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African-American. Here in the USA (and almost equally so in the majority of the western hemisphere) the common phrase mostly refers to the descendants of chattel slavery. But there is now a new generation of African-Americans.

Somi is one of the new generation. Her parents are from Uganda and Rwanda; she was born (Laura Kabasomi Kakoma on June 6, 1981) in Illinois. Here are are her comments and three selections.  She has spent years residing in Lagos and other areas of Africa, and currently domiciles in New York.

The big deal is her music, not just her vocals but also the sensibility she brings to her songs. When she sings the result is both an aural narrative and an emotional touchstone. Her new live album, Holy Room, features Somi supported by Frankfurt Radio Orchestra. And what a joy it is.

From whisper soft breaths to full-throated screams, Somi gifts us with her full vocal range unleashed. She is more than simply a singer, she is both a performance artist and a thoughtful philosopher.

Within the larger scheme of day-to-day reality, it is easy to downplay the importance of a vocalist of popular music. So many entertainers are visible to us and their music streamed worldwide, yet relatively few of them are presented as serious artists who confront larger social issues regardless of the pretense and hoopla surrounding their public image. 

Somi is special.  




In 1958 I started 7th grade. Mr. Conrad, who taught industrial arts, had converted a closet into a dark room and offered us photography classes after school. I was hooked. Saved up my cutting grass money and bought a Yashica Twin Lens Reflect camera. While I really loved shooting–at school they called me the “picture man”–working in the dark room was where I shined.

The Sixties was much more than simply another decade. So much happened. For example: 1965, Malcolm is assassinated. 1968, King is assassinated. Sit-ins and school take-overs. Nothing was ever the same afterwards. The bland, establishment blanket was ripped apart. Viet Nam. And then came Black Power and the seventies.

Jim Hinton was a filmmaker. Only recently have some of his work from that period been digitized and made available. One of the many short films he made focused on the then burgeoning Black Power movement. People born after 2000 were not even around when America was literally on fire. Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time was more than a snappy book title.

When the New Yorker magazine presented an 8-minute video overview of that period I was overjoyed. Entitled “An Unseen Body Of Work Shows A Different Side Of Black Power” this is an exquisite gem, a video time capsule that brings to life a bygone albeit timeless era. Hinton’s films offer us a peek at what we looked like making history.

The people. The places. Events. I knew them. Had been to “New Ark” (which is how LeRoi Jones spelled Newark, New Jersey back in the day). What Hinton filmed is some of what I experienced. And now it’s available for my grandchildren and their peers to see. Indeed, this is a gift to and for the whole world.

I give thanks for the work of Jim Hinton.

Harambee! Harambee! Harambee! Harambee! Harambee! Harambee! Harambee!









Our Mighty Voice
Of Prophecy


Music by David Linx, Pierre Van Dormael
James Baldwin – narration
David Linx – vocals, drums, percussion
Pierre Van Dormael – guitar
Michel Hatzigeorgiou – bass
Deborah Brown – vocals
Viktor Lazlo – vocals
Steve Coleman – alto saxophone
Slide Hampton – trombone
Jimmy Owens – trumpet, fluegelhorn
Pierre Vaiana – tenor saxophone
Diederik Wissels – piano





The Preacher Poet



I would like to use the time that’s left to change the world,

to teach children or to convey to the people who have children that

everything that lives is holy.

—James Baldwin



James Baldwin voiced us—articulated black experiences with a searing intensity that frightened some and enraptured others of us. Even if you could not read, once you heard Baldwin you were convinced of the power of words. His ability to move air was such that the vibrating oxygen Baldwin set in motion spoke to us as surely as if the words had issued from our own mouths.


Baldwin’s sermons (and that’s what his words were, instructions for living) entered us, vital as breathing.


Baldwin’s breath proclaimed what it meant to be flesh, and black. He told us of the here and now, told of barbarians who feared life in others and feared those who truly lived to love rather than to conqueror.


Baldwin spoke of racist hatred for black people, telling us that their hatred was but a mask for the intense hatred they felt for themselves and the sordid, twisted mess they had made of their own lives.


The gritty texture of Baldwin’s voice testified to the realities of black life, the ups, the downs, the terrors, as well as the hard-won tenderness found in our usually brief but nonetheless frequent stolen moments of exquisite and redemptive love. He was no romantic, but oh how he loved. He loved us all and gave his all in the love of us.


