We hope you all are well, and thank you for your patience.
Our plans to exhibit at Xavier Art Gallery have shifted due to HVAC repair plans at the Administration Building, where the gallery is housed. Instead of exhibiting at Xavier Art Gallery this fall, we will exhibit in summer/fall 2023 after the building reopens.
We are still on track to exhibit in February 2023 at Ashe, and arrangements at other institutions are still underway.
Below is the press release for First Frame, which opens on October 6 at the New Orleans African American Museum. The opening reception is 7 – 9 pm. We hope to see many of you there.
If you haven’t completed the Google form here, please do so by or before the extended deadline of September 30, as we will be following up soon to confirm the photographs we have selected of yours.
-Shana, Kalamu, Eric, and Girard
SEEING BLACK launches fall exhibition centering the photography of Florestine Perrault Collins and other early Black photographers’ approaches documenting Black life, self-expression, political struggle, and social achievement through the camera.
First Frame, the preludial exhibition for SEEING BLACK: Black Photography in New Orleans 1840 & Beyond, opens at the New Orleans African American Museum on October 6, 2022, and runs until June 4, 2023.
SEEING BLACK: Black Photography in New Orleans 1840 & Beyond is a multimedia, research-based project chronicling and celebrating the history, influence, performative aesthetic, and futurity of Black photography in New Orleans. From photography’s pre-Civil War beginnings to its twenty-first-century practices, SEEING BLACK engages the intellectual inquiry, cultural histories, political positioning, and innovative versatility of historical and contemporary Black photography.
Organized around a publication, a series of exhibitions spanning multiple sites, a digital platform, an index, and public programming, SEEING BLACK challenges traditional exhibition didactics, conventional object presentations, and historical assumptions of blackness and representation. The project robustly engages a broad body of work from more than eighty historical and contemporary photographers and the themes and vernacular embodied in their images.
“Our oppression has been racialized and genderized to the extent that we do not recognize what’s been done to us,” states writer and activist Kalamu ya Salaam, lead organizer of SEEING BLACK. “It’s not a matter of centering or bringing women into the focus of the lens, as they have already been shaping the frame and leading the work. It’s about changing our understanding of their contributions and mindset about gender.”
As a body of work curated through a collaborative and research-led process, SEEING BLACK will present over 200 photographs and artifacts covering a spectrum of narrative styles, compositions, techniques, and approaches, showcasing contemporary art forms and expanding the historical record.
“Much of what we have access to about Black photographers in New Orleans since the 1840s has been erased in the archival record. The fragmented scants of photographic artists like John Roberts, Louis Foucher, Oryana Valentine, Jrende Meyers, and dozens of others I have documented denote a significant community of Black photographers,” states photographer and researcher Girard Mouton,III. “The recorded work of photographers like Arthur Paul Bedou, Florestine Perrault Collins, George Floyd, Villard Paddio, and Arthur Perrault allows us to experience Black life through their techniques and styles.”
First Frame is an immersive installation centering the photography of Florestine Perrault Collin, the first documented Black woman photographer in New Orleans, and early Black photographers’ approaches documenting Black life, self-expression, political struggle, and social achievement through the camera, curated by Shana M. griffin with Kalamu ya Salaam, Eric Waters, and Girard Mouton,III.
“Unintimidated by a field dominated by men and racist depictions of blackness, Collins navigated various forms of racial and gender subjectivities of the early twentieth century and reimagined the confines of imposed patriarchal domesticity to one of possibilities and creative resistance,” states Shana M. griffin, feminist researcher and interdisciplinary artist. “Inspired by the location of Collins’ first studio and her aesthetic practice of challenging racial and gender stereotypes and controlling images of the Black body through the camera, the archival research and racialized gender analysis of Arthé A. Anthony in Picturing Black New Orleans: A Creole Photographers View of the Early Twentieth Century, and the pioneering research of artist, writer, and scholar Deborah Willis, First Frame reimagines the bold and inventive work of early Black photographers, celebrates Black visual histories, and explores the creative risk-taking evident in their work.”
First Frame will feature a reimagined Florestine Perrault Collins Parlor Room and an early twentieth-century Black portrait studio at the New Orleans African American Museum from October 6, 2022 to June 4, 2023.
“Historical photographers challenge negative stereotypes and violent forms of erasure by changing the visual narrative of how Black people were represented in popular culture. Black photographers like Collins documented proof of our existence as we were, a dignified people, recording important achievements in everyday life,” notes photographer Eric Waters.
“The New Orleans African American Museum is excited to partner with SEEING BLACK to present this monumental work and situate the launch of the prelude in the historic Tremé community, the site of Collins’ first two studios,” states Gia Hamilton, Executive Director and Chief Curator of the New Orleans African American Museum.
First Frame will be accompanied by opening receptions and public programming, including panel discussions, workshops, and more.
Following First Frame, the book version of SEEING BLACK: Black Photography in New Orleans 1840 & Beyond will be published by the University of New Orleans Press in the spring of 2023, featuring over 200 images with writings by griffin, Salaam, Mouton, and Waters. “SEEING BLACK will be a powerful, dazzling, and certainly beautiful title,” says UNO Press editor Chelsey Shannon. “We are proud and elated to be a partner in bringing this work to life in handheld form, complementing the project’s other manifestations.”
From February 3 to May 27, 2023, the second exhibition series will take place at Ashé Cultural Arts Center. “As Ashé embarks on its twenty-fifth-anniversary celebration next year, we are excited to feature the work of photographers from and working in New Orleans, celebrating Black life, Black protest, and Black culture through the visual frame of the camera,” states Frederick Wood Delahoussaye, Chief Creative Officer at Ashé Cultural Arts Center.
The third exhibition in the series will take place during the summer/fall of 2023 at Xavier University’s Art Collections and Gallery. ‘We are honored to collaborate with SEEING BLACK and look forward to presenting a diverse body of contemporary work from Black photographers,” remarks Anne Collins Smith, Director of the Xavier University Collections and Art Gallery.
The arrangement of additional sites is underway to present the full scope of the photographers participating in SEEING BLACK.
Historical work included in SEEING BLACK draws from the collections of Arthé A. Anthony, Cheron Brylski, Charlene Legaux Richard, Tex Stevens, Amistad Research Center, Xavier University of Louisiana Library, The Historic New Orleans Collection, the Hogan Archive of New Orleans Music and New Orleans Jazz at Tulane University Special Collection, the UNO Earl K. Long Library’s Louisiana and Special Collections, the Library of Congress, the New Orleans Public Library, the Louisiana State Museum, The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate, and LSU Libraries Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collections.
SEEING BLACK is supported by several community partners, including the New Orleans African American Museum, Xavier University Art Gallery, Xavier University of Louisiana Art Department, Ashé Cultural Arts Center, PUNCTUATE, University of New Orleans Press, Antenna, Amistad Research Center, and The Historic New Orleans Collection.
SEEING BLACK is funded in part by the UNO Press with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Jazz and Heritage Foundation, Monroe Fellowship of the New Orleans Center for the Gulf South, Platforms Fund, and Rosenberg Foundation.
First Frame, SEEING BLACK: Black Photography in New Orleans 1840 & Beyond’s preludial exhibition, is organized by SEEING BLACK and presented in collaboration with the New Orleans African American Museum. SEEING BLACK is organized by writer and activist Kalamu ya Salaam, feminist activist, researcher, and artist Shana M. griffin, photographer and activist Eric Waters, and photographer and historian Girard Mouton,III.
New Orleans African American Museum of Art
The New Orleans African American Museum of Art, History, and Culture (NOAAM) was founded in 1996 under the guidance and extensive support of the City of New Orleans Department of Housing and Neighborhood Development. Located in the Tremé section of New Orleans, NOAAM seeks to educate, preserve, interpret, and promote the contributions that people of African descent have made to the development of New Orleans and Louisiana culture.
Ashé Cultural Arts Center
Ashé Cultural Art Center’s innovative programming is designed to utilize culture in fostering human development and civic engagement. As ecosystem builders, Ashé delivers programming and direct services that support, leverage, and celebrate the people, places, and philosophies of the African Diaspora.
Xavier University Art Gallery
The Xavier University Art Gallery’s primary mission is to increase the knowledge and understanding of our global African Diaspora community and diverse contemporary culture through the particular lens of the vast visual histories and cosmologies of the descendant communities of Louisiana. The Art Collections and Gallery believes in the power of art to change communities. It facilitates this transformation through the organization and production of exhibitions, publications, and public programs on the issues of descendant communities and the world at large.
University of New Orleans Press
Founded in 2003, the University of New Orleans Press is a nonprofit book publisher stemming from the rich cultural tradition of New Orleans and its surrounding region. The Press seeks literature inspired by this tradition as well as work that contributes to the intellectual and aesthetic life of academic and general audiences everywhere.
SEEING BLACK—Photography In New Orleans 1840 and Beyond
The central truth of African American history is that Black women have been our fiercest and most steadfast warriors–and I mean “American” in the total western hemispheric sense. Nanny in Jamaica, Harriet Tubman in the USA, and numerous others from Canada to Peru, many of whom are uncelebrated, are the true sheroes of existence during slavery, colonialism, and day-to-day racism.
Black women are not often celebrated and instead are often overlooked as the warriors they are and historically have been. I am not saying that men have not historically fought the good fight–we have. But Black women have too often been ignored in the history of African struggles in the Western Hemisphere as well as on the continent.
Questions of accuracy and historical truth not withstanding, the The Woman King is a beautiful and important correction of the erasure of Black women. Staring Viola Davis and directed by Gina Prince-Blythewood, in many ways this is Wakanda part 2 and we are just getting started in telling our whole story.
As we used to say way back in the seventies, “be there or be square”. We need this movie.
A really balanced review of the movie is contained in a documentary that was done by Lapita Nyong’o who was initially cast to be in the movie. Check out her investigation of women warriors–before or after you see The Woman King.
In my estimation, Chicago has long been a bedrock of Black America. Cultural expression and political activity, Chicago has it in spades–in this new age, Chi is the home of this nation’s largest Black publishing firm, Third World Press.
Chicago is also the home of Curtis Mayfield, the most prolific and insightful of the seventies songwriters. His life was tragically shortened when a gust of wind blew sound equipment onto his body during a performance in New York that left him paralyzed from the neck down.
His infirmary notwithstanding, while flat on his back he recorded a last album that is one of his best ever: 1996’s New World Order, although I remain enthralled by his Viet Nam-era, 1973 album Back To The World, which was both a vow and a theme song for a multitude of us soldiers station overseas.
His music documented an era and demonstrated the resilience and resolve to never give up as long as we are breathing.
But nary a drop to drink. From somewhere I remember that poetic line. What tiggers the recall is the situation upriver from New Orleans in Jackson, Mississippi where my friend C. Liegh lives. At this point I should say survives–they have gone days without potable water flowing through the faucets. Now they can’t even bath in it nor was dishes. Nothing. Nada. It’s verboten.
Where I’m from, we go through days, sometimes weeks of water disruption during the perennial hurricane seasons. I know how it feels, and as we say: it ain’t nothing nice!
It’s worse, of course, when it is as it is in Jackson. Not a natural disaster, but rather a man-made, preventable calamity. Jarvis DeBerry, a colleague from Mississippi wrote this about the situation.
The reality of racism hitting hard. Find out more about Jackson. Do whatever your can, even if it is no more than spreading the word about what’s going on.
I close with the words of C. Liegh McGinnis, who sent out a recent posting:
Thanks to so many of y’all from around the country for checking with us regarding Jackson, Mississippi’s water crisis. Unfortunately, flooding is a usual thing in many parts of Mississippi, even the capital city. And, then, the failing water system of Jackson compounds the issue. My area (Clinton) is cool, and the water has begun to recede in some of the hardest-hit areas. Yet, because Jackson’s water treatment center is so old, one of the pumps failed and has left much of the city without water. And, no one knows how long this will continue. Again, Clinton and the areas around Jackson are fine though many folks in Jackson are suffering. The real issue is that Jackson doesn’t have a tax base. As I’ve stated before, white flight does not kill a city. But, the majority of the black middle class left both the city of Jackson and Hinds County. (My wife, Monica, and I were determined to remain in Hinds County because of its majority black population.) So, without a tax base, the city has no way to repair its water treatment center or is outdated pipe system. Additionally, because two of Jackson’s black city councilmen have been wasting time haggling with Mayor Chokwe Lumumba to ensure that a black-owned company does not receive the contract for the city’s garbage collection services, which it fairly and lawfully won, the city has not been able to do much about its failing water treatment and pipe system. To make matters worse, the racist Governor Ole Tater Tot and the Mississippi legislature is withholding the funds that can repair the system because it wants Jackson (a majority black city) to relinquish its control of the city airport to one of the neighboring all-white cities. Moreover, Tater has a history of rejecting federal funds designed to provide aid and relief to poor people because keeping people poor and poorly educated is what keeps them chained to the planation system. Thus, it’s Mississippi politics as usual, and, at the moment, the evil-ass Confederates have the upper hand as they are aided by inept Negroes. But, thanks to U.S. Congressman Bennie Thompson for using his position as head of Homeland Security to leverage President Joe Biden to sign the Mississippi Emergency Declaration, which will provide necessary funds. However, at the moment, I don’t know how much this assistance will extend to repairing the water treatment center and the years of old pipes. (The Jackson Advocate has an insightful article about federal aid here.) Still, Thompson and Biden have already done more for Afro-Mississippians in this moment than King of the Taters has done his entire time as Governor. So, thanks for thinking of us. But, my family is good so far. Also, my sister, Beth, and brother, Chris, who live in Jackson, have decent water pressure. Nevertheless, a good portion of Jackson is in bad shape with no real help in sight as of yet. Of course, Monica has been doing Monica-like things, such as taking water to folks and even offering some shower time to family and a few folks we know. My job is to make sure that we have enough clean towels. Don’t really know how that became my job, but it is what it is.
