Kalamu ya Salaam's information blog

Posts tagged neo-griot

Choose another tag?


FEBRUARY 8, 2018



The Book That

Spooked the South

David Walker’s “Appeal” laid bare
the ethical bankruptcy of slavery
moreso than any other book of its time


This copy of David Walker’s “Appeal”, held in the collections of Emory University’s Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library, was owned and signed by W.E.B. Du Bois. (Emory Photo/Video)



Two weeks before Christmas 1829, 60 copies of a book slipped off a ship at the port of Savannah and found their way to a local black preacher. Seeing what was inside, he turned them over to the police at once. They seized every copy.

The author, it turned out, was a free and educated black man named David Walker, a Boston activist and used-clothing dealer.

As its title suggested, the book was an “Appeal” to “The Colored Citizens of the World, but in Particular and Very Expressly to those of the United States of America.” Yet appeal was a tame word for the prophecy smoldering between its covers, clearly directed towards the nation’s enslaved laborers. The police may have flipped to page 28: “It is no more harm for you to kill a man, who is trying to kill you, than it is for you to take a drink of water when thirsty.” Page 35 argued that owners denied slaves education because it would reveal their right to “cut his devlish throat from ear to ear, and well do slave-holders know it.”

Perhaps the police clapped the book shut after page 42, startled when it aimed at whites directly: “Unless you speedily alter your course, you and your Country are gone!!!!!! For God Almighty will tear up the very face of the earth!!!”

Shortly after this seizure, 20 more copies appeared in Georgia’s capital, then another 30 in Virginia. More materialized in New Orleans and Charleston two months later. Before the end of the year, more than 200 had breached the Carolinas. Police scrambled but failed to confiscate most copies, despite in some instances sending undercover agents into black communities. In certain parts of the South, evidence emerged that the book was in fact spreading via networks of runaways. Whites began to panic. Frederick Douglass later reflected that the Appeal “startled the land like a trump of coming judgment.”

Hoping to stanch the book’s flow, state officials called emergency sessions and passed legislation with astounding swiftness. In the words of historian Lacy K. Ford, Jr., “the security furor triggered by the appearance of David Walker’s pamphlet was without precedent.” In Georgia, legislators convened on December 21 and passed new laws before the end of the year. Georgia and North Carolina banned black sailors from entering their ports and outlawed the circulation of questionable literature, punishable by death in the former. Louisiana and Virginia strengthened codes that banned free blacks from entering the state or outlawed literacy instruction for slaves.

The day after the Appeal first appeared in the South, the mayor of Savannah wrote to the mayor of Boston, Harrison Gray Otis, requesting that Mr. Walker be punished for the distribution of his “highly inflammatory work.” Otis conceded that the book was “extremely bad,” but it was not strictly illegal according to any Massachusetts law. He could neither confiscate it nor punish Walker lawfully.

This was more than a failure to harmonize Southern and Northern law; it was a symptom of what Abraham Lincoln would later call a “house divided against itself” on fundamental definitions of property rights versus human rights. The “right to tamper with this species of property belongs to no man, and no body of men, but their owners,” one Georgia journalist wrote in response to the Appeal –  this was “the point of delicacy, and the sanctum sanctorum of Southern feeling.”

Otis did send men to question Walker, perhaps hoping that some pressure from the mayor’s office would unnerve him. To their surprise, Walker not only openly claimed the Appeal as his handiwork, but made plain his intention to circulate more copies at his own expense – also perfectly legal in Massachusetts. Otis could do little besides warn New England ship captains about the book and urge his southern countrymen to remain calm. Otis pointed to “the insignificance of the writer, the extravagance of his sanguinary fanaticism” as evidence that everything would blow over if everyone kept their heads.

But in reality, more than any book in American history, the Appeal forced a choice between peace of mind and owning slaves.

Was Walker, as Otis said, an extravagant fanatic, not worth their panic?

He was born in Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1796. His father, a slave, died before his birth. His mother, free, passed her freedom on to him as the law allowed. Walker nonetheless despised his birthplace, a “bloody land … where I must hear slaves’ chains continually.” He left for the North, and it seems no coincidence that he sent 200 copies of the Appeal to his hometown alone, nearly double the amount that he had sent elsewhere.

Walker plugged into nearly all the major networks of antebellum black activism. He was a leader in AME Church communities in Charleston, Philadelphia, and Boston –  all cities with organized free black communities – and was active in Boston’s Prince Hall Freemasonry, where he also helped found the Massachusetts General Coloured Association. In addition to composing his own antislavery writings and speeches, he was even a sales agent for Freedom’s Journal, America’s first black newspaper. Walker was welcome company among the organized black North.

And if his Appeal was peppered plentifully with prophecy and exclamation marks, its core argument was simple and unnerving. He began with the common premise that slavery defied God’s law because it usurped God’s authority. (“Have we any other Master but Jesus Christ alone?” he posed plainly.) As such, slavery was destined to end either peacefully or violently. Those who defended it, he argued, “forget that God rules in the armies of heaven.”

But even slave owners like Thomas Jefferson had acknowledged as much years earlier. “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just,” he famously brooded, wondering if a revolution was coming for America’s slave economy. 

Walker terrified readers by unfolding this premise a step further, from passive apocalypticism to active holy war: if slavery defied God’s law, so did obedient slaves. Rebellious slaves, therefore, were God’s warriors.

“The man who would not fight … in the glorious and heavenly cause of freedom and of God – to be delivered from the most wretched, abject and servile slavery,” he wrote, “ought to be kept … in chains, to be butchered by his cruel enemies.” Echoing the American Revolution, Walker transformed God’s law into battle lines, Providence into a call-to-arms. This combination of militant prophecy and straightforward reasoning was precisely what whites feared would rouse slaves.

The Appeal came in the wake of bloody slave rebellions that had already practiced what Walker preached. Though it came nearly a century earlier, people still told stories about the Stono Rebellion of 1731, while revolts only increased after the revolutions in America, France, and Haiti. The conspiracy of Gabriel “Prosser” in 1800, the German Coast Uprising of 1811, and Denmark Vesey’s conspiracy in 1822 – just seven years before the Appeal – all put muscle behind Walker’s prophecy. When Nat Turner staged the country’s largest and deadliest slave rebellion the year after the Appeal’s initial appearance, many slaveholders found their worst fears confirmed.

Walker’s pamphlet was arguably more terrifying than these rebellions, precisely because it could spread a precise, persuasive message much further and faster than the charismatic leadership that catalyzed these revolts. Two months after Walker sent his 200 copies of the Appeal to North Carolina, for instance, white residents overheard talk of a plot circulating among a broad network of slaves. If former slave rebellions had been scarier instances of real violence, they were also restricted to local phenomena. Walker’s Appeal was the first instance in which revolt haunted the South as a whole. “None of these insurrections,” in the words of Ford, “generated the breadth of alarm” as the circulation of the Appeal, whose call for slaves “to throw off the chains of slavery, struck raw nerves on a broader scale.”

The Appeal even encouraged some efforts to diminish slavery’s presence in the South. Georgia, for instance, introduced a partial ban on the importation of slaves, and its governor pushed for a full ban, while the Appeal re-energized the Colonizationist movement in Mississippi.

After Nat Turner’s rebellion, this brief outburst of antislavery animus faded just as full-throated defenses of slavery arose from apologists like John C. Calhoun and George Fitzhugh. Then Walker died in August 1830, a short year after the Appeal’s appearance. (Some suspected a proslavery assassination plot, but it was likely tuberculosis.)

If Walker failed to scare America straight, his prophecy came true in another sense. He believed that God, as a “just and holy Being,” would “one day appear fully in behalf of the oppressed” – through either the revolt of the oppressed or the self-destruction of the oppressors, “caus[ing] them to rise up one against another.” Had he lived to witness the eruption of the Civil War 30 years later, Walker may have found both prophecies fulfilled.





January 30, 2018



3 Harlem Renaissance

Novels Deliver An

Ingenious Take On Race
Heard on Fresh Air


To mark Black History Month, Penguin Classics is reprinting six early 20th century books by African-American writers. The five Harlem Renaissance novels, along with W.E.B Du Bois’ 1903 masterwork, The Souls of Black Folk, are much more than a summons to reader-ly duty. Rather, they’re a shake up and wake up call, reminding readers of the vigorous voices of earlier African-American writers, each of whom had their own ingenious take on “the race problem” and identity politics.

With a respectful nod, I’m going to bypass Du Bois’ monumental essay collection, along with Harlem Renaissance superstars Claude McKay and Langston Hughes, in favor of three remaining revelatory novels by somewhat less celebrated writers.

Nella Larsen, the only female writer featured, makes the cut with her 1929 novel Passing. It’s a page-turner premised on an idea that’s discussed a lot these days: the idea of race as “performance.”

Larsen’s two main characters are upper-middle-class black women who knew each other back in the day and have been thrown together again by fate. Both women are light skinned, but one of them, Clare Kendry, has chosen to climb up the class ladder by passing as white.

At one point, Clare’s clueless white husband says in conversation about black people: “I don’t dislike them, I hate them.” Of course, the joke there is that he makes that boast while talking with two black women, one of whom is his wife.

