Teju Cole on photographer Roy DeCarava: A True Picture of Black Skin

A photograph by Ray DeCarava

Teju Cole on photographer Roy DeCarava: A True Picture of Black Skin
(reprinted from The New York Times Magazine, February 18th, 2015)
What comes to mind when we think of photography and the civil rights movement? Direct, viscerally affecting images with familiar subjects: huge rallies, impassioned speakers, people carrying placards (“I Am a Man”), dogs and fire hoses turned on innocent protesters. These photos, as well as the portraits of national leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, are explicit about the subject at hand. They tell us what is happening and make a case for why things must change. Our present moment – 2015 – a time of vigorous demand for equal treatment, evokes those years of sadness and hope in Black American life and renews the relevance of those photos.
But there are other, less expected images from the civil rights years that are also worth thinking about: images that are forceful but less illustrative.
One such image left me short of breath the first time I saw it.
It’s of a young woman whose face is at once relaxed and intense. She is apparently in bright sunshine, but both her face and the rest of the picture give off a feeling of modulated darkness; we can see her beautiful features, but they are underlit somehow. Only later did I learn the picture’s title, “Mississippi Freedom Marcher, Washington, D.C., 1963” which helps explain the young woman’s serene and resolute expression. It is an expression suitable for the event she’s attending, the most famous civil rights march of them all. The title also confirms the sense that she’s standing in a great crowd, even though we see only half of one other person’s face (a boy’s, indistinct in the foreground) and, behind the young woman, the barest suggestion of two other bodies.
The picture was taken by Roy DeCarava (1919-2009), one of the most intriguing and poetic of American photographers. The power of this picture is in the loveliness of its dark areas. His work was, in fact, an exploration of just how much could be seen in the shadowed parts of a photograph, or how much could be imagined into those shadows. He resisted being too explicit in his work, a reticence that expresses itself in his choice of subjects as well as in the way he presented them.
DeCarava, a lifelong New Yorker, came of age in the generation after the Harlem Renaissance and took part in a flowering in the visual arts that followed that largely literary movement. By the time he died in 2009, at 89, he was celebrated for his melancholy and understated scenes, most of which were shot in New York City: streets, subways, jazz clubs, the interiors of houses, the people who lived in them. His pictures all share a visual grammar of decorous mystery: a woman in a bridal gown in the empty valley of a lot, a pair of silhouetted dancers reading each other’s bodies in a cavernous hall, a solitary hand and its cuff-linked wrist emerging from the midday gloom of a taxi window. DeCarava took photographs of white people tenderly but seldom. Black life was his greater love and steadier commitment. With his camera he tried to think through the peculiar challenge of shooting black subjects at a time when black appearance, in both senses (the way black people looked and the very presence of black people), was under question.
All technology arises out of specific social circumstances. In our time, as in previous generations, cameras and the mechanical tools of photography have rarely made it easy to photograph black skin. The dynamic range of film emulsions, for example, were generally calibrated for white skin and had limited sensitivity to brown, red or yellow skin tones. Light meters had similar limitations, with a tendency to underexpose dark skin. And for many years, beginning in the mid-1940s, the smaller film-developing units manufactured by Kodak came with Shirley cards, so-named after the white model who was featured on them and whose whiteness was marked on the cards as “normal.” Some of these instruments improved with time. In the age of digital photography, for instance, Shirley cards are hardly used anymore. But even now, there are reminders that photographic technology is neither value-free nor ethnically neutral. In 2009, the face-recognition technology on HP webcams had difficulty recognizing black faces, suggesting, again, that the process of calibration had favored lighter skin.
An artist tries to elicit from unfriendly tools the best they can manage. A black photographer of black skin can adjust his or her light meters; or make the necessary exposure compensations while shooting; or correct the image at the printing stage. These small adjustments would have been necessary for most photographers who worked with black subjects, from James Van Der Zee at the beginning of the century to DeCarava’s best-known contemporary, Gordon Parks, who was on the staff of Life magazine. Parks’s work, like DeCarava’s, was concerned with human dignity, specifically as it was expressed in black communities. Unlike DeCarava, and like most other photographers, he aimed for and achieved a certain clarity and technical finish in his photo essays. The highlights were high, the shadows were dark, the mid-tones well-judged. This was work without exaggeration; perhaps for this reason it sometimes lacked a smoldering fire even though it was never less than soulful.
Mississippi Freedom Marcher_Washington D.C. December 1963_photograph taken by Roy DeCarava

Mississippi Freedom Marcher_Washington D.C. December 1963_photograph taken by Roy DeCarava

