Archive for October, 2009

Deep In Our Hearts

Posted in Cultural Matters, Playthell on politics on October 21, 2009 by playthell

Deep in Our Hearts  


Nine White Women Remember Their Days In the Civil Rights Movemen


While reading “Deep In Our Hearts: Nine White Women In The Freedom Movement,” I was reminded of a conference I attended in 1966. It was held at Dillard University in New Orleans, and was organized by some elements within SNCC who were interested in moving the organization toward a Black Nationalist position.  The presentations were given by intellectuals and artists who were in the forefront of the black consciousness movement.  Some – such as Sterling Stuckey, John Hendrik Clarke, and Me – would become pioneers in the development of Black Studies in major white universities.  It was an inspirational event with much discussion of African and African American history and some members of The Free Southern Theater gave a rendition of Margaret Walkers epic poem “For My People,” that energized our souls. 

 We were happy and nappy and gloried in our blackness. Some of the SNCC members, like the black and beautiful Carol Rivers, had come in from Loundes county Alabama, where she was working with Stokely Carmichael – who later became Kwame Toure – building the original Black Panther Party.  I cannot remember if Bob Moses was there, but I distinctly remember a Mississippi contingent composed of native folk and SNCC organizers who all spoke of him as if he were a warrior saint.  It was not long after this meeting before all white organizers were purged from the ranks of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

 At the time, coming as I did from the big northern city of Philadelphia – after having been driven out of my hometown, St. Augustine Florida, by an intolerable racist social order – I felt no bond with the whites who had come into the deep south as SNCC organizers, risking life and limb to struggle side by side with local blacks against the myriad injustices of the southern caste system which was the foundation of white supremacy. My experiences with whites – in the segregated south, the military, the work place, and Philadelphia CORE – was such that it seemed perfectly reasonable, indeed long past time, for black folks to purge whites from the ranks of their liberation organizations.

Since I didn’t know any of these whites – having left the south in 1960 – I had no empathy for their plight.  In fact, it wasn’t until people began to debate the morality and tactical wisdom of the expulsion of white organizers from SNCC, a decade or so later, that I began to try and imagine what the experience might have been like and wonder what became of those stalwart altruistic whites who risked so much in the Freedom Movement with blacks. 

For anyone who has wondered about these matters, “Deep In Our Hearts” is a must read.  Much has been written about race and gender relations in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and why the whites left.  But this revelatory text sets the record straight and exposes the flaws which, when taken together, proves fatal for the conventional wisdom on this subject by exposing a lot of inaccurate historical speculation. If it had done nothing more than set the record straight about the relations between men and women in the movement, and finally dispel the lingering misunderstanding about the statement attributed to Stokely Carmichael  – “The position of women in the movement is Prone”  – by the women he said it to, and who only speak of him with much love and respect, this book would have made and invaluable contribution to our understanding of how SNCC held together and conducted it’s magnificent work, blacks and whites struggling together in the most dangerous areas of the deep south during a time when rabid redneck racists believed they had a license to kill anybody who challenged white supremacy.

Stolely Carimichael

Stokely Carimichael Stokely

  A Fearless Freedom Fighter and Intrepid Organizer

All nine of these heroic women – Penny Patch, Casey Hayden, Constance Curry, Joan C. Browning, Theresa Del Pozzo, Dorothy Dawson Burlage, Sue Thrasher, Elaine Delott Baker, and Emmie Schrader Adams – were well educated and could surely have lived a comfortable middle class life in white American without ever giving a thought to the black struggle for freedom.  In the book’s preface they tell us “These are our stories of the costly times we wouldn’t have missed for the world.  We speak to several questions: why us? Why did we, of all the white women growing up in our hometowns, cross the color line in the days of segregation and join the Southern Freedom Movement of the sixties?  How did we find our way?  What happened to us there? How did we leave and what did we take with us? And, especially, what was it like?” 

 And they answer: “One of us was expelled from college for going to a black church, and another was the first white woman in a rural SNCC voter registration project.  One of us paid SNCC’s phone bill in the early days with foundation money given for more conservative purposes, and others organized white southern students in support of the freedom movement.  Some of us where there from the beginning, sitting in with our friends and on the Freedom Ride to Albany, Georgia.  We were also there later, canvassing for voter registration and facing the violence it incurred…All of us experienced the joy of lifting our voices to sing freedom songs, and the fellowship and hope of an interracial movement for justice and equality.” 

 Set forth with titles that capture the bittersweet poetry of struggle – “Shiloh Witness,” “Truths Of The Heart,”  “The Feel Of A Blue Note,” “Sweet Tea At Shoneys,”  “Circle Of Trust,”  “Wild Geese To The Past,” etc – the memoirs that comprise this book are amazingly candid. Whether they are talking about their lives before, during or after they joined the movement.  Since these women are of my generation I find the descriptions of their communities and families, as well as the schools they attended and what attracted them to the movement especially fascinating. It evokes a lot of precious memories from my own life, and fills in a lot of blanks about my white contemporaries. 

 These valiant women hailed from all over the country and were motivated by a wide range of beliefs. “We are very different: southern and northern; rural and urban; state university and Ivy League; middle class, working class and poor.  We were moved to our radical activities in various ways: by Marxism, Christian existentialism, and immigrant folk wisdom; by our grandmothers and the Constitution; by Thoreau and Dumas; by living in a Kibbutz and by African freedom fighters; and by a deep south upbringing.”

 Theresa Del Pozzo came from an Italian ghetto in the north Bronx, a community that bordered on the neighborhood in which Stokely grew up.  But due the barriers of race their families lived in different worlds.  And when there was a racial conflict between some whites from Del Pozzo’s neighborhood and some nearby blacks, while she was working in the movement down south, she and Stokely observed that those Bronx Italians were as much the enemy of Afro-American aspirations as the whites in Mississippi! 

 This is an important observation because most white northerners now pretend that the race problem in America – whether chattel slavery or de-jure discrimination has been an exclusively southern problem.  But the racist Alabama Governor George Wallace proved that this was not so when he ran for President, and Malcolm X was fond of pointing out: “If you are south of the Canadian border you’re south!” Surely the experience of Emmie Schrader Adams gives abundant support to this view. 

 Emmie tells us how black folks first entered her consciousness when a friend of her mother’s moved to her hometown, St. Paul Minnesota, from St. Louis Missouri and “told a story that stuck in my mind about Negroes, long, long lines of them, trying to integrate a white swimming pool I had this image of those scary long lines of Negroes stretching across wide fields, all walking to the swimming pool, and somehow made the connection that this was what had caused this family, with their three little daughters to immigrate to the north.  It was the mid 1950s.  About St. Paul Negroes I knew nothing. There was a black community somewhere beyond our little old church, but I was not allowed to go there.  Nor where we allowed to go to certain movie theaters because, I later learned, they were near the black neighborhood.” 

 Unlike the uneducated working class Italians that populated Theresa Del Pozzo’s neighborhood, Adam’s German-American father was a lawyer, but he was just the kind of paranoid bigot that would swell the ranks of the far right.  “In the McCarthy era he was convinced that there were twenty thousand communists at the University of Minnesota…My father, with his warped outlook though that Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, was a communist.”  Hence when she became interested in the black freedom struggle, going first to Africa – where she witnessed revolutionary struggles in Kenya and Algeria – then winding up finally in Mississippi, her father became an informer for the FBI. 

 In fact, she was to later learn that it was he who told them that she was “part of a Negro communist spy ring.”  Yet in spite of their Lilly white backgrounds and elite educations – Del Pozzo at the University of Wisconsin and Adams at Harvard-Radcliffe – they both ended up risking their lives in the black Freedom movement and marrying black men.  Adams married a Jamaican and moved to that Island nation where she wrote a definitive book on Jamaican Patois, and Del Pozzo wedded the legendary Jazz guitarist Kenny Burrell.

While Adams and Del Pozzo were northerners, Casey Hayden and Joan C. Browning were native southerners.  And they were involved with the black Freedom Movement from the very beginning of the sixties.  Browning and Hayden was on the Freedom Ride to Albany Georgia in 1961.  And Browning, a brilliant student of science forfeited a promising career as a scientist in order to participate in the struggle with her black sisters and brothers attempting to build the “beloved community”

 Born and raised in rural Georgia, her family’s farm was just down the road from the farms of “Two of the most powerful and notorious racist politicians in Georgia’s history.” They were Georgia governor Herman Tallmadge and US Senator Eugene Tallmadge, and the Senator’s wife was a cousin of the fire eating white supremacist Senator Strom Thurman of South Carolina, the leader of the reactionary Dixiecrats in the Senate, who opposed Civil Rights legislation and broke the Senate filibuster record by speaking for 21 hours against the 1964 Civil Rights Bill, which he said “was tantamount to enslaving white people.” Browning’s movement activism not only cost her a career in science but also a loving relationship with her family.  But lost of family and longtime friends is a recurrent theme in these stories of heroism and sacrifice. 

 Yet none of these selfless and incredibly brave women say that they regret their decision to take a stand on the side of freedom, justice and equality for African Americans. Quite the contrary in fact, to a woman they all talk about how much the movement did to liberate them from the stultifying pathology of white racism that infected virtually all white southerners. In Browning’s case especially, the movement provided a unique opportunity to carry out God’s call to Christian believers to come to the aid of the poor and oppressed.  She was practicing “liberation Theology” long before that term became au courant.  And as Dorothy Dawson Burlage – who was cultivated to assume her role as a pampered southern belle but ended up as a disciple of Ella Baker’s then went on to earn a PhD in child psychology – tells us,  the movement liberated them from the hollow role of southern white womanhood.

 Casey Hayden, whose given name is Sandra Cason, was once married to Tom Hayden, who later married Jane Fonda.  Born and raised in Texas, Casey was from an old WASP family that traced its roots to pre-revolutionary Virginia and was one of the first white southerners to join the Freedom Movement.  “The unfolding of my childhood toward the southern Freedom movement commences at the University of Texas in Austin, “says Casey,” which I entered as a junior in 1957,” and her activism began opposing segregation as an undergraduate at the University.  And she tells us, “When the sit-ins broke out across the south in 1960, I was back in Austin in graduate school.  The national president of the student YWCA was a black student at Bishop College in Marshall Texas, where the police had used tear gas to break up a march.  We brought her to speak at the Y just after she had been released from jail…I remember sweating and crying in the packed little auditorium. 

 “After that I went to the meetings of the Austin movement with the black women who lived across the hall from me in the only integrated housing on campus, the Christian Faith and Life community…the third life changing religious organization of my college years…At the CF&LC I experienced the creation of empowering community, and within it an image of myself in which I then lived.  Later, I understood the movement on this model. Our image of ourselves in the Southern Freedom Movement was that of the beloved community, created by the activity, the experience, of non-violent direct action against injustice.” 

Casey remained active with SNCC through 1965; she also worked with the legendary Ella Baker and participated in momentous events like the founding of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and the Mississippi Congressional Challenge. During this period she exposed herself to many life-threatening experiences and was a pivotal figure in the organization.  All of the stories in this volume are fascinating, and they give us an intimate look into the inner life of an altruistic community of men and women who were committed to a cause for which they were prepared to die. 

 The way these women continue to feel about the Freedom Movement is indicated in the title, ”Deep In Our Hearts,” which is taken from a line in the anthem of the civil rights movement We shall Overcome.  “Deep in my heart I do believe/ we shall overcome some day.”  It is a song that fortified those in struggle and prepared them to go forth unto the shadow of death.  To this day, decades after the southern movement has faded into myth and history, those refrains continue to give me goose pimples whenever I hear it. 

This inspirational and informative book not only provides us a rare and unvarnished look into the internal life of a wide range of white American families in the middle of the twentieth century, and the strange pathological views most held about African Americans, but also manages to recreate some critical episodes in the saga of the Civil Rights Movement which where heretofore unknown.  Finally, these eyewitness reports supply a fascinating inside look at how social movements are born, mature, and fade away.

 These deeply touching and very personal testaments – which paint a series of arresting portraits of the strength, dignity and intelligence of the southern blacks they met and struggled with, images which contradict the racist propaganda of white southern politicians and preachers – will immeasurably enrich the literature on the great black Freedom movement of the 1960’s.  It is essential reading for anyone interested in fully understanding that unique social movement which captured the best and brightest Americans of my generation, and changed the world’s most powerful nation for the better.

The Heroic Actions Of these Women and Their Comrades




Led to the passage of the 1964 Civil rights bill that changed America




Playthell Benjamin

Fall 2000

Send In The Clowns!

Posted in On Right Wing Pundits and Bloviators, Playthell on politics on October 20, 2009 by playthell

Sarah Palin, Alaskan Barbarian 

The Alaskan Barbarian at Home 


 A First Look

 So finally we heard from Sarah Palin – a rootin tootin gun slinging fading beauty queen from the wild wild west who is a religious fanatic, bans books, loves moose stew and is married to a white man she claims is an Eskimo – and it was painfully obvious that she is a clueless air head with the gift of gab.  It didn’t take long to see why the Republicans have placed such a premium on “managerial skills,” because this woman knows as much about the realities of the world as a mule knows about playing a fiddle.  Unfortunately the job of President of the United States is not the same as managing a Wall Mart, or the remote and under-populated state of Alaska.  Much has also been made of her tenure as the mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, which has a smaller population than resides in a four block radius of my neighborhood in Manhattan!  And I for one don’t believe that this simple minded country bumpkin could manage the affairs of New York City, let alone be entrusted with the fate of the nation.  

I have been to Alaska, driven for long stretches across its icy bosom when I was in the military, and it is mostly barren plains covered with snow and frozen tundra, or snow capped mountains.  I even considered going up to work on the oil pipeline they were beginning to build on the North Slope because of the high pay they were offering.  But I soon thought the better of returning to Alaska.  It’s a picturesque place but once was enough.  I’d just as soon see it on a postcard, or CBS Sunday Morning.  To try and make this desolate wilderness, populated by gun totin barbarians like the Governor, a model for what America is, or ought to be, is ridiculous.  It is safe to assume that Sarah Palin is not only clueless about foreign policy; she is equally ignorant of urban policy.

Governor Palin’s most impressive moments came when she discussed the energy crisis and the politics of oil, but that was marred by her shameless special pleading for the oil industry’s right to drill anywhere they want – even in the Anwar wilderness.   A vast wildlife preserve with limited oil deposits which lay right in the breeding grounds of the Caribou herds, Anwar is a critical component in the preservation of wildlife in the great Northwest.  I know of whence I speak because I once co-wrote a story in the Guardian/Observer of London about the firing of the British born civil engineer and cartographer, Ian Thomas, from the Department of the Interior for making a map that showed the spot where Bush planned to drill was right in the middle of the Porcupine Caribou calving grounds. 

            Thomas was fired but the outcry in the press, which the Guardian article initiated, caused Bush to abandon his plan to drill there.  So Governor Palin is not the only one “who knows the North slope of Alaska.”   I interviewed the mapmaker at length and he told me in detail about the topography, flora and fauna, and wild life in the area.  This is protected land, and John McCain has pledged not to drill there if he is elected President.  Let’s see if he keeps this promise as well as he as kept his word on immigration, Veterans benefits, rejection of religious extremism, etc.

 As I watched that crowd of screaming glassy eyed rednecks who filled the auditorium in St. Paul they reminded me of the lynch mob in Ishmael Reed’s great satirical novel Reckless Eyeballing.   Justly called “the greatest American satirist since Mark Twain,” Reed’s fiction is both erudite and hilarious; it is also irreverent with a disdain for racism, sexism, and bigotry of any kind, as well as pomposity and puffery.  There is a scene where a Jewish guy from up north goes down south and attends what he thought was a sporting event, held in a big stadium.  But then the redneck MC gets on the mike and began to recount the rape and murder of young Mary Phelem, a Christian girl whose attacker was a Jew.  But we can never know for sure if the Jew was guilty because the Christian crackers lynched him.  Then the Jewish guy learned that the crowd intended to reenact the lynching and he was the Jew they intended to lynch.  In a tragic/comic farce the Jew began to run for his life with the whole stadium chasing him!  

 That’s how I felt watching those right-wing Yahoo’s at the Republican convention.  And I am not the only black person who feels that way.  And the fact that there were only 36 blacks at the GOP convention explains why.  As rich and popular as D.L. Hugely is, he told Larry King that he looked at that crowd and just didn’t feel like he would be welcome there.  The whole vibe of the Republican convention was pugnacious; the mediocre political functionaries who spoke in behalf of John McCain’s character and judgment sank repeatedly into the gutter with a style of bombastic oratory that was innocent of either artifice or erudition.

There were a lot of personal attacks on the character and integrity of their Democratic opponents; but as they had nearly nothing to say about economic policy, or health care, or the mortgage crisis, or the collapse of public education, or the inability of deserving students to go to college because their parents can’t afford to help them, all that was left to them was the politics of personal destruction.  Remember the ordeal of John Kerry?  Here is a real hero, during and after the Vietnam war, especially after the war, who fought down on the ground where the blood and guts are real, not flying around in a multi-million dollar death machine bombing innocent men, women and children from high in the sky – I was in the Strategic Air Command and I know that’s what happens when you carpet bomb a country.    Yet the Republican attack machine made Kerry look like a dishonorable sissy and elected a shameless slacker who hid out in the National Guard while the war was raging in the steamy jungles of Vietnam.