In her sharp introduction to this edition of Passing, scholar Emily Bernard illuminates Larsen’s own experience with the color line: Larsen was the daughter of a Danish mother and a West-Indian father. Passing is undeniably melodramatic, but it’s infused with a sly humor and nervous awareness that Clare’s daily act of “performing whiteness” will inevitably take a devastating toll.

Passing is not an option for Wallace Thurman’s heroine in The Blacker the Berry…:Emma Lou Morgan is so dark she thinks of herself as “dipped, as it were, in indigo ink.”



The Blacker the Berry…
stirred up a hullabaloo when it came out in 1929 because it was the first novel to focus its plot on race prejudice or “colorism” among African-Americans.

Always hoping to find a more inclusive racial community, Emma Lou takes off to Los Angeles for college and then on to New York and Harlem. But everywhere she goes, lighter-skinned black women — the so-called “blue veins” — get exclusive access to the desirable sororities, jobs and potential husbands.

Thurman, whose literary career was cut short when he died of tuberculosis at 32, creates a complicated character in Emma Lou. By the time she arrives in Harlem, Emma Lou has realized her dark skin makes marriage unlikely, so she does something startling: She enjoys a series of sexual relationships without commitment or shame.

Apart from the vibrant character of Emma Lou, Thurman’s novel presents some of the most layered portrayals of New York City life I’ve ever come across, from seedy employment agency waiting rooms to swank Harlem hot spots.

The dedication page of George S. Schuyler’s extraordinary 1931 work of speculative fiction, Black No More, lets readers know that this is going to be a wild ride. Schuyler, who was black, writes:

This book is dedicated to all Caucasians in the great republic who can trace their ancestry back ten generations and confidently assert that there are no Black leaves, twigs, limbs, or branches on their family trees.



Black No More
is a satiric tour de force that rips into myths of white supremacy, black nationalism and the American Dream. The story follows a black man named Max Disher as he gambles on a new invention, the Black-Off machine, that turns black folks white. Here’s a jubilant Max after the procedure:

Gone were the slightly full lips and Ethiopian nose. Gone was the nappy hair. … He was free! The world was his oyster and he had the open sesame of a pork-colored skin!

Schuyler’s own story is also the stuff of wild fiction: A fierce provocateur, he ended his life a member of the conservative John Birch Society.

All of these Harlem Renaissance novelists forge their art within what Du Bois famously called (in The Souls of Black Folk) the “double-consciousness” of African-Americans. That is, to be “an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

These writers transform an understanding of the double-consciousness with the expression of a third consciousness they own — as stirring, singular artists controlling their narrative and projecting it into a cacophonous world.









The Trials of

Simone Biles:

‘I’m Still Stuck

in My Thoughts

All the Time’

The greatest gymnast of all time—
with four gold medals at the
2016 Olympics in Rio—opens up about
“attending” college, training for 2020,
and the villainy of Larry Nassar.



My heart is so full…but I also just wanna cry all the time.

These are not the sentiments one would expect from Simone Biles, the greatest gymnast to ever live. In public, the four-time Olympic gold medalist lights up every room she walks into or red carpet she struts down with her infectious smile and sports-legend charisma. She may be 4-foot-eight, but she is truly larger than life. (Having all-too-briefly basked in her presence, I can attest to this.)

Lately, however, the 20-year-old has been coming to terms with the abuse she suffered at the hands of Larry Nassar, the former USA Gymnastics doctor who stands accused of molesting over 265 girls—including numerous members of the USA Women’s Gymnastics team—and who will spend the rest of his life in prison.

Biles came forward with her story on January 15th, in a note posted to Twitteraccompanied with the #MeToo. It read, in part: “Most of you know me as a happy, giggly, and energetic girl. But lately…I’ve felt a bit broken and the more I try to shut off the voice in my head the louder it screams. I am not afraid to tell my story anymore. I too am one of the many survivors that was sexually abused by Larry Nassar…After hearing the brave stories of my friends and other survivors, I know that this horrific experience does not define me. I am much more than this.”

When I ask Biles about the above tweets she posted on January 25 as the Nassar trial unfolded—which included several emotional impact statements read in court by his accusers—that wonderful smile disappears.

“It takes a lot,” she says. “I start counseling soon. For one human being to be put through so much, it’s very emotionally draining, physically draining, and it takes more energy out of you to almost hide it than it takes to give. I’m working on that part. Inside the gym is all good but outside I’m still stuck in my thoughts all the time. So I’m going to counseling to deal with that.”

Biles has a ridiculous amount on her plate right now. In addition to the Nassar trial, she is in the midst of training for the 2020 Summer Olympics (six hours a day) and is taking a business administration class at University of the People, an online college (three hours a day). There’s also a Lifetime movie on her, The Simone Biles Story: Courage to Soar, premiered Feb. 3.

With all that going on, she still managed to take some time to sit down with me in New York and discuss all things Simone Biles. 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

How’s New York treating you?

It’s good. Busy…very busy!

I saw that Halsey gave you a shout-out at the recent Women’s March here in New York. She called you and the other gymnasts targeted by Larry Nassar “heroes” who remind her “why we rally.” 

That was really cool. Her and G-Eazy are dating and they’re so cute.

I saw you retweet a message recently that really stuck with me. It said that the names for the USA Women’s Gymnastics teams, the “Fierce Five” and “Final Five,” have taken on a whole new meaning in light of the disturbing Nassar revelations: that 2012 were “fierce” survivors and 2016 will be the “final” group to have to suffer his horrific abuse.

It has a different meaning now. Now that he is locked up, he can no longer hurt any more gymnasts, athletes, anyone. At all. I think it’s cool how our name relates to that. I wish it would be a different reason, because we were Martha’s [Karolyi] “Final Five” and I wish we couldn’t relate the two cause it’s a very unfortunate situation and saddening to see how that correlates, but…it is what it is.

It’s hard to fathom how you were able to accomplish what you did—four gold medals, including the all-around and team golds—under normal circumstances, but under such horrific, stressful, chaotic circumstances, it’s almost unfathomable. I’m just a viewer, but gymnastics appears to require such laser-like precision and focus.

At a young age we’re taught to block out our feelings, because if you’re too emotional it gets into your head and you don’t perform as well, so we’re very good at compartmentalizing things. And that’s something nobody wants to think about—ever—so I’m very good at blocking out the bad thoughts.

I’m sure you saw that amazing GIF of Judge Rosemary Aquilina tossing Nassar’s letter away.

The paper! I did. That was great. She’d had enough. We all have.

I’ve always wondered, as someone just completely in awe of what you’re able to accomplish on the mat and beam, what you’re thinking while you’re flipping in the air…or if you’re thinking at all.

Me personally, I don’t like to think, because once you think you tend to overthink it. So I just don’t think. My head is completely clear. It’s like airplane mode—we’ve done it so many times, so we’re on autopilot.

Simone Biles of the US performs on the beam on Day 12 of the 2016 Rio Olympic Games on August 17, 2016.

Do you have any pre-competition rituals? Listen to any music or anything? I you’re your fellow Olympian Michael Phelps was listening to Future’s “Stick Talk” when he made the infamous “Phelps Face” that went viral.

[Laughs] No, I don’t do any of that. I’m not very superstitious or anything.

Are any of the other members of the “Final Five” going to be joining you in 2020?

That’s…that is for them to decide when they’re ready, if they want to continue the sport or want to retire.

The women of USA Gymnastics have, of course, endured so much. What are your thoughts on the culpability of USA Gymnastics, and how to prevent something like this from ever happening again? 

The whole entire board resigned, so they’ll have to reform and rebuild their whole constitution and there’s still a lot of investigating that needs to be done, but to start from the ground you have to really tear it all down and start over.

I saw that you have a new, hunky boyfriend—sorry, I’m not sure if it’s “boyfriend” status or not—but has having him [Stacey Ervin] around helped you at all during this time?

It’s very hard for him to understand, but he’s from the gymnastics world so he knew the doctor as well. Nobody in my family is very happy with the way everything went down—as are all of the other families—but they’re here for us, and he’s an amazing boyfriend, so I’m grateful for him. I can’t ask for anything else.

You’re the first global ambassador for University of the People, the first ever non-profit, tuition-free American accredited online university, and are currently enrolled there taking classes. I’m sure every college would have loved to have you, so why this one? 

It was a great opportunity. Because I do travel so much, to attend classes isn’t that easy for me and I don’t really have time for it, but with this online university I can take it with me wherever I go. It’s very accessible—and affordable as well.

And you’re majoring in business administration to…manage your millions? Just kidding.

[Laughs] I’ve always wanted to do something with business, so we’ll see where that takes me. I’m only taking one class right now because one requires fifteen hours a week, and I train from thirty-two to thirty-six hours a week, so I don’t really have time to take another class. Just one class at a time.

You’ve also helped establish the Simone Biles Legacy Scholarship Fund there, which is billed as being “designed to assist foster children”—like you—“achieve their college dreams.”

I wanted to help other kids that don’t have access or don’t have the opportunity to go to school. Once you get out of college, once you’re a graduate, if you don’t have a full scholarship you’re already in student debt, so it’s great to give people this who didn’t think college was possible for them.

