Archive for September, 2009

No Attack On Iran!

Posted in On Foreign Affairs, Playthell on politics on September 30, 2009 by playthell

Bibi Netanyahu II The Saber Rattlers

Netanyahu must not push America into another War!

 On the eve of the six party negotiations with Iran, and Mr. Armidenijade’s statement that “nuclear weapons belong to the past generations, we see no need for such weapons” it was alarming to hear a casual discussion on MSNBC’s Hardball last night as to whether or not Israel should attack Iran and bomb their nuclear facilities.  The only question for the show’s animated host, Chris Matthews, was if the Israeli’s could pull it off on their own.

At one point Matthews asked why the Israeli’s didn’t just pull a surprise commando raid like they did in Uganda and assassinate the Iranian leadership.  It was a silly question on the face of it – given the vast differences in the military capabilities between Iran and Uganda – and it exposed how little Matthews understands about the world.  In the fog of ignorance I Guess one Third World country looks like another to him.

The answer from the two middle east experts – one a policy wonk from that right wing think tank The American Enterprise Institute, and Bob Baer, a former CIA agent – was that the Israeli’s could start a war with Iran, but they couldn’t finish it without American help.  In every scenario they could imagine: if the Israeli’s attack Iran the US will be drawn into the ensuing war.

What was most intriguing about the entire discussion was the absence of any respect for the sovereignty of Iran, or the morality of the actions they were discussing, or how similar these arguments sound to the rhetoric that preceded the invasion of Iraq.  It is no wonder the Iranians feel threatened.

This situation could turn out to be a foreign policy nightmare for President Obama, who has made it abundantly clear that he is opposed to such an attack by the Israelis.  However Bibi Netanyahu appears to want to make it a contest as to who has the biggest balls, manifested in this instance as political clout with the US media and Congress. The Israeli Prime Minister’s arrogance stems from the fact that Israeli support groups have a great track record at applying pressure on elected officials to gain American support for Israel’s policies in the middle East.

Hence it should have surprised no one that the Iranians recently fired a long range rocket to warn anyone considering an attack on Iran to think again if they believe it will be risk free.  It is no different from what Americans would do.  If the Israeli’s feel that they are justified in attacking Iran because they may be developing the capacity to make an atomic bomb at some time in the future, by that same logic the Iranians could justify a preemptive attack on Israel’, who already has a well stocked  nuclear arsenal and is threatening to attack Iran!

Given the well know history of American intervention in Iranian affairs, President Obama must make it plain that the US is unalterably opposed to any Israeli attack on Iran.  For this nation cannot sustain another war in the Muslim world…or anywhere else.


 Playthell Benjamin

Harlem New york

September 19, 2009

A Great Day On Sugar Hill!

Posted in Cultural Matters on September 28, 2009 by playthell

 Meet Me at Paul Robeson Boulevard


And Count Basie Place!

 Count Basie at the Piano

 It’s About Time!!!

Meet me at Robeson blvd. And Basie Place 247

Well Alright Now!!

 Erecting monuments and naming streets is a time honored way of paying homage to those whose contributions to society have made our lives better. By having lived the lives they lived during their time on earth our lives today are richer, and fuller, because of their deeds.  Sometimes that contribution is obvious, because they are material, as in the case of scientists who cure diseases; or generals who are triumphant in war; or philanthropic businessmen who pay for buildings that bear their name. Yet there are others whose contributions are immaterial, though richer still, because they enrich our inner life through their contributions to art, literature, music, philosophy, social activism and political leadership.

 In west African societies, from whence came the ancestors that shaped some fundamental aspects the American cultural heritage of the two men we are honoring here today, there are ceremonies known as ancestor veneration rituals.  On such occasions there is music and dance and feasting and the recitation of praise poems extolling the deeds of the great spirits who are being honored.  That is how I view our task today.  Both Bill Basie and  Big Paul Robeson were sons of our neighboring state of New Jersey – the former from Red Bank the latter from Princeton – and their deeds are of such a magnitude that, if properly understood, could end all the dirty jokes about that much maligned state.

 Paul Robeson from was one of my earliest heroes. Having grown up in St. Augustine Florida and enjoying the benefit of an education in a school system designed by James Weldon Johnson, our teachers told us of the legendary scholar athlete from Rutgers, who became a great Shakespearian actor, world renowned concert singer who elevated the songs of slaves to great art, lawyer, and fearless freedom fighter.   Although in the 1950’s when I was in high school they had to virtually whisper his name in the racist apartheid south, because of persecution by a white supremacists government and school board to whom Paul Robeson represented a menace to the social order.  And indeed he was!  

