Documenting the American South Logo
Loading
Title: Oral History Interview with Kalamu ya Salaam, June 5, 2006. Interview U-0264. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007): Electronic Edition.
Author: Salaam, Kalamu ya, interviewee
Interview conducted by Guild, Joshua
Funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services supported the electronic publication of this interview.
Text encoded by Jennifer Joyner
Sound recordings digitized by Aaron Smithers Southern Folklife Collection
First edition, 2008
Size of electronic edition: ## Kb
Publisher: The University Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
2008.
© This work is the property of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It may be used freely by individuals for research, teaching and personal use as long as this statement of availability is included in the text.
The electronic edition is a part of the UNC-Chapel Hill digital library, Documenting the American South.
Languages used in the text: English
Revision history:
2008-00-00, Wanda Gunther and Kristin Martin revised TEIHeader and created catalog record for the electronic edition.
2008-00-00, Jennifer Joyner finished TEI-conformant encoding and final proofing.
Source(s):
Title of recording: Oral History Interview with Kalamu ya Salaam, June 5, 2006. Interview U-0264. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007)
Title of series: Series U. The Long Civil Rights Movement: The South Since the 1960s. Southern Oral History Program Collection (U-0264)
Author: Joshua Guild
Title of transcript: Oral History Interview with Kalamu ya Salaam, June 5, 2006. Interview U-0264. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007)
Title of series: Series U. The Long Civil Rights Movement: The South Since the 1960s. Southern Oral History Program Collection (U-0264)
Author: Kalamu ya Salaam
Description: 103 Mb
Description: 21 p.
Note: Interview conducted on June 5, 2006, by Joshua Guild; recorded in New Orleans, Louisiana
Note: Transcribed by Carrie Blackstock.
Note: Forms part of: Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007): Series U. The Long Civil Rights Movement: The South Since the 1960s, Manuscripts Department, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Note: Original transcript on deposit at the Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Editorial practices
An audio file with the interview complements this electronic edition.
The text has been entered using double-keying and verified against the original.
The text has been encoded using the recommendations for Level 4 of the TEI in Libraries Guidelines.
Original grammar and spelling have been preserved.
All quotation marks, em dashes and ampersand have been transcribed as entity references.
All double right and left quotation marks are encoded as "
All em dashes are encoded as —

Interview with Kalamu ya Salaam, June 5, 2006.
Interview U-0264. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007)
Salaam, Kalamu ya, interviewee


Interview Participants

    KALAMU YA SALAAM, interviewee
    JOSHUA GUILD, interviewer

[DISC 1, TRACK 1]


Page 1
[START OF DISC 1, TRACK 1]
JOSHUA GUILD:
So maybe we just start. Can you say your full name and—.
KALAMU YA SALAAM:
Kalamu ya Salaam from New Orleans, Louisiana, and today is June the fifth, 2006.
JOSHUA GUILD:
Tell me a little bit about your background.
KALAMU YA SALAAM:
I'm born here in New Orleans and reared here. Have worked as a journalist. I'm a writer. My profession's writing. And in 1968, joined the Free Southern Theatre. 1970, was one of the founding members of the Black Collegiate Magazine, served as editor for thirteen years. I stayed with the Free Southern Theatre for about five or six years. From 1983 to 1987, I was the executive director of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation. 1984, I co-founded a public relation advertising firm with Bill [unclear] . The firm is called Bright Moments. The firm still goes on today. I'm no longer with the firm. As I say, I quit selling pizzas at about 1995. I was through with that, and right now I'm a writer full-time. I'm co-director of students at The Center, which is a writing program based in the New Orleans public schools. It's an independent program, and most of our classes are electives or they're English classes. The co-director and founder, Jim Randalls, is a certified English teacher, and that's what I'm—that's basically what I do full-time every day. I work with high school students when I'm in town, and you know, do speaking engagements and residencies around the country.
JOSHUA GUILD:
What part of the city did you grow up in?
KALAMU YA SALAAM:
I grew up in the lower Ninth Ward and spent—. I would say roughly all the way till about eighty-six, eighty-seven, except for very brief periods, lived in the lower Ninth Ward.
JOSHUA GUILD:
What was it like when you were coming up?
KALAMU YA SALAAM:
It was like country in the city. It was a rural area, very, very rural. Some of the defining factors: in the next block there was a farm. I mean a real farm, not no play farm. It was two square blocks, pigs, you know, horses, cows, the whole number. The swamps were two

