Archive for the Travels in the New South Category

Encounter with A Georgia Peach

Posted in Cultural Matters, Travels in the New South with tags , , on October 26, 2009 by playthell

on the roqd in the dirty south 083 

 On the Road 

 

Notes from my Journey through the Heart of the New South

 As I boarded the Grey Hound from the District of Columbia and departed from Richmond Virginia, the cradle of the old Confederacy and the home of Afro-American tennis great, US Army officer and sports historian Arthur Ashe, I was perchance seated on the coach beside a righteous elderly southern white woman from the old school of southern grace and charm.  She had clear alabaster skin and her hair was a silvery gray; tucked in a bun like those stern 19th century Anglo-Saxon women who led the temperance movement.  She introduced herself as Mrs. Crisler, and later informed me that she was a widow.  And as I listened to her musical southern speech she soon began to inquire into the fate of my soul. 

I wondered if there was something about my demeanor, unbeknownst to myself, that signaled to her that I was about to bust hell wide open should the bus crash and we suddenly departed this life.  Perhaps it was the rakish angle that I wore my hat, or maybe she had peeped me blowing up some high grade “wisdom weed” – a gift from a righteous Rasta brethren in Washington – as I skulked about in the shadows during my rest stop in Richmond, the cradle of the old Confederacy, the first of many rests and rejuvenations through joy that I would make during my long journey on the big dog from New York City down to Baton Rouge Louisiana, a lovely lazy city sprawled along the Mississippi river, whose population had doubled since Katrina wrecked a million lives.  Maybe I just looked too city slick to be a saved man, and she figured my soul was perched on a slippery slope.  Whatever yardstick she was using to measure the depth of my Christian commitment, the lady sure pegged me right.

I quickly fessed up and frankly told her that my soul was on shaky ground, and as she began to tell me what would be required to get into heaven come judgment day when my soul is finally weighed in the balance, I began to feel like I was hanging over hell’s fire by an eyelash!  Hence I listened carefully as she unfolded a blueprint explaining how I might mend my ways before the good lord ends my days. And she promised that if I followed her advice I might yet escape eternal damnation and come to rest in the bosom of the Lord.  For this, she declared without a smidgeon of doubt, is why the savior died: to wash away our sins with his sacred blood.   I had to concede that it was a heck of a tale, about how and why Jesus died on Calvary’s Cross, but she was such a true believer I could not bear to tell her that the story had long ago ceased to make any sense to me, or that the communion ritual where the believers symbolically ate the body and drank the blood of the Christ strikes me as a grotesque and barbaric act!

Ms Crisler, as it turns out, is a life long Georgian, a small town lady who lives close to the land and pulsates to its rhythms; she is also a true Christian soldier of the Pentecostal faith.  She had a ready answer to all my questions about false prophets and fake Christians, with which I usually flagellate the proselytizers.  When I questioned her about the professed commitment to the Lord by Satin’s minions such as Pat Robertson and George Bush, certain that I had presented her with an unanswerable conundrum, she remained cool as a cucumber and issued this unambiguous instruction: “Center your faith in Christ and follow his word.”  And she assured me that if I did these things I would wind up in heaven at the end of days, even if I was the only one there.  Never mind George Bush because like a tinkling cymbal and a crashing drum, lo his earthly powers were nothing beside the power of God.  She warned that I had best be concerned with the fate of my own soul: “When your time comes you will only have to stand in judgment for yourself.”  She admonished.   It was such an inspirational message  I almost wished I could believe it.  For it would be truly an Amazing Grace that could save a wretch like me!  

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We chatted about the old South and the disappearance of the racially segregated system that we both had grown up under, she in Georgia and me in Florida, and agreed that we were glad to see it go. I reminded her that when I had left the south in 1959 we would never have been allowed to sit beside each other and carry on a conversation like two human beings created in the image of God.  I told her that I hated the old south so much that it took me 35 years to return to my home!   She seemed truly embarrassed and remorseful about the way southern whites had behaved in the bad old days of American Apartheid, when maintaining white supremacy was a sacred duty of every white person and the vaunted purity of white southern was a pretext for the murder of black men.  After watching her squirm for a moment I decided to drop the subject.  After all, white women in the old south had no more power than black men in relation to the tyranny of white men.  Excepting whatever influence they could exercise as wives, mothers, sisters, and favored aunts.  Like quite a few black women, they were sleeping with the enemy but their influence was limited.  

 As we continued to talk I discovered that she worked with the sick and elderly who are shut in.  And when I discovered that she sang to them our conversation turned to sacred songs.  When I asked her about the songs she sang, she said simply said: “I sing the old songs.”  I took this to mean the traditional church music of the south, as opposed to a lot of these modern songs that you can’t tell from the Devils music.  I could tell this because it’s the exact same way that I feel about the new So-called “Gospel” music; we can’t tell a lot of it from the Devil’s music!  The more we discussed the music the more obvious it became that we had grown up singing out of the same hymn book.  As we both recognized the songs the other had sang it became clear to me that the reason we had sung the same songs is because black and white southerners share the same culture, the same protestant values and beliefs.

 Listening to Mrs. Crisler talk was just like listening to my Aunt Gussie, or my grandfather, George Benjamin, my father’s father, who was a righteous deacon in the Pentecostal church, a mighty servant of the Lord who gave generous tithes to his church. As we talked it became clear that a great part of the reason that black and white folks get along better in the south than the north today is because black and white northerners do not share a common culture.  Northern whites are largely of immigrant stock of fairly recent origin.  And furthermore English is not their first language, and most are not protestant Christians.  For instance, in New York City, the largest metropolis in the world, most whites are either Catholics or Jews.  

