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Photo: Chuck Stewart
John Coltrane (September 23, 1926 — July 17, 1967)
Alice Coltrane (August 27, 1937 — January 12, 2007)

After Trane, what does one do. In his latter years, John Coltrane produced music that was on a different level. No longer mainly “Favorite Things” in 3/4. The music of his last years was utterly cosmic, which meant that healthy portions of it was chaotic, the chaos of the universe coming into existence. Exploding. Expanding. Literally taking up space while taking shape, physically and philosophically it’s the birthing process which we all are born into, born out of. The making of meaning from the incoherence, the formlessness of all possibilities existing simultaneously. Our life is simply one of a myriad of possibilities; as much what we make of the gift of life as what we are given by the context of time, place, and circumstance.

Form is an afterthought. A way to impose meaning on moments of existence that spontaneously come into being. Most of us are most comfortable with form, reject the inchoate jumble that eventually we shape (or shapes itself) into something we recognize. Conception is actually just the process of giving coherence to the accident (or should we say, the happening, the unpremeditated happenings, such as the fertilization of the egg transforming into embryo).

BCT Records ‎– BCT-1972 https://www.discogs.com/release/13701911 Recorded live at the Berkeley Community Theater, 1972. 7. 23.

1 Journey in Satchidananda 00:00
2 A Love Supreme 21:25
3 My Favorite Things
40:12
4 Leo
56:08

Bass – Charlie Haden
Drums – Ben Riley
Harp, Organ, Piano – Alice Coltrane
Sarod – Aashish Khan
Tabla – Pranesh Khan
Tambora, Percussion – Bobby W.

 

Coltrane made music that was sound before being formed into the sounds we recognize as music. Downbeat magazine called the music Trane created with Eric Dolphy “anti-jazz” nevertheless Trane went on to make cosmic music that was way beyond anti-jazz. Trane with his conceptions and his horn, as well as with his cohorts, collectively they made both musical order as well as the chaos out of which order came–know this, order comes from chaos and not the other way around: order does not come first. When one is reared appreciating order, well then, chaos is often unacceptable even though order is nothing more than chaos locked down into acceptable patterns, i.e. order.

Which brings us to Alice Coltrane, she not only understood but, like Trane, she was expert at both chaos and order, paradoxically, the order she generated included traditional Black gospel as well as traditional expressions of religious music and chants from India. Plus, she is an adept at modern jazz, expert as both a concert pianist and a master of an unique-in-jazz organ sound. Add to that her ability to expertly play the harp. Alice Coltrane is nothing short of an avatar of modern music.

There has been no other musician who took up where Trane took us and then went on to go beyond. That they were married, reared a family, in addition to producing unequaled and unique music, that’s just plain other-worldly. Alice Coltrane. Both our roots and our future.

 

 

Ethelbert and I have known each other a long, long time–way back in the 1970’s Black Power era. In preparation for this interview, Ethelbert did some homework. He investigated both my writings and the various eras I covered. Plus, he kept the conversation moving, not letting it get bogged down in minutiae and not staying on any one topic too long. He is an expert researcher and archivist, what with being a graduate of Howard University and an ardent student of Sterling Brown.

Back in the day, when I was awarded a fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, I wrote a poem about and dedicated to Ethelbert.

The poet I talked about who wrote the “I Am New Orleans” poem is Marcus Christian. In addition to this hour-long conversation, there is not much else to say. Thank you brother Eshu.

= = = = = = = 

Echoing Eshu’s Love Songs
(for “eshu” ethelbert miller)

man, the relevance of coincidence is a motherfucker
just today, walked down commercial street
the business end of provincetown
in and out of shops, paused here, there
entered where attracted by something
backed out and continued
found this used bookstore (found?
must be careful of my verbs
i am not a white man
the store was there before i
got there) entered
they had a poetry bookcase
bought 4 books: sam cornish–songs 
of jubilee, kimiko hahn–air pocket,
akua lezli hope–embouchure, and
e. ethelbert miller–where
are the love poems
for dictators? / before midnight
had read, scanned or run thru
them all. yes, of course
i knew about dictators,
have run into a few before
on an occasion or two
or should i say ill-occasion
have even been one, but
i did not own the book on that

there are no love songs
for dictators, not even
i’ll be glad when you’re dead
you rascal you–cause even that
has a bit of affection, anyway
i think it one of your better books
you were on to something
or maybe simply on something
or was it someone
who had your mind so open
you could feel the impress
of another’s smile, another’s
grimace, and you could walk that
shit home backwards and blind
like a beggar going back and forth
between their favorite corner
and the poor piece of space
they call home

so, then i got this email from you. and all i can say is damn, and look out the window a second into the dark and know that either god is laughing or i should be because the universe sure enough knows how to confound the wisdom of we poor wretched fools who make the mistake of trying to understand it, the universe, that is, and i started to wondering if anyone really knows why their lover loves them, actually that’s not quite true, cause where i started with was wondering does nia know why i love her, do i know, is love knowable or simply, if we are lucky, embraceable? like who knows where the song comes from or goes to, we just lucky when we can hit the notes and carry a tune. . . like that, and now i’m free typing this without knowing where it’s coming from or where i will end up, just knowing i wanted to let you know, that i hear you, brother, i hear your songs and echo the rhythms–ain’t no love songs for dictators, for love is beyond the frequency of the ears of those who consciously hurt others

 

17 Sept. 2021

 

Another rainy night in New Orleans.

Sometimes songs come to you. Unbidden. You don’t consciously call them up. No person, no time, nor event even suggests the tune’s appearance, but. . . no matter, there the air is.

Here is Fire and Rain”. I’ve written at length about the song and its back story before. See this rundown from when I did Breath Of Life (Sept. 2010), my music blog back in the day. You can find most, if not all the versions mentioned on the internet. But I’m highlighting three of those interpretations–all on the slow and deeply moving side of my emotional fence.

I don’t know what or who I was thinking about. . .but I’ve already said that. I’m just truly moved by a combination of a passing melancholy and a realization, as another song says, into each life some rain must fall.

My earlier write-up investigates the legend. As I’ve said (or was written) on some other occasion: we “Negroes” (referring to us in a fifties vernacular, with tongue firmly in cheek, because this is looking back, not forward), us folk can make the most beautiful music out of emotionally shattering experiences.

The three totally dissimilar but somehow similarly evocative versions are by:

Bobby Womack

 

New York born but long time Canada-based Ranee Lee

 

and a man I used to occasionally and sometimes sardonically imitate his voice and style, Richie Havens

R&B, Jazz, and Folk, respectively. They all three speak to me, and hopefully to you, in a self-reflective moment.

Just one of those moods. If it’s not for you, doesn’t appeal to you, well, skip it. It’s ok. The sun will shine tomorrow.

–15 Sept. 2021

 

Two days ago on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2021, I woke up extra early, around about 1a.m. in the morning. Immediately noticed a light was on. Hallelujah. I quickly surmised power had been restored. I know that our slog is far from over, but now we are rolling down the easy side of the mountain.

However, it has not been an easy ten days. Hot, with only brief rain. All kinds of rumors fouling the air. Stores with empty shelves, if and when you found a store open. Fortunately for us in New Orleans the tap water was still flowing. In other parts of southern Louisiana the order of the day was either no water or a boil water advisory.

Hurricane Ida was a beast. Killing people as far north as New Jersey and New York even though it arrived on land in Louisiana. Right after Ida hit us in New Orleans, life was strange. The sun was shinning. The sidewalk was dry. But the day was nothing nice, especially following the way Ida slow-walked through our city.

It wasn’t the water, it was the wind. All over the place, trees had been blown down. Not snapped in two but rather the whole nine, ripped from the ground, roots visibly sticking out. Old oak trees and especially small trees of various kinds that had survived Katrina lay on their sides unable to withstand Ida’s powerful wind gusts.

