Kalamu ya Salaam's information blog


photo by Alex Lear



who would you be,
if you weren’t who you are?


“most people want younger,” he eyed me with bemusement, but i did not respond to his provocation. “but then you are not like most of our clients.”


i knew what he meant. one, i was african american. two, although on the cusp, i was not yet in my fifties. three, i wasn’t looking to be exotic, or trans-race, or exceptionally gifted physicially–well, actually, in a way, i did want to be a bit more exciting. average is ok, but, you know shorter or taller than normal might be better. but then, i don’t know, and i guess that’s what it is, i want to know something else. my new self doesn’t have to be a special something else…


“your tests results were excellent. you’ve fulfilled all the requirements and then some.” bob was chattering on. i took another sip from the room temperature goblet of wine. it was an excellent sherry. “may i call you arthur?” i started to say something that might vaguely sound smart like, “sure, bob, arthur or art, is fine,” but really it wasn’t fine, or i mean it would have been fine but i have never been an “art” or even “arthur” for that matter. so i said nothing.


my recollections reeled back to my ex-wife. even at our most intimate moments sandra called me by a contraction of my surname; i will always remember: “kenny my legs are wide open and my coochie’s dripping wet, just for you, baby.” but she never screamed nor got wild; i think she was making up that thing about being so wet just to con me, especially after that tryst with royce, which, as hurtful as the affair was, didn’t really lead to our break up because basically we were broke up before she started stepping out…


“frankly, i’m intrigued by your high verbal scores that indicate a philosophical bent. most of the people i see are so average it’s almost boring–please, disregard that last statement. i’m afraid this wine has clouded my judgment. it is entirely unprofessional for me to say anything about any of our other clients, even to generalize. nevertheless, i am intrigued. your undergraduate degree was in theological studies but you went on to earn an mba, top of your class and have spent seventeen years at the bureau of labor statistics. it’s unusual for a person to score higher on these verbal tests if they are not in a field that requires, well, you understand, i don’t mean to make you uncomfortable, i’m just admiring your test results. theology and philosophy are siblings, but add in business and statistics. frankly, arthur, you are an unusual man.”


bob’s steely blue-grey eyes focused on me with an unwavering gaze as though i were a picasso he was trying to decipher. i remember peeping at him while we were auditioning bodies. he didn’t flinched when i wondered aloud: “why would these people volunteer to… ummm, to trade-in their bodies.”


i wondered whether the models were aware they were on view. “self sacrifice is not unusual for the benefit of one’s family. were it not for our generosity to these donors, we could offer this service at much more affordable price point, but frankly, i think it is better to charge those with disposable income than to exploit those who are financially challenged.”


i could have chosen to be any one of them, or so i was told, “but,” and i had surprised myself by boldly offering an opinion in the form of a question, “why would any man want to become a female?” i choose not to be personally offended that there were women sprinkled among my candidates.


without even a hint of sarcasm, bob quietly retorted, “there are many of us who feel trapped in the body of the wrong gender. we at nu-life advancement  don’t judge the etiology of desire, we serve to help our clients achieve life lived to the fullest. over and above our commitment to our clients, philosophically,” at that moment bob had paused and softly rested a hand on my shoulder before intoning, “one could ask a fundamental question: what is wrong with becoming whomever we want to be?”


bob’s expertly manicured nails gleamed in the candle light as he waved away the waitress who was holding a water pitcher to top off his glass. “art, i sense you have a question.”


a non-refundable, hundred fifty thousand tab was not so expensive considering that one got a whole new life, except… “suppose, once i’ve made the switch, if i’m dissatisfied, can i obtain a second switch?”


bob smiled cryptically, well, not fully smiled, just sort of barely opened his mouth and clasped his hands with forefingers extended, brought them up to his lips, and then rested the tips of his fingers on the tip of his nose before clearing his throat. “nu-life advancement has a policy of non-serial transfers, meaning, second transfer are prohibited. this is why our selection process is so strenuous. we don’t accept everyone who wants a life transfer, nor do we always perform a client’s initial choice. we once had…” bob inexplicably paused and looked away.


“you once had…?”


bob cleared his throat a second time. “actually, i’m not supposed to engage this line of questioning. our policy pro…” bob abruptly halted. folding his arms as he leaned back in the booth. “i can’t…” he sat up straight.


i could tell he was stalling, waiting for me to interrupt him, but i had read the book on negotiating. i knew to say nothing. absolutely nothing. let him work it out. even if he said he couldn’t, i would say nothing and just wait. i didn’t look down or away, i stared him in the eyes, besides in this dimly lit lounge, neither of us could clearly see the other person across the table.


“you understand what i’m saying?”


i waited. didn’t move a muscle, no lick of the lips, no nod of the head. nothing. i just looked and waited.


bob reached into his coat jacket and took out his fountain pen—the pen he called his “contract” pen. i remember his ritual: “a signing should be done with an instrument befitting the seriousness of the occasion, hence i use a monteblanc. you know there are not that many of these in general circulation anymore.” bob tapped the pen lightly against his palm.


“mr. kennedy we once had an african american female who wanted to transfer into a white male. although she was otherwise fully qualified we declined. after we declined she threatened to sue. bottom line, he/she now works for us.”


was he saying what i thought he was saying, which was that bob had once been a black woman? i mean that’s not what he said but that was just the feeling i was getting, especially from the way he doodled on the pad with the ink pen. drawing a circle and then slowly filling it in. i wanted to ask a plethora of questions, but, holding to my plan, said nothing. didn’t even act like i heard him.


bob slowly screwed the cap back on his pen and gently lay the pen down next to the small notepad on which he had been noodling. “mr. kennedy do you have any other questions?”


i just looked at him. and then he folded his hands atop the table and stared back at me.


“hearing no further questions, once you sign…” bob reached into his brief and pulled out a paper. “this is a release form. remember, the contract you signed previously gave you a two week wavier period during which, for any reason whatsoever, you could change your mind and be fully released from your contract with nu-life advancement with no penalty whatsoever.”


bob placed the single sheet of paper before me. there was only one short paragraph printed on the nu-life advancement stationary.


