Archive for the Travels in the New South Category

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!

 

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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

 

Springtime In The Magic City

Posted in Cultural Matters, Photo-Essays, Travels in the New South with tags , on April 24, 2010 by playthell

 Dusk falls on Miami as the sound of Jazz fills the air 

 The Ladies At Jazz In The Gardens!

Fine Like Vintage Wine!

Glaga!

 

 A  Salutation From The Producer

 

Leon “Kawku” Saunders Welcomes Ms. Alicia

 

Star Eyes

 

A Pecan Tan Fox

 

 

 A Standout In The Crowd

 

 Chic and Sexy

 

 Blasé!

 

 

 An Imposing Woman!

 

Tall, Tan Terrific!

 

Misty From The Sound Of Music

 

A Big Beautiful Woman!

 

The Joy Of Music!

 

Deep In The Groove!

 

Alyce!

 Power& Beauty

 

 The Goddess Oshun!

 

 A Gift From Trinidad!

 

 The Magicians Girls!

 

A Black and Tan Fantasy

 

Cape Verdian Girls!

 

Afro-Portuguese Honeys

 

Hail To The Music!

 

The Rhythm Is The Master

 

Happy And Nappy!

 

An Afrocentric Beauty

 

Fit As A Fiddle!

 

An Ebony Brick House

 

Some Cuban Flava

 

Alicia Chillin

 

Women Of Substance!

 Sistas!

 Smart, Elegant And Sexy!

 

 The Mayne Sisters

 

Jazz Diva Cassandra Wilson

She wowed the crowd with her Mississippi Blues

 

Photos and text by: Playthell Benjamin

Miami Florida

March 22 Circa 2010

On The Rising Tide of Violence from the Far Right

Posted in Playthell on politics, Travels in the New South with tags , , , , , on March 31, 2010 by playthell

 

 The Hutaree Milita: A bunch of deluded assholes

 

 Now is the time to take action!

During my recent foray into the deep southern states by car and bus I heard some disturbing stories from African Americans about an alarming rise in armed white supremacist activity.  Beneath the façade of gentility in race relations – where white folks who traditionally addressed all black men as “boy” and refused to address black women as “Miss’ or “Mrs.”  now routinely respond to questions or comments from black people with “yes sir” or “Yes mam,” lies a seething cauldron of white anger and resentment that threatens to erupt into violence at any moment.

In Florida I was told by working class black folks that they didn’t trust their white co-workers because they were always conspiring to get them into trouble by secretly sabotaging their work or making up lies about their performance on the job.   And there were certain back roads that I was warned about traversing during my hiking sessions on the outskirts of town because they were populated by racist rednecks.  And there were entire counties in Georgia that I was warned away from because of recent Ku Klux Klan activities.

While I was tempted to view such antics as nothing more that a burlesque show acted out by racist clowns in ridiculous costumes, impotent anachronisms of a bygone age, the local Afro-Americans took them very seriously and two of them showed me machine guns they had recently acquired and told me they kept them fully loaded lying on the floor of their cars when they drove through the county on the outskirts of Brunswick Georgia. 

Later on in my journey, I witnessed the arrests of militia members in Michigan on the television set in the Fayetteville North Carolina bus station. Everybody watched the report in astonishment, but one black lady, who appeared to be in her sixties and was old enough to remember the old south before the Civil rights movement, told me that armed white men who belonged to Militias or the Ku Klux Klan was conducting a reign of terror in Hinesville Georgia.  This was rather astonishing stuff considering that Fort Steward, a major Army Base, is located there.  

However the arrest of nine members of the Hutaree militia who were planning attacks on the police and government officials in Michigan highlights the problem with these armed white formations; some of whose members have shown up at president Obama’s speeches brandishing weapons.  If they are in states with lax gun laws they are allowed to own military assault weapons, and their incendiary hate speech is protected by the First Amendment.  Hence they must either commit a violent act, or be about to do so, before law enforcement can act.

Thus these white cretins remain a clear and present danger to an unsuspecting public, as their passions are incited daily by verbal arsonist like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck.   It is high time the corporations broadcast them, or their sponsors and stock holders, put a muzzle on these racist fear mongers before more innocent Americans are slaughtered.    And it is long past time for a federal law prohibiting the possession of military weapons by civilians.                                                                                              

**********

Come Sunday In Brunswick Georgia

Posted in Theater, Travels in the New South with tags , , on December 16, 2009 by playthell

 

A Church For The High and Mighty!

 I had only arrived a little over twenty four hours ago; slipping into town with the rising sun, 7: o-clock on Saturday morning, when the sleepy little town of Brunswick Georgia was fast asleep.   My senior daughter Sandra met me at the bus stop and at my request we drove down to the waterfront to watch the shrimping trawlers steaming out into the Atlantic Ocean, “the biggety blue,” as the old salty dogs I once sailed out of the port of Philadelphia with called the ocean seas.  I looked around and suspected the sea food would be good…and I was right.

 Although Brunswick lacks the sheer beauty of St. Augustine Florida, in some ways it reminded me of the nation’s oldest city, which lies perched on the Atlantic coast just 108 miles due south.   It was not only the white washed wooden trawlers, or docks made of faded gray weather beaten wood, that evoked memories of my boyhood home; the gray Spanish moss that drapes the many live oak trees filled me with bitter/sweet nostalgia.  And the quiet ambience of the city compelled me to reflect upon the virtues of small town southern life.  After all, the best things about my own character were forged in one.  

 The religious passions I had encountered elsewhere in the south were also percolating in Brunswick, and it didn’t take long to recognize that the battle against Satan was in full force.  The spirit of the lord seemed to be everywhere, infecting the believers with a sublime joy.  I first noticed it in the farmers market, where those hawking their wares were certain that the lord had personally blessed them with the bounty of the land.  This was true even among those farmers who seemed threadbare and quietly desperate.  Perhaps they felt that, like Job, the lord was simply testing their faith with hard times.

 But one cheery lady, another white haired alabaster Georgia peach, seemed especially animated by the spirit of Christ as she related a yarn about how she was moved by the spirit of Christian charity to give a homeless man a jar of her famous fig preserves and a home made biscuit.  Everyone repeatedly thanked the lord for the beautiful morning, and for sparing them to see it.  They acknowledged each other as Christian solders – especially my daughter and the cheery Ms. Figgie – and they testified that the works of the Lord are good and righteous in all their manifestations.  I had hardly been in town an hour before I was engulfed in a gale of religious passion, and it was only Saturday; Sunday would be a different story.

 We spent the rest of Saturday filling each other in with stories about family and friends and preparing a feast of fresh vegetables, rice, potato salad, cornbread, real lemonade and a variety of freshly caught sea foods.  My grandson Kelvin “Big Kel” Whitfield and his wife Lisa – whom I was meeting for the first time – also came over and brought some of their friends to meet me.   It was an interesting mix of personalities.  The young folk were bold, optimistic, and infatuated with various brands of folly.  My daughter’s friends, on the other hand, were mostly middle-aged, man-less but saved women who claimed to be done with the foolishness of this world and were storing up blessings for the hereafter by doing the lord’s work here on earth 24/7.  As they would often reiterate, theirs was a purpose driven life, and their purpose was to serve Jesus Christ and praise his name with every waking hour.  Yet the careful way they decorated themselves, and the sunshine smiles they beamed at the eligible brethren, betrayed a lingering interest in the opposite sex.

 *************

 Come Sunday things started bustling around the house early as the Christian soldiers arose with the sun, carefully laying out their uniforms so as to pass inspection with the lord.  This was the day that the pious saved souls lived for.  This was the day that they visited their father’s house and sanctified their souls in the body of Christ.  None was more dedicated to this ritual than Sandra.  That’s why I had turned down an opportunity to travel into New Orleans with the Dillon family, one of the city’s most influential clans, as they returned to assess the damage the wind and floods of Katrina had done to their homes.  It was a reporter’s dream, but I had promised Sandra that I would be in Brunswick to attend church with her; so I cut out from Baton Rouge and headed for southeastern Georgia.  And on Sunday morning I groomed and decorated myself to the height of good fashion and escorted my daughter to the New Covenant Church.  

 It didn’t take long to discover the high regard with which my senior daughter is held by the members of her congregation.  She was admired as much for her artistic abilities as her tireless work in behalf of the church. I would later be shown several bill boards for theatrical productions she had presented under the auspices of the church.  She had served as writer, director, choreographer, and designer of the sets and costumes.  I knew that by some mysterious alchemy she had managed to touch the sacred fire and become a poet, but I didn’t know that she had also become a multi-talented thespian.  And she is lauded for her talents in spite of the fact that she has no formal training in any of these arts.  Sandra is a true autodidact. Upon reflection I began to recognize that, like the great composer Johann Sebastian Bach, she has found her muse, audience and patron in the church.  And that’s about as convincing evidence of God’s grace as I have yet seen.

 From Africa to America: A musical Pageant

 

 A historical Odyssey into the African Diaspora

 

 A Swirl of Colors and movement!

 

 Real Black Magic!

 

 Written, Choreographed, Costumed and Directed by Sandra

 

There are many impressive churches in Georgia, grand edifices with steeples that reach for the skies, but Sandra’s church was modest, though well decorated; a church where humble working people could feel at home. Yet in spite of its unpretentious architecture, I’m convinced that if the spirit of God was anywhere in Georgia on that Sunday morning, she was in that little church in Brunswick. You could hear in the music, which was divine.  In this holy sanctuary the worshippers were bathed in the word of the lord as it poured from the mouths of passionate preachers, and the word would rejuvenate them and make them feel brand new, cleansed of the sins of this world.  In church, everybody was bedecked in their finest garments, and it was hard to tell some of the saved sisters who shouted out to God from the painted Jezebels and shameless hussies who were shaking their pulcritudinous “Afri-cans” in the juke joints on Saturday night past.   Some said that’s because they were the same crowd!

 Since I was a stranger in town I had no way of telling who’s who, but if they were anything like most other church people I know it’s the same crowd alright. I surmised this from the first hand reports I have received from professional church musicians – most of whom are versatile musical artists who play in a variety of venues – who assure me that they get more action on church gigs than playing the cabarets.  This may sound strange to many readers, especially true Christian soldiers, but there are some fairly obvious reasons why the church choir has often been a cauldron of sexual licentiousness and myriad debaucheries. 

