Archive for September, 2009

Salsa Dancing From Coast to Coast

Posted in Cultural Matters, Music Reviews on September 21, 2009 by playthell

On The Art Of Mambo!

 El Chocolate Caliente in Cuba-final

The Conga Drums: Heartbeat of The Mambo!

I suppose because I became aware of this music, which is now popularly known as “Salsa,” when it was universally called “Afro-Cuban” music I continue to think of the dance form as Mambo.   This dance, though perfected in New York City, is obviously an extension of the Danzon the national dance of Cuba.  The accelerated tempo of the Mambo and the complexity of the turns in partners dancing reflect the complexity and break neck pace of the milieu in the great American City where this style of dancing reached its apotheosis.

The First couple are New Yorkers, the male is Puerto Rican and the female is my daughter Makeda, an all Afro-American girl whose roots go back twenty generations or more in this country.  Yet she dances as if her heritage is Afro-Latin.  The dancing here is in a club and completely improvised.Makeda’s mastery of the Mambo is a function of several factors and confirms what anthropologists have long argued regarding the fusion of cultures.  First of all Makeda is a trained dancer who has formally studied various genres of dance ranging from classical ballet, modern dance, Afro-Cuban, Puerto-Rican Bomba, Haitian traditional dances, Congolese dance, etc. 

And secondly, she grew up among Afro-Indio peoples from the Caribbean and South America, and developed a love for their cultures from cuisine to music, and especially dance!  And finally, she was raised in a household where the music was played and her father played the conga drums and danced the Mambo.  All of the influence contributed to her mastery of Afro-Latin Dance.  She dances with some of the best musicians and dancers of the genre. 

As the reader can see from my pictures of Latin dancers in far away San Francisco, her New York City approach to the dance has become the dominant trend in the genre.  I was surprised to find such skilled dancers in Frisco, and I have attempted to capture their grace, passion and elegance in these poignant images.

Live At Club Caribe:  In Spanish Harlem!

In spanish Harlem With Keda 187

Makeda: Queen Of the Mambo Dancing with Armando

Popi Chuela!

Scenes from New Years Eve and other 180

At Gonzalez Y Gonzalez!


Moving In Sync

In spanish Harlem With Keda 205

Dancing As One


The Mambo In Black Harlem!

Blackhispanic Mambo in Harlem 011

In The Ballroom Of the Adam Clayton Powell Building


They Come At All Ages

Blackhispanic Mambo in Harlem 045And And Shake their Groove Thang!


In The Mission District Of San Francisco!

Last Days in San Francisco 435

Dancing With Elegance


On the Dance Floor Age Nor Race Matters!

Last Days in San Francisco 365

Only The Exquisite Ectasy Of the Dance!


But Whether In New York

Scenes from New Years Eve and other 168


OR In San Francisco

Last Days in San Francisco 378

The Mambo Is Mui Caliente!!


Last Days in San Francisco 442And And Graceful Beyond Descriptio


In the Mambo

Scenes from New Years Eve and other 146The Men Control The Dance

Whether Playing the Conga Drums Or Dancing

Openineg night at the Chimney Club 103

The Mambo is Intoxicating!



Photo’s and Text by: Playthell Benjamin

* Excerpted from his forthcoming book “The Art Of Mambo”







A Visit To the Fillmore District

Posted in Cultural Matters, Playthell on politics on September 21, 2009 by playthell

At the Shrine Of John The Prophet!

Last Days in San Francisco 271

San Francisco Poet and painter Renaldo Ricketts Paying Homage To A Saint


 The Strange Case Of Fillmore

A  Cautionary Tale For Harlem and Black Urban Communities Everywhere!

For forty years or more I have heard predictions that “the white folks are gonna take Harlem back,” but I always dismissed it as some species of paranoia bordering on hysteria.  Just looking around at the masses of black people crammed into this section of upper Manhattan the evidence of my senses assured me that removing them was not possible; whites had all of down town and mid-town, I conjectured, so they weren’t interested in moving uptown among the dreaded and feared blacks.

But after having watched the population trends of the last few years I am beginning to feel the way the Native American “Indians” must have felt when they witnessed the wagon trains increase in volume year after year as the “wretched refuse” of Europe trekked across the great plains driven by an insatiable land hunger.

Sugar Hill Now!

On Sugar Hill

 Life is still sweet for blacks on Sugar Hill…but things are changing

The neighborhood where I live, the once world famous “Sugar Hill,” was home to some of the most famous black people in the world.  Duke Ellington, Dr. WEB Dubois, Langston Hughes, and Walter White all live here.  Count Basie, Thurgood Marshall , Johnny Hodges and Andy Kirk all lived in my building.  Joe Louis lived here when he was World Heavy Weight champion and the most famous man in the world!  Paul Robeson, a paragon of human perfection and one of the greatest men of the twentieth century, lived in the very apartment where I have resided for the past thirty years.

 When I first moved to Sugar Hill the neighborhood was 99% black.  First there was a great Hispanic migration to the area, and now the whites are coming.  It seems that every time I look around there is a new white neighbor in my building.  Some of them speak and try to be friendly, others act as if they have encountered a man from Mars.  Longtime black residents all over Harlem are encountering the same experience, and there is a growing feeling that we are “losing Harlem.”  However, in spite of this visible trend  I found it impossible to imagine Harlem as a “post black” community…until I visited Fillmore.

Groundings With My Brothers

Last Days in San Francisco 234 

The brothers in the barbershop said…

” They are trying to cocentrate the few blacks left in the projects”

For here in this choice residential neighborhood of San Francisco, black people have virtually disappeared from this once bustling African American community.  For those who remain, there is the widespread feeling that they are like the last of the Mohicans.  It is a palpable feeling, and word quickly spread that there was a writer from Harlem who was interested in interviewing Afro-Americans about their displacement from this community people seemed to appear out of nowhere anxious to tell their stories.

A surprising number of them felt that the dismantling of their community was a planned event directed from City Hall through Urban renewal schemes in which City officials used the powers granted them under the laws of eminent domain.  Listening to them talk I was reminded of a slogan that was popular in the 1960’s when much of this redevelopment activity began: “Urban Renewal means Negro removal!”

The Way We Were

 Last Days in San Francisco 221

Fifty Years Ago Fillmore Was full of Afro-American home owners

Now It’s Mostly High Priced Condos

Last Days in San Francisco 216

Owned by whites and Asians!

Well history has proved those words to be prophetic.  And as I travel around the US I see this trend in inner cities large and small the evidence of this demographic trend is unmistakable. For instance, in St. Augustine Florida, the nation’s oldest city and first free black community, Lincolnville, the all black community where I grew up, is now 70% white!  And Harlem, whose virtues as neighborhood was first celebrated in James Weldon Johnson’s “Black Manhattan” seems next on the list for “Negro Removal.”

This slogan often came to mind as people stood on the streets and pointed to where black owned businesses and Jazz clubs such as the world famous “Bop City” once flourished.  This story is told in poignant detail in the PBS documentary “The Story Of the Fillmore,” where we see clips of Afro-Americans predicting the end of their community

 The Golden Age Of Jazz In Frisco!

John Coltrane at Bop City

A young John Coltrane Jamming at Bop City

Hence the Fillmore experience serves as a harbinger of what lies down the road in the future and is a poignant warning to black urbanites across this vast nation.  As the great saxophonist, singer and showman Louis Jordan – who no doubt played in the clubs and theaters of Fillmore many times – warned us: Beware Brother Beware!

The Bop City Baby…Keeping The Tradition Alive

 Last Days in San Francisco 236

 His Father took him to Bop City as a child..

 and now he curates The Jazz Museum in Fillmore


Photos and Text by: Playthell Benjamin

* Except for the picture of John Coltrane

Portrait Of A Georgia Song Bird

Posted in Music Reviews with tags on September 21, 2009 by playthell




Jean Carn 


 A Saturday Night Fish Fry with Jean Carn and Friends

 I have see Jean Carn perform in some of the world’s most prestigious venues, and once fronted a band that accompanied her in a sold out concert in Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall.  But this was different.  It was home cooking at the East Point Municipal Auditorium last Saturday night when she joined a group of Jazz cats from Atlanta who got together to jam at a fund raiser for Ronald Reed Senior, a local Afro-American politician who was running for Mayor of this little pastoral town on the outskirts of Atlanta.  It was a part of the community service that appears to be second nature to her, the results of which is clearly observable in the warmth and admiration with which she was greeted everywhere I went with her in the black community. And her contributions were recognized with a “Distinguished Service” award, presented on stage at intermission for her work, in heading a committee struggling to save her Alma Mater Morris Brown College.  And with characteristic modesty she smiled brightly, uttered a simple thanks and departed the stage.

 Although she was definitely the star of this show, Jean conducted herself as just one of the guys. Generously complimenting the other singers on the bill she pointed Henry Porter out to me and extolled his prowess as a singer of European classical music, as he gave a soulful rendition of the beautiful ballad My Funny Valentine, and she gushed with compliments for Reginald C. Dancil, who sounded like a classic crooner ala Billy Eckstine and Al Hibbler as he glided through such standards as Orange Colored Sky and My Favorite Things, a beautiful Broadway tune immortalized by John Coltrane, which he graciously dedicated to Jean.  And he sang it to death!  This guy is great; he can sing the socks off suckers like Tony Bennett – or Frank Sinatra for that matter!   He should be a household name, and the fact that he isn’t is further testimony to the venality of the music business and the banality of public taste.    

 From the moment they got together to rehearse you could feel the love.  The love of great music, and the love for performing live for an audience.  The band, Jazz South, was fronted by J.O. Wyatt, Atlanta’s venerable Jazz promoter/politician who once owned “Just Jazz,” the premiere downtown jazz club showcasing the major talents of the genre until he was driven out of business due to the skyrocketing rents ushered in when the Olympic Games came to this southern boom town. J. O., as he is known about town, hails from San Antonio Texas – a town that evokes unpleasant memories of my stint in basic training at Lackland Air Force base, where my transformation from a “candy-ass” civilian to a “SAC trained killer” began.