As I write I am listening to the chatter of the TV pundits – whom I have long thought of as considerably less intelligent than print media pundits, and tonight’s commentary proves my point – and I am amazed at the shallow analysis of these guys.  They were discussing Mitt Romney’s speech with what I thought was far too much respect, given the fact that most of it was standard Republican prattle: mean spirited and shallow as a dry creek bed.   That is also an apt description of the speeches of Huckabee, Rudi, and Sarah Palin.

           Rabid, Racist, Rudy!

APTOPIX Republican Convention

Freaking out at the Republican Convention


By far Rudy Giuliani was the worst of the lot.  A showoff and pompous Martinet at heart, Giuliani was in his element.  He had the eyes of the world on him, the grandson of Italian peasants who can remember when the blond blue eyed races didn’t consider him “white,” and he intended to make the most of it.  So in a crude and overemotional fashion, much in the way transvestites switch their butts more than real women, Giuliani launched an artless diatribe that exposed him as a shallow charlatan to all but the shrieking idiots in the arena.   He hit all of the traditional Republican talking points and he was especially vicious; which was easy for Rudy since he seems genetically prone to racist behavior.   I was a working journalist in New York City when Giuliani ran for the Mayor’s office against David Dinkins, the first Afro-American elected Mayor of New York in the 360 years that African Americans have lived in that city, and Rudy conducted a racist campaign against him. 

            And when Rudy became Mayor he enacted racist policies that will cripple the progress of black people in New York City for decades. But this is not surprising because during his tenure as the Federal Attorney for the Southern District of New York, he never once brought a racial discrimination case!   Thus as Mayor he knew exactly how to camouflage his racist policies so that they cannot be proven in court.  The main arena in which he did this was in the city’s economic policies.  For in order to bring a discrimination suit against the City for discriminatory practices in contracting, hiring or promotions the city must keep records of who got what according to race and gender so that the offended parties could prove their claim based on public records.  When Giuliani came to office during the reactionary Republican ascendancy he ordered New York City agencies not to keep such records, thereby destroying the evidence of his crimes with no fear that Washington would intervene to enforce the Civil Rights laws.   This is the same man who as a Federal Attorney during the Reagan Administration went down to Haiti under pro-American fascist dictator, ”Baby Doc” Duvalier and reported there were no human rights violations.

As I watched him strutting around the stage like a little Bantam rooster I wondered why he was there at all.  His whole speech was an assault on Senator Obama’s judgment; yet this is a man whose judgment is so bad he recommended a mobbed up thug named Bernard Kerik to his crony George Bush to direct Homeland Security.  And if the FBI had not exposed Kerik’s mob ties we could have this incompetent sociopath heading a vital national agency, just like the guy who headed FEMA, and the whole world witnessed the results of such cronyism in the Bush administration’s response to Katrina.  And where does Rudy get off lecturing Barack Obama about the treatment of women; Barack’s wife says he is a darling of a husband and his children adore him. 

On the other hand Giuliani’s children told the press that they learned their “family values” from their mother.  And his daughter publicly declared herself an Obama supporter when Giuliani was still in the race!  They despise Rudy because of the way he humiliated their mother, Donna, a working television journalist who gave up her career to become Mrs. Giuliani; Rudy repaid her by openly screwing around with that shameless hussy to whom he is now married.  The tawdry red dress she wore as she applauded her Italian stallion was appropriate, for had she come along at an earlier time in the history of this republic she would be wearing a scarlet letter branded on her forehead.  And if Sarah Palin gets her just desserts, she will end up sitting in the corner wearing a dunce cap!

Playthell Benjamin

Harlem 2008

It’s A New Day!

Posted in Cultural Matters with tags , , , , on October 20, 2009 by playthell

Luke Ingram and Radio Legend Tom Joyner 


The Jazz in the Gardens Concert 022

Businessman Ingrahm is all smiles as he contemplates the future


On a recent trip through the American South I visited the sleepy little town of Brunswick Georgia.  However the boredom that is usually associated with small towns is alleviated here by virtue of the fact that St. Simon’s Island lay just over the bridge and attracts a cosmopolitan crowd.   It was while grooming and decorating myself in preparation for a visit to the cafes on St. Simon’s that I wandered into a Tonsorial Parlor – which is what they called elegantly decorated full service barber shops back in the day – located in a mini mall shopping strip located across the boulevard from the Georgia Costal College.  As it turned out, the proprietor was an enterprising young black man who was both a pleasant host and an artist with his clippers; I soon learned that his name was Luke Ingram.  And we hit it off right away.

As a class, barbers are a unique bunch.  Like beauticians, they must sell the illusion that they can make a person attractive by their cosmetological conjurations.  Hence people tend to have great faith in them as the alchemist who possesses the power to grant the gift of beauty.  As such, barbers and beauticians must also be part amateur psychologists and priest because they are forced to listen to confessions and offer home spun advice.  And their independent financial position was a catalyst for their support of and participation in the Civil rights struggle in the Deep South during the 1960’s; they had a first hand knowledge of the community’s problems and they didn’t work for the white folks.  Hence the racist defenders of the status quo couldn’t take away their livelihood.  However black barbers were active in the struggle all over the country, not just in the south

During conversations with Luke on my present visit to Brunswick, I learned that he was starting an organization aimed at giving direction and redefining the goals of the many young black males who are either misguided in their ambitions or wandering about aimless with no plan at all.  In too many cases these hapless young men wind up in jail or the graveyard before they have ever had a chance to really live.  As a young black man who was once fascinated by the sporting life of the streets and went afoul of the law, Luke knows first hand that the path being taken by far too many young men can only lead to disaster…sooner or later.  It’s in the cards.  That’s why as a music promoter he refuses to present rap acts that extol negative values and celebrate criminal or anti-social acts. 

The organization he founded, “Mature Movement: New Horizons for Youths,”  is  a mentoring program that engages young men in rap sessions and other activities designed to help them formulate a set of constructive values and define a life plan for success.  In this endeavor Luke is following in a distinguished tradition of barbers who have assumed leadership roles when their community was in crisis.  Two dramatic examples of African American barbers who led in the struggle against white supremacy and apartheid in their home towns were Clyde Jenkins of St. Augustine Florida and Ernie Chambers of Omaha Nebraska. Chambers would go on and become a lawyer then get himself elected to the state assembly.  Clyde Jenkins would perform some of the most self-less and heroic service to the struggle that few can match. 

I first heard of Ernie Chambers one day back in the turbulent Sixties when black folks were teaching white folks a new racial etiquette; by nature this effort could not be confined to the formal demonstrations lead by charismatic revivalists with silver tongues – those great orators, such as Dr. Martin Luther king and James Farmer, who could fire up the spirit of a crowd and inspire them to walk unarmed through the valley of death and fear no evil.  Although a few stars of the movement monopolized the attentions of the media, it was the masses of Afro-Americans who remain anonymous that made the movement successful.  Ernie Chambers was such a foot soldier for freedom, and a splendid one indeed.

Ernie first caught my attention because he made national news by just being what I consider a man and a good father.  He went down to the school house one day in Omaha and stuck in foot in a cracker teacher’s ass because the punk-ass muthafucka had insulted his little girl with a racist epithet.   However what I considered par for the course made big news in the media and most of white America was appalled.  I publicly applauded the brother during a speech soon after in Omaha, and he received greetings and salutations from black fathers all over the country.  The chain of events that followed Chamber’s actions propelled him into the thick of the struggle against the racist caste system in America.  He became a Civil rights activist, a lawyer and a state legislator.  Ernie Chambers set an example of leadership and manhood for black youths all across the nation.

 I remembered Clyde Jenkins as being easy like Sunday morning; a good natured even tempered pecan tan guy with a wit as sharp as his razor…a guy with a luminous smile and ready story or joke to provoke laughter; yet he seemed like a different guy when I read about his heroic deeds in the newspaper clippings preserved in the historical archives of St. Augustine Florida.  The records show that when the time came this slightly built good natured barber proved as tenacious as a tick and a man of uncommon courage.  He even scouted out a Ku Klux Klan meeting way back out in the piney woods.  When he and his companion were discovered they were captured by the Klan and came very close to being torched and burned alive!   They escaped this horrid fate only because a Federal Marshall had infiltrated their ranks and stopped the lynching from going down.

Reading about the incident in the archives was so gripping that I wanted to hear his recollections; I have tried to interview Clyde about those divine days but he dose not wish to remember…at lest he won’t speak on it.  But on my recent trip to St. Augustine I found plenty of people who lived and struggled through that period and were quite willing to talk about it.  And I am in the process of making a radio and video documentary of their testimony of remembrance, as well as their elation at the election of Barack Obama; which they rightly feel they had something to do with.  So when I arrived in Brunswick Georgia to visit my senior daughter Sandra, my head was full of stories about the bad old days of Southern apartheid and the heroic struggle Afro-Americans waged to overcome it.  And that’s what was on my mind when I returned to Luke’s barber shop for a haircut recently.


Droppin Science!

Rapping with the Youths in Brunswick 004

 Rapping with the young bloods at Mature Movement


I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Luke, who is also a local concert promoter and thus has a conduit to the youths, is seriously concerned about the fate of young black men in the US and has a vision for turning them away from the self-destructive patterns that are becoming the norm for large segments of inner-city youths. An ex-offender who once did three years for aggravated assault, Luke has managed to put his life back together and is flourishing.  In this sense he is like Malcolm X, who also did time for things he did when he was young and dumb, then joined the movement to uplift our people.  Luke has a college degree and a thriving business cutting the heads of the most important and powerful black men in the city, as well as wayward youths fascinated with the gangsta life.  Thus he has the kind of street cred that one must have in order to get the youths to listen.  And he is a solid church member to boot!

Last Friday evening I sat and rapped with Luke and another young brother “MC Wood from the Hood,” an aspiring rapper and enterprising young man who has built a recording studio in his apartment, and I was impressed with the passion of their convictions. They had different takes on the significance of the Obama election – although both agreed that it was a great thing – and I learned much about the thinking of our youths from listening to their conversation. To MC Wood Obama’s victory represents a giant step in the struggle for the recognition of black talent and intellect.  “If you are a black man whites just assume that you are stupid!  These same people may not like the Chinese but they still concede that they are smart.”  Hence for Wood the presidential election represents a triumphant vindication of black intellectual prowess.

  However for Luke, who is ten years older,  the election of Barack Obama is a victory for American society as a whole.  “This is a win for all people in this country regardless of color, because it shows that we as a nation have come a very long way,” Luke argued, “but the most important thing about the election of a black man to the most powerful position in the world is that it cancels the cop outs that so many of us are using to excuse our failures.  You can no longer credibly say ‘I can’t be nothing because I’m a black man.  That rap is over!”

        For Luke this election means that “Now we are full fledged Americans…maybe we ought to forget the African American stuff and just concentrate on making the most of being productive American citizens.”   MC Wood took passionate exception to Luke’s vision of the new America that has emerged since the ascension of Barack to the Oval Office; he’s not convinced that the red neck element and elite racist of the south are really on board with the program.  After all, Barack lost here, and Wood is convinced that most whites down here – especially the older generations – remain unrepentant rednecks!


MC. Wood: The Voice of the Hood

Live at Club Lnbre 009  Mc Wood and D.J. Unpredictable at the Hip Hop convention in Atlanta


Since our conversation developments such as the Tea Party demonstrations, with their blatantly racist signs and rhetoric, and the swelling ranks of whites who deny that our President is a native born American and therefore has no right to occupy the Oval Office, has convinced Luke that there are a lot more flaming white racist around than he thought.  Notwithstanding this reality, MC Wood and Luke continue to believe that the election of President Obama has ushered in a new day and there can be no credible excuse for failure in life because one is black.  “When I was still in school just a few years ago,” Wood recalls, “if a black kid had said they wanted to become President they became the butt of jokes.  People thought you were out of your mind!   So we limited our ambitions to lesser things, the presidency was a goal beyond our reach even though we were American citizens. But now that’s all over; we can become anything that our talent and hard work can get us.”   Listening to their hopeful vision of their future prospects in America, I had to agree with Will-I-Am: “It’s a new day! 


 Playthell Benjamin

Atlanta Georgia 





Posted in Cultural Matters, On Sports! on October 18, 2009 by playthell

 The Prowess Of Black Athletes Changed The Games


 African American Intellectuals Confront Darwin’s Athletes!

 There was an air of excitement on the cool spring morning in early April when I entered the Washington Square Park quadrangle, which is surrounded by the buildings of New York University.  Part of the excitement was generated by the television cameras set up on the sidewalk outside the law school, where anxious reporters hoped to catch a glimpse of, and perhaps cajole a statement from, Kenneth Starr, the grand inquisitor of the most powerful man in the world – President Bill Clinton.  “Porn” Starr was on campus to teach his weekly law class, which is held on Friday mornings.  But it was not the antics of Mr. Starr, as amusing and dangerous as they are, that occasioned my visit to this elite Manhattan campus.   

 I had come to NYU in order to check out “Sports Matters: “Black Intellectuals Respond to and Transcend Darwin’s Athletes,” a symposium held between April 2-4.  Organized by NYU history professor Jeffrey T. Sammons, who’s book “Beyond The Ring” is the definitive study of boxing in America.  The symposium’s raison d’être was a challenge laid down to black intellectuals by John Hoberman, a white professor of Germanic languages and sports studies at the University of Texas, who is the author of the provocative polemic “Darwin’s Athletes: How Sport Has Damaged Black America And Preserved The myth Of Race.”

“Interestingly,” writes Hoberman in the introduction to the paperback edition of his book, “my claim that much of the black male intelligentsia is generally unprepared to think critically about the role of sport in black life has evoked little response.”  Well, the response came in spades – so to speak – at the NYU symposium when a group of mostly black male scholars from various disciplines critiqued Hoberman’s book in a wide ranging series of scholarly papers. The papers are being prepared for publication under the editorship of Dr. Gerald Early – a Professor of Literature and Afro-American Studies and historian Jeff  Sammons.

To the disappointment of the participants and the audience, this writer included, John Hoberman, the catalyst for this event, was invited but chose not to show.  Hoberman has subsequently told Marion Boykins – the sports editor for The Black World Today - that he decided to boycott the Symposium because Sammons, whom he described as “a hostile reviewer,” chose an “all black” group of presenters who “shared his views on the book.”  This is a curious response from a man who publicly chided black intellectuals for not responding to his text.  Furthermore, Hoberman’s self-serving charge that Sammons stacked the deck borders on slander.

    Professor John Hoberman

John Hoberman

He Picked a Fight then Punked Out!

The Text that Started it All

Darwin's Athletes

A bizarre mixture of fascinating fact and white paternalist fiction

 What Prof. Sammons did was send copies of Hoberman’s book out to a group of black scholars who could offer thoughtful and enlightening commentary; that they independently arrived at similar conclusions about the quality of “Darwin’s Athletes” speaks more eloquently about the failures of Hoberman’s text than any conspiracy orchestrated by Sammons.  In fact, the presenters represented a remarkably diverse group.

They ranged from Kenneth Manning, the Thomas Melroy Professor of Rhetoric and of the History of Science, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to Kenneth L. Shropshire, Chairman of the Afro-American studies department and a professor in the Wharton business school at the University of Pennsylvania, to Sonja Steptoe, an attorney and a senior editor at Sports Illustrated and a national correspondent for the sports television network CNNSI, to Keith A.P. Sandiford, a cricket expert and Professor of History at the University of Manatoba in Canada, and Gerald Early, a distinguished sports essayist and the Chairman of the Afro-American studies department at Washington University.

This list is but a sampling of the heavyweight presenters who answered the call to critique “Darwin’s Athletes.”  Several of them have published splendid books and essays on the major themes explored in the book : the black athlete, the business and culture of sports, the class structure in black communities, the history of race and science, etc.  And it is fair to say that professor Hoberman’s arguments went over like a concrete balloon in this crowd; they just didn’t fly.

The overall attitude toward the book was that it is a work of grandiose ambition but is replete with half baked conjectures and gross speculations that are unsupported by the evidence Hoberman offers in defense of his major arguments: That Afro-Americans have a historically conditioned “sports fixation” which is the main obstacle to academic achievement and vertical mobility for black males, and that the enormous success of black male athletes is the major reason why 19th century theories of white supremacy are being dusted off and thrown back into the discourse on race by academic racist and other garden variety bigots.

Nobody at the symposium who had read the text felt that Hoberman successfully proved either point, this writer included.  His argument that the interracial camaraderie exhibited by black and white athletes in the sports arena has not carried over into other areas of American life seems on firmer ground, but he offers no evidence to support this hypothesis either.

