Archive for the Book Reviews Category

Is Marable’s Malcolm A Re-Invention?

Posted in Book Reviews, Playthell on politics with tags on September 29, 2013 by playthell
Malcom X II
In Search of his Idenity and Destiny

 On Myth, History and Special Pleading

Unlike most of the combatants who have squared off in the debate over Dr. Manning Marable’s biography, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinventions, I came to read this text almost by accident.  I had decided that having known Malcolm X well during the last three years of his life, and being an eyewitness to the ordeals he struggled through in his last days, I knew everything that really mattered about the life of Malcolm X.  I was aware of the squabbles that had been going on for years among Malcolm scholars about the details of some of the episodes in the famous Autobiography of Malcolm X, but I thought that kind of esoteric discourse was best left to specialists.

I would look in on the conversation from time to time to see if our industrious researchers managed to dredge up something really new, interesting and important.  On occasion I was pleasantly surprised by new insights that advanced our understanding of how Malcolm’s character and vision of the world were molded. One such instance that stands out is my reading of Professor Robin D.G. Kelly’s analysis in his innovative text Race Rebels.

Dr. Kelly showed how Malcolm reinvented himself, when discussing his Zoot Suit wearing hep cat days in the Autobiography, in order to make his interpretation conform to the puritanical preachments of the Nation of Islam which guided his life at the time.   He went on to present a complex analysis of the cultural and historical milieu that produced the ‘race rebels” for whom wearing the Zoot Suit was an act of rebellion – like the Mexican “Pachucos” in Los Angeles, whose flamboyant style led to the infamous 1943 ”Zoot Suit Riots.” I found the analysis thoughtful, original and enlightening.

But my main interest in Malcolm X is his political ideas, specifically whether his analysis of the black predicament was correct, and if his strategy and goals were coherent and possible, since politics is the art of the possible, I didn’t expect to learn much more than I already knew from Dr. Marable’s biography.  Hence reading a five hundred page tome by an academic that I figured was sort of engaging in academic busy work, tackling an icon of his youth in a work that offered the possibility of a bestselling text that could increase his coin  and add the gloss of celebrity to the conclusion of an outstanding, albeit relatively obscure, academic career.  I wished the Professor well but didn’t expect any revelations, and thus I had better employment for my time than wading through pages of essentially meaningless erudition.

For me the great question of the moment was how to reelect President Obama, retain control of the Senate, try to increase the Democratic majority to 60 seats, and take back the House of Representatives from the Tea Party.  The principal vehicle for advocating my position in the national debate is “Commentaries on the Times,” an ongoing series of commentaries that address major issues of politics and culture which is broadcast over WBAI in New York, streamed around the world in real time on the internet, archived online for 90 days, and published in expanded texts at commentariesonthetimes.wordpress.com.  And just as when I was an Editorial Page Columnists for the Daily News, or a regular contributor to the Manchester Guardian – now the Guardian /Observer, and the Sunday Times of London – I write about foreign and domestic affairs, politics and cultural matters.  So I am a busy man who is not looking to read voluminous tomes because they might prove entertaining.

However during Afro-American history month I found myself standing outside a bookstore in Amherst, Massachusetts and the window was decorated with texts exploring Afro-American history.  Dr. Marable’s Malcolm X was staring me straight in the face so I went in and bought it.  I was taking the bus back to New York and would have several hours to peruse the text and decide if I wanted to give it a serious reading.  Once I delved into its well written pages I got hooked.  I got down wit it and couldn’t quit it until it was done!   The raison d’etre for this essay is to record my response to this magisterial text that has now been awarded the coveted Pulitzer Prize for history.

In reviewing this book two considerations guided my assessment: Is Dr. Marable telling us something we don’t know and whether his evidence is sufficient to justify his claims after subjection to rigorous scrutiny.   Well, I learned a lot of details about Malcolm’s life and the inner workings of the Nation of Islam that I didn’t know…nor could we have known, before Dr. Marable examined the extensive FBI files on Malcolm, Elijah Muhammad, Betty Shabazz, Supreme Captain of the Fruit of Islam, Raymond Sharif, et al.   And he was the first scholar the family allowed access to Malcolm’s private papers.  While there are some critics of this text who find that his research was not extensive enough, because he didn’t interview some people whom they consider critical to his reconstruction of Malcolm’s life. I don’t share their concern.

Furthermore, from what I have seen of the critics of this text, I dare not hope that what I have written in the present essay will fare any better with this crowd of passionate Malcolmites, who seem more interested in myth making than history.  In fact, Dr. Marable’s conclusions may look quite different after they read my take on the book. For I share the views of Fredrick Douglass in his historic speech at the unveiling of the Freedman’s Memorial to Abraham Lincoln: “Truth is beautiful and proper in all places and all times.  But it is never more beautiful and proper than when speaking of a man who will be commended to history.”  So although I knew Malcolm far better than the most caustic critics, like Othello, I decided to tell “a round unvarnished tale” based on the facts as I find them.

From my reading of the evidence I find Dr. Marable’s sources voluminous and his research extensive.  Working with a group of bright and energetic graduate students at Columbia University, he appears to have left few stones unturned. And there is a real question in my mind as to whether further interviews would have advanced our understanding of the subject; there is a good chance the story would have descended into a Tower of Babble if the author interviewed everybody who had an opinion about Malcolm.

Professor Marable consulted letters written by Malcolm and his contemporaries; Malcolm’s personal diaries; interviews with major players in the drama that was the life of Malcolm X conducted by Dr. Marable and others he investigated the records of several police agencies local and federal, plus a variety other public records. He has also consulted the major published works on Malcolm as well as unpublished doctoral dissertations and Master’s theses dealing with his subject.  Dr. Marable also extensively investigated the news sources that covered Malcolm throughout his public career.

Hence he has covered the bases upon which scholarly histories are constructed.  As for those who feel that Dr. Marable’s text is incomplete, I remind them that no historical study can claim the last word on a subject.  That’s why even the most distinguished historians routinely refer to their work as “A history” rather than “The history.” And to those professional scholars who are dissatisfied with Professor Marable’s research, I would invite them to conduct their own and publish a study filling in the gaps.  That’s the way the historical enterprise works; the essence of which is the science of historiography, where professional historians critique each other’s texts with the fervor of Talmudic scholars commenting on Torah.

At the moment, it seems safe to say that Professor Marable’s book is the state of the art in Malcolm X biography.  So those who are challenging the factual basis of this text have their work cut out for them.  My criticism of the book however is in regard to the way the author interprets the meaning of the massive data he has compiled on the life of Malcolm; at times his conclusions depart from careful documentation for his claims and slides into special pleading, which is the term of art for historians who offer conclusions that reflect their hopes and biases rather than the hard evidence at hand.

Sometimes he glosses over important issues that would enrich his story.  Two examples stand out: his cavalier treatment of Farrakhan’s decision to give up music, and his superficial analysis of the dynamics of mass transformative movements.  A comparative analysis of the relevant factors could have shed real light on why Malcolm was so much more successful recruiting people to the NOI, than he was at convincing people to join the Organization Of Afro-American Unity, OAAU, a secular organization Malcolm founded upon quitting the NOI.

A Love Supreme

Farrakhan playing_violin_bjm

Farrakhan Playing his Beloved Violin

For instance, he passed far too quickly over Minister Farrakhan’s decision to give up music in order to advance in the Nation of Islam.  It suggests that, like a lot of intellectuals, Marable didn’t understand the miracle of making music, or the magnitude of commitment it requires to be great.  The violin is one of the most difficult instruments to play – a hollow box of lacquered wood with a couple of designer holes cut in, with four catgut strings stretched over a bridge, from which heavenly sounds are coaxed with a horsehair bow, and notes are played by a magical act of finding precise spots on a fretless neck….. and Louis Farrakhan mastered it.   One need only look at the video of his performance as a teenager when he appeared on the famous Ted Mack Amateur Hour, to see what a giant role the violin played in his life. (See video at bottom of this essay)

In the interview that followed with host Ted Mack after a brilliant performance we see a handsome, optimistic, eloquent, very bright, charming young man who was both a champion athlete and brilliant artist.  He had just set a state record in track, but when asked about it he chose to talk about his love for the violin. Playing the violin defined him!  For anyone who has had even the most casual encounter with a musical instrument it is easy to imagine the spiritual flight that one experiences playing great music on an instrument as marvelous as the violin.

I still remember the satisfaction I felt the first time I managed to play the C scale on a trumpet – even though it is the simplest scale, with no sharps and flats – and the sheer ecstatic joy I felt when I figured out the opening passage of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata on the piano, which I had watched my Aunt Marie play with precision, and my next door neighbors Sylvia and Ronald Hammond play with competence, many times.  Some Black Nationalists would prefer not to discuss the Minister’s love of the violin and the works of the great European composers he reveres – especially the Germans.  It doesn’t fit in with their ideas about what proper culture is for black people, and what their artistic concerns ought to be.

But this kind of foolishness is of recent origin: it is a product of certain misguided ideas minted in the “Black Arts” movement of the 1960’s.   Some who advocated” black cultural nationalism” took it to mean that black artists should only perform black music.  And it wrecked the brilliant careers of black musicians who played European classical music that I knew personally.  After braving the racism of the white musical establishment who determine which artist shall have a career in their chosen art, they faced the opprobrium of Black Nationalist ideologues.

These musicians became so caught up in the preachment of the Black Arts cultural police that they began to feel guilty for playing great European music, as if they had sinned against the black community.  So they just stopped playing!  I don’t think they ever found a way of filling the hole left in their soul!  Fortunately, when Farrakhan and I were growing up back in the day such questions never arose among musicians.  Music was music and all the musicians I knew aimed to perform well in any genre – like Wynton Marsalis, Herbie Hancock, Chucho Valdez, Richard Davis, Carlos Del Pino, Hubert Laws, Hazel Scott, Dorothy Donnegan, et al.

Not only was Minister Farrakhan a good violinist; he was a virtuoso…still is after putting his instrument down for forty years!  It is an unheard of feat.  It is enough for the musically tutored observer to watch the videos of him performing masterworks in the violin literature of classical European music – Concertos by German geniuses like Beethoven and Mendelsohn on You Tube - to see that this artist could have been one of the greatest concert violinists of the 20th century.  First his hopes for a career were dashed by racist white impresarios, and when Elijah Muhammad demanded that he choose “show business” or the Nation of Islam he put his violin down for four decades.

And he employed his beautiful tenor singing voice only in singing Islamic prayers. There are few sacrifices one could make that would be more heartrending, the pain must have been soul searing.  For when we see him performing now the love beams from his face and the exquisite pleasure of it radiates from every nuance of his body language.  It is truly a love supreme.  Giving up music was a life changing experience for Farakhan.  And since there was no good reason why he should ever have been called upon to make such a sacrifice, it was a tragedy.

Further discussion of this earth shaking event could have laid the basis for a serious discussion of the role of culture as viewed from the perspective of the NOI, which would have given us a real perspective on how Malcolm viewed culture. When the Islamic fanatics took over Iran one of the first things the Ayatollah Khomeni did was ban music.  So did the Taliban in Afghanistan!  Hence when Dr. Marable tells us Malcolm believed in “Cultural Revolution” well into the book, we would have some idea what he means by the term….since we have no clue what Malcolm thought on this question.

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

Considering that Professor Marable’s training is as a social scientist, I’m surprised that he didn’t place the Afro-American “freedom movement” in a wider context.  Had he discussed the dynamics of social movements as a class of phenomenon for instance, it would have greatly enriched the readers understanding of the reasons why Malcolm had such trouble trying to duplicate the success he had as an organizer for the NOI as opposed to the OAAU, the secular organization he founded upon quitting “the Nation.”   As we learned from the outstanding pioneering research of Professor Luther P. Gerlach – “People, Power, Change “– in order for a movement to grow, certain elements must be present.

First of all they must have a comprehensive ideology that defines the goals and aspirations of the movement which address the sources of discontent in the masses they hope to organize. This complex ideology must be successfully communicated in power packed slogans, and they must have a means of communicating that message to the public.  They also must have a means of financing their program.  They must have members who are willing to engage in face to face recruiting.  They must have commitment rituals that symbolize one’s conversion to the group’s ideology and objectives.  And most important of all, they must have a clearly identifiable enemy!   To take this message to the masses in dramatic fashion and propel the movement forward they must have Charismatic Revivalists: great orators who can mobilize masses of people with the spoken word.

While Dr. Gerlach explained this phenomenon scientifically, Adolph Hitler understood it instinctively.  “It is the spoken word not the written word that drives men to action,” he observed.  And to prepare himself for the role he spent countless hours practicing speechmaking before the mirror. History will verify his awesome prowess on the podium.  This Austrian corporal managed to convince the most intellectually advanced nation in the world, a civilization that celebrates high culture and gave us Bach, Mozart, Freud, Marx and Albert Einstein, to resort to barbarism and murder millions of their neighbors based on a bogus master race theory that he borrowed from the American eugenicist Madison Grant.  Such is the power of great charismatic orators.

These are special people who have a powerful gift of speech that enables them to appear to embody the aspirations of the masses in their personality – which is the essence of Charisma. This was the role that Malcolm X played, and he was brilliant at it.  However the difference in his effectiveness at growing the NOI and the OAAU lay in the fact that the NOI had all the other factors in play and the OAAU did not.

The theology of the Nation of Islam provides a comprehensive world view,  expressed in powerful slogans like “The white man is the Devil,” “Do for self,” “Live sheep need a live shepherd,” “Everything is real,” etc.  They had a newspaper aptly named “Muhammad Speaks.”  They financed their activities by the tithes of the membership as well as founding businesses in the communities they recruited from.

Thy Fruit Of Islam engaged in aggressive face to face recruiting in organized operations called “fishing,” in which they reeled in lost souls in and out of the nation’s prisons.  The taking of the X and donning a uniform style of dress were powerful commitment rituals.  The decision to stop eating pork – which was no picayune matter for many recruits; if I were not prohibited from joining the NOI by my atheism, giving up ham and pork chops would surely have done it – was a powerful commitment rituals. When Malcolm joined the Nation Of Islam almost all of these elements were in place – except for the Newspaper, which he founded – the critical importance of which he learned from the problems of actual organizing.

