Archive for the Guest Commentators Category

Dr. Lateef’s Spirit Dances with Ancestors

Posted in Cultural Matters, Guest Commentators, Music Reviews on December 25, 2013 by playthell

yuseflateef6_300

 The Master with his Horn

The Legendary Musician and Composer Steps off at 93

          At the close of his autobiography, Yusef A. Lateef, the renowned musician, composer, and Grammy Award-winning recording artist wrote, “My life has been a series of ‘warm receptions,’ and, after a while, it becomes difficult to separate them, to determine which was most rewarding and heartwarming.”  Lateef’s thousands of admirers will ponder now about which of his concerts and recordings were most rewarding for them in his highly productive life.  Lateef, 93, died Monday morning at his home in Amherst, Massachusetts.

Lateef, a versatile artist of global influence, made his transition peacefully, according to his wife, Ayesha Lateef.

“My dear husband was himself an extension of warmth and love towards others,” his wife said. “He saw every human being with the utmost value and respect. He approached all of us as he did his music, with enthusiasm, imagination and longevity.”

While Lateef chose to define his music as autophysiopsychic, that is, “music from one’s physical, mental and spiritual self,” his critics and fans heard him as the embodiment of jazz and the blues, and that expressive quality, however termed, placed him among the finest performers and composers of his generation.

A Hard Swinging Tenor Man!
Yusef II
Blues and the Abstract Truth

Born William Emmanuel Huddleston on Oct. 9, 1920 in Chattanooga, Tenn., he moved with his family to Detroit in 1925, settling in the heart of the city’s storied Paradise Valley.   It was about this time that his father—for an unknown reason—changed their surname to Evans.

Paradise Valley was basically the entertainment enclave of “Black Bottom,” where the city’s black population was centered, and where William Evans (he changed his name to Yusef Lateef in 1948 and became a member of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community and for the rest of his life he remained a devout Ahmadi Muslim fulfilling requirements including the lesser and greater pilgrimage to Mecca) was immersed in a vibrant culture where a profusion of music was part of the daily routine.

He introduced Exotic New Instruments….
 Yusef Lateef-flute-bmboo
To the Art of Jazz
And made them sing the Blues
YUSEF LATEEF - Basson And Swang them too!

At Miller High School, he fell under the tutelage of John Cabrera and joined such illustrious future jazz immortals as Milt Jackson.  But it was a local saxophonist, Lorenzo Lawson, who most impressed and influenced him to set aside the oboe and drums and focus on the tenor saxophone.

Soon, he was so proficient that he had the first chair in Matthew Rucker’s Band, and given the band’s prominence, Lateef’s reputation reached across the city and all the way to Chicago where he was now a member of Lucky Millinder’s big band.  In 1948, along with his adoption of Islam, he joined the Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra, which included an array of world class musicians such as James Moody, J.J. Johnson, Ray Brown, Kenny Clarke, and the amazing Cuban conga drummer Chano Pozo.

Diz, Chano Pozo and James Moody
Dizzy and Chano pozo
Playing Rebopped Cubops!

By 1951, Lateef was back in Detroit with his first wife Sadie, a daughter Iqbal and a son Rasheed.  In no time at all he was back in the swing of things performing with a number of groups and at several of the top clubs in town.  Among the stellar leaders who requested his presence was guitarist Kenny Burrell.  When bassist Alvin Jackson, Milt’s brother, assembled a quartet, Lateef was featured on tenor saxophone and flute, which he had begun studying at the Larry Teal School of Music.  The group, including pianist Barry Harris and trombonist Kiane Zawadi (Bernard McKinney) was the house band at the Blue Bird Inn, a legendary jazz spot on Detroit’s Westside.

The Joint was Really Jumpin!
blue bird inn It’s what’s inside that Counts

Lateef was fronting his own ensemble by 1954 and began a five-year stint at Klein’s Show Bar.   Now with a steady gig he had to relinquish his job at Chrysler.  With Hugh Lawson (and sometimes Terry Pollard) on piano; Curtis Fuller on trombone; Ernie Farrow on bass; and Louis Hayes on drums; for two years the band worked six nights a week and became one of the most popular groups in the city.  So popular, in fact, that jazz writers began to spread the word.  They were extended a contract by Ozzie Cadena, a producer at Savoy Records, and their first album was “Jazz Mood.”  A succession of albums would follow, alternately between Savoy and the Prestige labels, and it was during this phase that Lateef was able to introduce an assortment of unusual instruments normally heard in various ethnic cultures.

“Where one relaxes on the axis of the wheel of life”
Cannonball Adderly
Great Virtuosos like Cannonball Adderly anointed audiences in Detroit’s clubs

From a veritable academy of musicians who were in and out of his ensemble during the nights at Klein’s, Lateef sharpened his musical knowledge which was bolstered even further by the classes he took at Wayne State University.  But by 1959, he was ready for a new scene.  “I had done about all I could in the realm of music in Detroit,” he wrote.  “There was a scarcity of clubs during this period and to make ends meet I took a part-time job unloading banana trucks. Whether you were a writer, painter, or a musician, it wasn’t a good time to be in the city.”

The Big Apple was the only option for him and by the early sixties Lateef was a regular at jam sessions, recordings, and concert dates with such notables as John Coltrane, Charlie Mingus, percussionist Babatunde Olatunji, and numerous homeboys such as Lonnie Hillyer, Donald Byrd, and Sonny Red.  But Lateef’s stature grew exponentially during his tenure with Cannonball Adderley’s band, and it provided him with additional experience to form his own ensemble by 1965.

Yusef and Cannonball
cannonball-with-yusef-lateef Masters of the Horns: Original voices on Alto and Tenor Saxes

Holding a band together while attending the Manhattan School of Music was challenging, but Lateef was equal to the task, earning his master’s degree and continuing to record at a phenomenal pace.  Under contract at Atlantic Records where producer Joel Dorn gave Lateef the latitude he needed to express the full extent of his artistry.  His “Gentle Giant,” recorded in 1971 was among his most memorable dates and featured bassist Bob Cunningham, drummer Tootie Heath, and pianist Kenny Barron.

Nothing was more eventful for him in the early seventies than his meeting and marriage to Tahira at Chicago State University.  Winning her hand and defending his dissertation were momentous occasions and the birth of his son, Yusef in 1975, completed a trifecta of jubilation.

From 1975 to 1980, Dr. Lateef studied in Africa, mainly in Nigeria where he undertook the mastery of the Fulani flute.  In addition to his research and teaching obligations, he was commissioned by the government to compose a symphony and to write a book based on his research.  Seeking new musical spheres after Africa, he embarked on a series of concert dates with Eternal Wind, an advanced group of younger musicians that included Charles Moore, Frederico Ramos, Ralph “Buzzy” Jones, and Adam Rudolph.   “Yusef was so open and accessible,” Rudolph recalled during a recent interview.  “There was always this love, peace and freedom about him.  And you could feel all of this through his music, which defined him in the same as Picasso’s art or Miles Davis’s music defined them.  We’re evolutionists, he would tell us and we have to keep on stepping.”

Invisible Wind
Eternal Wind
The Vehicle through which Yusef produced autophysiopsychic Sounds

 And stepping Dr. Lateef did, thanks to Eternal Wind and the tireless Rudolph.  Even so, there was time for teaching and composing, to say nothing of his other artistic ventures into writing and painting, and running his record and publishing company, FANA Music.

His beloved wife Tahira passed in 2009, Dr. Lateef later remarried  Ayesha, and his final days were as fruitful and productive as ever, and he leaves a remarkable legacy of cultural achievements.

“I daily and nightly thank Allah for continuing to bless me and to allow me to bring love, peace and joy to the world,” he wrote.  And that love, peace and joy resonates with all the conviction his formidable talent could command, and all we have to do is to listen to his music.

