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Putin, Obama and the Ukrainian Crisis

Posted in On Foreign Affairs, Uncategorized with tags , , , on March 8, 2014 by playthell

Barack - putin-obama_2252410b

Can Barack and Putin work it out?

 Successful Diplomacy or Nuclear Apocolypse?

The Ukrainian crisis is a very complex affair, dramatic changes are occurring so quickly things could fall apart. In the past few weeks we have witnessed a democratically elected president driven from office and into exile by raging mobs in the street who disagreed with his decision to form closer economic ties with Russia, rather than seizing an opportunity to form closer economic ties with the European Union.  A new government of questionable legitimacy has been hastily cobbled together, with the new President, Arseniy Yatseniuk, also holding the office of Chairman of the Parliament, although the Fatherland Party, which he represents, only holds 25% of the seats in the Ukrainian parliament.

This is equivalent to President Obama being overthrown by an armed right-wing mob and somebody from the Tea Party becoming President, Speaker of the House and the Majority leader of the Senate.  While the US accepts this arrangement, albeit temporarily until new elections can be held, the Russians do not, they view these developments as an illegal coup engineered in Washington and the European Union, with Andrea Merkle of Germany playing a major role.

The American role in manipulating events that led to the overthrow of the elected president Ukraine, Victor Yanukovych, is confirmed in statements made on the phone by Undersecretary of State for Europe,Victoria Nuland, which was tapped by some hacker and put on the internet.  Nuland’s conversation with the American ambassador to the Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, leave no doubt that Washington was moving people and parties as if the Ukraine were a chessboard….they were involved in the overthrow of the president up to their teeth.  I have attached the transcript of Secretary Nuland’s conversation with Ambassador Pyatt’s conversation to the bottom of this essay, so the reader can see for themselves the extent of American meddling.

Victoria Nuland and Geoffrey Pyatt
American diplomats Victoria Nuland and Geoffrey Pyatt Plotting the future of Ukraine with Vitali Klitchko and Arseniy Yatseniuk

 Now the question is whether the country will break up, when the predominately Russian-speaking population in the Crimea region votes on whether to rejoin Great Russia in the upcoming referendum. This is such a volatile issue the country could quickly descend into civil war. In such a scenario the Russians will certainly become militarily involved, and the fact is that an American guided missile ship is steaming by the Crimean Peninsula right now –  probably armed with nuclear missiles – right through the shipping lanes where the Russian naval vessels routinely patrol.

This strikes me as an extraordinarily reckless move, and I am surprised that President Obama let his military advisors talk him into it – or maybe he ordered this despite the advice of the Joint Chiefs. In any case, despite the lame explanation that this voyage had been planned before the Ukrainian conflict began, I find the President’s decision to order an American warship into these troubled waters impossible to reconcile with the geo-political realities of this historical moment.

The USS Tuxton Cruising the Black Sea
American Missile Ship in Black Sea
An American Missile Ship armed with Tomahawks and other weaponry
A Russian Delta Class Nuclear Submarine
Playing A Deadly Game of cat and Mouse on the High Seas

I becomes even more puzzling when we learn that the Tuxton, which is armed with Tomahawk Cruise missiles, is steaming to the Black Sea in order to participate in joint naval exercise with the Romanian and Bulgarian navies.  The US government has announced that we will be sending in 12 F-16 fighter planes and 3oo air-force service personnel to Poland, at the request of Polish Minister of Defense Tomaz Simoniak, who is concerned about the Russian takeover of Crimea.  And the US sent five F-15 fighter planes to Lithuania last Thursday, because their Minister of Defense was alarmed by “Russian Aggression in the in Ukraine.”

The Pentagon has also announced that these American fighter planes will be patrolling the skies over the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.  What we the people desperately need to know is what are their orders, what are the rules of engagement and with whom are they to engage.  We need to know the answers to these questions because if these American fighter planses have orders to engage Russian aircraft this is a scenario that could spark a nuclear confrontation!  Yet the US cannot avoid these actions because of NATO.

The essential problem with NATO,  for the US government, goes back to a decision made a decade ago on May 2, 2004, when the 19 member states of NATO decided to admit seven former members of the Warsaw Pact, including former Soviet Republics which had become independent states after the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, whose center of power was Moscow, thirteen years earlier.  Latvia, Estonia, Romania, Lithuania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Bulgaria all joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Many observers thought this was a bad idea at the time – this writer included – and believed that it would come back to haunt us.

Well, we were right.  In the euphoria following the collapse of Communism, when talk of a “new world order” based on a unipolar world where all roads led to Washington, and projections for “a new American Century” appeared to be simply acknowledging the obvious, people forgot that nationalism and religious fanaticism have led to more wars than communism ever did.  These are the forces that America now struggles to deal with in the Mid-East and  in Eastern Europe, with the eye of the storm in Russia, which is well armed with nuclear weapons and whose armies are invincible on Russian soil.  Hence bombing Russia or invading her are both out of the question.

Yet the US is committed to an organization whose fundamental objective is mutual defense.  And NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer left no doubt when he told the Foreign Ministers assembled for the admission of the former Russian allies: “The accession of Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia demonstrates the principle that freedom is irrepressible.   From now on, 26 Allies will be joined in a commitment to defend each others’ security and territorial integrity. This is the strongest, most solemn commitment nations can undertake.”

Herein lies our problem and it is a mess.  This commitment means that should any of these former Soviet Republics get in an armed dispute with Russia, the US is bound by NATO protocol to act as if the attack was against America!  And yet, as if we are not  in enough of a quagmire, there are Republican Senators calling for the Ukraine to be admitted to NATO.   It is an invitation to disaster!

The dangers portended by Ukrainian events require the most calm and thoughtful deliberation, exactly the kind of approach that President Obama has been pursuing.  Unfortunately, he is not indifferent to the vicissitudes of American domestic politics and this crisis is unfolding just as the Republicans are holding their C-Pac convention.

This is where all those who pretend to the presidency hold forth before the most rabidly right-wing sector of the Party – the so called Republican base – who are rabid Obama-haters.  A parade of presidential hopefuls seeking to seduce this crowd and gain their support try to out-do each other in rushing to the far right of the American political continuum.

They all know that the easiest way to get some love from this crowd is to bash President Obama, so we see the President trying to conduct very difficult and dangerous diplomatic relations with Russia while assailed by a constant chorus of ridicule from Republicans Rudy Giuliani and John McCain, to Lindsay Graham and the Alaskan Barbarian Sarah Palin.

There are two themes that run through their attacks on the president. “The Ukraine crisis is the result of Barack Obama’s “weakness” in asserting American military power in promoting US foreign policy objectives in places like Syria and Iran, and this has emboldened America’s adversaries around the world.”  And “he is being bullied in the Ukrainian conflict because President Putin knows Obama is a punk.”

These vociferous denunciations of President Obama are accompanied by praise songs for the “toughness and decisiveness” of Putin; one wise media wag has labeled the phenomenon “Putin Love.”  None dare call it by its proper name: disloyal opposition bordering on treason! When you consider that far from doing nothing,  as the Republicans charge repeatedly, the evidence shows that President is doing far too much in the Ukrainian mess; this baseless criticism exposes the same deep-seated racist attitudes that compelled white American soldiers to permit German Nazi prisoners of war to share bathrooms with them, while the black American soldiers guarding them had to relieve themselves in ditches beside the road!

What Dr. DuBois said of Jack Johnson, the first black Heavyweight Boxing Champion of the world, is also true of Barack Obama, the first son of an African father to become President of the most powerful nation in the world.  Whites didn’t hate Jack Johnson because of anything he did, because they had done far worse; the source of their hatred is his “unforgivable blackness.”  Hence they see in Barack things that are not there, but are projected onto him  – by envious, racist whites who become hysterical at the very thought of a black First Family in the White House,   an uppity nigger with an African name who is way smarter than they are, running the USA….which they believe is a white man’s job and it just drives them bonkers!

The Republican warmongers hold an Oxymoronic position regarding the President: on the one hand they hate Putin and call him a ruthless dictator – House Speaker John Boehner call the Russian President “a thug” – but they are pissed off because President Obama is not more like him.   Sarah Palin, one of the loudest and most mindless voices on the right, denounces Obama as “a tyrant who ignores the constitution and constantly violates the law”, but gushes over Putin: “He rides bare-chested on a horse, wrestles bears and drills for oil….while Obama walks around in Mommy Jeans.”  This white trash debutante who nearly became vice-president on the US appears to cream in her jeans when she rhapsodizes about the manly virtues of the Russian President…Putin Love indeed.

 Alexander Putin: Tough Guy or…..
Alexander Putin on horseback  Just A Wrinkled old White Boy Riding a Nag

The more we hear from these twisted people the more obvious it becomes how lucky we are that Barack Obama and not John McCain became president five years ago. Under a McCain presidency we would be in wars everywhere, and the Alaskan Barbarian would be a heartbeat away from the Oval Office.  When viewed from the perspective of the Bush Administration’s foreign policy, Barack’s wisdom in managing this nation’s foreign affairs has been Solomonic.

He has found and offed Osama bin Laden, something the tough talking Bushmen never managed to do…in fact George Bush gave up trying to find him. The former President said he wasn’t even thinking about him anymore as he waged a war of choice against Sadam Hussein and Osama bin Laden became “Osama been Forgotten.”

Barack has also devastated Al Qaeda’s leadership, successfully wound down two wars the Republicans started that have become by far the longest running wars in our history – over twice as long as World War II – and he has kept us out of other foreign wars that John McCain would have eagerly waded into.  And Barack is the only American President to have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  He was awarded the Prize even while waging two wars, but they were wars that he inherited from the Bush years and the wise members of the Nobel Prize committee were prescient in their vision of Barack as a peacemaker who would steer American away from the war path.  In his acceptance speech President Obama displayed his gift for reconciling contending forces that he has employed in his diplomacy. (See: “Hooray for the Juggler!”)*

Alas, with the Ukrainian crisis we are witnessing the return of all the warmongering cretins from the neo-con cabal hatched in The Project for a New American Century – see “How the Iraq War was Hatched in a Think Tank” – that pushed a clueless George W Bush into invading Iraq; the same crew that his wiser father George I called “The Crazies” – Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, John Bolton, et al.

Once again the Grand Obstructionist Party is sending in the clowns….and they are a murderous bunch with blood and gore on their hands…..much of it innocent blood from the needless slaughter of women and children.  And these homicidal jokers are itching to start another war.  Just look at that madman John Bolton, Bush’s UN Ambassador, whining about President Obama’s reluctance to intervene in every crisis that arises in the world with armed forces, or that little grinning jackal Bill Kristol, who, from his position as Editor of the influential right-wing Journal The Weekly Standard and Director of the Project for a New American Century, played a major role in convincing Bush to invade Iraq on phony information.

Now here he is again, while the nation is still recovering from that criminal folly, recklessly calling for ratcheting up tensions with the Russians by “humiliating Putin.”  These neo-con clowns never learn; they are stuck on stupid.

Bill Kristol
 Bill Kristol
A tough talkin mouse
 Dirty Dick Cheney
Dirty Dick Cheney
War Criminal!

However this little poot-butt provocateur, Wee Willie Kristol, who like Dirty Dick Cheney has never spent a day in the military, does not seem to understand that provoking a military conflict in the Ukraine is a very different class of event from invading Iraq, because within such a conflict lies the seeds of our own destruction; which was never a possibility in the invasions of Iraq, Afghanistan, or even Vietnam.

Yet any military conflict with Russia could devolve into nuclear war; a prognosis that has been greeted with disbelief, even ridicule, by some really smart and thoughtful people. They are certain that the mostly straight white males who monopolize the instruments of power are rational actors, and supreme egotists, committed to self-preservation.  Therefore any mention of the possiblilty of a nuclear exchange between the US and Russia over the Ukraine is prima facie “absurd.”

It is fairly certain that no rational person would make a decision to destroy modern civilization.  I even had a wag with a PhD in political science tell me as much in this very language as he dismissed my concerns, and I must confess that on the face of it he appears to be right.  Yet the leading nations are well-armed with nuclear weapons and nuclear war remains an option, despite their awareness of the fact that all mankind has achieved during our history on earth would evaporate in a flash.  And those who survive would be struggling to sustain life on a radioactive planet with Stone Age technology.  This could be our fate an hour from now if the US and Russia had a nuclear exchange.

Such an event is, in fact, unthinkable.  Until you begin to consider that the mere possession of nuclear weapons is evidence of a collective madness among our leaders, who are prepared to perpetrate a massive crime against humanity, a catastrophe of biblical proportions, for their deployment would be worse than the sum total of all the atrocities man has committed against man in the history of the world.  An attack with nuclear weapons would instantaneously achieve mass murder on a scale that would make the Nazi holocaust look like a minor event.

Yet the most advanced civilizations in the world are awash in these weapons and cannot find a way to rid mankind of this horror!  This means that all of these “rational actors” in whom my friend has placed his confidence are ready and willing to slaughter millions of innocent civilians; all they need is the right scenario to develop on a computer screen and they will launch.  And since I have been in the room with the people who are assigned this task during a stint in Strategic Air Command at the height of the Cold War, right on the cusp of the Cuban Missile Crisis, I have no doubt that they will do it.

I would have done it!   That’s the way we were trained and I, like everybody else in Central Security Control, would have been convinced that I was serving the best interests of my country.  Yet I would not have raped a woman, mugged anybody and robbed them of their coin, and would readily give the elderly or handicapped my seat on the bus…in fact I was something of a Good Samaritan in everyday life…but I would have pushed the button and launched a nuclear attack on Russia upon command. This is what the philosopher Hanna Arendt meant by “The banality of evil.”

The real danger here is not that a group of men will sit quietly around a table ensconced underneath a mountain somewhere and decide to launch a nuclear attack, even though I believe the only reason they won’t is not moral restraint but the MAD doctrine: Mutual Assured Destruction, because I know men are indeed capable of such evil.  The clear and present danger that confronts us is that it could all happen by accident.

In the event of a serious miscommunication where a computer says the other side has launched an attack ,there is so little time to retaliate by those who believe that their nation is under attack they would have to launch immediately.  This is why fomenting hostility and mistrust between the US and Russia is akin to playing Russian roulette with the whole world.

Hence all the talk from Republicans about building anti-missile systems on the doorstep of Russia in places like Poland, and recruiting Poland, Georgia and Ukraine into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, NATO, is a doomsday scenario.  The people who advocate this madness often talk as if the rest of us are fools.

For instance Lindsay Graham, a Republican Senator from South Carolina, often talks this way. A smart man, albeit unprincipled, this former Air Force lawyer is openly calling on President Obama to invite former Republics that were a part of the Soviet Union until the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 – and they became independent nations – to join NATO.  We are left to speculate as to what the senator’s motives are, but he talks like a man who is intoxicated on the opiate of “American Exceptionalism,” terrified by a Tea Party threat to “primary” him, and seduced by the limelight that follows actors on the stage of national politics.

Professor Stephen Cohen – the Director of Russian Studies Centers at Princeton and Columbia Universities –is convinced that should the US pursue this course it will lead to nuclear catastrophe.  Dr. Cohen – whom I regard as a cut above former  functionaries in the US foreign policy establishment like Madeline Albright, Ziebnew Brzezinski, and Hilary Clinton – argues that if the US put troops in  Poland, which has now joined  NATO, the Russians will militarily occupy the Ukraine and they will be prepared to defend their position at all cost, including nuclear holocaust!

Since Romania and Bulgaria, who were formerly Russia’s allies in the now disloved Warsaw Pact, have also joined  NATO, should the US gain control of the Ukraine they would have succeeded in bringing their forward military position to Russia’s front door.  The Russians will resist this advance and any conflict between Russia and one of these new NATO countries would immediately become a military confrontation between the US and Russia. It is in the nature and letter of the agreement.

This is a plausible scenario of how a nuclear war could begin, because when there are military tensions between nuclear armed nations they put their nuclear forces on Alert. And once this happens the possibilities for an accidental nuclear conflagration greatly increases.  That’s why we need careful diplomacy in times like these and any suggestion of introducing military forces into the equation, such as conducting military maneuvers in the area, deploying American forces on Polish soil, or promoting any military activity in Crimea is destabilizing.

The Crimean Peninsula

Crimea -

Is it worth risking war with Russia

Never has this nation needed the calm deliberative style of President Obama more than now. His choice of quiet diplomacy over saber-rattling and caustic rhetoric calms the situation and gives everybody time to think. If John McCain were president just now the world would be in a state of nuclear terror as the destruction of our planet hung in the balance. Rejecting this old whacko warmonger in favor of the humanist visionary Barack Obama was the American electorate’s finest hour!

One of the greatest dangers of the American Exceptionalist doctrine is that it encourages national chauvinism and prevents Americans from recognizing the just claims and interests of other nations; they view the world with blinders on, like a draft horse pulling a wagon in city traffic that you want to look in only one direction. Alas, while this may be a good thing for draft horses it is suicidal in international politics where nuclear weapons are involved.

In order to understand how Putin would view the Ukraine entering NATO, one need only recall the US response when the Russians deployed missiles in Cuba.  The US government under President Kennedy was prepared to start a nuclear war over it.  When Kennedy ordered the US Navy to blockade Cuba and challenge a nuclear armed Russian fleet on the high seas, the world came so close to destruction the Cuban Missile Crisis –as it has become known in historyhad a lasting effect on Robert McNamara, the American Secretary of Defense at the time.

Before coming into government Robert McNamara was a hot shot corporate Titan, a former Air Force captain who was computer savvy – which was unique in the early 1960’s – McNamara was president of the Ford Motor Company, but after he left government he spent the rest of his life promoting peaceful development among the world’s poorest countries by employing the resources of the World Bank, which he headed.

Later in life he produced a documentary film titled “The Fog of War” in which he recounts how close they came to destroying the world during the Cuban Crisis.  He even traveled to Russia and Cuba and talked to his counterparts on the other side.  The question he most wanted them to answer was “would you really have launched your nuclear weapons?”  The fact that they said yes, as did he, shook him to the core, this question hounded him to his dying day is: “how could a group of rational, intelligent, sane, men even consider such a crime against the earth?

I believe the answer lies in our basic instinct for survival and the strong impulse to protect home and family.  The US government felt Americans could not live with the threat of Russian nuclear weapons just 90 miles away on the Island of Cuba because it threatened our national existence.  Hence no measure was too extreme to prevent it….even gambling with the fate of the earth.  That’s how the Russians feel about American incursions into their spheres of influence: and there is every reason to believe they will use any means necessary to prevent Americans from gaining military hegemony on their door step.

This is why President Obama must remain steady as she goes in steering the American ship of state through these troubled waters, and he must pay the Republican clowns screaming on the sidelines no mind.  First of all their criticisms of his foreign policy, like their claims that he is a lawless dictator who has usurped the Constitutional powers of the government, are all a damned lie!  These jackanapes –who chatter on ad nauseum spouting putrid nonsense like drunken magpies – foam at the mouth as they denounce the president’s “weakness” and “indecisiveness” in refusing to “do something” about the Russian transgressions.  This, like all of the criticism in their narrative of the Obama residency is a balantant lie!

They conveniently forget – and some are so ignorant of US history they never knew – that the Russians invaded several Eastern European nations while Republican Presidents occupied the Oval Office –and these were actual invasions, not like this little walkabout in the Crimea, where nobody will even admit they are Russian soldiers. There was the 1956 invasion of Hungary under Eisenhower – a Five Star general who only a decade earlier had led the victory over Nazi Germany as the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe.  But he refused to intervene despite many calls to do so.  Ike weighted the costs – a possible nuclear war with Russia – against the nebulous benefits, and decided to chill out despite the shrill cries for intervention on the right.

General Eisenhower
Ike Maintained his Cool

When the Warsaw Pact forces – a group of five Eastern European countries led by the Soviet Union – invaded Czechoslovakia during the presidential elections of 1968, Richard Nixon did nothing to intervene in the situation after he won by a landslide.  Nixon, who had been Ike’s vice-president when the Soviets invaded Hungary, was no stranger to Russian invasions and was enraged by the Czech affair, but made no attempt to intervene in the situation because he knew that the Soviets had gained parity in nuclear weapons with the US.

Furthermore, given American actions in invading Cuba after the Revolution led by Fidel Castro turned in a socialist direction, Nixon, a very bright but morally deformed man, must have recognized that the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia to overthrow the Dubcek government, which was moving away from the Russian communist model, mirrored US actions in Cuba, although they would never admit this obvious parallel.  So he sought the friendship of China, breaking an American policy of ignoring mainland, or “Red China,” that had prevailed since the triumph of the Communist Revolution led by Mao Tse Tung, and promoted the absurd fiction that “the real China” was the off shore island of Taiwan. 

The strategy of exploiting serious ideological difference between the two communist titans, China and Russia,  by cozying up to China,  led  to an American rapprochement with China and Detente with Russia. This artful foreign policy was possible because Nixon was advised by Henry Kissinger, whereas George Bush was advised by people like Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and their Guru, the neo-con warmonger Paul Wolfowitz and his PNAC cabal.

In 2008 the Russian army invaded the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, and Bush, already burdened with two wars that he started, did nothing!  And although Senator John McCain is demanding an investigation of the CIA to find out why they didn’t predict a situation that erupted at rapid speed, a question whose answer does not require a costly congressional investigation; the answer is obvious to any reasonably informed person looking objectively upon the situation rather than through a veil of bias.

The fact is that there is nothing unusual about the CIA getting caught off guard: they got caught off guard in each of the full scale Russian Invasions under three Republican presidents. Thus all of this self-righteous posturing and demonstrations of outrage from people like John McCain,  that smug Howdy Doody looking charlatan that sits in the governor’s mansion in Louisiana, that fat dumb dope fiend Rush Limbaugh and that evil hysterical anorexic witch Gun Boat Annie Coulter are pure bullshit, as the Princeton Philosopher Harry G. Franks describes bullshit arguments in his book  “Bullshit”.

Consider the account of Daniel Fata – the assistant secretary of defense for European and NATO policy from September 2005 to September 2008, which was most of George Bush’s second term.  He recalls in an interview with Professor Stephen Benedict Dyson, a Professor of political science at the University of Connecticut,  that when the Russian Army invaded Georgia ““We were scrambling for information during these critical initial hours. My desk officer, who had great personal ties at the highest levels in Tbilisi, had the most usable real time information via texts from his friends in Georgia.” And he went on to observe “Putin was never punished by the international community.”  Notice he said nothing about the Bush Administration punishing Putin…it appears to have never entered their minds!

Bush evidently decided that he had gotten in enough trouble listening to Cheney, Rumsfeld, and their neo-con crew.  In view of the history of Republican presidential inaction in the face of actual Russian invasions…..why are these chattering clowns so hard on President Obama, who has not even been confronted with a “Russian invasion?”  At worse, thus far, the president is dealing with a pooty-pop police action.  And as I have shown: Barack has already done far too much!