“this is your acknowledgement that you have not changed your mind and that you hold nu-life advancement harmless should the procedure turn out other than you expect.”


bob proffered me his pen.


“i didn’t know i would have to… i mean i thought this was basically a follow-up session and…”


“take this home with you and read it at your leisure. if, for any reason whatsoever, you do not wish to sign, simply return this release to us unsigned and we will refund your payments. we at nu-life advancement understand that this is the single most important decision you will make in a lifetime. we want you to make this decision without any compulsion or pressure. if you have any questions, please ask them. if you feel any hesitancy, we understand. do not. i repeat, do not feel you must sign this release. if you do not want to proceed, if you feel uneasy, or just have a premonition that this is not what you should do. please do not sign this release.”


bob’s steely eyes were boring into me the whole time he mechanically unreeled his spiel. it was almost like he was challenging me to stand down. i looked at the paper. who was i kidding. i’d come too far to turn around now. i took the pen from bob and signed.


“thank you, mr. kennedy.”


bob gently retrieved the signed release, spun it around, extended his hand asking for the pen. after i gave it to him, bob signed the release in my presence.


“we will mail you a copy of this release.” and then bob put the paper back in his case, screwed the top back on his pen and smoothly replaced the pen into his inside breastpocket.


“we’ll see you on the 25th. good luck mr. kennedy.”


bob rose, extended his hand to shake. i firmly clasped his hand. “thank you, bob.”


* * *


“how did it go?”


“how does it always go? here’s the release.”


“robert, this is unbelievable. that’s what, the third one this week? one hundred fifty thousand a pop. what people won’t pay for physical enhancement.”


“it’s advancement, not enhancement. we are not some hollywood surgeon firming up tits and lipo-sucking stomachs. we are personal development specialists who help our clients achieve a higher state of life through physical and mental advancement. we are selling dreams, fulfilling desires, everybody wants to be more than they are. we’re just offering a process for our clients to achieve…”


“everybody has a right to be the person they desire to be. robert, that was great ad copy you wrote.”


“i didn’t write it, i stole it. mind you wants because someone wants your mind.”




“george clinton.”




“i grew up in d.c. used to be one of the few whites at clinton’s p-funk concerts. one day my father pulled me aside: robert, son, you are attracted to all those eccentric people—how many of those whom you follow live a good life after they reach fifty? i couldn’t think of one of my musical heroes who was over fifty—even clinton has lost most of his music publishing, so in that sense i no longer admire him. i can hear my father now: ‘son, it’s ok to enjoy yourself, but please think about your future. don’t end up penniless in your senior years. there’s nothing hip, as you call it, about being old, poor and uncared for’.”


“for sure you’re not poor.”


“poverty is boring—i have no intentions of ever being poor. simon, send mr. kennedy to barbados for his procedure. he’ll die happy.”


“robert, you are a genius.”


“no. i’m not a genius. it’s just that so many people are dissatisfied with who they are. for a fee, we help them out of their misery. they think they’re getting a new life, and in a way they are. it’s just not in this life. after all, who knows, there may indeed be life after death.”


—kalamu ya salaam










Escape Through Death

When the Underground Railroad was one
of the few lifelines available to those
fleeing slavery, undertaker Henrietta Duterte
smuggled fugitives through Philadelphia
in coffins. Kaitlyn Greenidge tells the story.


By Kaitlyn Greenidge


At 14, my deepest desire was to become an undertaker. This career choice was met with puzzled looks from my mother and exasperated sighs from my guidance counselor, but during a school-sponsored internship week, they agreed to let me try.

My mother knew the owners of one of the oldest black-run funeral homes in Boston. As she looked up their number in her Rolodex, she casually mentioned going to dance parties in the funeral parlor as a teenager. “Really?” I asked, incredulous, once again outclassed and outcooled by my mother. “Yeah,” she shrugged. She told me, too, about how as a kid traveling to Virginia every summer to visit cousins, her family would stop at a black funeral home in New Jersey. When traveling across state lines, it was the only safe space where they could sleep. She told me how these friends, the owners of the parlor, would delight in making her and her siblings sleep in the same room as the caskets. I imagined her on a late spring night, running her fingers over the satin insides of a casket just for the thrill of it.

I didn’t know then about Henrietta Duterte, who, in 1858, turned her home into a stop on the Underground Railroad, using coffins to smuggle fugitives across Pennsylvania. I also hadn’t yet learned about the complicated relationship between death, funeral rites, and blackness. To be able to determine when and how to bury and mourn your dead is an act of autonomy and self-expression for a community that is denied personhood by the larger civic and social systems at every turn. Because segregation in the United States runs even into the grave, black-owned funeral homes have often been the only places black people could turn to when burying their dead.


“It is not so strange to use whatever means you have at hand—a postal box; a fake mustache, top hat, and cane; a coffin and a funeral procession—to ensure freedom for those around you.”


I did not get my internship at the funeral home. In Massachusetts, you had to be 16 or older to work in one. By the time I reached that age, I had downgraded my goal to simply being as goth as possible. But it’s difficult to fully commit to a subculture look like that when you don’t have any money. The most I could afford was an overpriced black tutu from Urban Outfitters (a time before cheap Internet retail existed), which I conveniently wore as both a petticoat and a face veil.

By adulthood, I’d mercifully left that fashion stage behind. By that point I had also, buoyed in part by the stories of my mother and her family, become interested in black history. Working on an oral history project, I was tasked with interviewing older black women about their lives growing up in Brooklyn in the early 20th century. “And when did your father die?” I would ask, and be meant with a look, as if I had just used an obscenity. I learned to say, instead, “When did he pass?” Passing, home going, passing over, resting in power—these were the preferred terms, a nod to a very, very old understanding of death that is distinctly African: that death is not an end, but merely another part of a journey to a space that is not so black and white as heaven or hell, but something much more mysterious.