Indeed his very behavior posed the quintessential question: if not for the opportunity to love, what are we living for? Certainly not labor and toil, nor riches and fame, which we can never take with us when we inevitably exit the world; If we do not love our selves and our children, what will our living matter in the future? And if we do not understand that everyone’s child is our child, then how whole can we be as a human being?


When I was younger, when I thought I had a taste for anger, a yearning for retribution, I was always mystified and sometimes even miffed by Baldwin’s insistence on love. Now I am older, directed by the wisdom of age: sooner or later, most of us grow tired of fighting but we never tire of love.


What was bracing about Baldwin was his insistence that we be humans regardless of how inhuman our tormentors might act, and as Baldwin so eloquently reminded us, their behavior was an act, most likely a ruse to mask their fear of us, or worse yet a lie to camouflage their fear that they were not what they tried to make us believe they were; they were not gods, conquerors, lords and such. No. They were merely what we all are, human beings trying to survive and prosper.


It is easy to think of Baldwin as an Old Testament prophet, raining down fire and brimstone. He was, after all, a professional evangelist as a teen. It is easy to think of Baldwin as a Shakespeare in and of Harlem since his command of language is now legendary. But it is wrong to reference Baldwin solely from outside of black culture. Think of this black voice as a life-force, as the sound of us, as the sound of living, as a drum. A drum, an insistent beating drum whose rhythm was synchronous with our own heartbeats.


The fullest appreciation of James Baldwin the writer is not understood until James Baldwin the voice is heard. Only once your heart was moved by the way this man moved words could you fully understand the power he brought to us who were told time and time again, in a million ways, day, night and seemingly always that we were totally powerless, or at least powerless to prevent first our enslavement and now our ongoing oppression and exploitation.


The power Baldwin brought to us was a clear-eyed recognition of world realities, we, just as everyone else, were the range of behaviors and emotions, memories and dreams that it means to be human, and as such our task was to be the best human we could be, which best necessarily meant the embracing of other humans. You are a human and you must embrace other humans is a powerful message to give to those who have been taught otherwise.


And this fire to be wholly human that Baldwin breathed into our lives was no mere mental exercise. Baldwin went far, far beyond thinking because he spoke with a passion for life, a passion to get the most out of life even as he admitted that as we struggled on inevitably we would err, we would make mistakes, we would fail from time to time, even backslide, and knowingly do wrong, after all we are humans and that’s part of what humans do, but Baldwin would remind us as long as we are alive we have the opportunity, indeed we have the obligation to correct our mistakes and to strive to be better than we have been.


Baldwin was telling us: grow up. Of course, you’ve been done wrong and you’ve done wrong. We all have. We all have been done wrong. We all have done wrong. Grow up, face life. All the wrong in the world does not mean that you and I can’t do what’s right.


And ultimately, while James Baldwin the writer is important, James Baldwin the human voice is equally important, especially now that the technology exists so that we can all hear him, we can all experience the ways in which he manipulated human sounds of communication. In other words, the fullest appreciation of James Baldwin the writer is not totally understood until James Baldwin the voice is heard.


Baldwin was full of passion and the very fire light of life. To reduce him simply to books is to miss the music that this man made of words.


Thus, if you think you know James Baldwin, if you think you love our literature and you have never heard him deliver the word, and you do not have his spoken word CD, then you don’t really know the breadth and depth of James Baldwin.



Between September 19, 1986 and September 18, 1987, James Baldwin spent a year working on a spoken word CD with producers/composers/musicians David Linx and Pierre Van Dormael. Recorded in Brussels, Brooklyn and New York City, A Lover’s Question (Label Beu, Harmonia Mundi) is a masterpiece of merging words with music: a precursor to what is now a popular artform.


The producers succeed in more than providing a sonic backdrop for the words; they actually composed orchestrations that both complemented and mirrored the intent and expression inherent in Baldwin’s delivery of his complex poems. The success is then on three levels: the poems are phat, the music is tight, and the musicians respond with an exhilarating verve that let’s you know they too were giving their all, giving their love and not simply going through the changes to get paid.