 Like Jean, he was educated at one of the city’s prestigious black colleges.  While Jean attended the financially troubled Morris Brown, J.O. went to Morehouse, the Alma Mater of Dr. M.L. King, historian Lyrone Bennett Jr. and legions of other Afro-American men who departed those ivy walls and made history. J.O.’s personal history provides a glimpse of the fabulous legacy of black colleges.  A varsity basketball player at Talladega College before transferring to Morehouse, he was a team mate of Calvin Hernton, who went on to become one of the nation’s most accomplished writers and critics, holding a professorship in English at Oberland College before his untimely death.  And at Morehouse he was a team mate of Don Clendenin, who went on to a great career in major league baseball.

 That Jean attended Morris Brown is another measure of the talent that passed through the halls of these historically black colleges. Having won a Metropolitan Opera competition at eighteen, she could, like Miles Davis and Wynton Marsalis, have gone up north and attended Julliard.  I first heard her sing when I came down to Atlanta in the late Sixties to speak at a conference of progressive clergymen who were active in the Civil Rights struggle, and she performed as a soloist with the Morris Brown choir. 

 Having spent many years in the bass section of school and church choirs where we sang chorals written and arranged by the great masters, and after listening for years to the many fine singers who came to my aunt Marie for vocal lessons, I had a well tutored ear for good singing and was not easily impressed.  But this slightly built young lady nearly knocked me off my feet with her big voice.  I remember wondering where all that sound was coming from, since I had already concocted a theory about the sources of the marvelous multi-colored sound that is the hallmark of great black singers.  Using such wonderful songbirds as Marian Anderson, Mahalia Jackson, Nina Simone and Ella Fitzgerald as models, I had concluded that it was a combination of full lips and healthy hips. 

Since Jean had neither of these physical features, she blew my hypothesis out of the water.  As an unmitigated partisan of science, I was forced to seek other explanations, since everything that is wonderful about the black female voice – from the gifts of warmth and color, to its tantalizing timbres, to the way in bends notes like pretzels – is abundant in the sound Jean’s bewitching vocal instrument. Here is a voice of such versatility and sheer beauty that one is tempted to paraphrase Maestro Leopold Stokowsky’s panegyric to Marian Anderson: “Hers is a voice that is heard once in a century!”    If this was true of Ms. Anderson – and I don’t doubt it, for I have yet to hear another contralto comparable to hers – then it is certainly true of Jean Carn, because she can sing brilliantly in every genre from the European classics to gospel, jazz and rhythm and blues.



 Around 8:oclock a rotund fellow with a jovial personality approached the mike and introduced himself as “Captian Mellow” an Atlanta Jazz D.J., and he was enthusiastically applauded when he asked if the audience was ready to hear some jazz.  He was greeted with more applause when he introduced “Jazz South” the house band for the evening.   When J.O. took the stand he looked different from the evening before when we first met in Satterwhite’s Feast, a unique soul food restaurant that is distinguished for its delicious pork free southern cuisine and all-you-can-eat smorgasbord style, he was dressed casually in shirt and pants with a Nike sports cap.  But when he struck up the band Saturday night he was quite the fashion plate, his fine slacks and sports coat topped off with a elegant fedora; strictly high fashion.  The instrumentation in the quintet was standard issue for jazz combos, except for an amplified wooden guitar accompanying the tenor sax in place of the traditional trumpet voice. 

 It didn’t take long to peep the fact that they were all master musicians with mucho chops on their axes.  The warm response from the audience – who were well schooled in jazz etiquette and knew when and where to clap – fed the creative impulses of the musicians and they swang with a steady groove  up-tempo, and flowed as smooth as butter on the ballads, especially “Tenderly.”  Although I had winced when I saw an electric keyboard onstage – being a great lover of the art of acoustic piano, Jim Bell, a local music teacher, took us to different places with his artistry on the amplified keyboard, reminding me of Lonnie Listen Smith when he was Astral Traveling. 

 J.O. demonstrated his mastery of all genres of the Jazz esthetic with his full bodied sound and blues voice that reminds me of those other big voiced blues shouting Texas Tenors like Arnett Cobb and Illinois Jaquette.  When they played “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” the Joe Zawinul tune made famous by the late Cannon Ball Adderly’s band, which featured a rousing and technically brilliant solo from the guitarist, Charlie Robinson, the audience went off.   By the time the pianist took his solo, folks were clapping on the beat all over the room.  The audience stayed right in the groove as the band went right into Charlie Parker’s Latin inflected tune “Little Suede Shoes.”  Jazz South is a band who really knows how to swing the blues in any tempo, and the audience gave them a hero’s welcome.

 When the MC, Captain Mellow, introduced Henry Porter, he was greeted with tumultuous applause before singing a note.  As it turns out he used to teach mathematics in the public schools of East Point.  And he continues his career as a pedagogue by teaching voice pro bono at his beloved Alma Mater, Morris Brown.  When he opened his set with the old Ray Charles classic “Hallelujah I Just Love Her So,” sounding like a flat footed blues shouter right out of the honky tonks, I was reminded of the unique artistry of Three Mo Tenors, some other brothers who can sing Verdi and Ray Charles on the same program.   After rocking the house he mellowed out and serenaded us with the lovely ballad “The Nearness of You.”  He completed his set with a selection of standards that included a swinging version of “Bye Bye Black Bird that had the house clapping along.




            Finally it was star time at the East Point Center,  “Everytime I hear this lady’s name three words come to mind “Magic, Magnificence, and Melodic.  Captain Mellow intoned.  The audience exploded in sonic waves of applause as Jean came on swinging hard on the classic Ellington/Strayhorn tune “Take the A Train, a tune loved around the world.   From the outset the learned listener could revel in the fascinating colors and remarkable versatility of her voice.  After dedicating her next song to “the Divas who inspired and influenced me” she launched into a soul stirring rendition of “At Last,” a beautiful ballad made famous by the great Etta James.  J.O. now having dressed down to his street soldier uniform, knit skull cap and all, played a magnificent solo behind her.  I loved it, I could feel the words deep in my soul and it sent a thrill cascading down my spine from my cranium to my phalanges.

 Then the mood changed dramatically as the band broke into the entrancing Bossa Nova rhythms of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s Brazilian classic, “The Girl/Boy from Ipenema,” and jean reminisced about her recent sojourn in Brazil.  I had not seen her perform live in a decade, and the main difference I observed in her performance style is that she has become much more theatrical – dancing constantly and acting out the lyrics in dramatic gestures – whereas before she simply stood and sang, relying only on her magnificent voice to capture the audience.  It is an extra added attraction however, because it is still that incomparably beautiful voice and inventive delivery that satiates the hunger of her audiences.  The fact that this was a pick-up band that she was performing with, having had only one rehearsal a couple of hours before the show, is a powerful testament to her special talent. 

  The next Diva that she selected for tribute was the late great Dinah Washington as she sashayed into “What a Difference a Day Makes.” Although her up-tempo Latin tinged version of the tune was lovely, I’d have preferred to hear her sing it in slow drag time.  After she concluded the tune she was presented with flowers by Ron Reed, another demonstration of the love and reverence which the audience feels for this wonderful and generous artist who seems – like the late great Sammy Davis Jr. – to give her all to every song she sings. 

 When she sang the moving ballad, “The Wind Beneath My Wings,” and took the liberty to alter the lyrics to say “Shero” in alternate verses, with hero, dedicating it to the candidate and his wife, we all fell completely under her spell. The audience drowned her in applause and gave her a standing ovation. This writer included.  And here is the downside to unrecorded live performances: Some of the greatest performances are confined to the few lucky souls that happen to be there in the moment. Then Jean was greeted with another round of applause when she introduced her son Joe Carn, a fine young man who is running for the city council in College Park Georgia.

 After acknowledging the contributions of several Jazz giants the lady sang the blues, inspiring the musicians to get down and dirty with a sassy shuffle that made the audience clap on the groove and me want to jump up and do the “Funky Chicken” or the “Dirty Dog!”  It was a Saturday night fish fry the way Louis Jordan told it, home cooking for real.  J.O. fired up the house and became a honker in the tradition of Gator Tail Jackson and the Bull Moose.  I looked around and saw that I wasn’t the only one felt like I wanted to dance or die!   Even the security people were cutting a rug. It was reminiscent of that great scene from the Fats Waller video “This Joint is Jumpin,” where the cops come to quell a loud party and ended up boogying down with the guest.  Before it was over half the audience was on their feet and the other half were grooving to the beat in their seat.  The audience loved Jean…and I love her too.

Two Of My Favorite Flicks

Posted in Movie Reviews with tags , , , , , , , on September 21, 2009 by playthell

On  Cadillac Records



Wow! An Instant Classic

 Ever so often a movie comes along that captures the spirit of an age, Parkwood Pictures’ Cadillac Records is such a movie. A period piece set in the racially tumultuous era between the end of the great depression and the outbreak of World War II in the early 1940’s, and the turbulent 1960’s when the walls of segregation – which had defined the lives and art of the bluesmen in fundamental ways – came tumbling down, we follow the lives, loves and musical careers of the legendary Mississippi bluesmen who created the “Delta Blues.’

One of the many achievements of this remarkable movie is the way it shows how their sound was the bedrock upon which a multi-billion dollar industry was built, as the musical styles that became world famous as Rhythm and Blues, Rock and Roll, and Hard Rock all evolved from these blues roots – what the perceptive music critic Robert Palmer calls “Deep Blues” in his authoritative book by that name.

 As in any historical movie the sets, costumes, language, etc play a critical role in the ability of the film to transport us back in time.  But the ultimate time machine is the music they played back then. The much celebrated Afro-American novelist Ralph Ellison, reflecting on the birth of Be-bop in Harlem’s “Minton’s Play House,” observed: “Music gives resonance to memory.”  And as this movie is about the migration of Mississippi country blues musicians to the great city of Chicago, we have a treasure trove of sound portraits that mirror their journey.

As a student and teacher of history I am intensely interested in historical drama and fictions.   I am especially thrilled when I see another important slice of black life successfully portrayed on the giant silver screen, where it literally becomes larger than life.  And if Woodrow Wilson – a former US President and Princeton history Professor – thought D.W. Griffiths racist propaganda film Birth of a Nation was “history written by lightening,” Cadillac Records is history written with enlightenment.

