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It’s just a chair. Sitting, silently in the front room.

 

A legacy passed on to me from Harold through Vera’s people at Community Book Store, where it was deposited in storage until I got around to picking it up.

 

Harold Battiste. Born October 28, 1931. Died June 19, 2015. After producing a handful of regional hits, Harold left New Orleans and landed on the west coast and eventually became the musical director for Sonny and Cher, including their onstage appearances and their nationally televised program. Harold was also the producer of early releases by Lee Dorsey and Dr. John. I knew of Harold because of “New Orleans Heritage – Jazz: 1956-1966,” a 1976, 3-Lp box set of New Orleans music he had produced.

 

On one of his visits to his home town, Harold and I hooked up for dinner. That meal initiated a thirty-plus-year relationship, which intensified shortly thereafter when Harold returned home for good. In a local publication, Offbeat Magazine, I wrote about our friendship. The essay contained the line “Buddha and son,” referring to Harold and me.

 

My elder son Mtume and I were visiting Harold one day and the topic of Sam Cooke came up. I already knew that Harold and Sam had been close. Had already heard the story of how Harold helped Sam by anonymously arranging Sam’s first major R&B hit, “You Send Me”—subtly suggesting Sam didn’t need to repeat ‘you send me’ over and over. Perhaps use ‘you thrill me’ for one verse, and some other words.

 

That 1957 session had been almost a throwaway that Harold did as a favor for legendary producer Robert “Bumps” Blackwell. Harold was uncredited for that work. He said back then ghost arranging was no big thing. The record companies, the A&R people, and the musicians didn’t give it a second thought. Harold got the gig because he could arrange for voices. Bumps had hired a choir but at the end of the planned portion of the session there was no music for the choir to sing on this new song that Sam had. And, well they had some spare studio time, why not give it a shot.

 

Harold had told me many other stories. Indeed, I was a close reader helping Harold finalize his 2010 book, “Unfinished Blues…Memories of a New Orleans Music Man”. We worked on a follow-up book. That manuscript was completed but never published.

 

Although Harold was full of surprises and observations, he was unusually reticent and self-deprecating. On one occasion, I told Harold how much I admired Sam Cooke’s signature song, “A Change Is Going To Come.” In an off-handed manner, Harold informed me he played piano on that track. I knew Harold tickled the ivories but, even though there was a piano in the front room of Harold’s apartment, I mainly heard Harold blowing dulcet tones on his alto saxophone, which invariably was Harold’s instrument of choice when he played in the New Orleans nightclubs.

Harold’s relationship with Sam Cooke was as a musical collaborator and close friend. I knew of Sam Cooke because of his recordings, and later because of the videos on YouTube. When I saw the Netflix special that focused on Sam as a serious artist, I recalled that Harold had wondered why Sam, of velvet voice and matinee-idol handsomeness, had a penchant for some off-kilter tastes in people and situations. I, of course, had no response nor any conjectures about Sam’s idiosyncrasies, nor about Sam’s untimely and grisly murder. I simply believed that everybody has a skeleton in their personal closet, a side of themselves that is seldom revealed. The more popular one becomes, the more difficult it is to contain or restrain non-conventional behaviors.

 

Typically, when going by Harold, I would sit in the well-worn, red leather chair next to Harold’s desk but this time because I had my son with me, I motioned with my head for Mtume to sit. A little later while we were talking for over an hour dissecting, opining and shouting out our favorite Sam Cooke memories, Mtume said something about Sam Cooke’s perceptiveness. Harold in his soft voice, quietly dropped a bomb on the young man. “You’re sitting in Sam’s chair.”

 

Later, Mtume told me he had nearly jumped out of the chair when Harold said that. So many memories, so much meaning was literally beneath Mtume’s butt.

 

Sometimes a chair is not just a chair.

 

–Kalamu ya Salaam
24 February 2019

 

 

JAZZ 101

 

1. – buddy bolden’s blues legacy

 

they said i’m crazy

but they still play my crazy

blue black shit today

 

we came from farm land, cane field and cotton country, outta rice paddies and satsuma groves, following the river both down and up to the city to try to set up home where a newly emancipated man could live at least halfway free and a woman didn’t have to be some man’s mule just to raise her family.

 

we brought with us the profound sense of betrayal as the retreat of federal troops was masked by the hoods of nightriders, fellows whose daylight faces we all knew. the hard hoofs of horses announcing the flaming torches flung through the paneless windows of our one-room rural homes. the no work for smart negroes and very low pay if you were dumb enough to accept what little was offered.

 

we had fought the civil war. we had survived the bewilderment of emancipation and now when we should be free we woke in the mornings and found ourselves harvesting strange fruit. we were the blacks with the blues. the unlettered ex-slaves whose agrarian skills offered no protection in the hinterlands and no employment in the cities. but caught between the busted rock of reconstruction’s repeal and the hard space of being put back into a semi-slavery place, we had no choice but to move on down the line. thus we came to the crescent seeking at least a shot.

 

everywhere we touched down we created settlements. st. rose, luling, boutte, kenner—the first mayor was a negro. carrollton—we built parks and celebrated with sunday picnics, and on into uptown new orleans creating all those neighborhoods: black pearl (aka “niggertown”), hollygrove, zion city, gerttown and what we now know as central city.

 

no matter how hard big easy bore down on us, urban exploitation was still a bunch better than constantly falling behind on the ledger at the general store, owing more and more every year, barely enough to get by. in the summertime chewing sugar cane for supper and maybe catching a catfish for sunday dinner. in the winter time making turtle soup to last the week if you could catch a turtle and always beans and beans, and more beans. somehow, even though we still had beans and beans and more beans and rice, it just seemed that red beans and rice was nice, nicer in new orleans than it ever was in the country and besides there was plenty fishing in new orleans too, in the canals, in the river, in the lake, in the bayou, in fact, more fishing here than in the country. so although the city never really rolled out a welcome mat, our people nevertheless still managed to make ourselves at home.

 

we found some work on the streets and in the quarter, but mostly made work cooking, carrying and constructing shit. some of us groomed horses, a healthy portion of us worked the docks. we eked out a living, gradually doing better and better. and it was us country-born, farm-come-to-city black folk who indelibly changed the sound of new orleans, who brought the blues a blowing: loud, hard, and without pretense, subtlety or any genuflecting to high society, these blues that were just happy to have a good time and were equally unashamed to show the tears of pain those country years contained, how the hard times hurted we simple, unassuming people who both prayed and cursed as hard as we worked, we who were not afraid of a good fight and never hesitant about enjoying a good time each and every opportunity we got to grab a feather or two out of the tail of that ever-elusive bird of paradise.

 

we were the fabled blues people who brought to the music a vision no one else was low enough to the ground to see. and no one should romanticize us. we were hungry, we were illiterate, disease-ridden, and totally unprepared for urban life, moreover often we were live-for-today-damn-tomorrow merciless in the matter-of-fact way we accepted and played the dirty, limited hands that life dealt us.

 

ours was a brutal beauty. a social order where no child remained innocent past the age of four. where the sweet bird of youth had flown, long gone well before twenty-five arrived. where somebody calling your mama a whore was just an accurate description of one of the major lines of work. where your daddy could have been any one of five men you saw for a couple of days through a keyhole when you were supposed to be sleep, but were up trying to peep what it was that grown folks did that kids were not supposed to do.

 

our people brought an unsophisticated, raw sound that cut through all pretensions and gutsily stripped time down to the naked function at the junction of hard-working folks careening into saturday nite let’s get it on. and of course by any standard of social decorum, we were uncouth and so was our blues, but it was this blues produced by we blues people that turned-out the music floating around new orleans, tricked it into something the world would soon (or eventually) celebrate first as jass (with two “s’s” as in “show your ass”) and then as jazz (with two “z’s” as in “razzle, dazzle” keep up with us if you can).

 

it was our don’t give a shuck about which way is up as long as we have a moment to get down.

 

our red is my favorite color morning, noon and night.

 

our play it loud motherfuckers let me know you deep up in there.

 

our this ain’t no job and you ain’t no boss so you can’t tell me shit about when to start, when to stop, or how nasty i get.

 

our if i drop dead in the morning ‘cause i done partied all nite then just go ahead and dance at my funeral pretty baby.

 

our i’d rather play it wrong my way than right the white way cause they way may be correct but it sure ain’t right.

 

it was this attitude, these blues, which turned new orleans music into something worth spreading all over the world. and it was we who were the roux in the nouveau gumbo now celebrated as crescent city culture.