 First of all, as the most perceptive people who study the mating game and religious ecstasy well know, passion is a class of phenomena; and those who are capable of experiencing it in one of life’s arenas are capable of feeling it in others.  To make a short story shorter: Passion is passion whether religious or sexual.  When we add to this emotionally combustible atmosphere all the lonely people who go to church in search of fellowship of some kind, we have the perfect atmosphere for mortal sins of the flesh such as fornication and adultery. 

The Reverend Doctor Michael Eric Dyson has written candidly about the lust and licentiousness that flourish in the black protestant church, and the prolific scholar/priest the Reverend Doctor Andrew Greeley, has pulled the covers back and revealed the tempestuous sexual passions – homosexual and heterosexual – among all levels of the priesthood in his insightful and once shocking novel, The Cardinal Sins.  The powerful novel Elmer Gantry, which was made into the classic movie starring Burt Lancaster and the luscious Shirley Jones that set my youthful erotic imagination spinning out of control, also provides an insightful look into religiously inspired sexual passions.  And what’s more it has long been rumored, and can now be backed up with first hand testimony provided to researchers that the church choir is often a passion pit of homosexual assignations. 

In fact, a black gay sociologist based in Atlanta recently showed me a study that he is presently working on that will soon make these suppressed homo-erotic narratives public, exposing the hypocritical anti-homosexual stance of most churches.  One long time church singer told me “If it weren’t for gay men there would be no music in these churches.”  Having sung in the church since she was a young lass, over forty years now, the singer knows whereof she speaks.  Hence it makes good sense for gay men to cruise the church choirs in search of deep inner fulfillment.  In spite of the preacher’s admonitions against it, or the proscriptions against buggery in the bible, the church choir remains a prime cruising ground for love starved homosexual males and females in search of forbidden fruit.  The situation is such that it prompted one devoted deacon to remark to this writer: “All the troubles in the church start in the choir!”

  God’s Eunuchs or Priestly Pervs?

 

The rape of children is a recurring sin among the “celebate” priesrhood

 

Nowhere has the blatant hypocrisy toward homosexuality been more egregious than in the Catholic Church.  Here, where all sexual activity by devotees of the religious orders –priests and nuns alike – is deemed a sin, forbidden fruit is especially attractive. Its human nature and no amount of pious preachment can alter it.   After all, was it not Adam’s inability to resist the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden that brought the downfall of man from a state of grace?  Thus when all of those closet perverts who join the Catholic priesthood, desperately attempting to avoid confronting the demons conjured up by their refusal to deal with their lust for forbidden pleasures, are placed in close unsupervised activities with innocent youngsters who are programmed to trust them, the rape of children is increasingly the result.  

All this has left an indelible blot upon the character of the Roman Catholic Church and the honor of Pope John Paul II, the late Bishop of Rome, a good friar under whose reign the mass rape of Children occurred while he looked askance in an unholy charade designed to preserve the earthly reputation of the Church, thus failing to exercise his responsibility as chief steward of that church and keeper of the faith.  For this the Pope, now beatified and bound for sainthood, would have had to satisfy the commands of a higher power, not serve the petty politics of the church! 

 ***************

 Compared to such mortal sins against the word committed by the Catholic hierarchy, a few painted and daringly attired Jezebels in the Pews seeking absolution in my daughters church – even if on a temporary basis – was a welcome sight.   It was easy to tell who among us felt in the need of prayer, because at the invitation of Pastor Albert Armstrong – offered with arms outstretched majestically – the congregants flocked down to the well in front of the pulpit to repent their sins and seek God’s forgiveness and blessings through prayer. 

As I watched them I couldn’t help wondering how they imagined God would weigh their sins – their failures of the flesh and petty avarice – Vs. George Bush’s fleecing of the poor to further enrich the rich, or the slaughter of innocents for example. And worse still, his unrepentant blasphemy!  I also wondered if they thought having impure sexual thoughts, or lusting after their neighbor’s spouse, was a graver sin than paying taxes to a government that enables the Bushmen to commit mass murder against weak and unoffending peoples, and to witness these crimes against humanity – the most perfect of God’s creations whom she cast in her own dusky image – without protest.

In spite of a burning desire to interrogate them, I never got to ask them these questions because they didn’t think in such terms.  For them morality was personal, these are the sort of people who were more alarmed about Clinton screwing around with Monica Lewinsky in an ante-room in the White House, than George Bush screwing us all from the Oval Office. The truth, as near as I could tell, is that most Christians who are devoted to other-worldly concerns don’t even pay any attention to the news; which, to my mind, is a real sacrilege. 

 Dr Martin Luther King

 

 A Modern Prophet

 

Unfortunately, the Christian revivalism presently sweeping the south is not the prophetic Christianity of Dr. Martin Luther King, or his longtime comrade in the struggle Dr. Joseph Lowery, who told me in Atlanta a few days after I attended New Covenant Church, that he continues to see participation in the struggle against injustice here and now as the best way to serve the will of God.  But since the fundamentalists are certain that this sinful world is doomed to destruction by fire come Judgment Day, and many believe that we are clearly living in the last days – they can see it in the signs of the times – the truly righteous are spending all of their time getting ready to meet their maker.  And that means, first and foremost, “getting right with the lord,” which leaves them precious little time for contemplating the troubles of this world.

 On this Sunday morning the sermon, which they referred to as “Praising the Word,” was delivered by Rev. Catherine Armstrong, the wife in the joint pastorate of New Covenant.  She wore her hair in a short “au natural” style, and was both bright and articulate as she delivered a straight forward message on the need for people to stand up and make a stab at achieving their dreams while seeking the lord’s help through prayer.  She was both erudite and funny, as she lifted the spirits of the congregants with her sermon.  Like the old time preachers in James Weldon Johnson’s epic poems God’s Trombones, this preacher was a poet, “with all the devices of eloquence at her command.”  And she was preaching in just the sort of church the great novelist and folklorist Zora Neal Hurston had in mind when she said a preacher “must be a poet in order to survive in a Negro pulpit.”  

 Zora the Word Sorcerer!

 

Her poetic prose celebrated the essence of black southern culture

 As I sat and listened to this soul stirring sister I was reminded that it was the unschooled divines to whom these praises were addressed, Johnson in his poems and Hurston in her wonderful novel Jonah’s Gourd Vine, both written within a couple of hundred miles from each other in the same part of Florida where I grew up.  So by the end of my visit to this little Georgia church with the mighty spirit, after I had joined the congregation in physically driving the devil out of New Covenant’s sanctuary and witnessed my daughter raise her voice in sacred song, waving her hands above her head in time with the music, channeling the holy spirit on sound waves to the soul, I too, unrepentant infidel that I am, felt uplifted by the spirit of their sermons and the spiritual power of their songs.   

 ****************

Playthell Benjamin

Harlem, New York

December 15, 2009

Crusing Through Georgia

Posted in Cultural Matters, Travels in the New South on December 4, 2009 by playthell

 

 On the Road Riding the Big Dog

 

 Further reflections from my Journey through the New South

It was a strange sensation cruising through Georgia early in the morning on the day the eagle files, reversing General Sherman’s route from Atlanta to the sea, while listening to a conversation about lynching on “Democracy Now!,” hosted by Amy Goodman on Pacifica Radio.  It was recorded from an earlier show and I was listening on my Walkman as NYU Sociologist Troy Duster, and Princeton historian Nell Painter discussed the history of lynching in the US. The discussion had been occasioned by the apology issued by the United States Senate atoning for the failure of that body to pass a federal anti-lynching law during a century in which black Americans were publicly crucified for the slightest offense to the prerogatives of white power, real or imagined. 

As both of these scholars pointed out, the real significance of the formal apology from the Senate was that it acknowledged a period when crimes against black humanity were either codified in law, or tacitly accepted in custom.  And both of them believed that Senate’s acknowledgement of this practice provided and opportunity to commence a national dialogue about the consequences of America’s racial caste system on the status of whites and blacks in America today.  A conversation that is long overdue, because we cannot progress beyond where we are in race relations until this question has been honestly examined.

Riding through sleepy little Georgia towns like Hinesville and Richmond Hill on my way from the lovely coastal city of Brunswick, where I had said goodbye to my senior daughter Sandra and boarded a 6:30 am bus for the seven hour ride to Atlanta, I experienced many scenes that conjured up images of the old south I remembered from the bad old days when “white supremacy” was the unambiguous governing philosophy of the south, and its institutional arrangements were rigorously enforced by ritual murder.  In order to service the small towns that used to be whistle stops back in the golden age of passenger trains, the big dog prowled the back roads, affording me a glimpse of what’s left of the old south that is enshrined in memory and legend, and preserved in history and literature.

As I looked at the thick woods whose trees were draped with gray Spanish moss, the open fields with occasional flocks of grazing cows, the grand houses and humble abodes announcing the inhabitant’s station in society, I was reminded what  life was like for black folk during most of this state’s history, the centuries old injustices that white Americans are trying their best to forget or deny.  In the cinema of my mind I could envision gangs of black folks in tattered rags toiling from first light to deep dusk, wresting earth’s bounty from the red clay soil.  And I could imagine the whips, and chains, and rapes, and all the forms of coercion and violence that were a normal part of the life of African Americans in a society where they were defined as three quarters of a man at the birth of the nation. And some seventy years later, in 1857, the Supreme Court would announce in the Dred Scott Decision: “The Negro has no rights that a white man is bound to respect!”

A Land Watered with African Blood, Sweat and Tears

 

Slave labor tilling these fields was the economic foundation of the south

  The countless crimes against the humanity of African people are a subject that now embarrasses America’s claims as a land that has always stood for freedom and justice, a claim that the US elite has used to justify their invasion of countries like Iraq.  Thus African Americans are implored to forgive and forget.   But to ask a victim to forget and forgive a crime that the perpetrator has never admitted committing, nor formally apologized for, or attempted to redress, is an outrage against the very notion of justice.  I however would argue, like Frederick Douglass almost a hundred and fifty years ago, “Now is not the time for the gentle shower but the whirlwind!” 