Cadillac Record’s is remarkably candid in portraying the racist social etiquette and oppressive political system of white supremacy that it supported.  And it does so without ever becoming preachy; the play remains the thing, and the imperatives of dramatic art are ever observed.  In this film the muses are served in fine fashion; even while the harsh realities of the sharecropper south where hunger, poverty and random white violence were omnipresent, and the dangerous cities of the north with its seductions of vice and the catharsis of violence,  are graphically portrayed.

This film however, does not stop at portraying the most obvious aspects of race prejudice and the discriminatory treatment that results from it, but also looks at questions of class and ethnicity and subtly meditates on how they have shaped the contours of American culture.  There is a richness here that inevitably results when a film maker – who is, at their best, a celluloid dramatist – takes an honest look at the cultural complexity of the United States of America.  For they are sure to find, as our former Mayor David Dinkins elegantly put it: “A gorgeous mosaic.”

In the opening scenes of this movie we are given an inside glimpse of what it was like being the poor son of Polish Jewish immigrants in Chicago in the portrayal of a young Leonard Chess.  Convincingly played by Adrien Brody – a talented actor whom I first saw in The Pianist, a movie about the plight of the Polish Jewish community during the German Nazi occupation – Chess is hungry for success in America after the father of the lady he wanted to marry spurned his request for her hand with the pronouncement: “Your father and I are from the same shit hole in Poland.  I didn’t travel all this way to have my daughter marry some schmuck from the same village!”

On another occasion when Muddy waters and Leonard chess were traveling the back roads of Mississippi by car Muddy asks Chess why his family traveled across the vast oceans from Poland to come to Chicago, Chess replies by asking him why “ yo ass left Mississippi” to come to Chicago?”  This episode alludes to the shared experience of African-Americans and Eastern European Jews who hailed from Poland and the Russian Pale.

For both of them Chicago was a city of refuge and hope as they sought to escape racial discrimination and random violence. It is through the use of such representative anecdotes, accompanied by the employment of artful intelligent visuals, that much of the sociological depth and complexity of this story is simplified and given a human dimension.  And like all good historical dramas, Darnell Martin, the writer and director of this splendid art film, have shown excellent taste and judgment in selecting the right issues and episodes to capture the zeitgeist of the era.


From a purely artistic point of view this script was a writer’s delight.  The characters that people this flick are the right stuff for the making of legends.  Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, the harmonica virtuoso Little Walter, and the legendary Willie Dixon, composer of blues hits such as “My Babe” and “Hootchie Kootchie Man are all there. These modern day troubadours took the trials and triumphs that mirror the vicissitudes of life universal to the human condition and set them to song – that’s why their music touched and inspired people across racial, ethnic, class, and national boundaries.

This should come as no surprise however, after all, as Albert Murray, the preeminent commentator on the philosophy, esthetics and cultural significance of the blues tells us in his seminal book Stomping the Blues: “The blues as music” is  the antidote to “the blues as such.”  In  other words, while most people who hear the blues outside of its social and  cultural context think of the music as sad, Murray argues that the blues sensibility is just the opposite  of “sack cloth and ashes.”   In fact, as the title of his book suggest, musicians stomp the blues to chase the Blues away.

All of this is captured marvelously in Cadillac Records and gives it the ring of truth.  It’s insightfulness into the philosophy and esthetics of the blues is clearly on display in the way they portray the lives and personalities of the bluesmen and the milieu in which they thrived.  As Mr. Murray has observed, the blues is more likely to celebrate the joi de vivre  of Afro-American life than to wallow in self-pity and sadness.  Put differently, the blues is party music, the cure for depression.  And the bluesmen in Cadillac Records partied all the time as they created great art that continues to win the hearts of fans all over the world

Jeffry Wright as Muddy Waters Jeffery Wright As Muddy Waters

 Jeffrey Wright is as good playing Muddy Waters as Jamie Fox was playing Ray Charles, and Jamie won the Academy Award for his performance!”   One can take the measure of an actor’s skill by the way they interpret the subtleties of character, idiosyncratic gestures expressed in body language and nuances of speech.  I didn’t know Muddy Waters like I knew Ray Charles, but I feel the same way about Wright’s portrayal of him as Albert Einstein felt when the Rabbi’s demanded to know if the scientist believed  his theories explained how god created the universe. To wit Einstein replied: “No, but I know that he could have done it that way.”

Wright is that convincing in the role.  Having grown up around southern black musicians I am amazed at the accuracy of the portrait of them the actors render in Cadillac Records. It is a tribute to their diligence in preparing for the roles they sought to play.  And anybody who was fortunate enough to hear them interviewed on BET and elsewhere, knows that these great performances were inspired by the actors’ profound respect for their characters.

Cedrick the Entertainer give a solid performance as the level headed Willie Dixon, and Eamonn Walker is sensational as The Howling Wolf, one of the most interesting and original of the Mississippi bluesmen.   A man of imposing stature, Eamonn Walker can go from a smiling geniality to a murderous scowl with a twitch of his face muscles and a gesture from his heavily muscled ebony frame.  When we consider the fact that he is a British actor, Walker’s amazing rendering of backwoods Mississippi speech through a marvelous control of his voice and an amazing ear for nuance distinguishes his performance as a tour de force that stands out in a cast of great performers.

It is a pity that the academy does not give awards for ensemble acting, because great performances are common fare in this film.  For instance Columbus Short’s portrayal of the innovative harmonica virtuoso Little Walter would certainly qualify as a great performance by any objective measure.   He was like a man possessed by the spirit of a great ancestor and had become one with his subject.  Although I thought Moss Def was miscast as Chuck Berry since he looks nothing like him, Will smith would have been perfect for the part, his performance was splendid.  After a while the physical disparity seemed trivial.

As any story about great blues musicians must be, the cast of Cadillac Records is male dominated and the narrative is told from the point of view these gun toting, free spirited, libertine song poets.  A great part of the achievement of this film is the way in which it shows how the blues man was a symbol of black male freedom and potency in a society where the full power of the armed state was employed to crush any manifestation of it.

Having acknowledged the dominance of male concerns and the outstanding performances of the male actors, let me hasten to acknowledge that Gabriel Union, an elegant hot chocolate beauty, revealed the depth of her talents as an actress playing the stoic but earthy wife of the ebullient philanderer Muddy Waters. And it remains true that casting Beyonce Knowles as Etta James was a singular act of genius.

Having dominated the pop music charts for several years now, with this moving picture the great singer has come of age as an actress.  Abandoning the glamorous persona that is her stock in trade, Beyonce gained over twenty pounds in order to give authenticity to her performance as the young Etta James – a boozy dope fiend who courted tragedy because of a deep inner-pain that she seemed to almost nurture as the source of her tortured, though profoundly beautiful, art.

           An Actress Of Substance

       beyonce-as-etta-jame3 Byonce As Etta James


This role demonstrates Beyonce’s range as an actress, for she is called upon to recreate emotions that cannot come from her well of experience with the ways of  a dope fiend and bar fly who appears to have occasionally turned tricks when she was just starting out.  In regard to all these tawdry matters, Ms. Knowles’ well is dry.   Hence it is all artifice in the truest sense of the word, for interpreting the complex highly neurotic character that was the youthful Etta James, the illegitimate daughter of the legendary white pool hustler “Minnesota Fats,’ and a black prostitute he hooked up with.  In the film she is obsessed with gaining the recognition of her father, and that is the deepest source of her pain.

Beyonce’s performance ranks right up there with Diana Ross’ portrayal of Billie Holliday, another tragic vocal genius, in Lady Sings the Blues, Angela Basset’s rendering of Tina Turner in What’s Love go to do with It?   Jennifer Hudson’s portrait of Florence Ballard in Dream Girls must also be added to this list of great performances by black actresses in bio-pics.

Hudson won the Oscar for her role, and Ms. Ross and Ms. Basset would have won if everybody played fair.  However, unlike the other three ladies Ms. Basset cannot sing so she was forced to act her way through it, just as Halle Barry had done in her powerful portrayal of the  beautiful and superbly gifted Dorothy Dandridge – a role I always thought would have been better suited for Vanessa Williams who, like Dorothy, is a triple threat.  She can sing, dance, and act with seemingly equal facility – and she is brilliant at all three.

However the three singers all gave inspired performances in their roles, buoyed by the wonderful repertoire of American song that the role provided.  While I do not intend to make invidious comparisons because I believe that both Ms Hudson and Ms Knowles are great singers – Prima Donna Absoluta’s of the dynamic Gospel/Soul style –I must nevertheless confess that I found Beyonce’s rendition of the Etta James hits ‘At Last” and “I’d Rather Go Blind Baby, Than Watch You Walk Away From Me,” to be without equal.  When she sang “At Last” our spirits were buoyed by thoughts of past loves that now seem perfect, or we reveled in a newly found love; it was a joy.   And when she sang I’d Rather Go Blind” there wasn’t a dry eye in the house…this writers eyes included. It was a bravura performance …Bravo!


Watch Beyonce sing “I’d Rather go Blind”

 See Etta James Sing the Original


Playthell Benjamin

Harlem New York

Fall 2008               


Soul Power!

 African American Stars Return to the Motherland

soulpower-BB King

Blues Boy King Wailing In the Motherland

Soul Power, a powerful documentary film directed by Jeffery Levy-Hinte, about an extraordinary troupe of musicians from the African Diaspora in the Americas, is the real sound track from the 1974 “ Rumble in the Jungle,” the epic boxing match between Muhammad Ali and the fearsome George Foreman which was recently released as the moving documentary film “When We Were Kings.”

The attention of the world – and not just the sporting world – was focused on this prize fight, which was held in Zaire, the sprawling Central African nation formerly known as the Belgium Congo.  The controversies that surrounded the fight, like the star attraction Muhammad Ali, transcended the sport of boxing and accounts for the great interest the event held for people who were not boxing fans or sports fans at all.  It is impossible to grasp the gravity of this spectacle without understanding its relationship to broader historical trends.

