Archive for October, 2009

On Amiri Baracka: Thought Policeman

Posted in Cultural Matters, Playthell on politics on October 31, 2009 by playthell
Writers Seminar at the Atlanta Black Arts Festival August 1994



Playthell, Sonya Sanchez, and Baraka circa 1994


 RecentlyI received a phone call from my good buddy and former colleague at the University Massachusetts, Mike Thelwell, a distinguished writer and Professor of literature, who told me that Amiri Baraka had just given a lecture at a Conference on Art and Politics in the Age of Martin Luther King, which was in session at Georgetown University in Washington. 

Mike told me that Baraka had proclaimed to this august congregation of genteel scholars and artist: “The New York critic Playthell Benjamin does not believe that art has a role in politics.”Given the concerns and priorities, indeed the raison d’etre of the conference, this declaration was intended as a dis.   

What Baraka was referring to was a 1994 column I wrote when I was an Editorial Page columnist for the New York Daily News.   Titled “Art Must Obey Inner Voice, Not Politics,” the commentary argued that all great art is an honest reflection of the unfettered vision of the artists, and mere politicians must never be allowed to subvert that process in order to use their art as propaganda for the politician’s vision of reality.

The genesis of my commentary – which was his ridiculous antics at an important international festival of Pan-African artists –  and the portrait of Baraka it conveys, explains why he was so upset about it.  But all I did was report his behavior – which was a colossal pain in the ass for everybody, as the column reprinted below will show – so if he looked like a pugnacious buffoon it was entirely his own doing.  I sure didn’t tell no lies on him!

As one who knew Amiri Baraka back when he was Leroi Jones, a master word sorcerer who inspired a movement with performances of his revolutionary verse, it is painful to witness what he has become – a sad and angry old man desperately trying to even scores by scandalizing the names and misrepresenting the ideas of his intellectual adversaries.

As a founding member of the Revolutionary Action Movement – along with Max Stanford and Don Freeman – I was around when the Spirit House Movers, under the spiritual and artistic guidance of Leroi Jones/Amiri Baraka,electrified audiences with songs that celebrated the strength and beauty of black people and fortified us for the fight.

I remember sitting in Philly smoking wisdom weed with my good buddy Larry Neal, another conjurer of redemption songs, when he dreamed of coming up to New York and meeting the great Leroi Jones, this bad brother from Sarah Vaughn’s home town who was creating a new art with the spoken word, an art that celebrated our black selves with no apology.

And I was on the scene in Harlem when it was the incubator of the Black Arts movement, with the Juju music of the Milford Graves/ Don Pullen Duet warming up the audience for the verbal magicians that painted brave new worlds in which we could envision a future where the revolutionary masses of the Bandung World would drive the white devils into the sea: “Black people! Black people!  Black people!…white people”  brother Baraka chanted to our delight. 

 Askia and Sonya

Askia and sonya sanchez

They be Word Sorcerers!

Like all the other young seekers of wisdom and truth I basked in the beauty of their inspired words – Yusef Rachman, Askia Muhammad Toure, Calvin Hernton, Larry Neal, et al –as they lifted us to astral planes with the power of their poetry.  I believed it was an art that could move the masses and change the world.  In these days – Larry Neal called them “Divine Days” – Harlem enjoyed an embarrassment of cultural riches. Unique talents were everywhere because just like the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920’s gifted black folk came from all over the Pan-African world to get in on the action and find their voices.

Max and AbbyMax&abbey

  The First couple of the Blacks Arts Movement!

Yet the truth be told the pivotal figures in the birth of the Black Arts Movement were native New Yorkers: Cecil and Ronnie Braithwaite – who evolved into Elombe and Kwame Brath  and remain cultural warriors in the field as I write – and Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln, the first couple of the movement, who together founded The African Jazz Art Society in 1958.

This organization foreshadowed the cultural developments of the Sixties, and their Album “We Insist: Freedom Now”   Set the standard for revolutionary black art.  At that time Baraka was still Leroi Jones – whom his Jewish wife Hettie Cohen describes in her revealing book, How I Became Hettie Jones, as a nice middle class Negro from Newark who was well liked in the white beatnik milieu of Greenwich Village.

   Hettie Jones

Hettie Cohen

 Baraka’s first wife and Mother of his talented daughters

I think that anyone wishing to understand this complex, fascinating and enigmatic poet should read Hettie’s book.  I found it trustworthy because it is surprisingly free of rancor from someone who has legitimate cause for anger – considering that LeRoi had cavalierly abandoned her and their two daughters once he was bitten with the black nationalist bug and decided he needed a black wife, then quit the lily white downtown environs of Greenwich Vilage for the black, brown and beige cityscape of Harlem.

Hettie calmly describes how she had developed a hatred for racism when she attended college in Virginia, and how when the Civil Rights Movement began she and “Roi” watched the demonstrations together on TV and were equally outraged at the behavior of the savage southern whites.

