Info

Kalamu ya Salaam's information blog

Not everyone does it, has it done to them, or gets it. But, for many of us, “the talk” is a major rite of both bonding and encouragement. It’s not so much a warning–although it is certainly an admonition to watch out–when you get right down to it, the talk is a statement of faith. A way of saying not only that “I believe in you” but more importantly an affirmation that whatever you might have to face, you can make it.

Many have dwelled on the horror of even having to have such a talk. But the real substance that is too often unseen, is the belief that you can, you will survive.

Yes, you can. Indeed “you” have a legacy of survival. You come from people who survived. And your charge is not only to keep on breathing, but more than simply survive, your mission is to keep it going; to live and to pass it on.

After all what does survival matter if we don’t do anything with our life, if we don’t connect with others. With family and friends, with comrades and yes, also with strangers, who are actually fellow travelers.

In the most positive sense, from generation to generation, through the talk, we pass on the baton of moving on, of keeping on, of helping one another along the way, regardless of how dangerous or distasteful the traveling.

We keep on moving on.

After all there is no sense in having the talk, in giving the talk, or receiving the talk, if there is no one there to hear us or speak to us. No one there who understands us. No one there to help. No one there we can help.

Life is about giving and receiving. The talk is an article of faith, regardless of our beliefs–whatever they might or might not be, regardless of our situation, of our station, we all, each and everyone of us needs a reminder, needs encouragement.

“I” doesn’t survive without being a significant part of some “we”. In essence, the talk is a deep acclamation of our we-ness.

 

 

At one time or another, many of us–indeed, probably most of us–have had an experience that was, in the immortal words of soul singer Al Green, was “simply beautiful”.

Here are six versions of an R&B classic. You may not recognize all of the artists but I bet you can relate to the sentiments they so sensitively express. Keziah Jones is from Nigeria; Ben L’Oncle is from France; Whirimako Black is of the Maori people in New Zealand; the others are born and reared in the USA. Obviously, they are deeply influenced by, if not outright purveyors of, classic and contemporary R&B.

Queen Latifah w/Al Green

 

Jose James

 

Leela James

 

Keziah Jones & Ben L’Oncle

 

Whirimako Black

 

Al Green

 

And don’t no more than that need to be said.

Enjoy.

 

 

My daughter Kiini Ibura Salaam, who is an award-winning writer of speculative fiction, literally introduced me to Walter Mosley. I can’t think of Mosley without recalling the scene from Devil In A Blue Dress with Mouse (Don Cheadle) informing Easy Rawlins (Denzel): if you didn’t want him dead, you shouldn’t have left him with me.

I have found Mosley to be both a genuine literary legend and at the same time a totally humble and accessible individual. So imagine my surprise and delight when I received a shout-out from Mosley in a speech at the National Book Award.

Mosley has a history of helping writers–many times anonymously or without public fanfare. He is one of the most seriously generous writer whom I know.

Here are his brief remarks.

 

 

 

In the 21st century most of us believe in equalitarian personal relationships. However there are not many well-known examples of successful couples in which both partners were active writers and almost none of two writers having new releases at the same time. Jarvis and Kelly DeBerry are exceptions that prove the rule.

One interesting side-note is their daughter Naomi who is reported to exclaim: “My mama from Cleveland, my daddy from Mississippi, but me, I’m from New Orleans.”

Place does not necessarily determine one’s profession or one’s future. Indeed, when it comes to literature, New Orleans is internationally recognized as a matrix for music, food, and street culture–but not for literature. It is recognized that many writers were attracted to spend some time in the city that existed before the United States formally became a country. I mean we are and at the same time we are not average Americans with our multi-lingual background (French, English, and to a much smaller but nevertheless significant extent, Spanish).

Jarvis DeBerry moved to New Orleans intent on being a writer, specifically a journalist. When Katrina hit and most natives evacuated, Jarvis stayed on and was one of the columnists who won a Pulitzer Prize for their insightful reportage. Much like the fabled French historian and political scientist, Alexis de Tocqueville, who early on examined America, Jarvis wrote about the emotional as well as the material and social reality of his adopted home. He viewed aspects of New Orleans in ways many natives often overlook or take for granted.

Kelly Harris-DeBerry also moved to New Orleans and has become a literary curator in addition to her previously established bona fides as a writer and Cave Canem fellow. Indeed, Jarvis and Kelly first met at a Cave Canem conclave. In addition to being a creative writer, she is also an active promoter of literature in the crescent city. Kelly is an organizer for the national organization Poets & Writers.

Both of them have new books. Jarvis–I Feel To Believe a collection of columns. Kelly–Freedom Knows My Name a debut book of poetry. A forthcoming online discussion features Jarvis and Kelly discussing their writings and their professional life in New Orleans.