To treat the Crimean situation as some major aggression by the Russians that threatens US interests, and therefore requires our intervention, is surely some species of madness. This peculiar madness is magnified when you reflect upon the fact that American officials travelled to the Ukraine and openly encouraged the insurgents to overthrow the pro-Russian President

Yet given the level of routine obfuscation and outright lying, the massive and systematic disinformation campaign being conducted by the right-wing media complex, and the fact that the overwhelming majority of their listeners are pugnacious airheads whose understanding of political reality is akin to the man who couldn’t tell his rectum from a hole in the ground, you have an untutored impassioned mob who can be manipulated into believing anything.  Hence the Republican politicians who are hurling slanders at the President that have not a trace of truth, but plays big with their audience, could just be playing politics.

If that is true, and given the intellectual shallowness and situational ethics that inform the actions of many Republican politicians in could well be true – then they are even more dangerous than the true believers.  Intelligent people who hold sincere beliefs can be persuaded to change their view, but a soulless, ignorant, charlatan has nothing there.  They’ve got a hole in their soul, and thus could demagogue a grave issue of national security for partisan political advantage.

These are people for whom only money and power are sacred; so even now they are trying their best to tie the conflict in the Ukraine to the refusal of President Obama to sign the Canadian pipeline deal.  Aside from confusing the foreign policy debate, their constant chatter, scripted lines repeated ad nauseum,  paid for by plutocrats and beamed into the skulls of the vast untutored working class – and that includes many white collar “professionals” – shamelessly plays on their fears in order to panic them into voting reactionaries into political office who despise them and constantly injure their interests.

President Obama is in a tight predicament.  He is bound by an attitude of fear and suspicion toward Russia that has long been cultivated in this country. The ignorance of Americans regarding Russia is abominable, hence they are prepared to believe the worst.  When coupled with the sense of American Exceptionalism that almost all Americans in their smug self-righteousness believe in, it makes sense to them when the Republican clowns cry out about President Obama’s weakness in the face of Russian aggression.

Since they know nothing of American history, they really believe that Putin would never have committed such a criminal act of aggression if that “lily livered; mommy jean wearing; secret agent for Al Queda; European socialist communist low down dirty half-breed mongrel nigger” had not “duped the American people and wormed his way into the White House”.

Yet even if we discounted all the other madness in this description of our fabulous President, arguably the best ever, and simply accepted that they believe Barack could deceive the Secret Service, the FBI, the National Immigration Service, the National Security agency et al, even  believed that Donald Trump’s alleged private investigators could detect such fraud, is frightening testimony of the epidemic of irrational thinking among millions of Americans who come out aggressively and vote!

Barak Obama’s actions and pronouncements regarding the Ukrainian situation are formulated with an eye toward domestic politics.  After all, he is not only a politician but a great one….perhaps the greatest of all times.  In fact I have argued this very point elsewhere see: “The GOAT: Greatest of All Times” on this blog.  And the first step in being a successful politician is to recognize that politics is the art of the possible!  Barack not only recognizes this, he understands how to win elections.

The fact that fact a young black guy who looks like he might be hanging out on the basketball, courts in Chicago waiting for a pick-up game, and is married to a big fine chocolate, brilliant, sassy soul sister who can dance her ass off and will bust a move anywhere, getting himself elected president twice, is driving a lot of these white boys like Donald Trump – who was born to the purple but can’t get elected to the villager dogcatcher’s post in Washington – clear out of their  minds!

So the Republican propaganda machine, disguised as news sources, make up lies about him and broadcast them on a non-stop loop, right into the fickle brains of Dumb Dora and Joe Six Pack.  And they have done it so well that millions of Americans – most white but some black leftist too – actually believe it.  And that is part of my evidence for his greatness: with all of their researchers they cannot come up with an authentic complaint against Obama.  Yet perception is reality in the eyes of the beholder.  Hence President Obama must pay homage to the prevailing American myth….because it is firmly rooted in the Master Narrative of American civilization.

Hence we see President Obama, a brilliant man who must recognize that Russia has a legitimate right to their Sphere of Influence, and that Putin is doing nothing that the US has not done –and far worse – all over the world!  Yet he must pay lip service to the American Exceptionalists vision or be labeled a traitor and hung if they had their druthers. And he knows that none of his major policy objectives can be realized so long as Republicans control the House of Representatives, and should they take the senate in the elections this year he will spend the rest of his second term mainly casting vetoes, Barack must pay attention to domestic politics.  All of these factors figure strongly in the presidents public posture toward Russia.

As important as these other issues are, they are picayune matters compared to a military conflict with Russia.  This is as serious as it gets.  Things on the ground in the Ukraine are changing so fast the President must focus on the fundamental issues involved here and correctly decide where American interests truly lie. Considering that he has ordered an American guided missile ship into waters off the coast of Crimea, one wonders if he is becoming confused on this issue.  Hilary Clinton, his recently retired Secretary of State is obviously confused by the Ukrainian affair because she is talking like a babbling idiot….  spouting dangerous and misleading nonsense comparing Putin to Hitler and muttering about the similarity to the Munich Conference?

This kind of crazy talk invites comparison of President Obama to the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. I am expecting to hear cries of “appeasement” from the Republicans any day now.  Although she has tried to equivocate on here statement, saying she was not implying an exact comparison, Hilary comes across as either a fool or an opportunist.  Conversations about Hitler and Munich conferences from the middle of the last century is not the conversation we should be having now….for it confuses far more than it clarifies and provides fuel for the verbal arsonists in right-wing media.

All of this is a distraction.  The thing that should remain uppermost in President Obama’s mind and that of all American political leaders is whatever happens in the Ukraine it is not worth one ounce of American blood, nor the profligate squandering of American treasure. President Obama should also be aware that many thoughtful Americans, this writer included, resent the fact that the Republicans who control the House of Representatives quickly voted a billion dollars in emergency aid to the Ukraine, while denying benefits to American workers suffering long term unemployment, and kills every program President Obama proposes to help desperate Americans and rebuild the nation’s crumbling infrastructure.

Yet above and beyond all everything else, no matter what, the President must constantly think about avoiding any action that could make the Russians nervous about their national security, because they will surely put more nuclear weapons on alert….alas some are already on alert.   For most people these weapons are like something out of science fiction like the transformers firing laser beams, that explains why most are going merrily about their business totally unaware that 40 minutes from now our world go up in radioactive flames. They are like sheep quietly going to slaughter; for if they had any idea what a nuclear war means they would out in the streets demanding that President Obama call off the proposed naval exercise involving the US and Romanian forces in the Black Sea.

Ignorance about the world is dangerous in any case, but ignorance about the nuclear forces of the US and Russia could prove fatal.  Both nations have triple threat strike forces that consists of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, Long range bombers, and naval forces composed of nuclear submarines and missile ships that fire from surface platforms.  The IBMs can be launched from silos on land or beneath the sea; they go up out of the earth’s atmosphere and return to earth to hit their targets.  They also have MIRVED warheads – Multiple Independent Reentry Vehicles – which means that a single missile carry up to eight separate warheads capable of being programmed to strike different targets.

In order to gain some understanding of the scale of destruction a single missile can wreak consider the following facts.  The atomic bombs dropped on Japanese cities had an explosive power equivalent to 20, 000 tons of high explosive TNT, plus the intense heat from the nuclear reaction and the radioactive fallout. The nuclear warheads carried by the MIRVED missiles are 5 megatons each, which amounts to 45 million tons of TNT per missile!   And we have thousands of them ready to launch at a moment’s notice….and so do the Russians.  And since this is a neutron hydrogen bomb, the radiation is immeasurably more intense.

I can still remember the day I first found out about all this.  It was in an orientation class for those of us with Top Secret security clearances when I arrived on the Strategic Air Command base in Glasgow Montana, up on the DEW line – Distance Early Warning – out in the Great Plains near the Canadian Border, where I would be stationed.  At the time SAC was the center of the US nuclear strike force and from where we were the giant B-52 Strato-Bombers, which flew at supersonic speeds at very high altitudes, could be over Moscow in less than an hour.  After showing us the official SAC films on the atomic bombing of Japan, an unspeakably horrible event, the colonel conducting the class said, “Or this is nothing…those bombs are like firecrackers compared to the ordinance we have on this base.”

After seeing the giant radioactive fireball rise up over Japanese cities, and heard the tales of poisonous black rain and the nuclear night that followed the atomic flash upon detonation, creating such intense heat people who saw it eyeballs melted and people were bursting into flames everywhere.  And all this was from the little 20,000 tons of TNT bomb; the instructor pointed out that we had bombs of 100 million ton capacity!  I thought it was madness, and I have never changed my views on the matter of nuclear weapons.  As I have said previously, I consider the mere possession of them to be a crime against humanity.

However the bombers, while still active, are third in destructive capacity in the tripartite US nuclear war machine. There are the missiles I described, and then there are the nuclear submarines, marvelous frightening instruments of mass destruction, one of which has more firepower than all of the ordinance exploded in World War II, including the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan.  And we have about a dozen of them prowling under the world’s ocean seas.

Should a nuclear exchange begin there will be two chain reactions: the atomic one and a human one.   For once it starts the computers will take overs and both sides will empty their arsenals in order to make sure the other side will not survive….the computers are programmed to see to that.  It is such an unspeakable horror, the destruction of all life on our planet, it is no wonder people don’t want to think about it, but I’m just keepin it real!  It is no exaggeration to say that those who do survive for a while will envy the dead.  This is the possibility we are playing with as I write.

The way things are developing in terms of the rapid deterioration of US/Russian relations over the crisis in the Ukraine is frightening to those who pay attention to the possibility of blundering into an accidental nuclear war.  As I said early on in this essay I was prompted to write it because of an exchange I had with a friend who smugly assured me that a nuclear exchange between the US and Russia couldn’t happen.  However I take my cue from the people who understand this problem best: The Bulletin of Atomic Scientist.  Their views regarding the danger of an outbreak of nuclear war – which is to say its probability – is succinctly expressed by the position of the hands on the Doomsday Clock.

This clock was created in 1947 by the scientists from the Manhattan Project, the guys who invented the atomic bombs that were dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki only two years earlier, the only time atomic weapons have been used in human history.  Over the last 67 years the hands on the clock have been moved 18 times by the scientists affiliated with the Bulletin, which includes 18 Nobel Laureates, an astonishing number for any organization.  The scientists move the hands on the Doomsday Clock based on their assessment of how close human beings have come to self-annihilation.

At present the hands on the clock stands at five minutes to mid-night! And, despite so major changes in US/Russian relations, the nuclear arsenals possessed by these nations remain the most dangerous threat to continued human existence.  The Bulletin of Atomic Scientist sums it up thusly:

“Today, the mind-numbing possibility of nuclear annihilation as a result of a deliberate attack on the other by the United States or Russia seems a thing of the past, yet the potential for an accidental, unauthorized, or inadvertent nuclear exchange between the United States and Russia remains, with both countries anachronistically maintaining more than 800 warheads on high alert, ready to launch within tens of minutes”.

That’s why President Obama had better move with the greatest caution in his policy choices regarding the Ukraine.  He must maintain his fabled cool as – “No Drama Obama” – pay the hysterical hawks on the Republican right no mind and make keeping the peace his first priority.  Because as we know from former Defense Secretary Bob McNamara: things get confusing in the fog of war. And before you know what happened we could be the late….great….planet earth.



It could come to this!


Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
March 8, 2014

****** Transcript from hacked phone conversation between Undersecretary of State for Europe, Victoria Nuland for and the US Ambassador as they secretly  minipulate the political events in Ukraine.

An apparently bugged phone conversation in which a senior US diplomat disparages the EU over the Ukraine crisis has been posted online. The alleged conversation between Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and the US Ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, appeared on YouTube on Thursday. It is not clearly when the alleged conversation took place.

Here is a transcript, with analysis by BBC diplomatic correspondent Jonathan Marcus:

Warning: This transcript contains swearing.

Voice thought to be Nuland’s: What do you think?

  • Jonathan Marcus: At the outset it should be clear that this is a fragment of what may well be a larger phone conversation. But the US has not denied its veracity and has been quick to point a finger at the Russian authorities for being behind its interception and leak.

Voice thought to be Pyatt’s: I think we’re in play. The Klitschko [Vitaly Klitschko, one of three main opposition leaders] piece is obviously the complicated electron here. Especially the announcement of him as deputy prime minister and you’ve seen some of my notes on the troubles in the marriage right now so we’re trying to get a read really fast on where he is on this stuff. But I think your argument to him, which you’ll need to make, I think that’s the next phone call you want to set up, is exactly the one you made to Yats [Arseniy Yatseniuk, another opposition leader]. And I’m glad you sort of put him on the spot on where he fits in this scenario. And I’m very glad that he said what he said in response.

Jonathan Marcus: The US says that it is working with all sides in the crisis to reach a peaceful solution, noting that “ultimately it is up to the Ukrainian people to decide their future”. However this transcript suggests that the US has very clear ideas about what the outcome should be and is striving to achieve these goals. Russian spokesmen have insisted that the US is meddling in Ukraine’s affairs – no more than Moscow, the cynic might say – but Washington clearly has its own game-plan. The clear purpose in leaking this conversation is to embarrass Washington and for audiences susceptible to Moscow’s message to portray the US as interfering in Ukraine’s domestic affairs.

Nuland: Good. I don’t think Klitsch should go into the government. I don’t think it’s necessary, I don’t think it’s a good idea.

Pyatt: Yeah. I guess… in terms of him not going into the government, just let him stay out and do his political homework and stuff. I’m just thinking in terms of sort of the process moving ahead we want to keep the moderate democrats together. The problem is going to be Tyahnybok [Oleh Tyahnybok, the other opposition leader] and his guys and I’m sure that’s part of what [President Viktor] Yanukovych is calculating on all this.

Continue reading the main story

Ukraine unrest: Timeline

21 November 2013: Protests start after Ukraine announces it will not sign a deal aimed at strengthening ties with the EU

17 December: Russia agrees to buy $15bn of Ukrainian government bonds and slash the price of gas it sells to the country

16 January 2014: Parliament passes law restricting the right to protest

22 January: Two protesters die from bullet wounds during clashes with police in Kiev; protests spread across many cities

25 January: President Yanukovych offers seniorjobs to the opposition, including that of prime minister, but these are rejected

28 January: Parliament votes to annul protest law and President Yanukovych accepts resignation of PM and cabinet

29 January: Parliament passes amnesty law for detained protesters, under the condition occupied buildings are vacated

Nuland: [Breaks in] I think Yats is the guy who’s got the economic experience, the governing experience. He’s the… what he needs is Klitsch and Tyahnybok on the outside. He needs to be talking to them four times a week, you know. I just think Klitsch going in… he’s going to be at that level working for Yatseniuk, it’s just not going to work.

Pyatt: Yeah, no, I think that’s right. OK. Good. Do you want us to set up a call with him as the next step?

Nuland: My understanding from that call – but you tell me – was that the big three were going into their own meeting and that Yats was going to offer in that context a… three-plus-one conversation or three-plus-two with you. Is that not how you understood it?

Pyatt: No. I think… I mean that’s what he proposed but I think, just knowing the dynamic that’s been with them where Klitschko has been the top dog, he’s going to take a while to show up for whatever meeting they’ve got and he’s probably talking to his guys at this point, so I think you reaching out directly to him helps with the personality management among the three and it gives you also a chance to move fast on all this stuff and put us behind it before they all sit down and he explains why he doesn’t like it.

Nuland: OK, good. I’m happy. Why don’t you reach out to him and see if he wants to talk before or after.

Pyatt: OK, will do. Thanks.

Nuland: OK… one more wrinkle for you Geoff. [A click can be heard] I can’t remember if I told you this, or if I only told Washington this, that when I talked to Jeff Feltman [United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs] this morning, he had a new name for the UN guy Robert Serry did I write you that this morning?

  • Jonathan Marcus: An intriguing insight into the foreign policy process with work going on at a number of levels: Various officials attempting to marshal the Ukrainian opposition; efforts to get the UN to play an active role in bolstering a deal; and (as you can see below) the big guns waiting in the wings – US Vice-President Joe Biden clearly being lined up to give private words of encouragement at the appropriate moment.

Pyatt: Yeah I saw that.

Nuland: OK. He’s now gotten both Serry and [UN Secretary General] Ban Ki-moon to agree that Serry could come in Monday or Tuesday. So that would be great, I think, to help glue this thing and to have the UN help glue it and, you know, Fuck the EU.

Jonathan Marcus: Not for the first time in an international crisis, the US expresses frustration at the EU’s efforts. Washington and Brussels have not been completely in step during the Ukraine crisis. The EU is divided and to some extent hesitant about picking a fight with Moscow. It certainly cannot win a short-term battle for Ukraine’s affections with Moscow – it just does not have the cash inducements available. The EU has sought to play a longer game; banking on its attraction over time. But the US clearly is determined to take a much more activist role.

Pyatt: No, exactly. And I think we’ve got to do something to make it stick together because you can be pretty sure that if it does start to gain altitude, that the Russians will be working behind the scenes to try to torpedo it. And again the fact that this is out there right now, I’m still trying to figure out in my mind why Yanukovych (garbled) that. In the meantime there’s a Party of Regions faction meeting going on right now and I’m sure there’s a lively argument going on in that group at this point. But anyway we could land jelly side up on this one if we move fast. So let me work on Klitschko and if you can just keep… we want to try to get somebody with an international personality to come out here and help to midwife this thing. The other issue is some kind of outreach to Yanukovych but we probably regroup on that tomorrow as we see how things start to fall into place.

Nuland: So on that piece Geoff, when I wrote the note [US vice-president's national security adviser Jake] Sullivan’s come back to me VFR [direct to me], saying you need [US Vice-President Joe] Biden and I said probably tomorrow for an atta-boy and to get the deets [details] to stick. So Biden’s willing.

Pyatt: OK. Great. Thanks.

Jonathan Marcus: Overall this is a damaging episode between Washington and Moscow. Nobody really emerges with any credit. The US is clearly much more involved in trying to broker a deal in Ukraine than it publicly lets on. There is some embarrassment too for the Americans given the ease with which their communications were hacked. But is the interception and leaking of communications really the way Russia wants to conduct its foreign policy ? Goodness – after Wikileaks, Edward Snowden and the like could the Russian government be joining the radical apostles of open government? I doubt it. Though given some of the comments from Vladimir Putin’s adviser on Ukraine Sergei Glazyev – for example his interview with the Kommersant-Ukraine newspaper the other day – you don’t need your own listening station to be clear about Russia’s intentions. Russia he said “must interfere in Ukraine” and the authorities there should use force against the demonstrators.

An Evening at Madison Square Garden

Posted in On Sports!, Uncategorized with tags , on March 4, 2014 by playthell

Samori Live at Madison Square Garden

Sportswriter Samori Benjamin at the Garden Hoping for a Win

 In the Mecca of B-ball with a Knick Icon

Going to check out a New York Knicks game at the Garden is an exciting experience under any circumstances – the grandeur of the massive arena, the roar of the crowd, the celebrities from show biz and politics, the exciting floor shows….and then there is the game – but going to the Garden as the guest of Dr. Dick Barnett, a Kick icon who played on the only World Championship teams in franchise history is a very special trip.  This became immediately clear as we entered the building to watch the Knicks Play the San Francisco Warriors.

The guards at the entrance recognized Dick in the bustling crowd, which was moving at a snail’s pace due to the body scans by electronic metal detectors and hand searches of bags, and waved him to the front of the line along with me and Zach Husser – a former Columbia University football and basketball player who originally introduced me to Dr. Barnett and invited me to attend the game with them.  Once inside we went straight away to the Delta Lounge on the 5th floor, a VIP sanctuary where the big shots and their guest congregate.  The average fan does not know this place exist, and even if they do they have no idea of its extravagance.  Everything – food and beverages – is free, except for alcoholic drinks. And this is no mere finger foods, but lobster tails, corned beef, loads of fresh steamed vegetables, fruit juices, exotic breads and the like.

There were large flat screen television sets everywhere, so the swells could watch the game without mingling with the boisterous mob in the stands.  Actually, this was a place to meet and greet, see and be seen, to “network” with Gotham City’s movers and shakers.  The congregants in the lounge, like the common lot of fans, were mostly white and about half of them seem to have been invited by somebody else with juice, since they were running around gawking like Alice in Wonderland.  After a while it became apparent that some of these people were much more interested in networking than watching the game.  Perhaps because they knew the home team would break their hearts before the evening was over.

After a while I went to the exit that led into the arena and the Knicks were just going through their pre-game ritual, a kind of primitive male war dance to hip hop beats in a darkened house, while a voice on the loud speaker egged the crowd on, prodding them into such a state of excitation they let out a blood curdling collective primal scream that ricocheted off the walls and echoed throughout the cavernous arena.  I was anxious to get to our seats by tip off time but I had to prod Dr. Barnett in order to get him out of the lounge where he was comfortably ensconced in a prominent place so that everybody who came through could see him as he chatted with passersby.

Doc was lukewarm about getting out into the arena because he too has lost faith in the ability of the Knicks to win a game, and it is a source of great disappointment, having played on the Knicks team with legendary ballers like like Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, Walt “Clyde” Frazier, Willis Reed, Dave Debusshere and “Dollar” Bill Bradley, that won the NBA Championship in the 1969 -70 and 1972-73 seasons.   As he pointed to their Jerseys hanging atop the arena, it must have been painful to watch as these imposters in Knicks uniforms disgraced themselves and abused the fans; which had parted with their hard earned coin and trudged out in sub freeing weather to watch them stumble around the court in a danse macabre; a comedy of errors that was more embarrassing than funny.

The Only NBA Champions in Knicks History
New-York-Knicks Championship team
Dick Barnett is seated to the far right next to Earl “The Pearl” Monroe

As the game plodded on I began to suspect that perhaps success and failure may both be imposters after all.  For as I watched the hapless Knicks fall behind by 21 points at halftime I wondered how these jokers had ever won a game in the NBA.  How they had once been thought of as serious contenders.  While it seemed that everything the Warriors tossed in the direction of the basket went in, as they ran a series of razzle dazzle plays, the hapless Knicks were stiff as stuffed owls anchored to their pedestals.

What masqueraded as an offensive strategy for the Knicks consisted of passing the pill to Carmelo Anthony, then cavalierly watching the giant overhead monitor screens waiting for him to put the ball in the hoop.  But, alas, on this night Mello was as cold as the icicles hanging on the roof outside; the boy couldn’t throw a grape through a hoola hoop. But aside from an occasional three pointer from the point guard, J.R. Smith and Tim Hardaway JR, they just kept passing the ball to Mello and staring up at the monitor screen.