 It was in the nature of things that this greatly gifted and proud black man would find it impossible to accept the proposition that white men who were demonstrably his inferiors would dare to deem him their inferior and kick him, and all who looked like him, to the curb where they would watch the parade of history but never join the procession as an equal partner in shaping the grand saga that is American history. 

Since Paul Robeson was as near to human perfection as we are ever likely to see – the personification of the ancient Greek Ideal of mind body perfection – he was superior to all the white men of his generation…and although he never said it, he had to know it!  We would be a better nation today had he served as our President during the period when Franklin Delanor Roosevelt sat in the Oval Office. For Robeson, a hero of militant freedom fighters all over the world, was fighting fascism in Spain while Roosevelt fiddled and IBM built machines that made the NAZI genocide against European Jews more efficient!

At one point Paul Robeson was the most famous of all Americans – singing the sacred songs of his enslaved ancestors on the stages of the great concert halls of the world – and marching with struggling workers everywhere in the advanced industrial world.  His work in behalf of world peace and universal brotherhood inspired the Russians to name a mountain after him even as his own government tried to extinguish any memory of his noble deeds. 

 Yet even the vicious American government, with its inhumane racial caste system, could not contain Robeson’s genius nor extinguish his memory.  As an artist and engaged intellectual  blessed with the physical stature and magnificent voice of a Frederick Douglass; the intellect of a DuBois; the militant fighting spirit of Nat turner; and splendid artistic and athletic gifts, Big Paul Robeson was the tallest tree in our forest. And not all the power of the American government could cut him down. 

 Through years of relentless persecution from  the  US government and the entertainment industry, intended to silence his unrelenting advocacy for the freedom of his people from a fascist like racial oppression, even then centuries old, while championing the struggles of the workers of the world, Robeson’s head was bloodied but unbowed until the day he danced and joined his ancestors.  And as Shakespeare said of Othello – a role Paul played in the longest running production of a Shakespeare play on Broadway – “the elements so blended in him that all the world could say …there was a man!”



 When I was in the tenth grade we got a young hip bandmaster at my high school, Mr. Chuck McClendon, who was a fabulous saxophonist.  This was at a time when many of the big bands were breaking up and the great musicians who had filled their chairs were seeking work as music teachers in the black public schools of the south; it was one of the unintended positive consequences of the evil system of racial segregation. 

 At the time most black highs-school bands were playing the jingoistic marches of John Phillip Sousa, founder of the United states Marine core band, but Mr. McClendon told us right off: “I want our band to be so swinging that when people hear the name Murray high they will start patting their feet.”  So our theme song became “Jumping at the Woodside,” by Count Basie.   Because, as Duke Ellington said “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing”…and Bill Basie was the real King Of Swing!  

 Although others have tried to expropriate this form, the big swing band was an invention of Afro-American musicians, the most original incarnation of the orchestra in western music since the European Symphony.  Like Jazz itself, it reflects the most cherished values of American civilization and swings to the up-tempo rhythms of  a modern industrial machine age society, where the miraculous is routine. The artistic imagination of Bill Basie was shaped by the ragtime rhythms of the east, with its complex syncopation and love of melody, and the rough and tumble blues sensibility of the south-western territory bands.

 To the casual observer with an untutored ear, Count Basie simply used the piano to punctuate orchestral statements.  But the Count was a formidable pianist, a master of the Stride and Boogie Woogie styles.  In his memoir “Music Is My Mistress” the great Duke Ellington, himself a master of the keyboard, talks about how one of his favorite things to do was go out and watch Count Basie play solo piano.  Of course the evidence is on record, and it’s irrefutable. 

I refer you to Basie’s playing on the records “House for Rent” and “St. Louise Boogie,” from the album “Battle Of the Bands,” featuring the Duke Ellington and Count Basie Orchestras as exhibit A.  There you will hear splendid examples of Basie’s playing in both styles, as well as the unique and ingenious way he both conversed with the Orchestra and controlled the music from the keyboard.  The rhythmic demands of Stride and Boogie Woogie requires a facility in the left hand that is as technically demanding as playing the score of Chopin’s “Revolutionary Etude,” which is one of the most difficult compositions in the European classical  piano literature.

 Bill Basie’s style is an authentically American classical piano form in which virtuosity is assumed, and the emphasis is on musical invention, in a performance where the score is being created at the speed of thought.  Embodied in his sound and technique one can hear echoes of Jelly Roll Morton, James P. Johnson, Willie the Lion Smith, Dorothy Donegan and especially Thomas “Fats” Waller – who inspired him to play the organ.