Thus rather than forget the bloody history of Georgia which, like Surinam, began as a prison colony where the dregs of British society were settled, we need to remember this history.  One of the most pleasurable ways of doing this is turn to the writings of Dr. W.E.B. Dubois in his 1903 revelations of our spiritual strivings in The Souls of Black Folk, and Jean Toomer’s path breaking Harlem Renaissance novel Cane.  It would be quite enlightening to compare the portraits they painted of rural and urban life in the peach state with life in the region today.   

While there remains little of the poetic beauty in Georgia’s countryside that Toomer portrays in Blood Burning Moon, the tendency towards the worship of dollars that DuBois saw developing and warns against in his essay On the Wings of Atalanta, has fully come to pass.  Atlanta is the ultimate consumer society, where vulgar materialism runs amuck and most people’s dreams rarely extend beyond the next trinket they wish to acquire.  And, in one of the many perversions of Jesus Christ’s teachings that has been the hall mark of Christianity in the American South; they justify their lust for material things – a kind of modern idolatry – with biblical references.  It is called “The Prosperity gospel.” Here the connections are clear between the values of Protestantism and capitalism that the great German sociologist, Max Weber, described in his classic text Capitalism and the Protestant Ethic.  And, of paramount importance to us today, as historians of the holocaust have shown: It was also evangelical protestants – much like those who put Bush in the White House – that was the backbone of the Nazi movement in Germany that put Hitler in power.

The city of Savanna, which was famed for its wealth and cultural life in Ante-Bellum times, offers a revealing look at life in a contemporary southern city.  Perhaps the most impressive symbol of progress and modernity is the magnificent suspension bridge that spans the bay.  Like the famous Brooklyn Bridge in New York City, this bridge is a work of art.  And although I advance this as a suspicion only, I’d bet the family jewels that the structural engineer who designed it was inspired by Colonel Robeling, the designer of the Brooklyn Bridge, who sought not simply to solve the problem of spanning a roadway across the Hudson Bay, but to create “a work of art in steel.”  But since the triumph of the cost accountants, those calculator totin philistines who dictate the aesthetics of large structures by ruthlessly controlling its cost – as if a price can be placed upon beauty – art has been abandoned in favor of economics.   

But not so in Savanna; here esthetics was not sacrificed to the imperatives of cost accounting.  This bridge, like the Brooklyn Bridge, is not only a work of art but the also state of the art in design engineering.  Unlike the Brooklyn Bridge, or the more functional and efficiently constructed George Washington and Verrazano bridges, the cables do not run all the way to the piers on each side of the bay, instead they rise like the steeple of a grand temple to human ingenuity cast in stainless steel, towering over the landscape like a modern Colossus of Rhodes.  However, when this imposing edifice is viewed from certain perspectives it reveals a harrowing portrait of the stratification of life in Savanna.

 A Tale of Two Cities

 

In Black Savanna

The opulence and progress symbolized by the bridge sharply contrasts with the unemployed and impoverished young men, who are mostly black, who dwell in public projects – government subsidized hovels – and the homeless shelter near the bus station.  When I peeped them hovering around the river banks I thought of Katrina’s victims and reflected on the fact that should a massive hurricane smash into Savanna they would fare no better.   These dramatic cleavages in wealth and opportunity are, alas, the true face of the New South.   They no longer lynch young black men down here; they simply starve them into crime or homelessness if they belong to the working class.  But for the well educated bourgeois blacks, the sweet smell of the bitch goddess of success is everywhere.  Hence Afro-Americans live in a schizoid Dickensian era: “The Best of Times and the worst of times.”   

The Homeless Shelter Across From Bus Station

 

A place of refuge for the down and out

 Let me hasten to add that I mention this fact only as a statement of reality; it is not intended as an indictment of the success of the newly minted black middle class.  For most of these people have arrived at their station in life through hard work and serious study, which required personal discipline and the ability to defer gratification – the ability to forego the party now so that they can later party for life.  Thus, unlike the progeny of the plutocrats, they didn’t inheriet wealth and thus deserve what they have acquired.  If I have any serious criticism of this new black bourgeoisie, it is that far too many of them spend far too little time strategizing and struggling to plan and implement policies and programs that would uplift those left behind and cast upon the scrapheap of society by the impersonal forces of unregulated free market capitalism.  Too many of them have gleefully joined the orgy of vulgar materialism that is the hall mark of the ultimate consumer society.

Yet for Dr. Dubois, who first called for the creation of a highly educated black middle class in his 1903 essay “Of the Talented Tenth”- which was written while he lived in Atlanta – this kind of leadership was their reason for being.  And he made this abundantly clear a half century later in his 1958 book In Battle for Peace, written a year after Dr. E. Franklin Frazier published his revealing book Black Bourgeoisie.  Yet I hasten to add, in spite of the shortcomings of many members of the new Afro-American middle class, the fact remains that it is from the “Talented Tenth,” which has grown into the “Talented Third,” that that most of the positive ideas and actions that are presently guiding black Americans to higher around and greater aspirations come from this class. 

Furthermore, the disparagement of their success – which they achieved against tremendous odds in a society where, despite the civil rights laws passed in the 1960’s, institutional racism lives on in custom if not in law – is to risk celebrating failure the way some of us radicals did in the sixties.  This misguided strategy led to what I now recognize as the romance of the lumpen element, most notably by the Black Panthers, an ideology that has now come back to plague us in Gangta rap.  These ideas were clearly at the root of the antisocial bravado that led to the demise of Tupuc Shakur, a gifted artist who could not adjust to his success and thus was destroyed in a tragedy of his own making.  Tupac’s story reminds me of the tale of a six foot man who drowned in three feet of water; all he had to do was recognize the reality of his situation and stand up! 

However, while celebrating their achievements, we must also be wary of how the success of the black bourgeoisie is often employed to camouflage the true condition of the black working class by right-wing apologists for the glaring inequities in contemporary American society.  And down in Georgia, such apologists come in all colors, just check out Uncle Clarence Thomas, who hails from a little country town in these parts.

 ***********

When I inquired about the state of race relations in Brunswick Georgia, my daughter Sandra – a smart and godly woman – simply told me that the white folks were a lot nicer than they used to be but it was still hard for young black men to land good paying blue collar jobs at the mills.  She said the white women in Brunswick were crazy about black men but white men were not happy to have them as competitors – in the marketplace or the bedroom.  In fact, my grandson Kelvin, Sandra’s only child, who is the same age as my son Samori – his uncle- is experiencing problems that arise directly from this racial competition. 

Married to a southern white woman and working with her as a team in managing a motel situated on a notorious vice ridden strip in Brunswick, where he is known as “Big Kel,” Kelvin is acutely aware of the residual cultural and institutional racism in the “new south.” Unable to even imagine what my generation endured under the southern caste system, most of what bugs him would have been considered light-weight action in my day, Kelvin is well aware that everything ain’t kosher down here in the “dirty south,”  dispite what appears to be monumental changes in race relations since I left the south four decades ago.  In fact, he is so aware of the residual racism and closet neo- Nazi white supremacist that he has written some brilliant comic skits based on such characters. 

The young black working class males I met while moving around town with him were quite candid in discussing their desperate economic plight.  One young man in his early twenties told me how he went out daily in a futile effort to find employment at a living wage, supporting himself by cutting hair in his apartment – an illegal activity without a license.  Although I think the arguments of right-wing economists, like Walter Williams and Thomas Sowell, that the solution to the problems of the unemployed and underemployed is to scrap all government regulation of private enterprise are ludicrous, I think it equally absurd that this young man could have problems with the law for providing a constructive service that people want.  Another twenty-something male, who was struggling to make ends meet laboring in a fast food joint, discerned in the course of our conversation that I was not religious, picked up his Bible and announced with heart rending passion, “Yo Old School, this is the only thing that’s keeping a lotta dudes I know from going off and hurtin somebody; cause it’s rough tryna make it out here.” 

 The Illusion of tranquility in Brunswick Georgia

 

These pristine streets disguise the perculating race and class conflicts

And so does these elegant Victorians

A blast from the past conjuring up a genteel life
Although he was a friendly young man who appeared to be of fine character, he had been forced by economic necessity to become a vendor of wisdom weed – another economic crime.  And because I believe the anti-marijuana laws represent the  “Tyranny of the majority” that Alexis de Touqville warned us about as a danger to democracy – as well as my commitment to supporting local entrepreneurs, especially when they offer high quality merchandise at fair prices, I patronized the young entrepreneur’s parlor in the spirit of defending democracy and promoting community enterprise.  As I sat and sampled his wares, mellow as a cello, the door was suddenly kicked in and we were confronted with a masked robber wielding a Glock!  

Although he was talking loud gangsta talk and ordering us around while holding the Roscoe in that sideways style that has been popularized in New Jack flicks and gangsta rap videos, it was clear that he was as scared as we were.  Since I was no stranger to gun totin desperadoes – having lived on the edge of Washington Heights during the Crack wars of the 80’s – I maintained my cool.  Furthermore, aside from my training in the use of weapons by the Strategic Air Command, including knife fighting – and I had my razor on me – I’ve been steeled in the fires of struggle and trained for trouble!  So when it became clear to me that murder was not on the gunman’s mind, that he only intended to fleece my host of his weed and coin, I really chilled out and considered the irony of a New York sharpie getting taken off by a Georgia boy in a one horse town.  I would have never lived it down.

All of this, however, brings us back to the central point that Professor Troy Duster was making.  As one of the authors of the critically important study White Washing Race, Prof. Duster is concerned with how racial discrimination operates today, after the collapse of the legal racial caste system.  And he argues that the prison /industrial complex is used as a major form of socio/political controls which limits Afro-American competition with whites for the economic goods of this affluent society.   When one considers that a prison record restricts the ex-con’s access to the job market and often denies them the right to vote, the veracity of Dusters argument is undeniable.  When we observe the problems that young black men with clean records are having finding gainful employment – studies show that white men with criminal records routinely fare better – one does not have to be a seer in order to imagine what they will face when seeking honest employment.  And this, needless to say, is the main reason why prisons have had a revolving door for so many young black males.

 Down here in the south on can also clearly see how economic hardship –along with a hyper-patriotic mindset born of a bizarre mixture of guns, God and football – leads young black and white males into the military services, where they wind up in places like Iraq fighting the imperialist wars of the plutocrats.  Even as I write, the story of Sergeant Ricky Stanley is featured on the front page of the Sunday edition of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.  Titled “A Soldiers Fear and Faith,” it tells us how this humble family man from the small hamlet of Dublin Georgia struggles to make sense of the war in Iraq where his National Guard unit was dispatched.  I was just in Dublin the day before, and I can imagine what the horrors of life must be like in Iraq when I read how badly he yearns to return to this boring Hick town, which Sgt. Stanley makes sound like paradise. 

