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Juls Flips

Vintage Highlife & Afrobeat

On His ‘African Crates’

Beat Tape


“I sampled a lot of old school Ghanaian and Nigerian highlife and afrobeat from the 60s and 70s,” explains Juls. “[The tracks are] very raw and rugged joints that you can bob your head to, rap and possible dance to… [it also includes] 3 unreleased joints with Worlasi, Black Wayand Saint Kwam.”

Juls has been a busy man lately. On top of his mixes and production work for the likes of Mr. Eazi and Aina More, Juls and his brother just launched Signatures, a magazine that highlights the Ghanaian creative scene.

Stream Juls’ African Crates beat tape in its entirety below and buy it on iTunes.



















With Eddie Palmieri’s upcoming concert revival of his classic Harlem River Drive (1971) on the horizon, Revive has protest music on the mind. Before Palmieri and his band perform the album live on May 21st, check out a few of our favorite tracks that make you question the justice, equality, and freedom still being fought for today. With a touch of new, a touch of old, and a whole lot of straight, free, bebop, vocal, instrumental, electronic, and modern jazz, these are 16 pieces of protest that deserve to be heard in 2016.

Eddie Palmieri: Harlem River Drive (1971)

Max Roach: We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite(1960)

Charles Mingus: “Fables of Faubus” – Mingus Ah Um (1959)

Sonny Rollins: “Freedom Suite” (1958)


Billy Holiday: “Strange Fruit” (1939)
* Bonus: Jose James’s chilling 2015 rendition



Charlie Haden: Liberation Music Orchestra (1970)


Nina Simone: “Mississippi Goddam” – Live in New York(1964)


Gary Bartz: “Uhuru Sasa” – I’ve Known Rivers and Other Bodies (1973)

Les McCann and Eddie Harris: “Compared to What” – Swiss Movement (1971)


John Coltrane: “Alabama” – Live at Birdland (1963)


Gil Scott Heron: “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”(1971)


Gregory Porter: “1960 What?” – Water (2010)


Ambrose Akinmusire: “Rollcall For Those Absent” – The Imagined Savior is Far Easier to Paint (2014)


Terence Blanchard: “Talk to Me” – Breathless (2015)


Vijay Iyer : “Suite for Trayvon (and Thousands More)” – Wiring, feat. Oliver Lake, Reggie Workman & Andrew Cyrille (2014)


Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah: “KKPD” – Yesterday You Said Tomorrow (2010)


Compiled by Andie Neff 








photo by Alex Lear

photo by Alex Lear



memories of death


my first unforgettable death scene was a man’s body all cut up. some man i didn’t know. i had gone to meet my father at his job. a laboratory technician, he worked on the third floor (or was it the fourth floor) at the veteran’s hospital. sometimes he would show us how he mixed chemicals with body fluids, mainly blood or urine. it was kind of fun but not really exciting once you had been there a couple of times. this particular time, i remember i was in seventh grade, and he told me he wasn’t ready to go. often i would go to the main library, which was only a few blocks from the hospital, and afterwards meet my father when he got off from work. on a few occasions i would get there earlier than his getting off time of 4:30pm and would sit around reading until he was ready. but this particular time it was after 4:30. he said he had some extra work he had to do. as most children do, i said, ok.


he told me, come on. follow me. and we got on the elevator and headed to the basement. i walked behind him trying my best to keep up. my father was a fast walker. i’ll never forget his story about walking to new orleans from donaldsonville, louisiana. we twisted and turned through the basement. down this corridor, through that door, into another hallway, through another set of doors. i really wasn’t paying much attention. didn’t read any signs or anything. i didn’t have to. i was following my father.  and then we went through the last door.


and there it was. a corpse. i balked about ten feet away. the naked body was laid out on a big table that had a ridge around it and pans on carts next to it. the chest was cut completely open with the left and right rib cage folded back. a pan with internal organs was next to the torso. and worse yet, the top of the head was gone. i mean completely sawed off. the brains was in another pan.


i don’t remember it stinking or nothing. my daddy said, you can watch me or you can sit over there. over there was only like five or so feet away. i sat way over there. pulled a book out and buried my head in the book while my daddy started messing with that body. it would have been ok except they were making a lot of strange noises. my daddy was sewing the body back together with a big old needle and thread as thick as twine. when he started putting that man’s head back together and sewing the scalp back over the skull, it made this sucking kind of sound.


i had, of course, been to funerals before and seen bodies laid out at church, but this was my first really memorable experience with death. at that moment, i was de-romanticized about any thing i thought about dead bodies. i realized that for my daddy, death just brought another job he had to do. in fact it was a good job because it paid him overtime.


so this is what happens to you when you die. this is what an autopsy is all about.


between that time and my next memorable death experience i graduated from high school. in fact it was february of 1965, the year after i graduated. and, no, kennedy’s assassination was not a memorable death experience for me. by the end of high school i had been active in the civil rights movement: sitting in at woolworth’s and schwegmann’s lunch counters, picketing on canal street, knocking on doors and doing voter registration work in the black community. kennedy had never been a hero of mine. so here i was up in northfield, minnesota, a small town whose claim to fame was that’s where jesse james did his last bank robbery. the local folk had laid a trap for mr. james and they almost caught him. the james gang was badly hurt in the resulting shoot out and disbanded after that attempt. anyway, i was at carleton college. i hated it there and would leave in less than two months, but i also learned a lot there.


i was working at the college radio station doing a jazz show. my show came on on sunday nights from 8pm to 10pm, if i remember correctly. part of my job at the station was to get there by 7:30pm and literally rip the news off the teletype. it used to come in automatically and there was this big roll of paper that fed into a box. all the news, weather, sports and whatever. and you had to gather up that long roll of paper and cut it up, or rip it, to separate the items you wanted from the ones you didn’t.


there were only 13 black students at carleton, and 8 of us were freshman, so you know how lonely we were. that particular night, linda, a girl from little rock, was visiting my show. as i remember we were the only two black students from the deep south. and when i started ripping the news, i got the first and all subsequent reports: malcolm x had been shot. dead. linda was crying and my eyes were kind of blurry too.


at first it was just a line or two, and then later more and more info streamed over on the loudly clattering machine. i’m ripping the news of malcolm’s death for some college kid to read. i don’t know how much, if any of that news item was read that night on carleton’s radio show, but i was strangely very, very affected by malcolm’s death. i say strangely, because i was not a muslim. i was not a follower of malcolm in the sense of being part of any organization, but i was, like many, many people my age, an ardent admirer.


why? what was it about malcolm? over the years i have had time to think about it and rather than focus on him, i realize now the focus was on myself and parallels that i scarcely recognized back then, if i saw any of them at all. for one, we both rejected the civil rights movement.


i remember sitting on the steps of mt.zion methodist church before our weekly n-double a-c-p youth council meeting. we had been the main force picketing and leading the boycott on canal street. after close to a year of demonstrating, the merchants decided they wanted to negotiate. we said, sure. they said, stop picketing and we can talk. we said, let’s make an agreement and we will stop. the merchants balked. in response to the impasse the adult branch of the naacp, then led by the future first black mayor of new orleans, ernest “dutch” morial, instructed the youth council to stop picketing so negotiations could proceed.


we were adamant. we’d stop when the merchants met our demands. not before. the national office sent down wally moon, one of the main officials to instruct us, stop picketing or we will put you out of the naacp. they didn’t have to tell me twice. i decided to leave.


for close to two years, the youth council had been my life, consuming all my free time and a lot of my thoughts even when i was in school. i was a few years younger than the leading members, who were mainly college students but they were my gang, whom i hung out with, admired, wanted to be like.


i sat there on those church steps and finally decided: i couldn’t do it. anyone who has ever, for whatever reasons, abandoned a love can appreciate the pain of this voluntary separation. that was my first divorce.


malcolm had divorced himself from the muslims. also, malcolm was advocating internationalism and self-determination. i agreed with both. plus, malcolm had been a preacher–well, officially he had been a muslim minister, but anyone familiar with his oratory knew that malcolm was not just a master minister, he was a full blooded, get down preacher who spoke so eloquently both birds and angels hushed their singing while he was delivering the word. amen.


i had been groomed to hold forth in the pulpit, i knew a thing or two about public speaking, and i knew that malcolm was about the best we had, martin luther king notwithstanding. king had dreams but malcolm had the fire.


to paraphrase malcolm’s eloquent post mortem, the march on washington had been a picnic. the white man told those negroes when they could march, where they could march, how long they could march and when to leave town, and you know what, they came when the white man said you can come and they said what the white man wanted said and they left when the white man said go! malcolm. malcolm. el hajj malik shabazz, malcolm x.


knowing about the organizers’ attempt to censor the march on washington speech of john lewis, the chairman of the student nonviolent organizing committee, whom walter reuther (of the afl-cio) and others considered too militant was proof to me that malcolm had been right. the sell-out house negroes and their white liberal supporters were emasculating our leadership. i was a young man; speaking truth to power was a sine qua non of my definition of manhood, and in that regard no nationally recognized black leader was more man than malcolm.


plus as an insider, i knew all the stories, tales and gossip about our black leaders–king as a philanderer; this one on the take; the other one married to a white woman; on and on. but  when it came to malcolm there was nothing, and malcolm was so hard on middle class negro leadership, i knew that if anyone had anything on malcolm we all would have been made aware. malcolm was a model of leadership in a category unto himself. and now he was gone.


days afterwards, i tried to find out as much as i could. and when i saw one of the death scenes: malcolm carted out on a gurney, his head back and to the side, his mouth sort of open, i thought about that body my father had sewn up and wondered would malcolm be cut up like that. my subsequent thoughts were about the men who shot malcolm, how they could do it. death comes in many forms, but for us in the movement, the hardest to confront is the seeming endless cases of black-on-black killings. 


death makes you think. at first you just recoil in shock, but sooner or later, the philosophical aspects confront and confound. malcolm’s murder in particular initiated many hours of trying to figure out what, if anything, i could do to address, and ultimately stop, black on black murder. i was too young to know how old that particular problem was. fratricide has never been a racial issue, has never been anything but a human issue, and mainly a human male issue.


nevertheless, when your leader and hero dies at the hands of our own, you never forget. i don’t recall what music i played the night malcolm died. despite any nostalgia for my youth and the glory days of seemingly boundless energy and optimism (which two qualities are, after all, the hallmarks of youth regardless of the specifics of any particular time period), despite the fog of memory and the hunger for the good old days (isn’t it oxymoronic that we call the days of our youth “the good old days”?), despite any and all of that, all i remember about that sunday night is malcolm was assassinated. our movement was in crisis. i was in crisis. those were difficult days.