Perhaps because Mello had been on a scoring streak the last few games, shooting forty points or more had become common fare, his team mates thought he was a gift that would just keep on giving. Alas they were wrong, and nobody seemed able to come up with a second act.  Every time Mello got the ball the defense collapsed on him with two and sometimes three players guarding him; yet it never seemed to occur to him to look for the open man and pass the ball off.   He seemed to believe, like the rest of the team, that scoring the ball was his gig.

Mello Shooting the Ball
A human scoring machine

Carmello shooting

But he needs help…especially when he’s cold!

As halftime approached the drubbing the Knicks were undergoing became so painful for loyal fans it was akin to witnessing a loved one being pecked to pieces by diabolical crows from an Alfred Hitchcock movie.  My son Samori, a sports writer who has been covering the Knicks for years on WBAI radio and, assured me that the suddenly silent crowd was anxious to go crazy but the Knicks gave them no cause for applause.

Thus in what appeared to be a desperate attempt to give the home crowd some reason to cheer, a picture of Mark Jackson, the San Francisco Warriors coach, appeared on the giant overhead screens with the caption “All Time Knicks Great Point Guard,” then they proceeded to show video highlights of some of Jackson’s smooth moves. The crowd finally had a reason to cheer and they went crazy cheering for the coach of the team that was kicking the home team’s ass!  It was, to say the least, bizarre.

Dr. Barnett flashed a smile of approval as he watched the video of Mark Jackson in action, but when the Knocks flashed a tribute to “Sweetwater Clifton” the former Globetrotter who became the first African American player to wear a New York Knickerbocker Jersey, Doc’s mood went from mirthful to salty.  “There are playing Sweetwater up big now, but they didn’t do shit for him when he was driving a cab later in life to put food on the table.  Walt Frazier managed to bust in the organization beyond the court as an announcer, but the Knicks usually don’t do shit for black players.” he said.

Dick Barnett in 1972
That Championship Season!

As an aside he commented “The Pearl just had knee replacement surgery a couple of days ago.”  Dick Barnett had escaped the fate that befell Sweetwater Clifton and many pro-Athletes after their playing days are over – the great Allen Iverson of who played in Philly is the latetest example – by acquiring a PhD, becoming a professor of Sports Management and writing several books.

We departed at the conclusion of the first half, unable to bear any more of the drubbing, since the Knicks were down by 21 points in a half where the Warriors had scored over 70 points, and only the real fanatics operating on blind faith believed things would get better in the second half.  Alas, we felt the Knicks were engaging in fan abuse and we had had more than our share; would enable them no longer.  Doc decided to hang out in the Delta Lounge, and wait for his old pal and former Knick Cal Ramsey, who was wheelchair bound.

As me and Zach were leaving a couple of the guards who saw us come in with Dick  came over to us shaking their heads “couldn’t take it no more huh?” one of them asked….”It beats me how they manage to fill up this place for every game, win or lose the people still show up come rain or shine”  As I listened to this rather incredible revelation, I thought to myself: I guess that’s why the call them fans….which is short for fanatics.


                  Double Click on Link to view Documentary On Barnett
Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem New York
March 3, 2014

Dr. DUBOIS Then and Now

Posted in Uncategorized on December 15, 2013 by playthell

All Motion is not Progress

Dr. DuBois and Mao

My favorite picture of The Doctor

            I wonder what  witticism provoked such merriment.


“I would have been hailed with approval had I died at fifty, at seventy-five my death was practically requested.”

— W.E.B. Dubois, on or around his seventy-fifth birthday

Exactly one hundred and forty five years ago (1868) a mere five years after Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation (and in splendid historical coincidence, the year of the ratification of the 15th amendment which established that no American could be excluded from the fundamental democratic right to vote by reason of “color, race or previous condition of servitude.”), in a small western Massachusetts mountain town—as the crow flies no more than thirty-five miles from where I write this—a manchild was born into a family of black artisans and small farmers. His mother was of the black Burghardts, whose antecedents were, as the name suggests, once the property of a Dutch landowner. His father was light skinned, from a Haitian Creole family of more recent American arrival hence the infant’s impressive array of names William Edward Burghart DuBois.

Soon after his birth the Haitian father would abandon the marriage and his mother’s economic circumstances would become very straitened indeed and would remain so for the rest of her life. (She would die in his 17th year a few months before he left for college in the South.) In the small-town New England of his birth secondary education was class—hence race-based—and very elitist, the province only of the children of families sufficiently affluent to afford the fees of private academies. Consequently few working people, of any race, received more than a few years of elementary education, and in all likelihood saw no practical need for it. They may well have been right.

Mary Burghardt


Dr. DuBois Mother with Little Willie in Tow

Alfred DuBois

Dubois's Dad II

Dr. DuBois’ Father: A Soldier Against Slavery

It was the advent of public education in the 1870s with the establishment of the Great Barrington High School that made the youth’s education at all possible. There—the sole brown face among the students—driven by his mother’s pride and ambition for him, as by the encouragement of two kindly and perceptive women teachers who were impressed by “Little Willie’s” uncommon and precocious intelligence and industry, the youth flourished despite the regimen of odd jobs necessary to help his mother cope. He would later credit Mr. Hosmer, the principal with guiding his intellectual development and steering him into the college preparatory curriculum heavy with Latin, Greek and the canonical western “classics” of the time. Providentially, during the high school years, the arrival of a small community of southern black folk, who promptly founded an AME Zion church, where the black Burghardts faithfully attended services, would provide him with at least an introduction to the religious culture of his people.

By his graduation in 1884 at the age of sixteen, young “Willie’s” academic accomplishments had made him something of a local prodigy among the townsfolk. The graduation class consisted of seven boys and six girls and young “Willie” delivered an apparently well-received oration on the abolitionist Wendell Phillips. The local Berkshire Courier reported that, “William E DuBois, a colored lad who has had good standing gave an excellent oration and provoked repeated applause.”

The graduate’s ambition was to attend Harvard but for reasons as much financial as social i.e. racial, this was not to be… at that time. A disappointment which would prove most fortunate for his real education. His principal Mr. Hosmer joined by the principal of the local private academy and two congregational ministers, persuaded four congregational churches to underwrite his education at Fisk University, a Congregational school for Blacks in Tennessee. He was seventeen years old when he left New England for the South in 1885. He would later recall this as a “great adventure” into the “south of slavery, rebellion and black folk” where at last, he would be surrounded by other people of color.

He was, he professed, delighted to go South because, consequence of the New England upbringing he in fact knew very little about the real life of Black folk. In Tennessee he would be immersed in the Africa-inflected culture of rural, post slavery southern black communities while teaching “out in the rural”. Here his true education would begin. As was to be expected his New England small town sensibilities were appalled by the prevailing, “ignorance”, squalor and poverty that surrounded him but there was more.

But he would also perceive, as though “through a glass darkly”, something else, something real if elusive, for which nothing in his education, experience, or the prevailing discourses of the day had prepared him, or given him any language to articulate or fully process. All around him he detected many signs of a distinctive black culture only dimly perceived, but tantalizingly indicative of something real, present and consequential which he would later refer to as “the soul of black folk”.

He struggled for a language in which to process these perceptions because in the New England of his youth “culture” was euro-focused, a consequence of America’s much deplored colonial complex. A “cultured” person spoke French or German, read Latin or Greek, listened to European classical music and understood—enjoyed was quite another question—Opera. That was “culture”. Anything black was “primitive” and uncivilized. So what could this be that he was now seeing and listening to?

A Southern Ring Shout!

Ring Shout Georgia2

The kind of black Religious Ritual DuBois Saw

The Fisk Jubilee Singers

Cherif Guelal

Young DuBois heard their voices in the stones of Jubilee Hall

Indeed much of his early writing would be devoted to the attempt, not at first entirely successful, to create a vocabulary capable of accurately conveying and defining—in its own terms—black cultural truths free from the crude and “unscientific” language of condescension or denigration of all things “Negro” which permeated the literary and academic discourses of the time. The struggle to liberate discussions of black reality from the ignorance driven, reductive racialist formulations of white establishment “scholars” would remain an enduring mission of his life’s work.

The Fisk Graduating Class of 1888
Dubois's Graduting class from fisk
Willie Dubois is Center Left

Harvard: Class of 1891


Arming himself for Battle!

After graduation from Fisk there would be Harvard (where he would be befriended by William James) for a second undergraduate degree, then a Master’s in History and ultimately a doctorate, the dissertation for which –“the Suppression of the Slave Trade to America” would inaugurate a Harvard series of historical monographs. However, the disciplined intellectual effort which resulted in such spectacular academic achievement, formidable though it must have been, paled into insignificance against the grinding necessity of a struggle at every stage, simply to convince white academic admission committees or funding agencies that a young black man was capable and deserving of education at this level. That the said young man succeeded in doing so while conducting himself with dignity rather than the fawning self-abasement from Negroes which these “Grandees” understood to be the natural order, is as worthy of respect as are the formidable accomplishments which resulted.

For example, how DuBois secured support to pursue advanced study in the new discipline of sociology at University of Berlin is wondrously instructive, both of DuBois’ character and of the times. An enormously endowed and influential body, “The John F. Slater Fund for the Education of the Negro” run by a former American president had conceded that “the principle of higher education” was the province of all regardless of race. To which end they welcomed, but had been quite unable to attract any suitably “qualified” black candidates. (Has a curiously contemporary ring does it not?)

This announcement apparently provoked so fierce a confederate backlash that the Fund retreated to mumblings about “industrial education of heart and hand” the mantra which would so endear Booker T. Washington to the South and northern philanthropists. The Fund made no awards to Blacks and DuBois’ application for a stipend was ignored, as were a few others. When he inquired he was informed by the Fund’s director that the news reports had been exaggerated, and in any event the “plan had been given up”. However DuBois could take comfort that had this not been the case, his candidacy might otherwise have “deserved attention.”

Evidently the young DuBois was sufficiently comforted as to reply to the Fund‘s president, none other than one Rutherford B. Hayes lately president (if a strongly disputed one) of the United States.

Did he beg, importune and plead his case as a deserving darkey was expected to do? No, indeed, he confronted them. With admirable audacity the twenty two year old addressed Hayes as an equal, first unequivocally declaring “As for my case I personally care little, I am perfectly capable of fighting alone for an education if the trustees do not care to help me.” However, the Fund’s behavior confirmed his suspicion that their claim to searching in vain for suitable (Negro) candidates had been less than sincere. Then he proceeded to school the former President, to wit:

“… the injury you have—unwittingly I trust—done the race I represent and am not ashamed of, is almost irreparable. You went before a number of keenly observant men who regard you as an authority on the matter and told them in substance that the Negroes of the United States either couldn’t or wouldn’t embrace a more liberal opportunity for advancement when presented.”

Dubois’ missive concluded, “…from the above facts I think you owe an apology to the Negro people.”

I have no idea exactly how Hayes and his cohorts received that scolding. One would have expected the uppity Negro to be summarily dispatched to the outer reaches of philanthropic darkness, “there”, like Lucifer upon his expulsion from Heaven, “to dwell in adamantine chains and penal fire”. This time however—which would not always prove the case—his impudence was not punished. Instead, to the Trust’s credit he was able to convince them of the long-term social benefit of his being able to explore the new discipline of Sociology in Germany.

Later, however his letter,(along with those of two distinguished German professors) explaining that its support for just one more term in residence would enable him the prestige of a German doctorate proved beyond the Fund’s tolerance or resources. There is speculation that it was the prospect of having the first such degree to be earned by an American going to a Negro which proved the last straw.

I tell this not merely for what it reveals of the young Dubois’ character, determination and talent, but because it prefigures an enduring conundrum of his long and extraordinarily productive professional life. Combining the necessity of constantly having to seek support for necessary, important and groundbreaking work—invariably on his peoples behalf—with a steadfast refusal—or inability—to prostrate his or his people’s dignity, interests or rights, compromise political principle, professional standards or intellectual integrity before the altars of powerful, ignorant, ill-informed even when well-intended, plutocrats.

(Anyone having taught Black Studies at white universities can readily sympathize with having to justify ones purposes to people not as intelligent as oneself and who entertain not the foggiest notion of the meaning or importance of what it is one does.)

Soon enough, his German sojourn coming to a close, the young man on his twenty-fifth birthday took a glass or two of wine and repaired to his room for an exercise in quiet introspection. What emerges, once stripped of the fruit of his education,—a ponderous overlay of classic conceptual language and reference adorned with heavy doses of German romanticism, is not just revelatory but prophetic and powerfully affecting. On the one hand it is typical of youth: the musings of any sensitive and thoughtful young person on the unknowable: the meaning of life, the uncertainty of the future, the goals worthy of one’s life while reaching for terms and principles; those values upon which one might stand to honorably engage an indifferent if not hostile world.

…in the long, dark winter of northern Germany, I felt a little lonesome and far away from home… I arose at eight and took coffee and oranges, read letters, thought of my dead parents, and was sorry.

I will in this second quarter century of my life, enter the dark forest of the unknown world for which I have so many years served my apprenticeship. In the chart and compass, which the world has given me, I have little faith yet I have nothing better. I will seek till I find and die.

I began to feel that dichotomy which all my life has characterized my thought:

How far can love for my oppressed race accord with love for the oppressing country?

And when these loyalties diverge, where shall my soul find refuge?

The hot, dark blood of a black forefather is beating at my heart, and

I know that I am either a genius or a fool. I wonder if life is worth the

Sturm. I do not know-perhaps I never shall know: But this I do know,

be the Truth what it may I will seek it on the pure assumption that

It is worth seeking-and Heaven nor Hell, neither God nor Devil- shall turn me

from my purpose till I die…

This represents my attitude toward the world. I am striving to

make my life all that life may be-and I am limiting that

strife only in so far as that strife is incompatible with others

of my brothers and sisters making their lives similar. The

crucial question now is where that limit comes. I am too often puzzled to know.

…I therefore take the world that the Unknown [God] lay in my hands and work for

the rise of the Negro people, taking for granted that their best development

means the best development of the world . . .”

Let the church say, “Ahmen and Selah.”

* * * *************

It would be hard not to be touched by the evident idealism as by the ambition and indeed, the bravery of the forgoing. Or was that simply the arrogance of youth? Inevitably and very soon to be dissipated by reality: the cold winds of time and the ‘hard school’ of experience from which none us are spared. Unavoidable, even were the author some over-privileged, upper-class European princeling, unquestioned beneficiary of the world as constituted in the closing decade of the 19th Century. But for a young Negro American without affluent and influential family connections, the issue of a people but one generation removed from bondage? And, at the time of writing, without a job or even the prospects of one?

At twenty five DuBois proposed to take the world (and what a world) in his hands and work to ensure the rise of his people. Driven, in his words by “pride of race, lineage and self” and armed, as his best biographer wrote, “only with a brain, a pen and audacity”? One can add to that an almost superhuman determination, discipline and focus, tireless effort and uncommon longevity. Even so give it five years, ten at the most. Then we shall see how much of that high-minded vision and noble commitment survives. What in this is truly astonishing is the remarkable early self-knowledge it displays and the way it prefigures an extraordinary life with an uncanny prophetic accuracy.

The America to which the twenty-five year old DuBois would return from Europe sans the doctorate which, but for a technicality he had fully earned, was for his people no hopeful land of opportunity. The South having lost the war and their former slaves ramped up a campaign, (the baleful effects of which haunt the society to this day), that would succeed magnificently in winning and disfiguring the peace; ultimately coming to dominate national congressional politics and damn near making the mind of the South the mind of the Nation.

Dr. DuBois after College in Berlin

DuBois in Berlin

Well Armed for Intellectual Combat

Over the next half-century, the rancorous confederate resurgence would succeed in subverting democracy; rewriting history, disfranchising the third of its population that was black; reducing the southern black population to economic near-slavery by a system of peonage called sharecropping; establishing white supremacy and legalizing “Jim Crow” apartheid (“A place for everah Niggah an’ evrah Niggah in his place) by utilizing the violence of the mob and when necessary the state.

The Klu Klux Klan would become for a time a national organization, the lynching of Negroes accepted social practice among the “lower classes”, (and apparently, given their voting record, the national congress). In the academy “scientific” studies projecting the mental, moral and genetic inferiority of “the black race” became an accepted means to professional advancement. “Coonery”, the caricaturing of our physical features and the parodying of our speech and manners became a regular fixture of the national press.

The White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan

Ku Klux Klan

Demonstrating their power to the Politicians

The rise of a commercial popular culture would be launched out of Blackface Minstrelsy—the first of many crude commercial appropriations for profit of our people’s culture—while reducing it to a racist instrument of mockery, ridicule and painful insult to the culture they were hijacking and its creators. Significantly enough, this genre, an invidious, overtly racist attack on our people’s humanity, would become the first transnational popular culture export of the United States. An early excursion into world cultural leadership in which post-racial America can retrospectively take appropriate pride?

 White America’s Favorite Entertainments!

lynching Bee

True American Exceptionalism


Eddie Cantor: Jews and Gentiles “Blacked Up!


Assassinating the Character of a Race

Worldwide, our peoples’ circumstances were faring no better. All of Africa, north and south with the exception of Ethiopia, was being subjected to a particularly rapacious European colonization and all its attendant ills. While colonialism’s most obvious and visible effects were always political and economic, its most enduring destructive effects (particularly in black Africa, DuBois’ ancestral homeland) being of a cultural, religious and psychological nature, were at their worst.

Worse because this entailed the systematic assault on, and dismantlement of, those native institutions which ordered human affairs. This was nothing less than the systematic disparagement and dismissal of all conventions of indigenous culture and thought by which people articulated their values, defined their universe, organized their societies and understood and passed on the meaning and consequence of their presence and place in the world.

The White Man’s Burden?

Belgium Congo

Everywhere Mighty Whitey Was In Charge

Afro-Jamaicans on sugar Cane Plantion around 1905

Condition Were Horrendous in Caribbean and South America too!

In the Diaspora a different version of the same dynamic was at work. The Caribbean labored under colonization and there, as in Central America, their African populations —DuBois’ kinsmen and his father’s side—struggled in societies informed by economic arrangements as well as social attitudes and practices deriving directly from their histories of plantation slavery.

Here I have been, however briefly, at considerable pains to sketch out something very like a report on the dismaying “State of the Race” across the world. Why so? Because there is, quite literally, not a single aspect of any of all this which DuBois would not fearlessly confront with determination, tireless political activism and rigorous intellectual discipline during a public and scholarly career over some seventy years. Generations would come and go, intellectual fashions ebb and flow, ideological certitudes discredited or abandoned, war would follow wars, powerfully transformative new analytical systems would make their mark, as this country went from a former slave holding, largely agrarian nation to a world leading industrial society, and the modern world emerged, slouching like Yeats’ “rough beast” towards nuclear annihilation.

Throughout all of which DuBois was not still. He observed and thought, grew, changed and evolved with the times but purposefully so, always from an unchanging, centered set of concerns sustained through every advance and the many reversals of his people’s fortunes. What did this development mean for his people’s interests and progress? What did this one portend for the possibility of true democracy in this country, in the world? In these he never wavered, never deviated and apparently never tired. In this he was not simply the preeminent and most effective American public intellectual since perhaps only Jefferson (a distant second), he was the very model and contemporary archetype of the species.

In the smithy of his art he did indeed “forge the consciousness of a race” and summoned the ancestors to struggle. As even Roy Wilkins, his longtime opponent in the fierce NAACP insider wars, finally had to concede. As a very young man at the March on Washington, I vividly remember sitting in the headquarters tent and watching on T.V. as Wilkins announced the Doctor’s death in Ghana and told the suddenly hushed multitudes that despite recent historical ironies,

“… It is incontrovertible that at the dawn of the twentieth century, his was the voice calling you to gather here today in this cause.”

Dr. King  Greets Crowd at Great March on Washington
Dr. King at March on Washington
Dr. DuBois died in Ghana the night before the March

The Funeral of Dr. Dubois In Ghana

Dr. DuBois' Funeral III

An Affair of State

Madame Dubois is Escorted by President Nkrumah

Dr. DuBois's funeral II“A Mighty Tree Has Fallen in Africa”  

Laying Hands on the Casket

Dr. DuBois Funeral

The Doctor Danced and Joined the Ancestors

Which is why our most recent confederacy of dunces is such a travesty. This being the rabblement (of certain but by no means all, as folk like the admirable Michelle Alexander, Robin G. Kelley and—on his better days—Reverend Brother Cornel demonstrate), black, self-proclaimed “public intellectuals” who apparently answer to no principle visible to the naked eye, political, intellectual or moral. Either from cowardice or self-advancement, these careerists never risk engaging the doctrinal absurdities of global capitalist establishment propaganda. Instead they are content to prostrate themselves before every successive quasi-theoretical cult and pseudo-intellectual fad proceeding out of the entrails of post-industrial, post-colonial, post-modern, post-structural, post-intelligence, post-coital, post-language, “post-racial” America.

Instead of being instructed by the rigor, courage, integrity and consequence of the DuBoisian example, personal and professional, they pick over the corpus of the oeuvre tearing away fragments and minutiae, from which—devoid of any context—they hope to “deconstruct under color of theory” the “intellectual mystique” of DuBois. They need to abandon that effort as well as that self appropriated term by which apparently they hope in vain to imply equivalence. Please, DuBois was a public intellectual; these are public embarrassments.

The Public Intellectual at Work

Dr. dubois in the Crisis Ofice

Editor of the Crisis, Afro-America’s most influential Magazine
The Best of black America on Review

Crisis Magazine II

Langston Hughes said his Grandmother Kept it beside her Bible

That is the public and professional DuBois, but what of the remarkable personality of the man? In appearance and deportment he displayed a style and affect that was distinctly European rather than American or indeed “Negro” as that was then understood. This persona was sufficiently striking as to invite caricature and accusations of foppish self-regard and overweening vanity from his many detractors. But for their own reasons they preferred to look only at surfaces.

He was not a physically imposing figure being on the short side and almost slightly built. However, he was of robust constitution, well coordinated and physically adept, a strong swimmer, a devoted and skillful dancer and excellent tennis player. (One student at Fisk remembers him cutting so fine a figure in his tennis clothes that a  group of young ladies would regularly congregate at the courts for the pleasure of admiring his legs.) The length of his life and the variety, volume and demanding nature of his work and popular intellectual leadership attest to an uncommon physical constitution.

Always Sharp as a Tack!

Dubois at the Paris Exhibition in 1900

At the Paris Exhibition circa 1900

And size notwithstanding, he certainly had presence, and to spare. As a young student in Germany he had affected a Van Dyke and moustache inspired by that of the young Kaiser, which he maintained all his life. In public he was always formally attired in the manner of a Victorian gentleman or “Dandy” if one prefers: well-tailored vested suits, a pocket watch on a gold chain, a hat (frequently a homburg), and occasionally even spats along with an elegant cane, which invariably he flourished as he walked. If, as detractors scoffed, the style was not “Negro”, the impulse certainly was Black enough. “In yo’face cracker”, Black. That clearly was deliberate on his part, as his untaught, simple folk would have easily recognized, “Bless mah soul, that doctah do be styling. Yes indeedy, he styling lak a big dowg.”

