Archive for the Cultural Matters Category

On the progressive Black Church

Posted in Cultural Matters with tags , , , on June 25, 2015 by playthell

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., right, and Rep. Adam Clayton Powell, are shown at a news conference at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York's Harlem, November 14, 1965.   (AP Photo/David Pickoff)

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., right, and Rep. Adam Clayton Powell, are shown at a news conference at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York’s Harlem, November 14, 1965. (AP Photo/David Pickoff)
Two Afro-American Baptist preachers who changed America

The Rock on which we stood When all else failed…

This post is in response to  the statement below by Tamara Tornado,  a snide racist white bitch who does  NOT UNDERSTAND black church history yet presumes to criticize it.  I don’t like know-it-all crackers in the first place, because like this stupid broad they usually know nothing about us!  The fact is that the black church has a dual history: progressive and reactionary.

The progressive tradition is heroic and grows out of the beliefs of those black slaves who interpreted the stories in the Old Testament bible about the enslaved Hebrew people in the Land of Egypt to be a parable about their situation in the American House of Bondage, where the white leaders of America collectively were Pharoah, locally represented by the slave master class.  In other words Afro-American Christians converted Christianity into a weapon of liberation in a way that black slaves under Islam were unable to do.

Another Ignorant racist commenting on Black culture
Condemnation of black churchwomen by a snide white bitch
This silly pretentous Bitch is no friend of ours!

The fact is that the majority of southern whites never owned slaves and Tamara’s grandfather was probably not one of them. Since she is obviously classless white trash. Every half ass redneck likes to identify with the slaveholding class, when most of their ancestors were nothing more than pawns of the planter class who supported the interests of the rich over their own because they were told that just being white made them special even though they didn’t have a pot to piss in nor a window to throw it out of: JUST LIKE ALL OF THE PO WHITE CRACKER ASSHOLES WHO VOTE REPUBLICAN TODAY!!!!

Before the Civil War slaves were the most valuable property in the US., that’s why in 1850 New Orleans was the richest port in the country. Black churchwomen were the backbone of the great Civil Rights movement that destroyed the racial caste system of the south…what has this dumb cracker bitch done to make this country a better place? My argument is not with the black church as such, but this particular church congregation at Mother Emanuel in Charleston. The fact that I am an atheist does not blind me to all of the GOOD WORKS the black church has done and is doing! It is far superior in its practice of Christianity to the WHITE CHURCH!!!

That’s why the great German theologian and preacher Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who came here to complete his PhD thesis and teach at the distinguished Union Theological Seminary, became mesmerized by the Afro-american church service..  Although Bonhoeffer  was unimpressed with the academic standards at Union, a bastion of white theological study, he was befriended by a black seminarian named Frank Fisher, and was introduced to the Afro-American church.

The learned German theologian  was taken to a service at the Abyssinia Baptist Church in Harlem, and he was so moved by the experience that he regularly attended service at Abyssinia thereafter.  And, dispite the ignorant slander leveled against them by that pretentious white trash airhead Tamara Tornado, the beautiful, elegant black women in the congregation were, and are, a majestic sight to behold!

The Ladies of Abyssinia

Easter Parade 2012 - Harlem Sisters edit

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EASTER SUNDAY IN HARLEM

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Easter Parade 2012 086

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Easter Bonnet - Satin Doll

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Adam Powell and Hazel Scott

Reverend Powell and his beautiful gifted wife Hazel Scott

While he dismissed Union Seminary with the observation “there’s no theology in this place,” he concluded that the Black American church was the manifestation of what God intended a Christian to be!   Bonhoeffer, who would become one of the great theologians of the 20th century,  taught Sunday school at the church during the rest of his stay in the US.   He later taught Afro-American Spirituals to his congregation secretly in his church back home to give them hope as the Nazi’s took over Germany! This man would later lead the German church in OPPOSING HITLER, even participating in an assassination plot against the German dictator and was murdered by the Nazis!!!

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer II

The German theologian who became mesmerized by black Church

The African Methodist Episcopal Church INVENTED LIBERATION THEOLOGY with the founding of Mother Bethel during 1792 in Philadelphia, just five years after the US Constitution was drafted a few blocks away.  It was the first American church founded as an act of resistance to the sin of white racism and oppression of black people! So don’t get what I am saying about my experience with God and white folks twisted: I lost my faith in God in a pretentious white Catholic Catedral.  I DO NOT REPUDIATE THE WORK OF THE PROGRESSIVE BLACK CHURCH!!!!

Bishop Henry McNeal Turner
AME Bishop Henry McNeal Turner
Father of the South African Liberation Movement

In my view the congregation of Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church is BETRAYING IT’S FIGHTING LEGACY!  One of the founders of this church was Denmark Vesey, who organized what would have been the bloodiest slave uprising in American history – and there were over three hundred!  However the reason it failed is because of some sambos who believed that Old Testament shit about a “SLAVE SHOULD OBEY HIS MASTER!” But those following Vesey acted on the old testament text that calls for “an eye for an eye”

Dr. DuBois, the most learned American intellectual of the 20th century, called the AME church “one of the greatest institutions ever devised by man.” And he said their Bishops ran from “Saints like Benjamin McNeal Turner” to some that “represented just what the devil would look like at the turn of the twentieth century.” Yet he, like me, was an atheist!  But as a father of the 20th century Pan-Africanist Movement, DuBois was well aware of the role the AME church layed in the Black Liberation Movement here in the USA and in colonized Africa.  For instance, Bishop Henry McNeal Turner could rightly be called “The Father of the black Liberation Movement in South Africa. (see “Pan-Africanism: Myth or Reality?”

Dr. WEB DuBois

Dr. dubois in the Crisis Ofice

The Great Scholar at Work

It is little wonder that Dietrict Boenhoffer was capitivated by the Afro-Ameican church service, especially the baptist, who are reknowned for their preaching.   It is the most dynamic and capitivating oratorical style in the world.  The brilliant Florida novelist and forklorist Zora Neal Hurston, described the power of the Afro-American sermon best.

In a letter to her fellow Floridian, James Weldon Johnson, polymath and cosmoplite, who had published “God’s Trombones,” a great collection of epic poems based on the black southern folk preacher, Zora told him it seemed like only the two of them really understood that the negro sermon is epic poetry.  She told johnson that she cast the preacher in her own novel, Jonah’s Gourd Vine, “as the poet that he must be in order to survive in a Negro pulpit.”  Both Adam Clayton Powell and Dr. King were great orators who were masters of the Afro-Ameican sermonic art, and when they employed it to sway opinions in the political arena they were formidable.

Added to these achievements, the progressive black church has produced more great innovators in American music than Julliard, and more great transformative  leaders than the white American church can match. We need only look at two examples: Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr, the Pastor of Abyssinia Baptist Church, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. the modern day Prophet who led the great Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s.

As Chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor, Powell sponsored and got passed 60 bills that provide the entitlements for the working class that we now refer to as the “Social Safety Net.”  And the struggles led by Dr. King, who gave his life to the cause, of wiped out racist laws that make black Americans aliens in our own land.  Together these two black Baptist preachers transformed America into a better country for EVERYBODY!!  The rich white Christian clergy can make no such claim!  This is the real leagcy of the black church!

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Double click on link to see video of Rev. Powell

https://youtu.be/mE2m4SNDy0U

Click to see Video on Dr. King
https://www.facebook.com/sharer/sharer.php?u=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.biography.com%2Fpeople%2Fmartin-luther-king-jr-9365086%2Fvideos%2Fmartin-luther-king-jr-%E2%80%93-pastor-109214787767
Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
June 25. 2015

Just a Crazy Southern Cracker……

Posted in Cultural Matters with tags on June 22, 2015 by playthell
South Carolina Shooter
Crazed white racist mass murderer

…….Or the tip of an Iceberg?

“They are raping our women and taking over our country!”

The tearful statement of remorse by Governor Nicky Hailey mourning the tragic mass murder committed by crazed white racist terrorist, Dylann Roof, who gunned down nine Afro-Americans conducting a prayer meeting  in the sanctuary of their church, camouflages a deep racial divide in the state of South Carolina that the Republican political leadership is in denial about.

The governor sounded shocked that something like this could happen in her state, as she assures us that Charleston,  “The City of Churches” is a God fearing community where everybody “loves each other.”  However the Southern Poverty Law Center, whose raison d’etre is monitoring racist hate crimes, says there are 19 organized white racist hate groups based in South Carolina!

This is the  framework from which the racially motivated mass murder of Afro-American worshippers  should be analyzed; it should also be viewed in historical perspective and in the light of present racial realities.  And we must not be influenced by the tearful sentimental statements of politicians and pundits looking for a safe place to take a stand.

Let us begin our analysis here by considering the official statement issued by the SPLC:

“A white man who admires apartheid walks into a black church and kills nine people.  According to an eyewitness, he says that he has “to do it” because black people “rape our women” and are “taking over our country.”  It’s an obvious hate crime by someone who feels threatened by our country’s changing demographics and the increasing prominence of African Americans in public life.

Since 2000, we’ve seen an increase in the number of hate groups in our country — groups that vilify others on the basis of characteristics such as race or ethnicity.  Though the numbers have gone down somewhat in the last two years, they are still at historically high levels.  The increase has been driven by a backlash to the country’s increasing racial diversity, an increase symbolized, for many, by the presence of an African American in the White House.   

Since 9/11, our country has been fixated on the threat of Jihadi terrorism. But the horrific tragedy at the Emmanuel AME reminds us that the threat of homegrown domestic terrorism is very real. Our hearts go out to the victims and their families.  Black churches, including those in South Carolina, have been the targets of hate crimes throughout our country’s history.  We know that they will remain resolute and their faith unshaken in the face of this tragedy.”

As usual, most of the white commentators in the press are spinning this as the act of a single deranged individual, not the manifestation of a deep seated anxiety among a class of powerless, alienated, white men suffering from racial anomie and black penis envy that seek solace in white supremacist mythology.  Notwithstanding the fact that this dude may be certifiably nuts, a designation  I am content to leave to the shrinks, he is clearly suffering from the mental maladies that I have cited above.   For instance he is powerless.

That’s got to be hard to take if you are a white male nurtured on the myth of white supremacy but your real life circumstances suggest you ai’t shit.  And it must be especially hard to see all of these black men who are succeeding bigtime everywhere; yet you are po as the snake without a pit to hiss in.  And you wake up hatin on Jay Z because you had a wet dream about Beyoncé….although like the old folks down south say: “Boy yo eyes may roll and yo teeth may grit…but some of that fine brown sugar you ain’t never go git!”

And he is profoundly ignorant of the world around him, a condition that’s epidemic in the US.  Consider this analysis of the role played by  a lack of factual information in Roof’s murderous behavior in an article titled published in Psychology Today titled: “Anti-Intelectualism is Killing America:

“Many will correctly blame Roof’s actions on America’s culture of racism and gun violence, but it’s time to realize that such phenomena are directly tied to the nation’s culture of ignorance.

In a country where a sitting congressman told a crowd that evolution and the Big Bang are“lies straight from the pit of hell,”(link is external) where the chairman of a Senate environmental panelbrought a snowball(link is external) into the chamber as evidence that climate change is a hoax, where almost one in three citizens can’t name the vice president(link is external), it is beyond dispute that critical thinking has been abandoned as a cultural value. Our failure as a society to connect the dots, to see that such anti-intellectualism comes with a huge price, could eventually be our downfall.”

The Psychology Today article goes on to point out that anti-intellectualism has become something to brag about among large segments of the American populous.  When we read Dylann Roof’s rambling manifesto and enter his twisted world, a world of racists websites where Trayvon Martin’s murderer become the hero, we see all to cleary the grave danger Psychology Today is warning us about.

For how could a pathetically ignorant and confused white boy, nurtured on a narrative white of victimhood preached 24/7 by all right wing media, not be alienated from an America where in his eyes niggers are in the White House who don’t belong there, and the President of the USA is an incompetent Arab nigger Moslem con man traitor who secretly created and supports ISIS….and is a communist controlled by the Zionist Jews, who can’t even produce a valid birth certificate.  This is how contemporay American society looks to deluded white boys like Roof….the genuine American failures who are invisible until they explode into our conciousness in a hail of bullets.

As I write, an FBI Agent who has spent the last forty years investigating hate crimes and interrogating the perpetrators is painting a psychological profile of the racist murderer on MSNBC. He says that he has interrogated many perps like this guy, and they are not psychotic in the psychiatric sense of the word; their judgement is distorted by bigotry which is expressed by an intense hatred of particular racial and ethnic groups.

He describes how this is a class of phenomenon and the killers of the Sikh’s, or those who shoot up a synagogues, all belong to the this class.  He also explained how “white supremacist” websites constantly egg these fanatics on.  He vividly described the world that these right-wing nuts inhabit; it is a bizarro world in which they spend most of their time reading the racist drivel on white supremacist websites like the neo-Nazi Stormfront, and talking back and forth with other enraged white fascist until they explode in acts of violence….as this guy did.

The present racially motivated mass slaughter raises another disturbing question: Did the white cop that murdered a young black man in this same city by shooting him the back eight times share the same views?  From what we know of him they come from the same class of powerless white men.

For instance, before becoming a cop 33 year old Michael Slager worked as a waiter and spent a stint in the Coast guard, the kinds of jobs held by poor powerless white men. Then this mediocre cracker winds up on the streets of Charleston wearing a gun and a badge which he viewed as a license to kill black men and he ends up shooting Mr. Walter Scott in the back eight times over a trivial matter.

When the video of the murder recorded on the cell phone of an eye witness showed up on the internet, the City of Charleston took swift action by firing Slager from the police force and indicting him for murder. North Charleston police chief Eddie Driggers told reporters during a news conference: “I have watched the video and I was sickened by it…I have not watched it since.”  However the rest of the world was watching it 24/7 and Mr. Scott’s family is convinced that were it not for the video going viral on the internet “they would have just swept it under the rug like they always do.”

The right to carry guns under the sanction of the state, whether in the military or the civilian police force, gives the powerless class of white men a feeling of power and importance; they are the contemporary counterparts of the “patrollers” and “overseers” of slavery times.  Like their ancestors these poor southern white men are lap dogs for the rich and powerful class of whites – in antebellum times they supported the enslavement of black people and went to war to defend it, despite the fact that competing with slave labor meant they would never be able to bargain for a fair wage for themselves.