The strongest part of the book is the author’s wide reading and analysis of the scientific and pseudo-scientific literature on race biology and athletic performance – from which I learned much – although it gets a bit redundant – as well as his biting critique of the white racist hypocrisy that surrounds big time sports.  His discussion of the psycho/social role of sport in legitimizing European colonization of third world countries is also enlightening.  But Hoberman’s approach to the presentation of evidence when theorizing about the role of sports in Afro-American culture and community, which often seems arbitrary,  presents big problems.

Relying on a series of anecdotes and hearsay he employs neither the careful documentation of specific claims which is the standard methodology of historians, nor the rigorous comparative statistical analysis that is the indispensable tool of the sociologist. psychologist, et. al.  The result of this shoddy approach to documenting his central thesis is a seriously flawed book, perhaps fatally.  Hence Hoberman is like the proverbial cow that gives a good bucket of milk then kicks it over.

Among the scholars assembled at NYU, no one believed that “Darwin’s Athletes” would have ever seen the light of day had it been subjected to the kind of exacting peer review that would have greeted the work of a professional historian, sociologist, anthropologist, et. al.  The book was universally regarded as the work of a paternalistic dilettante – Kenneth Manning dismissed the text as “unintelligent and not well written” – but still found its way to publication mainly because it is yet another work by a know-it-all white male author that traffics in what Albert Murray has aptly called “The fakelore of black pathology.”

It is a subject for which white folks apparently have an insatiable appetite.  In fact, my experience as a journalist convinces me that Albert Murray is right on the money when he argues that “Whenever whites are given a choice of black pathology or black heroism, they will inevitably choose pathology.”

One example of this is Hoberman’s decision to seize upon Ralph Ellison’s comments on Richard Wrights descriptions of his bleak childhood in Mississippi as an example of how southern black parents in general brutalized their children, crippling their intellectual and emotional development.  Aside from the charge made by Daryl Scott, a Afro-American professor who teaches at Columbia University, that Hoberman misrepresents Ellison’s views in his paper, “Exposed and Abused: Hoberman’s misrepresentation of Ellison,” Hoberman offers no supporting empirical data to support these highly personal and subjective ruminations.

Hoberman also ignores autobiographical and literary texts which paint a very different portrait of Afro-American family life and community, like Albert Murray’s trilogy – Train Whistle Guitar, The Spy Glass Tree and The Seven League Boots – which follow the growth and development of a southern black boy who came from humble Alabama roots and went on to achieve heroic status as an intellectual and artist.  A story that mirrors Mr. Murray’s own marvelous life.

 Albert Murray: Blues Philosopher

 Ellison and Murray

With fellow sports fan and novelist Ralph Ellison

Although Hoberman flatters himself by suggesting that Sammons rigged the debate, when I read the book I had never met Sammons and knew nothing of the forthcoming conference, yet I found that my thinking was in harmony with the opinions expressed there and my final judgments about the book has certainly been influenced by what I heard.  I originally read Hoberman’s polemic on the recommendation of Marion Boykins, who, although expressing some reservations, actually liked the book.  So I approached the reading with an open mind and positive vibes.  But I was unable to make it through the introduction without developing profound misgivings about the author’s sweeping generalizations, which I seriously doubted that he could prove.

 The Stylized Body Of the Highly Eccentric Dennis Rodman

 Dennis Rodman2-sized

 Hoberman assures us this striking man hates himself!

 For instance, Hoberman’s pronouncement that “the self mutilating eccentric Dennis Rodman, whose hair dyes and tattoos have turned his entire body into a kaleidoscopic demonstration of how black self hatred can be marketed to white America,”  is typical of many conjectures for which he never offers any empirical evidence.  We are simply expected to accept this as the truth because he says so.

Using Hoberman’s logic one could just as easily conclude that white women hate their color, body image and facial features because they are spending millions on plastic surgery designed to give them larger breast and fuller Negroid like lips; plus they – along with white males – are willing to risk acquiring a deadly skin cancer in order to tan their pale skins!

I would later discover that so much of what Hoberman has to say regarding Afro-American culture and the role of the athlete resembles this kind of omniscient preachment rather than objective scholarship.  But even relying on the kind of impressionistic analysis Hoberman so often resorts to, one could argue that Rodman’s style is characteristic of the white rock milieu in which he hangs out, and in which he is lionized.

While Rodman is undoubtedly viewed by many whites and blacks as a buffoon, millions of others would gladly change places with him faster than the Cisco Kid could draw his guns.  Especially after witnessing Madonna, and one of the blond female heirs to the vast fortune of the Texas Hunts, almost engage in a fist fight in order to get a seat closest to the court in order to watch their Rod-man rebound the rock.


 madonna likes it black

 She was ready to rumble over her chocolate Rod Man!

Of course, the erotic attraction of choice white females to black male prowess is the great unacknowledged subtext to the century old white male discussion about the role of the black male athlete.  Perhaps this explains the conspicuous absence of  discussions about the black female athlete, who is just as dominant as her male counterpart.  Consider Wilma Rudolph, Althea Gibson, Florence Joyner, Jackie Joyner Kerse, Merlene Otty, Venus and Serena Williams, Cynthia Cooper,  Chyrl Swoops et. al.

Black Women Dominate the Same Sports as Black Men!

Merlene ottey44

This is the Olympics: Where’s the White Girls?


                             The Great Merlene Otty


A Seven Time Olympic Sprinter!



Serena: A Force of Nature On the Tennis Court!

Serena-Williams-Goes Sexy

Powerful and Sexy too

As I read Hoberman’s scathing critique of Rodman, Nate Newton, Charles Barkley, and Alonzo Mourning et. al., I began to brace myself for another round of spurious arguments about the pathological nature of African American culture, offered up by yet another patronizing white academic on the make, with too much time and money on his hands, taking a well worn path to a wider arena of recognition than is generally afforded an obscure language teacher in a Texas university.  As Hoberman’s preachment became shrill, with dire warnings about the evils of black America’s “sports fixation,” I was reminded of the old Ibo proverb: “Beware of the stranger who comes to the funeral and cries louder than the bereaved.”

After completing the text, I remain convinced that my original suspicions were true, although I would add that Prof.. Hoberman also seems to be motivated by some of the same missionary impulses that compelled his white ancestors to ship out to Africa, Asia, the Americas, and the islands of the seven seas on a mission to civilize the “savages.”  And,  as a descendent of Africans, I am forced to remember that that’s where all our troubles with white folks began.  And our troubles have been legion.

Hoberman’s contention that “Interracial sport has thus breathed new life into our racial folklore, reviving 19th century ideas about the racial division of labor that then recur in a trend-setting book like The Bell Curve,” is also unconvincing.  When I was a boy growing up in Florida, there was a time when there were no black athletes in professional sports except boxing.

Yet there was no paucity of theories of black inferiority because such theories supplied the intellectual underpinnings for a system of de-Jure white supremacy, just as they continue to lend legitimacy to de-facto white supremacy.  As Hoberman’s own research demonstrates, there has never been a time in the nation’s history when white Americans were not espousing some racist theory or another about the inferiority of their black countrymen.  Clearly, white racism is a persistent pathology that infects the American body politic and the nation’s major institutions in good times and bad.

There Were Virtually No Black Professional Athletes Back Then

        Colored Fountain

 But still…white racism was the order of the day

WhitesOnlyFountain-1 It was the way we were!


The truth is that there is an unbroken tradition of white racist ideology in this country that ranges from the “Great Chain of Being”  which was popular during the revolutionary and early national periods in the 18th century, to the “Bell Curve” in the declining years of the twentieth century.  Hence there is no plausible reason why African Americans should especially concern themselves with the fact that some white folks are now zeroing in on the stunning success of  black athletes as an excuse to attack their humanity.

I emphasize some white people because a serious shortcoming of Hoberman’s argument is his tendency to speak of white and black Americans as undifferentiated masses who think alike.  However, as any editor of a major newspaper knows – or had better know if they hope to succeed – there are many publics even within the same racial or ethnic group, and they all have a different take on reality.

            Since the author presents no polling data or opinion surveys, I have no idea what percentage of white Americans actually view great black athletes as proof of Charles Darwin’s compensation theory – an argument advanced in his book ”The Decent of Man” – that great physical prowess is compensation for an intellectual deficit.  First of all, when this book was written Africans were an enslaved people all over the western world, and theories of white superiority abounded because they were employed to justify a system of racial tyranny which was clearly at odds with Judeo-Christian ethics which provided the moral basis of the American creed.

        He’s An Athlete and Big Time Sports Fan Too

  Ronald Mcnair - AstronautAstronaut and Space Scientist

  MIT PhD in Physics, Musician, and Martial Artist

 Dr. S. Alan Counter Explorer of the Artic and Amazon

 Counter - greenland

 Harvard Biologist, Koralinska Fellow, MD Neurologist

A  Former football player and avid sports fan!

Yet today, the descendants of those African slaves have overthrown the legal caste system in a century of heroic struggle and are now piloting space ships, designing space stations, running big cities, passing legislation in the Congress, performing brain surgery, playing the Hyden Concerto, singing Italian operas, winning Nobel Prizes, teaching at Harvard and MIT, running business,’ commanding the nations armed forces, creating the nation’s popular culture, brokering deals among the nation’s power elite in Washington, managing the President’s budget and even making presidents, elevating the art of legal argument, capturing the Pulitzer prize and the National Book Award, composing and performing jazz at the Lincoln Center, and catching satellites in outer space.  And since this essay was originally written we have a basketball playing, Harvard trained black President in the White House!

After black Americans have proven themselves in all these arenas,  it boggles the mind to believe that their white fellow Americans are still so screwed up on the race question that they are prepared to retreat to 19th century Darwinian compensation theories because some Afro-American males routinely fly through the air dunking basketballs with a spectacular power and grace that white players – Brent Barry excepted – have been unable to match.

In any case, even if Hoberman is right about the racist response of white Americans and their European brethren to black athletic dominance, what would he have black athletes do?  Dose he think they should stop giving superb performances?  These questions are never satisfactorily addressed in the text.

While fudging these questions Hoberman does offer plenty of advice, some not without merit, about the need to direct black youths away from excessive concentration on sports as a profession.  The problem is, like his speculations about the reactions of white Americans to the great Afro-American sports spectacle in living color, Hoberman never demonstrates that the black community’s alleged “sports fixation” actually exist, and if it does the consequences of this fixation are what he says they are.

Nothing in Hoberman’s argument inspired more critical comment during the symposium.  “Here too there is no point in speaking hypothetically,” writes Hoberman with an air of authority reserved for omniscient white male academics, “since African Americans’ attachment to sports has been diverting interest away from the life of the mind for most of this century.

The rejection of academic achievement as a source of “clan pride” is already rampant among black boys, whose preferred models are rappers and athletes.”  That this statement is offered as a reply to Charles Murray, co-author of  “The Bell Curve,” who suggested that since black folks have been slighted in their intellectual endowment we should content ourselves with “the dominance of many black athletes,” demonstrates the central problem most critics at the symposium had with the book.  Hoberman simply substitutes claims of biological inferiority for  allegations of cultural pathology, a maneuver that Afro-American anthropologist Lee D. Baker, a presenter at the symposium, calls “tag team white supremacy.”

Let me declare my self right off : I think the first proposition advanced in Hoberman’s argument is bunk, and while his second point has some validity, I suspect it is greatly overstated.  But these are not the worst of Hoberman’s intellectual transgressions.  His misreading of Afro-American history and wild conjectures about black culture degenerate into hyperbole when he attempts to manufacture evidence in order to support his sports fixation thesis.

The following statement is a representative example of his method. “Although neither The Souls Of Black Folks nor the Miseducation Of The Negro contains a word about sports, both address with disarming candor the demoralizing educational predicament that encouraged a growing adulation of Negro athletes during the 1920’s and 1930’s.  The black athletes who today refine their athletic skills and little else at American universities are thus the damaged inheritors of an educational philosophy that once promoted manual training as the highest cultural achievement to which black youngsters could aspire.”  There are so many holes in this argument that a separate treatise could easily be written just to fill them.

What Hoberman is referring to is the system of industrial education advocated by Booker T. Washington, which WEB Dubois harshly critiques in his essay “Of Mr. Booker T. Washington And Others.”  It was an educational philosophy which privileged the acquisition of vocational skills over academic learning.  Yet Dubois, a militant New Englander who had received a classical academic education – beginning at Fisk , a private black college in Nashville, Tennessee, then earning a Harvard doctorate, and completing all work, including dissertation, for the doctorate in economics from the University of Berlin – did not deny the need to train Afro-Americans in the skills critical to survival in an industrializing economy and, in fact, praised Booker T. for his efforts.

However Dubois also argued that a modern liberal education was essential for the growth of a competent leadership class who could direct the development of the mass of Afro-Americans in political, cultural and economic affairs.  This was the logic behind his call for the creation of a “Talented Tenth,” which he advanced in “The Souls of Black Folks,” published in 1903, eight years after Washington’s Famous Atlanta speech laying out his philosophy for black development, and only thirty eight years after the close of the civil war that finally ended chattel slavery.

And Carter G. Woodson, who began high school at 21 years old then went on to earn a Harvard PhD in history, obviously shared Dubois’ views on the importance of higher education in spite of the fact that he was pro-Washington.  His call for a “New Type Of Professional Man” in The Miseducation Of The Negro, although published three decades later, bears a close resemblance to Dubois’ Talented Tenth.  Woodson wrote: “Negroes should study for the professions for all sane reasons that members of another race should go into these lines of endeavor and also on account of the particular call to serve the lowly of their race.”

Dr. DuBois Was the Preeminent Champion of Liberal Education

W.E.B. DuBois

Yet more objective in his critique of Washington 

Hoberman quotes the following passage from The Miseducation of the Negro, and, as is his habit, proceeds to draw the worst possible conclusions about Afro-American life. “Negroes, then, learned from their oppressors that there were certain spheres into which they should not go because they would have no chance therein for development.”  From that comment by Woodson, Hoberman concludes that “Intellectual curiosity itself was being strangled at birth.” But it does not follow that this was the result.  I have heard similar comments from Jews who went on to outstanding careers in the learned professions.  Among the people who told me his Russian immigrant father discouraged a serious pursuit of advanced education because he didn’t believe it would lead to success in a land run by Anglo Saxon anti-Semites, is the brilliant New York attorney Martin Garbus.

           Dr. Carter G. Woodson

 Dr. Carter G. Woodson

 The Father Of Afro-American Historiography

 And in any case Dr. Woodson is describing an attitude that existed among some Afro-Americans over half a century ago, when it was wise counsel for black parents to warn their children about the restrictions America’s racial caste system placed on their life chances.  Even now it is sometimes wise for black parents to counsel their children against pursuing certain careers – a tactic with which Hoberman obviously concurs if the kid is an athlete.

However, I think that a brilliant black ballet dancer, operatic tenor, or classical violinist has less of a chance to rise to the top of their profession than a similarly talented black athlete.  That’s why I discouraged my daughter from seriously pursuing a career in ballet, and many black parents advise their children from pursuing a career in European classical music- especially those who have first hand knowledge of the added burdens that race imposes on an already demanding field of endeavor.

Furthermore Woodson, whose pioneer role in Afro-American historiography is above reproach – was not always consistent in his opinions regarding racial uplift.  For instance, in the same book quoted by Hoberman, Woodson himself ridicules the aspirations of highly educated Afro-Americans whose academic training only led to disillusionment because their ambitions could not be realized under the American racial caste system.

“In the schools of business administration Negroes are trained exclusively in the psychology and economics of Wall Street and are, therefore, made to despise the opportunities to run ice wagons, push banana carts, and sell peanuts among their own people.”  Woodson’s scathing critique of black  businessmen is echoed in his criticism of striving black journalist: “In schools of journalism Negroes are being taught how to edit such metropolitan dailies as the Chicago Tribune and the New York Times, which would hardly hire a Negro as a janitor.”

However, what Hoberman also fails to mention is that Woodson saves his most caustic criticism for the white teachers and administrators who make their living misleading black students whom they despise.  “These misfits belong to the very group working out the segregation of the Negro,” Woodson argued “and they come into these institutions mainly to earn a living.  They make no particular contribution to the development of education, for they are not scholarly enough to influence educational theory; and they are so far out of sympathy with the Negro that they cannot make any contribution to educational practice.”

 Clearly a great part of Woodson’s contempt for these whites, who owed their positions to the politics of race, was that they should be directing the education of black youths while great scholars like Kelly Miller, Dubois and himself, who could have made a priceless contribution were denied the opportunity!  And when Woodson spells out his ideas about a suitable pedagogy for black youths, it sounds a lot like what the best Afrocentric intellectuals advocate today; especially strong programs in African and Afro-American history, reassessments of religion and the bible from a black point of view, and an approach to the study of language that bears a striking resemblance to Ebonics.

  While Dubois disagreed with aspects of Tuskegee’s educational program, what he most abhorred about Washington was his accomodationist social and political policy, as expressed in his 1895 speech at the World Exposition of Cotton Growing States, which Dubois labeled the “Atlanta Compromise.” The positions on black affairs advocated by Washington in that speech and many other public utterances won over powerful white men even as it made him sound like a character right out of Stanley Elkins’ infamous essay “Slavery and the Sambo Personality.”  But those who have read historian Louis Harland’s works on Washington know that his humble Uncle Tom public image was a mask.