Page 2
blocks, two and a half blocks, three blocks away from our house. We used to go hunting, fishing, and all that kind of stuff. Used to go in the lot next door and pick blackberries and stuff like that, I mean, and so we grew up in those kinds of conditions. A lot of the people who moved down there came directly from the country, and many of them built their own houses by hand, literally by hand. We helped, you know, construct many a house on the weekends and stuff like that. It was isolated from the rest of the city. It's across the canal. When we first moved there, there was no public transportation. The nearest bus from where we lived was fourteen blocks away, Saint Claude bus, and there used to be a little private bus—we called it nickel bus—that ran from Saint Claude, which was like the ten hundred block. We lived in the twenty-five hundred block. It ran from Saint Claude on Saint Maurice all the way to Long, turned on Long and went down two blocks to [unclear] and went back to Saint Claude. And it would cost a nickel to ride that bus. That was—. Mr. Pitts ran that bus. He lived across the street from us, and that was his little gig, you know. He had a—.
JOSHUA GUILD:
Did you ever go into the other parts of the city?
KALAMU YA SALAAM:
Yeah, a little bit, but you know, New Orleans is a—was a town of neighborhoods, so you had a lot of whatever you needed there, you know, corner stores and all like that. Every neighborhood had a theatre, had a funeral home. We're talking about black theatres, black funeral homes, the whole number. In fact, when I was very, very young, although I didn't realize it at the time, I saw the end of the Negro baseball leagues. There was a baseball diamond what? Four blocks from my house, and we used to go over there. I didn't even know it at the time, you know. You just went around on Sunday and see baseball, you know.
JOSHUA GUILD:
How about was there a music scene?
KALAMU YA SALAAM:
Music scene, yeah. Music was all over New Orleans, so yeah, you can't avoid that.

Page 3
Yeah.
JOSHUA GUILD:
And then you left New Orleans and came back?
KALAMU YA SALAAM:
No, well, I was in the—. In sixty-four, I graduated from high school and—.
JOSHUA GUILD:
Which high school?
KALAMU YA SALAAM:
Saint Augustan High School. I went from kindergarten through ninth grade, I was in public school, and then I went to high school at Saint Augustan because of my brothers, my two younger brothers. One wanted to be in the band, which Saint Augustan had a famous band, and the other tested into the first seventh grade class that they had. And so the priest convinced my parents that it would be just almost the same price to send three as to send two, and Saint Augustan at the time was highly rated as a prep school for black males. I didn't want to go. I wanted to go to Public School 35 with my friends and everything else like that. They made me go. But high school was irrelevant, because high school happened at the same time the Civil Rights Movement for us, and we were very, very active in the Civil Rights Movement. So I virtually did nothing in high school. I mean, you know, I went to school, but after that we were picketing, sitting in, and stuff like that.
JOSHUA GUILD:
[unclear] some of the campaigns that were important or memorable?
KALAMU YA SALAAM:
Well, the main campaign was on Canal Street, for public access to lunch counters and hiring practices. That went on about two years, and so you know, every day we were out there on picket lines, on the weekends, doing voter registration work and all like that, and occasionally sitting in and what have you. So I mean, high school, you know, like proms and all that stuff, I don't even remember none of that stuff. I don't even know if I went, you know.
JOSHUA GUILD:
What did your family think about your involvement?
KALAMU YA SALAAM:
They encouraged us. Yeah, they encouraged us. So that was—. I was fortunate. I

Page 4
grew up in interesting times.
JOSHUA GUILD:
Then how did you sort of get involved in the black arts [unclear] ?
KALAMU YA SALAAM:
Well, coming out of high school, I got a—. They sent me to Carlton College in Northfield, Minnesota, with a partial scholarship. I lasted that till the weather broke. Like Bobby [unclear] said, soon as the weather break, I'm going to make my getaway. And I left there, came back here. I had never registered for the draft, and my mother stayed on me about going down to the draft board. When I finally went down there, some white lady was talking about put you in jail, you breaking the law, blah blah. You come back here tomorrow. I said, "Nah, I see what this is." So I went down to the custom house where the recruitment office was, and told the Army recruiter, "I won't go anywhere but Vietnam." He said, "Well, I can't promise you that. I said, "Well, they got to be something that y'all do that they don't do in Vietnam." He said, "Oh, but you have to test into those. Those are special categories." I said, "Give me the test." So they gave me a test, and I ended up as a [unclear] Hercules electronic missile repair. [unclear] Hercules was nuclear missiles, so I was trained to work on the electronics of the nuclear missile and arm the warhead and everything. Eventually had chemical, biological, radiological training in the Army and all that kind of stuff. Got out of the Army in sixty-eight, joined the Free Southern Theatre, and then, you know, from then on it was—. That was been me.
JOSHUA GUILD:
Let's kind of fast forward to where were you when [unclear] hurricane Katrina?
KALAMU YA SALAAM:
I was here in New Orleans, and we left Sunday. My wife is an x-ray technician at Veterans Hospital. Actually, we were supposed to stay. She was on call, but there was a bureaucratic mess-up, so her name was not on the emergency list. The way it worked with the emergency list, if your name was on it, then your family could come with you to the hospital. Your name wasn't on it, your family couldn't come. So her name wasn't on it, which meant her

