Kalamu Ya Salaam’s Be About Beauty:by
Is it still Lion in Winter if there are no signs of frost?
Kalamu Ya Salaam’s Be About Beauty arrived in our inboxes as we sent New Orleans Griot: The Tom Dent Reader to the printer. New Orleans Griot was Kalamu’s tribute to his mentor, showing Dent in many of his roles in the literary world, and introducing Dent to a generation too young to have known him when he was alive.
In Be About Beauty, however, Kalamu resumed the active work that he and Dent had engaged in together: how to be a writer and an activist—not in some academic way, but in ways that moved the needle on life as it is being lived. “My world is a world of words,” he writes in the book’s introduction, “a testimony concerning diverse critical connections and a few decisive disruptions.”
As editors, we were tasked with the impossible: how to choose from the many jewels of Ya Salaam’s body of work the ones that would speak to the collection’s many imagined audiences. We did our best, choosing fifteen essays, moving the poetry into a book of its own, coming in 2019.
Kalamu’s voice in Be About Beauty has exceptional range, varying from socratically intellectual to humbly introspective to outright musical, as in the sublime “Jazz 101,” with all variations geared toward chronicling Kalamu’s diverse life’s work. Incisive analyses of New Orleanian culture and public policy coincide with cogitations on the vital project of encouraging students—particularly Black students, including those attending under-resourced schools—“to take their lives and their futures seriously.” Meanwhile, Kalamu’s accounts of his boots-to-pavement political activism during the 1960s complement tender recollections of friends and teachers passed.
Notable, too, is the field of time through which neogriot Ya Salaam fluidly traverses. We see him as a young man in 1969 leading student activists into the occupation of Southern University, and as an aging man figuring out how best care for his ailing spouse. A comprehensive review of Ava DuVernay’s 2014 film Selma is bolstered by Kalamu’s extensive knowledge of Civil Rights history—knowledge gleaned through both years of study and the author’s own lived experience. He writes:
“When we invest too much in either maintaining the past or in creating the future, we inevitably fail. Nothing will be as it was, nor will the future be like the present is. So then a basic task is to accurately grasp who we were, who we are, and who we want to become.”
With Kalamu’s guidance, the reader is liable to feel similarly at home across time.
Any possibility of either unfelt didacticism or untoward self-lionization is derailed by Kalamu’s commitment to critiquing his own actions, motivations, and perspectives at various points in his personal life and career. “[T]he worst part of growing up,” he opines, “is the realization that sometimes it really wasn’t them, or her, or him, or it; sometimes, it was actually you.” Not despite but in acknowledgment of this inexorable fact, the collection’s “beauty” refers not only to material aesthetics, but to the quality of attunement we can each seek to cultivate through our relationships, work, play, and social consciousness.
The work, personal and political, remains interwoven, all of it up for consideration and interrogation. These fifteen essays present a walkthrough—not exhaustive, but still, a deep dive into the literary world called into being by Ya Salaam in his 50 plus years of writing. And each selection is an answer to Be About Beauty’s titular challenge and vow, elaborated by Kalamu’s poem that graces the book’s cover:
“be about beauty
as strong as a flower is
yet as soft too
as an open petal
receiving the mist
of a midnight raindrop,
be about beauty
no matter life’s dirt
be about beauty”