—kalamu ya salaam





APRIL 30, 2016

APRIL 30, 2016





The Pragmatic Utopia:

An Author’s Response




This is the final day of our roundtable on Russell Rickford’s book, We Are an African People: Independent Education, Black Power, and the Radical Imagination. We began with introductory remarks by Reena Goldthree on Monday, followed by remarks by Fanon Che WilkinsAshley FarmerIbram X. Kendi, and Derrick WhiteIn this post, Rickford responds to the reviews and offers concluding remarks. On behalf of the AAIHS, thank you all for participating in this exciting roundtable. We hope you’ll continue the conversation in the days and weeks ahead.


Russell Rickford

Russell Rickford

To educate the masses politically does not mean, cannot mean, making a political speech. What it means is to try, relentlessly and passionately, to teach the masses that everything depends on them; that if we stagnate it is their responsibility, and that if we go forward it is due to them too, that there is no such thing as a demiurge, that there is no famous man who will take the responsibility for everything, but that the demiurge is the people themselves and the magic hands are finally only the hands of the people.— Frantz Fanon

I was having lunch with a friend recently in a Harlem café when, during a freewheeling conversation about black internationalism, I casually referred to “Stokely.” My companion immediately shot me a disapproving look. Her mother, a member of the cosmopolitan, Pan Africanist circles of the 1970s, had known the Black Power spokesman Stokely Carmichael/Kwame Ture well, and had often recalled the activist’s desire to be addressed by his adopted name. Though I acknowledged my gaffe, my unconscious use of Ture’s original name (what black polemicists once called a “slave name”) was more a product of affection than a sign of disregard. I have long been captivated by accounts of mid-1960s “Stokely,” the intrepid Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) organizer, who worked closely with the “local people” of the Deep South to build a grassroots movement for political power, dignity, and economic justice. Despite the global exploits and visibility of the leader’s later years—the continental Pan Africanism, the ambassadorial ties to Sekou Toure’s Guinea—it is the image of the gangly, beloved SNCC worker, clad in overalls and surrounded by tenant farmers and domestic workers, that I most cherish. 1

As a historian of transnational blackness, however, it is the interplay of the two incarnations—the Stokely Carmichael/Kwame Ture dialectic—that intrigues me. Indeed, the synergy and tensions between local and international, between theory and practice, and between activist-intellectuals and “everyday” folk lie at the heart of my recent book, We Are an African People: Independent Education, Black Power, and the Radical Imagination. An intellectual history of Pan African nationalist institutions in the post-civil rights era, the study is also an extended reflection on the possibilities and perils of the transition from Negro to Afro-American (or simply “African”), from civil rights to black liberation, and from liberal reform to Third World revolution. Over the past few days, I have had the honor of pondering these and other themes along with some very dear colleague-comrades. My sincere thanks to the participants in this week’s online roundtable: Fanon Che WilkinsAshley FarmerIbram X. KendiDerrick White, and moderator Reena Goldthree. And my gratitude to the diligent stewards of the African American Intellectual History Society, especially Keisha N. Blain, who proposed the roundtable and, with Goldthree, labored to bring it to fruition.


This week’s discussion of my book has been thoroughly edifying. Allow me to respond, in part, with an origins story. We Are an African People started as a dissertation completed at Columbia University under my late advisor, Manning Marable. I remember the day I went to Marable’s office to discuss what was then my thesis proposal. He told me, with characteristic insight and enthusiasm, that what I was proposing was not simply a history of black nationalist institutions, but rather, an analysis of the attempt to construct the infrastructure of an imagined nation. I proceeded to the research and writing phases of the study with an enlarged sense of mission. My aim was to craft a serious history of Black Power ideas. The task was both intellectual and political. I wanted to understand the movement’s ideological evolution, its resonances beyond the 1960s, and its implications for contemporary black thought. I also hoped to demonstrate the dynamism, ingenuity, and optimism of Black Power, elements of the struggle that remained underappreciated. At the same time, I was determined to avoid vindicationism. I was myself undergoing an ideological transformation from unreconstructed black nationalism to democratic socialism (think C.L.R. James, not Bernie Sanders) and I wished to engage my historical subjects in a rigorous critique, illustrating political strengths and weaknesses while charting adaptation and growth.

My job was made easier by those scholars who, in the 1990s and early 2000s, had established Black Power as a legitimate topic of historical inquiry. Their work bolstered my conviction that far from a descent into chaos, the late 1960s and 70s upsurge of black militancy marked the creative apex of postwar mass insurgency. Given the persistence of popular and scholarly misconceptions, there was still a need to reject the equation of Black Power with sophistry. The notion that the movement delivered few if any tangible victories required vigorous contestation. Yet the existence of several superbly researched surveys of Black Power politics allowed me to shed my defensive posture and adopt an approach both sympathetic and critical. 2

As I took my first academic job at Dartmouth College in 2009 and began converting the dissertation into a book, the emergence of Occupy Wall Street helped me further understand my scholarly fascination with black “parallel institutions.” The Occupy movement enabled self-organized citizens to create autonomous, democratic organs of representation and governance. In independent black establishments of the 1970s I discovered a similar commitment to prefiguring a radical future through the creation of innovative political and cultural prototypes. Of course, the proliferation of Pan African nationalist academies in the Black Power era was also a response to material and other deficiencies in urban schooling. For a host of contemporary activists—from antipoverty workers and SNCC staffers to dissident parents and teachers—building “indigenous” institutions offered a viable survival strategy amid the economic and political retrenchment and disinvestment of the day. Parallel structures lay at the intersection of the quest to forge the new society and the attempt to supplement crumbling social services. My hope, therefore, was to write an expansive history of modern black intellectual and organizational life, one that depicted both the eminently pragmatic and the marvelously utopian.

I am gratified to learn that the reviewers assembled by AAIHS believe We Are an African People achieves this objective. As a scholar who wishes to influence rather than merely interpret the world, I am doubly pleased that the commentators found in the study several lessons relevant to contemporary liberation politics. For Ashley Farmer, the book demonstrates that patriarchy crippled the black independent school movement, undermining the goal of creating a new social order “by reifying rather than radicalizing traditional gender roles.” Derrick White notes that though many Pan African nationalists aspired to meet the daily needs of working people, “inconsistencies between ideology and practice” constrained their efforts. He concludes that activists and intellectuals must “grapple with the pragmatic parameters of radical imagination.” Ibram X. Kendi observes that the crusade to “Re-Africanize” black proletarian life included paternalistic efforts to cure putative cultural deficiencies. “To truly be engines of black liberation,” he asserts, “we must seek to reflect—not rehabilitate the culture of African Americans.”

Collectively these insights comprise the major analytic thrust of We Are an African People. They reflect an abiding concern of my intellectual career: the attempt to comprehend the relationship between black nationalism and the people it purports to serve. This question also underlies Fanon Che Wilkins’s critique of one of my book’s main contentions—that some Pan African nationalists allowed arcane theorizing to separate them from the everyday realities of their prime constituency, the urban black working class. While Wilkins finds some merit in this claim, he wonders if I “romanticiz[e] working people’s struggles by making them the default marker for how one assesses the leftist evolution and maturation” of Black Power activist-intellectuals. Referring to my evaluation of Malcolm X Liberation University’s uneven attempts to forge alliances with local black communities in Durham and then Greensboro, North Carolina, Wilkins asks whether I judge the school’s ideologues too harshly while idealizing the proletarian struggles of “the masses.”

Wilkins is correct to question my deployment of the trope of “the masses,” an abstraction that can be as mystifying as it is seductive. His assertion that I might have further explored the efforts of Pan African nationalist establishments to remain “attuned to the objective material conditions” of surrounding black neighborhoods is equally astute. After all, principled engagement with the circumstances of the black rank and file was one of the central historical tasks embraced by founders of independent black schools. The institutions emerged from local struggles for educational dignity and self-determination. Their operators were most successful when they continued to prioritize such grassroots concerns. Romanticizing the proletariat (one is reminded of the mechanistic slogan “Workers take the lead!”) is an error no less severe than discounting it altogether. As I argue in We Are an African People, Black Power was at its best when it blended the indigenous knowledge and aspirations of working people with the transnational visions of a radical segment of the black intelligentsia.

Lonetta Gaines, co-founder of the Learning House, a Pan African nationalist preschool in Atlanta ( Herald Tribune /Nick Adams)

Lonetta Gaines, co-founder of the Learning House, a Pan African nationalist preschool in Atlanta ( Herald Tribune /Nick Adams)


Similarly, Black Power militants were most effective when they attempted to confront deep-seated patriarchy. We Are an African People demonstrates that some independent school practitioners, especially activists such as Amina Baraka of Newark, New Jersey, and Tayari Kwa Salaam of New Orleans, developed a staunch critique of male supremacy within the organizational apparatus of Pan African nationalism. Yet as Ashley Farmer points out, my study could have done more to illuminate such internal struggles. Readers, Farmer argues, “may long for a more nuanced approach to how women navigated gender constraints” in the context of Black Power organizing. The critique is well founded. In the course of writing We Are an African People, I found myself straining to theorize gender with the same precision that I analyze race and class. Like my historical subjects, I had to learn to identify masculinist logic and discourses and understand their threat to the democratic culture of social movements. 3


In hindsight, more extensive oral history would have enabled me to fully chronicle women’s roles as key theorists and staffers of black independent schools. Though I devote a chapter to the Nairobi school complex of East Palo Alto, California, a system founded by local mothers, other women-led outfits, such as Atlanta’s Learning House, receive less attention. On the other hand, what I hope We Are an African People manages to convey is the efforts of certain male organizers to transcend sexism. Kalamu Ya Salaam, a co-founder of Ahidiana Work-Study Center in New Orleans, underwent an especially dramatic metamorphosis. In my epilogue I recount the poet’s shift, over the course of the 1970s, from cultural nationalist patriarchy to feminist praxis. I offer this example not to excuse my own sins of omission, but to highlight the dynamism of a body of activists who, as Wilkins observes, remained in motion, geographically and ideologically, long after Black Power’s heyday.