Our small unit: Asante, Peteh, Akeel and myself had decided to tough it out. And tough it was. Early in the aftermath I sometimes second-guessed the wise-ass wisdom of my decision to stay when I had various opportunities to abandon ship.

I dipped heavily into my stash: generator, food, household supplies. But that is what savings are for, moving through and pass the unforeseen but deadly storms of life. And, of course, there were numerous negative surprises along the way.

Like when Chop jumped up on me one day when I was returning from the store. I had plastic bags in hand. I thought the dog was playing but he was serious. Took a deep nip out of my chest. I’m from the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. I was surprised but not afraid. The bleeding was minimal because I had quickly backed away but even in the following week I had small but nevertheless deep bumps where Chop’s fangs had punctured the right side of my chest.

Or when Akeel and I went to a supermarket early one morning trying to beat the crowd only to find out that the store didn’t open until 9a.m. So we went to another store a couple of miles away and were able to secure the necessary food supplies.

I knew I couldn’t return empty-handed. The plan was to have a small free breakfast program for the neighborhood. Ms. Rosita Richardson, Peteh’s mother, came over to give us an expert hand. Peteh’s sister, Melanie and her family, supplied a foil chafing dish set-up that was used to keep the food warm. Asante was cooking. Peteh and Akeel were moving boxes, tables and giving out styrofoam go-plates with grits, scrambled eggs, orange slices and either biscuits or toast.

The food giveaway was Peteh’s idea with Asante’s immediate concurrence.

Earlier in the week, Peteh had planned to drive up to Baton Rouge to get some chickens. Felton DeRouen II is the animal husbandry staff person at the Southern University Ag Center where he helps “new and small farmers with knowledge on how to start and run a small poultry farm while providing fresh eggs to our community”.

So Peteh returned not only with the thirty chickens he went up there to purchase but also with thirty dozen eggs. The start of Peteh’s small poultry operation was the basis for our free breakfast program.

We were blessed. We had our health, working vehicles, and the cash needed to purchase food and supplies, plus material support from family and a friend who provided supper plates. Needless to say the much appreciated breakfast went quickly as the word spread that we were offering free food.

At some point we must realize that giving thanks is not simply a “don’t worry be happy” mental exercise.

Of course, Asante lives in a working-class neighborhood rather than in a gated community where a free breakfast doesn’t mean much. In a sense giving out meals is not a philanthropic nor even Good Samaritan activity. Many of us profess Christian/Islamic/Buddhist ideals, but how many of us actually work to help people we see every day but whom we probably don’t even know by name?

By noontime all the food was shared and the kitchen and front room cleaned. What a productive morning.

 

 

 

 

I really don’t have anything to say.

About three hours ago, when I woke up from a mid-morning nap, everyone was gone.

Akeel left early during the dawning day. Off to be with his mother who had come to pick him up. I could faintly hear her outside. A bit later after drinking some of a papaya-based juice, I went online looking for the U.S. Open tennis matches. I was a bit too early.

Asante had left a note: “Baba–we out for a minute. Holla if you need anything. See you soon. AS”.

I wish she had woken me. I retired to the lazy boy chair, my sleeping spot of choice, and dozed off.

When I awoke for the second time today, they still were not back. The dogs were milling about in the yard. Eventually, I remembered a Netflix movie (“Worth”) I had half-heartedly planned to view. Started watching this saga about one of the lead lawyers dealing with the 911 aftermath. This was not a cheery movie but it caught my interest.

And then the generator cut off.

So now what?

I fight the feelings of despondency. Confront the old “woe-is-me” wolf at the front door of my consciousness.

I know I am not alone. I am in a city populated by those who decided to stick it out. All of those who, in one way or another, have elected or been forced by lack of funds or by no way out trials and tribulations, forced to suffer in a metropole with no electricity. And, as a result, we became canaries in the coal mine of New Orleans.

After more hours of semi-sleeping and meditating, finally, the day is done. Now the sun is going down.

I decide to type a brief note–I’m working on my laptop, which, when I first woke up from that mid-morning nap, I had the partial good sense to hook up to the extension chord that snakes outside to the generator. The MacBook is fully charged. The desktop and everything else dependent on electricity is down.

It’s either type on the laptop or scream and holler. What do I do?

Looking at that 911 movie is strangely comforting. My middle daughter, Kiini was living in Brooklyn when the twin towers fell. My youngest, Tiaji was living in the D.C. area. Unbelievable as it may be, on that day of the attack I had already planned to show a movie to the workshop I conducted on Tuesday afternoons.

The movie was “The Terrorist”, set in Southern Asia near or in India. A band of insurgents prepares to do an armed action confronting the authorities. No joke, that’s what I was doing. I showed the movie that evening to our workshop, all of whom had seen the 911 attack that was broadcasted on television ceaselessly that day.

Back then I understood the Terrorist movie on an intellectual and political level.

Now, I feel the movie personally. I look out into the waning light as the sun sets. What can I say to people to help them understand. . . not understand my situation, but rather understand the situation of all of us.

We are all facing Chinua Achebe’s famous dictum/famous question: What do you do when things fall apart?

When the center of your familiar existence no longer holds–that’s a paraphrase from Yeats, I believe. I used to co-teach an AP English and creative writing class with Jim Randels. From time to time, I see some of my former students. Occasionally I talk to Greta, Jim’s wife and less often talk with Jim. It has been years since we were colleagues in the classroom.

What I really want to do is encourage the people, encourage all of us to keep fighting even though I know many of us eventually might not survive the various disasters we face.

Our historic humanity demands, regardless of how discouraged we may get from time to time, the demand is to stay strong, hold the line, and keep on keeping on.

I want to tell people, especially those younger than myself, no matter how we feel as individuals, no matter that some of us will not survive, no matter it’s hot and the generator has konked out. No matter. Whatever.

We are survivors. I couldn’t be here if my people had not survived. If I did not come from the stock of enslaved Africans who faced literally centuries of enslavement and carried on regardless.

It’s complicated but I know we can do it.

Earlier I read a brief article about Jesse James. How he and his brother, Frank, came from a so-called good family. How they had joined the Confederate Army on account of the animosity engendered when the Union Army came through where they were living. Unbelievable as it may seem, I briefly went to school in Northfield, Minnesota at Carleton College. That’s where the Jesse James gang disbanded after they were confronted by the small Northfield town that was laying in wait for their arrival.

We all have so many generally unknown connections to history.

We are never alone. Not really. Never unconnected. Even people to whom no connection is obvious, we all have points of history in common. Sometimes near points, most often distant points; distant in both place, time, and social circumstance. But we also have common points of reference.

The struggle on a day-to-day basis is to survive. However, ultimately the struggle is really to recognize each other’s humanity regardless of the differences in how we are: ethnically, gender wise, racially, or whatever–the struggle is to find the concordances no matter the specifics of who we are and how we struggle.

There is a human fabric that connects us even as the individual particulars of our existence seem to separate us. Whether we focus on fellowship with friends, or whether we focus on fighting against foes, or even if we don’t focus at all. No matter. We are connected and, on a human level, have something in common.

Think of someone you know. Think good thoughts for them. And let your good thoughts of connection, inform and guide you as you live the rest of your life.

I am not saying “don’t fight”. We must fight whatever powers that be arrayed against us but I am saying that as Che Guevera knew, at our best, we should all be motivated by great feelings of love.

Love for our loved ones. Love for those we barely know. Even love for the humanity inside of our enemies.

Let love be an active choice to live a better life. Individually and collectively.

Focusing on your own individuality is easy. Seeing others as separate from ourselves. Embracing only family and chosen partners is easy.

The challenge of life is to embrace all. To fight when we are forced to but to love even as we fight.