Dr. Lateef  is survived by wife Ayesha, his son also named Yusef Lateef, his grand-daughter Iqbal, and great grandchildren.  Funeral arrangements are in the planning stages.

The Master Sonic Alchemist left a healing sound….
Yusef images (2)

………A Gift that keeps on Giving

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

To watch Ahmad Jamal and Yusef Lateef
 Double Click on this link

http://youtu.be/X8DGIqgRF7Q

To Hear Yusef Perform “Stella by Starlight”
Double Click On Link Below

 http://youtu.be/X__EJMqQn5Q

By Herb Boyd

Special to Commentaries on the Times

A Post Racial America…Really?

Posted in Cultural Matters, Guest Commentators on December 12, 2013 by playthell

Barack Obama and First Lady

 The Huxtables are in the White House ….and All is Well

  Separating Myth from Reality

 In 2013 we have Barack Obama, a two-term African American President, hundreds of other black men and women elected to state and local offices, and a country that officially celebrates Black History Month. Even more, no white official would dare publicly use a racist slur. As a result, our intellectuals, our historians, and our media are all on board with a consistent message: “We live in a post-racial America.”

 Well, maybe. Bill Keller, who served for eight years as executive editor of The New York Times, and is the author of a children’s book on Nelson Mandela, recently wrote the Sunday Times Book Review of Books front page essay on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book The Bully Pulpit, which examines Presidents Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. Keller extolled them as “politicians of stature and conscience.”  Really?  As Presidents neither made any serious effort to improve race relations or protect minorities from violence. Neither challenged the forces promulgating segregation, discrimination and lynching.

 The America of Roosevelt and Taft
 lynching Bee
 A Southern Carnival

Though their Republican Party controlled the House and Senate from 1900 to 1910, neither Roosevelt nor Taft paid more than lip service to Lincoln’s “new birth of freedom.” Neither enforced the 13th, 14th, or 15th Amendments that promised former slaves liberty, justice, and equality. Neither challenged “the new slavery”—the debt-peonage, sharecropping, and convict lease systems that ground down millions in the South.  Roosevelt spoke as a proud champion of “the Anglo Saxon race,” and urged his people to embrace “the clear instinct for race selfishness.” He advocated imperialism with the claim, “It is wholly impossible to avoid conflicts with the weaker races.”

Roosevelt and Taft vigorously courted southern “lily-white” members of both parties. During an era of weekly southern lynching carnivals, Roosevelt told a black audience the “rapists and criminals” among them “did more harm to their race than any white man can possibly do them.”

In 1909 President Taft told African American college graduates in North Carolina: “Your race is meant to be a race of farmers, first, last and for all times.” Taft had the distinction of being the first Republican presidential candidate to campaign in the South. He announced he would never enforce “social equality” and told black audiences that the white southern man was their “best friend.”   People of color could find little comfort, justice or even safety during the age of Roosevelt and Taft.

But this is a different time, and we as a nation wish to move toward “a more perfect union,” to follow the Constitution, and embrace its promises. Why then do some intelligent people still manage to distort our past to send a wrong message? Perhaps they do so because lying about the past makes it easier to dissemble about the present. As Richard Cohen wrote in the Washington Post in November:

 

“Today’s G.O.P. is not racist, as Harry Belafonte alleged about the Tea Party, but it is deeply troubled—about the expansion of government, about immigration, about secularism, about the mainstreaming of what used to be the avant-garde. People with conventional views must repress a gag reflex when considering the mayor-elect of New York—a white man married to a black woman and with two biracial children. (Should I mention that Bill de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, used to be a lesbian?) This family represents the cultural changes that have enveloped parts—but not all—of America. To cultural conservatives, this doesn’t look like their country at all.”

The Tea Ain’t Party Racist Dicky C?
 Tea Party Racism III

Really Dicky?

 Tea Party Racism

 If the Tea Party ain’t Racist……

 Tea Party Racism II

 Eggs aint poultry, Grits ain’t groceries…and Mona Lisa was a Man!

 Sadly, just as Cohen believes we are post-racial, modern influencers such as Keller would have us believe that Taft and Roosevelt were also not racist—they were simply Presidents who advocated for policies that would ensure that “traditional” values would continue to rule. Never mind that many of those values had racial animosity at their core. We can’t move toward the fulfillment of the Constitution—for the common good—if we either continue to see the past through a racial revisionist lens, or continue to misconstrue the racism in our present.

It might be more accurate to state some white American die-hards can’t help but choose to live in a post-Mandela world. While they may celebrate his courage and achievements in the abstract, they cannot fully digest this brave South African who sacrificed his freedom and life for a world where people of all races, ethnicities, and kinds will try to live in peace and harmony.

 ***************

William Katz
New York City
December 12, 2-13

Afro-American Jazz and Black South Africans

Posted in Cultural Matters, Guest Commentators, Music Reviews with tags , , on August 19, 2013 by playthell

 Hugh Masekela

Hugh Masakela: A South African Original

 

 On the Transformative Power of Black Jazz

Growing Up in Mantzi I have been Fortunate enough to come from a Township of Soweto that in the early sixties and all the way to the rule of the ANC had electricity and telephones in our community.  Why is this important?  I grew up with uncles who were playing 78 rpm dicks on a gramophone, and we gradually upgraded to what was called Pilot FM radio (big and huge like caskets which contained a turntable and a FM radio.  Eventually we came to be exposed to Hi Fi systems in the late 1960’s and 70’s and graduated to more sophisticated name brands like Marantz and the like.

Music was the driving force in the evolution and American Jazz was one of the most powerful influences that we were exposed to.  Our elders, uncles and big brothers collected all of the great artist such as Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and all the seminal figures Playthell Benjamin cites in his essay “Wynton Marsalis and the Great American Art, as the produced this music. And we sought to get in their favor by our recognition and approval of the importance of their treasure troves of LP vinyl Jazz albums.

Furthermore, we were living amongst musicians who played Jazz and formed big bands here in Mzantsi; we were also imbibing a lot of South African Jazz that embodied all the diversity characteristic of South Africa in its sound.  As we grew older we extended our listening and appreciation of the music by forming Jazz Clubs in the late Sixties whilst still in high school.

Our weekends were spent getting together bring new vinyl recordings we might have bought on Friday, and sample it with other members.  If they could not identify the record one was made Jazz Appreciation King for the day and it lasted the entire week until we met again.  Exposure to American Jazz was very important for us and it affirmed and solidified our beliefs that we were not mere “Kaffirs” (niggers) who were backward in all we did or were – African American Jazz told us, that those who looked like us, that those who looked like us, were the best in the world in this art form.

The Great Edward Kennedy “Duke Ellington”
Duke+Ellington - paragon of elegance 
Composer, Pianist, Bandleader, Paragon of Male Elegance
Dollar Brand
Dollar Brand
South African Pianist, Composer

This told us too, that we are the better people in the world, just from the Jazz perspective.  We imbibed art forms and so forth from our African American brothers, but Jazz was paramount in entrenching and embedding beliefs about ourselves.   Some of us went as far as to walk, talk, and dress like our Afro-American brothers.  Others named themselves accordingly.

As we became more mature and refined in our understanding of the wide world of Jazz, we began to travel overseas to Jazz concerts all over the states, Canada and Europe.  This expanded our horizons beyond the brutal apartheid world of South Africa.  We became well marinated in the Jazz Milieu, which knew no national boundaries because of the recording industry.  What has all this to do with Wynton Marsalis, the subject of Playthell’s recent essay?  Everything!

Playthell’s analysis of the heroic role of Wynton in the advancement of Jazz as a vibrant art form supports the fledgling arguments of those among us here in South Africa, who have been insisting that Wynton has advanced Jazz beyond what the hard core Jazz classist here in Mzantsi think of a real Jazz, in fact they insisted that Wynton was not playing Jazz at all.