Notwithstanding Malcolm’s prowess in the role of charismatic revivalist, he did not come close to Dr. Martin Luther King as an effective  mass leader in the great Afro-American freedom movement of the 1960’s.  Hence the most serious problem I have with this text is the conclusions Professor Marable reaches about the extent of Malcolm’s influence among Afro-Americans vs. Dr. King and the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement based on passive resistance.

I am also troubled by his use of the terms “revolutionary” and “revolution,” as well as “cultural revolution.”  And I am disturbed by the way he simply repeats some of Malcolm’s erroneous arguments and rhetoric without criticism.  The dangerous ahistorical nonsense about “House Negroes and Field Negroes” is a striking case in point, which I shall return to later in this essay – the disastrous consequences of which I have spelled out in “On the Burden of History,” at   www.commentariesonthetimes.wordpress.com.

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

One of the many important contributions of this book is its revelation of the extent to which the FBI knew every move Malcolm and other leaders of the NOI made.  Oftentimes they knew when they paused to take a dump.  All of us in the Revolutionary Action Movement suspected that we were under surveillance, but we had no clue as to the extent of it until Max Stanford /aka Dr. Muhammad Ahmed, retrieved the multi-volume files the FBI had compiled on RAM.   However there is a spate of studies that show clandestine snooping on the movement, whether armed or non-violent, was widespread and ongoing.

Most of it was conducted under the FBI’s Counter-Intelligence Program, the notorious Co-In-Tel-Pro, which had perfected its disruptive tactics destroying the Communist Party in the 1950’s.   But as Dr. Marable shows in his examination of documents from BOSS, the New York Police Department had their own secret program to spy on black activists; as did other local police departments around the country.  they were generally called Civil Disobedience Units.

The level of surveillance intensified after Malcolm left the NOI and was gravitating toward a secular political stance, which the FBI feared would greatly broaden his appeal.  If Malcolm had made any illegal moves – like actually leading or dispatching an armed force against the government or the white citizenry which he threatened to do – they would have been wiped out faster than Hoppalong Cassidy could draw his guns.  Just like the armed rightwing anti-government militias today, who are smacked down just as they are about to commit a violent act.  The government knows every move they make.

Furthermore, in the aftermath of any successful armed attack on a branch of state authority in which white citizens were killed, black communities would have been put on lockdown across the nation.  We would have had to show government passes in order to leave black neighborhoods like blacks in South African Bantustans during the apartheid era; or Jews in the ghettos of the Russian Pale during the 19th century.

Thus it should be apparent to anybody, who is not suffering from delusions of grandeur, that there is no way for an armed black force to seize power in this country - or a white one either as the right-wing simpletons in the militia movement is finding out the hard way – thus a resort to armed struggle against the US government is suicidal folly from whatever quarter it arises.  Those like the mad poet Imiri Barack, who cling to the idea of armed revolution as a viable option  for Afro-American  advancement in the US, are in reality just a cabal of deluded old men imprisioned by the illusions of their youth. The sad reality is the only people to whom they pose a real danger are the black youths they are leading astray with their foolishness.

Alas, despite his considerable erudition, Dr. Marable never seems to recognize that Malcolm’s revolutionary rhetoric was delusional, or come to terms with it.  Throughout the text he treats the idea that Malcolm could have led some type of armed force which would revolutionize America as a real possibility.  That’s why he continues to refer to Malcolm as a “revolutionary” until the end; despite the fact that Malcolm never stated any revolutionary objectives let alone built an organization that had any chance of carrying it out.  Dr. Marable’s final chapter is titled “Reflections on a Revolutionary Vision.”  But the doctor’s conclusions contradict his evidence.

In previous chapters Professor Marable details Malcolm’s embrace of Orthodox Islam, especially in the chapter “Epiphany in the Haijj;” where he recounts Malcolm’s gleeful embrace of the corrupt Arab elite in Saudi Arabia.   And he even sought alliances with the fanatical Muslim Brotherhoods of Egypt and Lebanon, people who want to impose Sharia law on the world and enslave women.

He also glosses over the fact that Malcolm was embracing forces who were deadly enemies…as the President of Egypt, Colonel Abdel Gamal Nasser – a leading figure in both the Pan-African and Pan-Arab Socialists movements – would hang Sayeed Guthb, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood and the most important theologian of the modern Jihad,  a year after his visit. And thus began a deadly struggle between Muslim theocrats and secular military strong men that continues until this day throughout the Muslim world.  I get no indication that either Malcolm or Marable understood any of this.

Colonel Nasser with Islamic Leader

fl26egypt  

The Secular Nationalists and Muslim Brother had a Brief Alliance
 Theologian Sayyd Gutb

Saayd Guthb

He played a deadly game with Nasser and Lost

It apparanty escaped the notice of both Malcolm X and Professor Marable than an  Islamic theocracy is the antithesis of a modern progressive revolutionary society.  Malcolm’s contemporary Dr. Franz Fanon, who was a leader and major theoretician of the great Algerian Revolution, argued against the theocrats in the National Liberation Front i.e. FLN; who wanted to establish an Islamic caliphate after the expulsion of the French.  He vociferously denounced the idea as a return to” primitive medievalism.” As I have written elsewhere – see “On the Burden of History.”

When compared to his contemporaries who were actually involved in real revolutionary struggles like Fanon, Mandela, the revolutionaries of Portuguese Africa like Amilcar Cabral, Dr. Augostino Neto and Samora Marchel, Malcolm’s ideas about revolution comes across as naïve and rather silly.  But then, one of Dr. Marable’s great failings in his analysis of Malcolm’s vision is that he never tells us what he means by “revolution” in the American context….especially a “black revolution.” Yet he constantly refers to Malcolm as a “Revolutionary.”

Professor Marable’s definition becomes especially puzzling when he tells us that the Organization of Afro-American Unity, the secular organization Malcolm founded after he left the NOI, was an extension of the “Revolutionary Nationalism” of Marcus Garvey.  The problem is that Garvey wasn’t a revolutionary nationalist, which implies an armed force struggling to liberate a nation.   Furthermore revolutionary nationalist are distinguished from bourgeois nationalists by a progressive ideology which seeks to build a new social order that will advance human relationships beyond the old order when national liberation is won.

But Garvey had no army, no national territory, and was committed to capitalism.  Hence he was at best a bourgeois racial nationalists.  He even thought he could make common cause with the Ku Klux Klan, which won him the virulent enmity of the progressive Afro-American leadership ranging from socialists like A. Phillip Randolph and Chandler Owen, to radical liberals pursuing a legal remedy to racial inequality through interracial cooperation like Dr. Dubois and James Weldon Johnson of the NAACP, to radical West Indian Marxists like Richard Moore and Cyril Briggs in the African Blood Brotherhood who organized the “Garvey Must Go” campaign in Harlem – right in Garvey’s yard.  Furthermore, Garvey was unwelcome in Liberia, which was founded by Afro-Americans in the 19th century, because he saw himself as destined to rule over all of Africa and they were determined that he wouldn’t start there.

Garvey actually had the temerity to declare himself the “Provisional President” of all Africa, although he was a Jamaican living in exile in the United States and never set foot in Africa.  And, ironically, just like the African Redemptionists of the 19th century – men like Reverend Edward Wilmont Blyden, Bishop Alexander Crummell and Dr. Martin Delany – he was an avowed Afro-Saxon.

Far from being a cultural revolutionary, like all the other aspiring black empire builders from the New World that preceded him,  Garvey wanted to transplant Anglo-Saxon culture in Africa.   All of them had no doubt that Anglo-Saxon culture of whatever variety was far superior to West African culture, which they didn’t hesitate to describe as “uncivilized.” The only difference was the Americans preferred the American variety and Garvey, with his British colonial mentality, wanted to establish the British variety.

This description of the goings on at the first UNIA convention held in New York on August 1, 1920, written by the Nigerian scholar of Black Nationalism in the US, Dr. Essien Udom, in the introductory essay to the 1966 edition of The Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey, tells it all.

“A high Executive Council consisting of 18 members was also elected. Together with Garvey, they constituted the ‘Provisional Government’ of a United Africa.  After the members of the High Executive Council had been sworn in, Garvey conferred them peerages and Knighthoods such as Duke of the Nile.  Others were made Knights of the Distinguished Service Order of Ethiopia, Ashanti and Mozambique. They were all provided with robes and capes, patterned after the British orders of chivalry.”

In spite of attempts by contemporary “Revolutionary Nationalist” to present Garveyism and the UNIA as a serious revolutionary movement, when the objective political realities are considered – the organizational, technical and military superiority of Europe and her Progeny i.e. the “white Race” – the activities described here reminds me of nothing more than an elaborate child’s game of dress up and make believe played by impassioned but dangerously deluded adults.  As regards its effect on the reigning world-wide system of white supremacy: It was of no more consequence than a costume ball!

The failure of Dr. Marable, as well as  the black intellectuals who criticize his text, to render a dispassionate objective analysis of Garvey’s vision of the African society he aimed to build is embarrassing.  For instance they refuse to admit the incontestable fact that Garvey’s ideas were politically backward.  US society, even with its original and enduring sins of genocide and racism, had advanced far beyond this reactionary British aristocratic model of governance.

Americans had fought a revolution in the 18th century to rid ourselves of this idea of titled nobility, and nullify the rights claimed by their brethren across the seas in Briton to govern them.  That they were racist hypocrites motivated by a desire to preserve their slave property from the strictures of English common Law, which a British judge had pronounced illegal in the Somerset Case of 1772, does not alter this fact.

Just like the Russian Revolution in the 20th Century ignited revolutions all over the world, the 18th century American Revolution, with all of its flaws, ignited a bourgeois revolution in France that advanced the rights of white men from royal subjects to citizens of a Republic where the right to rule came not from Divine powers but the power of the ballot box!  In fact, the US had outlawed the wearing of titles; even as it created a racial caste system based on white supremacy - replacing a British Aristocracy where class status was ascribed at birth with an American pigmentocracy where the value of human beings was determined by the color of their skins.

The French Revolution distnguished itself from the Americans in that their revolution led to the abolition slavery in France.  And the Haitian revolutionaries – whom CLR James dubbed “Black Jacobins” in his seminal text on the Haitian Revolution – who would bring the horrible slave system on that sugar producing Island to a bitter and bloody end.  Led by the brilliant toussiant L’Overture, it was the first successful overthrow of an entrenched slavocracy by the slaves themselves.

However Garvey wanted to revive the backward British aristocratic system, and his plans for Africa resembled the British system of settler colonialism that accompanied their policy of Direct Rule in places such as Kenya, South Africa, the Rhodesias, etc.  Garvey’s aims were stated in the highest moral terms, but so were the motives of British and French colonialists.  The British justified their colonial empire in Africa by declaring their objectives were to promote the three C’s: “Civilization, Christianity, and Commerce.”  The French called their colonial conquests in Africa “The Mission of Civilization.”

The fact that Garvey and his minions in the Universal Negro Improvement Association,  UNIA,  were black did not mitigate their plan to rule over the indigenous African tribes and forcibly change their ancient cultures by, among other things, converting them to Christianity.  And all of this was to be accomplished by forming a “United State of Africa.”  Yet as we have seen since the emergence of Independent states in Africa, the Pan-African ideal of a “United States” of Africa has gone nowhere because no leader is willing to give up his sovereignty in order to join a union led by someone else.

In fact, no sooner than Kwame Nkrumah proposed the idea he was accused by other African leaders of trying to take over their countries.  The major reason that this idea has gone nowhere however is because it is the creation of West Indian and Afro-American intellectuals – WEB DuBois, H. Sylvester Williams, George Padmore, CLR James, et al. and has no roots in indigenous African thought.  And all of these men had more to do with the success of the African independence movement than Marcus Garvey.

It remains to be seen if even national integration will succeed in individual modern African “nations” like Nigeria, where several ethnic groups with profound cultural and religious differences have been welded into one political entity by the British colonialist.  Nigeria is in danger of falling apart at the seams as I write, due to a growing Muslim/Christian conflict.  Franz Fanon addressed this question in a profoundly perceptive essay The Pitfalls of National Consciousness published in The Wretched of the Earth, 1961.

African unity, that vague formula…whose operative value served to bring immense pressure to bear on colonialism… takes off the mask, and crumbles into regionalism inside the hollow shell of nationality itself. The national bourgeoisie, since it is strung up to defend its immediate interests, and sees no farther than the end of its nose, reveals itself incapable of simply bringing national unity into being, or of building up the nation on a stable and productive basis. The national front which has forced colonialism to withdraw cracks up, and wastes the victory it has gained.”

The problem of ethnic strife i.e. tribal warfare has been a persistent phenomenon in post-independence Africa, to such an extent that no less a Pan-Africanist scholar/activist than John Hendrik Clark concluded after a lifetime of engagement with African affairs, that the modern nation state is a failure in Africa.  Hence to speak of Garvey’s dream of an African empire under the leadership of the UNIA as anything other than a well-intentioned fantasy is folly.

Since Garvey was pro-capitalist and driven by an imperialist settler colonial impulse reminiscent of the Zionist in Palestine, and like them made racial blood ties the basis for their claims on African land, Garveyism qualifies as bourgeois nationalism par excellence.  And he once described his ideas as “fascist,” claiming that he not Benito Mussolini was “The Father of Fascism.”  For instance, in a 1937 London interview with Joel A, Rogers, a fellow Jamaican who was a journalist and author of many volumes on the achievements of African peoples world wide, Garvey declared proudly: “We were the first Fascists… when we had 100,000 disciplined men, and were training children, Mussolini was still an unknown. Mussolini copied our Fascism.”

Garvey even adopted the fascistic title “Generalissimo,” as he decorated himself in military costumes and strutted about making grandiose pronouncements that had as about as much chance of becoming reality as a snowball’s chances of survival in a pizza oven.  It is no wonder the ever sober and broadly learned Dr. Dubois dismissed Garvey as a deluded megalomaniac who liked to flounce around in garish uniforms “cutting the fool before the world.”

While Garvey was claiming to be the Father of Fascism Dr. DuBois, a founding Father of Pan-Africanism, was busy organizing Pan-African conferences that tutored and inspired the leaders who would go on and lead the Independence movement on the Afican continent.  While engaging in special pleading and myth making on Garvey’s behalf, Dr. Marable passed over all of this in silence.