Our future depends not merely on our fierceness in fighting, but more importantly on our ability to love each other. Not only intellectually. Not just abstractly. But rather to truly love. In day-to-day practice.

Love is not just a concept. Love is an action. A choice to help all fellow humans we encounter to be their best selves. Every day, we have at least one opportunity–and usually multiple opportunities–to express love, to demonstrate love.

To at least say hello. To provide assistance. To touch. To embrace. If nothing else to smile. To wave as we pass someone.

Every day. Every moment. We can and should choose to be human and to share that choice with another.

 

 

 


That’s a fruit plate, two small pieces of catfish cut in half, scrambled eggs, and two bottles of liquid nutritional supplements along with a big helping of tea to drink.

NEW ORLEANS–Another day trying to make it to the other side. . . started to paraphrase “the sunny side of the street” but sunshine is not what we need at this moment, even though blue skies and no rain is deeply appreciated.

This morning we woke up–I say woke up, but don’t get the impression we were sleeping in our own beds, especially not the beds we slept in last week. No. Many of us were making do on air mattresses, couches in other people’s homes, and shuffling about scavenging whatever provisions we could stumble across.

Of course, a number of us are still in our own abodes–however the bulk of many of my friends and associates have de-camped for other parts of the country–both near and far, known, and in quite a few cases, parts unknown.

I live in an apartment at Ashe Cultural Arts Center and decided to join my daughter, Asante, and Peteh Muhammad, Asante’s fiancé, along with Peteh’s son, Akeel. Asante lives on Norman Francis Blvd., the former Jefferson Davis Blvd., in what is called the mid-city area. When Ida hit we (including two dogs: “Eight” and “Chop”) moved to a house owned by Peteh’s people. He had agreed to take care of the property located in the 8th ward on Law Street, corner of Almonaster.

I write to you now from exile, even though I am ensconced in my native city.

Ida is a prelude to tomorrow. An opening act of America’s future. This is what next year, and the year after, so forth and so on, will look like. Dystopian and totally unpredicted events, increasingly, will dominate our days.

The follow-up of Ida oxymoronically did more damage in New York and New Jersey than it did in Louisiana where the storm crashed ashore. By Saturday, September 4th, over forty people have died as a result of the storm with only 4 reported fatalities in Louisiana.

Let me see if I can break down the disparity–particularly what happened in New Orleans.

New Orleans has a centuries long tradition of dealing with hurricanes. Today most Americans remember when Katrina hit the Crescent City. However, recalled or forgotten, history is not the problem. Tomorrow is the question.

Is our nation ready to really deal with climate change?

The tail-end of Ida, which crept quickly upon us, smacked Louisiana dead up in our face. While New Orleans suffered a near total loss of electricity, our city didn’t bear the brunt of Hurricane Ida. There were literally bunches of Louisiana small towns, villages, and a few medium-sized cities that were inundated with water and severely damaged by wind. A handful suffered storm damage to 100% of their physical infrastructure.  

Three days after the storm, our hurricane household set off in a search of a larger generator. The little machine that Peteh bought almost two years ago for an entirely different purpose was not ideal for pulling 24/7 house duty during hurricane Ida.

So, we journeyed down into St. Bernard parish, a suburb just below New Orleans. About fifty or so years ago when I was growing up, if you were Black and had good sense, you didn’t go down there at night, indeed, not at all if you could help it. That was arch segregationist, judge Leander Perez country. The truly wise among us didn’t shop or stop there.

As we rode down Leander Perez highway, on a clear and sunny day, images and uncomfortableness flooded me even though nobody we passed seemed to give us a second thought. The reality was that this was not the same place as when I grew up back in the fifties.

Like something you see on television, we had pulled into the Tractor Supply store. It was big and busy, row after row of agricultural products and equipment. Peteh was comfortable. His regular gig is landscaping and interfacing with regional farmers and academic-based agrarian personnel at Southern University in Baton Rouge. I was completely out of my element and appropriately silent as I followed instructions.

Peteh and the sales person discussed generators. We ended up purchasing a 5500-watt portable to replace the 2200-watt unit we were then working with. Barely 15 miles south of New Orleans, the tractor and feed store had electricity. Without even a hint of racial animosity, the store employees bantered with us as though this was a normal day. What a strange combination: casual Deep South comity  contrasted with the impersonal urbanity of New Orleans.

Peteh inspects the small Honda unit we were working off (above) and the larger new generator we now use.

In New Orleans the 9th ward takes up almost a full third of the city. I was born and grew up across the canal in the Lower Ninth ward. Asante is also ninth-ward born and reared. Indeed, when we returned from our little trip, because the Claiborne Avenue bridge was up, we decided to jump over to St. Claude Ave. and went down Egania, which is the street we lived on for a year or two, a couple or three years after Asante was born. She remembered the house when I pointed to it.

It’s a bit disconcerting trying to deal with conflicting realities. On the one hand I have all my pre-Civil Rights memories. On the other, there is an immense gulf between urban New Orleans and agrarian St. Bernard parish. This is a time and space warp that sling-shots one back and forth. I could be an extra in a Hollywood futuristic flick except this is real 21st century life.

Back at the homestead after our foray out into the nether world, 15 year-old chef Akeel decides to take the lead on preparing our brunch. Notice that he put in a lot of time arranging the fruit he cut up. The meal not only tastes good, the spread is also visually attractive.

We best get ready to carry on when there is a breakdown in whatever is our daily routine. A small stash of cash (at least $500) will make a big difference in the days ahead. Make plans to get with some of your buddies and purchase a generator and also, more importantly, have at least one person in your crew that knows how to maintain a generator.

I know this all sounds extreme and doesn’t seem to make much sense but the future is almost here and, as the world whirls and reels from climate disaster to climate disaster, you won’t be able to count on urban infrastructures to work in ways we know of as normal today. In the next decade, a comfortable modern life without an accessible source of electrical power is not going to be prudent.

Of course, life won’t all break down instantly or just in one place, but it will help a whole lot to have people, places and spaces that can function in a disaster context. Make sure you have access to household and electronic communications equipment beyond cell phones. Small and portable fans, battery-operated lamps (make sure you have a more than adequate supply of batteries), and especially power-strips & extension cords will be very valuable. And don’t forget a portable AM/FM radio. Many of us already own portable computers, they will be necessary along with medical supplies, and at least a tote bag to carry toileting items.

Howsoever one deals with the future, let’s not go grim and down hearted. We need laughs, smiles and, yes, giggles as we push on through to the next level. Life ought not be a depressing task to do your duty. We are the descendants of the formally (and formerly) enslaved. Our people pushed pass being downtrodden and created a culture that influences the world.

We did it with Ragtime, with Blues, Jazz and Gospel, with Hip Hop, and who knows what’s coming next.) Our oral and aural traditions are resilient and powerful.

If we are truly who we are, we will keep on pushing.

 

 

 

Akeel, Peteh, and Asante, smiling thru this lil trouble. Akeel is Peteh son from a previous relationship.

 

Hurricane Ida turned us–the famous and fabulous “Big Easy”–into the BIG UnEasy.

And don’t be trying to get no gas. In the time of no electricity, damn near city wide, finding gas, especially for those trying to work off of portable generators that function on gasoline in order to output electricity, well, there’s nothing easy about it.

Peteh and my daughter Asante left early this morning, driving to nearby Mississippi to fill up vehicles and portable gas tanks. They could have got in lines that literally stretch as far as the eye can see for a $40-dollar or so limited supply of petrol–plus, no telling if the station will still will have gas left by the time Peteh and Asante get to the head of the line. So it was a better choice to burn a quarter tank in order to have a no hassle, no limit fill up.

By the way, Peteh spent all yesterday, landscaping, fixing the roof in the apartment converted from a garage, and shoring up fences. The boy was talking about how good the sun felt–must be his West African heritage kicking in. Anyway the grounds and those surrounding are impeccably manicured.