It was a masquerade dictated by the imperatives of survival under the oppressive caste system that prevailed in Washington’s America, and was immortalized in Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem “We Wear the Mask,” as well as in the folk ditty “Got one mind for white folks to see/ got another mind I know is really me.”  Washington was anything but the obsequious darky most white Americans believed him to be.  Despite the fact that he spent his first decade as a slave, like Frederick Douglass, Washington developed into a sophisticated cosmopolite who became quite at home In the company of powerful white men.   And he was the best ever at getting those white men to support his causes!

The Wizard Of Tuskegee


 The Slave Who Became an Aristocrat

Washington promoted the idea of industrial education so heavily because he, like other black southern educators to follow, understood that  it was much easier to placate racist southern officials and northern white philanthropist if he privileged vocational training over a liberal academic education.  Furthermore, this philosophy was intended to serve the needs of a predominantly rural population whose main experience with the world of work was the plantation, as former chattel slaves and sharecroppers.

Many of the students who graduated from Tuskegee Institute, like my uncle Birnry, went on to establish businesses and sold their services to the highest bidder, becoming property holders with money in the bank.  And this is precisely the outcome Booker T. wanted for Tuskegee graduates.  Aside from the Herculean task of raising money, he had the added burden of trying to sustain the school in Ku Klux Klan infested rural Alabama at a time when black people were being lynched throughout the south at a rate of one every two and a half days.

That’s why he adopted a strategy of making public statements accepting segregation and denouncing political agitation, while finessing huge sums of money from super rich industrialist, like Andrew Carnegie, and secretly financing lawsuits challenging racial inequality.  By the time Albert Murray, one of America’s most literate men, attended Tuskegee in the thirties the campus had developed sufficient intellectual resources to produce a Ralph Ellison, to whom Hoberman dedicates his book.

It should be duly noted that Ellison’s stint at Tuskegee is the only formal education he ever received.  A poignant look into the intellectual life of some of the students of that era can be found in Murray’s “The Spy Glass Tree,” which paints a very different picture of black college life from “Invisible Man,” although he was at Tuskegee when Ellison was there, albeit an underclassman.

Hoberman’s argument that the philosophy of industrial education in black schools, which was centered at Tuskegee, limited the cultural aspirations of their students to manual work, and that these demoralized students then turned to athletic hero worship for some sort of psychic salvation is absurd!

His contention that black athletes who are failing in white universities today have been damaged by a educational philosophy that was advocated in some black colleges in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is without any factual basis whatsoever, and he makes no attempt to establish one.  An obvious test for his thesis would be to compare the graduation rates of black athletes at white colleges with those of black colleges.

I suspect that a comparison of the graduation record of students who played for Grambling’s Eddie Robinson, who has more victories than any coach in the history of college football and is a steady supplier of superstars to the NFL, with the records of some of the better known white football coaches, might easily discredit Hoberman’s half baked theory.  And I also suspect that’s why he avoided such a comparison.

The Great Eddie Robinson

 Eddie Robinson - All time great

He insisted that his players get a degree

 The fact is that those of us who went off to black colleges in the fall of 1959, the generation that launched the student sit-in movement, found schools which were overwhelming devoted to providing a liberal academic education.  The educational philosophy of Dubois had long triumphed over Washington’s.  If black students had been the demoralized, sports fixated, ignoramuses Hoberman describes we would have been incapable of waging the heroic struggle that toppled southern apartheid.

Although I grew up in the segregated south the black southern students, schools and community Hoberman describes are strangers to me.  One of the reasons why he misses his mark is because he freely mixes events and eras in such a way as to arbitrarily attribute events of one era to causative factors from another.

For instance, his conclusion that the beatings which are a part of the hazing rituals of black fraternities are symbolic re-enactment’s of the ordeals of slavery, rather than the far more plausible explanation that these violent practices were simply copied from the white fraternities on whom the black Greek letter organizations are patterned, is a strong case in point regarding the shortcomings of his methodology.  Hoberman avoids the rather obvious conclusion that black fraternities borrowed their hazing rituals from white fraternities, even while admitting that more students have died from white fraternity hazings.

It is puzzling how Hoberman chastises other authors throughout his text for advancing spurious arguments that violate the principles of scientific investigation, then so brazenly engages in the practice himself.  Reflecting on the fictive character of Hoberman’s theories about Afro-American culture, I wondered if it might be the result of his long involvement in literary studies, a field where subjective interpretation and creative riffs on the facts  are accepted practices.  But his willingness to repeatedly draw the most perverse conclusions about Afro-American life based on the flimsiest of evidence calls into question not only his methods but  his motives.

Bart Landry, an Afro-American sociologist at the University of Maryland, who is an authority on the black middle class, raised questions about Hoberman’s misuse of evidence in a paper presented to the symposium entitled “Are We Our Brother’s Keeper?”

Responding to Hoberman’s charge that the black community – including the middle class – has a historical sports fixation that has prevented them from stressing the importance of education, Prof. Landry observed: “I find these charges to be frivolous at best, especially since evidence to the contrary is either omitted or discounted by him.  While giving the impression of knowing a great deal about black history and contemporary black life, Hoberman ignores the fact that blacks of all classes have historically placed strong emphasis on education.”

 Willie Galimore

 Willie Galimore

He invented the modern running back style

Landry’s view of the Afro-American community’s devotion to education is reminiscent of my own memories of how education was regarded in the black southern community in which I grew up.  I went to all black schools from elementary school up to college, and I can’t remember a single teacher, including the coaches, who suggested that we pursue a career in sports., nor hold up athletes as our most important role models.

This was true in spite of the fact that football was almost a rite of passage for black and white males in Florida, and that my small high school, in Saint Augustine, had produced two players who played in the National Football League during the openly racist fifties.  Bill Irving played with the Philadelphia Eagles, and the great Willie Gallimore; whose feats with the Chicago Bears qualitatively changed the running back’s game.

But not even these two splendid athletes were held up as role models in whose footsteps we should try to follow, because our parents and teachers had far better sense than that.  The race heroes who were most often celebrated in our schools and churches were Booker T. Washington, scientist Dr. George Washington Carver, Generals Benjamin Davis junior and senior, Civil rights lawyer Thurgood Marshall, labor leader A. Phillip Randolph, Nobel Laureate Ralph Bunch, pioneer heart surgeon Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, Dr. Charles Drew, the inventor of blood plasma, inventor Elijah McCoy, “The Real McCoy,”  classical singers Marion Anderson and Roland Hayes, educator and racial diplomat Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, and just before I graduated from high school Ghanaian President Kwame Nkrumah, Egyptian President Abdel Gamel Nasser and Dr. Martin Luther king was added to the list.

        Our Hero!

 Dr. Carter in his Lab

Dr. George Washington Carver in his lab

The only athletes who warranted honorable mention in the pantheon of black heroes listed above were Jackie Robinson, Jesse Owens, Joe Louis, and Althea Gibson.  And these athletes were celebrated more for the racial obstacles they had to overcome and the racial uplift propaganda that could be gleaned from their triumph over whites on and off the playing fields .

And once he became the Vice President for Personnel, with the Chock Full of Nuts corporation, that achievement was elevated far above his baseball exploits by the leaders of Afro-American opinion.  And in any case, the self-control Robinson maintained because he recognized that he was a path blazer for other black people was what black preachers, teachers and other members of the educated class always celebrated most in him.

Robinson was as much admired for his articulate speech, elegant style and dignified demeanor as his outstanding play.  And in his later years it was his active participation in the civil rights movement that won him the most respect from black Americans.  One of the real scandals of this book is the way Hoberman totally misreads the significance of Jackie Robinson to Afro-Americans.

Let me elaborate on just how badly Hoberman misses the mark.  I am engaged in a project to interview everybody who is still alive that participated in the bloody demonstrations in St. Augustine Florida during  1963- 64, the brutality of which served as a catalyst for the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Bill; a piece of legislation that radically altered race relations in America and changed the country for the better.

One of the people interviewed was my boyhood friend Heywood Fleming, who was a soldier on the front lines during the protracted racial conflict that greeted the movement for civil rights on the part of the oldest African-American community in the country.  I asked him about one march in particular, a night march down to the old slave market In the heart of the ancient city.

When I read about it in the carefully preserved documents in the city’s historical archives, I was amazed at how they commanded the intestinal fortitude to carry out the march when everybody knew that “Hoss” Manucy and his posse of armed rednecks called “The Ancient City Gun Club,” a chartered organization that allowed the white racist to arm themselves to the teeth and use those weapons to threaten and attack black citizens of St. Augustine, would be laying In wait for them.

Having grown up there and walked that route many times, I knew there were endless nooks and coveys from which an aggressor with murder on their minds could hide out and launch a surprise attack.  Furthermore, the black marchers were pledged to remain non-violent in the face of a violent attack from the rednecks.  The whole thing was quite Incomprehensible to me; I was committed to Malcolm X’s position: “If a cracker lays a hand on you or anybody you care about try your best to put him six feet under!”

I felt that way then and I feel that way now.  So it was with genuine curosity that I asked Heywood: “How did yhall do it…where did you get the nerve?”  His reply astonished me.  “Well, you know It was a very religious atmosphere around the movement; I mean Dr. Martin Luther King had just delivered a great sermon and there was all the good singing to fire up the crowd.  We definitely felt that we were doing the Lord’s work, and that he was on our side.”

“But I was still unsure if I was going to march or not,” Heywood said, “I mean it was a really scary situation.  But our leaders kept telling us that the world was with us and if we kept marching we would eventually win our freedom; we just had to stand firm and keep our eyes on the prize.”  Although I have been an avowed atheist since I was thirteen, his description of the central role of religion didn’t really surprise me.

But I was shocked when he said: “I was still sitting up in the sanctuary trying to make up my mind while others were falling in line to begin the march; then somebody came running up the stairs and shouted excitedly ‘Jackie Robinson is downstairs and he’s gonna march with us!”   I ran to the window to see if it was true’ and when I saw Jackie Robinson standing in the middle of Washington Street that’s when I made up my mind to march.  Because we felt like if Jackie Robinson was with us we couldn’t lose!”  Hence contrary to how Hoberman and a few northern black militants feel about Jackie: to the struggling black people of St. Augustine he was a saint!

This admiration springs for the things Jackie contributed to our struggle. This includes his putting up with bullshit insults from white boys he could have squashed like a fly, in order to open doors for other black players.  Although Mr. Hoberman doesn’t seem to realize it – perhaps it’s because of the Teutonic inclination to violence in order to get their way – the posture assumed by Jackie when he came into Major League baseball require great discipline and incredible courage.  It also required a great love for and commitment to the freedom and progress of his people.  And it was these qualities, rather than his athletic exploits, that won him the love and respect of millions of Americans black and white!

Hence there was no dichotomy between athletics and scholastics In the black communities I came of age in.  Although I doubt that anyone of my generation loved playing football more than I did, that love didn’t stop me from dreaming about becoming a symphony conductor, nor diminish my curiosity about the wonders of science, nor prevent me from becoming a civil rights activist – although certain football players at A&M shunned involvement in the movement because they thought it could hurt their athletic careers – nor did it dampen my love for reading Shakespeare.

I first heard the ideas of European philosophers like Kant and Spinoza passionately debated by local black college football and basketball players like “Bubby Robinson” and “Big Bama,” outside of McCall’s barbershop, which became an important center for organizing the civil rights struggle when Martin Luther King came to town in 1964, and one of it’s proprietors, Clyde Jenkins, became a hero of the movement.

 Jackie Comforting The Children in St. Augustine

 Jackie in St. Augustine

  A True Hero of Our Struggle!

 Jackie and Martin

Jackie was a close ally of Dr. Martin Luther King

 In my youth growing up in the black schools of Florida, there was no dichotomy between sports and sholastics.   That’s why, although I doubt that anyone of my generation loved playing football more than I did, that love didn’t stop me from dreaming about becoming a symphony conductor, nor diminish my curiosity about the wonders of science, nor prevent me from becoming a civil rights activist – although certain other football players shunned involvement in the movement because they thought it could hurt their athletic careers – nor dampen my love for reading Shakespeare.

I first heard the ideas of European philosophers like Kant and Spinoza passionately debated by local black college football and basketball players like “Bubby Robinson” and “Big Bama,” outside of McCalls barbershop, which became an important center for organizing the  civil rights struggle when Martin Luther King came to town in 1964.  One of the proprietors, Clyde Jenkins, became a hero of the movement.  And, I might add, another hero of that movement was Jackie Robinson.

The argument presented by professor Landry confirms my own memory of the importance of education among Afro-Americans.  “In the late 19th and early 20th century,” he writes, “black families were more likely to send their children to school than immigrant white families.  In pursuit of an education, several generations of black youth crowded into one room school houses all over a segregated south.

That this emphasis on educational attainment has continued is evidenced by the fact that in 1976, when financial aid from the government was high, the same proportion of black as well as white high school graduates entered college.  Thereafter, a decline in financial aid resulted in the reduction of black college attendance.”

Landry summed up the prevailing sentiment at the symposium when he concluded that “Darwin’s Athletes” leaves one with “the impression of a book written to ‘prove’ a thesis by marshaling supporting anecdotes and making unsubstantiated sweeping generalizations.”  An excellent example of Hoberman’s selective use of evidence is his failure to mention the fact that Richard Williams, the father of Venus and Serena Williams, is the only parent to our knowledge who withheld two world class teenage tennis players off the international circuit because he thought it was “child abuse.”

Instead, he sent his daughters to school, an act which was regarded as bizarre by the legions of middle class white parents who couldn’t wait to push their less talented progeny onto the tennis courts of the pro circuit.  But then, guys like Richard Williams are almost always viewed by white Americans as exceptions to the rule who just pop up out of nowhere.  They are rarely seen as the product of enlightened Afro-American cultural traditions.


Richard Williams


 The smartest parent in tennis! 

“Do middle-class blacks like sports?” Landry asks, dealing with the heart of Hoberman’s indictment of the black elite for having succumbed to “a sports infatuation.”   “Certainly many do.  Do Middle-class blacks focus on sports more than whites?  Well, no one really knows.  However, national time use surveys by one of my colleagues at the University of Maryland, John Robinson,… show that middle-class whites devote more time to attending sporting events than do middle-class blacks.  The same is true for working class whites.”  However, not all of the scholars at the symposium agree that even if it’s true that Afro-Americans have a love of sport that amounts to a “fixation,” it is automatically a bad thing.

The most persuasive argument for that point of view was put forth by Dr. Keith A. P. Sandiford, an Afro-Barbadian cricket expert who is a Professor of History at the university of Manatoba, in Canada. “ Some former colonial societies have succeeded extremely well here by emphasizing the value of education, by arguing that athletic triumphs depend to a large extent upon mental acuity, and by promoting their black, brown, and yellow heroes in all disciplines.”  Hence Sandiford, who pointed out that Barbados has the highest literacy rate in the world, argued that  “It cannot be disputed that Barbadian cricketers continue to be lionized by a society still enthralled by the cult of cricket, but the Barbadians (committed as they have traditionally been to  the competing cult of education) have never lost their respect for intellectual genius.  There is, in the final analysis, nothing wrong with the sports fixation itself- so long as it leaves time for other constructive addictions.”

            Cricket: A National obsession in victorian England and Barbados 

Cricket-Player - In West Indies 

Two of the most literate societies in the world!

Sandiford’s argument raises an important question: Why did Hoberman not devote at least a chapter to great black athletes who do not fit the model of the muscle bound ignoramus who, in his mind as well as the racist academics he so vociferously denounces, is the prototype of the black athlete.  Some very obvious examples come to mind.  Paul Robeson, Fritz Pollard, W. Montague Cobb, Benjamin Davis, Arthur Ashe, Allan Page, Leroy and Dewy Selmon, Bernie Casey, Ed Beatty, Jim Brown, Gail Sayers, David Robinson, Grant Hill, Calvin Hill, John Wideman, Napoleon McCallum, Edwin Moses and Karim Abdul Jabbar.  Dr. Ralph Bunche, Gene Fugett, Peter Westbrooks et. al.

Big Paul


As close to Human Perfection as we are likely to see

Given the fact that he lettered in four varsity sports, and went on to play professional football, one could say that if anyone had a “sports fixation” it was Paul Robeson.  Yet few Americans, if any, can match his intellectual and artistic achievements, not to mention his extraordinary commitment to social justice. But there is only one mention of Robeson in Hoberman’s text , and that was an obviously political statement made by Robeson in an attempt to goad black athletes and entertainers into political action.  And what about John Wideman and Ed Beatty, both of whom turned down an opportunity to play in the National Basketball Association to pursue intellectual and artistic interest.  Wideman took a Rhodes Scholarship and went on to become a literature professor and one of the nations premiere writers, and Ed Beatty, a 7’-1” center, chose to play ball in Europe in order to pursue graduate study in the fine arts.  He is now and internationally renowned painter.

