Info

Kalamu ya Salaam's information blog

Posts tagged Kalamu ya Salaam

Choose another tag?

Most of us are aware that American slavery formally started in 1619 and, thus, in 2019 we are observing both the beginning of slavery in our country and, more importantly, intently interrogating the social structure of this country. Moreover, while some of us are aware that the presence of people of African descent in what is now the U.S.  began well before Jamestown, we also recognize that the dominant story proffers the American tradition as one of freedom from day one.

In the “America is the home of the free” viewpoint, slavery is viewed as an anachronism that does not represent the fundamental truth of who we are, or, at the very least, the best of who we are. On the other hand, some of us, argue that on the deepest level, America was founded as a divided country along racial, class and gender demarcations and continues to be divided.

Perhaps the truth is a mix: to varying degrees, all of us value and aspire to the freedom view, while we simultaneously struggle for and declare that our freedom must be fought for. Regardless of our viewpoint, there is no easy road to social wellbeing.

I believe knowing our history as well as assessing our current condition are both critical. This is especially the case because we in America tend to be less concerned with history than we are fixated on celebrating and enjoying the pleasures and prerogatives of the present. Thus, as a corrective contribution, I join with forward thinking people who study our past.

In particular, I consider the recent work of the New York Times and some of the responses to their 1619 Project.

Sixteen nineteen is not our beginning, nor will the upcoming 2020 presidential election be our ending. We sometimes forget that black lives in the western hemisphere existed centuries preceding the founding of America and our presence will, in all probability, continue long after America is an afterthought in some future time frame. 

In other words, we should be aware of but not consumed by our past. We should understand, but not be limited by our history. Be the Sankofa bird, looking backward as it moves forward. Both awareness of our history and struggling for our future is important.

But, as our African heritage teaches: if we know the beginning well, the end will not trouble us. Whatever we do in the here and now and whatever our future dreams are, we can not and should not ever forget from whence we came. An appreciation of our history is a necessary element in identifying who we are and where we want to go.

 

 

I try to write in such a way that the words explain themselves, clearly state what I mean to say, and give a flavor of my personality. However, more and more often, people are asking me to share my background, my thoughts and feelings. Who were my parents, what was it like growing up in New Orleans participating in the civil rights movement, so forth and so on.

Here are two pieces. First is an interview conducted by Thomas Chisholm that focuses on my participation in the Octavia Butler project, the book titled Octavia’s Brood. Second is a short essay I’ve posted some decades ago, which explicitly states my position: I do not protest, I resist.

Hopefully there is something of value in both these selections. Use what you can, leave the rest alone.

Ashe.

* * * * *

I Do Not Protest, I Resist

 

 

Like most writers, figuring out how to economically support myself is a major problem. I have worked as an editor, as an arts administrator, and as the co-owner of a public relations, marketing and advertising firm. I have freelanced on projects ranging from $10 record reviews to commissions from publishers. Economy necessity is a major influence on what I write.

 

I have written commercials whose messages I personally reject like a radio jingle for a Cajun meat-lovers pizza when I don’t eat red meat. Of course, like many others, while I try to steer clear of major contradictions, I have done my share of hack work.

 

Doing what one must in order to survive is one major way in which the status quo effectively shapes us. As a writer, money making options are surprisingly limited. We all know and face the wolf of survival. There is no news in that story.

 

But wolves run in packs, and survival is not the only predator. There is also our own desire to succeed—I remember reading about “the fickle bitch of success” and wondering why was success described as a “bitch.” I have my own ideas, but that’s a different discussion.

 

Success is a very complicated question. We can easily dismiss “selling out” our ideals for a dollar, but what we can’t easily dismiss either in principle or in fact, is that we all want our work to reach the widest possible audience. On the contemporary literary scene, reaching a wide audience almost requires going through major publishers. Participation in the status quo makes strenuous demands of our art to conform to prevailing standards, one of which is that the only overtly political art worthy of the title art is “protest art”.

