Thursday, October 13, 2016
The Majic of JuJu, an appreciation of the Black Arts Movement by Kalamu Ya Salaam
An Excerpt—A Dialogue between Kalamu ya Salaam (Deep River) and Margo Natalie Crawford (Afro-Blue)
Afro-Blue: James Baldwin in his short story “Sonny’s Blues” (1957) depicts the blues as “deep water.” When I hear your name, Deep River, it makes me think about the deep rivers of the black aesthetic experience.
Langston Hughes says “I’ve Known Rivers” and Baldwin says: “He wanted Sonny to leave the shoreline and strike out for the deep water. He was Sonny’s witness that deep water and drowning were not the same thing — he had been there, and he knew. And he wanted Sonny to know. He was waiting for Sonny to do the things on the keys which would let Creole know that Sonny was in the water.”
But let me explain my name. I call myself “Afro-Blue” as a way of escaping other prisms like “Afro-pessimism” and, also, “Afro-centrism.” When I read The Magic of Juju, I felt the “deep water” of the Black Arts Movement. In the midst of some of the current art of drowning, I sometimes feel nostalgic for this movement that predates me. I think the children of the Black Power movement feel the presence of its absence. Do you feel nostalgic about the Black Arts Movement? Why did you write The Magic of Juju?
Deep River: Why not? Everybody has an autobiography—I mean that literally. Everybody has a story to tell: how I came to be who I am. I happened to have been born during interesting times and, under the influence of Langston Hughes, I decided early on to pursue writing. That was nearly fifty years ago. So that is one reason: self reflection, thinking about how I became who I am, why and what were the ramifications of the choices I made.
Another reason is—and this is in no particular order—I did not see any books on our work, on the Black Arts Movement. Tons of Harlem Renaissance work, bunches of books on the Black Panthers. But where were the books on the Black Arts Movement, a movement that was more far reaching that the Harlem Renaissance, which by the way I think is both mis-named and misunderstood (I’ll come back to that in a minute). Moreover, I’m sure the absence of books on the Black Arts Movement is not an accident but rather part of a systemic effort at erasing our history.
Writing The Magic of Juju is itself an act of defiance. I know—check that, I should say “I believe” because I don’t have hard evidence in hand—I believe that the academy has actively discouraged detailed investigations of the Black Arts Movement primarily because of the politics. Although most critics will not say so outright, the reality is that the Black Arts Movement is characterized as racist because, to use a shorthand, we were perceived as “hating whites.”
Now, who is in charge of the academy? For sure it’s not Blacks, nor is it—Gates and a handful of others notwithstanding—Negroes are not in charge either, not in the overall sense. Sure, a few individuals with considerable influence, and some might even argue with more than a little power, exist but considering the literally thousands of higher-ed institutions, the overwhelming majority of gate keepers are not only racially white, they have a white consciousness, which in order to remain white necessarily means excluding blacks and other people of color.
Look, to put it bluntly, you can not remain “white” and be intimate with “non-whites,” which is why race mixing, i.e. miscegenation, has a pejorative connotation. It seems to me, if one is truly democratic, then one is open to the world. We who are called African American have been open. True, our openness has not been always by choice but we have learned to live with a spectrum of color rather than some dark essential. Look, Elijah Muhammad was obviously of mixed racial heritage—if you catch my meaning.
Black consciousness is not a reflection of biological essentialism. (I know this seems a bit off the path from explaining why I wrote The Magic of Juju, but this is an essential aspect of the real answer.) For me, Black consciousness is a political concept, not a biological concept. I define Blackness as color, culture and consciousness. Moreover, color is the least important element and consciousness the most important element.
Color is raw biology. For African Americans that rawness means, to use that loaded term, “miscegenation.” Indeed, for us in the diaspora, and particularly for those of us in the good old USofA, there is no purity in blackness. We are the original melting pot. We are America at its biological best in that, whether by choice or by circumstance, we embrace all elements.