Wynton Marsalis

0827969262023
The Most Versatile Trumpeter in the World

I think the fact that he came from the Baroque side of classical music was lost to these detractors here for they knew nothing about the fact that Wynton had become the Master Jazz/Trumpeter /Composer/Innovator of the art and literally lifted and elevated Jazz into the 21st century.  They just couldn’t wrap their minds around that fact.

I also suspect that they have lost touch with what Wynton was doing and saying, and hung on to the old ways of understanding Jazz.  Wynton blew some of us away when he merged modern Jazz with African drummers on the same stage.  We were amazed and fascinated as we watched his rehearsal sessions with these Africans, especially the way that he was able to show the similarities and the origins of Jazz as an African art form.

Conducting the performance of Congo Square
DSC_0224
The Lincoln Center never witnessed anything like it!

Soul to Soul

DSC_0444

The Rhythmic circle remains unbroken

DSC_0106

The drum choir blended perfectly with the band

This edified us and lifted our long held beliefs that the music we were listening to called Jazz had melodic signatures which can be found in our own traditional songs and Jazz music here in Mantzsti.  Playthell’s essay “Wynton Marsalis and the Great American Art,” is for me and Jazz Aficionados of kindred spirit, is so filled with erudite analysis about the art of Jazz and Wynton’s role in preserving and advancing the best of the tradition, that I feel compelled to post it on all the African sites I have access to.

There are some pretentious self- proclaimed Jazz gurus and avid fans who cannot accept anything new in Jazz.  Not since Babatunde Olatunji took his “Drums of Passion” orchestra to Carnegie Hall – industrialist Andrew Carnegie’s gift to New York City and the art of music –has anyone achieved that.  Wynton, however, took it a step further; many levels higher in fact, by merging both ensembles – African American musicians and a choir of African master drummers – on the same stage as part of one group.  To me it was one of the things Wynton did that silenced the howling jazz dinosaurs in the Appreciators here in Mzantsi.

THE GOAT

DSC_0250 

 Greatest of All Times!

I concur with all that Playthell wrote about Wynton Marsalis….and then some.  I have learned so much from reading this article that I immediately went over to my collection of Wynton’s records and have been following on some nuggets he doled/dropped in the essay.   This kind of study will upgrade one’s understanding, appreciation and listening skills; enabling you to better grasp the techniques Wynton is employing to make such marvelous music.  I am happy to have found Playthell’s article, for it confirmed what we had long believed.   Jazz is an African art form and it resonates loudly with us here in Mzantsi and wherever it is played.

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

Double Click to see Dollar Brand 

http://youtu.be/FSPq4AZ2GAI

Double click to see Dollar Brand in a clearer video

http://youtu.be/UcBHhkw8_fQ

Click to see Hugh Masakela  perform tribute to Mandela

http://youtu.be/h9JTuaC-x2Q

Double Click to see Wynton conduct Congo Square with Orchestra and African drums 

http://youtu.be/sKmaWqKV5aA

Double Click to hear the Winston “Mankunzu” Ngozi Quartet

http://youtu.be/Rt-rlAHEE0M

 

Skhokho Sa Tlou

Mzantsi, South Africa

August 19, 2013

 ** All Photos of Wynton and Congo Square Concert 

by: Frank Stewart, official photographer for JALC

Reflections on the Zimmerman Trial

Posted in Guest Commentators, The Travon Martin Trial with tags , , on July 20, 2013 by playthell
  Trayvon Benjamin Martin 
Trayvon-Martin-2 Murdered for being a Black Male in America

 A Commentary on the Slaughter of Innocence

 The Trayvon Martin murder case has created a national outcry, while generating a critical conversation on race and gun violence in America. This case is a reflection of the nation’s true racial identity and society’s every shifting posture on acceptable gun violence.

Racial elements cut through every facet of this case, fostering the many assumptions that were made beginning with George Zimmerman’s racial profiling of an innocent black 17 year old on his way home from a Skittles run and the value he put on that young life because of the assumptions he made.

The assumptions continued at the Sanford Police Department, which from the beginning saw young Trayvon as the suspect and George Zimmerman as the victim. A police department that accepted Zimmerman’s portrayal of this violent black youth that fit the images they already carried. A police department that buoyed by that acceptance failed to do their job and conducted no real investigation of the actual crime, the fatal shooting of a 17-year old boy.

No forensics were gathered from the obvious suspect, George Zimmerman. There was no examination of Zimmerman’s clothes, or hands; no toxicology report and no medical examination to determine the true extent of his injuries. This was perhaps the worst criminal investigation since the “good ole days” when in certain parts of this country, Florida included, whites murdered blacks with impunity and without fear of the law, which was always expected to turn away. How far we have come?

“Trayvon Martin Could Have Been Me 35 Years Ago”

Barak Chillin

Does he look like a criminal to many whites?

These same racial assumptions permeated the District Attorney’s office as a decision was made that no charges whatsoever should be made against George Zimmerman, a decision that would never have been made had Trayvon been white and Zimmerman black. It is interesting that when defense attorney West was asked if things would have been different if Trayvon had been white, he chose to ignore that question and rather respond to his belief on what would have happened if Zimmerman had been black.  And no one associated with the trial on either side asked the question the President raised on Friday: “Would Trayvon have been justified in shooting Mr. Zimmerman because he felt threatened because he was following him?”

The Prosecution Dropped the Ball

The Prosecuter

 They didn’t ask the obvious questions

When after great public outcry a special prosecutor was appointed resulting in the indictment of George Zimmerman and his consequential trial, race continued to play its role in the selection of a jury which contained not even one black person.

During the trial in order to extricate their client the defense painted a picture of young Trayvon Martin as an angry black man, physically superior to the defendant, who with little provocation attacked George Zimmerman and beat him to a point where he so feared for his very life that his only recourse was to shoot and kill him.

The prosecution failed to convince the jury otherwise, partly because of their own failed strategy, but largely due to the racial stereotype this jury had to subscribe to in order to accept Zimmerman’s version of what happened in spite of the series of lies and inconsistencies in the Zimmerman story exposed by the prosecution.

The reality is, despite a black man rising to the Presidency of the United States, and the countless examples of black men doing great things in this society, there remains a deep seeded image of the black thug, a basic criminalization of the majority of black males by many whites who do not see themselves as racist and who outwardly are not. This image has substantiated by the unbalanced incarceration of black males nationwide and the images commonly seen on the nightly news, and those projected by Hollywood and a gangsta hip hop culture that permeates our airwaves.

Interestingly the Treyvon Martin case is also perhaps the most profound gun violence in recent history. Yes Newtown, Aurora and Ft. Hood were all tragic with greater loss of life, but what is unique about this case is that it is the only gun violence case where the loss of innocent life has been socially justified. It is the only case where the rights of the killer were held above the rights of the victim; where the law gave more protection to the killer than to the victim.

A law advocated by the NRA which seems to be hell bent on creating an America where every citizen has a right, no a duty to carry a gun and to evoke their God given and Constitutional right to vigilantism. Are we to literally digress to the days of the OK Corral where the citizenry along with officers of the law were regularly engaged in shootouts in the streets?  And why?  Liberty? Second Amendment Rights?  No, just increased gun sales, as the NRA now represents gun manufacturers far more than they do gun owners.

One must be struck by the poise and graciousness demonstrated by the parents of Trayvon Martin. Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton have exhibited true Christianity and instead of revenge have sought only justice and even now instead of hatred, offer George Zimmerman prayer.

Their wish is that Trayvon’s memory not be tarnished by violence, but honored by change, a change in attitudes, a change in the laws that would allow such a legal travesty to follow the tragedy of the death of their son. They seek the type of change best represented by the group led by “Dream Defenders” that now protest at the Florida State Capitol Building with a clear agenda for change!