One look at our extended family and the average American would be totally confused. What the heck are y’all?
Let’s see, my Mama, Esmerelda, is Mexican. Part indigenous, part Spanish colonial, come from around Vera Cruz. My Papi, Roberto, all he know is his people are from near Cancun. We never thought too much about what we was til we made it to Texas — at home we say it Tay-hass. And then it gets complicated.
My older brother, he snuck up cross the border, moved on to New York. He wouldn’t never tell us exactly how he got to the Bronx, decided to move to Spanish Harlem and hooked up with a Puerto Rican woman. They had a passel of children. I’m talking seven or eight of them. So you know I got nephews and nieces all over the place.
My sister, the girl four years older than me, has long black hair, fair skinned and is so pretty, they was always hiring her as an extra in Hollywood movies. Ole, that girl could dance. Although after a while didn’t hear much from her. Maybe a card at Christmas time and for Mama birthday. But we would see her in the movies all the time, although most times she had a non-speaking role.
See, what happened was, Papi moved us to New Orleans after Katrina when there was all kinds of work rebuilding the city. For a good six, seven, even ten or twelve years after that we could always find work. Made enough money to save some, send some home, and even make a house note on a double in the Seventh Ward.
All the lil ones be speaking English in school and Spanish at home. They don’t be confused, just jump back and forth, like playing hop scotch.
Liela, the pretty one out in Hollywood, she don’t have no children. But all the rest of us do.
Ok, so my twin brother, he married an afro-woman, name of Rosemary, but she go by Peaches. Sweet smile, with deep, deep, deepest dimples you ever seen. Their baby is so cute.
Now, my youngest brother he live way out in the East part of New Orleans and go with this Vietnamese girl he hooked up with in high school. She say, on a romantic tip, it be easier for her to be with Black people than for Black people to be with Vietnamese. She pregnant, of course, I wonder what they children going to look like.
Now here is where some people find us mixed up, complex, and something like a United Nations. I got an uncle who married a woman who part Italian and part Negro. They met in public school and both say they don’t care what they people say, they love each other.
I know it seem like we all mixed up but we all just men and womens trying to find love whilst we do what we got to do to live our lives.
When Mama was sick, almost on her death bed, Liela, she come home to see her before Mama move on. Papi, he was so sad, most like when his dog, Teddy, died. They had been together ten years. Well, when Mama caught that cancer, less than a year after Teddy died, there wasn’t nothing that anybody could do to cheer Papi up. He not even smile when they served him lemon meringue pie.
I would have long talks with Liela, wanted to know all about Hollywood and being in movies, and everything. I would be telling her about who was who. I believe at one time we count up to forty-some cousins. I ask her how come she ain’t never had no children. She got real quiet. Most time she talk about anything. About everything. Even much told me about different men she been with and how they treat her, what they do romantically, and all, some of it really intimate. So, I figured there had to be a reason she never got pregnant or nothing.
I told her I wouldn’t be asking except she was so open about life when she talk with me. She got real quiet at my question about not having no children. She told me she was pregnant once but got it taken care of.
She saw I didn’t get it at first. “I had an abortion.”
I had so many questions but had the good sense to know that if she wanted me to know more, she would have said more. She make good money dancing and being in movies, but when she went in to thinking about the baby she gave up, she just get quiet.
“I figure we got enough babies in our family.” The next day Leila went back to the west coast and Mama passed away four months after that. Papi, he hung on for two more years, but he kind of wasted away after Mama left us. Liela came for Mama funeral but was gone a couple of days later, which is when I decided I would name my baby Liela Rose if she was a girl and Roberto if he was a boy, even though Leila didn’t never come here when Papi passed on two years after Mama.
When my school assignment was to write about my family, I kept it on the down low because my Teach-For-America young teacher would never have understood everything about us.
I wrote about her long ago. Another century ago. Saw her on television mid-century in the past millennium. Then, in subsequent years in concert whenever she came to New Orleans. Even won awards and such for my attempts to capture her meaning and impact.
Another mellinium and I am still writing about her.
Indeed, long after I am gone, I am sure some other scribe will memorialize our dark lady of deep song.
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Nina is song. Not just a vocalist or singer, but actual song. The physical vibration and the meaning too. A reflection and projection of a certain segment of our mesmerizing ethos. Culturally specific in attitude, in rhythm, in what she harmonizes with and what she clashes against, merges snugly into and hotly confronts in rage. All that she is. Especially the contradictions and contrarinesses. And why not. If Nina is song. Our song. She would have to be all that.
Nina is not her name. Nina is our name. Nina is how we call ourselves remade into an uprising. Eunice Waymon started out life as a precocious child prodigy—amazingly gifted at piano. She went to church, sang, prayed and absorbed all the sweat of the saints: the sisters dropping like flies and rising like angels all around her. Big bosoms clad in white. Tambourine-playing, cotton-chopping, tobacco-picking, corn-shucking, floor-mopping, child-birthing, man-loving hands. The spray of sweat and other body secretions falling on young Eunice’s face informing her music for decades to come with the fluid fire of quintessential Black musicking. But there was also the conservatory and the proper way to approach the high art of music. The curve of the hands above the keyboard. The ear to hear and mind to understand the modulations in and out of various keys. The notes contained in each chord. She aspired to be a concert pianist. But at root she was an obeah woman. With voice and drum she could hold court for days, dazzle multitudes, regale us with the splendor, enrapture us with the serpentine serendipity of her black magic womanistness articulated in improvised, conjured incantations. “My daughter said, mama, sometimes I don’t understand these people. I told her I don’t understand them either but I’m born of them, and I like it.” Nina picked up Moses’ writhing rod, swallowed it and now hisses back into us the stories of our souls on fire. Hear me now, on fire.
My first memory of Nina is twofold. One that music critics considered her ugly and openly said so. And two that she was on the Tonight show back in the late fifties/very early sixties singing “I Love You Porgy.” Both those memories go hand in hand. Both those memories speak volumes about what a Black woman could and could not do in the Eisenhower era. They called her ugly because she was Black. Literally. Dark skinned. In the late fifties, somewhat like it is now, only a tad more adamant, couldn’t no dark skinned woman be pretty. In commercial terms, the darker the uglier. Nina was dark. She sang “Porgy” darkly. Made you know that the love she sang about was the real sound of music, and that Julie Andrews didn’t have a clue. Was something so deep, so strong that I as a teenager intuitively realized that Nina’s sound was both way over my head and was also the water within which my soul was baptized. Which is probably why I liked it, and is certainly why my then just developing moth wings sent me shooting toward the brilliant flashes of diamond bright lightening which shot sparking cobalt blue and ferrous red out of the black well of her mouth. This was some elemental love. Some of the kind of stuff I would first read about in James Baldwin’s Another Country, a book that America is still not ready to understand. Love like that is what Nina’s sound is.
Her piano was always percussive. It hit you. Moved you. Socked it to you. She could hit one note and make you sit up straight. Do things to your anatomy. That was Nina. Made a lot of men wish their name was Porgy. That’s the way she sang that song. I wanted to grow up and be Porgy. Really. Wanted to grow up and get loved like Nina was loving Porgy. For a long time, I never knew nobody else sang that song. Who else could possibly invest that song with such a serious message, serious meaning? Porgy was Nina’s man. Nina’s song. She loved him. And he was well loved.
In my youth, I didn’t think she was ugly. Nor did I didn’t think she was beautiful. She just looked like a dark Black woman. With a bunch of make-up on in the early days. Later, I realized what she really looked like was an African mask. Something to shock you into a realization that no matter how hard you tried, you would never ever master white beauty because that is not what you were. Fundamental Blackness. Severe lines. Severe, you hear me. I mean, you hear Nina. Dogonic, chiseled features. Bold eyes. Ancient eyes. Done seen and survived slavery eyes. A countenance so serious that only hand carved mahogany or ebony could convey the features.
The hip-notism of her. The powerful peer. Percussive piano. Pounding pelvis. The slow, unhurried sureness. An orgasm that starts in the toes and ends up zillions of long seconds later emanating as a wide-mouthed silent scream uttered in some sonic range between a sigh and a whimper. A coming so deep, you don’t tremble, you quake. I feel Nina’s song and think of snakes. Damballa undulations. Congolesian contractions. She is an ancient religion renewed. The starkness of resistance. And nothing Eurocentric civilization can totally contain. Dark scream. Be both the scream and the dark. A crusty fist shot straight up in the air, upraised head. Maroon. Runaway. No more auction block. The one who did not blink when their foot was cut off to keep them from running away. And they just left anyway. Could stand before the overseer and not be there. Could answer drunken requests to sing this or that love song and create a seance so strong you sobered up and afterwards reeled backward, pawing the air cause you needed a drink. You could not confuse Nina Simone with some moon/june, puritan love song. Nina was the sound that sent slave masters slipping out of four posted beds and roaming through slave quartered nights. Yes, Nina was. And was too the sound that sent them staggering back with faces and backs scratched, teeth marked cheeks, kneed groins, and other signs of resistance momentarily tattooed on their pale bodies. And despite her fighting spirit, or perhaps because of her fighting spirit, the strength and ultra high standard of femininity she established with her every breath, these men who would be her master would not sell her. Might whip her a little, but not maim her. Well, nothing beyond cutting the foot so she would stay. With Nina it could get ugly if you came at her wrong, and something in her song said any White man approaching with intentions of possessing me is wrong. Nina sounded like that. Which is why this anti-fascist German team wrote “Pirate Jenny” and it was a long, long time before I realized that the song wasn’t even about Black people.
Nina Simone was/is something so potent, so fascinating. A fertile flame. A cobra stare. Once you heard her, you could not avoid her, avoid the implications of her sound, be ye Black, White or whatever. Her blackness embraced the humanity in all who heard her, who experienced being touched by her, whose eyes welled up with tears sometimes, feeling the panorama of sensations she routinely but not rotely evoked wherever, whenever she sat at the altar of her piano and proceeded to unfurl the spiritual history of her people. When Nina sang, sings, if you are alive, and hear her, really hear her, you become umbilicaled into the cosmic and primal soul of suffering and resurrection, despair and hope, slavery and freedom that all humans have, at one level or another, both individually and ethnically, experienced, even if only vicariously. After all, who knows better the range of reactions to the blade, than does the executioner who swings the axe?
Nina hit you in the head, in the heart, in the gut and in the groin. But she hit you with music, and thus her sonorous fusillades, even at their most furious, did you no harm. In fact, the resulting outpouring of passions was a healing. A lancing of sentimental sacs which held the poisons of oppressive tendencies, the biles of woe-filled self-pity. A draining from the body of those social toxicants which embitter one’s soul. A removal of the excrescent warts of prejudice and chauvinism that blight one’s civil make-up.
Sangoma Simone sang and her sound was salving and salubrious. Her concerts were healing circles. Her recordings medicinal potions. She gave so much. Partaking of her drained you of cloying mundanities. Poured loa-ed essentials into the life cup. You left her presence, filled to your capacity and aware of how much there was to achieve by being a communicative human being.
Nina Simone. Supper clubs could not hold her. Folk songs were not strong enough. Popular standards too inane. Even though she did them. Did them to death. Took plain soup, and when she finished adding her aural herbs, there you had gumbo. Nina hit her stride with the rebellious uprises of the sixties, and the fierce pride of the seventies. Became a Black queen, an African queen. Became beautiful. Remember, I am talking about a time when we really believed Black was beautiful. Not just ok, acceptable, nothing to be ashamed of, but beautiful. Proud. And out there. Not subdued. Not refined. Not well mannered. But out there. Way out. Like Four Women. Like Mississippi Goddamn. Like Young, Gifted And Black. Like Revolution. Like: “And I Mean Every Word Of It”. This was Nina who did an album with only herself. Voice. Piano. And some songs that commented on the human condition in terms bolder than had ever been recorded in popular music before. Are we The Desperate Ones? Have We Lost The Human Touch?
My other memories of Nina have to do with the aftermath. I recall the aridness of counterrevolutionary America clamping down and shuttering the leading lights of the seventies. Nina’s radiance was celestial, but oh my, how costly the burning. Seeking fuel she fled into exile. Who would be her well, where could she find a cool drink of water before she died?
Then, like indiscreet body odors, the rumors and gossip began floating back. The tempest. The turning in on the self. What happens when they catch you and bring you back. Reify and commodify you, relegate you back into slavery. You are forced to fight in little and sometimes strange ways. But the thrill is gone. Cause only freedom is thrilling, and ain’t no thrill in being contained on anybody’s plantation, chained to anybody’s farm. Anybody’s, be they man, woman or child. Nobody’s. Nothing thrilling about not being liberated.
Nina, like most of us, went crazy so that she could stay sane. Just did it hard. Was a more purer crazy. Cause she had so much to be sane about. So much that leeches wanted to siphon, sip, suck. How do you stay sane in America? You go crazy. In order to be. To be proud. And beautiful. And woman. And dark. Black skinned. You have to go crazy to stay sane. You have to scream, just to make room for your whispers. You have to cry and cuss, so that you can kiss and love. You have to fight. Fight. Fight. Lord. Fight. I gets. Fight. So tired. Fight. Of. Fight. Fighting all the time. But ooohhh child things are gonna get easier.
Don’t tell me about her deficiencies, or her screwed up business affairs, her temper tantrums, her lack of understanding, her bad luck with men, her walking off the stage on the audience. Don’t tell me about nothing. None of that. Because all of that ain’t Nina. Nina Simone is song. And all of that is just whatever she got to do. Like she said: Do What You Got To Do. Oh Lord, Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.
I play Nina Simone. Yesterday. Today. Tomorrow. This morning. Tonight at noon. Under the hot sun of Amerikkka, merrily, merrily, merrily denigrating us. In those terrible midnights. I play Nina Simone. Just to stay sane. Stay Black. To remember that Black is beautiful, not pretty. Beautiful is more than pretty. Beautiful is deep. I play beautiful Nina Simone. Nina Song. I play Nina Simone. And whether Nina’s song turns you off or Nina’s song turns you on, whose problem, whose opportunity is that?