Aside from a brief musical introduction and an elegiac solo rendition of Thomas Dorsey’s “Precious Lord” on which Baldwin talk-sings the famous gospel composition, there are only three poems on this CD. One poem, “The Art of Love,” features operatic vocalist Deborah Brown and is done as an art song, an interlude between two poetic suites.


The two-part “A Lover’s Question” continues in the vein of the Fire Next Time. Baldwin questions the citizens of his birth nation as to their desire to hate: “Why / have you allowed / yourself / to become so grimly / wicked?” and “No man can have a / harlot / for a lover / nor stay in bed forever / with a lie. / He must rise up / and face the morning / sky / and himself, in the / mirror / of his lover’s eye.” As Baldwin knew, true love is always honest even though honesty is seldom an easy fact to live with in a land where lies and commerce replace truth and reciprocity.


The concluding number is the three part opus “Inventory / On Being 52” and it is the introspective Baldwin fingering his own wounds (some of them self-inflicted). He does not flinch as he cross-examines his own life and realizes the terrible costs of his mistakes, the terrible beauty of embracing both the terrors and joys of being human. Baldwin manages in a stream of consciousness style to encourage us to live the good life, suggesting that the good life is a different life from the life/lie that too many of us live. Baldwin encourages us not simply to march to the beat of a different drummer, Baldwin tenderly implores us to be different drummers.


Tap out the real rhythms of life with our every footstep in the dark, our every embrace of what we and others are and can become. Reject the ultimately tiresome and ephemeral wisdom of materialism / accept the rejuvenating life-cycle rhythm of the earth. Thus Baldwin says “Perhaps the stars will / help, / or the water, / a stone may have / something to tell me, / and I owe a favor to a / couple of old trees.”


“Inventory / On being 52” is a deep song, but then, as he says, “My father’s son / does not easily / surrender. / My mother’s son / pressed on.” Every young poet needs this old man’s CD in their collection, this compass of compassion, this example of the passionate heights the spoken word can attain. If you as a poet do not know A Lover’s Question then you do not know the full history of your own human heartbeat.



James Baldwin. His life, his teachings, his commitment, his words embody one of the great paradoxes of the contradictions of life—and regardless of misplace beliefs in idealism, in an eternal anything, in a person being solely and only one thing or another, regardless of our worship of the false idol of ideas and dualism—experience teaches us, all life, every life is contradictory. In fact, to be alive is a contradiction, is a fight against death, literal death, symbolic death, the death of compassion, the death of our own humanity in terms of how we relate to others and the world we live in.


Life is a contradiction, and as such, isn’t it wonderful for us to realize that one of the most insistent prophets, preachers and poets of love was a queer, black man standing against the homophobia, standing against the misogyny (and surely hating women also means hating the earth), standing against the racism, and all the other -isms endemic to the place and time within which Baldwin was born.


James Baldwin. Clearly modeling for all of us what it meant to be a man, and more importantly what it meant to be human and live in a time of institutional war and inhumanity.


I love James Baldwin.


—kalamu ya salaam


[The first version of this essay, essentially most of part 1, was originally published in Mosaic Literary Magazine, Spring 1999. The second version of this essay, part 1 & part 2, was originally published as part of the booklet accompanying the 1999 reissue of James Baldwin’s A Lover’s Question.]


= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =



James Forman, of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, with James Baldwin, in Selma, Alabama, in 1963.

Photograph by Danny Lyon / Magnum










One of a number of times I was in London back in the day, I hooked up and hung out with Dudu Pukwana. I believe that was in the eighties, if memory serves. A couple of years after that, I interviewed at length Hugh Masekela and also hung out with him at a jazz festival in St. Lucia, the West Indies. And then there was the great Abdullah Ibrahim; I produced him in a solo concert at the New Orleans Museum of Art–it was an all acoustic affair, no mikes, no bank of lights, nothing between music and the audience. I have always liked South Africa and South African jazz. Felt a deep kinship.

I could go on (and on) but what I want to feature is this amazing overview of a particular period of South African jazz in exile.

Exile. Easy to say. Often lovely to listen to. But. A deeply troubling existence. Exile hurts. In so many, many ways. Hurts to the bone. To the heart. To the soul. And at times leaves one totally bereft of any hope of ever seeing home again. You make alliances, forge partnerships, small settlements with one’s soul–you do so if you are successful. Most days you exist in a blue funk.