DeCarava, on the other hand, insisted on finding a way into the inner life of his scenes. He worked without assistants and did his own developing, and almost all his work bore the mark of his idiosyncrasies. The chiaroscuro effects came from technical choices: a combination of underexposure, darkroom virtuosity and occasionally printing on soft paper. And yet there’s also a sense that he gave the pictures what they wanted, instead of imposing an agenda on them. In “Mississippi Freedom Marcher,” for example, even the whites of the shirts have been pulled down, into a range of soft, dreamy grays, so that the tonalities of the photograph agree with the young woman’s strong, quiet expression. This exploration of the possibilities of dark gray would be interesting in any photographer, but DeCarava did it time and again specifically as a photographer of black skin. Instead of trying to brighten blackness, he went against expectation and darkened it further. What is dark is neither blank nor empty. It is in fact full of wise light which, with patient seeing, can open out into glories.
This confidence in “playing in the dark” (to borrow a phrase of Toni Morrison’s) intensified the emotional content of DeCarava’s pictures. The viewer’s eye might at first protest, seeking more conventional contrasts, wanting more obvious lighting. But, gradually, there comes an acceptance of the photograph and its subtle implications: that there’s more there than we might think at first glance, but also that when we are looking at others, we might come to the understanding that they don’t have to give themselves up to us. They are allowed to stay in the shadows if they wish.
Thinking about DeCarava’s work in this way reminds me of the philosopher Édouard Glissant, who was born in Martinique, educated at the Sorbonne and profoundly involved in anticolonial movements of the ’50s and ’60s. One of Glissant’s main projects was an exploration of the word “opacity.” Glissant defined it as a right to not have to be understood on others’ terms, a right to be misunderstood if need be. The argument was rooted in linguistic considerations: It was a stance against certain expectations of transparency embedded in the French language. Glissant sought to defend the opacity, obscurity and inscrutability of Caribbean blacks and other marginalized peoples. External pressures insisted on everything being illuminated, simplified and explained. Glissant’s response: No. And this gentle refusal, this suggestion that there is another way, a deeper way, holds true for DeCarava, too.
DeCarava’s thoughtfulness and grace influenced a whole generation of black photographers, though few of them went on to work as consistently in the shadows as he did. But when I see luxuriantly crepuscular images like Eli Reed’s photograph of the Boys’ Choir of Tallahassee (2004), or those in Carrie Mae Weems’s “Kitchen Table Series” (1990), I see them as extensions of the DeCarava line. One of the most gifted cinematographers currently at work, Bradford Young, seems to have inherited DeCarava’s approach even more directly. Young shot Dee Rees’s “Pariah” (2011) and Andrew Dosunmu’s “Restless City” (2012) and “Mother of George” (2013), as well as Ava DuVernay’s “Selma” (2014). He works in color, and with moving rather than still images, but his visual language is cognate with DeCarava’s: Both are keeping faith with the power of shadows.
The leading actors in the films Young has shot are not only black but also tend to be dark-skinned: Danai Gurira as Adenike in “Mother of George,” for instance, and David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King Jr., in “Selma.” Under Young’s lenses, they become darker yet and serve as the brooding centers of these overwhelmingly beautiful films. Black skin, full of unexpected gradations of blue, purple or ocher, set a tone for the narrative: Adenike lost in thought on her wedding day, King on an evening telephone call to his wife or in discussion in a jail cell with other civil rights leaders. In a larger culture that tends to value black people for their abilities to jump, dance or otherwise entertain, these moments of inwardness open up a different space of encounter.
These images pose a challenge to another bias in mainstream culture: that to make something darker is to make it more dubious. There have been instances when a black face was darkened on the cover of a magazine or in a political ad to cast a literal pall of suspicion over it, just as there have been times when a black face was lightened after a photo shoot with the apparent goal of making it more appealing. What could a response to this form of contempt look like? One answer is in Young’s films, in which an intensified darkness makes the actors seem more private, more self-contained and at the same time more dramatic. In “Selma,” the effect is strengthened by the many scenes in which King and the other protagonists are filmed from behind or turned away from us. We are tuned into the eloquence of shoulders, and we hear what the hint of a profile or the fragment of a silhouette has to say.
I think of another photograph by Roy DeCarava that is similar to “Mississippi Freedom Marcher,” but this other photograph, “Five Men, 1964,” has quite a different mood. We see one man, on the left, who faces forward and takes up almost half the picture plane. His face is sober and tense, his expression that of someone whose mind is elsewhere. Behind him is a man in glasses. This second man’s face is in three-quarter profile and almost wholly visible except for where the first man’s shoulder covers his chin and jawline. Behind these are two others, whose faces are more than half concealed by the men in front of them. And finally there’s a small segment of a head at the bottom right of the photograph. The men’s varying heights could mean they are standing on steps. The heads are close together, and none seem to look in the same direction: The effect is like a sheet of studies made by a Renaissance master. In an interview DeCarava gave in 1990 in the magazine Callaloo, he said of this picture: “This moment occurred during a memorial service for the children killed in a church in Birmingham, Ala., in 1964. The photograph shows men coming out of the service at a church in Harlem.” He went on to say that the “men were coming out of the church with faces so serious and so intense that I responded, and the image was made.”
The adjectives that trail the work of DeCarava and Young as well as the philosophy of Glissant — opaque, dark, shadowed, obscure — are metaphorical when we apply them to language. But in photography, they are literal, and only after they are seen as physical facts do they become metaphorical again, visual stories about the hard-won, worth-keeping reticence of black life itself. These pictures make a case for how indirect images guarantee our sense of the human. It is as if the world, in its careless way, had been saying, “You people are simply too dark,” and these artists, intent on obliterating this absurd way of thinking, had quietly responded, “But you have no idea how dark we yet may be, nor what that darkness may contain.”
. . .
Teju Cole is a Nigerian-American writer whose two works of fiction, Open City and Every Day Is for the Thief, have been critically acclaimed and awarded several prizes, including the PEN/Hemingway Award. He is distinguished writer in residence at Bard College and the NYT magazine’s photography critic.  A writer, art historian, and photographer, he was born in the US in 1975 to Nigerian parents, and raised in Nigeria. He currently lives in Brooklyn.