Peteh loves, absolutely loves, working with the soil, is deep into agriculture and such, ain’t no wise afeared of hard work outdoors–he also is a former Nation of Islam soldier. He had us rolling talking about his long trip to get a small supply of gas on Tuesday. I won’t attempt to even give you the gist of it on account of I’ll leave out an important part of the travail.

Your boy Odyssey had it easy compared to what Peteh went through–well I will tell you this part, and it ain’t even the hard part. He had plastic, thinking that if the gas pump was working they had to have a working generator to pump the gas and knowing that those pumps were powered by electricity, so therefore he could use his card, except once he got close enough, he found out the policy was “cash only” and a $40 limit.

Not to be deterred, Peteh found out a nearby Lowe’s store–and Peteh was no where near by where we staying in New Orleans, actually was over in the next parish (county is what they call those jurisdictions in the rest of the USA) and none of the ATMs were working–anyway, he found out that if you went to Lowe’s made a purchase with a card, and then returned the purchase, you could get cash back, but Lowe’s had something like a $20 limit on cash returns, and, well you get the picture. Peteh had to make three small purchases in order to get the cash to get the gasoline, where his place in line was being held by. . . oh, but wait a minute, how Peteh got his place in line held by the clerk is a whole other story, helped along by an “Inshallah” or two, and if you don’t know what that means, you never would of got to talk to the man in charge, who was making the decisions about. . . you dig?

No more water, it’s the lack of power this time–especially if you’re cooking with electric, which, fortunately, the house I’m currently hunkering down in cooks with gas.

My now deceased father, who made his transition back in the last century, used to bath or shower with cold water (really ground temperature water; during the summer time in Louisiana, that was not so bad). I don’t like that but I can do it if I absolutely have to, howsoever I would choose to go unwashed for a couple of days rather than shiver under a spray of tap water in a shower.

Speaking of which, metropolitan areas are really hard hit when there’s no electrical power. Although the water systems were generally working, faucet water and toilet water flowing, the hard part was that the sewerage and water department had a major breakdown in the near by parish. Both the back-up generators at their waste treatment facilities failed: the back-up and the back-up to the back-up–and, no, I’m not making this up. The authorities ended up dumping untreated sewerage into the Mississippi River. I need not say anymore about what a disaster that is. But something had to be done with the waste.

Ida has left us in the Big Easy with no easy choices about how to live.

The Louis Armstrong Airport is a modern, recently-opened facility, not too far from the previous commercial airport, however, with the lack of electricity out that way, the airport is unusable. Indeed, that’s the story of metro/urban modernity all over the country, especially at modern airports, no ‘lectric, no fly, stay your ass out the sky.

On top of no gas, if you were thinking about driving far away–and Louisiana is not only an oil-producing state, we have major gasoline-producing plants up and down the river, and all across southern Louisiana, well, if you were thinking about driving way-aways, and you didn’t have gas or you were trying to (emphasis on unsucessfully “trying” to rent a car, nada. No such luck. You just stuck, Chuck.), well the real deal is there ain’t no deal.

The siblings were ready, willing and able to kick in to get an airline ticket to get their mother out to the East Coast except you couldn’t fly out of New Orleans. So my grandson, was volunteering to drive Tayari over to Gulfport, Mississippi, which did had commercial flights to and fro-ing.

Jahi, my grandson, was staying in that sliver of the East in New Orleans which had electricity recently restored. Dig, flying out is a major operation. The deal was not just transporting Mama Tayari to the airport, but Jahi had to have enough gas to make the round trip and. . . well I won’t even go into tale of a long car trip when Jahi along with Mika (his significant other and Stefan, their newborn) broke down somewhere near Phoenix, Arizona when they were trying to drive from San Diego, where my son, and Jahi’s father, lives. 

Ain’t nothing easy these days. I believe Tayari got out this morning. No definitive word yet–Flash update. Tayari does not leave New Orleans until Saturday, will be staying with Jahi & Mika, who are staying with his grandmother around the corner from my nephew. They have food and water and electricity.

Meanwhile, also just spoke with Asante who left earlier to get gas. They found a station in Sorrento, near Donaldsonville, Louisiana, which is where my father was from (he literally walked to New Orleans to get an education at McDonogh #35 High School. That school, as well as a number of other schools in both New Orleans and Baltimore, Maryland were underwritten by the largesse of John McDonald, who was a big time slave trader back in the day and willed millions of dollars for education. It’s a complex story and I have only given a brief peep at a multi-faceted and interlocking aspects of the story originating in slavery times (which certain White folks, euphemistically and rather fondly, simply refer to as the Antebellum era).

The whole convoluted “no electricity / no gas” tale reminds me of that famous line (I believe it was from Shakespeaer’s “Richard III” when your boy was sent a-tumbling to the ground, “a horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse”. Well here we are in the Crescent City hollering “electricity, electricity, our city is suffering no electricity”. And even if you have a generator, you got to have gas to run that. If Richard lived here, he probably would be on the neutral ground (what that is, is another story for another time, let me just say, “a wide median” separating the lanes on a multi-lane highway or major divided street), anyway, we unfortunate souls are crying about the killing lack of no electricity.

Of course you know, some kind of way, they–the powers that be who can made such things happen–they found a way to power up the French Quarter, which counter-intuitively was actually originally built by the Spanish, but that too is another story for another time and partially explains why the historic ceramic signs on the sides of antique French Quarter buildings refer to the streets as “Calle” rather than “Rue” this or that.

By the way,  just to show you how deep the colonial influences flow, my birth name, Vallery Ferdinand III, is French on the first half and Spanish on the second, and when people try to tell me my Swahili name “Kalamu” is strange for an African American, I just smile. If it’s strange for us to have African names, how much stranger is it for us to have French, Spanish and English names?

My nephew Kamau (along with his two daughters Laini and Asilia) lives in New Orleans East, a much derided area of the greater Metro area, his parents live on the other side of the I-10 expressway, just a couple of miles from him. He has electricity, they do not. He lives on a different grid from them–and so it goes, on and on.

This is not meant to be a “woe-is-me” tale of a crippled city. As rough as it is right now, especially if you ain’t got enough gas to keep your generator fired up, assuming that you have a generator, no matter, if you walking, driving or flying (of course, them dirty mother. . . let me not get started on how the rich not only are not suffering, they are prospering, kicking back on yatchs and such, cruising up and down the river, or lounghing about on the Gulf of Mexico, even though the Cruise Lines are beset with a different set of Covid-related problems.)

Oh yeah, Covid. Well Louisiana is a big center of Covid, and. . . well, let’s just say if Ida didn’t kill you Covid is waiting to finish you off.

But, all in all, we are surviving, steady striving. We may be suffering but we ain’t giving up. Mama said there would be days like this, and we best survive this little trouble so we will have some entertaining stories to tell our grandchildren and great-grandchildren, bless their little souls.

More in a minute, time to go drink some cool water. Got to stay hydrated,

By the way, I feel sorry for them folks up in the Northeast who have to deal with the tail-end of Ida. It’s been a long time, maybe even never, since they seen hard times like Ida brings. So like my man Ed Brown used to say, when you are nearly at the end of your rope, don’t just struggle to hold on, tie a knot in the end of that sucker, and swing!

Keep swinging good people, keep swinging. This too shall pass.

 

 

Life will always test you. That’s what Tayari kwa Salaam frequently says. And from time to time, we are gifted with experiences that reveal the multi-faceted truth of that statement.

Yesterday started pretty good. I had it mentally mapped out. Went to the bank. Picked up a cashier’s check, planning to pay for a whole year of rent at my new digs at Ashe Cultural Center on Oretha Castle Haley Blvd. The idea was to be able to take my time unpacking 37+ boxes, getting my studio apartment into shape. And to be in a position not to have to be bothered with any major bills. My bank account would be approaching just above zero but I would be in a position to focus on the move and focus on my writing.