Yes, that’s it. The blue funk of exile. That’s what attracted me to Dudu, precisely because growing up Black in the United States was a kind of exile. A blue funk of exile. Our blues does not come to us naturally, it comes from a long (and terrible) history of surviving in exile from Africa. The exile has been so long that this other place is now home.

That is what those of us in the western hemisphere had in common with our exiled South African sisters and brothers in Britain, and indeed, throughout Europe. The bond of Blacks in exile. So long in exile–our history of exile almost along the same timeline.

South Africa and the deep south of America, in the 20th century had a common thread binding us. A thread we instinctively could relate to. Yes, I know most bloods in America have our origins in West Africa, but right now I am specifically talking about a psychological bond of English-speaking Blackness in Euro-centric exile. Especially, the dreary clime of London town, and related environs.

Hanging with Dudu I felt it. How terrible to be so far gone from home and yet struggle to make a new home. Terrible.

Well, anyway, you can hear it in the music. Check out this detailed essay. There is a specific focus on the historic Capetown-based band, The Blue Notes: pianist Chris McGregor, saxophonist Dudu Pukwana, trumpeter Mongezi Feza, bassist Johnny Mbizo Dyani, and drummer Louis Moholo. Others are covered as well, but the Blue Notes was the major unit.

Of course, things are not the same now, but there was a time, a terrible time. A time of amputation. A time when we were not home but living. . . or should I say “surviving”? The blue funk of exile smelling up our eyes. Clouding our voices. The way we sang. The instruments we played. Our lost souls. Struggling to survive exile.




Back in the day, in Hot-Lanta (generally known as Atlanta), over in the AU area (a cluster of historic Black institutions of higher learning plus the popular Pascal’s establishment), that was the place to be, a fabled location for a meeting spot and a quick meal.

Long after its hey-day, even as late as the eighties and nineties, it was de rigueur for students, activists, and visitors to M. L. King’s home town, to pass through the AU complex. The list of luminaries who dipped in, even if only for a minute, is long and illustrious. No surprise that at the end of the twentieth century the AU center of historical import was nationally considered the foci of a storied reemergence of Black talent that dated back to W.E.B. DuBois’ stint in Atlanta.

New Jersey born Gaelle Addison is the daughter of Haitian immigrants. Gaelle went to school in Atlanta and made her professional debut in that southern city.

I am a big fan of her vocals on “Cascades of Colour”, a release that was remixed by numerous producers.

Her resume is slender but significant in terms of success in the music business. Tragically, her tale is too often the twice-told tale of far too many young Black musicians reaching for the brass ring of success only to be betrayed by the realities of American show business.

In Gaelle Addison’s case she had an international hit (UK singles and dance charts) with her 1999 recording King of My Castle, only to be beset by the recording company substituting what Gaelle describes as a “buxom” literal stand-in when the video was produced. Gaelle did the singing, another woman was the body double. What you heard was not what you saw.

Eventually, after a hard fought court case, Gaelle won and received a monetary settlement. Along with Eric Stamile, her musical partner, she went on to produce an innovative album, Transient, full of a wide variety of grooves and sentiments that are often both captivating and far ahead of her artistic times. Today, over two decades later, the tracks do not sound out of date.

But the music industry had moved on. She was no longer the “next upcoming artist”, she was now in their rearview mirror. Plus, unsurprisingly, the industry did not embrace an artist who did much more than shut-up and sing.

I don’t know what Gaelle is doing now. I know that she has my respect and admiration. And although it’s been a long, long time since she has released anything, I believe she deserves to be better known and widely supported. 

All too often, the people on the frontlines are forgotten as time moves on. We should never forget them. We should celebrate the artist who gave their all in the fight for freedom and justice.

In New Orleans we often say “do what you wanna”!

At the same time, we also know freedom is a dangerous road. There are many casualties along the way. Let us not forget nor leave behind those who paid a heavy price as we pop our fingers and download the latest song we love.



U.S. Open

women’s final


Naomi Osaka’s


Black hair and

a bold cultural


An essay by Robyn Autry for NBC. Autry is chair
 the Sociology Department at Wesleyan University


Naomi Osaka’s hair doesn’t impact her 120 mph serve or powerful baseline play. But it does impact how she is perceived in the bright, white tennis world.