For enslaved people, the journey from life to death was often a way to talk about freedom, about liberation, in metaphor. It was a journey they knew intimately. The parallels are most striking in the story of Henrietta Duterte—a daring woman who used her undertaking business to smuggle escaped slaves to freedom as part of the Underground Railroad. The image of Duterte hiding fugitives in coffins is an enduring one—the provocative connection of life and death, the question of liberation, and the idea of great transformation coming from what, to the outside world, appears to be a moment of lowest tragedy. How I wish I’d known about Duterte as a teenager—she would surely have become my lifelong heroine.


Duterte was born, in 1817, into a prominent black Philadelphia family. She grew up in Philadelphia’s celebrated Seventh Ward, the heart of the city’s free black community. The world Duterte inhabited was one that we would now describe with that ubiquitous Internet phrase: Black Excellence. W.E.B. Dubois made the community famous with one of his first studies, The Philadelphia Negro, a groundbreaking work of sociology that argued for the city’s black population’s self-sufficiency and many achievements. An even earlier chronicler, who probably would have known Duterte and her family, Joseph Wilson, wrote a book about black Philadelphia in 1841. He called it, simply, The Elite of Our People.


The only existing photo of Henrietta Duterte © Public Domain


“I like to think I would have been as brave as Duterte, to put my business and my life at risk in order to save others.”


In this setting, Duterte began her professional life as a tailor and was known for her cloaks, hats, and attire—which at least one source claims were considered fashionable. In 1852, at the age of 35, she married Francis A. Duterte, a Haitian-American who owned his own undertaking business. None of their children survived infancy, and Francis himself died in 1858, after just six years of marriage. In the only photograph of Duterte that has survived, she is pictured cradling one of her children, the baby’s eyes closed in sleep, or maybe death. Her expression is both proud and formidable—you can almost see a hint of a smile. Her gaze is so direct; the photo appears almost modern in its frankness and straightforward expression.

At age 41, Duterte had no husband and no children—but she did have a business. She took over the funeral parlor, growing it into a highly successful endeavor. According to most accounts, she was known for being an excellent and fast undertaker. This was an important detail in a world in which embalming techniques were not yet developed and the precariousness of life meant that death could come suddenly and without warning. Duterte’s business success meant that she was also instrumental in fund-raising for the community that surrounded her. She supported the AME Church of St. Thomas; the Philadelphia Home for Aged and Infirm Colored Persons; and, after the Civil War, the Freedman’s Aid Society, which supported formerly enslaved people in Tennessee. When she died in 1903, her business was so successful that it was grossing about $8,000 a year (about $211,500 in today’s dollars).

Duterte was uniquely situated to connect her business to the Underground Railroad. Philadelphia was part of the Metropolitan Corridor, a network of vigilance committees—formalized groups of organized black activists who smuggled fugitives to the north. Most of those escaping slavery for the north came from the border Southern states—Maryland, Delaware, and Virginia. Though the methods for escape varied, the vast majority came by land. Some, like the most famous fugitive, Frederick Douglass, escaped by painstakingly saving up enough money for train and ferry tickets, riding alongside white passengers and tensely hoping not to be discovered.

But Philadelphia became famous for being the final destination for the most daring fugitive escapes. In 1849, 33-year-old Henry “Box” Brown shipped himself in a wooden crate from Virginia to abolitionists in Philadelphia. And a year prior, in 1848, Ellen and William Craft escaped from Macon, Georgia. Ellen, an enslaved woman of mixed race, managed to pass as a white male plantation owner while her husband posed as her slave. In this context, Duterte’s funeral parlor/Underground Railroad stop makes complete sense. It is not so strange to use whatever means you have at hand—a postal box; a fake moustache, top hat, and cane; a coffin and a funeral procession—to ensure freedom for yourself and those you love. 

The image of using funeral processions and coffins to smuggle enslaved people into and out of the city becomes even more poignant when set to the soundtrack of the spirituals of the time. These songs served to describe the experiences of black people, free and enslaved, and to communicate passcodes for the Underground Railroad. Lyrics like “Before I’ll be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave”; “Over my head, I hear music in the air”; and “Dem bones gonna rise again” all take on a meaning both despairing and hopeful. The theologian Howard Thurman, in describing these songs, wrote, “Death is regarded as release, as complete surcease from anxiety and care. This is to be distinguished from that which may come after death. We are thinking here of the significance of death regarded somewhat as a good in itself. The meaning of death in such a view is measured strictly against the background of immediate life experience. It is not a renunciation of life because its terms have been refused, but an exulting sigh of sheer release from a very wearying burden.”


Henrietta Duterte’s place of business © Public Domain


Like many Americans, when I first learned about slavery and the Underground Railroad, I flattered myself by believing that I would have had the courage to resist, the determination and the faith to fight to end slavery by any means necessary. I like to think I would have been as brave as Duterte, to put my business and my life at risk in order to save others. I love the Harriet Tubman legend that she traveled with a pistol to protect herself from slave catchers and also to encourage those who momentarily lost faith to keep going. She would supposedly cock her pistol to those who quailed and say, “Dead negroes tell no tales.”

I imagine that in every coffin Henrietta moved, there were similar moments of very real terror, doubt, and resignation. They are a part of any path toward liberation, especially in a world that conspires to make sure you stay unfree. Knowing this reminds me that I am not exceptional in my moments of fear or hesitation. Many more who’ve passed before me have had them too.

I am continually surprised by the ingenuity of our ancestors and their ability to take the fewest possible resources and create a living thing. We can take death and use it to save lives. From our limited resources, whole realms of art, of culture, of music, of literature, of language have sprung forth, ones so rich and valuable that people all over the world try to steal them—including, especially, the very people who make it a point of telling us we are useless. Your living neighbors won’t give you a place at the inn. No matter. You will sleep among the graves of your kinfolk and dream up another possibility, one your antagonists never, ever, could conceive as possible.  