 

it was our crude but oh so potent elixir that raised the ante on the making of music, it was our brazen red-hot, blue sound and the way the first creators acted when they screwed up their lips to produce the untutored slightly tortured host of notes which made the cascade of ragtime rhythms sound tame. we simple but complex characters who have been consistently overlooked, undervalued, and our social background scarcely mentioned in all the books (where do they think we uptown blacks came from and what do they think we brought with us?); we who were persecuted by the authorities worse than negroes singing john brown’s body lies a smoldering in the grave at intermission during a klan rally; it was us black heartbeats and our defiant music that made the difference.

 

and, yes, we had to be more than a little crazy to challenge the aural status quo the way we did, so, it is no surprise that buddy bolden, the preeminent horn player cut from this cloth, was an insane black man whose ascendency to the throne just made it easier for the odorous forces of the “status crow” (as caribbean scholar/poet kamau braithwaite calls it) to pluck bolden from the top of the heap and heave him into a mental institution and keep him there for almost thirty years, wasting away until he died.

 

they may have silenced our first king but they could never silence our sound. and regardless of what anyone says or does, nearly a hundred years later, no matter whether they admit it or not, know it or not, like it or not, it is the bold sound of black buddy conjuring some raw, funky blues in the night, layering his tone on whatever was a given song’s ultimate source. this neo-african gris-gris is the sonic tattoo marking the beginning and making up the essence of the music we now call jazz.

 

 

 

2. jelly’s boast (backed up in writing)

 

i started jass with

latin tinged, cafe colored

keyboard handicrafts

 

 

if buddy bolden—or someone black like that—started jazz then how could ferdinand lementh “jelly roll” morton fix his mouth to boast that he “invented jazz in 1903”? simple, my man was the first to write it down, to figure out where and how the notes go when put on paper just so a musician trained in the reading of music but untutored in the ways of the raucous folk could play these wild new sounds or at least a rough approximation, or at least play the heads, the melodies.

 

and while a lot of folks like to claim that jelly’s skill was because of the creole in him most of those same folks know nothing about the deep draughts jelly drank from the brackish bottom of the blues’ most funky well. jelly had songs that could make a prostitute blush and a pimp hide his face in shame. storyville wasn’t no conservatory and jass wasn’t no waltz. jelly knew this. he knew about the blacks. he knew about the whites. and especially about everything that went down in between. like all good blues folk he also had a mean streak, that cut-you-if-you-stand-still and shoot-you-if-you-run temperament necessary to survive saturday nights in the roughest parts of town.

 

no doubt it was because of jelly that the story freely circulated that jazz was born in a brothel, specifically the cathouses of storyville. but all that’s said ain’t necessarily so. sure, jelly played jazz there, but  just cause jelly played for tricks and whores that don’t mean that’s where his songs came from. the music was actually made outside elsewhere and later on brought inside those doors. which is not to take nothing away from jelly because figuring out how to write it down was no mean feat, especially those lusty sounds his brothers uptown would just let rip, day after day and night after night, pouring their sacred souls into the secular atmosphere. jelly would listen, and listen, and grin, and hold those sacred riffs inside his jaws and against the crown of his mouth and later spit out onto paper those notes which a bunch of others had written in the air. i’m not saying jelly wasn’t original, i’m just saying a good scribe can always write more than he or she individually knows, especially when they are present at the creation and have the initial shot at drafting up tunes taken down from the motherlode.

 

given the mixed nature of jelly’s pedigree and his back-a-town, alley-crawling cravings, he was able to create music for all occasions. music for right now if you were ready to get it on and music for later after all the squares were gone. music colored by what jelly suggestively called the spanish tinge.

 

and what was this latin tinge that jelly so glowingly spoke of? was it african rhythms run through the backyard of the caribbean? one critic talks vociferously about the arab influence—what he maybe means is the moorish number that spain slyly claimed as an original contribution, or mali’s twist on the islamic prayer chant—arab influence, huh? arab sounds altered by contact with african souls and soil, and rearranged caribbean stylee (which “stylee” is just africans in the west reinventing our ancient selves). that mambo, that rumba, merengue, clave, son and so forth. those pentatonic scales, modes, falsettoes and nasal drones. yeah, it’s all arab straight from the heart of africa. jelly knew, that’s why he said the tinge in the latin rather than the whole roman enchilada.

 

anyway, as much as he wrote and as important as his compositions are, in the final analysis we remember jelly because jelly didn’t forget the import of what he heard, because jelly found a way to write without emasculating the music’s swagger, without perfuming the funk, without covering the flesh in a veil of false modesty.

 

we remember jelly because jelly accurately remembered us. and lord, lord, lord even if he had never written a note, just one quick listen will confirm how marvelously potent his playing was. that mr. jelly, mr. jelly, he sure could play that shit.

 

 

3. the beauty of bechet

 

sax moans river strong

spurting song into the sea

of our aroused souls

 

the cornet and its first cousin the trumpet were the first solo instruments of jazz, the first horns to carry the tone of defiance, slicing the air with the gleaming sassiness of a straight razor wielded with expert precision on someone who was dead but didn’t know it yet (the hit was so quick that the head fell off before the body knew it had been cut). these brass siblings were the hot horns that caught the feel of august in the sun, a hundred-pound sack shading the curve of your aching back. especially the trumpet with its ringing blare which could be heard cross the river on a slow day when somebody in algiers was practicing while a bunch of other bodies was sweating, toting barrels and lifting bales on the eastbank riverfront.

 

the second brass voice was the nasty trombone. you stuck stuff up its filthy bell. it was not loud but was indeed very lewd. a toilet plunger its regular accessory. of course you had drums and some sort of harmony instrument, a string bass where available, a tuba, sousaphone, banjo or even a piano in certain joints.

 

now the reed of choice was the clarinet. long. slender. difficult to master. the snakelike black reed. and that was the basis of your early jass bands.

 

everybody had a part. bechet was a clarinetist. an excellent clarinetist. extraordinary even. but no matter how well he sucked on that licorice stick he could never get it up the way he wanted it. get it to make the sound inside bechet’s head. until he heard the sound of the soprano saxophone. the fingering was similar so he was familiar with covering and uncovering the holes. familiar with the right stiffness of reed and the just tough enough strength of embrochure. what the soprano saxophone did was enable him to challenge the trumpet—just ask louie armstrong or give a listen to clarence williams and his blue five when bechet and louie took turns walking them jazz babies on home.

 

this mytho-poetic orpheus sired by omer soaked his reeds in mississippi muck and washed down the horn’s bell in bayou goo.

 

what bechet did was press the humidity of crescent city summers into every quivering note he played with a vibrato so pronouced it sounded like a foreign dialect.

 

what bechet did was alter the course of history, the clarinet faded after bechet switched and the saxophone became the great horn of jazz. sure there were a couple of great trumpets in years to come (little jazz, fats, dizzy, brownie, and, of course, miles) but none of them turned the music around like the saxophonists did, like bechet, like bird, like trane not to mention hodges, hawkins and the prez, and the list can go on and on. the point here is that bechet was the one, the first, the progenitor of a royal succession that is all but synonymous with jazz as an instrumental music.

 

and what was even more incredible back in the twenties and thirties was bechet’s sense of africa as source and blues people as the funnel through which the source sound was poured. bechet speaks of that specifically. in bechet’s autobiography he goes on for pages (pgs. 6-44 out of 219 pages of text) talking about his grandfather who danced in congo square, overlaying the legendary bras coupe (a runaway, maroon warrior of the early 1800s) story onto the life story of his grandfather handed down to bechet through bechet’s father, thereby insuring that the statement of resistance was made, the resistance that fuels the internal integrity of our music.

 

bechet was an early african american griot. one of the first to consciously understand the music he played so well. to articulate the ancestral worship implicit in the call and response. or as bechet describes the music: “It’s the remembering song. There’s so much to remember. There’s so much wanting, and there’s so much sorrow, and there’s so much waiting for the sorrow to end. My people, all they want is a place where they can be people, a place where they can stand up and be part of that place, just being natural to the place without worrying how someone may be coming along to take that place away from them.” in brasil they call this feeling “saudade,” this longing to be whole again, this we know that we were whole once and with all our being quiver with an anxiety, an almost unbearable longing, to be whole again, this hope—dare i say this optimism colored by the reality of the blues—that, yes, someday, someway, we will be whole in some soon come future.

