Archive for the Cultural Matters Category

Esther Armah’s Savior

Posted in Cultural Matters, Theater with tags , , , on October 24, 2011 by playthell

Panelist Lynn Nottage, Producer Voza Rivers,  Esther Armah

Pulling the Covers off Liberal Racism

Witnessing  Esther Armah’s new and timely play “Savior” reminds us why the theater is still relevant.  Of the myriad virtues of independent black theater is the fact that it is the only dramatic forum in which black folk actually control their image.  And when good actors get a worthy scrip something magical can happen.  In Ms. Armah’s play we are treated to an embarrassment of riches.  Possessed with the sharp eye of the good reporter, the language of a poet and a skilled sophisticated playwright’s understanding of the role of conflict as the engine of drama, Ms. Armah is well suited to her chosen craft.

 Savior’s appeal partly lies in it’s wit and humor and in the insightful way in which the play handles a variety of complex issues involving race, class and gender that allow Ms. Armah to give full reign to both her irreverent imagination –in that she dares to imagine the unimaginable – sharp intellect, and wide ranging knowledge of the world.  The lady is a true cosmopolite.  This is clearly apparent from her elegantly written memoir “Can I Be Me?”

A Black Brit of Ghanaian parentage, Ms. Armah is a world traveler and has observed race relations between whites and blacks in Africa, Europe and the Americas.  And she has developed a fine eye for all the ways in which the melanin deprived sector of humanity exercise power and privilege based on nothing more than melanin deprivation. Most of these observations were made when she was working as a journalist and was therefore in position to get a bird’s eye view of human relations in various societies.  All the things she has learned from her journalistic experiences have found their way into this play.

This  is clearly evident in both her choice of subject and the manner in which she explored it.  The play centers around a the struggle of a well know white male liberal who has been very active in causes for racial and economic justice.  It has become his life’s work as an executive in community organizations, but he has just been passed over for the CEO position in favor of a black woman.  In his mind the white male is certain that there is no way the black woman could be better qualified than him and was not awarded the position on merit; hence he views himself as a victim of reverse discrimination and decides to hire a lawyer to sue the organization.

Unable to get the high powered white lawyer he wanted he is assigned a black male lawyer who appears anxious to get the case because it is the kind of case that could make him famous.  He reasoned that although he has been doing brilliant legal work for years as a supporting player, white lawyers with less talent are always appointed to argue the cases in court.  He does the work but they take the bows.  At first the aggrieved white male doesn’t want the black lawyer, and only reluctantly accepts him as counsel after the lawyer convinces him that he is willing to resort to unprincipled gutter tactics to win.

The Cast and Director 

 The story is told with two actors Michael Green and Jimmy Aquino; who play Billy Hall the white plaintiff and Michael Jamal Williams III his black lawyer.  The brilliantly written dialogue between the two men explores all of the issues of sex, race and power in the contemporary American workplace in the age of our first black President.  Which many believe has moved US society into a post black phase.

The two men eventually hatch a diabolical plot to bring down the black female CEO by attacking her judgment in hiring another black woman as her assistant who is a deranged home wrecking ho, that is trying to break up the white male’s family with bogus charges of sexual harassment after he rejected her advances.  At first the white male is reluctant to pursue this course of action because, as it turns out, he and the woman he is about to attack has had a serious affair that ended badly.

The truth is that he has been stalking her to the extent of showing up at her house uninvited. The white male is obsessed with her but his estranged lover broke off the affair when she learned that he had lied to her about getting a divorce from his white wife, which he explains he had no intention of doing.  When he continues to stalk her she calls the cops and it gets in the press.

The white male finally agrees to throw his former lover under the bus when the black lawyer convinces him that this is a sure path to victory.  The upshot is that upon the direction of a callous overly ambitious black male lawyer they devise a plan to destroy the hard won success and wreck the careers of two highly qualified black women in order to maintain the structure of white male privilege.

During the course of the play we are confronted with all of the issues of racial and gender equity in the work place that presently plague American society but nobody wants to speak  about frankly.  It is the white elephant in the room that everybody pretends not to see.  What makes this play so explosive is that Ms. Armah does not present the typical white bigot who is the usual whipping boy in creative works about racism.  Rather Ms. Armah’s character is the kind of professional white liberal who is dedicated to eradicating racial inequality in America; the kind of know-it-all white guy who views himself as the Savior of black people.

Yet in the end the he is willing to destroy the careers of a longtime colleague and a former lover in order to preserve his privileged status as the boss.  The thought of working for a black woman was unbearable.  Yet he refused to see that his attitude was just as racist, and far more dangerous, as any redneck.  It is no accident that Ms. Armah chose such a character to tell this tale of racism, sexism, power and privilege; in fact her personal experience with liberal white males working as a journalist provided a unique perspective on the problem.

In her poignantly written memoir “Can I be Me” she reflects on her tenure as an Assistant Producer on “Panorama,” a current affairs program on the BBC in London.  When the question of racial equity in terms of hiring and promotion was broached a “senior colleague” who was white and male offered the following response.  “No one can accuse us of being racist, just look at the number of programs we’ve done on the far right.”

Ms. Armah was shocked that her white male colleague  saw racism “solely in crude and extreme terms. A truth dawned.” She recalls.  “So many white, middle class liberals defined racism in this fashion.  Their intention, it struck me, was to distance themselves from any possibility of being accused of displaying racism by defining it in such extreme terms.”  But, she concludes that their kind of racism was “far more poisonous, it had become a subtle, cancerous cloak that hovered and sheltered institutions: complex, dangerous, destroyer of dreams and much, much more difficult to actively fight.”

It is clear that the weapon Ms. Armah has chosen to fight this class of phenomenon – which she has observed in Africa and the US also – is the dramatist’s art.  She has put the whole mess on stage in a well-crafted highly intelligent play, and through the agency of two fine actors in a bravura performance engaged the audience, made us think about unpleasant problems some would rather avoid, held us in suspense, and completely fooled most of the audience – this writer included – with her surprise ending.

One of the surprising treats in this lay is the deep insight she provides into the machinations of the trained legal mind.  It is a unique view of how justice is arrived at in our legal system…or the appearance of justice.   One of the ways she achieves this is by her expert use of legal language and explanations of what they mean through the arguments of the lawyer.  This expertise, we would later learn in the panel discussion that followed the play, is because she grew up in a family of lawyers.  Under the insightful direction of Passion this is a splendid evening of theater at the Dwyer Cultural Center – a venue where cultural treasures are common fare.  Esther Armah’s Savior is at once an education and catharsis.  Bravo!

Director, Actor, Playwright

 Passion, Michael Green and Esther Armah 

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Playthell Benjamin

Harlem, New York

October, 2011

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How Steve Jobs Changed My Life

Posted in Cultural Matters with tags , on October 7, 2011 by playthell
 Hooked Up!   My work station where the Commentaries are created

How I joined the Blogosphere

Although I wasn’t a Luddite, I was not one of those who immediately recognized the marvelous power of the personal computer.  And in any case they seemed impossible to operate without special training. This belief was shaped from my limited attempts to operate the computer we had in the crib, which was incomprehensible.

 It was an IBM, which in my mind was synonymous with computers having grown up with Univac, the big IBM main frame computer. The personal computer we had operated on a very complex program, yet while I stumbled my kids were operating it with ease because they were taught how to use the program in school.  While they were merrily typing away, I used to sit at my writing table scribbling with a ball point pen; then hiring a typist to type the manuscripts for my articles – which regularly appeared in the most prestiegous publications in the English language: the Village voice, Manchester Guardian and Sunday Times of London among them.

Several things happened that led me to the personal computer.  It began with a speech I delivered to an auditorium full of computer scientist at Bell Corps.  I decided to be a wise guy and get a laugh at their expense, as well as make a point about folks developing a fetish for technological gadgetry to the point that things we used to do very well before the technology now seemed impossible without digital toys.

So I gleefully told the scientist that I had a word processor that could write, make quick corrections, was compact enough to carry in your breast pocket and had a renewable power source.  Then I dramatically reached into my pocket and produced a lead pencil!  It got a big laugh, and to further beat the technocrats down I announced that Shakespeare had written 35 plays with a goose quill!

When the lecture on Jazz was over and Wynton and Ellis Marsalis performance concluded, one of the scientist, Larry Dillon, came over to me and said “I bet if Shakespeare was writing on my Mac he would have written 100 plays!”  Then a few weeks later he showed up on my birthday with a complete Mac set - computer and laser printer.  “This is my contribution to American culture” he announced.

 I was overwhelmed with gratitude but still continued to write with my ballpoint pen until I was talking with writer Elsa Boyd who had written an instructional book titled “Word Processing for Dummies.”  She told me I didn’t have to know how to type and that my machine was “user Friendly.”Well, I began to write on my Mac and it changed my life.

One of those computer scientists also worked on “The Information Super Highway,” which became the Internet as we know it.  The  Personal Computer and the Internet has provided me a worldwide audience…and a great incentive to write.  I am especially inspired when I think of the ordeal Fredrik Douglass went through to get his commentaries before the public.

 He had to own a press to begin with; then he had to set the type, choose different fonts, ink them down, churn out those broadsheets by hand, and send them by mail to distributers.  Thanks to Steve Jobs – a California counter-cultural free thinking quasi-hippie/tinkerer/businessman / genius -  I can sit right here at my desk and create a document with pictures and text, then publish it on the Internet so that my readers can read it all over the world instantaneously!   Every time I sit down to write I feel like the Greek philosopher Archimedes: “Give me a lever and a place to sit…and I will move the earth.”  The personal computer, a gift from the fertile imagination of Steve Jobs - is my lever!!!

The College Dropout Who Changed the World!

Steve Jobs

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Platythell Benjamin

Harlem New York

October 2011

A Love Supreme!

Posted in Cultural Matters, Playthell on politics with tags , on September 28, 2011 by playthell

 President Obama: Droppin Science and Blowin Soul


Chilly B” Raps to his Peeps

When President Obama spoke to the Congressional Black Caucus it wasall blues and soul, rendered in elegant sermonic cadences.  There was a lot of jokin, jiving, and testifying, but he was also droppin science….and signifyin for days!  His oratory was informed with so many inside Afro-American cultural references, esoteric nuances and complex allusions to our tradition of struggle, that most of the white pundits who monopolize the commentary on his speech are clueless and miss the point altogether.  In one headline after another the corporate media confidently portrayed the event as a pissed off President chastising his ungrateful black brothers and sisters in a “do-nothing” Congress: but it was no such thing!

These were Barack’s oldest and closest political comrades, some of whom mentored him in the art of playing politics in Washington. He knows they share his hopes and dreams for America. They were the ones who never doubted that he could be a great President, and except for the few who felt bound by long-time political alliances to the Clintons, they all wished him well and offered support.

It was in this caucus that Barack had found refuge as the lone Afro-American in the Senate.  Watching him speak to his old comrades I saw a love fest, a celebration of Afro-American style, language, humor, verbal virtuosity, and  hip body language – all the things that have made us the most imitated people in the world  were prominently on display.  What I saw was a man who could not only go home again…but return in style to a rousing welcome.

From the moment Barack stepped onto the podium, the audience gave him a boisterous ovation worthy of a hero.  The first thing our President said was how he enjoyed visiting “the conscience of the Congress,” a compliment of great generosity and gravitas.  He went on to personally thank the leaders of the Black Caucus for inviting him in the most effusive language. These kind accolades are reserved for those whom one holds in highest esteem.  When he laid out his jobs program, explaining the moral basis upon which it is designed, ridiculing Republican duplicity and dissecting the shameless sophistry of their arguments, he was repeatedly applauded by the audience.

As he spoke, this master orator and serious student of Afro-American history and culture constantly called upon our traditions to make his point and carry the crowd with him.  It was a remarkable performance, an intoxicating blend of highbrow erudition and folksy humor. Once he  connected with the audience he held them spellbound; he was part Richard Pryor, part Malcolm X,  part Thurgood Marshall and part Martin Luther King.

It was as grand a performance in the Afro-American oratorical tradition – the most dynamic in the world – as I have ever witnessed in a professional politician.   At times he reminded me of that silver tongued preacher/politician from Harlem – who also would have made a great President – the Reverend Doctor Adam Clayton Powell Jr.

The comparison was most compelling in his use of irreverent humor to expose the shameless hypocrisy of the Republicans, and his use of repetition to sell a particular idea.  His refrain “Pass this bill” reminded me of Powell’s “what’s in your hand” speech when he was imploring black folks to get out and vote.

The President’s speech was at once a panegyric to the heroism of the Afro-American struggle and a sanitized trip through the Dirty Dozens for the Grand Obstructionist Party.  The audience was with him every step of the way.  When he admonished the crowd to buck up, stop crying and complaining, and join him in the fight; this was not a put down of the audience but a call to battle!

It was another way of saying: don’t  get mad get even.  Life is not fair but we still got to struggle
and win with the hand we were dealt, and crying won’t help.  So don’t tell me your troubles because I’ve got my own.  Just put your shoulder to the wheel and keep on pushing: I got yo back!  As Barack’s voice rose to a crescendo at the conclusion of his speech, he issued a call to action.

So I don’t know about you, CBC, but the future rewards those who press on. With patient and firm determination, I am going to press on for jobs. I’m going to press on for equality.  I’m going to press on for the sake of our children.  I’m going to press on for the sake of all those families who are struggling right now. I don’t have time to feel sorry for myself. I don’t have time to complain. I am going to press on.  I expect all of you to march with me and press on.  Take off your bedroom slippers, put on your marching shoes. Shake it off. Stop complaining, stop grumbling, stop crying. We are going to press on. We’ve got work to do, CBC! “

The President’s defiant and triumphant tone in the face of adversity was a life affirming pep-talk.  It reminded me of what the Black Nationalist firebrand Minister Khalid Muhammad used to say to black audiences down on their luck: “No matter what we are confronted with we will survive!  We’re Bey Bey’s kids…we don’t die we multiply!”

Far from a put-down, Barack’s speech was an expression of a love supreme.  And the constant applause was proof positive that the audience returned the love.  So how could the major media get it so wrong?  Except for the right wing press, I believe it was the result of confusion rather than animosity. After all, what do most Euro-Americans really know about Afro-Americans?

The most enlightened think of us as just white people with dark skins, and are quite proud of themselves for it.  Most recognize that we are  very good at singing, dancing,  playing basketball and Jazz.  Few understand that we have been the strongest voices in support of the most cherished ideals of American civilization: personal freedom, social equality, democratic governance, innovation and freedom in diversity.

Yet you can hear these values clearly celebrated in our classical music – the quintessential American art of jazz – which realizes these values more successfully than any other American cultural form.  When I watched Barack speak to the Congressional Black Caucus, with his soaring lyricism and skillful use of pauses between virtuosic riffs, I was reminded of another Pres, Lester Young, who became world famous as President of the tenor saxophone, during his days with the fabulous Count Basie Orchestra.

When Pres took center stage to speak his piece, the orchestra  listened intently and responded to his statements in ways that energized the groove and lifted him higher, until both he and the band were inspired to tackle greater obstacles and attempt heroic things. Some times they hit the notes they were aiming at; sometimes they missed.  But they were always inspired to try again… no matter the obstacles.  That’s what really happened  when Barack gave a shout out to his peeps in the CBC.

Barack Paying Homage to his Distinguished Elders

He knows he is standing on their shoulders

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Playthell G. Benjamin

Harlem, New York

September 28, 2011

Forever Love…A 9/11 Reflection

Posted in Cultural Matters with tags on September 12, 2011 by playthell

 

Me and my First Wife Dorothy as Newly Weds in 1966

 

Reflections On The Way We Were

I owe the existence of this essay to  my Facebook Friends, whose  moving heart felt sentiments in response to a brief notice in memory of my first wife Dorothy – which I posted on my face book wall along with a picture of me and her  together – caused me to reflect on the extraordinary times in which we lived.  I began to dissect the political /cultural forces that shaped us and brought us together and wound up putting my thoughts in writing.   The result is this remembrance of that halcyon era of struggle and hope when black Americans redifined themselves and changed America forever.

Dorothy was a victim of the great terrorist attack on down town Manhattan by Islamic Jihadist ten years ago.   I posted the memorial because I wanted to put a face on one of the victims; to show that these were real lives that were lost that day. The numbers don’t tell the whole story – as horrendous and awe inspiring as they are.  I wanted to remind folks that somebody loved them, and that some of these victims were the best and brightest among us…the tallest trees in our forest.

Dorothy was one of those great souls. When I met her she was on a “Freedom High” just like me.  She was Afro-Cuban and I was Afro-American but we were Pan-Africanist and saw our union as proof that Neo-African cultures in the Diaspora had definite spiritual and historical affinities. She dug Jazz and could boogie down to James Brown, and I thought I was the Mambo King, whether playing the Congas or dancing!

Playing with the great Mongo Santa Maria’s Orchestra 1966

I loved Afro-Cuban culture and Dorothy Loved Afro-America culture

Like me Dorothy was also a fan of European classical music. She was a graduate of Music and Art, a special New York high school that recruited the most artistically gifted students in New York City. And exacting standard for sure. The television series “Fame,” starring Debbie Allen was based on that High School. Dorothy was admitted and studied piano and cello. But her experience with white cultural chauvinism and racism turned Dorothy off to the world of European classical music, an alienation that heightened when the great trumpeter Donald Bird came to the school to create a Jazz department.