KAITLYN GREENIDGE is the author of We Love You, Charlie Freeman

Video produced by Mighty Oak. Emily Collins, creative director; Jess Peterson, creative producer; Anthony Galante, storyboards/animation director/animator; Minkyung Chung, Sami Kerwin, Anthony Galante, fabricators; Marisha Falkovich, post FX.









Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Dr. Salvador Vidal-Ortiz is associate professor of sociology at American University. He recently published a co-edited volume, Queer Brown Voices: Personal Narratives of Latina/o LGBT Activism, with University of Texas Press, and has a forthcoming co-authored book, Race and Sexuality, with Polity Press.

Dismantling Whiteness

In Academe


Academics, primarily those of color, are fighting for a voice to disrupt the neoliberal (some would say white supremacist) logics now embedded in false practices of choice and equality in education today. Academic circles operate as inhospitable sites to faculty of color, as higher education is built on the exclusionary processes of symbolic and tokenistic inclusion. The ways in which those historical exclusionary processes impact nonwhite faculty involve those faculty having to constantly negotiate or say noto extra work — work that oftentimes involves managing diversity for whiteness.

In this essay, I discuss some of the characteristics of whiteness as embedded in multiple university sites and experienced by many of my colleagues. I also begin to point toward a project of dismantling whiteness in order to make room for an academic transformative engagement.

Scholars’ vocal actions against “light” multiculturalism, reactions to shallow accusations of “reverse racism” and active resistance to neoliberal diversity often encounter a challenge. That challenge is, namely, that whiteness and a strong racial inclusion and justice project cannot occupy the same space. By whiteness — as an institution, as discourse and as the invisible norm — I am referring to the entitlements provided to most professors by virtue of a white academic institution that privileges cultural norms of formal communication, professionalism and appropriateness. A rule of sameness often applies here: of sameness in hiring practices, in trusting others like them, in the advancement of knowledge and in simple networking endeavors that invoke “fairness and equal opportunity” through the vaguest language of multiculturalism (or the 21st-century upgrade: “diversity and inclusion”).

Those institutions may, conversely, tag nonwhite faculty members as unfitting, creating the conditions that make them feel out of place. Indeed, when an institution is not made for you, you are out of place and, indeed, conditionally accepted. When faculty of color speak up, we are often silenced — and put in “our place.” Over all, the failed project of watered-down academic diversity is a reminder of how whiteness is structured — and structuring our interactions in academe.

It bears repeating that the dismantling of whiteness (as structure) is different from white (as race). When we talk about race in the classroom, I always make sure to distinguish between a race, a group of people, and the system that races encode. Here, I talk about whiteness as a discourse that enables a set of practices, which activates, with its own set of codes, certain responses and actions. But I am not speaking of white people — whether administrators, colleagues, students — or even whiteness as a race.

Academe is poised to transform the bias of traditional and canonical curriculum. Yet while the philosophy and policies at many universities have become more robust, inclusive and oh so diverse, in actuality, the leadership of many of those institutions has continued to reinforce whiteness as a rule. Universities may have incompetent administrators in departmental units, but the code of white networks makes any honest actions or comments about the challenges those people create difficult at best. Thus, whiteness remains pretty invisible to the very powers that be and that operate in and through it, maintaining a ruling on norms that directly impact faculty of color in recruitment, retention and promotion.

Networks among the “we” that hire base their decisions on a white collective imaginary of who produces important work (read: gets the right grants), who seemsto work hard, who meets the standards — creating self-fulfilling situations that repeat, and thus reify, whiteness (and that obscure when folks of color do, indeed, produce the work). Universities that are in constant tribulation for their lack of diversity ironically use “target of opportunity” hires, but white people get tenure-track positions in (at best) dubious processes. We also see white folks who leave and come back to institutions as they please, without formal hiring processes, who may be claimed as target recruitments. Nowadays, the process of tenure has become a bargaining of sorts — with (often) white folks holding other offers in hand, ready to quit and move on.

Indeed, whiteness talks — it always has, and it does so in silence, as the norm, as whiteness often most successfully reproduces itself. And yet if one notes how that work gets done, those mentioning it become the problem. In neoliberal talk, some of us don’t do the work that matters, or that gets us (and the university) funded, or that is published in presses and journals that are ranked, so we best stay in our place. I’ve heard so many of such versions from colleagues across the country, countless times. This is not new.

I am a Latino queer tenured sociologist at, like most scholars, a white institution, or a majority white institution. But here I use “majority” in the sociological sense. I am referring to the actions that make it a majority white institution irrespective of the numbers. The terms “majority” and “minority” are not literal; rather, these terms are about power, control of institutions and resources, and a sense of ownership and belonging. When academic settings operate in and through whiteness, the process constructs ethnoracial groups as minorities, irrespective of the numbers. Faculty, staff and students are often engaged in sometimes innocent, often implicit, or at times explicit engagements with a code of whiteness that reproduces a specific social order that sets exclusionary traps for most people who feel ill placed (sometimes including women, often gender and sexual minorities, and, generally, people of color).

At many universities in the United States, diversity bypasses race for country of origin, for gender, for sexuality, for queer identity and experience, for working-class status (in white students) and for disability. To bypass here is not just to ignore but also to avoid. Yet this avoidance is also a significant passing through, in that it depends on a loose notion of how to include “the other” in academe, while it co-opts any efforts to confront the structural systems of racism embedded in the culture of universities.

Sites that bypass racial-minority faculty hiring often simultaneously master showcasing how “diverse” they may be — with white women constituting the majority of the ranks, as well as gays and lesbians. (Some universities go as far as to argue that conservatives, Republicans and religious applicants who hold sexist, racist and homophobic beliefs are minoritized.) This bypassing of diversity is in actuality an erasure of minorities — and of Blackness in particular — that gets constituted into benign acts of inclusion. These acts serve the dual purpose of salvaging the university’s attempts and efforts to diversify, while at the same time justifying why the focus is not on ethnoracial minorities. Students at many campuses have noticed this and begun to demand practices that move beyond tokenism. Faculty and staff members must follow suit.