 

like a mighty river which never ceases to flow and which has seen it all before, bechet’s sound was an ever unfurling cornucopia of lyric delight, its alluvial melodies inundating us, fertilizing our spirits, rendering us both funky and fecund.

 

bechet’s music was brazen, was brilliant, was growling sun bold. startling in its intensity. powerful in its keening. knowing—he was a philosopher of sorrow, was both intimate with hurt as well as on a first-name speaking terms with joy. while life had its ups and downs, bechet played it hard at both extremes and always with a sparkle of hope shining irrepressibly behind and through whatever tears temporarily clouded his eye.

 

all of that, all of his life, his individual self and his people’s birthright, all was played through the bell of bechet’s horn, so strong and unmistakable. unmissable. one listen and you got it. the force hit you. you felt it. bechet. bechet. he seemed to be that special sound you had been waiting all your life to hear.

 

 

4. freddie keppard, (unfortunately) fooling his self

 

keeps a handkerchief

cross my horn / don’t record a

lick—they won’t steal me

 

freddie was not the first and certainly was far from the last to think he could avoid being used by opting not to belly up to the capitalist roulette wheel of commercialization, not to get bumped to the curb by the pick-and-roll of economic exploitation combined with technical innovation. everytime the man comes up with a new machine, invariably the new machines end up being, among other things, another cash-generating tool—and all in the name of progress and progressiveness.

 

but paradoxically beyond the obvious remunerative inequities and the misplaced hosannas to pretenders posturing as kings, the real rough side of the mountain is the inevitable further behind we fall if we refuse to use what little opportunity the new technology presents. when we decline to play we are ignored, when we do play we are exploited; but at least when you play you get a hearing even if someone else’s echo of your sound makes more dough than do you the originator.

 

moreover, it was the technology of being heard that enabled jazz to spread its wings. the music could never have flown worldwide were it not for recordings, were it not for musicians everywhere being able to “hear” what these wild new sounds sounded like. our music could not be explained with words or written down with symbols, had to be eared to be appreciated. contradictions abound, were it not for the technology the music would not have spread and simultaneously the technology was used to exploit—a nutshell synopsis of african american relations to the modernist means of production. 

 

of course, some of us, saw the downside coming so we attempted to duck. working with the limited vision that we oppressed people often manifest, somehow freddie thought he could lessen the impact of cultural appropriation by refusing to play the game. fat chance. which is why few jazz fans know the name freddie keppard. don’t even know what instrument he played, when or where, or why he should be known.

 

the lesson of brother keppard is a hard dose to swallow but when you are on the black unskilled-labor end of america’s 20th-century economy you don’t have many choices. you can throw a hankerchief up over your shit if you want to, attempting to hide the specifics of your fingering, how you do the things you do, you can petulantly sit in the corner with your face to the wall while the parade marches past, you can even bark out curses at the seemingly endless procession of white rip-off artists, but as the poet said centuries ago, the dogs who hang in the camp may bark but the caravan moves on.

 

and though freddie keppard was the uncrowned king of new orleans trumpet playing in the wake of buddy’s incarceration and oliver’s departure, nonetheless his name is seldom mentioned in the chronology of jazz trumpeting precisely because he was eclipsed by nick larocca and crew who were wise enough not to pass up the opportunity to play their sincere but nonetheless insubstantial versions/revisions into a rca victor machine thus assuring themselves the “we-was-here-first claim”—the original dixieland jass band in 1917 was the first to record a jazz record while freddie keppard stood on the sidelines, smiling as he stuffed his handkerchief back in his pocket. you see, after one listen to the pale cacophony recorded by odjb, freddie was confident that they never were able to capture even an approximation of his sound. he won the authenticity battle but loss the jazz war. pale though they be, we know what larocca sounded like. and keppard, well he’s just a footnote fanatics and academics point to. time and time again, the truth marches on: even when we can’t win, even when the deck is stacked and our getting hustled is a foregone conclusion, even then if we don’t play, we’re worse off than if we play and lose. in the long run, our only chance is to play, to keep on losing until we win because if we don’t play for sure we will never win.

 

 

 

 

 

5. the singing of a king/

oliver’s telegram

 

STOP—my horn so strong

i call louie to chi with

just a sixteenth note—START

 

 

the reason jim crow was so violent is that, after world war one, black folk refused to go silently back into what segregationists euphemistically called “their places.” instead we prefered to believe that any space we wanted to inhabit was our own, territory we had a right to, and didn’t really want to be up next to some cracker no way, just wanted a sweet spot we could inhabit in peace, but it was not to be. but by then we were fighting for our rights (or like when the sheriff tried to close down a garvey gathering in new orleans with the words that wasn’t no mark-us gra-vee going to speak here tonight, he was silenced by the uprise of black folk, arms in hand who insisted on their right to hear marcus mosiah garvey—and mr. garvey did speak that hot night in new orleans, thank you).

 

it was in this atmosphere that the “idyllic” southern scene, which never really was as romantic as popular culture portrayed, revealed its true colors: red, white, black and blue, as in beatings, lynchings, and assorted mayhem, as in we black and were fire driven by recalcitrant whites who by dint of terror herded us into tightly policed, economically exploited, physically oppressed, and psychologically damaging, blues-hued, segregated communities under social siege—especially intelligent black men, most of whom had never seen the inside of anyone’s school but who could figure, invent, innovate, create, construct, organize, rearrange, tend and grow with the best of anyone on the planet except they, these intelligent ex-slaves, were seldom allowed to demonstrate their innate capacities, thus geniuses were fated to empty spitoons, carry rice sacks and spend three quarters of their lives behind the butt end of a mule or on the working end of a shovel or, if they were women, the limited choices were: wet nurse, clean and cook for a pittance, or lie to some white john about how long his little was. except if one could play music. in which case the music gave you wings, actually was a ticket to ride, a way out of jim crow’s den of inequities. so people who might have been professionals of all sorts had they had the opportunity to pursue those professions, picked up horns or mastered drums, learned to do amazing feats with guitar string and a pocket knife or literally rewrote piano literature, gave new meanings to musical entertainment and captivated the entire planet with a dazzling display of aural inventiveness that significantly upped the ante on what was considered quality entertainment as well as what was possible in the realms of melody, harmony and especially rhythm—i mean how did armstrong play that horn like that, not to mention he sang an entire song without words. wild!

 

so the singers, dancers and especially the musicians were the first african americans to routinely travel thereby getting the then rare chance to check out the world scene. these men and a handful of women became the most famous people in their communities unrivaled by any other profession—including doctors and college professors, plus, they were overwhelmingly working class, didn’t need anybody’s sheepskin to certify that they knew what they knew, only needed to be able to blow that thing, sing that swing, or step lively while kicking up their heels properly keeping time with their feet, only needed to be themselves. yet, make no mistake, this self they were was not a simpleton who just happened to have a good voice or an ear for melodies. no, we are talking innovation at a level which no one previously conceived. (i mean, for example, nude dancing been around since there was human skin, but it took josephine to consider wrapping her black hips in the phallic curves of a couple of dozen yellow bananas and shaking that thing in such spherical sensuous ways that even the legendary lovers of gay paree tripped, flipped and damn near fell head over heels in love with a brownskin cutie who, without so much as working up a sweat, coolly demonstrated two dozen more ways of playing with a yo-yo.)

 

looking in the rearview mirror we sometimes get a backwards view. we think louie was loved because he was a clown but if we only knew. wasn’t a hornplayer no where around—especially not euro-trained—who could even so much as carry mr. armstrong’s horn case to a rehearsal for a pick-up gig not to mention engage in no out-and-out cutting contest. we forget that louie taught america how to both swing and sing at the same time, how to scat on the one hand and go to the core of the lyrics on the other, not to mention how to jump bar lines with melodic phrasing whose trapeze-like gambits from note to note left others stumbling along like they had two left feet and had never experienced the thrill of trilling a g over high c.

 

the beautiful people called the twenties the jazz age because nothing else gave you the full feeling of being alive like black music did. and though they pretended paul whiteman was the king, beneath the skin everyone knew who the real creators of jazz were. worldwide these originators were in demand, and, as the history of america has always demonstrated, whenever and wherever there is a demand backed up by dinero, the supply shall definitely roll forth.

