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Kalamu ya Salaam's information blog

Early, early in her career, Afro-German (father from South Africa, mother from Germany), vocalist Joy Denalane cut a track in a samba-modified reggae stylee, however, she never returned to that specific genre, instead choosing to go a full out soul music route, singing in both English and German. 

Her 2002 debut album, Mamani, was what totally grabbed my attention. It featured her as one of a quartet of women on a cover of Nina’s “Four Women” and I wanted to know more. That’s how I got to Torch Of Freedom, which came out in 2003 and was followed by one drop remixes.

The song is almost twenty years old now but still sounds like she is singing about conditions today. Joy reminds us, we all need to let our little lights shine–and if we all do, our individual little lights can become a collective big fire, a torch of freedom!

 

 

Music is strange. Can be soothing. Or, on the other hand, that bad boy might be tempestuous. You know, like sunshine in the morning and hailing up a storm at night. Some days are dry. Other times, too many of our hours be wet. Especially when the wetness actually comes from our own tears flooding up our lives. You know what I’m saying?

I have written about this conjure woman before here. You can go and check it out, I don’t need to be repeating myself. You can read for yourself my appreciations, my reactions to Alice Smith’s singing, especially since I have provided direct links, thereby enabling you to judge for yourself.

Howsoever, what I do want to mention is that Alice Smith sings from the inside out. You don’t get to holla like this if you ain’t never been hurt. This is the voice of experience, and you don’t get to be truly experienced unless you done felt some pain, some bone deep pain (maybe even bone breaking: an arm, a leg, could be a foot, or your skull billy-club cracked open). Indeed, in some weirdly justified ways, shit could cost us our lives when the po-po decide to make an example of us.

And if you are someone that has so far dodged hardships, well, if you live, your time will come. Because into each life, some rain. . . besides, as the philosopher Melvin Van Peebles, presciently noted: a birth certificate ain’t nothing but a death warren, anyway. If you live, you got to die–the only question is what will you do with your little lifetime in between birth and death.

But don’t worry about messing around trying to figure out the mysteries of life, right now we are being impressed by Ms. Smith and the super-emotional way she got with notes in her throat. Indeed, the fact is, I believe her sound come from further down in her anatomy.

Some of her music is not suitable for children nor inexperienced adults, and certainly not appropriate for the average office space where mostly pop, soft rock, and/or quiet jazz or cool classical music are streamed. She be singing about shit you got to go deep to hear. Like butt-naked, dressed only in the honesty of anguish, anger and/or “just can’t help yourself” obsession; plus you are fully aware that giving your all to a love that hurts, well. . .if you been there you know.

By the way, if you Google “Alice Smith” you can get to hear a bunch of her music. What you waiting for? Why read my verbal rambling when you could be listening to the real deal. Go on, nah. These words will be here for long as the internet is working. But right now, go check out Ms. Smith.

What I got here are four variations of spells put on ya. You might not dig all of them, and a couple might even sound somewhat repetitive. But that’s the way of the world, ain’t nothing too much new under the sun. Might be new to us or different from what we be used to, but just cause we have yet to dig it, don’t mean it is something teetotally original, never ever been done before.

Besides, who says our arms are long enough to even much shadow box with the creator? Really our lifetimes are too brief to completely, much less accurately, comprehend the universe. We can’t even map out the history of our humanity, which ain’t all that long, compared to how long the earth been supporting life forms, you know bugs, fish, birds and four-leggeds, not to mention everything specific from mosquitoes to dinosaurs. Life been around for quite a spell. Much, much longer than us.

In the universal context, humanity is just a brief zit on the face of history. Besides, that pimple gonna eventually dry up, pop, or least wise disappear, ’cause ugly don’t last forever. Sun gonna shine. . . We just gotta ride out the hard times, spit out the bitter and savor the sweet whensoever we get a little taste. Meanwhile, get yourself inspirated by a healthy hearing of Alice Smith. That woman can sang. Period. Full stop.

 

I am not a religious man. Although, I was borne by people of the word and of the book, I do not believe in any form of organized religion. However, as the saying goes, regardless of what any of us may think, faith is in our blood. Never mind that Dr. Charles Drew demonstrated that blood does not work the way we believe it does.

In short, during the forties, Dr. Drew (1904–1950) discovered a way to process and store blood as plasma, which proved to be important and often life-saving, especially during the second World War. While I am deeply impressed and appreciative of the work of Dr. Drew, particularly as he demonstrated that blood is totally unrelated to race, nevertheless, my understanding is that our African racial origins go back thousands of years. Chester Higgins is attuned to the significance of our heritage.

Higgins is a professional photographer who did amazing work especially as a staff photographer for the New York Times. His iconic images of Black people are often reproduced worldwide.


This image by Chester Higgins of Amiri Baraka dancing with Maya Angelou has a special meaning. They are dancing atop a cosmogram on the main floor of the then newly renovated and expanded Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, located in Harlem. Beneath the cosmogram are buried the remains of Langston Hughes. There were literally hundreds of us witnessing the joyous celebration.

 



I, like thousands of other people, got to know Chester. We all were blessed to be bathed in the glow of his work and especially awash in the luminous generosity of his spirit. He loves his people.

Down in New Orleans, our writing workshop produced a publication, Fertile Ground, that featured creative work with a section on writers in England. Chester agreed to provide us a cover photograph of a majestic African baobab tree.

Of course, when I heard that Chester had a new book based on his many travels throughout Egypt, Ethiopia, and the Sudan, I knew I wanted to own a copy.  Sacred Nile is a beautifully printed, coffee-table sized photo essay. It far exceeded my expectations. The text includes a breakdown of the linguistic choices the classic languages forced people to make who wanted to translate the utterances of the ancients. There are literally pages and pages of knowledgable background and contextual information, but none of that is as important as are the photographs themselves. 

As I sat with the book in my lap, I found myself moved to actually touch the photographs. In awe I brushed my fingertips across the images. Once you see the various people and varied landscapes, you know the greatness Africa has produced. Like many people in the South of the USA, who have a family bible in which are recorded family lineages, Chester’s book is instructive of who we are and where many of us came from.

Like me, you may not be a follower of any particular religion, but this book, with over 150 expertly printed, exquisite photographs, captures the eloquent beauty and magnificence of both the land and the people of our ancestral home. Ashe. Ashe. Ashe ohhh!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Between Thanksgiving and New Year’s many of us in the West, as believers in one of the three major religions (Christianity, Islam, and Judaism), hold numerous celebrations. Also the advocates of Kwanzaa hold observances bringing in the new year. These are generally considered holy days.

Over five decades back, when I was in high school, I was driving home one night coming from a party. This song came on the radio. I had heard it often times before, but on this particular night, Nat King Cole almost made me swoon. The beauty and clarity of his rendition was absolutely breath-taking. Even today, it remains an emotional touchstone at this time of the year.

Be well. Be safe.


Harriet Tubman (born Araminta Ross, circa March 1822 — March 10 1913)

 

Because we live in a modern world where men overwhelmingly have wrested and near exclusively approbated the right to rule–we even believe that it’s odd, if not outright wrong, for women to be in charge of our society. We consider it an oddity when women act like men and take charge. Because of all of that and more of that madness, we too often end up with an adversarial attitude toward assertive women.

Men are born of women and although men can not conceive and birth people, we somehow come to the conclusion that men, and not women, should rule. Given the prevalence of this way of ordering society, many even think that only men should be in charge and support the exclusivity of men in leadership positions.