 

Capitalism loves “protest art” because protest is the safety valve that dissipates opposition and can even be used to prove how liberal the system is. You know the line: “aren’t you lucky to be living in a system where you have the right to protest?” Without denying the obvious and hard won political freedoms that exist in the USA, my position is that we must move from protest to resistance if we are to be effective in changing the status quo.

 

The real question is do we simply want “in” or do we want structural change? Most of us start off wanting in. It is natural to desire both acceptance by as well as success within the society into which one is born. But, in the immortal words of P-funk President George Clinton: “mind your wants because someone wants your mind.” Those of us who by circumstance of birth are located on the outside of the status quo (whether based on ethnicity, gender or class), face an existential question which cuts to the heart: how will I define success and is acceptance by the status quo part of what I want in life?

 

While it is simple enough to answer in the abstract, in truth, i.e. the day to day living that we do, it’s awfully lonely on the outside, psychologically taxing, and ultimately a very difficult position to maintain. Who wants to be marginalized as an artist and known to only a handful of people? Given the choice between having a book published by a mainstream publisher and not having one published by a mainstream publisher, most writers (regardless of identity) would choose to be published, especially when it seems that one is writing whatever it is one wants to write.

 

Without ever having to censor you formally—after a few years of rejection slips most writers will censor and change themselves—mainstream publishers shape contemporary literature by applying two criteria: 1. is it commercial, or 2. is it artistically important. Either will get you published at least once, although only the former will get you published twice, thrice and so forth.

 

Unless one is very, very clear about one’s commitment to socially relevant writing, even the most revolutionary writer can become embittered after thirty or forty years of toiling in obscurity. As a forty-seven-year-old (this essay was written in 1994) African American writer, I know that if you do not publish with establishment publishers, be they commercial, academic or small independents, then you will have very little chance of achieving “success” as a writer.

 

I sat on an NEA panel considering audience develop applications. One grant listed Haki Madhubuti as one of the poets they wanted to present. I was the only person there who knew Madhubuti’s work. I was expected to be conversant with the work of contemporary writers across the board. But how is it that a contemporary African American poet with over three million books in print who is also the head of Third World Press, one of this country’s oldest Black publishing companies, was unknown to my colleagues? The answer is simple: Madhubuti is not published by the status quo. He started off self publishing, came of age in the 60s/70s Black Arts Movement and is one of the most widely read poets among African Americans but all of his books have been published by small, independent Black publishers.

 

Too often success is measured by acceptance within the status quo rather than by the quality of one’s literary work. That is why we witness authors proclaimed as “major Black writers” when they have only published one or two books (albeit with major publishers) within a five year period. There is no surprise here. My assumption is that as long as the big house stands, “success” will continue to be measured by whether one gets to sleep in big house beds.

 

This brings me to the subject of protest art. The reason I do not believe in protest art is because I have no desire to bed down with the status quo nor do I have a desire to be legitimized by the status quo. Instead, my struggle is to change the status quo. For me protest art is not an option precisely because in reality protest art is simply a knock on the door of the big house.

 

There is a long tradition of African American protest art, especially in literature. As a genre, the slave narrative emerged as an integral part of the white led 19th century abolitionist movement. One major purpose of the slave narratives was to address Christian senses of charity and guilt—charity toward the less fortunate and guilt for the “sin” of supporting slavery.

 

But even at that time there was a major distinction to be made between abolitionist sentiments and charity work on the one hand, and, on the other hand, active participation in the armed struggle against slavery, which included participation in the illegal activity of the underground railroad and support of clandestine armed opposition. This meant fighting with the John Browns of that era or joining the throng of insurgents storming court rooms to “liberate” detained African Americans who had escaped from the south and were then ensnared in the web of the Northern criminal justice system which continued to recognize the “property rights” of Southern slave owners.

 

While the issues of today are no longer revolve around slavery, the distinction between protest and resistance, between charity and solidarity, remains the heart of the matter at hand. To protest is implicitly to accept the authority of the existing system and to appeal for a change of mind on the part of those in power and those who make up the body politic. To resist on the other hand is to fight against the system of authority while seeking to win over those who make up the body politic. “Winning over” is more than simply asking someone to change their mind, it is also convincing someone to change their way of living.