This spirit for change, this demand for change must spread throughout the nation. State to state and to Washington’s doorstep where real gun reform must finally be addressed and Democrats and Republicans alike must see through the veil and challenge The NRA’s real agenda and their vision for America.

We as a nation must now sympathize with Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton whose wish is that their son should not have died in vain and that we all benefit and move to taking what steps we may towards eradicating racism and gun violence in America.

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

 By: Kwaku Leon Saunders

Atlanta, Georgia

July 20, 2013

The Obama’s Address Black Graduates

Posted in Cultural Matters, Guest Commentators with tags on June 1, 2013 by playthell

President-Barack-Obama-Morehouse-College-2013-Joi-Pearson-Photography-2-RO

Three Wise Men: A Great Moment

 Stressing the Virtues of Education and Family

Both President Barack Obama and First Lady Michele Obama chose to give commencement addresses at historically black colleges.  The President spoke at Morehouse College and the First Lady addressed the graduates at Bowie State University.  Presidents and First Ladies are bombarded with requests to speak at commencements and the selection of historically black colleges and the messages conveyed dramatizes the symbolic significance of having a black family in the White House.

In Michele Obama’s commencement address to the Bowie graduates, she was critical of a certain aspect of black culture that is anti-intellectual.  The First Lady mentioned that the notion of a black child with a book was behaving white and was counter-productive.  She encouraged the graduates to struggle against that kind of negativity and stressed how vital it was for a higher percentage of members of the black community to be attending college.

President Obama in his Morehouse address highlighted the need to break the cycle of broken families.  He mentioned that even though his mother as a single parent was heroic and his maternal grandparents paid an important role in his upbringing, he regretted the absence of a father in his life.  The President of the United States revealingly stated that on his death bed, he would not be thinking about the legislation that was passed during his presidency but the quiet moments that he spent with his wife and his two daughters.

Barack and his Beloved Girls!
barack_obama
A Quintessential Family Man

There is an unquestionable thirst in the black community for higher education.  Prior to the democratization of higher education in America around the 1970s, the black historical colleges like Bowie, Morehouse, Spelman, Howard and Fisk played the predominant role in giving African-Americans access to higher education.  During those years, Caribbean students benefited from the existence of these black historical colleges.  Institutions like Howard University were instrumental in providing Caribbean scholars, like Eric Williams, the necessary education that made them into historical trail-blazing figures.

Our brilliant First Lady

imagesCA5C1MGT Telling the truth and inspiring the youths

The First Lady is correct that a greater number of African-Americans need to attend college but despite the rising cost of higher education those numbers have been growing.  For students graduating with associate degrees in 1999-2000, there were 60,221 and by 2009 to 2010, that figure increased to 113,905 which amounted to 10.9 percent of the associate degrees conferred in that year.

For the four year degree, from 1999 to 2000, 108,013 African-Americans completed the course and from 2009 to 2010, that figure was 164,844.  That latter figure amounted to 9.0 percent of the bachelors degree conferred during that period.  From the vantage point of gender from 1999 to 2000, 69.6 percent of the degrees conferred were females and from 2009 to2010 that percentage was 60.7 percent.

Traditionally, black enrollment on the graduate level tends to fall off precipitously but that has changed.  In the 1999-2000 period, 36,696 master’s degrees were conferred on African-Americans.   By 2009 to 2010, there was remarkable growth as 76,468 master’s degrees were conferred amounting to 12.5 percent of the distribution.  Again, one sees the potency of the black female that from a gender perspective in the latter years, 71.1 percent of master’s degrees were conferred on black women.

Julius Nyerere was fond of stating in respect to the Third World and the First World “While they walk, we must run”.  In the world of higher education, black men are not marking time but black women are outpacing them.

The President and the First Lady were stressing the importance of higher education as its acquisition has become nigh indispensable in competing in the increasingly competitive labor market.  The American economy has become more high-tech and low-tech jobs are either disappearing or do not pay a living wage to raise a family.

The Bureau of Labor statistics provides us with the data that correlates education to weekly income and to unemployment.  The higher the level of education, the less likely that an individual will be unemployed; the unemployment rate for a high school drop-out is 12.4 percent and average weekly wage is $471.00.  For a high school graduate, the rate of unemployment is above the average at 8.3 percent.  A college graduate had an unemployment rate of 4.5 percent and aweekly earnings of $1,066.00.  With education the chances of a worker earning a living wage is greatly enhanced.

Neither the President nor the First Lady addressed the troubling issue of stagnation of wages and the severe problem of inequality.  The graduates have been exhorted to further humanize American society. If Bowie and Morehouse educated their graduates properly, they will know the “civil rights” struggle of their generation is to put the Genie of inequality back into the bottle so more Americans, educated or uneducated, can achieve the American dream.

***********

Dr. Basil Wilson

Queens, New York

June 1, 2o13

Our Oracle Shuts the Door

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

Achebe Elder

The peerless scribe and Master Teacher at work

 A Brief Tribute to Professor Chinua Achebe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Father of a Tradition

Achebe III

 He set the standard for African Novelist

 ****************

Jekwu Anyaegbuna

03/26/2013

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

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

Jamaica Against the World!

Posted in Guest Commentators, On Foreign Affairs on May 2, 2013 by playthell

imagesCASFDWU2

Cheering their Olympic Champions in Kingston

The Budget Debate: Austerity or Stimulus?

The world economy fell apart in Fall 2008 and five years after the crunching collapse of financial markets, the world economy is still struggling to gather new momentum.  The European Union opted for austerity and found itself in a double- dip recession.  Greece had to be bailed out by the European Central Bank.  There are signs of recovery in Ireland but Italy and Spain, inundated with sovereign debt, are struggling to find a growth path to prosperity. The debate all over Europe is whether the austerity measures have exacerbated the economic crisis or would stimulus economics be a more appropriate path to economic recovery.

David Cameron, Prime Minister of Britain and leader of the Conservative Party, opted for austerity and as a consequence Britain stumbled into a double-dip recession.  Cameron is too wedded to austerity to shift gears despite the dismal results of this policy.  His poll numbers have plummeted and it will take a miracle for the Conservative Party to remain in office when the British electorate votes to determine who should govern and who should occupy the opposition benches.

Germany has the most powerful economy in Europe and German economic policy has had to factor in the impact on the German electorate as well as its obligation to rescue the floundering and weaker economies of Europe.  Chancellor Merkel faces re-election in the Fall and her re-election will be pivotal to the nature of the economic recovery program that will be pursued in Europe.

The major cause of the collapse of the world financial markets stemmed from the irresponsible speculation and greed in the US that became the culture of Wall Street.  In a de-regulated environment, Wall Street investment companies abandoned sound investment practices, over-leveraged, and once the housing bubble in the United States was punctured, the financial house of cards came crushing down, taking the world economy in its wake.  It is worth noting that a plethora of serious crimes were committed in this financial fiasco, for which no one has gone to jail.

Yet the American economy has fared much better than its counterpart in Europe.  The stock market has returned to the levels of 2008 and the housing sector, stimulated by low interest rates, has recovered.  Nonetheless, the recovery has been far from robust and unemployment remains disturbingly high.  The debate in the United States has been similar to the debate taking place in Europe.  The Republican Party has been clamoring for austerity as personified by the recently adopted sequestration budgetary reduction.

The Democratic Party and President Obama prefer a more delicate balance, raising taxes to reduce the deficit and the debt but investing in research, development and human capital to ensure future growth. The American governmental system is more complicated than anything that exists in Western Europe and the divisions in the legislature have led to policy paralysis.