If that sounds crazy, and it is, it is no crazier than all the poor whites who vote Republican today, many of whom still fly Conferederate Battle flags….just like the flag flying over the Republican controlled state house!  Yet the Republicans are  the party of the plutocrats, people who despise working class whites and care so little for their welfare they ship their jobs overseas to non-white countries, deny them unions wherever they can to prevent collective bargaining – the only protection workers have in dealing with rapacious amoral multi-national corporations – and think nothing of hiring low wage illegal immigrant labor, which is almost wholly non-white, to replace them  here at home.

Mitt Romney made it abundantly clear what he thinks of the working class when he cited workers in China, who are locked in their factories and forced to work horrendous hours, as an ideal work environment during what he thought was a private conversation with fellow plutocrats.  We only learned about his true feelings  because he was secretly recorded by one of the waiters who put his phony ass on blast.

Here, live and direct on You Tube,  was a pompous rich prick that made his fortune shipping American jobs overseas; hid his money in foreign banks that are favored by Latin American drug lords; paid relatively fewer taxes on his hundreds of millions than his secretary paid on her paltry pay.

Yet poor whites everywhere voted overwhelmingly for Mitt over President Obama, who gave them health care – many for the first time in their lives – and provided support to local governments under his stimulus  plan, the Economic Recovery Act, which saved hundreds of thousands of public service jobs like cops and firemen and kept millions of working class families from sliding into poverty – See “The New New Deal,” by Michael Grunewald.  Barack Obama is the best friend poor whites have had since President Franklin Roosevelt; yet they hate him with a searing passion!

What is most striking to me about these Charleston murders perpetrated by white southern men against innocent, unarmed, Afro-Americans is that they came from legal and extra legal sources just like the old days when I was growing up in apartheid Florida.  Back then, in the middle of the twentieth century, racial discrimination was open and LEGAL!   White supremacy was the ruling ideology of southern politics and black lives didn’t matter.

It was like walking in a minefield whenever you had to interact with whites…especially white women.  For instance, it was a grave offense to ask a white woman for a pack of condoms if she was a clerk in the drugstore.  Hence when I hear that Dylan Roof wished things were “the way they used to be,” and then he tells the congregants in Mother Emanuel, African Methodist Episcopal Church “I have to do this because they are raping our women and taking over our country” it sounded all too familiar to me.

These two issues were the paramount obsessions of white southern males since the end of the Civil War; fear of economic and sexual competition with free black men has been the driving force in shaping both law and custom in the American South.  And Professor Martha Hodes convincingly demonstrates that  violent attacks against black male /white female  unions grew much worse after slavery was overthrown in her scholarly book “White Women, Black Men: Illicit Sex in the 19th Century South.”

As a result of the victories won in the Civil Rights Movement, the old bargain between rich and poor whites that reserved whole classes of jobs “for white men only” has been nullified; hence they must compete in a labor market that includes Afro-Americans, Asians, Hispanics and white women.

Alas, they are discovering the harsh reality that if they have no education or special talents being white in America today means nothing in the competition for the spoils of success in an amoral increasingly Darwinian economic environment.  This is the incubator of the lost souls who fall under the spell of white supremacist ideology…they are so far removed from the centers of power in this society that they don’t even recognize that white men are still in power!

A sad sack girlie looking little un-athletic poot-butt white boy, Roof is obviously obsessed with and intimidated by black masculinity.  Living in football crazed South Carolina he probably watched the curvaceous blond cuties he lusted for drooling over the black football stars all through his school years.

And like the old school white racist of my time Roof deceives himself that any sexual interaction between black men and white women is rape…because no white woman would ever willing fuck a nigger.  That is obviously what Roof has managed to delude himself into believing; otherwise he would talk about the multitude of smart and pretty “race traitor” white women who are wild about black men….and here I speak from experience.

The problem with the way racist white men think about the attractions between white women and black men is that they choose to view us all as illiterate, inarticulate, unattractive, thugs. Although their is no paucity of white girls – including solidly middle class and wealthy young women – who are wild about the black gangsta/thug/rapper style.  One need only watch the videos of Too Live Crew, and Snoop Dog’s Up in Smoke Tour to see how wildy erotic many white women see them.

But that view of black men is a racist myth.  Most black men are not thugs, and many of us are very smart, well built, charming, eloquent, stylish, great dancers, athletic, and successful!  We have to fight white women off – smart, attractive, successful white women.  Trust me on this…for I know whereof I speak.  My circle of black male friends are so impressive that after attending a party with us most white supremacist would consider cutting their throats…especially if there were good looking white women in the house…like my old girlfriend Tanya – artist, fashion designer and teacher – who has danced and joined her ancestors after a bout with cancer.

Tanya is the kind of long legged Blond Neo-Nazi tyoes have Wet Dreams about
Karen-picas edit 
Seeing her with me drove racist white males mad from black penis envy

Ever since I was a young boy I always felt superior to southern white boys, because my parents – along with the preachers, teachers and professionals in my all black community – constantly reminded us that if white men really felt superior like they preached, they would not be so terrified of competing with us on equal terms.  And they would point to the great success of Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson to show what happened when we got a chance to compete on equal terms.  They also pointed out the obvious fact that people who truly feel that their competition is inferior wouldn’t spend so much time and effort stacking the deck against them.

Nowhere was this more obvious than when it came to competing for the affections of women.  Southern white men were notorious for chasing black women surreptitiously, seeking to become undercover lovers.  Every good looking black women in the apartheid south has tales to tell about being harassed by white men.  Knowing the severe economic discrimination that black men were forced to endure under the old white man job reserve system; they attempted to use their superior social status and economic position to seduce beautiful black women.  My family was filled with beautiful educated stylish black women and white men were always trying to hit on them.  I could always  tell when a cracker said something to one of them because they would be livid!  Their common response was “If my brother made advances to his sister they would kill him…yet he has the nerve to approach me?”  They saw it for what it was: an insult.   And the women of my family – most of whom were second generation college graduates – looked upon black women who engaged in secret liaisons with white men as the scum of the earth.

Despite their incessant chasing of black women, southern white men were prepared to commit murder to keep white women away from us…they of course said they were “defending the purity of southern white womanhood” from beastly black rapists.  I have argued elsewhere that the vulgar paternalism involved in the creation the idealized “White Lady” has had some unexpected consequences with the rise of feminism. See: “Liberation from White Ladyship?”   If anybody ought to be mad about race relations in American it’s me….not this little paleface punk Dylann Root, who has endured nothing and whose failures in life a purely the result of his own shortcomings.   But he has been made to feel a victim due to the incessant blather of verbal arsonists in the media like that porcine dope fiend Rush Limbaugh, the greaser Sean Hannity, et al.  How else could Roof come to the conclusion that black men are taking over the country?  Where does such a young person get these ideas?

If the situation were not such a tragedy it would be funny watching old racist Republican hypocrites like Lindsay Graham express pain and puzzlement over the racist slaughter.  Yet he has been one of the perpetrators of the old southern myth of the “Lost Cause.”   He has supported flying the confederate Battle flag on the South Carolina state capitol grounds; which is an insult to everybody who enjoys the benefits of citizenship in the United States today. As I write the swelling demand to take down this shamful flag has reached the point where it was just announced that Senator Graham and Governor Nicky Hailey are going to call for the removal of that foul rag and store it in a confederate war museum.

This is long overdue; forming the southern Confederacy and launching a war against the US government  was an act of treason!  Yet these Carolina rednecks like Senator Lindsay Graham defended the right of South Carolina to fly this symbol of treason over their state capitol until this moment.   Aside from this, all the major avenues are named for Confederate generals: This in the state that started the devastating Civil War.  This is like going to Berlin and seeing the Swastika flying over the Reichstag and its major boulevards named for Nazi Generals and SS officers like Himmler and Goering.   After all, Nazi Germany and the southern confederacy were based on the same “master race” ideology that Hitler borrowed from the USA!

An objective analysis of the social structure in Charleston will reveal that the white “old money” crowd that run the town made their family fortunes from black slave labor;  the poor whites are descendants of the poor crackers from which the overseers were recruited, and the mass of blacks are descendants of slaves and the survivors of apartheid – i.e. the legal racial caste system based on white supremacy.  It becomes apparent that any change in the racial hierarchy of Charleston is a relative thing.  The old money whites and their political shills in the Republican Party – the Grand Obstructionist Party that has blocked almost every good thing Barack has tried to do for the American people – feel that it is their divine right to rule South Carolina.

The black slave population was greater than the free white population as far back as the 18th century, whites have always felt uneasy about maintaining their grasp on power; which accounts for the severity of their slave codes and segregation laws after the end of chattel slavery.  And it is the main reason why they are resorting to all manner of chicanery in order deprive Afro-Americans of their right to vote today.

Root is heir to this racist heritage, and he has surely heard all of the racist lies about President propagated by Tea Party and mainstream Republicans alike.   For instance Sarah Palin – whose principal contribution to American politics is to make stupidity fashionable – leveled a  hysterical charge that Obamacare was setting up “death panels” to decide who among the elderly shall live or die; to the evangelical Christians who preach that he is “the anti-Christ,” which have become conventional wisdom among ignorant desperate racist southern whites.

These are the forces that shaped Root’s perception of reality; he is a direct product of their anti-black propaganda.  Hence it is safe to assume that he is not an aberration but the avatar of a nihilistic and increasingly violent tread among powerless, alienated, white men.  We shall surely see his like again.

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Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
June 2oth, 2015

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fanfares for a Culture Hero!

Posted in Cultural Matters, Music Reviews with tags , , on June 14, 2015 by playthell

Select Senator Pic

Senator Bill Perkins, Rome Neal and Producer Woody King
 An Evening of Banana Puddin, Panegyrics and Jazz

It was yet another wonderful evening of performing art at the Nuyorican Theater. But on this occasion it was the indefatigable impresario Rome Neal that was the raison d’etre for the festivities, as the performers turned out to honor a man that has done so much to advance their careers by providing a space and opportunity to perform in New York City.   For the performing artists the Big Apple is a Darwinian milieu, red of tooth and claw, where only the strong and persistent even if talented and gifted will survive. Rome Neal personifies that intrepid spirit.

With little more than spit, grit and mother wit Rome has not only made a place for himself as an actor and director in the theater, but has become an important independent producer of Jazz performances.  In his role as Jazz impresario he has presented such unique shows as “Women in Jazz” and “LGBT Jazz Greats,” in which he has introduced these Jazz musicians to a wider audience than they might otherwise have had an opportunity to play for.

His “Banana Puddin” Jazz concerts have featured a wide variety of musicians such as “A Night of Legends Featuring Barry Harris, Randy Weston and  Danny Mixon.”  His “Young and the Jazzy” series has also uncovered obscure gems whose prodigious talents might have gone unrecognized.  Rome’s “Japanese Jazz Connections” concerts showcased many of the outstanding Japanese Jazz musicians who migrate to New York in search of the source of their art the way Muslims go to Mecca.  He is continuing the tradition begun by Dr. Billy Taylor, the late great Jazz pianist/composer/bandleader .

From his base at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in the Lower East Side, Rome has produced both innovative theater and cutting edge Jazz performances.  As the Director of Theater in this landmark East Village cultural emporium Rome has produced the plays of Laurence Holder – the Dean of playwrights that mine the treasure trove of Afro-American history and employ its riches as the basis for their dramas – and has single handedly kept the dramatic voice of the great Oakland California based novelist/dramatist/poet/essayist Ishmael Reed alive in New York.

An iconoclastic satirists who wields his pen like the sword of an avenging angel, Reed – whom English Professor and insightful critic Leslie Fiedler has called “a highbrow Ironist” and The Nation has declared the most important American satirist since Mark Twain –  has been practically banished by a Euro-American cultural establishment that ought to be celebrating him for enriching American literature and thought.  Rome has come repeatedly to Reed’s rescue by producing his plays in New York; if this were the sum total of his activities as a cultural impresario it would be a worthy legacy.  But he has done so much more, especially in the realm of music.

The liveliest and most spiritually moving of the arts, it is not unusual for people working in other art forms to become mesmerized by the power of music and wish to become involved with this intoxicating medium of expression, but few have managed to make this transition on the level of Neal….Ishmael Reed’s conquest of the piano being the exception that proves the rule.  Reed has become so proficient a pianist that Rome produced a concert featuring the great writer as a pianist.

Rome’s metamorphosis from actor/director to singer and Jazz impresario seems to really take off with his riveting performance of Thelonious Monk, in an insightful one man play written by Lawrence Holder. (See, Monk: the Play on this blog)   Rome’s performance as the enigmatic Jazz piano virtuoso Thelonious Monk is a marvel to behold, a tour de force.  Like all great acting performances we witness Rome morph into his character until we are unable to separate the actor from his role and we forget that he is acting. Which, after all, is the essence of the thespian’s art.

Rome Neal in his signature role
Rome Neal, actor performs in his award winning play "Monk"

Rome Neal, actor performs in his award winning play “Monk”

 A remarkable transformation

Witnessing Rome’s actions since he began playing Monk it sometimes appears that he too could not distinguish the difference between himself and the role.  For instance he began taking music lessons with the great Jazz pianist Barry Harris at the Jazz Cultural Center, a unique learning and performance venue in Tribeca where apprentice where tutored by master musicians in a collegial environment, and he learned to sing.  I confess that I was skeptical of Rome’s new venture, having grown up surrounded by great singers – my next door neighbor Blanch Hammond won a national talent competition singing an extremely difficult passage from Wagner – and had once served as bandleader for Jean Carn, one of the outstanding singers of the twentieth century, I have exacting standards for singers.

Hence I thought Rome’s chances of succeeding at becoming a singer were less than a snowball’s chances in a steel furnace.  Furthermore I did not hestitate to make my feelings known in unambiguous language; willing to risk brusisng his feelings in order to rescue my friend from embarking on a fool’s errand. I was vocal  critic. But he proved me wrong when he played the lead part in Laurence Holder’s play about a Jazz singer: “The Crooner.”

Despite the fact that he would probably not been cast in this role if he were not the producer/director of the play, Rome held his own in the production.  Again I was a first hand witness to his incredible tenacity and his willingness to risk failure in order to realize his artistic aims.  Many of the people who turned out to celebrate Rome’s 12th year as producer of the Banana Pudding Jazz Series at the Nuyorican have benefited by his tireless efforts in behalf of Jazz artists and thespians; efforts fueled by a heroic optimism that come what may great art will find a way.

It was a grand celebration, an outpouring of love and appreciation as one artist after another took the stage and offered musical libations to a respected elder of their community.  Most of the performers were instrumentalists because Jazz is a complex instrumental music that prizes virtuosity and spontaneus innovation, but the singers chimed in too and had their say.  It was an evening of cookers, straight ahead swing, Duke and Dizzy’s thing. They swung so hard the hoofers got up and got down; tapping out complicated rhythms of the sort that inspired the best drummers in the Jazz tradition until tap went the way of the dinosaurs – crushed by changing public taste and the imperatives of the marketplace.