Fortunately, not all women think that way. Fortunately, there are women who step forward to challenge gender oppression and gender exclusivity. Moreover, women warriors, who are often also mothers, are not ipso facto opposed to men, nor to female leadership because of gender considerations and restrictions–revolutionary women do not hate anyone based on gender but rather are opposed to those who embrace sexist patriarchy (i.e. exclusive male rule) regardless of their gender.

Real revolutionaries believe and know that, regardless of gender, we all can be in charge and, if we are not careful, we all also can work against our interests and become ardent supporters of gender-based oppression.

Fortunately, our history is full of women, and a significant number of men, who believe that both women and men, based on their abilities, have a right to rule. Whether women actually lead societies is based on the conditions within a given society rather than the so-called “innate incompetence” of women.

Towards the goal of an egalitarian society we need, and should cherish, female liberators. Here is a small (although far from exhaustive or exclusive) library of books about Black women in America that every home should own and study. Moreover, scholars and activists are constantly creating and/or unearthing more instances of relevant documentation.

Early on, prior to the 1776 founding of this country (and even before in Africa and subsequently on slave ships) Black women were at the forefront of the freedom struggle. Read about this too often overlooked aspect of our history in this graphic-book written by Rebecca Hall and illustrated by Hugo Martinez.

Through the investigation and use of advertisements for the effort to capture runaways, scholars have begun to document the numerous instances of who and how our people escaped slavery. One book that is important in our anti-slavery history is Running From Bondage that tells the thrilling stories of fugitive women–yes, the story of females who chose freedom or death over the life-long indignity of chattel slavery.

Of course Harriet Tubman is our best known and most celebrated American-born freedom fighter. She not only escaped slavery but returned south numerous times to lead others to escape. A simplified summary of her subversive activities is recorded in the book, She Came To Slay. Significantly, our “Moses” was the only woman to successfully conceive and execute a major victory against the Confederacy during the Civil War: The Combahee Ferry Raid that resulted in the freeing of around 700 enslaved men, women and children.

Most of us know that if we are caught up in the criminal (un)justice system we will need expert legal representation, however, although we feel it is true, not many of us recognize that for the majority of America’s existence, Black suffrage and freedom has been illegal. In fact the infamous 1850 Fugitive Slave Act declared not only were the fugitives subject to re-enslavement but any one, including state officials, who aided fugitives was subject to fines and/or short imprisonment.

The first, and less stringent, fugitive slave law was propagated in 1793 and declared that running away was against the law because the enslaved were the legal property of slave holders.

Significantly, the right to vote was, and remains, a major issue in our alleged democratic society. Although voting rights for Black people was a major issue before and after the Civil War, many of us are not aware that voting was gender specific prior to 1920. Just as the fifteen amendment to the vaunted constitution acknowledge and legalized the right for Black men to vote, that same act did not include women. Regardless of color, women were not awarded the right to vote until 1920.

During the Civil Era, one woman in particular argued that both Black men and Black women should enjoy the right to vote. The famous abolitionist Sojourner Truth was a well known speaker and advocate for full suffrage for both men and women. She was not only a nationally celebrated abolitionist, she was also a strong advocate of women’s rights. Although she lived until 1883, Sojourner dictated her story to Olive Gilbert in 1850 in a short summary of her early life.

Post-Civil War history is replete with women who were at the forefront of the freedom struggle. Prior to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, one of the bravest and best known women warriors was the journalist Ida B. Wells whose writings speak for a generation of those who struggled against the vicious lynchings that were negative hallmarks of southern society throughout the 20th century. We should all celebrate and read the work of Ida B. Wells.

By the fifties, with the advent of the modern 20th century Civil Rights movement, we have many examples of women warriors working in various fields too numerous to explicate in this short survey. However, know that from space exploration to daily struggles here on the ground, women such as Rosa Parks and many others led the way.

I will conclude this literary overview with four essential books. These books are autobiographical and feature the words and voices of their authors who were leaders in their respective fields of work.

In 1966, at the continuation of James Meredith’s March Against Fear, SNCC head, Stokely Carmichael shouted out the phrase “Black Power”, which quickly became the goal of Black citizens to gain political and economic power. There was no smooth road, nor any guarantee of success, nevertheless, Black youth in particular, enthusiastically took up the cause of gaining and using power. As always women were both key leaders as well as foot soldiers in the freedom struggle.

One person who played a critical role as both an adviser and activist was publicist and organizer Florence Tate. Her memoir, which was completed by Jake-Ann Jones, details the exhilarating breakthroughs as well as the debilitating depressions that the struggle entails. Not only is Florence Tate’s story both enthralling and insightful in its own right, her life work includes birthing and rearing, along with her partner, Charles Tate, the noted and recently deceased musician and cultural critic Greg Tate.

Florence served as press secretary for Jesse Jackson when he ran for president of the United States and also was critical to the first term of the Marion Berry administration in Washington, D.C. Additionally, Florence had been a strong supporter and advocate for UNITA, the Angolan liberation organization, until she broke with them over internecine fights within UNITA that led to the death of a number of leading members. When Florence became convinced that Jonas Savimbi, the nominal leader of UNITA, had gone mad and drunk with power, she left UNITA.

Although suffering from clinical depression during key parts of her life, Florence Tate does not shield nor shy away from relaying aspects of her personal struggles. In fact, what is important about her narrative is the honesty and forthrightness with which she outlines the ups and downs, the twists and turns, and even the contradictory elements of her long journey. This is an important statement for some one who was a front-liner in the liberation struggle both here and abroad.

Of course I felt duty bound to read Angela Davis’ book when it first came out. Back in the seventies she was perhaps the best known in a long line of women who were instrumental in the advocacy of what Malcolm X had defined as our human rights movement. She was particularly sharp in analyzing and in organizing opposition to mass incarceration.

Worldwide, the United States was number one in the incarceration of its citizens. In the U.S., Louisiana was number one in terms of incarceration and in Louisiana, New Orleans was number one. Although the specifics differ from decade to decade, New Orleans is an epicenter of incarceration. Although the majority of prisoners are not housed within the city, they originally come from New Orleans.

Another important memoir is Black Power Black Lawyer by Nkechi Taifa. In her video interview, Nkechi offers us a true perspective on the protracted liberation struggle, especially the various movements such as the Black Panthers, the Nation of Islam, the Civil Rights struggles, the Reparations movement, and the Black Lives Matter movement.

As a lawyer, Taifa was dedicated to the effort to reform criminal justice. She is a founder of the Justice Roundtable, a broad network of advocacy groups advancing progressive justice system reform. Her book is particularly instructive in terms of putting forward the motives and movements of major activists of the late 20th century.

For me the major woman warrior who has written a book is Assata Shakur. Assata details her development as an activist, and eventually as a revolutionary. She was shot, hospitalized and incarcerated but eventually was liberated in a bold jailbreak operation.

However and amazingly,  before she escaped, while she was in court, she conceived and subsequently birthed a child while in prison. She describes all of this in her book. Assata lives today in Cuba, which is where I met her at a conference.

I make it a point to at least greet people even if I don’t know them personally. At a break in our session, as I was walking down the aisle, I saw this sister sitting alone, off to the side. I spoke, “Hi, my name is Kalamu. How are you doing?” I don’t speak Spanish. I didn’t know if she was Cuban or even if she spoke English. I just waved and continued walking on as I heard her reply, “Hello. My name is Assata.” 