At a time when the preferred—indeed required—and most widely and sentimentally celebrated quality in Negroes (among white folk) was our natural “humility,” DuBois carried himself always with an evident pride, which naturally was seen as haughtiness. While courtly and formally correct, he did not suffer fools of any race or status gladly, making him that bane of white male sensibilities and affront to the natural order, “an arrogant Negro”.

People emerged from interviews or public addresses remarking on the “frosty”, “cold”, “intimidating formality” of his aspect, while others were disposed to see something “leonine”, “noble” or even “regal” in his bearing. Or, as novelist Henry Miller would write after seeing him control a potentially rowdy crowd during the McCarthyite hysteria, “The very majesty of the man silenced any would-be demonstration.” During this period one black editor observing his manner and deportment before a hostile investigating House committee, emerged personally and racially validated. “No one seeing him”, he exulted, “can ever again see me as inferior.”

Yet the apparent “contradictions” seemed endless. He was denounced as ‘elitist’ but his deeply democratic instincts and abiding commitment to the interests of, and faith in the abilities of the masses of black folk was unrivalled. He was said to be self-absorbed and like Caesar, personally “ambitious,” yet he never sought self-promotion on the back of other black folk or the expense of his people’s interests. An “ambitious intellectual” who never succumbed to the temptation to disguise his contempt for the received wisdom and fashionable consensus in the establishment on race, class and capitalist cupidity?  Derided as “Eurocentric” even as he launched into the colonial capitals then ruling the world, the offensive that would lead to the movement for African independence some fifty years later?

Then too, this “stiff, frosty” and allegedly “patriarchal” prototype was deeply and unwaveringly committed, counter to expectation, to the struggle for the rights of women and especially those of his race. From his undergraduate days at Fisk he became a profound admirer of the beauty and sensuality of black women, though not exclusively so. More than that, he was genuinely a friend to women, recognizing their hidden strengths, insight and value.

He liked and respected independent women who in turn, admired his politics, were attracted to him and sought his company. He  fostered their careers wherever he could, worked with them politically, encouraged their ambitions in literature and the arts and in return fairly gloried in the admiration, loyalty and love of a number of intellectually accomplished and artistic women. Evidently beneath the surface of that stiff, cold “Victorian” formality there lurked deep reservoirs of passion, warmth, sensuality and fun. How could he possibly have found the time? But indeed he had. Clearly in the idiom of his folk, the Doctor was a “nachral man”. Or in the argot of the Black street, “Ohwiie, wid dem ladies Li’l ‘Dab O’ Sugar Willie’s got him some game, Jack. Oh yes he do.”

Sometime in the early seventies I was in Great Barrington at an event connected to the University’s undertaking the development of the Dubois family home site. The location of this site had been painstakingly researched and brought to the university’s attention by an admirer of DuBois’s. This man, whose name I have unfortunately forgotten, was white, a workingman, as I recall a carpenter by trade, and a man of profound insight and, as I would discover when I thoughtlessly sought to thank him, few but eloquent words. I needn’t think to thank him he said because,

“…The Doctor lived a good life. He fought all the right fights and he made the correct enemies. He was a great man.”

Which, come to think of it, summarizes all I have been laboring at such length to say. Let the Church say, “Ahmen an’ Selah”.

* * * * ******************

What follows is a narrative of a series of apparently discrete events, which in consequence however, can be seen to account for the evolution of the relationship between Dr. Dubois (or at least his legacy and family) and this University, where his papers reside and the main library bears his name. In a graphic reversal of the law of unintended consequence, we will see a chain of causality in which each apparently, separate event would lead to and fortuitously influence the next one and the next, on and on, to a most happy if unpredictable conclusion.

The first step in this process begun in early 1969 with a group of us who were putting the finishing touches on a proposal for the establishment of a department of African-American studies here. During the prior couple years this notion of “Black Studies” new, innovative and controversial, clearly a spin-off from the Black Power phase of the civil rights movement, had been roiling the academic waters across the nation.

In Amherst we anticipated no serious problem. This was to be no surprise suddenly sprung without warning on the Administration. There had been some preliminary discussions with a group of uncommonly able and intelligent leaders of the upper administration—Chancellor Tippo, Provost Gluckstern and Dean of Humanities Seymour Shapiro. We’d had very civil and substantive discussions in which we explained that what was envisioned was a corrective expansion of the entire curriculum in the liberal arts to take into accurate and rigorous account the role, effect and consequences of the African presence in the evolution of the society.

They appeared to agree that the continued exclusion of this element of the national experience from the national curriculum rendered it not just incomplete, but resulted in a falsification of history and a denial of reality, which the nation could no longer afford. This would not be a gesture to placate the expected influx of Black students. Rather, as we all agreed, any failure to fill this gaping lacuna in American scholarship would simply continue the impoverishment of the education that all our students had been receiving.

This was not—as seemed the case at a great many other institutions—an entirely new discussion. At the university, Professor Sidney Kaplan in particular had been raising such questions continuously, eloquently and effectively for many years. The previous year, Professor Jules Chametzky had organized a discussion of the subject in the Massachusetts Review, for which he secured contributions from leading figures—black scholars and activists—prominent in the national debate.

 Jules Chemetzky: Professor of English

Mass Gathering_for_Jules_Chametzky

Co- Founder of Mass Review with Sid Kaplan

That Mass Review forum had become the authoritative text across academe. Both these colleagues were serving in an advisory capacity on the committee for Black studies. So the ground had been pretty well prepared. We had an agreement in principle and all that was left was for the proposal to articulate the practical means by which these goals might best be accomplished here.

Which was not then as easy a question as it might now appear. This, you must remember, was something unprecedented in any American university’s experience. There were a host of questions for which there were no ready answers. What form should the new entity take: college, department or program? Depending on that answer would it grant degrees, offer majors or simply an academic “concentration”. What would its effect and reception by faculty in existing departments be? Who would teach in it? Where was “qualified” faculty to come from? On what scholarship would it be based? And even, believe it or not, whether white students would be admitted to Black Studies courses.

What would student, (here read white) and their parents’ reaction be? And above, all how was it to be afforded? It was the exceeding good fortune of the enterprise that the University was then in the middle of its expansion from Agricultural College to Flagship University. Consequently there were far more new space and resources (imagine one hundred new faculty positions every year for a decade?) to be deployed than otherwise would have been the case. Absent this reality none of what follows would have been even remotely possible.

The proposal addressed all said questions in clear and, (if I dare say so) practical and persuasive terms and we were days from submitting it to the governance processes of the University. There was among us complete unanimity only on its most politically sensitive proposition. This we made clear was not negotiable—the form which the new entity had to take. This would be that of a Department rather than a program, which had been the strategic ploy common to most universities.

A program could offer no discrete major and hire no faculty: all incoming faculty being joint appointments, would require agreement from the pre-existing (read white) departments in that discipline, as would any courses it defined. This would in effect give pre-existing departments veto power over appointments and courses, an insulting colonial arrangement of overseer-ship, which on no account was acceptable. We were to have a department, freestanding and independent, which could hire its own faculty and define an organic, logically articulated curriculum, or nothing.

On that we were agreed. So that a literally last minute inspiration that the new department bear the name of the native son of Western Massachusetts who was the unquestioned intellectual progenitor of the field, met some not unreasonable resistance.  Academic departments are never named after people so why this one? The political fight is likely to be uphill enough as is, so why add the burden of DuBois’s political baggage? (the Doctor made all the correct enemies…) What do we gain? All good questions.

First of all, it’s an appropriate act of homage and respect to the man without whose pioneering advocacy for black higher education none of us would be here. And yes, he was born here in Western Massachusetts, but that is much more than empty geographic symbolism. Have we not said that our emphasis is going to be on education for service, community responsibility and struggle? That is his legacy.

Second of all, what other (white) departments do or have done is beyond irrelevant. What we are about is something unprecedented, sui generis, quite literally something that has never before existed, a Black Studies Department. What we do, is what we decide to do. That being so, how can there be any precedents which can apply?

It would be several months after this discussion that I would discover unassailable proof the accuracy of our choice. I discovered a remarkably prophetic speech at Fisk from 1933, in which DuBois talking about “The Negro University”, and cutting against the grain of prevailing educational philosophy then and now, would anticipate the central tenets of our black studies agenda forty years in the future. “A Negro university begins with Negroes. It uses that variety of the English idiom which is indigenous to them; and most of all, it is founded on a knowledge of the history and culture of their people in Africa and the United State, and of their present condition.” Enough said!

In any event, the name was duly affixed to the top and the document sent off into the labyrinthine processes of university governance where the name elicited few questions and no real objections. Some nine months later (April 23rd, 1970) the W.E.B. Dubois Department of Afro-American Studies came into official existence.

Which is somewhat misleading because, in truth and in fact, it had been—as kind of a phantom entity—completely functional that previous year. Even while having no official existence we had recruited and hired a splendid faculty but …into the English Department. In this, that department (home to Sidney Kaplan and Jules Chametzky) had been splendidly cooperative. Thus the university acquired a collection of unlikely “English professors” of high intellectual quality, very diverse experience and unconventional academic provenance.

There was for example Playthell G. Benjamin an autodidact “historian” with one year of college, Ivanhoe Donaldson in Political Science with an undergraduate degree from Michigan State and Cherif Guelal whose academic credentials were unclear because he had dropped out of the Sorbonne sans degree.

Prof Sidney Kaplan: An Authority on Blacks during the American Revolution

Sid Kaplan Edit 

A Staunch Intellectual Comrade and Ally of the Dubois Department
Playthell Benjamin
img.407 Presenting a Lecture at U Mass

Benjamin was a captivating lecturer with an encyclopedic knowledge of African and Afro-American history and a photographic memory. (Soon enough, for their own excellent reasons—I shan’t speculate as to what extent, concern for “eroding standards” had played any role)—the History Department invited him to present a lecture on the scholarship in black history. I remember with still undiminished pleasure, sitting in the back of that room while Benjamin conducted an audience of mostly skeptical white historians on a tour through the historical scholarship from ancient Africa to the contemporary United States.

Speaking without notes for over three hours, he cited the important works—author, title and date, giving astute and witty capsule analyses of the contribution (or lack thereof) of each historian to the evolution of the field. I distinctly recall (I was watching closely) that no one left the room before he finished. I watched as the astonishment and growing respect of the audience would erupt at the end in a hearty standing ovation. I was not at all surprised, because it had been just such a virtuoso performance after we had nearly come to blows at a conference where we met, that had led to his recruitment.

Ivanhoe Donaldson, the political scientist with merely an undergraduate education, was the legendary SNCC field organizer immortalized in the documentary film, “Ivanhoe, the Story of a SNCC Field Secretary”. A shrewd and canny political strategist, Ivanhoe had guided several successful racially groundbreaking electoral campaigns: first that of Julian Bond, to the Georgia House of representatives; Andrew Young, first to the US Congress then the Atlanta mayoralty; Carl Stokes, the first black mayor of Cleveland, Ohio as well as that of our former SNCC ally, the misfortunate Marion Barry in the Nation’s Capitol. While in the department he would be architect of the historic National Black Power Conference in Cleveland. Though I had known Ivanhoe since we were both twelve years old, it was only in Amherst that I would discover that he was far and away one of the smartest people politically I have ever known.

 Ivanhoe speaking at the 50th Anniversary of SNCC Founding


A Political Mastermind who guided the elections of many important politicians

Cherif, actually Ambassador Cherif Guelal, was revolutionary Algeria’s first ambassador to the United States, a close friend and intellectual collaborator with Franz Fanon. The reason for his terminating his Sorbonne studies had been to serve in the Government in Exile of the FNLA (Front for the National Liberation of Algeria) during the Algerian war of independence. Subsequently it was the overthrow of Ben Bella which had cost him his diplomatic posting and made him available to our department. His courses “Revolution in The Third World” and “The Writings of Franz Fanon” were not only popular with students here but were a true innovation in the American academic curriculum of the time.

 Cherif Guellal: A solder on the battlefield, class room and boardroom
Cherif Guelal
A Comrade of Dr. Franz Fanon Cheirf gave students an inside view of Revolution

He would leave our department for the presidency of what was said to be at that time, the world’s largest corporation when the Algerian government decided to nationalize and incorporate all its petroleum reserves and wisely called Cherif back to engineer that process and manage the result. Another “English” instructor was Ben Wagara a Kenyan graduate student who taught Swahili.

The other “English” professors in Afro-Am—Esther Terry and myself—were not at all academically esoteric having been trained in “English” right here. Esther would be the Department’s longest serving chairman, a vice chancellor of the university and go on to the Presidency of Bennett College, her Alma Mater.

This discussion is crucially important in understanding the next chapter. In the proposal we had written that the shortage of conventionally trained academics for our purposes would dictate that most initial faculty would have to be drawn from the ranks of “intellectual activists” in the black world. Why should conventionally trained academics not be available? Because for many years graduate committees across the nation, for their own good to be sure, had been strenuously advising doctoral candidates in no uncertain terms, that any dissertation addressing any aspect their own people would not be permitted since professionally “there simply is no future in it”.

Which explains our nonconventional appointments. However, these had been celebrated in the student community, and more important, seen by the administration as so successful, that I guess we were encouraged to push the envelope a bit further in the direction of “unconventional appointments “on the next round.

Once the trustees consummated the deal, (April 23rd, 1970) our papers were transferred from Bartlett Hall to New Africa House and we all officially became Black Studies professors. But even from our position of bureaucratic limbo the search for faculty had gone forward to excellent effect. So that by the time I left the country that spring, ostensibly to write a (yet unwritten novel) about Nat Turner, four files for new appointments were ready to be sent forward to the Administration. My return for the fall semester was delayed by certain unexpected difficulties. (“Mr. Thelwell, travel to the united states is not a right it is a privilege, over which I have total discretion.” Consular Officer, U.S. Embassy, Kingston, Ja.).

These difficulties were only resolved by the intervention of the University and a successful expedition into the federal bureaucracy in D.C. by three members of the upper administration.

(That story merits telling because it illustrates perfectly an unusual spirit of intolerance for arrogance, red tape and bureaucratic inanity in the administration of the day that I came to so greatly admire. However, in retrospect I can see clearly that this problem was almost entirely of my own creation. My great mistake being to behave in my native land (at least in the American embassy there) as though I were in Amherst.

See, when I moved from foreign student to fulltime university employee my visa status had to be changed. Dean Shapiro, who handled that, had an ironic, mischievous glint in his eye when he told me that the most convenient way of affecting that change was for the administration to apply on my behalf for a class of visa reserved for “distinguished aliens rendering invaluable service to the national interest.” I modestly accepted the designation, the application was duly submitted and I took off for home.

September and the new school year was approaching when Dean Shapiro called to say that I was officially “a distinguished alien” and should expect a call from the embassy to that effect. Sure ‘nuff, said call came from a consular officer informing me that my visa having been approved, I should bring in my passport to the embassy to have it affixed. I should ask for him, Mr. Keeshan.

Then in rapid succession, my three foolish mistakes. First was to attire myself in a flowing Yoruba agbada. The second, in my haste and excitement, was to forget to take with me my passport. The third was that when asked my business I did not mention the officer’s name but merely said that I was there about a visa. Consequently I was curtly directed to the appropriate place for people seeking the greatly coveted American visa.

Ekueme Michael Thelwell

Mike Thelwell and Stokely

Working with longtime comrade Stokely Carimichal In SNCC

This turned out to be a long, dim and extremely crowded room. Poor black folk were crammed together on long wooden benches. My people looked hot, anxious, uncomfortable and ill at ease. There was no conversation, which is not usual with Jamaicans. It was as though everyone was trying to hide hopelessness beneath a desperate but transparent show of optimism. It was a depressing scene. Which quickly became offensive when a woman employee entered, wrinkling her face in ill-disguised distaste, while moving down the line with a can from which she sprayed bursts of pungent air freshener just above the peoples’ heads. And none of the people so disrespected said a mumbling word! They looked off into space and avoided eye contact as though pretending they had not noticed the insult. Again, totally out of character for my proud, self-respecting people.

In the circumstances I thought my restraint admirable. I merely inquired of the lady very calmly, politely, and even diffidently, whether it had not occurred to her that the people might perceive her action as perhaps…just the slightest bit disrespectful? She seemed astonished that anyone there would dare to so address her. But I don’t recall that she made any answer before stalking off.

I have never been able to decide whether she was an Afro-American or a low level local employee relegated to that distasteful duty and anxious to keep her job with the Americans even at the expense of her peoples’ dignity? I tend to think the latter to be the more likely. It seems unthinkable, in the charged racial climate at home during those times, that any white bureaucrat would so direct an African American. Or that she would meekly accept so demeaning an assignment. But one never knows does one? In any event I have no idea what, if anything, may have been reported upstairs about my mild intervention.

Once I explained that my mission there was not to apply for a visa, but to pick up an already approved one, I was somewhat more respectfully conducted to the right place. There Mr. K., a young white man slightly older than I, seemed not pleased. Perhaps my appearance—my age, the large Afro, beard and African attire—was entirely wrong either for his image of a Jamaican and especially of a “distinguished alien”. I’ll never know. But my feeble attempts at polite small talk failed dismally. He was having none of it, “Just hand me your passport, Mr. Thelwell, I’ll stamp in the visa.” That’s how close I came.

For when I could not produce said document his face reddened. “What? You, you’re not telling me that you… forgot it?” “I’m sorry, Sir. This is so embarrassing… in a hurry… my apologies…but I’ll just bring it in… early Monday morning.” I have since been told that my forgetfulness was for him the final straw compounding the other errors. On what should have been the  single most important day of my life, forgetting a passport was entirely too casual, not the overwhelming gratitude he was accustomed to from such as I.

On Monday he brushed aside the fateful passport, “Oh, it turns out we shan’t be needing that after all.”

“But on Friday you said…”

“Yes, quite so, but you see, since this visa is not going to be issued, it won’t be needed…”

“Not to be issued? But, I don’t understand? Hasn’t it been already approved in Washington? The State department… this part’s a mere formality is it not? How can anyone here over rule them?” That’s when I got the little speech about how mistaken I had been and the difference between travel rights and privileges to folk like me. For the first, and as it would turn out the only time, Mr. K could not disguise his palpable satisfaction in a conversation between us Slowly and clearly, he savored every word of what could have been a rehearsed little speech..

“What you fail to understand, Mr. Thelwell is that while authorization to issue does originate in Washington, the final decision rests with people like me. Here on the ground, “in country” so to speak. That is policy. So that your travel to the US is a privilege over which I have full and complete discretion. A privilege, which I either bestow or withhold. And I can assure you that you will never again….(Fifty years later these are his almost exact words which have been etched into my memory)

Mr. K must have worked his ass off over the weekend, searching files and wracking his brain to formulate some rationale to justify overturning the DC decision. Of course this was never shown me, but I’ve since come to gather that in his version I am described as both an “undesirable” and a “subversive” whose best service to national interests was exclusion. Quite a comedown, what? Needless to say I’ve never since ‘forgotten” a passport.

Enter UMass, fighting mad.

On the phone Dean Shapiro’s indignation was comforting. “He said that did he? The arrogant little shmuck! Don’t worry Mike, we’ll see about that. Hold tight.” Hearing that I did not feel so isolated and vulnerable.

The Good Dean sprang into action. Letters and phone calls to Foggy Bottom, no result. Mobilizing the Massachusetts congressional delegation, Sen. Kennedy and such notables, still no result. Finally, all other options being exhausted, a delegation consisting of Mssrs Gluckstern, Shapiro and Bromery was dispatched to the nation’s Capitol.

A long, frustrating meeting with the head of the Latin American section who patently un-impressed with a group of academics from the rustic hinterlands of New England dug in his bureaucratic heels. So same result. “As we have repeatedly told you “the man in country” has final jurisdiction. You must accept that this case is not going to be reversed, no precedent. So there is nothing to be done. Sorry.” Total defeat? But be of good cheer, here come to best part.

Bill Bromery To The Rescue… Go Bill Bromery, Go, Go, Go!

Thoroughly disgruntled and at the end of their options our people were heading back to the airport in frustration when Bro Bromery, who if you recall, had some experience with the turf rivalries within Beltway Bureaucracy sat up.

“Turn the cab around,” he commanded, “we ain’t licked yet.” I tell you turn the cab round. We’re going to Bill Scranton’s outfit.” To the uninformed, recall that the previous year any number of American universities had been shut down by thousands of angry students protesting the war and the Kent State massacre. Former Pennsylvania Gov. William Scranton had been drafted by Pres. Nixon to head the President’s Commission on Campus Unrest to study the issue, but more importantly to anticipate and head off further outbreaks where possible. “Look diplomats don’t share our interests; to them we’re just academics.” The Brother explained. “But is there an operation within the Beltway that does? Course there is, and that’s where we should’ve gone first.”

Received by the Governor, the pitch was perfect, indeed inspired. First they established “common ground.” What’s with this government, Governor? Seems like the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing? Absolute Cross purposes here it seems.”

“Whatever are you talking about? Best you explain.” Or words to that effect from the Governor.

“Well Governor, it’s like this: here you are doing your best to curb campus unrest across the nation. Here we are concerned with averting eruptions on our campus. That’s what brings us all the way to DC. We are desperate, at our wits end. Yet the government seems almost schizophrenic. Because across town at State, some knucklehead is taking a position guaranteed to have our Black students burn down the university come September.” Well, to coin a phrase, a little exaggeration in pursuit of (my) liberation is no vice. Our students were no more incendiary than I distinguished, but whatever works. And this did. Notice how deftly the brother played the two notes calculated to get Scranton’s attention? Not just campus unrest, but race driven campus unrest. After hearing the story the Governor got on the phone.

Next day or so Dean Shapiro was on the phone. “Mike get out your passport, within the hour your phone will ring. It will be your Mr. Keeshan and …”

“Wow, Dean Shapiro, I can’t believe…thank you…But how do you know it will be him…”

“No, it will be him, I promise. Just wait for the call, O K.”

Sure enough the call came and it was indeed himself. It was now my turn to enjoy our conversation.

“Mr. Thelwell, bring your passport down to the Embassy…”

“Oh Mr. Keeshan,” I wailed. “This is such a cruel joke. Much too cruel, quite unworthy of you. Have you not told me, in no uncertain terms, that I would never again travel to…”

“Just bring the goddamned passport,” he snarled and hung up.