No. Let me correct the English. I don’t play Nina Simone. I serious Nina Simone. Serious. Simone. Put on her recordings and Nzinga strut all night long. And even that is not long enough. To be young, or ancient. Gifted, or ordinary. But definitely Black, definitely the terrible beauty of Blackness. Nina Simone. Nina Song. Nina. Nina. Nina.
Getting old is not for wimps. I made my 75th anniversary (born 24 March 1947) while I was in hospital at Veterans Administration New Orleans. I remained there for almost three months. After my discharge, I returned home in preparation for a follow up procedure.
On early Tuesday morning, June 26th the follow-up medical procedure was completed. A small mass had been detected on my left kidney. By all indications the mass was cancerous. My options were 1. Ignore the small mass and I would probably live out the rest of my life before it became a major problem. 2. Have an operation to remove both the mass and kidney, I only need one kidney to survive. 3. Have rods inserts into my back and the mass destroyed by something called cryoablation. From what I understand, physicians would use extreme cold or extreme heat to complete the procedure.
In consultation with my brother, Dr. Keith C. Ferdinand, I decided on the third choice.
I remember being wheeled into the operation room and subsequently next waking up when brought back to my room. On the next day I was discharged. My daughter Asante, and her partner Peteh picked me up Wednesday evening around 4:30pm and brought me to my apartment at Ashe.
Almost a week later, I have been feeling up and down. I have had to accept that recuperation was going to be longer and far more uncomfortable that I thought it would be.
Meanwhile, I was receiving information that some of my contemporaries were making their transition. Chuck Siler was a major comrade, we had been stationed at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, in 1969. After our service stints, we both returned to New Orleans. Long story short, last week I received notice that Chuck, who was then living in Texas, had suffered a heart attack and transition into ancestorhood.
Some mornings when I get up, and as Mr. Whithers says: the sunlight hurts my eyes, although I don’t always feel physically up to facing another day; my will and pig-headedness carries me forward. Usually I am buoyed by conversations–that’s what friends are for.
I am older now than I was yesterday. Regardless of life’s inevitable roadblocks, I intend to keep on stepping, working on SEEING BLACK.
Kalamu ya Salaam: When did you decide that you really wanted to be a writer and did being the daughter of a writer have anything to do with it?
Kiini Ibura Salaam: Being a daughter of a writer didn’t consciously have anything to do with it in terms of “because my father is a writer, I’m going to do this.”
But I definitely think all the exposure to art and artists, because it wasn’t just exposure to writers. We were also exposed to visual artists. That made me feel like it was natural, expressing myself in a certain way. Being a writer just wasn’t even something on my radar. In fact, when I went to college, I was a computer science major going in because I was like, well, people need jobs and everybody has computers and that’ll be a good thing to do. That lasted one semester because it was not me.
I then went straight into being an English literature major but I didn’t want to teach. I still wasn’t thinking about writing as a career. Writing was part of the environment that we grew up in because of all the art that you and mama had in the house. When I finally started publishing, it was because a classmate had an experience when she was on MARTA in Atlanta reading one of Haki Madhubuti’s books and a White man literally slapped it out of her hand. It was this big physical altercation and I couldn’t believe had happened, so I wrote a story about it as a way to deal with this crazy thing. As you know it was published in The Black Collegian.
Getting that published definitely made me think like, oh, this is a thing, although me writing it still wasn’t like, oh, I’m being a writer. It was just me dealing with something that happened. And I wrote it and you told me, you should put that out somewhere for publication. You gave me encouragement to do it. Being a writer is something that came out of the environment you set at home. And then having that publication early on definitely made me think, oh, okay, there’s something there.
Kalamu ya Salaam: So, do you think you would’ve been a writer had you not been published early on? I know I’m asking a difficult question to answer.
Kiini Ibura Salaam: Yeah, that is a difficult question to answer. I think it definitely gave me a lot of confidence. So life is long and I’ve been interacting with writing in so many different ways. It’s hard to imagine that I would not have been a writer, but I know for sure that encouragement gave me a certain confidence to say without a question or a shadow of a doubt that I’m a writer.
Kalamu ya Salaam: Here’s another difficult question. As you became, or as you decided to be a writer, was there a point where you were looking over your shoulder and saying, I don’t know if I want to do what my father does or do I want to compare myself to him?
Kiini Ibura Salaam: No, I never compared myself to you. I think part of it is that you were doing so many different things. A lot of work happened before I knew what all you were doing as a journalist, as a playwright, as a poet. I wasn’t doing any of those things.
As you know, you were my first editor. You would read the things that I wrote, you would make suggestions. You were always very encouraging. So the connection is there, but I don’t think I ever compared myself. You had a very specific path that I think was connected to you reading your poetry, your journalism, you going out and interviewing people, all that stuff.
I was very different. I always was like, why do you need to know anything about me? Read the words. I just wanted to put the words out there, not be a personality and not be someone that people were coming to see. I’m not saying that was your motivation. I’m just saying that there was an holistic applications to the work you were doing at Ahidiana and as an activist. Your writing was so much a part of who you were and how you were living and I think I was taking a different approach. The writing was my expression and I just wanted people to leave me alone. So I didn’t see myself as following, or replicating, or comparing.
Kalamu ya Salaam: You approached writing as a profession?
Kiini Ibura Salaam: I don’t know that I approached it as a profession. I think after a while, after I started publishing on a regular basis, then I started thinking about it more in that light. The word I would use is “expression”. You write a story here, you write a story there, I wanted it to become a profession, but that wasn’t my motivation, if that makes any sense.
Kalamu ya Salaam: Right. That wasn’t the goal. Your goal was not to become a professional writer when you first started. It was to express whatever you were thinking of experiences you had.
Kiini Ibura Salaam: Yeah. And over time as it grew and as it was working and I was getting published more and more, then I was sort of like, oh, okay, well maybe I should think about this a little bit more broadly. Career stuff just comes up.You write something, then you have to do a reading, and then people keep asking you to do things, and things are happening.
Kalamu ya Salaam: Which leads to you deciding to become involved in the profession of writing as an editor, working at Scholastic Magazine. Was that at the point that you decided that writing is what you want to do or was writing something you did because you had to make a living and working at Scholastic became a way to make a living?
Kiini Ibura Salaam: Yeah. Actually, Baba, before I answer that, I’m curious about your trajectory. Did you decide at a certain point that you wanted to be a writer, or did it just happen? How did that all work out for you?
Kalamu ya Salaam: I decided I wanted to be a writer after I read and was influenced by Langston Hughes. In seventh grade, I had gotten into photography. In eighth grade, I’m sitting in the class and the English teacher, Mrs. O. E. Nelson says, “Put your books away. I want you to hear something.” I was glad to do it, I didn’t like English although I read a lot. And she puts on a recording of Langston Hughes reciting his poetry and one of the poems was about a woman whose husband died and she went around Harlem begging for money to be able to give a proper burial to her husband. And the last line of the poem was, “A poor man ain’t got no business to die.” That just struck me so hard. I went to the main library and asked the librarian for a book by Langston Hughes.
I expected to see, one, maybe two books of Langston Hughes stuff. There was literally a whole shelf of Langston Hughes’s work. And I said, oh, I guess that’s what it means to be a writer. He wrote two autobiographies, The Big Sea and I Wonder As I Wander. Also he did anthologies of Black literature. He traveled all around the world. He corresponds with writers in South Africa, in the Caribbean and in South America and what have you.
That was it for me. I joined the school newspaper. I’m at a little school in New Orleans and we get a second place prize from Columbia University in New York City. So that was it. And I was also into Black literature at that period, reading a lot of people, among them, John Oliver Killens, whom I met later on. And eventually, Amiri Baraka, Haki and so many other people along the way, but it was Langston Hughes that got me started.
Kiini Ibura Salaam: Had you done any writing before that moment where you were influenced?
Kalamu ya Salaam: No.
Kiini Ibura Salaam: So you literally started after this exposure to Langston Hughes?
Kalamu ya Salaam: Once I jumped in writing influenced by Langston Hughes, who was my inspiration, I was just all the way into it. I did every everything I could think of.
Kiini Ibura Salaam: That was interesting.
Kalamu ya Salaam: I was at Rivers Frederick Junior High School, seventh, eighth and ninth grade. And I always had a camera from seventh grade on, always. You’ve seen me with a camera before. And that was my first love but writing was what I wanted to do.
One of the first things I got published on a national basis was a piece that was a cross between fiction and reality. It was about a Second Line I attended and saw Jerome Smith at the Second Line.
That story was published. It might have been “Cutting The Body Loose”. I was very fortunate because that publication inspired me to do other things. I also became a founding editor at The Black Collegian Magazine.
Later Sonia Sanchez did an anthology called We Be Word Sorcerers, a collection of short fiction. Black World was happening at that time. It was Negro Digest first and then Black World and then it became First World. I was fortunate in that I found publishing outlets and that didn’t happen for many writers. I didn’t know getting published nationally was rather rare at the time.
So I was always in a sense getting encouraged to write. A big break, of course, was joining the Free Southern Theater in 1968 after I was discharged from the army. By the way, when I was in the army I subscribed to The Village Voice newspaper and to Liberator Magazine, and later to The Black Scholar.
While I was with The Free Southern Theatre, we went all over the place doing the plays. In fact, I was known as a playwright first. My plays were published, noteworthy was the massive anthology of Black drama, Black Theatre USA.
I stopped writing fiction for publication at that point. At FST we not only did plays and we also did poetry because we could perform the poetry as well as the plays. That’s the way it happened. And it’s interesting to me and I don’t think most people realize that neither you nor I started out wanting to be a commercial writer. Writing was just something we wanted to do. And then the opportunities came along.
Kiini Ibura Salaam: I think that’s interesting that we both have this moment of achieving something with writing. You talked about the prize, the school newspaper prize. And I’m talking about getting published in The Black Collegian. So these are accolades that made such an impact on us. We both felt there’s value in what I’m doing and it became fuel.
You were asking about editing. I definitely started doing that. I mean, I like editing. As you know we did a magazine when we were in college. Me and my friends did a magazine called Red Clay and there was a bunch of editing and decision making around that.
Editing is definitely a creative outlet that I enjoy doing. The editing I do for my job, it’s not fiction, it’s not creative works. It’s not the same as novels or short stories. I’m creating materials for the classroom. So I still get to envision something, to question what’s the best? The same type of problem solving that you would do for writing no matter what kind of writing it is. What’s the best way to communicate this? How is this most impactful? What are people getting? So I do feel like I continue to strengthen my editorial skills, even though on my day job I’m not using them for creative writing. But one component of the job is that we have contests. We have contests for kids to make up inventions. We have contests for kids to solve math problems and explain their thinking and we have essay contests.
Scholastic also has the art and writing awards, which a lot of writers and artists that are known later in their careers won those awards. So it’s really interesting, just to hear you talk about being published and winning an award making an impact on you and winning an award definitely made an impact on me. Early recognition can make a difference for you thinking of yourself as a writer or giving you that energy. Because like you said, not everybody’s going to get published early.
All writers, no matter what your story is, you’re going to have to believe in yourself. It’s for most of the time, you’re your own fuel. And so anything that can give you the boost to do that is like a major contribution to you continuing on.
Kalamu ya Salaam: Some of my work although not all of it, not even the majority of it, is speculative fiction. A lot of your work is speculative fiction. Was there any of my fiction that you read that you thought influenced you one way or another.
Kiini Ibura Salaam: No, I didn’t know that you wrote fiction before. I knew your poetry. I knew your essays and I knew that you were a journalist. Of course, I knew that you were a playwright, but I don’t think I ever read any of your plays. I knew about the music journalism. I think the thing that’s more informative for me than the work itself is just having a creative life, and that being normal, and that being something that’s pursuable and possible. That interacting with people and creative expression, and the fruits of your own imagination can be the foundation for a professional life. I think that’s more influential for me than the actual work itself. Because I didn’t even know that you wrote fiction until later.
When I went to Readercon and someone was there and they had their Dark Matter book and they asked me to sign it and I saw that you had signed it, probably many years before. So they were bringing that copy around for years. And I was like, oh, this is one of the things Baba was doing when he was leaving home. These things started to take shape for me as an adult. As a child, I just knew that you’re going somewhere, you’re doing something. I don’t know what you’re doing. But I do remember two things that happened. First, when you got me the internship at the National Black Arts Festival and second, you did A Nation of Poets event at the Black Arts Festival, I was there for that.
And so I got to see an event that you produced and I saw you perform and other people perform. That was eye opening. Oh, okay. This is something you’re doing. And then years later me seeing your name was in this book and I was like, oh, this is one of the places he was when he went away to do his writing stuff. So it didn’t have a strong shape for me. I didn’t know. I just knew that, that was your life, but I didn’t know what it meant. And as I had more experiences I began to learn what it meant. But I started my journey separately and then I just got informed along the way.
Kalamu ya Salaam: Right. So in one sense you became a writer without knowing directly that I was a writer.
Kiini Ibura Salaam: No, I knew you were a writer, I just didn’t know what it meant. It didn’t have form and shape.
Kalamu ya Salaam: Okay. So I’m saying the writing itself was simply something you decided you wanted to do. You knew I wrote, but you weren’t necessarily influenced to be a writer because I wrote.
Kiini Ibura Salaam: No, not because you wrote, but as I said, you spent a lot of years encouraging me to write and to be a writer. And that was more of an influence on me. You edited my work. You encouraged me to put things out for publication. We talked about writing. All that support work that you’ve done for kids as a teacher with Students At The Center and as a mentor at NOMMO, all the work you did helping to develop other writers. You gave me things to read. You gave me feedback on my writing. You encouraged me to publish all those things. What you did made a huge difference. And I think almost everything I wrote at the beginning went through you. At a certain point I was like, I could do this on my own. But the big influence was the encouragement, and sort of talking through everything and support. You rememmber?