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African photographers featured at ZP:
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Great Women Jazz Singers: Nina Simone y su Hombre-Pecador

Nina Simone, 1933 to 2003_photographed in 1969 by Jack Robinson

Nina Simone, 1933 to 2003_photographed in 1969 by Jack Robinson

Una canción firma-distintiva de Nina Simone…
(Letra: tradicional afroamericana, primeros años del siglo XX)
Ah, hombre-pecador, ¿adónde vas a escaparte?
Hombre-pecador, ¿adónde te fugas?
¿Adónde corres?
Todo en ese día.
Pues, corro a la peña – (escóndeme, te lo ruego.)
Sí, corro a la peña – (ay, escóndeme.)
Correré a esa peña – (Señor, escóndeme, por favor.)
Todo en ese día.
Pero, exclamó la peña: ¡no puedo esconderte!
La peña exclamó: ¡ah, no puedo esconderte!
Y la peña gritó: ¡no voy a esconderte, cuate!
Y pasará Todo – en Ese Día.
¿Peña, qué te pasa?
¿No puedes ver que te necesito, mi Peña?
Señor, ay Señor,
Todo en ese día.
Pues, corrí al río – y estuvo sangrando.
Y corrí al mar – también estuvo sangrando
Ah sí, estuvo sangrando:
Y Todo pasó en ese día.
Pues el río, el mar – estuvieron hirviendo
Huí a los dos, pero ellos solo hirvieron.
Sí, huí a las aguas – y solo hirvieron
– y es lo que pasó en ese día.
Entonces, apuré al Señor y le rogué:
Escóndeme, por favor, te pido, Señor,
¿no me ves rozando, aquí abajo?
Pero Nuestro Señor me dijo:
¡Vete al Diablo!
(Sí, que yo debería irme al demonio…)
Vete al Diablo, Mi Señor me dijo,
Todo eso – en ese día.
Pues, fui derecho al Diablo
Y estuvo esperando.
Corré al Malo
– esperando para mí.
Sí, supo que llegué, y
Todo pasó en Ese Gran Día
Poder, fuerza, energía…
Poder, fuerza, energía…
Gran poder con fuerza y energía…
– ¡Señor, métele!
Y digo:
Señor, ayúdame,
escóndeme, ayúdame.
Señor, escóndeme,
ayúdame, ayúdame…
Digo ésto, en este gran Día.
Y Él me dice:
Niño, ¿dónde estabas?
Quiero oír tu rezo.
Le digo:
¿Puedes oír mi rezo?
¡Oye mi rezo!
Estoy diciendo Todo – Todo durante El Gran Dia.
Poder, fuerza, energía
Poder, fuerza, energía
Poder, fuerza, energía
– Señor, ¡métele bien duro
sobre mi alma!
Poder poder poder poder…
¿No entiendes que te falto, Señor?
Oh sí, Señor, extraño a Tí,
Ah sí, Señor,
Ah sí.
. . .
The Nina Project highlights three award-winning, internationally-acclaimed African-Canadian vocalists – Jackie Richardson, Kellylee Evans and Shakura S’Aida – performing the music & lyrics of Nina Simone, (who would’ve turned 82 on February 21st, 2015.)
Few jazz vocalists have remained as relevant across the generations as Nina Simone. Her music is still played in its original form, and in dance/house tracks, plus everything in between!
What happens when three top-ranked vocalists, whose combined musical experience equals ninety-five years on stage, share their interpretation of Nina Simone?
Answer: The Nina Project!
Simone’s influence shows through their diverse performances…
Evans recently won a Juno for her Nina tribute album,
S’Aida performed a Simone tribute to a sold out audience, while
Richardson’s repertoire has included her favourite Nina songs for years.
Through three generations of Canadian Black entertainers,
The Nina Project shows how timeless, classic and sophisticated Simone was,
and how strongly her music prevails!
The Nina Project
February 23rd 2015 at the National Arts Centre, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
(through Black Artists’ Networks in Dialogue)