Naomi Osaka’s hair doesn’t matter. At least not when it comes to her 120 mph serve, her daunting forehand or her powerful baseline play. But it does matter in terms of how she shows up in the tennis world and how she’s emerged as one of the most prominent athletes supporting the Black Lives Matter protests.

On Saturday, Osaka will play in the U.S. Open women’s finals against Victoria Azarenka, who earned her bid by defeating Serena Williams. Both women will be looking to capture a third Grand Slam title.

Osaka has grabbed headlines this tournament by wearing masks emblazoned with the names of victims of racial violence.

Alongside her outstanding athleticism, though, Osaka has grabbed headlines this tournament by wearing masksemblazoned with the names of victims of racial violence: Philando Castile, Trayvon Martin, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Elijah McClain. Black masks, white lettering. Her one-person protest feels even more powerful as she enters and exits the nearly empty stadium every match.

The masks draw our eyes up, but this is nothing new when it comes to Osaka. With her thick hair often pulled into a high ponytail and up through a visor, Osaka is accustomed to making a statement. It’s the sort of statement that Black bodies always make, whether intended or not, in predominately white spaces. As Claudia Rankine wrote about Serena Williams in “Citizen: An American Lyric” — referencing Zora Neale Hurston — Black players appear against the sharp white backdrop of the tennis world.

Naomi Osaka of Japan wears a protective face mask
with the name Ahmaud Arbery stenciled on it
on Day Five of the 2020 US Open at USTA Billie Jean King
National Tennis Center on Sept. 4, 2020 in Queens, N.Y.


There are more Black female professional tennis players today than there were when sisters Serena and Venus Williams made their Gland Slam debuts in the late 1990s. But the way these women show up — how they present themselves and how their bodies get read by others — is no less a topic of conversation today, and, yes, as much a form of everyday resistance as it was when Venus Williams protested being penalized for losing hair beads while playing in 1999.

Whether it’s colorful beads that clack or hair pieces attached at the back, Black women’s hair gets noticed especially by white onlookers. However, with more Black players on the courts and shifting public discourse about what’s appropriate to say about Black bodies, younger players are more likely to be interviewed about their beauty rituals and personal style. Osaka has been profiled in numerous magazines like Vogue and Elle, and on websites like Refinery29.

Black women with natural hair that has not been chemically straightened or relaxed can relate to the way Osaka talks about her curls, the way her hair reacts to humidity and its propensity for dryness. We can relate to her laughing at the unruliness of her hair as its best and worst quality. She watches YouTube tutorials and uses Miss Jessie’s styling products, just like so many other Black women with natural hair.

It’s this relatability that delights and should not be underestimated, especially given Osaka’s multiracial heritage. She was born in Japan, but grew up in the U.S.; her father is Haitian and her mother, Japanese; she relinquished her U.S. citizenship for Japan and plays under its flag but lives in Los Angeles and has been a vocal supporter of BLM. She emphatically describes herself as a Black woman, but also as multiracial. She has said she doesn’t quite feel American or Japanese or Haitian.

This is not an unfamiliar situation for people with mixed heritage: President Barack Obama wrote about it in “Dreams From My Father.” Zadie Smith uses “speaking in tongues” to refer to multiracial people’s ability to tap into a variety of styles, tastes and habits that are racially coded. This can elicit distrust and charges of inauthenticity, especially in highly racialized societies like the U.S. but also more ethnically homogenous ones like Japan. But it can also create opportunities to expand our understanding of racial identity.

Black women with natural hair that has not been chemically straightened or relaxed can relate to the way Osaka talks about her curls.

Osaka’s hair bouncing in a few different directions as she darts across the tennis court, sometimes with her curl pattern defined and other times in more of a frizzy cloud, attracts attention and resonates with audiences beyond the U.S. Just as being Black and (not “or”) multiracial in the U.S. involves upturning racial thinking, being Black and Japanese challenges long-held beliefs about Japan as monoethnic.

Osaka and other BLM protests are shining a light on racism in Japan, inspiring discussions about what it means to be Japanese and about the lives of the country’s multiracial population. Some are now questioning why people with mixed heritage are referred to as “hafu” (or half), suggesting they’re somehow less Japanese than others. She’s widely regarded not just as a Japanese celebrity but as a role model for her talent and social activism.