Although he had a job working in a factory, like many week end soldiers Stanley probably joined the National Guard to defend the homeland and make a few extra dollars on the side.  And like almost everybody down here in Georgia he believes God is watching over him in spite of the fact that he is part of an invading army, stationed in a desert thousands of miles from home, in constant danger of being blown to bits over a criminal policy concocted by lying scoundrels!  For to my mind “Dirty Dick” Chaney, George II, Carl Rove, “Scooter” Libby, Condoslezza and the rest of the Bushmen look just like what I’d imagine the devil and his minions would look like in twenty-first century America. 

 Yet Sgt. Stanley doesn’t even suspect that the Devil may have had a hand in what looks to me like a god-forsaken position that he now finds himself in.   Instead he recounts an incident where he was very nearly killed by a circle of bombs rigged by the insurgents, and concludes “Only by the grace of God are we alive.  Even though we’ve got .50 caliber machine guns, I’ll take God and his word any day.” His response was typical of the type of fundamentalist Christian that I have repeatedly encountered all over the south.   Perhaps nothing demonstrates his faith that God is personally watching over him more than his mantra before going out on a combat mission: “Oh Lord, dispatch your angels to watch over me tonight.” 

 From all indications, Sergeant Stanley doesn’t have a clue why he is in Iraq, and although he complains about being sent out on so many dangerous missions when other soldiers are not even being trained to undertake such missions, he does not appear to believe that his race has anything to do with it.  However when I showed a friend a picture of Stanley leading a prayer meeting in Iraq, he thought it was being held in a black church down here in Georgia.  That’s how segregated black and white Christians are when they pray, even when they face death together on a daily basis! 

 Yet, like all of America’s wars since Korea, black youths make up a disproportionate percentage of infantry forces, which is the most dangerous place to be in a war.  That’s why so many of our young people are returning home from the hellish experience of combat broken of body and spirit…if they return at all.   Hence there is a bitter irony in the fact that the Christian revivalist movement sweeping the nation – in which beaucoup black folks are stalwart Christian soldiers – is a major reason why Bush is in the White House wreaking havoc on the black community and the Third World. 

 The other-worldly, anti-intellectual, anti-scientific approach encouraged by this fundamentalist dogma is a large part of the reason why the electorate, Boobus Americanus, is so shamefully ignorant of the facts they need to know in order to make intelligent decisions about whom to put in power.  Hence Thomas Jefferson’s admonition that the claims of religionist should be subjected to the rigorous test of reason remains good advice not taken.  And his prediction that an ignorant electorate will elect the worst people to office has come true.  No one bears more guilt for this tragic state of affairs than the Evangelical Christians of the “dirty South!”

 *************

Playthell Benjamin

Atlanta Georgia

Summer 2007

 

Lift Every Voice and Sing

Posted in Playthell on politics, Travels in the New South on October 26, 2009 by playthell

 Inauguration Day in the Ancient City

My Trip to florida with Makeda ETC 533 

 Faces of Change in the New South

 

Once more, tears welled in my eyes as I stood on the steps of the old slave market in St. Augustine Florida and listened to the largely white crowd, led by local Afro-American vocalist Sylvia Howard, sing “God Bless America” as Barack Hussein Obama took his oath of office and became the 44th President of the United States of America; the first African American elected by the American people to hold that exalted office.  It was literally a once in a lifetime moment, for this was an event of such uniqueness that it could not happen again.

Almost all Afro-Americans who grew up under American apartheid and witnessed the triumph of the great struggle for civil rights wanted to be somewhere memorable when Barack Obama recited the oath of the presidency and occupied the Oval Office.  Most chose to brave the cold and the crowds and make their way to the Great Mall in Washington DC, so that they could bear witness to this singular event in American history within the shadow of the majestic Capitol dome.  I started to go to Washington too.  I have many good friends there and several fine homes where I could lay my head.  But after giving the matter some thought I decided to come home to St. Augustine Florida, the first European settlement in North America, which is world famous as “America’s Oldest City.” 

 St. Augustine is also home to the oldest free black community in this nation; which began as a warrior community garrisoned at Fort Mose, founded by runaway slaves who escaped to Spanish Florida from the English colonies of Georgia.  These militant former slaves were armed and trained by the Spanish military and entered into a treaty to serve as the advanced guard in the defense of the Spanish community at St. Augustine.  Fort Mose was named after the Spanish governor at the time of its founding and was located outside of the city walls; thus it was the black warriors at Fort Mose who first engaged the Anglo-Saxon invaders from the north and weakened them for the Spanish forces to counter-attack. 

 Restoring the True history of St. Augustine

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Black Soldiers at Fort Mose!

 

When I was growing up here we knew nothing of this heroic chapter in the history of African Americans in this city, rather the history books emphasized the docility of the African slaves from whom we descended.  We were told by our Euro-American tutors whose racist myths masqueraded as history that our enslaved ancestors cried and begged their masters to stay on the plantation when the “evil” Yankee blue coats “invaded” the south and forced an unwanted freedom on them – adding insult to injury.   But today this proud history is celebrated with an impressive historical exhibit within the massive Castilio de San Marcos, a huge Coquino rock fortress with twenty mounted cannon, protected by the Matanzas Bay on one side and surrounded on other sides by a moat. 

 The Castillio de San Marcos

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This fort was never taken!

The Castilio, whose massive walls dominate the landscape of this ancient city, is one of the largest forts built by the Spaniards anywhere in the America’s, which is a measure of the importance of this beautiful seaside village nestled on the Atlantic Ocean, the northern most boundary of a Spanish empire that stretched all the way down to Chile at the tip of South America.  Comparing the size of the Castilio with that of Fort Mose, I am reminded of the heroism of my ancestors who founded this first free African community in North America in the 18th century, a freedom they paid for with blood and guts.

Although the historical record reveals that there was a time in the history of this City when Europeans, Africans and Native Americans lived among each other with no formal laws segregating them.  But when I was growing up here the southern system of segregation was in full effect, and the affairs of this city was monopolized by evil racist red neck crackers!  Some of them are still around but today they are forced to keep their mouths shut and operate underground.  I left this town, and lost quite a bit of family property over the years because of these rednecks.

One day during the summer of 1960, after me and my buddies returned home from college and began to challenge the racial order by sitting in at local stores the way we had done at college earlier in the year as the black student movement exploded across the south, my grandfather, George Benjamin, called me aside and said “Boy, it’s time for you to go on up North, because the way you are heading either you going to kill one of these Peckerwoods, or one of them is gonna kill you!   And either way you gonna get this whole family in a war because whatever they do to you they do to me!” 

So I split the scene in St. Augustine.  But my neighbors, the Eubanks family stayed here and they did get in a shootout with the Klan as the movement developed, and they won.  But the crackers who ran the city at the time – Especially the Mayor, Dr. Shelly, a physician whom my aunt Rosalie, a surgical nurse who worked with him at Flagler hospital, compared to the Nazi Dr. Mengele – put Goldie Eubanks and his nephew Richard on trial for their lives when they proved the better marksman and killed one of the marauding Klansman.  They were rescued from Florida’s electric chair, popularly known as “Old Sparky,” only because the Center for Constitutional Rights dispatched the great New York lawyer William Kuntzler to lead the defense team.  Bill put such a whipping on the backward redneck lawyers down here that they were forced to drop the charges and the Eubanks walked.

I am presently working on a book about this stunningly beautiful little town that now seems like a haven of racial harmony.  But as I interrogate the documents from the civil rights struggle of forty years ago, I am constantly reminded of the extraordinary heroism of the common black folk of Lincolnville and West Augustine, where the African American population was concentrated.  And I am presently recording their voices for a radio documentary that will be aired on WBAI FM in New York City then placed on the internet so that it will be easily accessible to anyone in the world.    As I listen to these heroic people, many of them now in their late eighties, I want to prostrate myself before them and say thanks for a job well done.  Standing on the steps of the old slave market while Barack Hussein Obama took his oath of office, I thought of the cynics who would disparage this glorious moment, and I say let us rejoice in this victory: lift every voice and sing!

 

Hallelujah!   The day of Jubilee

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 Oh Happy Day! 

 

Odd man out!

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Arrested Development!

 

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

 

 

Photo and Text by: Playthell G. Benjamin

St. Augustine Florida

January 2009

Encounter with A Georgia Peach

Posted in Cultural Matters, Travels in the New South with tags , , on October 26, 2009 by playthell

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 On the Road 

 

Notes from my Journey through the Heart of the New South

 As I boarded the Grey Hound from the District of Columbia and departed from Richmond Virginia, the cradle of the old Confederacy and the home of Afro-American tennis great, US Army officer and sports historian Arthur Ashe, I was perchance seated on the coach beside a righteous elderly southern white woman from the old school of southern grace and charm.  She had clear alabaster skin and her hair was a silvery gray; tucked in a bun like those stern 19th century Anglo-Saxon women who led the temperance movement.  She introduced herself as Mrs. Crisler, and later informed me that she was a widow.  And as I listened to her musical southern speech she soon began to inquire into the fate of my soul. 

I wondered if there was something about my demeanor, unbeknownst to myself, that signaled to her that I was about to bust hell wide open should the bus crash and we suddenly departed this life.  Perhaps it was the rakish angle that I wore my hat, or maybe she had peeped me blowing up some high grade “wisdom weed” – a gift from a righteous Rasta brethren in Washington – as I skulked about in the shadows during my rest stop in Richmond, the cradle of the old Confederacy, the first of many rests and rejuvenations through joy that I would make during my long journey on the big dog from New York City down to Baton Rouge Louisiana, a lovely lazy city sprawled along the Mississippi river, whose population had doubled since Katrina wrecked a million lives.  Maybe I just looked too city slick to be a saved man, and she figured my soul was perched on a slippery slope.  Whatever yardstick she was using to measure the depth of my Christian commitment, the lady sure pegged me right.