Thus the liturgy of their churches and synagogues are foreign to black Americans, who are virtually all Protestants and many are conservative fundamentalists.  For instance, among the hymns that Mrs. Crisler knew and loved was “Precious Lord Take My Hand.”  Since I am fascinated at the paths through which different people find religion, and the ways in which religious ecstasy has inspired great art from Michael Angelo’s paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel to the sacred  music of Johann Sebastian Bach and Mary Lou Williams, I told her the story of how professor Thomas A. Dorsey – a blues musician who was playing piano with Ma Rainey at the time – came to compose this sadly moving and  beautiful sacred song upon learning that his wife and child had both died in childbirth.  It is perhaps a tribute to the majesty of the human spirit that such beauty could come from such sadness.  But I’m sure that Mrs. Crisler would see this as one of the many ways that God extends his grace to mankind.  “All things work together for good to those who love God and are the called according to his purpose,” she said.

Professor Thomas Dorsey: Father Of Modern Gospel Music

 Dorsey_Thomas with Mahalia Jackson

 

With his protégé the great Mahalia Jackson

 

Since neither of us could sleep through the motion of the bus, we talked through the evening and I discovered that like my mother and grandmother she likes to preserve fruits and vegetables.  And like my grand mother – my mother was too “nice/nasty” to play in sand – Mrs. Crisler has a green thumb and actually raises the vegetables she cans in her garden, although she confessed that she bought her peaches from farmers in South Carolina, and act of treason for a native daughter of the “peach state.”  And like my grandmother Claudia Bellamy, who also played the piano and sang in church, she also grew flowers that her neighbors complimented her on.  

 After a rest stop in Charlotte North Carolina I took out my laptop to demonstrate how a computer works.  Like my mother, Mrs. Crisler is somewhat leery of the computer – for which, like my sister Melba, I hold her computer literate sons responsible! –  But I think having a computer and access to the internet can greatly expand the universe of our senior citizens.  That’s why I seize upon every opportunity to introduce them to the magic of the personal computer.   And in this case, because she is such a good speller and has a solid knowledge of English grammar, we ended up writing an essay together.  Mrs. Crisler, a lively septuagenarian was, in every way, an ideal traveling companion.  Although her attempt to win me for Christ has thus far proved futile, for if George Bush and Pat Robertson are men of Christ, I’m down with the Devil!

Since we had stayed up all night composing the first draft of the essay, we remained awake until she departed in the small town of Gainesville Georgia, where she had lived most of her life.  As I watched her meet her ride, another proper southern lady whom I assumed was also a righteous servant of the lord, I speculated that Mrs. Crisler could not imagine the world from which I came, and I felt acutely the great divide in the country that is the inevitable result of our radically different world views.  For while the north is aggressively secular, meaning they still believe in the Thomas Jefferson’s “firewall” between church and state, the south is a cauldron boiling over with religious passions that increasingly resembles the Islamic revival, with increasing numbers of people apparently longing for an American theocracy.  That’s why Bush has been such a success down here with his simple minded messages about being born again, and advocating ludicrous measures like a Constitutional Amendment against Gay Marriage, both of which are highly improbable.  

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Hanging With My Daughter in the Ancient City

Posted in Cultural Matters, Travels in the New South with tags , , , , , , on October 23, 2009 by playthell

 

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Makeda searches for her Seminole Ancestors

 

From the outset it was a spiritual sojourn.  When I contemplated the gravitas of the event, the inauguration of Barrack Oboma as the 44th President of the United States of America, a land that once enslaved people like him, I knew I had to be somewhere special to mark the occasion with symbolic significance.   For one thing was certain: There would never again be a day like this if I lived another hundred years! 

The fact that Frederick Douglass was easily as smart as Abraham Lincoln, and a far better speaker, yet he was also a slave, and even when he was no longer a slave he was in constant danger of being re-enslaved until the nation erupted in war, makes the election of Barack Hussien Obama even sweeter for African Americans.  The source of this satisfaction lay in the fact that we always knew we were qualified to do anything human beings do…in spite of how hard the white folks tried to convince us otherwise.  

It was obviously the biggest story I would ever come across in my writing life, and the most inspirational story a generation of American youths had seen, or were likely to see, and I wanted to try and help my progeny understand the full measure of the event that was unfolding.   Yet it soon became clear to me that while my younger daughter, Makeda, rejoiced at the election of our nation’s first African American President, and that the lovely brilliant Michele is now America’s First Lady, these events did not mean the same thing to her that they meant to me.  It was a generational thing.   

While Makeda and her twin brother Samori have a sense of history, and thus understand on the intellectual level the significance of President Obama’s ascension to the most powerful office in the world, they never doubted that he would win because he was so obviously the best qualified candidate.   People of my generation, white and black, were not persuaded by this fact, because we had seen too many highly qualified black people passed over in favor of whites with inferior credentials. This unbridled optimism expressed by my progeny is the result of them having attended school and competed with whites in the class room and the athletic fields and held their own. 

Furthermore, they had also gone to schools that emphasized academic achievement and were staffed by progressive teachers who were overwhelmingly white, yet they never experienced any racism from them.  In fact they were more often than not the teacher’s pets.    Makeda and Samori also got on fabulously with their multi-racial school mates, and white parents who wanted their children to have diverse friends often sought them out as the preferred playmates for their children because they were just the kind of well scrubbed, well behaved, bright black kids that white parents found ideal.  They both graduated from the prestigious Beacon School – the same high school that Governor Patterson proudly announced that his son had been admitted to in his inaugural address – both were two sport athletes and also graduated with honors in science and the humanities.   Furthermore Samori was voted captain of the fencing and baseball teams…and he was the only black kid on either team. 

While Samori opted  to attend a black college, Makeda attended a big white  private university where she was a Division I sprinter competing in the 100 and 200 meter races, a choreographer and principal dancer in a university dance company, plus a Science Merit Scholar and a Dean List student. Makeda got the loudest applause at graduation ceremonies when it was announced that she had been admitted to graduate school at the elite Columbia University; and the Dean of the School of Health Sciences personally told me and her mother what a wonderful student she had been.  

Hence Makeda has successfully competed against whites in a number of endeavors – among the best and the brightest too – and her identity as an African American woman is a source of pride.  Like the poet Langston Hughes, she gloried in her blackness.  And the fact that the actor Samuel L. Jackson, was once her baby sitter; Trumpet master Wynton Marsalis, writer/McArthur Fellow Stanley Crouch, and Harvard biologist S. Alan Counter were friends of her daddy’s, all contributed to the notion that anything was possible if you were talented and worked hard enough.   And the election of Barack adds an exclamation point!