Trumpet Virtuoso Donald Bird

He blew Dorothy’s mind and changed her Life!

On his first meeting with the students to announce the aims of his department Donald, a master musician in every respect, decided to tackle the conceits about the superiority of European classical music to the great art music of America – which is an invention of Afro-Americans.  To accomplish this he introduced the students to a young, bespeckled, soft spoken black pianist. The 18 year old sat down at the Steinway Grand and first played one of the Concert Etudes composed by the great Franz Liszt, which are known to piano aficionados as the “Transcendental Etudes.”

This is one of the most difficult works for solo piano ever composed. Like all etudes it is a complex technical exercise and thus the pianist must have monster skills to even think about playing it. Herbie played it flawlessly, and then he performed variations on the oeuvre of the eccentric Afro-American genius Theolonius Monk, who grew up just blocks away from where Dorothy grew up. She never got over it, and she became good friends with “Herbie and Donald.” To her it was a demonstration of Black Genius!

Piano Virtuoso Herbie Hancock

 

Herbie displayed genius at an early age

It changed her life. After that it was like… “Roll over Beethoven;” all she wanted to do was swing: Do Bird and Dizzy’s thing!  However she would discover that if you are completely steeped in the vocabulary and technique of European Classical music it is virtually impossible to master the vocabulary, rhythms and technique required in order to perform the great Afro-American classic art of Jazz. That’s why musicians like Wynton, Herbie, Chucho Valdez, Hubert Laws, Paquito d’ Rivera, Valerie Capers, Nina Simone, Dorothy Donnegan, Benny Goodman, Ron Carter, et al who can perform in both genres without accent are geniuses of a rare order!

In any case, the love of clasical music was something unique that we shared. But I was exposed to European art music by Afro-American musicians.  The first time I heard a Liszt etude it was performed by my aunt Marie in her parlor. She could play Professor Thomas Dorsey’s Gospel music and Scott Joplin’s Ragtime compositions too. And naturally she turned me on to music at an early age. After she handed me over to one of her most talented students to be instructed, a beautiful college student named Miss Brown, I became perhaps the only nine year old boy in America who could not wait to spend Saturday mornings taking piano lessons.

I practiced diligently during the week in preparation for my classes with Miss Brown and developed a passionate crush on her. When she would stand behind me and place my hands properly upon the keyboard my heart skipped beats, and when she sat next to me on the piano bench my spirit took flight.  When she played a dreamy Chopin Polanaise she seemed to become an angel with supernatural powers.  I was totally smitten!  But, alas, she graduated, got married and split town. I felt heartbroken and betrayed, And I couldn’t stand the sound of the piano for a couple of years!

After that traumatic experience I lost all desire to play the piano and decided to take up the trumpet. I found a new love…until I heard Clifford Brown and switched to the drums!  But since I chose Max Roach as my artistic role model I had adopted a standard of achievement that would take the most gifted percussionist a lifetime of study and practice to master!   When the black liberation movement erupted in this country I was swept up by it and my ambitions changed.  Malcolm X replaced Miles Davis as my idea of a cool black rebel, and after meeting Queen Mother Moore I decided to become a professional revolutionary!  

So Dorothy and I had both given up playing an instrument, and like all failed musicians, we became great fans! When we met she had graduated from City College with a degree in Psychology, and I was a college dropout who was teaching a twenty week seminar on African and Afro-American history at the Labor Institute at Rutgers under a grant from one of Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society Programs. ” I also had a regular gig as the Director of the “Minority History Project” for the Opportunities Industrial Centers” -a national jobs training program founded by the Reverend Doctor Leon Sullivan: One of the greatest men to live in America during the twentieth century! Minister Farrakhan calls him: “The Lion of Zion!”

The night I met Dorothy I had just left from presenting a lecture on the African liberation movement.  As was always the case after presenting a good lecture I was on a high, bouyed by the electricity that’s generated when an orator really connects with  the audience. Since I was speaking to a large group in a auditorium filled with adminstrators in community action agencies that were in the front lines of the “War on Poverty,” listening to an hour and a half lecture was not part of their normal routine. So I had to work to get their attention.  Hence when things went really well I got an adreneline high. 

As soon as I arrived in the Big Apple I would take the A Train straight to Harlem and drop by my man Pablo’s crib.  An Afro-Cuban who grew up in New York like Dorothy, Pab was a master of the Conga drums and always had the latest latin sounds – from Cuba and the New York Salsa scene.  That was not the only thing that attracted me to his crib however: Pablo alwas had the high grade killer herb!  He was the drummer with a very hip group of Black Americans who played Afro-Cuban music, “Pucho and his Latin Soul Brother’s,” and I checked them out whenever they were performing. 

Since “Pab”  lived in a plush pad in Lennox Terrace, he was right around the corner from “The Truth” Coffee House.  So I charged up my head at Pablo’s pad and headed for “The Truth.”  A couple of hours earlier I had listend to Frank Sinatra’s hit record “That Was A Very Good Year” while waitin on the New York train in a bar.  I thought he was singing my song.

The Truth Coffe House was where the hip black activist, artists and movement intellectuals congregated to see and be seen, make connections, listen to poets spout revolutionary verse, and Jazzmen playing straight ahead in the tradition and beyond to the avant garde.  Everybody was listening to John Coltrane and Miles Davis, but cats like Byard Lancaster, Don Pullin, Milford Graves and Archie Sheep were already headed out in space.  They were following Ornette Coleman and Sun Ra, who said “space is the place!” You could see anybody in the movement drop by The Truth – from Muhammad Ali to James Meredith; whom I saw in The Truth a few days after he was shot in Mississippi.  One of our favorite tunes on the juke box was a song by a young Muslim Minister named Louis X from Boston. 

He played the violin with a deep lush tone and a wide vibrato that gave it a mysterious “Eastern” sound.  And he sang with a beautiful tenor voice, the effect was such that it fed the imagination of those attracted to stories about the ancient glories of the Moors.  He had a record that was a big hit with the revolutionary nationalist crowd: “The white Man’s Heaven is the Black Man’s Hell!”   On the night that Dorthy and I met I was sitting at a table with the African historian John Hendrik Clarke and the great poet Larry Neal, who along with Amiri Baraka, Yusef Rachman, Askia Muhammad Toure, Calvin Hernton, Ishmael Reed, et al invented the “new black esthetic” in literature.  When Dorothy walked in she atrracted quite a bit of attention because she had her hair in a huge curly Afro and was my idea of what an Ethiopian Queen must have looked like in bliblical times.

It was a magical time and it seemed anything was possible.  We met when she sat down at the table next to us with her girlfriends and soon boldly interjected herself into our conversation, directly challenging something I said.  Bewitched by her beauty and facinated by her spunk, I surrended and conceded the argument without a fight.  I wanted to get on with this woman and I was not interested in winning any battles that might lose the war!  We talked, bewitched each other, and I walked her home….only to discover that she lived with her parents.  Since I was living in Philadelphia at the time it began as a weekend romance, but our passion for each other soon grew to such intensity we could no longer bear it and was married six weeks later!

Such was the culturally rich fascinating world in which Dorothy and I met and fell in love.  Things were changing, the Third world was in revolution, Africa was rising, and we were all on a “Freedom High.”   We viewed ourselves as Pan-African revolutionaries on a mission to uplift the race!  A hip New Yorker deep into the cultural scene, and outrageously fine to boot – about 5/9 in her stocking feet with dangerous curves – Dorothy knew everybody and more than a few of the intellectuals and artist had a crush on her.

Harold Cruse: The Master Teacher

An original thinker who enlightened a generation

She introduced me to Clayton Reilly, a wonderful writer and cosmopolite who was writing theater criticism for the New York Times, and the peerless polymath Harold Cruse, when he was working on his Magnum Opus “The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual,” which the great historian Christopher Lash calls “A masterpiece of 20th century American historical and cultural criticism!” Lash said it would have taken him 20 years to cover and interpret all of the information and ideas Cruse deals with in this book.

Well, it took Harold 28 years to write it!  Because of Dorothy I got to spend many evenings arguing with Harold – and being intellectually brutalized by Cruse, who resented me at first me because he had a crush on Dorothy but she chose me!   I was so dazzled by Harold’s unique brilliance I viewed his ridicule of my half-baked ideas, and his shameless showing off by droppin science on my ignorant ass, as just the price I had to pay for sitting at the feet of a major American thinker! 

The education I got on politics and culture, as well as the science of revolution and what that meant in the American context, has served me so well that it is undoubtly a great reason why I have never lost a debate in almost half a century!  Many of the things we talked about on those occasions were ideas that appear in Cruse’s great book.  That’s how hanging out in the Big Apple with the beautiful, brilliant, gracious; gifted Dorothy Bannister open doors for me that I might otherwise have found closed.  

 Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln

 

 Dorothy and I thought they were the epitome of cool!

 We were married amidst the flowering of the Black Arts Movement; as hip asethetes and cultural nationalists, we chose the first couple of that movement – the greatest improvisational percussionist of the twentieth century: bandleader/composer Max Roach, and his beautiful  singer /songwriter /actress wife Abbey Lincoln as our role models.  Queen Mother Moore loved and tutored her, and my good friend Mongo Santamaria adored her as a sterling example of Afro-Cuban womanhood.  It is this rich and unique experience that Dorothy brought to the college students she inspired as a director of councelling. They will miss her dearly….. and so shall  I. 

 Four Who Made A Revolution circa 2011 

During the 1960′s Dorothy was Close Comrades with Three!

Playthell, Prof. John Bracy, Dr. Muhammad Ahmed, Poet Askia Muhammad

Founders: Revolutionary Action Movement, Black Arts Movement and Black Studies

 

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Playthell Benjamin

Harlem, New York

September 11, 2011

An Open Letter to Dr. Cornel West

Posted in Cultural Matters, My Struggle On the Left!, On Dr. Cornell West, Playthell on politics with tags , , , , , on August 30, 2011 by playthell

Pundit, Poet and Philosopher Share a Bright Moment

On Dr. King, President Obama and Politcal Reality

 Dear Cornell

            After reading your Op-Ed column on Dr. Martin Luther King in the New York Times, I felt compelled to sit down and write you a letter.  Since the conversation that I want to have with you is about public matters i.e. the fate of our nation and the Presidency of Barack Obama, I decided to make it an open letter and put it on the internet so everyone can see it.  I feel it is my duty to respond to your column because you are such an influential public intellectual and moral scold people listen when you speak.  Like E. F. Hutton on finance, you da man with many people on matters of morality and politics.

Since I have publicly pledged to praise saints, celebrate heroes, unmask charlatans and chastise scoundrels I could not remain silent. You have all the trappings of intellectual and moral authority – Harvard education, PhD, author of influential texts, able orator, Princeton Professor of Religion – but the more I watch what you are doing with these powerful assets…I fear you are squandering them my brother, and you are in danger of hurting us all with your folly.

I am employing the term folly in the same sense as the two time Pulitzer Prize winning historian Barbara Tuchman in her path breaking book “The March of Folly.”  Here the term folly refers to the decisions people make – - usually leaders of nation states – that all observable evidence suggests is against their own interests.   And there can be no doubt among partisans of the working classes and foes of the plutocrats, which you claim to be, that the Tea Party /Republicans are avowed enemies of our agenda.  Yet you are at this very moment engaging in activities that if continued will aid a total takeover of our national government by these vicious enemies of the working class.

Thus I have no doubt that in the present struggle for the soul of our nation and the survival of organized labor – which is the vehicle through which the working class defends their gains and advance their interests – you are missing your true calling in this great fight.  As a self-declared spokesman for the working class and the poor, the proletariat and lumpen-proletariat, you are curiously at odds with the actual spokesmen for the working class, the elected leaders of the great unions, who correctly view President Obama as the only friend of poor and working class Americans among all the people who are likely to become the next President of the USA!

Even as I write the Teamster Union President Jim Hoffa is on WNBC TV reaffirming their support for the reelection of the President; although they have some sharp disagreements with him about strategy.  They do not question that Barack is their friend and the Republicans are the enemy; and if empowered would callously take away rights that the working class struggled for a century to win.  The contrast between what the leader of one of the world’s most powerful unions had to say on this matter, and what you have been saying, highlights the fundamental disagreement that I have with you about your criticism of the President.

Dr. Nathan Hare – who holds two PhD’s, one in sociology and one in Psychology – is a longtime intellectual warrior in our struggle, a man who was on the front lines of engaged scholars when you were running about in knee pants in the wilderness of Sacramento chasing fire flies, states the problem succinctly. In a recent statement on Facebook, Dr. Hare argued that black critics of President Obama must first make it clear that there is no alternative to supporting the President and the Democratic Party in the coming elections. That is the only way your criticism can be constructive rather than destructive Corny.

The difference is clear: constructive criticism is a critique that will help us defeat the Grand Obstructionist Party in the coming elections.  Destructive criticism is the kind of loose and mindless diatribes that confuses and demoralizes people to the point where they decide that they cannot vote for either party and stay home…effectively turning the national government over to the Republicans.  I am afraid, Dr. West, that this will be the result of your misguided, overly-emotional and often irrational attacks on the President.  Alas, I am increasingly hearing threats to remain at home on election day from your acolytes.

Unlike you, the Teamster leader made it clear that there was no chance that organized labor was going to abandon the President because the Republicans are the enemy of the working class.  While he didn’t like it, he understood the compromises the President has made.  They get it that the President was forced into certain compromises in order to get anything done and avoid disaster.  But you, Dr. West, don’t get it!  You talk in terms that suggest the President has betrayed the entire progressive legacy because he was forced to compromise!

When in fact, the very concept of compromise means that you have to accept something you don’t want in order to get something you want.  Whereas the Teamster leader was clear in his purpose and what must be done, you prattled on in your NY Times Op-Ed in such a muddled fashion one could easily conclude that you think President Obama could have solved the problems you rightly highlight but just wouldn’t do it!!!  And therefore deserves defeat in 2012 – which goes without saying if your first charge is true!   If you are not saying this, then what the fuck are you talking about?

What for instance do you mean by the following passage?  “The age of Obama has fallen tragically short of fulfilling King’s prophetic legacy. Instead of articulating a radical democratic vision and fighting for homeowners, workers and poor people in the form of mortgage relief, jobs and investment in education, infrastructure and housing, the administration gave us bailouts for banks, record profits for Wall Street and giant budget cuts on the backs of the vulnerable.”  Considering that on two thirds of the issues you mention here the President actually proposed policies to do just what you said he should; I am constantly amazed at how people print stuff like this from you and don’t seem to recognize that it is muddled non-sense!

The only other person who manages to get away with publishing incoherent gibberish on a regular basis is Stanley Crouch, but at least he has the refuge of poetic license and people are so hypnotized by his use of language they don’t notice that he is making no sense.  Your argument is the kind of stuff one expects from an impassioned but not very well educated undergraduate student…someone who has listened in on the conversations of mature intellectuals and got bits and pieces of the conversation and is now trying to reconstruct it –but doing so badly!

It is embarrassing to hear someone who is widely regarded as one of the nation’s premiere intellectuals say things like: “The administration gave us bailouts for banks, record profits for Wall Street and giant budget cuts on the backs of the vulnerable.”   First of all the bank bailout or TARP was passed during the last days of the Bush Administration, and was an admission that their economic policies had failed.

Thus the task of any serious analyst of our present economic mess is to point out with clarity that the Republicans now running the House, and all of their presidential candidates, are advocating those same policies – only now they are on steroids!  Your failure to address this issue is itself enough to disqualify you as someone we need take seriously.

The problem with the kind of editorial you have written for the Times is that you are not required to suggest any policy options or strategies for achieving them. It does not take much to demonstrate that your argument is morally pretentious empty rhetoric, a hysterical rant that leads nowhere. Do you really think this nation, and the black community especially, would be better off if the banking system had failed…if the president had stood back and allowed the world financial system to collapse?  If you do you are the most highly educated moron in history, a worthy ally of the Tea Party!   If you don’t believe it you are a dangerous charlatan and hypocrite and therefore of one heart with the so-called “Tea Party Patriots.”

Instead of pointing out that President Obama has passed the most stringent regulations on Wall Street since the 1930’s, and nominated Elizabeth Warren, the brilliant Harvard Law professor and longtime advocate for the poor, to head the new agency, you attack him for saving the world financial system from collapse! Instead of denouncing the Republicans for refusing to confirm Professor Warren and fund the agency tasked with implementing the new financial regulations, while opposing any attempt to tax the rich, who are sitting on record profits, you attack the president for the success of the business community which is the engine that propels this economy.

Rising profits in the corporate sector is proof that the President’s policies to save the economy from a great depression that many economists believe would have been worse than the 1930’s has succeeded!  That’s how capitalism works Cornell!   And, in spite of the fact that both of us wish it were otherwise, Americans overwhelmingly support capitalism!  If the democrats were in control of the Congress however, they would have done away with the Bush Tax cuts and raised the effective corporate tax rate by terminating many of the tax write offs that they presently enjoy.