An Officer and a Gentleman!

David Robinson

From the Naval Academic to the NBA Hall Of Fame

David Robinson and Napoleon McCallum are both graduates of the Naval Academy, Calvin Hill has a Masters degree from Yale, his son Grant is a Duke Graduate, W. Montague Cobb, who was a collegiate boxing champion in two weight classes as well as a cross country racing champion, went on to get an MD and a Ph.D.  Allen Page, whom many consider to be the best defensive tackle ever, is the Chief justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court.  And what of  Charley ward, the Hiesman winning quarterback who was drafted by a professional baseball team, and now starts at point guard for the New York Knicks.  His “sports fixation” didn’t prevent him from finishing his degree requirements in three years.

Then there is the splendid example of Peter Westbrooks, whose skill with the Saber took him from the projects of Newark, New Jersey, to New York University, and who became the only American to medal in Olympic fencing.  Today he is a commodities broker in Manhattan and the founder of the Peter Westbrooks Foundation, which has become the center of American world class saber fencing.  In the recent World Cup match in New York, three of the four members of the all black American national team came out of the PFW.

All of the coaches in the PWF are former Olympians and educated successful men: black, white, and Hispanic.  Hence academic achievement is stressed along with athletic excellence.  I cannot imagine a better experience for the inner-city youths – male and female – than participation in the program at the PWF.  If there is any mistake that I have made in the raising of my sixteen year old twins, it is not starting them in the PWF’s fencing program sooner.  Westbrooks has said that he believes fencing saved his life.  His fascinating story can be read in his recently published autobiography. “Harnessing The Anger : The story Of An American Fencer.”

This is just a sampling of the many black athletes who have gone on to productive careers in other fields such as law, medicine, business, education, etc.  Nothing invites suspicion of Hoberman’s motives more than the fact that he makes no attempt to determine the percentage of black college and professional athletes who go on to other careers, or that he fails to examine the factors in their upbringing and socialization which might help explain why these athletes succeeded academically in spite of their “sports fixation.”  This glaring omission lends further credibility to Prof. Landry’s observation that Hoberman has skewed the evidence to support his polemic.  In the end, Hoberman is guilty of the very thing that he accuses Ishmael Reed of .  ”Reed, for example,” Hoberman argues, “who objects with good reason to the image of blacks as a ‘physical people,’ has little more to offer than a collection of inchoate resentments as opposed to a philosophy of action that might move the black image in a more cerebral direction.”

Since this “image” thing is mainly a problem with Hoberman’s white brethren, he should take up the cudgel and lead the fight against the exclusion of articulate Afro-Americans from the major forums of opinion instead of preaching to the converted.  I would argue that the reason for the paucity of black intellectual images is not due to a shortage of black intellectuals to fill this role – I could produce enough brain power from just among my friends to change that perception, whether the subject matter deals with the arts, politics or science – but is the result of a calculated effort to restrict their access to the media in favor of apolitical athletes and entertainers.  And while Hoberman acknowledges this fact, he offers no plan of action to correct it.  Which is a serious failing because, alas, it is a White problem.

At this moment in American history there are no regular black commentators on the major Sunday morning network television news shows, not even the sort of black men or women that whites regard as reasonable or safe.  Perhaps this is because they remember that the last time black intellectuals were given wide access to the media, back in the sixties, they helped to bring and end to American apartheid and set off a series of social upheavals that are still making waves i.e. feminism and women’s studies, resistance to military adventures abroad, black studies, ethnic studies, affirmative action, Gay Pride, etc.

On more than one occasion Hoberman expresses surprise that black intellectuals have not attacked the black community’s “sports fixation” as a “social pathology” which is the major cause of the vocational and educational problems of black men.  However, William Julius Wilson, who has studied the causes of black joblessness and poverty for twenty five years, and defined the myriad maladies it has given rise to in black life, dose not even mention sports as an important factor – just like Dubois and Woodson earlier.  And, anyway, for a white guy who teaches at the university of Texas, a state where a Hiesman trophy won by a semi-literate black running back would bring the university more money and recognition from the white folks of his state than if “darwin’s athletes” won the Pulitzer Prize, or a National Book Award, complaining about  black folks having a “sports fixation” is really a case of the pot calling the kettle black!

Are These People Suffering From A Sports Fixation?

U of Texas football Fans

Charity, and paternal advice, begins At home Mr Hoberman!

Furthermore, given the serious problems with alcohol abuse among the white students at the University of Texas – recently exposed in a HBO special – it’s all too obvious that many of these students would benefit from involvement in the rigorous training that excellence in sports demands.  But Hoberman can ignore these obvious facts, and gloss over the institutionalized racist practices which are increasingly pushing Afro-American men out of the job market, because they do nothing to support the black pathology arguments in which the professor appears to have an emotional investment..

Even a casual reading of “Darwins athletes” leaves one with the feeling that John Hoberman has a visceral disdain for the black male style.  When he writes about the braggadocio and swagger, the trash talkin – what the Afro-American linguist Geneva Smitherman calls jokin, jivin and signifyin – or the celebratory impromtu dances that often follow a great play, the biting tone of Hoberman’s criticism suggest a personal offense.  Where almost everyone else in the world -this writer included – marvels at the high style, amazing grace and prowess of the black athlete, Hoberman envisions a narcissistic display of black male “physicality” that masks feelings of intellectual inferiority.

In his paper about the ways basketball players and rappers influence each other entitled “It’s All About the Benjamins: Style, Cultural Identity, and the Modern-Day Nigga Athlete,” Professor Todd Boyd, of the  University of Southern California, argued that  “John Hoberman’s problem is that he is a player hater!”  Boyd explained that “player hater” is a term that rappers use to describe the mixture of jealousy and disdain which many middle and upper class people feel toward lower class black males who make a lot of money through entertainment or sports, but refuse to change their street oriented style.  “White America does not know what to do with these gifted young black men who have acquired wealth and fame but continue to maintain their ghetto connections.”

Interestingly enough, the black intellectuals whom Hoberman finds most helpful in pathologizing black athletic excellence are black conservatives whom rightwing whites, with whose aims Hoberman claims to disagree, routinely call upon to co-sign all sorts of anti-black claims, namely Glenn Lourey and Shelby Steele – although Lourey has recently gone on the op-ed page of the New York Times to protest the yes-man role assigned to black conservatives by their white counterparts.  Hoberman’s choice of black intellectual authority was duly noted by Angela Dillard, a historian of ideas at NYU, in her insightful paper : ”Hoberman’s Heroes : Black Conservative Intellectuals and the Post Liberal Critique of Race And Sport.”

Aside from whatever intellectual and ideological interest they hold in common however, I suspect that there is a bond beyond politics which has drawn these strange bedfellows together: They all lack the “physicality” associated with black men.  I cannot imagine the rotund professor Lourey playing any sport, and I’d bet my bottom dollar that professors Lourey, Hoberman and Steele are  secret  members of the Wallflower Order, those terminally awkard souls who suffer from two left feet and live in constant terror of the dance floor.  This probably explains the revenge of the nerds tone of this misguided tome.

Hence, at the end of the day, John Hoberman’s original sin was associating the good name of Brother Ralph Ellison with this dreary text.  For if it didn’t have that swing it didn’t mean a thing to Oklahoma Red, who was a killer diller on the dance floor.  Like Malcolm X  and Martin Luther King, Ellison took great pride in his dancing and talked trash about it too.  “Part of my pride in being what I am is that as a dancer, as a physical man,” says Ellison, “I bet you I can outdance, outriff most of these intellectuals who’re supposed to have come back…It’s a glorious thing to know the uses of the body and not to be afraid of it, but that has to be linked to the mind.”

In my experience, and that of every black American of my generation- and earlier ones – that I have quizzed about this issue, this has always been the attitude toward participation in sports among educators and other authority figures in the Afro-American community.  “Sports are fine but once you get somthing in your head not even the meanest cracker can take it away,” was common advice in my youth.  That’s why I feel no inhibition about saying candidly that anyone who claims black Americans did not value the mind is either an ignoramus or a charlatan!

When the Pulitzer Prize winning essayist, Alan McPherson, arrived at Ralph Ellison’s apartment to interview him in 1968, after Ellison was well into middle age mind you, he found him with “a pair of high powered binoculars close to his eyes.”  Ellison was sitting “by the window of his eighth floor Riverside Drive apartment looking down.  Across the street, in the long strip of green park which parallels the Hudson River, two black boys are playing basketball. ‘I watch them every afternoon,” he says, and offers the binoculars to me.”  Obviously Ellison, like most other people who have had the opportunity to see them perform, also got a big kick out of watching the artistry of the Afro-American athlete.  And we know from his comparison of Joe Louis with the best ballet dancers that Ellison was capable of viewing black athletes as artist – a position that Hoberman regards as an abomination when taken by other black intellectuals.

Frankly I don’t give a fig what Hoberman thinks about what is, or is not, art.  Anyone who is familiar with the history of western art knows that there is a never ending debate about what should be included in the canon of art.  The creation of the Whitney was an effort to seek formal recognition for the achievement of American artists, while the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenhiem were the result of a raging debate about the value of modern art in general – a genre not considered important by the venerable Metropolitian Museum of Art.  Once upon a time Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Marcel Duchamps and Salvadore Dali were widely viewed as talentless iconoclast. Charles Dickins, Mark Twain, and James Joyce were deemed unworthy of inclusion in the literary canon.  Johanne Sebastin Bach was viewed as a menace to sacred music by the princes of the German Church, and Jazz was once considered artless jungle music created by savage sensibilities.  Well, so much for authoritative opinions as to what can be considered art !


Muhammad Ali

A Fancy Dancer with Great Athletic Prowess


For grace and Beauty of movement: Barishnahov Had nothing on Ali!

 For my money, anyone who cannot appreciate the artistry of Pele on the Soccer field or Sir Garfield sobers on the cricket field, Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Robinson and Wilfredo Benitez in the boxing ring, Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, Magic Johnson, Julius Irving and Michael Jordon on the basketball court, Peter Westbrooks wielding his saber, and Lynn Swan, Gail Sayers and Warren Moon on the football field is automatically disqualified from any serious discourse on art.  I predict that history will judge them to be as narrow minded, insensitive to innovation, and short sighted as those who once dismissed Picasso, Twain and Bach.

Finally, since I don’t think I could say it better, I will defer to Prof. Lee D. Baker’s argument as to the real meaning of Hoberman’s obsession with black athletic excellence as socio/cultural pathology: ”Since the 1970’s poor people of color have been adversely affected by the transformation from a from a goods producing to a service producing economy.  The low wage/high-wage polarization, the relocation of industry, and the reduction of federal moneys to urban and rural areas has increased poverty, joblessness, and the welfare rolls, despite the passage of civil rights legislation and a booming economy.  People who see lack of personal responsibility, poor family values, or a fixation on sports, as root causes of entrenched poverty, soaring incarceration rates, and disparate per capita school expenditures, can easily substitute culture for biology.  In effect, they subtly shift the cause of racism from being black to acting black.”  Few white peddlers of black pathology theories have pulled off this bait and switch more adroitly than professor Hoberman.


Playthell Benjamin

Harlem New York


Farewell To The Empress Of Swing

Posted in Cultural Matters, Music Reviews with tags , , , on October 17, 2009 by playthell

  Betty Carter, The quintessential Jazz Singer


A Blues Remembrance For Be Bop Betty

Even the heavens threatened to cry.  As the morose gray sky blended with the brackish waters of the Hudson river below, it seemed as if mother nature was bearing witness that a bright star had gone out of the world.  Across the street from Riverside Church, an American gothic treasure, with memorials from the revolutionary era at his feet and the imposing edifice of Grant’s Tomb upon the hill, brother Loqman stood on a patch of grass passionately beating out the rhythms of the Pan-African world on his Jembe drum.   

It was the same spot where he had stood during the final rites for sister Betty Shabazz, heralding her departure with the rhythms of life. The heavily dread-locked drummer appeared to believe, like Duke Ellington, that a drum is a woman, and that he has been called by the gods of mother Africa to provide the rhythms for these incandescent spirits to dance and join the ancestors.  Last time it was Betty Shabazz, this time the drum bade farewell to Betty Carter, the universally acclaimed Empress of Swing.

Well before entering the sanctuary, I surmised that the state of American high culture could be gauged by what went on In there.  For there is no art more representative of American inventiveness, democratic ideals and reverence for technical excellence than the art of Betty Carter, who embodied the uniquely American love of enterprise and innovation. Thus anyone professing some knowledge of the importance of artistic expression and its place in society should have been there with bells on.

As the eleven o’clock hour arrived and the festivities began, the church slowly filled with a stylish crowd that was mostly black, brown and beige, exposing the myth that those who love jazz artist live outside the Afro-American community.  Although we were in the heart of Manhattan, the cultural capitol of the world, judging from the complexion of the congregants it is safe to say that the Euro-American cultural elite was conspicuously underrepresented. No matter.  In spite of the backwardness of the cultural establishment, this nation’s most original contribution to western art was in very good hands, the hands of the creators. And we bade “Be Bop” Betty farewell with the high style and joie de vie that she personified in her life and art.

It was clear from jump street that we were in for a jam session of words and music – spoken, sung and swung – when the Right Reverend Doctor James A. Forbes, rector of Riverside Church, called the supplicants to “worship and invocation” then proceeded to pay homage to Be Bop Betty – whom he described as “a sister of sense and soul” – with an erudite discourse on the relationship between the jazz esthetic and the art of the African American sermon.

         The Right Reverend James Forbes

 James Forbes - Preacher of the gospel

 Offering a praise song for Betty

Seated to my right was the quintessentially hip Elombe Brath – a native New Yorker, longtime friend to Betty Carter, an artist in his own right, and political activist par excellence. And to my right sat his brother Kwame – an art photographer who has been photographing the black New York cultural scene since the great artistic awakening of the sixties with a sensitive eye and discriminating taste that calls to mind James Van der Zee’s marvelous portraits from the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920’s. Hence the question of whether it would have been truer to African American history and tradition if the memorial had been held in a Harlem venue like Abyssinia Baptist church, soon came up.

It was a fair question, given the fact that Abyssinia’s late great pastor, the Reverend Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, married jazz singer and virtuoso pianist Hazel Scott, and the present pastor, the Reverend Doctor Calvin O. Butts, has hosted jazz performances like Wynton Marsalis’s musical impressions of a Afro- American church service, “In This House On this Morning,” in the sanctuary.

But when the Right Reverend Forbes, standing in the elevated pulpit of Riverside church, elegantly bedecked in the colorful vestments of his sacred office, began to scat a sermonic jazz rap reminiscent of the great organist Jimmy Smith’s musical evocation, “The Sermon,” Elombe rose to his feet enthusiastically applauding along with the rest of the audience.  After that the question of venue was a dead issue, wiped out by the power of brother Forbes’ soulful oratory; which, like the art to which Betty Carter devoted her life, was subversive of Eurocentric esthetic standards.

The joyous tone of this convocation of remembrance for the great spirit who had brought so much pleasure to the world with her soul serenade, acquired the force of canonical law when the Veteran Jazz DJ Pat Prescott – who spoke to us in a honey smooth black female voice which has long soothed and instructed Jazz lovers in the New York Metropolitan area while dispensing ear candy over the  airwaves – announced that we had not come together to weep and moan, but rather “to celebrate the life and work of Betty Carter.”

An essential component of that celebration was the presentation of musical offerings by young musicians who had been inspired and instructed by Ms. Carter.  Hence Ms. Prescott’s remarks were punctuated by a moving acapella performance of “I Feel Like Going Home” by the Reed sisters, three young afro-American singers from the Midwestern city of Milwaukee, whom Ms. Carter had presented to New York audiences through her “Jazz Ahead” concerts, which were designed to seek out and develop the most promising jazz talents regardless of race or region.

When she kicked off what was intended to be an annual jazz festival for youths at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Majestic theater, which is located virtually around the corner from her house, I covered it in a feature story for the Sunday Times of London. Since I will post the article on this site (see “School for Cats”) I have refrained from discussing my take on the details of Ms. Carter’s musical development and her approach to musical instruction of young artist in this essay because it can be read there.  However there was no absence of such discussion at the Riverside memorial.

 The Empress Droppin Science!

Betty Carter, The empress Teaching the young cats to swing

Dr. David Lionel Smith and Ms. Manefa Carson presented the two outstanding offerings on this subject.  Appropriately titled “Love Notes To Betty,” Dr. Smith, the dean of Faculty at Williams College, spoke to the intellectual and spiritual aspects of Ms. Carter’s art and her approach to instructing the musical apprentice.  “Music is a sacred thing,” said Dr. Smith, and reminded us once more that “Betty was an artist who celebrated truth and beauty.”  He pointed out that an essential element of her style was how she managed to create “moments of intimate communication in public performance.”

Dr. Smith told the appreciative audience “I was deeply impressed by the passion and deep intelligence in everything that she did.  She had an analytic intelligence that considered every element of a song.”  Dr. Smith went on to elucidate the factors that combined to create the personality whom we had assembled to honor: “she was a strong, smart, forceful woman.  She led her own band; formed her own record company, and made her music her way.  Even when she sang of pain it was triumphant!”