I quickly fessed up and frankly told her that my soul was on shaky ground, and as she began to tell me what would be required to get into heaven come judgment day when my soul is finally weighed in the balance, I began to feel like I was hanging over hell’s fire by an eyelash!  Hence I listened carefully as she unfolded a blueprint explaining how I might mend my ways before the good lord ends my days. And she promised that if I followed her advice I might yet escape eternal damnation and come to rest in the bosom of the Lord.  For this, she declared without a smidgeon of doubt, is why the savior died: to wash away our sins with his sacred blood.   I had to concede that it was a heck of a tale, about how and why Jesus died on Calvary’s Cross, but she was such a true believer I could not bear to tell her that the story had long ago ceased to make any sense to me, or that the communion ritual where the believers symbolically ate the body and drank the blood of the Christ strikes me as a grotesque and barbaric act!

Ms Crisler, as it turns out, is a life long Georgian, a small town lady who lives close to the land and pulsates to its rhythms; she is also a true Christian soldier of the Pentecostal faith.  She had a ready answer to all my questions about false prophets and fake Christians, with which I usually flagellate the proselytizers.  When I questioned her about the professed commitment to the Lord by Satin’s minions such as Pat Robertson and George Bush, certain that I had presented her with an unanswerable conundrum, she remained cool as a cucumber and issued this unambiguous instruction: “Center your faith in Christ and follow his word.”  And she assured me that if I did these things I would wind up in heaven at the end of days, even if I was the only one there.  Never mind George Bush because like a tinkling cymbal and a crashing drum, lo his earthly powers were nothing beside the power of God.  She warned that I had best be concerned with the fate of my own soul: “When your time comes you will only have to stand in judgment for yourself.”  She admonished.   It was such an inspirational message  I almost wished I could believe it.  For it would be truly an Amazing Grace that could save a wretch like me!  

*************** 

We chatted about the old South and the disappearance of the racially segregated system that we both had grown up under, she in Georgia and me in Florida, and agreed that we were glad to see it go. I reminded her that when I had left the south in 1959 we would never have been allowed to sit beside each other and carry on a conversation like two human beings created in the image of God.  I told her that I hated the old south so much that it took me 35 years to return to my home!   She seemed truly embarrassed and remorseful about the way southern whites had behaved in the bad old days of American Apartheid, when maintaining white supremacy was a sacred duty of every white person and the vaunted purity of white southern was a pretext for the murder of black men.  After watching her squirm for a moment I decided to drop the subject.  After all, white women in the old south had no more power than black men in relation to the tyranny of white men.  Excepting whatever influence they could exercise as wives, mothers, sisters, and favored aunts.  Like quite a few black women, they were sleeping with the enemy but their influence was limited.  

 As we continued to talk I discovered that she worked with the sick and elderly who are shut in.  And when I discovered that she sang to them our conversation turned to sacred songs.  When I asked her about the songs she sang, she said simply said: “I sing the old songs.”  I took this to mean the traditional church music of the south, as opposed to a lot of these modern songs that you can’t tell from the Devils music.  I could tell this because it’s the exact same way that I feel about the new So-called “Gospel” music; we can’t tell a lot of it from the Devil’s music!  The more we discussed the music the more obvious it became that we had grown up singing out of the same hymn book.  As we both recognized the songs the other had sang it became clear to me that the reason we had sung the same songs is because black and white southerners share the same culture, the same protestant values and beliefs.

 Listening to Mrs. Crisler talk was just like listening to my Aunt Gussie, or my grandfather, George Benjamin, my father’s father, who was a righteous deacon in the Pentecostal church, a mighty servant of the Lord who gave generous tithes to his church. As we talked it became clear that a great part of the reason that black and white folks get along better in the south than the north today is because black and white northerners do not share a common culture.  Northern whites are largely of immigrant stock of fairly recent origin.  And furthermore English is not their first language, and most are not protestant Christians.  For instance, in New York City, the largest metropolis in the world, most whites are either Catholics or Jews.  

Thus the liturgy of their churches and synagogues are foreign to black Americans, who are virtually all Protestants and many are conservative fundamentalists.  For instance, among the hymns that Mrs. Crisler knew and loved was “Precious Lord Take My Hand.”  Since I am fascinated at the paths through which different people find religion, and the ways in which religious ecstasy has inspired great art from Michael Angelo’s paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel to the sacred  music of Johann Sebastian Bach and Mary Lou Williams, I told her the story of how professor Thomas A. Dorsey – a blues musician who was playing piano with Ma Rainey at the time – came to compose this sadly moving and  beautiful sacred song upon learning that his wife and child had both died in childbirth.  It is perhaps a tribute to the majesty of the human spirit that such beauty could come from such sadness.  But I’m sure that Mrs. Crisler would see this as one of the many ways that God extends his grace to mankind.  “All things work together for good to those who love God and are the called according to his purpose,” she said.

Professor Thomas Dorsey: Father Of Modern Gospel Music

 Dorsey_Thomas with Mahalia Jackson

 

With his protégé the great Mahalia Jackson

 

Since neither of us could sleep through the motion of the bus, we talked through the evening and I discovered that like my mother and grandmother she likes to preserve fruits and vegetables.  And like my grand mother – my mother was too “nice/nasty” to play in sand – Mrs. Crisler has a green thumb and actually raises the vegetables she cans in her garden, although she confessed that she bought her peaches from farmers in South Carolina, and act of treason for a native daughter of the “peach state.”  And like my grandmother Claudia Bellamy, who also played the piano and sang in church, she also grew flowers that her neighbors complimented her on.  

 After a rest stop in Charlotte North Carolina I took out my laptop to demonstrate how a computer works.  Like my mother, Mrs. Crisler is somewhat leery of the computer – for which, like my sister Melba, I hold her computer literate sons responsible! -  But I think having a computer and access to the internet can greatly expand the universe of our senior citizens.  That’s why I seize upon every opportunity to introduce them to the magic of the personal computer.   And in this case, because she is such a good speller and has a solid knowledge of English grammar, we ended up writing an essay together.  Mrs. Crisler, a lively septuagenarian was, in every way, an ideal traveling companion.  Although her attempt to win me for Christ has thus far proved futile, for if George Bush and Pat Robertson are men of Christ, I’m down with the Devil!

Since we had stayed up all night composing the first draft of the essay, we remained awake until she departed in the small town of Gainesville Georgia, where she had lived most of her life.  As I watched her meet her ride, another proper southern lady whom I assumed was also a righteous servant of the lord, I speculated that Mrs. Crisler could not imagine the world from which I came, and I felt acutely the great divide in the country that is the inevitable result of our radically different world views.  For while the north is aggressively secular, meaning they still believe in the Thomas Jefferson’s “firewall” between church and state, the south is a cauldron boiling over with religious passions that increasingly resembles the Islamic revival, with increasing numbers of people apparently longing for an American theocracy.  That’s why Bush has been such a success down here with his simple minded messages about being born again, and advocating ludicrous measures like a Constitutional Amendment against Gay Marriage, both of which are highly improbable.  

 ************

Hanging With My Daughter in the Ancient City

Posted in Cultural Matters, Travels in the New South with tags , , , , , , on October 23, 2009 by playthell

 

My Trip to florida with Makeda ETC 256

 

Makeda searches for her Seminole Ancestors

 

From the outset it was a spiritual sojourn.  When I contemplated the gravitas of the event, the inauguration of Barrack Oboma as the 44th President of the United States of America, a land that once enslaved people like him, I knew I had to be somewhere special to mark the occasion with symbolic significance.   For one thing was certain: There would never again be a day like this if I lived another hundred years! 

The fact that Frederick Douglass was easily as smart as Abraham Lincoln, and a far better speaker, yet he was also a slave, and even when he was no longer a slave he was in constant danger of being re-enslaved until the nation erupted in war, makes the election of Barack Hussien Obama even sweeter for African Americans.  The source of this satisfaction lay in the fact that we always knew we were qualified to do anything human beings do…in spite of how hard the white folks tried to convince us otherwise.  

It was obviously the biggest story I would ever come across in my writing life, and the most inspirational story a generation of American youths had seen, or were likely to see, and I wanted to try and help my progeny understand the full measure of the event that was unfolding.   Yet it soon became clear to me that while my younger daughter, Makeda, rejoiced at the election of our nation’s first African American President, and that the lovely brilliant Michele is now America’s First Lady, these events did not mean the same thing to her that they meant to me.  It was a generational thing.   

While Makeda and her twin brother Samori have a sense of history, and thus understand on the intellectual level the significance of President Obama’s ascension to the most powerful office in the world, they never doubted that he would win because he was so obviously the best qualified candidate.   People of my generation, white and black, were not persuaded by this fact, because we had seen too many highly qualified black people passed over in favor of whites with inferior credentials. This unbridled optimism expressed by my progeny is the result of them having attended school and competed with whites in the class room and the athletic fields and held their own. 

Furthermore, they had also gone to schools that emphasized academic achievement and were staffed by progressive teachers who were overwhelmingly white, yet they never experienced any racism from them.  In fact they were more often than not the teacher’s pets.    Makeda and Samori also got on fabulously with their multi-racial school mates, and white parents who wanted their children to have diverse friends often sought them out as the preferred playmates for their children because they were just the kind of well scrubbed, well behaved, bright black kids that white parents found ideal.  They both graduated from the prestigious Beacon School – the same high school that Governor Patterson proudly announced that his son had been admitted to in his inaugural address – both were two sport athletes and also graduated with honors in science and the humanities.   Furthermore Samori was voted captain of the fencing and baseball teams…and he was the only black kid on either team. 

While Samori opted  to attend a black college, Makeda attended a big white  private university where she was a Division I sprinter competing in the 100 and 200 meter races, a choreographer and principal dancer in a university dance company, plus a Science Merit Scholar and a Dean List student. Makeda got the loudest applause at graduation ceremonies when it was announced that she had been admitted to graduate school at the elite Columbia University; and the Dean of the School of Health Sciences personally told me and her mother what a wonderful student she had been.  

Hence Makeda has successfully competed against whites in a number of endeavors – among the best and the brightest too – and her identity as an African American woman is a source of pride.  Like the poet Langston Hughes, she gloried in her blackness.  And the fact that the actor Samuel L. Jackson, was once her baby sitter; Trumpet master Wynton Marsalis, writer/McArthur Fellow Stanley Crouch, and Harvard biologist S. Alan Counter were friends of her daddy’s, all contributed to the notion that anything was possible if you were talented and worked hard enough.   And the election of Barack adds an exclamation point!