Speaking of your childhood, when you look back on it are you sometimes in awe of how far you’ve come? It’s really something when you consider where your story began, in and out of foster homes before your grandfather and Nellie took you in.

Every now and again, I do. You have to set goals for yourself otherwise you’re going to stay in the same place—you’re going to be stuck—so going from a little girl to a young adult, I feel I’ve achieved a lot. But it came with a lot of sacrifices and dedication, so it wasn’t an easy road. I think everything happens for a reason though, and it was a blessing that I got the outcome that I did, so I can only be thankful and grateful…I do believe that everything happens for a reason.

Missing out on a normal high school life—parties and all that—was part of it, I imagine.  

Yeah. A lot of kids just want to party and want stuff to come to them without having to work for it, so I had to give up a lot. I couldn’t go to public school, I’ve never been to prom or any school dances, so I had to sacrifice a lot.

Former First Lady Michelle Obama rests her elbow on the head of Olympian Simone Biles as former President Barack Obama speaks at the White House on September 29, 2016.

Let me tell ya: prom is so overrated.

[Laughs] Yeah, but every girl loves to get dressed up every once in a while!

Yeah, but you were honored at the ESPYs! The parties you’re going to now are so much better.

[Laughs] I do get to go to some pretty good parties now…

How’s the 2020 Olympics prep going? Have you already started training? 

Yeah, I’m already training. I was supposed to start November 1st but I was in New York for something else, so then I started November 3rd. December, though, was the anchor month where I was really back home and training full-time. Right now it’s everything; I’m back to full-speed where I left off. I’m at the gym for six hours every day. It’s an hour of conditioning and then forty-five minutes to an hour on each event.

Geez. I can last, like, 45 minutes to an hour total. How are you feeling about 2020?

It’ll come around fairly quick. I am excited for it, but you can never think too far ahead because you never know what will happen, so you have to take it day-by-day, meet-by-meet.

The USA Women’s Gymnastics team, it seems, will have managed to artfully dodge a Trump White House visit, right?

[Laughs] I wouldn’t say that!

Well y’all visited the Obama White House—and took over its Instagram, which was great—in September 2016, and since the Olympics aren’t till summer 2020, you could miss having to make that decision entirely, maybe…

[Laughs] We had a different president in the White House and we had the opportunity and honor to go visit, so…that’s all I’m going to say!

It’s in Tokyo in 2020, too. I’ve never been to Tokyo…except the airport. Very jealous.

The culture is great and the people are so nice there, and everything is really clean. It’s great there.

Silver medalist Alexandra Raisman of the US, gold medalist Simone Biles of the US, and bronze medalist Aliya Mustafina of Russia pose on the podium at the medal ceremony for the Women’s Individual All Around on Day 6 of the 2016 Rio Olympics on August 11, 2016.

There’s this Lifetime movie about your life, The Simone Biles Story: Courage to Soar, premiering on Feb. 3. That must be pretty weird, having a movie attempt to tell your story.

It’s definitely pretty weird to have a movie about yourself! We’re going to have a watch party at the house—a little one, with family and friends and some really good food.

That sounds like fun. Did you have any input in the film or get to choose who played you?

I had a lot of input, especially choosing the actors that played my parents and myself. That was important to me. And whenever I was there visiting the set, I had a say in how it went down, and I got to read and change the scripts around so that the dialogue reflected things I’d actually say.

I wanted to circle back to 2020. The team won’t have to train at the Karolyi Ranch anymore, right?

Yes, we don’t have to return there anymore. They shut it down, thankfully.

With everything that’s happened, I still don’t really know how you do it—how you go out there and kick ass time and again. Your focus is just…incredible.  

You know, people mistake athletes. They think we’re standing on these pedestals as goddesses but we have our own issues. They think we have these perfect lives because of what we’ve managed to accomplish, and most of us block out a lot of feelings because we’re told, as elite athletes, that we’re not allowed to feel the same things that other people feel or we’re not allowed to show emotions. People forget that we’re going through our own struggles. They think, you have money, you have this, you have that, how can your life be so difficult? So people tend to forget that we have serious issues we’re working on, too.







February 12 & 19, 2018



Adrienne Kennedy’s


Body of Work

The playwright’s œuvre addresses
race, dispossession, and madness.

Adrienne Kennedy in Williamsburg, Virginia, in January, 2018.
Photograph by Susan Worsham for The New Yorker

“Blood” is one word that comes up. Blood as poison, blood as might. Other words—“help” and “cry”—are among the verbs most likely to be spoken by the eighty-six-year-old playwright Adrienne Kennedy’s characters. These bitter, lovesick words—sharp bleats of distress—rise and cling to the curtains and the walls in the ghastly showrooms of her characters’ troubled, hope-filled, and hopeless minds. Taken together, Kennedy’s twenty-odd plays form a long and startling fugue, composed of language that is impactful and impacted but ever-moving, ever-shifting, as her protagonists, usually women of color, stand on the precipice of disaster, madness, or loss. For the course of the performance, at least, those women overcome their passivity and their willfulness—a jarring combination—in order to tell us what life can feel like on that cliff of color and gender.

Kennedy’s most recent work for the stage, “He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box” (evocatively directed by Evan Yionoulis, in a Theatre for a New Audience production, at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center), is smaller than her previous plays but is shaped like the shimmering and original scripts that made Kennedy’s name in the nineteen-sixties and have kept her in a place of her own in the New York theatre scene ever since. As I watched the two main characters in “He Brought Her Heart Back”—a well-off young white guy named Chris (Tom Pecinka) and a light-skinned black woman named Kay (Juliana Canfield), in the segregated Georgia of the nineteen-forties—my mind drifted to Kennedy’s other plays, the majority of which are suffused with memory and a child’s question: Why can’t life work out, be the dream it should be, like a song? Or, better yet, a movie?

Indeed, Kennedy is a kind of film scenarist who is too literary for film but whose strongest work renders the stage more cinema-like, less intransigent, more open to different ways of moving. The stage directions for her first professionally produced play, the Obie Award-winning 1964 one-act “Funnyhouse of a Negro,” read like a script for a movie that’s about to be shot. Kennedy is alive to every sound and every image that her protagonist, Negro-Sarah, feels and projects. Sarah lives in a room on the Upper West Side with her various “selves,” including Queen Victoria and the Duchess of Hapsburg. In her darkened “chamber,” she has made a romance of European and English empire and culture. Still, no matter how much she identifies with these historical figures, who are, perforce, isolated by their power, she cannot fully enter into their stories or be them, because she’s black—stained by her dark-skinned father. In “Funnyhouse,” history, personal and otherwise, is accompanied by sound. Now it’s the sound of knocking on a door. Who’s knocking, and why?

Victoria: It is my father. He is arriving again for the night. He comes through the jungle to find me. He never tires of his journey.

Duchess: How dare he enter the castle, he who is the darkest of them all, the darkest one? My mother looked like a white woman, hair as straight as any white woman’s. And at least I am yellow, but he is black, the blackest one of them all. I hoped he was dead. Yet he still comes through the jungle to find me.

Victoria: He never tires of the journey, does he, Duchess?

Duchess: How dare he enter the castle of Queen Victoria Regina, Monarch of England? It is because of him that my mother died. The wild black beast put his hands on her. She died.

Other “selves” show up in the play—including Jesus and Patrice Lumumba—but none can save Sarah from the feeling that her race is doomed and her life loveless. Eventually, she hangs herself, killing off that yellow body, as well as all the confused and vivid history that was tearing it apart.

The protagonist of “The Owl Answers,” a one-act from 1965, is a light-skinned (“pallid”) black woman named Clara. As Clara sits in a clanging, rumbling New York City subway train, Shakespeare, William the Conqueror, Chaucer, and Anne Boleyn enter the car. Clara wants to see her father. She is being held captive in the Tower of London. For what crime? Her blackness? Clara pleads with Anne Boleyn:

Clara: Anne, Anne Boleyn. Anne, you know so much of love, won’t you help me? They took my father away and will not let me see him. They locked me in this tower and I can see them taking his body across to the Chapel to be buried and see his white hair hanging down. Let me into the Chapel. He is my blood father. I am almost white, am I not? Let me into St. Paul’s Chapel. Let me please go down to St. Paul’s Chapel. I am his daughter.

But Clara’s being “almost” white means nothing here; her blackness is what keeps her outside of British history. She’s a cultural orphan, split by her parents’ racial shame and recriminations. As the play ends, Clara tries to kill her black lover, a symbol of so much anguish, but she fails, and what alternative does she have except to become an owl, a raceless non-human who sees so well in the dark?