Was on my way to a second bank to collect my social security check. Felt really good. Thought I had everything under control. Had earlier received the message that dealing with the IRS was going well. Decided to get an oil change at the “Take 5 Oil Change” establishment that I had to pass in order to get to the bank.

There were only two or three vehicles in front of me. I was in the right hand of the two lanes and everything was running smoothly. In addition to the oil change, got an air filter for the engine and made a $3 donation to a children’s hospital campaign. The bill is $2.89-cents shy of a hundred dollars.

That’s when everything went south.

My battered, old green truck just plain konked out right after I paid the bill and was supposed to pull out. I tried starting up a couple of times. Nada. The sick sound of a failing engine went completely silent. Not even a click.

The guy in charge of my servicing, volunteered to push me off to the side. Asked did I have jumper cables. I did. We tried but no dice. He said “hold on” let me try my co-worker’s cables. She has heavy-duty jumpers. That didn’t get it either.

By now Mr. Despair Bear is taking a deep bite out of my butt. Which is when I discover my phone isn’t working. I don’t now why. I used it this morning plus I have an automatic deduction plan. So much for calling someone for assistance. On to plan B, getting a battery at Firestone.

Fortunately, the Firestone repair shop is only about two blocks away. That was an establishment I had gone to before on the West Bank of New Orleans near where I previously lived.

I’m 74-years-old and have a generally sedentary life style. I don’t look forward to traipsing down General DeGaulle highway. Did I mention it’s August in the Crescent City? Real hot in the summer time. But what choice do I have? So I hike on down the road. Hopefully, I’ll be able to get a battery there, and figure out the rest. So much for the afternoon appointments I had. The focus was on getting my vehicle back to Ashe on the East Bank.

Firestone, here I come. When I get there, I find out they didn’t have a battery in stock. Any old battery won’t work. Different equipment for different vehicles.

One of their stores over on the East Bank had the type of battery I needed but it wasn’t located near by. At that point I’m fighting with myself to stay calm and figure out this little trouble. The guy behind the desk says he can get the battery delivered. I’m doing mental gymnastics. How long will that take? Should I just request to use their phone and call someone? No, wait. I don’t want to leave my truck at the oil change place. I’ve got Triple-A, but that means another bill to pay.

When I inquire how long will it take to get the battery, the clerk responds an hour-and-a-half, maybe two hours. I order it. Sit down inside the air conditioned show-room/office. The plan–such as it is at that point–is just get the battery and then figure out the next move.

There is idle chatter with a customer who is also waiting for his vehicle to be serviced. The customer knows the Firestone manager. They are talking about people they know in common and swapping stories about fishing in the gulf and watering spots near New Orleans. The manager is someone who has serviced me before.

When one of them goes in to talking about how our country is in bad shape; people don’t want to work, people don’t help each other anymore, yada, yada, I just stay silent. They all sound like Trump voters. I’m the only Black person around, plus I’m wearing a National Black Arts Festival t-shirt.

I ask the clerk whether he thinks the battery will arrive before 5:30. He says it shouldn’t take that long. At this point I have decided to tough it out, step by step. Thankfully, I have money in the bank and a new plastic card to replace the old one when I moved. (Which is another story entirely. Moving was not a simple endeavor, especially since I was selling the house and dealing with succession details.)

I pay the $153.22 Firestone bill and hunker down for what I hope will be a not-too-long wait.

It’s well before 5pm. I make the mistake of thinking maybe I’ll shortly get out of this fix. Long story short, the battery arrives right after 4pm. Now the next step: I don’t want to/probably am physically incapable of hand carrying the heavy battery down to where my vehicle is. I explain my situation and the clerk volunteers to drive me and my new battery down the road.

Ok, this should be where the story ends. But. . .

When I get to the oil change place, they are about to close. Due to covid, their hours have changed and they now close at 4:30pm. The guy who assisted me earlier comes over and says he will help me. Turns out he is the manager. I pop the hood and the cables won’t come off easily. He says he needs to finish up the cars in line and then he will come back and help me. Earlier I had given him $5. I don’t have much cash on me; you know, increasingly plastic is the order of the day. I wait patiently.

Before long, he comes back and after trying to get the cable off, decides he needs to get more tools than a simple wrench, plus he also needs some gloves because this one is going to take a bit of fiddling with.

This time when he comes back we talk while he works on changing the battery. I give him $10 more. It takes a bit of work, one of the old terminals had corroded and semi-sealed to the battery post. After about 15-minutes, he gets the job done. 

We had been conversing amicably while he worked. He gives me the line about how it ain’t fair for the government to pay people for not working. Says he has a friend who makes more by staying home than going to work. It ain’t right.

I respond that government subsidies won’t last long and that the real problem is that a lot of the jobs don’t really pay much money which is why an unemployment check is more than a job pay check. Would he want one of those low-paying jobs? He says that he had not thought about it that way.

Finally the battery is changed. The vehicle starts up. Once again I thank my volunteer mechanic. And drive back across the river. When I get to the apartment it’s almost 6pm. I figure out the phone disconnect. The auto-payment was on the old card and co-incidentally expired when I needed it most. Only took a minute or so online to get the phone turned back on.

I make calls. Reschedule appointments I have missed and then I climbed into bed. I had had enough drama for one day.

Two-something in the morning I woke up and decided to write this little essay about my ordeal. We all are facing trying times. But, don’t give up. Push on through. Every situation can be a set-back or a lesson. Additionally, from time to time, we all need a helping hand. Help someone if you can, regardless of who they are.

I plan to return to the scene of the disaster and give the guy who helped me a $25 gift card. Why? Because game recognize game. Financially, I am in a position right now where I can respond in the American way: i.e. with dinero.

We have to do far more than just wish for a better world. Reaching out to others is important. Particularly those who help us. And especially so when they are not like us, don’t necessarily share out views and values.

We are all, potentially and sometimes even actually, closer than our political beliefs. The song is right: reach out and touch someone. Make this world a better world. In ways both big and small, we can all help make this world a better world.

 

 

 

Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant (35) and forward Draymond Green (23) celebrate during the first quarter against the Cleveland Cavaliers in game three of the 2017 NBA Finals at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY 

Way back last century, a number of my students would wryly laugh and tell me that I ruined TV and the movies for them.

They still watched but also they saw a lot more than before they took our classes. In addition to instructing on the normal subject matter, I would stress seeing not just what was shown, but also questioning what was not shown, why and how. Previously they had never peeped that what they were staring at assumed they were ordinary, even often presupposing that they were idiots or morons, when actually they had been under-educated and/or mis-educated.

Some of our students went to one of the best high schools in New Orleans, others of them went to what was often considered the bottom of the barrel. We taught “A” levels in the afternoon post lunch time after a stint at the alleged “C” and “D” level students in the morning. The students had real differences in their education as a result of their sociological backgrounds but they all came from Big Easy (i.e. New Orleans) and sometimes also lived in the same neighborhoods. We at Students at the Center (SAC) even had students who transferred from a lesser ranked school to the better ranked school. Same students, different institutions.

Pupils learned that the real difference between them was not who they were or just the schools they attended, the real difference was in how they had been instructed. Once we lovingly ripped away the standard indoctrinations and introduced them to education for liberation, to Pablo Freire and a Russian named Vygotsky, to Amicar Cabral and Howard Zinn, but most of all to valuing their own lives, their own experiences growing up, assessing both the positives and negatives of how and where they were reared, as well as who whey were. Well, as the old folks so often said, once you see the light you will never be satisfied fumbling around in the dark.