 Perhaps Basie’s greatest artistic achievement is that he managed to project his personality through a musical aggregation of independent minded virtuosos who could improvise on their own musical ideas ad infinitum.  But yet in the sound of the Basie Orchestra one hears both the triumphant spirit of twentieth century America, as well as the bubbly, buoyant, gracious, elegant personality of the Count.   And during the golden age of the Basie band when it was powered by “The All American Rhythm Section” – Poppa Joe Jones, Freddie Green, Walter Page and Basie – they were the hardest swinging band in the land!

 While Ellington’s great orchestra was certainly a vehicle for his musical imagination, he was, after all, a great composer who produced endless written scores.  But in the formative years of the Basie sound the orchestra played without any written music at all…It is a miracle I continue to marvel at.  It remains a mystery as to how he could produce such precision and improvisational freedom in a big band without any musical notations. 

 The Basie band was playing from head arrangements with polyrhymic rifts from the brass and reed sections punctuating and driving the soloists.  And through it all the careful listener can hear The Count striding through the wailing horns, grooving to the rhythm he heard, yet always in the corner pocket.  The best guide to understanding how the count developed his band and his unique sound one must read “Good Morning Blues,” Basie’s autobiography, written with Albert Murray.

 In the great age of American big bands, extending from the early twentieth century to the 1950’s, two orchestras came to define the best of the genre: The Duke Ellington and Count Basie bands. Ellington represented the sophisticated elegance of the Harlem Renissiance and the golden age of black Washington society. It was an exemplar of what the Harlem sage and preeminent philosopher of the blues, Albert Murray, calls  “the fully orchestrated blues statement.”

 Count Basie’s band, on the other hand, embodyied the raucous freedom, inventiveness, and earthy blues sensibility of the South-West territory as expressed in the Afro-American culture of Oklahoma City and especially Kansas City, where Basie cut his teeth as the pianist with the famous Blue Devils.  Of all  the definitions I’ve heard of music my favorite is: “Music is a poignant sound portrait painted on a canvas of silence.”

 The sound portraits painted by the Basie band captures the grandeur of the American spirit as filtered through the sensibility of the Afro-American artist, who  was imbued with a heroic optimism that alone can account for the rise of the African American people from the slave quarters to the White House, the miracle of Jazz, and the rare gift that was Bill Basie.


Inside The building where The Great Men Lived

 Inside the Triple Nickel 009

Interiors By Versailles  


 Scenes From An Ancestor Veneration Ritual 

Meet me at Robeson blvd. And Basie Place 041

 The Culturati Joins The Politicos in Celebration


 Grand Daughter Susan Robeson Spoke On Behalf Of Family

 Meet me at Robeson blvd. And Basie Place 055

 As Matt Jacobs Oh Harlem Historical Society Listens


  Neighborhood Resident Eddie Kirkpatrick

 Meet me at Robeson blvd. And Basie Place 005

Representin for the Activist community


  State Assemblyman Bill Perkins

Meet me at Robeson blvd. And Basie Place 062

 And The President of the Count Basie foundation

 Internationally Renown Concert Pianist Filipe Hall Paying His Respects

Meet me at Robeson blvd. And Basie Place 014

Professor Hall Performs the music Robeson sang



The Celebrants Retire To Fete At Jumel Mansion

Meet me at Robeson blvd. And Basie Place 225

The Stately Country House where George Washington Encamped



  A Portrait Of General Washington

Meet me at Robeson blvd. And Basie Place 119 

 Hangs in the Hallway


Even In The 18th Century

 Meet me at Robeson blvd. And Basie Place 124

 The Rich lived Large!


  Jumel Mansion Is…

Meet me at Robeson blvd. And Basie Place 115A

A Fine House Built By A Hooker!


 But On this Glorious Day

Meet me at Robeson blvd. And Basie Place 138 

 It Was A Refuge for the Righteous Revelers


 Who Feasted  Royally!

 Meet me at Robeson blvd. And Basie Place 149

 On Fruits and Salads


 And Was Serenaded By Margie Elliot

Meet me at Robeson blvd. And Basie Place 127 

 Virtuoso Pianist and Jazz Impresario


 Denny Farrell And Robert Jackson and Bill Perkins

Meet me at Robeson blvd. And Basie Place 132 

 Commiserated with the Mansion’s Director


There Were Ladies of High Style!

Meet me at Robeson blvd. And Basie Place 107 

Who Were No Slaves To Fashion!


A Bride And Groom Dropped By!

 Meet me at Robeson blvd. And Basie Place 206 The Guzman’s!!


 Some  Hip Hoppers Paid Homage!

Meet me at Robeson blvd. And Basie Place 195

 Spittin Rhymes Praising Their Ancestors!


 Men Of Vision Brought Their Little  Daughters

Meet me at Robeson blvd. And Basie Place 212 

 And Stimulated Their Senses!!