I stopped, turned around. “Assata Shakur?” She smiled and simply said “yes”.

Long story short, we struck up a conversation and we ended up, not only engaging in a brief exchange, but we also got together over the course of the conference. She wanted to know about what was happening in the states, and me wanting to know what was life like for her in this revolutionary country that was at political odds with the United States.

When I got back home, some months later I wrote a long prose poem about Assata. Later, we introduced her book to students in our high school Students at the Center (SAC) writing program. We encouraged our students to detail the story of how they became whomever they are. We asked them to delve into the particulars of their development, to probe and critique the forces that shaped them. Assata’s memoir was instrumental in this method of instruction as she is clear that she did not come out of her mother’s womb thinking that she would become a quintessential woman warrior.

Through reading her book, our students understood what Assata did, and also understood that we all can be active participants as we grow and make life choices. A luta continua–the struggle continues.

= = = = = = = = = = = = 

 

1.1

I’m not afraid to die but I am afraid I’m going to die. Afraid that, outside of a grave, there will not be one square inch of earth on which I can reside; afraid that my enemies will not allow me to breathe unless concrete and steel coffin me; afraid that this sweet island, which has been my sanctuary, will be curdled into a tropical casket.


1.2

For we who have been political prisoners, long term incarceration in modern Amerika is a certain death—it is not like South Africa’s Robben Island where a number of movement men came out stronger, and it is certainly not the same as for those who go in unconscious and fly out as dragons both their wings and their fierceness engendered by the education and self-education that one can extract from the school of captivity. No, I am thinking about those of us whom they want not merely to confine and control, but those of us whose spirits they want to thoroughly crush; we are never released from prison unscathed—if we escape that is different, but if they release us, our freedom inevitably means the authorities have successfully, in some nefarious way or another, reprogrammed us to accept the world as they have constructed society or to either self-destruct in fits of rage or in spasms of insanity.

I know what I am saying. I know Huey Newton was never the same after prison. I know many of my comrades who remained there for ten, for twelve, for twenty years, I know if and when they are released they are deranged even if they really believe they are still ready for the revolution. I would never publicly give the government the satisfaction of recognizing such effectiveness, but I know there is no life after prison for people like me. The mind games, the chemicals they feed us in substances they claim is food, the constant dehumanization of strip searches: fingers forced into your everywhere, beneath each fold of flesh, piercing each cavity. And not just the dignity stripping of naked meat inspection, but also the simultaneous twisting of the ephemeral web that is one’s consciousness, one’s sense of self. Literally who we are becomes different after we have been systematically and scientifically fucked with by experts at mind games.


1.3

So you see, it was either escape, which I did, or die.

I am a runaway slave in an era when the descendants of slaves are well paid in the employ of both consuming and perpetuating big house fantasies. An era where living on the edge seems totally nonsensical, totally unnecessary to those reared on television and cyberspace, corrupted by creature comforts as seemingly innocuous as fast food hamburgers and video games, sports events and evangelical churches.

The mantle of conformity fits us so snugly that those of us who choose naked resistance rather than wear the weave of exploitation, we appear to be no more relevant than homeless bag people existing on the fringe of society, scavenging to survive as we mutter incoherent inanities about how bad the good life is.

Indeed, the guardians of good times tell everyone that not only are we maroons crazy, but worse, because we refuse to join the parade of collaborators with the status quo, we are painted as failures who are afraid to grasp the success that is available to any and all of us who would pledge allegiance to taking advantage of others.

And where can I run to now that capitalism is global and the liberated zones are nearly all paved over and billboarded? If Cuba goes under where will I be able to stand tall? What other country would endure the economic whippings administered to anyone who shelters me? What other nation would (or could afford to) refuse the bounty the government of my tormentors offer for my head, my body?


1.4

Though I rose from the dead once before, I do not believe in miracles. I do not believe if they entrap me this time that I will be able to live within the grip of their murderous clutches.

My strong instinct for survival, so strong at times that I have done what the normal person can not even imagine, indeed, I have done what I could not imagine, I have done whatever was necessary—and you know that necessity is unsentimental and often very, very ugly, if not sometimes downright amoral. My strong instinct for survival will not allow me to be locked down by them and turned into a person who accepts the status quo, or worse, a person who insanely (and ineffectively) rages against the dark of 24-7-365 nightmares.

After all is said and done, I am a human being who loves life, the beauty of quiet moments, the joy of conversation and sincere touch, the exhilaration of sweating as I labor, as I make love, as I exercise. My instinct for survival is no impulse merely to breathe, my instinct is to live, to love life freely and to be free to love life, and I will never accept slavery no matter how comfortable.

* * *

2.1

she followed instructions. got out with her hands up. and then the world exploded. she was on the ground, bullets in her. and she did not really know what happened.

a person caught up in the chaos is the most unreliable witness there is.

perhaps if she had been the bullet, she might have seen the whole scene more clearly, or if she were the gun, she would have known who the targets and who was calling the shots. or if she had been the finger on the trigger she might have known the time table, the sequence of events, but she was only the target, and before she was struck had no warning that the bullet was coming, after all, as the medical experts testified at her trial, given her wounds there was no doubt her hands were up in the gesture of surrender, she was following instructions.

she was not the bullet. so at that moment she did not know it had entered her torso, missed vital organs, and ended up lodged near her neck, leaving a mess of rented flesh in its wake, thin streams of thick blood seeping from the open door of the entry point.

nor did she know that the first bullet had a companion who followed closely on its heels like a younger sibling trailing an idolized big brother.

the impact of the first slug spun her around like a rapist sadistically intent on anal penetration.

the second bullet burrowed into her back.

immediately afterward, in the distance she could hear noises and voices. and thankfully so, for although the voices sounded muffled like that time as a child she had an ear infection and her mother poured some heated liquid in her ear and then plugged it with cotton and all day she kept loosing her balance and asking people “what did you say?” she was thankful because at this moment it was strangely comforting, reassuring even, to hear the words “she ain’t dead yet” and to know that the “she” who was alive was her.


2.2

life is full of choices, most of them are minor, trivial details and inconsequential chains of events, but kernelled in the ordinary are those little nodes on which turn one’s whole existence. why would an assata surrender? perhaps she did not see herself surrendering. perhaps this was just a momentary hassle, a stop and delay tactic. perhaps her gesture was meant to be a diversion. who knows. life is like that. sometimes we ourselves don’t know what we are doing even though the doing will have profound and far reaching consequences. who knows. how can anyone know the future?


2.3

the discovery of the future is always an evaluation of the past. we only learn what the future means once it is over, once we have experienced it, once it has become history. and by then it is too late to change anything. we can never fully know anything, least of all exactly what we did and why. our ability to sense reality is too limited to take in everything. we can only ever grasp a small part of the totality of our existence. the trooper with the gun drawn, barking orders, at that moment what was assata thinking?

2.4

have you ever faced a gun beaded on you, an enemy hollering at you? do you know what you would do if you were shot and on the ground, or in the hospital chained to a gurney, or even in a courtroom and lie after lie after lie after lie was going on record against you, and the judge threatens to throw you out of the courtroom if you don’t be quiet, and every fiber of your being is quivering with the urge to resist, even though enchained, even though guards are over you, and what do you do?

assata was removed from the courtroom and her comrade too. they were shunted into a side room while the trial proceeded and during that isolation they made love.

your enemies are kangarooing you to an almost certain death sentence or at least life imprisonment and you make the decision. to make love. think about choosing love as an act of resistance at that moment. then think about the bravery to make love.

you are a prisoner. on trial. armed agents are standing just outside the door. most of us would never even have thought of making love. and very few, very, very few of us would have had the bravery to bare our nakedness knowing that at any moment the guards could have busted us in the middle of getting it on.

oh, the adrenaline rush, to steal the sweetness of sex under such conditions. now if there was ever a definition of revolutionary fucking, that was it.