 However as Makeda began to explore the dance traditions of the Spanish and French speaking African Diaspora in the Americas, and compared them to African traditions in dance and drumming, she discovered a much lager input from the cultural inventories of Native Americans than she had expected.   And as she performed more and more with dance companies that specialized in the dance traditions of the African Diaspora, the more her colleagues would inquire about her Native American ancestry –  which was obvious to Latin Americans from her facial features.  She heard this so often that she began to research her family for evidence of Amerindian ancestry. 

 Makeda and the Great Seminole War Chief Osceola

My Trip to florida with Makeda ETC 309

 

Members Of the Same Tribe?

 

 When her research revealed that she has a Native American great grandmother, a grandfather with a Seminole surname, and several other Native American ancestors,  it set her off on an intellectual  quest to uncover her Native American roots and honor them as distinguished ancestors  just as I she has honored her African ancestors.  However, Makeda is a serious intellectual with an encyclopedic approach to gathering data on  subjects of interest to her.  Her detective work in uncovering her Native American ancestry has led Makeda to interrogate her parents and other family members about our shadowy Native American kinsmen.

Makeda’s research into the genocide against Native Americans by the European invaders has left her contemptuous of white America’s claim to ownership of this bountiful land.  And the more she learns about the myriad ways in which Native Americans extended a helping hand to African slaves in the US, including intermarrying, the deeper her disdain for the indifference that Afro-Americans show to the present plight of Native Americans, as well as our Native American heritage, which she authoritatively points out is stronger in many black Americans than the African heritage  we celebrate.   This she can demonstrate from the perspectives of physical and cultural anthropology.

Her study of the dispossession of Native Americans led Makeda to argue in a graduate school paper, written in reply to a query about the disappearing family farm due to the onslaught of massive corporate farms associated with agri-business: “I have no sympathy for the white farmers who are being forced off their land by agri-business; now they have some small idea of what the native Americans suffered as a result of the wholesale theft of their lands, which, having no concept of private property, the willingly shared with the European settlers.  As a descendent of enslaved Africans and Native Americans who were the victims of genocide, I do not recognize the rights of whites to fertile American farm lands anymore than black South Africans recognize the claims of white farmers to their land, which they stole under the oppressive racist laws of apartheid and now wish to keep.”  

 Since St. Augustine Florida is the first European settlement in North America, there is a rich historical record of how the European invaders dealt with the Native Americans – whom they called “Indians.”  There are primary documents from the Spanish era in the city’s historical archives, and there is the massive Castillo de San Marcos which dominates the downtown skyline.  Ever since I was a boy I heard the apocryphal dramatic escape of Chief Osceola from a prison cell where he was imprisoned by white Americans.  The wily and fearless chief is said to have starved himself until he became thin enough to escape through a sky light  in the massive stone wall.   I was moved by the story when my grandfather first told it to me, and my daughter is just as fascinated with the tale today. 

When we visited the Castillo it was a moving experience; Makeda read every word posted about Native Americans, especially the Seminoles with whom she shares ancestry.   This was her spiritual journey, a foray back into the blood stained history that shaped the character of our nation.  Thus when she entered the prison cell of Osceola it was a metaphysical experience, and she offered a silent libation to his heroic resistance against the enslavers of Africans and slaughterers of Native Americans. 

Makeda in the prison of Osceola

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 Standing silently under the portal where Grand Dad said Osceola escaped

The evidence of these massive crimes against humanity is everywhere here in St. Augustine, where the dispossession and genocide against the Native Americans began.  Just a few blocks from the Castilio stands the old slave market, where her African Ancestors were sold like live stock, and the evidence of genocide against the native peoples of this land is ubiquitous in street markers and exhibits.  She even taught me a thing or two about the relationships between Africans and Native Americans right here in St. Augustine, and I’m a former history professor.  For instance, due to her sharp powers of observation Makeda spotted the marker announcing that the African American community that I grew up in – which was originally known as “Little Africa” but was renamed “Lincolnville” after the Civil War in honor of the “Great Emancipator” – was originally a Native American community. 

This sign Speaks volumes

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The Evidence of Things Unseen!

I had never known this bit of St. Augustine’s story, and to tell the truth, I had never thought about it; nor had I ever heard anybody else in the African American community talk about.  This is just the sort of silence and ignorance that so annoys Makeda: and justly so. However it was the exhibits at the Castilio and the primary documents from the era of Spanish rule in the historical archives of St. Augustine that interested Makeda the most.  Armed with and inspired by an unusual combination of intellectual interests and skills – dancer, scientist, athlete, writer – her main problem intellectually has been to find an area of study that can accommodate her diverse interests.  She seems to have found it in the field of Medical Anthropology, in which she is presently preparing to pursue a PhD program.  Her main interests is in the traditional healing practices of non-European peoples – the rest of the world – and what they can teach the conventionally trained western scientist about the healing arts.  

A voracious reader of scientific treatises, Makeda can rattle off a dizzying array of scientific studies extolling the wisdom of traditional cultures in the uses of medicinal plants and spiritual rituals in maintaining the physical and emotional health of the populace. And she convincingly argues that the decimation of the Native American population has as much to do with the spiritual death that occurred when their cultural rituals were suppressed and denied them – their music, dance and religious practices – as the physical slaughters that attended their relations with whites.  In the exhibits on display in the Castilio, Makeda found solid evidence for her hypothesis, especially the exhibit on the tribes from the western plains who were brought to the Castillo as prisoners of war.

 

A memorial to the plains tribesmen

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Some of the prisoners who were once free men in the “Wild West”

 

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 Faces of the Damned

 The texts that accompany the images above tell how the United States government systematically removed these “Braves” from their homelands because they led the resistance against the dispossession of their people by the European invaders.  The Native Americans never really had a chance because they were still in the Paleolithic period, where hunting and gathering cultures were the norm;  alas they were facing the onslaught of a culture that was already in the modern industrial age.  