Page 5
family couldn't come to the hospital with her. So she called another friend who was on call also, and the guy said, "Well, I'm going to be here. I can pull your shift." You know, so—and we split. But we've spent a couple of other hurricanes when we were at the hospital, so that's the—.
JOSHUA GUILD:
Where did you evacuate to?
KALAMU YA SALAAM:
Went to Houston. My wife's brother lives in Houston, and we stayed there for about six—five, six, seven days, something like that. Then went on to Nashville, stayed in Nashville. Kept a room there in Nashville, and by that time, I was on the road. I mean, I might have been in Tennessee three, four days out of the month. I'd get down to New Orleans as often as I could. Our house was on the west—. We live on the west bank in Algiers, so we didn't have water damage. We had wind damage, two trees blown on top of the house, some damage to the roof, but relatively speaking, it was very minor compared to what most other people went through. By the end of October—yeah, the end of October—we had the roof fixed, had the leak fixed. There was no structural damage to the house, so you know, we were able to work that out. My wife had less than a year to go to get her retirement, but she had to be working at a veterans' hospital. So she got a gig in Nashville, and that's where she stayed. The veterans' hospital here is closed. And I would come back into the city as often as I could while I was on the road. As I said, three or four days out of the month, I'd be in Tennessee.
JOSHUA GUILD:
What were your thoughts in those first few days in Houston and sort of turning on the TV and seeing New Orleans [unclear] ?
KALAMU YA SALAAM:
Well, on Tuesday after the hurricane, they showed a picture—flashed a picture of the Circle Food Store with water up to the top of the doors. At that point, I said it's over. I mean, that has never happened. I'm fifty-nine years old, and never has that area flooded like that. I knew it was over at that point, and on Wednesday, while watching CNN, I said we've got

Page 6
to do something. And one of the things, you know, I'm trained at and have developed is this whole concept called [unclear] . I'm trained as a journalist. [unclear] trained me, and I didn't go to school for it. I mean, but I know journalism front and back, and we developed this concept [unclear] , [unclear] being a West African storyteller/musician historian. From that tradition, we take two things. One, writing about the history of the culture, and the history and the culture of the communities we identify with. And two, social commentary. So that was the [unclear] portion of it, and neo was digital technology. I'm very heavy into using digital technology, and we combined those two together and that's what we call ourselves, [unclear] .
We are not just writers. We say we write with texts, sound, and light, and for us text is not just paper and pen or the computer, but also using the internet. Sound is making CDs and radio broadcasting. I've done a lot of radio work. In fact, I was doing five hours of live radio a week, all the way up until Katrina. And light is video. We make movies. So that's what I've been trained to do. So the Wednesday after the storm, watching CNN, I said we've got to do something, and the thing we're going to do is we're going to document people's vision—what they saw, what they think, what they believe, just however they [unclear] . And so I came up with the concept of listen to the people, and said I was going to make it happen. So that was it.
JOSHUA GUILD:
You started right away, driving back from that [unclear] ?
KALAMU YA SALAAM:
Started conceptualizing it first, talking with—I had a writing workshop I was running—talking with people in the workshop, talking with some of the other folk I worked with with students at the center. And we put a team together; it was three of us. I do a list serv. I have about—what? I guess about sixteen hundred fifty, seventeen hundred direct subscribers, and every day we send about ten messages a day. It's organized around interests of black writers. Excuse me. What's up? [Someone replies, "What's up?"] Trying to get our school, our