The drivers of the world economy for the most part are the BRIC countries, Brazil, Russia, India and China.  China has been for the last couple of decades the world’s fastest growing economy.  The growth rate of the Chinese economy has hovered around 10 percent.  In the last quarter, the Chinese economy has slowed to approximately 7 percent of GDP as China seeks to expand domestic consumption and to become less reliant on export markets.

In the world of track and field, Jamaica towers above the rest of the world.  As in the last Olympic Games and the recently concluded Penn Relays, Jamaica is a gargantuan force but in the world of international economics, Jamaica is readily trampled by the elephants.  The debate involving austerity vs stimulus is very much germane to Jamaica’s budgetary process.

 

The Fastest Relay Team in the World!
Led by Ussain Bolt: The Fastest Man in the World
 
Dr. Peter Phillips

images

Jamaican Minister of Finance

That budgetary process got underway in April when the Minister of Finance, Dr. Peter Phillips, presented his Budget 2013-2014 before the Jamaican Parliament.  For decades, Jamaica has not been able to get its economic act together.  GDP growth has been a rarity, rather than the norm.  Irrespective of the political party, the country’s finances have been out of whack.  At this juncture, the debt burden amounts to 140 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.  The design of the Minister of Finance is to reduce that debt burden by 2020 to 95 percent of GDP.

Jamaica finds itself in a terrible bind. The level of inequality is so pronounced that the social order is exceedingly brittle.  Property and violent crimes are too high and labor productivity has been inexplicably low.  During the years of the Jamaica Labour Party, 2007-2001, an economic agreement was signed with the International Monetary Fund. The Golding administration failed to achieve the benchmark measures set by the IMF and simply walked away from the agreement. A new agreement has been signed by the PNP government, and they will have to adhere to the strict measures of austerity in fiscal matters demanded by the agreement.

This is a historic moment for Dr. Peter Phillips.  His previous counterparts, Dr. Omar Davies for the PNP and Mr. Audley Shaw for the JLP failed to extricate the Jamaican economy from the debt trap and to expand production in the economy.  Dr. Phillips has held a series of previous portfolios but this is the most critical undertaking.  Jamaica cannot continue indefinitely to be a basket case in the world’s economy.

Portia Miller
The Jamaican Prime Minister

A series of reforms have been undertaken. Success can be measured on a yearly basis.  Paradoxically, Dr. Peter Phillips, who failed in his challenge to Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller for the leadership of the PNP, will now determine the success or failure of the Portia Simpson Miller administration.

The Prime Minister and her Minister of Finance
 
Once Rivals…they will sink or Swim together

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

Dr. Basil Wilson

New York City

May 2, 2013

A South African Judges Catholicism

Posted in Cultural Matters, Guest Commentators, On Foreign Affairs with tags , , , on March 16, 2013 by playthell
At the Alter
Conducting the Liturgy in Cape Town

Conjuring Up Bitter Memories

The White i.e. European world is still hung up on pigmentation, and the cobwebs of racism have not been cut off and dislodged from their collective psyche. Thus the choosing of a Pope from Africa is not about to happen, soon. I see them here of the Roman Catholic faith immersed into its symbolism and culture. There is this one Roman church here in Orlando. It has been there, and I found it there when I was born. It was only active in the community in as far as it can recruit its pious members.  As a child I was taken there by my aunt along with my cousins.

We could not help but observe how the members after receiving sacrament had liquor smell on their breaths. Or how they would walk in ‘holy solemnity’ after ingesting the dry and round morsel of bread(I think), and their lips moistened with the wine, that then you could see that these holy parishioners had just returned from heaven, the way they looked, hands clasped on their chest, walking ramrod-straight-like, and their eyes ogling at the White Mary and small Jesus, and Jesus statues with an open palm showing blood, and others, hoisted on the wall above in the cathedral-like church, that we were always left wondering what is happening.

A Catholic Mass In Soweto

safrica-catholic service in soweto

Indoctrinating the Children in Catholic Dogma

I do not belong to any church, but have my Mtundu (an alter we make for the ancestors), with its candle, snuff and specific cloths for the main ancestors in the pantheon of the ancestors according to our family lineage/tradition. We light a candle, spill some mixture of water and mealy meal, and sprinkle snuff for them to eat and some snuff to smoke.

Afterwards, having called them according to their seniority to last one who died most recently, we talk and tell them of our problems and plight and intone them to help us get ahead. This is what my grandma has taught me, and I have learnt even much more than the basic practice I am just describing over the years.

Now, the thing about it is that the very transformed members who ate the sacrament, when they get home, they take out their drums and jump into their traditional ancestral dress and call on the spirits and interact with them, in order to get instruction who to do about some cultural sacred rites to appease and satisfy and communicate with their ancestors for whatever outcome these acts will bring them – hopefully success and the like..

Venerating the Ancestors
xhosa0004 Xhosa women in South African performing ritual Dance

What I am saying is that the appointment of a Pope from South America is going to have a damaging effect on the membership that is now dwindling and then this is helping foist rising force that is the Islamic religion here in South Africa. People are poor and they complain that these Churches, Anglican, Lutheran, Roman, Methodist and the rest of them are fleecing them penniless, and so people are going with the Religion of Islam, because they provide grocery and comfort and support, instead of asking for ‘tithes’ as is done in the aforementioned Churches.

Islam is Growing among Black South Africans!

Muslims-in-South-Africa

A Harbinger of more Muslim/Christian Conflict?

The appointment of the Pope is coinciding with the Churches I have mentioned (the Roman Church in Particular, is going down in membership and relevance. The youth are worse. But, having said that, they will follow the Pope, whatever shape of form the doctrine will be decided by the parish, I think that making Africa irrelevant was a big mistake, because, as I am onto this piece here, one can see and witness the cracks and splits that are occurring, and my take is that Africans will continue to evolve and revolve the church until, like the Anglican Church of Africa, had to break with the Church of England at one point.

The Anglican Church in Africa is now run by Africans, and is called The Anglican Church of Africa.  It is divided into several different African countries, and most are named-according to the name of the country where they are based.  They are also called Anglican Church, African Episcopal Church, of Africa- very close to and reminiscent of the naming of the churches in America by African Americans in the late 18th century, as in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Or Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

My take of all this is that the African people here in Mzantsi, having left and leaving the churches.  They are headed to traditional healers, some fly-by-night churches and others in African Traditional churches; which are receiving many African peoples into their ranks and are burgeoning with in-coming recruits from the “traditional” Christian Churches mentioned above. As you say, the Catholic Bishops settled for a descendant of their former enslavers and colonialists of Argentina (Falkland War comes to mind), that the Papal’ocracy is a farce for me.

It will not change anything with the appointment of this new Pope, because what is happening to their Roman Church base in Africa may be beyond their power to reverse. I still talk and do the sacred practices and rites to and for my ancestors the way I was taught by my Grandma. I know many more people are now practicing this part of our culture and spirituality from the way families are now doing things – which may vary from family to family – but they retain the same protocol and form.

This is the religious double vision they will have to reckon with. The Roman church and other such-like religious institutions have introduced gambling, and is in cahoots with the gambling dens and their Moguls, that are sprouting all over the South African landscape. They bussed and are still bussing thousands of their members to these gamble caverns, start by giving them some paltry money to gamble when they reach the fleecing dens; the rest they will have to cough-out of their own cash in order to continue gambling.

  A South African Gambling Palace

A South African Casino

The Catholic Church is Good for Business!

People have now become addicted and are loosing huge sums of money/houses and jobs; yet there is still no one addressing this insidious odious affair. What the church is doing, is to constantly rebuild and renovate established buildings and their old church buildings over the years. The folks around them are poor, and the children who go to their schools are made to pay exorbitant fees.

So that, honestly looking at the arrival of the new Pope, I do not see any changes for the better in the African Roman churches here in South Africa, except those in the White Suburbs-well, that’s another long story. This is what we see happening and then some, here in Mzantsi… I do not see an African Pope coming in the next distant horizon, and the Roman Church here in South Africa, is not doing that very well, and this has been going on now for many decades.