 Furthermore, the US government had perfected the techniques of modern warfare – which they practically invented during the American Civil War that had only recently concluded.  Yet there was no way for these warriors of the Great Plains to know that the wagon trains bearing the murderous “palefaces” would not stop coming because they were only the advance guard of an expanding predatory civilization.  Hence in spite of their bravery, the Native Americans never had a chance.   That’s why we have records of the phenomenon of “ghost dancing” that was widely observed among the tribes of the Great Plains.  It was their attempt to communicate with the spirits of their slaughtered kinsmen.  In the exhibit at the Castillo there are drawings done by prisoners that are the counter-part of ghost dancing expressed as graphic art.   Both rituals represent a deep feeling of loss created by a people who had lost everything of value to them in the last days of the genocide.

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The caption explaining the meaning of the drawings

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Aftermath of the Genocide

The things that intrigued Makeda most was those texts that told of the intricate and far flung trade networks established by Native Americans, which showed them to be intelligent people who were capable of building a self-sustaining culture, and thus exposes the rationale for the European policy of dispossession and genocide  against them as nothing more than transparent racist apologia, what Fredrick Douglass eloquently labeled a thin veil of hypocrisy designed to camouflage “practices that would disgrace a nation of savages!”   Hence to Makeda’s mind it was the European invaders that were the real savages.  They were the one’s who destroyed the lives, homes and culture of a people who had received them as brothers and helped them survive in the wilderness of North America.  And everything she learned from her research in the ancient city supplied compelling evidence for her thesis.

 Rummaging through the archives

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 In search the truth about her ancestors

 Since she was scheduled to perform with a Haitian dance troupe at the inaugural ball hosted by “Haitians for Oboma” in Washington, it was virtually impossible to get her out of the Castillio, as she tried to soak up all the knowledge she could in the short period of time, and since she is in great condition and full of energy – intellectual and physical, she nearly wore me out.  Given Makeda’s scholarly interests, she will pay many more visits too the Ancient city, where so much of her family history is rooted.

 

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Text, Photos and videos by: Playthell Benjamin

St. Augustine Florida

January 2009

 

*Note: 2, 417 words

Hanging Out In the Magic City!

Posted in Cultural Matters, Travels in the New South on October 10, 2009 by playthell

Reflections from my Sojourn to Miami, March 2009

 El Chocolate Caliente in Cuba-final

 “El Chocolate Caliente Surveys New Habana!

 

Although I grew up in the Sunshine State I had never ventured down to Miami before.   In spite of the fact that all the dudes from down here called it “The Magic City” when I went up on “The Hill” to attend college at Florida A&M in 1959, I never ventured down to check it out for myself.  I guess it’s because it was south of St. Augustine, the ancient city where I came of age, and whenever I traveled from my home town I was catching the first thing smoking headed north.  I hated southern crackers and I must have concluded the further south you went the worse the crackers got.  Yet there is no proof that it was ever thus; it could have been all in my head.  And from what I have learned about life in Miami back in the day, chances are it was just a figment of my imagination – they may not have been worse but they were bad enough!

 From what I was able to tell from the impressions I gathered during my brief sojourn as a drive by sociologist: It is the best and the worse of times for black folks in this southernmost American metropolis.  Like many places in the south, black community life as such has deteriorated since the demise of the system of American apartheid popularly known as “segregation.”   For one thing, just as I have observed in northern Florida, black community based businesses have virtually disappeared and other community institutions have fizzled. 

The one exception to this rule is the church; yet even this venerable institution – our rock in stormy seas and the light that illuminated the dark days of white supremacy – does not have the influence it once had: especially among the youths!  And all of these problems are aggravated by the fact that the black community is splintered along class lines due to the expanded freedom offered to the affluent stratum of Afro-Americans.  Whereas Afro-Americans in the south were forced to live together in a racially restricted community regardless of class, which had the unintended consequence of forging a community of interests between blacks across class lines, now that unity is broken as the wealthy classes choose where to reside based on their financial means.  And more often than not, that is as far away from poor blacks as the distance rich whites have always maintained from poor southern rednecks.  The ever insightful Dr. DuBois spotted this trend developing in the late 1950’s and denounced it in his stirring 1958 essay “Interpretations.”

 Yet this is in the nature of things, and it is by no means peculiar to Afro-American experience. It appears to be axiomatic, a sort of sociological law, that as excluded minority groups gain entry into the mainstream society many of its unique institutions and even cultural characteristics will disappear.  After all, they only existed in the first place because the minorities were discriminated against by the larger society. Hence we can observe this phenomenon in other ethnic groups who have traveled this route.  And it appears to hold true whether we confine our observations to the US or examine the process of cultural assimilation and resistance world wide. 

Sometimes the cultural impact of the majority group is so powerful that even when they are conquered by powerful invaders the conquerors are swallowed up by the dominant culture.  For instance: the Mongol king Ghengis Khan conquered ancient China, but Chinese culture was so powerful that his son Kubla Khan was as much a “Chinese Emperor” as anyone in the Ming Dynasty.  But the classic pattern of assimilation can be observed among the Jews living in Christian societies, whether it was the Catholic and Lutheran societies of Poland and Germany, or the predominately Anglo-Saxon Protestant society of the USA.  In each case the educated upper stratum among the Jews who received higher education in the Christian universities abandoned much of their “Jewishness.”

Often this alienation from the ethnic culture is sub-conscious; the inevitable consequence of being exposed to the wider world of learning and opportunity offered by a modern university education, especially the personal contacts and even intimate relationships the heretofore excluded minority citizen forms with their counterparts in the dominant group.  But there are numerous instances when a minority group member makes a conscious decision to assimilate into the larger group – often at considerable psychological damage to themselves.  For instance, in her learned and insightful book ‘Love Across Color Lines,” Professor Maria Dedtrict, a German scholar, tells the story of a German Jewish lawyer/poet who marries a Christian actress and converts to Lutheranism to escape his Jewishness; but later commits suicide when his neighbors and business associates refer to him as “the Lutheran Jew.”

