x-posted from Street Prophets

Kalamu ya Salaam calls himself “the griot of New Orleans.” “The griot is a West African storyteller/historian/musician,” he explains online. Street Prophets member “under the bodhi tree” had been familiar with Kalamu’s work and pointed out here that he was going to be speaking in my city (Madison, WI) last night in conjunction with the Wisconsin Book Festival. Black history and performance poetry are not areas of special interest for me, and it would not have occurred to me to go to this event if it had not been suggested–but that was kind of why I heeded the suggestion. I was sure I’d learn something.
Kalamu is one of us, a very bright down to earth guy with typical liberal sensibilities; “a non-theocentric spiritualist,” a loather of corporatocracy, and in real life it was obvious he didn’t actually think the universe revolved around black people, which I confess had been an impression I’d gotten from reading some of his writing beforehand–I think life confronted him in a big way with blackness, and he neutralized it with a big embrace. I went from thinking that was something that made him different, to kinda identifying with it.

I took a lot of notes. This is a close summary of his talk, though some bits are slightly rearranged.

He began by speaking about the history of New Orleans. The city was founded in 1718 by three French aristocrats, a priest, some soldiers, and a bunch of criminals from French jails. France did little with it though, and sold Louisiana to the Spanish in 1769. The Anglos didn’t get there till 1804. The French Quarter, the oldest part of the city, was built by the Spanish, and although the street signs say “rue,” original ceramic plaques on some of the buildings use the Spanish word for street, “calle.” There’s no French culture in New Orleans; it’s the Caribbean culture of French-speaking Haitians who arrived around the turn of the 19th century, doubling the city’s population.

During the Civil War, the Union seized the city, and large numbers of blacks, many of them already trained soldiers who had worked for the Spanish, joined up. There was slavery in New Orleans, but it was often unlike slavery elsewhere; it was not unusual to see a black man walking down the street with a rifle in his hand, money in his pocket, on is way to the house he owned. A large number of “Maroons,” escaped slaves, lived in the surrounding swamps and bayous, often allying themselves with the Indians.

Kalamu went on to describe what he thought was the needed response to Katrina:

  1. Listen To the People, his project to gather and share New Orleans stories via the internet. They’re gathering existing media stories, collecting oral histories, and doing selective video interviews. The project doesn’t focus solely on race, but also looks at issues of class, gender, ethnicity (New Orleans had 12,000 Vietnamese who lived in a submerged section of town, as well as the largest concentrations of Hondurans outside Honduras), the GLBT community, undocumented workers, and the incarcerated.
  2. Environment: concerns directly tied to how one treats the land where one lives. There is no hiding from this issue. “I believe that rather than less, we’re gonna see more natural disasters going on…. Let New Orleans be a wakeup call.”
  3. Levee Protections: “They can no longer control the river.” Bush has systematically cut funding for the Army Corps of Engineers, which maintains levees all over the country, for the last four years.
  4. Where’s the money going to come from to rebuild New Orleans? An audience member shouts (to laughter): “Tax the rich corporations!” Kalamu says, skeptical of the likelihood, “You can ask em!”

His further comments on Katrina:

After Katrina some people said God smote New Orleans because of lewdness, homosexuality, and dope fiends, but they must be crazy, Kalamu says, because the major concentration of that action, the French Quarter, was high and dry. “Their God was missing!”

Noting that there are New Orleans refugees even here in Madison, Kalamu urged that this winter, we should reach out to NO refugees we may know, not with a blanket or a jacket, but to be there for them as a human being. Novelty will wear off, and people who have lost most of what they had find themselves in a strange place and may never have seen snow, and they will be homesick and lonely. Winter, he observes, is suicide season.

“If you ask people from New Orleans, we say government ain’t shit. This administration is systematically dismantling government as a force in life. They’re putting incompetence in charge. It cannot be an accident; it wouldn’t occur naturally! You have to pick stupidity to be so consistent.” There’s a quotable quote for ya, that was the biggest laugh. Though in this liberal town there were cheers throughout the talk for anti-Bushism and anti-corporatism and anti-racism. Kalamu emphasized that “politics is affecting our every day existence, every moment,” and that it was necessary to be aware and engaged.