Cantante canadiense Kellylee Evans con su versión de Hombre-Pecado:
. . .
Sinner Man
(20th-century African-American Traditional / Spiritual)
Oh sinner man, where you gonna run to?
Sinner man, where you gonna run to?
Where you gonna run to?
All on that day.
Well I run to the rock
Please hide me,
I run to the rock
Please hide me,
I run to the rock
Please hide me, Lord,
All on that day.
But the rock cried out
“I can’t hide you”
the rock cried out
“I can’t hide you”
the rock cried out
“I ain’t gonna hide you, guy,
All on that day.
I said, “Rock what’s the matter with you, rock?
Don’t you see I need you, rock?”
Lord, Lord, Lord
All on that day.
So I run to the river
It was bleedin’,
I run to the sea
It was bleedin’,
I run to the sea
It was bleedin’
All on that day.
So I run to the river, it was boilin’
I run to the sea, it was boilin’
I run to the sea, it was boilin’
All on that day.
So I run to the Lord
“Please hide me, Lord,
Don’t you see me prayin’ ?
Don’t you see me down here prayin’ ?”
But the Lord said, “Go to the Devil”
The Lord said, “Go to the Devil”
He said, “Go to the Devil”
All on that day.
So I ran to the Devil
He was waitin’
I ran to the Devil, he was waitin’
I ran to the Devil, he was waitin’
All on that day.
I cried, “Power, power
Power, power, power
Power, power, power…
Bring it down
Bring it down!
Power, power, power
Power, power, power
Power, power, power
Power, power, power
Power, power, power…
Oh yeah, oh yeah, oh yeah!
Oh, I run to the river
It was boilin’, I run to the sea
It was boilin’, I run to the sea
It was boilin’
All on that day.
So I ran to the Lord
I said, Lord hide me
Please hide me
Please help me,
All on that day.
He said, “Child, where were you?
When you are old and prayin'”
Said, “Lord lord, hear me prayin’
Lord Lord, hear me prayin’
Lord Lord, hear me prayin’ ”
All on that day.
Sinner man, you oughta be prayin’
Oughta be prayin’, sinner man
Oughta be prayin’
All on that day.
I cried, Power, power
Power, power, power
Power, power, power
Power, power, power
Power, power, power…
Bring it down
All down
All down!
Bring it down
Power, power, power
Power, power, Lord!
Don’t you know?
Don’t you know I need you Lord?
Don’t you know when I need you?
Don’t you know, ho ho ho, that I need you?
Power, power, power, Lord!!!
Nina Simone_1965 album Pastel Blues
Nina Simone sang a 10-minute version of “Sinner Man” on her album Pastel Blues, recorded in 1965…
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Great Women Jazz Singers: Nancy Wilson, “Estilista” de Jazz

Nancy Wilson en 1968_© Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS

Nancy Wilson en 1968_© Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS

Nancy Wilson: Estilista de la canción jazz: (n. 20 febrero 1937, Chillicothe, Ohio, EE.UU.)
La canción “firma distintiva” de su juventud…
En la Calle del Delfín Verde (compuesto en 1947):
(Música de Bronislaw Kaper, letras de Ned Washington)
¡Fue un bonito día, Cariño, cuando llegó el Amor
con la intención de quedarse!
La Calle del Delfín Verde proveyó el marco –
el marco de unas noches inolvidables…
Y, a través de estos momentos separados,
Se arraiga las memorias de Amor, aquí en mi corazón.
Cuando recuerdo el amor que descubrí,
puedo besar el suelo en la Calle del Delfín Verde!

.     .     .

Nancy Wilson cantando con el Quinteto de George Shearing (1961):

.     .     .

Letras en inglés:
On Green Dolphin Street
Lover, one lovely day
Love came planning to stay!
Green Dolphin Street supplied the setting,
The setting for nights beyond forgetting…
And, through these moments apart,
Memories live here in my heart!
When I recall the love I found
I could kiss the ground on Green Dolphin Street!
. . . . .

Great Women Jazz Instrumentalists + “Jazz” poems by Langston Hughes and Jayne Cortez

Mary Lou Williams: jazz pianist, composer, arranger_1910 to 1981

Mary Lou Williams: jazz pianist, composer, arranger_1910 to 1981

Langston Hughes (1902-1967)
Juke Box Love Song
I could take the Harlem night
and wrap around you,
Take the neon lights and make a crown,
Take the Lenox Avenue buses,
Taxis, subways;
And for your love song tone their rumble down.
Take Harlem’s heartbeat,
Make a drumbeat,
Put it on a record, let it whirl;
And while we listen to it play,
Dance with you till day…
Dance with you, my sweet brown Harlem girl.
Clora Bryant, born 1927, playing  trumpet in this 1954 photo