 

thus these colored troubadours swiftly moved from city to city, scoping out what was new and getting the down-low on the economic, political and racial picture in every place to which they might go. soon musicians started coming back home wearing clothes no one there abouts had ever laid eyes on before, with tall tales recounting command performances regaling kings and things, or swinging round the clock on ocean liners crisscrossing the seven seas, and not to mention jamming in countless places where english wasn’t even spoken. and of course these ambassadors of swing picked up on a variety of wild ideas about possible lifestyles. yes, they changed the world with their music but they were also changed by their contact with worlds they had never imagined.

 

and while it is true that each frog is acclimated to the waters where he was born, still, given the jim crow realities of the twenties, our people were always ready to jump and, as a profession, the musicians were the first out the pot. indeed, that was one of the reasons for learning to play in the first place, i.e. to get the opportunity to blow town and get paid at the same time. nice work if you could get it and back then the most certain way for the average negro to get it was to be into the music, which is why when king oliver wired the invite to louie there was no hesitation in armstrong’s step as he packed his grip preparing to split. how else could a poor, uneducated, but highly intelligent black man get to see the world?

 

armstrong, and countless others, came from a call and response culture and when opportunity knocked, these folk were wise enough to immediately answer the door, the same door beside which a packed travel bag was usually kept at the ready just in case such an unanticipated but nonetheless highly appreciated chance might roll by and allow an ambitious person with musical talent a chance to make a strategic exit.

 

given the realities of poverty, jim crow, and the general hard way to go handed out to people of color, it is easy to understand that jass didn’t just slip reluctantly out of town but rather cake-walked away singing a simple song: if you don’t believe i’m leaving, count the days that i’m gone. in fact, leaving town was a sign of this music’s intelligence.

 

 

 

 

 

6. nick larocca’s secret diary

 

anglos give dagos

money and fame for playing

negro’s music—wow

 

i’ll make this short and sweet: back in the days, new orleans anglos didn’t like “niggers” and wasn’t too particular about “dagos.” had italians living in the same neighborhoods with negroes, thus the many corner stores with retail establishments at the front door and living quarters either just behind or just above the one-room store. which is not to say that italians and negroes were viewed as one and the same or that the two got along fabulously with each other, but rather which is to say that the grey space between black and white was far broader than is often recognized, especially in retrospect when people now considered white are talked about as though they were always considered white. in fact, in some quarters, rather than the descendants of the romans, the italians were considered at best as “dirty whites” who had been mixed with blacks via hannibal crossing the alps, and thus, in the good old color struck usa, it took a couple of generations and unrefusable offers from the mafia for italians to be integrated as whites into the segregated black/white duality of american society.

 

in any case the reason there were so many italians and jews involved in early jass is not simply because the music was their creation but rather because the music was the music of the outsider, and to a significant extent italians and jews were outsiders, especially as far as the upper reaches of twenties american society was concerned. while the italians and jews wanted to assimilate, they also celebrated difference, hence the predominance of blackface among this sector of a society which overall celebrated whiteness pure as the driven snow. think about it. what would cause someone who is on the periphery to risk access to the interior by going further out and painting their face black or playing music blackly?

 

don’t say i got the answer, but do say, at least i got the question. in any case, the important point to consider is that of all the branches of black music, jass was the one that whites (both anglos and wannabes) were more comfortable embracing. or should i say, jass was the form they were more able to embrace. (max roach jokes that frank sinatra’s first claim to fame was that he could snap his fingers on the beat and sing at the same time, just like black singers, and it didn’t matter how he sounded he could do it and thus is lauded as one of the great singers of all time except of course if you compare him to the authentic sounders of his time. think of a sing-off between sinatra and nat king cole.)

 

the white embrace of jass was significant. unlike the other forms of black music which were less flexible, jass was so malleable that literally anyone could play it, not necessarily well and certainly not in innovative ways that moved the music forward, but anyone could play it nevertheless and thus, unlike blues which took several decades for most whites to emulate, or various forms of gospel which are yet to be mastered by whites, jass gladly made room for the whole of humanity within its sounding.

 

Q: how were we repaid for creating a form which every human could use to sound their existence?

 

A: with so-called scholars, a few musicians, and a bunch of fans claiming that whites created or co-created jass. thus, when the odjb cut those first victor jass sides, the question of creating and innovating was effectively conflated and confused with emulating and manufacturing. we provided the recipe, they made the bread. but then again this is america, and that was the jass age.

 

 

 

 

7. the grimace behind armstrong’s grin

 

they turned my birth place

into jail space—don’t bury

me in new orleans

 

new orleans can be an extreme case of domestic abuse, like they say, don’t take it, leave, don’t hesitate, ready or not pack your shit, don’t even think about going back, cause they don’t really love you, not them control freaks who think they are kings and you are a feudal peasant in blackface, folk are in denial about new orleans when you hear them say: it’s bad but not that bad, like as if he’s a good man and you know how hard they are to find, nephew just gets a little upset sometimes and smacks you around but he loves you, really, really do, really? don’t believe the hype.

 

louie knew. from the front gate to the back door armstrong had it straight, he was hip. home was where the heartbreak was. he had seen his father disappear; could have played hamlet looking for a ghost. had seen his mother tricked. had witnessed the best sound of an earlier generation sent across the lake to be housed with the mentally deranged—an enraged black man circa the teens and twenties was not insane, anger was a healthy response to what was being laid down. but anger and seven cents still wouldn’t get you on the front of the bus. behind a screen is where you sat if you were black. louis wasn’t no tom which is why he refused to be their token even after his spirit was gone: “when i die don’t bury my body in new orleans” is what he said and meant, and since louis has passed on and his wishes were fulfilled, i.e. he is buried elsewhere, since then there are some new faces in higher places, a darker hue holds the whip, plots the comings and goings of how the system systematically shits on the unstrong, the unknown, the poor without a pot to piss in and have to pay rent to a landlord for the window out of which they throw it. your eyes may roll, your teeth may grit, but none of the real power will you git. not in new orleans, not until there is some change for truth. it may sound like i’m preaching but i’m not macking, i’m just steady facting about the way she blows down round the gulf coast in a heavenly slice of hell some people call the most fun you can have anywhere in america you go to new orleans you ought to go see the mardi gras cause there ain’t much else hanging heavy in the air except the exhaust of used red beans and ricely yours and mine twenty-four hours at a time, big easy be steady bumping shit to the curb as they hustle every harry, dick and john out of whatever money they got cause the winners down here ain’t no saints and sinning ain’t no crime. and if you don’t know what i mean you better ask somebody cause new orleans may be big and easy but if you want to get ahead you’re better off leaving cause they’re most glad when you’re dead so a funeral they can hold, an image they can unhold uncontradicted by the reality of poverty and exploitation, the bayou is a cesspool and nobody comes through the slaughter without some stank clinging to their clothes.

 

new orleans may be the cradle of jazz but it’s also the tomb, they bury musicians here. louie knew, that’s why he flew to chi and vowed to be someplace else when he died. don’t bury me in, shit here is so low they got to bury you above ground, even while you still walking around trying to figure out your next move, which is why they razed louie’s pad, made the move to build a bigger jail, it’s called public housing for negro males. and if it sounds like i’m bitter it only means you just got a little taste of the special sauce, stale bread, po-boy seasoning in louie’s red hot wail. but then again, maybe it’s the bitter that makes the sweet so strong. whatever. no matter how you slice it, there ain’t but one way to do it and that’s to do it as best you can. morning, noon, midnight and dawn, can’t we all just get along? hell no, not in new o. where it’s legal to gamble but the majority ain’t got much to bet with or on, except the vicious ways we kicking our rolling songs, crazy cooking our deep-fat fried food, and trying to hit a home run with the slim end of a very short stick. just like in bid whist you got to play the hand you was dealt cause that’s all you got to fan with. some folks have ways and means, other folk got songs and dreams. and that’s the way it comes and goes way down yonder in new orleans. some of you might wonder what all this has to do with jazz, well it’s like louie armstrong says, if you have to ask, you’ll never really know. why was we born so black and blue? well our mamas birthed us black and the white folks made us blue, what else is left but to do what you got to do. throw me something mister they beg in the streets, but if you know like i know you best get your ass in the ring and swing like louie. you’ll never see the forest unless you climb down out of the trees, live your life the way you wanna, just don’t get buried by new orleans.

 

–kalamu ya salaam

from the book BE ABOUT BEAUTY

 

Fire & Ice, smoking and steaming. This combo is a dream. Except most of us would never have thought of merging them as a stirring collaboration, yet, here it is.