I think I was there before the phone settled on the hook, but in his office Mr. K was nowhere in evidence. I was met by his secretary. “He’s been called away”. “But he told me to…” “Just hand me the passport”, she said, “I’ll stamp it.”)

Too long I know, but the telling just got too good to me.


Feeling inordinately “privileged” and grateful for the administration’s loyalty, I returned to find classes underway and three new faculty settling in nicely. These were Josephus Vidal Olufemi Richards of Sierra Leone, an amazingly erudite African Art historian and fabric designer; Dovi Afesi, a young African historian from Ghana (in his high school graduating class his chief rival for top academic honors had been a bright young man named Kofi Annan); and Johnnetta Cole an anthropologist who went on to the presidency of Spellman College and is now director of the Museum of African Art at the Smithsonian Institution.

Dr. Johnetta Cole

Dr. Johnetta Cole

Anthropologist, and Director of Musem of African Art

In the prevailing excitement of arrival after the narrow escape, it took me a few days to realize that something, the fourth appointment, which was of an historian on American Slavery, was missing.

“Wait a minute,” I asked, “what happened to the Aptheker appointment?”

“Waal”, drawled Bernie Bell who been interim Chair in my absence, “that’s something the administration been wanting to talk to you about.”

Dr. Bernard Bell

Dr-Bernard Bell

Distinguished Scholar on the Afro-American Novel
Dr. Herbert Aptheker: Historian and Custodian of DuBois Papers
Aptheker signing for purchase Dubois Papers
With Madame Signing for University Purchase of DuBois Papers

This was an appointment we had thoroughly discussed among ourselves. Dr Aptheker, a serious scholar of slavery and as I was to discover, something of a disciple of DuBois, had written a book, “American Negro Slave Revolts” which had excited the ire of a cabal of establishment southern historians particularly C. Van Woodward of Yale. According to this group, Aptheker’s work was inferior if not spurious scholarship.

We were convinced that the real issue was that the book definitively refuted the long since discredited “Sambo theory” of slavery, which was at that time curiously influential. This version of our ancestor’s experience held—in total contravention of the preponderance of evidence—that Africans had been so traumatized by the institution that they had been reduced, like Zombies, to a state of psychological paralysis and utter dependence so severe as to foreclose any possibility of resistance.

This was the so-called “Sambo Personality” theory advanced by Stanley M. Elkins, a professor of history at Smith College, just down the road in North Hampton.  In an essay titled “Slavery and the Sambo Personality,” Elkins compares the behavior of Jews in Nazi concentration camps with that of African slaves on American plantations, and comes up with something akin to an American version of the Stockholm Syndrome in black and white.  The “Elkin’s Thesis” has since been widely debunked, most notably by Professor Sterling Stuckey in his book “Slave Culture.”

Resume edit – Our friend and mentor Professor Kaplan (a founder of the Massachusetts Review) had repeatedly challenged these gentlemen in print to produce evidence of error, even a single instance of omission, carelessness, or falsification of evidence in Aptheker’s work. None were ever forthcoming. Nevertheless Dr. Aptheker, despite impressive publication, had never received appointment to the faculty of any university in the country. Whenever this possibility arose it was always dismissed by reason of “dubious” scholarship though we suspected that the real reason might just possibly have been Dr Aptheker’s prominently held position as “chief theoretician” of the Communist Party, USA. But, of course, we could have been wrong. (I often wondered, but was afraid to ask, just exactly what were the duties of a “Chief Theoretician”?)

However we concluded that since the “poor” scholarship charges seemed clearly a canard, denying a fine scholar employment because of political beliefs was an equally scandalous violation of fundamental principles of academic freedom of which the Academy should be ashamed. And oddly enough, when we had approached Dr. Aptheker he had not discussed ideology nor had he tried to convert much less “brainwash” us. The names Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin or Josef Stalin never arose in our discussions though those of David Walker, Nat Turner and Frederick Douglass had. We discussed black history and found that our positions on that subject were in strong agreement. Which was the basis on which the nomination was made. Now the administration, for which we had complete respect, wanted to discuss it further?

The meeting was to prove very consequential. The top administration was in place when we arrived. Chancellor Tippo, Provost Gluckstern and Dean Shapiro looked real serious. In fact so serious and so bristling with gravitas, that it actually occurred to me to greet them with a bow and the opening words of Othello’s greeting to the Venetian senate, “Most Potent, Grave and Reverend Seigneurs, My most Noble and assured Good Masters,” as Esther, Johnnetta and Ivanhoe seated themselves. But unsure how this might be received, I restrained myself but often wondered what might have happened had I not.

Of the many good qualities I appreciated about Chancellor Oswald Tippo, his principled, directness and a guileless, blunt honesty stand out. He came, as always, straight to the point. They’d looked into Aptheker and everything we said about his scholarship appeared accurate. He agreed that the denigration of his work simply wasn’t fair, and was in fact disgraceful. His work seemed to fit the Department’s mission so on that score it would be a sensible appointment. And, he agreed, in a just world a fine scholar would not be kept out of the Academy because of his political ideas and commitments.

But, that said, there was absolutely no way he was gonna make this appointment. And let’s be quite clear. This is not about scholarship; it’s the communist thing. His administration appointing one of the leading figures in the Communist Party to the faculty? No way. Forget it. As Chancellor he had to be responsible for the interests of the entire University. This appointment would be an utter and complete political disaster. Quite simply it could not be done.

Our side understood, sympathized and expressed measured disappointment. But would it really be such a disaster after all? Assorted importunings were uttered evoking “… the high road… correcting historical injustice… institutional pride… courageous leadership… setting an example… affirming fundamental principle… doing the right thing… leading the way in higher education… Academic freedom.. Yaya, yaya, on and on.

They listened patiently. Look it will not, and simply cannot happen they said. This university has real enemies in the Legislature. Someone, I think Dean Shapiro said,

“Jesus, can’t you just see what Blackie Burke would do with something this?” Looks of genuine horror crossed their faces. “We’d be giving that bastard the knife he’s been looking for to cut the university’s throat.”

Senator Burke, the loud, abrasive and very conservative chairman of the committee out of which the university’s appropriation came, was not a friend of public higher education. At least not in Western Massachusetts anyway.

So we cannot appoint Aktheker but there are things we can do. We can invite him to give a series of eight well-remunerated lectures next year, one each month of the academic year, on the life of Dr DuBois. Further we can assign the department four new positions for which searches can begin immediately. What do you think? Of course what did not need saying was that in return, the department would not publicly raise the issue of academic freedom in connection with the Aptheker appointment. It would not, as in the climate of those times, we were perfectly capable of doing, mobilize some kind of national movement around the issue.

“We appreciate that this is a very thoughtful proposal Gentlemen. But of course, you understand that we shall have to caucus?”

Outside, strange as it might sound today, I actually was torn. There were real principles, important issues of fairness and justice at play. My SNCC instincts were towards riding principle wherever it might lead. On the other hand, I deeply admired the men in that room and, only recently had excellent reason to have been grateful for their support with that arrogant and vindictive consul in Kingston. Also they clearly had respected, perhaps even shared our feelings, about the seriousness of the issue.

I had gotten the distinct impression that they—particularly Chancellor Tippo—would have liked to be able to redress the injustice to Aptheker. But they had to do what they had to do, period… These were not bureaucratic careerists but honorable and intelligent men. Men who shared a thoroughly admirable view, to which I subscribed completely, about the role and possibilities of public higher education. And a truly inspiring vision of the kind of university they intended to build here. Embarrassing them or in any way damaging their mission at the University was the last thing I wanted to do… but principle was principle and standing on principle was easy only when it didn’t cost anything.

In the caucus I suppose we all knew what we had to do but we had to go through the radical motions anyway. Ways to “heighten the contradictions”, or” “bringing pressure to bear” were tossed around. Then Ivanhoe cut to the chase incontrovertibly.

“Who y’awl kidding? What will any of that get us—one national press conference, two at the most, and after that what?” Whereupon good sense was immediately restored.

Back in the meeting the administrators had the grace to pretend relief as though they had not known that we had no sensible other choice. We affected that we were making a painful concession only out of loyalty. Of course we would have to consult Aptheker on the offer but we believed we had achieved common ground. The tension broken, the gathering relaxed and an administrator, Dean Shapiro I think it was, entertained us with the story below about the bush league provincialism that oft-times characterized state politics.

One of those new positions went to John Henry Bracey—now serving his second term as chairman—as it were, trading one fine historian for another. Two were used for Chester Davis and Bill Strickland from The Institute of the Black World in Atlanta and the fourth went to the inimitable and unforgettable Acklyn Lynch. (Bill Belichek never did better with his draft picks, but as he would be the first to tell you, it always is a bit of a gamble.)

The Dean’s Story. Statehouse scuttlebutt on exactly how petty Massachusetts politics can be. Turns out Senator “Blackie” Burke had an ally on the committee even more vocal and relentless in his opposition to the University’s interests. But, as it turns out, this opposition was not primarily a matter of policy but of deep personal grievance, very, very personal. Seems this gentleman, from the southeastern part of the state had, so to say, a close enemy, his next-door neighbor. This was no casual disagreement between neighbors. This was open, mutual hostility. Their relationship had long since deteriorated to the point described in an expressive Igbo phrase translated as “Fight to the knife, knife to the hilt.” Hell, one or both men could simply have moved away, no? But neither would.

So, what has this got to do with the university’s budget you may well ask? Well, both had sons. The time came for college. The senator’s son was accepted at Tufts and he proudly enrolled him there, all the while sneering at the neighbor’s son who had “settled” for Umass, Amherst. However, when school opened that Fall, the neighbor’s son set out for Amherst ostentatiously driving a shiny, brand new car. The senator was aghast to hear the neighbor crowing that while certain idiots were paying in the region of 30K to Tufts, his son’s fees in Amherst were around 13K. The kid’s snazzy new car represented just one year’s savings. A reasonable man might have concluded that the thing to do was to have his son transfer to Umass, but not the Senator. That cheapskate next door can laugh now, he comforted himself, but he’ll very soon see which education is the superior value.

So that when, upon graduation, both young men gained admission to the same prestigious law school (somewhere in the eastern part of the state), the Senator was way beyond outraged. As much, one imagines by the financial injustice as by his neighbor’s insufferable self-satisfaction. The use of taxpayer dollars to subsidize educational welfare to such riff raff was just what was wrong with “Taxachussetts”. This was a political scandal. A misuse of taxpayer money, which it was his clear duty to do everything in his power to end, beginning for precisely that purpose, with a seat on that budget committee …

Looking today at the dramatic downward arc of legislative appropriations to the University and the upward swing of tuition costs to working families in the Commonwealth since then, one really has to wonder… But Senator, I can assure you that tuition still costs a hell of a lot more at Tufts, so sorry! Since this was in 1970 this excellent public servant must have long left the political stage and gone to his well deserved rest. But alas, his legacy survives him.)


Dr Aptheker seemed unsurprised by our news, thanked us for our efforts and reassured us that we were right, building the department had to be our priority and he would be delighted to offer the lectures on DuBois. In the event, the Five College community was treated to a truly extraordinary educational experience. Nothing could have better justified to the community our reason for the association of that name with the department. Aptheker’s evident devotion, combined with his historian’s attention to detail, his intimate acquaintance from working with Dr. DuBois over many years and the respectful care which he obviously devoted to preparing each lecture was a revelation.

DuBois the man was presented all his complex, admirable quirky and enigmatic humanity and the remarkable career of struggle, endurance and accomplishment was situated in the context of history. I had heard Dr. Aptheker speak while at Howard and had not thought him capable of such affecting eloquence. I attribute it to his reverence for the subject. I don’t know whether Dr. Aptheker ever published these lectures, but they certainly, certainly, certainly Lord, deserve to be.

* * * * *********

One afternoon towards the end of the first year of the Department’s official existence my phone in New Africa House rang. It was Vincent Harding, Director of the Institute of the Black World in Atlanta, and his voice fairly quivered with excitement. “Mike I can hardly believe what I’ve just this minute discovered,” he burst out. “… This house, the one where we have the Institute, turns out to be one in which DuBois actually lived while at Atlanta University!” His excitement was infectious; this really was beyond coincidence, though not being the Christian minister Vincent is, I was not prepared to attribute it to intelligent design so I said something like,

“Wow. Really? That can’t be an accident my Brother. Truly the ancestors do not sleep, nor do they slumber. But how’d you find this out?”

Well, I’m here talking to Madame DuBois and…”

“Madame? … You, you can’t mean Shirley Graham Dubois can you?”

“None other. That’s exactly who I mean”, he said. “Matter of fact she’s sitting across the room from me right now.”

It was my turn to be flabbergasted. Tell the truth, I hadn’t been entirely sure whether Mrs. DuBois was still alive. I knew that Gamal Abdul Nasser (peace be unto him), had sent a plane for Nkrumah’s wife and family at the time of the coup that overthrew Osageyfo. I’d assumed that his protection would have extended to DuBois’s widow since I had heard that she had moved to Cairo sometime after. But I hadn’t really had reason to think about her. So it was kind’ve a shock to hear that she was actually in the country. My excitement matched Vincent’s, “Oh Man, tell her she’s gotta come to Amherst. Please Brother, you gotta persuade her. Please.”

Vincent left the line then came back to report that Madme. Dubois said that a visit to Amherst, intriguing as it was, simply was not going to be possible this trip. Of course she’d like to come but perhaps next time. I asked to speak with her and explained how great an honor and inspiration it would be if she could come to see what was being done in her husband’s name here at the University of Massachusetts.

She was very gracious. Said that Vincent had said as much but she explained why it simply wasn’t possible. The trip had been a year in the planning. The scheduling was in the hands of organizers who’d had to decline a great many important and attractive invitations that she’d have loved to be able accept. And now the visit was coming to its end. She couldn’t see how another stop could possibly be fitted in.

I begged, pleaded, cajoled, flattered (subtly, to be sure,) and exaggerated shamelessly all in about three minutes.

“You really are most persuasive, young man. Tell you what. I can’t promise anything because it really is out my hands. But I will take the matter to the organizers, old friends whose judgments I respect, and then we’ll see. But don’t get your hopes up.”

I had my fingers crossed but had no way of knowing exactly what those trusted “old friends”, among whom I’m sure Herbert Aptheker would have been prominent, might have said of us… But within a week Madam DuBois called. It was possible for her to be in Amherst for three days after all.

The administration shared our excitement. If there is a university equivalent of a state visit that is what was rolled out for the occasion. Madam DuBois was received onto the Campus by the top leadership. Among us she was impressive and business-like. She spent much time in New Africa House, met the faculty and the students, scrutinized the department proposal and asked really astute and probing questions about everything.

She was a petite lady with a strong face, a no-nonsense demeanor and very alert eyes, which appeared to miss nothing. By the second day, I suspected that she had satisfied herself and reached her conclusions because she visibly relaxed and became expansive. She answered our eager questions about the Doctor, shared their experiences of Ghana and China as well as impressing us with her candid impressions of people like Nkrumah and Nasser and their replacements in office. Before her departure she paid a “courtesy call” on the Chancellor and his close associates, which seemed to go on much longer than mere courtesy would seem to have required. But I thought nothing of it at the time.

My recollection is that although I’d gotten a strong impression that Madam DuBois looked favorably on our efforts, it never would have occurred to me to be so presumptuous as to invite her to join our faculty. I came to suspect though, that such an invitation may have been issued during that unduly lengthy, last courtesy call. In any event Mrs. D did indeed join the department for the 1974—75 academic year. A few years later her son David Graham DuBois would join the faculty and return as a visiting professor in Journalism until his death at the turn of this century.

 Shirley Graham DuBois

Shirley duBois

An intellectual, Writer and Teacher
Dr. and Mrs DuBois at State Function in Ghana


Dr. and Madam DuBois With Ghana President and First Lady

Kwame Nkrumah

North, South and the American Diaspora
 A Widowed Shirley Strolling with Malcolm X
 Black Revolutionaries from everywhere visited Ghana
With President Nkrumah and Stokely Carmichael
madame Dubois, Nkeumah and stokely
She Embraced and Instructed Revolutionary Youths

With Dr. DuBois in China

Dr. DuBois and wife in China

The author of a number of books, Ms D. taught courses in literature for us. In the manner of many of those old time black teachers of our youth she was exemplary and very disciplined. She devoted great care to her teaching preparation and enormous time and concern to her students. In the department’s early days faculty meetings were of necessity much more frequent and one of my most enduring images of her comes from those meetings. As Chair I had to be punctual. But every time I’d arrive exactly on time for a meeting Mrs. Dubois would’ve beaten me there, a solitary, business-like presence sitting erect in the front of the room alert, pen in hand, notebook at the ready.

I’d sit with that elderly lady and, over the next half hour or so, watch the rest of the faculty everyone at least twenty-years her junior, casually straggle in. I grew to admire Mrs. DuBois very much and I was able to spend time in her company.  From our conversations I learned a great deal, as much from what she did not say as from what she did but especially from the way she conducted herself always. And in retrospect it is possible to see that certain things, which she did not share, had been perhaps her greatest lesson.

At the end of the year she meticulously completed all her duties, took her leave and departed for China, there to die of cancer in what seemed a very short time. All year she had neither requested nor accepted any special treatment based on age or status. Yet as seems quite evident, she had to have known at least for a considerable portion of that year; that she was terminally ill and may very well have been in some pain. And so far as I know, she never breathed a word to anyone in Amherst.

One day Mrs. DuBois came into my office so angry that she could not sit still nor get her words out. She paced back and forth fuming and unable to control some very strong emotions. Never having seen this dignified lady in such a state this was totally out of character. I was quite concerned and tried to calm her. When she was able to speak it was apparent that she was having difficulty suppressing tears of anger.

“I’m just back from Harvard and I simply can’t remember being as angry. The arrogance…”

Wishing to lighten her mood I attempted quite unsuccessfully a bit of humor.

“Oh, Harvard Mrs. D? Well, that explains everything. Remember what someone said about ‘Harvard, a place where fake pearls are tossed before real swine’?” The lady was in no mood to be distracted or amused.

“No that doesn’t explain anything.” She gestured impatiently; “Now this is serious, you listen …” She had gone there to finalize discussions about Harvard’s acquiring the DuBois papers. DuBois having earned his doctorate there, they felt his papers were theirs as a matter of right, institutional prestige and previous condition of (his)… Really, it was quite unthinkable they could possibly rest anywhere else but the Widener.

On the value and price of the papers there was complete agreement. And once acquired the University would oversee and undertake their appropriate publication by the University’s press. Mrs. D. agreed and pointed out that obvious editor for that project would be the historian who had figured significantly in gathering the collection and consequently best understood them. This was of course Dr. Herbert Aptheker.

Mrs. DuBois was then made to understand in no uncertain terms that once the papers were Harvard’s property only the university would determine their disposition. And she should understand that there was absolutely no possibility of Harvard University’s entering into any such professional relationship with Aptheker. I can only speculate as to what, if any reasons were presented in justification but I’m pretty sure apprehension of the dread “Blackie” Burke was not one of them.

From the intensity of Mrs. D’s outrage and repeated mention of “arrogance”, I suspect that slanders of Aptheker’s scholarly integrity and competence, which had ossified into received wisdom among a certain coterie of academics, may have entered the conversation. They watched her end the discussion and storm out, probably entirely too confident that inevitably she must “come to her senses” and be back cap in hand. What alternative did she have? What alternative for those papers could there be to Harvard? Well, that they were soon to discover.

(To the extent that the Harvard grandees had been surprised by Mrs. DuBois’s indignation they really should not have been. It was pretty common knowledge that Aptheker had for many years done yeoman work tracking down and collecting as many of Dubois’ papers as he was able. And, so the grapevine went, he had done so entirely at personal expense, free from the contamination of a dime of the institutional or philanthropic monies usually awarded as a matter of course to collections of this historical, literary and intellectual significance.

It was the department’s resident historian John Bracey who had given me the sharpest, most enduring image I retain concerning this, “Yeah man, it was nobody but Herbert and Faye Aptheker by themselves, working long nights in their basement organizing, annotating and coordinating that mountain of documents, which is why these papers even exist in their current form at all.”)

Listening to Mrs. DuBois I was relieved to see that recounting the experience seemed to calm her down appreciably.

“Oh Mrs. D don’t distress yourself. Calm yourself; this ain’t the end of the world. In fact, it just might be the best thing that could have happened.” She appeared startled and looked at me as though contemplating the possibility that I had taken leave of my senses.

“No Ma’am, I’m serious. Harvard isn’t the center of the universe, they only think they are. Look over there,” I pointed west out the window; “we can almost see Great Barrington from here. And this university plans to build a great new library. Maybe this is the place where the ancestors intend those papers to find a home, why on earth not?”

Mrs. D was silent and thoughtful for a long minute or two. Then suddenly and completely her face brightened into a radiant smile,

“Yes,” she said with excitement, “yes. That is so right. And this, this is the State University of Massachusetts, isn’t it? It will always be here. At least as long as there is a state.” Mrs. D. was a socialist so that misconception was understandable, and I felt that wasn’t the best moment to enlighten her about the politics of the “Blackie” Burkes of the world or its implications for the university’s permanence.

By then Chancellor Tippo had been succeeded by Randolph “Bill” Bromery a truly extraordinary black man. After flying with the legendary Tuskegee Airman, Bromery had availed himself of the GI bill to become a geologist, worked in government in DC then come to Amherst as Chair of the Geology Department and within a decade had risen to the Chancellorship. From which you might assume, and quite correctly so, that Bro. Bill was uncommonly politically astute and effective.

“Brother Chancellor, Mike Thelwell. Guess who I have in my office? Mrs. DuBois and there’s something important she wishes to discuss with you. No, no. I think it best you hear it from her. But I’m sure this is something that could redound to the great credit of the University and, of course, of your administration. Interested? Of course, I’ll drive her right over.” The rest, to coin a phrase, is history.

Dr. Randolph “Bill” Bromery
Geo-Physicist and Chancellor U-Mass
Bill Bromery: Fighter Pilot
Bill bromery_aircorps
A Tuskegee Airman

But how Chancellor Bromery accomplished it is worth some attention. I have no idea how the papers were evaluated financially. But within a week of their talk the brother began the process to secure the necessary funds to acquire them without recourse to a penny of state funds. He called up the president of “The Friends of the Library”, an alumnus named William Manchester, author of the first published biography of the recently martyred John F. Kennedy which had been a runaway bestseller, an American book of the year, and brought its author extremely high literary visibility. To Manchester’s enthusiastic efforts in those circles, Bromery added chips he could call in from executives of oil companies who had excellent reason to be grateful for the lucrative oil fields his geological expertise had been able to help them locate.