Kalamu ya Salaam: Yeah, I do remember. My thing is I wanted all of you all to do whatever you wanted to do and I would encourage you however I could be of assistance. The point I’m getting to is that in one sense, you are doing fiction and you didn’t even know I wrote fiction.
Just like I influence you, you have influenced me also. And your generation has influenced me. And that’s one thing that I always remember that many of the people of your generation influenced me a lot. I was embraced by them as an elder, a teacher, an example, or what have you. For example, your friend from your days at Spelman and the AU Center, Saul Williams and I were good friends–and I shouldn’t say good friends, I might be overstating it. But we knew each other and I remember he came to town once to do a program. He called me, said, “Can we get together?” I never felt estranged from young people as some older folk did.
Kiini Ibura Salaam: And I think you’re unique in that way. I think you and mama have a little bit of a different attitude about who young people should be in terms of hierarchy and stuff like that. And I think it allows you to, like you said, get inspired by young people and also touch young people in a different way. People listen differently to you when they know how much you value them. And that’s something that comes up a lot. I made a post about this. Your birthday, we made a board and some of your students were saying how much they valued you actually taking their work seriously and telling them what was valuable about what they were doing.
A long time ago when Kina was getting married, Mama Melba told her to listen for the gold in her partner’s communication. That is not going to always be easy, but I love that, to listen for the gold. Your willingness to listen for the gold in what people are doing, no matter if it’s a first time writer, or a veteran writer. And you be able to challenge them on it, question them and then encourage them. You always did all those things for everybody. I think it’s a loop where you’re receiving, but you’re also giving and in your space you’re open to receiving. It makes that relationship possible between you and younger people and younger writers.
Kalamu ya Salaam: Did you choose to be a fiction writer? Was that a conscious or did that just happen?
Kiini Ibura Salaam: I would say it just happened. And I found something I’d written some time ago, like some kind of fairytale retelling, but then it turned out that somebody was a witch and a witch did this or whatever. So I was surprised when I saw it because I was like, oh, okay. So I’ve always been writing just weird stuff, but I don’t know if you remember, I was writing a lot of personal essays too maybe 10, 15 years ago, which I enjoyed doing. I think I’m reaching for a creative format that will be some hybrid something. But yeah, I think fiction comes naturally to me. I think it’s interesting to me and secular fiction makes it more interesting to me than telling a straightforward story. I like the twists and turns of imagining something else that’s happening beyond what you can see. So I think it just happened because it’s just my natural area of interest.
Kalamu ya Salaam: You have for whatever reason, tried to be more than just a writer that people read. You set up workshops, you blog with suggestions for activities. I don’t want to say organize self-help events, because that’s not what it really is.
Kiini Ibura Salaam: Yeah. Support activities, some kind of way.
Kalamu ya Salaam: Yeah. It’s setting up some kind of community for writers. And I think that is the politics of your period. A lot of people may not initially recognize that as politics, but that’s your way of making a political contribution. And I’m not talking about taking a membership in this data or the other organization. I’m saying, that becomes your life commitment to how are you going to develop the environment within which you live? And that’s a conscious commitment. That doesn’t just happen and it’s not something that all of your peers are doing.
Kiini Ibura Salaam: Yeah. I mean, I don’t know that I can accurately say what it is and what it isn’t, and where it comes from and where it doesn’t come from. But I do think that there’s so much pain wrapped up in the creative process for so many people and it’s a shame. It’s a shame that people be like: my work’s not good enough, I’ll never be able to A, B, C and D, I keep getting rejected because it’s not worthy. There’s all this stuff. And I guess if I want to put a political lens on it, I can widen it to commercialism and the general dissatisfaction with the human being as do a lot of people who say that by keeping us into dis-satisfaction with ourselves, we’re always going to buy something or seek something to improve ourselves. And that leads into commercialism. I’m not skinny enough. I don’t have the right clothes. I don’t know. I don’t have the answers inside of me. I’m not good enough, all those things.
And it hurts me because I think creativity is something that we’re all born with. It’s just innate. Kids just create. I remember Ua, my daughter, when we were in Mexico and there was this Japanese teacher. I don’t know why, but he taught abstract painting to children. That was his thing. And Ua was vibing in there. She was three, she loved it. She would do her little abstract paintings. The teacher would encourage her. It was beautiful. But once she realized that there was such a thing as representational painting, she quit being an artist. And it’s not that she doesn’t have any artistic instincts, it’s the judgment of what it should or shouldn’t be.
And I think that sums up human beings in general, in ways that we probably don’t even know. I remember I won some award when I was in college and a classmate starting looking at me differently, speaking with awe in her voice. I was like what is happening right now? I’m the same person I was yesterday. And now I’ve won this award and I’m some other rarefied thing. That’s just weird to me. I like to demystify things. Yeah I’m published but that doesn’t mean I don’t have to self-manage myself when I sit down to write. That doesn’t mean I don’t procrastinate, doesn’t mean that my work is more valuable than your work.
Kalamu ya Salaam: I always was conscious of supporting you in whatever you wanted to do, rather than encouraging you to do what I did. From what I’m hearing you say, that was not common. Because most people, and this has nothing to do with just being writers, it could be in the medical field, business field, whatever.
Far too many adults try to tell their children what to do, as though they can direct their children, do this, or do that, do something, so forth and so on. And I think that’s a mistake. That’s a mistake. That’s part of what kills creativity, because you can never be what your parent was because it’s a different time period. Many parents do not understand that.
You are exceptional in yourself and what you can do as whomever you are, but somebody else is no less exceptional or can be no less exceptional, I should say. Because some-
Kiini Ibura Salaam: And I’m inspired when I see people doing amazing stuff. I’m inspired when I see somebody write something amazing, or sing something amazing, or pull off some kind of physical, whatever it is. You know what I mean? It’s inspiring to me.
Beyond that, what’s more important is seeing what’s next, seeing what else you have to express, seeing what else is in you? I have to write another novel for adults. I have not published a novel for adults. I have a few that I’ve written. I have to do that. Because I have to see what happens. That’s something that’s just kept me going over the years, years when I couldn’t write. When I say, okay, I can’t die without trying. I could try and fail, that’s okay. But if I don’t try, if I don’t see what I have in me, if I don’t see what I can produce then I’m not living up to my potential as a human being. And I think the creativity and the creative expression is the fullness of it. Obviously, we want people to read it. We want people to see it. But one of my favorite things to do is to go to a retrospective of a visual artist and see their journey and know that if they didn’t start off doing whatever they started off doing, they would never get to the thing that everybody knows them for. And they’re famous or whatever, but they wouldn’t have gotten there if they didn’t keep going to see what else they had inside them. So that’s what I think it’s about.
Chester Burnett was a bear of a man. He would shake his huge frame and women would scream and shout. Plus, quite a few men would moan and groan as they sang along to the familiar but none-the-less enthralling lyrics that Wolf would be bellowing.
Howlin’ Wolf was Burnett’s stage name, especially up Chicago way in the mid-sixties when he, Muddy Waters, and a whole passel of blues magicians were plying their trade in the Windy City.
Wolf’s iconic song “Killing Floor”, which was recorded on Chess Records in 1964 but written much earlier, had a subtext that the audience knew well but which might easily escape the understanding of non-followers who were not steeped in the vernacular. Besides being hard and bloody, working in the slaughter houses was psychologically taxing on the under-paid labor whose job it was to end the lives of cows and pigs in order to prepare choice cuts of beef and pork.
The underlying meaning of the song referred to being cut down, feeling so low that one felt like one was getting kilt on that dirty, slimy flo’. Your guts cut out and viscera spilling forth from your carcass that had been split open from throat to genitals. Your mind had to be right and your constitution rock solid to keep on doing that spirit sapping work day after day.
When Wolf’s compatriot Muddy Waters sang “I’m A Mannnn” he was partly referring to being strong enough to withstand the trials, tribulations, toils and troubles of working on the killing floor.
# # #
On the sixth of March 2022, I found myself down on a personal killing floor.
I got up about 3:30am that Sunday morning, headed across the apartment from my bed beside the back wall, to the toilet at the other end of the second floor space. When I finished my business, to my utter surprise I could not rise off the commode. My legs simply wouldn’t work.
I waited a little longer and tried again. Nada. Waited awhile more. Tried a third time. Again, no go. After a time period hoping to wait out the problem, I tried and failed again. My legs didn’t hurt, they just wouldn’t work. I don’t know how long I sat there unable to move. The wound care specialist estimates, based on the breakdown of the skin on my butt, I must have been immobile for at least an hour or more.
I vowed to myself. I’m not going out like this. So, I used my right arm, leaned against the bathtub and lowered myself to the floor. My intention was to crawl out of the bathroom. Or so I thought. But, being a good negro, the first thing I did when I stretched out on the floor, I fell fast asleep.
When I awoke an indeterminate time later, to my dismay I discovered that I could not even crawl away.
I’m a veteran. I had crawled fifty yards during night training, with a rifle cradled in my arms, Iive machine gun fire streaming above my head. I was not afraid. Discovering my partial paralysis did not dismay me. I couldn’t move but I never thought I was going to die.
I could faintly hear people conversing with each other as they passed in the hallway outside my apartment but they couldn’t hear me. So I lay there waiting for I didn’t know what. At some point, night fell and I was still stuck.
Long story short, I lay there all of Sunday and then came Monday morning. Still no go. I could no longer even guess what time it was.
Some time later I hear someone coming into the apartment. It was Ed, our maintenance man. He had a key. Along with an assistant he was searching to see if a third floor leak was dripping through, into my space. Fortunately, no water had leaked down, but I was.
“Take me to VA.”
# # #
I thought I saw Oliver Thomas as I was loaded into the ambulance. Both he and I are from CTC–Cross The Canal, in the Lower Ninth Ward below the Industrial Canal. It’s roughly a twenty-square block area. A lot of families are interrelated plus people know each other. There is usually no more than two degrees of separation between kin, classmates, and neighbors.
Oliver is well known. A city councilman from District E who was widely considered to be a leading candidate for mayor. Over the years, Oliver and I got to know each other, especially after his incarceration. He was convicted on a bribery charge even though he didn’t vote on the issue referenced for the contract in question. He was not reticent with me in discussing his life story both as a college athlete and subsequently as a politician. We talked in some detail about the scandal that entrapped him–what he did and didn’t.
The arc of Oliver’s life story bends toward redemption. He was good before his downfall. Getting back up took a major effort of personal will and humility. Rather than hide from his situation, after Oliver was released, he participated in a theater production by the Anthony Bean Theater in the Carollton section of New Orleans. The production not only included a dramatic exposition of Oliver’s predicament, the show also featured Oliver playing himself.
Sometimes you have to be knocked low, in order to get up and walk tall. Anybody, indeed, almost everybody can easily step away from the straight and narrow, however, there is nothing easy about escaping the social and/or political death of being caught on one’s particular killing floor.
Oliver is a friend. I support him.
Even though there is not much I can physically do at this particular point in my life journey, nevertheless, whenever we are down is precisely when we can use a helping hand up–be it socially, economically, or physically.
As I was wheeled downstairs Monday afternoon, I’m on my back and see a small throng of people on the sidewalk. I took Oliver’s presence among them as a rainbow sign that everything was going to be alright–he came thru his walk across the valley of death. Now was my turn.
And then the ambulance doors closed.
# # #
Datia. Angelica. Emanuel. And a whole bevy of nurses and therapists, plus, of course, a battery of doctors. When I arrived in the emergency unit, I had no idea what was wrong, nor how long I would be in an incapacitated condition. As it turns out my recovery would take a lot longer than I expected or hoped for.
Datia was from New Orleans but sent her two children to better schools in a neighboring parish (county).
Angelica is of Cuban heritage–although she and her sister were born in the USA, most of her family was in Cuba and many of them didn’t desire to emigrate.
Emanuel is Haitian and in addition to working hard as a medical professional, he is also struggling to get visas for extended family members.
Those are just three of the nurses who cared for me. They are all of African heritage. None of them looks like what some people call foreign. Angelica is Latina but sounds like the average Black New Orleanian when she speaks. We are so diverse.
I believe the banter and laughter of the mostly Black nurses was therapeutic, especially when they were briefly all together during their shift changes. Hearing them made me, and probably other patients, feel better. They may not have been aware of how uplifting it was to experience their mirth. Although they had very little time just to chat, I sometimes would have conversations about current conditions and about their lives outside the hospital.
Socializing is a major aspect of being human. Being lonely and simultaneously in the midst of people is both psychologically debilitating and ultimately destructive. Fortunately, I never felt totally isolated from human contact. Indeed, I looked forward to mini-conversations as I got to know the house-keeping and nursing staff, and they, in turn, got to know me.
# # #
Looking back, by the end of the first week I could not only walk the hallway, but also slowly go up and down stairs. I thought I was ready to return home, but, slow your roll, buddy. You are not as ready as you might think.
During the second week of my stay I go through a battery of tests.
On that fateful Sunday morning, I must have sat on the commode a lot longer than I thought. I had a wound on my backside in a horse-shoe shape–actually the shape of the toilet seat. I was hoping to be discharged one week later, but that did not happen.
By the third week, bad news piled up day by day.
“That’s stupid,” my physician younger brother told me when I told him that I, along with my comrade Lionel McIntyre, had driven to Atlanta to see our terminally ill friend, Ed Brown, the older brother of Jamil El-Amin, aka H. Rap Brown.
We jump in a car about five in the morning and set out to Atlanta. When we arrived, we sat with Ed for about four hours, then rode straight back to New Orleans, arriving around midnight.
We had not stopped except for gas, and even then didn’t get out and walk around. Never thought about it.