Marcus Garvey, Founder of the UNIA
                Garvey II                      The Generalissimo in full regalia
 Dr. WEB DuBois in his Office at the NAACP

Dr. Dubois-in his office

The most broadly Learned and Prophetic 20th century American Intellectual
The Father Of Pan-Africanism with his protege Kwame Nkrumah

Dr. DuBois with Kwame

Here he was in his nineties and working on a 72 volume Encyclopedia Africana
The Dr. Hanging with Mao: Greatest Revolutionary of 20th Century

Dr. DuBois and Mao

Dr. DuBosi was greatly admired by Third world Revolutionary Leaders 

The tragic fiasco into which the UNIA descended, with internecine violence between factions resulting in the murder of a prominent AME Zion clergyman, working class black folks losing their meager capital investing in the Black Star Line, whose incompetent managers bought ships that were not seaworthy, and stirring up antagonism between light and dark skin Afro-Americans with talk of racial purity, suggests that any movement based on that model is doomed to failure.  As George Santayana’s much quoted axiom warns us: Those who refuse to learn from history are doomed to repeat its mistakes.”  Yet Marable finds a revolutionary vision in the UNIA, as well as in what he views as its spawn, the OAAU.

Whatever virtues the Garvey movement offered, and they were not innocent of virtue, it is clear that they misjudged the power of their adversary and it led to their demise.  The same fate awaited Malcolm if he had acted on his militant rhetoric and actually gone down South to take up guns against the government of any of those racist police states of the old Confederacy.  They would have been facing an armed white government and citizenry ready and willing to commit mass murder.  All they needed was a justification, which Malcolm’s action would have given them.  As Dr. King, who had devised an effective strategy of struggle based on the realities of the racist violent south, pointed out: “The white man knows how to deal with violence…it’s nonviolence they can’t handle.”

What Dr. King meant by this statement is that while it would be easy for the armed forces of the state to crush any attempt at a violent overthrow of the existing racial caste system, the use of force against unarmed citizens who were simply asking for the rights conferred upon them by God, which was stated in the American Declaration of Independence and enshrined in constitutional law, turned the world against them and made the US look like shameless hypocrites.

The Soviet Union seized upon the opportunity to point out the fraudulence of America’s claim as a land of freedom and justice, and it became their most potent anti-US propaganda in the emerging Third World.  The cables from Secretary of State Dean Rusk to Attorney General Bobby Kennedy make clear the disastrous consequences for American interests in the global struggle for the hearts and minds of non-white peoples in Africa and Asia, and this realization spurred the Federal government to intervene in defense of the Civil Rights Movement. Fortunately Malcolm’s tough talk was never tested….because it remained just talk.

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Thus it is curious how Professor Marable constantly refers to this idle talk as “revolutionary.”  As I have pointed out in “On The Burden of History,” when armed black men did stand up to the racists in the South they were church going Christians with solidly middle class values.  Three examples will suffice: Robert Williams, The Deacons for Justice, and Reverend Goldie Eubanks and his son in my home town St. Augustine Florida.   It was Robert Williams in Monroe North Carolina, not Malcolm X in Harlem, who was the symbol of armed revolutionary struggle for the Revolutionary Action Movement.

Robert Williams and his Neighbors

Robert Williams and friends

          When blacks confronted the Klan with guns Malcolm was nowhere around
While Malcolm thought women needed male protection

Robert williams and Wife Mable

Among Southern Christians women fought side by side with their men!

Unlike Malcolm and his unarmed followers

Robert Williams and Friends II

Southern Afro-Americans had lots of guns!!!

Max Stanford aka Dr. Muhammad Ahmed, was the central promoter of Robert Williams as a black revolutionary icon while Rob was in exile.  After organizing his community to arm themselves and take a stand against the white racist in Monroe North Carolina, Rob was forced into exile in Cuba, where his militant broadcast to black southerners could be heard on Radio Free Dixie.  But he also published a pamphlet called “The Crusader.” Max was a major distributor of this pamphlet, which came to him in batches through the mail, and it made RAM a target of early FBI surveillance.

Hence it came as a big shock when Harold Cruse – who was Malcolm’s contemporary and light years ahead of him as a revolutionary theorist – told us that Robert Williams wasn’t a revolutionary.  Cruse pointed out that self-defense, even if one is armed, is reactionary not revolutionary.  He pointed out that in order to have a revolutionary movement you had to have revolutionary goals, and demanding your constitutional rights to use the public library or swimming pool were not revolutionary objectives.  Cruse dealt with these questions in “The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual,” a master work published in 1967, although he had published an essay on this question earlier in the Radical journal Studies on the Left in 1962, (See: Revolutionary Nationalism and the Afro-American”) the same year that Max Stanford and I founded the Revolutionary Action Movement in Philadelphia.

It was as a result of reading this essay that Max and I sought Harold Cruse out, because we had never read anything like it.  We were introduced to Harold by a beautiful Afro-Cuban woman who was to become my first wife, Dorothy Bannister, who took us to Harold’s small loft apartment at 14th Street and 7th Avenue on the edge of Greenwich Village.  He was writing The Crisis when we met him and much of what he eventually wrote about the misguided notions our generation had about armed “revolutions” came from the series of encounters we had with him.  In this text he first clarifies the difference between Self-defense and revolutionary action: “One can objectively shoot a Klansman ‘defensively’ or ‘offensively,’ but to succeed in shooting one’s way into voting rights, jobs, and ‘desegregated’ public facilities calls for much deeper thought than certain revolutionaries seem to imagine.” 

Cruse then went on to explain the source of our confusion, which he had a firsthand knowledge of because he was engaged in an ongoing dialogue with us and was a highly perceptive seasoned observer of the entire political spectrum of national and international politics. He summed us up with amazing accuracy: “This generation grew up in time to be deeply impressed by the emergence of the African states, the Cuban Revolution, Malcolm X and Robert Williams himself.  They were witnessing a revolutionary age of the liberation of oppressed peoples. Thus they were led to connect their American situation with those of foreign revolutionary situations.  They did not know, of course, that to attempt to apply foreign ideologies to the United States was more easily imagined than accomplished.  They did not know that the revolutionary Marxists had attempted this and had come to grief.” 

Had I not been taken under the tutelage of Queen Mother Moore before meeting Harold, the following comment would also have been an accurate description of me: “In fact, they did not even know what a Marxist was, even though they were destined to have to contend with them in their own little movements.”  He went on to offer another observation that applied to us all: “They did not realize how little they actually understood about what they saw happening, nor did they have the slightest idea of how much they had to learn about the past forty-odd years before they could even begin to understand the revolutionary age in which they lived.”  I would argue that this assessment was equally true of Robert Williams…and Malcolm X; neither of whom show any evidence of having done the study necessary to meet this standard.  This is why Cruse didn’t consider either of them revolutionaries.

But Max would hear none of it and continued to promote Rob as a revolutionary, just as he touts Malcolm’s revolutionary acumen in interviews with Dr. Marable.  But then, Max is a totally political animal who is far more interested in creating serviceable propaganda than writing history.  Yet history has proved Cruse right.  When Williams finally returned to the US from China, where he had moved after he began to feel insecure in Cuba – the reasons for which would require another essay – he would have nothing to do with Max or RAM.

Instead, since the US had no access to China, with whom they had broken diplomatic relations after the Communist Party came to power in 1948, Rob became a leading American expert on “Red China” and was quickly offered a position in the Chinese Studies Department at University of Michigan, from which he never emerged. He spent his remaining days living the quiet middle class life of the mind unobstructed by white racist oppression that he sought in Monroe North Carolina, before being forced to take up guns in self-defense.

But the tendency to privilege propaganda over history by political ideologues probably explains why Dr. Ahmed now touts Malcolm as his revolutionary inspiration rather than Rob….like a lot of my old comrades he seems more interested in self-serving mythmaking than history.  But the question that arises from the experience of Robert Williams is: If armed self-defense was not revolutionary when it was actually employed in the violent racist milieu of Monroe North Carolina, why is it revolutionary when Malcolm X simply talks about it in the relative safety of the North?  Alas, since Professor Marable has danced and joined the revered ancestors, we must struggle to answer these questions on our own.

The claims for Malcolm X as an advocate for black cultural revolution is, if anything, even more spurious.  For instance Dr. Marable says of Malcolm: “His constant message was black pride, self-respect, and awareness of one’s heritage.”  The most obvious questions raised by this assertion are: What is the Afro-American cultural heritage?  And what did Malcolm X mean when he referred to it? There is the actual Afro-American culture that has formed over the course of four centuries, and there is some ideologue’s fantasy about what that culture is.  Dr. Marable never clarifies which version he is referring to.  For instance to those who insist that we are “Africans” the Yoruba culture is the only authentic black culture.  Conversely, to the black Israelites we are the original Jews and therefore that is our true culture.

To those in the Nation of Islam whose teachings Malcolm parroted without question up until the last year of his life, we are the lost Tribe of Shabazz.  I place all three of these claims roughly on the same level, although the Yoruba’s are closest to our original cultural heritage before our ancestors were brought into the wilderness of North America in chains….back before the African holocaust.  Yet all of these conceptions of Afro-Americans are mythological; they bear no resemblance to our cultural reality.  All of them betray a profound ignorance about the nature and role of culture among human beings in general. Culture arises from the lived experience of a people.  It is the way we figure out how to promote harmonious group life that allows us to survive and prosper within the environment that we find ourselves…since we are social animals and must live in a group.

Hence it is folly to suggest that the locus of our culture lies elsewhere.   We are not Africans; we are Americans of African descent.  The way we see the world is as people who grew up in the most technically advanced affluent society in history.  That’s why I have heard more than a few people who went “home” to Africa complain bitterly about lights going off, water stoppages and other inefficiencies that they find unimaginable in the US.   Many are surprised that they are treated like outsiders although they were dressed in traditional African costumes.  Few seem to understand that their newly minted “African” names immediately identify them as a member of the “Afro” tribe from America.  That’s because no African on the entire continent – from Cape Town to Cairo – bears names like Kwame Zulu Shabazz, or Imamu Amiri Baracka, Maulana Ron Karenga, or Malik Shabazz.

Alas, there is a reign of confusion among black nationalists about what the Afro-American cultural heritage is.  While they avidly adopt the names of Arab and Afro-Arab slave traders like Muhammad Ali and Muhammad Ahmed, virtually none point to the church as a pillar of Afro-American culture. Despite the fact that most of our greatest leaders and virtually all of our great musicians – regardless of genre – developed in the Church.  Charlie Parker, Aretha Franklin, Teddy Pendergast, Jessye Norman, Ray Charles, and Max Roach all developed in the church.  The black protestant church has also been the source of the great oratorical tradition of Afro-Americans and shaped the styles of everyone from Paul Robeson and Adam Clayton Powell, to Barack Obama and Malcolm X.  The black Church was also the original source of Black Nationalism in the US (See Pan-Africanism: Myth or Reality?” at www.commentariesonthetimes.wordpress.com.)

For a learned discourse on this question see “On the Wings of Ethiopia” by Dr. Wilson Jeremiah Moses; who has written extensively on this subject and points out that at one time in the 19th century it was hard to distinguish Afro-American theology from Black Nationalists ideology.  I am working on a treatise titled “On the Heroic Role of the Afro-American Preacher in the Pan-African Liberation Struggle.” This marvelous church – which Dr. DuBois called one of the most remarkable institutions ever devised by men – is rarely mentioned by Black Nationalist when they talk about Afro-American culture.

Yet the great Civil Rights movement, which unleashed forces that so changed America it wiped out de jure apartheid and made it possible for a black man to win the Oval Office and made a black woman mistress of the White House, is unimaginable without the black church.  But Dr. Marable, like most black Marxists and Nationalist, plays past this critical institution.  His refusal to deal with the centrality of the black church in Afro-American culture reduces his talk about “cultural revolution” to meaningless prattle.  It also explains how he could write really silly things that greatly exaggerate Malcolm’s mass appeal among Afro-Americans; grandiose assertions for which he presents no quantitative evidence….perhaps for the simple reason that there is none that could withstand even light scrutiny.

After explaining how Malcolm represented the “anti-hero,” who beguiled the black masses with his daring; the “Black outlaw” who transgressed “the established  moral order…the hepcat who  laughed at conventional mores, who used illegal drugs and engaged in illicit sex, who broke all the rules,” in his former life as Detroit Red, which we are told is largely a fictional construction, Professor Marable tells us that Malcolm flipped the script and became “the righteous preacher, the man who dedicated his life to Allah.  Again, this was a role that resonated deeply with African-American culture.  Malcolm inspired blacks to see themselves not as victims, but possessing the agency to transform themselves and their lives.”

This entire line of argument strikes me as the essence of “special pleading.”  Marable offers no evidence for these sweeping generalizations; it is wishful thinking.  To begin with, his description of the black urban masses and their admiration for the hustler, brings to mind the response of Dr. DuBois to Carl Van Vechten’s novel about  Jazz Age Harlem, Nigger Heaven.  DuBois pointed out that the novel was an insult to black people, most of whom never patronized a cabaret and spent far more of their leisure time in their churches, lodges and fraternal societies. Furthermore, Malcolm was merciless in his denunciation of the hustler lifestyle; a point that was missed by some intellectuals who followed – I have discussed the consequences of this in “On the Burden of History,” so I won’t belabor it again here. And contrary to Professor Marable’s claim, all Malcolm did was deal in “victimization.”

After all, he was the one who preached that the experience of being black in in America had destroyed Afro-Americans.  For just about his entire career he routinely defined Afro-Americans as a people who were so damaged that we had to reject our culture and turn to the Arabs – racist enslavers of black people – to find a system of belief that could restore our humanity.  This was just the opposite of what we were taught in our churches and black schools.  But Malcolm knew little of either institution, growing up in Michigan where he was always a minority in schools run by racist whites and having only a tenuous relationship to the black church.

That’s why Malcolm couldn’t understand the power that these institutions had to inspire hope and promote optimism in the face of what appeared to be insurmountable odds.  And he went to his grave never figuring out why he had such a paltry following compared to Dr. King and the Christian preachers in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; why the masses of black Americans chose the heroic optimism of King over the pessimism and nihilism of Malcolm X.  The Yacub Myth was no match for the story of Daniel in the lion’s den, or Moses parting the Red Sea and the mighty Pharaoh’s army got drowned.