It is taxing to call out the whiteness of those so comfortably supported by the web underneath that discourse, and it sure has repercussions — any challenge to systematic control and power does. Sometimes, faculty of color do not find the room to challenge the systems in place; sometimes, we do not even have the energy to communicate this effectively, given our frustration at academe’s inability to articulate itself outside of neoliberal markers.

To dismantle whiteness is to enunciate its characteristics, denounce how it works (when it does and through whom), and make evident the patterns that may be obvious to some people (and how and why others are oblivious to it). Dismantling whiteness in academe is about giving up power and privilege, yes. It is also about recognizing how inherently hostile the university spaces and environment are for faculty, staff and students of color. It requires a rage about diversity and that we move into a sociohistorical and cultural analysis of academe as a racist institution.







October 11, 2017












Eve Ewing is fighting the good fight on many fronts. A sociologist at the University of Chicago, she researches race and inequality in education, especially in Chicago public schools. She uses her Twitter fame to speak out on topics from white supremacy to waffles. With Nate Marshall, author of The Wild Hundreds, she runs community arts organization Crescendo Literary, whose latest project is No Blue Memories, a performance piece tribute to Gwendolyn Brooks. As if this weren’t enough, she just published her debut collection of poetry, Electric Arches, a fiercely imaginative celebration of black girlhood and the power of poetry to (re)create the past, the future, and a path for surviving the present. I talked with Eve about her new book, poetry-with-a-capital-P, and the essays she’s constantly rereading.

Rebecca Stoner: Tell me about your poetic education. How did you start reading and writing poetry?

Eve Ewing: My poetic education, such as it is, started in school. I used to read pretty much everything. When I got to high school, I became involved with Young Chicago Authors [a youth arts education offering writing workshops, open mics, and the nation’s largest youth poetry slam, Louder Than A Bomb]. YCA was a big influence on me in terms of actually learning about poetry and text. To a certain extent it was even more important in terms of teaching me what it meant to be a poet in the world. I came to understand that it meant, for me, that you could be someone who was very much grounded in your community, that part of being a poet meant mentoring others, collaborating with others, learning from other people, representing where you’re from.

In terms of a formal poetry education, I have a lot less of it than a lot of other people. I don’t have an MFA. I was an English major in college and I took mostly multi-genre black literature classes. I took one American poetry class that was incredibly alienating, in which, as far as I can recall, I was the only black person in the class—and there weren’t many black people on the syllabus either, or any people of color. I’ve always felt a little bit of a disconnect between what is reified by a certain traditional established literary set of institutions—what’s considered poetry and what it means to be a poet from that perspective—versus what I have understood and affirmed what it means to be a poet.

RS: Can you talk more about your relationship with classical poetry? I know in Electric Arches you have a sestina, a sonnet, and Requiem for Fifth Period explicitly references The Odyssey.

EE: My alienation from those kinds of institutions doesn’t mean that I’m alienated from canonical poetry. I have always been someone who enjoys reading widely. In college, I read Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath. But I also read a lot of Gwendolyn Brooks, a lot of Countee Cullen, and Jean Toomer, and it was through these black literature classes I was able to find poetry in school that meant something to me.

For the book, I did want to challenge myself to write in form, at least a little bit. It’s not something that’s my natural inclination, therefore I think it’s an important intellectual challenge. Even then, for me it’s a little bit different. The sestina—on the one hand, it’s a sestina, but on the other hand, it’s recounting the story of feeling very alienated as a black poet among other black poets, being in residency in a faraway town, and feeling separated from my self. Even the sonnet is playing with the form of the sonnet. It’s a love poem, just one line repeated 14 times, expressing love through this action of leaving somebody cornbread on the stove. To me that’s the embodiment of love and care. The fact that it’s after Terrance Hayes—it’s entering into conversation with a more contemporary black poet.

I don’t have any sort of animus towards traditional poetry institutions. Actually, I have been pleasantly surprised and delighted at this stage in my life that there can be a little bit of a thinner boundary between us. But I feel grateful that, when I was coming of age as a poet, that I had other models, because otherwise I probably wouldn’t have entered poetry at all.

RS: I wanted to ask you more about your formal education. You study educational inequality, and you seem to have lived the full spectrum of the experience. You attended Chicago public schools, a notoriously segregated and underfunded school system, but are now on track to become an assistant professor, with a Ph.D from Harvard. What have you learned from this journey? 

EE: I think that those two institutions are not as antithetically opposed as you would expect. They’re different parts of the same system. From a very young age I started thinking critically about what school is for: why we have school and why it works, or doesn’t work, the way it does, and who it is intended to work for. I became very keenly aware within schools at a very young age. Since then I set myself on this pathway to try to understand it and see how I can make it a little bit different.

Within any educational institution, there are always going to be different strata. I know people of color who have gone to Harvard and had an incredibly alienating, terrible, useless experience, and there are lots of people who go to Chicago Public Schools, and, because the system is stratified the way it is, have a top-tier, elite experience. With respect, I think your question reflects some presumptions about what it’s actually like to be in those spaces. I really would push back against some of the presumptions about CPS, or Harvard, that go into a question like that. There’s a certain symbolism that each of those institutions holds in our society that I think only partially reflects reality.

Something that bothers me is that I was a CPS teacher. And when I was a teacher, I had many of the same skills and opinions and perspectives that I have now. But people became much more interested in listening to things I had to say once I had this affiliation with an Ivy League university. I say that to people all the time as a way of calling to the fore that perhaps I’m not so special, that there are lots of people who share my opinion and skills and perspective, but for the most part we as a society don’t make space to hear those ideas, and in fact they’re actively silenced and discouraged. Teachers are actively silenced and discouraged from voicing any kind of political opinion, even though the practice of teaching is inherently political.


