us let nothing deter us in our forward march toward justice.

I know in this new millennium, the majority of people who read this were not even alive when Malcolm died, but I also know that so many of us worldwide have been touched by the spirit of El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz: Malcolm X.

For example, even right-wing politicians repeat the phrase “by any means necessary”, seemingly without any awareness that the saying was popularized by brother Malcolm.

His death is shrouded in so many questions. Who ordered the dastardly deed done? Why did Black men pull the trigger? Books have been written. Movies made. Videos circulated online. Yet we may never know the whole truth.

Here are two short clips of Malcom speaking in the months immediately preceding his assassination.

It is significant that the father of daughters was a staunch defender of Black women. The split with Mr. Muhammad was both painful and permanent. Malcolm supported the statements of at least five women with whom Mr. Muhammad fathered children. Long, long before the “me too” movement was publicly expressed regarding the dynamics of powerful men exploiting women, Malcolm stood against gender exploitation. His stance is critical to fully understanding Malcolm as a genuine, upright man of moral principle. 

Never forget.