Homo sapiens are the only creatures who construct narratives, and our conceptions of the world and what our purpose is in that world is shaped by the stories we are told in our formative years.  It is through stories reputed to be of divine origin that we define our purpose and possibilities in life,  except for atheists; who are few and far between among Afro-Americans.  In fact, according to statistical measures employed by Yale Professor Stephen Carter in his comprehensive study of religion in America, Afro-Americans are the most “churched” people in the US.

It is the Afro-American church more than any other source from which hope springs eternal; our solid rock when all else fails.  This was the source of Dr. Kings’ belief that “the arc of the universe is wide but it bends toward justice,” that a righteous people struggling for a righteous cause would eventually prevail because unwarranted suffering is redemptive.  It is a message so powerful that it inspired humble and powerful black people to walk unarmed into the valley of death and fear no evil!  I witnessed this as a participant observer in the south.  I saw Malcolm speak live countless times,  and although I was a partisan of Malcolm’s, after watching Dr. King’s speech at the great March on Washington – which I opposed – I was forced to admit that Malcolm had no message that resonated with millions of Christian blacks in America like Dr. King.

In fact, Malcolm was a Muslim fanatic and political nihilist whom most black Americans I knew thought was out of his mind.  It was Dr. King who inspired Afro-Americans to believe that a better day was possible, and that they could bring it about through collective struggle, while Malcolm was standing on the side lines criticizing their every effort and calling them “Uncle Toms.” Professor Marable documents this behavior in rich detail. Alas, Stanley Crouch, a writer and ex-friend who I fell out with partly because of the disrespectful things he has written about Malcolm while celebrating a Neo-Tom opportunist like Ralph Ellison, was right when he called Malcolm “The chief heckler of the Civil Rights movement.”

The question that arises here is why Marable fails to realize, or concede, that Malcolm X was a peripheral figure at best in the great movement that changed America in the 1960’s.  He is so desperate to assign a role to Malcolm that rises to the importance of Dr. King that he expropriates King’s identity and attempts to assign it to Malcolm.  A poignant example of this identity theft is the following passage:” Through his powerful language, Malcolm inspired blacks to see themselves not as victims, but possessing the agency to transform themselves and their lives.”   This description is far truer of Dr. King, so much so that his argument descends from special pleading into hyperbole.

Dr. Martin Luther King was the greatest orator in the world; a highly schooled version of “God’s Trombones,” of whom the great black bard James Weldon Johnson sang.  I recited these epic poems all doing my school years as a member of the Murray High oratorical team.  And thus, I continue to appreciate the grandeur of the Afro-American sermon as art long after I stopped believing in God.  I am a product of the same black Florida culture that produced James Weldon Johnson, Zora Neale Hurston, theologian Howard Thurman and A. Phillip Randolph, another great orator whose father was a preacher of the sort that J. W. Johnson had in mind when he said “The old time southern Negro preacher had all the devices of eloquence at his command.”  I agree.  I also agree with Zora when she wrote to Johnson that a black preacher “must be a poet to survive in a Negro pulpit.”  Dr. King was a poet of very high calling.  Steeped in the biblical stories on which all black Americans were raised, while personifying the Moses myth: nobody moved the black masses – north or south – like Dr. King.

At the root of this refusal to give Dr. King the full props he is due, is a refusal by black radicals to accept the preeminent and historically unique role of the Afro-American church in the ongoing struggle for freedom and human dignity in America.  Generally this hostile attitude toward the church arises from two factors: some of the critics are atheists and others are hostile to the Christian Church because it represents the religion of our slave masters.  But they are flying in the face of history, because the teachings of Jesus do not belong to the slave masters.

They hijacked it just as the Republican right is doing today.  Jesus Christ was born of an enslaved people and that’s why the slaves saw his teachings as weapon they could use for their own deliverance from bondage.  Although I have been an avowed atheist for over fifty years, yet do I marvel at the grandeur of the black church.  As my home girl Zora observed, the Afro-American church was created by a people “who love magnificence…and can’t get enough of it.”

Given the fact that the black church in the US is a multi-service institution, one does not have to believe in its theology to recognize the critical role the church has played in the life of the black community and as an incubator of the freedom movement, or it’s unique place in Afro-American culture.  Nobody should understand this better than black activist, of whatever ideological stripe, since whenever they want to hold a public forum or mass meeting the only venue available to them in black communities are the churches!  Yet most black Nationalists and Marxists find this simple fact impossible to acknowledge.  But I predict that any concept of  a “cultural revolution” among black Americans that does not envision a prominent role for the church is doomed to failure.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the life of Malcolm x who, when  compared to Dr. King, never had more than a fringe following made up of alienated personalities like I was when I fell under his spell in 1962.  We had lost faith in both the promise of the church and the American dream.  So we wanted to tear the house down.  We operated on the basis of the observable facts, which looked pretty grim.  But the church folks that followed MLK walked by faith, they continued to believe that good would triumph over evil no matter what the objective facts suggested, but they also believed the old adage “The Lord helps those who help themselves.”

This was a sharp distinction from what the NOI was teaching; and Dr. Marable quotes Malcolm on several occasions lamenting the fact that Elijah Muhammad was waiting on Allah to deal with the white man.  The black progressive church as represented by the Southern Christian Leadership Council had rejected that attitude; they labeled it “do nothing religion.”  If anyone doubts there is an important role for the black church here at the beginning of the 21st century, they need only consider the murderous nihilism rampant among our youths today. This is a problem that politics alone cannot address.

One thing is certain: If the young nihilist that are turning black communities everywhere into free fire zones, where neither babies nor elders are safe, had grown up in the type of church centered Afro-America culture, reinforced by a black school run by dedicated teachers on a mission to make us “twice as good as white folks,” who taught us the poems of James Weldon Johnson and Paul Laurence Dunbar, right along with William Cullen Bryant and Sweet Willie Shakespeare, we would be far better off than we are.

It was a community whose values, path and objectives were defined by the “Talented Tenth” that the prescient Dr. DuBois called for and assigned the historic role “of leading the mass of negroes away from the worst in their own and other races,” while setting our sights on the highest prizes.  If the youths in today’s black community enjoyed the cultural riches of the black community I grew up in, we would be on a path of progress rather than chaos.  Instead we are in an acute cultural crisis that could devastate us.

Hence I would argue that what we desperately need now is a cultural renaissance – a return to the culture that produced me; not some spurious notion of “cultural revolution,” the exact components of which nobody seems able to define.  The critical question for those who propose cultural revolution is what would they do away with, and what would they keep? In Malcolm’s case we don’t have a clue.

However if Malcolm was going to use his Islamic faith as a guide we can be sure music and dance would be gone – another bedrock of Afro-American culture.  The black church would be gone.  Freedom of expression would be gone, as there would be serious pressure on black creative writers to produce works that supported the line of the government.  High heels and miniskirts would be gone, makeup too.  And all of the endlessly creative hairstyles black women have invented in this country. This may be somebody’s idea of progress…but it sounds like a nightmare to me.  I have no real idea what Professor Marable envisions as a cultural revolution among Afro-Americans because he never defines it.  He simply alludes to it, which means that everybody can define it for themselves.

Since we already have a historical example of the chaos that ill-defined half-baked ideas about cultural revolution can lead to, one should proceed with caution.  The Cultural Revolution in China, which occurred in the decade between 1966 and 1976, is now viewed as “the years of chaos” by the Chinese people. As indeed they were.  This is because the Cultural Revolution was an attempt to stop debate about the direction Chinese economic policy should take, and enshrine Mao Tse Tung’s thought over all other points of view, even if it meant public ridicule or prison for dissenters!

On need only read “Son of the Revolution” authored by Liang Heng, in order to see what a horrific experience The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was.   A former Red Guard – the teenage shock troops armed by Mao and entrusted to enforce his edicts by purging the party apparatus of those labeled “capitalist roaders” – Liang provides an inside view of the Cultural Revolution that is a world of confusion. Party hacks who were jealous of intellectuals and artists exploited the situation to humiliate them.

Since this happened to Liang’s father we get a personal view of how devastating this was for families who were loyal to the party and Chairman Mao, when a parent was falsely accused by the “cultural revolutionaries” of being a traitor to the revolution.  It was a terrifying time for intellectuals and artists in China, because the accusations were arbitrary and therefore impossible to anticipate, or defend against.  The ultimate absurdity came when Mao’s wiggy wife Chang Ching seized the baton of a symphony conductor and declared “I’ll show you how to make revolutionary music!”  And a sonic nightmare ensued.

I can imagine similar horrors in a cultural revolution directed by Malcolm X, who was even more confused than the Chinese ideologues on cultural questions.  At least the Chinese had the theories of Mao on art and culture, the basic principles of which can be seen in Mao’s “Talks at the Yenan Forum On Literature and Art.” An attempt at “cultural revolution” led by black Marxists like Amiri Baraka would be horrific enough, see “Amiri Baraka: Thought Policeman” at commentariesonthetimes.wordpress.com, but such an attempt by Malcolm X, who was clueless about cultural matters, is unimaginable.

How could a philistine like Malcolm, who appeared to have no concept of culture and art except as vehicles for his organizational propaganda, lead a “cultural revolution?”  What would be his policies on literature, visual arts, music, dance, male/ female relations, proper attire for women, religious instruction in the schools, etc.?  I shudder at the thought; it would have been an invitation to disaster.  Yet Professor Marable seems oblivious to these questions, as he blithely prattles on about Malcolm the “cultural revolutionary.”   I heard Malcolm X speak many times in the last three years of his life, and I never heard him mention “cultural Revolution” once:  reinventions indeed.

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Dr. Marable’s constant reference to Malcolm X as a serious student of black history is a blatant instance of special pleading.  Although Amiri Baraka had a hissy fit when Dr. Marable accurately observed that Malcolm “was not a historian,” the professor was simply stating an incontestable fact – which is no big thing to impassioned ideologues.  Yet in spite of Baraka’s protest, I can find no convincing evidence that Malcolm was even a serious student of African American or African history, let alone a historian.  I was in a unique position to observe Malcolm’s qualifications in this area because I was presenting lectures on African and Afro-American history, of one hour in length, once a week on The Listening Post, a radio show hosted by Mr. Joseph H. Rainey, on WDAS AM in Philadelphia.

Malcolm was a regular on this show over the three and a half years that I knew him, and he always said to me “Keep teaching young brother.”   I kept on teaching and four years after his murder I was a founding member of the W.E. B. Dubois Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, the first full-fledged degree granting black studies department in the world!  I was the first professor to teach Afro-American and African history in Amherst.  My role on the Listening Post in the early 1960’s was unique.  After more than forty years of Black Studies on college campuses, and the easy availability of texts on black history, many of these facts are widely known.  But when I started lecturing on the radio on May 25, 1962, a half century ago, the things I was saying were shocking revelations.

Malcolm and I had many conversations at the radio station from 1962 until his murder, and he was as surprised by many of the historical facts and texts I discussed on the Listening Post as everyone else.  Professor Marable cites Malcolm’s appearances on “The Joe Rainey Show” in his last days, when he was virtually running for his life from the Fruit of Islam.  I was there when he appeared, and remember well the fear that surrounded the visit that Dr. Marable describes.  What made the situation so scary is that the radio station was located on Monument Road, near City Line Avenue on the edge of Fairmount Park, which was heavily wooded and offered many places for a sniper to hide.  Although the Philly brothers escorting Malcolm were packing heat and could return fire, it was still a touchy situation given the murderous fanatics that were stalking Malcolm.

I challenge anyone to produce lectures by Malcolm X on black history where he cites actual historical texts written by great black scholars – or white scholars – in the field.  Malcolm’s expertise in Afro-American history is a myth that’s repeated by laymen as if it were a fact, but it comes as a big surprise that Dr. Marable repeats it here without one piece of evidence. Somehow Dr. Marable conveniently overlooks the fact that if Malcolm really understood anything about the history of black people he would not have been calling himself an “Asiatic Black Man” up until the last years of his life.  He would have known that our place of origin was West Africa, not Asia, and that Islam is not an indigenous African Religion.

Malcolm would also have known that the African cultures from which we came are well represented all over the Americas; and our music, dance, cuisine, even the visual arts in much of the Americas is greatly influenced by this polytheistic cultural heritage.  Anyone who is not clear on this matter should hurry up and read Art and Altars of the Black Atlantic World, and Tango: A History of the Dance of Love, by Dr. Robert Farris Thompson, Dean of African Civilization at Yale.

The evidence of the religious heritage of Afro-Americans throughout the western diaspora can be clearly observed in the Santeria of Cuba, the Voodoo of Haiti, the Macumba of Brazil, Jamaican Pocomania, Trinidadian Shongo cults, Puerto Rican Bomba, Black American Holy Rollers, et al.  Yet Malcolm continued to insist that Islam was the true religion of the “Asiatic Black Man” until he broke with the nation, which is to say virtually his whole career in public life.

Furthermore, Malcolm would have known that the great African art which inspired Picasso, Braque, Dali, et al, and the modern art movement in sparked in Europe would never have been impossible without the Gods that inspired it, and that the Arabs he embraced as brothers not only hated African cultures and destroyed their God’s religions but had been enslaving Africans for centuries before European Christians launched the Atlantic slave trade, and they were continuing to enslave Africans when he was travelling throughout the Middle East genuflecting before them.

While there is no evidence that Malcolm knew anything about African history, there is compelling evidence that he knew nothing about the role of Arab Muslims in Africa at the time.  And it is clear that he was not reading his African contemporaries who were dealing with those questions and from whom he could have learned much.  For instance, in 1961, the year before I met Malcolm, Franz Fanon wrote a compelling analysis of the Arab/ African conflict in The Pit Falls of National Consciousness.

“In Senegal, it is the newspaper New Africa which week by week distils hatred of Islam and of the Arabs. The Lebanese, in whose hands is the greater part of the small trading enterprises on the western seaboard, are marked out for national obloquy. The missionaries find it opportune to remind the masses that long before the advent of European colonialism the great African empires were disrupted by the Arab invasion. There is no hesitation in saying that it was the Arab occupation which paved the way for European colonialism; Arab imperialism is commonly spoken of, and the cultural imperialism of Islam is condemned.”