 Cats Of All Ages

 Meet me at Robeson blvd. And Basie Place 203

Were Representin!!


  The Abraham Lincoln Brigade Represented

 Meet me at Robeson blvd. And Basie Place 171

 Peter N. Carroll told Us How Robeson Sang For the Soldiers In Spain


  “Freedom Eddie”  And Susan Robeson

Meet me at Robeson blvd. And Basie Place 179

 Discuss The Great One’s Legacy


  Neighborhood Folks!

 Meet me at Robeson blvd. And Basie Place 152

 June And Jane Pay Their Respects


  The Man Of The Hour!

Meet me at Robeson blvd. And Basie Place 167Mark Jacobs (center) Director HHS

He Made It all Happen!!




Aftermath Of The Disaster!

Posted in Playthell on politics on September 25, 2009 by playthell


Disaster in New york 

 Irony, Rage, Denial, but Little Truth

 October 02, 2001

Playthell Benjamin

As I awoke on this first Sunday after the great terror rained down from the skies over the nation’s Capitol, and the Financial Center of the world in lower Manhattan, I was greeted with rumors and rumblings of war. And as the day proceed the rattling of sabers became fairly deafening, drowning out any attempt at sober and objective analysis of both the possible causes of the Kamikaze like attacks on the World Trade Centers and the Pentagon, and what strategy the nation should now employ to eradicate those causes. Most disappointing has been the pronouncements of our elected officials and Christian clerics.

Both too often speak as if they are addressing a nation of little children or adult morons. The preferred rhetoric of the day abounds with simple-minded equations of those “evil men” who are out to “destroy our democratic Christian way of life” because they envy and hate our “American freedom and prosperity.” Even as enlightened and reasonable a man as Senator Charles Schumer came on WCBS TV and resorted to moronic arguments like “They hate us because we are free, because I can go to a book store and buy any book I want” and – turning to the black woman anchor, a super intellectual lightweight – he said “they hate you because you don’t have to wear a veil.”

The question, put to the senator by the Afro-American anchor that prompted this torrent of propagandistic invective masquerading as wisdom was: “Why do these people hate us so, do they want to turn us into the Talibans?” This, as strange as it seems, is about the level of the discourse conducted by the talking airheads who control the mikes in the major media, whether radio or television. And, rather than take the opportunity television offers to speak to millions in order to raise the level of the discourse by calling for a measured response and soul searching about American policy in the middle east, the politicians and clerics have, for the most part, descended to the level of the media wags.

Yet the present crisis, which has forced the anchors to engage in extemporaneous conversation due to the many hours they are on the air covering unfolding events, has exposed how ignorant they are of world affairs as well as their moral bankruptcy. It is frightening to think that many people look upon these overpaid over hyped media personalities as well informed and ethical sources from whom they can gain wisdom about the world.

The awful truth is that many of these anchors have skills that are closer to those of an actor than what is required of a journalist. One News organization – If memory serves it is the Fox network – recently hired a third rate blond actress whose career was going nowhere on the big screen to serve as a news anchor. While serious female journalists howled in protest, the suits at the network put the blond bubblehead on the air reading the news while displaying her shapely legs ala Katie Couric – that’s what your favorite news anchor does folks, just read copy by an anonymous author off a teleprompter. That she has been successful verifies the claim made by many journalists that it is more important for a successful TV anchor to be physically attractive and able to read news copy with the proper emotions than to develop crack journalistic skills and spend years learning about world affairs. Hence the sordid state of our present public discourse should surprise no one, for it is being conducted by morons!

However the same claim cannot be made for our clerics. Among the ranks of men of the cloth who are entrusted with the spiritual guidance of our nation are charlatans like Jerry Falwell, and pious preachers like Wyatt T. Walker, and many who have extensive educations in philosophy, religion, history, and the social sciences. But most of all, for Christians, the canonical text is the Holy Bible. The New Testament, which contains the teachings of Jesus Christ, expressly forbids the use of violence and instructs us to “Love thy enemy” and “Turn the other cheek.” Advice all too readily given to black folks suffering from centuries of horrid oppression, whether in the USA or South Africa, by the same white folks who are now whipping up the war hysteria.

I have heard one Christian cleric after another call for war against the Muslim terrorists with all the fervor of a medieval monk recruiting knights for the crusades – a term actually employed by President Bush. The teachings of Jesus – whom they all give lip service to – along with reason, are the first casualties of the nationalistic war fever that has gripped the nation. In fact, the orgy of self-righteous anger my countrymen are engaging in just now is such that it is dangerous to try and offer a reasoned argument based upon the Christian principles taught by Jesus. Indeed, in a flurry of jingoistic indignation the clerics have scrapped the biblical injunction, “Vengeance is mine! sayth the lord,” faster than the Lone Ranger could draw his gun.