 

In the 50s and 60s a debate raged among Black intellectuals about “protest art”. Ironically, one of the chief opponents of protest art was James Baldwin—”ironically” because over the years the bulk of Baldwin’s essays, fiction and drama can be read as a “protest” against bigotry and inhumanity, as a plea to his fellow human beings to change their hearts, minds and lives.

 

When Baldwin started out he wanted to be “free” and to be accepted as the equal of any other human being. He did not want to be saddled with the “albatross” of racial (or sexual) themes as the defining factor of his work. Yet, as he lived, he changed and began to voluntarily take up these issues. I believe life changed him.

 

The reality is that we can not continue to live in America with the social deterioration, mean spiritedness, and crass materialism which is polluting our individual and collective lives. We are literally a nation of drug addicts (alcohol and tobacco chief among our drugs of choice, with over-the-counter pain killers and headache remedies running a close third). We are suffering horrendous rates of violence and disease. There is a widening economic gap at a time when many of our major urban centers teeter on the brink of implosion: aging physical infrastructures such as bridges, sewer systems, housing; corrupt political administration; and increasing ethnic conflict. Something has got to give.

 

My position is simple, we live in a period of transition. We can protest the current conditions and/or we can struggle to envision and create alternatives. We can plead for relief or we can work to inspire and incite our fellow citizens to resist. As artists, we have a choice to make. Indeed, there is always a choice to make.

 

Protest art always ends up being trendy precisely because the art necessarily struggles to be accepted by the very people the art should oppose. Ultimately, protest artists are, by definition, more interested in relating to the enemy than relating to the potential insurgents. This is why we have protest artists whose cutting edge work is rejected by neighborhood people.

 

Yes, neighborhood people have tastes which have been shaped by the consumer society. Yes, neighborhood people are parochial and not very deep intellectually. Yes, neighborhood people are unsophisticated when it comes to the arts. But the very purpose of resistance art is to confront and change every negative yes of submission into a powerful and positive no of resistance! Our job as committed artists is to raise consciousness by starting where our neighborhoods are and moving up from there.

 

Resistance art requires internalizing by an audience of the sufferers in order to be successful. The horrible truth is that every successful social struggle requires immense sacrifices, and the committed artist must also sacrifice—not simply suffer temporary poverty until one is discovered by the status quo, but sacrifice the potential wealth associated with a status quo career to work in solidarity with those who too often are born, live, struggle and die in anonymous poverty.

 

We think nothing of the millions of people in this society who live and die without ever achieving even one tenth of the material wealth that many of us take for granted. We think nothing of those who are literally maimed and deformed as a result of the military and economic war waged against peoples in far away lands in order to insure profit for American based billionaires. Somehow, while the vast majority of our fellow citizens are never recognized by name, we artists think it ignoble to live and die without being lauded in the New York Times.

 

But if we remember nothing else, we should remember this. Ultimately, the true “nobility of our humanity” will be judged not by the status quo but by the people of the future—the people who will look back on our age and wonder what in the world could we have had on our minds. Protest is not enough, we must resist.

###

 

 

 

Think about it, whatever the “it” is you’re focused on.

London-based brother Samm Henshaw dropped this little something-something on us. Forget the bag of chips, we are going to “Church”. Samm’s song got us all dancing, whether non-believers or true followers, we be getting down with this one.

On one level, there is a literal meaning. It’s Sunday morning, time to go to a house of worship. That is specifically a Christian message. But on another level the house of worship is symbolically the place of fellowship, of community, as well as the site of spiritual rejuvenation and instruction.

And yet deeper than deep, “wake up” could mean to become aware; and church, well, replace that word with “work” and then it means not a specific place but rather a productive activity. Moreover, work does not have to be limited to labor in exchange for a paycheck in a capitalist system. Work could mean struggle for self-determination, self-defense, and self-respect, i.e. “power” in the human social sense, which, on a progressive level, refers not just to the general human condition, but also to specific sub-divisions, especially gender defined foci (feminine, LGBTQ+) and beyond that, work could be about development along with/among social categories such as immigrant, youth, disabled, elderly, and refugees seeking asylum. The song works on so many different levels. Think about it; don’t just dance to it.