As I close, let me again thank all those responsible for this week’s extended discussion of my book. It has been an incredible exchange. I am convinced that scholars will continue to discover in the archives of contemporary Pan African nationalism rich evidence of the evolution of black political thought. Opportunities for future work abound. We need deeper knowledge of the classroom experiences and internal life of independent black schools, and greater awareness of their role within the political economy and public sphere of urban settings. We also need fuller accounts of the activities of Black Powerites in Tanzania, the Caribbean, and other locales. For the moment, I am satisfied that We Are an African People makes a worthwhile historiographical contribution while offering a tale, both cautionary and inspiring, about the quest to remake black America, and about the need for liberationists to seek a truer communion with the “local people” they wish to serve.

  1. For a discussion of this “Stokely,” see Hasan Kwame Jeffries, Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama’s Black Belt (New York: New York University Press, 2009) 
  2. See, for example, Komozi Woodard, A Nation Within a Nation: Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) and Black Power Politics (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999); Roderick D. Bush, We Are Not What We Seem: Black Nationalism and Class Struggle in the American Century (New York: New York University Press, 1999); Fanon Che Wilkins, “‘In the Belly of the Beast’: Black Power, Anti-imperialism, and the African Liberation Solidarity Movement, 1968-1975.” Ph.D. Diss., New York University, 2001; Scot Brown, Fighting for Us: Maulana Karenga, the US Organization, and Black Cultural Nationalism(New York: New York University, 2003); Robert O. Self, American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003); Jeffrey O. G. Ogbar, Black Power: Radical Politics and African American Identity (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004); Matthew J. Countryman, Up South: Civil Rights and Black Power in Philadelphia(Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006) 
  3. For discussion of Black Power, women, and gender, see Christina Greene, Our Separate Ways: Women and the Black Freedom Movement in Durham, North Carolina (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005); Rhonda Y. Williams, Concrete Demands: The Search for Black Power in the 20th Century (New York: Routledge, 2015); and Ashley Farmer, What You’ve Got is a Revolution: Black Women’s Movements for Black Power (University of North Carolina Press, forthcoming). 









The State Lunatic Asylum in Fulton, Missouri.  The asylum opened in 1851, four years before the Fulton became the site of Celia's murder trial.

The State Lunatic Asylum in Fulton, Missouri. The asylum opened in 1851, four years before the Fulton became the site of Celia’s murder trial.

The Trial of Celia,

A Slave:

A Chronology


by Douglas O. Linder


Under the Missouri Compromise, Missouri is admitted to the Union as a slave state and the expansion of slavery in the Louisiana Territory is limited to states south of Missouri.



Sometime before the fall of 1822, the Robert Newsom family settles land on the Middle River in southern Callaway County, Missouri (about 9 miles south of Fulton).



Celia, age 14, arrives from neighboring Audrain County to become Robert Newsom’s first female slave, joining five male slaves on his 800-acre farm….Callaway County’s population is 13,827, including 9,895 whites.



Robert Newsom, age 60, rapes Celia in 1850 and continues to demand sexual relations from his slave girl over the course of the next five years.  Celia gives birth to two children, almost certainly fathered by Newsom.  Her main duty on the farm seems to be that of cook….Sometime before 1855, Celia enters into a romantic relationship with George, another one of Newsom’s slaves.



1855, Winter
Robert Newsom, age 60, rapes Celia in 1850 and continues to demand sexual relations from his slave girl over the course of the next five years.  Celia gives birth to two children, almost certainly fathered by Newsom.  Her main duty on the farm seems to be that of cook….Sometime before 1855, Celia enters into a romantic relationship with George, another one of Newsom’s slaves.



June 23, 1855
Newsom, having rejected Celia’s plea that he stop having sex with her, tells Celia “he was coming to her cabin that night.” At about 10 p.m., Newsom leaves his house and walks the fifty yards over to Celia’s cabin.  When Newsom advances toward Celia, she strikes him on the head with a large stick.  He falls from the blow and Celia hits him on the head on second time, killing him.  She places Newsom’s body in her fireplace and lights a fire.



June 24, 1855
Celia asks Coffee Waynescot, Newsom’s 12-year-old grandson, to spread ashes from the previous night’s fire along a path to the stable….The Newsom family, concerned about Newsom’s disappearance, begins an investigation.  William Powell, leader of the search party, questions George, who tells him “it is not worth while to hunt for him except around the house.”  George tells Powell “he believed the last walking [Newsom] had done was along the path” leading to Celia’s cabin.  Powell and others search Celia’s cabin, but find nothing.  Confronting Celia, she initially admits that Newsom came to her cabin seeking sex, but claims that after she struck him he left.  After more intense questioning, she confesses.



June 25, 1855
Celia is arrested.  Two justices of the peace conduct an inquest into Newsom’s murder.  At the inquest, William Powell, Coffee Waynescoat, and Celia provide sworn statements concerning the murder.  A six-person inquest jury finds probable cause to charge Celia with the murder of Robert Newsom.



Summer of 1855
The slavery question heats up in Missouri and Kansas as pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces clash in each state.



October 6, 1855
The trial of Celia opens in the Callaway County Courthouse in Fulton in the courtroom of Judge William Hall.  A twelve-person, all-white, all-male jury is chosen.



October 9, 1855
The trial of Celia opens in the Callaway County Courthouse in Fulton in the courtroom of Judge William Hall.  A twelve-person, all-white, all-male jury is chosen.



October 10, 1855
Witnesses present testimony in the trial of Celia.  The defense presents evidence that the murder was committed in self-defense.  Judge Hall denies the defense’s request to instruct the jury that the killing was justifiable if done to prevent a sexual assault.  The jury returns a verdict of guilty.



October 11, 1855
Defense lawyers move to set aside the jury verdict and grant a new trial.



October 13, 1855
Judge Hall denies the motion for a new trial and sentences Celia to be “hanged by the neck until dead” on November 16.  Judge Hall refuses to issue an order staying execution until Celia’s appeal could be heard by the Missouri Supreme Court.



November 11, 1855
On the night of November 11, five days before her scheduled execution (and with no decision yet made on her appeal to the Missouri Supreme Court), Celia escapes from the Callaway County jail.



Late November 1855
Celia is “returned” to jail, probably by the people who aided in her escape.  A new date, December 21, is set for her execution.



December 6, 1855
Defense lawyers for Celia write a letter to Judge Abiel Leonard, a newly elected member of the Missouri Supreme Court, arguing that the refusal of Judge Hall to give certain requested instructions constituted reversible error in Celia’s case.



December 14, 1855
As slavery issues dominate the headlines in both Missouri and Kansas (where a full-scale civil war threatens to erupt), the Missouri Supreme Court considers and rejects Celia’s appeal.



December 20, 1855 
Celia is questioned in her cell and again claims that she alone was responsible for Newsom’s death.   She tells her interrogators “as soon as I struck him the Devil got into me, and I struck him with a stick until he was dead.”



December 21, 1855
At 2:30 P.M., Celia is hanged in Fulton, Missouri.


May 12, 2016

May 12, 2016




On the Raised-Fist

Photo by Black Women

Cadets at West Point


Black female West Point cadets raise their fists in a recent photo.

The most interesting thing about the black female West Point cadets who raised their fists in a recent photo were all the words used to explain it. (The photo was based on and mimics that famous image known as the “Old Corps” photograph.) On the one hand, several in the NY Times article equated the gesture with Black Lives Matter. A West Point graduate and mentor to many of the woman in the photo swung the opposite way.

(O)thers who have spoken with the cadets said that evoking Black Lives Matter was not their intention, and that the raised fist that was once a sign of militant uprising is now often a pop culture symbol of strength and pride that has been hoisted in such mundane settings as this year’s Super Bowl halftime show.

“These ladies weren’t raising their fist to say Black Panthers. They were raising it to say Beyoncé,” said (the mentor).

If all culture seems to disintegrate into pop culture, I actually do think the mentor got it exactly right when she added:

For them it’s not a sign of allegiance to a movement, it’s a sign that means unity and pride and sisterhood. That fist to them meant you and your sisters did what only a few people, male or female, have ever done in this country.

That is, become one of the 1.7% black, female cadets out of the West Point graduating class.

The reason photographs are so powerful is because they function like radar, or like antennae. The fact is, this photo channels the culture of uprising and black activism just as much as it does unity, pride, sisterhood … or Beyoncé. That’s because the photo, beyond whatever the specific motive was, is a mirror of the times.

With that in mind, it’s hard to overestimate how hard the military is working to stay in step without undermining its own culture. Which is why I wasn’t surprised at how, and how fast the military review of the photo came down. (FYI, the expression of “unity” and “pride” won out, or put another way, the showcasing of the women’s “awesomeness.”)

By not taking any action against the black woman cadets, the military acknowledged the complexity and the interplay of contemporary forces. Still, that the General in question equated the gesture in the photo above to raised fists at a football pep rally (the Army-Navy game, no less) was indeed a nonsense rationale. To the extent that the military understands that racial and identity politics is that close to the surface these days, especially when it comes to the tiny number of black female cadets in this overwhelming white man’s world, perhaps the policy ultimately governing black female cadets and empowerment these days is actually: “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

(photo: via AP. Cadets set to graduate from West Point ignited a recent debate when they raised their fists in this photograph. They will not be punished, the   academy announced on Tuesday.)