In Kennedy’s 1976 one-act “A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White”—the title plays on the idea of the Negress as star—a black woman named Clara (Kennedy often reuses names in several works) tells her story through characters from the black-and-white movies she loved, and projected herself onto, as a child: Bette Davis in “Now, Voyager,” Jean Peters in “Viva Zapata!,” and Shelley Winters in “A Place in the Sun.” When Clara was growing up, there were no black film actors who could express her panic, her high theatrical self-engagement, or her sense of grief. Saddened by her dark-skinned father’s abandonment and pregnant with her first child, Clara expresses her anxiety, through “Bette Davis,” in one of the greatest monologues of the twentieth century:

Bette Davis: When I have the baby I wonder will I turn into a river of blood and die? My mother almost died when I was born. I’ve always felt sad that I couldn’t have been an angel of mercy to my father and mother and saved them from their torment. I used to hope when I was a little girl that one day I would rise above them, an angel with glowing wings and cover them with peace. But I failed. When I came among them it seems to me I did not bring them peace . . . but made them more disconsolate. The crosses they bore always made me sad. The one reality I wanted never came true . . . to be their angel of mercy to unite them. I keep remembering the time my mother threatened to kill my father with the shotgun. I keep remembering my father’s going away to marry a girl who talked to willow trees.

The play, an underproduced masterpiece, is a mosaic of women’s pictures, in every sense of the word—pictures that Kennedy crafts by marrying poetry to action. At the end of “A Movie Star,” as in “A Place in the Sun,” Shelley Winters drowns, a latter-day Ophelia sinking into a watery grave, while her killer, her once and always love, looks on, dispassionate.

Death, maimed spirits, racial and cultural self-hatred, the joy of the imagination, of finding real-life metaphors to describe who you are, the propulsive force of anger, nightmares, humorous imaginings—where do all these hobgoblins and fancies come from? At the start of her original and groundbreaking memoir, “People Who Led to My Plays” (1987), Kennedy herself poses that question: “More and more often as my plays are performed in colleges and taught in universities, people ask me why I write as I do. . . . Who influenced you to write in such a nonlinear way? Who are your favorite playwrights? After I attempt to answer, naming this playwright or that one, as time progresses I realize I never go back far enough to the beginning.” The memoir is an attempt to go back to the beginning. Wonderfully, Kennedy doesn’t offer a straightforward biographical self-portrait, but “People Who Led to My Plays” brings into focus all that mattered to her as a girl, as a young woman, and as an artist, from paper dolls to Joe Louis to Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire.

Kennedy was born Adrienne Lita Hawkins in Pittsburgh, but grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, in such multiethnic neighborhoods as Mount Pleasant and Glenville. Her dark-skinned father, C. W. Hawkins, was a social worker, and her mother, Etta—who had a white father—was a schoolteacher. “It’s important to remember that I grew up in an immigrant neighborhood but was also a product of black middle-class culture,” Kennedy said in one interview. “I always tried to make sense of that. Tried to balance that. To understand where I fit into that world.” In school, she learned Latin. (Her astonishing 1968 play “A Lesson in Dead Language” takes place in a classroom, where the students’ menstrual blood stains the backs of their white dresses and the Latin teacher is a white dog.)


Kennedy loved the mornings she spent listening to her mother recount her dreams, which she sometimes believed were true, and she loved, too, the wildness of Emily Brontë’s prose and her story of unquenchable love. Kennedy and her brother, Cornell, spent summers visiting relatives in Montezuma, Georgia, their parents’ home town. (According to Kennedy, her mother was the illegitimate daughter of a powerful married white man.) The train journey to Georgia in the Jim Crow car was one that Kennedy never got over; trains figure prominently in her plays. In Montezuma, she saw “Colored” and “White” drinking fountains. Segregation was as real as her mother’s dreams. At the same time, Hitler was rolling through Europe. A lookout tower went up in Kennedy’s Ohio neighborhood. (In her play “A Rat’s Mass,” from 1966, two children have rat tails and worship at a Catholic altar, while shouting about Nazis as an imminent threat.)

Nazis, Lena Horne visiting Kennedy’s neighbors, the superb order of her mother’s house, her mother’s mixed-race background: all these things spoke to Kennedy’s imagination, just as Thomas Hardy’s grim and theatrical novels did when she discovered his work, as a student at Ohio State University, where she enrolled in 1949. (She was blown away by “Tess of the d’Urbervilles.”) It was in Columbus that she experienced racial hatred first hand; there were only a few black female students there, and Kennedy felt ostracized by her white classmates. The bitter lives of pastoral women that Hardy portrayed in his work were as significant to Kennedy as the characters in Tennessee Williams’s “The Glass Menagerie.” From these authors she understood that one could write what one knew about family and the desire to wrench oneself away from it, and that women could speak at the speed of their own logic, if they chose to.

Kennedy’s degree in elementary education—one of the few fields open to black women, who were dissuaded from majoring in English—had little impact on her career. Shortly after her graduation, in 1953, she married a fellow-student, Joseph Kennedy. The couple eventually moved to New York, where they went to the theatre and immersed themselves in bohemian culture, while he worked on a Ph.D. in social psychology. Kennedy has said that her former husband—they were married for thirteen years—helped release her from “this image of myself as simply somebody who might teach second grade.”

In 1960, Joe Kennedy received a grant from the African Research Foundation. Off the couple went to Ghana, by way of Europe and North Africa. It was Kennedy’s first trip to England, Spain, Morocco—the places she had read about or seen in movies. The journey made her thoughts more fluid; fragments of her past came back to her, fragments that she wanted not to make whole but to shape. “The imagery in ‘Funnyhouse of a Negro’ was born by seeing those places,” Kennedy noted in an essay about the play. After several months in Accra, her husband travelled on to Nigeria and Kennedy moved to Rome, where she finished writing “Funnyhouse” the week before her second son was born. “I was twenty-nine,” she wrote. “And I believed if I didn’t complete this play before my child’s birth and before my thirtieth birthday I would never finish it.”

In the same essay, Kennedy noted that in Ghana, and for the rest of the trip, she had stopped straightening her hair. (Hair is central in “Funnyhouse.”) By refusing to allow her hair to be “processed,” Kennedy was turning her back on how a colored girl was supposed to look, let alone be, while grappling with the question that all black American intellectuals struggle with eventually, especially when living abroad: How did the African become a Negro? As a Negro, she was many things—black and white, a bastard child of cultures that were not her own, though she was part of them, a product both of Europe’s cultural schisms and of American racism. Dismantling her romanticism, in her plays she could curse England and Europe in their own language, while wondering what her yellow body would look like without them. Who would she have been without her dark-skinned father and the violations associated with his skin color? In an interview included in Paul K. Bryant-Jackson and Lois More Overbeck’s “Intersecting Boundaries: The Theatre of Adrienne Kennedy” (1992), Kennedy’s first director, Michael Kahn, talks about working on “Funnyhouse of a Negro”:

When I first met Adrienne, instead of explaining the play to me, she brought me loads and loads of photographs and reproductions of paintings. From that I really understood what the power of the images were for her. And for some reason, even though I was a white boy from Brooklyn, I shared a lot of those understandings of the same images.

Billie Allen, the actress who played Negro-Sarah when “Funnyhouse” premièred, remembered how angry the play made both whites and blacks—particularly blacks, who felt that it denigrated the race. Allen said that the work was clearly about “the depth of the damage of institutionalized racism.” But while that ever-present wound was a pressure point in a number of more traditionally crafted, narrative dramas and comedies by such brilliant black playwrights as Lorraine Hansberry and Alice Childress, Kennedy struck a nerve by failing to offer an explanation for it: the madness of being a Negro in America was . . . mad. Why filter it? In “Funnyhouse of a Negro,” Kennedy’s characters don’t so much talk to one another—there is no real connection through her dialogue—as hold up a mirror to the forces that are pulling their minds and bodies apart, leaving all that unique, pulsating language on the stage floor.

Unlike her black male contemporaries—Douglas Turner Ward, Amiri Baraka, the powerful and underrated Ed Bullins, and others—Kennedy did not make her politics central to the drama of being that her characters wrestle with. Although she may have agreed with the Baraka-founded Black Arts Movement and its credo—black stories for black audiences—race was just one of the front lines in her characters’ battle with the self. (Her beautiful 1969 monologue “Sun: A Poem for Malcolm X Inspired by His Murder” says more about the leader’s psychological resonance than a zillion now forgotten get-whitey plays.) In a 1995 interview, Kennedy spoke about how “Funnyhouse of a Negro,” closed after fewer than fifty performances, in the wake of what she recalled as hostile or uncomprehending reviews. Still, the black and white artists who loved the play—Mike Nichols, James Earl Jones, and Jerome Robbins all went to see it; it was enthusiastically supported by Edward Albee and his Playwrights Unit—recognized something new in Kennedy’s language of heartbreak and revenge.

In a sense, Kay, in “He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box,” is Negro-Sarah’s mother. To say that the story is autobiographical is to state the obvious. But, as usual in Kennedy’s plays, the autobiographical strain is not direct. Also, “He Brought Her Heart Back,” which runs for just over forty minutes, isn’t exactly a play; it’s a lyric populated by characters who feel familiar to Kennedy’s longtime readers and audiences.