Basilica of Our Lady Of Peace:  An African Vatican?

African Basilica

Yes! If African Catholics Follow the Example of Anglicans
 

And they Won’t Have to Look Far for a Pope!

African Prelate III

Take you Choice: Cardinals Frances Arinde and Peter Appiah Turkson

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

 SkhoKho SaTlou

South Africa

March 15, 2012 

 

I’M ROOTING FOR TOMMY L. JONES!

Posted in Film Criticism, Guest Commentators, Movie Reviews with tags , , , , , , on February 24, 2013 by playthell
     Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens                 Tommie Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens

 Lincoln Resurrects “The Great Commoner”

I’m rooting for Tommy Lee Jones to win an Oscar for his riveting performance as Congressman Thaddeus Stevens in Lincoln. Full disclosure: as an historian my hope is this might focus important attention on Stevens. This flamboyant Congressman (and his lashing tongue) had gained enormous name recognition in his time, but it was not the kind a mother wants for her famous son.

Until the modern civil rights movement those who wrote US history took a stick to Stevens.  He didn’t care. By the time he died in 1868 he had earned the appreciation of millions of slaves he helped free, and further admiration as “the father of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments.” But until Tommy Lee Jones donned the man’s grim look, sharp wit, bulky swagger and advanced racial views, Stevens faced a thrashing in classrooms, textbooks and movies.

In 1915 Hollywood’s first blockbuster, Birth of A Nation, sought to humiliate Stevens — barely disguised as “Congressman Austin Stoneman.” Never has the media so venomously portrayed a US elected official. The film has Stevens ruining the South by elevating ignorant former slaves to high office.

A Poster Valorizing the Ku Klux Klan
A Birth of Nation imagesCARPE2T6 The Precursor to Nazi film “Triumph of the Will”

This in turn, the script continues, encourages African American officials [played by white actors in black face], to rape white women. In the final scenes the Ku Klux Klan rides in to save white womanhood and Christian civilization. Half a century after his death, this movie was still kicking the man for a good deal of its three hours and ten minutes. Its scenes also bury the fact that the south’s real rapists during and after slavery were planters who held whips and guns as well as public office.

To make its tale believable Birth of A Nation was given a documentary look, a stamp of historical truth and the endorsement of President Woodrow Wilson who called it “history written in lightening.” Wilson was quoted in the film prasing “a great Ku Klux Klan, a venerable empire of the South, to protect the Southern country.”

For decades as the movie made a staggering $50,000,000, millions of men, women and children learned to hate Black people and cheer the KKK. Its debut in Atlanta Georgia jump-started the huge KKK of the 1920s which grew to 4,000,000 members. It took an NAACP national protest to remove a scene showing Klansmen castrating a Black man.

Stevens fared marginally better in Tennessee Johnson where the famous Lionel Barrymore portrayed a malicious politician plotting to destroy the South and white supremacy. Then a heroic President Andrew Johnson [Van Heflin] restores “home rule.” [Note: this was during the war against Nazi racism.]

As the 1915 silent epic and the 1942 feature film captivated audiences, our leading scholars road the same bandwagon. Echoing his profession’s view, Pulitzer Prize historian James Truslow Adams called Stevens “perhaps the most despicable, malevolent, and morally deformed character who has risen to high power in America.”

It is true that Thaddeus Stevens unleashed nasty, hateful invective on slaveholders, ridiculed incompetents, and relentlessly elbowed a cautious Lincoln toward emancipation. However, in 1861 the new President was not “The Great Emancipator.” His First Inaugural announced he would sign an Amendment [the original “13th”] that would make slavery permanent.

In office he steadfastly refused to propose emancipation for his first 17 months. When he first announced his Proclamation, it was a statement he planned to issue a formal declaration on January 1, 1863, and only as a war measure. Given the President’s sorry record and fondness for compromise, Stevens, other abolitionists and people of color had every reason to worry there might be a slip from the cup to the lip.

Thaddeus Stevens: Radical Republican

Thaddeus_Stevens_-_Brady-Handy-crop

The Great Commoner

 Stevens fast walked a different path: “There can be no fanatics in defense of genuine liberty.” He did not shrink from hazardous combat against the Fugitive Slave Law and defiantly turned his law office into an Underground Railroad station. When a band of armed slave runaways in nearby Christiana opened fire on a slaveholder posse led by a US Marshall, Pennsylvania’s most famous attorney volunteered for their defense and won acquittal for the arrested.

Even Stevens’s fiery attacks on slaveholders came with some risk. Twice on the House floor he had to fend off Bowie knife wielding southern colleagues. As abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner sat at his Senate desk South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks beat him senseless with his heavy cane. Sumner never completely recovered and slaveholders praised Brooks.

From his birth in 1792 in Vermont Thaddeus Stevens lived with adversity. His father Joshua was an alcoholic shoemaker unable to hold a job so the family struggled. Then when Joshua disappeared never to return his mother Sally had to pick up the pieces. Resourceful, energetic and determined to see her four boys educated, she paid family bills through long, grueling work as a maid and housekeeper.

Thaddeus also stepped into life with a clubfoot when society saw this as a Devil’s curse, a sign of mental depravity. From an early age he learned how to battle people who derided him, think for himself and stick to his guns. His own fight with irrational hate may have opened his heart to others society classified as lesser humans.

Stevens graduated with a law degree from Dartmouth College, and opened a law office in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. His fortunes changed when he bought a Pennsylvania iron works and a Forge, and invested in farmland. He was elected to the state senate just as the legislature voted down an education bill because it raised taxes to aid poor families.

Stevens stormed into the fight with this argument: “the blessing of education shall be conferred on every son of Pennsylvania, shall be carried home to the poorest child of the poorest inhabitant of the meanest hut of your mountains, so that even he may be prepared to act well his part in this land of freedom, and lay on earth a broad and solid foundation for that enduring knowledge which goes on increasing through increasing eternity.”

His speech led to passage of the state’s education law and made him “the father of public education in Pennsylvania.”

In 1848 Thaddeus was elected to Congress raring to fight the “slaveocracy.” He was also drawn to issues of economic injustice. In 1852 he opposed employers who sought to “get cheap labor” by lowering American workers’ wages to European levels, and by using under paid women laborers. Such efforts, he insisted, keep “the laboring classes [with] scarcely enough to feed and clothe them . . . [and] nothing to bestow on the education of their children.”

In 1853 Stevens had to return to his law office in Lancaster to pay business debts of over a quarter million dollars. But in 1859 he returned as a Republican Congressman. When it was far from popular he denounced bigotry, spoke in defense of Native Americans, Jews, Mormons, Chinese, and women’s rights.  And he intensified his crusade against the slaveholder aristocracy.

Lydia Hamilton Smith

Lydia Hamliton Smith -

Thaddeus Steven’s Common Law Wife

Stevens had never married and since 1848 shared his large Lancaster home with Lydia Hamilton Smith, an African American, and her two sons from a previous marriage. While he and Mrs. Smith considered their relationship a common law marriage, his foes saw coarse degeneracy. He refused to publicly explain what he considered a private matter. His will left Mrs. Smith enough money to purchase the family home and live in comfort. Birth of A Nation has Mrs. Smith, played by a pudgy white actor who greets news of Lincoln’s assassination with a dance and shout: “You are now the most powerful in the United States.”

Despite his differences with the President, Stevens forged a respectful alliance with the politician he came to call “the purest man in America.” As chairman of the Ways and Means Committee his control of the war’s finances made him the most powerful member of the House. Lincoln held the power to make emancipation permanent.