She also describes how when “Roi’s” plays began to become popular among black college students he started going to performances without her. She also describes in moving detail how she watched him as he began telling people that his popular play Slave was autobiographical; which was a blatant lie!

Hettie also paints a compelling portrait of “Roi’s” central role in the development of the literature of the “Beat Generation” and the emergence of the distinguished Jazz critic Martin Williams, because he edited a journal that published them all.   And finally she tells a bizarre tale about sitting at a wine and cheese book party in the Village on Sunday afternoon, a celebration of the publication of his book The System of Dante’s Hell, with their white avant garde artsy fartsy down town crowd on the day Malcom X was assassinated.

Suddenly a car pulled up and some somber looking black guys wearing sun shades got out and came over to Roi, she recalls, and announced that Brother Malcolm had been assassinated and bade him come with them.  He left with them and that was the end for her.

Then there is also the revealing portrait of Leroi Jones, the Village Beatnik poet evolving into a revolutionary, in the critical assessments written by Harold Cruse in The Crisis Of The Negro Intellectual, a work the distinguished and innovative historian Christopher Lash calls “a masterpiece of Twentieth Century criticism” in his thoughtful and provocative book The Agony of the American Left.

Here Cruse evaluates Baraka at various stages of his development.  First there was Cruse’s appraisal of his skills as a dramatist, and where he stood among the black Playwrights of the early Sixties.  Addressing Baraka’s first success on the New York stage, Dutchman, Cruse, who had previously dismissed Lorraine Hansberry’s much celebrated Broadway debut A Raison in the Sun as lightweight melodrama, writes “What passes for new drama is but glorified soap opera about domestic conformity – the ‘best face forward’ evasion of the critical facts about Negro inner-group class conflict – or else, the 1930’s protest message revamped for the 1960’s.”

Harold goes on the explain how “Leroi Jones managed to break new ground in Dutchman, but even there a question remains about the meaning of the play’s shock-symbolism.”  In other words Cruse liked Baraka’s willingness to break the shackles of tradition – as shallow as that tradition was – and break new ground; yet he found the message of his art confused.

 Harold Cruse

 OBIT Harold Cruse

The Premiere Theorist and Critic Of the Black Liberation Struggle 

 Later Cruse would look at the way black intellectuals interpreted jazz and the plight of the jazz musician, and offer his appraisal of Baraka’s magnum opus as a music critic. “The Negro creative intellectuals, the literary and cultural civil righters, supposedly understand and appreciate Jazz music.  But even Leroi Jones, whose book Blues People is an important critical landmark in the analysis and interpretation of Jazz in terms of a social art, almost completely passed over the 1920’s.”

Pointing out the shortcomings of Blues People, Cruse noted: “He did not deal at all with those first attacks on Negro jazz and the ‘damming-with-faint-praise’ criticisms of Seldes and others.  Jones deals adequately with the evolution of Jazz styles (i.e., the content of jazz and jazz styles and blues modes of expression), but not the social structure (the nature of the cultural apparatus to which Negro jazz and its artist are subordinated)”

Ah, but we should be careful what we wish for, because  that attitude would eventually change once Baraka acquired what he believes to be a “science of society” that explains how everything, even artistic production, is determined by one’s relationship to the “forces of production;” which  defines one’s “class consciousness” and  world view.  The claim Marxist ideologues  make for Marxism rivals the claims theoretical physicist make for a “Unified Field Theory,” except they have never been able to develop one!

Yet through his many incarnations – as beatnik poet, racial assimilationist, public intellectual, revolutionary Black Nationalist, Marxist ideologue etc – Leroi Jones has remained essentially an artist.  The distinguished Afro-American historian and literary critic Wilson Jeremiah Moses paints a compelling cameo of Baraka the artist in his book The Wings of Ethiopia; a remarkable combination of personal reflection and broad scholarship by one of our nation’s most learned minds.

The reigning authority on the history of Black Nationalism in America, Moses looks at the turbulent Sixties in an interpretive essay titled Rediscovering Black Nationalism in the 1960’s.   “Of all the figures associated with Black Nationalism in the 1960’s,” he writes “there is, perhaps, no one who symbolizes better than Amiri Baraka the movement’s continuity with the assimilationist patterns of the nineteenth century.”

Professor Moses describes Baraka thusly: “Half mad, half visionary, always erratically individualistic and egotistical, Baraka has faithfully acted out the traditional role expected of the artist in America.  His erratic genius, emotional virility, naïve zeal, and boundless energy make him the archetypical artist – as artists are conceived here in the west…We want to see ‘flashing eyes and floating hair,’  and we don’t believe anyone is an artists until he gives us reason to ‘close our eyes with holy dread.’”