“From a very young age I started thinking
critically about what school is for: why we
have school and why it works, or doesn’t
work, the way it does, and who it is intended
to work for.”


RS: I’m curious about what you’re saying about questions of identity and personhood within an institution. Would you feel comfortable talking about what it’s like for you to be a black professor at the University of Chicago, which has such a historically troubled relationship with the surrounding community?

EE: While I like my job and I’m grateful to have the opportunities to do the kind of work I love to do, I don’t expect the university to love me, I don’t expect the university to have my back, and I don’t expect the university to always have my best interests in mind, because it’s this massive institution that precedes me and exceeds me and is not really about me. I think a really critical mistake that’s easy to make when you’re in these institutions and you come from a marginalized position is to feel like “I’m here, I made it.” Major institutions dismiss people of color all the time when it no longer becomes convenient to have them. I’m very cynical about any institution’s ability to keep me at the forefront, or keep my personhood at the forefront if it ever comes down to protecting their broader interest. With that kind of practical cynicism in mind, it sort of frees me to do the work I’m there to do every day.

RS: Do you feel like there’s a special role for poetry within politics? Obviously, poetry isn’t going to be the thing that changes school funding or hires more teachers, but what can it do?

EE: I don’t think that’s true. I think poetry can play a role in both of those things. That’s a hard question for me to answer, because I don’t disaggregate my politics from my artistic practice. But I think that poetry helps people understand those issues in a way that’s different than how they normally would. I think that’s not just about poetry in particular—it’s also about narrative storytelling, about art, about testifying and witnessing. I think that the role of the arts more broadly is, as Toni Cade Bambara said, “to make the revolution irresistible.” I think that poetry plays a central role in that.

RS: I’m interested in what you say about not desegregating your politics from your artistic practice. This book is published by Haymarket, which is known for producing radical books. I also noticed they are proudly printed in Canada with union labor. Was it important to you to publish with your politics?

EE: Oh, absolutely. I would be publishing with my politics regardless, but I’m excited to have that be more explicitly part of the book because of the press. Haymarket helped me write the book I wanted to write and publish the book I wanted to publish, and the political element is definitely an aspect of that. It means that they’re more explicit in the way they talk about the book, the way they advertise the book, and the narrative around the book centers some of those political aspects, which to me are crucial to the narrative within the book.

RS: When you wrote this book, who was your imagined audience? The first image in your book is a black girl decoder ring. Based on that image, I wonder if you were trying to produce solidarity or understanding with your book.

EE: No, not especially. I think that whether other people choose to be in solidarity with people who have different identities—the onus of that is on those people. The primary audience of the book is first and foremost black teen girls or young adult women, and expanded from that young people of all backgrounds, black women of all ages, and I would see the audience blossoming out from that. It’s a book that people from all different backgrounds can and are clearly demonstrating they can read and love and understand and connect with, and that feels true to them. I do think it’s important to write with a very clear audience in mind. It’s one of those Writing 101 things that’s a truism because it’s true—having a clear audience in mind can make for a much richer and clearer set of images, especially in poetry.

The black girl decoder ring is supposed to be a tongue-in-cheek joke about how, on the one hand, I feel like our society is very dismissive and erasing of black women, but on the other hand has kind of an obsession with our clothes, our manner of speech, our habits, our social structures.

RS: I’m interested in how you use Twitter. You’re active in many different kinds of writing–how does Twitter play a role in that, and how does it all fit together?

EE: People sometimes say things like, every Tweet that you put out, that could be a sentence in your novel, or like every blog post, that could be an op-ed. While I understand that sentiment and work very deliberately to manage my writing energy in a given day, I think that’s a little silly, because for me Twitter plays such an important role to, number one, just communicate things in that format. For me, Twitter is a medium with its own inner value as a way of communicating ideas to a broad audience.

I’m not a person who is naturally driven towards concision, and I think that concision is an extremely important quality for a writer to have. Twitter helps me with that a lot. It provides a medium where I have to make very clear, concise arguments.

It’s also extremely helpful to be able to connect with so many writers and readers from all over the world. Especially a couple of years ago, it was really helpful to build the kind of audiences that then translated to the kind of writing opportunities I’ve gotten to have.

RS: What is your non-Twitter writing process like? How do you move between these different modes of being–if they are different modes of being–between Tweeting, being in a faculty meeting, writing poetry, and so on?

EE: My writing process is that I try to have some kind of very specific targets and goals in mind at all times, and those are larger scale and smaller scale targets. Larger scale targets like: I need to complete this manuscript. Smaller scale targets like: tomorrow I need to write two poems, or I need to revise five pages of this academic paper.

I believe anything can be done if you break it up into chunks, if you go, as Anne Lamott once told us, “bird by bird.” I try to have a very clear vision of what I’m working towards, even in a way that facilitates the necessary messiness of writing. Sometimes that means I’m just going to jot down notes for a half hour, and if I don’t have any more ideas I’m going to stop. Having that framework allows me to go really hard within those specific targets and goals I set for myself. I use a lot of to-do lists, I use a lot of timers, I use a lot of motivational notes. I will sit down at my computer and write on a post-it, you must get to page 70 before you can take a break. and I’ll just put that in front of me. Things like that, they sound a little silly, but they work really well for me.

I also am very self-forgiving. At any one moment when I’m doing one thing, it means I’m not working on something else. It would be very easy to be obsessed with all the things I’m not doing at any given time. I think really hard about being forgiving to myself and not getting too caught up on what I can’t do at the moment.


“I believe anything can be done if you
break it up into chunks.”


RS: Are you comfortable talking about what you’re working on right now? I’m really curious to hear about No Blue Memories.

EE: What I’ve been working on obsessively all summer has been my second book, When The Bell Stops Ringing. It’s a nonfiction book, a sociology book about racism in school policy, specifically school closure in Chicago.