Plus, as some welcomed lagniappe, in addition to the original, here are remixes and live versions, with an extra-bonus track that spells out the lyrics.

Amen!

 

Set in 1937 Third Reich Germany and focusing on a pair of Afro-German women, Our Rhineland is a drama that proposes a major question: during a period of struggle, would you die to save your sister, your brother, or a close friend?

Our Rhineland was written and directed by Faren Humes, an independent filmmaker. This is one of four films (Liberty – 2019, Macho 2016, Our Rhineland – 2011, and Nasir – 2010) she has thus far completed. Conceiving and accomplishing a project such as this is a daunting achievement especially considering that this movie is set in a different time, different place, and in a different culture.

When I came across this brief but tautly drawn movie I was immediately smitten. Especially by how well the actors were guided through their reactions and interactions. Moreover, the German language script with English subtitles was particularly effective in evoking the choice between the activism of struggle against oppression versus trying to find ways to accommodate and thus survive under oppressive regimes.

While surely silence in the face of lethal oppression equals death, on the other hand activist opposition is often equally a death sentence. Perhaps, in certain circumstances, our choice is, reductively in the final analysis, selectively deciding and acting not only on how we choose to live, but also on how we choose to die. This hard choice was famously articulated by Jamaican immigrant and poet Claude McKay in his 1919, Harlem Renaissance era, anthemic sonnet “If We Must Die”.

Humes shows that how one lives, either accepting or fighting back, is no easy choice and that both sides have consequences that affect and forever alter one’s life cycle. Humes has said “The inherent need for freedom, and how it manifests as resistance once threatened by systems of oppression, is strung throughout all of [my] subject matter.”

Ms. Humes’ work encouraged me to recall my own journey to filmmaking. In the fall of 1964 during my brief, two trimester, stint at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, I was introduced to what was then called “art house” cinema. When I saw “Kanal” directed by Andrzej Wajda, the Polish filmmaker became a life long influence on me.

Before that in 1959 while in junior high school, under the inspiration of Mr. Conrad, my seventh grade industrial arts teacher, I became a photographer. A Yashica twin lens reflex was the first camera I bought.

Over a half century after high school, I saw Faren Humes’ daring project and was thoroughly moved. Subsequently, I have never forgotten this brief masterpiece that became one of my all time favorite movies. Even when I couldn’t remember the film’s title, I could easily recall the bleak but nonetheless inspirational storyline focusing on sacrifice and the particular clash that happens when two who are close have different opinions about which way to go.

Do you split at the crossroads, or do you choose to make an ultimate sacrifice? What I found truly amazing is how deep Humes went in a short sixteen minutes. She was deft in her employment of semiotics, using images to tell complex stories and particularly to center on the importance, as well as the risks, of exhuming and exposing the buried contradictions of a society. Humes’ insightful artwork has won the Director’s Guild of America Student Film Award and an Academy of Television Arts & Sciences College Television Award. Early on Humes evidenced artistic skill and vision. 

Beaucoup years later during an internet deep fishing expedition, I was overjoyed to again come across Faren Humes’ project and now I share the  quarter-hour film. Observe, consider and enjoy.

 

Doing what no woman has ever done. Can’t say nothing. Just watch and appreciate. First in real time, and then in slow-motion, so you can fully appreciate what she is doing.

Real time:

 

Slow motion:

There is something alluring about flying through the air. Not in an airplane or aboard a hot air ballon. But propelled by our own muscles, and skill. Hurling, twisting, turning. Feeling free. Momentarily defying gravity.

But inevitably we return to earth, to the floor, the mat. Whatever. Just back down to zero.

This desire for freedom’s flight is not just physical. Indeed, among the people formerly known as negroes there is a deep desire to fly. Fly away. Be flying home.

A centuries old longing for a state not actually remembered, sometimes only mustard seed in size, but there nonetheless. Amidst all the troubles of the world, we still dream of flying.