Kay is a mixed-race seventeen-year-old student at a boarding school in the lightly fictionalized town of Montefiore, Georgia. Her grandmother lives in the black part of town. Her mother committed suicide when Kay was an infant; her father writes histories and mysteries. Beautiful but prim, Kay loves Chris, whose wealthy father oversees the boarding school. Chris, who is forward-thinking, wants to escape his father’s control and become an actor in New York. But the young aspirants are burdened by a history they cannot shake. When they talk to each other, they are usually divided by space. (Kay recites her first lines from a balcony, while Chris emerges from a cellar where he does work for his father.) As in Kennedy’s other plays, conversation doesn’t necessarily involve communication or catharsis. Often, it is an excuse for recounting dreams and nightmares. Chris describes his mother’s horror of her husband’s illegitimate black children; Kay talks about her mother’s death, in Cincinnati, and about how her father brought her mother’s heart home in a box. Did she kill herself because of love? Because of the pain of segregation? The shame of having a biracial daughter she could not care for? Or was she murdered? It’s as if the characters, played by more than capable, emotionally true actors, were speaking in a confessional to a God whom only they can see.

Kay predicts that, together, she and Chris will have a life like those depicted in “Bitter Sweet,” the 1929 operetta by Noël Coward, but the piece ends tragically, and what we’re left with, primarily, is the image of Kay changing her clothes at various times during the performance, as though exchanging one skin for another as she moves toward a freedom that she will never know.

The set designer, Christopher Barreca, has done an extraordinary job of realizing Kennedy’s cinematic approach to stage pictures, and when I saw the production I was reminded of “A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White,” in which Kennedy most directly explores how screen images can inhabit the mind. It would have been terrific if Yionoulis had paired “He Brought Her Heart Back” with “A Movie Star.” The new work is too short and thin to thrive on its own, especially for audiences who haven’t seen Kennedy’s work before. How marvellous it would be to experience Kennedy’s new work alongside another version of her parents in love and at war, spinning together and separately as their daughter tries to be if not a divided self then entirely herself. ♦

Hilton Als, The New Yorkers theatre critic, has been
a staff writer since 1994. He is the author of
“White Girls.”

This article appears in the print edition of the February 12 & 19, 2018, issue, with the headline “Howl.”







Freedom’s Dance

Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs
in New Orleans

photographs by Eric Waters
narrative by Karen Celestan

248 pages / 10.00 x 9.50 inches / 143 color photos,
30 b&w photos, 6 line drawings

In this pivotal book, the captivating and kinetic images of noted photographer Eric Waters are paired with a collection of insightful essays by preeminent authors and cultural leaders to offer the first complete look at the Social, Aid and Pleasure Club (SAPC) parade culture in New Or-leans. Ranging from ideological approaches to the contributions of musicians, development of specific rituals by various clubs, and parade accessories such as elaborately decorated fans and sashes, Freedom’s Dance provides an unparalleled photographic and textual overview of the SAPC Second Line, tracking its origins in African traditions and subsequent development in black New Orleans culture.

Karen Celestan’s vibrant narrative is supplemented with interviews of longtime culture-bearers such as Oliver “Squirk” Hunter, Lois Andrews (mother of Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews and James Andrews), Fred Johnson, Gregory Davis, and Lionel Batiste, while interdisciplinary essays by leading scholars detail the rituals, historic perspective, and purpose of the Second Line. Freedom’s Dance defines this unique pub-lic-private phenomenon and captures every aspect of the Second Line, from SAPC members’ rollicking introductions at their annual parade to a funeral procession on its way to the crypt.

Visually dazzling and critically important, Freedom’s Dance serves as both a celebration and a deep exploration of this understudied but immediately recognizable aspect of the African American tradition in the Big Easy.








A new anthology aiming to curate the most remarkable voices on the poetry scene is here. 20.35 Africa: An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry will be guest-edited by Sudan’s Safia Elhillo, co-winner of the 2015 Brunel International African Poetry Prize and author of the 2016 Sillerman First Book Prize-winning The January Children, and Nigeria’s Gbenga Adesina, co-winner of the 2016 Brunel International African Poetry Prize, and most recently in conversation with Pulitzer Prize winner Tyehimba Jess. Both poets were finalists for the 2017 Brittle Paper Award for Poetry.

In the making since 2016, 20.35 Africa‘s focus is on both young and established African poets within 20-35 years, with hopes to publish around 40 poets. The project’s editorial team comprises the Nigerian poets Ebenezer Agu, Chisom Okafor, Gbenga Adeoba, and D. E. Benson, and the visual artist-writer Osinachi. In an email to Brittle Paper, they state:

20.35 Africa: An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry is meant to create a platform for the best of the generation’s poets from Africa, to present an outlook of contemporary and future voices, and to make such poetry accessible and available to African readers.

It is the sincerest wish of the editors that the anthology would go a long way in covering areas in African poetry that have, until now, remained bare and fallow.

Safia Elhillo.


20.35 Africa: An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry will be available for free download.

The deadline for submissions is 17 March, 2018.


  1. The anthology will consider work by African poets who fall between the 20-35 years age bracket.
  2. The anthology is ONLY for African poets. We see an African poet as someone born in Africa, or whose parents (at least one) is African, or someone who currently lives in Africa, and has done so for a minimum of 10 years. Poets who were born in African countries, and have lived up to ten years of their lives there, but are currently pursuing academic programmes in non-African countries can also submit.
  3. Poets who have had a full length book or a chapbook or pamphlet published in electronic or print format can submit. Poets who have not been published in any form or by any literary outlet, and fall into the acceptable age bracket, are encouraged to submit as well.
  4. Submissions can cut across any themes, but each contributor may send 3 poems only. Please send us your best poems.
  5. Only poems written in English will be accepted. Works translated into English from any African languages may be submitted, but they must be accompanied by the originals.
  6. Submissions should not exceed 40 lines each.
  7. Identifying information, including names of poets, addresses, phone numbers and publication histories, should not be included in the manuscript or in the body of the email. Submit with your personal email address and include same on the last page of your manuscript.
  8. All entries must be submitted in a SINGLE WORD DOCUMENT, typed in TIMES NEW ROMAN, font 12, and sent via email only to the 20.35 Africa Team at
  9. The email subject should read 20.35 AFRICA SUBMISSION.
  10. Submissions must be written in black ink. No colours.
  11. All poems must have a title.
  12. Poems must be the original work of the contributor.
  13. Submissions deadline is by midnight (UTC+01:00) of 17th March, 2018.
  14. Submissions will be judged solely on merit.
  15. For all enquiries, please contact the 20.35 Africa Team at

Gbenga Adesina.


We commend the 20.35 Africa Team for this. We are hoping that the anthology includes subjects currently underrepresented on the poetry scene. Do submit.







2018 Eliza So Fellowship


We’re very excited to offer the 2nd Annual Eliza So Finish-Your-Book Fellowship. The goal of the fellowship is to afford two writers the time and solitude to help finish a book that is already in progress. The fellowship includes room and board at Las Vegas’ Writer’s Block in the fall or winter of 2018, along with a $500 food stipend and $400 toward airfare. There is no fee to apply.

This year, in partnership with The Writer’s Block and Plympton, Submittable will offer two fellowships:

1) The Eliza So Fellowship for Immigrant Writers (Final judgeSun Yung Shin)
2)The Eliza So Fellowship for Montana Indigenous Writers (Final judgeDebra Magpie Earling)


1) You have a novel, collection of stories, or memoir in progress (100 pages minimum) or poetry collection in progress (30 pages minimum).

2) You are either: a) A US immigrant (documented or undocumented), b) An indigenous writer with significant ties to Montana (either you are from Montana, live in Montana currently, or have another significant affiliation with the state).


Applications are due by 11:59PM MST on March 25, 2018.

1) What is the Writer’s Block?
The Writer’s Block is located in downtown Las Vegas and
consists of a Book Shop, Las Vegas’ only independent
bookstore; Codex, a writers’ studio dedicated to education,
production, and publishing; and The Book Machine, a
unique and quick book-making tool for self-publishers.
There is also an artificial bird sanctuary. See more at

2) Are there any requirements beyond writing?

The Eliza So fellow will work with The Writer’s Block on
a public-facing event, such as a reading or lecture.
3) What are the accommodations like?

You’ll be staying at a furnished apartment in the Pioneer
Heights neighborhood of downtown Las Vegas. The studio
apartment has an attached kitchen and bathroom. Free
wifi is included. The apartment is on the ground floor and
should be accessible for anyone with mobility issues.


4) Is there a gambling allowance?
No, unless you count your food stipend.
5) What if I have already published a novel, memoir,
or full-length collection?
This is fine, as long as your book-in-progress is a different
piece of work.
6) Who is Eliza So?

Eliza So immigrated to the US from Hong Kong in the early
1980’s with her husband Albert and their two young daughters.
She worked in administrative and housekeeping jobs in the San
Francisco Bay Area for many years, while she and Albert raised
their daughters. In her late 50’s, she began showing signs of
dementia, and she was diagnosed with early onset of Alzheimer’s
in 2012. This fellowship is in honor of a very kind, hard-working,
vibrant, and warm person who still remembers her daughters,
one of whom is a Submittable employee.


7) What if I have additional questions?
Please reach out to us at any time.










Call for Submissions:

Caregiving Issue



For our Fall 2018 issue, Michigan Quarterly Review seeks submissions on the theme of Caregiving and Caregivers. The issue will be guest edited by Heather McHugh. We particularly encourage submissions from writers and artists who are themselves active caregivers.