 However as Makeda began to explore the dance traditions of the Spanish and French speaking African Diaspora in the Americas, and compared them to African traditions in dance and drumming, she discovered a much lager input from the cultural inventories of Native Americans than she had expected.   And as she performed more and more with dance companies that specialized in the dance traditions of the African Diaspora, the more her colleagues would inquire about her Native American ancestry -  which was obvious to Latin Americans from her facial features.  She heard this so often that she began to research her family for evidence of Amerindian ancestry. 

 Makeda and the Great Seminole War Chief Osceola

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Members Of the Same Tribe?

 

 When her research revealed that she has a Native American great grandmother, a grandfather with a Seminole surname, and several other Native American ancestors,  it set her off on an intellectual  quest to uncover her Native American roots and honor them as distinguished ancestors  just as I she has honored her African ancestors.  However, Makeda is a serious intellectual with an encyclopedic approach to gathering data on  subjects of interest to her.  Her detective work in uncovering her Native American ancestry has led Makeda to interrogate her parents and other family members about our shadowy Native American kinsmen.

Makeda’s research into the genocide against Native Americans by the European invaders has left her contemptuous of white America’s claim to ownership of this bountiful land.  And the more she learns about the myriad ways in which Native Americans extended a helping hand to African slaves in the US, including intermarrying, the deeper her disdain for the indifference that Afro-Americans show to the present plight of Native Americans, as well as our Native American heritage, which she authoritatively points out is stronger in many black Americans than the African heritage  we celebrate.   This she can demonstrate from the perspectives of physical and cultural anthropology.

Her study of the dispossession of Native Americans led Makeda to argue in a graduate school paper, written in reply to a query about the disappearing family farm due to the onslaught of massive corporate farms associated with agri-business: “I have no sympathy for the white farmers who are being forced off their land by agri-business; now they have some small idea of what the native Americans suffered as a result of the wholesale theft of their lands, which, having no concept of private property, the willingly shared with the European settlers.  As a descendent of enslaved Africans and Native Americans who were the victims of genocide, I do not recognize the rights of whites to fertile American farm lands anymore than black South Africans recognize the claims of white farmers to their land, which they stole under the oppressive racist laws of apartheid and now wish to keep.”  

 Since St. Augustine Florida is the first European settlement in North America, there is a rich historical record of how the European invaders dealt with the Native Americans – whom they called “Indians.”  There are primary documents from the Spanish era in the city’s historical archives, and there is the massive Castillo de San Marcos which dominates the downtown skyline.  Ever since I was a boy I heard the apocryphal dramatic escape of Chief Osceola from a prison cell where he was imprisoned by white Americans.  The wily and fearless chief is said to have starved himself until he became thin enough to escape through a sky light  in the massive stone wall.   I was moved by the story when my grandfather first told it to me, and my daughter is just as fascinated with the tale today. 

When we visited the Castillo it was a moving experience; Makeda read every word posted about Native Americans, especially the Seminoles with whom she shares ancestry.   This was her spiritual journey, a foray back into the blood stained history that shaped the character of our nation.  Thus when she entered the prison cell of Osceola it was a metaphysical experience, and she offered a silent libation to his heroic resistance against the enslavers of Africans and slaughterers of Native Americans. 

Makeda in the prison of Osceola

My Trip to florida with Makeda ETC 263 

 Standing silently under the portal where Grand Dad said Osceola escaped

The evidence of these massive crimes against humanity is everywhere here in St. Augustine, where the dispossession and genocide against the Native Americans began.  Just a few blocks from the Castilio stands the old slave market, where her African Ancestors were sold like live stock, and the evidence of genocide against the native peoples of this land is ubiquitous in street markers and exhibits.  She even taught me a thing or two about the relationships between Africans and Native Americans right here in St. Augustine, and I’m a former history professor.  For instance, due to her sharp powers of observation Makeda spotted the marker announcing that the African American community that I grew up in – which was originally known as “Little Africa” but was renamed “Lincolnville” after the Civil War in honor of the “Great Emancipator” – was originally a Native American community. 

This sign Speaks volumes

My Trip to florida with Makeda ETC 208

 

The Evidence of Things Unseen!

I had never known this bit of St. Augustine’s story, and to tell the truth, I had never thought about it; nor had I ever heard anybody else in the African American community talk about.  This is just the sort of silence and ignorance that so annoys Makeda: and justly so. However it was the exhibits at the Castilio and the primary documents from the era of Spanish rule in the historical archives of St. Augustine that interested Makeda the most.  Armed with and inspired by an unusual combination of intellectual interests and skills – dancer, scientist, athlete, writer – her main problem intellectually has been to find an area of study that can accommodate her diverse interests.  She seems to have found it in the field of Medical Anthropology, in which she is presently preparing to pursue a PhD program.  Her main interests is in the traditional healing practices of non-European peoples – the rest of the world – and what they can teach the conventionally trained western scientist about the healing arts.  

A voracious reader of scientific treatises, Makeda can rattle off a dizzying array of scientific studies extolling the wisdom of traditional cultures in the uses of medicinal plants and spiritual rituals in maintaining the physical and emotional health of the populace. And she convincingly argues that the decimation of the Native American population has as much to do with the spiritual death that occurred when their cultural rituals were suppressed and denied them – their music, dance and religious practices – as the physical slaughters that attended their relations with whites.  In the exhibits on display in the Castilio, Makeda found solid evidence for her hypothesis, especially the exhibit on the tribes from the western plains who were brought to the Castillo as prisoners of war.

 

A memorial to the plains tribesmen

My Trip to florida with Makeda ETC 326 

Some of the prisoners who were once free men in the “Wild West”

 

My Trip to florida with Makeda ETC 319 

 Faces of the Damned

 The texts that accompany the images above tell how the United States government systematically removed these “Braves” from their homelands because they led the resistance against the dispossession of their people by the European invaders.  The Native Americans never really had a chance because they were still in the Paleolithic period, where hunting and gathering cultures were the norm;  alas they were facing the onslaught of a culture that was already in the modern industrial age.  

 Furthermore, the US government had perfected the techniques of modern warfare – which they practically invented during the American Civil War that had only recently concluded.  Yet there was no way for these warriors of the Great Plains to know that the wagon trains bearing the murderous “palefaces” would not stop coming because they were only the advance guard of an expanding predatory civilization.  Hence in spite of their bravery, the Native Americans never had a chance.   That’s why we have records of the phenomenon of “ghost dancing” that was widely observed among the tribes of the Great Plains.  It was their attempt to communicate with the spirits of their slaughtered kinsmen.  In the exhibit at the Castillo there are drawings done by prisoners that are the counter-part of ghost dancing expressed as graphic art.   Both rituals represent a deep feeling of loss created by a people who had lost everything of value to them in the last days of the genocide.

 My Trip to florida with Makeda ETC 322

 

The caption explaining the meaning of the drawings

 My Trip to florida with Makeda ETC 324

Aftermath of the Genocide

The things that intrigued Makeda most was those texts that told of the intricate and far flung trade networks established by Native Americans, which showed them to be intelligent people who were capable of building a self-sustaining culture, and thus exposes the rationale for the European policy of dispossession and genocide  against them as nothing more than transparent racist apologia, what Fredrick Douglass eloquently labeled a thin veil of hypocrisy designed to camouflage “practices that would disgrace a nation of savages!”   Hence to Makeda’s mind it was the European invaders that were the real savages.  They were the one’s who destroyed the lives, homes and culture of a people who had received them as brothers and helped them survive in the wilderness of North America.  And everything she learned from her research in the ancient city supplied compelling evidence for her thesis.

 Rummaging through the archives

My Trip to florida with Makeda ETC 340 

 In search the truth about her ancestors

 Since she was scheduled to perform with a Haitian dance troupe at the inaugural ball hosted by “Haitians for Oboma” in Washington, it was virtually impossible to get her out of the Castillio, as she tried to soak up all the knowledge she could in the short period of time, and since she is in great condition and full of energy – intellectual and physical, she nearly wore me out.  Given Makeda’s scholarly interests, she will pay many more visits too the Ancient city, where so much of her family history is rooted.

 

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

 

 

Text, Photos and videos by: Playthell Benjamin

St. Augustine Florida

January 2009

 

*Note: 2, 417 words

Hanging Out In the Magic City!

Posted in Cultural Matters, Travels in the New South on October 10, 2009 by playthell

Reflections from my Sojourn to Miami, March 2009

 El Chocolate Caliente in Cuba-final

 “El Chocolate Caliente Surveys New Habana!

 

Although I grew up in the Sunshine State I had never ventured down to Miami before.   In spite of the fact that all the dudes from down here called it “The Magic City” when I went up on “The Hill” to attend college at Florida A&M in 1959, I never ventured down to check it out for myself.  I guess it’s because it was south of St. Augustine, the ancient city where I came of age, and whenever I traveled from my home town I was catching the first thing smoking headed north.  I hated southern crackers and I must have concluded the further south you went the worse the crackers got.  Yet there is no proof that it was ever thus; it could have been all in my head.  And from what I have learned about life in Miami back in the day, chances are it was just a figment of my imagination – they may not have been worse but they were bad enough!

 From what I was able to tell from the impressions I gathered during my brief sojourn as a drive by sociologist: It is the best and the worse of times for black folks in this southernmost American metropolis.  Like many places in the south, black community life as such has deteriorated since the demise of the system of American apartheid popularly known as “segregation.”   For one thing, just as I have observed in northern Florida, black community based businesses have virtually disappeared and other community institutions have fizzled. 

The one exception to this rule is the church; yet even this venerable institution – our rock in stormy seas and the light that illuminated the dark days of white supremacy – does not have the influence it once had: especially among the youths!  And all of these problems are aggravated by the fact that the black community is splintered along class lines due to the expanded freedom offered to the affluent stratum of Afro-Americans.  Whereas Afro-Americans in the south were forced to live together in a racially restricted community regardless of class, which had the unintended consequence of forging a community of interests between blacks across class lines, now that unity is broken as the wealthy classes choose where to reside based on their financial means.  And more often than not, that is as far away from poor blacks as the distance rich whites have always maintained from poor southern rednecks.  The ever insightful Dr. DuBois spotted this trend developing in the late 1950’s and denounced it in his stirring 1958 essay “Interpretations.”