Page 7
base school, which was Frederick Douglas High School down in the Ninth Ward—. We're trying to get that open as soon as possible. It's still not open. In January, we started working here at [unclear] in uptown New Orleans, and I didn't start working on a daily basis until March, because I was still traveling a lot on the road. So when I wasn't on the road, I'd be here teaching. But I wasn't here on a day-to-day basis until March, till the middle of March, because I had lined up all these gigs on the road that I was doing.
JOSHUA GUILD:
So who was operating these kind of exile sites?
KALAMU YA SALAAM:
It's not—. We don't do sites as much as we do activities, and we go in, set it up, and bring some students together. We have writing circles, story circles, telling stories or what have you. For the most part, we've been able to continue in Baton Rouge, working with some of our students who are up in Baton Rouge. But we did things in Houston, and we had an office at Clemson University in South Carolina. That's where we had our first gathering, and in fact that gathering was documented. We did a little video about that. And it's just work. I mean, you know. The city itself—. I don't know how to describe our feeling, except to say you're starting over. You've got to start over. We literally have to start over, so our program is—. Most of the students we're meeting for the first time. Like the two students that just passed, we virtually just met them and recruiting them into the program. Most of the students whom we have been working with for a long time, they were scattered all over the place.
JOSHUA GUILD:
What did the storm tell you about the city, about your hometown?
KALAMU YA SALAAM:
What do you mean what did the storm tell me about—?
JOSHUA GUILD:
Not the storm, but sort of this event. Does it illuminate something for you that you already knew? Did it teach you new lessons? Did it kind of—?
KALAMU YA SALAAM:
It didn't tell me nothing too much that I didn't already know about New Orleans, but

Page 8
it did reinforce that we have a dysfunctional social system in this country, and that this country is not prepared to deal with some of what I think is inevitable. For instance, what's going to happen with the petroleum situation, mass transportation, the environment? I say that Katrina raised two issues. One was the issue of the environment. That's number one. What [unclear] singer would call social living. That's what it—specific reference to the earth, how we relate to the earth. And the second is the nature of governance. What kind of governance will we have? Those are the two things that I emphasize that I think Katrina—are lessons Katrina brought home that are applicable all across the country. Like whenever I go somewhere to speak, I say, you know, I ask y'all to think about what would happen if somebody told you y'all had twenty-four hours to get out of town. Could all y'all get of town? I said that in Chicago, and they laughed. They were saying it was no way. Well, that's what happened in New Orleans.
JOSHUA GUILD:
The audience who you're talking to, are they hearing that message? Are they taking that to heart?
KALAMU YA SALAAM:
Yeah, I think they're beginning to. Yeah. They're beginning to. This was a massive situation. It's not just New Orleans. This is really the Gulf Coast. [unclear]
JOSHUA GUILD:
What do you think about the pace of rebuilding?
KALAMU YA SALAAM:
Rebuilding, there's no rebuilding going on. I challenge anybody to point to rebuilding that is going on, on a large scale. What you see is repair mostly in the areas that either did not receive flood water or were minimally affected. In areas such as where this school is located, it seems as though life is going on—almost looks normal. You go to areas that were really flooded out, and it's a ghost town. So there's no major rebuilding going on right now. That's part of the problem.
JOSHUA GUILD:
Who do you hold responsible for that lack of progress?

Page 9
KALAMU YA SALAAM:
Ultimately, it's government. Local, state, and federal government. That's in fact what government is supposed to do—govern. And anybody can run the ship when everything is fine. The whole question—. That's the reason you have certain people elected as leaders. That's the reason you put social or government structures in place, to take care of the population. You know, people don't need help when everything is running cool.
JOSHUA GUILD:
What do you think about the election, the mayoral election?
KALAMU YA SALAAM:
I'm glad Mitch [unclear] lost. If Mitch [unclear] had won, I would be glad that Ray Nagin had lost. I didn't want neither one of them to win. I wish there was a way both of them could have lost. I don't think—. I grew up as a high school student working in the Civil Rights Movement, fighting for the right to vote. I don't take my vote lightly, and I don't appreciate people telling me to vote for things I know are not going to help. That's a waste of my vote to do that, so I couldn't vote for either one of them.
JOSHUA GUILD:
What kind of city would you like New Orleans to be?
KALAMU YA SALAAM:
I don't have those kind of—. New Orleans is going to be what it's going to be. I mean, I don't—.
JOSHUA GUILD:
You said that you're working towards a certain—you're working towards something.
KALAMU YA SALAAM:
Well, we're working towards the—creating students who view themselves as agents of change and whatever it is that they want. That's what's going to be critical. I mean, as I said, I'm fifty-nine. My future is now. It's the present; that's it. I mean, I don't have like—I don't have no twenty-year plan. [Laughter] You know what I mean? That's not for me, so what I'm doing is I'm working with young people, hopefully helping them to develop so that whatever plans they come up with can come to fruition.

