Kalamu ya Salaam's information blog



“We may not yet be what we will become.

And we still struggling for survival today.

But, thank god, we ain’t what we was.”


Wise words, mama used to say. We know one of the most basic laws of nature–really, of everything–over time, everything changes. The changes may be small and almost imperceptible. Or the changes may be massive and unmissable. Regardless, there will be changes.

Jarvis DeBerry can feel the changes, both small and large. And he responses to, or at least recognizes, the importance of social and environmental changes. Over the years, and especially in his important collection, I Feel To Believe, DeBerry does not flinch as he addresses the joys and pains of being here in New Orleans, of being human.

Jarvis is Black, male, and recently upgraded–from junior reporter to respected columnist and team leader. When Katrina hit, he was a major part of the journalist group who won a Pulitzer. Life has been no bed of roses for him. Or really, inextricably entangled betwixt the thorns and weeds of a semi-tropic garden, a mix of the positives and negatives is exactly what his life has been as he has not only won broad acclaim but also faced significant challenges (including an organ transplant and all the vexations that come with that).

It ain’t been easy. But exemplifying the never-say-die spirit of his ancestors, Jarvis has fought the good fight, stayed on the battlefield, and even when he was mighty weary, he soldiered on to face another day.

His book is up for the 2022 One Book One New Orleans selection. Vote for him. He deserves the award.

(Below is a sample column from his book.)

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Remembering and releasing the pain of slavery

By Jarvis DeBerry | The Times-Picayune
July 9, 2014  

While sitting on the sunlit cobblestones of Congo Square on Saturday morning, I couldn’t help but wonder what gatherings at that sacred space must have looked like, must have sounded like, must have felt like, for long-ago captives who looked like me. Were those who had been held in the bellies of slave ships thankful that they had survived the torturous journey across the Atlantic Ocean, or were they envious of those who died and were fed to the sharks?

Were they bewildered and confused by the different African languages competing for attention at this square, or were they able to derive some small comfort that those languages sounded more like home than the European languages their oppressors were forcing into their mouths?

What messages would the enslaved have sent to their loved ones in their villages back home? If they could have spoken to future generations, what would they have said?

So much is unknown: languages, villages, religion, culture, occupations, social status. The people gathered at Congo Square Saturday morning were there out of respect for what we do know: Millions died in the Middle Passage, and even those who survived may have wished they hadn’t.

The Swahili word used to describe the Middle Passage and the enslavement of Africans is “Maafa,” meaning “great tragedy.” We know that captives were worked unmercifully, even till death. We know that they were flogged and branded and raped and forcibly bred.

But in addition to all the horrible things we do know, there’s the sorrow that comes from all the things we don’t: origins, genealogy, names.

The historian Henry Louis Gates has described it as “that great abyss in our shared history: the void of slavery wherein the overwhelming percentage of our ancestors cease to exist as human beings, much less citizens, and indeed have no names that the legal system was bound to honor or acknowledge. They were just property, plain and simple.”

But we remember them. Even if we don’t know the names we should call. Even if we don’t know the languages from which their names were derived, we remember them. It is necessary that we do.

Hence the 7 a.m. gathering at Congo Square on Saturday morning for the 14th annual Maafa commemoration. The remembrance was organized by the Ashe Cultural Arts Center in Central City.

Those in attendance varied in age. There were Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Yoruba and others. There were people from different ethnicities and cultures and continents. That might seem like a recipe for disharmony and discord and tension. And yet, there was unity. Ifaseyi Sable Bamigbala Apetebi, a Yoruba priestess, used the following words in her invocation: “May the spirit of divine communication deliver all of our messages, whether spoken, whether thought, or laying at rest in our hearts. In this realm of the physical. And in the realm of the metaphysical. In this lifetime. And in any lifetime that we are blessed to have in the hereafter. For this generation. And for all the generations to come, may we have the blessings. Ashe.”

On Tuesday morning, I asked Freddi Evans, author of “Congo Square: African Roots in New Orleans,” to tell me how Saturday morning’s Maafa commemoration program compared with gatherings at Congo Square during the slavery era. She pointed out multiple similarities. Enslaved Africans who were allowed to go to Congo Square on Sundays would have been confronted by multiple African languages that they would not have necessarily understood. They would have interacted with others who didn’t necessarily share their religious practices. And yet, they would have heard music — drums especially — that reminded them of home and allowed them to dance as one.

They would have come to Congo Square not only to buy and sell at that marketplace, Evans said, but they also would have come seeking some solace for their pain: the pain of displacement, the pain of the lash, the pain of having their families torn apart.

The Rev. Maurice Nutt, the director of Xavier University’s Institute of Black Catholic Studies, in his litany addressed the pain that was not only experienced by those who were enslaved, but also the pain that is still being experienced by their descendants. So as he verbally catalogued that pain, he prompted the people to say, “Heal us!”