MAY 12, 2016 ISSUE

MAY 12, 2016 ISSUE





James Baldwin &

the Fear of a Nation


Collected Essays
by James Baldwin, edited by Toni Morrison
Library of America, 869 pp., $35.00


Later Novels
by James Baldwin, edited by Darryl Pinckney
Library of America, 1,075 pp., $40.00



“On one side of town I was an Uncle Tom,” said James Baldwin in an interview with The Paris Review, “and on the other the Angry Young Man.” But the list of epithets was much longer than that. Robert Kennedy, apoplectic at Baldwin’s statement in a private meeting in 1963 that black Americans couldn’t be counted on to fight in Vietnam, called him a “nut.” Harold Cruse, who attended the same meeting with Kennedy, complained of Baldwin’s “intellectual inconsistencies,” while Richard Wright, his earliest idol and first champion, considered him an ungrateful apostate. To Eldridge Cleaver, Baldwin was a traitor, with a “grueling, agonizing, total hatred of the blacks, particularly of himself, and the most shameful, fanatical, fawning, sycophantic love of the whites.” British Immigration named him a persona non grata and J. Edgar Hoover, who kept a case file on Baldwin at the FBI that ran 1,884 pages long, declared him “a well-known pervert” and a threat to national security.

Baldwin, for his part, accepted no characterization. “A real writer,” he wrote, “is always shifting and changing and searching.” The credo guided his work and his life. He moved to France at the age of twenty-four to avoid “becoming merely a Negro; or, even, merely a Negro writer.” Later he would recoil whenever someone described him as a spokesman for his race or for the civil rights movement. He rejected political labels, sexual labels (“homosexual, bisexual, heterosexual are twentieth-century terms which, for me, really have very little meaning”), and questioned the notion of racial identity, an “invention” of paranoid, infantile minds. “Color is not a human or a personal reality,” he wrote in The Fire Next Time. “It is a political reality.”

His refusal to align himself with any bloc within the civil rights movement isolated him, and he suffered from it—Cleaver’s attack wounded him, as did Wright’s sense of betrayal and Martin Luther King Jr.’s decision to exclude him from the list of speakers at the March on Washington. But the same resistance to alliances that cost him during his lifetime has given shape and power to his afterlife. Now that the old factions have disintegrated, and the national discussion of race has largely retreated from debates over proposed solutions to a debate over whether problems still exist, Baldwin’s work has regained its influence. That his observations about race in America feel as relevant and cutting as ever is as much a testament to his insight as to the level of the current discourse.

Today, like sixty years ago, much of the public rhetoric about race is devoted to explaining to an incurious white public, in rudimentary terms, the contours of institutional racism. It must be spelled out, as if for the first time, that police killings of unarmed black children, indifference to providing clean drinking water to a majority-black city, or efforts to curtail the voting rights of minority citizens are not freak incidents but outbreaks of a chronic national disease. Nebulous, bureaucratic terms like “white privilege” have been substituted for “white supremacy,” or “micro-aggressions” for “casual racism.” “All Power to the People,” “By Any Means Necessary,” and “We Shall Overcome” have yielded to the understated, matter-of-fact “Black Lives Matter.” The rhetorical front has withdrawn from “How can we cure this?” to “What is the nature of the problem?”

Writers, scholars, and activists have turned to Baldwin for answers. The first annual volume of The James Baldwin Review appeared last year1 and at least a dozen books have been published about Baldwin since Barack Obama’s inauguration, most of which comb the embers of his legacy for some new spark; these include monographs about Baldwin’s life in Turkey and in Provence, his views on the criminal justice system, and his writing on music. One of the more valuable recent entries is Douglas Field’s All Those Strangers, an idiosyncratic biography that focuses on three (somewhat) neglected fields of Baldwin study: his relationship to the political left and the FBI, his thinking about Africa, and his conflicting views on religion and spirituality. Field emphasizes the paradoxical nature of Baldwin’s various identities. The strangers of the title are Baldwin’s incarnations:

Baldwin the deviant rabble rouser…; Baldwin the civil rights activist…; Baldwin the passé novelist and homosexual sidelined by Black Nationalists; Baldwin the expatriate; and the Baldwin struggling to work out his conflicted relationship to Africa.

As Field examines in turn each of these strangers, he creates a portrait of a writer of “outright contradictions” who sought truth at the expense of ideological purity. Baldwin was often hailed as a prophet but this praise was misplaced: he could not predict the future, but few writers were able to diagnose the present as vividly or unsparingly. That was enough.

With the man himself having departed the scene three decades ago, contemporary writers have chased his ghost. In The New Yorker, Teju Cole traveled to Leukerbad, the town where Baldwin finished Go Tell It on the Mountain (and the subject of his essay “Stranger in the Village”); in The New York Times, Ellery Washington followed Baldwin’s trail around Paris; and, again in The New Yorker, Thomas Chatterton Williams trespassed onto the property in Saint-Paul-de-Vence where Baldwin spent the final seventeen years of his life. (“Today, among my generation of black writers and readers,” writes Williams, “James Baldwin is almost universally adored.”)

No one has done more to popularize Baldwin in recent years than Ta-Nehisi Coates, who used Baldwin’s address to his nephew in “My Dungeon Shook,” the first part of The Fire Next Time, as a model for Between the World and Me, the most widely read book on race in America in a generation.2 Consecutive short essays by Coates in The Atlantic about his response to Baldwin’s nonfiction demonstrate the difficulty in pinning Baldwin down. “Baldwin’s writing is roughly contemporaneous with the Civil Rights movement, but he seems to share none of its hope, none of its belief in the power of love to conquer all,” Coates wrote in the first essay. Writing two days later: “My point is that after all of this—after all his hard talk—Baldwin is still talking about love.”

This year on January 18, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the most-viewed speech in America was Chris Rock’s recitation of “My Dungeon Shook.” Delivered at Harlem’s Riverside Church, about a mile west of Baldwin’s childhood neighborhood, the performance was remarkable both for Rock’s impassioned delivery and his omission of the essay’s most incendiary passage: “You can only be destroyed by believing that you really are what the white world calls a nigger.” There remain limits to what even a figure as respected and outspoken as Rock can say on the subject of race in America today.

The audience in Riverside Church listened in reverent silence to Rock’s recitation for eight minutes before they interrupted him with applause. The outburst followed these lines:

The details and symbols of your life have been deliberately constructed to make you believe what white people say about you. Please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure, does not testify to your inferiority but to their inhumanity and fear.

This is one theme that, in the recent flurry of reappraisal, has evaded emphasis. Baldwin did not only write about what it means to be black in America. He also wrote, as fearlessly as any American writer, about what it means to be white.

He approached the theme obliquely in his earliest essays. “Hatred,” he writes in the conclusion of “Notes of a Native Son,” “which could destroy so much, never failed to destroy the man who hated and this was an immutable law.” But in the racial stratification of American private and public life, hatred was only one ingredient—is only one ingredient (Baldwin’s work withstands translation to the present tense)—and not a necessary one. The country’s race nightmare could not be examined in isolation, like quadrennial election issues such as immigration policy or Social Security. Race was—is—the fundamental American issue, underlying not only all matters of public policy (economic inequality, criminal justice, housing, education) but the very psyche of the nation. “The country’s image of the Negro,” Baldwin writes in Nobody Knows My Name, “which hasn’t very much to do with the Negro, has never failed to reflect with a kind of frightening accuracy the state of mind of the country.”

That a country, especially one the breadth and size of the United States, should have a united “state of mind” may seem a rhetorical embellishment. But it was Baldwin’s point that the race problem was so ingrained that it did infect the entire nation, from its institutions of justice to the passing encounters of strangers on the sidewalks of major American cities.

No black American failed to grasp the severity of the problem. When white Americans did, it was—is—a symptom of profound self-delusion. In The Fire Next Time, Baldwin put it this way: “Whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves.” This denial—and anyone who accepts the status quo is guilty of it—is as corrosive as hatred. It is corrosive because it requires purposeful blindness.

James Baldwin, France, 1970 / Guy Le Querrec/Magnum Photos

James Baldwin, France, 1970 / Guy Le Querrec/Magnum Photos

Baldwin was alluding to the blindness of Robert Kennedy, who could not see why an African-American man who came of age during Jim Crow might not feel inspired to sacrifice his life for his country in Vietnam. He was talking about the inability of white Americans to understand that Elijah Muhammad drew a devoted following not because he spoke about racial separatism but because he spoke about power. Baldwin was also addressing the blind devotion of many white Americans to the national mythology, “that their ancestors were all freedom-loving heroes, that they were born in the greatest country the world has ever seen, or that Americans are invincible in battle and wise in peace, that Americans have always dealt honorably with Mexicans and Indians….”

While civil rights activists emphasized the cost of racism to its victims, Baldwin emphasized the cost to those in power. “In the face of one’s victim,” he writes in Nobody Knows My Name, “one sees oneself.” A nation that refused to treat or even acknowledge a cancer that had metastasized throughout its entire body could not be considered free. Nor could it see the rest of the world clearly. What moral authority could America assert abroad when its own people were so bitterly divided? This is the point that Baldwin made to Kennedy at the attorney general’s apartment at 24 Central Park South in 1963.

Baldwin wrote his essays from a novelist’s perspective, which is to say with a surfeit of empathy and a sensitivity to inner contradiction. The essay that made his reputation, “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” was itself an assault on novelists who confused fiction for polemic, and botched both jobs in the process. He understood that in good fiction, as in real life, there tend not to be sentimental heroes and cruel villains but only deeply compromised human beings who struggle with their sins and shortcomings as best they can. He made this point in “Preservation of Innocence,” an obscure 1949 essay unavailable in book form until it appeared in the Library of America’s Collected Essays. Though he was discussing homosexuality, the point applies to race. “A novel insistently demands the presence and passion of human beings, who cannot ever be labeled,” he wrote. “Without this passion we may all smother to death, locked in those airless, labeled cells, which isolate us from each other and separate us from ourselves.” Labels were a source of the problem.

The occasional white devil does appear in his novels: the racist cop who taught Rufus Scott “how to hate” in Another Country; the racist cops who pull over a young Leo Proudhammer and his brother in Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone; the racist cop who vindictively targets Fonny in If Beale Street Could Talk. But these are relatively incidental, walk-on parts. In his more involved treatments of the theme, his characters are nuanced, well-intentioned but flawed, human.