Which is why talented and multi-awarded gymnast Simone Biles testifying about her personal predicament is so very, very important. Vital for sanity’s sake. In an intimate and terrible sense, none of us can be whole until we are able to reveal our scars, our wounds, our hurts, our losses. None of us.

No matter how high, how far we have flown, all of us, at one time or another, each and everyone one of us has fallen. For some it was just a slip, for others, we crashed. None of us escapes life’s pains–even those who only walk, maybe skip, occasionally hop, but have never, ever exulted in the ether of flying.

The horrible truth is that whatever our courage, whatever our cowardice, regardless, we know we can fall; we all, at one level or another, each of us has our own fear of flying. Why? Because, even for those of us who have only dreamed of flying, we all know that ultimately we are earth bound. By nature, we are all members of the fallen.

However, the true terribleness of the fall is that far, far too many of us did not stumble, nor slip, make a mis-step, nor aspire to go where our center could not hold. The terrible truth is that too often we were pushed. And the pushing most often came from those who were close enough to reach out and touch us.

Listen to Simone. You are not alone. All of us, at one time or another, or another, or on and on, we all have suffered. But let not our failures define us. As sure as we walk, flat-footed on the ground. We need not stay grounded. Even if only in our imaginations, we all can fly.

Each of us has our own idiosyncratic form of flying.

We all should fly. Dream. Believe. Do it. No matter how briefly. Do it.

 

 

TONI MORRISON

(February 18, 1931 – August 5, 2019)

 

Many will memorialize her far better than I. Her literature, both creative and critical, will be studied, quoted, repeated for decades, and yes, for years to come. Whether we closely read her words or simply know of her literary accomplishments, we are all better for having shared time and space during the era of her writing. Why? Well, because she helped each of us understand ourselves better, understand our need and capacity to be the fullness of our we whomsoever we be.

Regardless of our own particular specifics, she encouraged each of us to produce as well as taste the fruit and flower of our individual existence. And though we all have our struggles to wage, as our elders knew and taught us: be yourself and be guided by love (sometimes tender, sometimes tough, but in its various and variegated manifestations, both individually and in the aggregate, in order to be fully human, love is what we all need). Know that among us are seers,  wonder-filled sages as love wise as was our so, so special Toni Morrison.

Toni Morrison taught us: in all its wondrous twists and turns, we will come to understand the totality of life (and also death) by and by. Yes, if we live, we’ll better understand it all, by and by.

All hail Toni Morrison!

 

* * * * *

Listen and Look

Photo courtesy of Rochelle Ritchie/Barnard College Office of News and Strategic Communications

Toni Morrison:

In Her Own Words

Commencement address to Barnard Class of 1979

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tom Dent was an extremely important New Orleans writer. He was also my dear friend and invaluable mentor. Tom is responsible for inspiring me to choose writing rather than music to make my cultural contribution. I joined the Free Southern Theatre in 1968 when I mustered out of the army. During my army years I had taken up playing drums. And I was pretty good at it. Good enough to gig regularly and had a weekly gig at an El Paso hotel awaiting my return from visiting home. Thanks to James Black, Smokey Johnson, and Zigaboo Modeliste, I realized me being a major drummer was futile, a fool’s errand/error. I would never be even half as good as they were. But I was crazy enough to think I could write as well as anyone else I had met. Of course, I had not yet met many writers.

So anyway, Tom ran FST’s writing workshop, and “Big Daddy” Robert Costly conducted the theatre workshop. They were a serious blessing who taught me so much, so very much. Fast forward to the new millennium and I was given the opportunity to assemble and edit “New Orleans Griot – The Tom Dent Reader”, which was published by the University of New Orleans press.

Now in 2019, Tom’s book is up for consideration for the 2020 selection for “One Book One New Orleans”. Whether or not you knew Tom personally and especially if you know Tom’s writing, please take a moment and vote for “New Orleans Griot – The Tom Dent Reader”. It only takes a hot minute, two clicks and it’s done. Looking forward to your support. And thank you, thank you, thank you very much.

Kalamu ya Salaam

P.S. Here is my short essay of deep appreciation for Tom Dent.