Rome’s love of Jazz is extraordinary…one gets the impression that exposure to it enriches his life in a special way that few can share or even understand. However Rome also deeply believes that exposure to Jazz music can enrich the life of anyone; I believe it is what inspires his efforts as a Jazz impresario.  The extent of this belief was dramatically revealed during his recuperation from a bad fall off a ladder while working on a set at the Nuyorican.  When he began his rehabilitation from the serious injuries resulting from the fall at Governeur Health clinic, the therapist asked him what kind of music he liked; as music is increasingly recognized by medical practitioners for having therapeutic powers.

Rome told the physical therapist, a young white woman, that he loved Thelonious Monk. Although she had never heard of him, through the magic of the internet she found Monk’s music and put it on.   As they began the workout Rome started to tell her Monk’s story and she was amazed at his knowledge of this obscure musician whose existence she had never heard of a few moments ago.

When she asked him how he knew so much about Monk, Rome told her that he had played Monk in an award winning one man play.  Then he began to recite poignant passages from Holder’s play.  And when Round bout Midnight came on – a canonical composition in Jazz – Rome sang the lyrics to her.  He watched a change come over her as the soulful blues and abstract truth of Monk’s musical revelations began to mess with her mind….at the end of the session she left wanting to hear more of Monk’s music.

From his description of the experience, I was reminded of some lines from “The Ballad of Thelonious Monk,” written by Jimmy Rowles, made famous by Carmen McCrea, but most convinvingly recorded by a male country and western singer – my favorite version: “I used to think cowboy music/ was the only thing there was….and then I heard Thelonious Monk.”  The song goes on to explain the marvelous effect monks music had on his life, explaining that his horse wouldn’t go to sleep unless he played “Ruby My Dear.”

The word got around the hospital that they had a great actor and Jazz impresario as a patient.  Before he was done Rome produced a special women’s jazz concert and dedicated it to his female doctor and therapist.  They attended as honored guest and it was a great moment for them.  He later produced a Jazz concert for his team of orthopedic surgeons and they all came out.  Many were introduced to the art of jazzing for the first time, and they have come back for more. This, in essence, is Rome at his best.  He is ever the Jazz Impresario.

One of the grandest moments in an evening of magic moments was when Harlem state Senator Bill Perkins presented a Proclamation from the New York Senate commending Rome for his contribution to the arts, an honor he exuberantly shared with his grandchildren, Delano and Jolie.  Perkins had made the arduous journey from the Capitol, which is upstate in Albany, after the morning session in the Senate in order to make the tribute and present the Proclamation in person.  Rome, in turn, surprised Senator Perkins with a Shekere Award; which he bestows on outstanding lovers and supporters of the arts.  It was an enchanted evening….one befitting a devoted Eulyptian and fearless cultural warrior.  

Senator Perkins reading the Prolamation
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As grandaughter boldly looks to the heavens
Rome with Senator Bill Perkins
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 Presenting the Proclamation to Rome’s Grand Daughter Joile
Rome presenting the Shekere to Senator Perkins
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Showing the Senator how to shake that thang
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Tapping out a rhythm on a stringed gourd with Cowry shells
Woody King Jr.
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The Jazz Impresario Anoints the Audience
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 Droppin Science big time
 Rome and Songstress Rosanna Vitro

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Musicians came from everywhere
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Yoichi Uzeki all the way from Japan
 And Fredrika Krier came from Germany

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Alto Saxophonist T.K. Blue

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Trumpeter and Congero: Michael C. Lewis and Steve Kroon

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Tenor man Arthur Green added a grand voice

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Pianist and Bassist: Andre Chez Lewis and Corcoran Holt

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Patience Higgins and the Boys

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 Hoofer Hank Smith took the Floor
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Tapping out Complex Jazz Rhythms

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Trading twelves with the Drummer

 

 The Singers!

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Eric FraizerSwinging the Blues
You Don’t Know What Love Is……

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 ……Until You Know the Meaning of the Blues
 
Like a beautiful Bird of Paradise
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Leziie Harrison thrilled audience and musicians alike
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 Rusannah Swung Blue Monk with a whole lotta soul!

Wailing!

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Steve Cromity wasAll Blues!
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 The Man of the Hour!

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Expresses his gratitude to the artists and audience

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Double Click on link to see video
https://youtu.be/L_UeWKMbL0I
 

Celebrating an American Master

Posted in Cultural Matters, Visual Artists with tags on June 3, 2015 by playthell

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A virtuoso of the double Bass Violin Serenades the aesthetes

 The Otto Neal Retrospective in Kenkelbe House

On the last Sunday in May an overflow crowd turned out to honor the octogenarian artist Otto Neals at a “Retrospective” of his long and productive career at the Kenkeleba House Gallery in the East Village.  Not even a violent thunder storm  with frightening lightening and pouring rain could deter these intrepid aesthetes from their appointed round: Paying homage to a great artists who has enriched American culture with an amazing Oeuvre that includes Painting, Printmaking, Collage and Sculpture.  An autodidact whose varied work bears the unmistakable mark of genius.

Mr. Neals, is a cultural treasure in a class by himself.  His work displays the wide interest that is characteristic of the broadly learned autodidact who has not been trained to think in specialized ways.  I believe that this, as much as his obvious gifts, explain Mr. Neals’ amazing versatility. Although he never completed a formal course of instruction in the arts leading to a BA or MFA degree, like most outstanding autodidacts Otto benefited from his association with distinguished artists who recognized his talent – it was akin to an apprenticeship in a medieval guild studying under masters of their craft.

A life-long Brooklynite, he took advantage of an opportunity to take a class with at the prestiegous Brooklyn Museum of Art conducted by Isaac Soyer, the Russian Émigré and great social realist painter whose favorite subjects was the working class of New York, and dancers.  Given his experience as a working class black man in Brooklyn it is easy to see how Otto would have been attracted to Soyer’s work.  He also studied with the master Afro-American printmaker Bob Blackburn.

In 1958 he became involved with the Fulton Art Fair, where he met and interacted with other gifted Afro- American artists such as Tom Feelings, Ernie Crichlow and Jacob Lawrence.  All of whom would make their mark in 20th century American art.  Otto is still making his into the 21st century.

It has become cliché to ask if life imitates art or vice versa? As a general proposition this question is far beyond the scope of the present essay, but it is apparent that in the New York art world the exhibition and marketing of fine art conforms to the etiquette of race relations in this city.  In matters of color art is as separate as life.  Among the consequences of this racial separation is that black artists – even when they are great – do not have ready access to wealthy patrons; who tend to be white and favor white artists.

Alas the problem of economic survival is a constant for black artists in America;  Neals solved this problem by working as a civil Servant in the US Post Office.  Hence it is no exaggeration to say that Kenkelebe House has been a sanctuary for artists of color.  On their website they describe the source of their inspiration and define their mission thusly:

Named for a West African plant believed to possess spiritual powers, Kenkeleba House is dedicated to the exhibition of artworks by African-American, Latino, Asian-American and Native American artists. Kenkeleba House sponsors six to ten exhibitions a year of four to five weeks duration, often exploring historical or thematic issues. Educational programs such as artist talks, demonstrations, performances and lectures are often supplement the exhibits. An outdoor sculpture garden enlivens the property. A satellite space, the Wilmer Jennings Gallery, is across the street at number 219.”

The “Retrospective” show dedicated to the art of Otto Neals is the brainchild of Dr. Myrah Brown Green, who conceived and curated the show.  Since Dr. Green can be seen conducting a penetrating interview with Mr. Neals by clicking the video link at the bottom of this photo- essay,  I will confine my discussion of the Curators relationship with the artist to an observation from my conversation with Dr. Green about how this exhibition came to be.

I got the distinct impression that she views these Retrospectives as an ancestral imperative…a kind of ancestor veneration ritual celebrated while the elder is alive to witness it.  She spoke of feeling an urgent commitment to honor our black artists of outstanding achievement but have received only sparse recognition, and to enrich the art world by bringing their works before a wider public.

With that objective as her guiding principle Dr. Green planned this exhibition to be shown at six galleries.  She said she wanted “something big,” something equal to his talent and importance.  This was no picayune task, as Mr. Neals is a master of five mediums.  Four of them – painting, sculpture, wood cut printmaking, and collage, are displayed in the pictures below.

To say the exhibition is a visual feast that touches all the places in our hearts, minds and souls that only great art is capable of reaching is very nearly an understatement. Some of the viewers at the exhibition, sophisticated savants and avid cultural consumers, were driven to tears by the powerful alchemy of Mr. Neal’s art.

At the Wilmer Jennings Gallery
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 Internationally Renown Photographer Mel Wright Was Chillin
The Arts Community Turned out to Honor a Giant

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Stylish folks with Good Taste
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Mesmerized by Pictures in the Exhibition

To be a prolific maker of fine art is quite enough to justify a life well lived, but Mr. Neals has done more.  He is a founding father of a grand tradition.   Although it now seems that people always talked about a “black esthetic,” and consciously worked to realize this ideal in their art; it was not ever thus.  This kind of talk is the product of the “Black Arts Movement” of the 1960’s, which began with the founding of the African Jazz Art Society in New York, during 1958.

The founders included visual and Musical artists: Elombe and Kwame Braithwaite – a graphic artist and photographer – along with Max Roach and Abby Lincoln. Max was a composer, bandleader and father of a school of improvisational drumming in the Jazz tradition that has influenced the language and technique of those who play the complex Jazz drum set everywhere in the world. And Abby was a wonderful singer with an original style as well as an accomplished actress.  As activists and husband and wife, Max and Abby was the First couple of the Black Arts Movement; their example inspired and served as a model for many activists marriages…including my own.

Just as the birth of Da Da, an art movement which rose from the smoldering ruins of post-World War I Europe can be traced to explorations by artists such as Marcel Janco and Jean Arp at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich Switzerland, and the invention of Bebop can be traced to the sonic experiments of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Theolonius Monk, et al in Minton’s Playhouse, the black Arts movement can be traced to the African Jazz Art Society, which promoted soirees featuring Jazz, Visual Art, and the kind of erudite black talk that became common fare among black intellecuals, writers, activists, musicians and visual artists during the 1960’s. ** See notes at bottom of the page

All of these artistic movements were inspired by the reactions of the artists to their environment. The creators of Da Da were driven by a distrust of rigid order and hierarchal authority inspired by the degeneration of modern European civilization into the barbarism of War; Bebop was propelled by a desire for freedom against the creative restrictions of the big band and the imperatives of commerce; the Black Arts Movement was a revolt against the conventions of European Art and the racist tyranny of white imagery….both of themselves and black folks.

For black artist this was also a political statement, since Afro-Americans were still sufering under the apartheid system based on racial caste oppression.  In fact, the raison d’etre of the Black Arts Movement was to create art that could serve as a cultural weapon in the Black Liberation Movement which spawned it. In each instance the principal motivation of the artists was to create a new art.

One of the fruits of this cultural and political ferment was the founding of the Weusi Academy and in Harlem, a group of visual iconoclast determined to smash conventional wisdom about the meaning of art…and art itself.  They also established the Nyumba Ya Sanaa gallery to exhibit their work.  Mr. Neals was a founding father of this widely influential institution along with other innovators such as Ademola Olugbefola and the late great Yusef Rachman.  Yusef has danced and joined the ancestors but Ademola is still very much with us and actively creating important art.

Ademola recalls when his longtime friend and colleague “carved his first work of wood sculpture. It was obvious even then that he possessed special gifts,” he says.  “Nobody deserves a retrospective of this scale more than him.”  It was through an invitation from Ademola that I happened to attend this opening, and I decided to bring my camera along.  The portraits below are my impression of the show.  Click the link below the pictures for the video presentations on the artist.

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First choice pring

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 First Choice Collage

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Otto Neal

The Grand Master: Otto Neals 

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Click to see video of Dr. Green interviewing Otto Neals
https://youtu.be/GAjI
 Watch Otto Neals discuss is sources of inspiration
hhttp://breuckelenmagazine.com/artist/otto-neals
Watch Otto Neals in the Studio as he explains his scuptural technique 
 https://youtu.be/PRKJmFIRO9U
Watch Otto Neals discuss his wood sculptures 
https://vimeo.com/15637232
Watch Interview with Neals’ Weusi colleague Ademola Olugbefola
https://youtu.be/-F7x-VyggTo
* For Elombe Brath See: https://commentariesonthetimes.wordpress.com/2014/05/27/in-remembrance-of-brother-elombe/
 For The African Jazz Art Society see:https://commentariesonthetimes.wordpress.com/2010/08/16/the-death-of-sister-soul/
Photos and text by: Playthell G. Benjamin
Except for photo of Otto Neals
 Harlem New Rork, June 3, 2015

 

 

 

 

Sweet Willie and the Rappers!

Posted in Cultural Matters, Music Reviews with tags , on May 25, 2015 by playthell
Shakespeare as a hip hopperSweet Willie: Premiere Poet of the English Language

 

A Daring Discourse on Hip Hop and Shakespeare

There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”

~William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 2, Sc. 2

 There are so many treasures to be found on You Tube that I feel compelled to introduce some of these important videos to a wider audience by reviewing them and publishing the essay with a link to the video.  The videos that interest me cover politics, sport and culture.  And the subject of the video under review here is the relationship between the verse of William Shakespeare and the best Hip Hop bards.

The presenter in the video is an Afro-British poet and teacher named Akala, who is the guiding light of a unique cultural experiment that blends the works of William Shakespeare – which were written in the late 16th and early 17th Centuries – with that of 20th century American rappers, demonstrating the similarities between the esthetics and concerns of Shakespeare’s verse and the poetry that arose from Afro-American street bards in New York City during the 1970’s called Hip Hop or Rap, a cultural phenomenon that I witnessed and wrote about.  I am also a published Shakespeare critic.

Hence it came as a pleasant surprise when I searched them out and read the mission statement of the London based Shakespeare and Hip Hop Company.

“Both hip –hop and Shakespeare’s theater represent energetic and inventive forms of expression.  Both are full of poetry, word play and lyricism.  Both deal with what it is to be human, and issues from people’s lives, and of course just like Shakespeare’s work, hip-hop is all about the rhythmic tension of words. The similarities between hip-hop music and Shakespeare’s theater are striking.  As a media-savvy popular entertainer and talented businessman, we think hip-hop would have been Shakespeare’s thing – a truly old school Jay Z.”