 Yet this is in the nature of things, and it is by no means peculiar to Afro-American experience. It appears to be axiomatic, a sort of sociological law, that as excluded minority groups gain entry into the mainstream society many of its unique institutions and even cultural characteristics will disappear.  After all, they only existed in the first place because the minorities were discriminated against by the larger society. Hence we can observe this phenomenon in other ethnic groups who have traveled this route.  And it appears to hold true whether we confine our observations to the US or examine the process of cultural assimilation and resistance world wide. 

Sometimes the cultural impact of the majority group is so powerful that even when they are conquered by powerful invaders the conquerors are swallowed up by the dominant culture.  For instance: the Mongol king Ghengis Khan conquered ancient China, but Chinese culture was so powerful that his son Kubla Khan was as much a “Chinese Emperor” as anyone in the Ming Dynasty.  But the classic pattern of assimilation can be observed among the Jews living in Christian societies, whether it was the Catholic and Lutheran societies of Poland and Germany, or the predominately Anglo-Saxon Protestant society of the USA.  In each case the educated upper stratum among the Jews who received higher education in the Christian universities abandoned much of their “Jewishness.”

Often this alienation from the ethnic culture is sub-conscious; the inevitable consequence of being exposed to the wider world of learning and opportunity offered by a modern university education, especially the personal contacts and even intimate relationships the heretofore excluded minority citizen forms with their counterparts in the dominant group.  But there are numerous instances when a minority group member makes a conscious decision to assimilate into the larger group – often at considerable psychological damage to themselves.  For instance, in her learned and insightful book ‘Love Across Color Lines,” Professor Maria Dedtrict, a German scholar, tells the story of a German Jewish lawyer/poet who marries a Christian actress and converts to Lutheranism to escape his Jewishness; but later commits suicide when his neighbors and business associates refer to him as “the Lutheran Jew.”

 The experience of the Jews is an excellent model to use in an attempt to fully understand this model of assimilation because they are history’s quintessential outsiders.  Which is largely due to their religion and the cultural practices mandated by it; a highly complex set of beliefs and practices that sets them apart from the beliefs, values and cultural mores of the majority and makes them conspicuous outsiders.  We can observe specific examples of this process at work in a variety of Jewish experiences.  But let us confine our analysis to the experience of Jewish assimilation in Poland, Germany and the US.

In his fictive autobiography “A Young Man in Search of Love,” the Polish Jewish writer Isaac Beschevitz Singer, the only scribe to win the much coveted Nobel Prize for works written in Yiddish, the language of the Eastern European “ghetto” – a term invented by Eastern European Jews and later employed to describe the Afro-American condition – we get a first hand account of the trials and tribulations of educated Polish Jews struggling with the problem of a dual identity as Poles and Jews. 

This is clearly the same class of phenomenon that Dr. W.E.B. DuBois described as “double consciousness” among Afro-Americans in his 1903 masterpiece “The Souls of Black Folk.”  When I read Singer’s book I was immediately struck by the similarity of many of the Polish Jewish issues to the perennial Afro-American struggles with identity.  One of the issues that impressed me most profoundly was the struggle of university students over the question of language: whether the educated Jew should speak Polish or Yiddish for instance. 

He Won the Nobel Prize Writing In Yiddish! 

IsaacBashevis Singer

An Assimilated Polish Hasidic Jew In Manhattan

Some of the university students denied that Yiddish was a language at all – simply ghetto slang spoken by the untutored Jewish mob without benefit of exposure to the wider world of learning and culture.  This was a direct result of their alienation from ghetto life as a result of matriculation in the Polish university, which was a repository of the ideas and values of modern western civilization – the dominant culture of the contemporary world.   Although this argument had taken place in the 1920’s and 30’s – before the holocaust – it bore an uncanny resemblance to the arguments that were presently raging among black Americans about the use of “Black English” or “Ebonics” half a century later. 

 Another question that troubled Eastern European Jewish intellectuals which remains a burning concern for black Americans is the role of the creative artist – especially those who produce recorded music with lyrics, fiction and drama: the story telling arts.  Reading the passages where Singer describes his dilemma as a novelist fascinated by the canon of modern European literature that he discovered at the University of Warsaw, but was expected to reject in favor of the Yiddish tradition of morality plays as exemplified by its most famous writer, the dramatist Shalom Aliekum, I am reminded of the dilemma of black creative artists in America.  Who are also expected to bear the cross of uplifting the race when other materials may be far more interesting as subjects for artistic exploration.  And this was doubly so in the case of Beshevitzs Singer because his father was a Hassidic Rabbi who saw the world in stark contrasts of good and evil, thus he viewed secular writing as a waste of a God given gift and therefore an abomination!

 To make matters worse, while the modern European writer employed his art as a mirror held up to his society to expose their flaws – hypocrisies, avarice, treachery, adulteries, etc – the Jewish community expected their writers to speak only in terms that dignified the Jewish personality and glorified Jewish traditions.  An attitude that is also prevalent in the Afro-American community. But Singer saw the world and his role as a writer differently.  After pointing out that in his father’s world everything was pure and orderly and thus all writing worthy of the reading should be religiously inspired and have a clear moral purpose; and that the Jewish bourgeoisie thought he should write only of Jewish doctors, lawyers, businessmen and other such respectable Jewish characters, Singer observes that having discovered the freedom offered by Modern literature he was far more interested in exploring the world of “Jewish pimps and whores in Argentina.”  This is clearly a moral conundrum that confronts Afro-American writers even as I write.

 There are many parallels between the black and Jewish experience in coming to terms with their proper place in modern western civilization – a civilization that committed genocide against both groups, preceded by every variety of man’s inhumanity to man – obviously a comprehensive comparative analysis is far beyond the scope of this essay; so one final example will have to suffice.  The age old oppression of blacks and Jews in modern western civilizations has been such that both groups sought an escape to a promised land somewhere beyond the pale of oppression.  Somewhere that could offer freedom for their bodies and refuge for their battered spirits.  For the Jews of Eastern Europe the answer was Zionism; for Afro-Americans it was Pan- Africanism.  In fact, the African Emigrationist movement among Afro-Americans predates the Zionist movement among the Jews.

The upshot of this comparative analysis between the historical experience of European Jews and Afro-Americans is to shed light on the contemporary experience of physical integration and cultural assimilation of black Americans in a predominantly white society.  However the difference between how those two experiences culminated is, to say the least, dramatic.  For the Jews of Europe it was the ovens and gas chambers of the holocaust that killed half the Jews of that continent; it took a world war to end this horror.  For African Americans it took a Ghandian type mass passive resistance movement led by inspired Christian visionaries tutored by a modern day prophet and apostle of peace and brotherly love named Martin Luther King, whose namesake was a renegade Catholic Priest who founded the Protestant Church: Martin Luther, a vicious anti-Semite whose teachings help fire the anti-Jewish madness of the Nazis!

 Hence it is the experience of the Jews in modern American society – i.e. post world War II – that holds the greatest relevance for us.   For it was here to “The Golden Land” that the survivors of the European holocaust retreated in the greatest numbers.  And although they began as outsiders too, they had something going for them that Afro-Americans didn’t – they had pale skins!  And unlike Europe, in the American pigmentocracy color trumps religious differences.  There is no greater evidence for this assertion than the fact that the average white Catholic would rather see their sons and daughters marry a white Jew than a black Catholic! 

Furthermore, the Jews wisely played upon Christian guilt about the godless atrocity of the holocaust and gained the sympathy of many powerful WASPS.    Added to these advantages was the reverence for learning promoted by the Jewish Talmudic tradition of disciplined study and critical thinking.  When taken together these factors served to propel the Jews ahead of Afro-Americans in the USA, and thus they successfully assimilated into the middle and upper classes of the larger white protestant society at a faster rate than African Americans even though we had a longer tenure in this land.  In fact, Africans had been in America since the beginning of it’s colonization by Europeans – especially in Florida – and the United States of America as we know it is unimaginable without the input of African-Americans!

 Yet by the 1950’s American Jews had become so entrenched in the American Middle and upper classes, and had amassed such great wealth through the acumen of their business class, they could build their own recreational palace on Miami Beach, the Fontambleu, which rivaled the Kenilworth, a bastion of opulence reserved for white Christian  big shots.  And by the 1960’s even Jews of comparatively recent American provenance had become so comfortably assimilated that Norman Podhoretz, a New York Jewish intellectual of Eastern European background, could confidently write of the need for Afro-Americans to forget about being “Negroes” and assimilate into “American society.”  However the irony, absurdity and impertinence of Mr. Podhoretz’s prescription for Afro-American deliverance didn’t escape black intellectuals, such as the broadly learned and uniquely insightful aesthetic theoretician and often caustic cultural critic, Albert Murray, who dismissed Podhoretz’s claim  as the confused light-weight prattle that it is.

 ************

 The fact is that a great part of the problem which remains in American Race relations has much to do with the failure of non-black Americans to fully recognize the long tenure and critical role African Americans have played in that unique experiment in the wilderness of North America that has evolved into the United States of America.  After all, black men from whom I descended not only enlisted and fought in the American Revolution by the thousands, but many were veterans of the French and Indian wars – in which they had fought side by side with their Anglo-Saxon countrymen.  The heroes of the battles of Bunker Hill and Lexington and Concord, the initial skirmishes of the Revolution, were both black men: Peter Salem and Salem Poor.  And the first man to die by British fire in defense of the Revolutionary ideal was Chrispus Attucks, a Bostonian of African/Native American heritage.

 This failure to recognize the critical role of African Americans in the making of the United States is often the case with the immigrant population in the US, and is at the root of the Afro-American/Cuban tensions in Miami.  Afro-Americans I talk to on all levels agree that most white, and Mestizo wannabe white, Cubans are racist toward them.  But anyone who is familiar with the patterns of race relations in pre-revolutionary Cuba, where the founders of the Miami Cuban community were born and socialized, will not be surprised by this charge.  They know that Cuba was a very racist place before the revolution; wealth and status were very closely related to color, with Cuban whites forming an oligarchy.  And even a half century after the triumph of the revolution power is still monopolized by an white elite – in spite of radical changes in the racial status and life chances of Afro-Cubans.