 

No sense in trying to describe the result when you can listen to the aural rapture for yourself. Dig. This soundtrack is on a whole other level. Different generations, different sensibilities, indeed, different sounds. Nina deadly, bittersweet, no jive. Lauryn youthful, joyful, optimistic. Together they will make you smile, laugh, jump up and dance. How deep do you want to go? How deep are you capable of diving? Jump in.

 

This is no mere audio engineering gimmick. Naw. This is a rare example of sublime conception expertly realized. But let your ears decide. Just expect to be surprised, delighted.

Go here: https://amerigo.bandcamp.com/album/nina-simone-lauryn-hill-the-miseducation-of-eunice-waymon

Your spirit will thank you.

–kalamu

We all have heard of Viet Nam, the war, the nation, the initially secret but eventual major involvement of the United States in a war against a small Asian country. But what about East Timor?

Who? Where?

East Timor is a small island country of black and brown people located below Indonesia and above Australia (which is itself also a historic country of color now majority populated by people of European descent, and within which the indigenous population is a disadvantaged minority). Most of us have never heard of East Timor, which was a former Portuguese colony whose history can be traced back over 40,000 years. In 2002 it became an independent country after being occupied by Indonesia from 1975 to 1999.

In 1975 five Australian journalists were killed. This 2009 film is their story–not just the journalists but also the people of East Timor and their independence struggle. One of the lead characters, portrays Jose Ramos-Horta, who eventually received the 1996 Noble Peace Prize and became the second president of his country (2007-2012).

Although this is mainly a war movie focusing on five young tv journalists, an initially reluctant veteran writer, and a charismatic East Timor activist, the soul of the movie is a woman: Juliana, portrayed by Vea Viegas. Her brave statement and shy observing frames the movie. She is first seen years after the event testifying at the Timor-Leste Commission For Reception, Truth And Reconciliation. Juliana is present throughout as a little girl witnessing the action.

As is generally the case with western movies concerning imperialism and economic conflict, a lot of the political and economic context is only fleetingly presented. To get a deeper understanding requires far more than spending an hour or two looking at a movie. Go here (https://www.etan.org/resource/books.htm) for a list of resources on East Timor. The abbreviated analysis not withstanding, this movie is an engaging introduction that will give you a lot to think about.

The Balibo Conspiracy is an important starting point to get up to speed on global struggles against exploitation–in this case, Indonesian oppression of East Timor.

I was in Nicaragua during the contra-war of the late-70s and 80s. The Balibo Conspiracy immediately transported me back to my experience as a journalist traveling through a war zone. Parts of this movie seemed to be a documentary rather than a dramatic re-enactment. People living at a subsidence level, guns everywhere, buildings blown up, and death’s constant funky stench fouling the atmosphere at battle sites–well, yes, while it’s true that you can’t see an odor, this movie will lead you to imagine what conflict smells like.

The Balibo Conspiracy is available on Amazon, please check it out. Please do not ignore or overlook what happened on the other side of the world from us. Whether we are aware or not, this is an other side to which we are connected. Indeed, this other side is really just another side of us.

 

Black Earth Rising (available on Netflix) focuses on the aftermath and consequences of the Rwandan Civil War (1990 – 1994). The conflict culminated in genocide against the Tutsi people in a 100-day period during which over half-million people were killed. The resulting individual psychological damage as well as the economic, political, and military machinations that followed are high-lighted in this moving and insightful, dramatic 8-episode tv series.

The two leads, Michaela Coel as Kate Ashby (who is an adopted genocide survivor), and John Goodman as Michael Ennis (a lawyer who has legal and personal interests and issues) are the only characters who appear in all eight episodes, and thus are the moral and emotional centers. Both Coel and Goodman present moving and nuanced performances that are complex and sometimes even contradictory between each other as well as within their individual public and private personalities.

Moreover, the African (and not just the American and European) characters are shown as multi-dimensional with both flaws and failures as well as with principles and passionate truth-seeking.

Given that violence is an essential sub-text of this story, there is very little onscreen violence, yet the resulting conflicts and confusions, indeed the overall emotional chaos, all of it is devastating. This is a challenging and sometimes confounding series. Don’t miss it. Indeed, you might find yourself engaged enough to endure/enjoy a second viewing.

–Kalamu ya Salaam

 

 

 

 

From the fall of 1997 to May of 2017, I worked with New Orleans high school students as a staff member and eventually the co-director of Students at the Center, an independent writing program. In the essay below I offer the theory and give examples of our classroom praxis. For us, education was not solely an intellectual activity. We did not rely on what Paulo Freire calls the banking concept, in which teachers instruct and students are required to regurgitate what they have been told is “the truth”.

 

SAC pedagogy included teachers, students AND community members working together — indeed, our students were also teachers, and our teachers learned from our students. Literally. Students taught their younger peers, as well as shared their life experiences in story circles within which teachers became students. We all learned from each other. We learned not simply in the intellectual sense of facts and figures, but also in the lived sense of valuing and honoring each other’s life experiences.

(This essay is included in the collection Be About Beauty / University of New Orleans Press 2018)

Kalamu ya Salaam (photo by Alex Lear)

###########

 

WE STAND BY OUR STUDENTS:

Students at the Center (SAC)

 

 

start with what you know

to learn what you don’t know

start with where you’re at

to get to where you want to go

   

 

Our Students at the Center (SAC) class stood around in small clumps outside the school building. The temperature an uncomfortable lower-50s, an annoying light rain falling, the weather was not welcoming. Tiesha stood unsmiling under a blue umbrella, I told her to hold that pose with her face booted-up; scurried over to my black leather briefcase to get the digital camera, I wanted to take her picture. “You really going to take my picture?”

 

After taking four or five shots, I moved under the sparse cover of a tree, but it offered scant protection. The rain still fell on us. Tiesha smiled as she inspected the small screen on the back of SAC’s digital camera.

 

Jim pulled out the heavy African-American literature book from his backpack and proceeded to continue the last discussion we had before the fire alarm went off. What did Alice Walker mean about fruit awakening taste buds in the poem about her sister Molly?

 

Greta, the coordinator of the Smaller Learning Communities educational program, called on my cell and wanted to know where we were? She was on the St. Claude and Alvar street corner by the front of the school, we were on the Pauline and N. Rampart street corner at the rear of the school. Shortly she joined us and jokingly admired Jim’s tenacity as chilly raindrops wet the book’s pages. “Yall, really going to try and hold class amidst all this?”

 

“Yeah, why not?” Jim casually replied, pushing back his long, dark hair that helps earn him the semi-sarcastic nickname of “Jesus.” Three out of the eight or so students in class that day gamely struggled to answer the questions.

 

We were outside because someone had set fire to the second floor bathroom. And eventually we were all called into the gym and dismissed for the day. This was, Ms. Holiday, the new principal’s second day in charge; a not-unusual, even if atypical, day at Frederick Douglass high school.

 

Everyday working in the public school system I battle the demons of despair; most times I eat that bear, but sometimes brother bear takes a deep bite out of my rear, and on such days, nursing my wounds, I retreat home to repair, often in the process questioning myself: why in the hell do I return to this day after day?

 

I love the youth, especially the students at Douglass and I know that I as an older Black male make a major difference, especially as I do not represent authority types, but rather, in many, many ways, am but an older version of them, or at least a version of who they can become once they achieve critical self-consciousness and commit themselves to life long learning.

 

Any of us who work in a major American metro-area, inner-city public school intimately knows Mr./Ms. Despair Bear, knows the challenge of maintaining in the face of a system whose normal state is either chaos unreined or else the even more sinister, terrifying silence of lock down. But here is where we go every day, somehow nourishing the dream of teaching youth.

 

Some people have developed theories about teaching inner-city youth, and most of those theories are predicated on preparing these youth to participate in the mainstream, while never questioning the sanity of joining in a system that has systematically oppressed and exploited the very youth we are teaching. If preparing them to be productive citizens is the bottom line of what we do, then we might as well be teaching courses in suicide.

 

I do not apologize for my stance: I advocate education for liberation, not education for mainstream socialization.

 

I am interested in coaching youth to engage reality in two ways: 1. Know themselves and 2. Decide for themselves what they wish to become. Those two simple objectives are the foundation for my praxis—the pedagogical theories I develop and/or adopt/adapt, and the day-to-day practice I use to engage the reality of public education.