Jay Z: Hip hop Poet and Super Entreprenuer

Jay Z

He turns street literature into lucre!
Jay Z and beautiful wife Byonce chillin at the apex of power

Barack, Byonce and Jay Z

Rappin with fellow hip hop head Chilly B. Knowledge

Upon reading this I reflected on how my first, and most influential, teachers of Shakespeare’s texts – My aunt Rosa Morgan and Ms. Rosalie Gordon –would have reacted to such a claim.  Knowing their reverence for the Bard I suspect that they would have been scandalized.  But that is because all English teachers revered Shakespeare as something akin to a demi-god, a divinely inspired wizard of the word – written or spoken.

However the scholarship on Shakespeare has revealed that he was quite a down to earth fellow who held little in common with the pious prigs who are now the keepers of the Western canon – one imminent Yale literary scholar has declared “Shakespeare is the Western canon” – meaning the sacred texts of secular literature; those texts selected by the great scholars of Western literature as required reading in formal classes on English language and literature. Thus we can safely assume that many of the canonical sentries will be fairly alarmed by any suggestion of an affinity, a Sympatico between the verse of the Bard and the rhymes of rappers.  In their view the former is high-brow poetry; the latter low brow doggerel….and it shall remain ever thus.

Yet The Bard might have liked hip hop as Akala suggests, for upon closer examination we find some fundamental differences between Shakespeare and those who now interpret his works. To begin with the guardians of the canon are all professional intellectuals, scholars trained by virtue of many years of rigorous university study, guided and tutored by imminent specialists in their field and terminating with the Doctor of Philosophy or PhD degree.  Most of these professional academics know but little of actual life as it is lived by all levels of society, and they abhor business practices as a kind of amoral chicanery unworthy of one committed to the exalted life of the mind.

Their knowledge of the world is highly specialized, which has resulted in them knowing more and more about less and less.  William Shakespeare was a very different animal.  He wanted to know everything about the world and how human beings responded in different situations.  That curiosity, along with his unique insights and literary genius, accounts for the fact that if one tries hard enough it is possible to find a Shakespeare quote for any human activity…he is more reliable than the Bible; which some students of the King James version believe he wrote.

The son of a leather tanner he learned early on about business practices, and the first lesson every businessperson everywhere must learn is that they must show a profit after paying vital expenses or they won’t be in business long.  Without inherited wealth or rich patrons Shakespeare had to figure out how to make a living while he created his art or he would be forced to choose between writing and eating regularly. Evidently the starving artist mystique held no more romantic charms for him than for Jay Z.  Literary scholar Leslie Fiedler ably examines Shakespeare’s attitude toward art and commerce in a brilliant and insightful essay titled “Literature and Lucre,” which is a chapter in his seminal book on the changing values and function of literature in Western  culture What Was Literature? 

The great insight that Fiedler’s text provided for me was his elucidation of how Shakespeare felt about making money from creating art.  A practical man, he decided that since he was an actor and playwright he should own and manage his own theater.  This decision had a profound impact on how the Bard viewed the purpose of his plays, which affected how he crafted them.  His first concern was shared by every theater owner anywhere in the world: putting butts is seats until the room is full for every show.

The second major concern was to write compelling entertainments employing the Greek masks of tragedy and comedy, pathos and bathos that would satisfy the emotional needs of his customers who would then spread the word and keep them coming.  Shakespeare understood well that a satisfied customer is one’s best advertisement. He was wearing two hats, businessman and artist, for him there was no contradiction between the aims of commerce and culture that pervades the thinking of so many creative people who think of themselves as fine artists, some of whom regard being commercial as a sign of artistic treason i.e. “selling out.”   Although we are left to speculate about how good a businessman Shakespeare was, the texts he left to posterity testifies profoundly to his genius as a poet and dramatis – no one has ever done it better!

I have been fairly mesmerized by the writings of William Shakespeare ever since my Aunt Rosa, who taught English literature in high school when I was a boy, bade me listen to the music of his words.  She said to me one day that the way to tell if you had written something well is to read it out loud because, she emphasized, “If a thing is well written it will read well out loud.”  Then she picked up a copy of the Bard’s text and began to read it out loud while instructing me on how to listen.  I fell in love with the iambic pentameter rhythms of his verse and it is a love that has lasted a lifetime.

My love of Shakespeare’s text soon led to a fascination with the spoken word; this enchantment was partially due to the fact that I suffered from a severe speech impediment in early childhood.  And once I overcame it through the patient and loving guidance of my mother, my aunt Rosa drafted me onto her oratorical team, just as she had done with our parents a generation before.

It was during my tenure on the oratorical team under the stern tutelage of my aunt that I began to recite Shakespearian monologues.  At the same time I was studying the Bard’s plays under the guidance of Mrs. Gordon, the daughter of college professors who held a degree in English Literature from Boston University, where she dated Countee Cullen, a budding poet at Harvard who hailed from Harlem, then a the most glamourous and accomplished black community in the world.

An actress at heart Ms. Gordon was an impassioned teacher of Shakespeare and when she read from Macbeth we could see the witches in the skies attempting to fill his head with avarice and ambition as he returned from battle.  And when she read Lady Macbeth’s cold and calculating monologue bidding her husband to hurry home so that she could stoke those vile ambitions we sat riveted in our seats.  I can still hear her even now, over half a century later – “Thine heart is too full of the milk of human kindness/ hie the hither / that I may chastise with the valor of my tongue/ all the that impedes thee from the golden round/ with which supernatural and metaphysical aid/ Hath doth crowned thee withal.”  And we agonized with Lady MacBeth as she vainly struggled remove the blood of the murdered King Duncan from her hands: “Out Damned Spot!”

Hence I have had an ear for the rhythm of Sweet William’s verse since boyhood. My fascination with the Bard’s work was heightened when Joseph Papp, producer of the Shakespeare in the Park summer theater – where professional productions of Shakespeare’s plays could be seen at the Delacorte theater in Central Park – mounted a production of Othello. The play starred the Spanish actor Raoul Julia in the role of Othello, and this decision sparked a furious debate among New York theater critics.  The essay in the august New York Times theater section “Looking Inside that Outsider: Othello the Moor,” caught my eye.   What got my attention in particular is a claim by the Director of the Delacorte production, an Irishman named Joe Dowling, that Shakespeare didn’t intend for Othello to be a black man.

He speculated that this was a recent interpretation motivated by a tendency toward political correctness in the arts. And like most historical ignoramuses he went on to say that Shakespeare could not have intended for Othello to be black because there were no black men in Elizabethan England.  However as the Caribbean scholar Edward Scobie tells us in his path-breaking book Black Britannia, there were many black people in England during Shakespeare’s time and cites a report of the Privy Council complaining to Queen Elizabeth about the growing numbers of “blackamoors” in her realm.

Scobie, who was a Professor at New York City College, pointed out that Shakespeare had more than a casual knowledge of the Blackamoors because he was madly in love with his black mistress named “Lucy Negro,” whose heart he stole from a British nobleman and who was described as black and beautiful and a superb actress with the Greys Inn’s Revels.  Since I have already written and published an extensive treatise on the question of Shakespeare and race I shall not belabor it here.  For those who wish to read my thoughts on the subject see: “Did Shakespeare Intend Othello to be Black: A Meditation on Blacks and the Bard,” in the anthology Othello: New Essays by Black Writers, Howard University Press.

The essay above was inspired by the discussion of Othello’s race in the New York Times article; it was my answer to their nonsense masquerading as authority.  As it happens, just before the Othello production a troupe from the Royal National Shakespeare Theater visited New York and performed Macbeth.

It was a fabulous production staged in a massive old Gothic church on the posh East side of Manhattan, and the cast was all black.  I thought it the most fabulous production of Shakespeare I had ever seen.  I was bewitched by the cacophony of mellifluous voices spoken in exotic accents from all over the black world: Africa, Europe and the American diaspora.

It was a Pan-African production staffed by beautiful gifted thespians of earthen hues that conjured up strains from Duke Ellington’s tone poem Black, Brown and Beige Suite.  I was so moved by their performance that I hurried to my computer and wrote a review, “Shakespeare in Living Color,” which was published on the cover page of the Arts section in the New York Village Voice, whose coverage of the Arts scene was unsurpassed in the 1990’s.  For instance it was here that serious, literary, criticism of the growing hip hop phenomenon was born.  With outstanding Afro-American writers like Barry Michael Cooper, Harry Allen, Greg Tate, Nelson George, Joan Morgan, Dream Hampton, et al. the Voice became the tribune of hip hop.

The reception that greeted the Macbeth review was such that I became known to the producer of the play, who arranged for some of the cast to come on my WBAI radio show one afternoon on their day off, and I had a ball reading Shakespeare with members of the Royal National Shakespeare Theater.  I told them the story on air of how the great Afro-American actor Ira Aldridge – unquestionably one of the outstanding Shakespearian Tragedians of the 19th century and the most powerful Othello according to theater critics all across Europe who reviewed his performances – learned his craft at the Grove Theater, a black owned theater in Greenwich Village devoted to the performance of Shakespeare’s plays.

Alas, he was forced to flee to England in order to find a safe space to perform, because ignorant racist white thugs routinely attacked them for daring to perform Shakespeare.  Aldridge would go on to become a sensation in Europe playing Othello and Aaron, Shakespeare’s two magnificent Moors in whom he invested virtue and vice, their dramatis personae symbolizing the extremes of good and evil. It was these experiences – meeting the black Shakespearians, writing about their performance, the controversy over Othello’s racial identity –   that led me to write the extended treatise on Othello. At the time of my meeting with the black Shakespearians Aldridge was the only black actor with a chair in the Shakespeare memorial at Stratford Upon Avon, The Bard’s birthplace.

Ira Aldridge
Aldridge-othello
The Greatest Othello of the 19th Century?

During this period I had an experience that began my enlightenment about the predicament of black artists in Britain. At the time I was writing regularly for the London Guardian – which was then the venerable Manchester Guardian – and when Senior Editor Alan Rushbridger visited New York, accompanied by a group of writers, I took my London colleagues to lunch at B Smiths, a first class restaurant located in the Broadway theater district owned by an Afro-American high fashion model. As one would expect, this was a smart and stylish crowd. The cuisine was superb and we were serenaded by a first rate Jazz trio as we dined.

The senior editor looked about the plush environs in wonder and then confided “There is no smart affluent black scene like this in London.”  Although it struck me as odd, I was in no position to dispute him, considering that on a previous business trip to London when I was a boxing promoter I split my time hanging out with millionaire white businessmen at the Dorchester – which they assured me was London’s finest hotel – and black Jamaican gangsters in Brixton. (see: “On Being Black in London.”)  And since I had never experienced anything but the warmest collegiality at the Guardian, my fail-safe racial bullshit detector was powered down.  But when the editor went on to tell me how happy they were to have me writing for the Guardian because there were no black writers of my caliber in England, the flashers began to go off in my head and I could hear the warning voice saying “beware of bullshit tips!”

Although I had no evidence to dispute him I knew Rushbridger’s astonishing claim couldn’t possibly be true.  A few days later my suspicions were confirmed. I was browsing through a book stall at the famous Papyrus book store, located right across the street from Columbia University, which is a great place to be if you are into used books, and I stumbled across a book titled “The Struggle For Black Arts in Britain.” 

The book was an anthology composed of essays by a variety of writers, all of them black and residing in Britain.  The English prose composition was finely crafted, innovative, and animated by a flash of Pan-African spirit; its polyrhythmic phrases seemed to dance off the page. I was stunned….how could such gifted writers be so ignored?  They struck me as prophets without honor in their own land.

All of these memories were conjured up as I watched the lecture demonstration on the relationship between Shakespeare’s literary project and the concerns of hip-hop artists by the Afro-British poet Akala: spoken word artist, insightful intellectual, Shakespeare devotee, thespian and theatrical innovator.  It is hard to imagine a more effective spokesman for this bold movement to combine the work of Shakespeare and hip hop artists in live performance to hip hop beats.

This is something really new, a genuine innovation, and they are not just floundering about trying anything, but are building a new genre of Rap performance that is extending the artistic ambitions of the form.  They are about the business of establishing an original voice in the world of hip-hop, a dazzling new voice that combines verbal virtuosity with a deep knowledge of poetry, a celebration of lyrics that prize intellect and elevated notions about the role of the poet in contemporary society.

There are speakers who have much of importance to say but say it badly, and there are those who have nothing of real gravitas to say but say it so well that the can bewitch the crowd with the power of their oratory alone.  Like being told to go to hell in such attractive language you actually look forward to taking the trip.  One speaker puts the crowd to sleep from boredom as if they had been feed sleeping pills instead of words.  The other entertains the crowd but teaches them nothing.  In both instances the audience is cheated and little learning takes place.  But there are special occasions when a speaker has something of value to say and says it well.  That’s when we really learn something.  Akala is that kind of teacher.

Akala

Akala

Innovative Rapper and Shakespeare Scholar

From the introduction of his subject of the commonalities of hip hop and Shakespeare, it was clear to me that Akala knew his stuff.  One gets the impression that by now he has heard all of the objections of the naysayers who are offended by the comparisons and conducts a clever exercise that removes all doubt that he is on to something real and we are not about to be subjected to a display of buffoonery conducted by some barely literate special pleader who knows not the grave offense that he is perpetrating.

He tells the audience that he is going to recite some lines and form Shakespeare and some lines for US rappers, and although they were written over 400 years apart in different regions of the world he challenges the audiences to vote with a show of hands which lines were written by Shakespeare and which by rappers.  Although I thought the idea preposterous I nevertheless sat up on the edge of my chair anxiously anticipating his recitations.

The first quote was “To destroy the beauty from which one came.”  The second line was “Maybe its hatred I spew….maybe its food for the spirit.”  The audience voted overwhelmingly that both lines were authored by Shakespeare, and since this was an audience nurtured on the texts of the Bard I knew they could not be easily deceived…but they were.  The first lines were penned by Jay Z and the second were written by M&M.  He then Recited lines from the Wu Tang Clan, and fooled the audience again.

That little demonstration made Akala’s  point in a powerful way, the fact than nobody expected it made it all the more effective.  The experience was like getting hit over the head with the truth; from that moment on he grabbed our attention and held it tight.   The audience became so confused and intellectually  intimidated that when he quoted lines authored by the Bard only half the audience got it right…and I didn’t do much better.  It was a revelation….but Akala’s presentation goes much deeper.