Clora Bryant, born 1927, playing trumpet in this 1954 photo

Langston Hughes
Life is Fine
I went down to the river,
I set down on the bank.
I tried to think but couldn’t,
So I jumped in and sank.
I came up once and hollered!
I came up twice and cried!
If that water hadn’t a-been so cold
I might’ve sunk and died.
But it was Cold in that water! It was cold!
I took the elevator
Sixteen floors above the ground.
I thought about my baby
And thought I would jump down.
I stood there and I hollered!
I stood there and I cried!
If it hadn’t a-been so high
I might’ve jumped and died.
But it was High up there! It was high!
So since I’m still here livin’,
I guess I will live on.
I could’ve died for love–
But for livin’ I was born
Though you may hear me holler,
And you may see me cry–
I’ll be dogged, sweet baby,
If you gonna see me die.
Life is fine! Fine as wine! Life is fine!
. . .
Langston Hughes
Dream Variations
To fling my arms wide
In some place of the sun,
To whirl and to dance
Till the white day is done.
Then rest at cool evening
Beneath a tall tree
While night comes on gently,
Dark like me:
That is my dream!
To fling my arms wide
In the face of the sun,
Dance! Whirl! Whirl!
Till the quick day is done.
Rest at pale evening,
A tall, slim tree,
Night coming tenderly –
Black like me.
Dorothy Donegan_multi-style pianist, 1922 to 1998, shown here in 1989_photograph © Paul Bergen

Dorothy Donegan_multi-style pianist, 1922 to 1998, shown here in 1989_photograph © Paul Bergen

Jayne Cortez (born Sallie Jayne Richardson, 1934-2012)
I am New York City
i am new york city
here is my brain of hot sauce
my tobacco teeth my
mattress of bedbug tongue
legs aparthand on chin
war on the roofinsults
pointed fingerspushcarts
my contraceptives all
look at my pelvis blushing
i am new york city of blood
police and fried pies
i rub my docks red with grenadine
and jelly madness in a flow of tokay
my huge skull of pigeons
my seance of peeping toms
my plaited ovaries excuse me
this is my grime my thigh of
steelspoons and toothpicks
i imitate no one
i am new york city
of the brown spit and soft tomatoes
give me my confetti of flesh
my marquee of false nipples
my sideshow of open beaks
in my nose of soot
in my ox bled eyes
in my ear of Saturday night specials
i eat ha ha hee hee and ho ho
i am new york city
never change never sleep never melt
my shoes are incognito
cadavers grow from my goatee
look i sparkle with shit with wishbones
my nickname is glue-me
take my face of stink bombs
my star spangled banner of hot dogs
take my beer can junta
my reptilian ass of footprints
and approach me through life
approach me through death
approach me through my widow’s peak
through my split ends my
asthmatic laughapproach me
through my wash rag
half anklehalf elbow
massage me with your camphor tears
salute the patina and concrete
of my rat tail wig
face upface downpiss
into the bite of our handshake
i am new york city
my skillet-head friend
my fat-bellied comrade
break wind with me
Dorothy Ashby, Jazz harpist and composer_1930 to 1986

Dorothy Ashby, Jazz harpist and composer_1930 to 1986

Jayne Cortez
Make Ifa
In sanctified chalk
of my silver painted soot
In criss-crossing whelps
of my black belching smoke
In brass masking bones
of my bass droning moans
in hub cap bellow
of my hammer tap blow
In steel stance screech
of my zumbified flames
In electrified mouth
of my citified fumes
In bellified groan
of my countrified pound
In compulsivefied conga
of my soca moka jumbi
In eye popping punta
of my heat sucking sap
In cyclonic slobber
of my consultation pan
In snap jam combustion
of my banjoistic thumb
In sparkola flare
of my hoodoristic scream
In punched out ijuba
of my fire catching groove
In fungified funk
of my sambafied shakes
In amplified dents
of my petrified honks
In ping ponging bombs
of my scarified gongs
. . .
Editor’s Note:  Ifa = a system of divination developed by the Yoruba of
Nigeria, based on the interpretation of cowrie shells tossed on a tray.
. . . . .

Picong: the verbal “duels” of calypsonians

Silhouette pen and ink by Bruce Patrick Jones_The Calypsonian Master wears many hats:  Party inciter, social commentator, dueling wordsmith!

Silhouette pen and ink by Bruce Patrick Jones_The Calypsonian Master wears many hats: Party inciter, social commentator, dueling wordsmith!

Picong or Ex-tempo, is light comical banter with music, usually performed at someone else’s expense. As part of the Trinidadian Calypso tradition, it’s a way in which West Indians (particularly those in the Eastern Caribbean) tease, heckle and mock each other – usually in a friendly manner. The line between humour and insult, though, may be a slender one, and often shifts; at times the convivial spirit may degenerate into more heated debate. So the ability to engage in picong without crossing over into rude insult is highly valued in the culture of calypso music.
The verbal duels between the The Mighty Sparrow and his friendly nemesis, Lord Melody, are the stuff of calypso legend, and the following 1957 ex-tempo session – a witty, improvised exchange of humorous insults – is a great example of the art of picong.
As they used to say in the old days: Santimanitay (Sans humanité)!  Without mercy!
The Mighty Sparrow vs. Lord Melody (from the Emory Cook album “Calypso Kings and Pink Gin”, 1957):
. . .
Currently, an “Extempo King” (and sometimes a female “Monarch”) is crowned each year as part of the carnival in Trinidad.  Recent crowned verbal acrobats have included King Black Sage, Lady Africa, Brian London, Abebele and Lingo, who is 2015 Carnival’s ex-tempo king.