Not even a week later, my right leg was hurting. I did not know what was happening. Eventually, I ended up in a hospital and was diagnosed with a blot clot. Untreated it could have taken me out. Fortunately, I was able to deal with the problem, relying largely on Wafarin, a blood thinner medication. I was told I would probably be on blood thinners for the rest of my life.
Ed made his transition about a week or so following our visit. That was in 2011. Eleven years later, I got the disconcerting news that the blood clots in my right leg were chronic–i.e. old and being managed, however I now had new blood clots in my left leg. That explained why I was having a pain under my left knee. The pain was so severe it was difficult to sleep at night.
I was routinely turning down the offers of Tylenol. Although I was assured that the pills weren’t an opiate, weren’t addictive. I didn’t want to become psychologically dependent on painkillers. I’m hard-headed, can even be ornery. Although the pain was very uncomfortable, I was pleased to know why I was hurting. Eventually, I relented and took doses of pain killers. However, as disconcerting as the blood clots were, there were other and more serious medical issues to deal with.
During the extensive tests I took, a life-threatening discovery was made. Following an MRI investigation during which I lay motionless, flat on my back, for over an hour in a tube, an early sign of cancer was revealed.
There was a spot on my pancreas that the doctors didn’t think was too troubling. On the other hand there was a small mass on one of my kidneys. The mass seemed to be cancerous although, thankfully, it had not yet metastasized.
A biopsy would be necessary to be absolutely sure that it was a growing cancer. The doctors were confident that the easiest and best solution was to cut out both the mass and the kidney–I didn’t need two kidneys to survive.
The complication was that in order to do an operation I needed to be stronger. Moreover, I also needed to be off of a blood thinner, otherwise there would be an increased danger of having an operation and subjecting myself to bleeding out. There was no easy decision.
After three weeks and still healing but far from fully functional, I had a possible opportunity to go to CLC. My daughter Tiaji, who lives in Maryland and works in the Congressional Research Department, came to visit me and checked out the conditions at an assisted living place where my now deceased, second wife, Beaula–bka “Nia”–was receiving care right before her third stroke.
Tiaji’s report was discouraging. Seems the facility was now under new management and no longer had a good reputation. I could possibly receive up to twenty-nine days under Medicare but after that I would have to pay the full costs myself. Additionally, they would not provide the level of wound care treatment I would receive at VA’s CLC.
Right before choosing either CLC or a private facility, I began to realize that I was much sicker than I initially thought. Full recovery would not be easy nor short. I had to get my mind right and settle into the reality that I was now 75-years-old–I celebrated that birthday in the hospital–well, not really celebrated. I did nothing special although I was served a large, sugar-icing ladened, maxi-sized cupcake, which I did not eat.
Much more difficult than a quick dash, getting well was going to be a long slog through weeks, rather than days, of treatment and therapy. Even though I had approached death, I remained anxious to get back to my usual activities.
At the end of the third week, there was the possibility of being moved to another and more isolating section of the Veterans Hospital: CLC (Community Living Center), which offered long term recuperation but had stringent visitation rules. No more gatherings of eight or ten people in my room. There was a real concern for the possibility of Covid transmissions. Plus, although we investigated a number of nursing homes, the reality was that VA isolation, including ongoing wound care, was the best choice.
One of the first people I meet is Asia Brumfield, who is a leading social worker in CLC. She recognizes my name and introduces herself. Turns out she is a former student when I was teaching high school with Students at the Center. I immediately notice that she wears her hair in Nubian knots and am both surprised and glad to see her.
Later, when my youngest daughter, Tiaji, arrives from Maryland to spend a week with her hospitalized father, it’s uplifting even though visitors have to run a major gauntlet to gain entrance. At one point Tiaji falls asleep in a big chair.
The oldest of five, my daughter Asante, who lives here in New Orleans, tells me that when she visits, the guard at the entrance responds when she says who she is coming to visit. “Tell him I said hello.”
Even though I don’t know everyone who visits, I am aware that the array of people who care runs the gamut from family to people I don’t know personally but who know of me as a result of my work in the community.
Moving into CLC convinces me that being here is significant. My room has a large bathroom with a shower, and a front space that includes a sink, faucet, and hygiene area. Were I not infirmed I would enjoy the amenities of being in CLC. I try to make the best of the situation but it’s not easy.
I could not see my backside even when I tried to examine my wounds in the large mirror in the bathroom. Moreover, and more importantly, I could not dress my own wounds. I needed help, preferably competent, professional care.
A complicating factor was the question of whether there was an available room in that housing section of the hospital. Fortunately, there was an available slot at CLC.
On my second-floor room in CLC, there was even an outside patio where one could sit and get some wonderful Vitamin D, which sunlight provides. Plus, I was receiving treatment from both physical and occupational therapists. I quickly realized I was much weaker and less able to care for myself than I wanted to believe.
After getting over to CLC, I was able to walk with the aid of a cane. Eventually, I did not require the cane to walk abound my spacious living quarters. I even could take an unassisted shower in the bathroom.
A hot shower was a high-point of my hospitalization. I had not washed myself the first week I was in-hospital, but at CLC, much to my delight, showering became an almost daily routine. Spraying myself with warm water felt really, really good. Being able to wash myself without the help of anyone made me feel a lot better.
# # #
Pictured is Dr. Keith Ferdinand, a cardiologist and a professor of medicine at Tulane University School of Medicine’s Heart and Vascular Institute.
I knew I was blessed to have a respected physician as a younger brother. Keith not only gave me good advice, he was a knowledgable advocate who could talk that medical-mumbo-jumbo and thus was able to be an advocate who was also a sentinel observing the care I was receiving. Unfortunately, there was nothing he could do about the food service.
Fortunately, what was most beneficial was drinking water. The staff kept a large 30-oz cup full of crushed ice, so I had a generous supply of chilled water to consume on a regular basis, including the after-midnight hours. I can’t remember a time ever drinking as much water as I began to do in the hospital.
It is axiomatic that hospital food keeps you alive–but not all of it is high on tasty nutrition. Hospital diets are generally, at best, bland, particularly compared to well seasoned, salt and sugar heavy, typical New Orleans cuisine.
I purposely made a habit of not adding salt to my food. Scrambled eggs and grits were usually served for breakfast. It took a while for me to get used to the non-taste but I had concluded no added salt was better for me health wise. I even avoided adding margarine and Mrs. Dash as a condiment to my grits and eggs. No condiments was probably the hardest aspect to get used to.
Because I don’t eat red meat or poultry, resultantly I have baked Tilapia fish at lunch and for dinner. On Fridays I usually had the option of shrimp fettuccini, and once I even was served a cut of much enjoyed salmon.
To my delight, a desert of lemon meringue pie was served twice since being at CLC–that desert used to be my favorite as a youngster, moreover, I had not had any since before I went into the army in 1965. Although the pie was not good for my diet, I enjoyed every bite.
As I got used to the food, I also found myself acclimated to the size of the portions, which were much, much smaller than I usually prepared for myself. I not only ate less and loss weight, despite not doing any substantial amount of physical activity. I decided that, perhaps, once I was released I would actually cut back on the portions of food I prepared.
Every cloud has a lining. Every night, no matter how deep, inevitably gives way to dawn. Or death. Since I did not die, “I guess I’ll live another day.” Inevitably, whomever would hear me say that would smile.
# # #
Ms. Siney routinely took my food order for the day. She was both cheerful and helpful, and above all patient with me as we went through the menu, which was varied but not extensive. Her attitude and conviviality made the routine ordering process oftentimes as enjoyable, if not more so, than the meals themselves. Part of Siney’s beauty was her use of New Orleans colloquiums, or as she was wont to say: “All right, my baby,” with just the right speech inflections indicating we shared a common cultural orientation.
I love Black women. Far beyond racial hubris and heterosexual enchantment with a gender partner. Indeed, I am one who loves women the world over and simultaneously one who resists the urge to be either a dilettante or a predator. As my good friend Jimi Lee always encouraged, learn how to admire the garden without having to pick the flowers.
Among Black people it is axiomatic that Black women do all that they can to protect and love Black men, sometimes to our sister’s own detriment. Of course I know that not every woman feels that way. I know that there are women who have been scared and react with understandable hatred to males in general and especially to misogynistic male perpetrators. Moreover, such hatred is healthy–it is healthy to hate oppression and to resist those who oppress us. Nevertheless, my experience with a wide range of Black women teaches me that taken as a whole they love Black men way beyond what many of us deserve.
For Black women, such as Siney, and many others that I have encountered in life, as well as those who literally treat me in this hospital, loving Black men is an inseparable aspect of their DNA and daily practice. I would be either a fool or a monster if I did not acknowledge and try my best to mirror their essence.
Since being hospitalized, I now drink far more water than I previously did. The hospital does offer small 4-ounce servings of orange juice and apple juice with the daily meals. As far as I am concerned, the orange juice was too acidic to drink. The apple juice was ok but not much better than room-temperature water. The staff routinely filled a large, 30-ounce cup with ice, which over the course of a couple of hours offered satisfying sips of chilled water. The cup had a separate, Styrofoam outer sleeve that made handling the cup easy.
I had been encouraged to drink at least 64-ounces of water daily. Sometimes, I don’t imbibe as much as I should but I do much more than I previously had. At home I usually drank mango juice and fruit smoothies, which I prepared with a mixture of frozen fruit and juice blended together.
However, the food service was not a big issue; getting discharged was my goal.
# # #
I have a major project that had a funding deadline.
The title of the project says it all: SEEING BLACK–Photography In New Orleans, 1840 and Beyond.
Photography began in France in 1839. In 1840 it was in New Orleans, brought here by Jules Lion. Lion was sometimes identified as a free man of color born in France but domiciled in New Orleans. He happened to be in France in 1839 and learned the new art of photography while there and subsequently brought photography back to New Orleans.
Circa 1958, I learned photography in seventh grade at Rivers Frederick Junior High School. I was introduced to photography by the industrial arts instructor, Mr. Conrad, who had constructed a darkroom in one of the storage closets and taught students after school. My first camera was a Yashica Twin Lens Reflex. I went around the school taking pictures. My nickname was “the picture man”.
However, I was introduced to Langston Hughes by my eighth grade English teacher, Mrs. O. E. Nelson. She said put your books away, I want you to hear something. Up until then, I voraciously read all kinds of books, some of which anthropomorphized the life stories of various mammals. Despite my wide ranging devouring of widely varying stories, I never cared for poetry. Langston Hughes turned me around.
On the recording Mrs. Nelson played for us, I remember Hughes recited his poetry backed by a jazz combo. The last lines of one poem in particular arrested my attention. It described a woman whose husband died suddenly and she went around Harlem begging for the money needed to give her man a fine burial. The concluding line of the poem asserted: “a poor man ain’t got no business to die.”
That was my magic moment. After school I went straight to the main library, asked the desk librarian where could I find a book by Langston Hughes. When I followed instructions, I expected to see a poetry book by Hughes, maybe even two. As I approached the designated shelf, I instead was confronted by multiple books, not only poetry but short stories, the then unknown to me collection of Semple stories, biographies about music and theatre, and much, much more. In my naivety I thought being a writer meant you had to be like Langston.
Hughes had two autobiographies: The Big Sea and I Wonder As I Wander. In those two books he mentioned a cornucopia of writers from all over the world. Every writer Hughes wrote about, I would seek their books, scan them quickly. If something they wrote struck me, I’d check out the book, if not I would return the book to the shelf. That was my literary higher education.
Additionally, because of my interest of photography, I stumbled across a major find, The Family Of Man, consisting of photographs from all around the world.
Unknowingly, I was schooled to see Black people as an integral part of the great flow of human history and did not elevate Whites above others.
Hughes had done a book with photographer Roy DeCarava, The Sweet Flypaper Of Life. That cemented my life-long love affair with both photography and writing. Although generally thought of as a poet, Hughes wrote in all forms and genres. I assumed Hughes exemplified what being a writer meant and I modeled myself on Hughes.
While I kissed photography, I fell hard, head over heels, in love with writing. And though I subsequently won all kinds of awards and honors for writing, I never forgot that first kiss. One morning I woke up with an idea about photography. As the idea formalized, I knew I alone could not do it the way I wanted to do it. Eventually, I gathered a four-member team to do SEEING BLACK.
Our team consisted of professional photographers Eric Waters, with whom I attended high school, and Girard Mouton III, who was expert as both an archivist and investigative historian. Shana griffin was our business administrator handling and coordinating a myriad of moving parts. Shana’s associate, Renee Royale, later came aboard to supplement our founding quartet.
By the spring of 2022, with the help of friends, we had raised about $35,000.00 for the project–20K of which had to be spent by October 2022 or we would have to return money secured by the University of New Orleans Press. There was no time to delay or to hesitate. There was so much that remained to be done.
SEEING BLACK, featuring the work of historic and of contemporary Black photographers who are, or were, domiciled in New Orleans, was the focus of most of my attention.
My favorite historic New Orleans photographer is A.P. Bedou, who has a striking photograph of George Washington Carver as a mature individual rather than the usual photos we see of an elder in a laboratory. Bedou was the official photographer for a handful of Booker T. Washington’s concluding years.
The SEEING BLACK project will cover photography in the United States from the beginning. There will be a book featuring photographs, a website, at least two major exhibits, and possibly a touring exhibition. The vision was ambitious but it was do-able.
I had an incentive to get out of the hospital.
While in the hospital, Tammy and a number of nurses offered great treatment–often saying “thank you for your service”.
My job in the army had been electronic maintenance of the Nike-Hercules Nuclear Missile, which included arming the warhead. Additionally, I had been trained in “chemical, biological and radiological” warfare. When my three-year stint was up, I made no secret about my intentions to leave.
By my third year I was an E-5, a basic sergeant level. I no longer had to make roll calls in the morning or the afternoon, although I did have to pull night-officer duty in the barracks every three weeks or so. But being in the army was no longer a burden. I even had my own room.