He discussed the class structure that existed in England at the time, and pointed out that the country was rife with violent conflicts and 90% of Shakespeare’s audience was illiterate and explained that, like the rappers, Shakespeare’s art had to appeal to the untutored masses.  Akala gave a remarkably cogent analysis of the origins of hip hop culture among the Afro-American population of New York City; cited the great innovators in the development of hip-hop like African Bambatta, D.J Red Alert, Kool Herc et al, and explained the African origins of the word “hip” a term Afro-Americans introduced into the English language.

Afrika Bambaataa

Afrika-bambaataa

Bronx Bard and a Founding Father of Hip Hop
DJ Red Alert!

Red_alert

A Pioneering MC
Kool Herc

Kool Herc

One of the Holy Trinity of Hip Hop

I had never heard of its connection with Africa, but serious students of Afro-American culture and speech have identified several words of African origin.  What was most enlightening is how similar the meaning of the word is in African and Afro-American cultures.  His discussion of rappers as latter day neo-African griots is also fascinating.  Yet as impressive as the intellectual discourse is it is Akala’s performance as a spoken word artist/rapper that steals the show.  The boy’s got skills big time!

Akala is a verbal virtuoso who spits out words like bullets from a machine gun.  At one points he recites the Bard’s Sonnets over hip hop beats, and demonstrates the similarity between some rappers flows and Iambic pentameter, Sweet Willie’s favorite flow.  This came as a surprise to me because I had always thought of the French playwright Moliere as having the most in common with modern day rappers by virtue of the fact that he told his stories in rhyme, as in his much celebrated play “The Misanthrope.

After listening to Akala’s presentation one begins to understand why Professor Henry Louis Gates included the verse of rappers in his canon building Norton Anthology of Afro-American Literature, a move many intellectuals believed to be a sacrilegious act.  So sit back in your favorite chair and check out this video; let Brother Akala take your mind on a fantastic journey. Among the surprising revelations this video unveils is the fantastic influence hip hop has had on the popular culture of the world.   After all, this is an art invented by young working class blacks and Puerto Ricans  with a compulsion to make music but were denied the opportunity to receive formal training in the art of music due to the severe cuts in funding for public education in New York City.

This is the result of pragmatic philistines who cannot distinguish between what students need to know in order to make a living, and what they must know in order to make a rich and satisfying life.  In word and deed Akala testifies to the positive influence of hip hop on contemporary popular culture whose appeal flows over all borders.  It is a bravura performance, unlike anything I have ever witnessed in a spoken word exhibition, and it is accompanied by an ongoing intellectual discourse which is distinguished by erudition and eloquence.  Bravo!

 

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Double Click on link to see Akala’s presentation

https://youtu.be/DSbtkLA3GrY

Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
May 24, 215

At the Track with El Grande Renaldo!

Posted in Cultural Matters, On Sports!, Photo-Essays with tags , , on March 3, 2015 by playthell

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David Hardiman, Virtuoso Trumpeter, Professor,  San Francisco Jazz Master

 Watching the Sport of the Gods at Golden Gate

 When I agreed to meet my main man Renaldo Ricketts aka El Grande Renaldo – poet, painter and San Francisco Bon vivant – at Golden Gate Field I hadn’t been to a race track in over thirty years.  Not because of any crazy notions about the horses being treated “inhumanely,” since I believe humane treatment ought to be for humans although it is seldom achieved.  And horses well….they should be treated like horses…Duh?    I was kept away from the track by weightier considerations.  Since I am a passionate horse lover and hold a longtime fascination with the equestrian arts, I attended those marvelous horse shows at Madison Square Garden and often rode my own horses.

However I never missed the running of the Triple Crown Races on big screen televisions and thought I had the best seat in the house until yesterday, when I found myself standing tight down by the edge of the track – so close you could feel the momentum of those powerful Thoroughbred horses as they galloped by.  And since I had my camera with me I was happy as a hog in slop.  Renaldo had invited me to join him at the track on other occasions when I was visiting the Bay Area.   But I always played past it.  But this time it was on the eve of his sixtieth birthday, a landmark in the life of anybody these days, but most especially out spoken high spirited black men like Renaldo.

So I thought what tha hell; I’ll go hang out with my buddy and watch some great equine athletes do their thing, which is run faster and longer than any animal on the planet.  While I like to watch the horses Renaldo loves to play them, and is one of the few people who is successful at it.  The way he does it strikes me as some strange conjuration that’s part art, part science, and part Mumbo Jumbo, which makes it beyond the reach of most rational beings and has led to wreck and ruin for may who tried to unlock the secret to winning money playing the horses.  It is a mystery that I long ago decided was beyond the realm of my comprehension and I wouldn’t give a cripple crab a crutch to wager on a nag!

I grew up amid horses, my grandfather was an excellent horseman and my uncle was the town blacksmith in St. Augustine Florida, the nation’s oldest city, where people still rode horses through the street when I was a boy.  Hence I not only learned how to care for horses and handle them whether hitched to a carriage or under saddle, but to shoe them too.  I know a lot about horses, which is why I don’t bet on them.  Horses are living creatures that have a mind of their own and can be moody just like humans; or they just might not feel well, but you never know when they will sit down on you.

I’d rather play the lottery, where all I need is a dollar and a dream and one hit can put me on easy street.  However gambling wise guys know that playing the horses offers much better odds, but to win you have got to work at it and do some study.   In the photo essay below you will witness the intensity of the bettors, as the scan the TV monitors that adorn the walls everywhere, and the disciplined concentration with which they study the racing forms.

El Grande Renaldo is something of a legend at Golden Gate Field, the lovely race track nestled on the banks of the San Francisco Bay, especially in the Second Floor Lounge,  where the bartenders and barmaids treat him as an old friend and his seat at the end of the bar is practically reserved.  He was generous in providing my drink of choice, rum and coke with olives and cherries, while he stuck to light beer and sparkling water.  Like most of the people at the track Renaldo is all business.  He is not only placing bets on races all over the country and following them on the many TV monitors about.  It was fascinating to watch.

However there were many fascinating episodes on that adventure at the track.  It began with the ride on the shuttle bus that ferries people back and forth from the BART train station to Golden Gate Field.  The driver, a Pacific Islander who looked to be in his late thirties, was a passionate fan of vintage 1950’s Afro-American Rhythm and Blues, especially the southern artists.  So on the way to the race track I heard Bobby Blue Bland, BB King, Etta James, Sam Cooke, and James Brown.  They were all original recordings which ran about three minutes and change.  As this was the music that I grew up on it was like a trip back in time, except that back in the day in Florida I would never have been on a bus full of white people grooving to the music and seated next to a white woman with a skirt so short one wrong move and we would have seen her tonsils!

Thus I found myself strolling down memory lane and reflecting  on how dramatically race relations  have changed during my lifetime, not that I need any reminders, after all we have a black family in the White House, everything else pales beside that fact.  I say this without fear of contradiction, despite the verbose ahistorical numb skulls who insist that nothing has changed.   When I arrived at Golden Gate and walked into the vast park I began to have second thoughts as to whether I would actually be able to find Renaldo, but he had assured me in no uncertain terms that he would be where he said he would be.  And he was.

The first thing I heard when I entered the lounge was Renaldo’s voice calling out my name.  There he was in his seat at the end of the bar, impossible to miss with his radiant smile and Falstafian girth, holding forth in his lively loquacious fashion as his fellow travelers looked on.  He asked what I was drinking, introduced me around, and then turned his attention to the next races.  As Renaldo worked his strange alchemy, whereby he turns cardboard tickets into gold the way his Moorish ancestors were rumored to have turned sand into gold back in the day, I wandered down to the edge of the track and began photographing the horse and the humans, who were diverse and of interesting variety.

What was conspicuously absent from the multi-ethnic stew was Afro-American trainers and jockeys.  I’ll bet most people never even notice this, or find it unusual even if they do.  This is because most people who visit race tracks have never seen any significant black presence among the horse handlers.  Yet for many years during the late 19th and early 2th century, Black American Jockeys and trainers dominated the tracks; they owned the Kentucky Derby!  Since I have already written about this in another essay I shall not reiterate it here, for a full discussion of that topic enter “Black Jockeys” in the search engine of this blog.

The point is that they were driven out of the industry by white racist who couldn’t compete with these black masters fairly. And if they had their way Brother Hardiman would not be thrilling the crowds with his wonderful trumpet artistry.  They tried to lay him off but the public wouldn’t stand for it, Renaldo first among them in sparking a letter writing campaign to the management of golden Gate.  The lesson here is that we must be eternally vigilant and ready to battle the forces of white supremacy at all times: Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere!

I have often felt that there is a serendipitous quality about how I come to write certain essays.  This is a case in point.  Recently I saw a movie starring Will Smith as a con man who hooks up with a foxy grafter and they paint a fascinating portrait of the high fashion hotties and other characters who hang out a race tracks.  So I was looking closely to see if I recognized any of those types.  However the high point for me was watching all of the beautiful horses; I really got an eyegasm.  Some of them you will see in the photographs below.

A hail fellow well met, everybody greeted Renaldo with a warm vibe, what the French call “bon homie.” But the person that I found most fascinating was the official Bugler at the track who plays the fanfare announcing the races.  I was first struck be the fact that he would play impromptu jazz improvisations during the intermission between races, and they were so hip I wondered who it was.  Well he turned out to be David Hardiman, virtuoso trumpeter, Professor of Music and Director of the San Francisco All-Star Jazz Orchestra.

So when he came out to play his next fanfare Renaldo introduced us and I asked him to play the classic Jazz tune Bugle Call Rag, and he swung it.  I have attached a clip of Hardiman and his orchestra in performance at the bottom of this essay.  Every time I hung with Renaldo in San Francisco it has been a fascinating and culturally enriching experience.  The first time we hung out he took me to the Church of Saint John Coltrane; this time I met one of train’s musical descendants. Hence I knew something fascinating would happen hanging out at the track with El Grande Renaldo!

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 After Playing the classic “Bugle Call Rag” at my Request
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The Bugler and I became fast Friends
 We had been Properly Introduced by a Mutual Friend
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El Gran Renaldo: San Francisco artist and Bon Vivant!
 It Was a Stylish Crowd

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 Filled with Free Thinking Fashionistas!
 Folks Still Wear Hats…….
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By the San Francisco Bay
 Even Barely Legal Young Foxes
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Be Rockin Fly Sky Pieces
 Many Mexican Playas Rock Cowboy Hats …

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 …and they play em to the Max!
 Harry Reems Jr Sported a Fedora
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 Played off by a Handle Bar Mustache
 And the Star Girls
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Bedecked themselves in finery
 Then Strutted their Stuff….
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…..before the High Rollers
 Some Fly Girls….
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 Put themselves conspicuously on Display
 While Others…..
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 Are Low Key
 Most People Came to Bet on the Races

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I came to watch these Marvelous Equines
 Among Racing Wise Guys…..Nothing is left to Chance

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They study racing forms as if they were Talmudic Text
 Even as they dine on wine and swine

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They keep their eyes on the prize
  Renaldo has a special spot in the Second Floor Lounge
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From whence he monitors multiple races and watch his fortunes rise or fall
 He has felt the Thrill of Victory…..

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 ……and the Agony of Defeat!
 Man’s Best Friend….The King of Beasts!
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Thoroughbreds can run longer and faster than any animal on earth!
 The Jockeys are cool, calm and collected
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As they wait to board their mo
The Boss Bugler Presented a Fanfare
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To Announce Every Race
 And what splendid Races they Were!
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The ran like they were running for their lives!
Until One Breaks Away From the Pack

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And takes the Money
 The Horses build up such speed
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 They need time to slow down
The Losers are quickly unsaddled
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And returned to the paddock 
While the Winning Steed

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Prances around like a Conquering Hero
 Heading to the Starting Gate

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 Racing Horses are so Hyped they must be Restrained by another Rider
 Ready to Run!
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The Escort’s job is Critical to Keeping the Racers Under control
 Getting them in the Gates require great skill

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 The Calm before the Storm
 The Big Grey took this One!
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A Rare Color for a Thoroughbred
 After the dramatic win…
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…….this champ got all snuggly
 It was just another Day for the Big Gray

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I marvel at his beautiful Conformation

 

In the Winner’s Circle!!!

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 This is what it’s all About!
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Double click to see Hardiman and the Jazz All-Stars

http://youtu.be/eYoFXvfIIA8

Playthell G. Benjamin 
March 2, 2015
 San Francisco

 

 

 

 

On Sports, Academics and  Black Youths  

Posted in Cultural Matters, On Sports! with tags , on February 17, 2015 by playthell

Russell-Wilson V

 Russell Wilson: Seattle Seahawks Quarterback
 An Open Letter To Eric L. Watree
 Dear Eric

I have carefully read your essay and here is my considered response.  I have already addressed most of your concerns in my lengthy essay “On Race, Culture and Sports,” as your argument is essentially the same as that of professor John Hoberman, ” the author of “Darwin’s Athletes,” who presented far more evidence for his argument.   The fact that you read that essay yet make the argument you offer here does not auger well for this discussion.

My first inclination is to simply retire my argument and move on to other pressing issues.  I have more important employment for my time and intellectual energies than to re-litigate an issue on which I have already presented my most compelling arguments.  And if it were anybody but you Eric that is undoubtedly the course I would take. Early on in your essay you make the following claim:

Playthell is a huge sports fan and is of the belief that sports have been invaluable in their impact on helping to move the Black community forward. I, on the other hand, see sports as a two-sided coin. While sports have undoubtedly been of great value in helping many young Black people to build character, obtain an education, and financially prosper, in terms of the overall Black community these people represent a limited few. For the greater part of the Black community, however, the lure of sports often serves as a distraction that prevents many from investing in their intellectual development and pursuing more realistic goals.”

 First let me point out that according to the website Inside Higher Ed, in a 2014 article titled More Athletes get to finish Line, the figures show that in 2007, 70% of black male athletes graduated college and 81% of black females.  Among white athletes 93% of them graduated and 85% of white males.  Many of these young people would never have gotten to college without sports scholarships.

However a later study by the University of Pennsylvania put the graduation rates for black male athletes at 50.2%, but the black non-athlete students only have a 55% graduation rate.  No great difference there. I think these young student/athletes should be celebrated for their hard work and discipline rather than besmirched with a bunch of hackneyed clichés that have no basis in reality.

Furthermore, I would argue that there is no question that sports has been “invaluable “in helping to move the black community forward.  We live in a participatory democracy that where black people are concerned has been a “Tyranny of the majority” in the words of Alexis de Tocqueville, the French sociologist who produced the first serious study of the American polity in his two volume tome “Democracy in America in 1831.