It is the Republicans that are preventing this from happening…but you continue to blame the President.  Your actions in this regard is leading some of your critics to conclude that you are really a paid agent for the plutocrats – especially since your so-called “Poverty Tour” designed to embarrass the President is paid for by a major commercial bank!   They think you a false witness with a hidden agenda designed to so confuse the issues that many who voted for President Obama in the last election will stay at home this time and give the election to the Republicans.

That’s what some folks are beginning to say about you Corny.  However I am not one of them.  In my view it doesn’t matter if you are a paid agent of the reactionary right or not, because I can’t imagine what you would do differently if you were a paid agent.  As the New York Times columnists Charles Blow has demonstrated by crunching the numbers: If everybody who voted for the President votes for him again in the coming election, but 10% of Afro-Americans who voted stay at home, Barack will lose!  Hence whether you were paid for your role in this or not is a distinction without a difference. The result will be an unmitigated disaster for the least among us…the people you claim to care about the most.

While your Op-Ed is full of hysterical moral preachment and pretentious sophistry masquerading as deep thought, with false analogies popping up everywhere like Banquo’s ghost, you never rise to what I believe is your true calling in the great struggle to determine whether civilization or savagery shall triumph in America.  Sometimes you tease us with the possibility that you recognize your role, but you never rise to the occasion.

A poignant case in point is the following observation: “King’s response to our crisis can be put in one word: revolution. A revolution in our priorities, a re-evaluation of our values, a reinvigoration of our public life and a fundamental transformation of our way of thinking and living that promotes a transfer of power from oligarchs and plutocrats to everyday people and ordinary citizens.”  Obviously this transformation is a matter that is far beyond the control of any politician; this is work for preachers, philosophers and theologians.

If you had been unable to recognize it before, the implications of your observations in the Op-Ed should have clearly defined your calling.  You are a professor of religion at Princeton, a position which invests you with great authority on the interpretation of biblical texts.  Hence instead of dispensing bad political advice and spouting questionable historical analysis, what we desperately need you to do is lead an assault on the theology that fuels so many of the arguments of the far right.  How is it possible that you can stand silently by and bear witness to far right evangelists preaching a false doctrine that converts Jesus Christ from the champion of the poor and down trodden, into the God of billionaires that grind the poor underfoot to make the rich richer?

How have you chosen to attack President Obama instead of Rick Perry, an unabashed foe of the working class who literally wraps himself in the bible, that is leading all Republican candidates in the polls, when Barack is the only friend of the poor who has a chance of being elected to the Oval Office?  Why are you not running around like a watchman in the night yelling “Blasphemy!”  “Sacriledge!” to the top of your lungs?

Was it not Jesus who said: “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven?”  Did not Jesus Christ despise usurious bankers so much that he drove the money lenders from the temple with violent action?   If I, a man whose devoutly Christian senior daughter has declared “an un-churched heathen,” is offended by this perversion of the teachings of Jesus why aren’t you?   If their false theology offends a wretch like me – an avowed atheist beyond salvation – why are you so nonchalant Chilly Willie?  You who claim to love the lord every chance you get !  I have wracked my brain seeking an answer to this enigma.

If you are not a stealth provocateur out to do the president in for money or personal animosities fueled by envy, revenge or blind ambition, then you have misread your role and tragically squandered your splendid gifts worse than anyone I can think of now or in the distant past!  Ten years ago you ran around the country urging people to vote for consumer advocate and political gadfly Ralph Nader rather than Al Gore, the Democratic candidate.

In doing so you helped to elect George W. Bush; if the thousands of wayward Democrats had not voted for Nader in Florida, Al Gore’s margin of victory would have been so large that the controversy which put Bush in office would never have been an issue.  Not only are you far too arrogant and self-righteous to fess up your role in this disaster, and seek forgiveness from the multitude of Americans who were injured or killed by Bush’s decisions on the economy, taxes, war and peace: You are doing it again!!!!!

It seems that you never learn, or you refuse to learn, but I warned you that your misguided preachment could result in the election of George Bush and it did.  In fact, I published a commentary of several thousand words laying out the dimensions of the impending disaster titled “On Choosing the Lesser Evil” and I have posted it on this blog to remind people of the destructive role you played 10 years ago.

It is inconceivable that you learned nothing from that experience; but alas, either you learned nothing or you are clear in your purpose to destroy the Presidency of Barack Obama no matter what. That would make you a helpful ally of the Tea Party if not an agent.  Should these right wing anti-government zealots achieve total control of the US government; the sins that they commit against working people of all colors will also leave an indelible stain on your character. It would be poetic justice worthy of a Shakespearian tragedy to watch you wander about like Lady Macbeth crying “Out damned spot!’ in a futile attempt to white-wash your role as midwife to the calamity.

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

Playthell G. Benjamin

Harlem, New York

August 29, 2011

 

On Being Black in London

Posted in Cultural Matters, On Foreign Affairs with tags , , on August 19, 2011 by playthell

An Afro-American View

Sugar Ray, Me and my Partners in Superstar Wars Unlimited

 

How The Boxing Business Introduced me to London

If the situation were not so tragic it would be somewhat amusing listening to the media wags attempt to explain the uprising in England that brought enraged mobs into the streets night after night smashing windows, looting stores and battling with the British Bobbies after the slaying of an unarmed black man and father of four by white police.  Witnessing events unfold on television reminds me of scenes from documentary movies about the bombing of London by the Nazis during World War II. The flames from burning buildings, torched by enraged demonstrators, leapt high into the sky and give the impression that all of London was burning.

Yet the British Prime Minister David Cameron, ignoring the horrendous racism, class inequality and increasing poverty which has been exacerbated by his budget slashing “austerity program,” blames the rebellions on “bad parenting” and a “sick” element in British society.  This is dangerous self-serving nonsense!  Based on my experiences on a visit to England 30 years ago, and my long association with the London Press, I could have predicted this social upheaval would come.  The only thing that surprised me is that it took so long.

My views on race and class in Britain were formed first as a businessman trying to raise ten million dollars to promote a boxing match between Sugar Ray Leonard – the Undisputed Welter-Weight Champion of the World – and Marvelous Marvin Hagler, the Undisputed Middle- Weight Champion of the World.  And it was later refined through my interaction with editors and reporters at the great British Newspapers in which I published my work for several years – the Guardian, Sunday Times of London and The Independent.

The boxing match would feature Sugar Ray challenging Marvelous Marvin for the Middle-Weight Crown.  It was the fight everybody in the world with the slightest interests in the “Sweet Science,” as the great essayist E.J. Liebling called the sport of boxing at its best, was dying to see.

Hence with what I had learned about the art of the boxing deal from my tutelage under the legendary promoter Butch Lewis, especially when the match is of epic proportions, the kind of classic matchup that becomes a permanent part of the hype of boxing lore, I thought selling this fight to the right investors would be as easy as throwing a grape through a Hula Hoop!  When my main man and friend for life Robert Ellis, aka “Bad Black Bob,” set up a meeting with a group of rich Europeans who called themselves “The Euro-Investment Group” for me to pitch the fight, I hopped a plane and split for Jolly Old England.

I arrived at Heathrow airport in London early in the morning, about seven o-clock, which put me right at the beginning of rush hour traffic.  By the time I claimed my bags and got through customs, rush hour was at its peak.  So I was advised to take the underground train to Hyde Park, which put me right at my hotel.  Thus my first impression of London was travelling with the populace on their way to work.

The class differences were readily apparent to me in a way that would not be at all obvious on a New York subway.  This is mainly due to the great material abundance in America that makes it hard to tell who’s who at first glance.  But in London gainfully employed people were wearing threadbare bargain basement clothes that any New Yorker with a job wouldn’t be caught dead in!  This was 1981, and things were tight for the working class in the UK.   I would soon discover that late 20th century London was as much a tale of two cites as was 18th century Paris, in terms of the distribution of wealth, power and privilege.

When I emerged from the underground at Hyde Park, my hotel was just across the circle.  It was my introductory lesson on the realities of the British class system. I was stunned by the opulence when I took my first good look at the Dorchester, which, depending upon who you asked is the most fabulous hotel in London.  Rolls Royce’s and Bentley’s were everywhere, with a smattering of sleek shiny Jaguars.  This was the stomping ground of the elite and the ambience of the place was such that, given the conventions of class in England, fairly screamed: There’s no room in this Inn for the common rabble!

The Lobby of the Dorchester Hotel

This is how the London Swells do it!

At the time I was in a unique position the evaluate the Dorchester, because I had just finished a stint as the Director of Publicity for Butch Lewis Productions during the great Michael Spink’s first defense of his World Light-Heavy Weight Championship title, and I had encamped in several top flight American hotels. I had been hanging out at the Waldorf Astoria, just a couple of days before.

There was a feeling of permanence about the elegant opulence of the Dorchester that seemed deeply rooted in the marrow of tradition, like it had been ever thus and would always be.  I quickly learned about the much celebrated British art of service, which was performed on such an elevated level it quickly became clear that it was rooted in the class ideology of British society…”each man to his station in life.”  Most Americans who work in service view it as a temporary affliction that one wishes to escape as soon as possible by hook or crook.

But in England, which has a long legacy of servant classes, working in service is viewed as a profession. Thus they take pride in their work!  The psychology of this relationship was brilliantly examined in the long running BBC dramatic series: Upstairs / Downstairs.” I also discovered the ideology of class is so powerful it trumps race at the Dorchester.  Servants are to cheerfully attend to the paying guest whether they are ambassadors of great nations, captains of industry, media moguls, or a nattily attired colored man from Harlem.

The object was to make the guest feel like one of the masters of the earth.  And so far as I could tell they are very good at it.  When I arrived at my suite there was a first rate British secretary waiting to turn the draft of my business proposal – which I had written on the flight over – into a typed and properly formatted document.  The reason the document was still in my hand writing is because the whole thing had happened so fast…. and there were no laptops back in the day.

One evening right after I had wet my feet in the big time boxing game with Butch Lewis Productions, it occurred to me that neither Leonard nor Hagler were under exclusive contract with promoters.  Due to the fact that both were advised by first rate corporate lawyers, they were free agents, who wisely stayed away from the exclusive promotional arrangements.  Thus I recognized that any organization with the money and promotional know how could bid on their services.   I immediately called my man Bob, who was on a business trip in London, to see if he was interested.

After I described the kind of money that could be made off the fight if properly promoted, he was sold and told me that he would be meeting the next day with a group of European money men who could easily guarantee the purse.  He asked if I could put the proposal together in writing and present it to them in London the next day, because after that they would be scattering to the four corners of the globe.  I assured him that I could get it together, and before I knew it I was sitting in a fabulous suite in the Dorchester going over my proposal with the secretary the next morning.  Curious about how the working class felt about the aristocracy, I began to pepper her with questions.  She loved the Queen, felt no particular resentment toward the titled class, and after witnessing me tip a room service waiter admonished me for being “much too generous with my tip!”

Titled “Scenario for a Super Fight” the proposal laid out every aspect of the promotion from beginning to end, and upon completion of the document the secretary told me that she typed business documents every day but mine was the best written business proposal she had ever worked on and predicted: “You are going to be very successful sir.”  She carried herself with what seemed like a studied deference, as if she was ever conscious of her subordinate status.

There was no shame in her game; it was almost artful.  Buoyed by her prediction, I strode into the meeting with an extra measure of confidence.  By this stage of my life I had lost count of the public presentations I had made, after all I was a former professor and had spent years before that making public speeches in a wide variety of forums all over America and beyond.

Thus I was quite confident of my ability to win over any captive audience if I was well prepared on my subject.  But this was different, now I was trying to convince sophisticated hardnosed European businessmen to put up a ten million dollar Letter of Credit on a prize fight – promoted by a colored fellow from New York who was a former Professor that had never been the principal promoter of an event of this magnitude – Or any public event for that matter.

So the secretary’s vote of confidence was a welcome boost.  The meeting was held in Bob’s suite, which was on a higher floor and large enough to have a conference room with a table that could seat a dozen people.  Rupert Murdoch kept a suite just down the hall, and he was pointed out to me in the lobby several times.  When Bob’s Australian friends, two rather stunning young women, saw Rupert they would become visibly excited…but he was just another country looking Aussie to me.

As things turned out, the secretary was prescient in her prediction; the presentation went better than I could have imagined in my most extravagant fantasies.  The business was concluded fairly quickly after I assured the chairman of the Euro-Investment Group, Mr. Henry Faulkner, that I could arrange for Sugar Ray to pose for a picture being decked by him; he said would make him a hero to his grandsons.  They drew up documents authorizing me to make the match and proceeded to set up a company to promote the fight:  “Superstar Wars Unlimited!”

Authorization Letter from Euro-Investment Group

This document authorized me to negotiated with fight managers

Authorization Letter II

This document authorized me to negotiate site rights etc 

We shook hands all around, slapped each other on the back, popped Champaign corks and rhapsodized about the adventure we were embarking upon. This was not the sort of business deal they were accustomed to, but a world championship fight has a special glamour; especially when it featured the two greatest prize fighters in the world!   It’s a curious thing, but everybody likes to be around the biggest stars of the moment.  In a way it is a sign that one has arrived, even if they are already filthy rich.

One need only check out who is sitting at ringside during World Title boxing matches, which cost a king’s ransom, to see the kind of rich and powerful people that turn out to see and be seen.  It is not just the event inside the ring that attracts such people. The whole spectacle is a show, and it’s all the way live!   All who are on the scene become part of the act.  There is nothing quite like a world title fight featuring a much hyped match.  The businessmen at the meeting acted almost as if I had done them a favor by proposing a deal in which I was asking them to put up ten million dollars of their money – although I had structured the deal on paper in such a way that it seemed a can’t miss proposition.

Marvelous Marvin Hagler

 The Undisputed Middle-Weight Champion of the World

It was during the Christmas season and London was alive with holiday revelers spending money and partying hearty.  It seemed that Arabs driving Rolls Royce’s were everywhere, greeted by sizzling stares from resentful Englishmen, who used to get their oil for free but now must pay.  After the deal was done I decided to hang out a few days and explore London, which was the home of historical landmarks that I had seen all of my life.  I had also heard since I was a boy that London was the biggest city in the world, and sang songs about London Bridge falling down.

Like every literate American I had studied England’s great poets and the world’s premiere dramatist William Shakespeare – on whom I have published a rigorously argued treatise analyzing his use of the black presence in his plays and sonnets - “Did Shakespeare Intend Othello to be Black: A Meditation on Blacks and the Bard.”  So I was excited about getting out and about in London Town.

One of the investors and I really hit it off.  He was an older man, very rich, and a Jew who had been interned in a Nazi concentration camp during the Second World War – he even showed me his ID tattoos from the camp.  This experience had cleansed him of racist feelings and he is one of the few people I’ve met for whom race meant nothing.

When I discovered that the great Afro-American Diva Shirley Verette – one of the world’s greatest Mezzo-Sopranos – was performing with the Royal Opera and Ballet singing the role of Delilah in Saint-Saens’s beautiful opera Samson and Delilah, I told my British host I wanted see the show and discovered that he was an avid fan of Grand Opera.

Although in truth, I much prefer instrumental music, and even oratorios, to Opera; but I wanted to see the gorgeous gifted Shirley Verette. He managed to score some tickets and it was a jolly good show!  Shirley, wearing an au naturel coif and Africanesque gown, was magnificent.  Again I was bursting with pride, as my friend marveled at yet another example of Afro-American excellence.

Shirley Verette: A Grand Diva

 

She was magnificent as Delilah

The investor lived in a beautiful marble townhouse in Southwest London and had a crib in Jamaica; where he had acquired a love for Reggie Music and Wisdom Weed.  His opulent pad was always filled with the thumping sound of the Reggae bass and the smell of Jamaican “Lamb’s Bread” – the highly potent bud of cultivated female plants from the mountains of Jamaica.

When he discovered that I shared his affection for the wondrous euphoric herb after a dinner party at his posh pad, he saw to it that I was well supplied.  Not wanting to subject me to the possibility of getting busted with any sizable quantity of the forbidden fruit, he would have his chauffer deliver a couple of high grade buds to my suite each morning ensconced in a plastic sandwich bag.

Having been into riding horses since I was a boy, I was well aware that I was coming to the home of the equestrian art.  When I lived in Amherst Massachusetts I owned my own horses and I still had my riding gear; which I brought with me in the hope that I would get to ride some fine English steeds.  I was in luck because there were stables right across the street in Hyde Park and my English friend hooked me up.  So I would begin my day with a good toke of wisdom weed and a canter around the park with other fashionable dressed equestrians.

Upper Class Equestrians in Hyde Park

 Willy Sluiter (1873-1949)  Horse riding in Hyde Park, London

I was having a ball hobnobbing with the London upper crust.  In fact I was the life of the party everywhere I went.  I was showered with compliments about my facility with the English language, which they said was quite impressive “for a Yank.”  And I regaled them with my response: “I belong to a secret band who are pledged to preserving the Queen’s English – the language of Chaucer, Shakespeare and the King James Bible – even in the wilderness of North America!”  This always elicited hearty chuckles and cries of  “hear!  hear!”