“I believe that New Orleans is gonna be an example of urban development for 21st Century America; whatever they do in New Orleans, they’re gonna do every place else. It will be a community planned by the power brokers.”

New Orleans schools laid off ALL the schoolteachers, telling them that their last paycheck had been their last. This was the largest concentration of college-educated black people in America. Katrina wiped out the black community. He reemphasizes, “It represents the future how they rebuild it.”

Because the tourist sections of town survived Katrina, “You could go to New Orleans this January and not notice any difference, except a few less black people on the street.” It was ordinary people who were harmed, not the money interests. However, he doesn’t want to present blacks as victims.

Kalamu next read his essay “Jazz 101,” an introduction to the spirit and cultural history that produced jazz music–being abducted into slavery, then rural blacks coming to the city with their uncouth ways and their troubles, and still full of verve and life. The good lines I’ve recorded are “the white way may be correct, but it sure ain’t right.” and the clever neologism (not coined by him) “status crow.”

Now when I say that he next performed his poem “A System of Thought,” what I really mean is that he was possessed–primal shrieks, tears, staccato pleas. This performance was brilliant and would not have translated adequately to radio or even TV, it was so abandoned and courageous. The title refers to the system of thought wherein black people are taken from Africa, transported across the ocean, enslaved, expected to thank boss whitey for it, and even earnestly profess and try to believe they’re grateful, however, ultimately, sitting on rooftops as the water rises, “water comin’ boss, help! help!,” begging whitey in his helicopter to drop a little water cause they’re dying, that becomes plainly impossible. The poem was written well before Katrina, he says, but new lyrics were added, and they give it a huge immediacy. Nothing has explained to me so well why race is an issue in the Katrina disaster.

Kalamu says we’re all in danger, though. “If you don’t understand what’s going on, you’re not going to make the sacrifices necessary for change.” “People who have been brought up in America believe in magic formulas. Don’t believe in magic fomulas.” “Don’t trust men with guns.” “Pick something you’re passionate about, and be it. Even if it is crocheting. Instead of crocheting in red white and blue, maybe you could crochet the colors of the Pakistani flag to show support for them.” “I resist easy solutions.” He quotes a friend, “Mask no difficulties. Claim no easy victories. Tell no les.”

He made a point of noting that we can’t hide from gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered struggles; regardless of what one think based on religion, etc–those people are our brothers and sisters, and we have to cut off a part of ourselves not to care.

It is important, he says, to show support for the disaster victims. “Coming out tonight is a showing of support. The next step is getting someone else to show up the next time. We need a critical mass.” “We lost a lotta people in New Orleans. It’s never happened before in modern history that a major metropolitan area has been wiped out.”

We must resist: “The government showed they were willing to let people die. If you don’t see it now, you’re never gonna see it. It’s unspeakable.” He says yes indeed he thinks it’s true that people shot at rescue helicopters. “Sure they shot at the police, because the police shot at them. The administration failed. They blinked. Seems they’d never been in a situation before where they thought they were gonna liberate people, and people shot at them.”

He said something I’m not sure if I’d not heard before, and that he swore was true: that there was a battallion of over 200 armed National Guard troops in Hall A of the Convention Center in New Orleans very quickly after the Katrina disaster. They parked dump trucks in front of the door so people could not get to them. “I think they were afraid. People in New Orleans were not ready to roll over and play victim.” Might these have been the National Guard who were already in NO and got flooded out of their headquarters which was near a burst levee, and lost their communications equipment?

Okay, I lied about the other line that I said was the biggest laugh; this was: “I used to wonder about you-all cheese heads. It’s snowing, you all got no shirt on, you got cheese on your head. That’s the kind of courage it’s gonna take to defeat George W Bush!” Well I don’t even know what to add to that. He’d also complemented Wisconsin earlier for our long history of progressive politics, which he attributed to the fact that “you all didn’t come from England!” But I’m from New Jersey originally and not Wisconsin; the descendent of Puritan pilgrims, here I was in the cheese state listening to a New Orleans version of a West African storyteller lambaste a Texan in Washington, DC, and all that seemed proper and human.

A white female audience member who said she was from New Orleans herself and had just come from there, said “The whole city smells like death. We don’t even know what death smells like, and it smells like death. Our home smells like death.


Kalamu ya Salaam’s poetry and essays

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