This being the case, as a minority in America our progress has depended upon the ability to persuade the white majority that we are worthy of inclusion into this society as first class citizens empowered with the full array of rights enumerated in that much celebrated declaration of universal humanistic values announcing the independence of the English speaking colonies of North America from the control of the British Empire, and codified in the US constitution.  It is useless to lament this extra burden placed on Afro-Americans; it is unfair to be sure, but nonetheless true.

I would argue that no group of Afro-Americans has been more effective at persuading the majority of white Americans of our human value – by demonstrating our beauty and genius – than Afro-American athletes and entertainers!  Since you are not inclined to read history texts you are probably not aware of this fact.  It is impossible to calculate the positive effects of Joe Louis’s defeat of Max Schmeling in their second fight, which was billed as a fight between “Fascism and Democracy, but it is enough to know that President Roosevelt publicly told him  “America is depending on those muscles tonight Joe.”  And his Jewish promoter, Mike Jacobs, announced at the White House gathering “Yes Mr. President, Joe Louis will show those NAZI’s who the real master race is!”  It is difficult for contemporary Afro-Americans to realize the importance of such statements in an openly racist apartheid America, but I will be posting a major essay on the importance of Joe Louis in a few days.

However the famous Grambling football coach Eddie Robinson remembers that in the aftermath of that fight “It was the first time a white person called me an American.”  And the legendary Alabama football coach Bear Bryant says the performance of USC running back Sam “The Bam” Cunningham did more to integrate the University of Alabama than Martin Luther King when he came down there in that football state and ran for 220 yards in a rout against them.  When Jesse Owens set world records while winning multiple Gold Medals at the NAZI Olympics in Berlin it was a mortal blow to the NAZI claim of Aryan superiority and inspired the Jewish people and anti-fascist forces all over the world!

None of these achievements led to instant change, because massive social changes do not occur overnight, especially where there are concrete material interests involved , but I can cite endless examples of the positive effects of sports stars in advancing the race in America and abroad.  One final example.  When I interviewed some participants in the bloody Civil Rights Movement in St. Augustine Florida, where I grew up, I asked them how they mustered up the courage to go on a particularly dangerous night march – which has been well documented by the historians Steven Oates and Taylor Branch Heyward Fleming told me: “Well Jackie Robinson came down and marched with us, and when we saw Jackie we knew we couldn’t lose.”  It is instructive to note that DR.MARTIN LUTHER KING WAS ALREADY THERE!  This reverence for Jackie Robinson provides a measure of the importance of Jackie having broken the color barrier in Major League Baseball, even though almost 20 years had passed.

Jackie Robinson and Dr. King

jackie_robinson & Martin King

Two Giants in the Struggle

Your comment that “the lure of sports often serves as a distraction that prevents many from investing in their intellectual development and pursuing more realistic goals” is undoubtedly true, but the same thing can be said of those who aspire to be singers, rappers or Jazz and classical musicians.  How realistic is it that one will be able to make a living at any of these occupations?  Furthermore your statement begs the question of what would these youngsters in question be doing if they were not involved in sports?

I think your argument here is based on a false premise: that these young men would be engaged in serious intellectual pursuits if they were not participating in sports.  I see no evidence that this is true, for there is certainly no paucity of failures among those who are not involved in sports.  Alas,  I’d wager that there is a mountain of statistical evidence to demonstrate that impoverished underclass youths and even working class youths who don’t participate  in sports are more likely to end up in jail, dead, on drugs, etc.  That’s because the problem of arrested development is not participation in sports but structural impediments to their advancement and BAD PARENTING!!!!!

There is no evidence of which I am aware that prove sport as such is the main cause of a “lack of intellectual development” in young black males.  If so, would you please acquaint us with it?   Since your essay here is supposed to be a response to my essay “On Race Culture and Sports” I can only conclude that you are not a careful reader.  Since you have repeatedly told me about all of the wisdom you gained from “winos” and other “hood  rats” how could you fail to note this passage about my experience as a devoted football player and the intellectual enlightenment and encouragement that I received from black athletes in my youth:

Hence there was no dichotomy between athletics and scholastics In the black communities I came of age in.  Although I doubt that anyone of my generation loved playing football more than I did, that love didn’t stop me from dreaming about becoming a symphony conductor, nor diminish my curiosity about the wonders of science, nor prevent me from becoming a civil rights activist – although certain football players at A&M shunned involvement in the movement because they thought it could hurt their athletic careers – nor did it dampen my love  for reading Shakespeare…or later becoming a published Shakespeare Critic. (See: “Did Shakespeare Intend Othello to be Black: A Meditation on Blacks and the Bard” in Othello: New Essays By Black Writers, Howard University Press

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

Aside from ignoring personal testimony regarding my experience as a football athlete and being mentored by older athletes, you repeat that hackneyed cliché about participation in sports as the cause of intellectual underachievement in young black males. Yet this bogus claim was demolished by distinguished scholars from several disciplines who participated in the conference discussed in my essay.  Did you not read this passage?

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

 Since these passages obviously made no impression upon first reading – which is evidenced by the fact that you made no mention of them – I don’t expect them to have a different effect upon a second reading.  Hence the main reason that I am engaging in this exchange is to educate other readers who may happen onto this page.  But any evidence you have that shows a causal relationship between participation in sports and low intellectual achievement would benefit us all in grappling with this critical issue.

 Russell Wilson and Dad
 Russell and Harrison Wilson
 Athletic and Academic Stars!

You insist that the problem of low intellectual achievement in young black males is due to their participation in sports, yet Russell Wilson has been a sports fanatic all of his life.   Excelling in football, baseball and basketball – he is one of a very small group of elite  athletes to be drafted by two professional teams in sports in history – and all of these men have been wildly successful American icons.  No down side there!  Russell Wilson graduated from a major university in three years while starring in two varsity sports.

His father was a sports fanatic who played briefly in the NFL, then went on to a distinguished career in the law.  Russ’s father’s mother and father, his paternal grandparents hold PhD’s, and his grandfather was a basketball star on the black college circuit when the black schools had the best players in the nation. It was he that turned Russ’ father Harrison onto sports.  Yet Harrison and his brother, who is also a sports enthusiast, went to Dartmouth and Harvard.  Calvin Hill, a former star running back with the Dallas Cowboys held a master’s degree from Yale, and his son, basketball great Grant Hill, graduated from Duke.  Tiger Woods has been obsessed with playing golf since he was three years old, but his father, a former officer in the Green Berets, made playing golf conditional on his getting good grades, so he became the greatest golfer in history and was admitted to Stanford.

Richard Sherman, the best corner back in football maintained a four point average in high school and a 3.9 average at Stanford!  He says the work ethic which made such high achievement possible was inspired witnessing his father rise at four in the morning to go out and drive a trash truck around LA, then come home and work on their house in the evenings. And rapper Snoop Dogg’s son Cordell is on his way to UCLA to play football, a sport his father introduced him to and coached his Pop Warner teams, but the coach says when he met with Snoop and his wife on a recruiting visit “He didn’t talk about football; he talked about educating his son for life after football!”  (See the video clip below.)

If you had been playing football like your LA homies, chances are you would not have been a juvenile delinquent faced with jail or a stint in the Marine Corps!  For instance John Wideman was obsessed with basketball as a kid and remained entranced by the sport his entire life, playing the game until halted by age.  His Brother Robbie however had no interests in sports and decided to become a street player instead, killed a man during a robbery, and  ended up spending his entire adult life in jail…where he will die.

John on the other hand won a state wide competitive Benjamin Franklin Scholarship that provided an all expenses paid education at the University of Pennsylvania, which stopped granting athletic scholarships years before Wideman joined the student body.  And despite having to deal with the racism and elitism of white students he became a basketball star and a Rhodes Scholar. Writing about Wideman in a 2002 paper for the University Archives, Elliot A. Greenwald tells us:

“As a Rhodes Scholar, Wideman was heralded in the national media. Look magazine’s article, ‘The Astonishing John Wideman,’ by Gene Shalit, introduced Wideman to the nation, providing a stylized version of his Penn experience, focusing on how he overcame simple racial differences to succeed. Even though Shalit and others from Look followed the team on a road trip to Yale and Brown and attended Wideman’s classes the article fails to discuss racial issues concretely… Shalit explained, ‘Girls call him up for dates, professors invite him to their homes for dinner…[T]he world is his plaything…Obviously it is not. John Wideman is a Negro….'”

Choosing an academic career over pro basketball  Wideman went on to become one of the most distinguished  American writers on the 20th century, and now has an international community of scholars devoted to the study of his work ( see: The John Wideman Society.”   I would hazard a guess that fascination with street life is a far greater danger to black males than sports!

Paul Robeson starred in four sports yet made the highest score in New Jersey on his college entrance exams, tutored his white classmates in Greek and Latin and graduate Valedictorian of his class at Rutgers –  then one of America’s elite universities.  However Robeson’s father had escaped from slavery and worked his way through Lincoln University – where they studied the same curriculum as Harvard – and thus placed a good education at the top of his list.

Alas, since you have declared on numerous occasions that you are not impressed by elite university educations, the academic achievement in such schools by the athletes mentioned above may  make no difference to you Eric, but for a multitude of people admission to elite universities and earning doctorate degrees are outstanding accomplishments; this writer included.  But you can’t have it both ways Eric, either you are for high academic achievement or not; and if you are for it then how do we measure it?  There are so many examples of black athletes who were high academic achievers that I could  go on ad infinitum; especially if I look at it Globally.

For instance Dr. Bartholomew Naji, who came from Nigeria to attend St. Johns University in New York.  Naji not only set collegiate athletic records while graduating in three years, but went on to take a PhD in Industrial Engineering and become one of world’s foremost authorities in Robotics. His expertise in the field was such that the State Legislature in Massachusetts created a special chair in Industrial Engineering to keep him at UMass.

Despite this effort he has returned to Nigeria and if he can get the politicians to fund his projects we will see some cutting edge ideas coming from Nigeria in computer science and robotics.  I knew him well and he too had parents who demanded that he excel in school.  These examples alone – although I could cite numerous others – leave no doubt in my mind that the parents you get are far more important to success in life than an obsession with sports!

It is interesting that you dismissed this argument elsewhere because you claim that it is based on “anecdotal evidence,” when you have offered NO EVIDENCE for your sweeping generalizations: anecdotal or otherwise!  As near as I can tell, it’s just about how you see things; we should take it on your word.  Furthermore you have a tendency to state the obvious as if it were a profound revelation.  The following statement is a case in point:

 “I view sports much like I do morphine. In small doses it can be of great medicinal value against pain, but if you overdo it, it can destroy your life, and it seems to me that many in the Black community are about to overdose from a lack of substance as a result of its abuse, both literally, and figuratively.”

 Of course too much of even a good thing can be harmful, too many vitamins can hurt you, but what evidence do you have that “…many in the Black community are about to overdose from a lack of substance as a result of its abuse, both literally, and figuratively.” Have you read sociological studies that demonstrate this statistically?  Or do these bits of wisdom descend into your head from the ether.

I have no way of knowing how you arrive at these conclusions because you have already told me that you believe sociology is a pretentious fraud, mumbo jumbo I think you called it; so how do you know the claims you make about the cause and effect of large scale social phenomena are true?  Or are we to again take your word on this critical issue because you say it is so?   Is it just common sense?  Well I require a bit more persuasion: what is your evidence for these sweeping generalizations?

You tell us with brimming confidence:

“So I’m not against sports, per se, but I do think that sports should be kept in perspective. It’s perfectly natural for kids to want to indulge in games, but while they are indulging in these games it’s very important that the adults in their lives constantly remind them that sports represent the “Toy Department” of life, and that there are many other things in life that are much more important. But due to our mass societal fixation on sports, and the virtual “worship” of sports figures, they’re rarely getting this instruction. As a direct result, we’ve become a society of easily manipulated, undereducated, and totally distracted sports junkies. “

 First of all,  virtually everything you say about sports in this passage can also be said about music and musicians!  The biggest musical acts fill up those same stadiums and the fans get just as crazy…if not worse!  Here again sports is being made a scapegoat for your rightful concern about other societal ills. Furthermore, since you have cited Socrates as your role model, it should interest you to know that his prize pupil Plato, from whose writings we learn most about Socrates’s life and thought, considered music and sport of equal importance in the education of the youth in his ideal Republic. He also thought the athlete was superior to the spectator and poets should be banned from the Republic!  Hence a joker like you, a poet who disdains sport, would not have fared very well in Socrates’ crowd, for the cultivation of mind and body equally is the essence of the Greek ideal of human development.  Remember Eric, it was the ancient Greeks that gave us the Olympics: the greatest sporting event in history!

I would argue that love for and participation in sports has caused many young men to remain in school that might have dropped out, and raised the academic achievement of many other youths: THOSE WHOSE PARENTS VALUE EDUCATION ENOUGH TO MAKE PLAYING SPORTS A REWARD FOR ACADEMIC ACHIEVEMENT!!!    I am not guessing about this Eric, that was what me and all of my friends did who had kids that were athletes!  Just like YOUR SON DOES WITH HIS KIDS!   You have no trouble recognizing the good that sports is doing for your grandchildren; so why wouldn’t sport have the same benefits for other youths if they enjoyed the guidance good parents too?

I didn’t tell my children that sport is the “toy Department of life” because that’s not how I see it. I regard your statement as little more than an expression of personal prejudice that bears no observable relationship to the reality of sports in human experience.  And it is certainly at odds with the bulk of the scholarship on the subject.

For instance Dr. Marianne Engle, a professor of Sports Psychology at the distinguished New York University Child Study Center, published a paper in 2004 title “Kids and Sports: Creating a Healthy Experience for Every Child.”  This paper sums up the conclusions of the major researchers in the field of sports participation and human development, and Dr. Engle tells us:

“Participation in sports, whether as an individual or as a member of a team, plays an important role in the social, emotional and physical development of children and adolescents. Successful sports experiences provide benefits – gains in social and interpersonal competence, fitness, health-mindedness, and psychological well-being – that have been shown to last throughout life. As expressed by William Damon of the Stanford Center on Adolescence,” The future of any society depends on the character and competence of its young. In order to develop their competence young people need guidance to provide them with direction and a sense of purpose. They need relationships that embody and communicate high standards. They need to experience activities that are challenging, inspiring, and educative.”