 

Like many professional artists, I became involved because I was asked to participate in a specific program and not because I was seeking a way to work in the public school system, or even seeking a way to work with youth in the teacher/student dynamic. For most artists, teaching is simply a way to make the money we need to survive and enable us to do what we consider our real work, which is developing our art. In my case, although I have a long history of working with youth, it took over two years before I would consciously commit to teaching as a professional priority of my life work.

 

Contrary to what many non-teachers think, teaching in public schools is not easy money. Reaching our youth is hard, emotionally taxing, and intellectually challenging work, especially if the goal is education for liberation.

 

I teach at McDonogh #35 (a citywide school) and at Frederick Douglass (a district school). Citywide schools require students to meet specific academic requirements. District schools are based on residence in a specific geographic location. In New Orleans we have a three-layered school system: parochial (primarily catholic), private, and public. The public sector is where the overwhelming majority of Black students are herded, although a significant number are in the parochial system. The New Orleans public school system is the largest in the state with a $500-million budget that exceeds the budgets of every town and city in Louisiana.

 

Education is ground zero in the systemic exploitation of Black people in New Orleans—ground zero because public schools are the direct feeder for the necessary, albeit unskilled, labor needed for the tourist-oriented economy. For those not fortunate enough to work in a hotel, the public schools prepare them for the penitentiary. I will not recite the alarming statistics, it is enough to note that in New Orleans they are building more hotels everyday—where will the bellhops and maids come from? If you are reading this journal, I assume you are already aware of the statistical fact that more Black males are in prison than college.

 

Teachers who would educate Black youth but either shy away from making or else are incapable of making a political-economic critique of the school system, such teachers are themselves impediments, if not down-right opponents of education for liberation. If we are not prepared to at least intellectually confront the implicit racism of using test scores to fail students whom school systems have systematically miseducated, if we are unwilling to recognize the utter under-preparedness of system administrators and the lameness of their solutions, if we are afraid to address the difficulties of middle-aged Whites trying to educate Black working class youth, in other words, if we are unwilling to face what is really happening in public education, all of our “innovative” programs will fail because they are not addressing the real problems.

 

We are at war for the future of our students. In New Orleans, tourism is the number one (two and three) industry. Our schools are the way they are because the economy continues to need drawers of water and hewers of wood, continues to require a labor force to clean, cook and serve. And though they can not articulate it in political language, our students know. The ones at the citywide schools, encased in a near zombie-like state of obedience, work to escape the neo-slavery of tourism via college and a “good job” somewhere else in America, those at the district schools rebel or else go through the day in an alienated state of non-engagement with the curricula, which they generally (and too often not incorrectly) perceive as a waste of time. This is the context within which Students at the Center works as a creative writing elective.

 

Everyone who visits our classes, or looks at “Our Voice” (a student run newspaper we publish), or reads the chapbooks and poetry collections we publish, or views one of our numerous videos, everyone marvels at the work and wants to know how we do it. I smile. Although we employ specific techniques, there is no secret ingredient. It’s the fruit of protracted struggle, the fruit of the hard work of encouraging the students to take their lives and their future seriously.

 

Three of our basic principles: 1. No class larger than 15 students. 2. Sit in a circle. 3. Require each student to participate in discussions. We also encourage students to engage in peer teaching with their fellow students who are not in a SAC class or with middle or elementary level students, including those in after school programs. We strongly urge students to get involved with social change organizations and agencies, a number of whom are active partners with SAC.

 

In addition to reading our work aloud and taking turns reading a wide variety of materials, we teach active listening skills by talking about how to ask questions and by our example of asking questions. Silence is death; no student is allowed to not participate. While we do not accept rote responses, at the same time we do not reject any honest response as “wrong” or “inappropriate.” we are not working on what Paulo Freire calls the “banking” concept wherein we as teachers have fed our students the right answer and are prodding them to give us back that specific “right” answer. Instead the SAC methodology is to begin at the beginning. We begin with the experiences and real thoughts and reactions of our students. We begin by affirming the importance of their existence, their personalities, howsoever and whatsoever they may be.

 

One particular tool in this affirmation process is the story circle—a technique developed by John O’Neal and others in the Free Southern Theatre. We sit in a circle and take turns telling a story about a selected topic.

 

To be successful, we must actively listen to our students. This process is one of building community. It is not reductively a one-way process of simplistically asking our students to spill their guts to us while we silently sit in judgment. Indeed, in SAC we all participate as equals; we teachers tell our stories when our turn comes. We all tell stories and we all listen to each other.

 

Whether a person intends to or not, if they honestly participate, they end up doing two things. One, we all learn more about each other, and we thereby become closer to each other. Two, we learn to articulate ideas and emotions that previously had never been publicly expressed. For many students this is their first experience in an educational setting of being embraced for who they actually are rather than for how close they are able to come to some external standard that is set before them as a kind of holy grail.

 

We then encourage our students to write. Again, we do not require any one-to-one write-the-story-you-told process. Rather we ask them to write about a variety of topics, and even encourage them to write on a topic of their own choosing if it is a topic they strongly want to express. When we combine the story circle technique with the prompts and inspiration that comes from the reading assignments, invariably students produce a richer body of literature than if they were simply asked to respond to abstract writing assignments. Here is an example from Maria Hernandez, a sophomore at Frederick Douglass who presents a brilliant social-critique of the effects of violence that is also an unsparing and startling self-critique.

 

Just Like Him

They say when you’re around someone for a long time, you start looking and acting like that person. The problem is that I didn’t want to be like him in any way, but what can I say?  I have his eyes, his hair, and recently I’ve acquired his personality.  Lately I go crazy and snap.  I bitch slap my little brother and on more than one occasion I’ve drawn blood from my little sister’s lips.  I didn’t want to be like him, but I did it anyway.  And something inside me is telling me that I let him win.

 

When you review student writing at this level, the work forces you to confront yourself. You cannot stand before this student and just go through a rote exercise. What do you do?

 

We publish the work and encourage her to do more. Maria’s piece is included in a collection of Douglass writings called From the Heart. Just as our students learn from us, we as teachers, learn from our students. The experience of liberatory education is necessarily a reciprocal relationship. We learn to know our students as fellow human beings with whom we share our lives and experiences, rather than solely see students as blank slates upon whom we teachers are trying to inscribe particular lessons.

 

When we say start with where we are at, we are saying a mouth full. Our students have many, many problems. An upcoming publication is called “men we love / men we hate”—recently during a discussion of an excerpt on Black manhood from bell hooks’ new book, a quick, informal poll demonstrated that only one person of the 12 or so students lived in a two-parent family with a male as the head of the family.  We were discussing patriarchy, which is a bit tricky when there are no patriarchs present in their day-to-day lives; and that was at the city-wide school whose reputation is petite-bourgeois (we pronounce it boo-gie), many of them are literally the  children of first-generation professionals and lower-level managers.

 

Although functional enough to do their class work and to pass standardized tests, even these students, the so-called best and brightest, suffer social stress and trauma at sometimes unimaginable levels. Sexual molestation, dysfunctional families, suicide, drug (especially alcohol and tobacco) abuse, STD’s, and warped senses of self-esteem are endemic, indeed near pandemic across economic strata. Without falling into the trap of either pitying or being repulsed by their problems, our task is to encourage the students to articulate the realities of their day-to-day existence. Unless and until they can honest recognize and confront their own realities they will never be able to truly transform themselves and their communities.

 

In this McDonogh #35 class three seniors were working on projects. Angie Solomon was working on a two-character drama about a young woman trying to talk to her best friend about new feelings she is having that might be homo-erotic but which may not be, she just needs to… to talk about it and her friend is not wanting to listen. The brief piece illustrates the importance of being able to talk about life with a supportive friend. Asia Brumfield’s piece is about her uncle, a high school student, one year younger than Asia, who was murdered at a nearby school in a brazen hit in the school gym during the middle of the day. Rather than a simple cry of sorrow, Asia is intent on exploring the nexus of relationships in her family which include her father, who was imprisoned at the time and a grandfather who had survived a barroom shooting. Marnika Farria is exploring the subject of rape spurred by her own attempts to deal with her mother being raped when Marnika was 11 years old. As Marnika does her research and family investigation she finds out that her grandmother is also a rape survivor although Marnika previously had no knowledge of that history of rape in her own family.

 

These are not woe-is-me, feel-sorry-for-us-poor-downtrodden-negroes investigations, rather these are honest explorations of complex social situations. For Angie, Asia and Marnika, these investigations are a brave and ultimately inspirational example of self-transformation through confronting  social issues at the personal level. Neither Jim nor I try to weigh these projects with overt political views. Our tack is to ask questions, we encourage them to dig deep within themselves and be as truthful as possible.