As my friend Bob, a black man of “the deepest dye” – as the 18th century black American scientist Benjamin Banneker described himself  in letter to Thomas Jefferson –  has a unique gift for neutralizing the race issue in his dealings with powerful white folks; the race issue never came up with the rich whites among whom we operated.  And in the rarified circles in which I was travelling I had had no interactions with blacks…until I walked in the lobby at noontime one day after my morning ride and encountered a party of elegantly dressed young black men taking tea and pastries as the waiters served them from an elegant silver service cart.

We spotted each other about the same time, and after quickly checking me out one of the brothers waved me over. “Eddie McFarland  here,” he said in an upper class Oxford accent, rising from his seat to extend his hand.  He had chocolate brown skin and was vined down in a finely tailored blue pinstripe suit, and he wore a monocle in one eye.  I was taken aback by this very proper Afro-Saxon gentleman and figured him for an Oxford educated Ambassador from some African or Caribbean Country, and I figured the other brothers standing about were members of his formal entourage, a couple looked like dead ringers for security men. He asked if I was staying in the Dorchester, where I was from, and what was my business, but with a sense of friendly curiosity not an interrogation.

The vibe was more like two brothers reaching out to each other in an alien white milieu.  I invited them up to my suite, but asked them to give me a half hour to freshen up and answer my phone messages.   As I went about my business I went in the bathroom, turned on the air, and fired up some wisdom weed.  Then I lit a cigar to disguise any lingering trace of the unique bouquet of Cannabis Sativa.  The brothers knocked at the door right on schedule; their punctuality a measure of the seriousness with which they took the appointment.

They walked in the suite and as I was taking their cloaks I saw the dude with the monocle, Eddie McFarland, began to sniff around like a blood hound.  Then he burst into a gale of laughter and said “Rhatid!  De Bwai is smoking de Lambs Bread bretheren!”  I was shocked.  In fact I was doubly shocked!  Shocked that he knew I had been smoking weed and shocked at the transformation of Eddie and his boys from upper class Afro-Saxon gentlemen to Jamaican Rude Bwais!  We looked at each other, slapped fives, and cracked up laughing!!!   It was a question of game recognizing game…

That’s how I met “Fast Eddie” and “Sweet T.”  They became my passport into the world of black London.  I discovered that one of the guys I thought was a security man was a local boxer who went by the name “Sweet T.”  Thus he was intrigued by my mission.  As a light-heavy-weight he was a devoted fan of Michael Spinks, whom I had just worked with and consider the best Light-Heavy weight of all times!

Undefeated as a Light-Heavy Weight Spinks moved up in class and defeated the great Larry Holmes, and became Heavy-Weight champion of the world.  So Sweet T. had good taste in pugilistic role models and quickly established himself as a student of the game…he talked a very good game but I never found out how good a fighter he was.  The more we rapped the better we liked each other; we became fast friends.

 Michael Spinx vs. Larry Holmes

 Spinks took the Heavy-Weight Crown in this Fight

For tax purposes the investors wanted to charter Superstar Wars Unlimited in London, and we even considered staging the fight there.  However we quickly discovered that there was no Don King’s in England…no Butch Lewis either.  The boxing game in London was controlled by a land loving pirate named Mickey Duff, and it was impossible to stage a bout at Wembly Arena, the premiere boxing venue in Britain, without cutting Duff in on the deal.

While the possibility was still under consideration I decided to seek out a spot to hold a press conference, in which Sugar Ray and Marvelous Marvin would fly over to announce the fight.   I started looking for a place to hold the event, and was turned on by a London cab driver to the hottest new night club in London, Stringfellows. 

My encounter with the cabbie gave me another important insight into the class divide in England. The cabbie spoke Cockney, that working class brogue that assaults the Queen’s English every bit as badly as any black Ebonics speaker in America.  As a speaker of Standard English, for the most part, I had to really struggle to understand what the bloke was saying. That’s why I wasn’t surprised by an incident years later that left so many Americans puzzled.

A dude who was on tour in Buckingham Palace wandered off and somehow ended up in the Queen’s bedroom, but when she tried to alert the guard on the palace intercom he didn’t understand what she was trying to tell him because he was a deep Cockney speaker!  The social distance between the aristocrats and the working slubs in England have been such that they actually speak different languages.

I understood him well enough to gather that Stringfellow’s was the flyest spot in London at the time, so that’s where I wanted to be.  Recognizing the protocol of class I decided to have the Concierge at the Dorchester make all of the arrangements for me to go over and check out the place. He informed the owner, Peter Stringfellow, an American boxing promoter was considering renting his club as the venue for a press conference to announce a forthcoming fight for the Undisputed Middle-Weight Championship of the World between Sugar Ray Leonard and Marvelous Marvin Hagler, and it worked like black magic.  I decided to show up with an entourage to create an air of excitement – remember I was a PR man in the boxing game – so I invited Fast Eddie and his boys to join me and Bad Black Bob on our visit to the club.

From the moment we pulled up it was apparent that this was a plush spot.  The Doorman/ Greeter was Alan Minter, who had been a top Middle-Weight contender.  And he headed a crew of tough looking white dudes who were probably ex-pugs like him. They were decked out in black tuxedos and had an attitude that warned: “Don’t even think about startin no shit in here!”

Fast Eddie, as it turns out, was driving a Rolls Royce and Bob had a leased a Bentley; when we rolled up to the club dressed to the height of fashion, all eyes was on us.  Bob and I were wearing elegantly tailored suits with silk ties and breast pocket handkerchiefs,  French cuff links, western Stetsons and spit shined cowboy boots.

I was wearing a white hat and Bob wore a black hat.  Since we were in London, I figured elegantly dressed black cowboys would naturally create a spectacle…but I would later discover there was more to it; there was another reason that we attracted so much attention and it would reveal itself as the evening progressed.

As soon as we entered the club Peter Stringfellow suddenly appeared at our side. I was immediately impressed as he began to show us around.   I began to swell with pride as I peeped the scene.  Afro-American music was everywhere!  In fact, I can’t think of a club in New York with as hip a musical menu.  There were three floors, and on every floor a different genre of Afro-American music was featured.

On the ground floor lounge there was a septet on the bandstand – all white musicians – who were playing “All Blues” the Miles Davis classic from the album “Kinda Blue.”  On the second floor was an elegant restaurant where the Afro-American big band tradition was featured, when I walked in Sarah Vaughn was singing with the Ekstine band I believe.  And on the top floor there was a disco, with a beautiful black female DJ.  As I walked past the dance floor everybody was grooving to “Get Down On It,” by Kool and the Gang.  I had published a  big essay on Afro-American music and its influence on the sensibility of twentieth century western culture (See: Western Culture Revised: The Century of Afro-American Music, in the “Freedomways Reader” )  But it was something to observe its influence in action.

I was really pumped up when I discussed renting the place with Peter Stringfellow, who was acting like he thought he was dealing with Don King, in spite of his efforts to appear nonchalant.  The truth be told I was sharper than Don King, after all he is from Cleveland and I was a natural New Yorker. I was not born or raised in the City but I had the city in my soul and found life insufferable anywhere else.

I am a cosmopolite by taste and training, and New York may well be the most cosmopolitan city in the world.  Those big Cuban cigars like Castro smokes are banned in New York, but easily attainable in London…and I was sporting them to the max.  Me and Bob peeped Peter’s hole card early on and played him like a fiddle.

When we asked him for a price to rent one of the floors for an evening he pulled out a pad and starting figuring.  When he said “Let’s say in the neighborhood of 18,000 pounds,” Bob appeared to quibble but I cavalierly announced “Why don’t we just make it 20 thousand.”  It was all Peter could do to keep from break dancing.

After all, he was making out like a bandit and we knew it.  By holding a press conference announcing a world championship bout between the two most popular champions in the world, we would have made Stringfellows and its owner world famous overnight!  He would never be able to pay for even a small portion of the world wide publicity.  And he was going to be paid 20 thousand pounds too.

After our meeting peter was in a jovial mood and we strolled around the place drinking on the different floors until I decided which room I wanted.  Everywhere we went in the club we were the center of attention, and when we finally settled down at a table near the dance floor in the discoteque I got a chance to see how many beautiful women were in the house.  It was the most diverse crowd I had ever seen in a club; all of the former British Empire was representin on the dance floor. But there were three ladies who stood out from the crowd like roses among cactus.

One was white; one was Arab, and one was black – at least by American standards. In England she was bi-racial and in the West Indies she would have been classified as a “brown girl” of mixed blood.  But she looked like many Afro-American women.  Among Afro-Americans she was not even “high yella.”

She was what we call pecan tan, and she was built like a brick house, the personification of  kind of women the Commodores was referring to in their smash hit “She’s a Brick House!”  Wearing a flaming form fitting  red dress and spiked heels, she had long black curly hair, a generously proportioned elegantly sculpted derriere, and full pouty lips that seemed to be fishing for a kiss.   She was easily the most stunning woman in the club!

Yet as I watched her grooving on the dance floor with her girlfriends – which was au courant in London at the time – it became all too obvious that she did not think herself the most beautiful of the group.  I could see it in her body language.  She displayed something of what the old folks in Florida used to call “a hang dog” attitude.

I was puzzled, because not only was she the best looking she was by far the best dancer.  Fast Eddie went over and asked her for a dance, and I got an exhibition of the skills of black Brits on the dance floor.  Although they had a style that was different from Afro-Americans, even when dancing to our music, they could dance their butts off!

When Eddie returned to the Table he brought the bronze beauty with him and told me, “This lady would like to meet you.”  We introduced ourselves and I invited the brown British lady and her girlfriends to join us at our table.  Bad Black Bob is what we used to call a “bigwayer” in Philly, so he told the ladies to order whatever they wanted and we had had a ball!

 Peter Stringfellow

 

He reminded me of a British Guido!

Her name was Ann Marie Brown, and as the evening proceeded I learned a lot about the racial situation in England from talking to Miss Brown.  First she told me what had intrigued her about me.  She said the thing that first caught her eye was the fact that here was a group of black men that had been admitted to the club without escorts, and she explained that that was taboo…a striking violation of club policy.

It was well known that black men who showed up without women were refused admission, but there was no similar policy for black women.  Indeed, single black women were welcomed if they met the standards of beauty the club had set.  Like Studio 54, the hot spot in New York, Stringfellows had so many people clamoring to get in they could employ a selective admissions policy. “It was quite a surprise to see you all walk in by yourselves; they never let black men in if they don’t bring women with them!….I guess they think it will keep them from flirting with the white women in here,” she said wryly.

As I listened to her talk I began to understand the reluctance I heard in Eddie’s voice when I invited him to accompany us to Stringfellows.  “Just seeing you all strolling about the place was surprising,” said Miss Brown, “but is was shocking to see the way Peter Stringfellow was kowtowing to you!”

Her revelation spoke volumes about racial attitudes in Britain, but I had seen that sort of thing before.  That’s how sophisticated racist behave at top white clubs  in New York…unless the black man in question is a star.  But while rich black star boys were fairly common in the US, they seemed rare as pink elephants in  Britain.

“I had an argument with my girlfriends about you,” she said.  “They thought you were a Brixton Gangster, but I told them that you were not from London at all.  I bet them you were American.  The way you walk, and your commanding manner with Peter…I just knew you weren’t from Brixton.  I could tell some of your friends were from Brixton, but I knew you and your friend in the black cowboy hat were Americans.”   She loved to dance, but after seeing her get down, I decided to adopt a “tough guys don’t dance” persona and get off watching her star in the freak show on the dance floor.

Over the course of the evening she asked where I was staying in London.  When I said “the Dorchester,” she was visibly impressed.  With a winsome look in her eyes she told me how she was a sprinter on her college track team and often worked out in Hyde Park, and she reflected on the many times she had walked by the Dorchester and wondered what it was like inside.

I told her she need wonder no more and invited her to a dinner party Bob was having the following evening.  When she showed up for the party I learned another lesson about race in London; she was detained by house detectives on her way up to Bob’s suite.  When they called up to inform us that she had been detained and asked if she was his guest, Bob went ballistic.

We hurried down stairs and while I apologized profusely to her, Bob went off on the Concierge and other responsible parties.  We were in an office off from the Lobby so there was no danger of creating a scene in front of other guest.  And he read “told those Brits head a mess” as my grandmother use to say.  Part of it was theater, he wanted Miss Brown to see a black man exercising  power over these previously intimidating white male authority figures that had embarrassed her.

Bob wanted her to understand that the power of wealth and status trumped race!  He wanted to show her that personal success could change her life.  Bob, like every self-made rich black American I know male or female, believes that after all is said and done the only thing you can really count on in life is money!  His philosophy was summed up in the observation “Whatever happens, it will be easier to bear rich!

That’s what the game of life is all about.  Not just the mere possession of money, but the good that can be done with it.  In this sense he was a lot like Andrew Carnegie – who believed he was an instrument of God’s grace.  That’s why a poor boy that started life with nothing was allowed to amass such great wealth: To contribute to the public good.  Bob had come up very poor and had experienced firsthand the humiliation, powerlessness and chaos of poverty, and he seemed to remember every minute of it.  These experiences left an indelible mark on Bob’s character, and it was revealed at its best in his forever taking the side of the underdog.  This was just one of many such instances.

I would learn from Miss Anna Mae Brown that her gorgeous bronze skin was the source of many racist humiliations.  It began in her childhood.  The daughter of a black Jamaican father and a British mother, her parents broke up when she was a girl and her mother left London and moved back to the English country side.

Thus Miss Brown had grown up in an almost totally white environment.  Her dusky complexion, full lips and fabulous butt that marked her unique beauty in my eyes were objects of ridicule among the flat bottomed, little lipped, beak nosed, paleface girls among whom she grew up.  Well, if Princess Diana – who was pale as a ghost and built straight up and down with nary a curve to be seen – was the standard of beauty, Miss Brown was the odd gal out!

Black Beauty In Briton

 Super Model Naomi Campbell

That’s just the kind of reception she got when she presented her portfolio to modeling agencies in an attempt to pursue a career as a model. Years later, the black British beauty  Naomi  Campbell became a Supermodel, but she was built more like white girls – straight no curves – and she got much of her Success living in the US.   Anna Brown said the only thing that saved her from developing an inferiority complex growing up in the British boonies was reading Ebony and Jet magazines, and watching  Soul Train on television.

In these Black American cultural products she found her identity. There she saw many women who looked like her and they were doing all sorts of wonderful things. And in the Jet centerfold, titled  “Beauty of the Week,” she often saw women who looked just like her. She told me how she practiced the dances on Soul Train for hours and dreamed of one day coming to America and dancing on the show. She was wild about Michael Jackson, as well as  the Great Muhammad Ali, whom all the black and Asians rooted for every time he fought.  And Ali’s women often looked like her.

When I recognized the role these Afro-American cultural heroes and publications had played in shaping her conception of herself as a black woman, I began to understand the admiration she held for us.   I advised her to finish college because a good education would best equip her to negotiate the obstacles of race, and I decided that after the fight was over I would pay for her to finish her education in the US.  But whatever happened I wanted her to learn what Frederick Douglass learned more than a century earlier: “Education is the road to freedom!”

 ***********

Fast Eddie’s story supplied a different view of the racial quagmire in which blacks in London found themselves.  He and his mother were born in England, but his father was a Jamaican immigrant.  Both parents were of Jamaican descent and their families “back home” were strong supporters of the People’s National Party.  So when Michal Manley led the PNP to power some favors were called in and Eddie got lucky.   He ended up winning a multi-million dollar contract from the Jamaican government to supply a large order of concrete.

Normally this kind of a contract is enough to get a Letter of Credit to cover the transaction from any bank.  As it would be paid upon delivery of the commodity…but Eddie couldn’t find a single bank in London that would finance this multi-million dollar deal!  He told me this was common fare for Blacks trying to do serious business in Britain.  And he felt a large part of this was that white Britons tended to view all blacks as aliens, immigrants, even if they were second generation citizens like him.

Although there were similar problems in the US due to racism, there was no question that we were genuine Americans; simply because there is no America without us.  Afro-Americans were there at the birth of the nation.  They were the first to fall in the initial battles of the Revolution, heroes in the battles of Bunker Hill and Lexington and Concord. And they fought against the British Imperialist in the thousands.

When you look at the influence of Afro-Americans on the humor, ideals, arts and cuisine of this nation the USA is impossible to imagine without us.  America would certainly be a less exciting place…and less free too.  It is Afro-Americans who loved liberty most and proclaimed most loudly and consistently its virtues.  Our experience is the real truth of what America is.

That’s why we walk around like we own these streets.  Not so with the blacks I’ve seen in European cities, who are made to feel like aliens.  While there has been no shortage of Euro-Americans who claim the US is “a white man’s country” most Afro-Americans know better.  However it has to be different for blacks living in European cities since these civilizations were fully formed when they arrived.

Not only do most Englishmen not see black people as true Brits, many of the young blacks, Arabs and Asians are deeply alienated from those societies and identify with the homelands of their parents.   Brandon Ward offers an interesting insight on this question.  A Guyanese immigrant to the US who became a Mechanical engineer and resides in grand style in Brooklyn Townhouse, Ward once travelled to England in pursuit of a lovely Afro-British lady.

Smitten by her charms, he sought to win her affections and lure her back to New York.  During his Sojourn among the Afro-Saxons of London he discovered that when talking to outsiders they described themselves as British, but among themselves that identified with the ethnic heritage of their parents.