Prose submissions: 5,000 words maximum

Poetry submissions: 8 pages maximum

Submit work for this issue through March 31, 2018. Complete submission guidelines are available here.







January 29, 2018



Jamila Woods

Singer, songwriter, poet, educator and community organizer Jamila Woods is also a freedom fighter: a voice that celebrates black ancestry, black feminism and black identity. “Look at what they did to my sisters last century, last week,” goes a line from “Blk Girl Soldier,” her powerful opening number at the Tiny Desk.

“Traumatic things … happen to black people, but then you still have to go to work the next day, or you still have to wake up and teach a class, or go take care of your family,” Woods told NPR in September. “I had just been bottling up all my feelings about these things … so I remember this song being a way for me to cry about a lot of those things and just feel them and sit with them.”

Woods followed “Blk Girl Soldier” with “Giovanni,” another anthem of black female pride, inspired by the Nikki Giovanni poem “Ego Tripping.” The original text includes no punctuation, not a single comma or period, and reveals a liberated prosody that is also illustrated in the song. Listen how her lyricism interplays with the rhythm section’s syncopated groove to create a captivating state of emotional buoyancy.

There is much to savor in Woods’ music, rich with philosophical meaning and striking musicality. Of particular note is her recurring theme of self-love, as heard in “Holy,” the last song in this set: “Woke up this morning with my mind set on loving me.” (What a refreshing affirmation to hear “loving me,” instead of the predictable “loving you.”)

“My mission as an artist is always to create art that’s useful,” Woods told NPR. “I want my music to feel like it has a tangible effect on people, like it allows them to check in with themselves, feel affirmed, feel able to continue into their day or into their path with renewed energy and a renewed sense of self, because … that’s what I hope to manifest in myself.”


  • “Blk Girl Soldier”
  • “Giovanni”
  • “Holy”


Jamila Woods, Erik Hunter, Justin Canavan, Ralph Schaefer, Aminata Burton


Producers: Suraya Mohamed, Morgan Noelle Smith; Creative Director: Bob Boilen; Audio Engineer: Josh Rogosin; Videographers: Morgan Noelle Smith, Bronson Arcuri, CJ Riculan, Alyse Young; Production Assistant: Salvatore Maicki; Photo: Jennifer Kerrigan/NPR

For more Tiny Desk concerts, subscribe to our podcast.






photo by Alex Lear




Raoul stood on the wooden patio balcony enjoying the twilight’s slow departure. With the patient concentration of a piano tuner unhurriedly working in an empty ballroom, Raoul watched the evening shadow creep up the cream colored concrete wall as the sun light gradually dimmed and the criss-crossing sunbeam shafts merged into the darkest green of the shadow shrouded banana tree trunk.

With each slow breath, through nostrils that barely moved when he inhaled, Raoul caught the bouquet of courtyard odors: frying sausage from somebody’s pan, shrimp in the alley from last night, and the sweet subtle fragrance of watermelon waffling upward from the Johnsons just below him, sitting out eating the pink fleshed fruit and chatting about their grandchildren.

But more than what he saw or what he smelled, Raoul liked what he heard: the sounds of a New Orleans evening in the Treme area muted by the wood of old buildings, sounds mingling like the melodic strains of a brass band improvising, different elements going to the fore and then receding: a rancorous car horn blown at two kids chasing a ball into the street, the high squeal of the car’s brakes a cacophonous counterpoint to the car’s blasting horn; Mabel singing to herself while she cooked, today her natural alto was stuck on “Amazing Grace” sung in C; the Johnsons listening to their favorite Louis Jordan recordings; someone’s radio on loudly (the person was probably sitting on their front steps, with a beige touch-tone Princess telephone perched on the door sill, talking to a friend who was probably doing the same in her neighborhood), the station was WWOZ and the fifties R&B show had not too long ago come on; water and sewage moving through the plumbing — thick, heavy iron pipes which were common decades ago — that ran up the outside of the building next to the stairwell; a television barely heard, Raoul couldn’t tell what show it was or where it was coming from, but he could tell it was a television because every 35 or 40 seconds a burst of forced laughter erupted instantly and died down quickly; the long soft watermelon burp from below; and, the low eruption from his own bowels as Raoul passed gas. 

What he liked about all these sounds is that no one sound was supreme, neither noise nor music was so loud or lasted so long that it dominated the soundscape — this was a good band.

Although the catalogue of sensual stimulants was long and varied, Raoul felt relaxed here. He savored the ballad tempo of day’s exit in this little courtyard. The atmosphere was soothing, it invited reflection, meditation, cat-napping, snoozing, quiet cigarette smoking, thinking things through, forgetting, reading letters over and over, a good long novel, memorizing a short poem. Everything. Nothing. Raoul liked this.

Raoul’s hand rested lightly on the heavy wood railing, a railing pitted by the bombardments of time, a railing no longer smooth like it was when initially, proudly, installed by the Heberts, a neighborhood family of laughing carpenters (a father, Harold, two sons, Francis and Eric, and a cousin, Daniel, whom everyone called “Two-Step”). 

Whatever paint had once graced the railing was long since gone. Now the wood was colored by the pigments of natural aging: rain borne atmospheric dirt and rodent excrement, bird droppings and tiny insect slime; the bleaching of the merciless semi-tropic Crescent City summer sun; the seasoning of sweat and other body fluids; sundry dyes from a plethora of spilled drinks composed of every imaginable concoction of juices and flavorings used to disguise the sharp taste of the alcohol; colorings from an exhaustively long line of liniments, potions and medications (for example, a three-quarters full bottle of some chalky white substance of dubious medicinal value which had been pitched in real anger at the genitals of the third in a long series of tenants by a live-in lover on the way out — the bottle broke on the railing when the tenant successfully sidestepped the not unanticipated missile); the indelible blotches left by blood from a terrible accident with a knife which left a little hand permanently scarred; soot streaks from a holiday inspired outdoor barbecue that should never have been lit there in the first place; not to mention the many burns from snuffed cigarettes and the 159 ice pick holes assiduously bored into the wood by someone who was bored out of their skull one day waiting for a certain individual who never came. 

None of this would have surprised Raoul. Like the patina of most elderly humans we meet whose skin tones reflect a full life, this railing had a long survival story. Raoul liked graceful survivors: people and things which held up well, didn’t cry or carp about life’s severities, but rather simply persisted in being what they were.

Raoul lived alone. He chose his lifestyle. He…

Someone was knocking at his door. He stood motionless. They knocked a second time. Raoul thought about not answering the door. A third knock. Louder. With the unhurried motion of a man who has enjoyed a long life and feels no pressure to accomplish anything else, Raoul moved slowly from the balcony into the front room and to the front door.

When Raoul opened the door a young girl stood there.

They looked at each other. She couldn’t have been more than 17 or 18.

“Raoul Martinez?”

“Good evening.”

“Excuse me. Good evening. Are you Mr. Raoul Martinez?”

“Who wants to know?”

“My name is Mavis Scott.”


“And. I’m, uh, looking for Raoul Martinez.”

“What for?”

“Music lessons.”

“I don’t give music lessons.”


“I said I don’t give music lessons.”

“I know all your music.”

“What music?”

Mavis unhitched her large leather bag from her shoulder, lowered it gently to the floor, knelt beside it and quickly retrieved her flute case. She place the case on top of the bag, opened it, and assembled the flute, blew air through the silver cylinder to warm it, stood quickly and began “The Silver Song.”

“Well. Uh huh. I still don’t do lessons.”

Without hesitation Mavis started into “Ra-Owl.”

“Where you learn that from?”

“A record.”

“I ain’t got no record.”

“June Johnson — The Copenhagen Connection.”

“That was… How you got holt to that?”

“I like your music.”

“How you found me? How you know I was here?”

“I like your music.”

“I like a lot of stuff. That don’t mean I know everything.”

“But if you really like something, you learn about it.”


“Mavis Scott.”

“Alright. Come back tomorrow. Four-thirty.”

“You’ll teach me?”

“No, I’ll think about it. I’ll tell you my answer tomorrow.”

“You want me to call before I come?”

“Can’t call.”

“Oh they have phones at school.”

“Can’t call me. There ain’t no phone here.”


“Good evening Miss Mavis Scott. I’ll see you tomorrow.”


“Come on in.”

When Mavis walked into Raoul’s room, she felt like she was falling into a past she had never seen but a past she wanted desperately to know about.

Raoul walked away from Mavis. He opened a half closed door and disappeared into the adjoining room.

An old armoir and an old piano dominated the room where Mavis stood. She looked for a television but there was none. She looked for anything that would give clues to Raoul’s personality, but there was nothing else personal in the room. The balcony doors were open to the courtyard and the window on the street side of the room was closed and tightly shuttered.

Raoul reentered the room, a trumpet in his hand.

Mavis looked at the piano. Raoul assumed she could play some piano. If she couldn’t at least play some chords on the piano it would be a waste of his time to try and teach her anything.

“Ok, hit some chords.”

He pointed toward the piano with his horn.

“Go head, girl. You say you wanna learn. This your first lesson.”