It is an undeniable fact that sports competition is fundamental to all human societies; the more complex and advanced the society, the more complex and advanced the games they play. That’s why football, the quintessential American game, is the fastest most physically and intellectually demanding and complex game in the world!  And I know for sure that whatever a young person wants to do in society – any society in the world – all other relevant factors such as intellect and talent being equal, their chances of success will be enhanced if they are also a great athlete!

I have repeatedly implored you to read “Beyond a Boundary,” by CLR James – an athlete, sports fanatic and one of the most brilliant intellectuals of the 20th century – so you can gain a much broader view of the role of sport in society and how one can share an equal love for sport and scholarship… but to no avail.  It is hard to have serious conversations with you Eric because you do not have a proper respect for intellectual authority; as you have repeatedly told me.  This makes it difficult to build a systematic argument based on that authority and I often get the feeling that I’m wasting my time…..which is like burning money to me.

Far too much of your argument rest on intuition, subjective observations, or outright hyperbole; which as near as I can tell, is totally innocent of facts.   The following passage is a poignant case in point.

“Many in this country can tell you the starting lineup and various statistics of every football team in the country, but they can’t tell you who their congressperson is, how they voted, or what they voted on. That’s not good, and it’s having a negative impact on not only the Black community, but the nation as a whole.”

Well, I have been an avid football fan for over half a century and I have NEVER met anyone who “can tell you the starting lineup and various statistics of every football team in the country.” I have a fabled memory, in fact when I was a professor my colleagues nicknamed me “Univac,” after the giant IBM main frame computer: AND I COULDN’T TELL YOU THE ENTIRE STARTING LINEUPS OF THE  NEW YORK JETS, THE GIANTS OR MY FAVORITE TEAM THE SEATTLE SEAHAWKS IF YOU PUT A GAT TO MY HEAD!!!   Frankly I do not believe that such a person as you describe exists accept in your imagination.  As to your point about not knowing who your congressman is, I’ve got news for ya dog: I’ve known highly educated people with no interests in sport who DON’T KNOW WHO THEIR CONGRESSMAN IS!!  I challenge you to present any evidence that sports fans are more politically ignorant than non-sports fans…..this is nothing more than BASELESS CONJECTURE!  How am I supposed to take such arguments seriously?

There are other passages in your essay that sound about as scientific as astrology.  Would you please cite a scholarly source for the following claim?

“What many people fail to realize is how profoundly their thinking can be shaped by social manipulators through the use of sports and other forms of public “entertainment.” The passion engendered through sports allows social manipulators to circumvent an individual’s cerebral cortex, or intellect, and exploit a direct line to the fan’s brain stem, or the most animalistic and condition-receptive part of their brain. That allows manipulators to condition an individual’s thinking and attitudes without  the individual even recognizing it.”

I have a former student who is now a professor of Neuroscience at Harvard, he is also a Senior Research Fellow at the Krolinska Institute in Sweden, where the award the Nobel Prizes for medicine and biology, and he not only played football but considered going out for the New England Patriots as a free agent.  He is a Florida boy and loves football like me…do you suppose that you know facts about these deleterious effects of sports on the brain but it escaped his notice?  Frankly, given your often expressed disdain for intellectual authority and your high opinion of your own intellectual abilities I would not be surprised to discover that you do. But it strikes me as beyond ridiculous.

Surprisingly, you seem unaware that your concentration on sports rather than the “other forms of public entertainment,” such as musical performance, exposes an anti-sports bias that nullifies your pretentions to objectivity.  Since you have openly expressed your ignorance of history and your disdain for sociology, on what do you base the following conclusion:

“But most Americans have blindly accepted the proposition that it’s our ‘competitive spirit’ that makes this nation great. But what evidence do we have of that? How do we know that we wouldn’t have been even greater if we’d embraced a philosophy of enlightenment and the pursuit of excellence with the same amount of zeal as we’ve pursued the need to say, “I’m better than you?”  And why must our national motive be to be “the greatest nation on Earth?” We’d UNDOUBTEDLY be much greater if we’d resolved to compete against who we WERE to become the greatest nation that we can BE. How many minds do we have locked up in the nation’s prison systems who may have the unique intellect to solve the world’s problems? Is it possible that due to this nation’s ‘us against them’ mentality that they might have lynched the very person who might have found a cure for cancer?”

.Unfortunately, sentimental prattle like, “How do we know that we wouldn’t have been even greater if we’d embraced a philosophy of enlightenment and the pursuit of excellence with the same amount of zeal as we’ve pursued the need to say, “I’m better than you?” is not a serious argument!   Maybe in Socrates’s time, when most things were a matter of speculation,  but not now, in the age of quantitative comparative sociology and scientific historical research.  There is a vast scholarly literature on this subject!  Apparently you are unaware that this question has been discussed ad infinitum.

We know that the competitive American system produced the most powerful nation in the history of the world, that’s an incontestable fact, as it the fact that the productivity and efficiency that made the US economy the richest in the world is a direct result of competition between business firms to make a better product at a cheaper price!  Your position on the other hand is baseless conjecture; wishful thinking.  It is your task to convincingly demonstrate that we could have been a greater nation without the American emphasis on competition, not simply pronounce from on high.  That may be enough for you but I am unimpressed.  Your argument denouncing the evils of competition is especially curious coming from a Jazz musician.

One of the most intriguing questions regarding the art of Jazz is “How did Afro-American musicians create and develop an art form that requires virtuosity and originality on the part of every instrumentalist in the orchestra, without the benefit of a formal conservatory?” The answer is to be found in the ruthless competition between musicians striving to be ”the best” on their instruments. Without job security, written contracts, vast financial endowments for orchestras, or retirement pensions for performers, the Jazz world is a Darwinian milieu, red of tooth and claw, where survival of the fittest is the order of the day.  It’s a jungle out there!

The trials and tribulations of the professional Jazz musician are well documented in interviews by the musicians and the writers who covered them.  A poignant description of what life as a Jazz musician was like during the most popular period of modern Afro-America complex instrumental music can be found in “Good Morning Blues,” The Autobiography of Count Basie.” 

Written in collaboration with the great Afro-American writer and cultural critic Albert Murray – author of the classic “Stomping the Blues,”  for my money the best book ever written on Afro-American music – Bill Basie’s autobiography  provides an in-depth look into the world of the working Jazz musician that covers most of the 20th century, when Jazz developed.  It takes us back to a time when Jazz was a new and evolving art, and moves to a time when many big bands worked regularly and some – like Andy Kirk, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, et al  – worked three hundred days a year and could have worked 365 days if they had a mind to.

 Bill Basie
Count-Basie-01_02 
He finally Made the Cut

  There was more work for black Jazz musicians during this period than anytime in American history, but you could only work if you were considered “the best man available” by whatever standard the bandleader wished to judge you – just like today.  So the more versatile and original your sound the better your chances for getting steady work.  And the major venue of instruction in their art was The Jam Session!  The central feature of these events was the “cutting session” in which musicians on every instrument tried to outplay their counterparts.  Basie describes how the competition was so thick for seats in a working orchestra that you could lose your gig from “getting yo head cut” by a musician invited to sit in on your instrument during a gig!

He recalls an incident early on in his career when the band leader gave everybody but him a different time to return from a break, because he wanted to check out a local cat on piano.  Basie says he was outside having a smoke when he heard the band strike up, but by the time he got in the room the cat on piano was wailing.  After listening for a few choruses Basie says he went straight to the owner of the club and asked him for a job parking cars!

That’s how competitive the jazz environment that produced such great musicians was.  And nobody was more competitive that the “Be-boppers” led by Bird and Diz, who took jazz to another level of harmonic and rhythmic complexity.  To get a feel for what this environment was like you should read Ralph Ellison’s seminal essay on the origins of Bop “Things Remembered, Times Past: On Bird, Birdwatching and Jazz.”  Here is a firsthand view live from Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem, where this new genre was molded in the heat of fierce competition and only the strong survived the savage cutting sessions.

Ellison, a trumpet player from Oklahoma who was studying composition with the famous black classical composer William Dawson at Tuskegee Institute, thought he was a bad man on the trumpet.  But the fierce playing of the musicians at Minton’s scared him.  “They were playing bebops,” he wrote of the horn players “I mean rebopped bebops.”  And he described the drummers as “frozen faced introverts dedicated to chaos.” It was a heroic act to take the stage in Minton’s Playhouse, where the rhythm section often included Theolonius Monk on Piano, Oscar Pettiford on Bass, and Kenny “Klook” Clark on drums!

There are endless stories about the day Bird strolled into that lion’s den dressed like a country boy from Kansas City, whipped out his axe from a raggedy cardboard case, and slayed them all!  Dizzy Gillespie said they had been hearing bits and pieces of what Bop might sound like, but when he heard Bird play “Cherokee” it all came together. Everything about Minton’s was highly competitive – including the gangsters who regularly hung out in there and competed with each other for everything from the flyest cars, to clothes, to girls!

The great Max Roach, arguably the most influential improvisational percussionist of the twentieth century, told me that they had heard about bird from musicians who had passed through Kansas City on tour and came back talking about what a “monster” he was on the saxophone.  “But our attitude was Sheeet, we in the Big Apple baby, ain’t nothing this country boy can play that we ain’t heard before.”  So all the horn players were laying to “cut his head”  and ended up dead…slain by a yard bird from the sticks.

 Bird and Dizzy: Taking no Prisoners!
 Bird and Diz
 Two Innovative Geniuses that Changed Western Music

That was the highly competitive environment in which the fine art of Bebop was born Eric.  Louis Armstrong – a seminal figure in the evolution of Jazz – hated both bebop and the beboppers; the music and the musicians.  He once remarked that they were mean and evil people who just wanted “to carve everybody up.”  He said The music was just a bunch of chords and notes “that don’t mean nothing!”  I have never known a great Jazz musician who was not egotistical about their playing and highly competitive, and I’ve known legions of them over more than half a century. In fact, I don’t know anybody that is great at anything of whom that is not true.

The competitive nature of Jazz as a method of creating a better product is one of the things that makes Jazz the quintessential American Art.   Like athletes, who generally embrace each other after the contest – including boxers after vicious fights – musicians form a unique band of brothers and are generally friendly after the competition on the bandstand.  In fact they embody the highest ideal of sport, unless one’s lively hood is at stake: “It’s not whether you win or lose… but how you play the game.”  And I have never known a great Jazz musician who wasn’t an avid sports fan.

The great Earl “Fatha” Hines says that after his gig at the Grand Terrace Ballroom in Chi Town he and the band members would go play baseball as soon as it was light outside; Louis Armstrong had his own baseball team.  Every chance he gets, the great Wynton Marsalis plays pickup basketball games with the youths in the projects across from Lincoln Center, and is quite proud of his jump shot!  The master percussionist Rachid Ali and innovative trumpeter Miles Davis – a seminal figure in 20th century music – were both boxers and fanatical fans who never stopped going to the Gym until hobbled by age.  Miles was best friends with Sugar Ray Robinson, who also idolized Miles.  The peerless Heavyweight Champion Joe Louis, trained to Jimmy Lunceford’s “I’m a Rug Cutter,” and the powerful Sonny Liston trained to Bill Doggett’s “Night Train.”  There has always been a close relationship between black musicians and Black athletes, now it is mostly hip hop, but in an earlier period it was Jazz. So it looks like you are just an odd ball Eric; I’d bet all of these great Jazz musicians would find you as strange as I do.

In its philosophy and practice Jazz successfully embodies the highest ideals that American civilization aspires to but seldom achieves.  It is democratic; prizes individual Freedom; promotes innovation; grooves to the tempo of a machine age milieu, and sharpens performance through fair and open competition.  These are the characteristics that make Jazz the most representative American art.  Frankly Eric, as a Jazz musician I am surprised that you don’t recognize this….but then playing music and contemplating its social significance as art are two different things.

Finally, your above passage confuses  and conflates issues that have little to do with each other. People commit crimes and go to jail in every society in the world, including communal ones where competition is not encouraged.  Contrary to your faith based belief, there is no evidence that the prisons are overflowing with geniuses.  Conversely, there are numerous studies which show that the majority of prison inmates have below average IQ’s, that’s partially why they are in jail in the first place. If you do a Google search of the scholarly literature addressing the correlation between crime and IQ levels you will discover that there is abundant statistical evidence showing that incarceration rates are higher among those with the lowest IQ’s.  This proves true even when the studies are controlled for age, race, gender, and economic status.  There is no debate about this among scholars in the field.

The following passage strikes me as self-indulgent nonsense, a mindless diatribe on the evils of sport  uttered during a public temper tantrum that dramatically fails to rise to the level of what I consider serious argument.  Mostly what it does is expose an embarrassing ignorance of the ideals  and virtues promoted through sports.

 “You see, sports appeal to, stimulate, and feed upon the very worst characteristics in human nature, or what’s referred to as the “Seven Deadly Sins” – wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony.Each is a form of Idolatry-of-Self wherein the subjective reigns over the objective.” The very point of sports is to prove that “I’m better than you.” Sports also promotes the “Us against them” mentality that’s at the very root of every form of bigotry – racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, etc.”

 If you really believe that this is the Message young people get from sports competition, why do you  celebrate their grandchildren participating in such a nefarious activity?   It would take a deranged person to proudly post their pictures on Face book openly engaging in an activity that by your description promotes ideas that have inspired mass murder!!! Racism and Xenophobia inspired the murder, enslavement and dispossession of black peoples all over the world before any of these sports were invented…they also inspired the Armenian genocide and the German  holocaust in the 20th century.  Will you please present some evidence of the role sport played in these atrocities Eric.  It is POLITICS NOT SPORTS that led to these atrocities!!! This is patent nonsense …foolishness!!

Let me share some real information that you obviously know nothing about, or you would be more careful in your argument.  In his 1986 book  “Jessie Owens: An American life,” the  first scholarly biography by a professional historian on the life of the great Afro-American Olympic athlete Jesse Owens, Dr. William J. Baker tells us how the Germans were so impressed by the athletic grace and prowess of Jesse Owens  and the other black American Olympians, that when they went out to nightclubs in Nazi controlled Berlin the German men and women flocked around them and several German men asked them to dance with their wives so they could take pictures….this was in NAZI GERMANY ERIC!!!!

Jesse Owens and Lutz Long in Nazi Germany

Jesse Owens and Lutz Long

In what arena other than sports could this friendship happened?

Obviously sports worked to alleviate the vices of “racism and xenophobiain Nazi Germany among those who met these great black athletes!  Jesse became life- long friends with the German he beat in the broad jump, and Max Schmeling, who turned up to boxing camp in a NAZI officer’s uniform to train for the second fight against Joe Louis, became his life-long friend after Joe kicked his ass in such fine fashion!!  There is plenty of evidence that sports create friendships among different peoples, often overcoming the imperatives of politics and the preachments of religion to do it, that’s the raison d’etre for the Olympic games…where is the  evidence for your charges; or are we once again supposed to just take your word for it?  Well your argument strikes me as baseless!