 

Because we are not a core curriculum class and because we are a “creative writing” class we have more latitude with subject matter and lesson planning than do most of the regular classes. Although one might suppose this means that we are less rigorous in an academic sense, all of the students will tell you that, except for a handful of their other teachers, our SAC class requires them to work much harder than do their regular classes.

 

Even though they have to read more, write more, think more, they come back, some students taking our class two or three times during their high school matriculation. Last semester at Douglass we encountered the phenomenon of male students cutting their assigned classes to sit in on our writing class. One of them eventually persuaded his counselor to switch his class, another student, Bruce Lightell, got a note from his mother saying that it was ok to skip one class so he could be part of our SAC class.

 

Later in the semester when Bruce was selected as one of two students to represent Douglass at a statewide conference on “agenda for children” where our SAC duo recited poetry, one of the counselors wanted to know how in the world could that happen since Bruce was failing every other class. Bruce has severe problems with text. His spelling is on an elementary level and his grammar is almost non-existent, but he has a sharp mind and easily grasps concepts such as metaphorical consistency, which he calls “m-c”. When it is time to publish Bruce’s work, we patiently sit with him and correct each misspelled word. We question him about grammar. We do what editors have traditionally done for many, many highly rated writers whose manuscripts would be unpublishable without significant editorial help. One of my favorite images of Bruce is his head buried deep in a dictionary trying to find out the correct spelling of a word he wants to use. His academic shortcomings notwithstanding, Bruce has the fire and determination to improve himself and his family supports SAC partially because they know the value of our work—one of Bruce’s older cousins had previously been an editor of Our Voice newspaper.

 

We are not a one-shot project or a new approach trying to prove itself. We have made a long-term commitment to public education, long enough that we now have former SAC students who are college graduates returning to work with SAC. Also, a significant component of SAC work is now in the hands of SAC alumni who are currently college students, two of the more active of grads turned SAC staff are graduates of Frederick Douglass—our staff is not just drawn from the academically better prepared students at McDonogh #35.

 

Indeed, at Frederick Douglass the situation is paradoxically both easier and more hopeless—easier because the students are more forthcoming, more hopeless because these students generally have only a modicum of reading, writing and mathematical skills.

 

Steve Grant, a handsome, football player belies the stereotype of the jock who gets all the girls. In a moment of disarming honesty, Steve penned a short response to an Ishmael Reed poem. When he finished reciting his poem there was a moment of stunned silence—we never thought of Steve that way.

 

If I had a nickel …

 If I had a nickel for every time I had been rejected I would be poor because I’ve

Never really had the heart to approach a girl.

 

In one of his writings, Steve gave us the title “From The Heart.” in a similar vein I remember Darrow Reaux coming to class one day after being absent for two days. I asked him where he had been, why had he missed class. He dropped his arrest papers on the desk where I was sitting. I scanned the papers, gave them back to him, and simply said welcome back. Turns out he was arrested because he was standing on the block outside his home when the police came through doing a sweep because of a fight that had happened nearby. I don’t remember for sure, but it was probably after curfew. The next day, Darrow wrote a short piece which highlighted his arrest but from a totally unexpected perspective.

 

 

I Told My Mother I Love Her

This girl in my writing class name is Anastasia and it seems like we’re the same but we really don’t know whose the blame. We both stay with aunt and uncle thinking that they were our real parents. My real mother name is Irita and my real father name is Darrow, but I don’t called neither one of them mom and dad. I continue on calling my auntie Rose, mamma, and my uncle Junnie, papi.

The funny thing was I got arrested the other day and I haven’t seen Irita for about three months and I ran into her in jail. I really didn’t know how to feel when I saw her I didn’t even bother asking what she was doing here but she asked me, and I told her what I was in for. The police brought me in the back for booking she came to the window and told me bye. In jail it is really crazy. Some old man was getting beat while the guards was feeding us cold luncheon meat. I went to court and the judge release me on ROR.

I went home to my mother Rose and told her I was in jail. They let me go without paying bail. My mother said she didn’t know where I was because I left my cell phone. I left the radio on. The lights on and my writing everywhere. She told me don’t go outside at night so I wouldn’t have to fight with the police anymore. I told my mother I love her and good night.

 

 

The students at Douglass have no problem sharing their problems, whereas the better educated students at McDonogh #35 are also the more reticent and the least in touch with their true feelings. Often they have repressed their thoughts and feelings for so long that their ability to express what is happening inside has atrophied. They have the words, in the intellectual sense, but lack the psychological ability to express themselves.

 

The Douglass students are the inverse. They are not hampered by self-censorship, but rather limited in their language skills. By the measure of the leap tests (our state-mandated standardize tests), Douglass is the second worse high school in the state. On a scale that ranges up to approximately 150, I believe we scored 11 and were surpassed in a negative direction only by our uptown sibling, Booker T. Washington, who scored in the single digits, “9” out of the possible 150. Their educational limitations notwithstanding, our Douglass students produce creative writing that helps them cope with and begin to overcome the crippling effects of miseducation.

 

There is a misconception that under-educated students are not ready to grasp philosophy, political-economy, subtleties of high art, etc., however, just because the school system has failed to educate them, does not mean that our students are stupid and/or uneducable. That they score poorly does not mean they cannot think and do not have analytical skills. Indeed, their environment forces them to develop very sharp discrimination skills.

 

They are able to easily spot insincerity and incompetence. They know with the accuracy of a finely tuned Geiger counter, which teachers are simply collecting a paycheck or impersonally teaching from a textbook without being concerned about the student as a human being. Students learn early how to dodge the bullies and con artists who daily confront and try to hustle them both in and outside the classroom. They develop all sorts of evasive techniques to avoid physical harm and/or incarceration by police, guards and other authority figures whose sole responsibility is to maintain law and order, a law and order that demands mindless obedience and compliance with arbitrary rules and regulations. In many, many ways our students are far more realistic about their educational situation than are we who would teach them but who do not take the time to understand them or their world except as either an abstraction or with a pejorative view of their environment.

 

A sure sign that many of us do not understand our students is our refusal to understand that even if students can’t spell, they can reason, even if students can’t pronounce multi-syllabic words, they can express themselves. How well a person does on a standardized test is no indication of that person’s character or desire to learn. A test may measure what one knows, but cannot accurately predict whether a person wants to or is capable of learning.

 

Thus, we read and discuss Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” or excerpts from Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, along side of Toni Morrison and excerpts from the writing of Frederick Douglass; we read Sandra Cisneros and Birago Diop as well as Alice Walker and Langston Hughes. We not only read these authors, we discuss the relationship of the text to their lives and follow-up with assignments that, for example, ask them to write about their own “cave” experiences. Here is high school sophomore Rodneka Shelbia’s cave essay written when she was 14 years old:

 

When I was 13 years old, I stumbled into a place with very little air and very little space.  I was uncomfortable.  I stumbled in this place not knowing what I was getting into, not knowing a way out. This place was a dark, confusing, messed up place.  Being in this place was terrifying and painful, full of decisions.  This place was a cave, a cave of many emotions.

This cave was a relationship between me, a boy named Tim, and a boy named Rodney.  Tim was my boyfriend.  Tim and I had a good relationship.  We were known as the star couple.  We had known each other for about three years, but we were together for about five months.  Tim had what I look for in a boyfriend.  He attracted me because he was himself.  He did not try to be anyone else, and he accepted me for me.  He was my 9-10, but we broke up.  We broke up over a few words that were passed around and the pressure of Rodney.

Rodney was someone I would call a best friend.  Tim, on the other hand, thought Rodney was not just a best friend.  He saw Rodney as someone trying to get with someone else’s girlfriend.  After Tim and I stopped talking, Rodney and I started talking.  Rodney was the type of nigga that would do anything to get what he wanted.  He was good at his game, cause he got me.  We were together for about two weeks, but after those two weeks he lost me.  I had to leave him alone.  I felt like I was cheating on him, cause I still had love for Tim, which meant Rodney wouldn’t get all I had to offer, maybe not even half.