Black History Month: Samba and Calypso

Congo pepper – sliced, on ice!

Congo pepper – sliced, on ice!

Minus 24 degrees celsius this morning, here in Toronto…
February is, typically, our coldest month of the year, but today is exceptionally cold; a blue-blue sky and bright, though heat-less, sun, reflected on heaps of snow – do make this Sunday feel cheerful and upbeat. Yet we cannot help but long for warmer climes just now: Brazil, and Trinidad & Tobago, where Carnaval is already in full-Samba-swing, or where “ playing Mas’ ” to the latest Soca songs on Jouvert Morning (February 16th this year) is nearly upon us!
Click on the following links for Zocalo Poets’ Carnaval / Carnival features with poems and pictures!
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Black History Month and Canada’s Flag (50th anniversary)

Canada red maple leaf on black backgroundCanada Flag in black and white instead of red and white
On this day, the 50th anniversary of Canada’s Flag, we reflect on the contributions of Black people to Canadian society through elected or appointed office…
There is a journey of commitment and hard work for all those who choose public life, and Black Canadians have persevered – and excelled. From William Peyton Hubbard we reach Michael Thompson; from Zanana Akande we come to Margarett Best; from Keith Forde there is an unwavering line that leads to Devon Clunis.
Here are some Black “Firsts” in Canada:
Saint-Firmin Monestime (1909-1977): Haitian-born doctor and first Black mayor of a Canadian municipality (Mattawa, Ontario, 1964-1977)
Lincoln MacCauley Alexander (1922-2012): Toronto-born lawyer and elected first Black member of Canada’s federal parliament (1968-1980)
Leonard Austin Braithwaite (1923-2012): Born in Toronto of West-Indian parents, he was elected the first Black member of a Canadian provincial legislature (Ontario, 1963-1975).
Rosemary Brown (1930-2003): Jamaican-born Brown was the first Black woman elected to a Canadian provincial legislature (British Columbia, 1972-1986), and also the first Black woman (and only the second woman) to run for leadership of a Canadian federal political party (the NDP, in 1975).
Jean Augustine (born 1937, Grenada): In 1993 she was elected the first Black woman member of Canada’s federal parliament (1993-2006), and also the first to serve as a federal cabinet minister (2003).
Michaëlle Jean: Born in 1957, the Haitian-Montrealer was the first Black Governor-General of Canada (2005-2010).
.     .     .     .     .