Next came the Aptheker question. He was appointed editor. To allay the long-standing canards re scholarship, an advisory committee of prominent, i.e. “respectable” American historians, chaired by Professor Sidney Kaplan was established to “oversee” publication by the University press. Sid had carefully selected all the members of this committee with the clear understanding that the work would not be onerous. Sid was nothing if not a man of his word, so much so in fact that I cannot recall this supervisory group’s ever having met. So much for oversight. Each of the volumes published have won high critical acclaim for the intelligence brought to the selections and the probity and editorial judgment displayed in their presentation. As I said, Bromery was a man of uncommon resourcefulness and political dexterity.

The next significant event in this “history’ is the naming of the Library. This came in 1994, almost exactly two decades after the events just recounted. This initiative is something for which neither the W.E.B. DuBois department nor the general faculty can take any credit beyond perhaps, having signed a student-generated petition.

All credit belongs entirely to a determined group of progressive graduate students and the leadership of the undergraduate student government who created a campus-wide alliance called the W.E.B. Dubois Petition Coalition to advance a number of issues. In University histories student contributions are accorded obligatory lip service but only rarely the credit that the students sometimes actually deserve. In this case there are two leaders of the Graduate Student Senate without whose devotion, energy and skill there would be no library with the name DuBois on this campus.

Shamala Ivatury, a grad student in Chemistry and Colin S. Cavell, (Polsci) are the students who generally did the heavy lifting. These two organized the coalition, devised the petition and planned and ran a long campaign which ultimately was successful at least in one area, that of the naming of the library. The full petition was testament either to unrealistic student idealism or to deft strategic planning on their part. It challenged the administration to increase Alana student enrollment to 20 percent; minority faculty appointments also to 20 percent; to ensure scholarship availability to all economically challenged students as well as to name the Tower Library for Dr. DuBois. It is not hard to imagine that faced with that list, the university leadership may have arrived at the DuBois Library demand with some considerable relief.

To his great credit the Chancellor David Scott publicly endorsed that element of the student initiative. Presumably against the advice of the more fiscally pragmatic of his advisors who felt the library’s name to be a valuable commodity that could profitably be “branded”, for example perhaps, The Goldman Sachs Research Center or The Kentucky Fried Chicken Library at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

I must have signed the petition, difficult imagine that I wouldn’t have, but I do not remember when or where. What I do remember was a number of phone calls from journalists with questions about DuBois’ joining the communist party, which I was happy to discuss. “That was not on Dr DuBois’ part, an act neither of political naiveté, senility or as your question seems to suggest, “disloyalty to America”. It was at the age of 93 an act of immense courage in affirmation of the most “American” of values, which the Supreme Court had failed to do by refusing to disqualify the McCarran Act.

This now discredited legislation required American citizens—and certain parties suspected of communist sympathies—to register themselves as foreign agents with the government. As an affirmation of every citizen’s fundamental right to freedom of thought and association, Dr. DuBois made public application for party membership. And this during what Lillian Hellman had famously called “scoundrel time” because of the cowardice of many progressives in the face of the McCarthyist hysteria of the period.” If I wondered about the source of this sudden flurry of press inquiries the answer was not long in coming.

As we are constantly and painfully reminded, all motion is not progress. In the two decades since the acquisition of the papers, a particularly extreme brand of student conservatism, ideologically nurtured and amply funded by forces outside the universities, had made an appearance on campuses across the country. This university was not spared so that March the local rightwing student paper had sounded the alarm, urgently appealing to the President and Board of trustees to save the library and the university community from itself.

There’s a radical movement sweeping across the U-mass campus,” it thundered, “attempting to impose a twisted ideology upon an unsuspecting student body. A few misguided individuals here on campus are in the process of immortalizing an admitted communist and racial separatist.”

Nonetheless that same month university President Michael J. Hooker announced the decision of the Board on the students’ petition and the W.E.B DuBois Library of the University of Massachusetts came quietly into existence. In announcing their decision the Trustees were uncommonly eloquent in finding especially appropriate language from the great man himself,

“In 1903 W.E.B.DuBois wrote, a university is a human invention for the transmission of knowledge and culture from generation to generation through the training of quick minds and pure hearts, and for this work no other human invention will suffice…”

Then in their conclusion the Trustees outdid themselves by working in elements of DuBois’ more famous quote from 1903.

“As we march into the twenty-first century, we feel that it is time to go beyond the color line and appropriately name the tower library in honor of one of the finest heroes, not only of Massachusetts but of the world –William Edward Burghardt DuBois.”

Sometimes institutions do make really good decisions, and for right and honorable reasons. “Give praise and thanks. Let the Church say, Ahmen.”


Ekwueme Michael Thelwell,
Pelham, Ma. September 26, 2013


Editor’s Note: The WEB DuBois Department of Afro-American studies was also the first department to successfully include Jazz – Afro-american classical music – into the curriculum  when we appointed the master musicians Max Roach – drummer/composer/bandleader – and Saxophonist/composer/ bandleader Archie Shepp to the faculty.   Max roach was one of the most influential percussionist in the world with generations of musicians studyin his innovations.  Professor Roach was a giant of the Bop and Post-Bop periods and Professor Shepp innovator of the 1960’s avant Garde.

Max Roach


Double click to see Max Perform
With the Virtuosso South African pianist Abdullah Ibrahim

Archie Shepp

Archie Shepp

Double Click to see Professor Shepp Perform

With the Great Afro-Cuban Pianist Chucho Valdez

A Tyranny of the Minority!

Posted in Playthell on politics, Uncategorized with tags , , , , on October 1, 2013 by playthell
Boehner with crack pipe
John Boehner: Is he Smoking Crack?

The Lunatics Have Taken Over the Asylum!

The prescient French intellectual Alexis de Tocqueville warned against the development of a “Tyranny of the Majority” in his two volume 1831 treatise Democracy in America.  However he, nor anyone else, worried about a tyranny of the minority.  I suspect that such a thing was unimaginable in a system where the majority rules.  Yet what we are facing as I write is a tyranny of a minority of the Republican Party – the far right Tea Party faction – who is directing the Republican legislative agenda in Congress.  In the last election the so-called “Tea Party Patriots” elected over 60 people to the House of Representatives, these people were political Neanderthals fueled more by rage than reason, and committed to “limited government.”

They marched into Washington determined to dismantle the Federal government and the art of compromise, a normal process of governance, became betrayal. Disruption of the orderly processes of government became the order of the day as they manufactured one crisis after another, and they have succeeded so well that at this moment in American history we have no national government at all. This is the second time in 17 years the federal government has been shut down based on the 1868 law requiring that government shut down if Congress does not appropriate the funds to operate, and both times it was radical right wing Republicans – the Grand Obstructionist Party, that shut it down.

The United States of America, a popular democracy that is unique among the nations of the world because power is in the hands of the people through their exercise of the ballot, stands in danger of inflicting a devastating crisis upon itself through the irrational actions of some elected leaders.  If this sounds like madness that’s because it is; Republican politics has become a species of self-destructive madness, anarchy in the guise of patriotism and religious virtue.

As a weary nation watched the deadline for the government shutdown approach, most citizens hoped and prayed the radical Republicans would soon come to their senses, put partisan politics aside, and act responsibly in the public interest.  No such luck alas, and our national government has shut down.  All responsible citizens should be afraid, and if you are a federal worker you should be very afraid!

Listening to the various governmental spokesmen and “experts” on American government and economy one scarcely knows what to believe regarding the consequences of the shutdown.  Their contradictory explanations must resemble a tower of babble to the average citizen with a cavalier interest in politics.  However there is no doubt that almost a million federal employees are out of work today and are uncertain what the future holds or even if they will receive their next paycheck.

So it is an immediate tragedy for them.  But in a nation of over three hundred people that’s not very many people, and millions of Americans are indifferent to their plight, while millions of right-wing Republicans, who seem to view our federal government as a pit of evil that does more harm than good, feel that government workers are parasites who are getting what they deserve.

These attitudes offer indisputable proof that the removal of “Civics” courses from our public schools, along with the decline of newspapers devoted to serious journalism, the splintering of the media into a morass of outlets in which unedited information is broadcast over the airwaves or posted online without fact checking, polluting the empty heads of a clueless public, has combined to dumbfound and so confuse millions of Americans that they are ill-equipped to comprehend either the benefits of a strong national government or the causes of the present crisis.

One need only look at the responses of American citizens in “man on the street” television interviews to understand the depth of confusion among the populace.  Although the polls show that 72% of the public disagree with the Republican strategy of shutting down the government in order to defund the Affordable Health Care Act, or “Obamacare,” all of the people in the street poll conducted by MSNBC blame both parties, the President and Congress equally.  This is further evidence that Thomas Jefferson was right when he predicted an ignorant electorate would pose great a danger to the proper functioning of our brand of participatory democracy.

Based upon the actions of the right-wing iconoclasts in the Grand Obstructionist Party, who have now succeeded in shutting down the federal government and believe they have performed a heroic deed, even members of congress do not appear to understand the possible consequences of their actions.  Some prescient scholars of American government have long predicted that our system of divided government, with its countervailing forces where each branch of government check and balance the other, could result in a disaster that renders the nation ungovernable.  As the nation stands on the precipice of disaster, with the congress so gridlocked they can’t even pass a budget, we may have arrived at that moment.

Although the financial markets are up this morning, perhaps because the state insurance exchanges mandated by the Affordable Healthcare Law has gone into effect, if this shutdown of the federal government is not ended soon it will surely result in financial catastrophe.  Aside from the fact that people in critical positions such as Air Traffic Controllers are being asked to work without pay, this kind of grand folly does not inspire trust in investors that the US government will pay the interests on its bonds.  Hence as the vote to raise the debt ceiling ensues in a couple of weeks it could set off a panic in financial markets worldwide, which would spark a new depression more severe than the Bush imbroglio.  We simply cannot predict what will happen since the markets operate on confidence.

The long and the short of the matter is the United States of America is about to suffer a self-inflicted wound that could put our ailing economy on life support.  At the moment nobody can envision a way of this political morass.  The Republicans have come up with a convoluted argument in which the crux of the crisis is the refusal of the Democrats to “negotiate.”  But their idea of negotiation is to demand that the President essentially scrap his signature legislative achievement, the Affordable Health Care Act, an achievement that both Democratic and Republican presidents have tried to implement for a century, going all the way back to Teddy Roosevelt.   With 45 million people uninsured in the richest nation in the world any program designed to expand health care coverage is long overdue.

Needless to say, this is a demand the President cannot and will not accept.  Apparently, the Republicans have underestimated both the resolve of the president and his supporters, because many of us will fight them to the bitter end…. no matter the consequences.  In my view this is President Obama’s finest hour; he must not give an inch.  This is a fight to the finish and the American people must decide if they want to continue electing inflexible ideologues to congress that hate government and have no interests in governing, people whose real interest is in crippling the ability of the federal government to provide services to the people that need them, or mature responsible legislators who cherish government and are committed to making the necessary compromises to govern well, placing the public interests above personal or party interests.

Ironically, the people who need government most, based on the record of government transfer payments – either through jobs or subsidies – are in the “red states” represented by the people who are trying to dismantle the federal government.  And just now, it is the far-right Tea Party caucus in the Republican Party who are driving this effort, although they are fewer in number than establishment Republicans they are conducting a reign of terror by threatening to run candidates to their right in future primaries.

And the kiss of death for any Republican leader is to appear to be working with President Obama, the man they all love to hate!  Just look at all the flak governor Christie got for working with the President in order to bring relief to the hurricane ravaged state.  Their irrational hatred of the President is fired by who he is more than anything he has done.  They hate him first because he is African-American, and thus they cannot admit that there is virtue in anything he does.  Hence they oppose him even when he accepts their positions.

The ruthless tactics of the Tea Party cabal have turned John Boehner into a burlesque of a House Speaker, a cowed pot butt pretender who is afraid to act in the best interests of the nation by simply bringing the Budget Resolution up for a vote and telling members of his party to vote their conscience.  No one doubts that the budget resolution preventing the government shutdown would have carried the day.

However should the speaker man up and do his job – which is to lead, instead of behaving like a clueless castrati in the choir suffering from a deficit of testicular fortitude in order to save his speakership – this crisis can be quickly resolved.  Yet John Boehner, “The Weeper of the House,” is proving to be a jellyfish who seems perfectly willing to follow the lead of people with the mentality of suicide bombers.

This has resulted in a bizarre state of affairs where,  as President Obama points out, a minority of one political party that controls the House of Representatives gets to nullify the will of the Senate, the President, the Supreme Court, and ultimately the will of the American people who voted for this President over Mitt Romney in an election where the Affordable Healthcare Act was a major issue.  Hence what we are witnessing in Washington is truly a “Tyranny of the minority.”


Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
October 1, 2013

A Memo to President Obama…

Posted in On Foreign Affairs, On War and Peace in the Mid East!, Uncategorized on August 29, 2013 by playthell

A devestated Syria

A country already devastated by internecine conflict

 …No Unilateral Strike on Syria!!

Once again the saber rattlers in Washington are seriously considering a military action in an Islamic country in order to “liberate” the people from an oppressive government.  As the Obama Administration reviews evidence that the Syrian government has used poison  gas  against opponents of the embattled Assad regime, talk of an air strike  in Syria is growing louder even as the polls show that a majority of Americans want no part of it, this writer included.

This growing opposition to American intervention is fueled by a combination of war weariness and the belief that American treasure can be put to better use rebuilding our country and rescuing millions of Americans from economic desperation. There is also widespread skepticism about the so-called “evidence,” for it evokes bitter memories of the Bush Administrations “evidence” regarding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.  Even in a nation famous for historical amnesia, this four trillion dollar debacle has not been forgotten – especially when the American Society of Civil Engineers have calculated that we could have completely rebuilt the entire infrastructure of the US, laying the basis for a new economic takeoff, for half that price.

While I cannot be counted as a fellow isolationist in lockstep with the Libertarians who believe  the US should never intervene in the affairs of a sovereign country no matter what, and even oppose the granting of foreign aid – i.e. Ron and Rand Paul – I am nonetheless cautious about American intervention in other countries.  Needless to say, as a humanitarian and one who cares deeply about the future of our country, I believe we cannot ignore genuine cases of genocide in the world, and the idea of cutting off all foreign aid from the richest country in on earth is irresponsible and dangerous nonsense!

Like the Chinese, I think our foreign policy should be largely oriented toward aid, trade and technical assistance and less toward military actions.  But I also believe that Chinese indifference to questions of human rights in their foreign policy is amoral, such as in the Sudan,  and here they can learn something from us. 

If morality is to play any role in foreign policy, and I believe the world will be a more dangerous place without it, there are situations where the deployment of military force in a foreign country can be a heroic and benevolent act.  The invasion of Nazi Germany to liberate the Jews, and a proposed invasion of Rwanda to prevent genocide are obvious situations where US intervention would be justified.

However more often than not, American military intervention has been a disaster, both for the US and the people in the countries under attack.  Iran, Viet Nam, Iraq, Afghanistan, et al are excellent cases in point.  Not to mention the countless US interventions in Latin American counties, often subverting the democratic will of the people if it didn’t compliment American interests in the region – such as the overthrow of Dr. Salvador Allende in Chile.  

In every instance these interventions were justified with high minded rhetoric about promoting freedom and democracy…despite abundant evidence to the contrary.  At one point cynics about the real aims of American foreign policy began to refer to the CIA the “Community Interventionist Agency,” and the American claim as “freedom fighters” was met with the retort: “Yes, they fight freedom everywhere!”

Obviously, international relations being the complicated mess that it is there is no easy or simple answer to the question of military intervention in foreign countries.  While the strict Chinese policy of non-intervention into the internal affairs of other nations serves the interest of China well, since rapid domestic development and modernization is their paramount objective at this juncture in their history, if the rest of the world adopted a similar position every variety of evil tyrant and murderous mad man could use national sovereignty as a shield behind which to commit all manner of evil against their people, including genocide.

The way in which the US has treated Afro-Americans and Native Americans for most of its history is a strong case in point.  And although American military power made intervention unthinkable by other countries – even if they had the inclination to do so – the arrival of the Cold War in the mid-twentieth century and the coincidental rise of anti-colonial national liberation movements that resulted in the emergence of a host of newly independent non-white nations exerted tremendous pressure on the US to scrap its racist policies.

For the ruling elites in the US this dramatic about face was not a question of morality, as it is so often represented, but was dictated by the need to win the hearts and minds of the millions who lived in the “Bandung World” in order to prevent them from aligning with the Communist block led by the increasingly powerful, nuclear armed, Soviet Union.

This political reality was far more powerful than moral preachment in convincing many in the US government to dismantle racial apartheid.  Hence as a member of a powerless minority that has suffered great oppression from our government and witnessed genocide against Native Americans, I could never be persuaded to adopt a position of non-intervention no matter what that is the mantra of the Libertarian fringe of the Republican Party.

Having said this however, I feel that the US cannot continue to pursue go it alone policies, as if America has been appointed the moral arbiter of the world by some divine power – as some of my fellow citizens appear to believe.  For we have neither the wisdom nor the wealth to carry out such a task.  Hence the Obama Administration must heed the warning of the United Nations not to launch a unilateral strike, or an attack by an American made “coalition of the willing” such as we witnessed in Iraq.  Instead the US government must follow the norms of international law, and submit their findings before the UN and allow the international community of nations to act on it.

It is no secret that I believe that in messy matters of foreign policy President Obama has acted with Solomonic wisdom.  Yet because his actions must be governed by the imperatives of defending American interests in the world, while protecting the homeland against terrorist assault from the Islamic Jihadists, he will never satisfy the committed pacifist or the self-righteous ideologues on the left.  

 The President is about to make what I believe will prove to be a foreign policy blunder of historic proportions if he plunges headlong into the Syrian conflict without a genuine debate in the UN, and awaiting the unbiased conclusion of the international team of UN weapons inspectors who are assessing the situation on the ground in Syria.

Are more bombs the answer here?
A devastated Syria
A country in desperate need of peace

If we have learned anything from the colossal blunder in Iraq it is the folly of launching a military assault based on inadequate or inaccurate information.  The fact that there may have been toxic gas used in Syria, as the intelligence seems to suggest, does not tell us who used it.   And of this we must be sure before we commit American blood and treasure in that conflict. 

Furthermore, even if the Obama Administration is convinced that their intelligence proves it was the Syrian government – who controls one of the largest stock piles of chemical weapons on earth – that gave the order, they must still submit that evidence and allow the UN to adjudicate the matter.

We should also have learned by now that it is far easier to start a war than to end one, as the present attempts to disengage from a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan makes all too clear.  And that sometimes the “cure” turns out to be worse than the disease…especially in the Islamic world, a region of unfathomable complexities and contradictions.  The Syrian situation has the warning “beware of quagmires!” emblazoned all over it like a flashing neon sign.  For all these reasons, and possibly more, the US must not launch a unilateral attack on Syria!



Playthell  G. Benjamin

San Francisco, California

August 28, 2013

In Defense of the Catholic Church

Posted in Cultural Matters, Uncategorized with tags , , , on August 9, 2013 by playthell

St Benedict

                       The Church of St. Benedict The Moor

A Reply to Comments On My Essay On the Pope

While everything that has been said in the responses has the ring of truth, it does not tell the whole story. Since my intention is to always tell the truth, to render unto God that which is God’s and unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and even give the Devil his due, I must set the record straight regarding my views on the Catholic Church.

While the wildly popular protestant evangelist Reverend Agee calls the mother church of the Christian faith “the Whore of Babylon,” and the Anti-Defamation League Grand Inquisitor Abraham Foxman was indifferent when questioned about his alliance with Rev. Agee in Israeli support groups, I feel compelled to say a few words in favor of the Church and their work.

There is for instance the charity and service rendered by dedicated priests and nuns who have pledged to spend their lives serving their fellow man around the world; often at great danger to themselves and almost always under difficult circumstances; willing taking a vow of poverty in order to serve others. Needless to say I could recount myriad examples. But let me cite a couple from my own life.

When the rigid laws of Florida prevented me from entering elementary school in the public system because I wasn’t yet six years old, although I could read better than some adults, the little Catholic school funded by the church of “St. Benedict the Moor” took me in and gave me my first formal education. We were not catholic, but staunch members of First Baptist Church, located right around the corner. Yet they took me in and the white nuns who taught us – and taught us well – were the only white people I ever encountered growing up in Florida who treated us as the precious children of God.

I found their colorful costumes and pagan rituals – bowing before idols and burning exotic incense – an intriguing dramatic show; and their curious cannibalistic ritual of drinking wine and “eating the body of Christ” – bizarre and somewhat frightening –it kept me awake at night the first time I experienced it. And the way they described the horrors of hell and purgatory was enough to make me walk a straight and narrow line and try my best to keep the Ten Commandments.

Hence I’d say my experience at St. Benedict the Moor was a good thing, and as I look back now and reflect upon the fact that they chose to serve us in the Apartheid south, with all of the danger and inconvenience that must have attended their mission, I take my hat off to them with eternal gratitude.

When I decided to reject the idea of God at thirteen years old I sat in a pew in the cathedral of St. Benedict the Moor on Easter  Sunday morning, and cursed God when the priest was reciting “Escum spirit tu tu o” or something like that – my Latin is less than weak – and announced the presence of God’s spirit at the elaborately decorated altar.

When no lightning bolt crashed through the ceiling and wiped me out, I said it again, and again! When I left church that Easter Sunday I was convinced that both God and the Devil were figments of the imagination of man, designed to scare children into submitting to the orders of their dictatorial elders.

I have since discovered that the purposes of religion are far more complex and vital to human existence than that – after all I was only a 13 year old colored boy in apartheid Florida – but I have never doubted that man created God rather than the other way around. And thus gods have no powers other than those designated by man. I have clung to this belief even on the high seas when the angry waves tossed the tanker around like a beach ball, and the old Salty Dogs who had sailed the seven seas fell to their knees, passionately praying to God for deliverance…while I sat silent.

Still, I have been saved by the charity of the Catholic church more than once during my life as a scribe churning out graffiti for dollars in New York City, a town full of fine writers willing to become media whores for the fool’s gold of the corporate press. In such a marketplace an honest scribe can starve.  Hence in my dramatic falls from grace after having written some incendiary text that offended my publisher, who then decided to teach me the danger of biting the hand that feeds me, I turned to catholic charities to pay my rent.

It is no exaggeration to say that they saved me from the shame and agony of homelessness in New York City, and they never asked me what parish I belonged to. If the catholic church could save an un-churched heathen like me like me without question – and have done this all over the world, it is fair to say that they have made some recompense for their myriad sins.

A Shrine to the Christian Moor


The Pride of black Catholics in St. Augustine Florida


Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
August 9. 2013

Sargent Charlie Rangel: American Hero!