At the time Muhammad Ali was the most famous man in the world and the perfect icon for an era of world black revolution which came of age with Ali in the 1960’s, and was embodied in his personality.  Having given up millions of dollars when he was stripped of his heavy-weight crown because he denounced America’s criminal invasion of Vietnam and refused induction into the US army, Ali became one of the most controversial personalities of that revolutionary decade and the ultimate symbol of militant black resistance.  What made his stance so admirable was that he would have been assigned to special services and never have to actually go into combat.  So his stance was an unmistakable act of principle, made at great sacrifice to him self.

There was no comparable act by anyone in the world of sports and entertainment.  And when he joined the feared and hated “Black Muslims” of the Nation of Islam, the white media and white supremacist of every stripe were up in arms.  Ali’s decision to join the NOI, which under normal circumstances would have been his personal business, was announced at a time when the NOI’s spokesman Malcolm X was the most feared and hated man in the nation by white Americans.

During his preparation for the title bout with the seemingly invincible Sonny Liston – a former Mafia enforcer who became the undisputed champion and petrified everybody else in the heavy-weight division – Ali invited Malcolm X into his training camp.  After his relatively easy victory over the powerful but outclassed Liston, which shocked the boxing world, Ali attributed his victory to the state of mind he developed in rap sessions with Malcolm during training.

There were white guys in the boxing business who had never said a word about the role of white gangsters in the game who wanted to strip Ali of the title immediately.  But since freedom of religion is a constitutional right of all American citizens they would surely have been defeated in court had they attempted to take the crown by administrative fiat.  Hence Ali’s refusal of induction was a gift to these reactionary racist who saw their chance to dethrone him; they knew this was the only way he would lose the crown because he was miles ahead of any of the heavy-weight contenders.  Ali was truly the greatest!

However aside from the rumblings on the right about the fight, there was much consternation on the left too.  For black progressives, who were huge Ali fans, both the legendary promoter Don King – the best since P.T. Barnum – and Mobutu SeSe Seko, the corrupt dictator who ruled Zaire with a ball and chain, were black charlatans who had appropriated the symbols and slogans of the black revolution but where all blow and no go.

In the view of politically astute black people Don King was giving positive play to a traitor to the African revolution. A man who had collaborated with the Belgium colonialists to assassinate the true leader of the Congolese liberation movement- the brilliant and fearless Patrice Lumumba – that resulted in his ascension to power, where he presided over a government that was so corrupt that analyst had to coin a term to describe it: “Cleptocracy!”


This is the minimal essential background one must understand in order to fully appreciate the contemporary and historical significance of “The Rumble in the Jungle.” While Don King was mostly interested in making money and Mobutu was in it for the glory, in spite of King’s effusive “black talk,” the musicians were excited about going to perform in the motherland.  For them it was a spiritual journey to the wellsprings of their art, Neo-African musical forms which has expanded and enriched the western musical tradition.

This is readily apparent from the ongoing interviews with the performing artists at every stage of the trip; the triumphant return to the motherland is a recurrent theme.  The film is constructed so that the narrative builds in drama by showing the great anticipation which greeted the performances on the part of everybody: the planners and promoters; the set builders and sound and lightening men; the people of Zaire; Muhammad Ali and his entourage, and most of all the musicians.

The great enthusiasm with which the musicians anticipated this performance was displayed in the impromptu performances that broke out on the long plane ride from the Americas back to Africa.  This was an all star lineup, the most popular black American and Afro-Latino musicians in the world!

Although the Latin contingent included musicians of all complexions – from the virtuoso Congero Ray Barretto, who is a white Puerto Rican, to the great singer Celia Cruz, who is a black Cuban, they were all committed to a Neo-African art form.  In both the English and Spanish speaking Americas, the music created by the blacks and mulattos is the most dynamic and popular – the national music of their civilizations.

 Celia Cruz: Queen of Afro-Cuban Song

Celia Cruz

Her Powerful Pipes lit it up!

Given the prominence of rhythm instruments in Afro-Latin music it is no wonder that it was they who started the jam on the plane.  It started with clave, cow bell, hand claps and voices – led by the singing of Celia Cruz – and soon the guitarists joined in on acoustic guitars, strumming rhythmic figures and inventing melodies, then the violinist had their axes out.  It got so funky blues icon B.B. King had his guitar out picking along.  The Johnny Pacheco broke out his flute and the plane was rocking, this preview only wet our appetites for the performances to come.

 On the night of the concert the Latin musicians brought the house down.  Although the Zaireans loved the Afro-American musicians, and the “Godfather of Soul” James Brown was the biggest star of all, the Latinos had a special rapport with the audience because their music has retained so many African elements.  First of all African music is characterized by complex polyrhythms, with percussion instruments the dominant voice, and so is Afro-Latin music: Afro-Cuban music especially.   Furthermore the Son Montuno, which is the traditional Afro-Cuban orchestral music, was largely attributed to the creative genius of Arsenio Rodriguez, who is said to be of Congolese origin.  One need only listen to bands like Africando to see how well Africans relate to Afro-Cuban music.  All African music is dance oriented and drums are played for a variety of religious and cultural rituals, which is also true of Afro-Cubans.

So the Latin Musicians wowed the crowd; Celia Cruz was marvelous, she got everybody on their feet as the band fired her up. Flautist Johnny Pacheco, who was conducting the band went off, he played beautifully on the flute and then got down with Celia Cruz in a dynamic display of the art of Mambo.  The crowd went wild!   Ray Barretto delighted the crowd with his virtuosity on the Conga drums, at one time playing four of them.  It was a wonderful exhibition of what the African musical tradition became when it encountered the melodically and harmonically complex music of Europe in the new world.

soulpower-Pacheco and Cruise

Celia Cruz and Johnny Pacheco Getting Down

When Louis Armstrong toured West Africa during the colonial period in the 1950’s his British hosts assured him that Africans would only appreciate up-tempo dance music with “a lot of loud drum solos.”  Pops rejected their musical advice and played his normal repertoire, and the African audiences loved it.  I thought of this when I watched Bill withers singing a very slow and beautiful romantic ballad, accompanying him self on acoustic guitar, casting a spell on the crowd who listened with rapt attention.

soulpower-mv-billwithers-3 Bill Withers Crooning a Sensitive Song

A great songwriter and dynamic performer, withers is also a sensitive and intelligent guy.  The African Journey was a deeply spiritual experience to him.  When the question arose as to what the musicians wanted to take back from Africa, withers said the main thing he wanted to carry back home from his journey wasn’t souvenirs but “this feeling I have here.”

B.B. King was another guitar man who played his regular repertoire and just came out and shouted the blues, the audience loved him and he loved them too. The journey was also profound spiritual journey for him. Growing up in apartheid Mississippi where his blackness and African origins were used as an indictment against him as if it were a crime by the white rulers of the state, the trip to Africa was a kind of spiritual cleansing, he even loved the sweltering heat that had everybody dripping with sweat from the moment they took the stage.

soulpower-M. Makeba

 The Divine Merriam Makeba!

Some of the most touching moments was the exchanges between African performers and the Africans from the American Diaspora. The scenes of Ray Barretto and other Latin percussionist drumming together and Sister Sledge exchanging hip movements with the African ladies – who got the better of the exchange – are poignant examples.

They Africans also loved the all male Rhythm & Blues singing group with their tradition of great singing while executing fabulous complex choreography.  Which on this occasion was represented by the Spinners, the classic group with Phillppe Wynn singing lead, who rocked the stadium with their hit song “One of A Kind Love Affair.”  One of the characteristics of this genre of singing, who’s staple is the love song – sung slowly or uptempo – and to be effective the lead singer must recreate the emotional experience, the ecstasy of being happily in love or the pain of heartbreak.  None has done it better than Phillippe Wynn, who gave an inspired performance as the Spinners backed his lead with glorious harmonies and fancy footwork.

 soulpower-The Spinners

 The Mighty Spinners in Full Effect!

 Of all the magic moments in this film – and there were many – none were more moving than the performances of the African musicians.  There are the wonderful scenes of the Cameroonian Saxophonist Manu Dibango, who recorded “Soul Makossa,’ which combined Afro-American Rhythm & Blues arrangements on top of a slamming African percussion section.

The record was a monster smash hit in Africa, Europe, Latin America and the USA.  One could credibly argue that it was the beginning of what is now euphemistically called “World Music.”  In the movie we do not see Dibango’s concert performance; rather he is filmed wandering through the city’s neighborhood’s with his soprano sax playing for the children like a pied piper.  When the children surround him he begins to compose a chant with them on the spot.

Soul Makossa!

soulpower-mano Dabango

Mano D’bango the Pied Piper

As with the Latino’s on the plane, this episode demonstrates how Africans can create an impromptu musical performance with polyrhythmic hand claps and antiphonal chants – call and response – with a lead singer whose lines are answered by a chorus.  As the children gathered around, mesmerized by the sound of the saxophone much like Emmanuel Kant was mesmerized by the church steeple, the teenagers began to surround him too.  Soon they were all singing and clapping in a joyous display of polyrhythmic polyphony, two elements that are present to some extent in all African derived music.

Although among African Americans in the US polyphony eventually gave way to harmony, as an examination of our singing styles from the work songs of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – which is very African in character – to the sleek four and five part harmonies of Rhythm and blues singing.  Polyphonic singing is alive and well in Afro-Latin music however; polyrhythms and antiphony remains a basic feature of all Neo-African music whether vocal or orchestral.  This was very clear in comparing the African and Neo-African bands in the movie.

Among the galaxy of stars who performed at this historic concert none gave a more spiritually uplifting performance than the gifted South African songstress Merriam Makeba.  While there was much talk about the African struggle against European oppression, the state of African peoples in the world was uneven, with various nationalities experiencing different degrees of liberation.

For instance, the centuries old struggle of African peoples in the America’s had eliminated chattel slavery and resulted in various degrees of civil rights and national integration in their societies.  In the US racial discrimination had been rendered illegal after a final bloody push in the 1960’s, and Cuba had dramatically eliminate the system of legal racial apartheid as a result of the armed revolution in which Afro-Cubans played a major role.  Although racist sentiment still hangs on in the hearts and minds of some white Cubans.