           “An Artist Who Truly Celebrated Beauty

 CarterBetty making magic

  The Empress Elegantly Weaving Her Spell

  “She often talked about the responsibility to teach the young, but she also said that she always learned something from them,” the professor recalled, and then he noted that “Her band was a jazz equivalent of the Tanglewood Summer Institute.”  To those who are hip to academic musical institutions that was quite an impressive claim, because some of the most outstanding careers in European classical music, including  that of the amazing Wynton Marsalis, started there

Dr. Smith pointed out that it was in recognition of her contributions to the education of legions of outstanding professional musicians that William’s College – a distinguished liberal arts institution of higher learning which produced such outstanding Afro-American artists and intellectuals as the path breaking historian Rayford W. Logan, and the pioneering poet/critic Sterling Brown –   awarded Betty Carter a doctorate degree.

Dr. smith concluded his presentation – the most extended riff on the gig – with proclamations from Mayors Rudolph Giuliani and Dennis Archer of New York, and Detroit respectively, and a poignant love note from the nations best known saxophone player Sugar Willie Clinton, who expressed regret that he was unable to make the gig.

“I experienced Betty Carter in a way that only my brother shared,” said Ms. Carter’s oldest son Miles, who was named for the great trumpeter Miles Davis.  After observing the fact that Betty had chosen the role of single mother “before they invented the term,” he shared reminiscences about what it was like to be raised by a strong independent minded blues woman.

What emerged was the heroic image of an irrepressible artist who had to make music or die.  “When I was six years old,” Miles recalled with a smile “she threw me and my brother in a Bonneville and drove across country.  She did what mothers do during the day and gigged in clubs all night…She had only one rule about music: Listen to what you want during the week, but on Sundays we could only listen to jazz classical.”

Mile’s loving ruminations were followed by Manefa Carson, a twenty something Jazz DJ. and poet who shared her own fond memories of encounters with Betty.  She began her offering with a wonderful jazz poem which incorporated the swinging polyrhythm and unpredictable twists and turns characteristic of a Betty Carter riff – what Ralph Ellison called “rebopped bebops.”  She then told the cheering audience that Betty should be remembered as a “teacher, entrepreneur, mother, and peerless artist.”

Like Dr. Smith, Manefa also spoke to Ms. Carter’s role as an educator of young musicians.  At one point in her reverie she laughingly recalled how Betty had once scolded some young horn players about their inability to play a ballad with that loving feeling, suggesting that “they should learn how to make love to a woman” before even trying to play a ballad.  Manefa concluded her comments on Betty as educator with the observation that “Like Art Blakey, she was a university unto herself.”

After the eloquent eulogies and poignant panegyrics we came at last to what the moment was really all about…the love of music.  Music was the grand obsession which nourished the soul of the great artist whom we had congregated to honor.  It was because of the myriad ways her consummate artistry had enriched our lives, singing our stories in rhythm and rhyme that we had gathered to gather in the house of the lord to count her many blessings to us and give thanks.  It was altogether fitting that the most memorable moments should come from the special alchemy wrought by the singers, with piano players taking a close consolation prize.

We got our first glimpse of the bright musical moments that awaited us when the inimitable Abbey Lincoln rose to the occasion and offered up her version of Lionel Hampton’s “Land of the Midnight Sun,” revealing a profound spiritual beauty that I had not heard before.  And I had heard that song a thousand times.  Decked out in a black suit and fly hat, Ms. Lincoln demonstrated by example the true meaning of high style and originality, even while in vocal timbre and musical phrasing she often pointed to her roots in the exquisite vocalese of Lady Day and Dinah Washington.

By acknowledging the magnificent tradition of jazz divas while telling her story on her own voice, Ms. Lincoln paid a high honor to the grand Diva we had come to celebrate.  Her performance echoed Leon Thomas, who came and yodeled in his unique way then offered acapella musical libations to the singer he says “Showed me the path to artistic freedom.”

    A Whole Lotta Soul!      


  Abbey Sang and Made Our Spirits Dance!

 Then came high Jon the conqueror.  By starting out scatting with the band like he was just another horn, Jon Hendricks accented the instrumental aspects of Be bop Betty’s vocal style.  It is enough to know that Hendricks, a black man in apartheid America, walked away from a career in the law in order to pursue a career as a jazz singer to recognize that he was bitten by the same bug that infected Be-bop Betty.  Like her, he is one of a kind.  So when the great Jon Hendricks started crooning “There Will never ever be another you,” I could feel in my soul that he was telling the truth, and the realization of the profundity of our loss was nearly overbearing.

 Jon Hendricks

The King Of Jazz Vocalese


  He Plumbed The Depth Of Our Loss With His Song

 I doubt that there has ever been any class of vocalist who love the art of instrumentalists’ more than jazz singers.  The best of them use their voices as if they were horns, God’s trombones.  It is a reflection of the unique symbiotic relationship between singer and instrumentalist that literally defined the art of jazz from jump street.  All the early jazz instrumentalist sought to imitate the human voice on their horns.

But as the instrumental art became more complex the singers started imitating them.  Betty Be bop once told men in no uncertain terms “I am not a gospel singer!  And I didn’t learn to sing in the church; I was checking out cats like Bird and Dizzy.”   No gospel shouts for this free thinking eulipian, she liked to swing, do Bird and Dizzy’s thing.  Thus it should have surprised none but the most untutored ears to hear the baddest cats in the Apple wailing at her wake.

The cats who lined up with their axes waiting to blow a chorus in honor of the Empress of Swing ranged from the departed sound sorcerer’s  apprentices to great masters like the gap sealer, the little big man himself, the hard swinging incomparably lyrical tenor saxophonist Jimmy Heath.  Some giants of the genre like Max Roach, the most influential percussionist alive, chose not to join the band.  Max tapped out a very personal salutation on the cymbals then returned to his seat, while tenor saxophone icon Sonny Rollins and trumpet master Little Joe Gardner sat silently in the shadows.

While every note that ascended to the high ceiling of the sanctuary seemed to touch some special place in our hearts, next to the singers nothing moved me like the solo piano meditations of Danny Mixon and Cryus Chestnut.  Mixon, who was once married to the queen, thrilled us with a demonstration of the just how powerful music can be when virtuosity is made to serve the deepest sentiments of the soul, and Cyrus Chestnut played “If I should lose You “ with such elegance and profound melancholy I began to wonder if the stars might really fall.

Cyrus Chestnut


 One Of Betty’s many Protégés

I left Riverside church feeling the sense of urgency James Van der Zee describes when he was compelled to take up his camera and try to preserve the happenings of the Harlem renaissance for future generations, so that they will  know what went on in that enchanted place and time.  He said it suddenly occurred to him that “a picture last forever.”  Well so does an essay, I said to myself as I hurried home to my Mac.

After writing feverishly through the night with the music of the Empress of Swing filling the room, repeatedly imbibing libations of Brazilian coffee and Jamaican lamb’s bread, I suddenly felt the urge to dance.  Although lacking the grace and creativity of dance master George Faison, who had been moved by the spirits of the ancestors to rise from his seat in the sanctuary and compose an impromptu dance at the Riverside memorial, I never-the-less arose from my desk and proceeded to bop off time to the relentless swing of the Empress singing “I love music.”

As I faced the eastern horizon and danced to the blues and abstract truths of the Empress’ song, the sun began to rise and a crimson glow fell over the Harlem landscape – which is clearly visible from my crib atop Sugar Hill.  Like the ancient Igungun ritual of the yoruba, I felt that I had called forth the spirit of Be Bop Betty, and in my mind’s eye I could see her spirit dancing in the crimson clouds that cut a swath across the heavens as Sunday came to Harlem.

I could see her as clearly as the rising sun: shoulders hunched and swaying as she gracefully walked the floor groovin to the rhythm, swinging hard with sophistication and soul, controlling the tempo of the relentless swing with and iron hand, king apple jack cap sassily cocked duce tray on her bobbing head – which was thrown back in that defiant posture Betty always assumed when she was really swinging and daring the boys in the band to match her fire.



 * To view Betty Carter as a tutor of young musicians click this link:

* To View Ms. Carter in perfoemance live click this link:

Playthell Benjamin

Harlem, New York

* Portrait of Abby Lincoln by Frank Stewart





An Evening With Edward Kennedy Ellington

Posted in Cultural Matters, Music Reviews with tags , , , on October 17, 2009 by playthell

Duke+Ellington - paragon of elegance

 Duke’s Satorial Style Was as Elegant as his Music

On April 29, 1999, the centennial of the birth of  Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington, I sat outside the elegant brick and stone building on ST. Nicholas avenue, in the Sugar Hill section of Harlem, and listened to some sonic gems from the late jazz master’s copious musical ouvre, a repertoire that includes over 2000 compositions.  Now a national historical landmark, the unassuming and well kept little building was the site of many of the Duke’s numerous compositions about his beloved Harlem.

Sitting outside Duke’s crib, listening to “Take The A Train,”  “Harlem Airshaft,” and “Black, Brown and Beige Suite,”  I could feel his presence; and it resurrected memories of an enchanted evening I once spent with him in his downtown digs back in the early seventies, when the master was in the twilight of his wonderful life.

It was a soft, sparkling, lovely summer afternoon, and I couldn’t  suppress the thought that I was about to experience a rare opportunity to witness history in the making.  For just a few blocks from my crib on the upper west side, the best of the Afro-American and European orchestral traditions were being fused into a marvelous  musical tapestry.  The great Ellington orchestra was participating in a collaboration with the “Symphony of the New World,” for the express purpose of exploring the incandescent musical imagination of the peerless Edward Kennedy Ellington.

It was altogether fitting that the concert was held at The Lincoln Center of the Performing Arts, which was then the most conspicuous center of American cultural schizophrenia. (The Jazz department, which was added a few years ago, is a prominent sign of recovery toward cultural wellness.)   To my mind at the time, this concert was the musical event of the season. I was convinced of this in spite of the rather astonishing fact that New York city was host to over fifty thousand musical performances that year!  For this was a musical offering beyond category.  The most consistently inventive musical craftsman in America would preside over a posse of virtuoso instrumental pioneers, and their vast musical wisdom would be shared with some of the rising stars of the younger generation through the joyful experience of making music.

Kermit Moore

Kermit Moore

Virtuoso Cellist and Conductor of the New World Symphony

Seated side by side on the bandstand were vintage staples of the Ellington orchestra like Baritone saxophonist Harry Carney, Clarinetist Russell Procope, and trumpeter Cootie Williams, and brilliant young masters like Bassist Richard Davis, cellist Kermit Moore, flautist Hubert Laws and violinist John Blair.  And their cooking solos were fired up by the lush sounds of the New world symphony.  Although these two musical aggregations were born of very different esthetic impulses, they came together in perfect harmony on this divine day.

 The Great Ellington Orchestra

Duke Ellington and his orchestra

 For half a century Duke wrote for them

The Ellington orchestra was organized to give expression to the Duke’s unique musical vision and prolific compositional gifts, which produced a fifty year flow of musical portraits and tone poems that captured the beauty and complexities of the cultural ambiance and lifestyles of black America, a virtual sonic kaleidoscope of Afro-Americana that captured the ethos of American civilization. And, I might add, contributed mightily to the creation of Jazz, a neo-African art form which provides a truer portrait of America than any of the paintings by the equally American school of “Abstract Expressionist” painters.

 On the other hand, the now defunct Symphony of the New World – which was named after the famous composition by Anton Dvorsak – which utilized Afro-American melodies as it’s central theme – was the Afro-American musician’s response to the racism and cultural chauvinism that continues to besmirch the reputations of the nation’s leading symphony orchestras.  Hence that orchestra served primarily as a vehicle for those Afro-American composers, conductors and instrumentalists who chose to express themselves in the genre of wholly composed music.  When these two orchestras merged in concert, it was clearly an artistic event of the first order.

 The chain of events which led to my receiving a highly coveted invitation to the after party at Duke’s place began when the Duke was greeting friends, fans and well-wishers back stage after the gig.  As Duke graciously chatted with guests, Master John Blair – a colorful bald head character who looks like a bronze Mr. Clean, but is a master of the martial arts and the violin – eased up behind Duke and started playing a medley of his tunes.  Plesantly surprised, Duke turned around broadly smiling and said “so you’re a jazz violinist too huh?”  Then he invited John to come party at his place.

For my part, it was a case of being in the right place at the right time.  Since Master John Blair was my main man, he invited me to tag along.   It was a short trip to Fifty Ninth street and Columbus Circle, where Duke kept and apartment overlooking the southern most entrance to Central Park .

Approaching the entrance to the building I reflected on the fact that at the turn of the century, a community called “Black Bohemia” was located just a few blocks away.  It was the home of such gifted Afro-American artists as Hubie Blake, Nobel Sissel, Will Marion Cooke, James Reece Europe, J. Rosamond Johnson, James Weldon Johnson, Bob Cole, Bert William’s and George Walker. 

These men played a vital role in the both the creation of the American popular song and the development of the musical theater.  And several of them influenced the musical development of Duke Ellington, especially conservatory trained composer and virtuoso violinist Will Marion Cooke, with whom Duke studied music theory and called “Pops.”

           The View Of Central Park From Dukes Balcony

Puerto rican Day pqrqde 166

Looking Toward Fifth Avenue

 As we entered Duke’s apartment, we were greeted at the door by his sister Ruth, who proved to be a gracious and charming host throughout the evening.  The first thing to seize my attention was a large white grand piano in the middle of the living room floor.  Surrounded by a sea of white walls, drapes and carpet, the piano seemed to stand out as the central fact of this living space.  The overall aesthetic effect was one of purity and singularity of purpose.  It was sort of like entering a temple devoted to the making of music.

I scanned the room observing the anxious nervous energy displayed by various members of the group, as they anticipated the Duke’s presence.  The scene had much in common with a group of religious devotees awaiting the presence of their guru.  As we were introduced around, it became immediately clear that this assemblage comprised a unique collection of personalities.  There was several aging members of the European nobility, sporting titles that suggested the grandeur of a now-forgotten world.  There was a black expatriate symphonic conductor, forced to live in Sweden in order to practice his art.  And a young black man exotically attired in flowing black monk’s robes and a large straw hat, engaged in lively conversation with some erudite members of the Duke Ellington Society.

The gathering also included a smattering of the obligatory record executive types and a few solidly middle-class professionals.  As I strolled about the room, drink in hand, savoring the excellent cuisine and listening to bits and pieces of conversations, I became aware of a sudden and dramatic change in the room.  I looked around and there he was: the musical genius who had left an indelible imprint on the music of America and greatly influenced the orchestral music of the world.  Yes!  There he was, Duke Ellington in the flesh, standing in his own living room.  It was almost too much.

After greeting us with his infectious charm and fabled smile, the Duke walked straight to the piano and sat down.  Strikingly and colorfully attired in a flowing red silk robe, complemented by a floor length white silk scarf, he seemed almost a different species of animal from the rest of us.  It was easy to see how he got the name “Duke”, a name that suggests nobility.  For he possessed the attributes that we have been conditioned to associate with a hereditary nobility.  But Duke was a natural aristocrat, belonging to the aristocracy of talent and genius, which after all is the only one that really matters.  And it soon because obvious that this critical distinction was also recognized by those ascribed aristocrats, who lounged around the room like relics from a European wax museum.

  An American Icon

 Writing in the wee hours of the morning

 The Master In His Element

 Everyone watched in amazement as the Duke secured his cigarette in an elegant holder and began to lightly play through some of his tunes.  As the evening progressed, I could clearly delineate various aspects of his character in the events that transpired.  From the outset his total devotion to music was self-evident.  And the requests arising from the guests testified to the universal appeal of his art.  Some of these people had crossed  an ocean to attend the concert earlier in the day.  After a while, it was clear that several of the guests had seriously followed Duke’s work for thirty to forty years.

 One could hear girlish laughter arising from the group as an elderly Countess recalled first hearing a particular tune in Paris during the thirties, or was it Stockholm in the forties?  In a business as fickle as music, it is difficult for an artist to retain a national audience for five or ten years.  Yet here was a man who had retained an enthusiastic worldwide audience for fifty years!  As Duke responded to requests and moved from one tune to another, I was impressed by the fact that most of these songs were now part of the standard repertoire of American music.

Though we had all heard some of these compositions many times before, like all true classics, they retained a certain freshness and vitality.  Sitting there watching the master at work in the intimacy of his living room, I desperately wanted to explore this fascinating creative personality.  I silently longed for an opportunity to talk to him privately.  I wondered at the artistic sensibility that could conceive these elegant tone poems, based in sophisticated urban blues and surrounded by consistently inventive orchestrations.   Alas, I never got the private audience I craved…. but I did get a chance to talk to him in relaxed moments at the party.