Healing is as necessary as remembering. Carol Bebelle, the executive director of the Ashe Cultural Arts Center, said Saturday that the ancestors who endured the Maafa, who suffered under the torment of slavery, didn’t struggle to survive just so we would be suffering still. It dishonors them, she said, to not work to free ourselves of the pain. “The past we inherit,” Bebelle said. “The future we create.”


In terms of music that moves me, and probably will always move me: I am a Joan Armatrading freak. I saw her back in the seventies, even did a feature telephone interview for The Black Collegian Magazine. She is, ironically and tongue-in-cheek, a true unicorn in the sense that she is not only one of a kind, she is unlike any other British-based singer/songwriter.

Unique in her skill at putting words and music together.

Here and here (with my son, Mtume), you can  check out some of what I have written.

So recently I was surfing for something else and stumbled across, or more probably subconsciously sought out Joan Armatrading.

Here is a concert a young Joan Armatrading did in Germany.

That is all.

I know. I know what you’re thinking. This some useless shoo-shoo. But it ain’t.

This a warning. Look out. White folks (i.e Gentrifiers) comin’. Higher taxes. A lil’ bit of money for your old house, going to cost twice as much once they remodel. So forth and so on.

The real deal is what was once cheap is now far beyond your means. So forth and so on.

Did you heard me? Life in New Orleans is changing. Changing times, changing ways. Survival requires dinero. Gotta be a big money grip to live comfortable. No matter, up or downtown. 

I know this sounds like semi-literate belly aching. But Betsy. Katrina. And now this. How much can one (two, or even a community of somebodies) stand?

I don’t pretend to know the answer, but how to live under somebody else’s dictates is not the question. Two lane streets, now are one lane and a biking lane. Is that really a solution? Or is that a dee-volution? A comedown that’s really a come up-pence. If getting rid of Negroes is an improvement, then you trying to transform a chocolate eclair into angel food cake.

I know you think this some mess I’m starting, but if new residents don’t start no shit, then there won’t be none. New Orleans is an old city. Got old ways, old culture. 

I know everything must change–been that way since day one–but change don’t mean getting rid of old folks. Yeah, yeah, I know crime is bad and we be killing, shooting, and looting each other. But damn, Sam. This new shit ain’t going to get it.

Can’t we all get along?

Bland living ain’t for me. I likes flava in my food. Spice in my dirty rice. Hot sauce on my poboys (oh, I forgot, some y’all call them sandwiches). Here is the rub. Here culture clashes is much more than just a news report about Black folk letting their hair grow wild. “Relax. Just relax yourself.” Really? You really think the lye about relaxing is acceptable?

Well, you fixing to make me go off. And if you don’t know what I mean, you better ask somebody. Flagboy Giz, where you at? Sound the alarm. They mean to white-wash the whole damn city. Make it look like the white cliffs of dover or the walls around a cemetery.

Stand tall peoples. Hold the line. Resistance is the word. We won’t bow down!


In South Africa, house music is massive, especially the musical stylings of the man known as “Black Coffee”. He is internationally celebrated as a DJ and producer. Over the past decade, I have featured bra Coffee a number of times, especially his humongous Africa Rising stadium show that included a full string orchestra.

South Africa is his home but he is lionized worldwide for his stunning, live DJ sets, routinely attended by thousands. Fans be screaming, dancing, sweating, exhilarated. But none of that is what this post is about. This is African music conscious of itself.

This is a live Tiny Desk concert. House music is overwhelmingly electronic and studio produced but this is acoustic. The musicians are live. The music is live.

The ensemble is not only live, they are also joyfully interacting with each other. Black Coffee with his mixing rig and a microphone is a maestro directing his amigos through a sizzling program of music.

As much as I appreciate Black Coffee’s entire oeuvre, this stunning, fun-filled, in person presentation is iconic. Black Coffee at his best. Sweet.


Answering An Eager Question


“Where do the ideas
for your poems
come from?”

from being
w/h myself
even when others
are present

or seeing
the me in each piece
of we

reading w/h
music on—preferably
some stuff i
haven’t fully digested
yet—so i can’t predict
the moves nor
my reactions

and my brain clocking
incredible journeys
in nanoseconds

. . .like this morning
on the toilet
milton nascimento singing
& kamau braithwaite’s
zea diary
in my hand

and then an
idea clicking
that had
nothing to do
or the caribbean
or shit

i mean if
your head can’t process
at least three
or four levels
at a time

then you don’t
have a mind
you are a hole
/ / not a whole
mind you/ /
but a hole

cause there’s nothing
there & art
will never
come from emptiness

in deed art
abhors voids

art sings, dances, preaches, embraces
the inner of everyone–of course
some more than others, yet
the particulars
of any specific art touchs

diverse human realities and

at its most potent
art is the nectar
that quenches
the human thirst
for truth,
beauty & relevance


As obvious as it may seem, making art is what humans do. However, the critical question is not only the specifics of the art but also the identity of the humans who make art. Why aren’t each of us considered an artist? Who among us is steadfastly dedicated to truth, beauty, and relevance? To making of ourselves a resounding instrument of human history and development–whether physical, mental, or spiritual?