However the symbol of that continuing struggle was best represented by Merriam Makeba, whose countrymen were still suffering under an oppressive murderous racist regime whose ideology was synonymous with Nazism.  Her Marriage to the radical black leader from the US Stokely Carmichael – who made a brief cameo in the film rapping with Muhammad Ali – was a living symbol of the unity of the pan-African struggle against white domination.  Hence her performance was the most politically significant of the concert.

 When all was said and done, the undisputed superstar of the three day musical happenings was James Brown, “The Godfather of Soul!”   Earlier in the film Loyd Price – one of the fathers of Rhythm & Blues – is seen telling James Brown how he has heard many bands performing his music, although French is the European language that they are conversant with.

Yet, Price tells Brown, “They sing your songs in English.”  Such was Browns appeal on the African continent that politicians routinely used his music to draw crowds at their rallies!  James Brown listened with genuine joy and humility, and it made him determined to put on the best show of his life…which was no mean feat since he was already known as “The hardest working man in show business!”

James Brown and Lloyd Price

soulpower-James Brown and Loyd Price

Soul Survivors Who Created an Art form

While most people fifty years old and younger may not know who Lloyd Price is, I remember him as a big star of the mid 1950’s who was a founder of the musical style we have come to know as Rhythm & Blues.  Price was right out there with the Georgia boys who contributed so much to the foundation of this dynamic musical genre: Ray Charles, Little Richard and James Brown.

Billed as “Mr. Personality” because of his luminous style and dynamic stage persona Price produced a string of hits that did much to define the style: Lawdy Miss Claudy, Stagolee, Where Were You on Our Wedding Day, Personality, etc.  So I was very disappointed that we did not get to see him perform his vintage hits: oldies but goodies for sure!

soulpower-James Brown The Godfather Makes A Grand Entrance

The crowd was hyped for James Brown’s performance, which was the highlight of the historic show.  And when it was superstar time in the stadium the Godfather was super bad.  Backed by a rocking big band that was funkier than a mosquitoes Tweeter, James Brown demonstrated why he justly deserves the title of “Hardest working Man in show business as he sang is heart out and danced like a whirling dervish.  Browns basic moves comes off of a style we used to call the mash potatoes, of which he was the undisputed king if not the inventor.

All of the greatest dancers in the US pop music tradition flow from James Brown.  While he had some close competitors – for instance Jackie Wilson, Little Richard and Muddy Waters were some dancing fools too – James Brown has emerged as the greatest influence on contemporary performers like MC Hammer, Prince and the recently departed King of Pop Michael Jackson.  The Africans – who dance on all important occasions, as those who witnessed highly intellectual octogenarian Nelson Mandela dancing the Toi Toi upon his election as the first black President of South Africa can attest – surely recognized the influence of their dance traditions in Browns spectacular soul ballet.

 The God Father Works up a Cold Sweat!

soulpower-James Brown II

“Super Bad.”

The only star in this show who was larger and shone more brightly that The Godfather was Muhammad Ali: “The Greatest!”  Like Brown Ali is a man of the people – not like the central character in the Nigerian novelist and modern African sage Chinua Achebe’s well crafted and highly insightful novel by that name.  He is the real deal, black people all over the world love him with an unusual passion reserved for those who struggle and sacrifice in their behalf.  One of the most entertaining, witty and inspiring features in this documentary is the unexpurgated monologues of Muhammad Ali.

 The Avatar of Our Hopes and Dreams


The Cause Celebre that brought a multitude to Africa.

Ali expanded on his views about There was no question that the man of the moment, the raison de’ ere for the magnificent celebration of our Africanity, was Muhammad Ali. The great affection with which he was held in Africa was reflected in the constant chants that rang out from the crowds everywhere he went: “Al Boomaye!  Ali Boomaye! “Which literally meat “Ali Kill him!”   When the hulking and menacing George Foreman, found out the meaning of the chants he was so unnerved he threatened to pack up and go home.  George foreman had mistakenly assumed that the Africans would be for him because he looked more like them than Ali.

 But that’s the same mistake the white Republicans make when they choose obsequious house Negroes like Clarence Thomas, Dr. Alan Keyes and Mikie Steele – whose spine seems to be made of mercury – in the vain hope that black people will support them because they are unambiguously black in their physical persona.  However black people are far more sophisticated than that – we have even coined a term for such quislings: Oreos!  Africans in particular are not overly impressed with skin color because in Africa both the heroes and the villains are black!  They loved Ali because they can feel that he loves them and has sacrificed for black people in a way that has made him one of the most beloved sons of African anywhere in the world.

It is instructive that Nelson Mandela, one of the greatest men of the twentieth century, and a former heavy-weight boxer, said that following Ali’s fights inspired them and helped him continue his own fight during the 27 years he was imprisoned at the notorious Robbin Island prison! You can’t get a better endorsement than that. This movie was a great tribute to the man and his mettle, and a great musical experience to boot.  Everybody who interested in the history of popular music in the twentieth century and the history of the black liberation struggle too, should see this movie in the theater and rush to the store and buy it when it comes out on a DVD.  This is a piece of the black experience in the modern world you would like to own.


Watch Celia Cruz in Zaire
Watch James Brown in Zaire
Watch the Spinners

Watch the Entire Movie
Playthell Benjamin
New York City 
July 10, 2009

The Sweet Science Lives!

Posted in On Sports! with tags , , on September 21, 2009 by playthell


*Sep 19 - 00:05*The Matador and the Mexican Bull


Floyd Mayweather was all the way live!

After a two year layoff many serious boxing fans wondered if Floyd Mayweather, who was considered the best prize fighter in the world pound for pound before his sudden retirement from the game, still had it.  Hence his return match generated great interests from those who wish him well and those who would like to see him get a serious ass whipping too.  The playa hater’s fall into two categories: The largely Mexican crowd who work in the hotels and casinos under the demanding gaze of arrogant and contemptuous gringos, and people who think he talks too much and a good whipping will tame his cockiness.

 Well, like those who came to Muhammad Ali’s fights hoping to see him humbled by a whipping, the haters left the arena sadly disappointed last night.  Floyd Mayweather conducted as fine a clinic on the art of pugilism as one is likely to see these days.  In spite of all the hype that preceded the fight – which was unprecedented with HBO cameras having followed them through out their training camp, providing us an intimate look into their family lives as well as training methods – the fight was not the epic clash of Titans it was advertised to be.

In the weeks preceding the fight there was much speculation as to whether Juan Manuel was the first or second best fighter in the world, and his legendary toughness was played up big!  We were shown footage of his grueling workout routines – running up mountain sides and shit.  We even saw him drink his own piss because he believed it would give him added strength and stamina.  Mayweather thought the whole ritual was ridiculous and disgusting – he even started calling Manuel “Pissy Mouth” – which only fueled Juan’s determination to shut Mayweather’s mouth!    But as in life, after all the fat mouthing you’ve got to play the game.  And on fight night Mayweather pitched a shutout…Juan didn’t win a round; only his lion’s heart and granite chin kept him from getting knocked out by Mayweather.

 Pound for Pound The Greatest!


Still Undefeated!

With a physique like a finely sculpted and polished ebony statue, Mayweather danced about with uncanny speed and great lateral movement, and he’s harder to hit than the Mega-millions jackpot.  With a combination of superb arm blocks and hand parries, complemented by an ability to slip punches when his opponent is unloading at point blank range, he gave the impression it would have been hard for Juan Manuel to hit him with a hand full of rice!  The final tally tells the tale: Juan threw one hundred more punches than Mayweather, but Mayweather landed two hundred more of his shots.  Mayweather threw approximately fifteen power punches a round and landed nine! 

Sugar Shane


Waiting in the wings

 No sooner than the fight was over talk began about whether Juan Manuel was the best test for Mayweather, since he is not a true welterweight but a blown up lightweight.    In the minds of these doubters there is certainty about one thing: a better test of Mayweather’s mettle would be a throw down with “Sugar” Shane Mosley, a legit welterweight and former world champion.  But on this night in Vegas the best that can be said for Juan is that he is a game warrior who can take a licking and keep on ticking.  Alas he was badly outclassed by a young virtuoso who is keeping the “Sweet Science” alive: the best pound for pound pugilist in the world!


Harlem New York

September 20, 2009

On Policy Polemics Vs. Inspirational Rhetoric

Posted in Playthell on politics with tags , on September 20, 2009 by playthell


Obama speaking 

Killing Us Softly with his Song 


The role of the Charismatic Revivalist

           Barack Obama’s critics, led by an increasingly hysterical and unprincipled Hillary Clinton, were making a mantra of the charge that his speeches are “all sound and fury signifying nothing,” as Shakespeare says at the conclusion of Macbeth. But considering the fact that the electorate is still largely composed of politically ignorant consumerist that are mostly concerned with pocket book issues – which means that those who are not preoccupied with the struggle for bread and shelter, are daydreaming about the next trinket or amusement they can afford – it is best to keep the message simple.  Like decadent Rome, we are living in an age of “Panem et Curcensus:” Bread and Circuses,” ala cable TV and endless sports spectacles that are reminiscent of the Roman Coliseum, albeit far less bloody, in the final days of that great empire.   And the Emperor Diocletian’s shrewd observation remains true: “Give the people bread and circuses and they won’t notice that the empire is crumbling.”  Hence critics who argued that Obama’s speeches were not detailed enough on specific policy issues were missing the point.

Although he has since made several substantial speeches since this earlier period, including his magnificent performances in the presidential debates, from the outset anybody who cared to read his detailed positions on policy matters could always find them in position papers online.  But make no mistake, Barack Obama is not just blessed with the gift of gab, the brother is real swift on the cap too!  Barack was President of the Law Review at Harvard and a professor of Constitutional Law at the prestigious University of Chicago; he is a brilliant intellectual for whom immersion in detailed policy debates are as natural as a shark in water.