Just like her heritage, Osaka’s hair makes a statement in Japan as much as it does in the U.S. Last year, one of her sponsors, Nissin, the popular instant ramen noodle company, was called out for “whitewashing” Osaka in an illustrated anime-style ad by lightening both her skin and hair. The tennis star suggested they consult her before generating her likeness, especially as company representatives acknowledged, “We are not sensitive enough … to diversity issues.”

In an even worse incident, following Osaka’s dramatic upset of Serena Williams at the 2018 U.S. Open, an Australian newspaper published a cartoon that relied on gross exaggerations of both Williams’ and Osaka’s bodies, including their hair, with Osaka depicted as a slender white woman with a long blonde ponytail and Williams drawn using features associated with Jim Crow-era imagery.

But thinking about Osaka as Black and Japanese has also led to more productive conversations about gender, style and biraciality in Japan. YouTube features the experiences of Black people in Japan including their take on hair trends, beauty and colorism. Ariana Miyamoto also shined a light on these topics when she was crowned Miss Universe Japan in 2015 and has spoken out about both her darker skin and curly hair being mocked growing up.embed=embed&paywall=anonymous

It’s the fluffy curliness of Osaka’s hair that makes it stand out against that sharp white backdrop of the tennis world because it represents her agency, not just her body. She chooses not to straighten it or smooth it back as other Black athletes, like gymnast Gabby Douglas, are expected to do — only to be mercilessly criticized. We cannot help that we show up in the world with brown skin — that is not a choice — but we exercise agency as we style ourselves, even as we risk backlash and seek legislation to prohibit discrimination against natural hairstyling.

While hair may not seem like a big deal, it is. There have always been top tennis players with signature big hair, think Andre Agassi’s messy mullet hairpiece, but it reads differently on Black bodies, whether male or female. For women, the associations between particular hair textures and styles with femininity and attractiveness are especially loaded.

Osaka’s hair helps us make sense of what Multiracial Black looks like, at least some of the time. Other times, it looks like Osaka bowing to an opponent on the court. In another setting, it can look like senator and vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris wearing a Howard University hoodie or sprinkling Tamil words in a speech. To treat these as measures of whether someone is “Black enough” or “really Japanese” is to miss the opportunity to think of Blackness as a not-always-obvious, multiracial, global thing.





The above photo does not seem particularly salacious. Could be an old picture of two of our elderly relatives when they were as young as many of us are now. Certainly taken somewhere back before we closely examined each image for subliminal queer identifications. Even at this early 21st century moment, when many insist being lesbian is acceptable; even after legal protection for homosexual activity in marriage and other public/private social expressions, whatever our personal views, we all are aware that sexual relations (and, for that matter, gender identity) is far broader than a simple man/woman duality.

Homosexuality was often termed “unnatural” but can human expression that is centuries old really be unnatural? After all, in the western context, within which we live, homosexuality is found in the bible and in ancient greek art. While we may think of today’s liberal social views on gender as progressive, these views are not actually out of step with human behavior of bygone years.

What is different and of note is the views of rulers of society, what the privileged believe and promote, as well as what they actually do and, yes, very often deny. That is why “Two Photographs of Black Queer Intimacy” by Jessica Lynne, is a super-important essay about an oft overlooked reality.

Ms. Lynne plumbs the depths of feelings not only projected by the photographs, but also investigates her own feelings in response. Some may think there is too much speculation here, but the truth is we all speculate about our existence and sometimes about our opposition to the social reality within which we are bound.

It doesn’t have to be this way, the way life is imposed on us, the way we too often reluctantly, or unthinkingly, accept. Jessica Lynne tells us that two women, long ago stood together, loved each other, and set a standard most of us generally fail to confront today. If they could do it so long ago at the turn of the twentieth century, what does that say about us over a hundred years later?

In revealing our reality, looking again at what we were, this times with both eyes open and willing to look at what is actually there, we now see, and hopefully, realize that human society was always more than simply binary.

Regardless of what we are taught–or how we are indoctrinated–humans have always loved humans in a multiplicity of ways. Rather than a simple binary, and while not the majority but rather a substantial minority, what we might call “queer intimacy” was always the natural result of sharing spaces and embraces with one another.



In 1865–a little over five generations ago–slavery was formally ended. It was what the old folks called ‘the break’. Of course the effects of slavery are still felt today, five 30-year generations is not that long ago, especially when we consider chattel slavery was followed by virulent Jim Crow until the passing of the 1964 Civil Rights Legislation and the 1965 Voting Rights Legislation.