Like bright, ambitious, enterprising, daring young men everywhere blacks in Britain found ways to get around the racist economic embargo against them.  In London working class Jamaicans, and British descendants of the Caribbean Island,  did it by controlling the trade in Wisdom Weed.  I got a firsthand view of how this lively commerce worked one evening when I was riding around London with Eddie.  Earlier in the day in the day I saw the same hostile stares directed at us that I had earlier noticed directed at the Arabs in Rolls Royce’s by white Englishmen.   He had pointed to the war memorials that dot the cityscape, and observed of our antagonists: “Those are the working class white guys who fought the last war, and now they are just holding on.  So they resent seeing a young black guy, an ‘immigrant,’ who appears to be doing so much better than them.”

Brixton During the Uprising of 2011

We stopped near a non-descript building in Brixton, and walked up to a steel door with a peephole that had a camera lens mounted in it.  On a screen inside they could see anybody who approached the entrance, but if you didn’t know the camera was there you would never see it.  Eddie looked up into the camera so that they could identify him and we were buzzed in.

We walked across a room with a concrete floor in what looked like an auto-body shop.  He pulled up the steel cellar doors and we went down into a barely lit underground corridor that seemed like a small tunnel.  Suddenly lines from Edgar Allen Poe’s classic short story of treachery and deceit The Cask of Amontillado, which my English teacher had introduced me to,  echoed in my head.

Now Montresor began to develop the perfect plan of retribution. During this time, Montresor was careful not to arouse Fortunato’s suspicions. “…[N]either by word nor deed had I given Fortunato cause to doubt my good will. I continued…to smile in his face, and he did not perceive that my smile now was at the thought of his [destruction].” Fortunato had a weakness which Montresor felt could be advantageous to implementing his plan. Fortunato prided himself upon being a connoisseur of fine wines.”

In this grim tale Fortunado, for whom Montesor holds a concealed hatred, was invited down into Montesor’s wine cellar to taste some Amontillado,  a fine wine of  rare vintage.  However once he got Fortunado down in  his cellar Montesor got him drunk, chained him up and sealed him the wall alive with bricks and mortar!

It suddenly occurred to me that I really didn’t know these dudes that well, yet on the promise of some splendid high grade Cannabis Sativa I had followed this trickster into a cavernous tunnel under the streets of London.  In retrospect the folly of it all is hilarious, but at the time I had been drinking and toking and was beginning to get a bit paranoid.  There was no chance of escaping from harm’s way because I didn’t even know where I was.  So I maintained my cool and hoped for the best.

Before long we arrived at a large space, a wide room illuminated by electric klieg lights.  It was filled with Jamaican Rasta rebel boys selling prime Jamaican bud.  It was like a tobacco auction where retailers came to purchase their supplies.  Each Rasta man, with dread locks that sometime came down to their waist, had a pile of weed displayed on a mat in front of them.

The buyers strolled by and examined their wares.  A haze of reefer smoke filled the room, and one could fly quite high just from the atmospherics.  For a voracious pot head like yours truly, it was the joint…I found myself humming the hook lines from the Ohio Players hit “Heaven Must be Like This!”

While Fast Eddie had wandered off with one of the sellers for a brief business meeting I perused the produce.  I was 39 at the time, which means that I was approaching my 20th year as an avid smoker of Wisdom Weed.  I had smoked every variety of the exotic bud over that two decade period and was so skilled at judging its quality I felt like Albert Dimes, “the Tetley Tea Taster.”  But Cannabis not tea was my claim to fame. One particularly aggressive wholesaler, noting my careful eye and sartorial elegance, mistook me for a big time buyer and began a sustained sales pitch.

I waved him away repeatedly but to no avail.  Suddenly I wheeled around and in my best Jamaican rude bawi patois shouted: “Boomba claat mon!  G’way befo yo make I vex!”  He recoiled in surprise and before he could respond Fast Eddie showed up with the high grade thriller and we split the scene.  As I was leaving the auction I heard the puzzled dread head whisper cynically: “Look pun tha play play Yankee…the bwai him a Sam-fi,” which is Jamaican slang for a con man,  “But he forgot hisself, and him Jamaican come out!” proclaimed the Rastaman.

Rolling around London town with Fast Eddie provided me an entirely different view of that fabled city; the center of a vast global empire on which the sun never set.  But Europe was so weakened after the carnage they wreaked on each other in two world wars during the first half of the Twentieth Century, they were unable to muster the forces to prevail against the rising tide of nationalism in the colonized third world.

Hence the entire European world order – based on naked white supremacy and military conquest – crumbled after the second world war and a new international order emerged with dozens of non-white nations coming into being.  The British seemed to still have been searching for its new role in the world and adjust to it.  One of the things that many white Britons clearly did not want was an expansion of the non-white population.

It was fine to tell all of those Indians, Arabs, Africans and Caribbean peoples that they were Englishmen when the Brits were robbing them of their labor and resources…It is quite another to welcome them as brothers now that they no longer ruled them and these former colonial subjects are showing up in their neighborhoods.  What’s more they are competing with them for jobs. The resentment of working class whites began manifesting itself in things like “Paki Bashing,” where groups of Englishmen would set upon south Asians and beat them down just for being born the person they were.

It was clear to me by the time I left England on New Year’s Eve that they had some serious unresolved problems of race and class and it was just a matter of time before they exploded.   It was a city of dreams deferred, and I found myself reflecting on the verse of Afro-American poet Langston Hughes’s contemplation on the predicament of Afro-Americans at Mid-twentieth century: “What happens to a dream deferred/Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? /Does it cake over like a surpy sweet and the run / Does it sag like a heavy load / Or does it explode!”

When I departed from Heathrow airport I thought I would be back to London before long, and I fully expected to develop long lasting relationships with some of the people I met.  I was on the verge of becoming a wealthy man who could travel around the world at will, and since I found London intriguing the city was at the top of my list of places to slip away to…but that was before I saw Paris!

However just a few weeks later, I witnessed the death of my dream of promoting what promised to be the most profitable fight in history.  It was slaughtered by an obscure club fighter named Bruce Finch, when he got in a one in a million shot on a careless Sugar Ray – who considered Finch dog meat and had taken the fight as a tune up and an easy pay day – and detached Sugar’s Retina.

Facing the possibility of blindness if he continued to fight, the great Sugar Ray Leonard retired from the ring.  Me, Bad Black Bob, and a couple of the investors were sitting ringside for the bout at the fabulous MGM Grand casino in Reno Nevada watching the disaster.  I hung around the boxing business for a couple of years – even participated in the promotion of a USBA Welter-Weight Championship fight featuring Gary “The Ice Man” Guiden vs. Alejo “The Heat” Rodriguez.

The fight was held in Portland Maine and my partner “Big Douggie” Pendarvis, who operated out of Boston, was the principal  promoter.  It was after that fight that I recognized what a unique opportunity I had lost with the Leonard /Hagler match.  It was clear that such an opportunity might never come again!  I had two young children to raise so I decided to move on.  And I eventually lost contact with my Black British friends.

Alas, there was no e-mail or Facebook or unlimited phone services like Magic Jack.  Sugar Ray and Marvelous eventually did fight five years later in 1987 at Caesars  Palace in Los Vegas, but I was out of the boxing business by then.  It was a magnificent fight, and Sugar Ray gave one of the greatest exhibitions of the “Sweet Science” on record.  As he convincingly took the Middle-Weight Championship from Marvelous Marvin Hagler, one of the all-time greats in the most competitive of all the weight-classes.

Sugar Ray Dethrones Marvelous Marvin circa 1987

 It Was An Epic Battle!

 *******************

A decade passed before I became involved with Brits again.  This time it was as a writer with the great English newspapers.  There was an air of serendipity about how it happened.  I had written an 8,000 word cover story in the Village Voice on Reverend Al Sharpton and his legal advisors in the Tawana Brawley affair.  Brawley, a young black woman from upstate New York had accused white police officers of raping her and smearing feces on her body, and also accused the DA of being involved and covering it up.

The accusation was so outrageous it turned New York State into a racial powder keg, especially after Rev. Al Sharpton and his lawyers Vernon Mason and Alton Maddox became Ms. Brawley’s “advisors.”   The irony was that the incident need not have become a catalyst for racial conflict, because everybody of all races sympathized with Ms. Brawley.  The Governor of New York, Mario Cuomo, said he would pursue justice as if “Tawana Brawley is my own daughter.”

Although her story was later exposed as a hoax by the Afro-American Pulitzer Prize winning investigative reporter Les Payne, at the time I and legions of others didn’t question Ms. Brawley’s account of events.  I took her word without giving the matter a second thought because it reminded me of an incident that happened in Florida before I left the South.

But I was appalled at the way Sharpton – who was young and reckless back then – was handling the matter, which I was convinced only served to needlessly promote racial antagonism around an issue that people of all people of good will could unite regardless of race, class, religion, or ethnicity.  So I wrote a scathing investigation into their methods and objectives which appeared as a feature story titled “Jive at Five: How Big Al and the Bully Boys Bogarted the Movement.”  The widely read article was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in the area of Explanatory Journalism. 

 My First Pulitzer Nomination

 The article would also come to the attention of Ian Mayes, the features Editor at the Manchester Guardian, when he was looking for writer to do a major Profile on Reverend Sharpton.  It was a year later, Reverend Sharpton was making his first trip to England at the invitation of a black British organization, and the Guardian decided to publish a major feature story on him.

 The Guardian reader’s look forward to the Thursday profile, an in-depth feature story on some great personality in the news; it is a very prestigious affair and I was assigned the story.  That was my maiden voyage in the British press and it was sensational.  Over the next few years I published many pieces in the Guardian, especially after they discovered that I could also write about music and sports too.

When Jocelyn Targett, the great Arts Editor at the Guardian, was appointed Editor of The Culture, a prestigious magazine devoted to art and culture which is a component of the Sunday Times of London, I was given carte blanche to write a piece for every issue if I chose.  And I wrote many important features – reviews and cultural criticism- for the Sunday Times.

There was a time when I had a phone number where I could call the Guardian toll free from anywhere in the world and request a copy taker.  A crack British secretary would come on the phone and take down an article which I would dictate.  We would do the grammatical corrections as we progressed and these secretaries were more efficient that the spell and grammar checks on my computer.

As editors moved around I moved with them, and I ended up writing for the Independent too. I wrote about politics, film, music and sports.  And I was treated royally by my British editors.  I brought other black folks in to share my good fortune, getting them published in the British press and hiring photographers to take the pictures that would illustrate my stories.

Yet my editors and I knew each other only through phone conversations.  But that changed a hundred days after the election of Bill Clinton, when a team of about a dozen Guardian writers visited the US to take a look at the state of American society.  Their essays would be published as a series in the Guardian, then as a book.

They informed me that when the paper did these kinds of investigations of foreign countries they always invited a distinguished writer from that country to come to England – all expenses paid – and write a series of pieces on how they view British society.  They told me I had been selected to write the response to their investigation of the US.  I was deeply flattered.

The Guardian is unique among the great newspapers of the world.  First of all, because of the way it is financed, the paper is not beholden to advertisers.  Founded in Manchester England in 1791, only four years after the drafting of the US Constitution, the Guardian newspaper is owned by a trust and is financed by a conglomeration of companies that make up the Guardian Media Group, which exists to carry out the sole objective of the Scott Trust: to secure the financial and editorial independence of the Guardian in perpetuity.”

Hence the Guardian’s editors and writers are free to write and publish stories as they see it, without fear of being censored, or censoring one self, for fear that you might offend some powerful financial interests that might affect the bottom line.  For an irreverent writer of eclectic essays, who hate to write in news speak, the Guardian was a gift from the Gods!

I loved writing for them and to be asked to come over a write my impressions of Britain was an honor.  But then I had a revelatory experience that changed both my view of the paper and the Editors who ran it.  When their party arrived the Guardian reporters decided to stay at the legendary Algonquin Hotel, because of its history as a hangout for famous American writers.

Their location was ideal for a dinner date at B. Smith’s, the posh restaurant owned by the beautiful Afro-American Model.  The Brits were blown away by the place; highly impressed by the ambience as well as the owner and the elegant black patrons. And at one point the editor said to me “You know there is nothing like this in London…a black middle class scene like you have here in New York.”

While I was trying to digest that observation he went on to tell me that there were no black writers in London of my caliber.  I noticed that I never saw any black writers in the paper, but I had never given it much thought because all of the writers who had made me aware of the progressive tradition of the Guardian were black – especially C.L.R. James and George Padmore.

These central figures in the African independence movement had published extensively in the pages of the Guardian during the years of that great struggle.  So I just assumed that Blacks in London were still writing for the paper.  In view of this history and what the Guardian stood for, this was a shocking statement and I didn’t believe it for a minute.  After all, there were too many great writers among African and West Indian writers – including Nobel Laureates Nigerian dramatist Woyle Soyinka and Caribbean poet Derek Walcott – for such an outrageous statement to be true.

A few days later I was browsing through the used book stalls of sidewalk vendors around Columbia University and stumbled upon a volume titled “The Struggle for Black Arts in Britain.”  It was an anthology of essays by black writers living in London, explicating the racial barriers they encountered trying to gain recognition for their work in England.  As I began to read the text I encountered some of the finest English prose composition I had ever read.  The words virtually danced of the page with their wonderful rhythms and graphic imagery.  I was deeply impressed, and I encountered several writers who were easily my equal.  Since I thought it was hokum from the beginning I was not shocked when I discovered that the editor was mistaken.

The implications of the incident were unmistakable: If they were invisible to these people, where were black Londoners to turn for recognition?   That’s when it became clear to me that black intellectuals in London were in pretty much the same position as black workers and aspiring business people: their progress was hampered by artificial racial barriers.  They were strangers in their own land.  And now that the government is shredding the social safety net and dismantling the welfare state their prospects have grown bleaker, and the rising aggressiveness of the white police have made a bad situation far worse.

***********

Thus it is both sad and dangerous that the simple-minded gibberish spouted by British Prime Minister David Cameron, about the causes of the rebellion, was quickly adopted and repeated ad nauseum by the American media.  A notable exception of is WBAI FM in New York City, where Esther Armah, a black Brit and able writer, hosts the morning show.  Esther has been reporting on the rebellion with a highly informed insider’s perspective. Thursday morning, for instance, we heard much excellent reporting from the scene of the troubles from a variety of sources.

They included penetrating reports from Al Jazzera on the Muslim Community, and a reporter from the only black owned radio station in England.  The persistent theme that emerged from all of these sources is that non-white youths, who are mostly the children of immigrants that were born in Britain, feel alienated from British society due to the antagonism resulting from racial discrimination and the hopelessness spawned by economic deprivation and lack of opportunity.

However from the television reports we can see that white youths also began to join the uprising, recognizing that their white skin carries little meaningful privilege in the absence of wealth and power.  The shredding of the welfare state constructed in the twentieth century in a kind of grand bargain between the English working class and the elite is destroying hope that tomorrow will be better than today.  This is especially true when we consider the fact that educational opportunities – the most reliable ladder to upward mobility in a rigidly class based society – are evaporating for large segments of the working class.  And this is happening in a country that still has an aristocracy who believe that they are ordained by divine providence to enjoy a privileged status and posh lifestyle no matter what.

Esther Armah: Sweet in the Morning

 A Playwright and  Seasoned Journalist

 The attitude of Cameron Brown, the clueless British Prime Minister, reminds me of Louis XVI of France just before the masses rose up and overthrew the aristocracy, putting them to the sword while beheading Louis and his Queen Marie Antoinette in Paris’ Place de la Concorde. When Brown refuses to acknowledge the racial and economic factors fueling the firebugs who are torching the cities of England, I think of the statement Louis wrote in his dairy that fateful August morning in 1789.

The diary is now on display in Versailles Palace, and the entry reads: “Just another uneventful day.”   This is what the King of Francewrote  shortly before the enraged mob stormed the palace and he lost his head.  This was the second of the three great bourgeois revolutions of the 18th century that greatly expanded human freedom: the American, French and Haitian revolutions.

I am not suggesting that what we are watching is a revolution; I don’t think a violent revolution is possible against a well-armed modern government like England’s, which has a monopoly on the use of organized violence and endless surveillance capabilities. Yet the rebellions in the streets of England today arose from complaints of the powerless that are similar to those which sparked the French revolution: the greed and oppressive policies of the aristocracy.

These issues are fueling resentments among the working and middle classes across race and ethnic lines…but the anger is most acute among young non-white Britons, whose hopes for a better future are melting like popsicles in a pizza oven.  The event that sparked the uprisings, the murder of Mark Duggin, was the latest of 338 police killings of black youths since 1998, and no British Bobby has ever been convicted for any of them.

Hence to view the Duggin event in isolation and attempt to argue, as does Mr. Cameron and much of the press, that the uprising amounts to nothing more than the anti-social antics of opportunistic criminal gangs who used the killing as an opportunity to pillage, is a dangerous delusion. The problem goes far deeper than that.  This is what the long time London writer/journalist and broadcaster Darcus Howe was saying in a BBC interview on the causes of the uprisings*

Mr. Howe, who describes himself as “an old West Indian Negro,” says that he has lived in London for fifty years and is not at all surprised by this social explosion. To the astonishment of the quite proper white British female reporter, Howe insists that the upheaval should not be called a “riot;” which is to mislabel the event and promote confusion rather than enlightenment.