It is not surprising that the clearest voices calling the nation away from this course of blind vengeance and setting forth arguments based on Christian charity and reconciliation have come from the African-American community. The first voice that I heard clearly calling for the nation to reflect upon its policies in the Middle East, and the Bush administration’s increasingly unilateralist posture in world affairs, was the Reverend Jesse Jackson who, despite the recent exposure of his adulterous affair, remains one of the clearest voices for Christian charity in governmental policies.

And the other was the courageous warning of the black Episcopal priest who spoke to the nation at the “Day of Mourning” ceremonies in the National cathedral. With all of the high and mighty congregated to express their anguish at the sudden attack on the nation’s centers of power, including four former presidents who are far from innocent of blame in the present tragedy, the compassionate Cleric admonished the nation not to become the evil they were seeking to redress.

Here in New York this Sunday, progressive black preachers long committed to the struggle for social justice through public policy informed by Christian charity – Herbert Daughtry, Calvin Butts, Al Sharpton, etc – called the nation away from blind rage and reminded us of white America’s long record of sinful treatment of people of color. These insightful clerics, who refuse to join in the national chant for war against the infidels, made it clear that the American government is not blameless in the disaster that has befallen our nation. That such an obvious conclusion may soon become grounds for the government to tap our phones and intercept our e-mails – scrapping the civil liberties that are one of the finest features of American civilization – is a true measure of the abysmal mess we are in.

However if the poet James Russell Lowell was right, that “Truth crushed to earth will rise again,” as Dr. Martin Luther King was fond of pointing out, then no matter how hard the official mythmakers in our government, pulpits and press try to deny any culpability on the part of America’s foreign policy establishment for the present disaster, the truth will out. And the truth is that American policies in the Islamic world – and the so-called Third World in general i.e. African, Asia, and Latin America – over the past century have created innumerable enemies with a passionate hatred for the USA.

For instance, between 1890 and 1932 the US military intervened in the affairs of third world countries 45 times. And since the close of World War II the US has conducted 20 armed interventions into the internal affairs of other countries, all of which were in support of anti-democratic forces. It is this disgraceful legacy to which the historian and lawyer Gerald Horne refers when he argues that white Americans have promoted a policy of democratic institutions for themselves, quasi-fascism for African-Americans, and fascism for third world countries.

The evidence is abundant and incontrovertible. To deny these fundamental facts is to eradicate the possibility of reaching the kind of understanding that is essential to developing a new world order that can foster peace and prosperity for all peoples. Hence it will not well serve the national interest to deny the history and present realities that so many others in the world are living or share as collective memories.

For instance, none but a Charlatan or an ignoramus can deny that the Islamic revolution, which began with the overthrow of the Shah of Iran, is a direct response to American policies in the region. The root cause of the revolution was the American decision to have the CIA overthrow the constitutionally elected government of Muhammad Mossedeh in 1953 and establish the Pahlevi dynasty – a group of greedy, dictatorial, murderers – to reign over the Iranian people as absolute rulers backed by American military might.

It is common knowledge to anyone who has cared to study the matter that torture was a standard tool for quelling dissent and maintaining the Shah’s stranglehold on the country. There was no pretense at democracy yet the US government supplied the Shah with the most advanced military hardware, which he paid for with the oil wealth of the country, wealth that the Shah squandered as if it were his personal fortune.

But while the Pahlevi’s and their US sponsors basked in Hubris, the increasingly militant clerics of Iran, led by the exiled Ayatollah Khomeni, who would burst upon the scene like and old testament prophet calling for the death of “The Great Satan,” was quietly winning the hearts and minds of the people. And when the people rose in righteous anger fueled by a militant and redemptive brand of Shiite Islam the Shah’s army, the best equipped fighting force in the region, proved impotent as the soldiers turned their guns on their officers.

Sadly most Americans, who are terminally provincial, never heard of any of this until the Mullahs ordered their Muslim troops to take American hostages. I remember well how, aside from the CIA operatives who were the architects of this mess, Middle East Scholars, and a hand full of progressive intellectuals concerned with international solidarity with the oppressed, most Americans were standing around completely befuddled, clueless. The dominant theme of the discourse among my fellow Americans at the time was: “What’s wrong with these crazy people, why are they doing this to these innocent Americans!” But to those of us who had been studying American policy in Iran the Islamic revolution came as no surprise.  Just as only the methods used by the terrorists of 9/11 surprised us, not that it happened; for that was predictable.  Yet most Americans were caught completely off guard.