In Another Country, three different interracial romances (Rufus and Eric; Rufus and Leona; Ida and Vivaldo) are undone from within by racial anxieties. In each relationship, it is the black character whose love is poisoned by doubt, and who suffers most bitterly. In Tell Me How Long the situation is reversed. Barbara King is a white actress who tries to escape the influence of her wealthy Kentucky family by fleeing to New York, where she falls in love with Leo. But the casual, condescending racism of the bohemian theater scene undermines their union. Barbara is invited to summer stock; Leo is asked to be the company’s driver. “Barbara and I were marooned, alone with our love, and we were discovering that love was not enough—alone, we were doomed.” When they split, which seems inevitable from the start, Barbara bears the greater cost. “I was discovering what some American blacks must discover,” says Leo, “that the people who destroyed my history had also destroyed their own.”

The self-destructive qualities of bigotry are most vividly evoked in the one novel Baldwin wrote that contained no black characters. In Giovanni’s Room, when David falls in love with Giovanni, and they move in together, he feels alive, free, despite his sexual confusion and shame. When his fiancée Hella returns to Paris, he abruptly leaves Giovanni and renounces their love. “What kind of life can two men have together, anyway?” As he makes his shallow arguments, denying his own love, he feels himself becoming robotic, cruel, cold—not only to Giovanni but also to Hella. “All that had once delighted me seemed to have turned sour on my stomach,” he says. “I think that I have never been more frightened in my life…. Something was gone; the astonishment, the power, and the joy were gone, the peace was gone.”

The passage recalls the conclusion of “Stranger in the Village,” where Baldwin argues that America’s insistence on racial division requires a crippling degree of self-delusion. “People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction,” he writes, “and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.” The sentiment was put more succinctly in a comment made by Martin Luther King, overheard at a party by Baldwin, that “bigotry was a disease and that the greatest victim of this disease was not the bigot’s object, but the bigot himself.”

Baldwin made the racial question personal, reducing a society-wide problem to a matter of one’s private conscience. He was not alone in this approach, but he was alone in bringing a novelist’s sensitivity to bear on it. In Baldwin’s writing racism is, among other things, a failure of empathy. If the tendrils of race reached into all aspects of American political social life, so too did it reach into the deepest recesses of the heart. In “A Word from Writer Directly to Reader,” a short statement included in a fiction anthology edited by Herbert Gold (and collected more than half a century later in The Cross of Redemption), Baldwin was asked whether the age in which he wrote made special demands on him as a writer. “The difficulty,” he replied,

is to remain in touch with the private life. The private life, his own and that of others, is the writer’s subject—his key and ours to his achievement. Nothing, I submit, is more difficult than deciphering what the citizens of this time and place actually feel and think. They do not know themselves….

How do people come to know themselves? One way is by reading fiction. The profound act of empathy demanded by a novel, forcing the reader to suspend disbelief and embody a stranger’s skin, prompts reflection and self-questioning. But most people don’t read novels. In his essays and public speeches, Baldwin tried to create a similar effect through allegory and metaphor. At times he reduces the nation to the size of an individual (speaking, for instance, of the American “state of mind”); elsewhere he elevates the individual to the level of an entire race. Baldwin went so far as to suggest that the racial anxieties of white America derive from the most primal, universal fear of all: fear of death. “White Americans do not believe in death,” he writes in The Fire Next Time, “and this is why the darkness of my skin so intimidates them.” It is difficult to take this literally—it requires, first of all, that you accept his claim that black people have no fear of death—but as metaphor it stands to reason that confronting the subject of racial iniquity requires questioning one’s most basic assumptions about the workings of American democracy. Can a system of representation be said to be successful when equal representation is denied to so many?

One of Baldwin’s favorite allegories was of the dead body hidden in plain sight. He published a version of it in “Notes for a Hypothetical Novel” (included in Nobody Knows My Name), but he put it more directly in a 1961 conversation with Malcolm X:

If I know that any one of you has murdered your brother, your mother, and the corpse is in this room and under the table, and I know it, and you know it, and you know I know it, and we cannot talk about it, it takes no time at all before we cannot talk about anything. Before absolute silence descends. And that kind of silence has descended on this country.

Baldwin, in his nonfiction, often recalled scenes from his own life in which he was forced to confront this choking silence. In an essay about Martin Luther King written around this time he describes visiting Montgomery a year after the bus boycott. “I have never been in a town so aimlessly hostile, so baffled and demoralized,” he writes. (A recent stay in Montgomery left me with the impression that, while less openly hostile, the city remains baffled and demoralized.) Baldwin decides to ride the bus. He sits “just a little forward of the center of the bus” while some black passengers sit closer to the driver. The white passengers endure this affront “in a huffy, offended silence.” The black protesters had disrupted the natural order of things, causing bafflement and hurt. Without the image of a subservient black class, “the whites were abruptly and totally lost. The very foundations of their private and public worlds were being destroyed.” Few writers more explicitly described the way racist policy contributed to personal trauma, not only for the victims but, to a lesser but still-significant extent, for the empowered.

Silence is another word for ignorance. If in the last five decades the silence around race has decreased in some places—college campuses, hashtag activist feeds, municipal politics in cities like Baltimore, New Orleans, and New York—it has thickened in others. As Baldwin said, you can judge the state of a society’s education level by the quality of its political speeches. By that standard, it feels like an understatement to say that our national intelligence has never been more degraded. When the ignorance is heavy, the silence about race inhibits honest conversations about war, terrorism, financial inequality, immigration, health care. The result of this can be seen in any presidential debate of this cycle.

Baldwin’s novels and essays describe a nation suffering from a pain so profound that it cannot be discussed openly. This was not a pessimistic view; it was, rather, deeply optimistic. It suggested that most people, deep down, wanted to resolve the crisis—that they were not apathetic or, in Baldwin’s term, brutally indifferent. Today it can be difficult to preserve this optimism. Still there are strong indications that there is more pain than indifference. You can tell this by the general level of fear, which is, after all, the source of that pain. It has risen to the surface, often reaching the level of total panic, evident in the calls to “take our country back,” to “reignite the promise of America,” to “abolish the IRS,” to “restore America’s brand,” and the many other revanchist sentiments that dominate the political discourse. These messages do not ring of indifference. They are expressions of great terror.

Last year, without much public notice, the United States crossed a threshold: for the first time in history, more than half of the nation’s public school students belonged to racial minorities. What happens when the majority and the minority trade places? Do the categories break down? Will there be fire this time? We’ll soon find out. For now, we can do no better than turn to Baldwin for our answer:

Majorities [have] nothing to do with numbers or with power, but with influence, with moral influence, and I want to suggest this: that the majority for which everyone is seeking which must reassess and release us from our past and deal with the present and create standards worthy of what a man may be—this majority is you. No one else can do it.

  1. Edited by Douglas Field, Justin A. Joyce, and Dwight A. McBride, published by Manchester University Press.  
  2. Spiegel and Grau, 2015; reviewed in these pages by Darryl Pinckney, February 11, 2016. 





MAY 8, 2016

MAY 8, 2016



Our Hero

and His Blues:


Albert Murray




Albert Murray

Albert Murray


THE WRITER ALBERT MURRAY would have celebrated his 100th birthday on May 12, and he nearly made it: he died in August 2013 at age 97. Murray was the author of more than a dozen books that celebrated the central place of blacks in American tradition, character, and culture. Himself a product of a southern black community, Murray saw the culture of that environment neither as defining his entire world nor as comprising a provincial set of mores and folkways whose confines he meant to transcend. Rather, he viewed black American culture as a worthy element of the culture of the nation and the world, and he viewed himself as something of a black American ambassador to that larger culture, to a menu of traditions and arts he meant to explore and savor, confident of the value of what he brought to the table, around the world and at home. For Murray, blacks in the United States have not only helped to define America, but have been largely if not mainly defined by it, and his works celebrate the history and results of that two-way process. Jazz and the blues, in the Murray view, stand both as concrete products of the black American tradition and as metaphors for black American history — representing the improvisation, resilience, and skill brought to bear on the task of surviving difficult times.

That last point is central to the Murray concept in two ways. First, Murray saw art, in all its forms, as originating in the central human task of creating order out of chaos, of making sense of the world, central because it is a key element of survival. Art, he wrote in From the Briarpatch File, is “fundamental equipment for existence on human terms.” And in The Omni-Americans: “Art is by definition a process of stylization, and what it stylizes is experience.” Simply put, according to Murray, art grows out of the need to make it in the world. Black slaves seeking freedom, an essential component of a fully human life, sang songs with coded messages for those plotting escape. Even on a day-to-day level, these songs, sung by slaves as they performed forced labor, inserted a human element into an inhuman situation, helping them to carry on; moreover, these songs, created by slaves and their descendants, brought black African traditions to an American context, and served as the origins of much of American music as a whole. Thus, what began as part of the process of survival was refined into an aesthetic statement.

Second, the challenges that art helps us to overcome are themselves fundamental to the human condition, providing what Murray often called “antagonistic cooperation” in the development of an artistic and heroic tradition. A hero needs a challenge to define himself or herself against; the brutal conditions faced by black Americans provided that challenge in this context, making the black American story not one of special pathos but a representative example of the larger human experience — representative, if extra exciting. As Murray wrote in The Omni-Americans,

The legendary exploits of white U.S. backwoodsmen, keelboatmen, and prairie schoonermen […] become relatively safe when one sets them beside the breathtaking escapes of the fugitive slave beating his way south to Florida, west to the Indians, and north to far away Canada through swamp and town alike seeking freedom — nobody was chasing Daniel Boone!