Page 10
JOSHUA GUILD:
Are there like specific ways that you would want to change—would want to see the educational system in the city change?
KALAMU YA SALAAM:
Well, we'd have to overturn the whole thing. I mean, this is—. To give you an example of the nature of public education in New Orleans, everybody has heard that New Orleans has very bad public education. You know, it's one of the worst in the nation, it's corrupt, it's this, it's that and the other. Little known fact: if you break down students who are in the public school system, if you break them down by race, white students in New Orleans are receiving the best education in the state. And one of their schools is one of the top-ranked high schools in the country. Black students in New Orleans are receiving the worst education in the state. They're doing worse than any other group of students, including black students in other parts of the state. Same school system. How could that be?
And that's what you have to understand. We're dealing with a school system—a very, very, very, very sophisticated form of advanced capitalism. And capitalism doesn't particularly what color the poor is or what color the rich are. It cares that there is a wide gap between the rich and the poor, and that's what's happening right now in this society as a whole. The gap between the rich and the poor has widened, and of course racism—. The historic racism emphasizes a kind of a—well, emphasizes white supremacy so that people who are called white are on top. But that's not the main thing. So the school system represents—. You get to see it. If you study it really closely, you'll see the American model of socialization played out. I believe that what they're doing now with the public school system represents the future of public education in America, and they're trying to privatize it. This is really one of the most—. In one sense, it's one of the most advanced examples of social engineering in the public education sector that you can find in the United States today. Nobody has—no city, no colony or state

Page 11
jurisdiction has tried the type of radical transformation of the public school that is going on here in New Orleans, and it is being closely watched by a lot of people.
JOSHUA GUILD:
Is there a countervailing force? Is there like people who are organizing a different vision?
KALAMU YA SALAAM:
As somebody says, it's going to take grass roots, organizing, and mass activity to change it, but you can't have grass roots organizing when you ain't got no grass. Not enough people are here to form a basis. No, there's no—. It basically—. This is the powers-that-be dictating how this experiment is going to play out. They will dictate the structure of it. How people, students, and some of us who work within the schools, how we respond to what they put in place is another question, but the structure of what's going to happen is being dictated by the powers-that-be.
JOSHUA GUILD:
Are you hopeful that people can come home to New Orleans [unclear] ? Do you think that's a possibility?
KALAMU YA SALAAM:
Anything is possible. That's part of the problem. I know New Orleans. When I drive the city, I don't see that it's possible for the new New Orleans to be like the old New Orleans. It's just not possible. People don't realize we had the entire black society—. Social structure of the black community in New Orleans was wiped out. Unlike in the white community, where many of your most wealthy people, their homes were not flooded. In New Orleans, from the poorest to the richest were wiped out, and part of the perception of what happened in New Orleans is skewed by what folks saw on television, which would give you the impression that it was mainly the poor black people who were affected by Hurricane Katrina. Fact of the matter is that yes, poor black people were adversely affected very, very strongly, but the fact is that the majority of the black professionals were wiped out in New Orleans. Most of

Page 12
the black wealthy were wiped out in New Orleans, and you didn't see them on television because as individuals, they were not here. They evacuated, but if you go driving through mile after mile after mile through New Orleans east, you'll see their big homes lying empty. This is ten months later.
JOSHUA GUILD:
You don't expect them to come back?
KALAMU YA SALAAM:
They can't come back. It's not a matter of expectation. My brother's a cardiologist. He had a health clinic. His health clinic was wiped out. Had over a million dollars worth of equipment, had seven thousand patients. His whole patient base was dispersed, all the records were destroyed, all his equipment was knocked out. His house was flooded out. He now lives in Atlanta, teaching at Morehouse. Individually, he is all right. Professionally, he can't come back to the city. There are only two hospitals open in the city. The emergency unit for the city is now in the next parish. There are no jobs for the large number of black professionals. City services—they've been cutting city jobs. Veterans Hospital is closed. Charity Hospitals is closed. So many people who were doctors, nurses, and so forth—. As I said, my wife is an x-ray technician. There are no jobs here for professional class. Lawyers, gone. Accountants, gone.
JOSHUA GUILD:
What would it take to reconstitute that, to bring those jobs back? What would it take to do that?
KALAMU YA SALAAM:
A Marshall Plan, which they're not about to do. They put that money into Germany, they put that money into Japan, they put that money into some of the former eastern blocs of the Soviet Union, right? All of the reconstruction they did in Bosnia and so forth. That's what a lot of that stuff—. You know, the Bosnian war and they were trying to figure out how to deal with that. The former Yugoslav Republic, you know. That's what it would take. It would take the