* * * * *

DREAMS ARE REALLY REAL

 

Dreams are not just what we imagine at night, nor simply mental movies we passively watch in our sleep. Dreams are really pieces of everything we’ve ever felt, every reaction to every idea that’s ever crossed our mind, not just our sacred ideals but also all the unmentionables our tongues never say, the secrets repeated over and over to no one but ourselves and as such, dreams can be disconcerting.

 

At night we are a bright forest of feelings clawing at whatever containers cage our desires, hacking away at the behavioral tethers that hold us accountable to social authorities. Dreaming is not only subversive, sometimes dreams also awaken us to our real and deepest feelings.

 

Dreaming of Tom, I saw myself crying. I was neither shocked nor embarrassed. As we say, quoting or paraphrasing a well known Richard Pryor routine, ‘what had happened was’ I was talking to someone and felt the presence of someone else off to the side. I turned my attention to see who it was.

 

Though I had never known him in his youth, I was sure. It was Tom, a young Tom. I turned back to the person with whom I had been conversing and started crying. I thought Tom was dead.

 

I remember just before I embarked to Germany for a second time, I went to Tom’s hospital bedside.

 

A few days later I was in Munich and found myself visiting Dachau concentration camp.

 

The austere, wooden buildings were clean. There was no lingering smell of death but hard and horrible memories hung in the air, especially by the barbed-wire fences on the perimeter. I inspected faded photographs, my myopic eyes pressed nearly nose-length away from the glass-enclosed exhibits, squinting to make a closer examination of the gaunt prisoners who were literally the walking dead.

 

Just a few days earlier I had forced myself not to turn away from looking at my friend laying sick in a hospital bed. I had had the horrible premonition that he was going to die while I was gone.

 

He did.

 

I never thought I would have dug Germany, been comfortable there, learned so much there. America had taught me to think of Germans as “whites,” not people. On race and other matters Tom had constantly and sharply interrogated me, albeit with great affection. Rather than say I told you so, when I responded talking about what I learned or how I unexpectedly enjoyed some new or foreign experience, Tom would just pithily reply, “good.”

 

I loved our conversations. When I visited, if he was hard at work on a piece of writing, he would tell me so and I would ask my question and leave, but usually he paused for me and patiently listened to me babble. After a while he would ask had I considered such and such, or read so and so, or he’d point to the overstuffed book shelves and tell me to check out some guy from Uganda or an old article in Freedomways.

 

Every dwelling Tom had was open to me, including a couple to which he gave me a key. In my sixth decade, as I turn corners in my life, my life has become one of Tom’s ancestral homes. Concepts he taught or exemplified in his own being are now resurrected in me. Is that what friends are for?

 

My intellectual and spiritual flesh has grown out of what I learned from him, from people he introduced to me, from ideas he shared with me, places we frequented together, like: driving deserted, country byways in the heat of the Mississippi night on our way to a poetry reading or for me to sit in on one of Tom’s classes in the oxymoronically named town of “West Point,” which was located on the northeast edge of the state; or conducting the business of planning what we wanted to write or get published while we sat in Levatas Seafood House, he with oysters, I with shrimp; or the soirees with Danny Barker on Sere Street, the old musician schooling our young heads—Tom was older than me but we were both youngsters compared to Danny, whose eyes literally twinkled as he dropped witty one-liners and well-polished griot tales of early New Orleans life and the formative years of jazz; or the many beautiful midnight blue nights soaking up the blues moan and being cut to the bone by the razor-sharp guitar of Walter Wolfman Washington; and weekday evenings crowded into The Glass House enjoying not only the buckjump music of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band but also the entire ambiance, dancers, food, casual conversations, the guy at the door collecting dollars, the forty-year-old woman out-shaking the teenagers, all of that. Had Tom not taught me, had he not shared himself with me, given me access to the New Orleans treasures he had intimately mined, would I, could I have ever become who I am?

 

The old folks always asked: who your people—not just your blood family, but those whom you chose to love, to emulate, to run with and respect. The wise ones knew: your people are who you become, and if not become, they are the human forces that deeply influence your becoming.