To paraphrase Murray in his book The Blue Devils of Nada: To fight dragons is heroic; to protest the existence of dragons is naïve. This view determined Murray’s approach to what he saw as the vitally important work of the storyteller, when it came to both analyzing the stories of others and creating stories of his own. Protest literature, he felt, simply made for second-rate storytelling. As he once said to me, “You don’t want the value of your novel to depend on who’s in the White House.” Worse, protest literature sold short the oppressed groups it was ostensibly meant to help, ignoring the variety and complexity of their experience — their humanity, in short — and reducing their status to that of victims. Murray found a standard for storytelling in the blues. Far from being a mere outpouring of sadness, or simple moaning, blues music represents an artful response to adversity and thus a way of keeping the blues at bay. In The Hero and the Blues, Murray writes about the protagonist of Thomas Mann’s four-volume novel Joseph and His Brothers. Joseph, he explains,

goes beyond his failures in the very blues singing process of acknowledging them and admitting to himself how bad conditions are. Thus his heroic optimism is based on aspiration informed by the facts of life. It is also geared to his knowledge of strategy and his skill with such tools and weapons as happen to be available. These are the qualities which enable him to turn his misfortunes into natural benefits.

Such tools as happened to be available to Murray included confidence in himself and in the value of his culture in the American family and the family of the world — the tools with which he faced that world and which allowed him to see himself as the equal of anyone in it.

He proved himself to be exactly that, over the course of his long, full life. Albert Lee Murray was born in Nokomis, Alabama, and grew up on the outskirts of Mobile in an area called Magazine Point. Soon after his birth he was adopted by Mattie Murray and Hugh Murray, who worked variously as a sharecropper, dockworker, and sawmill hand. When Mattie’s sister died, the Murrays adopted her children as well, giving Albert Murray three older siblings. The environment in which Murray grew up greatly informed his sensibility, steeping him in local southern black traditions while also exposing him to those who had traveled far and wide: blues singers performed at local juke joints, and the great black baseball player Satchel Paige, among other athletes and performers, sometimes passed through. As Murray told me when I interviewed him for Current Biography magazine in 1994, his love of storytelling was a natural result of his upbringing, since he spent a lot of time “sitting around the fireplace just listening to people talk.”

Like Scooter, the hero of Murray’s four novels, Murray didn’t know he was adopted until he got older. However, he seemed never to have felt unwanted; rather, he appeared, if the accomplishments of his boyhood and young manhood are any indication, to have been the object of a good deal of love and support. An athlete as well as an excellent student, he ran track, played football, and was captain of his school’s basketball team, and he was voted best all-around student at Mobile County Training School. At Alabama’s famed Tuskegee Institute, which he attended on a scholarship, he read the great contemporary literature of the day, including the works of Thomas Mann, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner. He noted that when he took out books from the library, he looked to see who had checked them out before him, and one name turned up consistently — that of a student two years ahead, one Ralph Ellison, the future author of Invisible Man, who would later become of one of Murray’s close friends and his philosophical soul mate.

Following his graduation from Tuskegee, in 1939, Murray emerged as a true Renaissance man: after doing graduate work at the University of Michigan, he returned to Tuskegee to teach literature and direct student theatrical productions; he then enlisted in the US Army air force, in which, as an ROTC associate professor, he taught air science and tactics. Meanwhile, he indulged what he termed his “consuming passion” for jazz. Interwoven with periods of active duty in the air force were Murray’s graduate studies at New York University, where he received a master’s degree; while in New York he went to hear Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis play on 52nd Street. Even his air force training came in handy here, since he was able to fly to New York from wherever he was stationed to purchase the latest jazz records and then fly straight back. As an airman he traveled widely, visiting Rome and Istanbul, for example, and soaking up world culture. In 1962, at age 46 (married with a daughter by then), Murray retired from the air force with the rank of major and settled in New York, teaching at a number of universities.

Ellison, also in New York, had already shot to fame: 10 years earlier he’d won the National Book Award with Invisible Man. He and Murray were friends by this time and had written many letters back and forth (later collected in the volume Trading Twelves); their correspondence reveals that Murray had begun to try his hand at fiction, though years would pass before he published any. He had, however, published essays in a number of journals. Some of those were collected in his first book, The Omni-Americans, published in 1970, when Murray was 54 years old.


Unlike Ellison’s, Murray’s is not a household name. But it would be difficult to overestimate Murray’s influence on what are now multiple generations of writers and intellectuals, particularly those, as he himself might have put it, with brown skin. Speaking for myself, and for quite a few others whom I have conversed with and whose works I have read, the resonance of Murray’s writing has to do with its power to sort out a thinking person’s very understandable confusion over the issue of American identity. Given the history of blacks in this country, which began with slavery and has seen no shortage of discrimination and violation since slavery was officially abolished, it is easy for a black American to feel, at best, an emotional distance from the country where he has spent his entire life. This accounts — again — for the understandable appeal of the message from those American-born blacks who view themselves as Africans living on US soil; and I see no reason to take issue with blacks who embrace Afrocentrism, drop their Anglicized names for African names, and observe African or African-derived rituals. But for those who feel unable to embrace the traditions of a continent — Africa — that they may never have even visited, who, at the same time, feel emotionally distant from a home country where their lot has been discrimination, whose educations have taken them into integrated circles, there can arise a painful disorientation related to a central, root question: Who are we?

It is this question that Murray’s work has helped many of us to resolve. By pointing up the central place of blacks in American society, Murray’s writing has served as something of an invitation to a black American homecoming, illustrating for blacks the reasons for embracing America; reasons that go beyond the simple lack of an alternative. Simply put, blacks can call America home because they have helped shape this country through labor and through influence both cultural and genetic; in the process, blacks have created their own heroic tradition, one that has called for skill, improvisation, and grit, qualities symbolized, again, by jazz and the blues.

The word “heroic” is important here, because Murray’s emphasis on American identity should not be seen as representing a black capitulation to mainstream values. Murray’s radical notion, in fact, is that when it comes to American culture, blacks, at least in large part, are the mainstream. Murray called American society “incontestably mulatto,” and he once observed that Americans resemble no one so much as one another. And this, in turn, is why the value of Murray’s work extends beyond the black intellectual community to all Americans: it has much to tell all of us, black and white, about who we are.

This influence of Murray’s began with that first book of essays, The Omni-Americans. To put the appearance of that book in historical context: its publication, in 1970, came two years after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., at a time when King’s message of love and nonviolent resistance to racist oppression had largely given way to the separatism and cultural nationalism of the black power movement. Thus, black Americans founds themselves divided into two camps — or trying to decide between them — with one still struggling to bring blacks and whites together and the other asserting black people’s independence from white influence and advocating black interests above all else, supported if necessary by violence. In this debate, Murray’s ideas represented a third way: neither a separating from the American mainstream nor an effort to bridge races, but an insistence that the bridge had long ago been built. While he harbored no illusions about many white Americans’ attitudes toward blacks, Murray nonetheless believed that being an American of any stripe involved the recognition of one’s interrelatedness, both cultural and genetic, to all those residing in the United States. And while one might easily assume that black cultural nationalism represented the more manly of the two options seemingly on the table for black Americans, Murray advanced the notion that it was, rather, a concession. In The Omni-Americans, he anticipates the work of Ta-Nehisi Coates by over four decades:

No one can deny that in [America] many somewhat white immigrants who were so unjustly despised elsewhere not only discover a social, political, and economic value in white skin that they were never able to enjoy before but also become color-poisoned bigots. Indeed, an amazing number of such immigrants seem only too happy to have the people of the United States regard themselves as a nation of two races. (Only two!) Many who readily and rightly oppose such antagonistic categories as Gentile and Jew, gleefully seize upon such designations as the White People and the Black People. But even as they struggle and finagle to become all-white (by playing up their color similarities and playing down their cultural differences), they inevitably acquire American characteristics — which is to say, Omni-American — that are part Negro and part Indian.

The bitterness of outraged black militants against such people is altogether appropriate even if sometimes excessive. The militants’ own insight into the pragmatic implications of the heritage of black people in America, however, is often only one-dimensional. Indeed, sometimes it seems as if they are more impressed by the white propaganda designed to deny their very existence than by the black actuality that not only motivates but also sustains them. In any case, when they speak of their own native land as being the White Man’s country, they concede too much to the self-inflating estimates of others. They capitulate too easily to a con game which their ancestors never fell for, and they surrender their birthright to the propagandists of white supremacy, as if it were of no value whatsoever, as if one could exercise the right of redress without first claiming one’s constitutional identity as citizen!

Murray’s insistence on the central and rightful place of blacks in American society did not prevent him from denouncing racism, both contemporary and historical, when the subject arose. But he reserved his most biting attacks not for outright racists — those, after all, supplied the “antagonistic cooperation” that in turn provided the context for heroic action; instead, those he opposed most vehemently were the proponents of what Murray liked to call “the folklore of white supremacy and the fakelore of black pathology.” That term referred to the work of social scientists and others, however well meaning, who made pronouncements about the black community that were based on little or no personal experience and that depicted blacks as a group made subnormal by centuries of oppression.

A particular target of Murray’s wrath was Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s highly influential 1965 Labor Department study, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, which identified the absence of males from black homes and resulting black matriarchies as legacies of slavery and as characteristics that undermined black achievement. The report referred to the “emasculation” of the males in this matriarchal family structure and saw this perceived trait as being central to the dysfunctionality of the black family. Murray took issue with the report’s claims on grounds of logic, since this notion was plainly belied by the preponderance of illegitimate children fathered by men free of any domestic or otherwise “emasculating” constraints. He also attacked what he saw as the counterproductive effects of the Moynihan report, writing that “to most white people, sympathetic and antagonistic alike,” the report “has become the newest scientific explanation of white supremacy and thus the current justification of the status quo.” At a time, Murray writes in The Omni-Americans,

when Negroes were not only demanding freedom now as never before but were beginning to get it, Moynihan issued a quasi-scientific pamphlet that declares on the flimsiest evidence that they are not yet ready for freedom! At a time when Negroes are demanding freedom as a constitutional right, the Moynihan Report is saying, in effect, that those who have been exploiting Negroes for years should now, upon being shown his statistics, become benevolent enough to set up a nation-wide welfare program for them […] Moynihan’s arbitrary interpretations make a far stronger case for the Negro equivalent of Indian reservations than for Desegregation Now.

The Moynihan Report, Murray notes, “charts Negro unemployment, but not once does it suggest national action to crack down on discrimination against Negroes by labor unions. Instead, it insists that massive federal action must be initiated to correct the matriarchal structure of the Negro family!”