An army official promised me a “sweet deal”. If I would re-up, I would be given a $10,000 signing bonus and get promoted to E-6, a staff sergeant–I really wouldn’t have much I was required to do outside of my training duties in the states and missile maintenance on overseas assignments. Moreover, I would have a choice of Germany or South Korea for an annual overseas assignment. The truism was that the Black soldiers preferred South Korea and the White soldiers leaned toward Germany. But not for me. I wanted out.
I asked the official offering the deal, had he ever heard of Bobby Blue Bland.
He said no.
I explained that Bobby was a blues singer and had a song that explained my position. “If you don’t believe that I’m leaving / count the days that I’m gone”.
# # #
And now a word about money. If I were not a veteran being treated at the VA Hospital, there is no way I could have afforded the treatment I was receiving.
As my brother, Dr. Keith C. Ferdinand, asserted on one of his visits to see me, the high cost of health care was a major reason for bankruptcy in the United States. Thousands of dollars of doctor bills can wipe you out and tens–even hundreds–of thousands in hospital bills will drown the average family. Hell, even most upper class families could not absorb extensive medial costs.
Does it really have to be so expensive for this nation to offer quality health care? Moreover, it’s not just the cost of treatment that is too expensive, but the whole system that is structured against the poor and those citizens who most need health care.
Consider the cost of medical school. What it takes to matriculate through the established training and educational routines can set one back a small fortune.
One of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere offers top notch training for medical personnel including medical school to become a doctor. Cuba is exemplary as a source of medical training and treatment. Although far from a paragon of political freedom, Cuba offers free and/or inexpensive medical education to “minority” and other under-served students from the USA.
Health care in the USA is among the best and simultaneously among the most expensive. Those who can afford to do so, often travel to Mexico or Canada for treatment where prices are not so exorbitant. For example something as simple as eye exams and glasses are cheaper, not to mention the cost of non-difficult and/or elective surgeries.
I have no personal complaints about the treatment I’m receiving at VA. I just wish this level of care was available to all citizens.
Although I am thankful for my treatment, I can hardly wait to be discharged. I joke with some of the nursing staff that I’m going to do a late night get-away. One told me that I would be seen before I could get out the door. “Nah. I’m going one o’clock in the morning. I’ve already told my accompanist to have the car ready.”
# # #
Today it’s Easter Sunday. I wake up at 5:30 in the morning and hobble to the bathroom, only six feet or so from the bed. When I get back, I sit on the side of the bed, leaning forward slightly to ease the pressure on my backside. Pain in my buttocks when I sit upright is the most immediate result of the incident that propelled me to my long-term residence at CLC.
Even though it’s a little over a month that I have been hospitalized, there is no ignoring my health condition, especially the blood clots in my legs and the cancerous mass that is on one of my kidneys. I know the long term holds a serious operation that will include a major recovery period, but the reality is, I end up focusing more on day-to-day issues.
The mostly, but not exclusively, Black and female nursing staff is both attentive and competent in ministering to my physical wounds. On more than one occasion we talk politics and/or racial issues.
Late one night, or maybe it was shortly after midnight, when I shared the SEEING BLACK project with nurse Omika Williams, we get into a short exchange. I show her Reflections In Black, a collection of photograps detailing the Black experience edited by Deborah Willis. Ms. Willis is the preeminent expert of Black photographers and images.
Omika says she has an interest in photographs and a book on Blacks and photography. She says she will bring it the next time she comes to the hospital. A day later when I wake up, Picturing Us, a book that features writers discussing what specific photos mean to them, is sitting on my bedside tray. The book is edited by Deborah Willis. And yes, I have a copy in my library of books of or about photography, including more than a few featuring Black photographers.
Omika also attends drum circles on Sundays in Congo Square. Those weekly gatherings, featuring dancers in addition to the drumming, is open to everyone–just bring your own drum or your happy feet.
Annually, Congo Square is also the beginning point for a ceremonial Maafa trek to the Mississippi River about a mile away. The Maafa demonstration specifically memorializes the middle passage, which included the torturous, trans-Atlantic trek that brought many of our ancestors to a city that at one point was the site of the largest slavery auction in the United States.
A few ask about my unusual name. Was I born that way? Why did your parents give you that name? Does your name have a meaning? I smile.
Black Americans have a way with names. Often our names have no specific meaning. They just sound African. My name, Kalamu ya Salaam (which means “pen of peace”), is Kiswahili, a Bantu-based language used throughout East and Central Africa. Born Vallery Ferdinand III, I legally changed my name in 1969/1970–first at Kwanzaa and then in the courts.
During my years as a founding editor of The Black Collegian Magazine (I served 1970 – 1983), I would sometimes take one of my five children with me as I moved around.
Once when visiting a layout artist who was doing work for us, I had my middle child, a daughter, with me and introduced her to Hal when I went to pickup some layouts. He stumbled trying to pronounce her name, “key…, ki…, caw…”. She quickly and self-assuredly asserted: “My name is Kiini Ibura Salaam. It means the inner-most part of something special, which is peace. What does your name mean?”
At that time, I had no way of knowing that Kiini would become an award winning writer and editor, with whom I joke: “I want to be just like you when I grown up.”
As we live our lives we often have no idea what the future will bring, whom we will meet on our life journey, and what influence we will have on others. I make it a point to relate to everyone. I know I got it from my father.
Our family was motoring to San Antonio, where my father was stationed in the army. I was very young, bundled into the backseat of our vehicle–a Buick, although it more probably was our first family car, which was a Kaiser.
It was very late at night. There was a White guy hitch-hiking along the way. My father stopped to offer him a ride. Big Val told my mother, Inola, to drive, gave the front passenger street to a man he didn’t know and squeezed beside his sons, while he sat directly behind the guy.
After I don’t remember how many miles, the guy said this is where he was going, and got out. Afterwards my father told us the reason he stopped, “It’s too late at night for anybody to be out there on their own. Besides, I sat behind him in case he tried anything.”
# # #
My wound care is the biggest immediate issue I “face” (which is a “joke” because the wound is on my backside!). During the fourth week of my stay, a duo of nurses led by Charlotte Jones and Gingerla Sanders usually administer treatment after I have taken a shower and donned a pajama top. I lay on my side and eventually rolled over to expose my backside.
They work quickly and we share moments of mirth. They are hard core New Orleans Pelican basketball fans, and are ecstatic when the 21/22 playoff series is tied 2-2. “Nobody expected us to be there. But we fight.” And a team who was not even supposed to be in the playoffs are giving the number one team in the league a hard time.
An onlooker might think it was crazy but as I am being treated for a serious wound, I and the nurses are laughing about how the Pelicans are showing out. As they are about to leave, Gingerla asks me where I am from. “Lower Nine.” And it’s on. Uptown. Westbank.
Like we say CTC (cross the canal): “I might take a killing, but I ain’t taking no ass whippings today.” Although I let them know I am an avowed Golden State fan, we all agree, we will be watching the Pelicans and their amazing run.
As for my medical care, I don’t even know the list of medications that an alternate nurse, Andreleta, later applies to my backside. These nurses do an expert and efficient job at wound care treatment. Until you have serious wounds on your butt, you have no idea of how discomforting such wounds are.
When I was in junior high school, I fractured my left leg playing sandlot tackle football. I ended up briefly hospitalized and shortly had a walking cast put on my leg, which allowed me to limp around as I attended classes. But that was minor compared to the inconvenience of the wound I now have.
We generally are unaware of how much we use our butt muscles to sit and to walk. As I recuperated, I would always have to steel myself to push off the bed and walk to the bathroom, or even to simply standup for a short stint. I still keep the cane nearby to aid my perambulations up and down the hallway.
Fortunately, nurses such as Tammy and Kia are truly concerned about my wellbeing. Invariably they ask if I need anything? Invariably, I respond: “to get out”, whether by formal discharge, or, if necessary, by simply walking away. Of course, “walking away” is no simple matter at this time.
Tammy is particularly caring. As the old folks say, she “goes the extra mile” to make sure that I’m comfortable and always checks to see if there is anything I need. Most of us, even those of us who are patients in the hospital, don’t realize how stressful and too often relentless are the plethora of duties a good nurse performs on our behalf.
Tammy offers to assist me in going outside, which means walking out on the patio located near my room, which is at the end of the hall. Although I’m grateful for small favors, I joke that what I really want is to go away much further than down the hall and outside on the upstairs patio. I don’t take for granted that Tammy treats me like a relative, maybe even like a cousin or brother. I, in turn, ask about her life outside of the hospital.
Most of the nurses are mothers, and not a few of them are single heads of households. It’s not easy to daily care for the health and well-being of others and at the same time maintain your private well-being, especially when you work a stressful job requiring both vigilance and mental acuity in providing treatment.
For health care workers there are very few moments when they can relax once their shift starts. Nevertheless, some of them like Tammy not only hold it all together, they do so cheerfully. Just the way they take your blood pressure or smile with you when they linger a minute to listen to you complain about the food or thank them for finding an extra blanket for you–I find the air conditioning a bit too chilly for my tastes, it’s all comforting.
Sometimes I get into serious conversations with nurses such as an exchange I had with Kia, who seriously embodies her Christian beliefs not just in her daily behavior, she also is serious about understanding her Christian philosophy.
Once after giving me my meds, Kia and I exchange views on the meaning of Adam and Eve being ashamed of being “naked”. I argue that there need not be any shame about being naked. I point out that pictures of indigenous people who live in tropical environments are mostly what we would describe as naked or near naked without any negative concerns about being nude. Kia responds that it’s more about being expelled from the Garden of Eden than their nudity.
I believe it’s a Christian conceit to view nakedness as a “sin” or, at least, something to be ashamed of. Part of my thinking about nakedness is a result of my wounds on my rear, which are usually treated and dressed by female nurses. I have no embarrassment concerning being naked in order to be treated.
Most of us don’t realize how many of our beliefs are grounded in Christian views abetted by capitalist views that ostensibly are in direct contrast to the viewpoint that money is the root of all evil. To me, one of the most controversial stories in the Bible is when Jesus picked up a whip and drove the money-changers out of the temple.
My interpretation is that the story validates both using violence and being anti-capitalist. Of course there are other interpretations but Jesus wielding a whip is a most un-Christ-like look.
But beyond all of that, my real issue is the misogynist undercurrent that is philosophically endemic to western culture. Two books that identify how the hatred of women is pervasive are The Alphabet Versus The Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image by Leonard Shlain and The African Origin of Civilization by Cheikh Anta Diop. Both interrogate patriarchy versus matriarchy, which is the philosophical conflict fueling what is sometimes characterized as the battle between genders. Actually the real struggle is around the ideological need to dominate women exhibited by many, if not most, men.
Dealing with the contradictions inherent in male domination of women is complicated within the Black community, wherein there is a widely perceived need to support Black men, who are routinely oppressed by diverse elements of the national environment on both individual and institutional levels.
Moreover, in our struggles to support Black men, we too often overlook our own sexism, and worse yet, we unthinkingly embrace the oppression of women. Once, before I arrived in CLC, when Tiaji visited me, my room was filled with a quartet of “my boys”, when a trio of doctors arrived making routine rounds, among the doctors was a Black woman of Nigerian descent.
Per usual, I was making light of a serious situation, striving to keep my spirits up. After the doctors and the visitors left, Tiaji lit into me, saying that I had been disrespectful of the doctor by joking about Nigeria. I was referring to the time on a brief stop-over, Tiaji had a major dust-up with Nigerian officers at the airport. A friend who came to see her was assaulted when the airport guards took her passport, went outside, and asked if anyone was there to meet this person.
Her friend identified himself and he was beaten and sent away. The authorities didn’t tell her what happened. Tiaji didn’t find out until after she left. I had warned Tiaji to be careful traveling through Nigeria. Many years later I joked about Nigerian attitudes when I lay in a hospital bed.
Subsequently, after everyone else departed, Tiaji didn’t hesitate to point out that she was shocked that I didn’t recognize how my unthinking joking was far from harmless. When Tiaji criticized me, I realized she was right and made a mental note to myself to be more careful. Regardless of my intentions, I indeed had inadvertently demonstrated how deeply sexism can worm inside any of us.
After listening to Tiaji, I also wanted to apologize face to face, however I never saw that physician again. In our organization, Ahidiana, we used to say: “if we are wrong, reality will correct us; if we are serious, we will correct ourselves.” That truism applies to all of us, especially those of us who strive to live a principled life.
Black folk are generally oppressed by patriarchy but our public leaders, who are overwhelmingly, mostly male, often in subtle and inadvertent ways, fail to recognize and confront sexism. This is especially true in the areas of entertainment and athletics. However, it is also counterintuitive true that, despite rampant sexism, without our private and public spheres of activity, Black women share or shoulder the major burdens of leadership, from home to workplace, and beyond.
It is accurate to assess that society at large restricts Black men, not allowing us to be the equal of White men, however, we make a major mistake when we equate patriarchy with manhood, as if being a man inescapably means embracing patriarchy. On the other hand and by contrast, matriarchy is not based on elevating women by down-pressing men.
I believe we have contradictory and often conflicting forces at work in our community. So many of our households are female headed, plus a very high divorce rate leads to single women alone (and lonely) too often bearing the burden of raising children, whom generally remain with their mothers. Thus, while we continued to be surrounded by images in the mainstream of the typical family as husband, wife and children, the reality among our people is far from what we are shown to be a desirable norm.
We are routinely taught to aspire to the norm of the establishment defined nuclear family. But that is not how we live, how our social conditions exist and, to a large degree, how establishment mores influence, if not outright define and determine our behavior.
Thus, there is a serious issue of cognitive dissonance. We believe one way and live another. In a number of cases this dissonance leads to self-loathing, or at least a belief that something is wrong with us and that we should be more like what we are taught is desirable. While that dissonance is particularly hard for Black women to deal with, the situation also affects males, too many of whom, over-compensate and insist on being either a society defined typical head of household, or a totally independent man who wants to be in charge of everything and everyone encountered.