For example, within athletics Jack Johnson, Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, and so many more are honored for their talent, their accomplishments, but a meaningful question is an examination of the context within which they made their contributions. When or why is whatever someone does considered an art?

Whereas, high accomplishments are nearly universally recognized when speaking of athletics, within literature the recognition of talent is much less celebrated, particularly, in the case of African Americans or non-English-speaking peoples.

The Greeks had Homer, Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides. Philosophically, they had Plato, Aristotle and a number of others. If it is true that art and philosophy are hallmarks of humanity, who have we? Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, August Wilson, Angela Davis, Assata Shakur, Cornel West. While it is tempting to compare, contrast, rank, and celebrate the best of humanity; such listings are not necessary to prove each of us is worthy, is truly human/humane.

What we do with and for each other is the real proof of who we really are.

At our best, we humans are social creatures who care for and ennoble each of us to share with all of us. As the song says, reach out and touch; and in touching, help and uplift each other. Sometimes we bemoan disasters, or condemn anti-social actions, while simultaneously, hopefully, we work hard to improve ourselves and our environment.

Some days we eat the bear.

Some days the bear eats us.

Some days we both go hungry.

Some days everyone is satisfied.

Regardless, survival is a great opportunity to eat as well as to feed; to surmount sufferings as well as extol sacrifice and/or success; and, if we are lucky, to sing, dance and celebrate both each night as well as the next day.

That is what humans do. How well, how graceful, how significant is our doing, well, that is the art–the art of living, and, yes, when appropriate (or inevitable) also the art of dying. As the Sioux knew, today is a good day to die.

Moreover, if we are true artists our death is done with panache. Our living will not have been in vain.


This article was contributed to and can be found in Rorschach Art Publication >



I first met Ishmael Reed back in the early 1970’s when he, along with David Henderson and Calvin Hernton, came to New Orleans to visit their friend Tom Dent, a Crescent City (i.e. New Orleans) native. They had all met and formed Umbra in New York City in the early 60’s. Umbra was the first major writer’s workshop of the Civil Rights Era.

Uncle Ish, as I sometimes affectionally referred to Reed, became a long time friend. Perhaps it was Reed’s interest in African-heritage spirituality that attracted me. Reed was both intellectually deep and simultaneously  as funny as Richard Pryor when holding forth on literature. Also Reed evidenced a serious investigation into our history and contemporary conditions. And when my man announced he intended to learn Japanese, that about sealed the deal. His intellect was second to none.

Reed had moved west to California and established the Yardbird collective and journal in tandem with Al Young. Reed’s subsequent literary output was humongous–over 12 books of fiction, 10 collections of poetry, 7 plays including broadway productions, 14 books of non-fiction, plus 10 anthologies. Additionally, Reed also produced three recordings, and was an early proponent and practitioner of video work. Check out this major interview with Ishmael Reed published in The Paris Review (Issue 218, Fall 2016).

Far too many students of Black literature, as well as American scholars in general, are unaware of and/or overlook Reed’s literary work. Fortunately, Reed is known and celebrated internationally because he never surrendered to American racism and has been warmly received overseas.


Three little words. But there is so much drama therein.

Less than a hundred miles below the USA, nestled on the northern periphery of the Gulf of Mexico, situated just below Florida, is where Cuba is located. In political terms, the island is older than the United States. However, its social relevance revolves around 1959 when the current Cuban government waged revolutionary war and took over.

Since then Cuban life has been caught up in a seemingly unending cycle, grappling with one after another confrontation and conflict with the U.S. on one hand, and internal shortages and contradictions on the other.

But amid all of that, Cuba continues. Although economically and politically pressed by foreign forces and beset my internal repressions, Cuba people continued, producing a resilient and profoundly beautiful musical culture.

Brenda Navarrete is representative of a modern Cuba. In a feature in the August 3, 2018 issue of Pride Magazine, Brenda delineates the origins of her love of percussion, as well as her goals in promoting Cuban culture.

