Interview with Kalamu ya Salaam

Kalamu ya Salaam is a writer and educator from New Orleans. An extensive collection of his writings, plus a feature-length interview are available online at Chicken Bones. You can read his poem You can’t survive on salt water in FPIF’s Fiesta. He talks here with poet E. Ethelbert Miller.

E. Ethelbert Miller: How do you feel about the United States not accepting assistance from Cuba after Hurricane Katrina?

Kalamu ya Salaam: The United States did not accept assistance from a number of countries including one country that offered to fly in a water purification system. The issue is the non-responsiveness of the federal government and the incompetent response on the part of state and city governments. To only look at the refusal of physicians and medical aid from Cuba is to get caught up in a kind of cold war/ideological issue that muddies the water of perceiving the depth and breadth of government failures. I don’t believe the federal government was merely incompetent. I believe there was a larger plan at work, especially when you consider that the New Orleans voting bloc was directly responsible for the Democrats winning both the governorship and a senate seat. Without the 85%+ voting margin from New Orleans, both the governor and the junior senator from Louisiana would have been Republicans. I know that Karl Rove can count votes. I believe this was an opportunity to disperse that concentrated Democratic voting base. Was this dispersal planned beforehand? I don’t think so. Was this dispersal part of the rationale for the way in which the federal government responded? I definitely believe so. Cuba and communism is not the question. That said, an interesting footnote to add is a deep look at the influx of Latino/a workers (many of them immigrants) into New Orleans to do construction and service work, an influx that was both encouraged and facilitated by federal policies and programs.

E. Ethelbert Miller: How has the tragedy of New Orleans influenced your work?

Kalamu ya Salaam: I am involved in a number of media projects that specifically reference Katrina. One: our Listen To The People oral history project that will hopefully be online by August 29, 2007. We have over 70 hours of video interviews with approximately 30 people who range from a lady who spent five days atop an expressway and two firemen who did rescue work and were in the city throughout the hurricane and its immediate aftermath, to the president of the New Orleans city council and the president of Liberty Bank, the largest black financial institution in the region.

Two: we are producing a number of videos that range from straight documentaries to fictional movies that focus on post-Katrina life in New Orleans.

Three: I continue to write prose and some poetry about New Orleans.

E. Ethelbert Miller: Did you experience any personal loss to your literary estate?

Kalamu ya Salaam: Yes but I was fortunate. New Orleans is divided by the Mississippi River. I live on the west bank, which did not flood. I had books, equipment, etc. in two storage facilities. One of the facilities completely flooded. I have not yet done an inventory so I don’t know exactly what was loss. I am not inclined to inventory any time soon. One of the coping mechanisms many of us have adopted is erasing our internal hard drives. There are people, places, things, possessions, etc. we don’t even try to remember. They are gone. Forget about it, at least for right now. There is too much work to do for us to sit around thinking about our losses.

E. Ethelbert Miller: Will it be difficult to rebuild New Orleans while the United States is at war in the Middle East?

Kalamu ya Salaam: New Orleans is moribund. I seriously doubt that our city can be revived under the current federal administration and if certain issues are not addressed within the next four or five years, then it will definitely be too late.

The major issue is the depletion of the marshes and wetlands and the erosion of the costal areas. Local scientists from LSU, the major state university, and other individuals and agencies have written detailed reports citing the catastrophic problem of soil erosion that literally threatens to swamp New Orleans. The best estimate is that there is a five-year window to take definitive action to stop and turnaround the environmental problems. Dealing with this environmental problem will require federal intervention, a huge commitment of financial, material and human resources, and most of all vision on the part of our elected and appointed leaders. To date none of our leaders has publicly evidenced any of the vision necessary to save New Orleans.

Beyond the long-term environmental problem, New Orleans is facing major urban infrastructure issues. It will take billions of dollars to fix the broken water and sewage systems. One estimate is that over $200,000 a day is lost in terms of potable water leaking into the ground. But that is only an economic loss. More serious is the sewage system with an unmeasured but significant amount of raw sewage leaking into the ground daily. We have had 18 months of sewage leaking into the ground. As more people return the problem grows exponentially.

The water and sewage issues are far beyond the means of the city administration to solve the problem. Once again, however, regardless of available resources, none of the city officials has stepped up and offered an analysis of the problem or a vision of how to deal with the problem.

Eighteen months after the hurricane and the city still does not have an official, agreed upon program for the reconstruction of New Orleans. Frankly, we are in very bad shape, going down slow.

E. Ethelbert Miller: Migration is an important theme in African American literature. Do you see Katrina being written about many years from now?

Kalamu ya Salaam: Hopefully, Katrina will be understood as part of a larger issue of urban development in the 21st century. I’m not sure that Katrina will be a major issue because I foresee momentous changes in front of us in the aftermath of the Iraq debacle, larger environmental issues, and the shifting geo-political system that sees the rise to singular dominance of China. Also we need to consider the political independence of South and Central America based on a major shift in global economics. Ten years from now, Katrina and the loss of New Orleans may be a minor concern compared to the other issues facing us.

E. Ethelbert Miller: I know you have a love for black music, are there any songs that you feel have a special meaning since Katrina?

Kalamu ya Salaam: Oh, that is too complex to answer quickly. I am very, very impressed with my friends in the Dirty Dozen Brass Band who released a remake of all the songs on Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On using Katrina rather than the Vietnam War as the social-political context. A song I reference a lot in recent poetry readings is “Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans?”

New Orleans writer and educator Kalamu ya Salaam is co-director of Students at the Center, a public high school writing program; co-founder of Runagate Multimedia, a publishing company; leader of the WordBand, a poetry performance ensemble; moderator of e-Drum, a listserv for Black writers; and co-moderator with his son, Mtume, of The Breath of Life – A Conversation About Black Music. He can be reached at kalamu@aol.comE. Ethelbert Miller is an award-winning poet, the director of the African American Resource Center at Howard University, and the board chairperson of the Institute for Policy Studies. His interviews are a regular feature of Fiesta.