2.5

but every act has its consequence. every movement carries us somewhere else then where we were when we started. and sometimes we think we are ready to travel, but we really don’t have a clue as to the magnitude of the trip we blissfully, or blithely, or unknowingly started on.

did assata know that she would become pregnant?

how many times did they do it in the dock?

and now it is decades later and kakuya, a girlchild, has grown up without the emotional anchor of a father’s familiar words, without the rudder of a mother’s daily teachings. a daughter has been reared by extended family. did assata reckon on that? of course not. sometimes we throw our rage at the state without a thought of where we will be thirty years later, who we will become, how our actions will affect those not yet born.

* * *

3.1

I am a warrior and I tell you I hate war. There have been so many times when I have had to go one on one with despair, and it was not always a given that I would win. Sometimes I battle day after day, other times, rare times, I have whole weeks, occasionally a month or two, when I am good to go, well, at least I am ok with being on the periphery of normalcy. My daily diet is the stress of uncertainty.

I know life back in the world is different from when I went underground. I know my people seem freer and hence less consciousness—the intoxication of options, the addiction of material acquisitions, the disorientation of commodification. People even come to Cuba for a vacation. A photograph with me becomes a trophy. It is hard not to be bitter.

3.2

The struggle has become so convoluted, so complex. I can understand the seduction of comfort corruption… even these words seem like so much political rhetoric.

When I was locked down, I kept myself defiantly alive, poised to escape. Now that I have escaped, I find that I am still in captivity, a qualitatively different captivity, a captivity where my range of motion is, of course, much, much wider, my ability to speak out significantly broader, and certainly my opportunities to love life infinitely greater, but I can not fool myself… as long as those who measure life by counting possessions and grading bottom lines are in charge of most of the earth, I remain either in captivity or on the run, never surrendering, constantly resisting, measuring how alive I am by how long, how well I am able to fight until death. What a hard way to live… but this is my life. My. Life.

* * *

4.1

the embargo is real. some times sanitary items are non-existent. there is nothing romantic about resistance. nothing romantic about the grind of constant vigilance, ceaseless struggle. romance is idealism. resistance is realism.

if you read about the struggle many years after, when victories are celebrated in textbooks, when most of the ugliness is erased, when the human costs are barely reckoned or recognized, if you only read about struggle then you can think of its beauty. but the runaway often literally stinks; they do not have the daily luxury of bubble baths or clean fluffy towels after a long, hot shower. the vegetarianism of a subsistence diet of beans and rice, or beans and tortillas is not a trendy choice. very few relationships last a life time in the field, or perhaps, that is the more brutal truth, such relationships only last the shortness of life in the field—life on the run is seldom very, very long and elderly runaways are rare.

people nostalgically talk about the good old days when the political struggle was on fire in the united states, but how many people are rushing to cuba to volunteer to live in exile with assata? we all like to dream, to fantasize about being heroes and to romanticize those individuals whom we consider our heroes. but, oh, the reality of being a runaway is a state embraced by only a very strong few, only a few, very, very few… while the rest of us rationalize about choosing to remain cocooned in the materialism of our relatively comfortable captivity.


—kalamu ya salaam

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our lives are subject to tumultuous change, seemingly endless disasters, disruptions in and forced disengagements from whatever are our chosen bonds of intimacy. More and more, the weather of the natural world batters us. Add to that, the evil that people do to each other makes you wonder, is life worth living?

Somehow, some of us, if not all of us, answer in the affirmative–yes. Which brings me to this sensitive reading of Sting’s philosophical composition as presented by the rich baritone and insightful arrangement of Isaac Hayes.

Instead of the familiar ‘backbeat’ that is a hallmark of a lot of Black popular music, Ike employs a modified two-beat samba rhythm as a foundation for his orchestrated interpretation. The duple drum pattern, which is an artistic replication of a heartbeat, features a mixing of seeming contrasting elements floating atop the rhythm.

The heartbeat rhythm indicates the systole (pumping of blood through the body) and the diastole (relaxing to allow the heart chambers to refill), together they are the basic internal blood cycle of life.

In the studio we hear the push and dynamic pull of a full orchestra sounding mellow counterpoints, flavored by a children’s chorus. The live versions is buttressed by multiple keyboards, a surging wah-wah guitar, and a trio of vocalists who carry the melody as Ike artfully plows through the meaning and intent of the song.

Here is both a studio and a concert version to enjoy. Which one is better? We can not really say, indeed, fortunately for us, we don’t have to choose. We can embrace both.

The studio version makes full use of the diverse instruments as well as the pre-teen and adolescent voices as part  of the long outro. The video of the live undertaking with audience enables us to see the musicians enjoying themselves as much as does the audience.

Really good music is like that. The sounds uplift all who participate whether as creators or as consumers, we all feel, and actually are, better as a result.

 

I got up this morning and decided to take in some artwork. I live in the Ashe building, on the second floor in the rear where the apartments are. Photographer (and former high school classmate) Eric Waters had called me the day before, summoning me down to check out the Art of the Black Experience show, a collection of drawings, paintings, sculptures revealing and reveling in who we are and how we got over. I was so glad he had–even though I knew about the program, like most negroes, I needed some encouragement.

Moved by what I had seen the day before when Eric called, I slow walked down four uneven flights of steps and went through the parking lot to the front of the building for a second viewing. I had my iPhone7 in my pocket so I could take and share snapshots of some of the artwork.

I didn’t know how important it was for me to go back and spend some time with this artwork, including Eric’s portrait of drummer Joe Dyson built on black, brown and beige tones. I know that it was more than I used to be an R&B drummer during my army days (1965 – 1968)–emphasis on “used to be”–that attracted me to the sticks and cymbal portrait of a young master drummer. Here Eric captures the dignity of our people and the rhythms we produce.

Far more than a mere snapshot, this visual essay struck my eyeballs in wonderment and encouraged me to closely inspect the whole assemblage of visual interpretations. I’m probably going to revisit the gallery for a third viewing. The totality of the artwork is so rich, one needs more than one or two bites to fully comprehend and digest this material expression of our outer beauty and inner soul.

I was enriched by what we see when we look at us. Deep into us. Archive, keep, and share ourselves with the world of New Orleans and beyond.

Our people are all up in here. Workers, visitors. Fam who look like some of the artwork on exhibit.

Sitting. Standing. Hands on hips. Mouths wide open in delighted surprise. All kinds of folk. Some looked like a brother who just walked in off the streets. A sister on her way to or coming back from church. Diaper-wearing toddlers running around, freely, untethered but not unwatched nor uncared for.

And music all in the air. Music. Music. You could easily dance here. They actually have Black music playing as an aural wallpaper while one views the artwork.

Plus, vendors with everything from home cooked food to colorful ethnic attire. Ethnic? A lot of our people wear a lot of this clothing everyday. The traditional marketplace and crossroads ethos reigns supreme here.

This is what it be like when a commercial boulevard becomes a stairway deep into the soul of the hood, the soul of ourselves.