She sat at the stool, her hands just above the keys and then rested them lightly on the keys. She wanted to cry, unable to think of anything that seemed appropriate to play.

“Mavis, blues, b flat, watch me. Uh, uh, uh-uh-uh-uh.”

Mavis tried to think of blues chords, some notes, blues songs even. Every song she thought of she rejected because it was not the song he wanted. She didn’t know what he was going to play but whatever he was going to play she knew it wasn’t what she was trying to recall. With great effort she lifted her hands. It felt like some invisible force was trying to hold her hands down. Her hands dangled above the keys, coiled tightly, a leopard waiting to pounce but no prey passed her way.

Mavis bit her lip. Her nostrils itched and burned slightly. Tears formed on the inside edges of her left eye. He had already counted it out. Would it be too corny to play “CC Rider”? That was too simple. So was “St. James Infirmary” or even “Goin’ Down Slow.” But what key. B. Yes, he had said B.

Whenever Mavis was under pressure to perform her subconscious would flood her mind with so many possibilities that the hardest part of the creative process was not the thinking of something to play, but rather deciding on which one idea to play.

Once she had sat in at Jay-Jay’s place…

“Girl, you don’t know no blues? You don’t know no blues, how I’m gonna teach you to play jazz?”

Raoul walked out the room.

Mavis cried quietly to herself. When Raoul returned with a piece of paper in his hand he pretended he didn’t see her tears. Mavis quickly wiped her eyes with her forearm. Raoul sat the sheet of music on the piano stand. It was just a series of chords. No melody. No time signature. No bass lines. Just chords.

Raoul snapped out a slow walking tempo.

“Uh. Uh. Uh. Uh.”

Mavis smiled when she heard Raoul’s trumpet. This was “Ra-Sing.” She hadn’t recognized the changes written out on paper, but she knew the song. By the time they were at the tune’s bridge, Mavis was very comfortable with the chords. If she were playing flute there is so much more she could have done, but on the piano all she could do was feed chords.

Suddenly he gave it to her.

Mavis was ready. She did a break and filled the hesitation with three deftly timed, chimming block chords. Then started a phrase that consisted of four chords which resolved on the next chord in the progression. At the bridge she dropped the tempo compeletely and strung out a set of altered chords which she had thought of two years ago while listening to the record over and over. Mavis was ready.

“Go on, go on, girl.”

“I could play it better on flute. I don’t have much piano chops.”

“OK. Do it”

Mavis picked up her flute case from beside the piano stool, assembled her flute, held it to her lips and waited for Raoul’s count.

Raoul closed his eyes. The only count was an almost imperceptible nodding of his head. But Mavis saw, she saw and was ready. He would see. She was ready.

They played “Ra-Sing.” At the bridge he dropped out and Mavis confidently flew.

“Play it pretty baby, play the pretty way you talk.”

They played the song through twice.

“Yea. Now that’s better. Where you from girl?”

“Right here.”

“Yea, huh.”

“Yes,” she smiled, resting her hands and her flute in her lap, allowing her head to tilt a bit to one side. “Same place you from. We both coming from the same place.”

“Yeah,” he said with a slightly mocking “we’ll see about that” tone. “Let’s take it from the git go. Watch me now.”

They chased each other playing a fleet “Ra-Owl”. He laughed at her swirling trills.

“Don’t put no dress on this man now.”

“No, just a pretty shirt,” and she did it again.

It was uncanny the way this young girl played something like June did. At the bridge June had always hung back, quarter noting just behind the beat. She was playing it like June played it. They ended together, Mavis voiced below Raoul.

“Solid.” He smiled. There was nothing like playing. Raoul thought about playing with June. Mavis was still laughing. “Yaknow, June always used to say,” Raoul altered his voice to imitate June’s famous growl, “mannn, ya don’t play music. You serious music.”

Mavis stopped laughing. She didn’t stop smiling. She looked at Raoul.

“Girl, music is more than just a love, it’s a passion and that’s the way you got to play. It’s got to be like you can’t help yourself.”

“You mean you got to give yourself to it.”

“No, baby. I mean you got to get everything you need to live from it. Fish need water. Birds need air. You got to need music. Yaknow, you got to need it bad, so bad that when you don’t play, you can’t live.”

There was still so much Mavis did not know about herself, especially about what she needed to feel fully alive.

Raoul wasn’t looking at her. He started to play. His horn was at his lips. He fingered the valves quickly. His cheeks puffed out. He almost started but didn’t. Raoul thought of something. Mavis didn’t know what he was thinking but she could tell he was thinking of something.

Raoul didn’t know why he thought so suddenly of Martin Luther King getting shot in the neck, except that really living was the only thing worth dying for. Living the way you wanted, doing what you wanted to do, that’s all was worth dying for. Raoul played “The Silver Song.”

Mavis joined him. They played forty-six and one half choruses when Raoul just stopped suddenly. He put his horn down. Stood up. Walked out the room. The lesson was over. It was almost night. Mavis packed her flute quietly and sat for a minute looking at Raoul’s horn. She fingered the top of her flute case like it was a piano, she was fingering the changes to Raoul’s “Silver Song.”

She played the piano well, so well that her piano teacher encouraged her to become a piano major. He said she had the passion to play like he had never seen in a student in a long time. When Antonio Luzzio said that, Mavis wondered what did he know about her passions. All he could teach her was technique, she remembered thinking when Mr. Luzzio spoke softly about piano and her passion. Later, Antonio Luzzio said to her one day when she was playing Chopin for him: “Your hands love the piano and the keys love them back. I will teach you the technique so you can forget the technique.”

Now, studying with Raoul, Mavis blushed to herself. She never thought she would be so thankful for what Mr. Antonio Luzzio had taught her. He had taught her to play correctly, so now there was nothing between her and the music. She could hear the changes and hit the right chords. She could also alter the changes and create new chords that were harmonically correct. “Thank you Mr. Luzzio,” Mavis said to herself.

Raoul finally came back into the room. He was getting his soft leather cap out of the almost antique armoire. She had seen cedar robes before, with the long dressing mirrors and the strong but pleasant wood smell.

“I can’t come tomorrow,” she said as she watched him methodically place the black cap on his head. The cap looked expensive. Mavis did not know that the cap was from Norway, nor did she know it was a gift which Raoul cherished.

Her saying she couldn’t come tomorrow reminded him to tell her she couldn’t come on Friday; she didn’t need to know why.

“Neither next day, either. Look here, for next time, work us out a ‘rangement for “A-Train” in slow to mid tempo. You better mute me too.”


“Why? ‘Cause I said so.”

“No, not the lesson, I understand that. I mean why I can’t come on Friday.”

“I done already tolt you, ’cause I said so.”

“OK, Raoul,” God, she hoped she had said his name casually enough, “because you said so.”

He didn’t answer. He left the room. The lesson was over.


They were playing Monk — rather Raoul was playing Monk and she was struggling to find something to play. Everything she thought to play was so obviously not what should be played.

“Why is Monk’s music so hard to play?”

“It ain’t hard to play. It’s hard to fake!”

Mavis chuckled almost inaudibly, agreeing with Raoul’s pithy summary. Raoul played a half chorus and stopped.

“Monk made you play or else sound like you couldn’t play.”


“Like the hardest thing about Monk is rhythm, and that’s the hardest thing in life, to find your own rhythm.”

“But when you playing with others you can’t just play your own rhythm.”

“The trick baby is to know when to solo, when to ensemble, when to comp and when to lay out. That’s life. That’s music. Sometimes you take the lead with a solo, sometimes you play your part right long side everybody, sometimes you’re in the background accompanying what’s going on, sometimes you don’t play. Dig?”

“But how do you ensemble when everybody else is playing a way you don’t want to play?”

Raoul turned to the piano and played the head of “Evidence” again. He picked up his horn and played variations on the theme. He got up off the piano stool and kept playing, motioning for Mavis to sit at the piano. Mavis put her flute on top the piano, sat and comped the changes. He stopped. She stopped.

“When you can’t play, lay out.” He played some more. She joined him. He stopped. She started to go on. She stopped.

“Some fools think shedding is about perfection, yaknow that ‘practice makes perfect’ bullshit, but, yaknow, that ain’t where its at. Shedding is for learning what not to play, learning what doesn’t work and learning not to do that. I mean your woodshed ought to be full-a all your mistakes. Practice making mistakes. Playing makes perfect. Shedding is all about making mistakes, baby.” He started again. He stopped. She started to play something. It didn’t work. She stopped.

“When you can play what you can’t play now, then you can play.” Raoul started again. Before she could start, he stopped. “Yaknow, it ain’t about you. Monk was about Monk. But when you play Monk, you got to be you playing Monk. When you play your stuff then its about you.” Raoul played “Evidence” again. Mavis comped. Raoul soloed. He altered the changes. Mavis followed laughing. Raoul’s logic was so clear. He returned to the head. They ended together with a flourish, she had the sustain pedal down and the piano’s resonance undergirded the mirth of their entwined laughters.