Posted in Uncategorized on July 28, 2013 by playthell

Congressman Charlie Rangel

A Decorated Combat Veteran

 A Salute to an Old Soldier Still In the Trenches

Today is the 63ard anniversary of the Truce than ended the bloody Korean War, a conflict that cost more American lives than the Iraq and Afghan wars combined.  Yet it is barely remembered today although we are technically still at war with North Korea, since a peace treaty was never signed.  The truce is merely a cease fire agreement, and the Korean Peninsula is still divided and living under the constant threat of a new outbreak of armed hostilities.  Despite the lack of public recognition for their sacrifices some great men fought in that war and they went to made great contributions to American society when their military service was over.

 In the first rank of these intrepid warriors is  Charles Bernard Rangel, venerable Harlem Congressman, senior member of the New York congressional delegation, and hero to the people of Harlem is also a war hero.  Few people, even in his beloved Harlem, know that Congressman Rangel is a highly decorated combat veteran.  As the bearer of a Bronze Star for valor under fire and a Purple Heart for the wounds he sustained in rescuing forty of his comrades from behind enemy lines, Rangel may well be the most decorated combat veteran in the United States Congress.  He is the antithesis of the verbose Republican chicken hawks who love war so long as the children of the poor fight it – even if they are undocumented.

Yet spending time in Congressman Rangel’s presence one is most impressed with his charm, eloquence and gentile elegance of style and manner.  I have observed him for years, both as a constituent and as a journalist.  And the more I saw of him the better I liked him.  Everyone who is familiar with my work in the New York Press – feature writer and cultural critic at the Village Voice, Editorial Columnist at the New York Daily News, commentator and talk show host at WBAI, Panelist on WCBS television’s Sunday Edition, Contributing Editor at Emerge, a New York based nationally distributed magazine, et al – know that I do not play favorites and spare no one I have reason to believe is abusing their office.  I think creating a free press to oversee the activitivies of those entrusted with the power to govern us is one of the greatest achievements of the architects of the US constitution –a document that also contained some shameful provisions.

Hence I take no prisoners when I catch elected official involved in malfeasance.  In fact, in the 1996 letter nominating me for the Pulitzer Prize for Distinguished Commentary – which can be read on this blog – I am cited for taking on “demagogues of the left and right both black and white, with equal fervor.”   Yet in all my time in the media Rangel was in the House of Representatives and I never written a single line criticizing Congressman Rangel.  Indeed, I thought him a model public servant.  He is a master of the Washington political game and he always brought home the bacon.

He was everywhere in Harlem, a place he dearly loves, and when he became the first Afro-American Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee he was heralded on the streets by well-wishers with the honorific “Mr. Chairman.”  And he accepts the adulation about as gracefully as anyone I’ve ever seen. Although he has the aristocratic aura of Harlem royalty Rangel grew up in very modest circumstances.  This came as a surprise to me once when I was conducting an interview with him and assuming he came from the same bourgeois background as the former Congressman whom he had replaced, Reverend Adam Clayton Powell Jr., and he informed me that he had been a gang leader in Harlem as a youth.

To be a gang leader in New York in the 1940’s demanded a lot of courage and cunning.  And these qualities would serve him well in combat.  Hence in one of the most devastating battles of the Korean War, he rose to the occasion and took charge.  Speaking of of Rangel’s censure by the House, after serving 20 outstanding terms where he enjoys the reputation as the most outstanding legislator in the Congress, Republican commentator Ben Stein offered the following explanation of why Rangel remains a great American hero.

In unbelievably difficult service in the Korean War,” says Stein, “his unit was swamped, cut off, overwhelmed by hordes of Red Chinese crossing into Korea. In the worst cold weather imaginable, under fire, starving, acting Sergeant Charles Rangel, in a black unit led mostly by white officers, took a large group of men, led them by example, lifted their morale, as they fought their way out to safety. Men were being shot, freezing, getting captured all around him, yet he got most of his men out…. Now, he has been humiliated over what seems to me like almost nothing… I hope that history will record that a truly great man, Charlie Rangel, a hero of the first rank, was laid low by trivial, no-account matters, censured by people who mostly have no clue of what true courage, fighting, blood and frostbite mean. Charlie Rangel does know, and to me, he is still a hero.” Although I rarely agree with Ben Stein on anything, he is right on the money this time.  Recalling how he was the last man alive on a Korean battlefield, as he heard the voices   of victorious Chinese soldiers walking amongst the American Dead, Sargent Rangel says “I haven’t had a bad day since!”  In fact that’s the name of his Autobiography.  Charlie Rangel is indeed a living American hero, which is why we voted him back in office by a landslide after his censure in a Republican led witch hunt aimed at stripping him of his chairmanship of the all-powerful Ways and Means committee.

For many Harlemites Charlie Rangel is more than a great public servant, although that would be quite enough to inspire a sense of pride and gain our respect; he represents the grandeur of a bygone age when Harlem was the incubator of cultural trends and high style that captured the imagination of the world!   It is no accident that he is the best dressed man in Congress.

At the Tribute for Abiodun
 Abiodun's Tribute 115
Paying homage to the Last Poets
At the Charlie Parker Festival

Congressman charlie Rangel at Bird parker-festival-fine-booties-0441 

As Always: Dressed to the height of fashion!

When the people of Harlem returned Congressman Rangel to the House after his censure I wrote a commentary titled “Charlie’s Victory Comes as No Surprise!’  In this essay I attempted to describe how we feel about Charlie as an exemplar of Harlem’s finest.

“One might well ask,’ how did Mr. Rangel acquire such elegant manners and eloquent speech, and where did get that fine sense of style that has made him the best dressed man in the House Of Representatives.’  I think it all comes from having grown up in Harlem when he did. I have talked to many people who came to Harlem when Rangel  was coming of age, and they all tell me that they didn’t show their faces on Seventh Avenue unless they were dressed to kill. 

Charlie Rangel worked as the night clerk in the Teresa Hotel on Seventh Avenue and 125th Street, Harlem’s epicenter.  The fact that downtown hotels refused to accommodate black people, whatever their stature, meant that all the beautiful, affluent, famous, black people from everywhere in the world resided there.  Located just around the corner from the legendary Apollo theater, many world famous performing artists made the Teresa their home during their performance tour. 

Thus we know that during the years he was forming his identity as a young man Charlie had a bird’s eye view of the nightly doings of some of the most elegant, stylish and sophisticated people in the world.  These were black people who had succeeded in a wide variety of fields even with all of the racial barriers erected against them.  There can be but little doubt that Rangel found his role models in this fascinating cultural milieu.   Watching him at the recent Charlie Parker Festival in Harlem’s Marcus Garvey Park, he seemed part old school hipster, benevolent potentate, and part wise elder.  But he is, in fact, a very skilled player in the field of politics.   And it is all too obvious that he still loves being the Congressman from Harlem, as his face lights up with an incandescent smile each time he is approached by an admiring constituent.”

We are fortunate indeed to have had such a splendid man representing Harlem…and we may never see his like again.



Playthell G. Benjamin

Harlem, New York

July 27th, 2O13

Viva Afro-Americanos!

Posted in Cultural Matters, On Foreign Affairs, Playthell on politics, Uncategorized with tags , , on April 13, 2013 by playthell
 Viva Americanos
Jay and Beyoncé Surrounded by Cuban Fans

On  Race, Class and US Policy on Afro- Cubans

I was delighted to hear that the second most popular power couple in the world, international superstars Jay Z and Beyoncé, who rank just below Barack and Michel in world-wide popularity, decided to spend their fifth wedding anniversary in Cuba.  There are many reasons why I rejoiced at the news.  First of all I have always regarded the economic boycott as unjust.  It began because the US Congress, acting as shills for the United Fruit Company, a giant American agri-business corporation who viewed the Island nation of Cuba as it’s private plantation…much as the firestone company viewed the West African nation of Liberia as a little more than their rubber plantation.

Hence when a young white Cuban lawyer named Fidel Castro, frustrated by the anti-democratic rule of military thugs on the Island which was a de facto American colony – led a revolution that deposed the corrupt military strong man Fulgentsia Batista, an American puppet, and began to institute sweeping changes, the US became a fierce opponent of the Cuban Revolution and has remained so over half a century later.

Since the Cubans never committed any offense against the American people, US hostility toward Cuba was sparked by internal economic reforms in that revolutionary Cubans made in their country, which ended the dominant role of the United Fruit Company and other American business interests, along with US support for the decadent white racist Cuban elite, who were their partners in the fleecing of the toiling Cuban masses.

It is the remnants of that white Cuban privileged class residing in southern Florida, centered in Miami, that keeps that hostility alive today and tries their best to prevent American citizens from traveling to Cuba – even as they have constantly complained about the Cuban government not allowing their citizens to travel to the US.  Hence it should surprise no one that the loudest voices criticizing Beyoncé and Jay’s visit to the Island are Cuban Americans from Florida.

The chatter began with protests from two Congresswomen – give their names – and has now been joined by that little snarky charlatan Marco Rubio; who is playing to the rightwing white Cubans in Southern Florida that comprise his base.  “According to recent news reports,” says Rubio, “Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s Cuba trip, which the regime seized on for propaganda purposes, was fully licensed by the Treasury Department.  If true, the Obama Administration should explain exactly how trips like these comply with U.S. law and regulations governing travel to Cuba and it should disclose how many more of these trips they have licensed.”

I think President Obama should pay this little Pisher no rabbit ass mind!  He should not be taken seriously on anything regarding Cuba.  This is the same guy who won a Senate seat by lying about his family history. During the election he presented himself as the son of Cuban refugees who fled Castro’s oppressive communist regime, and he won the hearts of all the suckers who will support anybody that has an axe to grind with Fidel.

However an enterprising reporter at the Miami Herald fact checked his story and discovered it was a fabrication.  The truth is that Rubio’s family fled Cuba under right-winger dictator Batista, in 1958, before Castro came to power.  I believe this is why Rubio was not interested in running with Romney in the VP slot; he is afraid his lies will resurface and there is abundant video of him telling this big lie. Only a party composed of shameless liars, who run campaigns based on lies – ala Mitt Romney – would even consider a shameless liar like Rubio as a candidate.  I hope they do select him as their presidential candidate…because this joker will never win the US presidency!

The white Cubans of southern Florida have intimidated politicians into supporting a policy that is not in the best interests of the US; hence I think American citizens should violate the travel ban en mass and force the government to prosecute them!  This would again raise the question as to whether the US government has the right to arbitrarily restrict our right to travel where we please.

It is a challenge that several Americans who support the Cuban Revolution have raised in the past – Afro-Americans such as Reverend Luscious Walker and Dr. Johnetta Cole prominently among them.  Reverend Walker led multi-racial groups of Americans bearing critical supplies denied to Cubans due to the protracted American economic embargo for 21 years straight.

Reverend Lucius Walker and El Presidente
Lucius and Fidel
Embracing the Cuban Revolution

He would get around American travel restrictions to Cuba by embarking from Mexico or Canada, two nations in the hemisphere that saw no danger to themselves from a revolution on the little Island of Cuba.  Reverend Walker saw no danger to the US either; rather he saw US policy as a menace to Cuba and all of Latin America – a view that was reinforced when he was shot by American sponsored “contras” while on a mercy mission to the people of Nicaragua.    That’s why he continued to travel to Cuba while refusing opportunities to travel there legally under a special dispensation of the US government.

Walker’s intention was to directly challenge the morality of the US government’s policy by taking bibles on his missions claiming he was bring “God’s word to Cuba,” and the Justice Department wisely decided not to take the bait.  On his last trip to Cuba Rev. Walker took a variety of medical supplies such as EKG machines, medicines that were hard to get in Cuba but was in abundant supply in the US, Incubators, etc.  Rev. had a special name for these gifts from Americans of conscience: “Friendshipments.”

When this black American preacher from humble origins danced and joined the great ancestors of our struggle at 80 years old, having remained in the fight for a better world through international solidarity with oppressed and working peoples to the end of his days, the reverence with which he was regarded by the Cuban people was expressed in an editorial of Granma, the official organ of the Central Committee of the ruling Communist Party.  “Cubans, in gratitude, “the statement said, “have to say that we don’t want to think of a world without Lucius Walker”.

Dr. Johnetta Cole demonstrated her solidarity with the Cuban Revolution by writing and lecturing about the realities of revolutionary Cuba and leading Vinceramos Brigades down to the Island to help harvest the sugarcane crop and exchange ideas with revolutionary anti-colonial delegations from around the world, in defiance of US government policy.  Dr. Cole used to argue passionately in defense of the revolutionary policies of the Cuban government when we were colleagues in the W.E.B. DuBois Department of Black Studies at U-Mass.

While these Afro-Americans travelled to Cuba to express solidarity with the Revolution, Jay Z and Beyoncé appear to have just wanted to take a vacation on this beautiful exotic island where Salsa was born.  I have never heard either of them express a political concern beyond working to reelect President Obama by bundling money.  And I have no idea what they think about the plight of Afro-Cubans, since they have been mum thus far.

 Dr. Johnetta Cole
Anthropologist and Defender of Cuban Revolution

 I do know that there is a thriving Hip Hop scene that is heavily black and political.   In fact, I have had Afro-Cubans tell me that it is the true voice of black Cuba, since they have no other vehicle by which to publicly address racial issues. Hence there is no telling what they talked about with Cuban rappers, although inquiring minds certainly want to know.  Despite their silence however, Beyoncé and Jay Z’s controversial Cuban sojourn affords us an opportunity to discuss weighty questions such as the role of race and class race in shaping contemporary politics and economic relations in  Cuban society; and how these issues affect  American policy towards Cuba.

Beyonce at the Tropicana!
Beyonce at the Tropicana
Goddesses of Neo African Dance
 A Taste of Afro-American Style

images VI

Dssto the height of fashion!
Chillin with the Youths


And they are lovin it! 

 And so did the Children


The time of their lives! 



The suppression of serious discourses about race by the Cuban government, which is dominated by Hispanic Cubans – i.e. White Cubans”– is a persistent theme in the critique of revolutionary Cuba by Afro-Cubans.  While most Afro-American Marxist, and friends of the revolution of all ideological stripes, praise the dramatic advances of Afro-Cubans since the revolution, parroting the position of the Cuban government that the race problem is passé, I am reminded of Faulkner’s statement that the American South will never escape it’s past, and noted that “the past isn’t even past.”

This can also be said regarding the question of anti-black racism in Cuba; alas while official policy denounces racism, racist feeling and ideology is deeply embedded in Cuban culture and can only be rooted out by persistently confronting in a thousand forums.  Instead it has been the policy of the Cuban government to suppress discussions of the race issue.  Hence, based on myriad reports from Afro-Cubans, racism persists in that Spanish speaking Caribbean nation despite government denial.

Suspicions about the shortcomings of the revolutionary Cuban government’s policies on race relations began early on by some of the first Afro-Americans to visit the Island after the Revolution.  One of these was political theorist and cultural critic Harold Cruse, author of the seminal text “The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual,” which offers one of the most astute critiques of the inability of white Marxist to accommodate nationalist aspirations on the part of blacks, which is a healthy response to white supremacy – whether on the right or left.

 Harold Cruse
OBIT Harold Cruse
Skeptical of White Cuban Communist

Hence Cruse reported that while Leroi Jones – aka Amiri Baraka, whom he described as a beatnik poet from Greenwich Village flirting with revolution – was enraptured by everything they saw and heard on the official government tours, Cruse was skeptical because “there were too many white communist walking around looking important.”

After having spent years in the American Communist Party, Harold Cruse, who would go on to become a Professor of history at the University of Michigan, was suspicious of the motives of white communists because he felt that they pursued their group interests while suppressing such tendencies on the part of blacks, mislabeling it “bourgeois black nationalism”

 George Padmore


Father of the African Independence Movement

It was in essence the same reason why George Padmore, a Trinidadian activist intellectual who is rightfully called “The Father of the African independence movement,” quit the International Communist movement and wrote his famous book length polemic “Pan-Africanism or Communism.”  As the director of The Bureau of Negro Affairs for the Comintern, Padmore was the highest ranking black man in the history of the international Communist Movement. (See: Dr. J.L. Hooker’s Black Revolutionary)

By the time this delegation of intellectuals, journalist and artist visited Cuba,  we already had the experience of Robert Williams, President of the Monroe North Carolina NAACP and ex-Marine, who had organized his community to resist the Ku Klux Klan with arms and was forced into exile in Cuba. It was no accident of history that the revolutionary Cuban government was willing to grant political asylum to Robert Williams.   He had recently come to their attention by virtue of a telegram Williams sent to Adele Stevenson, the pompous patrician American Ambassador to the United Nations, after the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion of October 17th 1961.

From the moment the revolutionaries came to power in Cuba the US government began plotting against them.  This interference would prove counter-productive because it helped to drive a nationalist reformer interested in honest government and a more just economic system that would raise the standard of living for the Cuban working class into an alliance with the Soviet Union.  Had the US supported the Revolution the course of history would have been different and infinitely better.

Alas powerful US economic elites viewed the revolution as a disaster for their interests and prompted the Kennedy Administration to take action to depose Castro and quash the revolution by launching a counter-revolution. After all, the Central Intelligence Agency had successfully overthrown the democratically elected government of Iran in a covert action and installed the dictatorial Shah, just eight years earlier.  High on hubris the CIA was tasked with organizing, arming and training a counter-revolutionary military force composed of white Cuban’s who had fled the Island.

Convinced that the majority of Cubans opposed the revolution, which was the result of relying on a narrative constructed by the losers -the CIA had calculated that once the invaders landed on Cuban soil the Cuban masses would join them and overthrow the Castro government.  What they failed to understand is that it is impossible to overthrow a military strongman like Batista by revolutionary action without broad popular support.

The Cubans had voted by their actions, since the reason that Fidel turned to revolution in the first place was because the democratic process had been subverted and rendered impotent by right-wing military dictators like Machado and Batista, who were little more than Marionettes whose strings were pulled from Washington.  Hence when the CIA sponsored counter-revolutionaries landed at the Bay of Pigs they were met by an armed Cuban people who crushed them!

Captured Cuban Exiles at Bay of Pigs
Bay of Pigs
A CIA Covert Action Gone Awry

When news of the invasion was reported in the American press it set off a firestorm of protests and acrimonious debates. The Fair Play for Cuba Committee, a group of American activists who expressed solidarity with the Cuban Revolution, organized demonstrations from coast to coast.  Leading American intellectuals spoke out against the Bay of Pigs invasion and chapters of the Fair Play Committee spread like wildfire across college campuses.

Dr. C. Wright Mills, long time Columbia University Professor and one of America’s most distinguished social scientist, was then 80 years old and too ill to attend the demonstrations but he sent a telegram to that was read at one of the largest rallies. “If I were able I would be fighting alongside Fidel Castro” he declared.  However opinion polls taken after news broke of the disastrous American sponsored invasion, even as the Kennedy Administration attempted to deny it at the United Nations, opinion polls revealed that 82% of the American people supported the invasion.

Kennedy was perplexed but pleasantly surprised by the positive public response to his embarrassing diplomatic debacle.  However Robert Williams was outraged by the hypocrisy of so many white Americans favoring supplying arms to help so-called “oppressed” white Cubans regain their “freedom,” but remained silent about the barbaric racist police state tactics that he was living under in the American South.  Hence he wrote a letter to UN Ambassador Stevenson that was read by the Cuban Foreign Minister before the UN General Assembly while Stevenson was sitting there.  The text of William’s letter read:

“Please convey to Mr. Adele Stevenson: Now that the United States has proclaimed support for people willing to rebel against oppression, oppressed Negroes of the south urgently request tanks, artillery, bombs, money and the use of American airfields and white mercenaries to crush the racist tyrants who have betrayed the American Revolution and the Civil War.  We also request prayers for this undertaking.”

Robert F. Williams

The letter was embarrassment enough, but to make matters even worse for the American Ambassador the Cuban Foreign Minister turned to him and said derisively: “I would like to ask Mr. Stevenson what would happen if the government of the United States, which claims to be the champion of democracy, dared to arm not only the Negros in the cotton fields of the South, or right here in Harlem?” Scholars have uncovered a Top Secret cable from Stevenson to Secretary of State Dean Rusk that reveals his ignorance of the Bay of Pigs invasion, as he laments the fact that he was not provided talking points by the State Department beforehand, so that he would not look like a stumble bum trying to respond to these issues.

A Puzzled Steveson Unsure of what to Say

Adlai Stevenson

An object of ridicule, trying to defend the indefensible

Robert William’s response foreshadowed a statement of unequivocal support for the Cuban Revolution and denunciation of the invasion by a wide range of distinguished Afro-American intellectuals, lawyers, artists, activist, preachers, et al.  Titled “Cuba: A Declaration of Conscience by Afro-Americans,” and published in the Baltimore Afro-American, a nationally distributed black owned and edited newspaper, it declared:

Because we have known oppression, because we have suffered more than other Americans, because we are still fighting for our own liberation from tyranny, we Afro-Americans have the right and the duty to raise our voices against the forces of oppression that now seek to crush a free people linked to us by the bonds of blood and common heritage.” The document went on to boldly warn: “Afro-Americans, don’t be fooled – the enemies of Cuba are our enemies, the Jim Crow bosses of this land where we are still denied our rights.”

 This document was signed by black American intellectuals and activists ranging from Robert Williams,  to  Leroi Jones – who became Amiri Baraka – to Dr. WEB DuBois, and its undeniable truth posed a dilemma for the US in its “Cold War” struggle with Communist Russia to win the hearts and minds of the non-white peoples in the emerging nations of Africa and Asia – whose UN delegates had ridiculed the American Ambassador with laughter when the Cuban Foreign minister put the questions to him regarding arming oppressed Afro-Americans and it was telecast around the world.  The Russians made sure everybody in the Third saw it.

Although it is little understood by most Americans, black or white, the US government’s struggle with the communist bloc to win the allegiance of the emergent Third World nations was a major factor in the victories of the Civil Rights Movement in the US.  (See: Civil Rights and Foreign Policy) Hence the Robert Williams story was a nightmare for US diplomacy, especially after he fled into exile in Cuba, where he conducted regular broadcasts into the American South on a program he dubbed “Radio Free Dixie,” named after the American government’s subversive broadcasts into communist countries called “Radio Free Europe.”

These broadcasts could be heard around the world and his pamphlet “The Crusader,” was widely distributed.  I was one of the people who distributed it in the US, as I travelled around the country making speeches under the auspices of the Opportunities Industrialization Center – a manpower training program that began in Philadelphia but spread to 105 cities, and was always located in the heart of black communities.

As a member of the Revolutionary Action Movement, a quasi-underground movement that was the first to advocate and organize for armed struggle during the 1960’s, I had ready access to the Crusader because the Chairman, Max Stanford aka Dr. Muhammad Ahmed, received regular shipments from Cuba, by way of Canada.