Right now I’m actually working on some other research projects. Because that kind of research takes so long, it’s something I’ll be working on, in little chunks, for the next year.

No Blue Memories—I’m really excited about that. Nate and I wrote that last summer. It’s a show about the life of Gwendolyn Brooks. It’s an extremely multi-genre, multi modal performance unlike anything I’ve ever done or seen. I think it’s going to be pretty crazy. The show is performed in shadow, and it’s performed simultaneously by live actors, as well as extremely ornate paper cut-out puppets interacting with each other. It also has a live musical performance component, which includes music created by Jamila Woods and Ayanna Woods. Performances are going to be free and open to the public in Chicago, and there’s one set of performances that’s exclusively for Chicago Public School students and teachers that will be on the South Side at Gwendolyn Brooks College Prep. The other set of performances is for everybody, and they’ll be held at the Harold Washington Library, a big free library downtown. We get to celebrate the poet who has had the biggest influence on us and the way we live our lives, and we get to celebrate and talk about her at a free show that’s open to our city, which is basically a dream come true.

RS: Can you talk more about the importance of collaboration to your work?

EE: Collaboration is really important to everything I do, for a number of reasons. Even those things that seem like I did them alone, there’s always been tremendous collaboration behind them. With Electric Arches, that reflects the work of Nate as my editor, and the people at the press who partnered with me to enact the vision of the book, and a collaboration with a visual artist to make the cover what it is. Collaboration helps hold me accountable to the kind of artist I want to be, because it facilitates constant stretching, constant pushing, constant trying new things, being inspired by other people. It’s also really helpful for my mental health, because I never feel like I’m alone. Making sure that someone has your back, not because of what you can produce from them but because of who you are and because they care about you is really important to me.

RS: What are you reading now? And what are you constantly re-reading?

EE: Right now I’m reading Hunger by Roxane Gay. I also have The Hate U Give. I picked it up a couple weeks ago but haven’t started it because I do most of my reading before I go to sleep, and I don’t want to read this book that has a lot of trauma in it right before I go to bed. I need to figure out what I’m going to do about that.

There are some essays that I constantly reread. One is “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” by Langston Hughes, which is about the burdens and the questions and the challenges and the joys of being a black artist. I also constantly reread “Poetry is Not a Luxury,” by Audre Lorde. I have that phrase tattooed on my arm.





November 8, 2017






The tobacco industry’s scheme to get Black people addicted to menthol cigarettes was highlighted in “Black Lives/Black Lungs,” a new documentary about the dangers of the flavored smokes, the Spokane Spokesman reported. Nine out of 10 Black smokers prefer menthol cigarettes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Filmmaker Lincoln Mondy , 23, examined the menthol cigarette advertising blitz that began since the 1950s. As a bi-racial child, Mondy said he noticed his White relatives tended to smoke non-menthol cigarettes and used chewing tobacco. On the other side of the family, his Black relatives used menthol cigarettes exclusively.

The tobacco industry’s strategy included giving money to Black politicians, scholarships to African-American students and support for Black cultural events, Mondy’s film also revealed.

The consequences have been devastating. African-Americans die from diseases related to tobacco use at a higher rate than Whites, even though Blacks smoke fewer cigarettes and start smoking at an older age than White people do, according to the CDC.

Cigarette makers are not the only industry under fire for targeting the Black community. Earlier this year, two pastors from the District of Columbia filed a lawsuit in D.C. Superior Court against Coca-Cola and the American Beverage Association, CBS News reported.

According to the ministers, the soda industry shares a huge part of the responsibility for the diabetes epidemic that has swept through minority communities because the industry targets African-Americans and Hispanics.





03 November 2017





In Conversation with

Hassan Hajjaj on

Artist Solidarity and the

Impact of ‘La Caravane’

We caught up with the Moroccan artist
at the London edition of 1:54.

Hassan Hajjaj’s La Caravane was the lead exhibition for this year’s London edition of 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair last month.

The Moroccan-born artist has a kinship with the subjects in his art works that goes beyond mere words. On the evening I interviewed him at the Somerset House, it was some 20 minutes to 7:00 p.m. when exhibitions would closed for the day. Hajjaj asked to postpone the interview while he sat to watch a run of Rock Stars with one of the featured artists who had arrived to see the work.

What at first might seem like courtesy from one artist to another soon took on the form of solidarity and appreciation of each other’s gifts which could be lost on the many who trooped in to see La Caravane.

“If you go anywhere around the world, you’re going to find incredible artists,” Hajjaj explains, “they’re known local and they’re surviving what they do, on what they have and for me they’re the real artists.”

Hassan Hajjaj La Caravane at Somerset House. Courtesy of Somerset House.

Rock Stars: Volume Two is a set of nine screen installations of different artists that includes a soul singer, performance poets and a belly dancer all of whom perform their art in a sequence of short recorded clips that build into a montage that is looped.

Each artist is dressed by Hajjaj in outfits of bold patterns and colors, and framed by cans of popular everyday products from brands that would be immediately recognizable most people, even when labelled in Arabic.

The first volume of Rock Stars, which also featured a diverse group of artist-friends, was shown in the Los Angeles County of Art (2014), New Jersey’s Newark Museum (2015) and Memphis Brooks Museum of Art (2016).

La Caravane will also continue beyond the annual art fair and through the winter season at the Somerset House until January 2018 and Hajjaj is aware of just how significant his homecoming exhibition will be not just for himself: “I knew I had to carry the flag for 1:54 and the African continent. This was important. So whatever comes here had to be museum standard of work.”


La Caravane occupies all three rooms that make of the Charles Speechlys section of the gallery. The first is a selection of works from Kesh Angels, perhaps the best known of Hajjaj’s works, a series of stylized photographic prints depicting Moroccan women in djellaba and posed behind motorcycles. Each photograph has, for a frame, stacked cans of consumer products commonly used in Morocco with descriptions in Arabic as well as in English from carbonated drinks to processed food.