As his wife Michelle, whom Barack affectionately calls “my rock,” has repeatedly pointed out: her old man is the real deal.  Not just shadow but substance.  And those of us who took the time to study his speech on race in America got a glimpse of his fine intellect.  When Barack began his campaign he was quite the wonkish law professor, determined to show how deep his understanding of the issues are.  But early on he was pulled aside by a group of politically savvy scholars, led by his former Professor Charles Olgetree of the Harvard Law School, and told to either lose the professorial rap or lose the election; that’s when the poet and political preacher emerged and the policy wonk was unceremoniously cast asunder.

This was luminous advice, because there is abundant evidence showing that in a sound bite culture where political messages must compete for the public’s attention with MTV and ESPN, most people do not decide whom they will cast their vote for based on weighty polemics about policy matters.  If that had been the case neither Ronald Reagan nor George W. Bush would ever have been elected.  When asked by reporters to name his favorite political philosopher during his first campaign Bush said: “Jesus Christ.”  And he couldn’t name the leaders of countries with whom he would soon have to conduct diplomacy.  Yet many voters turned against Al Gore because they said he was “too smart,” and George Bush was the guy they would feel most comfortable “drinking a beer with.”

Never mind the fact that the Bush family is a paragon of the WASP elite, America’s version of aristocracy, Joe Six Pack from Bensonhurst thought they had something in common with the Kennybumport crowd!  Republican strategists well understood that H. L. Mencken’s “Boobus Americanus,” who symbolized the mindless American masses, was alive and well and could be seduced into the voting booths with simple inspirational slogans like “George Bush will restore dignity to the White House!” without further elaboration.  I am convinced that they actually factored the ignorance of the electorate into their equation for victory, while duplicitously praising the “wisdom of the American people.”   That’s why they were confident they could win the most powerful office on earth with a bible thumping charlatan ignorant of the ways of the world, spouting sweet nothings, oxymoronic phrases like “compassionate conservatism.” And they were right.  They played it so nice they turned the trick twice!

Ronald Reagan was so clueless he was once described by the ultimate Washington power lawyer, Clark Clifford, as an “amiable dunce,” and Reagan’s publicly stated belief that he could call nuclear missiles back once they were in flight confirms that he was dangerously uninformed about decisions concerning life and death that he was entrusted to make for millions of people.  Alas, the unpleasant truth is that the world dodged disaster during the Reagan era only because his Russian counterpart, Andropov, was a former Director of the KGB and had no illusions about the dangers of brinksmanship between two heavily armed nuclear powers, whose atomic arsenals were on hair trigger alerts with computerized systems that targeted each others cities. Andropov was well aware that one mistake could reduce our world to a radio active wasteland where cockroaches would be the most complex living organism to survive, and those with the courage to live on in the immediate aftermath of the disaster would envy the dead.

Since I have lived with this terrible knowledge ever since my stint in the Strategic Air Command under General Curtis LeMay – who was the proto-type for the general who accidentally starts a nuclear war that ends the world, in the hit movie Dr. Strangelove – I believe that Andropov’s intimate knowledge of the consequences of atomic warfare restrained him from acting as recklessly as Ronald Reagan, who attempted to unilaterally abrogate the ABM treaty, the greatest diplomatic achievement in the nuclear age and may well be the reason that the US and Russia didn’t blow up the world during the cold war era.  Alas, Ronnie Reagan’s ignorance about life and death issues of government and foreign affairs was scandalous!

Yet contemporary Republican candidates for president compete with each other in their attempt to claim the “Reagan Legacy” – which is compelling evidence that the eight years of George W. Bush has been such a disaster for the nation and the Republican Party that they are running away from the Grand Old Party’s standard bearer like a stampede of wild horses fleeing a forest fire.  Not so for Senator McCain however, since his support among the evangelical right is so low that he could actually profit from an endorsement by Bush.  The point here is that Reagan could not discuss policy issues because he knew so little about them; according to the public testimony of cabinet members such as Treasury Secretary Donald Regan and Budget Director David Stockman, who have written in their memoirs that they never had a single serious discussion of economic or fiscal policy with the President.  A shallow figure head with nothing on the cap, Reagan was forced to rely on sloganeering.

Although Ronnie Reagan might have stumbled upon this strategy because of his severe intellectual shortcomings, it proved to be effective because slogans are the best method of conveying complex ideas to masses of people whom a leader is trying to inspire to action.  Hence the slogan “It’s Morning in America,” uttered by a handsome and smiling eternally optimistic Ronald Reagan reciting his lines like the professional actor he was, turned out to be far more effective in mobilizing masses of people behind an obviously flawed Republican program than all the weighty intellectual exegesis’ exposing it as smoke and mirrors; remember “Reagonomics”?   The same thing can be said of Bush’s “Compassionate Conservatism.”

Barack Obama has cast himself in the role of a transformative leader offering a new politics, and all of the great transformative movements in history were organized around simple slogans that could be elaborated on with deepening degrees of complexity by intellectual theoreticians. This rule holds true regardless of the specific ideology of the movement; it matters not a whit if the are on the left or the right.  “Workers of the world unite!” heralded the international communist movement, and “Jesus saves!” has proved amazingly effective for the Christian evangelical movement; it largely accounts for the dramatic growth of the evangelical protestant movement in Catholic Latin America, and even areas of the world with non-Christian traditions.  Just as “Allah uh Akbar! – God is the Greatest!”-  inspired the Arabs to charge out of the deserts of Arabia and conquer much of the world, erecting the greatest civilization of the Middle Ages.  “Black Power!” and “Sisterhood is powerful!” did much to win converts to the black liberation and feminist movements of the 1960’s that transformed American society in fundamental ways.  “Deutschland Uber Alles!- Germany over All “– was the slogan that, when uttered by a lowly Austrian corporal and well practiced orator who once observed “It is the spoken word not the written word that drives the masses to action,” served as the rallying cry that mobilized the highly intellectual German people behind the insane Nazi program.

One of the reasons that Reverend Jesse Jackson has been such an influential presence in reform politics on the American scene for so long, despite the absence of a strong organization and a limited budget, is that he is a great orator with a mastery of the art of sloganeering.  For a generation this political preacher with a peripatetic approach to political issues moved the bodies and souls of multitudes, black and white alike, with the slogan: “I am somebody!”

Presently we are witnessing the power of Barack Obama’s clever sloganeering.  Shouting “Yes we can!” to the swelling cheers of his audiences at the climax of orations outlining the pressing problems that he seeks to solve, while eloquently sermonizing about “The audacity of hope,” Obama is driving crowds into frenzies that resemble rock concerts or old time revival meetings, a sort of newly minted civil religion lifting them to a higher consciousness on the wings of his powerful and poetic oratory.  This is the proper role of charismatic revivalists, those secular preachers who galvanize a people’s emotions by speaking truth to power and inspire them to mass action that transforms societies.  If the essence of charisma is the ability of a leader to personify the aspirations of his followers, then Barack is playing it to the max, wowing the cheap seats as well as the crème de la crème.

Not only are baseball cap wearing working class white men screaming out his name in unison with Harvard men, while women of all hues faint with regularity under the weight of his words, they are also giving him their hard earned money on an unprecedented scale, then going out and voting for him in such impressive numbers that the Republican pundits and talking heads of right-wing radio are loosing their minds and becoming hysterical in their response to the Obama Phenomena.

Senator Clinton is faring no better; she has been driven to such desperation that as I write a swelling scandal is engulfing her.  The Senator from New York has been caught fabricating war stories to support her pretensions to the office of Commander-In-Chief.   Since John McCain, with his stiff bumbling style and Rip Van Winkle conception of what time it is, doesn’t stand a ghost of a chance competing with the silver tongued Illinois Senator, the best orator from that state since Abraham Lincoln, in pleading his case to the American people from the podium, Barack Obama should continue to do what he’s doing: Exhort the masses with clever power packed slogans, and give a great inspirational speech every chance he gets.  It will continue to prove a winning combination: If it ain’t broke don’t fix it!



By: Playthell Benjamin

Harlem, New York 

March 2008



On Pat Buchanan!

Posted in On Right Wing Pundits and Bloviators, Playthell on politics with tags , , , , on September 20, 2009 by playthell

Patrick Buchanan VIII

Pugnacious Pundit of the Right


 Perceptive Pundit or Racial Arsonist?

  I recently got cable television again after a hiatus of several years and it has opened a whole new world to me.  Most importantly, I can now watch the 24/7 news channels and see all of the celebrated pundits speaking off the cuff on the great issues of the day.   In candid moments many have exposed themselves as shallow windbags – like that grinning coon with grits for brains Joe Watkins – and when the topic turns to Barack Obama some have revealed themselves to be spineless or racist or both.  Others have radiated hope and joy because they believe that the fact that Obama is making such an impressive showing is concrete evidence that our society is moving toward finally fulfilling her creed of liberty and justice for all.  Not so with Pat Buchanan and his lynch mob of right wing kooks, virtually all of whom are American Exceptionalists who still believe the world should be governed by a racial hierarchy led by white American men.  Buchanan manages to barely disguise his feeling on this question when he is on main stream television; but on his blog he drops the pretense and lets his true colors shine through.  

            Alas, nearly all of the pundits, black and white, have exposed themselves as dreadfully ignorant of history and the social sciences; it is as if they believe they can navigate the thorny problems of race and class in the US – which are terribly complex matters and demand both a historical perspective and what that great thinker C. Wright Mills called a “sociological imagination” – with a near total ignorance of Afro-American history and an indifference to sociology. Fortunately I have a tape recorder in my television and I am carefully taping all of these guys; but since Pat is the most offensive of the lot because he is smart enough to know better, I am critiquing him for posterity.  At the end of this election I will publish a book of commentaries “Notes on the Obama Phenomenon,” and like Mark Anthony said of Caesar: “I have come to bury Pat not to praise him” and to make certain the evil he does will live on after he is gone.  So friends, seekers of wisdom of truth, and countrymen lend me your ears, and I shall tell you tales from the dark side of human character.