What is important to note here is that Murray was not denying that there were challenges to overcome within the black community. “Instead of the alleged cycle of illegitimacy-matriarchy and male emasculation by females, which adds up to further illegitimacy,” Murray writes, “the problem of Negro family instability might more accurately be defined as a cycle of illegitimacy, matriarchy, and female victimization by gallivanting males who refuse to or cannot assume the conventional domestic responsibilities of husbands and fathers.” Here Murray makes a crucial distinction, because while Moynihan’s theory was a statement about how black people are, Murray’s was based on what they do; while one implies helplessness and a need for intervention by others, the other credits blacks with agency.

Underlying Murray’s response to the Moynihan Report was his belief in the values that had allowed the black community to survive — whether those values are rooted in matriarchy or not — and his refusal to accept an image of himself imposed from without, no matter how good the intentions of those who sought to impose it. That theme recurred throughout Murray’s work. Also implicit in his criticism of the Moynihan Report is his preference for heroic action — exemplified here by those blacks insisting on their rights as equal Americans — over the acceptance of ideas based on condescension if not out-and-out racism.


Murray’s writing can be divided roughly into four areas of exploration that often overlap and that all share the same philosophical underpinnings. One area comprises his observations on race, of which The Omni-Americans is the prime example; another focuses on literature; still another, music; and last is his work evoking the black southern culture that produced him. In this last category, the first work to be published was the quasi-memoir South to a Very Old Place (1971), and the other four works are novels. If The Omni-Americanshad announced Murray’s worldview, South to a Very Old Place found his voice fully developed. Murray’s writing has been called “jazz-like,” and while that adjective has been applied far too loosely, in Murray’s case it is actually appropriate. The writing in The Omni-Americans is marked by a forward thrust that is akin to melody, but in South to a Very Old Place, we find the writer, one might say, exploring the chords that undergird that melody — operating, in other words, like a jazz soloist.

Musical lines in jazz are longer than those in pop music and contain more notes, and those notes explore a greater number of ideas. Murray’s sentences often operate in a comparable way. Take this single, long example from South to a Very Old Place:

But what strikes you most forcefully as you find your way around Morehouse this time is how specifically [Martin Luther] King also embodied the very highest ideals of the splendid black, brown, and beige Morehouse Man who whether Alpha, Kappa, Sigma, or Omega was forever dedicated to the proposition that for those precious few Negroes who were privileged to come by it — by whatever means — a college education was a vehicle not simply for one’s own personal gain but for the uplift both social and spiritual of all of one’s people.

A simple enough message there, seemingly: for Martin Luther King and other black Morehouse students, getting a college education meant not just getting ahead yourself but helping other blacks to do so, too. But in Murray’s hands, it is not so simple after all. He might just have written here “the splendid Morehouse Man” or “the splendid black Morehouse Man,” but with “the splendid black, brown and beige Morehouse Man” he adds resonance that reflects the varied experience of the black community; note, too, that he writes not “black, brown, or beige” but “black, brown, and beige,” which is simultaneously a reference to a work of that title by the black jazz hero Duke Ellington and a suggestion that a Morehouse Man carries with him the concerns of all of his people. And there’s more: “whether Alpha, Kappa, Sigma, or Omega,” Murray writes, naming of the different fraternities on campus, commenting again on the varied nature of experience within that single milieu. “For those precious few Negroes who were privileged to come by it — by whatever means — a college education was a vehicle …”: the three-word phrase “by whatever means,” set off by dashes, contains a glimpse of the great variety of people and circumstances involved. Finally, there is “the uplift both social and spiritual of all of one’s people.” The term “racial uplift” is common, but here Murray explores, with “social and spiritual,” the wider implications. Murray uses words the way a jazzman uses notes.

Music informed not only the crafting but also, to an extent, the subject of South to a Very Old Place: at one point, Murray urges black leaders of the day to bring to the struggle for equal rights the resourcefulness and improvisatory skill that jazzmen bring to music. At another, describing a conversation among some of his Alabama “homefolks,” Murray compares their voices to instruments in a band. This portion of the book embodies Murray’s concern with both storytelling and music: the subjects, respectively (but not without overlap), of his next two books.

The short 1973 volume The Hero and the Blues began as a series of lectures Murray gave at the University of Missouri. In proposing a theory of literature based on the tenets of art rather than protest, Murray was not downplaying the relevance of the writer to his or her own time; instead, he saw the function of the writer, or literary storyteller, as being not unrelated to but above that of the protest novelist or political pamphleteer. “It is literature, in the primordial sense, which establishes the context for social and political action in the first place …,” Murray writes in The Hero and the Blues. He continues,

It is the writer as artist, not the social or political engineer or even the philosopher, who first comes to realize when the time is out of joint. It is he who determines the extent and gravity of the current human predicament, who in effect discovers and describes the hidden elements of destruction, sounds the alarm, and even (in the process of defining “the villain”) designates the targets. It is the storyteller working on his own terms as mythmaker (and by implication, as value maker), who defines the conflict, identifies the hero (which is to say the good man — perhaps better, the adequate man), and decides the outcome; and in doing so he not only evokes the image of possibility, but also prefigures the contingencies of a happily balanced humanity and of the Great Good Place.

How is what Murray describes here different from protest literature? Two words are key: “hero” and “possibility.” In naturalism, or protest literature, the courses of characters’ lives are determined by the societal conditions in which they live, and improving those lives necessitates dismantling whole systems; therefore there are no heroes, since heroic struggle implies the possibility of individual victory, and in protest literature that possibility does not exist. And since the “good” characters in these novels are powerless to change their lives, protest literature amounts to an appeal to powerful “bad” people, or, as Murray terms them, “dragons.” “In effect,” Murray writes,

protest or finger-pointing fiction such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Native Sonaddresses itself to the humanity of the dragon in the very process of depicting him as a fire-snorting monster: “Shame on you, Sir Dragon,” it says in effect, “be a nice man and a good citizen.”

But in Murray’s view, the work of the storyteller as artist entails describing life in all of its squalor, and beauty, and possibility, and heroism, and it entails confronting the realities of life, the way a blues musician does.

And so, even Murray’s books about literature are about music! But Murray took music itself as his subject in Stomping the Blues, published in 1976. Early on in that volume, he draws a crucial distinction between the blues — or feelings of sadness — and blues music, which, “with all its preoccupation with the most disturbing aspects of life,” as Murray writes, “is something contrived specifically to be performed as entertainment.” Murray goes on in the book to discuss heavyweight practitioners: not only blues but also jazz musicians, offering insightful commentary on the likes of Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, and many others.

Also in the area of music, Murray collaborated with Count Basie on the great bandleader’s autobiography, published in the mid-1980s, a book that took a decade to write and that sadly appeared after Basie’s death.

Murray’s work with music was not limited to writing. Later in the 1980s he co-founded the Jazz at Lincoln Center program with the celebrated trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. Marsalis had been greatly influenced by the writer Stanley Crouch, on whom Murray was the chief influence; with Crouch’s rise to prominence, signaled by the publication of his essay collection Notes of a Hanging Judge, in 1990, more attention was focused on Murray. Indeed, it was an essay about Murray in Hanging Judge, titled “Chitlins at the Waldorf” (originally published in the Village Voice), that brought Murray to my own attention. Murray’s work, Crouch wrote, “is that of a writer who knows that to be all-American is to be Indian, African, European, and Asian, if only through cuisine.” The 1990s brought Murray more attention still, with the success of Jazz at Lincoln Center and Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s 1996 New Yorkerprofile, titled “The King of Cats,” which ended with the line, “This is Albert Murray’s century; we just live in it.” Murray appeared on television frequently beginning in the 1990s, and he published more books, including the essay collection The Blue Devils of Nada, which includes pieces on jazz, visual art, and literature, and the second and third novels in what would be the Scooter tetralogy.


It is the great irony of Albert Murray’s career that in his own work as a fiction writer the heroic struggle he celebrates in other works is mostly absent. This is not to suggest that Murray wrote protest novels — he most assuredly did not — or that his main character and alter ego, Scooter, is not the chief determiner of his own fate, because he most certainly is. Rather, the “antagonistic cooperation” to which Murray often refers, or the difficult conditions against which the protagonist must struggle to be a hero, do not exist in his own four novels. In the first, Train Whistle Guitar, we are introduced to Scooter during his childhood in the South; in The Spyglass Tree, Scooter attends a southern college and gets caught up in a local confrontation that is resolved not only very easily but also, as it were, off-screen; The Seven League Boots finds Scooter traveling as a bass player with a famous jazz band; and in The Magic Keys, Scooter, like his creator, has moved to New York. In these novels, Scooter has all the fun of a storybook hero — traveling here and there and getting the girl — without any of the obstacles. It’s difficult to recall a moment of self-doubt in Scooter, and not only does he face no opposition from others, but those others appear to compete with each to see who can offer Scooter the greatest number of compliments. As one reviewer of The Magic Keys put it, “whatever Scooter touches turns to praise,” and in the essay that severed his friendship with Murray, Stanley Crouch referred to “the legions of the Scooter-awed.”

At a symposium on Murray held at Columbia University in February 2016, the Murray scholar Paul Devlin, who edited the forthcoming Murray Talks Music: Albert Murray on Jazz and Blues, proposed an interesting theory about the ease with which Scooter moves through the world. If, as John S. Wright has suggested, the problems facing Ellison’s Invisible Man are those of the innocent hero of a bildungsroman who finds himself in a picaresque novel, then Scooter is the picaresque hero, by nature a trickster figure, with the great good fortune to inhabit a bildungsroman.

In all the novels, however, even when they are marred by the lack of obstacles in Scooter’s path, there is a wonderfully evoked sense of setting; this is particularly true of the first, Train Whistle Guitar, perhaps because it reflects the most fondly remembered scenes of the writer’s own childhood. In the following passage from early in that novel, in which the boy Scooter talks about his best friend, Little Buddy Marshall, and about a local hero known as Luzana Cholly, Murray conveys the sights and smells of this black southern world:

The color you almost always remember when you remember Little Buddy Marshall is sky-blue. Because that shimmering summer sunshine blueness in which neighborhood hens used to cackle while distant yard dogs used to bark and mosquito hawks used to flit and float along nearby barbwire fences, was a boy’s color. Because such blueness also meant that it was whistling time and rambling time. And also baseball time. Because that silver bright midafternoon sky above outfields was the main thing Little Buddy Marshall and I were almost always most likely to be wishing for back in those days when we used to make up our own dirty verses for that old song about it ain’t gonna rain no more no more.