Dr. Fanon goes on to goes to give poignant examples of how Arab racism against Black Africans is manifested.  After dividing the continent into “white” and “black” Africa, with the whites residing to the North of the vast Sahara desert and Blacks to the South, he offers the following observations.

“Yes, unfortunately it is not unknown that students from Black Africa who attend secondary schools north of the Sahara hear their schoolfellows asking if in their country there are houses, if they know what electricity is, or if they practice cannibalism in their families. Yes, unfortunately it is not unknown that in certain regions north of the Sahara Africans coming from countries south of the Sahara meet nationals who implore them to take them ‘anywhere at all on condition we meet Negroes’. In parallel fashion, in certain young states of Black Africa members of parliament, or even ministers, maintain without a trace of humor that the danger is not at all of a reoccupation of their country by colonialism but of an eventual invasion by ‘those vandals of Arabs coming from the North.’”

Dr. Franz Fanon

                                                                                    Fanon

Theoretician of the Algerian Revolution

For a more thorough discussion of this question see: Racism and the Arabs, at www.commentariesonthetimes.wordpress.comwhere I have written comprehensively on this question.    But the essential scholar to read on this issue is the late Howard University Professor of History Chancellor Williams, who has documented the shameful role Arab Muslims have played in Africa in his Magnum Opus, The Destruction of Black Civilization. After carefully studying the history of Islam in Africa Dr. Williams concluded that “blacks should view the Star and Crescent the same way Jews view the Swastika!”  It is clear that Malcolm X was oblivious to all this.

How else could he rhapsodize about seeing white Muslims in Mecca, and conclude that because he saw white and black Muslims on the Hajji there were no racial problems in the Islamic world?  Why would he promote Islam as the solution to the world’s racial problems? Why did he believe that Islam provided a vehicle for Afro-American advancement?  Obviously he would not have been running around the country attacking black Christians for practicing a slave master’s religion if he knew that Arabs have been the greatest enslavers of blacks in history; that in many Arab cultures the word for “Slave” and “Black” is synonymous!

The truth is that when Malcolm was touring the Middle East he was a lost man in search of a new direction.  He knew but little of orthodox Islam and his faith in Elijah Muhammad was shattered – although as Dr. Marable shows, it wasn’t that long ago that Malcolm had publicly described himself as “Mr. Muhammad’s Slave” – hence he was suffering a crisis of faith. Furthermore, he was despised and hounded by the US government; murder mouthed by his former brother ministers in the NOI led by his protégée Louis Farrakhan; who inherited his Mosque in Harlem;  betrayed by close friends like Muhammad Ali, and hounded by the Fruit of Islam with murder on their mind.  Malcolm also had the pressing problem of putting food on the table and keeping a roof over the heads of his wife and daughters.  He was actually in an eviction proceeding initiated by NOI, who owned the house he lived in.   Hence Malcolm was so flattered by the attention he received from the corrupt Saudi elite, he totally went for the okey doke and couldn’t see the forest for the trees.

On the contrary, when Minister Farrakhan visited the Arab Middle East many years later he saw the anti-black racism of Arabs very clearly and spoke on it.  You can see him cynically ridiculing the Arabs for their racism in speeches on You Tube.  If Malcolm X understood so much about black history why is there not a single word about the rampant anti-black racism among his Muslim “brothers” all over the Islamic world in this text…or in any of Malcolm’s speeches that I have seen?  Again I invite anyone of the Malcolm Scholars to present such evidence.  All Dr. Marable does is proclaim it so, and we are expected to take it on faith that the professor knows what he is talking about.   Alas, this claim does not meet the rigorous rules of evidence demanded by professional historians.  And I shall continue to insist that those rules be met by others who make this claim.

The question also arises that if Malcolm was such a student of Afro-American history why didn’t he understand that the abolitionist movement which ended slavery, by pushing the North and South into a Civil War, could not have succeeded without white allies?  And that these white allies were driven to oppose slavery by Christian teachings just like the whites who joined the Civil rights movement?  Why didn’t he know about all the white Quakers who opposed slavery and financed educational institutions for free black people?  Why didn’t he know that the only volume of history written on slave revolts in the US at the time was written by a Jewish Scholar, Dr. Herbert Aptheker, who had also compiled the definitive collection of Afro-American historical documents that covered two volumes and comprised two million words; a work that rivaled Henry Steele Commager’s seminal “Documents in American History.”

If Malcolm knew these things how could he go around for years preaching that all whites were devils?  What would that say about his integrity?  All of these issues point out the fact that in spite of his stated intention of stripping away the mythology surrounding Malcolm X, and revealing the real man, Professor Marable has added to the myth with his special pleading.  Nowhere is this failing more prominently displayed than in his constant reference to the dangerous ahistorical thesis of the “House Negro/Field Negro dichotomy proffered by Malcolm. In Malcolm’s telling of this history the House Negroes were all in love with their masters and were contented slaves; the Field Negroes were the leaders of the rebellions…the revolutionaries.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

To the Field Negro, who only saw the master adorned in the trappings of power astride his fine horses, dressed in fine garments, and armed with rifles and pistols giving orders to a posse of the white subordinates who ruled their lives with arbitrary power, he must have looked all powerful.  But as the old adage goes: “no man is a hero to his butler.”  It was the house slaves who saw the master and his family for the flawed, evil, hypocritical, decadent, characters that they were.  Furthermore, the world of the field slave was so constricted most could not imagine a world beyond the plantation, except in the afterlife.

For most, the plantation was the only world they knew.  It was the House Slaves and tradesmen that got a chance to travel off the plantation and see a wider world.  And if it is human nature for familiarity to breed contempt, it stands to reason that it was the house slaves who hated the master most. Hence the people who organized slave revolts like Nat Turner, Gabriel Prosser, Denmark Vessey, Toussiant L’Overture, etc. none were field slaves.  Frederick Douglass wasn’t a field Negro either; he was a skilled tradesman who often worked off the plantation and got to see a wider view of the world.

It was Frederick Douglass after all who warned John Brown that his plans for a mass slave revolt, which would begin in Virginia, sparked by his seizing of the Federal armory at Harper’s Ferry, would not succeed.  Brown planned to arm the slaves with military weapons after taking the arsenal, but Frederick Douglass was adamant in his position that the masses of field slaves would not join him.  He actually met with John Brown in a Maryland stone quarry on the eve of the attack and tried to dissuade him from it.  Alas, the course of events soon proved Douglass right, in this as in so many other things.  How is it that this myth spouted by Malcolm has nullified all the evidence to the contrary, even in the eyes of people who consider themselves serious scholars?  On this question, Dr. Marable and his critics both fail abysmally.

Frederick Douglass
Frederick douglass
No Field Negro Here!

While John Brown met his demise trying to incite a mass rebellion among field slaves, Douglass chose a different mode of struggle that did bring slavery down by the mighty arm of the Federal government just six years later.   When he chose the abolitionists strategy of argument and mass protests that exposed the hypocrisy of the nation the skillful use of words was his most potent weapon.  Hence Douglass became so enamored with the power of words that he taught himself to read and that really opened up new worlds to him.   He devoured books of history, philosophy, and rhetoric; developing into one of the great writers and orators of his age. Malcolm could have learned much from him…yet I never heard Malcolm once quote from Douglass, who had a quote for any situation that was likely to arise.  His biographer, the pioneering Afro-American historian Dr. Benjamin Quarles, said he couldn’t find a bad line penned by Douglass as he carefully studied his papers.

The most serious problem with the House Negro/Field Negro myth is that Malcolm used it to indict the leadership of the civil rights movement….and black intellectuals in general.  Yet this class, which Dr. Dubois called the “Talented Tenth,” also supplied the leaders of the radical movement – Marxist communists and Revolutionary Nationalists.  Just as it was the learned Afro-American clergy that originally created black-nationalist ideology beginning in the 18th century.  Ironically, Max Stanford, who along with myself founded the Revolutionary Action Movement in Philadelphia in 1962, came from quite a bourgeois background.  His father, after whom he is named, was a prosperous businessman and the President of the black golfers association in Philadelphia.  You can’t get more bourgeois that that.

Furthermore, Max, like Kwame Toure, Huey Newton, Bobby Seales, Don Freeman, H. Rap Brown, Maulana Karenga, and most of the leaders of the radical youths had attended college.  And so had many of the outstanding Marxists radicals who were our antecedents, like Paul Robeson, Ben Davis, William L. Patterson, Alpheous Hunton, et al; most of whom attended the elite white universities where, like the house slaves of antebellum days, they got to view the master class up close.   As were their descendants like Angela Davis, Tony Montiero, Manning Marable, et al.   It was in college that I first heard of socialism and thought it might be a good idea for my people.  It was in also in college that I got involved in the Civil rights movement and learned that we could change America through disciplined collective struggle.

It was college students, not lumpen street elements, or the uneducated working class youths, who launched the movement.  It was college students who founded SNCC, and most of the organizations leaders and staff were college educated.  In other words these were young people who had solid middle class values, the “House Negroes.”  The idea that “field niggers” led the black radical movement in the 1060’s is a dangerously misguided fiction!  Again, the ever insightful Harold Cruse put things in their proper perspective regarding my generation of Black “revolutionary” Nationalist…”they would even be misinterpreted on Freedomways by John Hendrix Clarke,” wrote Cruse, “who describe the ‘new Afro-American nationalism’ as proletarian, when, in fact, it was crowded with young intellectuals, artists, writers, poets, and Musicians.”  True dat!  I know, because I was there.

And look at what they became when they left the movement – most are highly successful middle class professionals.  And what all of them who now celebrate the wisdom of “field niggers” need to understand, is that to the contemporary field niggers – aka “street niggers” – they are all “house niggers.”  Just keeping it real yo.  The fact is, as the brilliant writer Albert Murray argues in The Omni-Americans, it is only discontented déclassé intellectuals who even ask the kinds of questions that lead to revolutionary activism.  It is this insight that spawned the riddle during the 1920’s: “What is a black radical? An overeducated West Indian who is unemployed!”

Hence the House/Negro Field Negro dichotomy is pure poppycock, a self-defeating myth invented by a man who understood little about actual Afro-American history.   Malcolm was a talented propagandist who created a version of history that served his ideological and organizational objectives.  But it remains a mystery why Professor Marable propagates it as if it were historical fact; which greatly detracts from the quality of his analysis.

Equally puzzling and disappointing is the gleeful way Dr. Marable recounts how Malcolm is lionized by Islamic Jihadists, who used that same false House Negro/ Field Negro analogy. “The al-Qaeda network is also sufficiently aware of America racial politics to make sharp distinctions between mainstream Afro-American leaders and black revolutionaries like Malcolm…An al Qaeda video- released following the election of Barack Obama in November 2008 a “race traitor,” and “hypocrite” when compared to Malcolm X.”

For Professor Marable to quote these murderous, ignorant, racist, Islamic fanatics’ evaluation of President Obama without comment is, in my view, the greatest single failure of this book!  The al-Qaeda statement went on to say “And in Barack Obama and Colin Powell, and Condoleezza Rice and your likes, the words of Malcolm X (may Allah have mercy on him) concerning house Negroes are confirmed.”  Since I have never heard a word of condemnation from al-Qaeda about anti-black racism and slavery among Arabs, I for one don’t give a fuck what they think!  Furthermore, they chose Malcolm not because he was a “black revolutionary,” but because he was a Muslim fanatic.  It is obvious that Professor Marable does not understand that in a country run by Al-Qaeda, secular leftist intellectuals like him would be put to the sword!

These are people who believe the biggest mistake in the history of Mankind was the separation of church and state that created a secular polity and ushered in the modern world. Obviously Professor Marable had never read “Milestones,” a seminal statement by Sayyed Guthb – the premiere theologian of the modern Jihad – condemning secular society and calling for the establishment of Sharia law everywhere.  They are the manifestation of the desire to “return to primitive medievalism” that Dr. Fanon warned against in Algeria.  Almost fifty years later the FLN is still at war with militant Islamist to keep them from taking over the state and hurling the country back to the middle ages.

While most of Dr. Marable’s black critics appear to believe that he is out to slander and defame Malcolm X, I think he has been overly generous in his celebration of Malcolm’s ideas about a strategy and tactics for black advancement in the US.   Which is why I am puzzled about his comments regarding John Walker Lindh, a seriously confused white guy from California who goes off and joins the Taliban in Afghanistan after watching Spike Lee’s Movie on Malcolm and reading the Autobiography. Dr. Marable identifies Lindh as a radical “Islamic convert and Talibanist,” then he tells us: “Lidhn’s fascination grew into fierce determination. In October 2003, as American forces stormed into Afghanistan, Lidhn was captured among the Taliban combatants and is now serving a twenty year sentence.  Lidhn’s religious advisor, Shakeel Syed, is convinced that Lidnh could ‘become the next Malcolm X.”  Say what?   Is fuckrie dis, as the Rastaman would say.

This is a comment that cries for a analysis from Professor Marable; he at least owes it to the reader to say whether he thinks this is true or hyperbole.  After all, he thought the comment worth quoting, and the thoughtful reader cannot help wondering why?  The Taliban was the most backward regime on earth before the US overthrew them.  I felt the world should have overthrown them sooner given their horrible oppression of women.  As the father of two smart feisty daughters I despise them!  But Dr. Marable seems there is cause for celebration in this story.

Alas, we will never be able to interrogate him on his intentions here, so we are left to speculate.  And while I don’t share the views of those who believe that Dr. Marable was on a mission to defame Malcolm X; he did a pretty good job of it here.  To suggest that this sadly confused white guy could become the successor to Malcolm X strikes me as …..well, insane!  Considering how backward these people are, it is the kiss of death to suggest that Malcolm had anything in common with these murderous, reactionary, Islamic Zealots.   It would be more than enough to disqualify him for any serious role as a “political theorist” in the movement for black liberation here or in Africa.

At this point in the discussion it should be abundantly clear to anyone who is not blinded by ideology, is that had we followed Malcolm’s advice and took up arms in a race war with the well-armed white majority, not only would we have been crushed but the backlash would have been devastating. We would still have legal Apartheid in America; blacks in the south would never have gotten the right to vote; the War on Poverty and Affirmative Action programs that quadrupled the black middle class would never have happened, and the police agencies of the state would have us under watch like Al Qaeda.