What we are witnessing, is a genuine “insurrection” he says; the same thing we are wittnesing from Egypt to Port of Spain Trinidad.   It is an expression of collective outrage by a people whose humanity has been devalued to the point that a British Bobby, who until recently didn’t even carry guns – could shoot an innocent young black man in the face!

In Howe’s view the white police executed an unarmed man under the cloak of law enforcement.  He goes on to recount the horror stories told to him by his son and especially his grandson about being harassed by white police.  He describes his grandson as a gentle soul – “an angel” – who has never thought of breaking the law, yet when asked how man tines he had been stopped and searched by the police his grandson said “I’ve lost count.”

The reports from Al Jazeera about racist attacks and police repression of the Asian/Muslim community echo these same grievances.  While the British government and press denies that there is any chance the reasons for the rebellion are rooted in the material conditions under which the lower classes and racial minorities are forced to exist, I know better.

 Aside from the objective data that can be found in published sources, my firsthand experiences continue to inform my view of these issues.  And I think Richard (RJ) Eskow, in an August 11, column for OurFuture.org, summed up the meaning of the London upheaval succinctly “Conservatives still trapped in the sixties argue that the rioters are acting out the rage of the left. But the angry crowds are really the mirror of a right-wing, instant gratification, get-rich-quick philosophy that exalts materialism and condemns anyone who can’t afford goodies like those flat-screen TVs carried out of burning UK shops. The rioters know they’ve been thrown away by Britain’s elites and they’re responding in kind. The looters and burners are the flipside of greed, the castaways of consumerism, prosperity’s prodigal children.”
This description of social realities and popular values that gave rise to the British insurrection could easily apply to the US.  All the same ingredients are to be found in the American social milieu as I write.  It is a miracle that we seem to be getting through this long hot summer without a single riot in a major city.  But if trends continue as they are it’s just a matter of time.  Although race relations have progressed to the point that Americans put a black family in the White House and a black man in the Oval Office, while it remains impossible to imagine a black family encamped at 10 Downing Street in London, and a black man as Prime Minister, the gap in wealth between blacks and whites in America continues to widen…and dramatically so!
That’s because the distribution of wealth between the races is the result of the entire history of the USA, which begins with genocide and slavery committed by whites against Afro-Americans and Native Americans in one of the largest theft of land and labor in history. Like all of the third world, we were victims of the consequences of the second rise of Europe that permanently altered the face of the globe.  Hence non-whites, in American as elsewhere, continue to suffer from centuries of a white monopoly of wealth, power and privilege.   In this sense being black in New York has much in common with being black in London.

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

Playthell Benjamin

Harlem, New York

August 19, 2011

Riding the Big Dog Through the Dirty South!

Posted in Cultural Matters, Travels in the New South on July 27, 2011 by playthell

 

 At the Greyhound Station in Savanna Georgia

 

 Rolling with the Wretched of the Earth

As the Grand Obstructionist Party threatens to throw the US treasury into default, and bring on a new Great Depression that professional economists tell us could be worse than the calamity of the 1930’s, the future looks increasingly bleak for the nation at large, but hopeless for the working class and the poor.  If you want to gain a first hand understanding of how the struggling masses already live, what their hopes and dreams are, and their increasingly hazardous fight to acquire the basic necessities of life: take a ride around the country on a Grey Hound bus.

I discovered this sociological and journalistic treasure trove by accident.  After missing a plane to Atlanta couple of years ago, and was unable to get another plane or train reservation that would get me to Atlanta for a meeting the next morning, I finally decided to take a bus.  The trip was a revelation and since then I have taken several bus trips through the south employing a favored method of the cultural anthropologist, the “participant observer.”  I am writing a series of essays about my experiences under the title “Journeys in the New South;” which will include the present essay.  These texts will be compiled into a book.  Several of them can now be read on this blog.   

While the Republicans in Congress assure us that “the people” are with them, I don’t believe it.  That’s not what I hear from the hordes of desperate Dead Enders riding the Grey Hound on any given day; people who are barely holding on in the vain hope that things will soon get better.  Like… maybe they will finally find a job that will permit them to lead a normal life.  Although the Republicans insist that they don’t want “fake government jobs” but “real jobs” in the private sector; from what working people are telling me in conversations riding the bus up and down the eastern seaboard of the United States: The Republicans are full of shit!  These people would give their right eye for a good government job with benefits. 

Alas, if you listen to them carefully, you will soon discover they haven’t a clue about the socio/political forces that conspire to push them out of the work force; perhaps permanently, except for the most menial, repetitive and soul deadening labor when they are fortunate enough to find it.  Thus they do not know how to organize and fight systematically for their interests. Yet they know they are trapped; that they are facing homelessness and starvation playing by the rules; and they know if they try to make ends meet by resorting to illegal means they will be beaten down and imprisoned by the police forces of the state. 

They may not know what a credit default swap or a derivative is; but they know that only the robber barons on Wall Street can get away with economic crimes. And they know the rich are getting richer and they are getting poorer.  They are the equivalent of social dynamite building up at the base of American society, which could explode and destabilize our society. Listening to their hopes and dreams for better days ahead I am reminded of Langston Hughes’ powerful poem A Dream Deferred: “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore–and then run? Does it stink like rotten meat? Or crust and sugar over– like a syrupy sweet? Maybe it just sags like a heavy load? .Or does it explode? “

After all, these are the same class of people Dr. Franz Fanon described as “the wretched of the earth” in his seminal text on the process by which the downtrodden and docile masses rise up and destroy their oppressors. Although Fanon was looking at oppressed people in the colonial world, the disinherited in America today are almost as desperate.  The disparity in wealth between the rich and poor in America is the worst in the history of the world!!!  Yet, due to the power of right wing media – which employs highly paid fools, fops, frauds and charlatans posing as serious commentators on the news – much of the working and middle class who are being victimized by “Tea Party” politics are so confused by  disinformation they voted to put these fanatics in office.

Now these working class suckers are running round the rust belt like chickens with their heads freshly cut off trying like hell to recall them from power.  From what I am seeing and hearing as I roll with the wretched of the earth, a financial crash just now would unleash the dogs of chaos and seriously destabilize American society – I can envision food riots.  Already there is a war going on in the streets of impoverished communities, large and small, all over this country.  You hear about it riding the bus; reports from the front lines of the battle zone abound.  For instance, a thirty something white woman from a small impoverished town in upstate New York, told blood curdling tales about close friends and family who had been mugged or murdered.  She said that if she had her druthers she would get a little house out in the woods where she rarely saw anybody.

It should be said as a point of clarity however, not everybody riding the bus is tottering on the brink of disaster…just yet.  Middle class folks also travel on the big dog but they are few and far between.  Usually they are travelling short distances; like New York to Washington and Baltimore, or Richmond Virginia to Charlotte North Carolina.  Yet as their economic circumstances decline due to spreading unemployment that reduces their standard of living, middle-class travelers are showing up more and more on the bus.  Right now however, virtually all of the long distance travelers are poor folks. And they have some bizarre tales to tell as penurious strugglers in the richest society the world has ever seen. 

Many seem to be just blundering through life, with no real plan for the present and no vision for the future. Watching a young white couple in their twenties travelling with two children – one a toddler the other an infant of three weeks – I wondered what their story was.  My curiosity was sparked when I saw signs that they were loving parents on the one hand and reckless caretakers on the other.  I noticed them at a rest stop outside Baltimore.  It is the first opportunity to stretch your legs and take food and other refreshments after leaving New York on a trip south. 

Naturally the smokers, desperate to satisfy their “nicotine Jones,” scurry to the smoking areas and fire up.   I once won an award for “honesty and accuracy in drug reporting” when I was a columnist with the New York Daily News, and the medical experts I interviewed told me nicotine addiction is worse than cocaine and harder to get off than heroin.   That’s what came to mind when I saw the young mother holding her infant child on a large pillow spread over her lap as she puffed away on a cigarette; while the father blew a cloud of smoke over the infant and toddler from his stance just above their heads.  These kids had barely come into the world but their parents – upon whom they are totally dependent – were cavalierly assaulting their lungs and brains with toxic fumes. 

I wanted to take a picture of them because it would make a great illustration for an ad against subjecting young children to second hand smoke; but I felt it would be intruding on their privacy.   I reflected on the biblical adage: “Forgive them Lord for they know not what they do,” but not being religious I yearned to smack them upside the head and warn them that the destructive nature of second hand smoke, even on adults, is well established by medical science.  I wanted to tell them they are abusing their children in a particularly horrible way. If ever a picture was worth a thousand words this was it.  But I couldn’t muster the chutzpah to snap it.

When we resumed our trip the hapless parents ended up sitting on the same row as me; I took the seat next to the window so that the toddler could sit by the widow on her mother’s side, and the mother and father could occupy the aisle seats. One of the pleasures of travelling by bus – along with viewing scenes from a vanishing America and hearing “round unvarnished tales” from fellow travelers – is having long blocks of time to read.  I had begun to read a book of scholarly essays by black academics titled “Black Power In the Belly of the Beast” and the father of the clan became curious about my text.  I am fairly certain it was the title that intrigued him.  I saw him staring at the book’s cover out of the corner of my eye, and then he began to question me.  In a halting fashion that exposed his insecurity in the role of inquisitor he asked if I really enjoyed reading, where I was from and where I was going.  He seemed like he was itching to ask me what the book was about but couldn’t muster up the nerve.

When I told him I lived in New York, he said that he was from New York too…Albany New York; the capitol of the state, which seems as far away as Canada when I drove up there on business.   I told him I was from the city.  That seemed to really stoke his curiosity.  He wanted to know if I lived in the Bronx, Queens or Brooklyn.  When I told him I lived in Manhattan he sat up in his seat with a sort of wild eyed stare and asked me how much apartments were going for in Manhattan these days.  When I began to quote some of the rents I have seen posted in real estate listings lately, he seemed incredulous…as if I were describing another world far beyond his reach. 

A good old boy on his way back home to Alabama, wearing a cap with the logo of a tractor company emblazoned on its crown, turned around abruptly in his seat and asked: “You mean to tell me there’s thousands of people who can pay them kinda rents?”  Other questions about theManhattan life style followed.  The patriarch of the clan could not long resist asking what I did, what kind of job I had.  I told him I was a writer.  From the look on his face I might as well have said that I made special shoes for men on Mars.

I was somewhat wary of him in the beginning because he looked like a skin head. I know from having studied fascistic elements of the lunatic white supremacists that lurk on the ultra-right spectrum of American politics, their recruits often come from the white lumpen-proletariat.  Guys just like this dude sitting next to me.  However as he began to tell me his story I concluded that his peely head hair cut – which we use to call a “baldy scaldy” back in the day – was really determined more by his dire economic circumstances than his political ideology; which, as near as I could tell, was non-existent.   He just was trying to get the most bang for his buck, obviously a trip to the barber was no picayune affair for him. This dude put the D in desperate!  

He told me that he was going to live with his mother in Palatka Florida because there was no work in Albany New York.  I knew right off that he was in serious trouble if he was going to Palatka looking for work.  I have family in Palatka, well to-do black folks, and the last time I visited them it seemed like scenes from the 1930’s, with men in this depressed farm community standing around in the scorching Florida sun wearing overalls, in search of a day’s work.  And this was under Bill Clinton when the economy was booming – things have gone dramatically downhill since then!  As he spoke of the devastation of housing stock in the capitol of the Empire State, and the dire straits of his working class family and friends, I was reminded of the writer William Kennedy, who wrote the Pulitzer Prize winning novel Ironweed, a grim tale about the very class represented by my fellow traveler. 

When I asked him if he had ever heard of William Kennedy, he thought I was talking about a member of the famous political clan that produced a President and two Senators.  When I told him there was no relation he stared at me blankly.  I thought of the great struggle William Kennedy had getting his novel published.  He was rejected as much as thirty times I think, and I remembered his explanation as to why he persisted in trying to get the novel published; as he basked in the literary limelight after the book won the Pulitzer Prize and was made into a major motion picture starring Jack Nicholson and Merle Streep. 

Kennedy said he continued his struggle to get the novel published because he didn’t feel that the reason given for its rejection was a valid literary criticism: “Nobody wants to read about down and out white drunks inAlbanyNew York.”   However if they were relying on the subjects of the novel to read it they were right.  I’m sure the peely head patriarch had no interests in reading it after I told him of the text’s existence.  First of all he was too busy trying to survive to even consider reading a novel…especially one that told a tale he knew all to well and would only depress him further.  Talking to him I could see fear for the future of his family etched on his face.  It was reflected in the quiet panic in his eyes, as he looked languidly off at the passing country side out the window on my side of the bus.  He confessed that he had no idea what he would do if he didn’t find work in Palatka. 

As we talked he explained how he hadn’t done well in school so he dropped out and decided to go into the military, but his girlfriend got pregnant and he did the right thing and got married.  If sex is the poor man’s grand opera these two seemed to really enjoy the show.  Which is all well and good; the problem was that they seem to never have heard of birth control.  If you asked them about it I’d bet they would echo a comment I’ve heard many times before: “It just don’t feel as good using protection,” or “she forgot to take her pills.”  The hapless husband went on to explain that he had gone to a technical school to train as a diesel mechanic, but had to drop out when their daughter was born.  He says that he wants to return but can’t gain the economic stability that is a perquisite to continuing his training.  Knowing what I knew about the economic conditions in Palatka Florida, it was hard for me to conjure encouraging words. 

As we barreled down the highway deeper into the South I reflected on the thesis of Dr. William J. Wilson – my old colleague at the University of Massachusetts, who is now Professor of Social Policy at Harvard’s  Kennedy School – in his book “The Declining significance of Race.”  Although Professor Wilson suffered a great deal of abuse when he reported that race was no longer the all powerful determinant of one’s life chances in American society that it once was, these people supplied irrrefutible evidence for his claim.  

It was obvious that the education and reproductive decisions of these young white people had far more to do with their station and chances in life than their race.   As I write a new study has revealed that per capita white family wealth is 20 times that of blacks; it recently doubled. since the economic collapse.  The deck is still stacked in their favor alas, yet there are millions of Afro-Americans doing better than the white lumpen just now.  Back in the era of industrial prosperity before the Civil rights movement, this would not have been true.  For the system of segregation undergirded by an ideology of white supremacy often favored borderline white retards over black college graduates.

 *********

 Educational attainment and reproductive decisions were also critical factors in the present predicament and future life chances of Guadalupe, a young Mexican American woman who described herself as “A bitch on a mission.”  I was taken aback at her self-description, because she was quite pretty, stylishly dressed and looked like a college girl on Holiday.  She was barely twenty years old but she had a hard tale to tell.  It was, to say the least, a tangle of pathology.  She was coming from Buffalo New York, where her parents had immigrated when she was a little girl, and was by now 100% American.  I thought of the struggle her parents must have endured to make it possible for her to grow up in the Promised Land.  For as she talked it was clear that she had squandered the opportunities her parents had tried to provide. 

Guadalupe was on her way to surprise her “baby daddy” in Jacksonville Florida, where he was shacked up with another woman that he had impregnated.  It seems that she had learned his whereabouts from talking with his mother, with whom she was on good terms.  She also revealed that her guy had three other kids by three other women, and they had warrants out on him for child support.  She was undecided as to whether she would drop a dime on him to the authorities as to his whereabouts; that would depend on whether he chose her or the woman he was shacked up with inFlorida.  Here we see how the inability of people to make the right choices impact upon their chances in life.  It is also clear that abortion should remain a safe, legal and convenient choice for women. 

As “Lupe” was raised Catholic, abortion was out of the question; which is a powerful statement about the dangers of blind adherence to religious dogma.  Whatever the virtues of Catholicism, the Catholic Church is a mess when it comes to handling sexual matters.  After all, this is a church whose priest are prevented from marrying and having normal sexual relations with consenting adults, and thus routinely rape the children in their charge. While she insisted that she had no plans to fight with the other woman, whom she wisely viewed as a fellow victim of the duplicity and treachery of their Babies daddy, her plan to recruit the woman to her side as an ally against him sounded risky at best and delusional at worst. 

Yet the question that perplexed me was: “Why are you even considering getting back together with this guy?”  Here was a case where the mother and child would be far better off if the father was not in the house.  When I put this question to her point blank she said that because he was the father of her unborn child she should at least give him another chance to straighten up and fly right.  By which she meant marry her, take care of the rest of his children, and don’t “knock up anymore females.”

What was most frightening about these young people is that they are not unique.  Their stories of pathos and pathology are repeated ad infinitum among the lumpen proletariat – or the expanding American “under class” in the jargon of contemporary sociologist.  Yet in a society where the job market is so tight college grads who have made all the right choices are having a hard time finding a descent job with security and benefits: what is to become of these people with little useful education to equip them for a job and have made all the wrong decisions?