In the USA today, a real question is how to be a man without being an overbearing patriarch. There is no easy solution. Without directly thinking about the question, most of us men do as we have been directly taught and indirectly acculturated. We strive to be what our families, our communities, and the overall commercially-oriented culture teach us to do: we think (and act on those thoughts) that being a man means being in charge.
Inevitably, being in charge includes being in charge of women–if not directly controlling women, at the very least garnering their admiration, which we also take to mean the submission of women.
# # #
The imposed hegemony of intellectual knowledge over manual labor is reflected in the social structure of most hospitals. I have identified four levels of labor in the typical hospital.
It is easy to look at these four levels and to resultantly, place one above the other on a totem pole of authority and relevance. However, the deeper truth is that we are all humans defined by how we work, or don’t work, with each other. Thus, I believe labor relations are generally more important than a number of other social factors.
Indeed, within factors such as gender relations, or interaction between people of different ages, differing religious and/or political beliefs and affiliations, work realities likely dominate, if not outright determine, social relationships.
Acquiring, having, using and enjoying things might be nice but ultimately “things” are not fulfilling. Regardless of what we are shown in the media, the acquisition and utilization of things are not the deepest definition of the good life.
The conflict between acquiring things and living the good life is a social contradiction that we all grapple with. There is the need to make enough money to meet the cost of living in the here and now. In this society, the good life is not free, indeed, the good life is expensive. Too often the cost is not simply a matter of money.
A cynical argument goes: money can’t buy you love, but money will buy a measure of satisfaction while you look for love. Thus, we work for a paycheck regardless of job satisfaction, if there is any. Of course, another old adage is also true: the more you have, the more you have to take care of. To use the vernacular, maintaining the good life is a bitch.
Laying up in a hospital bed, offers hours and hours of time to think about one’s life. Such self examination includes analyzing one’s immediate condition and environment.
One of my thoughts is about what I call the four levels of hospital work. I used to identify the levels starting with level one as the foundation. However, invariably the bottom is considered, well, the bottom, the least important, rather than the foundation, upon which the whole structure relies. Without the bottom the top can not truly function.
Rather than using a totem pole as the model, let’s consider a wheel, or a pie-chart, to describe the hospital. No part is non-essential, even though some parts may be more intellectual or more medically critical than others.
One major slice is maintenance and housekeeping. Those who are responsible for upkeep and cleanliness are absolutely necessary for the running of a hospital. In large part they keep the lights on, the machines running, and the rooms clean. Try maintaining a major hospital without their services–and they are overwhelmingly Black laborers and generally female.
Another slice is the nursing corp, which ranges from aides to highly trained RNs (i.e. registered nurses who have studied medicine). They daily, and hour-by-hour interact with patients who require treatment and therapy to get well. Nurses are the main points of interaction with patients.
Here I will point to an aspect that is too often overlooked. Nurses provide human contact through language and touch. Their interactions, whether linguistic or tactile, are essential to healing.
In our normal day to day relations, we have thousands of exchanges. Verbally we banter, we make requests, we state our intentions, our feelings. It makes a big difference whether there is someone to whom we can relate, someone who responds to us, and with whom we feel connected–after all, there is nothing like two people being momentarily connected in oneness. Even when it is one helping the other, it’s a great feeling. Both helping and being helped feels good.
Personal contact and caring is a fundamental element of recovery that is too often overlooked or minimized, but it is axiomatic: recovery is both physical and social. Our feelings are both physical and emotional. We always feel better when we function together with each other.
The third slice is therapy and specialists, who range from x-ray and laboratory technicians, to physical and occupational therapists, plus a whole cadre of other specialists, such as pharmacists and social workers, who deal with diverse and too often unseen or even overlooked aspects of medical diagnosis, treatment, and therapy.
For example, I had no knowledge of occupational therapy, but it is essential for me because I live alone. Before I am released, the staff wants to make sure I am ready to resume caring for myself.
The fourth slice is, of course, the physicians and the medical knowledge they bring, which is extensive. However, in my case, no one has yet solved the mystery of what happened to cause my temporary immobility.
My brother, Dr. Ferdinand, recalled a specific ailment that beset my uncle Lloyd Ferdinand in Chicago. In his latter years, Uncle Lloyd couldn’t move his legs. Keith said he probably had dermatomyositis, an uncommon inflammatory disease marked by muscle weakness and a distinctive skin rash.
They tested me but thankfully the tests were negative. Besides, on the third day, I was up and walking, although haltingly. Nevertheless, I was moving on my own. My legs were working. Whatever caused my weakness remained undiagnosed.
No matter the medical mystery, I was ready to go home. At the same time I realized another week of wound care would make a significant difference. More than getting discharged, my gold standard was simple: once I was released, I didn’t want to have to return. At least not until the kidney operation, which was going to be a whole other issue to deal with.
# # #
I have been a traveler on a long and winding path. Actually, more like a pilgrim seeking solace as I forge my way across mountains and rivers, wander the countryside and survive, and sometimes even thrive, in the metropoli known as New Orleans and other cities. I’ve yet to find a safe resting place. Along the way I’ve learned a lot and even taught a little, as I’ve tried my best to pass on the nuggets of wisdom I have mined from my travails.
But I don’t feel sorry for myself, and no ways tired. I wanted to be a writer without realizing that, ok, if that’s what you want, life will give you something to write about.
I remember being a founding editor of The Black Collegian Magazine–a thirteen year journey during which I thought of myself not merely as an editor but rather as a cheerleader for others. I considered many activists and writers more important than myself. They were proponents of ideas and issues far larger than me.
I followed a path of turning ideas into reality with no concern for fame or fortune. I guess you could call me a true believer in the power of the word, both written and spoken. Indeed, my forte was doing interviews with all kinds of folk, especially artists, activists, and musicians, telling tales of their own loves and struggles. That’s life, or at least that was my life, my choice, what I felt I was born to do.
Despite the debates, fissures, and even a shoot-out, that characterized the Black nationalists versus Marxists separations that tore asunder attempts to unify anti-establishment elements, small groupings of us tried to hold on while the majority of our people voted with their feet for integration into the larger American society. The 2009 election of Barack Obama to the presidency solidified a resurgence of belief in the American way among people of color.
On the other hand, Obama was followed by a one-term ascendency of Donald Trump to the presidency. Not since the Civil War has the country been as polarized as is post-Trump America. Whatever one’s political persuasion, there is a general dismay about the social status of conflicting elements of America, whether those elements are Democrat or Republican, advocate or opponent of abortion, or a myriad of other political or social issues. It is hard to be cheerful and optimistic about the immediate future nationally, as well as abroad, in the face of disease (particularly Covid) and war (particularly in Ukraine).
But as terrible as they are, the national and international issues also play out internally. You wake up, look in the morning mirror, and suddenly recognize, the battle is closer than you ever thought–the hardest battles are actually against our own weaknesses and inabilities to change the situations overwhelming us.
Be strong, brother. Fighting others is easy, battling with yourself, ah, that is the most difficult of all the wars you will ever wage.
The battle to better one’s self is especially difficult when we are simultaneously trying to resolve the conflicts and contradictions within one’s life, particularly if we are a male. The vicissitudes of being a man in modern America is complicated not only by the realities of race and the uneven pressures of economics, this effort to identify manhood and to define how one ought to live as a man is a complex undertaking.
I taught high school juniors and seniors in our Students At The Center (SAC) program. I was a co-teacher, with Jim Randels, in AP (advanced placement) English 4 class, as well as an instructor in a creative writing class. We published pamphlets and books. Our most popular title was Men We Love, Men We Hate, a student exploration of relationships with fathers, brothers, sons, cousins, friends, acquaintances, and, too often, with males, who were reductively, enemies.
That book was our most popular publication, so popular that students from other classes would request copies, and occasionally even fleece a copy for their own personal use. Abbie Hoffman had nothing on this often surreptitiously acquired book.
I viewed the disappearances as an indication of young people actually seeking to mature as they dealt with the conflicts and conundrums of achieving adulthood. Not only did the stories help the authors become critical thinkers, the writing also helped their peers. No teacher could ask for more from their students than to become critical agents of their own growth and development.
What is life? An eternal struggle to make the self better, regardless of the environmental forces working sometimes to help, but too often working to hinder, one’s development. The saints are the ones who smile instead of scowl as they push on through both sunshine and storms.
You want to be a writer, huh? Well life will give you a lot to write about.
Certified nursing assistant, Kaiana Santiago is emblematic of a section of New Orleans, the seventh ward, known for its light-skinned, proud creoles of color. Many never denied being Black, just a lighter shade of darkness.
As she cares for me, I learn a bit about Kaiana’s background. “Your people from Cuba?” I ask because of her last name. “No. My grandfather is Puerto Rican.”
Which means to me, that they don’t take no shit. Don’t get it twisted. They may not look dangerous, but these are the people who literally shot up Congress in a 1954 armed attack (look it up if you find that unbelievable). Over the years, they even took over a hospital. The Young Lords put a Latin Boogaloo twist on the Black Power struggle–and if you don’t know, you better ask somebody.
We African Americans are not the only ones who have a long history of struggle. Indeed, many Puerto Ricans identify their struggle as simply the Spanish-speaking and/or bilingual part of our larger struggle for self-determination, self-defense, and self-respect.
“Pa’lente!” Go for it! Or as JB might have sang, “go head on with your bad self”.
Another disturbing aspect is the near universal, establishment engendered identification of Black women with a sexuality that is either wanton or taboo, a forbidden fruit to be savored but also exploited. This is especially relevant for the light-skinned Black woman, subject not only to exploitation inside the race but also the subject of a pernicious activity among our people known as “passing”, which refers to light-skinned Blacks living as though they are Whites.
Passing was twice mythicized, first in an important novel by Nella Larsen and second, almost a century later, in an insightful cinema expose. Ms. Larsen published two iconic novels at the end of the “Jazz Age”, i.e. the “Roaring Twenties”. Her books were Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929), the second one of which became a searing Hollywood movie that shocked some and was a total revelation to others. Passing was actually no bed of roses, in fact it was a crown of thorns that punctured the so-called valorization of Whiteness as the point of living as though one was actually the “other”.
Although passing was more common than generally acknowledged, a quintessential example of passing was by acclaimed literary critic Anatole Broyard, whose previously hidden, or perhaps simply ignored, African heritage was totally obliterated when Broyard intentionally passed.
Broyard’s Blackness was publicly, and near scandalously revealed by his daughter Bliss in her book, One Drop: My Father’s Hidden Life–A Story Of Race And Family Secrets. When she was an adult, Bliss was told of her father’s heritage just before he died. She would go on to reveal the story in her writings and identified herself as a person of mixed race.
As an interesting side note, one of my classmates in high school was a Broyard, although he didn’t look White. Broyard was New Orleans born and some of our classmates would playfully pass for White when school was let out and then regale us with tales of their crossing the color line in school the next day.
In America, racial identity can be straight-forward or can be obscured, partially dependent, of course, on how one looked. The upshot is that there is both an individual and institutional complexity to racial identity that is seldom without some degree of either angst or pride, distancing or embracing. Being of part Black heritage is one thing, but looking Black is a mule of a different horse.
An educational work that we in SAC felt was of insightful value was The Pedagogy Of The Oppressed by Brazilian educator and liberator, Paulo Freire. His book, in detail, not only argued that many of us are oppressed but also, and more importantly, demonstrated how we often internalize our own oppression.
As Carter G. Woodson presented the case in his important work, The Miseducation Of The Negro, not only will we seek the back door designated for our debased place in society, if there is no back door, we will often create one rather than assert our right and responsibility to be fully human and, as they say in church, to act accordingly.
The detriments heaped on Black people were not unique to Blackness, even though it was true that we suffered a crippling racism, which was a twin evil often co-joined at the hip with economic exploitation. Social segregation affected a far wider sector of the national population than being Black alone. Moreover, exploitation, sexual as well as economic, was and remains the American cross that women were forced to bear.
In the twentieth century the last two major movements against racism and economic exploitation were the Civil Right/Black Power struggles of the sixties and seventies, and the Women’s Liberation Movement of the seventies and eighties.
Needless to say, many of the effects of yester-year are still in effect today. “A luta continua” (the struggle continues) is real. Bringing these issues to full fruition has proved to be far more complex than originally envisioned.
# # #
I’m from a much maligned area of New Orleans, the Lower Ninth Ward. Located on the southeast end of the city, between the Industrial Canal and St. Bernard parish, and bordered by the Mississippi River on one side and the marshlands off of Florida Walk on the opposite. Our little redoubt was virtually a self-contained community of people newly arrived to the city who all looked out for each other.
The river side of our stomping grounds was mixed and was predominately White, but once you crossed St. Claude Avenue, the complexion was overwhelmingly Black, although in the fifties and very early sixties, Tennessee Street, for some reason, as I remember it, was mainly White. Tennessee ran from the bridge out to a canal just yards from the levee by the swamps. However, after the Korean conflict when soldiers, such as my father, returned home, even that street transformed to being mainly Black populated.
There used to be only two bridges into Lower Nine. One was on St. Claude Avenue. That was the main bridge and led into St. Bernard parish, which was formerly, the stronghold of segregationist political leader, Leander Perez. Through hard experience we had sense enough not to be caught down there overnight.
I faintly remember my father and some of his post-war friends vainly trying to establish a Black Country club in what we familiarly, simply called “the parish”. Although they worked mightily and invested many man hours and hard-won money, they were forced to surrender to the blatant racism that was in full flower and nowhere near abating, as it later did in the new millennium.
The other bridge was at Florida Walk. We used to euphemistically call it the “back way”. That bridge was always up and also had a railroad track attached, which ran down into St. Bernard parish.
In the fifties, when I grew up below the canal, I didn’t realize the historical significance at the time, but I was able to see the last of the fabled baseball Negro League games in a field a few blocks from where we lived.