If one’s perception of women in traditional Islamic garments and some Arab societies is that of female disempowerment, Hajjaj’s harmonized vision of glossy aesthetic, Moroccan traditions and street culture not only disrupts such notions, but reconstitutes them into singular, complex images.

Kesh Angels is a classic type of work that became popular on social media,” Hajjaj says. “It’s like a 20 year story that I’ve been shooting. I’ve only probably showed only 10 percent of the work.”

One food brand Hajjaj has used to frame his work goes beyond any commentary on consumerism or decorative value.

Some of the brands Hajjaj has used to frame him work could be read as commentaries on global consumerism and some are simply decorative, except one for canned tomatoes brand, called Aisha, which has a deeper significance: “I use them a lot because my mum, God bless her, she liked them a lot. Her name was Aisha so as to keep the memory.”

Take a look at more from La Caravane below.

Khadija, photograph by ©Hassan Hajjaj, courtesy of the artist and Vigo Gallery.

Hindi Rockin’, photograph by ©Hassan Hajjaj, courtesy of the artist and Vigo Gallery.






Our 12th Annual Short Short Chapbook Contest submission
period begins November 1 and ends December 1, 2017.
Our 2017 judge will be Rigoberto Gonzalez. The winner
will receive $200 and have his/her chapbook published
in summer 2018, with an introduction by the contest judge.
During the submission period, please submit your 25–40
page double-spaced manuscript of short short stories
(fiction or nonfiction) each under 1000 words to our
Submittable contest site with a $10 reading fee. Multiple
entries from the same author are acceptable as long as
each is accompanied with a separate fee.

Individual pieces in your manuscript may have appeared in
journals, both in print and online, as long as the entire
collection itself is unpublished. Do not put your name
anywhere on the manuscript itself as submissions will be
judged blind. Please be sure your name and contact
information are correct in the submission program when
you submit your manuscript, so we can contact you once
a winner has been chosen.

Please note that current and former students, family
members, and close personal friends of the judge are
not eligible to submit.

Examples of previous winners can be viewed and
purchased through our catalog page.



We are not currently accepting manuscript queries
outside of the stated reading period above. Please
do not mail or email unsolicited manuscripts to the
Press outside of the specified reading periods.








The Forge Fellowship

Our endeavour to support emerging writers





13th Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize


The Waywiser Press is now accepting submissions of poetry manuscripts for the thireteenth annual Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize.

Collections may only be submitted online, and the deadline is midnight on December 1st 2017


The Winner Receives

  1. £2,000 or US$3,000, paid in May 2018.
  2. Publication of the winning manuscript by Waywiser both in the UK and in the USA in the autumn of 2018.
  3. A reading with the judge at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., in the autumn 2018.


  1. Entrants should be at least 18 years of age.
  2. Entrants should not have published more than one full-length previous collection of poems, though they may have published an unlimited number of books belonging to other genres.
  3. Individual poems from the collection may have been published in: (a) magazines, journals, or anthologies; (b) chapbooks and pamphlets of 36 pages or less (the count to include poems and exclude back and front matter); or (c) self-published items of 32 pages or less (the count to include poems and exclude back and front matter).
  4. Nobody who has a book published by or forthcoming from Waywiser may enter.
  5. Manuscripts should be in English, and the original work of the entrant, though as much as one sixth of the manuscript may consist of public domain translations (i.e. translations from poems whose authors have been dead for 70+ years).
  6. Entrants who reach the semi-finals of the contest should be able to send the press a hard copy of their manuscript, and this copy, stripped of anything that would identify the author, should otherwise correspond in every particular to the original.
  7. Entrants should be willing to read from their collections at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., in autumn 2018, if they are chosen as the winner.


The final judge’s decision will be made known in April or May 2018, and the news will be posted on this website at that time.


(i) Format

  1. Manuscripts should be a minimum of 48 and a maximum of 88 pages (the count to include poems and exclude back and front matter).
  2. Manuscripts should be typed or word-processed – preferably in 11-point type – on standard document size.
  3. Pages should be numbered consecutively, and a table of contents, as well as a list of acknowledgements (where appropriate), should be included.
  4. The author’s name and contact details (i.e. physical address, phone number and email address) should appear on the front page of the manuscript and nowhere else.
  5. No illustrative material should be sent.
  6. A list of previous poetry book, chapbook or pamphlet publications should be included, and with it a list of the magazines in which you have had poems published.
  7. Entrants may submit a manuscript elsewhere simultaneously, but should immediately notify Waywiser of its withdrawal from the competition if it is accepted for publication by another organization.
  8. Once submitted, a manuscript may not be altered, though the winner of the prize will be given the opportunity to revise before publication.
  9. Waywiser cannot accept responsibility for missing submissions.
  10. If the judge is not satisfied that a high-enough standard has been met, the press reserves the right not to award the prize in a particular year.


(ii) Entry Fee

  1. US $27, or the equivalent in whatever currency your card draws on.

(iii) Submission Procedure

  1. Manuscripts should be submitted by midnight on December 1st 2017.
  2. Only single file submissions can be accepted, so if your manuscript is stored in multiple files, they will need to be amalgamated before you upload.
  3. We can accept files in three different formats: Doc, Docx and PDF. Please do not lock the file you submit (i.e. make it impossible for us to print or cut and paste from it).
  4. You will need to have your credit or debit card or PayPal account details ready, since you will only be allowed to submit after the entry fee has been paid.
  5. When you are ready to upload your manuscript, please click on the link below:
  6. If you wish to withdraw your manuscript for any reason, please contact us directly rather than using the submission manager. Entry fees cannot be refunded.

Submit to The Thirteenth Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize

To download a copy of these guidelines

The guidelines set out above can be downloaded from here in PDF format. To view the guidelines in pdf format you must have a suitable pdf reader installed on your device. The Adobe version of the pdf reader can be downloaded free of charge from Adobe’s website by clicking Get Adobe Reader.

For the PDF version of the guidelines please click here.