 The experience of the Jews is an excellent model to use in an attempt to fully understand this model of assimilation because they are history’s quintessential outsiders.  Which is largely due to their religion and the cultural practices mandated by it; a highly complex set of beliefs and practices that sets them apart from the beliefs, values and cultural mores of the majority and makes them conspicuous outsiders.  We can observe specific examples of this process at work in a variety of Jewish experiences.  But let us confine our analysis to the experience of Jewish assimilation in Poland, Germany and the US.

In his fictive autobiography “A Young Man in Search of Love,” the Polish Jewish writer Isaac Beschevitz Singer, the only scribe to win the much coveted Nobel Prize for works written in Yiddish, the language of the Eastern European “ghetto” – a term invented by Eastern European Jews and later employed to describe the Afro-American condition – we get a first hand account of the trials and tribulations of educated Polish Jews struggling with the problem of a dual identity as Poles and Jews. 

This is clearly the same class of phenomenon that Dr. W.E.B. DuBois described as “double consciousness” among Afro-Americans in his 1903 masterpiece “The Souls of Black Folk.”  When I read Singer’s book I was immediately struck by the similarity of many of the Polish Jewish issues to the perennial Afro-American struggles with identity.  One of the issues that impressed me most profoundly was the struggle of university students over the question of language: whether the educated Jew should speak Polish or Yiddish for instance. 

He Won the Nobel Prize Writing In Yiddish! 

IsaacBashevis Singer

An Assimilated Polish Hasidic Jew In Manhattan

Some of the university students denied that Yiddish was a language at all – simply ghetto slang spoken by the untutored Jewish mob without benefit of exposure to the wider world of learning and culture.  This was a direct result of their alienation from ghetto life as a result of matriculation in the Polish university, which was a repository of the ideas and values of modern western civilization – the dominant culture of the contemporary world.   Although this argument had taken place in the 1920’s and 30’s – before the holocaust – it bore an uncanny resemblance to the arguments that were presently raging among black Americans about the use of “Black English” or “Ebonics” half a century later. 

 Another question that troubled Eastern European Jewish intellectuals which remains a burning concern for black Americans is the role of the creative artist – especially those who produce recorded music with lyrics, fiction and drama: the story telling arts.  Reading the passages where Singer describes his dilemma as a novelist fascinated by the canon of modern European literature that he discovered at the University of Warsaw, but was expected to reject in favor of the Yiddish tradition of morality plays as exemplified by its most famous writer, the dramatist Shalom Aliekum, I am reminded of the dilemma of black creative artists in America.  Who are also expected to bear the cross of uplifting the race when other materials may be far more interesting as subjects for artistic exploration.  And this was doubly so in the case of Beshevitzs Singer because his father was a Hassidic Rabbi who saw the world in stark contrasts of good and evil, thus he viewed secular writing as a waste of a God given gift and therefore an abomination!

 To make matters worse, while the modern European writer employed his art as a mirror held up to his society to expose their flaws – hypocrisies, avarice, treachery, adulteries, etc – the Jewish community expected their writers to speak only in terms that dignified the Jewish personality and glorified Jewish traditions.  An attitude that is also prevalent in the Afro-American community. But Singer saw the world and his role as a writer differently.  After pointing out that in his father’s world everything was pure and orderly and thus all writing worthy of the reading should be religiously inspired and have a clear moral purpose; and that the Jewish bourgeoisie thought he should write only of Jewish doctors, lawyers, businessmen and other such respectable Jewish characters, Singer observes that having discovered the freedom offered by Modern literature he was far more interested in exploring the world of “Jewish pimps and whores in Argentina.”  This is clearly a moral conundrum that confronts Afro-American writers even as I write.

 There are many parallels between the black and Jewish experience in coming to terms with their proper place in modern western civilization – a civilization that committed genocide against both groups, preceded by every variety of man’s inhumanity to man – obviously a comprehensive comparative analysis is far beyond the scope of this essay; so one final example will have to suffice.  The age old oppression of blacks and Jews in modern western civilizations has been such that both groups sought an escape to a promised land somewhere beyond the pale of oppression.  Somewhere that could offer freedom for their bodies and refuge for their battered spirits.  For the Jews of Eastern Europe the answer was Zionism; for Afro-Americans it was Pan- Africanism.  In fact, the African Emigrationist movement among Afro-Americans predates the Zionist movement among the Jews.

The upshot of this comparative analysis between the historical experience of European Jews and Afro-Americans is to shed light on the contemporary experience of physical integration and cultural assimilation of black Americans in a predominantly white society.  However the difference between how those two experiences culminated is, to say the least, dramatic.  For the Jews of Europe it was the ovens and gas chambers of the holocaust that killed half the Jews of that continent; it took a world war to end this horror.  For African Americans it took a Ghandian type mass passive resistance movement led by inspired Christian visionaries tutored by a modern day prophet and apostle of peace and brotherly love named Martin Luther King, whose namesake was a renegade Catholic Priest who founded the Protestant Church: Martin Luther, a vicious anti-Semite whose teachings help fire the anti-Jewish madness of the Nazis!

 Hence it is the experience of the Jews in modern American society – i.e. post world War II – that holds the greatest relevance for us.   For it was here to “The Golden Land” that the survivors of the European holocaust retreated in the greatest numbers.  And although they began as outsiders too, they had something going for them that Afro-Americans didn’t – they had pale skins!  And unlike Europe, in the American pigmentocracy color trumps religious differences.  There is no greater evidence for this assertion than the fact that the average white Catholic would rather see their sons and daughters marry a white Jew than a black Catholic! 

Furthermore, the Jews wisely played upon Christian guilt about the godless atrocity of the holocaust and gained the sympathy of many powerful WASPS.    Added to these advantages was the reverence for learning promoted by the Jewish Talmudic tradition of disciplined study and critical thinking.  When taken together these factors served to propel the Jews ahead of Afro-Americans in the USA, and thus they successfully assimilated into the middle and upper classes of the larger white protestant society at a faster rate than African Americans even though we had a longer tenure in this land.  In fact, Africans had been in America since the beginning of it’s colonization by Europeans – especially in Florida – and the United States of America as we know it is unimaginable without the input of African-Americans!