You look into the window, and on one level or another, at one photo or another–maybe that statue on the left reminds you of your kinfolk. Or maybe not. But you will remember, later when the extended family gathers for a holiday. You will see that uncle you seldom see and he will remind you of something you saw, something you didn’t really remember until just now when a distant cousin laughs out loud.

Ashe Cultural Arts Center is a physical ring shout. A place to see. A place to dance. A place to be whatever you were in your boldest dreams. The vision you see at night when you close your sleepy eyes; the sunlit reality you vow never to forget as you prepare to face another day in this Babylon of a nation state.

Sister Asali commandeered a portion of the small piece of dough set aside by the city to purchase artwork for public use. This space is a venue not just for the viewing of art like a museum but way beyond that. In exchange for holding the exhibition here, they negotiated that the authorities would purchase selected pieces of artwork from the artists.

Plus, the people got to decide which art pieces they liked the best by stating their choices on a paper ballot–true democracy in full effect.

Of course like Duke told us, it wouldn’t mean a thing if it didn’t have that swing. That color. That forwardness. That joie de vivre. Look at how Val Rainey is smiling. She works there. Do you smile like that on your yolk, be glad to show people around your workspace? 

Some of this stuff could easily have made it into a so-called reputable gallery, others of the pieces–well, let’s just say the establishment wouldn’t touch some of this shit with a ten foot… you know what I’m saying? To be us is to be used-to-being overlooked, which is precisely why it is so great to peep what has been gathered at Ashe.

 

Check it. This is not just a random collection of some Black visual artists. This is us when our imaginations are raised full blast to well pass ten. Like, what looks like a lot of different, earth-toned blocks thrown together is actually a representation of Black skin tones and textures in New Orleans where we were forced into a ghetto by the strictures of the historic “brown bag” test.

What kind of test was that? Well, reduction ad absurdity, if you were darker than a brown paper bag there were certain social situations, places and gatherings operated by light-skinned negroes that would not allow darker-skinned folk to enter or join. I know, that’s crazy, especially since we all lived in a classist and racist society. Ah, but that was one of the downsides of the depressing aspects of a small sector of pre-Civil Rights era New Orleans: self-segregation administered by us on us in its most sinister hierarchy.

Black life in the gumbo of modern New Orleans is way different (and way better) today than it used to be a number of decades back when not only were we not all in the same boat, indeed, most of us were not even allowed into specific boats. We had to survive hanging on to driftwood or treading water or making our way in thrown together skiffs. Far too many of us didn’t make it. Like brother Jerry Butler sagaciously sang: only the strong (and/or the lucky) survived.

How one, seemingly simple abstract-geometric presentation of block shapes told this damning story is brilliant in cogently illustrating the complexity of a people deformed by White supremacy.

Dig, here is a detailing on canvas of what we look like in the multiplicity of sizes, shapes, and colors that resulted in a wide array of both biological and social, physical realities and social mores–part of what we are is a result of the too often, overwhelmingly forced introduction and intervention of Whites into our gene pool.

Only an Ashe could have pulled off an undeniably painful presentation of our historic suffering and nobody was cussing or crying or even much looking cross-eyed at someone else. Regardless of class and color differences, today we are one (or, at least, most of us strive to be).

A truthful artistic representation of who we are and how we came to be is not always just a self-congratulatory facade of pretty pictures but rather, a most intriguing and thoughtful examination of both our overwhelming beauty as well as certain of our most debasing moments.

Our truths are not always positive. We have to be honest and self-critical of some of the shit we went through. Fortunately, Ashe is a venue where the totality can be told, can be acknowledged even when there are some painful aspects some of us would deny or would rather not ever be revealed.

Ashe is a deep spirit house. We own, run, and maintain this facility; from brother Ed who does an incredible job pulling maintenance to sister Asali who is in charge of the whole shebang.

We need more of this. The United States is a big ass country. They got cities up, down, side to side. Urban and rural places with thousands of residents, as well as small municipalities and gathering spots, some of which are not even on anybody’s map. If I call some of the names of places located just around the Crescent City–Arabi, Chalmette, Marrero, Kenner, Shrewsberry, Slidell, LaPlace, not to mention Algiers on the West Bank of the Mississippi River, which is just about as old as New Orleans its self–most Americans would not know those spaces.

The point is although America is full of incorporated districts like our city, however, and regrettably, this country is not full of places like Ashe–places where the fullness of our story can be told in all its terrible beauty and complexity, and, yes, some elements of whom we have been are alarmingly depressing.

We got a lot of work to do, miles to go before we can rest, institutions to build, maintain and develop. Maulana Karenga, the creator of Kwanzaa, said it best: “Always remember we can always do more!” To which I would add, we need to, we must do more, much, much more.

There ought to be ten, twenty, literally thousands of Ashe initiatives north, south, east, and west. Right now there ain’t, but we can make it so. Not too long ago, there was no Ashe. Now Ashe receives bus loads of visitors.

Regardless of our longitude, our latitude, let’s just start wherever we’re at–and if the conditions are not forthcoming, well then move. Or at the very least, carve out your own small sacred space; create an altar to the departed: your ancestors, friends and family members who have transitioned.

Don’t worry about what we ain’t got nor who’s not here. Celebrate the victory gardens we have already grown, the people whom we have known. Embrace the here and now. Tend to and inspire those steady coming on.

The Art of the Black Experience show will be up until January 28, 2022. You will be surprised to see yourself in the mirror that art is. Get there if you can.

If you can’t, at least know that Ashe exists. Know that there is a place where the Black Experience is celebrated in all aspects of our bittersweet existence.

Ashe is our home no matter where we are from, no matter where we are going.

 

 

 

 


Minnie Julia Riperton Rudolph (November 8, 1947 – July 12, 1979)

 

Stevie knew Minnie was a perfect angel.

But isn’t it superfluous to say that someone is an angel and then have to qualify their angelness by saying they are perfect?

Isn’t being angelic by definition a state of perfection? Is there such a thing as an imperfect angel? Perhaps, if you are an angel you are good at being an angel but not so good, or even ungood, at being something other than an angel. You’re not good at basketball, or cooking, or astral physics.

Which begs the question: what is an angel? Are their stages or levels of angel-ity?

Who knows? We just know that Stevie saw Minnie as a perfect Angel.

Was it just because of her voice? Or was it some other quality that Minnie had?

 

One of her albums was called Adventures In Paradise. Is paradise a real place–a place without any troubles, trials, or tribulations? Maybe paradise is not about a specific earthly location but rather about our own abilities to deal with whatever happens, to overcome hardships. Gracefully. To cross the water without drowning.

Because you know into each life some rain must fall. The question becomes can we swim, can we not get flooded out?

Minnie had that fire. She burned brightly, and thereby, lit the way enabling a lot of us to see. One of my favorite recordings was her “Light My Fire” duet with José Feliciano.

 

Indeed, as Minnie so wonderfully, and funkily articulated, a major part of life is remembering the good times, which good times inevitably includes successfully overcoming the bad.

However, Minnie also had to deal with a terminal illness. Minnie died young at 31. But while she was here… she lived, lived to her fullness.

Life may be different for each of us, but the real question is are we doing our best, given whatever are the circumstances, whatever are our capabilities, are we living at our best, doing all we can possibly do?

Moreover, for Minnie, being an angel did not mean being sanctimonious. Did not mean not having fun, or as she put it: dancin’ and actin’ crazy. Oh, what a sight, an angel dancing, totally getting down.