Sometimes your arguments contain elements of truth and fiction.  The following paragraph is an excellent example of this.

 “Now, if you’re a lifelong sports fan, you’re probably reading this and saying, “That’s ridiculous.” But it’s not surprising that you feel that way, because your conditioning is so ingrained, and so deeply seated at this point that you can’t even recognize the dysfunction in something that you’ve embraced and loved all of your life. It’s like a religion, or someone raised to believe in Voodoo – sticking pins in dolls seems like a perfectly natural way of life to them. So let me give you an example of how the system works, and how you’re being manipulated.”

 Your lead sentence is undoubtedly true,  because you sure sound “ridiculous” to me.  However your diatribe soon sinks back into the murky pseudo-intellectual quicksand  of issuing wild proclamations without the evidence to support them. You seem to take delight in spouting amateur pop-psychological analysis of complex mass human behavior….something southern California is famous for among  Easterners.  Which is why many New Yorkers refer to it as “LaLa Land.”  Alas, psychological analysis is a highly specialized esoteric practice, and I don’t trust ANYBODY who does not have a PhD to conduct it…just Like I wouldn’t think of going to a brain surgeon who didn’t have an MD.  Hence your Psycho-babble means nothing to me.  Can you cite some scholarly sources for your diagnosis? Otherwise I shall just dismiss it as spurious prattle.

Your comment “. It’s like a religion, or someone raised to believe in Voodoo – sticking pins in dolls seems like a perfectly natural way of life to them,” reveals a shameful ignorance of the culture from which so many of our ancestor came.  Voodoo is one of the world’s oldest religions, it is a polytheistic religion much like the one Socrates grew up in, as opposed to the antiseptic monotheistic religion that you grew up in – from whence your silly idea of Voodoo arises.  It is a religion that produced some of the world’s greatest art, such as the Benin Bronzes. Sculptures produced by the Yoruba people rooted in Orisha Voodoo, inspired the innovations of the creators of modern European Art such as Picasso, Salvadore Dali, and others.

The Voodoo Inspired Art of Benin

Benin--sculpture-queen-mother-benin-bronze

The Brilliance of Benin Bronze Sculpture is widely acclaimed

And by the way, despite your cavalier dismissal of religious belief: THE GREATEST ART IN THE WORLD HAS BEEN INSPIRED BY RELIGIOUS BELIEF!   I need only cite the Sistine Chapel, Bach’s B Minor Mass, and the Ellington Orchestra’s recording of “Come Sunday, with Mahalia Jackson as soloist, plus any other great traditional African art to end that conversation.

The music of the Yoruba peoples, inspired by Voodoo, supplied the basis for much of the great neo-African music of the America’s when it blended with European music….such as the Afro-Cuban Rumba and Son Montuno as well as Afro-American Spirituals, Gospel, Rhythm & Blues  and  Jazz; musical forms that have influenced musicians  of all races world-wide! The idea of Voodoo as some evil black magic consisting of people “sticking pins in dolls” is a Hollywood fantasy created by ignorant and racist white folks as part of their demonization of EVERYTHING AFRICAN!

Yet contrary to Hollywood’ s depiction of Africans as ignorant savages terrorized by a naked white man called Tarzan, here is a first-hand description of the Oba’s – Divine King – Palace in Benin, the ancient African city that produced the world famous bronze sculptures, written by the Dutch traveler Olfert Dapper in 1668, over a century before the birth of the United States.

“The king’s palace or court is a square, and is as large as the town of Haarlem and entirely surrounded by a special wall, like that which encircles the town. It is divided into many magnificent palaces, houses, and apartments of the courtiers, and comprises beautiful and long square galleries…resting on wooden pillars, from top to bottom covered with cast copper, on which are engraved the pictures of their war exploits and battles, and are kept very clean.”

The religion practiced by these people is the basis of what would later be called Orisha Voodoo.  And it makes about as much sense as any other religion in the world, but the emphasis on music and ceremonial objects made it a fertile source of artistic production. You really do need to study some black history and culture Eric.

If you want to learn something about voodoo read “Olodumare: God in Yoruba Belief,” by Bolasi E. Idowu;Art and Alters of the Black Atlantic World,” and “Tango: A History of the Dance of Love,” by Dr. Robert Farris Thompson, Professor of Art History and Dean of African Civilization at Yale University.  Although you have repeatedly told me that you have no respect for Academic degrees and University affiliations, I am still including them because most people do respect such accomplishments…the present writer included.  For unlike you, I do not consider myself wise or learned enough to comment on the complex problems of the world without constant reference to the work of great thinkers.

Finally, we have trudged to the end of your tortured and curious polemic, only to  find that the contradictions so characteristic of this impassioned tirade persist to the bitter end.  You tell us:

When a fan goes to a football game, what a fan THINKS he sees are two teams on a football field with the coaches and their staff on the sideline. But what the fan’s subconscious and emotions see are two armies on the battlefield preparing to go into combat, with two generals on the sidelines. And that’s not by accident, because the spectacle is DESIGNED to psychologically condition every male in the stadium to be willing to go into combat and sacrifice his life in a blaze of illustrious glory for “The Gipper” – or The Standard Oil Company. The very same is true of the “All-American” pastime of baseball and other sports.”

 Evidently you believe this passage to be pregnant with wisdom. But I’d bet the family jewels that the only spectators who see what you have described have unwisely dropped a hefty tab of acid….it is my fondest hope that you are not among them!    After  reading your essay carefully I am reminded of the man my grandfather says thought he was speeding when he wasn’t doing five miles an hour!   How do you know what football fans think? What studies have you seen that demonstrate this?  Is this another one of your original revelations?  Alas, it sounds like pretentious jibberish to me.   Are you so blinded by ideology that you cannot see that SPORTS COMPETITION IS AN ALTERNATIVE TO WAR!!!!

However  if what you say were true: How did a non-sports fan like you become a gung ho Marine?  Everybody who has seen the Academy Award winning documentary “Hearts and Minds” or read the path-breaking book “Deadly Deceits ” by longtime CIA field agent Ralph McGhee, understands the connection between football training and military training.  Having been a high school football  players was how I was selected for a special unit in the US Strategic Air Command.  But so what Eric?  Every nation has their ways of preparing young men to bear arms in defense of the homeland…why should the US be different?  Are you suddenly a pacifist?  Well for the record, I think pacifism is suicidal in a dangerous world, and evidently so do you; as you repeatedly mention your service in the Marine Corps with evident pride.  Do you want to denounce it now? If not what’s your beef?

However after carefully reading your near hysterical screed, I have come to the conclusion that you understand about as much about sports as a mule knows about playing a saxaphone.  Your essay is full of half-baked ideas based on erroneous assumptions that I found tedious to read and from which I leaned nothing that will have any effect on my feeling about sports.  In regard to the values that sports can teach, well  when my daughter Makeda came to me to ask me if she could join the cheer leading squad in the 9th grade, which seemed like a natural progression for a young lady who had studied ballet since kindergarten, I vociferously opposed the idea.  I was writing a column for the New York Daily News editorial page at the time.  I stopped, looked her in the eye, and said: FUCK BEING A CHEER LEADER, YOU GET IN THE ARENA AND COMPETE!  LET SOMEBODY CHEER YOU!

Well, instead of becoming a cheerleader she took all of that ballet training, joined the Peter Westbrook Foundation, became a student of Peter Westbrook – the greatest American fencer of the 20th century, a five time Olympian  – and became a fencer.  Peter was convinced that the combination of her ballet training and athletic skill – which enabled her to compete in Division I as a sprinter for the University of Delaware, while a Science Merit Scholar and a Dean List Student – could make a world champion out of her if he could just get her to devote herself to fencing.  I was interested in my kids participating in the sport of fencing because it was filled with high achievers from many fields.

 Makeda Voletta Dancing in the Ring of Fire

Makeda Dances in Hawaii

Celebrating the Goddess Pele in Hawaii

Today Makeda is a sports scientist, Certified sports nutritionist, a licensed fitness trainer who travels all over the country and abroad lecturing on women’s health and fitness! She also performs and teaches sacred dances from all over the African world, See “Magical Realism” on this blog.  She has thanked me a million times for encouraging here to become an athlete.  Why? Because that’s where she learned to compete on an equal basis with men, since men learn to compete through the games they play.  She also learned hard work and discipline – attributes which all good athletes must have, and she learned how to be magnanimous in victory and Gracious in defeat, she learned that you win some and you lose some battles…just like in real life!

My son also studied at the Peter Westbrook Foundation, where you had to maintain a high average in school in order to compete.  It was one of the best experiences of his life and he could have gone far in the sport if he had not loved baseball so much.  However what he learned about the price of excellence and what could be accomplished from hard work and perfecting one’s skills from Peter was priceless!  If anyone wanted a compelling example of how sports can save a young man from destruction and provide an avenue to the good life it is Peter Westbrooks.  Growing up in the dangerous rough and tumble  projects of Newark New Jersey, Peter was an angry young man who was headed to jail or an early grave.

 Peter Westbrooks

Peter Westbrook

America’s Greatest Fencer

Half Afro-American and half Japanese, he was small in stature and regularly picked on, but being spunky he was always getting into fights.  One day his mother came home, handed him a new Saber,  and said:” If you want to fight, learn to fight with this.  It will introduce you to a noble class of people.”  Peter began to study Saber fencing and began to love it.  He won a scholarship to a Catholic high school  – which has managed to consistently combine high academic standards and great athletic teams – and from there he won a scholarship the New York University from which he graduated with a degree in business.  After making a fortune in commodities trading he decided to devote his time and energies to introducing the sport of fencing to inner-city kids combining high academic achievement with mastery of sport.  He has now sent several of his students to the Olympics, and Keith Smart, who along with his sister Errin, has gone twice and Keith came within a touch of winning the gold Medal in the Peking Olympics: both are college graduates!

The salutatory effect that sports had on my son’s life was dramatic.  As a young kid he was skinny, asthmatic, and kind of withdrawn and timid.  However I would take him over to the park and throw footballs and baseballs with him. Greg Tate, a writer with the Village Voice, was my neighbor and wrote that I was a splendid father citing all the times he saw us together in the park.   However if we are to take you at your word Eric, you must believe I was actually wounding him psychologically, although even you must recognize that sports is good for developing strong bodies.

However in real life experience, as opposed to the ideological drivel of non-sports fans, sports turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to my son.  When he was five the preschool he attended, which was partially funded by the Dave Winfield Foundation, Samori went on a field trip to Yankee Stadium, to watch their benefactor, star centerfielder Dave Winfield  play, he gave Samori a baseball glove and it magically transformed his life.  The Harlem Little League was just forming, and the next year he was one of their players.

Once he made the baseball team I witnessed a marvelous metamorphosis in him.  He became more self-confident and grew steadily stronger physically.  I had no trouble getting him to eat right, and he became very organized, because that’s what it took to excel in a demanding school and play ball…which was contingent upon his performance in the classroom. I hosted an evening drive time radio show on WBAI FM that dealt with a variety of topics involving politics and culture, and by the time he was nine years old he began writing sports commentaries for the radio.

I began to give him the sports section from the New York Times to read to insure that he was reading the best writers, and people of all races remarked about this little kid riding the subway with his head stuck in the New York Times.  And when he visited his Aunt Claudia, an avid sports fan who directed a large job training program in Carlisle Pennsylvania,  her mostly white employees told him how they wished they could get their kids to read a newspaper.  And they were speechless when my sister let them hear his radio commentaries via the internet!

All of this gave him tremendous confidence in himself and his abilities. Then one day the great Peter Westbrook watched him playing baseball and approached me about enrolling him in his fencing program.  Where he was one of the few black kids competing in fencing in New York City.   In his first year of high school he started a Sports News Letter, posting a notice on the bulletin board for potential writers to submit a sample of their writing to him., who as Senior Editor would decide who made the cut.  Samori’s involvement with sports coupled with his studies, left no time for idleness and I never had a moment’s trouble with him during his teenage years despite the fact that we lived in Harlem during the height of crack and gangsta rap!

By his senior year Samori was the Captain of both the baseball and the fencing team…and he was the only black kid on either team.  Both Samori and Makeda, who are twins, graduated with honors from the prestigious Beacon School in Manhattan, a first rate academic school in the New York City public school system.  After a stint at Norfolk State University he would become the Sports Editor of WBAI, the station he read commentaries on as a child, and he is now finishing his degree and an important book on the disappearing Afro-American athlete in Baseball, a book from which you could learn much about Afro-American history.  But I have seen no evidence that you are inclined to read serious books by black authors.

 Intrepid Sports Reporter Samori Benjamin
 Samori and Reggie Jackson
 Interviewing Hall of Fame Yankee Reggie Jackson

 If the past is any guide to the future I suspect that this essay will have no discernable effect on your opinions about sports, as muddled as they are.   I say this because of your response to “On Race Culture and Sports;” I cannot imagine how you could have gotten less from that broadly learned treatise had you not bothered to read it at all.

If you had been assigned to read and respond to it in the Journalism and Media Studies seminar I taught at Long Island University, you would have received a failing grade. But beyond your failure to present a convincing critique that spoke to the arguments in my essay, I am genuinely puzzled at how you fail to see the beauty, grace, drama and prowess in the performance of Afro-American athletes: the greatest show on earth!   Your failure to recognize such magnificence is compelling testimony to the power of dogmatic ideology to distort reality!

It is even more puzzling that you fail to see that the real danger to the survival and progress of black youth are the decadent, self-destructive values propagated through the thug life ethos of certain genres of Rap Music!  By contrast the values propagated through sports are a God send!

Alas, as the old adage reminds us: “There are none so blind as he who refuses to see.” Although I am not in the habit of wasting my time and energy on lost causes, you insisted that I read and critique your essay….now you have it.  I sincerely hope you found it an enlightening read for I gave it my best effort….in any case, this is my last word on the subject.

 *************************

 

*See: “Thug Life,” and “Is Russell Wilson Black Enough?” ( Both on this blog)
** Hear the Coach that recruited Snoop Dog’s Son  http://www.nfl.com/videos/nfl-videos/0ap3000000469772/RES-Jim-Mora-on-recruiting-Snoop-Dogg-s-son
 Playthell G. Benjamin
On the Road
February 2, 2015

 

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