Most of us are seldom taught what the slavery period was really like, nor, for that matter, do we understand what seemed to be a great abyss when emancipation arrived and suddenly our ancestors had no where to go, no or relatively little property, and no assistance in navigating our newly arrived freedom. The majority of us were agrarian workers with few skills suited to urban life.

In the 1930s there was an effort to document the lives and views of former slaves. One of those revealing WPA accounts was by Fountain Hughes. Listen to what he had to say.






How Zora Neale Hurston captured the poetry of African-American folklife


In 1931, the last surviving captive of an American slave ship was interviewed by Zora Neale Hurston. It was not the only time Hurston would preserve a vital, endangered piece of American culture.

Hurston interviewed Cudjo Lewis multiple times from his home in Plateau, Alabama, where he recounted his abduction from Benin at age 19. Lewis was transported aboard the Clotilda, the last known ship to bring slaves to the U.S.

Her manuscript of Lewis’ life, called “Barracoon: The Story of the Last ‘Black Cargo,’” was recently brought out of obscurity from the archives at Howard University and will be published on May 8, decades after her attempts to find a publisher failed.

Zora Hurston beating the hountar, or mama drum, 1937. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

While Hurston’s literary portrait of Lewis’ life provided an intimate account of the legacy of slavery, it met with criticism from many black academics and thinkers of the time, who felt the manuscript was counterproductive to the mission of uplifting the perception of African Americans among the dominant white society.

Hurston insisted on writing Lewis’ story the way he spoke it: in a thick, vernacular dialect that left many of her black contemporaries worried the book would reinforce stereotypes.

An author, anthropologist and Harlem Renaissance legend, Hurston was also a folklorist, dedicated to strict, accurate field transcriptions and the idea that black culture was not monolithic, according to Anna Lillios, a professor of English at the University of Central Florida.

Lillios said Hurston’s mentor — “father of anthropology” Franz Boaz — urged her “to collect the folklore [and] remnants” of an African-American culture he felt was disappearing.

So Hurston proposed anthropological research on Florida folklife to the the Federal Writers Project, a 1935 program implemented through the United States Work Progress Administration (WPA) as a means to employ researchers and historians.

Stephen Winick, editor and folklorist at the Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center, where a collection of recordings from Hurston’s Florida Folklife project can be found, said Hurston was paid by the WPA and Florida government to collect folklore local to areas of the state where she grew up.

Hurston’s Florida folklife research proposal. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

“Part of what they were doing was creating a set of travel guides for all the states,” Winick said. “But it was also just a way of documenting American culture.”

Unlike other anthropologists from the project, Hurston didn’t use recording equipment in the field. She took data by hand, learned songs and verses by heart and recorded them herself.

In one recording, “Halimuhfack,” she describes her process, saying she would “just get in the crowd with people” and listen as best she could. Then, she said, she would “sing [verses] back to the people” until they approved of her rendition.

In “Let the Deal Go Down,” Hurston paints a vivid gambling scene she witnessed during a field excursion in 1939:

Let the deal go down boys,
Let the deal go down.

There you go Blue Front,
I’ll show you about getting a card and telling a lie about it.
Put up some more money!

Her exuberant recitation of the rhyme was characteristic of her penchant for performance. While she didn’t write any of the poetry she recorded, she made it her own in the retelling.

But Hurston’s work was under constant social and economic pressure. In addition to an ongoing struggle with money, Winick said, Hurston and her black colleagues conducted research in the middle of racially turbulent times, because Florida was still a segregated state.

“The challenge for them was that they couldn’t even go to the state offices where they were employed,” Winick said. “Except for certain times when they were expected and when Zora had been invited.”

Hurston’s work lives on not only due to her literary fame, but for her unflinching dedication to African-American folklife.

Lillios said Hurston’s portrait of Lewis is a prime example of her vivid, meticulous storytelling.

“She’s giving anthropological data and looking at Cudjoe Lewis from an anthropological viewpoint, but the story is so riveting, the story of his life, and the way she tells it,” she said.
“I think that is timeless.”

Listen to Hurston’s recording of “Halimuhfack” below.

Recording courtesy of the Library of Congress