Now I was hurting, stuck in the middle of a four-wall cave, just confused. On each of the walls there was an engraving that somewhat frightened me.  The first wall was engraved, “Rodney,” next “love,” then “Tim,” and last “Decisions.”  On the ceiling and base of the cave there were little riddles and clues telling me where the answer lay.  There was one in bold print that stood out like none other.  It stated, “The answer lies where you stand.”  I sat thinking, “What does this mean?”  What could I do to help myself, to strengthen myself, to free myself?  I soon noticed two rocks next to me.  Those rocks were nothing more than my feelings.

The first rock was soft and chalk-like.  With this rock in my hands I looked around and repeated three of the clues to myself. 1) The answer lies where you stand.  2) Freedom is the key.  3) “X” out that that won’t help. 1) The answer lies where you stand.  2) Freedom is the key.  3) “X” out.

I thought, “Freedom, freedom is the key.  It can open the cave.  The rock lies where I stand.  The rock can “x” out the words on the cave.  I can write freedom on the cave.  It just might open.”  I was hoping and praying as I got up to try my plan.  I got up to the wall, but the rock was so soft it crumbled up as I wrote. I found that the rock didn’t engrave nor write, because the rock was soft and contained no strength, no power, only mixed emotions.  It didn’t help me at all.

I sat hopelessly thinking.  “What am I going to do now?”  I looked at the second rock and thought to myself, “Ain’t no way in hell I’mma get that rock.”  So I just sat making excuses.  “It’s too far; I can’t walk.  It’s too heavy; I’m too weak.  It’s in a pile of man-eating creatures; they’ll eat me alive.  That junk is gonna hurt.  It’ll probably make me look ugly.”  Then I thought to myself, “It’s the only way out.”  So I walked over there to get the rock, but in the process I suffered.  I bled and lost a lot, but I got the rock.

This rock gave me confidence.  Every step I took with this rock felt like the hardest step in the world. When I got to the wall, I started to write freedom on it.  That was very hard, because my hands were bloody, and the rock was heavy.   I had to push the stone in the wall to make the engravings, but the good part about it was that as I engraved I grew stronger. I became more powerful, and my emotions came in line.

When I finished, the cave vanished.  I became free.  Rodney was gone.  Tim was gone. Love was gone.  And I was free, oh so free.

 

Although teaching writing is both a more complex and a far broader question than can be addressed in this short essay, one quick example, will illustrate the difficulty, if not impossibility, of finding a working solution that addresses all the needs. Three of the students in our small class at McDonogh #35 are transfers from Douglass. This is an example of the typical third world brain drain that is a common feature of under- and un-developed countries. While we struggle to meet the needs of all our students, including those who are intellectually gifted, a larger fact is undeniable: when the best students are relocated from the neighborhood schools to a citywide school, invariably the level of instruction goes down in the neighborhood school. The absence of “gifted” students in the classroom ensures that those who are left behind stay left behind.

 

We discuss these concepts with all of our students. Rodneka was considering leaving Douglass, and though there is no doubt that she would benefit from a better educational environment, there is also no doubt that were she to leave, Douglass would face a big loss. Our task as SAC teachers who recognize this dilemma is to provide ongoing educational stimulus and opportunities for all the Rodnekas we encounter even as we recognize that schools such as Douglass do not provide a quality learning environment or instruction.

 

That is one small example of the complexities we face. I want to make sure no one romanticizes SAC and the struggle we wage. Students such as Rodneka deserves far more than we are able to give them, even though we, they, and their families recognize that SAC has given them far more than they would have normally received in their matriculation through the jungles of public education.

 

I am an experienced writer, sort of a writer-in-residence, but only “sort of.” although i have published books, have had my writings used as part of the SAT tests, and am an award-winning journalist in both print and broadcast, most of the students do not know me as a published writer. They simply know me as their teacher, the one who helps them write and shows them how to make movies. Additionally, I have years and years of work as a community organizer at local, national and international levels. I do not have to rely on teaching in this program to make a living, nor am I using this program as a stepping stone to get to another level in my writing career. Ultimately, education for liberation demands a commitment far beyond career development.

 

Moreover, I am not an “artiste.” I am against an emphasis on the arts where the focus is on teaching technique and individualism. Our students need to focus first on their own realities rather than be seduced by the intellectual brilliance or the career bling-bling of some artist. In other words, it is not about me as the artist—the focus must remain on the students. Moreover, we have to model social commitment not by sloganizing or by using clever rhymes to fight oppression, but rather we must do the hard work of helping others without requiring students to look up to us on our teacherly pedestals of wisdom, truth, and beauty. We must be serious about keeping students at the center of our work.

 

In our SAC classes we encourage our students to critique the SAC education process, including how we teach them. We ask them for opinions about what we should study, which programs we should do and which we should pass up. Sometimes it is as simple as requesting they select a topic to write about for the week or select the theme for a story circle, other times we lay out particular situations we are dealing with and ask for their input in the decision-making process that ultimately Jim and I make. The students quickly realize that they can help shape their education. They can help determine what they will learn. This engenders a sense of ownership and identification with the learning process that will never happen if one simply uses predetermined lesson plans and state mandated educational objectives.

 

We realize that not every class can operate the way SAC does, however we are certain that public education can be significantly improved by specifically focusing on the needs of the students, which, for us, means including the views of students. We believe another world is possible. We believe students are a resource and not just an object of education. We encourage the students to become agents of their own education, and we struggle with other teachers and administrators to make these changes. Unavoidably this is sometimes a contentious and even bitter struggle. There are teachers and administrators who actively fight against what we are doing, but, as the British are wont to say, “at the end of the day” the work our students generate stands out and speaks for itself.

 

Still the attacks come. Some people say: SAC is successful because we work with only a handful of students. SAC is elitist because we pick only the best students.

 

At Douglass, there are racial antagonisms aimed at Jim Randels, a white teacher in a school that has only one or two white students and none in any of the SAC classes. In the second semester of the 2003/2004 school year an antagonistic counselor assigned us two special education students, plus one student who was a serious discipline problem, plus three students who needed upper level English to graduate and who also had to pass the leap test but whom had failed the English portions previously, all of this in addition to those who were assigned to us “just because,” even though we are supposed to be an elective course, and even though the counselor did not include some students who requested our class. Meanwhile we have a handful of students who want to learn how to write—two of whom are intent on becoming writers.

 

So we circle the chairs and soldier on. And though we have our problems, despite stumbles and setbacks, despite backbiting and resentments (the inevitable result of struggles to create change), despite having to deal with a wide range of student attitudes and capabilities, despite all of that, our students produce and their work is both our defense and our offense. Their work is answer to the question of can public education be improved. We proudly stand by the work that our students do.

 

Marcus Garvey said, what man has done, man can do. Terence said, there is nothing human that is foreign to me. SAC says: start with what we know, in order to learn what we don’t know. Start with where we’re at, to get to where we want to go.

 

———————-

Five SAC publications are free to view or download (sacnola.com). They are

 

  1. WHO AM I? – Reflections on Culture & Identity

A book of insights and reflections.

 

  1. The Long Ride

A collection of student writings based on the events that are part of the long struggle for civil rights and social justice in New Orleans.

 

  1. NEXT steps

Writings from Students at the Center Class of 2010

 

  1. MEN WE LOVE—MEN WE HATE

An anthology on the topic of men and relationships with men.

 

  1. WAYS OF LAUGHING

An anthology of young, Black, female voices.

 

 

 

I have been working with west coast scholar/producer Scot Brown on a project we call “Catfish and Yellow Grits”. Here is the first single from that project. Enjoy.

https://scotronixx.bandcamp.com/releases?fbclid=IwAR2pRux0bht89Nn5gihf7TDy42C898axzrolpFwkWK3tf9WPMhP5oWtKCto

I Thought Of This As I Passed In The Hallway And You Looked Up

While Drying Off After Stepping Out Of Your Sunday Shower

 

in a lover’s eye one can see something, perhaps, a glint of the potent

beauty we all long to be when we giddily cast our fate to the whims

of desire, and even if we have never pranced high steeping at the front

of satisfaction’s parade most of us have nevertheless stood close

enough to the drumming to reflect the shudder of sensuality coiled

within the trembling of impatient flesh awaiting the release of touch

 

who needs to apologize for feeling good, for opening the soul

to the bliss experience, especially when we consider our hearts

observe neither stopwatch nor timetable upon tasting the sincerity

sweet of a tear or two when a special person voluntarily confesses

their resolve to attempt to be better than the frailty we all inevitably are

whenever carrying the ball of contradictions commonly called love

 

in this briefness we transubstantiate, visit the angelic state whose reaching

we humans are capable of grasping but oh so seldom achieve