Black History Month: Love Poems for the Belovéd; for God; for a Child

 Paper hearts in the snow_February 2015_Toronto Canada
Eric Merton Roach (1915-1974, Trinidad and Tobago)
A Lover Speaks (1948)
Climb up a rainbow’s arch
And be arrayed in all that loveliness;
Be gilded as a sunset cloud
Or take the moon’s soft radiance for gown
And the great stars for diamonds,
Be costumed like a queen in cloth of gold
And all the earth’s rare and famous finery,
Be what you will for I am fancy free.
Become all legend beauty,
The glorious goddess from Olympus leaping,
Contested Helen or the Pharaoh queen,
Isolde or Deidre,
All that fair company that pass
In love and sorrow down the corridors
Of rhyme and story.
Be what you will for I am fancy free.
But, when your bright imaginings shall end
And you are your black hair,
Black eyes, deep lips and dark complexion;
When you are native to this time and island,
Attractive in the streets and gay and graceful,
Your beauty maddening in the moment’s dusk,
Your Naiad nakedness in the clean sea;
When you are you
Then shall my fancy not be free
But slave and bound to what I love to see.
. . .
Eric Merton Roach
Buy her wine and roses,
gladden her laughter,
tell her she’s legend
like Ledas daughter,
a boldly made beauty
aching the eye, Isis, Astarte.
But never ask her
of hearts that keep honour,
puritan modes,
ethics and codes.
Cords that should bind her
to one bed
crumble in
her passionate blood.
To the body only
that ripe beauty,
golden as honey
hum your canzone.
. . .
R. L. C. McFarlane (born 1925, Jamaica)
O Girl, How Should I Tell You
O girl, how should I tell you how
You shatter all philosophy,
And melt the hardened theory,
And lay the walls of reason low?
For so I yield within an hour
The strength that I had wrought with pain,
And am become a fool again,
Colonial to an alien power,
Seeking the furtherance of my being
Within another’s happiness;
Enwombed in utter helplessness
– Blank days that jump the time for freeing.
No, stand apart and keep your state
Free of my tribute, lest we prove
How in the curious knot of love
The mind conceals a knife of hate.
. . .
Mervyn Morris (born 1937, Jamaica)
Love gave her eyes:
the tough man snatched,
locked them up tight.
Love gave her hand:
the tough man tickled it
early one night.
Love gave her tongue:
the tough man found
it tasted right.
Love gave her body:
the tough man smiled,
switched off the light.
Love gave her heart:
the tough man fled,
flaccid with fright.
. . .
Esther Phillips (born 1950, Barbados)
Between the silent Seraphim,
Wings overarching me,
I kneel before Your Mercy Seat.
Oh, do not speak, I fear
Your anger; I cannot bear
The censure in Your voice.
Commune with me,
Your great Heart to
My trembling heart.
Feel my love torn,
The greater portion Yours
And still shall always be.
The rest is his, and he
And I are flesh – eyes, lips,
Hands and thighs, and sweetness.
Do not forsake me,
Oh, do not cast me off!
Was it for love You died
That I might live
– And love?
. . .
Esther Phillips
Night Errant
You hate the ignoble
thing, the unworthy.
You believe man is
the measure (despite
your brilliance.)
So when the wolf rips
the night open,
the night you had so drawn
with soft colours,
you deny, you deny,
you deny.
And the creature,
on cue, disappears;
the air, snarled, lies
heavy between us.
I’ve not much use
for a cerebral-shaped heart
nurtured on some one-eyed
Love me with your own
heart hoarding the traitor,
the rough rage, your un-
certain compassion.
. . .
Kendel Hippolyte (born 1952, Saint Lucia)
The child is sleeping,
folded in among the brown boughs of my arms,
and a promise, formed beyond language, drawn upward
like sap through a pith, stirs through me.
In its slow course, I feel a vow so deep
it does not reach the flower and fade of word
but leaves me steeped, resined, in its truth.
Because I wish this child, awake, a man,
to know that he can keep, lifelong,
the trust, the self-astonishing joy that he has now
and he can draw from them the strength to make
his true path from the place I am
to where he will become, for his own child, a tree,
I vow: these boughs will never break.
. . .
Margaret D. Gill (born 1953, Barbados)
I want to make you cry tonight
I want to make you
cry tonight
I want to shake you
and break you
and take you apart and then –
want to create you
To begin you
And sing you
And bring you
(if you care to)
They say heaven is
heaven is
heaven is.
I want to make you
cry tonight
Like a big ole man child.
Shall I liberate you from all that holding in and
holding on and
self sufficient?
I may not succeed now! But
I shall certainly try –
cry, cry
cry (it’s good for you).
. . .
Gladys Waterberg (born 1959, Surinam)
Never before
the past
has been
such a
great future dream
when I met you
the first time
and wished
that the future
would never
become part
of the past.

. . .
More Love Poems at ZP:

. . . . .

Won’t You Be Our Valentine? Five Beautiful Women & Five Beautiful Men / ¿Quieres ser nuestra/o enamorada/o? Cinco bellas mujeres y cinco bellos hombres

.     .     .     .     .

Marvin Gaye (1939-1984)

Marvin Gaye_1970sMarvin Gaye in 1971Marvin Gaye in a live performance


Don Cheadle (born 1964)

Don Cheadle in 2011Don Cheadle


James Todd Smith (L. L. Cool J., born 1968)

L. L. Cool J. in 2008L. L. Cool J. in 1986.

John Amaechi (born 1970)

John Amaechi in 2010.

John Amaechi as a basketball player_6 foot 10 and 270 lbs..

Shemar Moore (born 1970)

Shemar MooreShemar Moore when he was still a model_before he began to do TV

.     .     .     .     .

Anna Mae Bullock (Tina Turner, born 1939)

Tina Turner in the 1970s_ photograph copyright Jack RobinsonTina Turner on stage in the early 1970sTina Turner with her signature hairdo from the 1980s


Alfre Woodard (born 1952)

Alfre Woodard in 1993Alfre Woodard in 2013


Helen Folasade Adu (Sade, born 1959)

Sade OneSade Two


Vanessa Williams (born 1963)

Vanessa Williams in the 1990sVanessa Williams in 1988 when her song Dreaming went Number 1 on the R and B charts.

Dana Elaine Owens (Queen Latifah, born 1970)

Dana Elaine Owens a.k.a. Queen Latifah as Matron Mama Morton in the film ChicagoQueen Latifah all decked out


.     .     .     .     .

