Review by Nisha Ramayya
Kayombo Chingonyi’s pamphlet The Color of James Brown’s Scream is one of eight pamphlets selected and edited by Kwame Dawes and Chris Abani for their New-Generation African Poets: A Chapbook Box Set (Tatu). As Dawes explains, ‘All of these poets share one thing in common: they consider themselves Africans and do so not as individuals of the historical diaspora […] but as individuals who have an immediate and very recent connection to Africa, either as residents or as what we like to call immigrants’. Chingonyi was born in Zambia and moved to the UK in 1993. As the title evokes, The Color of James Brown’s Scream contains expressions and explorations of race, culture, and the disorientations that may attend difference.
The title poem exemplifies the range of Chingonyi’s references and concerns. In the first lines,
I have known you by many names
but today you are Larry Levan (21)
the speaker introduces a familiar yet indeterminable ‘you’. This figure, whose features are obscured by smoke, whose sweat is ‘the color of James Brown’s scream’, effects rhythm, dance, connection, and feeling. Occasionally, features come into focus, favourite songs resound. The figure is identified with feeling good: the psychedelic, convulsive, ear-splitting intensity of listening to the right music, in the right moment, with the right person. Of course, the feeling changes, as do the contexts and significations of colour and scream.
As the figure recedes, the speaker implores:
Teach us to shape-shift, Legba,
you must know I’d know your customary
shuffle, that phantom limp, anywhere (21)
This name is conclusive; Legba is the Fon-Yoruba orisha (deity) of the crossroads, the trickster, the shape-shifter, the dancer. As Nathaniel Mackey explains: ‘Legba presides over gateways, intersections, thresholds, wherever different realms or regions come into contact. His limp a play of difference, he’s the master linguist and has much to do with signification, divination, and translation’ (40). Reimagining Legba as suffering ‘not from deformity but multiformity’, Mackey argues: ‘“Lame” or “limping,” that is, like “phantom,” cuts with a relativizing edge to unveil impairment’s power […] Impairment taken to higher ground, remediated, translates damage and disarray into a dance’ (40). Whereas difference may be constructed, enforced, and experienced as disadvantage, possibilities inhere in displacement. Marking racial and cultural difference, Legba’s ‘customary shuffle, that phantom limp’ also signifies the ability to switch, to simulate and dissimulate, to play and self-preserve. Indeed, the linguistic and literary diversity of Chingonyi’s poetry affirms the multiple perspectives and positions afforded by the ‘shuffle’.
The Color of James Brown’s Scream is a site of numerous intersecting spaces: bus stops and bedrooms in Essex; the Paradise Garage nightclub in 1980s New York; a magnifying glass in the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Belgium; schools and bars in Zambia on 25th October 1964 (Zambian independence day); love songs by the side of Loch Long in Argyll. Chingonyi reproduces and represents these spaces with socially and culturally specific registers, forms, and literary effects. For example, ‘Self-Portrait as a Garage Emcee’ animates a black boy growing up in Essex by means of its sounds and silences: local radio stations, characters from EastEnders, ‘Hours lost / to the underwear section of Littlewoods catalog’, and ‘the latch announcing Mum’s / return’ (24). Initially, the boy listens: ‘the neighbours told’, ‘I can still hear the sirens’, ‘I can still hear Peter Biggs saying’, ‘the girls ask’, ‘I hear those click-and-clack hi-hats’ (22-23). Gradually, listening becomes discipline; devoted to Garage music, he learns to recite ‘slick lyrics’, ‘mouthing the words’, ‘brow crimped, concentrated’ (24-25). He imitates emcees, to ‘pass of their bars as mine’, performing ‘there is no similarity / to my originality’ before a new following (26). However, just as the boy finds his own voice, or rather, his own ‘chats’ – just as Chingonyi names himself in the poem: ‘k to the a to the y to the o’ (26) – culture shifts. Hip hop replaces Garage, one white American voice overpowering many black British voices, and the boy is back to learning someone else’s words. Chingonyi arranges linguistic and rhythmic variations within stanzas that visually resemble prose paragraphs, conveying the experiences of being surrounded, being spoken over, and transposing oneself in an attempt to be heard.
The first poem in the pamphlet, ‘In Defense of Darkness’, proposes darkness as a means of connection that contrasts with verbal communication, its inadequacies and fallacies:
Since I’m remembering this, or making it up,
there is only darkness; our bodies speaking (11)
The poem is a defence of different ways of seeing, communicating, and relating to one another, and it is significant that Chingonyi conflates these alternatives with darkness. Darkness does not signify absence but the possibility of other, undisclosed qualities and states of being. Certain intimacies are enabled by darkness:
We’ve time to touch like we used to –
the harshness of the journey written
into the depth of a clinch. (11)
Correlating the admission of pain with the tension of physical and emotional closeness, Chingonyi conveys the contradictory desires of wanting to be understood and unrecognisable, the anxieties of misrepresenting oneself and being misread.
The excerpt of Chingonyi’s sequence of poems Calling a Spade a Spade makes the racial dimensions of these desires and anxieties explicit (poems include ‘The N Word’, ‘Alterity’, and ‘On Reading “Colloquy in Black Rock”’). The epigraph is from Thomas Sayers Ellis’s poem ‘My Meter is Percussive’ (2013):
I no longer write
yet white writing
won’t stop writing me (15)
It may be instructive to read this epigraph and Chingonyi’s poetry with reference to an earlier text: Black Fire: An Anthology of Afro-American Writing, edited by Amiri Baraka and Larry Neal, first published in 1968. In the afterword, Neal writes:
New constructs will have to be developed. We will have to alter our concepts of what art is, of what it is supposed to ‘do.’ The dead forms taught most writers in the white man’s schools will have to be destroyed, or at best, radically altered. We can learn more about what poetry is by listening to the cadences of Malcolm’s speeches, than from most of Western poetics. Listen to James Brown scream.
Neal, and subsequently Ellis, assert the dominance of traditional, Western, white forms of writing. This dominance demands investigation and radical alteration by writers who are excluded from or who distrust or reject these forms. If a black writer finds himself unable to stop writing and being written by white forms, perhaps he must turn to black forms, perhaps he must scream and be screamed. Chingonyi’s poetry demonstrates a negotiation – a Legba-like shuffle – of diverse traditions, cultures, and identities. However, when communication breaks down, as it always will, Chingonyi suggests that we may find ourselves and each other in darkness, in the unknowable and unsayable, in the colours, shifts, and silences of James Brown’s scream.
Chingonyi, Kayombo, The Color of James Brown’s Scream (Nebraska: Akashic Books, 2016)
Ellis, Thomas Sayers, Skin, Inc.: Identity Repair Poems (Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2013)
Mackey, Nathaniel, ‘Sound and Sentiment, Sound and Symbol’, Callaloo, No. 30 (Winter, 1987), pp. 29-54
Neal, Larry, ‘An Afterword: And Shine Swan On’, in Black Fire: An Anthology of Afro-American Writing, eds. Amiri Baraka and Larry Neal (Baltimore: Black Classic Press, 2013)
Nisha Ramayya is a poet and visiting lecturer at Royal Holloway, University of London and Kent. Her pamphlet Notes on Sanskrit (2015) is published by Oystercatcher Press. www.nisharamayya.com