The ninth ward was so isolated from the main part of New Orleans that for the longest period, there was only one bus line on St. Claude that ran down there, from Canal Street to the Domino’s sugar refinery in St. Bernard parish, a few blocks below the city limit. Indeed, when the city finally constructed the Judge William Seabrook Bridge, which we simply called the Claiborne Avenue bridge, that was such a major event in the Lower Nine that my father packed us into the car and we were among the first to cross the waterway when then Mayor Victor Schiro officially opened the bridge.
We lived back-a-town, way down and almost on the edge of the city on St. Maurice and Law streets. There were only two streets after us, Tricou and Delery, before you were out of the city. And heading east there was only a canal, railroad tracks and a levee that separated us from the marshlands, which were our early playground, full of snakes (especially cottonmouth rattlesnakes), muskrats, rabbits, raccoons, diverse birds, cypress trees and flora, fauna, and all types of general Louisiana wildlife, including alligators and gar fish with their huge teeth.
Typical of youth, we picked wild blackberries, caught crayfish in the canals, and took our growing up environment for granted, although we were aware it was different from most of the city. Also, typical of youth, we loved where we were from and thus it was no surprise to me, over sixty and seventy years later, when I find out that Christina, one of my nurses, is from lower nine that we strike up an immediate camaraderie.
I don’t mean to demean or detract from the care that other medical staff give, such as Tiffany and Gerald (one of the few male nurses I encounter–he goes by the moniker “Zee”), as well as not from any of the other personnel, who are first rate. Nevertheless, those of us from the the mighty nine have an extra bond that we recognize and revel in, almost like we were war time vets greeting each other.
Christina Dunbar tells me to hold on, she will be back when she gets off. On the return visit, Christina offers me a cup of chilled, cold watermelon which she says she has brought from home to help her through a long, twelve hour shift. You can’t fully appreciate watermelon until you are laid up in a hospital bed and have the succulent juices flow down your throat as the cool cubes melt in your mouth. Watermelon. Asante sana (thank you very much) Christina.
The next day I am effusive in thanking her after she asks was it ok? I smile more than I have since being here. Christina says it’s no big thing. I smile some more and we proceed to talk about the bridge, the turnaround on Caffin Avenue by the funeral home, and a number of other L9 landmarks.
As we continue to talk, it is also Christina’s turn to bandage my wound. As Christina medically ministers to me, we continue to talk about the little things that are common to people from L9. Even though we are more than a full generation apart–I’m 75 and Christina is in her thirties–our home turf is a shared experience.
# # #
Aron Chang has come to visit with me twice since being at CLC. We talk about the struggle in general and particularly about anti-Asian aspects of life in the USA and elsewhere. Since I was stationed in South Korea; did an 18-day tour of the People’s Republic of China–I happen to be in what was then Peking, when Deng Xiaoping was rehabilitated and brought back to power (there was a celebration by literally millions of people in the streets, I had never witnessed anything like that before or since); and one-day or overnight visits to Tokyo and other cities in Japan, I had developed an openness to Asian views and values from the Far East Orient.
One lasting habit that has stuck with me is removing one’s shoes when you enter a home or apartment. People usually move around inside in slippers or socks. When I was in Korea that required the extra effort of unlacing combat boots. Over fifty years later, I generally still follow the practice of leaving my footwear near the front door.
Aron and I were more interested in what it took to make major changes to benefit the masses of people rather than for the benefit of authority figures. We talk about the iconic revolutionary figure of the 20th century, Che Guvera. I ask Aron if he had ever read Che’s Congo Diary. Aron says no. I have a copy sent to him and the second time Aron visits he and I briefly converse about that important document that never attempted to hide or excuse the many problems that Che encountered, including Che’s own misunderstandings.
We also discuss the anti-Asian biases that run throughout modern American history–modern meaning post Civil War, including the Chinese exclusion legislation and the Japanese-American interment camps that were built and utilized during World War 2 after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Although I don’t recall his name, I remember a fellow soldier whom I was close friends with during the nine month period with whom I was in training for electronic missile maintenance. He was born in an interment camp and was subsequently then serving in the army with me.
My interest in international issues works in confluence with my interest in foreign cinema. I’m a cinephile who was baptized in film during my brief stay at Carleton College where I was introduced to films such as Knife In The Water (1962), an early movie by Roman Polanski and Kanal (1957) by Andrzej Wajda, whom I consider one of my all time favorite movie makers. I was particularly stuck by his examination of the French Revolution in his major film Danton (1983), which ended on a modernist moment when the hero ascends steps into modern society. But there were so many other Wadja movies that I deeply admired.
Which brings me to movie makers internationally, especially Asia directors. Mira Nair is particularly important in both her willingness and ability to illustrate cultural clashes and connections between people of color and their families within the racist environment of Mississippi. Her film, Mississippi Masala (1991), which features Denzel Washington and Sarita Choudhury, is especially noteworthy. Denzel’s character falls in love with a young woman of Indian heritage.
I was fascinated when I encountered an interview with Ms. Nair that discussed the making of the movie, as well as the arc of her career as a filmmaker who deals with the tensions and resolutions of cultural encounters beyond the stereotypical black/white and all-American/foreigner-immigrant situations.
# # #
I slept well and only woke up once overnight, however, after close to two months in the hospital, I am more than ready to leave this facility, yet at the same time I realize that this journey is not even half-way past the whole of my illness. I’m not afraid, but I’m tired of this.
In a few months, before me looms an operation to remove a presumed cancerous mass on my kidney. The severity of the near future does not cause me pause. I face my night with both eyes wide open. Whatever I might bump into will not deter me. Regardless of the wounds on my body, in my head I am ready to carry on.
Confined to the CLC, I have watched and/or listened to a lot of cabe news. I can’t stomach the bulk of television programming. Indeed, I find much of it, including the so-called news, not just distasteful but outright repulsive. Why? Because in a number of examples, political policy (driven by economic motives and incentives) is at odds with the wellbeing of the majority of the population. This contradiction is particularly sharp in the United States with the recent revelation of the proposed reversal of Roe vs. Wade, which will directly lead to the prohibition of legal abortions.
Again, to quote Muddy Waters, “I’m a man”, but it is clear that the proposed Supreme Court ruling directly affects me. I do not believe that men have the right to legislate what women can and can not do with their bodies but that is not how Republican politicians in particular vote. The vast majority of those who vote “pro-life” are actually patriarchal and “anti-abortion”. Whether overtly through their actions or covertly because of assumptions and beliefs, most men (particularly politicians) assert that they have the right to limit, if not prohibit, women’s rights of self-determination.
Part of the anti-abortion position is based on a fear that in both population and politics, non-Whites will eventually dominate Whites in what some have dubbed “the replacement” theory, as if the United States was not stolen land based on the genocide of Native Americans and the racial exploitation of African Americans and, increasingly, of segments of the Latin American populations. pluralize Latin Americans because they represent widely varying cultures from Mexico, our next door neighbors, to Peru, the most far-flung of our associates south of the border.
Moreover, beyond the international demarcations, a number of male authority figures do nothing, or vote against, policies that provide direct aid and assistance to families in general and to women’s health policies and programs in particular on a national level within the United States. Now is the time for conscious men to stand up for women’s rights.
The issue is self-determination: do women have the right to determine their lives, to determine how they deal with pregnancy? Simply put, should men have a right to make rules governing how women control their own bodies? Full stop.
The argument is that a fetus has rights, that a fetus is an individual, or potential individual, with the full rights of an individual. In a similar way, those who advance the pro-life argument are often the same as those who argue that in legal jurisprudence a corporation is the same as an individual, even though by definition a corporation is composed of a group of individuals.
Legally, all the members of a corporations are not subject to the same legal overview as individuals are. In other words, the corporation can function in ways that an individual either can’t or where an individual is ineffectual. For example, even though most corporations are overwhelmingly male dominant, corporations legally do not have gender.
Except, once a woman becomes pregnant, state legislatures (i.e. mostly men) can make laws that restrict a woman’s ability to terminate a pregnancy. Question: should the rights of a fetus over-rule the rights of the pregnant mother?–especially since the fetus is not yet a self-contained individual, but instead is dependent for its existence on the female host.
Do the rights of a fetus to grow to full term over-ride the decision of the woman, the host, to end the pregnancy? Or, put another way, does the fetus have more rights than the female host?
There is no easy answer.
When we consider the gender context we understand that the so-called “pro-life” argument is most often an extension of the patriarchal power to determine the actions of women. If we believe in individual rights, and, in particular, a woman’s rights to choose, how can we elevate courts to the power to prohibit a woman’s rights to choose to terminate a pregnancy, especially when the fetus could not survive outside of the woman’s body?
Should men have the right to determine what a woman can or can not do with her body?
In the context of gender relations, men believe their social power trumps female self-determination. Wherever patriarchy is dominant, women resultantly have lesser power, whether we are talking about individual power over their own bodies, or when we consider women as a group having and using social and political power.
Regardless of how we frame the abortion question, the deeper question is will we or won’t we support women’s rights to control their own bodies, including the right to terminate a pregnancy.
# # #
A movie called The Killing Floor (1984) is a pro-union look at the effort to organize workers, many of whom are Polish–hence the derisive term “Polack”–and others of Eastern European heritage. Set in the Chicago stockyards where cattle, primarily cows and pigs, are slaughtered. Without being overly graphic this movie makes clear how hard and psychologically taxing those killing floors were.
Here is a statement from the director, Bill Duke. Nothing was easy nor without contradiction and conflict. People, slaughterhouse workers in particular, were required to make great sacrifices for a chance at a better life. Although didactic by today’s standards, the movie highlights the pushes and pulls that impacted Black labor in a White controlled environment, especially during the war years when signing up to be a soldier and being paid to fight in the trenches was a viable alternative.
For example the language differences are highlighted, particularly as some of the union leaders speak Polish and other languages to workers who have become bilingual. This is a deep characteristic, especially because Black workers, ancestrally come from tongues that are unknown to them and were not only forced to abandoned their heritage languages and embrace English, but these workers are also subjected to linguistic amnesia.
Africa and African languages are so long ago, so far away, so forgotten and remembered only in either an idealized manner or, as is most likely the case, only in the demeaning terms presented as the American mainstream teaches us what Africa was and is.
In one sense our skin marks us as different, yet the real difference is in our culture, or should we say lack of a conscious culture other than imitating and/or appropriating the mainstream. There is nothing subtle about the movie, set during the World War years, yet we can miss the specifics of the realities that underline the obvious. The movie presents most Blacks as not only oblivious to our cultural essence and social conditions, but also unaware of how organizing can mitigate, if not totally overcome, our ethnic oppression and exploitation.
Black workers are introduced as both a divisive as well as a decisive element. Rather than sugar-coat the inevitable conflicts, this movie uses the tensions of difference in what Obama would call a “teaching moment”.
There is no easy way to bridge the differences, we all have to struggle to cross over from where we are to where we want to be. Moreover, getting to our envisioned promised land requires us to trod new territory and to learn new ways of living, including embracing the other as another, although different, part of ourselves.
The struggle teaches us that we are all exploited, and to a lesser degree all oppressed even as there are differences in the severity and frequency of our oppression and exploitation.
Every step forward requires leaving something behind. The question is are we prepared to pay the cost of progress? It is never simple to give up what we know in order to achieve what we hope for, especially when we have not fully calculated what it takes to win, keep and enjoy our hopes and dreams.
This movie alludes to the fact that it is not only four-legged animals that are slaughtered and consumed. The question is will we stand up for ourselves, in league with others who are also taken advantaged of in a society within which the rich exploit labor and do all they can to discourage union organizing.
We are offered creature comforts–big screen televisions, fancy automobiles, access to education and material amenities–in exchange we are required to forget from whence we came, and to a lesser, but more likely greater degree, to separate ourselves from our less fortune brothers and sisters.
All the raw materials required to live a good life are found in Africa, particularly the minerals that are required to make our cell phones and computers work. Honoring origins is important unless we become unconscious accomplices in our own oppression and exploitation.
There is a reason why the killing of Black men by police officers and others persists and the sexual exploitation of Black women continues, especially when we kill and exploit each other. For us, the killing floor is about day to day existence, as much as it is about specific instances of our death and/or exploitation–especially the multiple levels of Black feminine exploitation: literally as mothers or mother-figures, housekeepers and cooks, companions and helpmates, as well as legal and extralegal consorts and sexual partners.
Women succor men when we are babies, and as we mature women support us as colleagues and partners, and in our sunset years, women are our caretakers, but we do little in return in that regard. Sure this society makes it difficult if not impossible for Black men to care for and about Black women, but our lot has never been easy. Many of us men never think about how difficult it is for Black women to stand beside, behind, and too often in front of Black men.
Our struggle ought not be to get women to be what we want them to be, or even what we need them to be, but rather to help women self-determine their own lives and assist them in that endeavor, particularly when it does not include men as an object of their self-determination. Isn’t it enough that women have given to us the gift of life?
We have our own lives, thanks to our mothers. It is past the time for us men to support women in living the various ways women decide is best for them–long live women!
It is time for all of us to rise up off the killing floor–whether we are prey or predator, raw meat or slicing knife. No one will, or can, save us but ourselves.
Kalamu ya Salaam 4 June 2022 VA Hospital New Orleans
These tales cover the time spectrum of African American existence on the North American continent. The settings move from emotions in antebellum days to explorations moving into a hoped-for future. Living is complicated by all the various conundrums we have faced, we still face, and we will face.
The rough side of life’s mountains not withstanding and not insurmountable, our lives are composed of both sweet (and sometimes bittersweet) romance on the one hand and on the Black hand side, by raw reality. In total, Black existence, like all life in general, is always about both love and struggle.
We may never reach nirvana but we will never stop searching, never stop exploring. Never stop loving. Never stop struggling.