“Mavis. Blues. B flat. Use the flute. Uh. Uh. Uh-uh-uh-uh.” And they were flying. She had a variation of “Killer Joe” that was smoking and matched perfectly what he was doing. Soon she found that she was leading the song. At the bridge she stomped her foot loudly on the floor, indicating a stop-time. She ripped off four measures and threw it at him. He was pleased with her self-confidence and began trading fours with her. She started flutter tonguing and screaming false notes. He wah-wah muted the horn with his hand. She hummed into her horn. He picked up a metal ash tray and got right nasty.

This was something like that night in Jay-Jay’s when she had sat in but it was better because it was just happening, and she was not having to prove anything. Mavis remembered something she had played that night, it was something she had heard Rahsaan do on a record and she had copied it. When she did it that night, the crowd loved it. When it was her turn, she did that same thing.

Raoul stopped.

“Nah, why you played that. That shit don’t fit. It ain’t you, is it?”

“What do you mean it’s not me.”

“Who you heard do that?”

She started to deny that she had heard anyone do that. They were having so much fun playing. It had felt so good to be playing on an equal basis with him.



“Rahsaan Roland Kirk on the alb…”

“Rahsaan can play Rahsaan. You play you and when you ready to play Rahsaan then you be you playing Rahsaan but don’t be taking Rahsaan shit trying to make it yo shit. You don’t know what all that man went through to get that sound. You don’t know what he was thinking. And I don’t want to know what you thought he was thinking or feeling. I wants to hear what you thinking and what you feeling, even when you playing his shit. Play me some Mavis Scott. I wants to hear Rahsaan, I’ll put a record on.”

“I just, I just thought it would fit there.”

“Imitation don’t never fit in jazz. Don’t care how much some people might think they like it. Jazz is for real and if you ain’t being for real, you ain’t playing jazz.”

Raoul walked out the room. Lesson was over.

Just as Mavis was about to leave, her flute packed and her feelings shredded like a tom cat’s favorite scratching pole, Raoul returned into the room with a picture in his hand. He held it out to her.

Mavis looked at it quickly.

“That’s me and June in Copenhagen.”

“Um humm.” Mavis barely held the metal frame a full minute before gently returning Raoul’s most treasured photograph.

“I thought you might like to see it, you know, you knowing all about me and June and such.”

Raoul had no way of knowing that Mavis saw his picture everyday. How could he know that Mavis had her own copy, sent to her mother by June who was her second cousin. Raoul knew everything but he didn’t know this. He thought Mavis was hurt because of what he had said to her, why else didn’t she look at the photograph which he had seldom shown to anyone.

“Thanks.” They stood uncomfortable in the silence like musicians listening to the playback of a sad take late in a recording session that has not gone well — even though they had tried their best, the outcome did not sound too good. Maybe the best thing was just to pack it up and try again on another day.


After knocking twice and getting no reply, Mavis tried the door knob. The door was unlocked. She let herself in, moved quickly to the piano, and set up to shed — it was no longer like basic lessons, now they spent most of the time practicing together.

The way they played together was almost like they were equals — well not really equals, because Mavis was only a beginner, but they played together like colleagues, musical colleages. No, it was more than that, there communion felt to her like more than band mates who only played periodic gigs together and seldom saw each other beyond that. Well, although it was true these sessions were the only time they saw each other, still it was more than just sessions.

The way they would break out laughing simultaneously after playing a good exchange or after hitting an unplanned ending abruptly but precisely in tune with each other, that was like friends. That’s what it felt like, good friends.

After all, Raoul didn’t play in public anymore. Absolutely refused. So, in a sense, Mavis was Raoul’s only peer. “Don’t nobody want to hear no old man playing no more.”

“You ain’t old.”

“You too young to know what old is.”

But there was also something else simmering between them. Something just beneath the surface. At least, Mavis wanted there to be something else. Well, at least, sometimes she wanted there to be something else. She wasn’t sure if he wanted there to be something else. He had never even so much as touched her before. Well he had touched her shoulder once and had nudged her with his hip to catch a beat or something, but his bare hand had never touched her skin.

Where was he?

Mavis played her flute for a minute or so, waited. Raoul did not appear.

Another Raoul-less minute passed slowly.



Mavis looked at the bedroom door, or rather looked at the door she supposed led to Raoul’s bedroom. She had never gone any further into Raoul’s apartment than the front room where they shedded or quickly dashing in and out of the little bathroom on a couple of occasions.

Should she go inside the bedroom?

She went to the door.

Should she knock?

The door was already ajar.

“Raoul,” she called out.


She touched the door.

Should she push the door open?

She opened the door.

Raoul lay sleeping on his bed. Naked to his waist, or maybe he was totally naked and only exposed to his waist; a spread covered the lower half of his body. Mavis could not tell if he had any other clothes on.

She trembled.

Should she?

She started to call his name.

Should she wake him?

Or, should she… ?

She undressed quietly, quickly. Maybe, if she just climbed into his bed. The window was open. A breeze blew through. Maybe, he wasn’t really asleep. Maybe, he was waiting to see what Mavis was going to do. What was she going to do?

Mavis felt the wind dashing slyly between her legs, mocking her quandry, challenging her to move from the spot where she stood glued in confused frustration.

The wind blew again. She felt a chill there.

The curtain moved.

Mavis turned her head to look at the curtain. Is this what Lot’s wife felt like, unable to go and unable to stay? Mavis’ head hurt. Why was she even thinking about the bible and where did Lot’s wife come from? Something moved.

Raoul had moved, turned half way over toward her.


Raoul snored. It was a soft snore, but a snore. Would he wake up before she could get out of the room?

Carefully, slowly, Mavis bent to retrieve her clothing which lay in a shameful little pile beside her. This man was older than her father. Almost old enough to be her grandfather. Mavis did not understand the attraction, nor the repulsion, but she felt both, and, after initially acting on the former, was now being swayed by the latter.

The curtain moved again.

Mavis held her breath.

God, this was stupid.

With clothes in hand, Mavis stood trying to figure what was the better choice, try to dress quickly and silently in here, or slip naked back into the front room and dress in there. Suppose Raoul woke up while she was dressing? Suppose when she moved to go into the front room the floor squeaked or the door squealed and Raoul saw her naked?

How could she explain this to Raoul?

Raoul moved again, rolled away from the door.

Mavis dashed quickly into the front room. It took her so long to get dressed. Her hand trembled terribly.

Once dressed, she picked up her flute — the metal felt so cold — and stood silently in the middle of the floor. What now?

Eventually, she decided to leave.

At the front door she wondered whether Raoul was alright.

Mavis opened the door and closed it softly behind her and started to walk away. But suppose he were sick. He hadn’t looked sick or anything. He looked alright. But maybe he had a heart attack. But she was sure he had been breathing normally. At least she hoped he had. Mavis didn’t remember his snoring because she herself had not been breathing normally. If something were wrong and she left him like that; she couldn’t do that.

Mavis went back into the apartment. Everything sounded ok.

Mavis walked across the room. She didn’t hear anything that sounded wrong.

Mavis stood in the bedroom door. Raoul slept soundly, except he had turned toward the door and lay fully exposed. Mavis saw him facing her nude. She trembled anew. Finally she left.


“Hey girl what happened to you yesterday. I fell asleep about two and didn’t get up til six. Did you come and think I wasn’t home or something?”

“No. No. I didn’t, couldn’t come yesterday. I just came by today to pay you what I owe you because I won’t be able to come anymore.” Why had she lied? She wanted to call it back, but didn’t.

“You don’t owe me nothing. I just want to hear you when ever you start playing if you do like you say you gon do and if you keep playing like you been playing.”

“Yes, when I really start playing I’ll let you know and if you play, you have to let me know.”

“I won’t, but then, one never knows, do one?”

“No, for sure, one never knows until one does.”

“Yeah you right, girl. Until one does, one don’t.”

Mavis stood up, “Raoul, thanks for your help.” Her hand was sticking out toward him. He took her hand into the warmth of both of his and held it. He looked her in the eyes.

“Mavis, you pass it on whatever it is you think you learned funny girl.”

“For sure. Always learn. Always teach. And always know when you suppose to be learning and when you suppose to be teaching.”

He was still holding her hand. “Lady, you got it.” He slowly returned her hand to her.

Everything felt so final, like this was graduation and even if they saw each other again it would be different. Maybe that’s what calling her “lady” meant.

“Do you still, I mean are you still tied up on Fridays?”

“What made you ask that?”

She walked toward the door away from him, “Oh youth I guess.”

“You’ll get over it.”

“Yes, well…”

“Goodbye sweet lady, play what you must but always be ser…”

“….always be serious about the music.”

Raoul kissed her on her nose. She turned quickly, nearly stumbling as she ran hurriedly down the stairs onto the waiting sidewalk below. She heard a radio. She heard a tv. She heard some kids playing. Cars passing. Somebody arguing about something. A riverboat whistle blowing on the river. The St. Claude bus pulling off three blocks away. And quietly above it all, Mavis heard Raoul’s “Silver Song.” At first she thought the sound was in her head. Then she looked up.

Raoul was sitting by his front room window, playing with his horn stuck out the window, playing for the whole neighborhood to hear.

A new found confidence squared Mavis’ shoulders as she loped down the street humming along with Raoul’s trumpet.

—kalamu ya salaam