Hence the dominant discourse in the aftermath of the present disaster is strangely familiar. The same mind numbing ignorance and self-righteous bombast that characterized the mainstream American response to the Iranian revolution now colors the present conversation. And the incredible policy blunders that led the US to arm Iraq to invade Iran provoking a bloody war that Iraq eventually lost but not before acquiring advanced American training and military technology.

However, when the Iraqis decided to use their military might to reclaim a part of their oil rich territory – which Sadam Hussein calls “The fifth province of Iraq – that the British colonialists had ripped off and renamed Kuwait, then placed under the control of a Bedouin Sheik whose vast oil wealth enables him to rule as a benevolent dictator, George Bush Senior, along with Dick Cheney and Colin Powell launched “Desert Storm,” supposedly to save these rascals!

The present conflict with Osama Bin Laden, and the pending invasion of Afghanistan to arrest him, is also the consequence of misguided American meddling. Ben Laden and the fanatical, super- repressive Taliban regime is a product of the largest CIA covert action since WWII, a two billion dollar operation which trained the militant Islamic forces in “urban terrorism” to employ against the Russians. Hence, if the terrorist who wreaked such devastating violence on Washington and New York were trained in Afghanistan it is a particularly horrible case of what the intelligence community calls “Blowback”!

Finally, there is America’s long-standing policy of always supporting the Israelis in their struggle with the Palestinians. On Tuesday the Arab-American leaders who met with the President the day before, held a press conference at which they candidly addressed the issue of America’s apparent unconditional support for Israel as a major source of hatred for this country in the Islamic world. Although acknowledging the danger of being accused of anti-Semitism for speaking out on this issue, they never-the-less chose to speak their minds.

But they are not alone in arguing this point. A retired Admiral associated with The Center For Defense Information made the same point in an interview with former Daily News columnist Earl Caldwell, in a live broadcast on WBAI FM last Saturday. The admiral argued that there is no purely military solution to the scourge of Islamic Terrorism; only a solution to the problems that give rise to the terrorist – whom he said were “made not born” – can finally end this deadly plague. It was obvious to all who watched the television reports on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict that Arab parents were not going to long tolerate the steady procession of caskets bearing the bodies of their children, slaughtered by Israeli soldiers for throwing rocks. That’s why the suicide bombers came as no surprise to many observers.

Listening to the swelling howl for blood vengeance that now drowns out any attempt at a rational and honest discussion of the issues surrounding the most deadly terrorist attack in US history, I fear for the future of my children. With one child living in an area where there is a major concentration of military installations, and another dwelling in the shadow of nuclear reactors, a quiet but persistent terror creeps into my soul, and I long to find the voice that could conjure the words powerful enough to turn this nation away from the path of death and destruction to study war no more. I wish for the language that could convince my irate countrymen that now is the time for diplomacy not bombs! For if history teaches us anything it is that violence begets more violence.

Sadly, since the arrogance of the largely Anglo-Saxon white male elite who still own and run this country knows no bounds, they will more than likely rush head long into the abyss and rain bombs on many thousands of innocent people – and increasingly we hear a rising call for nuclear weapons. To claim that this is a Christian response is blasphemy; to confuse it with wisdom is pitiable self-deception, to declare it just is a vainglorious lie! And, like the poet said, “No lie can live forever.” Since no man or woman of the cloth has yet shown the moral courage to say “We have reaped what we have sown” – at least it has yet to reach my ears – like Thomas Jefferson, I fear for the fate of my country and “I shudder when I reflect upon the fact that god is just!”

Copyright ) 2001 The Black World Today.


Clifford’s Blues

Posted in Book Reviews on September 24, 2009 by playthell


A Unique Contribution to Holocaust Literature


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

           Nighlife in Weirmar

The Gay Scene was Openly Accepted

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 Images Revealing the German Facination with Afro-American Culture

 Josephine Baker in Berlin 1926

Whassup at the CIA?

Posted in On Foreign Affairs, Playthell on politics with tags , , , on September 24, 2009 by playthell

Leon Panetta

 CIA Director Leon Panetta:

Caught in  the Cross Fire

 While the devil will certainly turn up in the details, from the limited understanding thoughtful observers are able to glean from the facts that have surfaced there is a big mess brewing at the CIA which has the potential to wreak havoc on the Republican Party.  On the face of it one could easily view this as a democratic fight – as some pouting Republicans are all too happy to do – but thorny questions regarding the limits of executive power vis a vis the Congress and the Courts may well lead to a full fledged investigation into whether top officials in the Bush administration ordered the CIA to withhold information and thus mislead Congress.  This would be a serious crime!