 

 

She looks like an archetypal grandmother. Her hair–gray. Her voice–strong without being abrasive. Her smile–warm. Welcoming.

But like many women in their sixties and seventies–she didn’t survive that long without learning to navigate the lay of the land. Or pull a shift in this nation’s many abattoirs, and come out spotless, nary a drop of blood marring her apron or her spirit. She is a wonder–how does she do what she do, avoids what she doesn’t.

“Baby, you want something to drink.”

“Yes, mam. I wants more and more of you, and then some.”

“Honey be careful what you ask for.”

Why? Cause like all the women who are the backbone of us, she is also wicked dangerous. Had to be to survive America. She may seem innocent when you spy her portrait displayed before you, but be ye not fooled, she is a veteran of many a war, the seemingly endless battles in this new home of the formerly enslaved. 

She was one of the survivors. We celebrate her–she is one of the many thousands gone–gone on to glory.

Her name is Lucille Clifton (born: June 27, 1936 — died: February 13, 2010). She is a poet. You can look her up. You can order her books online. Most of all you can be encouraged by her poetic work–encouraged to carry on.

Like she invites us in one of her signature poems, “Won’t You Celebrate With Me”: be proud and embrace life but don’t be a pushover or blind to social realities. Rejoice in our ability to overcome the vicissitudes of our earthly existence. Be not afraid. Sing. Sing out loud. And, yes, celebrate: They have tried to kill us and failed!

 

 

I just read a long look at the life and career of Gayl Jones, born in Lexington, Kentucky on November 23, 1949. Between the end of World War 2 and the seventies culmination of the Civil Rights struggle is a rough period. I don’t know her but I know the road she has traveled. Way back when, long before Katrina tried to drown New Orleans, I read and was captivated by her book, Song of Anninho, chronicling our turbulent history in Brazil, South America. Brazil contains the largest population of African-heritage people in the Western hemisphere, and if I understand correctly, the largest population of our people worldwide with the possible exception of Nigeria.

Gayl is a hell of a writer. Tough and too much. I knew pieces of her story. In combination with my readings and what I already knew, the 2020 Atlantic magazine article, entitled The Best American Novelist Whose Name You May Not Know, by Calvin Baker, pulled the jigsaw together for me. It is a fascinating horror show; I don’t like looking at it but I am compelled to regard the importance of it.

Being a serious, Black writer in America is damn near impossible if the goal is to create great literature grounded in the Black experience and, at the same time, remain sane while telling the truth. That’s a chess game with life; life has both the opening move and, ultimately, the final move where death or resignation are the only choices.

You see great literature requires you to tell the truth, and the truth is most of us don’t really want to hear untempered or unsugared truth about life in America, whether pre- or post- the 1860s Civil War. Especially now that we are recently free of Donald Trump, we all want a happy ending, or at least a hopeful ending, but there is no happiness or hope in death, which is the only conclusion there is for each of us. Gayl Jones not only knows that, she has written stories that contain a small share of happiness but are grounded in death. After all, no matter how well or how poorly we live, in the end, in our ending, we all die.

Here is a tragic thumbnail. Early on she made her mark. Many were struck dumb by her brilliance, more than a few repulsed by her unrelenting assault on optimism about American history and promise, vis-a-vis Black existence in a land that was never meant to be a home other than a plantation.

Plantations are a mean space. Gayl’s writings elegantly albeit unflinchingly inhabit that mean space. Her books, like a Malcolm X speech, make it plain: home is not a hospitable place for African Americans. Especially prescient is her non-fiction book of literary criticism: Liberating Voices: Oral Tradition in African American Literature.

 

By dint of her imagination, Gayl traveled to Brazil, which is where I came to know her work, particularly Song Of Anninho. After grad school she went to Europe with her husband, Bob Higgins (aka Bob Jones); they eventually returned to Kentucky. Circa 1998, a Newsweek article led to a police SWAT team assault ostensibly on a decades old warrant. Gayl was physically held down by the invading authorities. Her husband killed himself during the siege. He slit his own throat. How do you live after that? Decades later, also in Kentucky, police killed Breonna Taylor. It seems the killings never stop.

Gayl has her masterwork, Palmares, due out within a year. Like I said, being a serious Black writer is serious business. It could get you killed or at least be the victim of unspeakable but, all too often not uncommon, great American horrors.

Although Gayl is still alive, her survival is a wonder. Known as an early seventies purveyor of feminism, she is both a hero and a model to and for many of us. I don’t know how she has survived but I do know I love her. I want to state publicly my support for  Gayl Jones.