But the shade of blue and blueness you always remember whenever and for whatever reason you remember Luzana Cholly is steel blue, which is also the clean, oil-smelling color of gunmetal and the gray-purple patina of freight train engines and railroad slag. Because in those days, that was a man’s color (even as tobacco plus black coffee was a man’s smell), and Luzana Cholly also carried a blue steel .32-20 on a .44 frame in his underarm holster. His face and hands were leather brown like dark rawhide. But blue steel is the color you always remember when you remember how his guitar used to sound.

No discussion of Train Whistle Guitar would be complete without a mention of the way Murray captures southern black speech. In September 2013, I was present at Murray’s memorial service, at which Wynton Marsalis himself read the following sections of dialogue from the novel. (I concluded that if Marsalis had not settled for being the face of contemporary jazz, he might have made a fine actor.) In this section, Scooter is on his front porch in the middle of the night, in the company of adults, his head on the lap of his mother, Miss Melba; the adults assume incorrectly that Scooter is sleeping and begin to discuss the subject of his biological parents:

Miss Minnie Ridley Stovall sucked her gold teeth twice as she always did when she was gossiping about something and I knew she was going to say something more, and she did.

Of course me, myself, it ain’t none of my business, Jesus. Lord knows I know that, Miss Melba. So that’s why like I say I ain’t never asked you a thing about any of it before, and I don’t even know who the one started it. All I know is what everybody keep saying. So I just say to myself, I’m going to ask Miss Melba. That’s the only way to set em straight, if you don’t mind, Miss Melba.

Folks always running their mouth about something, Mister Horace Upshaw said. If it ain’t one thing it’s another, and if it ain’t another it’s something else.

It sure God is, Jesus, Miss Minne Ridley Stovall said.

And don’t none of them know the first thing about it, Miss Liza Jefferson said, Not a one.

That’s exactly why I said I was going to ask Miss Melba, Miss Minnie Ridley Stovall said. If you don’t mind, Miss Melba.

Ask me what? Mama said.

About Edie Bell Boykin, Miss Minnie Ridley Stoval said.

Ask me what about Edie Bell Boykin? Mama said, and the way she said it made me suddenly numb all over.

Some of them saying he really belongs to her, Miss Minnie Ridley Stovall said.

He belong to me, Mama said.

See there, Mister Horace Upshaw said.

But before anybody else could say anything else Mama’s stomach was vibrating again and I felt the sound start and heard it go and then it came out through her mouth as words:
She brought him into the world but he just as much mine as my own flesh and blood. I promised her and I promised God.


There is no doubt, as noted, that Murray’s work has influenced generations of black writers and thinkers, as well as artists and scholars of many other stripes. But I would argue that his work and ideas have relevance far beyond intellectual circles, and, indeed, are sorely needed in the everyday, divided world we all face in America today.

The killing of Trayvon Martin, the killing of Michael Brown, the killing of Eric Garner, the killings of too many other young black males to name, the disproportionate incarceration rates of people of color, the disproportionate level of poverty among people of color, the need for black parents to tell their sons to be careful when so much as stepping out of their homes — all of this suggests many injustices, of which I will mention two: the first is the obvious bias of the police, the very people who are supposed to protect innocent people; and the second is the sense of hopelessness these events can certainly engender among black children, particularly those who are poor, as a significant number are. In the midst of all this, teaching Murray’s ideas, not only in college and university settings but as basic components of a primary school education, would fill a desperate need in at least two corresponding ways. First, for anyone who is raised or conditioned to see black Americans as “other,” Murray’s ideas would introduce the notion of the interconnectedness of all Americans, in terms of culture and genetics; a police officer less inclined to view a black man as an alien being might just be a little slower on the draw than one accustomed to equating all blackness with criminality. Second, related and just as important, Murray’s concept of the heroic black American tradition would serve as emotional sustenance for black children who live with the constant message that they are not valued and worthy — that they do not belong. Black kids need to learn what people who look like them have accomplished in America in spite of the odds: they need to hear not only isolated stories but a narrative of heroism in the face of times worse than our own — of heroism on the part of blacks who understood themselves to be American, and who fought for their rightful place in these United States.

I cannot think of work more important than Murray’s for helping to instill these ideas — for giving our children a sense of their own rightful place, as well as their history. Let us make sense of the world, and order from the chaos. Let us survive.


Clifford Thompson is the author of Twin of Blackness: A Memoir, Love for Sale and Other Essays, and a novel, Signifying Nothing.






Call for projects | Appel à projets

film lab

Call for projects | Appel à projets

In English | En Français 

Deadline for applications: Friday 1 July 2016

Date limite d’envoi des dossiers : vendredi 1 juillet 2016


Email :
Tel : 00226 25 40 91 61 – 00226 76 61 01 51  



Ouaga Film Lab is a meeting platform between experts and young African talents. Its goal is to establish a bridge between African professional networks and the rest of the world, by creating a bilateral dialog: on one hand between African talents themselves and on the other between African talents and the rest of the world, on various issues regarding film production on local and international scale.


Ouaga Film Lab est une plateforme de rencontres entre experts et jeunes talents du continent. Elle favorise la mise en réseau de talents d´Afrique avec des réseaux professionnels du reste du monde pour instaurer un dialogue direct dans un double sens : d´une part entre les talents africains eux-mêmes et d´autre part entre eux et les réseaux professionnels du reste du monde sur les difficultés inhérentes à la production cinématographique tant au niveau local qu’au niveau international.


Submission :

Deadline for applications: Friday 1 July 2016

This call for projects is open to everyone with a project based in Africa (of which the director is a national of a country in West Africa) working in the field of cinema.

Soumission : 

Date limite d’envoi des dossiers : vendredi 1 juillet 2016

Ce présent appel à projets est destiné aux professionnels du cinéma et de l’audiovisuel de l’Afrique de l’ouest et qui répondent aux critères énoncés dans le règlement de Ouaga Film Lab 2016.











black lawrence press

Black River Chapbook Competition
Twice each year Black Lawrence Press will run the Black River
Chapbook Competition for an unpublished chapbook of poems
or short fiction between 16-36 pages in length. The contest is
open to new, emerging, and established writers. The winner will
receive book publication, a $500 cash award, and ten copies of
the book. Prizes are awarded on publication.
Past winners:
2005: Helen Marie Casey
2006: D. E. Fredd

Spring 2007: Frank Montesonti
Fall 2007: Sandra Kolankiewicz
Spring 2008: T.J. Beitelman
Fall 2008: Tina Egnoski
Spring 2009: David Rigsbee
Fall 2009: Lisa Fay Coutley

Spring 2010: Charlotte Pence
Fall 2010: Amelia Martens

Spring 2011: Russel Swensen
Fall 2011: Nick McRae

Spring 2012: Shane McCrae
Fall 2012: Simone Muench

Spring 2013: Blake Kimzey
Fall 2013: Caleb Curtiss
Spring 2014: Sam Sax
Fall 2014: Philip Schaefer and Jeff Whitney
Spring 2015: Meghan Privitello

Fall 2015: Ruth Baumann

Spring Entry Period: April 1 – May 31
Fall Entry Period: September 1 – October 31Our chapbooks are perfect-bound, feature striking cover designs, each receive an ISBN, and are distributed nationally through Small Press Distribution, as well as on our website and at We treat our chapbooks just like our full-length titles in terms of aesthetics, production, publicity, and editorial love and care.

Beginning with the Spring 2014 contest, the Black River Chapbook Competition is judged by a revolving panel of judges, in addition to the Chapbook Editor and other members of the BLP editorial staff. The judging panel is comprised of past winners and published finalists of the BRCC, including:

Mary Biddinger (author of Saint Monica)
Brittany Cavallaro (author of No Girls No Telephones)
Lisa Fay Coutley (author of In the Carnival of Breathing)
Caleb Curtiss (author of A Taxonomy of the Space Between Us)
Jenny Drai (author of The New Sorrow is Less Than the Old Sorrow)
Rebecca Hazelton (author of No Girls No Telephones)
Amelia Martens (author of Purgatory)
Nick McRae (author of Mountain Redemption)
Simone Muench (author of Trace)
Charlotte Pence (author of The Branches, the Axe, the Missing)
Jessica Piazza (author of This is not a sky)
Meghan Privitello (author of Notes on the End of the World)
Matthew Raymond (author of The Muddy Season)
Sam Sax (author of sad boy / detective)
Philip Schaefer (author of Radio Silence)
Cate Stevens-Davis (author of Oh My Darling)
Russel Swensen (author of Santa Ana)
Jeff Whitney (author of Radio Silence)


Black Lawrence Press accepts submissions and payment of the entry fee ($15) exclusively through our online submission manager, Submittable. We are not able to accept submissions via email or postal mail.

All entries are read blind by our panel of judges and editors. All manuscripts should include a title page (listing only the title of the work), table of contents, and when appropriate, an acknowledgments page. Manuscripts should be paginated and formatted in an easy-to-read font such as Garamond or Times New Roman. Manuscripts should be 16-36 pages in length (double-spaced for fiction), not including front and back matter (table of contents, title page, etc.). Identifying information for the author should not be included anywhere on the manuscript itself, including in the name of your file or in the “title” field in Submittable. You are welcome to include a brief bio or something about yourself in your cover note on Submittable, which will only be made accessible to the editorial panel after the group of Semi-Finalist and Finalist manuscripts has been chosen.

Simultaneous submissions are acceptable and encouraged, but please notify us by withdrawing your manuscript on Submittable immediately if it is accepted for publication elsewhere. Multiple submissions (the submission of more than one manuscript to the contest) are permitted. Collaborative collections are welcome. We cannot accept translations.

Need help with our submissions manager?

We look forward to reading your work!


Call for Entries

Deadline May 31