Page 13
kind of commitment they put into Iraq, just pouring money down the drain. It would take that same commitment to redevelop New Orleans, and not just New Orleans, but the entire Gulf Coast, because it wasn't just New Orleans that was affected. You know, you asked me what it would take for New Orleans. What it would take, I don't think they're prepared to do.
So you know, you had a large base of black doctors here. You had a large base of pharmacists. All that's gone, and as I said, it's in no danger of coming back any time soon. I don't know if you're driven out to New Orleans east, where over forty percent of the population lived. That was the home, the residential area, for most of the black professionals in the city. It's gone. It's wiped out. Many of those people—. Let me put it to you another way. You got a three hundred thousand dollar house with a mortgage, two, three cars, couple of kids in school, and you've got a job paying seventy-five thousand. Your wife's working. She's got a job paying forty-five, fifty thousand dollars. You evacuate what you think will be three or four days, and then suddenly you find out not only you can't come back to the city immediately, but your house was flooded out, you didn't take any of your papers or anything, so you don't know what's left, your job is gone, you still got your mortgage note, and you're in shock in September, but you've got to do something.
So you're a professional, so you start to try to look for work and this, that, and the other. Once you get established, what happens? Are you going to try and maintain two houses? What you going to do? You try and wait to see what the government is going to do with the so-called buyouts or the grants or what have you. It's nine months, ten months later, and the government hasn't done anything yet. What are you going to do? And once you get set up, are you coming back if you set yourself up someplace else as a professional? The main reason to live here was because of the culture here. It wasn't because of job opportunities or anything else like—. It

Page 14
wasn't because of the educational opportunities. It wasn't even necessarily because the weather was so great. You could find better weather other—. But it was the culture, and the culture was based on the people who were here doing it. The people are no longer here. The culture's no longer here. So why you coming back again?
JOSHUA GUILD:
Why are you here then?
KALAMU YA SALAAM:
I don't know nothing else. [Laughter] No, I—. Well, it's in fact the exact opposite. I know a lot of other things. I've traveled all over the country. I've traveled a lot of places in the world, a lot of travel. There's no place else in the United States I want to live. I could do what I do from any place, but there's no place else I want to. As I say, I'm fifty-nine. I'm closer to checking out than, you know, looking forward to any glorious future. I'm not trying to start a career or anything else like that. I'm not trying to rear a family. My youngest child is—what? Twenty-eight, twenty-nine? Come on, you know. I'm not—. So what else is in it for me to do but—.
JOSHUA GUILD:
But you could live easier somewhere else. I mean, this is hard living in New Orleans right now. Wouldn't you say?
KALAMU YA SALAAM:
Oh yes, definitely hard. I could. But like many people, I'd have to start over, and I'm just stubborn. You know, I know this, and as long as some of our people here, I'm going to be here. It's like that old mythology the captain goes down with the ship. Yeah, I know the ship is sinking, but as long as there's some people on boats or we don't have enough life boats to get everybody out—. You know. There's young people, you know. I mean—
JOSHUA GUILD:
Well, what would it mean to you if there was another major storm this summer?
KALAMU YA SALAAM:
I don't know. That was a big question whether I was going to come back to live here after Katrina. Now I'm not talking about immediately after Katrina. I'm talking about like

Page 15
from December through March. I'd been back in the city. I'd seen, you know—and I knew it was rough. I mean, right now it's relatively—. Compared to back in December, it's easy. It's still very, very hard, but compared to December, it's easy. I mean, I can remember, man, shit, you'd turn a corner. Say like at night, be on a major street, turn a corner, and all of a sudden there's nothing. There's no lights; there's nothing, absolute—. It's just like you fall off the edge of the earth. I can understand how people used to think the earth was flat. Nothing. You know, I mean, I don't know if people understand that if you grew up in an urban environment, you could always see a light somewhere. But there were times back in December, once you turned a corner, there was nothing. As far as you could see, there was nothing. You didn't see no lights, no nothing. You didn't hear nothing, wasn't nobody outside. This is New Orleans, and people always outside. There wasn't no cars, just nothing. Man, that was shit was—that was rough. It was December. I mean, even now there are certain parts of the city you can't really deal with them at night. Streets signs are gone, street lights are not working, stop lights are not working. For the most part, nobody's living there.
I mean, New Year's Eve I went down in the lower nine and we were having a program at one of our members whose house was in the lower Ninth Ward. They were gutting the house and trying to get it back up, and it was kind of foggy. I crossed the bridge, man, in the fog, and I had my high beams on. You could barely see, you know, like twenty feet. Once I got off the bridge and turned to go to her house—. She lived close to the river. I lived close to the swamps. She lives like in the seven or eight hundred block, and I was in the twenty-five hundred block. On the side of Saint Claude that she lives on, I didn't go over there that much. So although I knew the streets in general, I didn't know them like I knew the other side. So I turned, and without lights and no street signs and all this other kind of stuff, you get lost. And that darkness