Culture is collective behavior, views and values. Certainly an individual can manifest a culture but the culture itself is developed at a collective level.
Consciousness is identity both personal and social. This is the crux of blackness precisely because biology is not a choice; you don’t choose your parents, your ancestors. Culture is collective and thus never simply the result of individual action. We are born into cultures and as we humans come to consciousness we have the opportunity to shape the cultures into which we were born or to assimilate into a different culture. Consciousness is dynamic, ever changing even as it has a specific beginning on an individual level. Of course we can go Jungian and talk about the collective consciousness of a specific group of people in a particular time and space. In any case, whether consciously, subconsciously, or unconsciously, we humans make choices.
With whom and with what do we identify? That is the ultimate determinant of our behavior at the level of choice. Of course we don’t control all elements of our lives—but concerning the myriad of matters over which we do have a choice, consciousness becomes the key to determining our behavior and to a large extent determining our destiny.
The big, two-part question is with whom do we identify and how do we actualize our identity? That was a key element of the Black Arts Movement. We identified with working class Black people, which effectively often, but not necessarily, put us at odds with many academics who are petit-bourgeoisie to the max.
I’m defining class in terms of relationship to the means of production and accumulation of wealth. Those who sell their labor to earn a living are working class. Those who manage the labor of others or who offer professional services are the petit-bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie are those who earn their living and accumulate wealth based on earning profits, collecting rent and/or interest accrued from their property, both intellectual and material. That’s a simplistic thumbnail, but it’s important to understand this distinction because most of the people who write books are petit-bourgeoisie in their orientation whether they are actually petit-bourgeoisie in their consciousness. For example, just because you are a licensed professional, a Ph.D. or an M.D. or J.D., your degree doesn’t necessarily tell us with whom you identify and in whose interest you work.
In general, however, the petit-bourgeoisie identifies with the bourgeoisie rather than the working class. One can immediately see the conflict that the Black Arts Movement had with academics. There is a similar dynamic happening with hip hop, except because of the commercial success of hip hop within the capitalist society, there is an acceptance of hip hop in academic circles far greater than the academic acceptance of the Black Arts Movement. In America, money will change you and change how you are viewed and are accepted by mainstream society.
Part of the Magic of Juju, the concept, is the reality that juju transforms. Blackness is not static, unchanging. Baraka called it the changing same. The key though is that we change both ourselves and our environment. Any study of Black culture necessarily has to be a study of change within a give society, a given space and time, whether we are looking locally, regionally, nationally or internationally. We set the parameters of our study—and even those parameters will change over time—then we proceed to study what happens/happened and why. We might even venture a guess about what will happen next.
I’m taking the time to sketch out some of these definitions because other wise we cannot have a real dialogue if we don’t share a common understanding. It’s not about agreement but rather about epistemology, how it is we know whatever it is we think we know. The first step in knowing is having a common language. In Black culture the common tongue is first music and then orature and kinetics, and only at a tertiary level, literacy. That is a big difference between Black culture and what is commonly called White culture. White culture in the USA validates literacy, business, and technology.
You want to peep where a Black person’s consciousness is? Check out the music they listen to—not the books they read or the movies they watch, check out the music they listen to—and if they don’t listen to music, there better be some major extenuating circumstances, otherwise you’re not dealing with a conscious Black person. Notice, I said “music” as a general category rather than a specific genre of music.
I’ve written extensively about music. During my days as a music critic I won two ASCAP Deems Taylor awards for excellence in writing about music. The reason I mention that is to make clear that I choose not to identify with the mainstream even though I have the ability to compete and excel in the mainstream. Black Arts Movement artists chose not to identify with the mainstream even though we were capable of doing so. Blackness consciousness is just that: a conscious choice rather than a biological default.
Moreover, our blackness includes whiteness, redness, brownness, yellowness and any other human “ness” there is. All of that is part of who we are. The expansiveness of Blackness is a major threat to those who want to be White. Our very being threatens White existence. We are tar babies. Touch us and get stuck.
—Kalamu ya Salaam