We know from the employment statistics following the recent recession, which the economist tell us by their indices has been over for two years, that it was a “jobless” recovery.   Literally millions of people who were employed when the economy tanked are still unemployed!  This is because of the changing nature of theUS economy, in which technological advances and globalization are rendering large segments of the American working class obsolete.  Hence the sustained unemployment that we are now witnessing is “structural” not “cyclical.”  This is to say that it is not caused by the forces that have resulted in periods of mass unemployment in the past, where the “boom and bust” intervals of the American capitalist business cycle were the culprit. 

In the present grim scenario the fundamental causes of unemployment are due to  changes in the structure of the American economy.  Thus the present unemployment rate will be permanent unless a new economy emerges. In order for this to occur the government must become the employer of last resort; hiring the unemployed to rebuild the American infrastructure to support a new economy.  The only person among those presently seeking the presidency who understands this is Barack Obama; yet even if he wins the coming election he will be helpless to implement his vision unless the democrats control both houses of Congress.  This is the grim reality facing American society. 

 

Speaker Boehner’s attitude is typical of Republicans

The Republicans have opted out of trying to find solutions to these monumental problems that threaten to make the US a second rate nation.  They are contemptuous of the role of government, as the present fiasco in Congress around raising the debt ceiling that threatens to plunge the economy into a deep depress demonstrates.  Having abandoned the public interests they seek to privatize everything from medical care for the elderly to the post office.  Increasingly they live in gated communities with armed private security; send their children to private schools; use private mail delivery services; employ private doctors; etc.  This model of social organization increasingly resembles the trends in Third World societies like Pakistan- where wealthy people ride around with armed guards.

Since Republicans represent the interests of the investor class – in spite of the poor white dupes that make up much of their “base” – they care not where their money is invested so long as it returns the highest interests i e. rent for the use of their money. Thus they have no interest in solving the employment crisis of the working class.  The class incidentally, who fight the nation’s endless wars started by politicians whose corporate cronies make billions servicing the war machine – the dreaded “military/industrial complex” President Eisenhower warned about in his final address to the nation. The tawdry and perhaps criminal relationship between “Dirty Dick’ Cheney, the architect of Iraq war policy, and Halliburton Industries, is a classic case in point.

 Unemployed Workers About to Become Cannon Fodder

Apocolypse Now!  From Fayetville to Afghanistan

There are two groups of passengers one is likely to meet when travelling interstate on the bus: newly released convicts and soldiers going to, or coming from, a war zone.  Both are, more often than not, victims of the ongoing crisis in the American economy. If you go through Fayetteville North Carolina you are certain to encounter Para-troopers from Fort Bragg, all of whom hail from the impoverished post industrial cities whose economies have gone from good paying manufacturing jobs to low wage service jobs for blue collar workers; or the economically devastated rural areas, where small farmers struggle to survive in a market dominated by giant agri-business corporations. That’s why the only hope I can see for solving the monumental problems facing an increasingly obsolete American working class is the Democratic Party under the leadership of a humane visionary like President Obama. 

There is absolutely no reason to be believe, based on the observable facts, that the Grand Obstructionist Party has either the will or the way to provide workable solutions to this crisis.  All they do is recite the same old bogus gospel of tax cuts for the rich as the solution for everything; they persist in this dangerous foolishness in spite of the fact that we are ten years into the massive Bush tax cuts to the rich that squandered the eight trillion dollar surplus bequeathed to them by the Clinton Administration and wrecked the economy.  Yet an abysmally ignorant electorate placed the Republicans back in Charge of the House of Representatives, which control all revenue bills, two years into the Obama Administration.  This blunder at the polls brought his sweeping measures to restore the nation’s economic health to a screeching halt.  It is eloquent testimony to the truth of Thomas Jeffersons warning: “An ignorant electorate will elect and return the worst people to power!”

 **********

It was clear that the dead end kids on the bus were almost totally oblivious to these realities – thus they are incapable of fighting for their interests.  As near as I could tell, from the questions I casually but systematically put to them about politics during rest stops and bus changes when we were watching the flat screen televisions posted on the walls around the waiting rooms and permanently tuned to CNN, they were clueless and could care less.  The one person I talked to that was surprisingly aware of the difference between the Democrats and the Republicans was a twenty something black B-Boy whom I nicknamed “Hip Hop.”  He was, by far, the most interesting character I encountered on this ride.  I met more interesting people at my destinations, but not on the bus.  Hip hop sat next to me on the way back to the Big Apple. He got on the bus in the smallGeorgiatown ofHinesvilleand was decked out in classic B-Boy gear that looked recently purchased. 

 The Hip Hop Kid

He has the intellect to be anything but no opportunity

He was vague about where he was coming from and didn’t appear to be that certain where he was going.  As I expected him to be empty headed I kept the conversation very light, blowing his mind with my analysis of the growth of Rap music and discussing the difference in lyrics, beat and flow between East and West coast rappers.  However when I pulled out a special edition of the journal “Socialism and Democracy” he was all eyes.  Billed as “The Journal of the Research Group on Socialism and Democracy,” this edition was devoted to the topic: “What is African American Studies, Its Focus, and Future. 

Edited by John H. McClendon and Yusef Nuruddin, the volume is a collection of scholarly papers which are inter-disciplinary in focus and authored by Afro-American scholars with a Marxist bent.  As I began to engage Sociologist Tony Montero’s text, The Epistemic Crisis of Afro-American Studies: A Duboisian Resolution- A dense academic essay that I approached in much the same manner that one takes cod liver oil – Hip Hop began to ask questions about it.  I cavalierly brushed him off with grunts and mumbles, making no attempt to engage him; certain that it would all be way over his head.

 I suppose Hip Hop must have peeped my game because he told me that he loved to read and announced that he had recently finished reading “The Prince,” by Machiavelli – a canonical political treatise in the western intellectual tradition.   Needless to say, I was taken aback by his claim and began to quiz him about the text.  His analysis was thoughtful and left no doubt that he had indeed read it even if he didn’t fully understand it.  Then he spoke of other weighty texts, among them Marx’s Das Kapital.  Naturally, I began to wonder where he got the inclination and leisure to do such heavy reading outside of an academic setting; especially since he had told me he didn’t go to college.  There were curious gaps in his story and the vibe I picked up from him was pure gangsta, a gorilla to his heart; the kind of guy you wanted to have your back in a knife fight.  I wanted to question him systematically and find out what he was really about.  But we both fell asleep.

When we awoke we were at Raleigh North Carolina, it was after mid-night. Raleigh is evidently a dangerous town – the guards in the station always warn passengers not to wander away from the station during layovers when we go outside for smoking breaks, and tell tales about Para-troopers stationed at Fort Bragg who have survived tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan only to be murdered by street thugs in Raleigh.  So it was not altogether surprising when Hip Hop was pulled aside by the cops and searched as we stood outside.  He was cool as an Arctic night, like he was used to the routine.  But when they left he was pissed off.  And all he wanted to talk about was the abuse of police power on our trip toRichmond Virginia. I asked him if he understood that he fit the police profile for a young male criminal?  He wasn’t trying to hear the science I was droppin and I soon fell off to sleep. 

When we reached Richmond he made a phone call, announced that he was splittin the scene, slapped me fives and disappeared into the night.  As I continued my journey to New York I could overhear the conversation of another young man decked out in hip hop gear.  He was arguing with his baby mama, instructing her to have his seven year old daughter’s things clean and packed or he would put the police on her because the Family Court inNewarkNew Jersey– a gun totin town that seems more dangerous than Baghdad– had given him full custody because of her trifling ways!  He told her that they would be leaving immediately for Miami Florida. 

The mere idea of taking the  trip to Florida back to back was exhausting.  But such is life among the lumpen.  As we pulled out of Newark heading for “The Fruit,” as hip black Philadelphians of my generation called New York City, I remained more firmly convinced than ever of two things: Marx was right, the Lumpen can’t be organized into an effective progressive force – no matter what the black Panthers say.  And the most pressing problem confronting Black Americans is to honor the ancestral imperative to stop the values of the lumpen class from obliterating the values of the “Talented Tenth;” who guided the black community through our golden age of struggle and progress and produced the tallest trees yet seen in our forest!!!!

 The Challenge for Black Americans

 Virtuosso Saxophonist, Wes “Warm Daddy” Anderson

  Shall our youths aspire to this….

 

 ………or this?

Lil Wayne: Barbarian Thug Rapper 

 

To Be or Not to Be: That is the Question! 

 

 “Vanilla Ice “Wannabe: Hip Hop Style is Embraced by All Youths

 

Uneducated country white boys are in the same boat as black urban underclass
 

 Smoke Break: The Prophet Abraham’s Joy Weed Was Everywhere 

 

 Dead End Kids: Not in the main stream and don’t give a shit!

 

 ****************

Text and Photos by: Playthell Benjamin*

On the Road in the USA

July 26; 2011

* Photo of Warm Daddy by Frank Stewart

Photo of house speaker John Boehner – Google Images

Social Fridays At The Gallery!

Posted in Cultural Matters, Travels in the New South with tags , , , on July 18, 2011 by playthell

  

 It Was Al Smiles

Promoting Culture as a Civic Religion

Social Fridays at The Gallery is the place to be if you are looking for a hip place to hang out after work in Brunswick Georgia; it’s a great way to begin the weekend.  Promoted by the progressive young entrepreneur Luke Engram – an Atlanta transplant who was tutored in the entertainment business by Dallas Austin – Atlanta showbiz mogul and Executive Producer of that marvelous film and cultural treasure on black college life and culture, “Drum Line” – Social Fridays is both a chic and culturally unique affair.  It is a reflection of the values of the best and brightest in the Afro-American community; that Brother Luke embodies those values is readily apparent in the choices he has made as to what these stylish soirées are about.

I attended one last Friday and as the program progressed I began to feel like I was in some sort of secular church, which was devoted to a fruitful marriage between culture and commerce that will take us higher as a people.  There were poets, authors, a master musician, and black entrepreneurs – both males and female. The crowd was stylish, intelligent and charming: elegant black, brown and beige beauties were everywhere!  Some pecan tans and teasing browns too.  It was a boottlious affair!  The setting seemed made to serve as the background for this smart affair; the ambiance was perfect.

The evening was filled with poetry, dramatically rendered with pathos, passion, joy and pain.  In the interludes between the Poetess’ songs we heard testimony from highly motivated positive people who are trying to do great things.  They had our rapt attention because they embody our highest hopes and dreams….”the better angels of our nature.”  People were given prizes…good books!  It was a celebration of outstanding members in our community who are neither entertainers nor athletes.  Not to disparage these noble professions in which Afro-Americans have found unparalleled success and amassed great wealth.  Yet they get more than their share of recognition in the black community, and it’s hurting us!

Although this is also true in the white community, white kids can easily identify with people in many fields of lucrative endeavor.  That’s why Afro-Americans must recognize people who are in less glamorous or exotic fields yet are doing the good work that is critical for a community to advance.  For, unless we quickly and consciously replace the wildly influential hip/hop nihilist model with an ethic that values discipline, industry and hope, we are going to experience a disaster in the very near future.  All the data shows that there will be virtually no descent jobs in America for people with less than two years of college training, yet we have record drop out rates.  Hence it is an ancestral imperative that we celebrate intelligence and the power of the mind to create a good and productive life.  That’s the over whelming message Social Fridays is designed to convey.  It epitomizes Tom Joyner’s slogan: “Party with a purpose!”

The evening was capped off with my speech on why we should work our asses off to reelect President Obama and return the House of Representatives to the Democrats.  A combination of P.T. Barnum and successful entrepreneurs everywhere, Luke has the promotional instincts and style of a carnival barker and the habits of a conservative bean counting businessman.  But he has another dimension as a cultural promoter with a genuine interest in promoting the best in Afro-American culture.  A product of the Hip/Hop generation, Luke prefers the lyrical insights and gravitas of “Common” to “Wacca Flacca;” whose non-sense lyrics and banal beats he says is driving him crazy, blaring out of loudspeakers everywhere he turns.

His fight with the ignorance and negativity that threatens to overwhelm the black underclass is out in the open.  But he also understands that the black bourgeoisie has got to pull its head out of its butt and become politically active before we look up and find that we’ve been robbed of all the gains made by working Americans – especially black folks – over the past fifty years.  That’s why he invited me to rap with them.  I viewed the opportunity as a chance to enlist some capable black folk in the fight to re-elect President Obama, by explaining to them in no uncertain terms the dimension and character of the looming catastrophe we will face should the Republicans succeed in taking over the Senate and the Presidency in the 2012 election cycle.

As is always the case when people come out expecting to party and are hit with a political speech, I recognized that some portion of the crowd – the exact or even approximate percentage being unknown to me – would be politically disengaged and even wear their ignorance of politics as a source of pride.  But political ignorance and apathy are old problems to me and represent an inviting challenge to my teaching skills; being a compulsive pedagogue I welcome the challenge. First I define the minimal essential goals I’d like to accomplish in the speech and craft a strategy to accomplish it.  No matter how eloquent and exciting the oratory: If there is no learning going on there is no teaching going on.

I wanted the audience to understand several basic things: The Republican Party represents the interests of the super-rich!  Their professed concern for working people is a lie; a purely rhetorical exercise designed to camouflage their virulent anti-working class policies.  The far right segment of the GOP is driven by the so-called “Tea Party Patriots,” who are deeply racist and are willing to shut down the government and destroy the “good faith and credit of the United States” in order to wreck the Obama Presidency.  They continue to speak of him as if he is a secret alien committed to the destruction of America when all the facts show he has presided over some of the worst crisis’ in American history with Solomonic wisdom.

My job therefore was to convince them that Republicans are irrational. They cannot govern because they hate government and are pledged to fatally wound the institution so that it will have the power to do little other than make the world safe for the rich by turning the government into one giant national security apparatus.  Thus to not support the reelection of this President and restore the House of Representatives to the Democrats is self-destructive folly!  The smart progressive audience got it: I wish all of my battles were so easy.

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

 

Pretty Georgia Peaches Were Everywhere

Styling and Profiling

Black, Brown and Beige Beauties

 

 Strutted Their Stuff

 

Competing With The Art Works

 

 For Roving Eyes

 

Some Cambodian Flava!

 Raw Like Shushi

  

High Style!

 

 A Lady Of Class

 

Queen Of the Ball!

 A Splendid Hostess

 

Hospitality Can Be An Art

The Way Alicia Does It

 

The Setting Was Spectacular!

 A Temple to Art

 

Elegantly Framed Paintings Cover The Walls

 

 Slices Of Real Life

 

Reality Cast in Black and White

 

And Shades Of Grey

 

A Magical Space Where Beautiful Birds…

 

 …Take Flight In Your Mind

 

Pulchritude and Beauty

Was Everywhere On Display

 

Brother Luke

Makes It Happen!

 

The Promoter and the Poet

 

Promoting Serious Culture

 

A Black and Tan Fantasy

 Mr. and Mrs. Luke Engram…Power Couple!

 

An Author Displays Her Text

 She Tells Poignant Tales about the Trials of Love and Marriage

 

Music Filled The Air!

  As Master Saxophonist “Travis” Made Magic Vibes

 

At the Art Downtown Gallery and Theater!

Promoter Luke Engram and Gallery Owner Lynda Dalton-Gallagher

 

It Happens One Enchanted Friday Each Month

Down Town in Beautiful Brunswick Georgia

 

If You are Ever In Brunswick on A “Social Friday”

 

 Check Brother Luke Out

 

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

Text and Photos by: Playthell  Benjamin

Brunswick Georgia

July 18, 2011

 

Some Reflections on Fatherhood

Posted in Cultural Matters on June 20, 2011 by playthell

 

 My Mother Queen Elizabeth, My Son, Me and My Daughter 1993

Song for My Father

Sorry I didn’t get a chance to know you

Alas, you danced and joined the ancestors too soon

But I know you musta been a real cool cat

Cause you ended up marrying the queen!

Sometimes I wish there really was a heaven out there

Where good folks go when the die

Cause I know I’d run into you somewhere

Talkin smack and decked out fly

I hear tell you had the gift of gab

And everybody know I talk mucho shit

So even tho I didn’t get to know you

Seems Heredity sure did it’s bit!

Folks say you was a zoot suit wearing ebony black hep cat

And moms a foxy pecan tan queen

I know yhall musta did it to death

Like Duke Ellington’s fantasy in black and tan

Yep I know for sho

Cause I done seen yhall strollin

In the cinema of my mind!

 

Of all my favorite things in this life, being a daddy is at the top of the list.  My twins, Makeda and Samori got lucky: they were raised by two parents who had both lost a parent to the grim reaper during early childhood.  Their mother lost her mother and I lost my father.  Both before we were five years old.   Hence we were devoted to providing our children with the experience of a two parent family that was denied to us.  Although our parents were heroic in their role, all children with a single parent looks at those with both parents and wonder what the experience is like.  I know that those who have decided to be single parents as a lifestyle choice – an increasingly popular phenomenon now days – don’t like to hear this.  But unless human nature has changed…it’s true.

Yesterday I heard Reverend Al Sharpton Address the question of Fatherhood at his regular Saturday morning soul session in The House Of Justice; he told a deeply moving story about the day his father left their family.  He recounted the years of agony and confusion he experienced trying to figure out why his dad had abandoned him.  Then, like a good blues singer, he ended the tale of woe on a note of triumph.  He spoke with transparent pride about receiving an honorary degree from Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Florida, and inviting his 81 year old dad to accompany him to the ceremony.