I was around eight years old, and my sister said ‘What do you wanna do? Music? Sports?’ I loved music, and I wanted to be a percussionist, but she told me, ‘Percussionist? That’s a little strong, it’s a strong instrument’. I was hyperactive, and I loved to sing, but I wanted to play percussion – so she brought me to music school, I did a test and I was accepted. I spent 10 years of study, study, study – and now I’m here. Singer, percussionist, producer, dancer, composer, it’s all in the work. –Brenda Navarrete       

Grounded in Cuban rhythms, Brenda’s expansive music now reflects world influences, particularly American jazz, soul and gospel. There was a time when women mastering percussion instruments was frowned upon. Early on while formally studying harmony and melody, Brenda decided to focus on rhythms and drumming. She is now considered a leading Cuban percussionist.

Brenda’s specialty is the Bata-drum set, which consists of three drums, often bound together. The Wikipedia reference notes that “In Cuba, the batá consists of a set of three tapered cylinders of various sizes. Iyá, the largest, is referred to as “mother drum”. Itótele, the middle one, and Okónkolo, the smallest, are called “father” and “baby”, respectively.”

“My objective is to promote the Cuban culture. Not ‘pure’ Cuban, as I mix with jazz, and now with reggae, with gospel – but to bring these Cuban rhythms to the world. More than myself as an artist, I want to promote the Cuban culture around the world. I love the Cuban people and energy so much. It’s not a rich country, but the riches of Cuba is found in our energy.” –Brenda Navarrete






Slavery. Its meaning and repercussions are not abstract in the lives of African Americans, especially for females. From disease to sexual comodification. From hair to music to dance to sexiness.

If you are woman, regardless of what you look like, slavery advertises that you are sexually attractive/available (i.e. the Black woman is yours for the taking if you are White and male, and especially so if you have money).

Regardless of your name, if you are a Black woman, when you are young, you are “sweet thing”. Indeed, you do not have to be fully grown, you could be a nubile teenager, or perhaps even prepubescent in age, no doubt you remain reductively considered a “sweet thing”.

You become Fat, Black, mammy when you are no longer young. These descriptions may sound like exaggerations except if you are gendered female and, to earn a living, you have to work in American businesses and homes. Then the sneering term “sex work” takes on a whole new meaning.

For Black women, damn near any work is also sex work. And if not overtly sexual, it’s guaranteed to be bound up in the physical and psychological tasks of taking care of a male recipient, and especially so if the man is White; as well as emotionally-conflicting so if the man is African American. Like I said, it’s not an exaggeration.

Unsurprisingly, misogyny is the plasma of the American bloodstream, tainting and characterizing the entire of society and social relations. Although misogyny may be un- or under-recognized, both the blatant and subtle hatreds of women are all-American realities. Slavery and misogyny are paternal twins, especially pernicious if you are Black and female.

From 1619 to 1920 women in general, and Black and native women in particular, had no suffrage in regards to their own bodies, literally no political self-determination that was unmediated by laws and mores overwhelming established by White men. (Note that I capitalize “White” because I mean much more than hue. In America to be “White”, particularly when one is also male, means to be on the top shelf of the patriarchal hierarchy of American values and society.)

All of the above, plus more of the above–the myriad of implications and privileges that the patriarchy commands, indeed, demands–all of that goes hand in hand with being a White man. And if you have no idea what all of that means, well, just walk down any American main street, pass (not to mention, inside of) any number and types of business enterprises and concerns. You’ll soon find out how you are viewed and treated when and if you are other than a White male. You and your services are literally for sale, and your physical and psychological presence does not even have to go to and for the highest bidder.

This book, The Ledger and The Chain, breaks down the American way and economic benefits of bondage. The historic aftermaths reverberate even now in the 21st century. Slavery may be legally ended, but the after-effects of human bondage are still very much in partial, if not full, effect.

The story of the capitalization of American wealth is not a pretty picture, not a summer romance, nor even a cinematic adventure tale; Indiana Jones is not going to save the day for you (unless, of course, once again, if you are a White man, and especially so, if you are also fashionably young and handsome; and, not surprisingly, if you are rich, you do not have to be handsome nor young). Money is a cosmetic that can make attractive the most ugly and repellant of people and things.

Moreover, the book is not an abstract economic treatise, the bottom line is clear and easily understandable: there was (is?) a healthy profit to be made in managing the slave trade. After reading this book you will recognize the profitable perfidy of  John Armfield, Rice Ballard, and Isaac Franklin, slave traders extraordinaire who grew wealthy on the misery and labor at the heart of the all-American experiment in human bondage. In short, American slavery equaled American wealth.

Many readers of William Somerset Maugham’s 1915 novel and its subsequent notoriety may have thought that Of Human Bondage was simply an elegant turn of phrase to describe the machinations of patriarchy. But in truth, the phrase points to the reality of American slavery in its many manifestations and contortions, some of which continue today, and much of which, although transformed, nevertheless, was and remains legal.