Manuel Iris: poemas inspirados por Jazz (Davis y Monk) – con Gabriel Okara

Paper hearts in the snow_February 10th 2015_Toronto Canada


Manuel Iris (México, nacido 1983, poeta yucateco / ganador del Premio Nacional de Poesía, Mérida, 2009)
[ de su poemario Overnight Medley (ARC Edições, Brasil, 2014) ]
Escrito en Oquedad
I fall in love too easily / Me enamoro tan fácilmente (versión de Miles Davis, 1963)
Afuera, corazón
quédate afuera
no nades en mi pecho
como pez fuera del mar
pero también de ella

no mueras, sin embargo
y calla
no renuncies
aprende a consumirte
y no solloces
Afuera, corazón
quédate afuera

no vengas a buscarla.
. . .
La canción jazz que incentiva…
I fall in love too easily, I fall in love too fast;
I fall in love too terribly hard for love to ever last!
My heart should be well schooled, ’cause I’ve been fooled in the past…
And still: I fall in love too easily, I fall in love too fast.
I fall in love too easily, I fall in love too fast;
I fall in love too terribly hard, for love to ever last!
My heart should be well schooled, ’cause I’ve been fooled in the past…
And still: I fall in love too easily, I fall in love too fast.
[Julie Styne & Sammy Cahn, 1945]
. . .
Me enamoro – de golpe y sopetón,
Me enamoro apresuradamente;
Sí, caigo en Amor tan terriblemente duro
que no pueda persistir el arranque de pasión.
Mi corazón ya debe ser bien educado
Porque yo he sido engañado en el pasado;
Y todavía, me enamoro fácilmente,
¡Hey presto, caigo en Amor!
[Compositor y Letrista: Julie Styne y Sammy Cahn, 1945]
[ I fall in love too easily: del álbum Seven Steps to Heaven, grabado en 1963 por el “new” Miles Davis Quintet ]
. . .
Gabriel Okara (Nigeria, born 1921)
Piano and Drums
When at break of day at a riverside
I hear the jungle drums telegraphing
the mystic rhythm, urgent, raw,
like bleeding flesh, speaking of
primal youth and the beginning,
I see the panther ready to pounce,
the leopard snarling, about to leap,
and the hunters crouch with spears poised;
And my blood ripples, turns torrent,
topples the years, and at once I’m
in my mother’s laps – a suckling;
at once I’m walking simple
paths with no innovations,
rugged, fashioned with the naked
warmth of hurrying feet and groping hearts,
in green leaves and wild flowers pulsing.
Then I hear a wailing piano
solo, speaking of complex ways in
tear-furrowed concerto;
of faraway lands
and new horizons, with
coaxing diminuendo, counterpoint,
crescendo. But lost in the labyrinth
of its complexities, it ends in the middle
of a phrase – at a daggerpoint.
And I am lost in the morning mist
of an age at a riverside;
keep wandering in the mystic rhythm
of jungle drums – and the concerto…
. . .
Manuel Iris
Round Midnight
And I am lost in the morning mist
of an age at a riverside; keep
wandering in the mystic rhythm
of jungle drums – and the concerto…”
[Gabriel Okara, Piano and drums]

El Arquitecto calla, piensa. Planea
juntar las puntas de la media noche
para hacer de nuevo el puente
entre tu voz y tu verdad primera.
El inicio es torpe. Borro y escribo:
Thelonius Monk ató puntas de la media noche
para tender la melodía que funciona
como puente de tu voz
al grito primigenio.
Acaso ha mejorado. Sigo escribiendo pero entonces apareces. Entras al cuarto y a pesar de que te veo de frente, prefiero la otra imagen que hay en el espejo, la variación del vidrio boquiabierto junto a ti.
Me detiene boquiabierto: evidente efectismo. Pongo de nuevo esa canción del Arquitecto y dejo que te vayas. Continúo:
Thelonius Monk ha atado los extremos de la media noche
para iniciar la variación de los andamios
que se alargan de tu hablar
a tu gemir de orgasmo al primitivo
tiempo de los otros los pre-humanos
que se aman contemplando el fuego.
Thelonius Monk armó la media noche circular
y entonces la ternura más rudimentaria
se apropió de ti te convirtió en la imagen
del primer amor que es casi el eufemismo
de quedar en celo es casi ronda casi
día siguiente…
La canción termina pero alguna variación es todavía posible. Callo. Imagino al arquitecto componiendo partituras que sirven nada más para salir o para entrar en ellas. Pongo play:
unir las puntas de la media noche
y la ternura más homínida posible
el más elemental amor te vio las manos
y pensó en dejarlas en la piedra para siempre
en invocarte como a la cacería  y te volvió rupestre
y te dejó en la cueva del amor original
del eufemismo de quedar en celo
de ser Thelonius Monk haciendo los andamios
que se alargan de tu voz a los aullidos de tu risa
hacia el temblor de orgasmo
y vas del piano al tambor y vas también
en dirección contraria.
Caigo en cuenta
de que el puente es una forma de la eternidad
que el Arquitecto escribe los reflejos de tu rostro
cuando entras por la puerta tu precisa variación
tus puntos tus momentos de llegada
o de partida.
. . .
[ ‘Round Midnight:  del álbum Misterioso, grabado en 1958 por Thelonius Monk ]
. . . . .