The way we as SAC taught immediately made clear that this was a truly different pedagogy. We sat in a circle. Everyone took turns talking–yes, both teachers and students. No one was allowed to be silent or just spew rote responses, nor to have one or two voices dominating the conversations/lessons. Each person was challenged to be truthful and revelatory regardless of their academic rankings.

Like Bob Marley sang: if you are strong, help the weak. In this way we improved together, socially secure in the knowledge that in one area or another, we all need a helping hand. In this way, in later years, former students found themselves making accomplishments they had previously thought was beyond their own abilities.

Sure, in the beginning it was uncomfortable. Feelings of shame and inadequacy had to be confronted and overcome. One student said to me “how do you know I’m not lying, just making stuff up”? My response was simple. “I don’t, but if you keep talking we all will. We value everyone’s voice. Which is why we don’t allow you to just dummy down and say nothing or simply spout platitudes”–what’s a platitude?

Don’t tell me what you assume I want to hear or what you can get away with in other classes. Don’t simply regurgitate what a teacher said. We need to hear about who you are, your particular experiences. We care about you too much to allow you to lie or skate. This is the only class where you can earn an “A” just for telling the truth about who you are.

According to the school system, SAC classes were “advanced placement” and creative writing. In each class session, we generally had two teachers, SAC founding instructor Jim Randels and myself. We knew the whole school couldn’t afford to operate how SAC did, but we also knew that one little hummingbird could flap its wings and generate the force of a hurricane if the conditions were right. The SAC goal was to create life changing conditions and self-conscious experiences for our students through reading, writing and sharing.

That’s the background that enabled me to appreciate conversations I might have otherwise overlooked.  So, on August 20, 2021 when I saw a sit-down session between Draymond Green and Kevin Durant, two leading basketball players, who were briefly on the same team together, I was surprised by the serious level of candor exhibited by the former friends and subsequent adversaries.

Green was a hothead but also a defensive wizard. Durant was a seven-foot, offensive force of nature sometimes called the “Slim Reaper”. While both being Golden State Warriors, they had a publically televised confrontation. Durant eventually left and joined another team. A lot of blame was heaped on Green. But then they became teammates on the Olympic squad, won goal medals together, and even sat down for a tete-a-tete that went far further than the usual sports chatter.

It is not everyday that one can see two sports legends amicably discussing both their agreements and disagreements. Check it out.

 

 

 

Interviewer:
You are both “a poet,” and also an instructor, a professor, one of whose specialties is poetry. Do you see them as related, and do you prefer one or the other?

Mona Lisa Saloy:
I prefer both. I think poetry has been a part of me all my life and picked me early. Later throughout my life I kept studying and writing, especially after I heard Black poets. Of course, coming up–the end of the Jim Crow generation–our literature was not taught. I was on the West Coast when I heard young writers who introduced me to the voices of Sonia Sanchez and Don L. Lee (who became Haki Madhubuti), and LeRoi Jones (who became Amiri Baraka), Ishmael Reed.

I hadn’t heard my voice (Black Southern) and then the New Orleans voice was missing for me, so my West Coast period just pushed me, urged me to study more.

I became an educator because of the writers who mentored me. Their generation didn’t need a college degree. My Papa, who was born enslaved in Alabama and walked to New Orleans to be free, lived to be 110. When he passed, the library filled that void for me, My maternal grandfather.

He used to hold court on the front porch. I thought he was just a good liar because he could tell some stories, and he was a baptist minister. He co-founded Mount Zion Baptist Church, on N. Robertson, which was still there until the storm. He couldn’t read and write. He signed his name with an X but he knew the Bible by heart. People used to come and just listen to him. He did the dozens. He knew everybody. He watched history unfold. People would come and ask him things because he lived a long time. But I had to go to college to learn that a lot of the stories he passed on to us were from the oral tradition. They were passed on by word of mouth, face to face, generation to generation, which is the definition of folklore.

Then when I found folklore through writers like Zora Neale Hurston, I realized that that’s just who we are. We were keeping our African selves intact, from the food ways, to the masking, to our word smithing. We have so much culture, and of course, more of our ancestors were sold from New Orleans than any other city in the nation, so we kept our African-ness, from Congo Square where we were allowed to meet publicly on Sunday after worship. We weren’t just there masking, and dancing, and parading–although we did a whole lot of that–and drumming, but we kept our Black selves intact. Also, I have a very musical family. I sing in the gospel choir at church, and that too is very much a part of us.

I loved coming up with both traditions, certainly we’re the oldest Black Catholic community here in New Orleans–and again, we were made to be Christian. That was sanctioned by the Catholic church. I had that and the Baptist tradition in my family.

I loved going to the Baptist church. They feed you after church. Because my Papa was the minister, we helped to clean up and I got to eat. It was funny. We got to hear both services coming up, and especially when someone passed, or there was a wedding, or something. I had both storytelling traditions in my family, plus I had the influence of my Papa and my dad who loved to read. He made me look stuff up any time I didn’t know it. He gave me an early love for books and research. I’m just thankful to have been born and raised here, and have a connection to my ancestors that is very direct.

And I was an old people’s child too. My parents were born right after the turn of the 20th century. They thought they were long done when I came, so I had the advantage of all the mistakes my siblings made, and the love of my parents, and still had a connection with my ancestors who were very, very much a part of my life.

For example, even my most elder brother. He was over 90 and he was my mother’s son, she had him as a teenager. That whole family thing always fed me and sustains me, so I’m very thankful for that.

Interviewer:
When you said, “Both traditions,” what did you mean?

Mona Lisa Saloy:
Well, education. The fact that I met writers. At the time, I didn’t really know what my upbringing was. There I was trying to become myself… I have to back up a bit. My sister made me go to college. My dad didn’t want me to have a college education even though he loved reading and writing, and was the writer in the family. He had published a poem in World War II in an Army magazine. He told me I wasn’t the only writer in the family, but more than that, he wrote letters for people who couldn’t write, who were illiterate, who needed an eulogy composed for a funeral, or who needed a letter to get social security, or who needed to contact family when someone passed away.

People came to him, and he did that for everybody in the neighborhood in addition to being a master carpenter and it was always coup des mains, all hands together. Nobody paid anybody for anything. They just did it.

When I was at LSU and I came home to return to New Orleans after graduate school, I would visit every chance I’d get, anyway, my dad’s health went down, and a lot of stuff happened. I literally was the caregiver for my father for the last decade and a half of his life. That was a great joy for me. It was a lot of responsibility but I was the one who didn’t have children, who wasn’t married at the time, and being there, I had to take that on, so I understood more of what I missed in the time I was on the West Coast growing up as a poet.

Now, the other tradition of becoming an educator–again, my mentors encouraged me to finish my education so that I could be there for the young voices coming through. I remember Ishmael Reed telling me they didn’t have to do that, but I did. I needed to finish school. Actually, he told me that when we were in Paris at the Sorbonne, at the first African Americans in Europe Conference. I was there researching Bob Kaufman’s work–they didn’t have much then actually. I had captured more than they had at the time, but it was interesting, and it was an honor to be there at that moment with all those great black writers. I considered myself fortunate even though I had already started teaching at Dillard, and I had a couple of degrees behind me, and was working towards finishing the doctorate.

That experience was more to allow me the stability, the economic stability to continue my study. I needed access to research, and I was able to get funding for travel and things like that. My mentors: Charles Johnson, Colleen McElroy in Seattle–in addition to the people I met at San Francisco State–they showed me a way, as a young Black writer to make a living, to keep studying, to keep writing. [At LSU, Rodger Kamanetz, Vance Bourjailey too.]

For me, it was always our culture, our ancestors, and being there to document and capture, to speak for those who couldn’t so that we don’t lose our stories. That’s always been my push and my goal. It’s never been about fame. Education allowed me to pass on what I was learning and help another generation, but also to sustain myself, and to study continuously, and to research, write, and travel.