Among the most fascinating lesson’s I learned from my conversation with Duke is that when he composed his suites to various regions of the world he never wrote the music when he was in those places.  “I don’t want to be overly influenced by the local musical traditions, so I always wait until I’m back home to write my impressions.”  And he also confessed to me after a few rounds of champaign: “I’m a sophisticated savage.”   Before I could persuade him to elaborate on his colorful claim our conversation was disrupted by others demanding the attention of the great man.  I understood and bowed out.

Although the American cultural establishment has only recently recognized Duke Ellington’s contribution to American art, awarding him a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for music only this year, the racial,  ethnic and class composition of his long time admirers who came togather on that enchanted evening in July, 1974 demonstrates that rest the world has long recognized the extraordinary creative contribution of the Duke.  It is long past time this prophet became a hero in his own land.



* To see Duke Ellington and his marvelous Orchestra in a variety of performances click this link

Playthell Benjamin

*Originally published on the Centenary Of the Maestro’s Birth      

On Choosing The Lesser Evil

Posted in My Struggle On the Left!, On Dr. Cornell West, Playthell on politics on October 15, 2009 by playthell

Ralph Nader

Some Reflections On The Coming Election

*A Reprint from 2000

Let me make this clear from the outset: I agree with Ralph Nader on just about everything.  Everything but his decision to stay in the presidential race in states where his presence on the ballot could result in a victory for George Bush!  I disagree with Nader’s strategy because I believe that the central task for progressives in the 2000 election is to defeat the Republicans.

For whoever wins the Oval Office will probably appoint as many as three justices to the Supreme Court of the United States, and these judges will surely tip the balance to the right or left on issues that are critical to black Americans, other non-whites, women of all colors, labor, environmentalist, criminal suspects, et al.

At present it looks like the Republicans will retain control of the Senate, and thus will rubber stamp any nomination offered up by a Bush/Cheney White House.  And George “Dubya” has clearly stated that his ideal of a Supreme Court justice is Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas!

Hence it should be obvious that African Americans and others seeking legal redress for past and present injustices face eminent disaster if George W. Bush wins the presidency.  All we need consider is the fact that affirmative action – battered and tattered as it is – will be a dead issue.  It does not require great imagination or exceptional intelligence to understand the devastating effect that the repudiation of affirmative action as a public policy goal would have on the economic advancement of black America.

Especially since the persistent exclusion of African Americans from a broad range of economic opportunity is becoming harder and harder to establish as racial discrimination under the law. The nearly twenty years of Republican control of the Oval Office from Nixon to George Bush senior–interrupted by the four years of the Carter administration– has resulted in a federal judiciary stacked with right-wing judges whose decisions have set a standard for proving job discrimination which is virtually impossible to meet.

Prior to the infestation of the federal bench by these Republican zealots there were many successful class action suits, because the burden of proof the plaintiffs had to meet only required them to prove that a pattern of discrimination existed against a particular group. But rulings from the federal courts in a series of landmark job discrimination cases have changed all that; now the plaintiff must prove intent!

One need only examine the experience of the black professional employees who brought a discrimination suit against Texaco in order to appreciate the obstacles confronting anyone who decides to bring a racial discrimination case against an employer. Although the injured parties eventually won a $357 million settlement, no one associated with the case believes the plaintiffs would have won if a disgruntled white male executive had not come forth with a tape recording of a meeting where top management was heard discussing their plans to discriminate against black employees in blatantly racist language.

The worst thing about the burden of proving intent in racial discrimination cases is that because of the difficulty involved lawyers are increasingly reluctant to take them on unless the plaintiff has cash in hand to pay their fees up front.  And most victims of job discrimination cases are financially strapped; especially if they have lost their jobs–as is often the case.  I discovered this fact when I approached attorneys about filing a suit against a major media corporation.

Recourse to the EEOC –Equal Employment Opportunity Commission–is no panacea either.  Successive Republican Presidents and Republican control of Congress has resulted in the gutting of the EEOC.  For instance, while conducting an investigation into the rampant racial discrimination in the construction industry in New York City, I discovered that the regional EEOC office was responsible for processing discrimination claims in the entire state, the five New England states and Puerto Rico.

Furthermore, they were charged with enforcing compliance with four other statutes besides title VII, and they had only thirteen attorneys to handle all these cases!  That’s why final adjudication of discrimination cases often takes years; in the meantime a plaintiff can starve to death or expire from old age.  Employers are increasingly aware of this and are emboldened by the belief that they can discriminate with impunity. That’s why we desperately need a Supreme Court who will reverse this situation, and we won’t get it from a Bush administration.

I have dwelled on the question of employment discrimination because–as Dr. Dubois noted in the first scientific social studies of African Americans done at the end of the 19th century–so many of the problems that plague the African American community stems from the denial of economic opportunity.  For instance, most of the black prison population is incarcerated for economic crimes i.e. robbery, burglary, drug dealing, and so on, crimes directly related to enforced poverty.

Hence questions of prisoners rights, racial profiling, and other police related matters also arise.  And high crime rates lead many Americans, black and white, to tolerate police practices that have no place in a modern democratic society.  The Republicans are especially dangerous in this regard because they refuse to recognize any connection between poverty, economic discrimination and crime.

They are also weak on issues of gender discrimination and hate crimes, especially George “Dubya,” the Texas hangman who has steadfastly refused to support a hate crimes bill in the state where he is the chief executive.  Can we really afford to take a chance with this man as chief executive of the nation?


As bad as Bush is on these issues, that’s not the worst of it.  His gut feelings about the environment –the guy doesn’t believe global warming is real and wants to drill oil wells in wildlife preserves–and his insane ideas about nuclear weapons, are far more dangerous because they threaten all life on this planet.  Yet this rather obvious fact seems to escape many of the third party zealots who are passionately supporting the candidacy of Ralph Nader for president.

To these feckless fanatics–who sadly include some people I admire, such as the moral philosopher Cornel West and Trans Africa’s Randall Robinson–it makes no difference if the democrats or the Republicans take the White House.  Hence as the polls continue to show Bush and Gore running neck and neck down the stretch, the Nader Campaign is becoming a part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

At first I was hesitant to agree with the New York Times’ charge that Nader is a megalomaniac whose ego driven presidential campaign could result in political disaster…but no more.  The thing that won me over to the Time’s point of view is the fact that Nader now argues he never agreed not to run in states where the election is hotly contested, yet a devoted worker in his campaign showed me an e-mail from Nader’s headquarters in which Nader clearly states that he would not run in states where the outcome was in doubt.  Now what’s up with that?

The campaign worker in question, an African American entrepreneur from Brooklyn, now says that had he known Nader’s candidacy would endanger a Democratic victory over the Republicans, he would never have gotten involved in what he thought was simply an effort to garner 5% of the vote for the green Party.  He tells me he is beginning to feel betrayed by “those know-it-all white folks” who refuse to listen to the reasoned arguments of battle tested black leaders like Jesse Jackson and Major Owens.

Even more revealing in regard to Nader’s self-righteous egotism is the fact that he has failed to hear the pleas and refused to heed the warnings of the Sierra Club, America’s premier environmental watchdogs, who argue that he is in danger of causing the “greatest environmental president ever to lose the White House,” while assisting in the election of the “worst environmental president in history.” Nader’s decision to turn a deaf ear to these eminently reasonable arguments exhibits all the symptoms of a deluded egomaniac.

Nothing I have heard in the din of election chatter is more frightening than some of the statements of the sycophants who turn out in droves to cheer Nader on in his folly.  ABC’s “Nightline” broadcast on Halloween night aired some sound bites from Nader supporters at a rally where their guru was holding forth.  They said things like “He is pure,” and  “He is the Mother Teresa of politics.”  The thoughtful observer is forced to wonder if these people are looking for an effective politician or a saint.

The proper arena for moral absolutist is the church, temple, mosque, or synagogue.  Politics is first and foremost the art of the possible.  It is the process by which power relationships are created and shaped, and compromise is essential to that process in a participatory democracy.  Therefore if a project is not possible it is not politic!  Prudence dictates that we who are struggling to build a better society heed Kwame Nkrumah’s dictum “Seek ye first the political kingdom and all else will be added thereunto.”

Hence I am by choice a political animal; one who understands by instinct and experience that in democratic polities political choices more often than not means choosing the lesser evil!  Thus I am not looking for a saint to lead us.  And I am very suspicious of moral absolutists who take a utopian approach to politics. History teaches us that all utopian movements committed to creating the ideal society, no matter how pious their rhetoric or noble their aims, always result in tragedy and disaster.  Especially when led by self-righteous absolutists who are too proud to beg and too rigid to bend.

Take your choice: the Crusades, Manifest Destiny, The Communist Manifesto, The White Man’s Burden, the Spanish Inquisition, The Mission of Civilization, The Thousand Year Reich, etc.  And it is abundantly clear that a blind devotion to Ralph Nader’s vision of the ideal American society threatens a disaster in the coming election.

Hence all the self-righteous puffery around Nader’s purity of purpose is dangerous folly.  What we need in these perilous times is not a “Mother Teresa,” but a coldly analytical politician who can recognize the realpolitik of the moment, properly assess the relationship of forces for and against his objectives, and act accordingly.

Hence while Mr. Nader’s ideas certainly deserve a hearing, and hopefully will become conventional wisdom in America at some point in the future–sooner rather than later if I had my druthers; only a charlatan or a fool would argue that his time is now.  Hence if Ralph Nader conducts his campaign in such a reckless manner as to assist in a Bush victory, his cure will prove worse than the disease.  And should the Republicans win, no amount of smart mouth prattle, a form of self indulgent verbal exhibitionism of which brother Ralph seems especially infatuated, will adequately explain away his role in boosting a mediocre but very dangerous George Dubya to the most powerful office in the world.

Not only will the Naderites have helped to place Dubya’s grubby little hands on the levers of power, they will also share responsibility for placing his shaky fingers on the nuclear trigger, thereby endangering all life on this planet.  But after carefully listening to Nader’s rhetoric he sounds to me like a man without a clue about the effect a Bush election could have on the delicate balance of nuclear terror embodied in the MAD–Mutually Assured Destruction–doctrine.

Yet this doctrine alone has kept the world from blundering into the abyss of nuclear destruction during the tensions of the cold war.  For instance, when Nader was asked about the dangers of a George Bush presidency by a well informed member of the Nightline audience, he glibly replied, “You all talk like this guy is Genghis Kahn or something…he’s not very smart and he is afraid of confrontations.”

Unable to contain myself in the face of such supercilious sophistry, I leapt from my chair and shouted at the TV ” Yo Ralph!  This guy is fixin to build the Doom’s Day Machine!!”   True.  While the democrats have been forced by a misguided public opinion to flirt with the idea of constructing the shield, I believe that Gore, like Bill Clinton, would leave office after eight years without spending a single dollar on this suicidal project.  But George W. bush has committed himself to building the Doom’s day machine.

Not only has Bush made it clear that he will proceed immediately to construct the anti-missile shield, in clear violation of the ABM treaty, but he has sent out his big intellectual guns, the folks who we are told will instruct him about the critical realities of the contemporary world, to defend that decision.


The most frightening and nauseating example of Bush’s pro-star wars propaganda was Dr. Condoleezza Rice’s speech at the Republican Convention.  Dr. Rice is especially disappointing because like Dr. Alan Keyes, a Harvard Ph.D. in government, she is in many respects the kind of person the African American community has struggled for a century to develop.  A black woman who grew up in Birmingham Alabama,  the heart of segregationist south, and overcame all the obstacles cast in her way due to her race and sex,  Condoleezza is not only an elite academic in the foreign policy establishment and the first woman Provost at Stanford University, but also a classical pianist and figure skater to boot.

On the face of it “Condi,” as she is affectionately called by the reactionary white Republicans who fawn over her, looks like the embodiment of Dr. W.E.B. Dubois’ “Talented Tenth,” except that she has abandoned the essential role that the great scholar/activist envisioned for this class: to serve the higher interest of Afro-Americans, the Pan-African world, and humanity in general.  Instead what we have in Dr. Rice is a charming opportunist on the make, a person so desperate to bask in the aura of power that she is willing to become a nuclear snake oil salesman hyping the advantages of the Doomsday machine.

Yet if anyone in America understands that scrapping the anti-ballistic missile treaty is an invitation to other nuclear powers – especially Russia and China – to disregard all nuclear agreements now in force, it is Condoleezza Rice. No big deal though, because any reasonably intelligent junior high school student can see that this would be a giant step backwards in the fight to rid the world of the threat of nuclear holocaust.

                        The Head Bush Woman: Dr. Condoleezza Rice


                 Is this what 100 years of struggle has wrought: A Suck Up to Power?

Recently some reporters caught up with Dr. Rice at an airport, and one of them confronted her with the fact that fifty Nobel Prize winning physicists have gone on record arguing that the anti-missile shield cannot work.  She dismissed them with the comment that they were “liberal scientists.” When asked if she could name any conservative scientists of equal stature who support her position that the shield should be built, she fled, claiming that she was late for her flight.

Aside from the fact that “Condi” is prepared to defend a policy that she knows could set the world aflame, she is also quite willing to serve as the colored poster girl for the Republican party in their attempt to recruit African Americans to their standard. Party strategists are certain that if they can win a substantial number of black voters they can become the majority party in the US.

This explains her prominence, along with retired general Colin Powell, former All-American football player and Oklahoma Congressman J.C. Watts, and some obscure Republican elected officials, at the Republican convention.  These black Republican apparatchiks headlined a modern minstrel show featuring a contingent of highly visible “minority” participants that Jesse Jackson properly called  “The inclusion illusion.”

I had assumed that the transparent duplicity of the Republican Party’s attempt to feign an interest in the black community would be obvious.  But to my surprise I’ve seen black folks tell TV reporters that they were leaning towards Bush because there were so many non-white minorities featured at the Republican convention.  That ranks right up there along with the working class white folks who say they will vote for Bush because he seems like a regular guy that they could spend the evening having a beer with!

What is all too clear in all this is that the early twentieth century Editor of “The Smart Set,” H.L. Mencken, was right when he dubbed the American public “Boobus Americanus, his name for the untutored mob that still comprise far too much of the US electorate.  It is enough to note the voluminous commentary on how a majority of those who watched the Presidential debates preferred George Bush because Al Gore came off as “too smart.”

All this makes me want to institute a standardized civics test for anyone seeking to exercise the ballot.   The fact is that American society has grown so complex it is impossible to make sense of events if one does not make a serious effort to become informed on the issues.  Thomas Jefferson understood this and even warned that an ignorant electorate stood the risk of electing incompetents or scoundrels to public office.  The rise of lightweight buffoons and oily charlatans like Ronald Reagan and the Bushes demonstrates that Jefferson’s fears were justified.


 Unfortunately, working class Americans, white or black, will gain no clarity on how they should respond to the serious questions that face them from many of our leading intellectuals. Those on the right have sold out, and too many on the left are hopelessly confused. It is a good thing to engage in serious intellectual critiques but now the people need practical advice.  After all, we are about the business of deciding who will be President for the next four years and who will control congress.

This means that their life chances and those of their children are at stake. Yet when the ubiquitous Cornel West was asked by a working class black woman from Brooklyn if he believed poor black folks could afford to follow the example of middle class whites and cut off their nose to spite their face by voting for Ralph Nader and risking a Republican victory, West played past her concerns and pompously lectured her on the failings of the Democratic party.

But the question remains: Do Cornel West, Columbia University’s Manning Marable, Randall Robinson, and other black Naderite intellectuals really believe it is in the best interest of the black community to engage in a protest vote at the expense of a Republican victory?  They sure talk like it.

Instead of telling black voters that while the Democrats are far from perfect the Republicans will murder their dreams, they have gone on a fool’s errand and are counseling the black community to cast their votes on a pipe dream. I have no doubt that these pampered privileged intellectuals will do just fine under four or eight years of Republican mis-rule, just like their white upper middle class counterparts.  But it’s gonna be a hot time in the old town for the folks farthest down.

If these guys can’t see that working people in general, and African Americans in particular, will be better off with Al Gore in the white house and Charlie Rangel in control of the Ways And Means Committee, then the black community, those who are aware that these guys exist, should dismiss them as ivory tower egg heads who are hopelessly out of touch with the nitty gritty realities of working class black folks.

That’s what I’ve done. While I certainly don’t believe the Democrats offer the best possible vision for contemporary American society, I have no doubt that a Republican victory will arrest the progress of African Americans for most of this new century.  Hence I am prepared to accept the lesser evil.




Playthell Benjamin

Harlem, New York

*Originally published in The Black World Today

And read over WBAI Radio on Election Day in 2000.


Monk: Portrait of a Troubled Genius

Posted in Theater with tags , , , , , on October 14, 2009 by playthell

  Monk Returns to the Nuyorican Poets Café!


 Psychohistory as Theater


There are many ways to recount history.  Undoubtedly the most reliable method is that used in the works of professional historians, but it is not always the most compelling.  This has become especially so as the historical profession attempts to become more like the social sciences, privileging statistical analysis and theory construction over a dramatic narrative. This approach may serve just fine in discourses between historians, their colleagues and students, but it takes a good story to capture the hearts and imagination of lay audiences with no particular interest in the past. The historical novel has stepped into this vacuum and helped spread the scholarship of historians to a wider audience with varying degrees of success. It is a risky enterprise however, since the rules of evidence for writing historical fiction are not as rigorously defined as those for writing scholarly histories. This is also true of movies and theater. 