 Yet by the 1950’s American Jews had become so entrenched in the American Middle and upper classes, and had amassed such great wealth through the acumen of their business class, they could build their own recreational palace on Miami Beach, the Fontambleu, which rivaled the Kenilworth, a bastion of opulence reserved for white Christian  big shots.  And by the 1960’s even Jews of comparatively recent American provenance had become so comfortably assimilated that Norman Podhoretz, a New York Jewish intellectual of Eastern European background, could confidently write of the need for Afro-Americans to forget about being “Negroes” and assimilate into “American society.”  However the irony, absurdity and impertinence of Mr. Podhoretz’s prescription for Afro-American deliverance didn’t escape black intellectuals, such as the broadly learned and uniquely insightful aesthetic theoretician and often caustic cultural critic, Albert Murray, who dismissed Podhoretz’s claim  as the confused light-weight prattle that it is.

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 The fact is that a great part of the problem which remains in American Race relations has much to do with the failure of non-black Americans to fully recognize the long tenure and critical role African Americans have played in that unique experiment in the wilderness of North America that has evolved into the United States of America.  After all, black men from whom I descended not only enlisted and fought in the American Revolution by the thousands, but many were veterans of the French and Indian wars – in which they had fought side by side with their Anglo-Saxon countrymen.  The heroes of the battles of Bunker Hill and Lexington and Concord, the initial skirmishes of the Revolution, were both black men: Peter Salem and Salem Poor.  And the first man to die by British fire in defense of the Revolutionary ideal was Chrispus Attucks, a Bostonian of African/Native American heritage.

 This failure to recognize the critical role of African Americans in the making of the United States is often the case with the immigrant population in the US, and is at the root of the Afro-American/Cuban tensions in Miami.  Afro-Americans I talk to on all levels agree that most white, and Mestizo wannabe white, Cubans are racist toward them.  But anyone who is familiar with the patterns of race relations in pre-revolutionary Cuba, where the founders of the Miami Cuban community were born and socialized, will not be surprised by this charge.  They know that Cuba was a very racist place before the revolution; wealth and status were very closely related to color, with Cuban whites forming an oligarchy.  And even a half century after the triumph of the revolution power is still monopolized by an white elite – in spite of radical changes in the racial status and life chances of Afro-Cubans.

The unmistakable lesson the Cuban Revolution has taught us about racism is that it is culturally rooted and cannot be simply legislated away.  I have no doubt that Fidel Castro wished racism in Cuba would disappear; but you cannot wish racism away, even if you are as all powerful as Fidel Castro was.  Carlos Moore, an Afro-Cuban political scientist of Jamaican heritage, has written poignantly about white racism in Cuba in several scholarly works, but none more powerfully than his new memoir “Pechung.”  In this work Moore delves deeply into the racial morass in Cuba.  Unlike the white Cuban dissidents, Carlos does not deny that Cuba needed a revolution against the self-indulgent racist oligarchy that ruled the country with an iron fist. 

 

Telling The Truth About Color In Cuba

Carlos Moore II

A Marked Man!

His problem is that even fifty years after the revolution the new white rulers continue to give lip service in behalf of racial equality, and even pass laws banning racist practices and policies: But they refuse to engage in an honest discourse with black Cuban intellectuals on the question of the persistence of racism in revolutionary Cuba!   This is the same thing I have heard from other Afro-Cubans, and it is reflected in the poetry of their hip/hop artists; which is the voice of young black Cubans even more so than among Afro-American youths who invented the art form. 

“Discussion of race was taboo in Cuba before the revolution,” says Carlos, “and it became even more even so after the revolution!”   Yet the history of Cuba is such that “It is impossible to separate race from class.”  And he notes that this is the case throughout South America:  “In Latin America…you cannot deal with one without discussing the other.”  Carlos points out that the raison d’etre for his family’s relocation to Cuba in the early twentieth century was the anti-black genocide of 1912, which slaughtered “thousands of blacks: men, women and children!” 

 This mass slaughter created a shortage of agricultural workers in the cane fields and forced the white Cuban government to recruit black workers from other islands.  But once there these foreign blacks were the target of racial animus by white and mestizo Cubans who referred to them as “Peschung, which means foreign excrement” says Carlos, “It was worse than being called nigger on the US mainland.   “I grew up fighting against that term,” he says.  This was the racial system that existed in Cuba before the Revolution; it was so racially exclusive and devoted to white supremacy that even Fulgencia Batista, the mulatto strong man who ruled Cuba before the revolution, was refused entry into white social clubs and his children were barred from swimming on white beaches. 

 Carlos’s insistence on raising the race question in the days following the revolution got him in big trouble: first landing him in jail as a counter-revolutionary, then exile.  Yet in spite of it all this he continues to defend the revolution as a good and necessary thing, in spite of the way the Cuban government trashes his name by accusing him of being a traitor and CIA snitch.  Anyone seeking to understand the complex problem of race in Cuba should begin by reading the works of Carlos Moore; the preeminent authority on the subject.  And only after gaining an understanding the history of race and class in Cuba can one hope to make sense of the character of the Cuban community in Miami and how they relate to Afro-Americans, who are an integral part of the original peoples who built the American nation. 

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 I however learned about the realities of race and class in Cuba much earlier, and my education came through personal interactions with Afro-Cubans.  I first became aware of the black population of Cuba when I was a student at Florida A&M University in 1959, the year that the revolutionaries took power on that island just 90 miles off the Florida coast.  There were foreign students from all over the black world on campus at the time, but the Afro-Cubans stood out to me because of their marvelous music. This was no small achievement because great musicians were common fare on campus; many of the great jazz orchestras were breaking up and gifted musicians who had opted for careers as performers were now returning to college to get their degrees and become music teachers and band masters in the black schools throughout the south. 

