Kalamu ya Salaam, editor: I Am New Orleans: 36 poets revisit Marcus Christian's definitive poem (Runagate/University of New Orleans Press, 2020)

Home is not where you are born;/ home is where all your attempts/ to escape cease” – Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006), Egyptian winner of the 1988 Nobel Prize in Literature, quoted by Mwende “Free Quency” Katwiwa as an epigraph to her poem Ode to New Orleans Home.

With the anthology I Am New Orleans: 36 poets revisit Marcus Christian’s definitive poem editor Kalamu ya Salaam, New Orleans poet and himself a contributor to the anthology, with the assistance of more than thirty* other poets, aims to place Marcus Christian’s major poem I Am New Orleans definitively in the canon of African American poetry, and to celebrate the ‘crescent city’ and its cross-cultural and multi-lingual heritage.

Marcus Christian’s poem was first published in 1968 in commemoration of the city’s 250th birthday. It is the title poem of I Am New Orleans and Other Poems by Marcus B. Christian (Xavier Review Press, 1999), edited by Amin Sharif and Christian scholar Rudolph Lewis, with seventeen pages of introductions by Lewis to Marcus B. Christian’s scholarship and poetics.

Historian, folklorist, poet. Marcus Bruce Christian (1900-1976) was the supervisor from 1936 to 1943 of a special (segregated) Negro unit of the FWP, the Federal Writers Project in Louisiana, located on the campus of Dillard University (and known as the Dillard Project), researching and documenting African American history, culture, and folklore in Louisiana, resulting in an unfinished and unpublished manuscript of some 1000 pages, The Negro in Louisiana.

With the closing of FWP in 1943, Marcus Christian for a time worked as assistant librarian at Dillard, forced to resign in 1950 because he had no college degree (a colleague had objected).

Jobless, and with his major project unfinished, Christian became something of a recluse. His career was reinvigorated by an unexpected appointment as special lecturer and poet/writer-in-residence at UNO, the University of New Orleans, enthusiastically teaching classes in English (creative writing) and (black) History to a new generation of students from 1970 until his death in 1976.

The University of New Orleans today stores the voluminous papers Christian left behind: hundreds of poems, stories, correspondence, diaries, articles and clippings on Louisiana history, including the still unfinished manuscript of his magnum opus, now retitled History of Blacks in Louisiana.

Poet Tom Dent in his article Marcus B. Christian: A Reminiscence and an Appreciation (Black American Literature Forum, Vol. 18.1, Spring 1984), quoted by Rudolph Lewis, writes: “Christian had a tendency to be a little too tied to nineteenth-century English form, to the detriment of his Afro-American sensibility,” and many of the 50 poems selected by Lewis would seem to confirm Dent’s assessment. But there are poems revealing Christian’s “Afro-American sensibility”:

Cossacks In Blue (on the seemingly ever present subject of police brutality), and the powerful Dark Heritage, planned originally as a book-length poem – to name just two examples. 

I Am New Orleans. Marcus Christian’s “Ur-poem” (critic Jerry W. Ward, Jr.), is a poem “written on an epic scale” (Rudolph Lewis), celebrating the Queen City of the South (“As fabulous … as the cities of the Arabian Nights”) and its history of colonization, Indian wars and massacres, slavery and slave insurrections, its French, Spanish, and American dominations, floods and hurricanes, religions, languages and creolized culture: Mardi Gras, jazz and other New Orleans music, cuisine and folklore (“Mary Mack,/ Dressed in black,/ Twenty-four buttons/ Up and down her back./ …).

In what Kalamu ya Salaam calls “a gathering of the saints,” the poets revisiting Marcus Christian’s poem update and expand on his portrait of the city nestled in the curve of the Mississippi River.

Best known of these poets are perhaps Tom Dent (New Orleans Griot: The Tom Dent Reader (2018, edited by Kalamu ya Salaam), Brenda Marie Osbey (All Souls: Essential Poems, 2015), Arthur Pfister (My Name Is New Orleans: 40 Years of Poetry and Other Jazz, 2009), Kalamu ya Salaam (Cosmic Deputy: Poetry and Context (forthcoming from the University of New Orleans Press), and Mona Lisa Saloy (Second Line Home: New Orleans Poems, 2014).

And there is critic and poet Jerry W. Ward, Jr., once again writing an Afterword for his friend, Kalamu ya Salaam, and author of The Katrina Papers: A Journal of Trauma and Recovery (UNO, 2008), on the 2005 Hurricane Katrina catastrophe around which several of these poems turn.

There are two key elements in the “Post-K” poems: The destructions in the wake of Katrina (see the fine Waterlogged, Nomadic Katrina Song by Quo Vadis Gex-Breaux, and the editor’s own Beneath the Bridge – A 2006 eulogy for North Claiborne Avenue from Canal Street to Elysian Fields), and “gentrification”: “…, the modern day segregation/ Minimum wage and poverty, the modern day slavery/ …” (Christine “Cfreedom” Brown), outside money coming in to rebuilt parts of the city where the original citizens can no longer afford to live (“rent rose higher/ than the waterlines/ …”, see Kelly Harris-DeBerry’s Post-Katrina Blues), and changing the culture.  

Mawiyah Kai EL-Jamah Bomani’s powerful poem Color takes on the problem of intra-racial prejudice, and Carol Bebelle calls our attention to a criminal system that incarcerates young people, especially those of color, “depriving them of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

I Am So New Orleans …(written/performed 2014) by Arthur Pfister, alias Professor Arthuro, is the poem most closely patterned on Marcus Christian’s (l3 pages to Christian’s 12): “I’m so New Orleans when I hear the name “Professor” I know they ain’t talkin’ about college …”. Pfister is permanently exiled from his beloved city, but: “I’m so New Orleans I live in Connecticut and have gumbo on/ Sunday, red beans on Monday, seafood on Friday, and butter/ beans on Saturday …”.

Arthur Pfister’s poem reminds us that many poems, and the anthology as such, is also a praisesong for the still rich and vibrant multi-ethnic culture of New Orleans, unique among American cities.

UFI// 13 October 2020    

*Of the 36 poets listed on the front page (Marcus Christian among them) two, Asali Eclesiastes and Valentine Pierce, are nowhere to be found in my copy of the anthology, apparently a ‘proof copy’.


Abram Himelstein, Editor in Chief, UNO Press, writes 13 November 2020:

Hello from New Orleans! We were delighted with the recent review of I Am New Orleans. It was exciting to see this work put into the context in which it lives.

I am sorry that your edition is a Review/ARC copy, and missing the great poems by Asali Eclesiastes and Valentine Pierce. I am taking the liberty of attaching the PDF here that includes them, and one other author, Skye Jackson.

I will see to it that you get a physical copy of the book as well.

Best, Abram

My review/ARC, Advance Reader Copy of I Am New Orleans did not come directly from UNO Press, but was ordered and shipped from a European distributor.

With the Eclesiastes and Pierce poems restored, and Skye Jackson added, there are indeed 36 poets revisiting Marcus Christian’s definitive poem! – UFI