The two needed each other. In the 2012 movie Lincoln Stevens is cast as the radical whom Lincoln must tame to insure passage of the 13thAmendment. This is Hollywood drama. The ardent abolitionist was as shrewd a politician as Lincoln, and needed no persuasion to support his life’s goal.

Fawn Brodie, Stevens admiring biographer, calls him “the scourge of the South.” But Stevens’ harsh, lacerating tongue speared Congressional incompetents as well as pro-slavery southerners and northerners. He could reduce political foes to gibbering self-doubt.

During the pivotal Gettysburg campaign in 1863, a Confederate Army rode out to kill him. Confederate Major General Jubal Early detoured his Army of Northern Virginia from Gettysburg to Stevens’ iron works at today’s Caledonia State Park. Unable to find him, “hang him on the spot and divide his bones,” Early ordered his men to burn everything, and steal his horses, mules, grain and iron bars. Stevens had to borrow money to rebuild.

Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation brought the two men together. Stevens called it “a page in the history of the world whose brightness shall eclipse all the records of heroes and of sages.”Now “this Republic . . . [could] become immortal.” The two now marched down the same road, Stevens, as always, at a quicker pace.

As the war’s casualties passed half a million and its cost soared to four billion dollars, Stevens’ concern turned to those who bore the greatest burdens — “the poor widow, the suffering soldier, the wounded martyr to his country’s good.” He denounced the new draft law that allowed a rich man to hire a substitute for $300 – and which led to four days of rioting among the poor in New York City. As real wages fell and business profits rose, he denounced bankers [whom he never liked] and “war profiteers.”

Tommy Lee Jones Gave a Riveting Performance

TommyLeeJones

Bravo!

In vain Stevens and his Committee tried to prevent northern manufacturers from selling the government useless rifles and damaged goods at inflated prices. He wished “no injury to any, but if any must lose, let it not be the soldier, the mechanic, the laborer and the farmer.”

Stevens explored new directions. He welcomed the liberation of Russia’s serfs as a step toward world freedom. He encouraged a women’s delegation to hasten their drive for the suffrage. When Napoleon III of France made Emperor Maximilian his puppet ruler of Mexico, Stevens urged Congress to aid and provide loans to Mexico’s Indian President Benito Juarez.

As he grew older friends called Stevens “The Great Commoner.” He asked to be remembered as one who tried “to ameliorate the condition of the poor, the lowly, the downtrodden of every race and language and color.” He said, “I have done what I deemed best for humanity. It is easy to protect the interests of the rich and powerful. But it is a great labor to protect the interests of the poor and downtrodden.” His enemies said he betrayed his country and his race, and often his class.

For Stevens and the United States everything changed when the assassination of President Lincoln brought Andrew Johnson to the White House. A poor white scornful of African Americans, he envied and worked to restore the power of the South’s planter class.  Stevens plan for “a radical reorganization in southern institutions, habits and manners” led to repeated clashes. Stevens also faced a Republican party increasingly dominated by northern business interests who valued trade relations with former slaveholders not the new Constitutional Amendments.

Stevens failed to bring justice, equality and a fair distribution of land and power to the South. But Stevens knew his and other abolitionist prodding led to Lincoln voicing his support for voting rights for Black soldiers and educated Black males.

Yes, Stevens can be faulted for his truculent manner, for believing he could defeat his foes’ economic and political influence, and for seriously underestimating racism’s grip nationwide. He fought to have the black and white poor own land, attend school, vote and enjoy equal rights. Though this proved to be an unfulfilled dream, he could not be faulted for his effort. It would require another century, other, younger dreamers both African American and white.

In death Stevens affirmed his goals. His coffin was carried to the Capitol by an honor guard of five African American and three white soldiers. He had asked to be buried in the one Lancaster cemetery open to all races. His grave stone bore his own epitaph: ”I repose in this quiet and secluded spot not from any natural preference for solitude, but finding other cemeteries limited as to race by charter rules, I chosen this that I might illustrate in my death the principles which I advocated through a long life: equality of man before his Creator.”

Yes, Tommy Lee Jones deserves an Academy Award!

And Thaddeus Stevens deserves a full hearing!

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

 

William Loren Katz

New York City

February 24, 2013

**William Loren Katz is the author of Black Indians: A Hidden Heritage, and forty other books on African American history. His website is: www.williamlkatz.com

“Ice the Motherfuckers!”

Posted in Film Criticism, Guest Commentators, Movie Reviews with tags , , , , , , , on February 10, 2013 by playthell
django_jpg_CROP_rectangle3-large
Jamie Fox as Django

 Tarrantino tells a Round Unvarnished Tale

My wife and I, after several days of serious debate, decided we’d venture out and check out “Django Unchained.” Our curiosity had been thoroughly whetted and there was enough controversy to lure even the most reluctant public intellectual.  We also decided that we’d see it at the Magic Johnson Theater in the heart of Harlem, where we knew the audience would be almost exclusively African American.

 We arrived late and had to settle for seats toward the front of the theater but not exactly where you have to look up at the screen and leave the show with a crook in your neck.  Even before the film began the chatter was underway, and you know how Black patrons, particularly the young and restless ones, like to talk back to the screen.

 As a kind of preview of the rap to come, two women who arrived even later than we did carried on a conversation across the theater as they struggled to find seats near each other. “Come on ovah here,” one of them called.  “Dere two seats and maybe this gentleman will move ovah and let us sit together.”  The gentleman did and the woman, armed with the biggest container of popcorn imaginable, a huge drink, and heaven only knows what else, excused herself down the aisle and clumped down next to her friend.

“Ain’t we kinda close?” I thought I heard her ask her friend.

“Yeah, but dese was the only seats left, plus we up close to the action,” she answered.

It didn’t take long for the action to unfurl from Quentin Tarantino’s script and under his direction.  The first scenes and the music cued the Spaghetti Western motif we’d heard about and my mind went hurtling back to the Sergio’s of the past—both Corbucci and Leone—and that was a good sign because I totally enjoyed those films, particularly “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” and it was hard to think anyone could get any uglier than Eli Wallach, yellow teeth and all.

A coffle of shuffling slaves immediately grabbed your attention, the whelps the size of ropes on their back; like those scarring the back of Caesar who is depicted in so many history books about slavery.  Later, we will see them tattooed on the back of Broomhilda (Kerry Washington).  One of the slaves chained together is Django (Jamie Foxx) and it’s a set piece that introduces Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) who comes out of the wilderness like a snake oil salesman on his buckboard concoction that reminded me of the first scene of Marlene Dietrich as the gypsy woman in “Golden Earrings,” which should give you an unmistakable clue to my age since I saw it long before it got to TCM.

I’ve heard that Tarantino is a real film buff but I doubt if he knew anything about that old movie, though I wouldn’t be surprised given the similarity to the haunting love story his film and the old movie have in common.  Right away you knew this was not going to be a friendly encounter since Schultz is singularly concerned in purchasing one of the slaves.  Most disconcertingly amusing about the exchange between Schultz and the white slave traders is Schultz’s language,“Among your company, I’m led to believe,” Schultz begins, “there is a specimen I hope to acquire.”

His words would not have been any more astonishing had he uttered: “Whither thou goest with those disheveled souls?”  The tone and terminology of the request is as funny as it is deadly earnest and at its conclusion we have the first spilling of the buckets of blood that will make this one of the goriest flicks since, well, Tarantino’s “Inglorious Bastards.”

Having properly exterminated the traders, the slaves are left to their own devices and Django, like a bewildered Tonto, rides off with Schultz. After they kill the sheriff in a town they are passing through, viewers get a gander at the narrative theme and you wonder how the two of them will possibly wiggle out of a very desperate situation in a town without pity.