The unmistakable lesson the Cuban Revolution has taught us about racism is that it is culturally rooted and cannot be simply legislated away.  I have no doubt that Fidel Castro wished racism in Cuba would disappear; but you cannot wish racism away, even if you are as all powerful as Fidel Castro was.  Carlos Moore, an Afro-Cuban political scientist of Jamaican heritage, has written poignantly about white racism in Cuba in several scholarly works, but none more powerfully than his new memoir “Pechung.”  In this work Moore delves deeply into the racial morass in Cuba.  Unlike the white Cuban dissidents, Carlos does not deny that Cuba needed a revolution against the self-indulgent racist oligarchy that ruled the country with an iron fist. 

 

Telling The Truth About Color In Cuba

Carlos Moore II

A Marked Man!

His problem is that even fifty years after the revolution the new white rulers continue to give lip service in behalf of racial equality, and even pass laws banning racist practices and policies: But they refuse to engage in an honest discourse with black Cuban intellectuals on the question of the persistence of racism in revolutionary Cuba!   This is the same thing I have heard from other Afro-Cubans, and it is reflected in the poetry of their hip/hop artists; which is the voice of young black Cubans even more so than among Afro-American youths who invented the art form. 

“Discussion of race was taboo in Cuba before the revolution,” says Carlos, “and it became even more even so after the revolution!”   Yet the history of Cuba is such that “It is impossible to separate race from class.”  And he notes that this is the case throughout South America:  “In Latin America…you cannot deal with one without discussing the other.”  Carlos points out that the raison d’etre for his family’s relocation to Cuba in the early twentieth century was the anti-black genocide of 1912, which slaughtered “thousands of blacks: men, women and children!” 

 This mass slaughter created a shortage of agricultural workers in the cane fields and forced the white Cuban government to recruit black workers from other islands.  But once there these foreign blacks were the target of racial animus by white and mestizo Cubans who referred to them as “Peschung, which means foreign excrement” says Carlos, “It was worse than being called nigger on the US mainland.   “I grew up fighting against that term,” he says.  This was the racial system that existed in Cuba before the Revolution; it was so racially exclusive and devoted to white supremacy that even Fulgencia Batista, the mulatto strong man who ruled Cuba before the revolution, was refused entry into white social clubs and his children were barred from swimming on white beaches. 

 Carlos’s insistence on raising the race question in the days following the revolution got him in big trouble: first landing him in jail as a counter-revolutionary, then exile.  Yet in spite of it all this he continues to defend the revolution as a good and necessary thing, in spite of the way the Cuban government trashes his name by accusing him of being a traitor and CIA snitch.  Anyone seeking to understand the complex problem of race in Cuba should begin by reading the works of Carlos Moore; the preeminent authority on the subject.  And only after gaining an understanding the history of race and class in Cuba can one hope to make sense of the character of the Cuban community in Miami and how they relate to Afro-Americans, who are an integral part of the original peoples who built the American nation. 

**********

 I however learned about the realities of race and class in Cuba much earlier, and my education came through personal interactions with Afro-Cubans.  I first became aware of the black population of Cuba when I was a student at Florida A&M University in 1959, the year that the revolutionaries took power on that island just 90 miles off the Florida coast.  There were foreign students from all over the black world on campus at the time, but the Afro-Cubans stood out to me because of their marvelous music. This was no small achievement because great musicians were common fare on campus; many of the great jazz orchestras were breaking up and gifted musicians who had opted for careers as performers were now returning to college to get their degrees and become music teachers and band masters in the black schools throughout the south. 

Many of these artists were attracted to Florida A&M because great musicians like Julian “Cannonball Adderly – who was playing alto saxophone with the seminal Miles Davis Septet, which featured John Coltrane on tenor sax – and his trumpeter brother Nat Adderly, who was featured with the legendary Lionel Hampton Orchestra, had made A&M’s music program world famous.  During the time I was there A&M had a performance space in the student union building called “The Ebony Lounge,” where some legendary jam sessions were held.  That’s where I first heard the Afro-Cubans play their music and I was swept away by their dynamic and exotic sound. 

Strangely enough, although I was a drummer it was not the drums that originally caught my ear, rather it was the piano with its wonderful montunos, those rhythmic figures that shape the character of the musical form known as the Son Montuno, the Typica Afro-Cuban orchestral form.  Then, as now, the sound of the piano drove me into paroxysms of pleasure.  However a couple of years later I fell in love with a beautiful Puerto Rican dancer and she introduced me to the Conga drums and took me to see Francisco “Mongo” Santamaria, a great Afro-Cuban virtuoso of the conga and bongo drums.  I couldn’t believe the complex rhythms and various timbres and textures of sound Mongo was able to produce from those wooden drums with cow skin heads played with the naked hand.  I was smitten!  

Mongo and I became fast friends and our relationship grew to the point that we became like brothers.  He became my teacher and by the time I was 25 I had become accomplished enough on the conga drums to actually substitute for him in a concert with his great band; A band which included the gifted saxophonist Bobby Capers, and Hubert Laws, one of the greatest Flutist and piccolo players of the twentieth century.  For instance, when Hubert left Mongo’s band he held down the first chair in the woodwind section of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra under Maestro Leonard Bernstein, the most famous symphony orchestra in the world!  I fell in love with everything Cuban: the music; the cuisine; the women.  In fact I even married a beautiful Afro-Cuban senorita!

 This all happened in the mid 1960’s, but I have continued to study and write about Cuba and I just played a gig with Zon del Barrio, one of the hottest Latin bands in New York – the capital of Afro-Cuban music, the claims of Miami notwithstanding – just recently.  And the performance can be viewed on You Tube.        

Playing with the Mongo Santamaria Orchestra circa 1967

 

 Hubert Laws, Bobby Capers and trumpeter Marty Scheller

 

Me and my Cuban Wife!

 Playthell&Dorothy

A brilliant psychologist and my favorite Mambo partner

 

As a result of these personal relationships with Afro-Cubans I got a first hand education about racism in Cuba.  My first lesson came when I invited Mongo to a lecture I was presenting at a school in Philadelphia, and I sat him among a group of light skin Hispanics.  But when I looked up he had removed himself and sat among Afro-Americans.  When I later told him that I had placed him there because I thought he would be more comfortable sitting among his people, he replied simply: “I am among my people.”  Carlos Moore also makes the point that he feels far more at home among black Americans than amidst white, mulatto or mestizo Cubans.  “I never felt any discrimination among Afro-Americans,” says Carlos. 

My wife Dorothy’s father was jet black but her mother looked almost white, however she was Jamaican – an island that also has a history of serious color problems between its light and dark skinned citizens.  One day I asked her father about race relations in Cuba, and he said: ”Rich white Cubans treated their dogs better than us!  Since the Cubans I knew were mostly blacks, mulattos and mestizos who loved Afro-Cuban music, I had never actually experienced the racist attitudes they were all talking about – although there are plenty of those types in northern Jersey towns like Union City, which was the headquarters of white anti-Castro Cuban organizations such as Alpha 66. 

 Celia Cruz

Celia Cruz

The Queen Of Latin Song!

I can still see the anger and disgust on Mongo’s face when he talked about the great Afro-Cuban songstress Celia Cruse performing benefit concerts for them to raise money.  His outrage was palpable when he’d say: “What can Celia be thinking bout Playthell…She knows what it was like for us in Cuba before the revolution!”  It was with these images in mind that I set out from New York on my first visit to the Magic City.   And these were buttressed by the reports of my younger daughter Makeda, a native New Yorker who has made several trips to Miami.  A fitness competitor, Makeda first went to Miami to compete in the “Miss South Beach Bikini Fitness” contest.

After spending a coupleof days in Miami, Makeda called me and said: ‘Daddy I have met the first group of Hispanic people that I don’t like.  I can’t stand these damn white Cubans down here.  They are the most racist, arrogant group of people I have ever met! “Now, my daughter grew up with Hispanic kids in Manhattan, in fact I tease her by calling her “Oyea Keda!”    She even dances with Hispanic folkloric companies; as I write she is in Puerto Rico dancing with a Bomba troupe.  And my son was a baseball player all through high school and most of his close buddies are Hispanic.  And I always had Hispanic friends. 

Makeda!

In spanish Harlem With Keda 198

Ritmo Caliente!

 Dancing The Mambo In Spanish Harlem

So this is a girl who has spent most of her life around Hispanic people.  But she hates Miami – although part of this is a result of her New York chauvinism which inclines her to view Miami as a pretentious backwater New York wannabe.  I also have friends from northern Florida – life long residents of the Sunshine State – who hate Miami too.  One public official told me “I wouldn’t live in Miami for anything!  And I have another friend from Atlanta who often travels to Miami to conduct business, where he stays in the finest hotels, but he hates Miami too.  And I have numerous former classmates who settled in southern Florida: they like Miami but detest the Cubans, whom they view as “arrogant racist interlopers.”  And unlike me they have no interest in Cuban culture.  They just wish they would go back where they came from mucho pronto!

 Suffice it to say that my take on Miami during my brief visit is quite different.  I loved it!   I think it is a kind of New York of the south.  And since I love Cuban food and music I was in Nirvana. The contacts I had with Cubans occurred in hotels, restaurants and the night clubs of South Beach, a modern day Babylon where life is a bacchanal 24/7.  My greatest disappointment was not being able to find a Mambo partner that who could dance on the level that I am accustomed to in New York!  

This is How We do It!

 Scenes from New Years Eve and other 210

 At Gonzalez y Gonzales!

But I would later discover that the great bands and dancers are not on South Beach, which is over run with tourists, but in the Cuban night clubs such as Gloria Estefan’s spot in downtown Miami, and the clubs in Halieah.  Yet in spite of being forced to stumble around the dance floor with graceless plodders who can’t even hear – let alone dance to – the clave: I achieved my objective of meeting with the legendary radio mogul Tom Joyner, who was hosting the mega concert Jazz in the Gardens, an annual event promoted by the City of Miami Gardens and produced by the legendary Leon “Kwaku” Saunders – who along with basket ball great Julius Dr. J. Irving and singer Natalie Cole – was once my student at the university of Massachusetts.  Hence in spite of what them, thar, dem and dose say: Miami is still The Magic City to me!

*********

 

 * Cover photo by: Kwame Brathwaite

Photos of dancers and text by: Playthell Benjamin

 

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