            After overdosing on Jonathon Capeheart of the Washington Post, a grinning over solicitous intellectual mediocrity, and Pat Buchanan, a shanty Irishman who became neuveau riche from crafting political graffiti for charming dopes like Ronald Reagan and has lived up to the old Irish Republican adage: “Give an Irishman a horse and he will vote Tory every time!”  I decided to take a close look at the punditocracy, these verbose painters of American life; the smart guys who are supposed to pull our coats to the deeper meaning of the events we hear about in the news.  Although Patty is a helluva lot swifter on the cap than Jonathon Seagull, and most of the other talking heads, he is also a rigid ideologue whose arguments are predictable and a racist pugnacious bore to boot. 

            It is no accident that Pat’s columns on Barack Obama are prominently displayed on the cover page of that great American fascist David Duke’s website: For Our Heritage and Freedom.  In a syndicated column titled: A Brief for Whitey, written in response to Barack’s historic speech on race in which he called for a new conversation on race relations in America, old pugnacious Pat had this to say: “America has been the best country on earth for black folks. It was here that 600,000 black people, brought from Africa in slave ships, grew into a community of 40 million, were introduced to Christian salvation, and reached the greatest levels of freedom and prosperity blacks have ever known.”  The problem with that response is that this statement is also true for shanty Irishman like him. 

Had Pat’s people remained in Ireland and didn’t starve to death during the British induced potato famine in an attempt to starve them like rats, he would probably have been a stable boy in County Cork or bootblack in London.  He is who he is because his Irish ancestors came here and were moved ahead of black people in the line of progress because of the biological accident of being born with white skin, and the historical accident of his parents settling in America – where there was a pigmentocracy based on skin color!  So Pat’s observation that “Wright should get down on his knees and thank God he is in America,” is better advice for Irish-Americans like him who would are such big shots here but would have been nothing back in the old country.  Hence by Buchanan’s logic, if slavery was a good thing because it resulted in African Americans winding up in this country, it is more than a good thing that the British Crown decided to starve the Irish and drive them out of Ireland!

Furthermore, Rev. Wright’s ancestors were here building America when Patty’s people were grubbing for potatoes in the bogs of Ireland!  As Dr. Benjamin Quarles has shown in his seminal text The Negro in the American Revolution, and Dr. Sydney Kaplan reveals in his thoughtful study of the period The Black Presence in the Revolutionary Era, African Americans were right in the thick of things: militarily and philosophically! Racist dunderheads like Pat, and his verbose disciples on the Republican right, manage to get away with the kind of self-aggrandizing racist prattle precisely because of the shameful ignorance of American history by the vast majority of the American punditariat –black and white, left and right.

Beyond that Jeremiah Wright served this country in the US Marine Corps, for real tough guys that accept only “a few good men” – while Pat is a classic version of the “Chicken Hawks” that Senator Lautenberg dismissed as tough talkers who have never fired off anything but their mouths!  But I will have much more to say about Mr. Buchanan’s brief in my Open Letters to Pat Buchanan, which I am presently composing, and they written in the same instructional spirit as that well meaning but misguided drunken Irishman Pete Hamill’s Letter to a Black Friend.


  In a column dated 3/20/08 titled Pastor to the President?  Patty writes with the kind of righteous anger and simple minded argument designed to excite the passions and dull the intellect of the clueless, racist, right wing numbskulls who think of him as their brilliant verbal bully. His attempts to excerpt the sermon of the Reverend Doctor Jeremiah Wright in his column was no doubt popular with the ditzy white crowd who look to him in search of wisdom – a case of the blind leading the blind! – but I found Pat’s argument pedestrian at best and racist hysteria at worse.  And like all sophistic arguments his polemic cannot stand   rigorous examination. 

           Frankly put, if Buchanan can muster up the “cahones” to debate me on the veracity of the assertions in Revered Wright’s speech that so offends him in his column, I will kick his pugnacious punk ass!   For one thing, like virtually all of the white commentators fat mouthing about Rev. Wright, Paddy has nothing to say about the Reverend Hagee, the powerful Texas pastor who is a frightening full blown Christian Evangelical fanatic.  Hagee has said far more outrageous things about Catholics than Rev. Wright or Minister Farrakhan – both of whom are far better men than Pat Buchanan by my estimate – has said about Jews or white America in general, and Hagee is as tight with John McCain as the haunches on a country hog.  Yet I haven’t heard a peep out of old pugnacious Paddy, even though he is a former Alter boy who was educated by Jesuit priests, and to hear him tell it he is a big time believer in Catholicism!   Whasssup wit that Pat?

           Although I think it is hypocritical I can understand Abraham Foxman’s indifference to Rev. Hagee – when recently questioned about his silence on Hagee in the face of the Texas Pastor’s vicious attacks on the Catholic Church, and his insistence that Hurricane Katrina’s destruction of New Orleans was punishment for a gay pride parade they had scheduled for that time – Foxman said coldly “These are not Jewish issues,” according to a report in the March 14, 2008 edition of the Jewish Forward.  So unlike principled Jewish leaders who are concerned with the with the entire human condition – such as Rabbi Irwin Kula, President of The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership – who is alarmed by Rev. Hagee’s close relationship with the Republican Party and John McCain – or some members of the Israeli Mossad’s concern that his preachments might fire up some young Jewish fanatic who will then go out and deface a sacred Islamic shrine, bringing the endless Muslim hordes of Asia down upon the little desert nation; Abraham Foxman had nothing critical to say about Rev. Hagee. 

 A vicious anti-Catholic bigot and warmonger who has called the church of Rome “The whore of Babylon” and denounced the pope as religious fraud and agent of the Devil, while steadily pressing the US government to attack Iran; Hagee is a full blown iconoclastic lunatic.  I wonder however what Mr. Foxman would think if a billion Catholics around the world announced that they didn’t want to hear anything more about discrimination against Jews or the horrors of the holocaust because it isn’t a Christian issue!    

            This was Pats chance to call Foxman out for hypocrisy – Foxman has sure been all over his ass for years because of his apologia for Nazi war criminals the Jews were attempting to bring to justice…and rightly so!   And we can now see why, because Pat has recently written a book, titled Churchill, Hitler and the Unnecessary War: How Britain lost the empire and the West Lost the World, which is a brooding meditation on a White supremacist paradise lost, which argues that America should never have entered World War II because we were in no physical danger from Hitler.  Is this guy crazy or just the closet Nazi my Jewish friends have long suspected?  Does he really believe that not opposing Hitler could have saved the British Empire and the world wide system of white supremacy that it represented?  What an argument for a shanty Irishman to make!  I have so much to say about this book that it will require another piece to adequately address it; and that will soon be forthcoming.  Stay tuned because I’m gonna stay on Pat as long as he stays on Brother Obama; which probably means from now on!

           Even Donald Trump, himself no intellectual heavy weight – has publicly called Buchanan “a whacko” who “doesn’t like the Jews and he doesn’t like the blacks.”  And that was echoed by Bill Press, a white TV pundit, who told Pat Buchanan back in January: “Pat you want white supremacy and you’ve had it!  You are the same white supremacist you always have been!”  Press gave this assessment after a heated discussion about Barack Obama and The Black Congressional Caucus, with Pat Buchanan and that pasty faced bow tie wearing super light-weight Tucker Carlson – who is a conspicuous example of the preferential treatment accorded mediocre waspy white males in the media.  Buchanan was so obnoxious Bill Press was forced to call him out although they are obviously buddies.   But Pat was unmoved and just sat there with an IDGAF –“I Don’t Give A Fuck” – sneer on his bulldog face.   He is such a committed racist he can’t hide it so it seems he has decided to just go with the flow and let it all hang out.

           Pattty hanging out with Neo-Nazi David Duke

            Pat Buchana with David Duke

Birds of a feather!

On the matter of Reverend Wright – whose views I will objectively examine in another commentary – I have some advice for Pat.  Instead of sounding like a broken record, repeating ad nauseum the chant for Obama to quit his church in spite of all the good works that everybody who knows anything about Trinity Church has testified to, he should devote his energies to stopping the widespread rape of children by Catholic priests!  After all, Pat has not seen fit to leave his church in spite of the disclosure of numerous cover ups by the hierarchy and the Pope employing proven pedophiles in the Vatican – or worse sending these child molesters to another Parrish where unsuspecting parents will leave their children in their care – instead of sending these criminal perverts to jail.  And the present Pope alas, was part and parcel of the cover-up!

            And while he is dealing with that unholy mega-mess in his church, Pat should tell everybody why he is not running away from David Duke and vigorously protesting the self-confessed Republican neo-Nazi who once represented the Grand Old Party in the Louisiana legislature prominently featuring his writings on Duke’s website!  I think the answer to Pat’s silence on this issue while he is so exercised by Rev. Wright lay in the fact that pheasants of similar plumage generally congregate in close proximity; or as my grandmother would say: “Birds of a feather flock together.”   I know you like to tell black people what to do Pat, like all white supremacists, but I say go clean up your own house you racist potato head hypocrite!  


Playthell Benjamin

Harlem NY,

Spring 2008







President Obama At The American Summit

Posted in On Foreign Affairs, Playthell on politics on September 20, 2009 by playthell


Things Were Really Cricket!

Things Were Really Cricket!


Barack does us Proud …Old Republican Reactionaries Cry Foul!

 President Barack Obama is doing something that is all too rare in politicians of any stripe; he is trying hard to keep the promises he made during his campaign for office. For far too many of these guys promises are like eggs: they are made to be broken!  But Barack is remaining true to the vision of America he projected while running for the Presidency, a vision he constantly reiterated with the tagline “That’s why I’m running for President!”

          While I would like to see him adopt a more radical economic policy, his choices are restricted by the economic crisis inherited from the Bushmen alas.  Yet his diplomatic initiatives are a welcome relief from the racism, ignorance and belligerence of the neo-con “American Exceptionalists” who have dominated our Foreign policy for the last eight years.  Instead of blundering into disastrous wars of choice like Iraq, he is doing something that Republican hysterics consider near treasonous: practicing diplomacy by treating Latin and Caribbean nations as equals.  