 

She had two children. She truly knew how to make love/how to love others.

One of her records celebrating carnality with a partner got her banned from a lot of stations, but she knew it was cool. Let the squares do what squares do, she just kept rolling along.

Minnie knew that even the birds and bees did it, and she would not deny that joy nor the resultant responsibilities. For her, rearing children was as much a part of life as making and birthing children.

Who was she, this perfect angel? Here is a biographical documentary. An essential aspect of her perfection was her music that she freely shared with us. All hail Minnie Riperton.


Young people make revolution. Always have. Always will.

Wanting a better life. Willing to die fighting for it, but more importantly, willing to live and love to create a better world. Everyday.

In sociological studies, one of the big questions every social organization had to face was: what to do with the youth, especially the young men? The seemingly fearless ones, or, as the popular television program of an earlier era called them, “The Young And The Restless”.

Many of us are reluctant to publicly acknowledge how big a role sex places in youthful social movements. But there is no denying the obvious fact that youth in their twenties either fantasize about or engage in sexual activity. Flagrantly. Moreover, the game changer was the commercial development and broad availability of the “pill”.

The sixties was a period of great awakening in diverse and broadly unrelated areas. World War 2 ended with a bang, i.e. the nuclear bomb dropped by America on the Japanese–not on major military targets but rather on two cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where the overwhelming bulk of the victims were civilians.

It is ironic that the “pill” and the “bomb” define the fifties/sixties, and even more so when we realize the implications of a popular slogan of the period: “Make Love, Not War”–use the pill and not the bomb.

In May of 1960 the FDA approved the oral contraceptive pill after clinical tests beginning in 1954. For the first time on an affordable and mass basis, contraception is available to a majority of the female population in America.

When General Dwight David “Ike” Eisenhower, who had become the 34th President of the United States, left office, one of his departing speeches warned the nation about the “military/industrial complex”. Irony upon irony, a celebrated general of WWII railed against the confluence and influence of the two major economic drivers of this society, i.e. 1. the military and 2. industrial corporations, and particularly the confluence and influence of these two sectors on society at large, notably via technological and consumer activities.

For those who might be interested, a new report on the military/industrial complex makes clear the staggering amount of money in that sector.

One quick example of technology changed by commercial concerns: eye glasses. The lens used to be made of glass, hence the title. In the 21st century the lens and the frames of eyeglasses are manufacture from plastic. So what should we call these spectacles? Eye-plastic?

Yes, the pill and the bomb irreversibly changed American society, particularly the military and our daily life as led by multi-national corporations. Today we take for granted those developments and their far-ranging off-shoots. Most of us do not realize the vast changes in both private and social life that have been wrought by the pill and the bomb, however, when we look at society, what shapes us and what we fashion as a result of being shaped, well, then we see just how deep and far-reaching these biological/technological influences have either outright or significantly shaped and determined our lives.

Both the pill and the bomb were achieved by a concentration on science, specifically human biology on the one hand, and nuclear physics on the other. However, what is most significant is that both resulted in a surge in science employed for military and consumer purposes, and that surge led to both theoretical and practical advances in the second half of the 20th century on into the 21st century.

In the context of technological advances in society as a whole, it is but a hop, skip and a jump to move from chattel slavery, to Jim Crow, to Black Lives Matter. The summer of 2020 was significant. Why? Because massive numbers of young Whites chanted, marched and actively supported the basic premise that all humans matter, even Blacks who, throughout the history of this country, have been vilified, incarcerated, and locked into perpetual poverty.

The now popular Civil Rights Movement was not always broadly accepted. In many cases it wasn’t even a dream. But two sectors of the Black population were determined to make change. 1. returning veterans of World War II and the Korean Conflict, were major participants as they and their families helped kick-off the militant wing of the Civil Rights movement. Men such as Medgar Evers, who was assassinated in the driveway of his Jackson, Mississippi home, and Robert Williams, who spent years in exile in Cuba and China before eventually being allowed back into the United States in exchange for his introduction of government officials to Chines officials. Of course, the role that Robert Williams performed as a go-between is little known and never officially acknowledged by the U.S. government apparatus.

Even more important was the children of these men–young people who became militant advocates of Black Power and of feminism. A number of the men had been active in the military campaigns that stretched from the Middle East into the longest war ever engaged by the U.S., i.e. the Afghanistan conflict. After every major war, Black men were pivotal in the struggle for Black social advancement. This is not an accident, but rather a direct result of international conflict. Scratch the surface of these social struggles and the role of returning vets is significant, if not dominant.  

In the fifties and sixties, five major organizations spear-headed the Civil Rights Movement: The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the National Urban League (NUL), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE). While far from the oldest (i.e. NAACP), and not as widely known as SCLC (led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.), SNCC (pronounced “snick”) was not only the shock troops of the movement but also took up residence throughout the countryside in the south.

They not only were known for organizing but SNCC field secretaries also lived and worked with the sharecroppers, sometimes referred to as America’s peasants. SNCC people were mainly in their twenties, although their major inspiration came from veteran freedom fighters, such as Rosa Parks and Ella Baker, who along with rural, Black residents, encouraged the young activists, such as Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner who were murdered. As internationally celebrated martyrs, the activist trio literally bore the brunt of resisting racism.

Although it may seem insignificant today, wearing denim over-alls became an unofficial uniform of many of these activists, a number of whom were college educated individuals who seemed destined for the suit-and-tie track.

One of SNCC’s accomplisments was the elevation of what was called “participatory democracy”, meaning that regardless of your educational status, everyone had a right to the tree of life, to all the freedoms and responsibilities of full citizenship. This was a major achievement.

People who had not graduated from high school were encouraged to speak out and what they said was considered a valuable contribution to town-hall discourse. No longer only “sick and tired of being sick and tired”, as Mrs. Fannie Lou Hammer articulated, rural Black voices spoke up, stood up, and demonstrated. Even now in the era of social media, the views and voices of the so-called little people are no where near as valued as those voices were during the height of the rural and small town struggles for Civil Rights.

A great overview is In Struggle — SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s by Clayborne Carson. There is also an online website: https://snccdigital.org

The participation of women as both leaders and organizers around feminist issues and concerns, as well as participation in all aspects of daily life, particularly as heads of households, parents, and workers across all sectors of society, is, has been, and will continue to be critical to daily life in modern America. It is no accident that some of the most militant and/or progressive elements are women, many of whom spotlight highly contested social issues.

It is significant that the “pill”, the “bomb” and the “vote” were defining issues energizing freedom struggles for the formerly enslaved and for women in general, both of whom have a long history of resistance to the patriarchal mainstream.

Today, our society is in the midst of major convulsions around access to safe and medically competent “abortions”; around how to square the constitutionally recognized right to own and bear “arms” and at the same time deal with the alarming rise of gun violence in schools and neighborhoods nationwide.

And perhaps most significantly of all, there are major conflicts around the volatile issue of “voting rights”. As long as it is mostly middle-aged and elderly White men who continually make and determine the legality of most of the laws and mass social activities, seminal elements of progressive change will be either illegal or severely circumscribed.

The more society changes, the more social issues and conflicts will remain essentially the same until and unless there is a thorough-going revolution of by whom and how our lives are controlled.

 

 

The Power to make and to appreciate pictures
belongs to man exclusively.Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass was no ordinary personality. He was extraordinary. Although enslaved when he was born, he transformed himself into a world renown orator, writer, and statesman. Throughout his adult life, he was conscious of his status and strove to present himself in the most positive light possible.