Such a course of investigation might well reveal that the CIA was ordered to lie to Congress, in which case the investigation could lead right into the Office of President Bush.  This is a reasonable assumption, based upon what we know from past renegade actions by the CIA.  Although you’d never know it based on the ahistorical chatter among the talking heads in the media, there is a rich literature written by former CIA agents that document illegal or immoral actions carried out by the intelligence agency  around the world unbeknownst to the Congress, who is charged with oversight of the nation’s intelligence establishment.  Among the classics of this confessional literature are the works of Phillip Agee, John Stockwell and Ralph McGhee.

Together these books detail how the CIA engaged in activities that were or ought to be criminal – like organizing coups and assassinations of foreign leaders and ideological dissidents in the service of US foreign policy.  Much of what these agents revealed was supported by the historic Church Committee’s investigation into the activities of US intelligence agencies, and the way the growing controversy around clandestine CIA activities is shaping up another sweeping investigation may be forthcoming.

One thing is certain: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and CIA Director Leon Panetta cannot both be telling the truth – she says he said the CIA has misled congress in private; he says he said no such thing in public!  But from what I know for sure about the activities of Dirty Dick, Clueless George and the renegade Republican regime that led us into a disastrous war of choice in Iraq, I believe Nancy.  So let the investigations began, because Thomas Jefferson was right: “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance!”



Playthell Benjamin

Harlem New York

May 15 2009

Rush Limbaug and Glenn Beck Incite Mayhem and Murders!

Posted in On Right Wing Pundits and Bloviators, Playthell on politics with tags , , , , , on September 24, 2009 by playthell

As The Death Toll Rises…

 Verbal Arsonists Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh Egg the Fanatics On

Rushbo! Public Enemy #1

 Is  Rush Limbaugh and his tribe of verbal arsonists inciting unstable people to murder?  I think the answer is a resounding yes!  What does Richard Popolowski, Stephen Von Brunn and Scott P. Roeder, the murderer of Dr. Tiller have in common? They were all motivated by the concerns that are the subject of over the top harangues by Right Wing radio hysterics 24/7. Popolowski ambushed and murdered three cops in Pittsburg with a military assault rifle as they answered a routine domestic disturbance call placed by his mother!  Subsequent investigations have revealed that Poppi thought President Obama was going to take his guns and oppress white men.  This is the kind of crazy inflammatory crap that Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh spout ad-nauseum.

 James W. Von Brunn, who murdered a black guard, Stephen Tyrone John’s, in  the Washington Holocaust museum is a long time racist/anti-Semitic anti-government fanatic, And Dr. Tiller, a gynecologist who performs abortions, was targeted by right-wing broadcasters, especially Bill O’Reilly, who routinely called him “Tiller The Baby killer” and even gave out the address of his clinic on the air.  Now we discover a murdered census taker in Kentucky, Bill Sparkman, who from all appearances was lynched, and has the word FED, for federal worker, inscribed on his chest! I believe  Sparkman’s murder was directly inspired by Glenn Beck’s incendiary attacks on the US Census!


A Murder Mouth Poot Butt!

And on a lesser scale, although quite horrifying, was the  vicious beat down of Tasha Hill a beautiful well spoken young black woman – who ironically is serving in the military – in Poulan Georgia by Troy Dale West, a burly redneck cracker male who viciously beat her while calling her a sack of black bitches…all because she admonished the man for virtually walking over her seven year old daughter as they both entered a store in Georgia.   This man was obviously walking Around seething with racist rage, a rage that is fueled and stoked each day by the hysterical diatribes spewed by Limbaugh and other right wing verbal arsonists who  appear to be trying their best to spark a race war in America.  And believe me: this is just the type of incident that could spark a race riot, because if I had been on the scene I would have tried my level beat to take that cracker’s head off!

In a seminar I taught at Long Island University on “Minorities and Mass Media,” we looked at the role of mass media in inciting racist rage that resulted in racist attacks on non-whites.  The horrible Atlanta pogrom of 1906, in which rampaging whites attacked and killed innocent black citizens on the streets for several days was sparked by incendiary diatribes and lies about black people in the news papers.  Radio is a much more personal and powerful media and, as Dr. Goebbles demonstrated in NAZI Germany, can move masses of people to irrational actions.  That’s the role Limbaugh and company are playing in American society right now – and their message is nationwide, immediate, and all the time.

Although none in the Obama Administration dare draw this connection lest they be accused of trampling on the First Amendment, opinion writers in the media certainly can connect the dots and hypothesize about whether there is an organic connection between the growing numbers of innocent people assaulted and killed by hyped up racist and anti-government fanatics, and the vitriolic lies spewed by the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Michael Savage, Ann Coulter etc.  And I for one, am wondering why they are not raising questions about an all too obvious connection!