 

Suddenly my emotional fog lifted. At that moment his absence overwhelmed me. I retched. The cathartic urge was irrepressible, except this nausea was not released through my mouth but rather through my eyes.

 

In my dream I wept, openly.

 

But crying was not what disturbed me. What really caused unease was a psychic jab that literally shocked open my eyes and propelled me out of bed.

 

For the first time in over a decade since his death, I recognized a reality I had neither fully realized nor acknowledged. I miss Tom terribly. Given our thirty year friendship and his mentorship, it should have been obvious, especially to me, but then most men are reluctant to publicly admit how much they miss another man.

 

#30

 

I’ve spent many years growing grapes whose variegated wines I may never taste. I’ve knowingly committed to working with others without trying to bind them to me or pledge them to follow my dictates. Instead, I often push them to go their own way. Or, at least, by not actively keeping in touch, I encourage them to live their lives without me at their center or even on their horizon.

I cut them loose not with any sense of remorse or regret, and without even a minute sense of self-pity because I’ve given so much to workshop members. My efforts were my choice, my gift. What they do with what they garnered from the experience is totally up to them.

Currently, I am happily engaged in reading a book entitled “No Thanks” by Keturah Kendrick, a member of Nommo Literary Society, the writing workshop I conducted for ten years before it was disrupted by hurricane Katrina in 2005. Since then Keturah has traveled, living and working in Africa and China for two and three years at a stretch. When she was visiting home recently, Keturah stopped by and shared her book with me.

If I were still teaching high school with the Students at the Center program, I would certainly make her book required reading. Why? Because with both humor and fierce intelligence Keturah responds to a question Duke Ellington immortalized in song: what am I here for?

Keturah interrogates what it means to be a woman. She challenges the dominant perspective that complete womanhood necessarily involves both marriage and motherhood. She proffers a truly radical perspective as she dissects what we mean when we identify a person as a “woman”.

In our society woman is a word that is loaded with limiting cultural precepts and, too often, being a woman is encased and restricted by religious philosophies most of us are not even aware we espouse.

No Thanks works for me on two levels. Much like her personality, Keturah’s writing is witty without eschewing a sense of seriousness. Her prose has a conversational tone that is refreshing and makes for inviting reading. One goes from sentence to sentence smiling as Keturah skewers common assumptions. But beyond her appealing writing style there is the deadly stealth of an assassin intent on dispatching the claims and chains of conformity. If you get No Thanks be prepared to laugh, to smile, to recognize intimate moments in your daily life, and, at the same time, do not be surprised to have your fundamental beliefs artfully challenged.

Martin Luther may have nailed to the door his thesis resisting church authority, but in her feminist approach Keturah is supplying her own life experiences as nails for her thesis on self-defined womanhood. Motherhood is often the only sacred cow that is celebrated worldwide. So what do we call a woman who decides to remain childless? How do we respond to a person who consciously chooses to remain unmarried?

Oh, sure there are people who “say” that marriage is a yoke, a joke, an anachronism of the past, but in most cases their views are but a cover for fear of commitment, or for the convenience of favoring a laissez-faire lifestyle. In truth, most of us who live alone suffer loneliness. Deep down we live solo not because we want to but rather because that is the hand that chance and circumstance have dealt us.

Far too many of us are unlucky in our love life. If we had our druthers we really would prefer to be hooked up, it’s just that for whatever reason, marriage has eluded us. Or worse yet, marriage has entrapped us in stifling relationships we put up with because. . . well, because… because we either don’t know how or else have not seized the opportunity to live any other way. Or perhaps because we love the people we are with, although we have never seriously asked ourselves are we living the lives we really want to live.

Reading Keturah’s book confronts not just our reductionist thinking, she boldly assaults our core beliefs. Through her example she encourages us to examine  the essence of our social being: who we are and how we relate to others on an intimate level.