As my uncle Jimmy, a decorated combat officer who fought with the Australians against the Imperial Army of Japan in World War II point outs: We would all be suspected terrorists just now because any resort to violence would have to employ terrorist tactics; which is the only choice open to a people so out-numbered and out gunned.  Elijah was having none of it because he recognized that course of action for the suicidal folly that it was.

Since the masses of black Americans concurred and wisely followed the leadership of Dr. King instead, not only did we destroy the legal caste system in America and gain the right to vote, but we have a black family in the White House – a truly historic achievement.  There is no more compelling evidence of the cluelessness and irrelevance of black leftist radicals and reactionary Nationalists, which magnifies their alienation from the true aspirations of the black masses, than their tendency to sneer at this magnificent victory for Afro-Americans.

As the prescient Trinidadian calypsonian “Crazy,” who predicted America would soon have a black President in his song “In Times to Come” noted: “The election of President Obama is a great thing for black people everywhere.”  Ninety percent of black American’s agree.  If Malcolm X were here I think he would also agree….and if he didn’t he would be out of step with most black people the same way he was when he was alive.   In any case, Professor Marable has made Malcolm so many things for which there is no convincing evidence the careful reader is forced to wonder: Is Dr. Marable’s Malcolm yet another invention?

 Malcolm and Ali in their Glory Days
Malcolm-X-and-Muhammad-Ali
He would soon stab Malcolm in the back

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

Playthell  Benjamin

Harlem, New York

April, 2012

Our Oracle Shuts the Door

Posted in Book Reviews, Cultural Matters, Guest Commentators on May 16, 2013 by playthell

Achebe Elder

The peerless scribe and Master Teacher at work

 A Brief Tribute to Professor Chinua Achebe

I wouldn’t like to describe Professor Chinalumogo Achebe as an Iroko tree.  No, he was mightier than that.  In a thick forest of copious trees, one tree always stands out: the Uzi tree. It is taller than the Oroko.  The Uzi is always rare; sometimes, only one appears in an entire forest.  But there could be many Irokos in a forest.  They even stand on the streets, everywhere.  No, Achebe was not that common.  He was loftier than his fame.

The bark of an Uzi tree is medicinal. Many herbalists, experienced and upcoming, approach it with machetes to cut off a portion to cure diseases, yet the tree stands unscathed. It does not shed its leaves. It does not bleed. It only exudes its sap when the herbalists immerse the shredded bark in a keg of alcohol or water, in order to have the medicine seep out. During windy, fierce hamattan seasons, irokos could have their branches broken. This deficiency does not apply to Uzi. And whenever there is need for wood, people hack irokos down, but the Uzi is revered, with its lush, swanky green leaves attracting a large pilgrimage of avian animals. Achebe’s fiction is medicinal, undeniably sacrosanct.

It has cured the world of many diseases of the mind: racial discrimination, religious intolerance, mental slavery, subjugation of thought, entrapment of black intellects, disdain for Africa’s indigenous cultures and religions, among others. Chinua Achebe, through his extraordinary defensive literature, gave Africa a new positive interpretation. Africans became proud of Africa, although there are still islands of mental and religious slaves around the continent. His rare shrewdness detected every prejudice against Africa, no matter how nuanced, and he reacted appropriately.

As a young boy growing up in rural, southeastern Nigeria, I did not have the privilege of reading foreign books. Even as a toddler, I never read illustrated children’s books. They were not available in the village. I depended on indigenous African literature, which I didn’t buy, couldn’t buy, but I read as much as I could borrow from friends and neighbours. I realised that each time I went borrowing, I was offered a Chinua Achebe book. One of my primary school teachers once lied to me that the Bible was written in heaven and flung down to the world.

I started to wonder whether Achebe’s books were among those things that God had created in the sky and thrown down, because the books were ubiquitous in the village—and understandable. When I went to the stream to fetch water, students from secondary schools discussed Achebe’s fiction with joy. I could identify with the things written there: our village foods, our masquerades, our family system, our method of farming, our animals and many other native valuables embellished in his stories. It was as though the stories were set in my own village. It became normal, for me, that one must read Achebe so as to be considered educated.

In the village, the ability to speak a speck of correct English was applauded. We, the village children, gathered around city boys and kids who had returned home for Christmas, listening to their English, willing ourselves to speak asupili supili like them, a fact that made us almost detest our native Igbo Language. Our inability to speak English early enough caused a sort of inferiority complex in us. We spoke English with fear and conservative dignity because we thought it difficult, full of strict rules of grammar that one could not break. I later figured out, my ribs bashing with amusement, that the city people’s English was odiously ungrammatical, a local contrivance to achieve fluency: pidgin. Achebe, through his books, demystified the English Language for me. The books are simplified with supple details. Achebe made English approachable, configured it to taste like Igbo in my mouth.

I comprehended that one could speak English with a stocky Igbo mouth, found out that English is not better than Igbo; they are both equivalent in all ramifications. As an adult, I did not have the grace of meeting him, face-to-face; it was not necessary because I meet him daily through my stack of his books, my treasures. The human mouth is full of lies, but Achebe’s fiction is full of truths, undeniable facts. The immortality of his writings is unquestionable. Some men shouldn’t die!

Today our oracle has shut the door, but he still remains inside the holy shrine. In Africa, people don’t catapult themselves to unknown destinations when they die; they stay (in the spiritual world) around their families to plan and supervise the affairs of the mortals, sheltering the humans with divine protections of all sorts. Chukwu chebe muo gi!

Professor Chinua Achebe has joined the league of worthy ancestors, a dynasty of international literary forefathers and mothers whose works remain perpetual: Eudora Welty, William Shakespeare, Cyprian Ekwensi, Edith Wharton, Charles Dickens, Zora Neale Hurston, Amos Tutuola, Ernest Hemingway, Margaret Mitchell, Thomas Hardy, Flannery O’Connor, Willa Cather, and many others. Achebe will stay in the land of prestigious African ancestors to inspire new pieces of fabulous fiction in the new generation of African writers. We are all waiting for his inspiration.

Writers don’t die. Has Chinua Achebe died? No! The Uzi tree does not die like that. The Igbo say uwa bu ahia—the world is a market: you come, trade and step aside, and not necessarily die. Achebe lives in every creative mind, solidly.

Father of a Tradition

Achebe III

 He set the standard for African Novelist

 ****************

Jekwu Anyaegbuna

03/26/2013

 Originally published in the Massachusetts Review.  Reprinted with permission of MR.

Jekwu Anyaegbuna is a Nigerian writer. He won the 2012 Commonwealth Short Story Prize for Africa. He has just completed his first novel. His story “The Waiting Stool” appears in the current
issue of MR.

Mucking Around In Our history

Posted in Book Reviews, Cultural Matters, Playthell on politics with tags , , on March 17, 2010 by playthell

 

 Dr. Carter G. Woodson: Father Of Afro-American History

 

On The Texas Text Book Imbroglio

Serious students and professors of history are alarmed by the news from the increasingly wacky state of Texas that the politicians, not scholars, will now decide the content of history text books.  This is the sad consequence of demands by misguided parents backed by organized right-wing groups, and the result was graphically illustrated in a letter to the editor in the March 16, edition of the New York Times. Written by Dr. Daniel Czitrom, a professor of history at Mount Holyoke College, he tells us how a book he co-authored was excluded “allegedly for an offensive passage discussing prostitution on the western frontier.”

Even if that was the real reason it would have been an outrage, but Professor Czitrom was to discover that his book – “Out of Many: A History of the American People” – was sacked for a more ominous reason. “Many conservatives are simply unwilling to accept how much the writing and teaching of American history have changed in the last forty years.”  He writes. “They want an American history that ignores or marginalizes African Americans, women, Latinos, immigrants and popular culture.  They prefer a pseudo-patriotic history that denies the fundamental conflicts that have shaped our past.”

Professor Czitrom’s comment regarding the last forty years in the historical profession really struck home with me.  It was forty years ago that I became a professor at the University of Massachusetts, which was right down the road from Hampshire College.  For anyone teaching history on the college level it was an exciting time, because it was an era of revisionist writing in American history. And the relationship between politics and history were crystal clear to those of us who were attacking the prevailing master narrative of American civilization. 

According to this narrative American society has always been committed to the proposition that “all men were treated equal and endowed by their creator with unalienable rights.”  Dominant themes in the American story – slavery, genocide, sexism, apartheid, imperialism against Latin American nations, the seizure of large slices of Mexican territory by force of arms, suppression of the right to vote, etc. – were omitted or reduced to insignificance.  The Black Studies movement spearheaded this flush of revisionism in the historical canon, and the W.E. B. Dubois Department of Afro-American Studies – the first degree granting department in the country, of which I was a founding member – was in the forefront.

Now that all of this revisionist research and writing has resulted in a more accurate narrative of the building of the nation, one which includes all of the heretofore excluded peoples and events, the hysterics on the right are calling for a rewriting of the text books that dredges up the same old white racist, sexist fictions and call it “balanced and unbiased” history.  It was this kind of history teaching that caused Dr. Carter G. Woodson to establish “The Association for the Study of Negro Life and History,” in the second decade of the twentieth century. Dr. Woodson believed the racist mythology that was being taught as history in American schools supplied a defense for the system of white supremacy that prevailed in American society.

Here the distinction between history and propaganda becomes of critical importance.  History is the process by which we attempt to understand the present through the objective study of the past.  Propaganda aims to manipulate or falsify facts about the past in order to serve objectives in the present.  The American Exceptionalist ideologues on the right are interested only in propaganda that can be employed in the service of their reactionary objectives.

These are the types of people who are leading the Texas fight to nullify years of prodigious research by professional historians to try and get the true story of the making of America written.  Alas their actions reflect the general Republican contempt for education that has led them to even denigrate Ivy League degrees, and celebrate ignoramuses like Sarah Palin.  Hence the present attempt to deny America’s school children the opportunity to know from whence they came, is but one many disservices these demented charlatans have inflicted on America’s students.  Yet this is an especially grievous offense, for this knowledge is essential equipment for successfully living in contemporary American society.

Should the Texans get their way with the history books, their folly then becomes a national problem. Since Texas is the largest market for text books they could influence which books will get published.  And this will be a disaster that will surely set our country back a half century, or more, in terms of achieving an ethnically diverse, pluralistic society with justice for all.

********

 

Harlem New York

March 17, 2010

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

Praise Song For a Cheveleir

Posted in Book Reviews, Music Reviews on October 13, 2009 by playthell

Chevelair Saint George

Chevelier St. George III

 

  Gifted  Composer, Virtuoso violinist, Master Swordsman, Revolutionaru

 

 Gabriel Banat Resurrects a Musical Ancestor

 Around forty years ago I was leafing through J.A. Rogers’ remarkable study The World’s Great Men of Color from 3,000 B.C. to 1946 A.D. – a two volume tome that changed my life – and I stumbled upon the picture of a dashing dusky man who looked like my buddy Sonny Jackson with long hair and dressed in the ostentatious style of European noblemen I saw in the movies.   He was holding a sword in one hand and the caption said he was the “Chevalier de Saint Georges.”  It was clear to me that this handsome, intriguing figure from the distant past was unlike any black man or “Negro,” as we were universally known back then, I had ever seen.  So I lingered upon the page and read the biographical sketch that accompanied the picture.   The tersely written tale told me enough about the highlights of his life to cause me to insert him into a novel I’ve written decades later.  But since the book was fiction it didn’t require me to seek knowledge of this fascinating character beyond what I had learned from Rogers. 

 As it turns out, most of what has been written about St. Georges by those who have pretended to be about the business of writing serious history has also turned out to be fiction.  But Gabriel Banat has finally set the record straight in his new book, The Chevalier St. Georges: Virtuoso of the Sword and Bow, published as a part of PENDRAGON books “Lives In Music Series.”  This fully fleshed biography is history at its best – and as a former history professor who never lost my curiosity about the past I have read thousands of historical tomes.  First of all, when dealing with a subject who has a specialized skill, the narrative is always enriched if the historian is also a master of the same trade.  When the skill is of such a magnitude that it amounts to a rare gift, and the product of their genius a kind of inexplicable alchemy – such as mastering the violin, composing string quartets, symphonies and operas, then conducting them all – having another great musician tell his story is on the order of a blessing.

 Gabriel Banat, one of the great violin virtuoso’s of the twentieth century, has told the Chevalier’s story superbly.   In a book of nearly six hundred pages we are graced with a richly documented elegantly written narrative of the Life of Joseph Bologne, the mulatto son of a wealthy French planter on the Caribbean Island of Guadeloupe, who was taken by his father to Paris as a child when he realized that the racial laws on the island would afford his dusky son no chance to excel in life.   This proved to be a good move because young Joseph would grow up to be one of the most famous and accomplished men in 18th century Parisian society as France’s greatest swordsmen and one of the era’s finest violinist/composers.  As a Hungarian Jew who was a child prodigy on the violin when the Nazis’ invaded his home land and his prosperous middle class parents became fugitives from the German death machine, Banat is able to empathize with the racial ordeals of St. Georges in a way that most white men could not.  And the reader benefits from his insights as he reconstructs the inner life of St. Georges.

  The extent to which a biographer succeeds at his task is more often than not determined by whether they can get the right balance between the personal narrative of the subject and the details necessary to reconstruct the historical milieu in which that life develops.  It is a task that has tested the talents of many seasoned historians for whom history writing is a life work undertaken after rigorous training in the field.  Which makes this work something of a marvel, considering that the author has spent his life mainly as a great performing musician, because this is not simply a good history for a musician to have written; it would be an exemplary work for anyone to have authored.  

  To the good fortune of the careful reader Mr. Banat has adroitly woven the life narrative of St. Georges through the tumultuous history of his times, a period that encompasses the three great bourgeois revolutions of the Eighteenth Century in America, France and Haiti.  Not only does he discuss the impact of these events on French society, but how they affected St. Georges personally and his response to them.  For instance he recounts how St. Georges commanded an all black regiment in the French Revolution and fought to suppress slavery in Haiti.

 Mr. Banat has searched the archives with a fine eye for the relevant documents to support his fantastic tale.  Facsimiles of some of them are reproduced in this text, which gives the reader the impression that they are witnessing history in the making.  Mr. Banat, who argues that his subject’s parents were in love not just the master/slave relationship that was the common practice in Guadeloupe, took special care to retrieve the documents verifying that St. Georges father went back to Guadeloupe and brought his African mother to join them in Paris, thus demonstrating his love for her.