 To mollify an angry posse of marauders with lynching on their minds, Schultz approaches them and unsheathes a paper indicating that the sheriff was really wanted for murder and that he had every right to capture him dead or alive.   It was an incredible ruse but effective and it would be their modus operandi as they traveled from dry gulches to the snow-laden, freezing terrain of Wyoming, or somewhere in the chilly West.  They were bounty hunters unchained and as they rode across the prairie I was expecting Count Basie’s band to pop up as it did in “Blazing Saddles.”

    The Basie Band in Blazing Saddles

blazing-saddles-image

  A Surreal Scene

The first half of the film is Schultz and Django as serial killers; mainly Django seems to be along for the ride until he drops his quest on Schultz that in exchange for continuing service they take time out to rescue his wife from a Simon Legree-like plantation owner.  Aha! Now we have the subplot presented and it resembles one of the oldest of Western clichés—rescuing the damsel in distress, only this time it’s not the Durango Kid its Django the man!  (Remember John Wayne in “The Sundowners”?)

 Bad Men doing the Lawd’s Work
Django-Unchained-10 Their Murder and Mayhem is Therapeutic to the Audience

 But another thing occurs when Django tags along with Schultz.  Foxx is far less a traveling companion than he was with Tom Cruise in Michael Mann’s 2004 film “Collateral.”  While the carnage in Mann’s film is vintage Tarantino, Foxx the taxi driver is held hostage by Cruise the hit man, who takes him along on his rampage.

 When they arrive at Candie Land, named for its master Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), its reminiscent of those panoramic, long shot scenes from “Gone With the Wind,” with slaves scattered about in forced labor in cotton fields and other duties.  But it was their confrontation with Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) the HNIC and the beloved house Negro, the proverbial Uncle Tom in all his nastiness that is most commanding.  Jackson has said of the portrayal as one of “the most despicable characters in cinematic history.”  And he takes the fawning, sycophantic groveling right down to the last “yassuh.”  It brought to mind that famous passage from one of Malcolm X’s speeches about the master and his house Negro.

    Samuel L. Jackson as
Samuel L Jackson
 The Stereotypical “House Negro”

 “If the master’s house caught on fire, the house Negro would fight harder to put out the blaze than the master would,” Malcolm said from his “Message to the Grass Roots.” “If the master got sick, the house Negro would say ‘What’s the matter, boss, we sick?’ We sick!  He identified himself with his master, more than the master identified with himself.” Now the audience in the theater had another enemy, someone to hiss at and deride.

Much of the remaining action happens in the Big House where we meet such extras as Franco Nero, the original Django who has a brief conversation with the other Django over a drink at the bar, though the subtleties of their exchange probably meant little to the average movie-goer.  It was a nice little touch much in the same way that Richard Roundtree has a cameo role in John Singleton’s redux of Shaft, starring Samuel L. Jackson.

But after some rather tame chit-chat the gratuitous violence approaches its apex, with a fight between slaves as a preface.  With a possible nod to today’s ultimate fight events, two muscular Black men tear into each other in a battle royal.  Aha!  Is this Tarantino’s “Mandingo” moment?  Again, I was transported back to the novels and subsequent films based on the books by Kyle Onstott, especially “Drum,” and “Mandingo.”

 World Heavy-Weight Champion Kenny Norton
mandingo1_thumbnail A Scene from Mandingo

Historians will certainly have a field day on the veracity of this fight, much in the same way they debated whether there were actually slave-breeding plantations.  If the scene had taken place outdoors it could have come straight from Cecil Brown’s novel The Life and Loves of Mr. Jiveass Nigger. In this book the fight is cast in a folkloristic manner, conjuring the Trickster trope.

When the less than formidable Efan, faced with a gigantic opponent named Kocomo, walks over to the carriage and slaps Miss Ann, his opponent takes off running down the road; believing that any Black man who slaps a white woman in the state of Georgia in front of her husband and his master is more than he wants to deal with.  It’s a hilarious moment without the bloodshed that results from Tarantino’s combatants.

Intrigue enters the film when Stephen begins to suspect that Broomhilda and Django know each other.  He’s absolutely right and the marks of the branding on their cheeks is a dead give-away, though Stephen doesn’t seem to be aware of it.  This is perhaps his way of toying with her or Tarantino’s idea of creating a dynamic interplay between contending elements of Black culture.

The shootout at O.K. Corral pales in comparison to the slaughter in the Big House, and the carnage soon reaches a point of inane excessiveness.  But vengeance is mine sayeth Tarantino and “Reservoir Dogs,” “Kill Bill,” and “Pulp Fiction,” are merely dry runs for the blood and gore at Candie Land.  Even so, there’s a quick instance of laughter when Candie’s sister is killed.

She is blown from the scene like something out of “Poltergeist,” suddenly as if snatched from the room.  The audience almost laughed as loud as when Stephen got his comeuppance or when Django took the whip from an overseer or slave driver and administered his own vicious lashes.  “Whup the motherfucker!” someone cried in the theater setting off a chain reaction of the phrase.

In this moment of retribution I recalled the passage from Frederick Douglass’s autobiography when he was no longer going to take any more abuse from Covey the slave-breaker.  For nearly two hours Douglass and Covey fought each other and finally Covey had to concede he was defeated.  Douglass wrote:  “The battle with Mr. Covey was the turning point in my career as a slave. It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood.”  This, among hundreds of others, is the film we’re waiting for.

With bodies strewn all over the place (and the only thing more excessive is the N-word), Django’s revenge is partially fulfilled; however, there’s still the man who threatened to relieve him of his private parts as he was suspended upside down in a barn; there was still the quest to rescue Broomhilda, who, for the most part was little more than a Pauline tied to the railroad tracks waiting for her prince to come.

Okay, the ending was predictable but at least it was a Black hero riding off into the sunset with his wife, and you’ll notice she is armed with a rifle as if now ready to be an agent of her own liberation.  There is a moonwalk from Django’s horse and the two lovers are off to the sequel, huh?

Well, we don’t need another Tarantino film to remind us of what needs to be done cinematically.  “Django Unchained” is, overall, a mixture of Spaghetti Western, blaxploitation, satire, slave narrative, lampoon, send-up, and fairy tale, as my wife concluded.  No, it wasn’t a history lesson, just pure entertainment.  But the question is: have we, as a people, reached a level of progress and tolerance to laugh at the horrific moments of our past?

The Beautiful Kerry Washington

Kerry-Washington-Django-Unchained 

 Django’s Wife…The face that launched a slaughter

 Probably not, despite the hilarity from the audience, because so much of the past is still with us.  There’s too much mass incarceration of Blacks and the author Michelle Alexander has noted that we have more Black men and women in correctional control than were in bondage in 1850, about the time period of the film’s depiction.

Too many Black men stopped and frisked, harking back to the slave codes and Jim Crow laws; too much police brutality almost equal to the beatings administered by overseers patrolling the plantations.   Other ethnic groups may be able to enjoy their troubled past, but there is not enough variety of our experiences in popular culture, too few films of merit or worthy television shows for us to relax and laugh at our torture and oppression.

There is no way we can stop the Tarantino and others from mining the richness or the grotesque aspects of our culture, particularly when he is aided and abetted by Foxx, Jackson, Washington, and producer Reggie Hudlin.  So, what’s to be done?  The only real answer is for us to make our own films; films that begin to depict and articulate the glorious struggle we’ve waged for total freedom and liberation.  We have the resources and the talent, but the will doesn’t seem to be there.

It may take another generation or two before we’re completely “unchained” and ready to tell our own magnificent story where Douglass, Tubman, Robeson, Truth, and others can recount what they endured and overcome without interference from those with the wherewithal but a different agenda.

Meanwhile, “Whup, the motherfucker!!!”

 Leonardo di Capprio as the Sadistic Slave Master

dicaprio_django_unchained

 He projects the decadence and pure evil of American Slavery

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

By Herb Boyd

Special to Commentaries on the Times

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