His talk brought back a flood of memories for me.  Bethune-Cookman was just up the highway from St. Augustine, and several women in my family were good friends with Mary McCloud Bethune, the Founder of the College.  Listening to Reverend Al’s story I couldn’t help but reflect upon my own.  I would give almost anything if my daddy could see me now.  Although my mom assures me that he would be as proud of me as I am of my son Samori – and that’s really saying something!

Yet I am compelled to laugh about a story my mother tells about a prediction my father made about where my future was heading on the first day I began to walk.  There was a beautiful potted plant on the window sill that I had often pointed to inquisitively.   My sister Melba, who is a little more year older, had been walking for a while but she would just walk up to the plant and stare.  The first time I walked I went straight over to the plant and conducted and experiment with the laws of gravity: I pushed the plant out of the window and it smashed on the ground!   Whereupon my father remarked: “That boy will never let things be as they are…he has come into this world to shake things up.”  I guess he’d be feeling like a prophet if he was around just now.

However, there is a point at which Al Sharpton’s story radically diverged from mine.  My daddy died, and from all I hear about the kind of husband and father he was I cannot imagine him ever leaving us short of an untimely death; he seems to have been born to the role.  My mom and dad were high school sweethearts and when my mom boarded the train from St. Augustine Florida headed for Howard university, where she would have been a high brown fly girl and probably snagged a doctor or lawyer, she stayed on board until the East Coast Champion steamed into Penn Station in Philadelphia and eloped with George Benjamin Jr.  Theirs was a Sunday Kind Of Love, not only would it last past Saturday night, but would endure unto death.

In all of my life I have never heard my mother say a bad word about him…and nobody else in the beautiful little Spanish Village of St. Augustine Florida where they grew up.  And this was a close knit community where everybody knew everybody else’s business.  If you were “doing dirt it would come out in the wash” as the old folks used to say.  People would put your business in the street: If you were living double you were in a world of trouble.  Of course, my dad left St. Augustine after high school so they knew little of his short adult life; which was over at 25.  What I know of my father as an adult I learned from my aunts, uncles, grandparents and their friends who had moved “up north” as a part of “The Great Migration” in the first half of the twentieth century.

At twenty five years old my father was a married man with two children and buying a home in a predominately Italian section of South Philadelphia.  The home was sold to them by a young Afro-American real estate broker named Lenert Roberts, who later became Paul Robeson’s liaison to the world after he went into seclusion, and my mother says they never had a moment’s troubles with their Italian neighbors.  In fact, she says afternoon at my father’s insistence she would dress up sharp and he would promenade about the neighborhood showing us off.  He had a reputation as a very proud papa among his Italian neighbors.  My mother says my sister Melba and I were his greatest treasures.

The there are the stories “Grand daddy George” my Dad’s father, and my uncles would tell about him.  My grand dad had an unorthodox approach to the English language, being born as he recalled “In the first year of freedom” and not having much formal education.  When he talked about my daddy he would say “George was the most famous boy in St. Augustine!”   Then he would tell me of my fathers’ exploits.  On story that comes to mind is when we were looking out on the San Sebastian River from the docks on Riberia Street he would say “George was such a great swimmer he could jump of this dock with the Holy Bible in his hand and float across the river to the other bank and never get a single page wet.”  He lived next door to a tennis court and was a feared tennis hustler that regularly relieved the game fellows of their coin.

Uncle Jimmy Strawder, himself an extraordinary guy that had a great influence on my life, told me about a different side of my father.  He talks about my father’s gift of gab, love of reading, and how he had an opinion about everything.  He also had an irreverent sense of humor.  Once, Uncle Jimmy recalled, he and my father were contestants in a high school talent show.  They were to perform a comedy routine but all Uncle Jimmy had been told was to just say “rubber” to every question my Daddy put to him.  So when dad asked “What stretches the farthest skin or rubber?  Uncle Jimmy said “Rubber.”  Dad said “No man skin.”  “Rubber!” insisted Uncle Jimmy.”  Whereupon Dad whipped out a Bible and said “You see Jim, the proof is right here in the Bible.  It says ‘Jesus tied his ass to a tree and walked from Jerusalem to Galilee: can’t no rubber in the world stretch that far!”  The student body cracked up, even the teachers couldn’t fully restrain their laughter.  However the stern Principal was not amused and they were expelled from school for a few days.

There are endless stories about what a sharp dresser he was, my high school home room teacher Ms. Mills, who had also taught my father, used to say “your father was such a great dresser he looked as if he had just stepped out of a band box every morning.”  It is obvious from some the things that he did early on that he thought himself someone special.  The most impressive example of this is his decision to add a middle name the first time that he earned his own money.  It was when he went off to the “CC” camp during the Great Depression.  Upon his return hr hired a lawyer to add a middle name of his invention.  Hence he was thereafter legally known as George “Chermopolese” Benjamin.   It was he that also invented my name.  Whereas I would be delighted to be known “George Benjamin III,” my Father thought George was to common a name and decided to give me a name that “would be fitting for an unusual person” according to my mother.  Hence Playthell George Benjamin came on the scene.

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

Sixty nine years later I’m still on the scene; still movin and groovin.  And I have sired the next generation, who are going strong!   So the genes of George Chermopolese Benjamin are carrying on into the future.  My mother is still alive and doing swell at 89.  There is nothing that pleases me more than when she says I am as good a daddy as my daddy was.  As far as I am concerned, talk tough and guns don’t make you a man.  It ain’t hardly got nothing to do with it in my book, as Uncle Dude used to say. And spouting militant rhetoric don’t make you a revolutionary either.  But one sure way to become a truly revolutionary black man is to marry a black woman and raise some children into good and productive citizens!

Anybody who believes that we can flourish as a community if the black family structure collapses is a dangerously deluded fool.  Just this morning I heard Rev. T. D. Jakes deliver a powerful sermon on this issue.  The statistics he recited were not pretty; especially the one about 68% of all black mothers are single at the birth of their child!   You don’t have to be a sociologist, or even know what sociology is, in order to understand that this is a disaster!   In fact, there is no society on record with such a high incidence of fatherless children!  Hence if you have sired a child out of wedlock and you are not stepping up to the plate and playing a father’s role, then you are part of the problem that plagues the black community.

I know the problems the absence of meaningful involvement in your child’s development can cause first hand.  When I was twenty years old I sired a daughter out of wed lock.  At the time I was just becoming a political radical and had declared the revolutionary cause the first priority in my life, and if I had to choose between the baby’s mother and the “revolution” I wouldn’t hesitate to choose the revolution.  Anything less would be succumbing to “bourgeois sentimentalism.”  The situation was this; my daughter’s mother wanted nothing to do with my evolving “revolutionary” politics.  However since all we asked her to do was to dress up fine and hand out leaflets to RAM – Revolutionary Action Movement – meetings along with Max Stanford’s beautiful girl friend.  The guys flocked in expecting to find a posse of beautiful ladies, but were subjected to an afternoon of indoctrination in radical political theories

And when she became pregnant – which was not supposed to happen because she was supposed to be protected – she insisted that I cut out this “revolutionary” foolishness and seek a respectable middle class career.  I refused and she split.  I refused to follow her to Florida and she married another man.  I had never see my daughter so I justified allowing her mother to make all the decisions about her life as the price demanded by the “revolution.”  I would later learn that this was a bad decision.  I felt that the fact I was willing to marry her mother was enough to satisfy my responsibility.  I would later learn that I was wrong; it was a bad decision.  Although we have a great relationship today and I will be giving her away in marriage down in a lovely little Georgia town just a few weeks from now.

A lot of people made some terrible decisions using that kind of flawed reasoning.  For instance, Leroi Jones abandoned his white wife and “black” children when he decided to switch roles from Greenwich Village poet and publisher of the white “Beat Poets” and become Imamu Amiri Baraka, Black Nationalist Revolutionary and leading light of the “Black Arts Movement.”  What I intend to say here, on this Father’s Day,” is that the crisis of the black family is such that the most manly and revolutionary thing you can do is marry a black woman and be a real father to your children!

A Great Father!

 Magic Moments

This is How You Do it!

 A Joy Like None Other

 It’s About Family

 There Is No Greater Love

 

 Parenting: I Love every Moment Of It!

 This is why simple minded leftist ideologues, like Comrade Dix of the Revolutionary communist Party, who attack President Obama for speaking out to black American men about the responsibilities of fatherhood, are badly misguided.  In his discussion of the subject last Saturday morning, Rev Sharpton said that Father’s Day” was not established to honor guys who just make babies the wander on off.  He recounted the history of this holiday and pointed out that this day was for the fathers who stayed with their children and successfully negotiated the trials and tribulations that come with raising black children in America.  Finally, Rev Al said the other guys, the one’s who make babies all over the place like wild dogs, should have a national sperm donor day, because that’s all they are!

My Children All Grown Up!

Makeda: Sports Scientist, Track Athlete, Professional Dancer

Samori: Sportswriter, Broadcaster/Producer/former two Sport Athlete

Interviewing Hall Of Fame Yankee Reggie Jackson

Sandra: My Senior Daughter.  Poet, Playwright, Director Costume Designer, Singer

Congratulating one of her young performers after a successful show

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

Playthell Benjamin

Father’s Day 2011

Harlem, New York

Message From The Grass Roots!

Posted in Cultural Matters, Playthell on politics with tags , , , on June 13, 2011 by playthell

Sharpton Walks with the High and Mighty…Yet Retains the Common Touch

 

 Keeping it Real!

Last Saturday morning, I attended the regular weekly meeting of the National Action Network, an organization headed by the dynamic Reverend Al Sharpton.  Headquarted in the heart of Harlem, its meeting hall is just up the block from where my son Samori learned to play the game of baseball in the Harlem Little League on Saturday mornings.  The distinguished Harlem writer, editor, and  teacher Herb Boyd was one the his earliest coaches that taught him to play the game – now Samori is writing an important book about the disappearance of African American athletes in Major League baseball.  The National Action Movement’s headquarters is also just a hop skip and jump from the world renowned Dance Theater of Harlem, The Schomburg Research Center for Black Culture, and the Harlem School of the Arts.

This is an area of New York City where important things are happening; where seeds are being planted that will grow into strong fruitful trees and beautiful flowers.  With the proper motivation and cultivation they regularly sprout up from the grass roots.  And it is here, deep in the grass roots, that Rev. Al has cast his anchor.  NAN’s headquarters is unpretentious, a store front with a nice size auditorium that can hold a few hundred people.  There is a loudspeaker out front so that people waiting to catch the cross town bus, or getting off at that stop, cannot help but hear the speeches inside.

I wasn’t quite sure where the building was because the last time I had been to a NAN meeting they were still over on 5th Avenue.  But it was no matter; from the moment I stepped off the bus at Lennox Avenue I could hear the sound of Rev. Al’s voice, marked by soaring triumphal rhetoric and sermonic cadences.  I had tried to be there at 9 o-clock when the meeting started, but it appeared that the forces of nature had intervened to prevent it.

By the time I eased into the auditorium Rev was fired up and going into his out chorus.  As I sat and listened I was immediately struck by how much the meeting had the ambiance of a church service, a Pentecostal Holiness church.  It reminded me of my Grandfather’s church when I was a boy in Florida, except back then people wore their “Sunday go to meeting” clothes. Given the fact that most places in town were off limits to us due to the system of racial segregation, they didn’t have a lot of occasions to get dressed up.

This crowd was casually dressed for the most part.  But as in my grandfather’s church it was alright to make a joyful noise unto the Lord.  The NAN even had a small band.  And our group rendition of “Amazing Grace,” accompanied by the band at the end of the meeting, was so moving you could feel the spirits of the people being uplifted and fortified. This is what’s missing from the program of the intellectual left.

Interestingly enough, Cornell West pointed this out when he wrote that the white left lacked “dynamic orality.”  Here we had an embarrassment of riches.  When the Reverend Al Sharpton takes to the podium, holding forth in an oratorical tradition that is the most dynamic in the world, he cajoles, charms, instructs, and finally commands the audience.  By now, after a career as a public orator that started when he was the “Wonder Boy Preacher” – footage of which was shown on the recent CBS 60 Minute Feature – Sharpton is a seasoned pro at the art of oratory, and a master of the Afro-American sermonic tradition.

The great Poet, lawyer, cultural critic, and freedom fighter James Weldon Johnson said black American preachers have “all the devices of eloquence at their command.” This is good description of Rev. Sharpton on the podium.  Like a great singer, he can carry the audience wherever he wants to take them.  Where he took them on this occasion was to higher ground; a belief that there is a better future on the horizon if we continue to struggle.

Rev Al In Full Effect!

His oratory has the power to inspire, uplift and move people to action

Many in attendance were people who needed to hear this message because they live in the hood and are witnessing the devastation caused by the Great Recession brought on by eight years of Republican mismanagement of the economy.  For them this trial is not a theoretical abstraction, induced by reading statistics, but a living reality and daily tribulation.  Rev. Al is right there to hear their fears, hopes and dreams, and he gets an earful.  The poor and powerless know who to call if they are victimized by the powerful, especially the police power of the state. Hence when he is confronted by armchair revolutionaries spouting abstractions; talking crazy, like there’s some alternative to reelecting Barack Obama and the Democrats, Rev has little patience with their sanctimonious drivel.

Sharpton, like everybody I know who is actually on the front lines of the struggle witnessing the increasingly Darwinian struggle for bread among the working class, and battling the attempts by Republican officials to destroy the labor unions that give them power and dignity in the work place, has little patience with the public temper tantrums and philosophical Jeremiads of megalomaniacal professors, militant poseurs who dwell in the posh precincts of far away Whitelandia.  That’s why he and Cornel West nearly came to blows on the Recent “Black Agenda Special.”  Cornel West takes the position that nobody in the Black community wants to criticize President Obama; so he figures its left to him to set things right.

Well, the fact that Cornel thinks that is an indication of just how far out of touch he is with what goes on in the hood.  But what worries Rev. Sharpton – and this writer too – is the subjective, picayune and often silly nature of his comments. I’m sure Rev. Sharpton would have little objection to anyone criticizing the President if it’s justified.  And if Cornell and the Ivy League Gang would just preface their criticism with a simple declaration: “There is no acceptable alternative to voting for President Obama and returning the Congress to the Democrats, because a Republican victory would be an unmitigated disaster!”  Then the criticism could take on a constructive character; right now alas, it is irresponsible and dangerously destructive. On that point me and the Reverend see eye to eye.

This was not always so.  My first Pulitzer Prize nomination was for a 8,000 word cover story in the Village Voice that was highly critical of Rev. Sharpton’s actions around the Tawana Brawley affair.  At that time I thought him an unrepentant charlatan and said so in no uncertain terms.  However as I watched him grow over the years my opinion of the Reverend changed.  The turning point for me came when Al was stabbed by a white racist while leading a peaceful March in Brooklyn.  Outraged Black and Puerto Rican New Yorkers were ready to burn this city down; one inflammatory word from Rev. Al and the city would have been thrown into chaos.  But as he lay wounded in his hospital bed he called for calm and reconciliation, preventing riots from breaking out.  There would be many other good works and struggles on the part of the Reverend that won my support, but that’s when I began to view him differently.

What I came to see was that when the least among us needed a place to turn in order to get justice from the high and mighty, it was always Rev. Al who came to the rescue.  They feel that they have a friend and ally in him, somebody who will argue their cause in the court of public opinion and help them find legal Counsel to argue their case in court. He refused to be intimidated by charges of “race hustler” by racists who wanted to violate the rights of black people through violence and discrimination with impunity – people eho wanted to shut him up because  their dirty deeds could not stand the light of day.

Often times it was only the intervention of Rev. Al that brought the injustice to light.  Hence by any calculation the good that Rev. has done far outweighs the “Evil” that reporter Wayne Barrett continued to carp about in the recent CBS 60 Minute feature story on Sharpton.  I have decided to flip the script of Marc Anthony’s speech in Julius Caesar, and let the good live on while the evil be buried in the dustbin of history.  After all, there are people who are guilty of crimes like squandering the nation’s blood and treasure committing mass murder – Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, George Bush, Codolezza Rice, et al and from the look of things just now it appears that I am not alone in reaching this decision.  Reverend Sharpton has become a major player in national politics, with enough clout to summon the President to speak at his rally.

Although he is a welcome, even courted, figure among the high and mighty, completely at home in the corridors of power, he yet retains the common touch.  This was all too obvious last Saturday, as the folks from the hood went up and shook his hand after the meeting, just before he went off to meet with a group of teenagers.  To him he was their friend, Reverend Al, a friend in good times and bad.  The reason that President Obama listens to Al Sharpton rather than Cornell West when he wants to know what working and unemployed people are thinking is simple.  His choice was influenced by his stint as an urban community organizer in Chicago; he knows the insights one gains into those with little wealth or power- and are therefore voiceless in the corridors of power – when you are down in the trenches struggling with them to solve serious problems.   On the one hand he will be getting the pompous speculations of a bourgeois academic with no credentials as a policy wonk, and on the other he is getting a message from the grass roots!

A Genuine Man Of the People

 

Bustin a move with the God Father Of Soul!


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

** Playthell Benjamin

Harlem New York

June 13, 2011

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