 But in the end this is a story about an amazing individual of whom his biographer says: “One would be hard pressed to find an adventure novel more captivating than the factual story of the Chevalier de St Georges…His physical prowess, particularly in the art of fencing, attracted the attention of Louis XV, who made him a gendarme du roi and a chevalier.”  A skilled horseman, prodigious swimmer, master musician, revolutionary leader, ladies man and bon vivant, plus the best dressed man at the Versailles Courts of Louis the XV and XVI, there was no more striking figure in Enlightenment France than the Chevalier St. Georges.

 As a former Smith college professor, conductor and virtuoso violinist who has performed the master works of the violin literature with the world’s leading orchestras Mr. Banat has extensive knowledge of European classical music and the art of violin playing; which he displayed to the delight of an admiring audience in the Bruno Walter Auditorium in the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts last Thursday, February 22. In a vastly informative lecture in which he reconstructed the life, times, and music of Chevalier St. Georges, Banat was simultaneously the careful historian with his power point presentations of official documents, pictures and musical scores projected on a giant screen, and the virtuoso violinist performing St. Georges compositions for the violin.  Some were in quartet form; others were for violin and piano.  

 In order to illustrate his arguments for the importance of St. Georges as a transitional figure in the development of violin technique and composition in eighteenth century Europe – which is where all the action was – he performed passages from other composers who were influenced by his ideas; such as the great Germans Mozart and Beethoven.   Projecting the scores up on the giant screen he would discuss their logic and architecture and then play them for us, tracing the development of musical ideas from St. Georges through the work and collaborations of particular violinist and composers.  

 Gabriel Banat

      Ganriel Banat     

Virtuoso violinist and Biographer of St. George

 

Although Mr. Banat considers himself in retirement—after suffering through two rotator cuff operations, which sounds more like a football player’s fate than a musician’s –and is reluctant to play in public anymore, his performance was splendid even by his elevated standards.   If virtuosity is the ability to make the difficult look easy, then Gabriel Banat remains the virtuoso par excellence – as all who witnessed him play some passages from St. Georges Concerto for violin Opus 5 #2 will attest.  Now an octogenarian, he began playing the violin at seven years old and gave his first professional performance at twelve.   He was forty three years old when he joined the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in the first violinist chair, and he still has and amazing clarity of tone that is warm and sparkles with a rich lyricism. 

  The distinguished musicians who collaborated with Gabriel in this love fest for the largely ignored Chevalier – Violinist Kathleen Thomson, Violist Diana Banat and Cellist Gerald Kagan – were all first rate.  The sound of the quartet was so exquisitely balanced it was clear to me that only superb musicians with a spiritual bond could have produced it.  The acoustics in the recital room was excellent and I could hear each instrument clearly in the mix, which made it possible to enjoy St. Georges’ beautiful harmonies and witty repartee between the various viol voices.  And Susan Kaman’s piano accompaniment was superb, the brilliant notes rolling out of the Baldwin Grand like silver streams from a sonic fountain, on the duet she performed with Gabriel Banat.  Together these master musicians produced the airy elegance of the Rocco style with such authenticity that I could close my eyes and let the music transport me back to some petite drawing room in Versailles crowded with extravagantly gowned belles and perfumed dandies.  The Afro-American novelist/essayist Ralph Ellison, an itinerant musician who wrote so insightfully about music, once correctly observed that “Music gives resonance to memory,” and great music can also stimulate the imagination.

  There will be many celebrations of black genius during this Afro-American History Month, but I doubt that any will be more truly informative or entertaining.  It was a tour de force – as many in the audience who had come after hearing him on my radio show “Round bout Midnight” on WBAI the night before – told me.  One Afro-American father brought his two young sons who are budding violinists.  I watched as they sat wide-eyed, their animated body language revealing their excitement, and I knew if it could pass the test of these candid critics – who are innocent of deceit – it was indeed a good show.  Bravo!  

 

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Playthell Benjamin

Feburary 24, 2009

True To The Game

Posted in Book Reviews on October 7, 2009 by playthell

The Adventures of a New Jack Gangsta Moll

 Openineg night at the Chimney Club 237

 She tells the story from the perspective of a “high yella: Fly girl

In her self-published first novel True To The Game, a play upon the old hustler’s motto “True to the code,” Philadelphia writer Terri Woods has given us an intimate look into the world of the young rich gangsta class that ascended in black inner-city neighborhoods during the Crack plague of the 1980′s.  Although she calls the book a “fable,” like rap music, the bold New Jack anthems which is the sound track of Ms. Wood’s generation, the novel keeps it real, looking unsentimentally at the thrills and the tragedies of the cocaine cowboy life.  And, interestingly enough, while Ms. Woods’ literary heroes are Iceberg Slim aka Robert Beck, Donald Goines and Jackie Collins, her business model is Master P, a ghetto rapper/entrepreneur in New Orleans who became a Hip Hop mogul worth over $300 million. 

Like Master P, Woods has produced her own creative product and began its publication by selling it out of her car trunk on busy street corners in the black neighborhoods in Philly before finding outlets in the community that would sell her book. And like Robert Beck and Donald Goines, she observed the street life she chronicles at close range.  Of course, Chester Himes, a great novelist, also belongs to this tradition.  But Himes had no influence on Ms. Woods because she was unaware of Himes’ existence while writing True to the Game, and had yet to read a single line by him as of this writing.

 

Teri Woods, down with words and true to the game.This is a reflection of the fact that Ms. Woods is a hip/hop novelist–who describes herself as an “underground writer”–with no literary pretensions.  Like Himes, or Ice T, she felt compelled to write because she believed that she had lived an experience in America that had not been properly taken note of by the fabulists of contemporary American life, and yet it is a story that deserves to be told.  Himes began writing in the Ohio State Prison, where he was doing time for armed robbery, because he felt that he had discovered a dark side of human character that most people were unfamiliar with and he wanted to explore it.  As perverse as this may seem it is hard to imagine that Ohio State University, with all of its learned professors of literature, could have provided Himes either the leisure to write, or the subject matter for literary exploration comparable to what he found in the joint.  The point here is that while literary critics are generally the product of academia, writers come from everywhere, not just from the ranks of those who nurture literary ambitions.

Terri Woods had never thought of being a writer but she decided to write True To The Game because “I couldn’t find anybody who was writing the story I lived for a few years in the 1980′s when I was a teenager and looked like every nigga I knew was makin’ millions and livin’ large from the coke business.  I mean, it was incredible, guys I knew from the neighborhood were actually makin’ millions!  Then by the beginning of the nineties they were all gone, either dead or in jail.” What we have then in this gripping little book, which is actually 70 pages longer than Chinua Achebe’s great novel on the destruction of traditional African culture Things Fall Apart, are voices from a lost world.

            True To The Game is a sharply drawn minimalist portrait of the glitter, glamour and ultimate tragedy of a ghetto fabulous gangsta society whose lifestyle was financed by fool’s gold mined from the vapors of smoldering cocaine rocks.  It is a world of Glock totin’ urban cowboys who ride the streets of America’s cities in Range Rovers, Mercedes Benzes, Rolls Royces and BMWs with their fly girls at their side.  And it was all wiped out in a flash, like Dinosaurs in the aftermath of a cosmic explosion, rendered null and void by a crackdown of the police power of the state at the insistence of a fed-up citizenry.

            What ultimately sets this novel apart from the gangsta chronicles of Beck, Goines and Himes, aside from the fact that Himes skillfully employed parody to illuminate the absurdity of black life in mid-twentieth century America, is that these books are told from a male perspective, while TTTG‘s point of view is that of one of the high yellow fly-girls who decorate the arms and share the opulent but dangerous lifestyles of the young drug lords who became folk heroes to poor youths trapped in America’s post-industrial cities.  It is a point of view that Ms. Woods appears well qualified to tell.

            The fact that she is a round-the-way girl and not an intellectual who is familiar with the sociological literature on the black underclass is a distinct asset. And her apparent indifference to feminist arguments is also a plus.  For in the absence of these pedagogical and ideological polemics, what we are left with is the unadorned observations of a gifted storyteller trying to keep it real.  Like James Baldwin, arguably one of the greatest American novelists of the twentieth century, used to define his role, Ms. Woods is a witness.

            That her prose style does not approach the eloquence, erudition and technical virtuosity of Baldwin’s is beside the point. The language she uses is perfectly suited to both her subject and her intended audience, and her narrative technique is adequate to the demands of her story.  Through her central character Gena, a feisty redbone fly girl with a near fatal attraction to rich ebony colored gangstas, whose voice dominates the narrative, we are made privy to the language, world view, and vulgar materialistic values of the fly girls and the young Philly dope dealers who flooded the black community with crack cocaine and terrorized its citizens with impromptu gunfire that was liable to break out anywhere.

            A ghetto flower with a high school education, Gena has no skills that can command a comfortable wage in the new hi-tech service economy of late twentieth century Philadelphia.  Hence she and her girlfriends, who also feel trapped in ghetto poverty and going nowhere fast, decide to trade on their looks and snare a rich dope dealer.   They are thoroughly fascinated with the glamour of the player’s life and often choose to go with the highest bidder. 

            It is a fascination we are acquainted with at the opening of the novel, when Gena and her best friend Sahirah drive up to Harlem from Philly in a rented car looking to hang out.  “It wasn’t like Philly.  It was larger, and the niggaz looked like Eric B. and Rakim, with humungous gold chains and diamond medallions the size of bread plates.  If it was meant to represent wealth, that shit did its job.  And Gena liked it.  She looked at the girls and could not help staring at them.  They had no clothes on.  They were sexy and revealing, and Gena wanted to be amongst them, fucking with niggaz, getting her life on. New York was the shit.”

            Ms. Wood’s fine ear for dialogue and her insight into the psychology of these black gangsta molls both humanize them and expose them as the scheming skeezers that they are.  And while she is meticulous in describing the jewelry, clothes, fly cribs, fast cars, high grade cannabis, and champagne parties that marked the lifestyle of these sporting ladies, she is also unsparing in describing the often horrible fates they inevitably meet when the sweet life turns treacherous.  Her critical eye is no less exacting when she turns her attention to the shortcomings of the “brothers,” who range from homicidal maniacs to egotistical Mack daddies, to patsies for the fly girls. 

But amidst all the games people are playing Gena meets Quandir, a tall dark handsome multi-millionaire coke dealer with a college degree and aspirations to become a dentist, and he soon becomes her “man of life.”  Gena and Quandir have a great love affair that lasts for most of the novel, and ends only when he is assassinated in one of the terrifying shootouts depicted in this novel.  Since this happens after he has quit the dope trade, and it cost him a cool million to be able to walk away in peace, Ms. Woods leaves us with the clear message that no matter how sweet the drug life is, in the end it will wreck you.  And therein lies the most important lesson of this book.

As a person who came of age roaming the streets of west Philadelphia in the 1950′s, reading this book was a revelation.  When I left Philly in 1969, the city was a waning industrial town where the black working class could still find manufacturing jobs that would enable one to support a family, and purchase a house and car; things that most Americans regard as their birth right. But as industry after industry left the area the black working class was placed in an increasingly untenable economic position.  By the time crack appeared on the scene during the 80′s, the depressed black community was fertile ground for suppliers and consumers.  This book provides a revealing look at what happened.  And, as Gena observes, a big part of the disaster that struck the black community of Philadelphia resulted from the fact that “A whole generation decided not to raise their kids.”

For people of my generation, who entered their teen years in the 1950′s, this book is barometer for how much black life inner city has deteriorated over the last 35 to 40 years.  For instance, the Richard Allen projects in north Philly is depicted as a hell-hole, but this is where Bill Cosby and conservative economist Dr. Walter Williams were raised along with many other successful black Philadelphians.  And the fact that the taking of Arabic names and embracing Islam were commitment rituals for radical activist committed to uplifting the African American community in the 1950′s and 60′s, but had become the distinguishing characteristic for a brotherhood of dope dealers wreaking havoc on their community by the eighties, is a sure sign of decadence!

All the dope dealers greet each other with “As Salaam Alaikum” before discussing a dope deal, planning a hit on another “brother,” or talking about women as if they were all born whores.  It’s as if things went backwards in black Philadelphia; “Babylon to Ras!” as the Rastafarians would say.   When I asked Ms. Woods about her depiction of the dope dealing fraternity as Muslims, she said, ” I’m just writing about what I saw.”  In other words, she is being true to the game. 

 

Text and Photo by: Playthell Benjamin

Cover Model: The Fabulous Aja!

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Love Across Color Lines

Posted in Book Reviews with tags , , , , , , , on October 2, 2009 by playthell


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Frederick Douglass: A Chick Magnet

 The Secret Loves of Frederick Douglass

         It was like visiting a shrine, a holy place dedicated to the memory of a beloved ancestor.  That’s how I felt on that steamy Saturday afternoon during the heat wave last August, when I entered Cedar Hill, a stately white mansion perched high on a hill in the impoverished black Anacosta section of the nations Capitol, which was the last earthly home of Frederick Douglass before he danced off and joined the gods.Everything was pretty much as it had been when the great black abolitionist orator, editor, and human rights activist dropped dead of a heart attack in the foyer at the age of seventy seven, one hundred and four years ago.  A red light still marks the spot where he fell while leaving to attend a meeting – probably to offer eloquent argument in defense of black America’s rapidly deteriorating civil rights, which were evaporating like water in the Mississippi sun only four years before the Plessy vs. Furgueson decision.

Although I had read and reread Douglass’ writings many times since I first discovered them in the sixties – the three autobiographies and his many commentaries on the great issues of his times – it took my reading of Maria Diedrich’s wonderful new book,  “Love Across Color Lines,” to inspire me to finally visit the home where the great Afro-American leader lived the last eighteen years of his illustrious life. Diedrich, a professor of American studies at the university of Munster in Germany, is a meticulous and enterprising scholar who has unearthed the long buried love affair between Frederick Douglass and the German intellectual/ writer/ activist Ottilie Assing, who introduced Douglass to the German public by translating his autobiography and writing voluminous articles about him in leading European journals for over twenty years.  In this richly documented and exquisitely written book Dr. Dedrich has presented us with a tragic love story for the ages, while enriching our knowledge of the intellectual currents which informed the radical movements in nineteenth century Germany and the USA.