I live in Louisiana. Five tropical storms hit us this year. New Orleans dodged the first four but hurricane Zeta was a direct hit as a category two. And it wasn’t nothing nice.

I was sitting at my desk. The wind was howling outside. Then the lights went out. Shortly thereafter–and I do mean “shortly”–sounded like a train or something. If I was scary, I would have jumped up and run out the room. But, in the immortal words of Chicago troubadour Oscar Brown Jr., “I was cool”. 

When I reached out about 36-inches to my left, I felt something totally unfamiliar. It was rough, jagged, not smooth at all. Almost simultaneously I looked up and could see what seemed to be a hole or something. I got up slowly. Remember the lights are out. Hurricane force winds are blowing. And I don’t have a clue to what is actually going on.

After feeling around, I figure out that it is a tree branch that blew through the roof, and then through the ceiling before knocking over a computer monitor (thankfully, one that I am not using), and landing on the quadruple four-foot or so stacks of books next to the table I use as a desk, on which I have two iMacs.

I still have phone service. Peteh Muhammad Haroon, a veteran of NOMMO, our writing workshop and who is partnered with my daughter Asante, came by–it’s maybe an hour or so after the hurricane has passed. We’re lucky because the storm was moving thru quickly. I had already dragged the tree limb down our long hallway, out to the front yard, and threw it over the porch railing by the front side of the house.

By then I was disgusted but not discouraged. No power. A hole in the ceiling. Middle of a hurricane night. I was, as we say in New Orleans, “too thru”. So, I climbed into bed and fitfully tried to go to sleep.

Then Asante called back, she let me know that Peteh was out front. By the time I got up, I heard Peteh on the roof and went out into the backyard. Peteh had a small flashlight and said it didn’t look too good.

By now the storm is gone and there wasn’t that much rain. Using my i-Phone, Peteh took a shot of me holding up the branch that had come close to hitting me and doing grievous bodily harm, if not totally knocking me dead. That’s me and the tree segment you see in the picture. Imagine that crashing through your roof, through your ceiling and landing right next to where you are sitting.

We are used to hurricanes in New Orleans but I never personally had one come close to being the potential death of me.

As bad as it was, the next morning when I got out in the yard and Peteh returned to see about getting the major tree branch off the roof–it was big as a small tree. I thought I had a good estimate of the damage. How wrong I was. The house is long. The added-on master bedroom, closet and large bath with a jacuzzi and a separate shower was at the extreme back of the house, fortunately I don’t sleep in that bedroom.

A short, heavy tree part was lying on the bed and a massive tree branch was literally sticking through the ceiling above. Look up at your ceiling and imagine a jagged tree branch sticking through big as Cuff. I said, ‘dang. Zeta wasn’t no joke’.

But wait. By now I’ve decided to move the four stacks of books into the master bedroom. However, there are many more stacks behind my desk, plus postal bins of books along a far wall parallel to the hallway, and easily over 500 DVDs stacked on the long window sill next to the desk. As I bring the books from the office into the master bedroom, I took over and see more plaster on the floor by the closet. I look up and there are two big holes in the closet ceiling.

Before she passed, my wife had renewed the homeowner’s insurance. After a number of calls, I was able to track down the policy. After more calls and conversations, I’m given a case number and hopefully will get a settlement to help defray the damage.

That October 28, 2020 Wednesday night and most of the day Thursday is clean up time. Peteh was on the roof with a chain saw. I’m dragging large branches from the side of the house into the back yard. Saturday morning I contact an experienced roofer. Won’t go through all of the details but the roofer that was recommended to me couldn’t take our job. By Saturday morning he had twenty-five customers ahead of me.

The only blessing in this whole ordeal is that I still had some hot water, so I was able to take a soothing warm shower on both Friday and Saturday morning. Got a text from my good friend Jerry Ward who lives in another part of the city; his damage was limited to his garage. 

My daughter lives on ironically named Jefferson Davis Parkway, not too far from Xavier University. I spend the days following hurricane Zeta on a comfortable couch, which I sleep on Saturday night, and work on every day I’m there.

I don’t know how this is all going to end but we’ll deal with it like the way one deals with eating an elephant. One bite at a time.

Oh, did I mention, the day after the hurricane, we had a major Zoom gathering celebrating NOMMO’s 25th Anniversary. Ayo Fayemi-Robinson, my NOMMO co-founder and business partner, does the bulk of contacting and coordinating of NOMMO people. We had former members joining in from all over the country. You can see our live-streamed conversation archived on Facebook. You also should check-out the NOMMO Kudo Board for a fuller 411 on our literary society.