Interviewer:
Okay. So that’s the two traditions. One, writing in the sense that writing was recording and passing on, not necessarily doing a book. That’s included but that’s not what was necessary in terms of writing.

The other part of the tradition was education, as both your profession, which enabled you not only to sustain yourself economically, but also enabled you to pursue the interests that you had in folklore, the interest you had in the traditions that were part of our community.

Plus there was a third interest. If Bob Kaufman is a ghost, you are the sheet that covers his poems so that we can at least see who he was. When I say the sheet that covers his poem, I’m talking about Casper the friendly ghost. You never see Casper. You see that sheet moving around. And early on, you became someone who was interested in Bob Kaufman because Bob Kaufman came from New Orleans, but more than just came from New Orleans, you wanted to delve into who the family was, and so forth, and so on, and a lot of people don’t realize that Bob Kaufman was from New Orleans, nor do they realize that in his young adulthood, he was an union organizer and a merchant marine who sailed the seas…

Mona Lisa Saloy:
That’s right.

Interviewer:
… and therefore, saw the world. And when people, “Came to him,” recognizing him during the so-called beat generation, which he’s sometimes credited as coming up with the term, “beat”; but anyway, during that beat generation, his identity became as a poet in that generation and his work as a union organizer was not recognized. His heritage coming out of New Orleans was not recognized, partly because of his last name: Kaufman. The Kaufman part came from his father. What inspired you to research Bob Kaufman?

Mona Lisa Saloy:
I loved his work, number one, and when I read it, I heard the south in him. A lot of people missed it. And I’d say, “Wait a minute. Wait a minute. I know the brother’s “beat” and they credit him with coining the word, “beatnik,” even though a journalist at the San Francisco Chronicle was given credit for it. But most people who knew him, his entire enclave from Allen Ginsberg and that group of writers, they said, “No, Bob coined that word: “Beatnik”. They admired him, and certainly you and I both know, as lovers and appreciators of jazz that the beat talk was an appropriation of Black lingo from jazz musicians and hipsters, and Bob certainly used that too because that’s part of the culture. I heard the New Orleans in him. He’s got many poems that articulate the south and are a tribute to his upbringing from swamps of New Orleans.

So I was curious and I wanted the New Orleans part to be recognized. I met the brother when I was a poet in San Francisco at the African American Historical and Cultural Society. There was Devorah Major–she was Reggie Major’s daughter, who wrote Panther is a Black Cat. She was a poet in residence, and I became a poet residence later. We had Black writers workshops. Peter Harris was part of that, the Jamaican-American poet, Opal Palmer Adisa, and we all became connected. We had a Black Arts West portion in the Northwest in Seattle with Colleen McElroy, then San Francisco and the Bay Area.

Charles Johnson, and others who… and some died. Oh, my God, we lost many: Elluage Anthony–poet;  Mary Snow–fiction. They were great writers. They passed away too young, We were striving to represent, to do our best. We were studying. We were encouraging one another and so these great writers would come because of grants. Matter of fact, a sister who was Monica Scott—Executive Director there then… She’s Monica Scott Green now. Monica and I worked together, would raise funds, and we ended up doing that together promoting young writers. I learned all that stuff at that time, and Bob came…

Interviewer:
When you say, “Learned all that stuff,” what do you mean?

Mona Lisa Saloy:
Grant writing, fundraising for the community, for writer’s workshops, for children to buy books, to pay artists to do stuff, that kind of work. And I was actually trained at the Grantsmanship Center, and that was through another job. I used to write grants for the Huckleberry House, which was a series of residential homes for runaways, and Arnold X.C. Perkins was the director, him and Bryan. They sent me for training, so I used to work for them while I was in graduate school because I had to have a day job, but at the same time I was always at the African American Historical and Cultural Center in the Filmore (the Film). It was just a wonderful experience.

I did my undergraduate degree in Seattle, and that’s where I married young–too young. Again, my sister made me go to college, so I went and I just liked to study. I really wasn’t going for anything in particular. I went part time for a while. I was working at the phone company and I learned they would pay your tuition. I said, “Oh, it’s free and I can study? Oh, Lord, I’ve died and gone to heaven. And then because I had been a swimmer in Hardin Park, I had a job at the YMCA as a lifeguard and because of them, I demonstrated swimming all over the state and and met the guy who became my husband. He too was a swimmer. I also taught yoga. things like that.

I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was making a living but we married, and six months after we married, we had a car accident and I lost my memory. I literally broke my pelvis in half, and had a hole in my lung. This is why we have seatbelts now that go across your shoulder. Remember, the steering wheel used to be closer, in your face and now they’re more distant. That steering rod went through my chest, so I had a weakened lung. I’m healthy now by the Grace of God.

My family now tells me that I wrote even when I was a kid, but I lost my memory for a couple of years. The brother–my husband at the time– didn’t tell me who I was. He didn’t tell my family, so I lost touch with everybody. In the accident, the car rolled over three times and fell 30 feet down an embankment onto the next interstate. I could’ve died then at 21. We’d only been married six months. The person who came out of that whole experience is who I am now.

I remembered that I was married but I didn’t remember my husband; then,  the doctor encouraged me to write, to keep a journal. I couldn’t sit down for a few years. I had to either lay down or stand up straight, which wasn’t easy. The first year I was flat on my back, and I didn’t know who I was. I literally had no memory. I had a bad concussion.

My husband was in school. I was working. He was going to school because he wanted to be a lawyer. We were living in student housing at the University of Washington. Next door was a coffee shop. That’s where I heard Mary Snow and Elluage Anthony, who was actually from Cleveland. Mary was from the Northwest. There were other young writers. They were the ones who were reading the Black poets. I would hold my pillow, and stand up, and listen. There was an elevator, so I could make my way up to the third floor where we were living.

I was there every time they had readings, and they would say, “You are here all the time. Who are you?” We just started talking. They said, “You talk like a writer.” I said, “What is that?” I literally was becoming myself, and they turned me on to those great Black writers. We’re talking 1971 into ’72.

It was an explosive time. I had my journal full of stuff, so they took me to their teacher who was Colleen McElroy. I remember that first meeting with her. She was already a professor at the University of Washington. She was from Saint Louis, came from another river town, another great tradition. Her father had been in the military and they’d lived all over the world. He had worked for the Ambassador Corps, I think, and oh, my God, she was a storyteller bar none.

Colleen looked at my journal. She listened to me. She said, “Let me show you what to do with this.” And it was on from then. I never looked back and that community we had, it was Black Arts West. We had Black writers workshops there. I met great writers from all over and she taught me how to send my work out. I’d type those poems up and send them to a magazine. She said, “And soon as you get them back rejected, send them out again. Change the envelope. Change the title. Write another letter and send it out.”

She showed me how to become what we call a writer now because I had no clue. I was putting one foot in front of the other, becoming myself, and I had left my husband because, again, I remember I was writing, and, for years, I could only stand up. I got a little job at a copy center in the university hospital, and this sweet White woman–I don’t even remember her name–she gave me a typewriter. She said, “You need to type this stuff up. It’s good.”

The typewriter was small, like a briefcase. I could carry it with me. Oh, man, I was typing and writing everything. I was joining the young writers at the workshops and the readings. We were just being beautifully Black, and strong, and trying out everything.

When my husband threw that typewriter down three flights of stairs, that was it. I said, “Bro, it’s time to go.” He threw the typewriter down three flights of stairs because he did not want me to become a writer. That’s when I changed. I became the me I am now.