Employing the techniques of the historian and the novelist, Diedrich has read widely in the scholarly studies on the period and uses that knowledge to enrich what the contemporary documents – which include 91 letters Ottilie wrote to her sister Ludmilla, the memoirs of their contemporaries and confidantes, the published and unpublished journalistic writings of Assing, the letters of Frederick Douglass to friends, etc. – have to tell us, then she skillfully fills in the gaps with imaginative speculations.

 It was her use of these techniques in describing Assings’ reaction to Cedar Hill that sparked my desire to go there.  “Assing was enchanted by Cedar Hill,” Dedrich writes…”and her irreverent nature no doubt made her chuckle at the way Washington lay literally at his feet, exposed to his commanding gaze.  The house upon the hill was a symbol of his empowerment.”  As I strolled through Douglass’ house the Greco-Roman statuary, the paintings – which included images of black male heroism such as a rendering of the charge of the 54th Massachusetts regiment at Fort Wagner, and a battle field portrait of Alexander Dumas Cest, the great black Calvary general in the Army of Napoleon Bonaparte – and his wide ranging selection of books, some of which had been removed for reasons of preservation, all took on a special meaning to me because of the intimate view Dedrich had provided us of the forces which shaped Douglass’ artistic taste and eclectic intellectual interest.  One of those forces was Ms. Ottilie Assing, who taught Douglass German and introduced him to the writings of some of the great German philosophers.

I was especially interested in looking at the layout of the master bedroom, whose design, according to the learned speculations of professor Dedrich, spoke volumes about the bold and adventurous nature of their twenty-eight year love affair.  “Upstairs,” she tells us, “the bedrooms were arranged in an unusual way, with the master bedroom separated from one guest room only by a velvet curtain…Had Douglass finally been able to design a private space for himself and Ottilie?”

Standing in Douglass’ bedroom looking at the flimsy red curtain which serves as a partition, then observing that his wife Anna’s bedroom was across the hall one is forced to wonder along with Dr. Dedrich what was going on.  The situation looks especially suspect since it is well established that Assing spent several months a year in the Douglass’ residence for two decades.  And, as Dedrich points out, Assing was not the first European woman to play a role in Douglass’ life and hang out at his house.

Indeed, his relationship with the British intellectual /writer/abolitionist Julia Griffiths, provoked an earlier scandal because of all the time she spent at his house in Rochester, New York, where he spent much of his adult life.  Griffiths was working closely with Douglass in a heroic effort to put out his newspaper “The North Star,” a major anti-slavery organ, a copy of which was prominently displayed on the desk in his study atHowever at six foot four and over two hundred pounds, with a the well muscled body of a blacksmith and the handsome countenance of a leading man of the theater, a gift for language – historian and biographer Benjamin Quarles says Douglass seemed incapable of writing a bad line – and blessed with a marvelous vocal instrument which, when wedded to his mastery of rhetoric, had the power to move masses to action in behalf of his cause, a cause that included the emancipation of women, Frederick Douglass was a sexual magnet to the ladies, especially educated white ladies.  Professor Diedrich tells us “Douglass was surrounded with enamored white women of this class wherever he traveled.”

And none was more enchanted with Douglass than Ottilie Assing, who described him as “magical.”  As a self-confident intellectual who spoke several languages, an accomplished writer, a learned critic of the visual arts, literature and theater, a seasoned radical forged in the Young German and Free Thinker’s movements that were part of the failed German revolution of 1848, an actress and musician who accompanied Douglass on piano while he played his beloved violin, a feminist, militant atheist and passionate abolitionist, Ottilie was Fred’s kind of girl.

The fact that the blond curly haired Ottilie was described by a contemporary as “A beautiful girl with an opulent body” also worked in her favor.  For, as Deidrich points out, “Douglass was not enchanted by the Victorian ideal of the submissive child wife, the bloodless, languishing beauty; he embraced what he himself represented: Vitality and power.”  However it was Douglass’ increasing admiration of intellectual women that created an insurmountable barrier between him and his wife of forty-five years, Anna Murray Douglass.  A free born woman, Anna, who is described by Assing and other white visitors to the Douglass home as “pure black,” chose to remain illiterate her entire life.

Given Douglass’ love of learning – a love that compelled him to secretly learn to read under penalty of death – his half-century marriage to Anna Murray was an act of heroic loyalty and great personal sacrifice.  Hence before sitting in judgment on Douglass’ extra-marital affairs, we must take this fact into account.  One of the many achievements of this book is professor Diedrich’s understanding of the importance of intellectual give and take between people who value ideas, and the deadening silence and tensions that must have occurred between Fred and Anna Douglass due to her refusal to educate herself.  Especially since she was the mother of his five children!

The unequal intellectual development between Frederick Douglass and his wife was a major thorn in the side of Ottilie Assing, who thought her unworthy of him and regarded her, along with many of his white colleagues, as “The mistake of his youth.”   As a German romantic who believed that true love should conquer all, Assing regarded marriage as a bourgeois convention that should not be allowed to stand in the way of realizing an ideal union.

Hence there was no shame in her game as she openly consorted with a married man, contemptuously flouting the Victorian mores of 19th century America.  And the fact that Fred and Ottilie’s secret nickname for Anna was “border state,” which, in the American reality of the time, symbolized a region that separated slavery from freedom, raises a compelling question as to exactly how Douglass viewed his wife of nearly fifty years.

In the end however, there remains a question as to what Douglass really thought of Assing too.  One of the things that sustained Ottilie Assing in her long affair with Frederick Douglass was her belief that were Douglass ever to become free of his wife he would marry her.  She believed to her soul that she, the “half-Jewess,” as she was called in her native Germany, and Douglass, the American Mulatto, were a perfect match.  But when Anna Murray died Frederick Douglass married Helen Pitts, a white woman who was twenty years younger!

Assing learned about the marriage while on holiday in Europe and committed suicide by drinking poison in an elegant Paris park, leaving Douglass a trust fund, which would pay him a fixed sum of money every six months for the rest of his life.  Professor Deidrich hints that perhaps this was Assing’s way of haunting Douglass, but it sounds like what the old folks used to call “grave yard love” to me.  This book deserves to be made into a major motion picture, but considering American anathema toward erotic attractions between top shelf white females and black males, I wouldn’t hold my breath.

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Clifford’s Blues

Posted in Book Reviews on September 24, 2009 by playthell

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A Unique Contribution to Holocaust Literature

 

       A blurb on the back of John A. Williams’ new novel, “Clifford’s Blues,” written by fellow novelist and recent winner of the coveted McArthur Genius award, Ishamel Reed, claims that this novel “proves again” that Williams is “the greatest American novelist of the twentieth century.”  To the untutored reader who is unfamiliar with the work of John A. Williams, this claim may sound like hyperbole.  However to those who have read other novels by Williams such as “The Man Who Cried I Am,”  “Captain Blackman,”  “Click Song,” or “The Angry Ones,” – Reed’s claim does not seem far out at all.

            Just when it seemed to many people that there was nothing new to say about the Third Reich and the genocidal policies that was its distinguishing feature, Williams’ original approach to the subject has given us a fresh perspective while deepening our understanding of the work of important holocaust scholars. 

           For instance, the German Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt’s arguments about the banality of evil in her controversial  book “Eichman In Jerusalem,” and Harvard’s professor Goldhagen’s conclusion that the grisly work of the Nazi  fascist was widely supported by the German citizenry in his recent book, “Hitlers Helpers,” becomes crystal clear after reading “Clifford’s Blues.”      

             Williams employs a broad based understanding of the history of Nazi Germany and the psychology of fascism, complemented by a fertile and inventive imagination, to provide the reader with a sustained look into the daily lives of the victims and victimizers, i.e. the inmates and guards in Dachau, one of the most famous of the German concentration camps.  The author’s choice of Clifford Pepperidige – a black gay jazz musician imprisoned in the camp – as narrator, insures that the reader will get a unique perspective on the rise of fascism in Germany.

                       The novel is written in the form of Clifford’s diary during his incarceration in Dachau.  His first entry sums up the situation: “My name’s Clifford Pepperidge and I am in trouble.  I’m an American Negro and I play piano, sometimes, and I’m a vocalist, too. I shouldn’t be here, but they didn’t pay any attention to me when they brought me.  Didn’t listen when I was in Berlin, either.  I’m in Protective Custody, they call it.” 

           With entries that span the twelve years from May 28, 1933 to  April 28, 1945, the diary covers a period which corresponds to the rise and fall of Adolph Hitler.  We learn from the diary that a wide variety of people were interned in this camp and they are charged with an assortment of crimes, virtually all of which became crimes only after the Nazi’s took power. 

            Among the detainees are Jehovah’s Witnesses, socialists and communists, Gypsies, homosexuals, race defilers (people in interracial marriages)   people of mixed blood like the “Rhine land bastards,”   inferior races like Africans et. al.  And while Clifford also saw Jews in Dachau, he tells us that most of them were shipped to the “death factories” like Triblinka, Bergen Belson, Auschwitz etc. 

             When Clifford first entered Dachau it appeared to be more of a slave labor detention camp than a death camp, but as the murderous Nazi‘s  grow more powerful they greatly expand the camp and  build a crematorium.  As they start attacking neighboring countries and carrying out mass executions of captured prisoners, Clifford begins to see stacks of dead bodies everywhere and the stench of burning flesh befouls the air.  Eventually the classification of death factory or slave labor camp becomes a distinction without a difference because the dead and dying are everywhere.  Through the brilliantly crafted entries in Clifford’s diary Williams reconstructs this nightmare with a rare poignance and power that makes it feel real. 

           But while the novel treats one of the most horrible episodes in human history it is not grim reading.  And that is perhaps the greatest achievement of the author.  What prevents the novel from becoming a depressing experience is the irrepressible spirit of Clifford Pepperidge.  An apolitical artist and trickster who calls himself “The Cliff,” Pepperidge was having such a ball snorting coke, partying in gay orgies, and performing in the nightclubs that enlivened night life in the decadent milieu of Wiermar Berlin – the setting for Berthold Brect’s Three Penny Opera and the popular musical Cabaret – that he barely noticed the rise of the Nazi’s until he was arrested and carted off to Dachau with the rest of the “queers.”

           From the outset of his detention in “Protective Custody,” he strikes a Faustian bargain with a jazz loving SS captain who is also a closeted homosexual with a taste for cocaine and chocolate buns.  “The Cliff” had sort of known the captain when they were both out in the world, and he recounts his feelings upon seeing him on his first day in Dachau thusly :”It was Dieter Lange, and he had more reason to be here, in a gray suit, than me.  He’d been a Raffke in Berlin – a hustler, a pimp, profiteer, a regular MacHeath, but his lovers were all men.  He was a chicken plucker who’d always wanted to pluck a black chicken because they were so rare in Germany….But…I never went out with men like Dieter Lange.”

 However, after checking out the scene in Dachau,  going out with Dieter Lange didn’t seem like such a bad deal.  In fact, when Dieter hit on him Cliff found the offer irresistible :” If I was nice to him, he’d be nice to me.  He’d always liked jazz music and my singing and playing.  He would do his best to look after me.  But if I became troublesome, he’d have me back in the camp in a prisoner barracks in a flash.”  Considering the gruesome alternative it was an offer he couldn’t refuse. 

           Thus began a strange and complex psycho/sexual relationship that would eventually include a menage a trois with Dieter Lange’s wife Anna – a big blond country Freulien who metamorphosed into the kind of house Frau that the SS considered ideal for breeding little Nazi’s – and sexual trysts with Anna and her girlfriend / lover Ursula, who was also the wife of an SS officer.  After a decade of this, “The Cliff” emerged as master of the situation and clearly the smartest and strongest of the lot.

           Among the many outstanding achievements of this novel – which include the humanization of Nazi functionaries and the creation of a masterful black gay male who keeps his head when all around him are losing theirs – perhaps the most remarkable is the celebration of Afro-American history and cultural styles that is woven throughout the text.  In fragments of memory during the twelve years that Cliff Pepperidge confided his most cherished reveries to his diary, we learn much about the history of black Americans of that period. 

           We are told about Paul Robeson’s visit to Germany; the world renowned biologist and Howard University professor Ernest Just’s researches at the famous Kaiser Wilhiem institute; the spells cast upon Europeans by dazzling black performers like Florence Mills; Bricktop’s  failed attempt to open a nightclub in Berlin in and attempt to duplicate her great success in Paris; the irresistible charm of  Jazz; Jessie Owen’s domination of the Berlin Olympics; Joe Louis’ defeat at the hands of Max Schmeling and his stunning victory in the return match; the spellbinding heroics of Afro-American fighter pilots who blasted German jets out of the skies flying their technologically disadvantaged prop planes etc. 

           Yet Even if the novel had omitted  this treasure trove of Afro-Americana, John Williams’ transparent love for, and superb knowledge of,  the Classical tradition of  black  American  complex instrumental music popularly known as jazz, and his gift for rendering it in finely crafted English prose, would have been well worth the price of the text.  There are many opportunities for Williams to display his gift for musical explication because Dieter Lange has a serious interest in Cliff’s musical abilities beyond being a fan.  

           As a seasoned hustler cum social climber Lange recognized that Cliff’s musical talents could help promote his career, since his superior officers in the SS were jazz lovers in spite of the official Nazi party position that it was the decadent wailing of an inferior people.  Cliff’s explanations of how he whipped a group of stiff German musicians – who were mostly trained in European classical music and  played instruments that properly belonged in a symphony orchestra, like the violin and French horn – into a swinging ensemble is a real education in the art of making music.       

             “The Cliff’s” constant comparisons of the racial practices of Nazi Germany to the racist etiquette of his native Louisiana in the early twentieth century – which is what drove him into European exile in the first place – is like a dagger which rips away the veil of ignorance and denial that white Americans have erected in order to cover up their shameful pastThis is a courageous act on the part of the author, especially in an era when intellectual cowardice and shameless genuflection before the imperatives of a Eurocentric literary marketplace is the order of the day.  And it explains why this splendid book was rejected by 57 publishers!   This is a sin and a shame because “Clifford’s Blues” is a tour de force, a masterpiece of modern American fiction.  It will make a splendid companion piece to the documentary film “Uncovering The Black German Holocaust,” by David Okuefuna and Moise Shewa.  

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