Aware of the potential impact of the then new technology of photography, Douglass sat for at least 160 individual photographs. In fact, during his era, he was the most photographed person in American history, including his contemporary, President Abraham Lincoln, who is credited with 126 different photographs.

Douglass was a full time abolitionist. In 1847 he founded a newspaper, The North Star, at a time when it was against the laws of Southern-states America to teach “negroes” how to read. Slave owners had predicted that literacy would make us unfit to be slaves, i.e. would make us rebellious.

Douglass was partially taught to read by Mrs. Sophia Auld, the wife of one of his enslavers. When those lessons were aborted by Hugh Auld, Auld’s husband, Douglass went on to surreptitiously learn to both read and write.

He used his wits to trick young Whites he encountered while doing his chores in the streets. He carried a notebook and found ways, such as offering them bread he had flinched from Mrs. Auld’s kitchen, to show him the meanings of words and phrases. According to his autobiography, the learning process took approximately seven years to complete.

As he grew toward adulthood in the Baltimore area, he had the support of Anna Murray (March 8, 1813 – August 4, 1882), who eventually became his first wife. Murray was the daughter of a recently manumitted couple and encouraged young Douglass in his abolitionist dreams.


Through her work, she provided both funds and sailor’s clothing Douglass used to escape from slavery. Soon after arriving in New York, Douglass was approached by David Ruggles, a Black man who sheltered Douglass.

Ruggles was a free Black man and activist, a leader in the New York Committee of Vigilance, an organization dedicated to actively fighting slavery. Eventually, Anna joined Douglass in the Ruggles home. On September 15, 1838, the couple entered a forty-four year marriage.

Although she was not fully literate, Anna was an activist and willingly worked with Douglass as an abolitionist. They moved about the northeast area.

Anna turned their Rochester, New York home into a terminal of the Underground Railroad, supporting runaways on their way to Canada. Her work is too often overlooked, especially as she remained on the home front, and did not share in the limelight cast upon her famous husband.

Moreover, Anna Murray Douglass’ abolitionist work was dangerous and also unlawful in southern slaveholding states. According to the Fugitive Slave Act, harboring and abetting runaways was an offense. That Anna Douglass successfully held down the fort, as it were, while Douglass was often away from home is an amazing feat, especially when we consider that she was also the prime caretaker for their family.

Anna and Frederick were an example of a couple working as one to realize and promote the advancement of their people. Their forty-plus years of marriage and abolitionist work was more than the average lifetime of many  of their contemporaries.

During their marriage they had five children: Rosetta, Lewis Henry, Frederick Jr., Redmond, and Annie (who died young). Frederick was often away on speaking tours while Anna reared the children and took care of the family. After the Civil War the family settled in Washington, D.C. where Anna died on August 4, 1882.

Douglass had established himself as an activist, orator and writer. He was the author of three autobiographies: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (1845), published prior to the Civil War, 1861 – 1865; My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), often considered by scholars and abolition activists, as his master work; and, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881, revised in 1892).

Narrative was a cause celebre and was popularly received in America and in Europe. Some questioned Douglass’ authenticity but Douglass astutely cited people, places and dates in his autobiography, effectively countering doubters.

As Douglass’ fame grew, Hugh Auld was determined to recapture Douglass. Responding to the many threats of recapture and kidnapping, Frederick Douglass decided to travel abroad. From August 1845 until just over two years later, Douglass toured Britain and Ireland. Eventually a cohort of friends and supporters “purchased” his freedom.


During his lifetime Douglass achieved notoriety as a preeminent “man of letters” in the 19th century. Certainly there was no other person of color whose published work was as influential, especially if we consider his popular speeches, such as the perennially cited “What To The Slave Is Your 4th of July”.

His literature continues to be studied well into the 21st century, and some of his noted aphorisms, such as “you may not get all that you pay for, but you will certainly pay for all that you get”, remain both accurate and popular among organizers and people struggling against systemic systems of physical, political, and economic oppression and exploitation.

Consider the circumstance: born into chattel slavery, the child of an enslaved woman and a White owner, Douglass’ lot was circumscribed and pre-ordained except he refused to submit to the standards of his time.

When he became a free man, or, more accurately, when he became a famous abolitionist asserting his right to be free, he started a newspaper, The North Star. Beyond that daring feat, he chose to speak for himself and was not content with others speaking for him or his people. 

In the nineteenth century, Frederick Douglass (February 1818 – February 20, 1895), was the most recognized individual in America. Douglass set the standard for what a serious, conscious and politically active Black man looked like.  

Aware of the potential impact of the then new technology of photography, Douglass sat for at least 160 individual photographs. In fact, during his era, he was the most photographed person in American history, including his contemporary, President Abraham Lincoln, who is credited with 126 different photographs.

Douglass was no ordinary personality. He was extraordinary. Although enslaved when he was born, he transformed himself into a world renown orator, writer, and statesman. Throughout his adult life, he was conscious of his status and strove to present himself in the most positive light possible.

Douglass became a full-time abolitionist. In 1847 he founded a newspaper, The North Star, at a time when it was against the laws of Southern-states America to teach “negroes” how to read. Slave owners had predicted that literacy would make us unfit to be slaves, i.e. would make us rebellious.

Douglass was partially taught to read by Mrs. Sophia Auld, the wife of one of his enslavers. When those lessons were aborted by Hugh Auld, her husband, Douglass went on to surreptitiously learn to both read and write.  Douglass used his wits to trick young Whites he encountered while doing his chores in the streets. More importantly, he carried a notebook and found ways, including offered them bread he had flinched from Mrs. Auld’s kitchen, to show him the meanings of words and phrases. According to his autobiography, the learning process took approximately seven years to complete.

During his life time Douglass achieved notoriety as a preeminent “man of letters” in the 19th century. Certainly, there was no other person of color whose published work was as influential, especially if we consider his popular speeches, such as the perennially cited “What ToThe Slave Is Your 4th of July”.

Douglass was the author of three autobiographies: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (1845), published prior to the Civil War (1861 – 1865); My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), often considered by scholars and abolition activists, as his master work; and, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881, revised in 1892).Narrative was a cause célèbre and was popularly received in America and in Europe. Some questioned Douglass’ authenticity but Douglass astutely cited people, places and dates in his autobiography, effectively countering doubters concerning the veracity of his claims.

His literature continues to be studied well into the 21st century, and some of his noted aphorisms, such as “you may not get all that you pay for, but you will certainly pay for all that you get”, remain both accurate and popular among organizers and people struggling against systemic systems of physical, political, and economic oppression and exploitation.

Consider the circumstance: born into chattel slavery, the child of an enslaved woman and a White owner, Douglass’ lot was circumscribed and pre-ordained except he refused to submit to the standards of the time.

When he became a free man, or, more accurately, when he became a famous abolitionist asserting his right to be free, he founded three newspapers:

The North Star (Rochester, N.Y.), 1847-1851 (137 issues)
Frederick Douglass’ Paper (Rochester, N.Y.), 1851-1860 (220 issues)
New National Era (Washington, D.C.), 1870-1874 (211 issues)

This is an astounding achievement of both literacy and abolitionist advocacy. Douglass understood the power of the written word. To conceive of producing a newspaper in the 19th century is one thing, to actually print and disseminate an abolitionist newspaper was no mean feat, indeed, if he had done nothing else in life, the founding of the three newspapers was a major accomplishment, a Herculean feat that few have matched.