She is not asking us to be like her. She is Buddhist, most of us profess Christianity. She is female, nearly half of us are male. She has lived long stretches in Africa and Asia, except for the graduation cruise to the Bahamas or the long weekend in the Caribbean, most of us have never resided outside the United States. She does not hold up her travels and cross-cultural experiences for emulation, instead her example is rooted in the questions she asks herself as she moves through life: am I being true to myself?

No Thanks is subtitled “Black, Female, and Living in the Martyr-Free Zone”. Race, Gender, and life choices. There is room for all of us in the exalted state of unflinching self awareness.

* * * * *

CODA: As counter intuitive as this lesson might seem at first glance, as a human being facing the awesome fullness of the cosmos, which was here before me and will be here after any of us are born, struggle, and expire: the quality of life is about the human relationships we encounter and participate in along the way.

When you get right down to it, the meaning of each life–as much as any meaning that might actually be achieved–is found in the cliched but nonetheless simple truth: who we are is all about our relationships.

When and where we were born, who our mama and daddy was, what accolades or wealth we gathered along the way, none of that matters as much to ourselves, and ultimately to any other person, as does the shape and nature of our relationships with all the people with whom we share space and time. Or like the old folks used to say when judging a person: who they people is?

 

Langston Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri, February 1, 1902 and is widely considered the leading writer of the celebrated Harlem Renaissance. He moved to New York City as a young man, but traveled, literally, worldwide during his lifetime. He had drama produced on Broadway and worked as a screenwriter in Hollywood, in terms of his establishment credentials. However, Hughes was most famously admired as a poet.

Back in the 1950s when I was in junior high school, Mrs. O. E. Nelson, my English teacher, said one day, “Put your books away. I want you to hear something.” She took out a small portable record player and put on a recording of Hughes reciting his poetry backed by a jazzy piano.

I will never forget the last line of one of the poems that knocked me out that day. Ballad of the Man Who’s Gone was a threnody about a poor couple in Harlem. When her husband died, the wife was reduced to begging on the street to raise money to bury her beloved. Hughes ended his deep blues poem with the words “A poor man ain’t got / No business to die!”.

You could have called me Saul, because that was the day I became a writer, like Paul whom Jehovah both struck down and then raised up thereby resurrecting an inspired scribe. I didn’t immediately pick up a pen and start writing but I did high-tail it to the main library looking for Langston Hughes.

What I found in the stacks was a whole shelf of books by Langston Hughes, numerous books of poetry, anthologies of various kinds, including two of African authors, plus, Hughes had two autobiographies, The Big Sea and I Wonder As I Wander. Hughes also seemed to know every writer worth knowing in his era. He put me on the road to life long literary sleuthing. Via Hughes guidance, I read an amazing and rewarding range of writers from around the world–Hughes had been everywhere it seemed, east to west, north to south. I mean the entire globe. Cuba, Russia, France, Japan, and a thousand other places, some of which I had never heard of before Hughes’ invaluable introduction.

I bought tons of Langston Hughes books, sometimes two and three times over. And long after his demise on May 22, 1967, new works by and about my main man seemed to be published year after year. Even a hundred years after his birth, fresh discoveries were revealed. By 2019 I thought I had read or been made aware of Hughes’ entire literary output.

I knew that Langston was conversant in a number of languages. Once when I was in Cuba, and I accompanied Sonia Sanchez, when we had a private audience with noted poet Nicolas Guillen (July 10, 1902 – July 16, 1989). After warmly greeting us, one of the first words out of his mouth was “where is Langston”? Even after his death, Langston Hughes was constantly turning me on to new experiences, and a plethora of writers both known and previously unknown.

Imagine my joy and wonder, when I recently read about a 1933 Hughes essay, previously unpublished in English. The focus was on an escapee from a Georgia chain gang. This was another side of the multifaceted Langston Hughes. I had no idea Hughes had written about the chain gang.

Of course, I had a long history of interest in prison issues. My two barbers had both been incarcerated in Louisiana’s infamous Angola prison, plus I had edited Go To Jail – Confronting A System Of Injustice, a forthcoming collection of writings by inmates, students, family and friends of imprisoned men and women.

But then I should not have been surprised because most of us are but two or three degrees away from life on the inside of American gulags.