Page 16
was not—. You couldn't see. You could feel it. It just wrapped itself around you. I've been in all kinds of situations. I've been in war situations. I've been, you know—. I don't have much fear, either in terms of apprehension about my personal self or afraid that somebody is going to hurt me. But I was making some turns with the car, trying to get to her place, and realized I'd turned the wrong street. I must have missed a street or something because I just couldn't see it, and had to back up and I'm saying, "Damn, if I'm having this much trouble, I know people who never dealt with this before, I know they can't make it." You know. I know they can't make it. It was rough.
So no, I don't know that—. That's a long answer to your question about if another one hits. If another one hits, I don't know that there will be much left. You know, the ecosystem and the social and physical infrastructure of New Orleans is fragile right now. Another hurricane hits, I think a lot of stuff is going to get completely wiped out. Nobody's even going to think about trying to resuscitate it, as it was. We have a lot of people who are putting up a good struggle and who really believe that they can bring the city back, but I don't think so. Not like it was. It's not coming back, not the way it was.
JOSHUA GUILD:
Can it come back better?
KALAMU YA SALAAM:
No. Come back as something else. It can't come back better in the sense of being better. You cannot make this a better city for all the people who were here before. So if all the people who were here before could come back and it would be a better city, that's what I would consider the better city. Just to make it a better city for a smaller and more select population is not making it a better city. It's making it a different city. It's another kind of city. It'll have its own, you know, set of circumstances, problems, and opportunities, so that's the way I look at that.

Page 17
JOSHUA GUILD:
How do the young people that you're working with, how do they talk about New Orleans and sort of—? Do you overhear? What do they tell you?
KALAMU YA SALAAM:
It's difficult. Most of the young people have no way of processing this. The adults around them have no way of processing. So they talk about it in different ways. You have to listen closely to what—some of the things that they're saying. But for most of them, they just want to get away. I mean, you're young. You've got dreams, and it's hard to dream when you're surrounded by nothing but destruction. You know, they're still finding bodies here.
JOSHUA GUILD:
So what do you tell a student who says to you, "I just want to go to Houston. I just want to go any—. Just get me out of New Orleans." What would you say to that student?
KALAMU YA SALAAM:
Here's my phone number. [Laughter]
JOSHUA GUILD:
[unclear]
KALAMU YA SALAAM:
I mean, what am I tell them, don't go? At the same time, there are some students who are coming back, and we're working with them. I guess, you know, like I said, the ship is sinking, but we, you know—. As long as y'all here, you know, we'll try and do something.
JOSHUA GUILD:
I want to hear about your work for the jazz foundation.
KALAMU YA SALAAM:
Well, I was the executive director from eighty-three through eighty-seven. I mean, what does one say?
JOSHUA GUILD:
Well, what did that work entail? I mean, directly working with musicians, putting on concerts, doing a festival?
KALAMU YA SALAAM:
A little bit of all of that. Mainly I was an administrator, a long-term planner for the foundation. When I became executive director, I think they had about two hundred fifty thousand dollars in cash reserves. When I left, they had about a million something. I had a major piece of property donated to the festival, and I was, along with Ken [unclear] , who was the

Page 18
station manager at the time for WWOZ—. He and I were responsible for the transfer of the title to WWOZ from the [unclear] Foundation, which was an independent group, to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation. So the Foundation had a radio station, a building, and over a million dollars when I left. So I mean, that's—.
JOSHUA GUILD:
I guess part of what I'm interested in is sort of how—. New Orleans has kind of a street culture, a musical culture, and those institutions, and sort of how do the two come together. How do the institutions [unclear] —?
KALAMU YA SALAAM:
Not much. Not really. Not really much, because the street culture is one that's self-determined. Mardi Gras Indians [unclear] Pleasure Club. Eventually the Jazz and Heritage Foundation was helping to support some of the [unclear] and pleasure clubs in terms of the fees for the annual parades and what have you, but it's no—. That foundation was its own entity, and the main activity was the annual jazz festival. But there were other activities going on also.
JOSHUA GUILD:
What do you think about this idea of creating this jazz history center over there with—? Did you hear about that big plan to create this big jazz heritage cultural center?
KALAMU YA SALAAM:
I can't resist being totally cynical and saying the white man has a God complex. How is it that none of the people that created the music are going to write the history of the music? Give me a break. I don't –. [Laughter]
JOSHUA GUILD:
So jazz can't really have a future in this city till those people—.
KALAMU YA SALAAM:
That's right. That's right. The people who are talking about doing the jazz complex, they're not even consumers. They are actually wannabe owners. They want to really own it and control it. And they would deny that that's what's happening, but if that wasn't what's happening, why don't they just give the money to the musicians and let them do whatever they want with it? No, we want to have a complex. We want to have—. Yeah, right.