That naive girl who was just a swimmer with no ambition and working full time to support his behind, and him who didn’t even tell my family that I had an accident and lost my memory. . . I had a sister and a brother right there in the city. They didn’t know what happened to me. My dad did not know. I lost my mother when I was a teenager, and apparently I wrote through that but I don’t remember. I don’t remember. I remember the loss and I remember shifting gears, and starting out at (Xavier) Prep, and finishing at Joseph S. Clark, and that was a big shift, and a wonderful one for me, but…

Interviewer:
Just to be clear for people not from New Orleans, Xavier Preparatory was a high school. Joseph S. Clark was also a high school but Clark was located very close to you.

Mona Lisa Saloy:
Yeah. I could walk there.

Interviewer:
Prep was located way uptown.

Mona Lisa Saloy:
Way, way uptown. Took three buses. Just catching the bus was an adventure. Fortunately, by the time I got to Clark, there were coaches who remembered me as a swimmer, and so I had an immediate community because people from Hardin park had gone there, and they’d known my brother or something because he played ball. So it was just welcoming, and my classmates and I are still close.

Interviewer:
Hardin Park was a square located in the Seventh Ward but it also had a pool.

Mona Lisa Saloy:
Yeah, and I’m a medaled swimmer from there. I didn’t just swim. We had water shows like Esther Williams except we swam to Smokey Robinson and to the Temptations. We had hip water shows and today, people in that neighborhood know me as the swimmer. They know me as the little girl from Hardin Park, and so that is a great joy.

Interviewer:
That must have been an incredibly creative moment.

Mona Lisa Saloy:
It was. It was and I just went for it. I was apparently telling stories about New Orleans, and they said, “You talk like a writer,” and again, I said, “What’s that?” They urged me to share my stories. Even before I knew what poetry was, I was telling New Orleans’ stories. I remembered Marie Laveau. I remember hearing that and washing the steps with lye to ward off evil spirits. How to cook certain things. That storytelling tradition made us who we are. Slowly, slowly, my family, my Papa, my mom, my dad, those things came alive. I remember calling my sister. I don’t even know how I found her number, and this was before cell phones. She said, “Where are you? Where have you been?” And when I told her, she couldn’t believe it. She was so angry but so happy, and I think we just cried. I think we cried for days.

Interviewer:
Just remembering that rebirth. So people reading Red Beans and Ricely Yours have no way of knowing all the history that is part of getting to Red Beans?

Mona Lisa Saloy:
Yeah, I think when I grow up, I’ll write my memoir.

Interviewer:
If you ever grow up.

Mona Lisa Saloy:
Yeah ya right!

Interviewer:
The idea for Peter Pan probably came from New Orleans people. You’ve got people who are 80-something years old acting like they just graduated from high school.

Mona Lisa Saloy:
That’s right. That’s right. La joie de vivre (the joy of life)  ain’t no joke with us, baby. “We has it,” Amiri Baraka says. We has it. Joy of life, and that’s from our people handed down. We know how to live in the moment and I’m so thankful for that.

Interviewer:
Part of your tradition was you were reared to be mainstream, educated to be mainstream, but at the same time, you had an oral tradition, which put you in touch with your community tradition. For want of a better term, I’ll call it the Black river tradition, as opposed to the mainstream tradition. And so as a swimmer, you were comfortable in both waters. You could swim in the mainstream, but you could also swim in the Black river.

Mona Lisa Saloy:
Yeah, I had to. That’s who I am.

Interviewer:
When you say that’s who you are, you’re saying more than what some people today call code switching. You’re actually talking about lived experiences, rather than just being able to talk a certain way. And that’s a blessing, but it was a hard blessing, one that almost killed you.

Mona Lisa Saloy:
Truly. And when I was in undergraduate school at University of Washington, my professor from West Africa, Simon Mpondu–he was from Senegal, I think. I’m pretty sure. When I studied African literature, I thought I had died and gone to heaven. When I found African literature, my heart just jumped out of my chest and that’s when I learned that those stories Papa was telling were ours from our mother-father land. That was so precious to me. I never stopped studying. My professor was a PhD. Oh, my God, he knew. He knew the European stuff. He knew Black-American stuff. He knew White-American stuff. He knew Caribbean literature, South American Black literature. It was so impressive. I said, “Oh, Lord. I got to do a lot of catch up.”

Interviewer:
So when you say he had a PhD, do you mean in terms of his knowledge or do you mean in terms of his accreditation?

Mona Lisa Saloy:
Both. He had both. He just knew stuff. It was wonderful. I was blessed to have these guides along the way. It’s only God, really just to put me in the right place at the right time in spite of the hardships. All of that enabled my becoming. I just aspired to be the best storyteller that I could be, and poetry was, I guess, my main way because it was always there for me. I do short fiction. I do essays. I do plays even. I’ve done a couple of film screenplays. I’ve even taught screenwriting. One of my students and his kids have won first prize in the state in screenplays. I’m proud of that. The heart of me and my work is in our culture and the truth to being the wordsmith that God has put me here to be.

God sent me to be here. And I must be true to that.

Interviewer:
That’s an interesting concept because the concept is two fold. One, you’re going to be true to whatever it is you are. But two, you’re going to consciously shape who you are based on choosing to swim in the Black river.

Mona Lisa Saloy:
Yes. Most definitely. That is my foundation. That is my anchor with a long, long rope. That is mine.

Interviewer:
I think it’s important because when it’s announced that you are the new Louisiana poet laureate, the assumption is that you are a Louisiana poet without the understanding that you come out of a tradition, a dual tradition, the Black river and the mainstream. It’s important to know the mainstream and all the things that precede that, but it’s critical if you want to be a creative writer to know from whence you came, which is the Black tradition.

Mona Lisa Saloy:
Yes and once people experience my work, they’ll know that without a doubt.

Interviewer:
When they say poet laureate of Louisiana, the emphasis is not on Louisiana. The emphasis is not even on poet, nor laureate. The emphasis is on carrying on the tradition, and the tradition includes both the Black river and mainstream.

Mona Lisa Saloy:
Yes, most definitely.

Interviewer:
Through your work at Dillard University you have been a master educator. How do you see yourself as an educator?

Mona Lisa Saloy:
To open people’s eyes, and ears, and hearts, and souls. To pass on the responsibility of the truth. To encourage students to always learn and enjoy the journey of learning. To educate themselves first. Then to share it with their families, and then their community. That’s the African world view. Family and community, but they have to build themselves. I forget which teacher said it but you have to get in the overclass before you can help the underclass.

You’ve got to make a living. You’ve got to have some skills, because college is not for everybody, but you’ve got to do something. We are not a lazy people, contrary to popular opinion.

Same thing in my neighborhood, I’ve rebuilt my family home, and there’s not a day that passes that somebody doesn’t say, “You didn’t give up.” I say, “What do you mean, give up? That’s not in my DNA. Where you coming from with the give up?” They saw my house half-built for eight years. That ain’t nothing compared to what our ancestors went through. But God took me to it and through it. I am so thankful.

I try to encourage. An educator has to encourage generations to pursue their dreams, to make a difference for themselves, and then their families, and then their community.

Interviewer:
Yeah, the way I would say it is that all of us have circumstances and the circumstances can either limit us or be the occasion where we enlarge ourselves. We have to overcome. You could either drown or swim. It’s up to you. But for sure, the water is coming.

Mona Lisa Saloy:
Heeeeeyyyy.

Interviewer:
You’re in the water. Are you going to drown or are you going to swim? And what you have said makes me think of something that I heard when I was a youngster coming up about Shine and the Titanic, Shine says, “Get your ass in the water and swim like me.”

Mona Lisa Saloy:
Like me, yep. Yes indeed.

Interviewer:
And that’s our tradition.

Mona Lisa Saloy:
Yes.

Interviewer:
You’re not going to always be on land. You’re not going to always be on a boat or a ship, or whatever. Sometimes you’ve got to get your ass in the water and swim. And we appreciate what you’re doing, and let’s keep on swimming.

Mona Lisa Saloy:
Hey. Yeah, you’re right. Thank you. Thank you.