Those who withhold criticism by arguing that these incendiary racist bolviators have a Constitutional right to say the things they say are missing the point.  To begin with the First Amendment is designed only to restrain the government from restricting speech, not private companies like WABC, nor does it restrict the press from critiquing the media – that’s why we have media critics!  Since all of this Anti-American garbage is coming from two companies, the execs could stop in tomorrow.

However from the look of things the suits at these companies FOX and WABC, who should be expected to exercise sound judgment and act in the public interests – since we have granted them the privilege of utilizing the public airways for their private purposes – are derelict in their responsibility to serve the common good, and their avarice parallels the heartless capitalist described by Karl Marx, who was so avaricious he would “sell the hangman the rope to hang him with if he thought he could turn a profit!”


Playthell Benjamin

Commentaries On the times

Harlem New York

September 24 2009

Barack Speaks to the United Nations

Posted in On Foreign Affairs, Playthell on politics with tags , , , , , on September 24, 2009 by playthell

Barack Droppin Science

 Pondering the Future

 Barack Obama Imagines A New World

 In his first address to the United Nations General Assembly President Obama unveiled his hopes and dreams for a new world order.  It was a dream firmly rooted in both the ethical imperatives commanded  by the world’s greatest religions – that we are our brothers keeper and do unto others as we would do unto ourselves – and the finest ideals of the American creed: All men are endowed by God with the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  It was a wow!

This was no mean feat, for the President’s audience was divided by ideology, religion, race, ethnicity, and vast disparities of wealth and military power.  Hence at times Mr. Obama resembled a man on an intellectual tight rope, as he tried to present a balanced message that spoke to the disparate interests of his audience.  To meet this challenge he attempted to be even handed in his criticism and addressed issues of universal concern, the grand themes that define our times and will decide the fate of future generations; indeed whether there will  even be human life on this planet in the future.  Hence the question of environmental pollution and nuclear proliferation was prominent in his concerns, as well as poverty, economic development, infectious diseases, war, and international  terrorism.

However, Like all American Presidents, Barack is expected to embrace certain American myths about the world; he has no choice if he wishes to survive politically.  And what goes for a white President is doubly true of a black one.  This means he cannot admit to the crimes and aggressions that have characterized the relationship of the western nations against the people of the Third World – Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the islands of the seas.  And he surely cannot admit that America’s invasion of Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, Panama and Iraq were tragic and perhaps criminal mistakes that cost the lives of millions of innocent people.  Yet Mr. Obama seeks to present a different face to the world, an America that prefers diplomacy to war, an America that seeks an honest dialogue and fraternal relations rather than domination of other nation’s.

In a world where the majority of the people are colored and have suffered the humiliation of colonialism, racism and  the terror of neo-colonial interventions – often on the side of murderous tyrants – Barack Obama, by virtue of his African American cultural heritage, bi-racial ancestry, Indonesian seasoning and early tutoring by an enlightened mother who was a PhD in anthropology, is uniquely qualified to lead  the world in this critical period  due to his exceptional insights into the human condition, and a rare understanding of our common humanity.

All of these virtues were on display in the President’s speechto the leaders of the world today.  But as the President soberly reminded the assembly: Speeches alone will not bring the changes we seek, and the world desperately needs, only hard work and international cooperation will make things happen.

 A cautionary Note

 When the United Nations was founded at Dumbarton Oaks in 1944, another African American with a Harvard degree – a PhD in fact – attended as an observer in the peanut gallery. Back then even a man as ostentatiously brilliant as WEB Dubois would not be permitted at this august gathering because his skin was brown…about the same complexion as Barack’s.

When DuBois looked around at the countries that would form the membership of the United Nations he noted that they were all white, and they were standing on the necks of hundreds of millions of colored peoples in their colonies who greatly outnumbered them – using fascistic police state tactics  to impose their will – while pillaging their natural wealth and super-exploiting their labor, and  he predicted it was a world order that could not long endure.   Dr. Dubois was right!

Nearly three quarters of a century later I will venture the speculation that unless the rights of the poor nation’s are given the same respect as the rights of the great nations, the present world order will become increasingly instable, because international terrorists have found a way to strike a powerful enemy country without a massive army.  Only a victory in the battle for the hearts and minds of the disillusioned youths of the Third World will afford us any security.

President Obama understands this, and his speech offered a hopeful vision of how mankind can build a better world…a world where we can survive  and even thrive.  It was a welcome vision from an American President, especially after the eight year reign of the pugnacious American Exceptionalists in the Bush Administration!    A bungling gang of  third rate actors who won’t leave the stage, they are crawling out of the wood work even as I write to offer their self-serving advice.  But I shall chastise them in another commentary.

Playthell Benjamin

Commentaries On Times

Harlem New York

September 22, 2009