 Yet even so, in the USA the black theater has been on the forefront in clarifying the heroic legacy of hope, faith, struggle and cultural innovation that characterizes the black experience in the modern world. And based upon the nature of cinema and theater, as they have evolved in the US in any case, the theater remains the best medium for the serious exploration of complex character studies. While American films are increasingly driven by car chases, guns, bombs, and special effects, the theatrical drama remains character driven.  Furthermore, given the economics of theater and film production, the theater offers far more opportunities to control the final product, allowing black creative artists to define the image of Afro-Americans in the cultural marketplace rather than some money grubbing philistine interested only in the bottom line.

 Thus, for those who are interested in the Afro-American experience, or good theater, or both, it is great news that playwright Lawrence Holder, a master of the historical drama, and Rome Neal, an accomplished actor who bears an uncanny resemblance to late jazz piano master and composer Thelonius Monk, have collaborated on a play about this great musician and fascinating character. Both men are veterans of the theater, bold souls who persists against formidable odds to bring complex productions about Afro-American life and culture to the New York stage; a heroic enterprise or a fool’s errand depending upon your point of view. 

 Holder is a prolific author who estimates that he has written at least seventy-five plays – exploring contemporary as well as historical subjects. While an impressive feat on the face of it, one realizes the full measure of his accomplishment when compared to the fact that William Shakespeare’s oeuvre consists of thirty-seven plays. Hence seasoned patrons of black theater in New York City have all seen a Lawrence Holder play, for the range of his interests offers something for everybody. A man of eclectic interests, Holder has written several plays about the great southern essayist, novelist and folklorist Zora Neal Hurston, as well as plays about George Bush, Dr. Leonora Fulani and Malcolm X.  In fact I first saw the great Denzel Washington – who went on to become a two time Academy Award winner but was then an unknown – playing Malcolm X in Holders play, “When the Chicken’s Came Home to Roost.” 

 Now Holder has penned a play about the enigmatic genius Thelonious Monk; a man who often jumped up from his piano stool and danced, while the band played on.  A quintessential New Yorker of Carolina roots, and, I suspect from looking at his classically West African visage, of Geechee heritage, Monk was one of the late forties hep cats who launched the Be Bop revolution that made big bands passé’ for the young virtuoso’s who would take modern complex Afro-American instrumental art music to higher ground.  All the bad cats among the boppers – Bird, Diz, Klook, Max Roach, Tommy Potter, Charlie Christian, Oscar Pettiford, et al – say Monk was the man. 

 From their legendary jam sessions at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem, it was Monk’s approach to the harmonics of chord changes, along with Klook’s drumming, that made sense of the emerging style called “Bop;” an artistically challenging style that captured the imagination of all serious instrumentalists who heard it, and won devotees among musicians and fans of music around the world. A man with great generosity of spirit toward his fellow musicians, Monk said of his pivotal role in the creation of Bop: “If my own work had more importance than others, it is because the piano is the key instrument in music.”

 A longtime lover of the art of jazz, Holder has been a serious fan of Monk’s music since he was a teenager.  And he is old enough to have witnessed the late piano virtuoso perform live on many occasions. His first attempt to essay the character of Thelonius Monk for the stage came in 1992, when he wrote  “Monk and Bud,” a play about Monk and his great contemporary jazz pianist Bud Powell.  “I wrote Monk in “1999” because Rome asked me to write it.  He has an affinity for monk; they were born under the same birth sign. And he really digs Monk’s music.” In ninety minutes Holder has miraculously captured the many moods of Monk and presents us with an arresting character. It is a script that incorporates equal proportions of intelligence and insight. Attributes that, when coupled with solid historical research, can result in myth making that reveals deep truths about the subject of a play.

 In “Monk,” Holder has chosen the internal conflicts of an artist in turmoil as the major theme of the play as well as the source of its dramatic tension. “I want to give the audience a vision of a creative artist in crisis.  The sense of the crisis is what creates the drama for the audience as it unfurls, and the way he resolves it. Generally speaking we are dealing with a life cycle, so the unfolding of the crisis takes us right through the person’s life. Different things occurred during different moments and they create different sensations which he gives voice to. There is also much discussion of his music, and frank discussion of his drug use.  But our most important task is to give the audience a sense of Thelonius Monk as a physical person whom things happen to, and who eventually dies, as well as an understanding of the great artist as a human being.”

Monk At Work 

The Genuis At Work

Although “the play is the thing,” as the old adage councils, it is the actor who must bring it to life. Rome Neal seems born to this role. It is a demanding role that requires the actor to create the illusion that we are sharing the inner-life of a multifaceted genius.  With only a sparse set dominated by a piano, Rome riffs on the ivories, laughs and cries, lapses into fits of madness, offers complex commentaries on Jazz music, dances over and again to punctuate points made in his monologue, paints poignant portraits of other master musicians in the Afro-American tradition, and discuss the Darwinian environment of the music business which – like the jungle and show business in general – is red of tooth and claw! 

 A master of the actor’s craft, Rome is the rare thespian who is able to employ all the energies of his body and soul in bringing a character to life.  Equipped with a great script, Rome’s performance reminds me of Andre’ Watts playing Franz Lists’ Etudes on solo piano, or Isaac Stern’s solo performances of the Paganini variations on the violin. Some readers may find the comparison of Rome’s performance of a one-man play about a jazz musician with solo performances of classical music a bit odd; that a comparison with say, McCoy Tyner playing solo piano, would be more fitting.

But this argument fails to take into account that McCoy, like all jazz musicians, is playing variations on a theme that he improvises in the moment; while Rome is interpreting a script, which is the literary counterpart of the classic musical score, which, unlike the jazz score, affords no room for improvisation on the text. Hence, just as William Shakespeare is the literary counterpart of Johan Sebastian Bach, Lawrence Holder is the literary counterpart of William Grant Still.  I chose Still, rather than the Pulitzer Prize winning composer George Walker for instance, because like Holder, Still’s work consciously explores Afro-American traditions.

 Armed with Holder’s poetic and thoughtful text, Rome Neal anoints his audiences with great dramatic meditations on the life that was Thelonius Monk.  If the mark of true virtuosity is to make the difficult look easy, then Rome personifies the dramatic virtuoso. He can change our moods from joy to pathos with his body language and an expressive face that suggests a West African version of the Greek Masks of tragedy and comedy.  Aided by music and lighting effects, he makes full use of the few props that are available on the sparse set of the Nuyorican Poet’s Café, which is the performance I saw – a performance that was roundly praised by his audience.

By simply changing hats Rome is able to give us different sides of Monk’s colorful personality; from the ebullient optimist confident of his place among the geniuses of modern music, to the depressed pessimist who lapses into fits of madness and despair. These are the marks of a great talent to be sure, but the complexities of the thespians art cannot be mastered with talent alone.  It also takes plenty of hard work i.e. study and practice.  Musicians call it “paying your dues.”

 Rome has paid plenty of dues to arrive at his present level of artistic achievement.  He was twenty years old before he was introduced to acting, virtually stumbling into a college acting class when forced to take a humanities elective while working on a business degree.  He showed promise quickly and was cast in “Our Town,” a play by Thornton Wilder. He soon fell in love with acting and minored in theater. When a job in business didn’t open up fast enough after graduation from college, Rome traveled to Africa where he wrote his first play, and upon his return six months later he began teaching an acting class at Tompkins Park in Brooklyn, where he founded a amateur theater troupe called the Neal Ensemble Theater Workshop. Over the last thirty years Neal has played and directed plays in the off off Broadway black theater as well as interracial off Broadway companies like The Theater for The New City, and The Nuyorican Poets Café, where he is the artistic director for theater productions.  

The path that led Rome to the Monk role began when Phillip Hayes Dean, himself a fine playwright, asked him to read the Monk character in Holder’s play “Monk and Bud.” Monk, whose life he felt mirrored his own in some fundamental ways, fascinated Rome. It was while directing Holder’s plays at the Theater for the New City later on that Rome realized that he was also the author of the Monk and Bud..  “When I directed ‘Red Channels -’ a play about the effects of the anti-communist witch hunt conducted by Senator Joseph McCarthy on politically active black intellectuals, artists, and political leaders – I developed a great admiration and respect for Lawrence as a playwright, especially his historical plays and critiques of contemporary life and society.”  And it was this admiration for Holders unique talent that led Rome to ask Holder to write a one-man play about Thelonius Monk.

 A Mighty Three!

Max Roach and Rome Neal

Holder, Legendary Percussionist/bandleader Max Roach and Rome


 “Laurence wrote the Monk play in less than a week,” Rome recalls. “When I read it I was amazed, I thought it was great! I said to myself: ‘Well Rome, you’ve got yourself a great one man show.  So now you’ve got to get to work.’  I threw myself into studying the role, and we honed and polished it to a fine finish by staging three readings at the Nuyorican.  The readings were a month apart and this gave us a chance to re-write the script based on what we were learning from audience feedback. When we felt the play was ready, Lawrence and I co-produced the play at the Nuyorican Theater” However, although the play was performed at the Nuyorican Poet’s Café, “Monk” was staged under the auspices of the Holder/Neal Production Company. The play’s initial run was two months. 

 Since then the play has gone through several productions including an off Broadway production with a marvelous new score of Monk inspired music composed by his contemporary, bassist Bill Lee, the father of the brilliant screenwriter/director Spike Lee. When Monk opened at the Abbingdon Theater at 312 west 36th street, just off Broadway between Eight and Ninth Avenues, it was the first time an Afro-American Writer and actor had shepherded and independent production from the publicly funded off off Broadway theater, to the commercial off Broadway theater.

 This was an important development not only for Neal and Holder, but also the entire black theater movement.  Although this dynamic duo’s production might not make it to the Promised land of Broadway, the Mecca of American theater just a few blocks away, they might well be blazing a path that future black theater productions might travel. to Broadway, the Mecca of American theater Hence anyone who would like to invest in Neal and Holder’s production should check out their investment plan on Rome Neal’s website.  It is the view of this critic that an investment in this play is an investment in the future of black theater. Once it becomes clear that the off off Broadway black theater can develop plays for Broadway, the sky’s the limit for black thespians. 

 Monk has now returned to its original home, the world famous Nuyorican Poets Café for the holidays and will be running nightly from December 18, through January 11.  anyone planning a visit to New York City over the Yule Tide season and would like to take in an evening of great theater then check out the critically acclaimed production of Monk, and witness the magic that won Rome the coveted Audelco Award for Solo Performance by an actor.




Playthell Benjamin

Harlem, New York 

December 19, 2008

Is President Obama Too Soft?

Posted in Playthell on politics on October 14, 2009 by playthell



In His Hands Politics Becomes a Sweet Science


Some Reflections On the President’s Political  Style

 In an elegantly worded cleverly argued commentary in the Financial Times of London, “Obama Must Punch Harder,” columnist Gideon Rachman thinks our President is hobbled by the fact that he  “floats like a butterfly and stings like a butterfly!”   Thus he argues that President Obama needs to pick a fightin public and kick some ass, sending an unmistakable message that he’s no punk.  In other words: Go gangsta on them!    But Bam has already demonstrated that he knows how to slip into a gorilla suit; like when he resolved a dispute over the Stimulus Bill by reminding the Republicans that they lost the election and he won!   Read my take on the encounter in “A Starboy in the Bully Pulpit.”

 Hence the Times columnist Gideon Rachman may be knowledgeable about politics, but he has exposed himself as a novice at boxing analysis, and this has distorted his view of President Obama’s statesmanship.  Every professional trainer and boxing wise guy understands that styles make fights. Boxing history is littered with examples of devastating power punchers soundly whipped, even humiliated,  by fancy dancers who seemed reluctant to brawl.  Since Mr. Rachman chose to set his argument in pugilistic metaphors, let me paint another scenario of Mr. Obama’s style in boxing parlance. 

In the boxing game a guy with a style like Bam is called a “cutie Pie;”  which means he is highly skilled, quick witted, creative, and unpredictable.  Therefore always dangerous!  Hence it is not without significance that Bam is a mega fan of  the ultimate cutie pie: Muhammad Ali.”   In fact, Mr. Rachman considered it such an important detail he tells us how the President kept that famous portrait of Muhammad Ali standing triumphantly over Sonny Liston, after knocking the Missouri mauler out and taking the Undisputed  World Heavy Weight Crown, on his office wall.  Back in the day when he was an Illinois state senator dreaming of running for President.  However methinks our intrepid British wag misunderstands the true significance of Ali’s virtuosity in the ring to the President’s political style.

The Sweet Science Was Never Sweeter!


 Ali taking A confused overly aggressive Forman out with the perfect shot!


 In terms of understanding Bam’s strategy in dealing with the Republican bullies, the fight to watch is the “Rumble in the Jungle.”  It was in this fight against the fearsome George Forman – who was bigger than Liston and just as mean – that Ali unveiled the brilliant strategy he called “The Ropeadope.” The way Bam is playing the Republicans just now is the political equivalent of the Rope a Dope!

The point of the Rope a Dope is to let your opponent take the offensive, while you slip and parry their murderous punches. In their mindless fury, obsessively focused on the knock out, they expose their weaknesses, and hence when you decide to throw the hay maker its lights out!  So let Mr. Rachman and the other Nervous Nellies cackle on like those who came to the Rumble in the Jungle expecting a blood bath, but were unwittingly exposed to art.  Since the game here is the art of politics, which Bam has transformed from a vulgar partisian brawl into a sweet science, when the deals go down I’m  placing my bets on Bam!




 Playthell Benjamin

Commentaries On The Times

Harlem, New York 

October 14, 2009

A Star Boy In The Bully Pulpit

Posted in Playthell on politics with tags , , on October 14, 2009 by playthell

Barack Out Front



Barack Bogarts the Republicans!

 It is in the nature of things that self-centered ideologues will inevitably mistake kindness for weakness.  Thus it comes as no surprise to the careful observer that the attempts at bipartisanship by President Obama – hosting a reception honoring his vanquished opponent; meeting with right wing columnists who savaged him during the election; inviting Republicans to a super bowl party in the White House; etc – would be interpreted as weakness by those ideological automatons who appear in the guise of reactionary Republicans.  But in a series of speeches culminating in the verbal blitzkrieg on Thursday, Barack struck back and let the Republicans in the Senate know in no uncertain terms that he is no pushover. 

In fact, the President was so forceful in his repudiation of Republican resistance, and so vociferous in his rejection of their intellectually bankrupt economic dogma, that the Afro-American newsman Ed Gordon summed up his attitude thusly: “Barack went gangsta on them!”  I think it an apt description.   The President made it clear that while he was interested in bipartisanship, which is to say that he is willing to seek compromise with the Republicans; he is not willing to do it at the expense of the American people.   He had already told the Republicans in an earlier meeting on the dimension and priorities of the pending Stimulus Bill: “I won!” Although he said it while flashing his beguiling smile, it was an unmistakable warning: “Move on over or we will move on over you!”

 And on Thursday he took it to them and drew a line in the proverbial sand.  He will get his way or there will be hell to pay!   The last twenty days have perhaps been the most active and conseqential in presidential history.  It this short span of time he has reversed George II’s inhumane policy of vetoing medical coverage to millions of American children who had no means of getting health care; signed an Executive order closing the American gulag at Guntanamo; and placed a limit on executive compensation for top management in firms receiving government bailout money.  He has also nullified pay raises for his senior staff.  These kinds of policies are unheard of on the part of an American President.

In other words, Barack has been busy as a beaver going about the people’s business.  And he has made it abundantly clear that he will Brook no interference from the Republican naysayers – who are shameless obstructionist.  While the great Democratic majority in the House allowed them to rush the legislation through, the Senate poses a formidable problem as John McCain, Lindsay Graham and that pugnacious Kentucky cracker Mitch McConnel have slowed the progress of recovery legislation, although they have no plan to deal with the present crisis.  They are spouting the same old tired rhetoric that has led us into the present crisis; the main characteristic of which is contempt for the public interests and trickle down economics that favor the rich through massive tax cuts.   If I were advising the President I would tell him to stand his ground and let the Republicans self-destruct by preventing action on a plan that the country desperately needs!

 However because he focused like a laser on getting this stimulus package passed and bring relief to the millions of Americans who are losing their livelihoods and sinking fast, and to keep more American corporations and banks from going under Mr. Obama avoids all out brawls with the Republicans in favor of trying to finesse his legislative priorities through Congress.  To accomplish his goals without a prolonged filibuster the President is forced to compromise by acceding to certain Republican demands. This is simply a recognition of the stubborn fact that politics is the art of the possible.  Hence if is not possible it’s not politic; so I suspect we shall see our president use vinegar and honey as the situation demands.  Because, after all is said and done, the fact remains the Barack Obama is a gifted politician, and he will not be denied!



Playthell Benjamin ,

Atlanta Georgia



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