I supported Robert Williams from the moment that I learned the details of the Monroe North Carolina struggle in the explosive book “Negros With Guns,” which was based on a series of interviews given on WBAI radio in New York City while Rob was underground on the run from the FBI, who were seeking to arrest him on a trumped up kidnapping charge.  Since it was clear that his only offense was organizing his community to defend themselves against racist white terrorists, all fair minded Americans who understood the facts rallied to Rob’s defense.

Robert and Mable Williams


They Shot it out with the Klan and fled to Cuba
The NAACP in Monroe: Ready to Rumble!
Blacks with guns in Monroe
Too hot for the National Office to Handle

Having been expelled from his office as President of the Monroe chapter then abandoned by the NAACP, Williams had relied on the organized left – whom he had met through his activities with the Fair Play for Cuba Committee - to get him first into Canada and then into Cuba.  The aid, comfort, security and communications platform provided to Williams by the revolutionary Cuban government was deeply appreciated by Afro-Americans.

That feeling did not change even after Williams quit Cuba five years later and relocated in the “The People’s Republic of China, where he was treated as a revolutionary hero and hung out with the top levels of the Chinese government, including chairman Mao, at a time when China was largely a mystery to the US State Department.

Radio Free Dixie!


Robert and Mable Williams broadcasting from Cuba

Rob and Chairman Mao


Two Revolutionaries Talkin Revolution

There are various versions of why Rob left Cuba, some say it was the result of a conspiracy by the Russian Communist Party and their American surrogates who for some muddled ideological reasons created suspicions regarding Robert Williams on the part of the Cuban government.  But I find the explanation offered by Dr. Carlos Moore, a black Cuban who had supported the Revolution in an interview conducted on WBAI by this writer.

According to Dr. Moore, it was the great following that Rob enjoyed among Afro-Cubans that began to worry white Cuban Officials, who had made discussions of the race problem a counter-revolutionary act.  And all Rob talked about was the race in America, which began to awaken the racial consciousness of Afro-Cubans.  Dr. Moore went on to become the foremost critic of the Castro government’s policy on race relations, producing many important treatises of varying lengths – including the revelatory books “Castro, The Blacks and Africa” and “Pichun.”

As early as 1960’s, when Afro-American leftist intellectual /activist were completely enamored with the Cuban revolution, Carlos Moore was writing about the persistence of racism in Cuba and the prohibition against honest discussion of the issue.  His persistence in raising the issue got him in trouble with the government and he soon went into exile.  Over the last half century Dr. Moore has lived all over the world, but he has continued to speak out about the unresolved race issues in Cuba, something not only the Cubans don’t want to discuss, Afro-American leftist intellectuals don’t want to talk about either.

As President Obama began to relax the rules regarding travel and investment in Cuba 1n 2009, and the Cuban government embarked on a new economic policy that allowed for the development of private enterprise.  This policy is designed to garner hard currency for foreign exchange in the wake of the devastating economic problems that resulted from the collapse of the Soviet Union, who had been their main benefactor.   As many white Cubans residing in Miami returned home to visit for the first time in decades, Dr. Moore was watching.

He recorded his views of the new policy in a long article published in the McClatchy papers.  It was published on April 21, 2009 under the titled “From Myth to Reality: Putting Context to Cuba’s Racial Divide,” and he observes:

Images of the first batch of Cuban-Americans arriving at Havana’s international airport, since the United States’ lifting of restrictions on travel and remittance-sending to the island, were clear: teary-eyed, Spanish-speaking cousins, laden with gifts and money, for their relatives in Cuba, were all white! … The spectacle of the white Cuban returnees, however, reveals even more by highlighting what or rather who is missing: dark-skinned Cuban faces.”

Dr. Carlos Moore

Dr. Carlos Moore

A Dissident Black Cuban Scholar

Dr. Moore goes on to raise some critical questions.  Among the most telling is:  “How does one explain such a dramatically white homecoming in a country where 62-70% of the population is estimated to be non-white…” After explaining the dramatic difference in wealth between black and white Cuban families he asks:

 “What do these two differing racial realities largely unacknowledged inside and outside Cuba portend for the United States’ emerging Open Door policy? In purely human terms, the warming relations between “cousins” on both sides of the Florida straights may be laudable, but certainly not devoid of long-term political implications inside Cuba. To understand why, a new map of Cuba the real Cuba will have to be drawn.”

Here Dr.  Moore is alluding to the persistent claim by Afro-Cubans that they are drastically undercounted in the government census.  Again, his critiques of race relations in Cuba were denounced by the Cuban Government, and commentators on the American left.  Moore has been smeared as a right-wing Cuban in league with the reactionary white Cubans in Miami, a CIA agent, everything but a child of God!

However his claims that white racism persists in Cuba; that it is covered up by the government and it is dangerous to discuss it publicly; that white Cubans from Miami are pouring money into the pockets of their relatives in Cuba, and black Cubans are losing ground – the arguments that got him run out of post-revolutionary Cuba, has recently been echoed by a prominent Afro-Cuban intellectual in an article published in the Sunday edition of the March 24 New York Times, over three years after Dr. Moore’s report in the McClatchy papers.

Titled “For Blacks In Cuba, the Revolution Hasn’t Begun,” Roberto Zurbano tells us:

“Racism in Cuba has been concealed and reinforced in part because it isn’t talked about.  The government hasn’t allowed racial prejudice to be debated or confronted politically or culturally, often pretending instead that it didn’t exist.  Before 1990 Black Cubans suffered a paralysis of economic mobility while, paradoxically, the government decreed the end of racism in speeches and publications.  To question the extent of racial progress was tantamount to a counter-revolutionary act.  This made it almost impossible to point out the obvious: racism is alive and well.”

On the question of the economic position of Afro-Cubans, Mr. Zurbano reports:

“If the 1960’s, the first decade after the revolution, signified opportunity for all, the decades that followed demonstrated that not everyone was able to have access to and benefitted from those opportunities.  It’s true that the 1980’s produced a generation of black professionals, like doctors and teachers, but these gains were demolished in the 1990’s, as blacks were excluded from lucrative sectors like hospitality.  Now in the 21st century, it has become all too apparent that the black population is underrepresented at universities, and in spheres of economic and political power, and overrepresented in the underground economy, in the criminal sphere, and in marginal neighborhoods.”

Mr. Zurbano explains the role of the exile community in the US – those smiling alabaster faces at the airport – in the rising prosperity of White Cubans, even as black Cubans sink deeper into poverty.  “Most remittances from abroad – the Miami area, the nerve center of the mostly white exile community – go to white Cubans.  They tend to live in upscale houses which can easily be converted into Restaurants – the most common kind of private business in Cuba.”

In formulating a solution to Cuba’s problem of racial inequity, Mr. Zurbano argues:

“An important first step would be to finally get an accurate count of Afro-Cubans.  The black population is far larger than the spurious numbers of the most recent censuses.  The number of blacks on the street undermines, in the most obvious way, the numerical fraud that puts us at less than one fifth of the population.  Many people forget that in Cuba, a drop of white blood can – if only on paper – make a Mestizo or white person, out of someone who in social reality falls in neither of these categories.  Here, the nuances of skin color are a tragicomedy that hides longstanding racial conflicts.”

A content analysis of the major themes and conclusions in this analytical essay by Mr. Zurbano will reveal that they are virtually identical to those that Dr. Moore has been arguing for decades, and mirror his take on the Cuban scene in the 2009 essay cited above.  For telling this unvarnished tale of race relations in Cuba, Mr. Zurbano has been removed from his influential post as Editor at Casa d La Americas.

Like Carlos, for telling the truth about racism in post-revolutionary Cuba…he has been sentenced to silence.  That’s one of the main reasons why more Afro-American scholars and journalists should follow Jay Z and Byonce’s example and go see for themselves!   Incidentally, Jigga has already responded to Rubio and his fellow GOP haters with a rap, which reduced to its essence is just an elaborate way of saying “Kiss my rich black ass”….to which I say OLE!!!

Checkin Out the Scene in Cuba

images Iv

Down to Earth Superstars



Playthell G. Benjamin

Harlem, New York

April 12, 2013


On Django UnChained

Posted in Film Criticism, Movie Reviews, Uncategorized with tags , , , , on February 25, 2013 by playthell


Jamie Fox, Leonardo Dicaprio and

A Wagnarian Saga about Slavery and a  Good Movie!

As is to be expected of a film that chooses a controversial subject – in this case the enslavement of Africans in America – Django Unchained has sparked an emotional debate. The loudest voices in the debate naturally belongs to intellectuals, who are most likely to dissect the film with weighty critiques.  Hence for one who is given to penning weighty polemics on important issues about politics and culture, it is with the greatest reluctance that I have decided not to jump body and soul into the critical debate and spar with my fellow polemicists.   However I cannot resist pointing out that much of the critical commentary is not about the movie at all.

For instance, after reading the critique by Ishmael Reed, a great novelist and brilliant essayist, it seemed to me that he decided to use the movie to not only whip Quentin Tarrantino for all the sins of the movie industry ad infinitum, but also to use the film as a weapon to bludgeon a wide range of adversaries with whom he has been waging interminable culture wars.  I mean what the fuck are doing talking about Dr. DuBois’ “Talented Tenth” in a review of a movie about a gun slinging ex-slave on a quest to free his enslaved wife?

It is bad enough that he does not understand the concept in historical context – in spite of my futile efforts to educate him, and I remain ever ready to debate the subject with him in writing – but to burden this movie with that antiquated debate is prime faice absurd!  While I find Ish’s cleaver floggings of intellectual adversaries in his innovative novels – “Yellow Back Radio Broke Down, “Reckless Eyeballing,” “Mumbo Jumbo” “Japanese By Spring,” etc. –   entertaining and has written as much – see my essays on Ishmael on this blog – his critique of this movie published in the Wall Street Journal, of all places, is a colossal bore and more than a bit silly.

In spite of myriad facts, Ishmael’s essay obscures far more than it enlightens.  For instance, at the beginning of the review he says he was turned off before he ever read the script or saw the movie because the studio that was producing it was evidence that it was being produced for a mainstream audience…say what?  This comment reflects a widespread misunderstanding of the movie business, and making movies is a business.

Movies are a commercial product and if they don’t make money the director won’t be making movies and the studio won’t be in business for long, because making money is an imperative for survival in the market place.  The Jewish movie moguls who created Hollywood understood this well, that’s why they were so successful.  One of the main reasons why black movie makers have not succeeded on that scale is because they are operating from a different premise.

The Jews were businessmen whose principle objective was to make money, so they produced movies for the mass i.e. “mainstream” market.  Since that market was white and Christian they made movies about white Christians.  They even created the blond sex goddesses such as May West, Gloria Swanson, Marylyn Monroe, et al.  They hardly ever made movies about Jews, and even required Jewish actors like Bennie Swartz to take Anglicized names like “Tony Curtis.”  And they were roundly criticized for it by Jewish organizations, as the astute Jewish film historian Neal Gabler has adroitly pointed out.

Jack Warner, head of the enormously successful Warner Brothers studio, once remarked that he was in the business of producing popular entertainment, and declared: “It I want to send a message I’ll call Western Union.”  On the other hand black film makers are expected to be messengers for black causes, or to make films for a black audience populated with black characters and concerns.  It is a formula that will generally insure that you don’t make much money.  And if the movie is also burdened with a weighty message at the expense of entertainment values, you will be lucky to break even!

In Django Quinten Tarrantino has found a formula that allowed him to make money and send a weighty message.  What is that message you ask?  Slavery was an evil, decadent, inhumane system of labor.  The slave holding class was not the noble cavalier Knights Margret Mitchell painted in her best-selling novel that became a blockbuster movie “Gone with the Wind” that won multiple Academy Awards.  Rather they were the “front porch Puritans and backyard lechers” who routinely raped black women, that that other southern woman writer Lillian Smith called them in her extraordinary text “Killers of the Dream.”

It also confirmed Dr. Franz Fanon’s thesis that it is therapeutic for the oppressed to kill their oppressors.  It is   a powerful counter-statement to the American Exceptionalists crowd who insist that America is so morally superior to the rest of the world that it justifies an evangelical foreign policy in which Americans can invade other countries in order to impose our values on them! In my view these multiple messages more than compensates for any shortcomings of the movie.

Hence impassioned denunciations of the movie written by black critics like Jessie Williams, a television actor, which was highly praised by Ryan Adams on Awards, strikes me as little more than persnickety nitpicking diatribes that produce more heat than light.  No movie can be all things to all people.  But I am especially annoyed by those white writers who are perturbed that black people like the movie.  It smacks of the worse kind of paternalism, and it reminds me of the old Ibo proverb: “Beware of the stranger who comes to the funeral and cries louder than the bereaved family.”

I have met very few black people who don’t like this movie.  More typical is the reaction of my highly educated 31 year old daughter Makeda and her boyfriend Odogu, a former boxer:  They loved it!  When I was dragging my feet about seeing it she continued to bug me.  She says that Django reminds her of me.  She told me about the scene in the movie where someone said they had never seen a black man on a horse and she thought: “I have seen my daddy riding horses with big hats on all my life…and she knows that I feel just like Django about racist crackers!  And then there is my friend Samaad, who paid to see the movie five times, or a female Filipino who loved seeing Django kill those crackers while rescuing his woman.

The point that intellectuals who hate the movie miss is that for most black Americans, who have always seen black slaves cowering in fear as they are humiliated and victimized by whites, this movie is a personal catharsis.  They are just ecstatic about witnessing a black man kill some whites on the big screen, and the more the merrier- Which. I confess, was also a great part of the movies appeal to me.  But beyond all that, it’s a damn good action/adventure movie, with sharply drawn characters played by actors of star quality, and the difference between good and evil, virtue and vice is as clear as day and night.  It has none of the tortured complexity and ambiguity that intellectuals glory in.

 A Stone Cold Killer on a Mission!


And black viewers loved ever drop of blood he spilled!

Ironically, Ishmael has a black avenging cowboy in his novel “Yellow Back Radio Broke Down, which I found fascinating but a friend of mine who is a novelist and professor of literature dismisses as “a parody of a parody that has nothing to do with the history of blacks in the old west.”  Hence much of art criticism, including the commentary on this film, is a matter of personal perspective and values – a question of personal taste.  And they are certainly entitled to their opinion.

However if this movie is evaluated from the perspective of historical accuracy and the art of making movies for a mass audience, which is how it ought to be evaluated, as commercial melodrama that reflects on a serious subject, it gets a passing grade from me. Critics of the movie have said that the story is not credible, that there is no historical evidence that suggests such a story could have happened.  I say they should hurry up and read Dr. Gerald Horne’s recent book “Negro Comrades of the Crown.”

Not only does he document the many Europeans who visited the US, observed the practice of slavery and responded with a passionate hatred for the slavers in scores of books, but the text is also rife with incidents of ex-slaves slaughtering whites, some rendered in gruesome detail.  He even has a story of an armed ex-slave on a mission to rescue his wife who was still enslaved!  So it is certainly a tale that could have been true.  And that is quite enough to justify the telling.  But lest we forget: This is a feature film, an act of the imagination that can claim artistic license, not a documentary to be viewed as a statement of historical fact.

However this rule can apply even when a feature film treats a specific historical event; as the heated debate around the Chilean film” No,” which depicts the 1988 plebiscite in that country that brought down the murderous military dictator Augusto Pinochet demonstrates.  Directed by Pablo Larrian, the film is based on a play “The Plebiscite,” by Chilean writer Antonio Skarmeta, who also wrote the novel “II Postino,” which was made into an Oscar winning movie.

The film has been roundly criticized by some Chileans who participated in the struggle to defeat Pinochet, Jose Miguel Vivanco, a Chilean who witnessed it all and now serves as the director of Human Rights Watch Americas,  gave the New York Times 2/10/ 13  a different assessment.  He said the film was “a good effort to show a pretty accurate picture of Chile in the 80’s.”  He conceded that there were important events in that struggle that was “not a part of the film at all…but I went to see a movie not a PBS piece.”

This is exactly how Django should be viewed; it gives us a great felling for the cruel inhumanity of slavery and leaves no doubt that it was a crime against humanity.  And thus more than justifies the bloody carnage visited on white slavers by Django.  I do have some criticisms however.  For instance I would have chosen different music for many of the scenes.  In the opening scene I would have used the deeply moving and hauntingly beautiful Afro-American spiritual “Oh Freedom” and engaged the Fisk Jubilee singers to perform it.

And in the scene where the masked nightriders were chasing Django and his German partner, I would have used Wagner’s Ride of the Valkeries, which is great for an action scene featuring galloping horses, and the movie is working with the same German myths about Brunhilde and Siegfried that Richard Wagner built his “music/festival/drama” The Ring around.   Hence when the beautiful talented Kerry Washington says she saw the movie as a quest of a man to rescue his woman while slaying a few dragons in the process, she is right on the money.

Kerry Washington: The face that launched a bloodbath


She gave a moving performance

Indeed Django’s wife, played by Kerry Washington – who was easily the most beautiful woman at the Academy Awards ceremony – spoke German and was named “Broomhilde” – which some black commentators thought was ridiculous – duh?   It was supposed to be, since everything about slavery was ridiculous!  However when the German Doctor /Bounty Hunter explained the story of Siegfried and Brunhilde to Django he was also explaining the main plot of the movie.  It was a clever way of telling the story.

The proof is the reception it has recieved.  The way Austrian actor  Christophe Watz played the character with great wit and charm conjured up the Nazi officer he played in Tarrantino’s last blockbuster movie Inglorious Bastards, which I loved, and reminds us that in Django he created the same cathartic experience for Afro-Americans that he provided for Jews in Inglorious Bastards. And Christophe played the role so well he just won an Oscar for his performance!

The Charming but Deadly Doctor


Christophe Watz and Jamie Fox

However the main criticism I have of the movie is the portrayal of Sam Jackson’s character.  It is a stereotype that is based on a misunderstanding of history and the nature of “Uncle Tom.”  Harriet Beecher Stowe’s character, introduced in the first bestselling American novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin was an accommodationist who loved his people but in his powerless state was force to play the role of obsequious slave while manipulating the all-powerful white folks.  This was a survival strategy that the great Afro-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar describes in his poem “While We Wear the Mask.”  It was represented in slave culture as “putting on ol massa,” which is to say play the white folks for fools.

This practice was expressed in a slave ditty that has been found all over the slave south :”Got one mind for white folks to see/got another mind I know was really me.  And they don’t know my mind” The character played by Samuel L. Jackson had a bit of this guile bh he more closely resembles Malcolm X’s “House Negro,” in his famous House Negro vs. Field Negro dichotomy.  The problem is that this is an ahistorical analysis because it was the “House Negros” who led the revolts.  That was true then and now.

I am continuously amused when I hear middle class black intellectuals repeat Malcolm’s ahistorical foolishness, because most of the sixties revolutionary leaders ended up as professors or some other middle class professions – and to the lumpen ghetto dwellers  gangsta rappers are the real rebels and they are the “house niggaz.”  It is an irony that somehow escapes them.   Django Unchained perpetuates the myth, because Sam Jackson’s house nigger really does love his master and believes that he is a God-like figure.  This interpretation flies in the face of the conventional wisdom…… but then it’s only a movie.   And when the gorgeous cinemetography is added to its other virtues its a damned good movie at that!

Sam Jackson as House Nigger

Samuel L Jackson

 Sam gave a great performance of a stereotyped character



Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
Fenruary 24th, 2013

Big Willie Rocks tha House!

Posted in Playthell on politics, Uncategorized with tags , , , on September 6, 2012 by playthell
When the Master Player Speaks Everybody Listens

He Told a Round Unvarnished Tale

With wit, erudition and soaring eloquence, Bill Clinton dropped some political science and took the nation to school last night.  In the course of his powerful and learned oration he transformed the esoteric polysyllabic language of policy wonks into epic poetry and mesmerized the audience.  Then he fashioned his rhetoric into a deadly weapon and demolished the pugnacious sophistry of the Grand Obstructionist Party, which has been masquerading as serious argument, and adroitly cast aspersions on their character, ethics and political acumen.  And he did it in grand style.

The audience was amped by the moving speakers that preceded him – representing business, labor, academia, and the women’s movement.  Hence the excitement was palpable; the atmosphere was electric.  The scene was tailor made for a great political polemicist who is also a very able orator.

With his infectious southern charm and rigorous intellect, Bill Clinton told the nation in no uncertain terms why we should reelect President Obama and reject the Republican bid for power.  And the case he made was deadly; it may have killed the Republican dreams of capturing the Oval Office.  Time and again he sparked the audience into rounds of tumultuous applause.  As he spoke I envisioned the Republican strategists, who thought it a good idea to play him up to dis President Obama, sitting at a table with a jug of moonshine and a pistol trying to decide who should put the gun to their head first.

A master of his trade, the art and science of political combat, Silver Tongue Willie skillfully laid out the essence of his argument in his opening statement.  “I want to nominate a man whose own life has known its fair share of adversity and uncertainty,” he intoned.

Continuing to cite the President’s virtues he said: “I want to nominate a man who ran for president to change the course of an already weak economy and then just six weeks before his election, saw it suffer the biggest collapse since the Great Depression, a man who stopped the slide into depression and put us on a long road to recovery, knowing all the while that no matter how many jobs he saved or created, there’d still be millions more waiting, worried about feeding their own kids, trying to keep their hopes alive.”

Then he celebrated the Presidents beliefs and personal judgement.  “I want to nominate a man who’s cool on the outside but who burns for America on the inside.  I want a man who believes with no doubt that we can build a new American dream economy, driven by innovation and creativity, by education….I want a man who had the good sense to marry Michelle Obama.”  My sentiments exactly!

After succinctly laying out the major themes of his argument, Clinton filled in the details with lawyerly precision and professorial erudition, spiked by a generous employment of humor delivered with brilliant comedic timing.  Elegant standard English was interspersed with folksy aphorisms rendered in witty southern colloquialisms, buttressed by powerful representative anecdotes.  His choice of facts in his comparative analysis went straight to the heart of the matter.

For instance when he pointed out that since 1961 the Republicans have held the Presidency longer than the Democrats but twice as many jobs were created under Democratic presidents.  And when he said of contemporary job creation: “President Obama four and a half million, the Republican congress Zero!”  He might also have added that the two great collapses of the American economy also took place under Republicans…who were pursuing the same policies Mitt Romney is advocating now.

But no matter, as the situation stood Big Willie put the Republican’s business in the street; aired their dirty laundry, and whipped their butts like runaway slaves.  Since his administration is a model of economic success, the former President was entirely believable when he said that no president, himself included, could have repaired the vast economic carnage from eight years of Republican mismanagement in just four years.  And he is eminently believable when he praises Barack’s policies and implores us to keep him on the job for four more years.

 United They Stand

A Formidable Tandum


Playthell G. Benjamin

Harlem, New York

August 6, 2012


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