There is another and little known side of Douglass as a trenchant social critic. Frederick Douglass presented four theoretically searching lectures on the new technology of photography.  He presciently believed that photography could counter the negative images of his people flooding the mainstream circa the Civil War period.

More than simply write about the wonders of photography, he was a theoretical and cultural critic of the new image-making genre. Douglass believed that creating pictures was a human preoccupation; a way not only of reflecting the world but a means to, or at least an attempt to perfect the world.

The reality of his lectures about photography is his amazing enlightenment. He speaks as a seer, showing us ourselves, our motives, the very essence of our being. The book Picturing Frederick Douglass: An Illustrated Biography of the Nineteenth Century’s Most Photographed American contains three of his four major lectures on photography, presented when the 1839 art form was in its infancy and adolescence, well before it’s twentieth century development and twenty-first century maturation.

Picturing Frederick Douglass includes numerous photos and illustrations, and additionally contains transcriptions of the important essays: “Lecture on Pictures” (1861), “Age of Pictures” (1862), and “Pictures and Progress” (1864–65). Even today when the camera on smart phones is ubiquitous, few of us are learned enough to theorize about photography.

Go here for an informed account of Frederick Douglass’ use of photography as analysed by John Stauffer, the author of the definitive collection of Douglass photographs.

Speaking of the tremendous import of Daguerre’s invention of photography, Douglass enthusiastically noted:

Men of all conditions may see themselves as others see them. What was once the exclusive luxury of the rich and great is now within reach of all. The humblest servant girl, whose income is but a few shillings per week, may now possess a more perfect likeness of herself than noble ladies and even royalty, with all its precious treasures, could purchase fifty years ago.
Douglass – “Lecture on Pictures” (December 3, 1861)

More than simply write about the wonders of photography he was also a theoretical and cultural critic of the new image-making genre. Douglass believed that creating pictures was a human preoccupation; a way not only of reflecting the world but a means, or at least an attempt, to perfect the world. One of the main goals and great good of photography is to see the world and all that is in the world not simply as we imagine, understand, or even as it appears to us, but rather as the world in truth is.

    The photographic faithfulness of our pictures, in delineating the human face and form, answers well the stern requirement of Cromwell himself. “Paint me as I am,” said the staunch old Puritan. The order reveals perhaps quite as visibly his self-love as his love of truth. The huge wart on his face was probably, in the eyes of the great founder of the English Commonwealth, a beauty rather than a deformity. But in any case we are bound to respect the requirement.
Douglass – “Age of Pictures” (1862)

The reality of his lectures about photography is his amazing enlightenment. He speaks as a seer, showing us ourselves, our motives, the very essence of our being. However, in speaking of photography, Douglass also makes an essential observation:

    The process by which man is able to posit his own subjective nature outside of himself, giving it form, color, space, and all the attributes of distinct personality, so that it becomes the subject of distinct observation and contemplation, is at [the] bottom of all effort and the germinating principles of all reform and all progress. But for this, the history of the beast of the field would be the history of man. It is the picture of life contrasted with the fact of life, the ideal contrasted with the real, which makes criticism possible. Where there is no criticism there is no progress, for the want of progress is not where such want is not made visible by criticism. It is by looking upon this picture and upon that which enables us to point out the defects of the one and the perfections of the other.

    Poets, prophets, and reformers are all picture-makers—and this ability is the secret of their power and of their achievements. They see what ought to be by the reflections of what is, and endeavor to remove the contradiction.
Douglass – “Pictures and Progress” (circa 1864/1865)

Clearly, Frederick Douglass is a philosopher. He argues that photography not only enables us to see the reality of people and objects, but more importantly also enables us, through learned criticism, to consciously critique that which is in contradistinction to what ought to be. For Douglass, photography not only shows us what is, photography also primes us to critique what isn’t, and to long for, work toward what ought to be.

Douglas was no simpleton, nor was he a narcissist in love with his own image spied in the hundred-plus images of himself he sat for during his lifetime. Douglass is the philosopher who knows that a truthful picture shatters all specious propaganda on the one hand, simply by presenting the truth, but, and even more importantly, truth enables us to critique what is and simultaneously strive for what we think ought to be.


According to Douglass we are not only picture making and picture appreciating creatures, at our best we are also picture creators. A truth picture allows us to envision creating a more ideal picture that more closely conforms to our desires, our conceptions. How one looks is one thing, how one appears to others is another. The goal is to bring the truth and the desired appearance into registration, i.e. to make them one and the same.

Although it is a fact that photography pictures the truth, in the 20th century we discover that even photography distorts the truth depending on the lens used to view and capture the object, as well as the quality of the equipment and the method of reproduction, or any number of other issues (lighting, movement, perspective, etc.).

That Frederick Douglass was both wowed by photography as well as appreciative that photography could be one of the ultimate abolitionist tools is at the core of his arguments about the value of photography. Photography made it possible to escape illusions, made it possible to represent the truth, or should we say, come closer to representing the truth than could a painting or a drawing.

In the 19th century and beyond, the truth of who Black people were and are is a major American issue precisely because so much propaganda and demeaning displays had been issued about us. Indeed, lies were presented as truth. Douglass saw that photography had the power to destroy lies.

Douglass also saw that photography was capable of generating feelings as well as ideas. In one of his profound summations Douglass noted in Lecture on Pictures (1861) that “Only a few men wish to think, while all wish to feel, for feeling is divine and infinite.”

We assess a picture as powerful, not only because of what it makes us think, but rather because of how it causes us to feel—and feeling a certain way can cause us to appreciate or to dismiss a reality whether that reality is dimly or perceptively perceived. When one reads Douglass exegesis on photography, whether we fully understand what Douglass means, we can use our own responds to understand the feelings generated by a photograph, whether that photograph is a quick snapshot or a fully composed, artistic rendering.

Douglass deals with far more than mere appearance, he is concerned with the social meaning of image making and with the value of the image as time passes on.

What is most striking about Douglass’ understanding concerning photography is that in making his arguments, Douglass displays a breadth of learning. His ability to read and write were far beyond utilitarian. Indeed, Douglass lived in the realm of “thinking about things”—the whys and wherefores of existence.

Picturing Frederick Douglass includes numerous photos and illustrations, and additionally contains the important essays: Lecture on Pictures (1861), Age of Pictures (1862), and Pictures and Progress (1864–65). Even today when the camera on smart phones is ubiquitous, few of us are learned enough to theorize about the meaning, impact and social use of photography. It is extremely important to recognize that his four essays on photography were all written during the Civil War period, an era when the new technology was used to bring home the horrors/the reality of war. Arguably, beyond famous men of the era, the most impressive photographs that many Americans saw were images of war.

From the very beginning, Douglass peeped the potential power of the photographic image and sought to understand its dynamic reach into the human soul. Douglass used himself as both a model for and an example of what could be achieved by portrait photography. 

With his impressive lionized coiffure–what would in another century be characterized as a massive afro–and his steely gazeno smiling, no grinning, no comedic buffoon–Frederick Douglass exemplified the “New Negro” well before the 1920s Garvey Era/Jazz Age had yet to arrive. Douglass saw the future. Moreover, he wanted friend and foe to know what he saw. His stern visage was a portent of the shape of Black portraiture to come.


Douglass and grandson Joseph – October 31, 1894
by Black photographer James E. Reed