Page 19
JOSHUA GUILD:
Is there a way that New Orleans could reconstitute it without a different kind of entertainment/service economy?
KALAMU YA SALAAM:
Short of revolution, no. Nope. I mean, people have to look at the reality of economic life in the world today. In America, there are not many—. The manufacturing industry is shrinking fast. Throughout the Midwest, you got nothing but ghost towns now, because companies have pulled up stakes. Companies have gone out of business. Companies have downsized. Companies are laying their people off. That's the manufacturing sector. Until people make an analysis of that, anybody coming along with a pipe dream talking about creating some other kind of economy here in New Orleans—. What you mean, you going to go against the dominant trend in the American economics? You know, the dominant trend of American economics and create something that doesn't exist and can't exist any place else? Based on what? You know, I mean, people don't want to make an analysis. People don't want to look at what's the reality, you know.
JOSHUA GUILD:
So tightly tied to the educational system, too.
KALAMU YA SALAAM:
Right, I'm saying all of that is tied into larger issues. You can't solve them. There's no exception for New Orleans, so you can just create this little isolated utopia or something like that. Nah, I don't see it. I don't see that that's a possibility, you know. The whole question of—. I'll give you an example. People talk about rebuilding. Who's doing most of the construction work in New Orleans?
JOSHUA GUILD:
You tell me.
KALAMU YA SALAAM:
Two entities. Major corporations and immigrant labor. Look at it. I mean, if you'll look at it, you'll see it. I mean, this is the social reality over and over and over again. So the major corporations get the major contracts, and then they hire the cheapest labor they can get.

Page 20
JOSHUA GUILD:
So what do you do?
KALAMU YA SALAAM:
What you do is you teach young people to make an analysis and for them to decide what kind of world they want to live in and to understand that whatever it is they decide they want, they're going to have to create themselves. And you try and model that kind of behavior.
JOSHUA GUILD:
That's pretty good.
KALAMU YA SALAAM:
[Laughter] That's what you do. There's no pipe dream; there's no magic formula. There's no, you know—.
JOSHUA GUILD:
Get in and do the work.
KALAMU YA SALAAM:
Get in and do it, you know. Somebody's got to—. I mean, short of that, I don't see any, you know—. As it is, this country is in for a major breakdown shortly. From the ecological standpoint, you have towns in Louisiana that are no longer there. It's not that they were simply flooded out or wiped out. They are no longer there. The earth is no longer—. You've got water there now. The gulf is there now, and this is a direct result of the destruction of the marshlands. These issues are not new issues. They have been raised before, but it's only now—. They kind of work exponentially, and that is, at first it doesn't seem to be a major issue. And then as it goes along, instead of gradually getting to be, you know, deeper and deeper, it's not a little decline; it's an exponential slope. So what happens is that at first, it's minor. Then it becomes major. Then it becomes catastrophic, and it seems to just happen overnight. But it didn't happen overnight, you know, and it's not easily reversible. So now our children will have to deal with these environmental questions that we, as their parents and grandparents, refused to deal with, refused to even acknowledge were problems.
JOSHUA GUILD:
It can't turn around in just a generation.
KALAMU YA SALAAM:
No, it can't.

Page 21
JOSHUA GUILD:
[unclear] children and the children's children.
KALAMU YA SALAAM:
Right, right. So that's what I'm saying. That's what's happening with New Orleans, and that's what's happening with the gulf south, and that's what's going to happen to the country as a whole. And I don't think—. You're going to need some people who are willing to think about these things at a level they haven't been before, and that's what we're trying to do. You know, I mean, we may only produce two or three students who actually deal with that, but that's four more than we've been producing already. [Laughter] You understand what I'm saying? And you know, [unclear] program students at the center. I know our program is working. How do I know our program is working? Because students whom I taught as high schoolers have graduated from college and have come back to work with our program. So that's an example to me when you start talking about future and so forth and so on. That's—.
JOSHUA GUILD:
That's building a foundation.
KALAMU YA SALAAM:
Yeah.
END OF INTERVIEW