 While right wing mighty whitey bolviators like Pat Buchanan, Joe Scarborough, Bill O’Reily and the WABC lunatics Fatty Limbaugh, Simple Sean and their like, howl over the smiling handshake between Presidents’ Obama and Chavez of Venezuela; I loved it!  There is much speculation about what they said to each other, I think Chavez said “Que Pasa Poppi, glad to be rappin with you rather than those crazy blancos!”  And Barack replied “Yo Dog, it’s a new day out here.” 

Two pioneering President’s Of Color CB Trinidad Americas Summit Obama

Que Pasa Poppi…Whaasup Dog?

After all, they are the first men of color who hail from the traditionally despised classes to ever become President of their countries.  And thus they are bonded by history.  Pat Buchanan, a muddled headed nauseating apologist for German Fascism, had the unmitigated gall to call the book Chavez gave to Barack “Silly.” Yet considering that it was a history of European and American imperialism in Latin America, written by a Latin American historian, I’d bet my bippy it couldn’t possibly be as silly, inaccurate or dangerous as Buchanan’s recent book on world War II – a crude apologia for fascism and a shameless lamentation for the collapse of the world white supremacist order.

So I rejoice every time pugnacious Patty and his racist reactionary KKK comrades have a hissy fit.  None of these critics voted for Barack so he need pay them no mind.  For those who supported him from the git go, like this writer, our President is right on track in changing America’s relationship with the world just as he promised. I say keep on keeping on brother.  The struggle continues!


The Best Looking First Lady Ever!

Posted in Cultural Matters on September 20, 2009 by playthell
         All Previous First Ladies Pale Next to Michel

Vision of a Bronze Goddess

 Ann Coulter, that pale anorexic witch who pollutes the public discourse with putrid right wing rubbish, has announced that Michele Obama is trying to pass herself off as another Jackie Kennedy.  Which she insists is a fool’s errand…an impossible dream.

Well….I am looking at portraits of Jackie Kennedy and Michele Obama as I write, and the only way I can explain Crazy Coulter’s charge is to rack it up as a particularly pathological instance of the racial narcissism that inflicts many Euro-Americans and totally distorts their judgment.   Measured against her immediate predecessors, Mamie Eisenhower and Eleanor Roosevelt, Jackie was an outrageous fox.  But compared to Michele Obama she was just “awright” as black teenagers would say.

Tall, bronze, sculpted and graceful as a Persian cat, for my money Michelle Obama is easily the best looking First Lady ever!   At five eleven in her stocking feet Michelle would tower over Jackie, and given her lush curves, mocha chocolate complexion and earthy manner Jackie would come off as a pale uptight prig.  While Jackie was a clothes horse and a slave to the fashion designers, Michelle is eclectic in her selection of attire.



Beauty and Class Par Excellance 

The First Lady  chooses attire from J. Crew to  high fashion couture.  And she is famous for wearing frocks from unknown designers; she is a master rather than a slave to fashion.  Hence before she leaves the white house she will have made the reputations of several designers – several of whom are female and minorities.   The truth is that our First lady is such a striking presence that she would look great in a flour sack!

But that is the least of what makes her such an attractive figure.  Her grace and character are even more beautiful than her physical features and endows her with a special grace that transcends the cosmetic decorations of mere fashion for those who prefer a woman of substance.  This is apparent to commentators in and out of the fashion world.  For instance the legendary African supermodel Iman, one of the most beautiful and photographed women in the world, offers a unique perspective on the elegance of our First Lady.

Beauty Beyond Category

Mickele In Crimson

Standing Next to France’s First Lady: Carli Bruni Sarkozy


Who’s the Supermodel? 

In an essay titled “The Law of Elegance” published the Sunday February 1, edition of the New York Daily News – which was dedicated to Michelle – Iman observes.  “To have an image of a woman with an Ivy League education, a vast collection of scholastic and career achievements under her belt, and killer style to boot is the sort of prototype that all our young girls need to aspire to.  It’s that triple threat that encompasses the law of elegance.”

Even a hard nosed news man and long time observer of the Washington scene CNN’s Jack Cafferty has fallen under our fabulous First Lady’s spell.  In a glowing panegyric titled My Crush on Michelle Obama, Cafferty confesses:

I think I am developing a crush on America’s first lady. Michelle Obama is more compelling than her husband. He’s good, but she’s utterly fascinating… Mrs. Obama has blown away the stale air in a White House musty from eight years of the Bushes. It’s like the sun came out and a fresh spring breeze began… It’s the people’s house, and Michelle Obama totally gets it.

“So much so that she has taken to inviting people in from the streets…Watch her when she visits a local school and you see the warmth and affection she instantly triggers in people. Kids are pretty much totally honest with very good BS-detectors. If they sense you’re a phony, forget it… The Obamas bring a humanity and humility to their tasks which sets them far apart from the run-of-the mill phonies who populate Washington. It’s exactly what the doctor ordered for this wounded nation.  Michelle Obama’s unassuming, but dead-on, sense of style has the fashion press gushing…Ok, I admit it, I’m smitten by the First Lady.” 

A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Words!

michelle_In Europe

 She Adds Grace to Power



 Playthell Benjamin

Commentaries on the Times

Harlem New York

March 14, 2009


Rosa Parks and Vivian Malone

Posted in Playthell on politics, Travels in the New South on September 19, 2009 by playthell

A Hero For all Times! 

A Hero for All times! 


A Remembrance of Two women who changed America

 In the past few days Rosa Parks and Vivian Malone passed from this life into legend.  And what a legacy they left to Americans in general and women in particular.  If the story of the advance of white women from a disenfranchised group with a tenuous status under law to political and economic empowerment in the twentieth century is a subject worthy of celebration, the story of black women is a marvel.  Having to bear all the stigma and oppression that comes with being a member of an oppressed caste, they still had to deal with the problem of gender discrimination that was the sole lot of white women.  It’s sort of like saying Sid Charesse did every step Fred Astaire did, except she was wearing spiked heels and dancing backward. 

Yet in spite of the multiple handicaps Afro-American women endured, numerous sisters have arisen from their ranks to give leadership in many fields.  Among these sisters are moral visionaries who have led the nation to higher ground: Rosa Parks and Vivian Malone are prominent among them.  Like Angela Davis and Condoleeza Rice, Rosa Parks and Vivian Malone were Alabama women. Their intelligence and strength speaks volumes about the character of the black community in which they all came of age during the period when caste discrimination based on skin color was sanctioned by the law of the land. 

 It was a dangerous time for a black person in America, an era when one’s color was deemed a crime and blacks could offend their white citizens just by the act of living. Thus violence, even of the murderous sort, was promiscuously employed to maintain the system of white domination.  This was the racial climate in which Rosa Parks stood up and challenged the system of white privilege in Montgomery Alabama that sparked the modern Civil Rights Movement.   Since it was this movement that called Dr. Martin Luther King to leadership, and I was in Atlanta when both of these icons of the Civil Rights movement passed, I decided to seek out somebody from the Southern Christian Leadership Council for a comment.

Through the good offices of J.O. Wyatt, a former County Commissioner and jazz promoter, I got at chance to talk with Reverend Dr. Joseph Lowery, a man who had walked with Dr. King into many a poisonous southern snake pit in battle for justice, at his office in the elegant, art laden, black owned, Atlanta Life Insurance building.  Now 84 years old and semi-retired, Lowery knew both women and when he spoke of them poetry and wisdom flowed from his mouth like water gushing from a Roman Fountain.                                                                                                                                                                                                                               “Ithink it was no accident that we call Rosa Parks the Queen mother of the Civil Rights movement,” he said, “because her role was clearly pivotal and triggered the modern Civil Rights movement.  The Montgomery bus boycott was direct action and introduced the era of self-determination for the black struggle.”

 Lowery explained that before Mrs. Parks challenged the etiquette of segregation in Alabama by refusing to rise from her seat so that a white man could be seated, black people had relied on the legal strategies of the NAACP to redress their grievances. “Prior to the boycott sparked by Ms. Parks the black movement was directed by the courts and legislative decrees,” Rev. Lowery recalls. “The bus boycott took the position that it didn’t matter what the courts, or the legislature said we were not going to tolerate injustice any longer; and it was the witness of Rosa Parks, the willingness to let God use her for this purpose.   Perhaps with the passing of Mrs. Parks we will develop a new commitment to taking our destiny in our own hands today.  If Rosa Parks’ life meant anything, it is that we need to turn to each other rather than on each other.” 

 Reverend Lowery’s remarks remind us of the central role the liberation theology of the progressive African American church has always played in the struggle for black liberation.  And it also serves to point out the failings of the reactionary other worldly religion that is running rampant all across the south today.  And these are joined by legions of what moral philosopher Cornell West calls “Constantinian Christians” on the Republican right, who slavishly genuflect before the princes and powers who pervert the essential message of Jesus Christ to “heal the sick, feed the hungry, and treat thy brother as thy self.”  Arrayed against this formidable phalanx of impassioned Christian Soldiers to their right, the prophetic Christianity that inspired Dr. King and Mrs. Parks to speak truth to power, and lay their bodies on the line in the service of justice, is under siege.

 The decision of Vivian Malone to enter the University of Alabama was prompted by what Mrs. Parks and the black folks of Montgomery had done.  When she enrolled in BAMA in 1963 it was only 8, years after the Montgomery Boycott.  Although her attempt to attend the University prompted George Wallace to stand in the doorway and declare “Segregation Forever” while a howling mob egged him on, Vivian Malone, armed with a court order won by the brilliant black female attorney Constance Baker Motley, along with her male companion James Hood, pressed on and made history. 

 On May 30, 1965 Vivian became the first black person to graduate from the University of Alabama in its 134 year history.  Like the majority of the black southerners who defied the segregated order, Vivian was also deeply religious. Many years later she would recall “I was never afraid because God was with me.”  Reverend Lowery said of her: “Vivian was the very essence of grace and charm if she had lived in the days of Greek mythology she would have been the goddess of Grace, if she had lived during the kingdoms of Timbuctoo and Mali, she would have been an African Queen; however God chose for her to live in the exciting era of the Sixties, so she became both: Goddess of grace and an African queen.”  We all owe both of these ladies a great debt for having helped to civilize America society.