Many of these artists were attracted to Florida A&M because great musicians like Julian “Cannonball Adderly – who was playing alto saxophone with the seminal Miles Davis Septet, which featured John Coltrane on tenor sax – and his trumpeter brother Nat Adderly, who was featured with the legendary Lionel Hampton Orchestra, had made A&M’s music program world famous.  During the time I was there A&M had a performance space in the student union building called “The Ebony Lounge,” where some legendary jam sessions were held.  That’s where I first heard the Afro-Cubans play their music and I was swept away by their dynamic and exotic sound. 

Strangely enough, although I was a drummer it was not the drums that originally caught my ear, rather it was the piano with its wonderful montunos, those rhythmic figures that shape the character of the musical form known as the Son Montuno, the Typica Afro-Cuban orchestral form.  Then, as now, the sound of the piano drove me into paroxysms of pleasure.  However a couple of years later I fell in love with a beautiful Puerto Rican dancer and she introduced me to the Conga drums and took me to see Francisco “Mongo” Santamaria, a great Afro-Cuban virtuoso of the conga and bongo drums.  I couldn’t believe the complex rhythms and various timbres and textures of sound Mongo was able to produce from those wooden drums with cow skin heads played with the naked hand.  I was smitten!  

Mongo and I became fast friends and our relationship grew to the point that we became like brothers.  He became my teacher and by the time I was 25 I had become accomplished enough on the conga drums to actually substitute for him in a concert with his great band; A band which included the gifted saxophonist Bobby Capers, and Hubert Laws, one of the greatest Flutist and piccolo players of the twentieth century.  For instance, when Hubert left Mongo’s band he held down the first chair in the woodwind section of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra under Maestro Leonard Bernstein, the most famous symphony orchestra in the world!  I fell in love with everything Cuban: the music; the cuisine; the women.  In fact I even married a beautiful Afro-Cuban senorita!

 This all happened in the mid 1960’s, but I have continued to study and write about Cuba and I just played a gig with Zon del Barrio, one of the hottest Latin bands in New York – the capital of Afro-Cuban music, the claims of Miami notwithstanding – just recently.  And the performance can be viewed on You Tube.        

Playing with the Mongo Santamaria Orchestra circa 1967

 

 Hubert Laws, Bobby Capers and trumpeter Marty Scheller

 

Me and my Cuban Wife!

 Playthell&Dorothy

A brilliant psychologist and my favorite Mambo partner

 

As a result of these personal relationships with Afro-Cubans I got a first hand education about racism in Cuba.  My first lesson came when I invited Mongo to a lecture I was presenting at a school in Philadelphia, and I sat him among a group of light skin Hispanics.  But when I looked up he had removed himself and sat among Afro-Americans.  When I later told him that I had placed him there because I thought he would be more comfortable sitting among his people, he replied simply: “I am among my people.”  Carlos Moore also makes the point that he feels far more at home among black Americans than amidst white, mulatto or mestizo Cubans.  “I never felt any discrimination among Afro-Americans,” says Carlos. 

My wife Dorothy’s father was jet black but her mother looked almost white, however she was Jamaican – an island that also has a history of serious color problems between its light and dark skinned citizens.  One day I asked her father about race relations in Cuba, and he said: ”Rich white Cubans treated their dogs better than us!  Since the Cubans I knew were mostly blacks, mulattos and mestizos who loved Afro-Cuban music, I had never actually experienced the racist attitudes they were all talking about – although there are plenty of those types in northern Jersey towns like Union City, which was the headquarters of white anti-Castro Cuban organizations such as Alpha 66. 

 Celia Cruz

Celia Cruz

The Queen Of Latin Song!

I can still see the anger and disgust on Mongo’s face when he talked about the great Afro-Cuban songstress Celia Cruse performing benefit concerts for them to raise money.  His outrage was palpable when he’d say: “What can Celia be thinking bout Playthell…She knows what it was like for us in Cuba before the revolution!”  It was with these images in mind that I set out from New York on my first visit to the Magic City.   And these were buttressed by the reports of my younger daughter Makeda, a native New Yorker who has made several trips to Miami.  A fitness competitor, Makeda first went to Miami to compete in the “Miss South Beach Bikini Fitness” contest.

After spending a coupleof days in Miami, Makeda called me and said: ‘Daddy I have met the first group of Hispanic people that I don’t like.  I can’t stand these damn white Cubans down here.  They are the most racist, arrogant group of people I have ever met! “Now, my daughter grew up with Hispanic kids in Manhattan, in fact I tease her by calling her “Oyea Keda!”    She even dances with Hispanic folkloric companies; as I write she is in Puerto Rico dancing with a Bomba troupe.  And my son was a baseball player all through high school and most of his close buddies are Hispanic.  And I always had Hispanic friends. 

Makeda!

In spanish Harlem With Keda 198

Ritmo Caliente!

 Dancing The Mambo In Spanish Harlem

So this is a girl who has spent most of her life around Hispanic people.  But she hates Miami – although part of this is a result of her New York chauvinism which inclines her to view Miami as a pretentious backwater New York wannabe.  I also have friends from northern Florida – life long residents of the Sunshine State – who hate Miami too.  One public official told me “I wouldn’t live in Miami for anything!  And I have another friend from Atlanta who often travels to Miami to conduct business, where he stays in the finest hotels, but he hates Miami too.  And I have numerous former classmates who settled in southern Florida: they like Miami but detest the Cubans, whom they view as “arrogant racist interlopers.”  And unlike me they have no interest in Cuban culture.  They just wish they would go back where they came from mucho pronto!

 Suffice it to say that my take on Miami during my brief visit is quite different.  I loved it!   I think it is a kind of New York of the south.  And since I love Cuban food and music I was in Nirvana. The contacts I had with Cubans occurred in hotels, restaurants and the night clubs of South Beach, a modern day Babylon where life is a bacchanal 24/7.  My greatest disappointment was not being able to find a Mambo partner that who could dance on the level that I am accustomed to in New York!  

This is How We do It!