Joy and pain. The irony is that when NOMMO was preparing to celebrate our 10th anniversary over the Labor Day weekend, we were scattered by Katrina back in 2005. And here it is 2020, and Zeta is forcing us to have a Zoom celebration. Like I said, joy and pain. . . more about NOMMO is available on our website. Over the years members have collectively produced approximately 30 books. Joy and pain. Be well.

–kalamu

 

I had just completed a summer writing workshop for Black men commissioned by Southern University in New Orleans. Kysha Brown (now Ayo Fayemi-Robinson) wanted to know “what’s up with that?”. Where were the women? That conversation led to she and I founding NOMMO Literary Society–which I would sometimes half-jokingly say meant “no more of that literary shit”, our work had to be drawn from life experiences and not simply based on whatever co-called classic literature we might have read.

The beginning was right around Labor Day 1975. Ten years later, the rough ass, damn-near-killed-us, arrival of hurricane Katrina put an end to regular NOMMO meetings and widely disbursed us. People scattered. A decade and a half later, a good percentage of us still have not returned home except for short visits (you know, anniversaries, somebody’s birthday, a high school h0mecoming, or, more likely, the Essence Festival). Something common as a good, crusty loaf of French bread just can’t be found in the other 49-states–don’t mention a half&half oyster/shrimp po-boy dressed with pickles, lettuce, and tomatoes plus a dollop of hot sauce, accompanied by a Barq’s root beer, or a cold Jax beer on the side.

We met weekly on Tuesday evenings first on Brainard Street uptown, and then later in Treme. We held monthly public readings (the audience was always invited to contribute) at Community Book Center over on Bayou Road.

The regular sessions started off with an article or book that I selected (we once even read the entire of Leonard Shlain’s The Alphabet Versus The Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image). After taking turns reading aloud, we next briefly went over whatever business NOMMO needed to tend to including announcements of up-coming events in the city. Then, finally, members shared writings they had completed or were working on. Although we typically started at 7-pm, we sometimes did not wrap up until well after midnight.

We carried on for a full decade before Katrina blew us away. A number of us now have re-assembled and through the use of “Zoom” technology we will do a reading and have a discussion. This is open to the public. Be there or be. . .

 

 

 

Back in the early seventies–after the positives and disappointments of the 1964 Civil Rights and 1965 Voting Rights legislations, there was a moment when Black people at large dreamed of massive advancements, including even a nation of our own. Sure it seems like an impossible dream today, but back then, the future looked full of political and economic promise.

Amiri Baraka coined the slogan “Nation Time” and large portions of Black America dared dream that massive change was possible. By 1977 our New Orleans organization Ahidiana, led a tour of The People’s Republic of China which we billed on flyers as “Black Nationalists Tour Red China”. It was there in Beijing that I met with Robert Williams, the President of the Republic of New Afrika (RNA), which wanted to establish a deep south nation comprised of five existing states.

Imamu Amiri Baraka (within a couple of years he dropped the term “Imamu” from his name). In 1972 as the leader of the Congress of Afrikan People, Amiri Baraka was interviewed by Tony Brown of the popular weekly “Black Journal” television program.

The masses of Black people ended up opting for full integration into the American body politic even if that choice did not include any significant economic development. Although we often became, and would continue to become, mayors of large and medium-sized American cities, we lost ground in terms of land wealth and family income compared to Whites.

On top of that, the surging and uncontrolled Corona-Virus pandemic is hitting Black and Hispanic communities especially hard. As a result, there are deep health issues disastrously affecting us. Plus, there is an unprecedented negative economic impact in jobs lost. Although we have seen hard times before, this time is unique because of an invisible and highly contagious virus running wild all across America.

Nevertheless, there had been a time. . . a “Nation Time”. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Most of us–perhaps even a large majority of us–do not really know our own history. But. It’s not our fault. We were reared within a dominant culture that intentionally subverts and hides our history of resistance to domination.

While most of us are very aware of the civil rights struggle–going against the fire hoses, the Jim Crow laws, residential segregation, and many other examples of daily repression in the fifties and sixties. But, our history of resistance to oppression goes back to the beginnings of this nation.

On the one hand, our struggles have made this country a truly “more perfect union”. But, on the other hand, there is a too often overlooked history of resistance: Florida. The entire gulf coast. Pitched battles with the army.

And guess what. We were not summarily put down. In alliance with indigenous partners, we held our own. The so-called Seminole Wars are a story we should all know and celebrate.

Although we may not recognize this resistance when we first encounter it, the truth is, this example of self-determination is a major example of what our history contains. Read about our valiant story. Read, not just to know our past, but to affirm who we are and can become as we continue to struggle to build a better life for ourselves and our progeny.