 Scenes from New Years Eve and other 210

 At Gonzalez y Gonzales!

But I would later discover that the great bands and dancers are not on South Beach, which is over run with tourists, but in the Cuban night clubs such as Gloria Estefan’s spot in downtown Miami, and the clubs in Halieah.  Yet in spite of being forced to stumble around the dance floor with graceless plodders who can’t even hear – let alone dance to – the clave: I achieved my objective of meeting with the legendary radio mogul Tom Joyner, who was hosting the mega concert Jazz in the Gardens, an annual event promoted by the City of Miami Gardens and produced by the legendary Leon “Kwaku” Saunders – who along with basket ball great Julius Dr. J. Irving and singer Natalie Cole – was once my student at the university of Massachusetts.  Hence in spite of what them, thar, dem and dose say: Miami is still The Magic City to me!

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 * Cover photo by: Kwame Brathwaite

Photos of dancers and text by: Playthell Benjamin

 

Rosa Parks and Vivian Malone

Posted in Playthell on politics, Travels in the New South on September 19, 2009 by playthell
 

A Hero For all Times! 

A Hero for All times! 

 

A Remembrance of Two women who changed America

 In the past few days Rosa Parks and Vivian Malone passed from this life into legend.  And what a legacy they left to Americans in general and women in particular.  If the story of the advance of white women from a disenfranchised group with a tenuous status under law to political and economic empowerment in the twentieth century is a subject worthy of celebration, the story of black women is a marvel.  Having to bear all the stigma and oppression that comes with being a member of an oppressed caste, they still had to deal with the problem of gender discrimination that was the sole lot of white women.  It’s sort of like saying Sid Charesse did every step Fred Astaire did, except she was wearing spiked heels and dancing backward. 

Yet in spite of the multiple handicaps Afro-American women endured, numerous sisters have arisen from their ranks to give leadership in many fields.  Among these sisters are moral visionaries who have led the nation to higher ground: Rosa Parks and Vivian Malone are prominent among them.  Like Angela Davis and Condoleeza Rice, Rosa Parks and Vivian Malone were Alabama women. Their intelligence and strength speaks volumes about the character of the black community in which they all came of age during the period when caste discrimination based on skin color was sanctioned by the law of the land. 

 It was a dangerous time for a black person in America, an era when one’s color was deemed a crime and blacks could offend their white citizens just by the act of living. Thus violence, even of the murderous sort, was promiscuously employed to maintain the system of white domination.  This was the racial climate in which Rosa Parks stood up and challenged the system of white privilege in Montgomery Alabama that sparked the modern Civil Rights Movement.   Since it was this movement that called Dr. Martin Luther King to leadership, and I was in Atlanta when both of these icons of the Civil Rights movement passed, I decided to seek out somebody from the Southern Christian Leadership Council for a comment.

Through the good offices of J.O. Wyatt, a former County Commissioner and jazz promoter, I got at chance to talk with Reverend Dr. Joseph Lowery, a man who had walked with Dr. King into many a poisonous southern snake pit in battle for justice, at his office in the elegant, art laden, black owned, Atlanta Life Insurance building.  Now 84 years old and semi-retired, Lowery knew both women and when he spoke of them poetry and wisdom flowed from his mouth like water gushing from a Roman Fountain.                                                                                                                                                                                                                               “Ithink it was no accident that we call Rosa Parks the Queen mother of the Civil Rights movement,” he said, “because her role was clearly pivotal and triggered the modern Civil Rights movement.  The Montgomery bus boycott was direct action and introduced the era of self-determination for the black struggle.”

 Lowery explained that before Mrs. Parks challenged the etiquette of segregation in Alabama by refusing to rise from her seat so that a white man could be seated, black people had relied on the legal strategies of the NAACP to redress their grievances. “Prior to the boycott sparked by Ms. Parks the black movement was directed by the courts and legislative decrees,” Rev. Lowery recalls. “The bus boycott took the position that it didn’t matter what the courts, or the legislature said we were not going to tolerate injustice any longer; and it was the witness of Rosa Parks, the willingness to let God use her for this purpose.   Perhaps with the passing of Mrs. Parks we will develop a new commitment to taking our destiny in our own hands today.  If Rosa Parks’ life meant anything, it is that we need to turn to each other rather than on each other.” 

 Reverend Lowery’s remarks remind us of the central role the liberation theology of the progressive African American church has always played in the struggle for black liberation.  And it also serves to point out the failings of the reactionary other worldly religion that is running rampant all across the south today.  And these are joined by legions of what moral philosopher Cornell West calls “Constantinian Christians” on the Republican right, who slavishly genuflect before the princes and powers who pervert the essential message of Jesus Christ to “heal the sick, feed the hungry, and treat thy brother as thy self.”  Arrayed against this formidable phalanx of impassioned Christian Soldiers to their right, the prophetic Christianity that inspired Dr. King and Mrs. Parks to speak truth to power, and lay their bodies on the line in the service of justice, is under siege.

 The decision of Vivian Malone to enter the University of Alabama was prompted by what Mrs. Parks and the black folks of Montgomery had done.  When she enrolled in BAMA in 1963 it was only 8, years after the Montgomery Boycott.  Although her attempt to attend the University prompted George Wallace to stand in the doorway and declare “Segregation Forever” while a howling mob egged him on, Vivian Malone, armed with a court order won by the brilliant black female attorney Constance Baker Motley, along with her male companion James Hood, pressed on and made history. 

 On May 30, 1965 Vivian became the first black person to graduate from the University of Alabama in its 134 year history.  Like the majority of the black southerners who defied the segregated order, Vivian was also deeply religious. Many years later she would recall “I was never afraid because God was with me.”  Reverend Lowery said of her: “Vivian was the very essence of grace and charm if she had lived in the days of Greek mythology she would have been the goddess of Grace, if she had lived during the kingdoms of Timbuctoo and Mali, she would have been an African Queen; however God chose for her to live in the exciting era of the Sixties, so she became both: Goddess of grace and an African queen.”  We all owe both of these ladies a great debt for having helped to civilize America society.

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