 Well, Brother Baraka has given us many reasons for holy dread after he dramatically exchanged Jesus for Marx and found a new religion.  After that revelatory event we were even commanded to evaluate the cosmic spiritual musings of John Coltrane by some spurious Marxist critique of art, – a tendency from which the great traditions of Chinese art are still struggling to recover.

The critical lesson to be learned from the Chinese experience is that the willful employment of their art in service to political struggle by activist artist, such as “The Great Helmsman’s” use of poetry to raise the morale of his troops on the amazing “Long March,” during the arduous days of the Red Army’s attempt to seize power through protracted revolutionary war, is one thing; the use of state power to suppress or dictate artistic expression based on political criteria is quite another.

I applaud the former with deafening decibels and I reject the latter unequivocally!   In my youth I read with rapture Mao’s Lectures at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art, and once made it my bible on matters of artistic production and the role of the artist – and thus the basis of my criticism of art.  Until I discovered that it had but litle to do with the political and cultural reality of blacks living in the United States.

 Chairman Mao: The Great Helmsman

 Mao the Helmsman

 Amiri Baracka misapplies his Lessons On Art

When I was a child I thought as a child, but now I’m and old man and I have long ago put away childish things.  We are not now, nor have we ever been, in a revolutionary war in this country!   Recognition of this fact is the minimal essential proposition on which I and the survivors of the black radical struggles of the Sixties must agree in order to continue this discussion with any hope of making sense.

Hence the thoughtful observer must learn the real lessons about the policy of the Chinese government toward art and artist during The Great Cultural Revolution – especially what it means for the African American artist today.  

In order to recognize the dimensions of this disaster for the Chinese artistic community it is enough to simply witness Chang Ching, Mao Tse Tung’s wife and leader of the notorious “Gang of Four,” charging the conductor’s podium during a rehearsal of the Peking Symphony Orchestra and snatching the baton out of the conductor’s hand, piously announcing that she will teach them how to make “revolutionary music!”

A sonic nightmare ensued that was a vivid sound portrait of the chaos and confusion that plagued Chinese society during the tragic misstep that was the Cultural Revolution.  Although their efforts were well intended, as Baraka no doubt is, a sincere effort to advance the political revolution using culture as a vehicle, I cannot imagine a more graphic illustration of the dangers of placing politics over aesthetics in matters of art.

It is especially dangerous if a government – which has all of the means of persuasion and coercion already in their hands, including a monopoly over the use of organized violence – also insist that art must serve the politics of the state or political party.

Such an arrangement will inevitably result in crass philistines ignorant of art dictating to gifted and perceptive artist what their work should be about.  Which almost always has to do with the pedestrian concerns of those in power who wish to remain in power; purely artistic concerns be damned!

This tendency, as the gentle reader will discover when they read my commentary on politics and art Amiri Baraka was referring to, which is posted right below this essay, was my concern.  And it is a real concern, since this is what has happened everywhere in the world where the politicians who run governments have dictated what the proper role of art is; it doesn’t matter a fig whether the government is right or left in its ideology.

Ideologues are always convinced that their vision of the world is based in reality and everyone else is deluded or “counter-revolutionary,” hence dictatorships of the right and left behave remarkably alike in the ways they seek to exercise total control over their citizenry. That’s why the German Nazi’s and the Russian Communists both held positions on Jazz that were virtually indistinguishable.

This is not to say that there were no distinctions, but it was a distinction without a difference since both concluded that jazz was the sound of a civilization in decay!  And so have the Muslim fundamentalists; in fact the Ayatollah banned all but martial music after the triumph of the Islamic Revolution in Iran.  This should be enough to make the thoughtful observer wary of those who preach the gospel of art serving politics – especially jazz lovers!



Playthell G. Benjamin

Harlem, New York

October 31, 2009


It’s Time To Quit Afghanistan

Posted in On Foreign Affairs, Playthell on politics with tags , , , , on October 29, 2009 by playthell

The Commander in Chief!


The Commander In Chief with his Troops


President Obama Must  Not  Expand The War

No American President has been confronted with more disasters upon entering the Oval Office than Barack Obama.  And of all the crucial decisions he has been required to make, none is more critical to the fate of his Presidency than the direction he chooses to take in Afghanistan.  Fortunately, President Obama is showing the better part of wisdom by not allowing the Generals, and the congressional chicken hawks who repeat their demands like a Greek Chorus cheerleading for war, to stampede him into sending thousands of young Americans into the murderous quagmire that is Afghanistan.  Any careful  analysis of the facts on the ground in that treacherous terrain, and how this war relates to our strategic objective of defeating Al Qaeda, raises troubling questions that must be addressed before committing more American blood and treasure to that perplexing country – which is called “the graveyard of empires” with good reason.

In the wake of the most deadly month since our invasion of that country – with casualties running better than one a day – I have carefully analyzed the situation, and concluded that not only should the President refuse to order more troops into Afghanistan, he should withdraw the ground forces that are already deployed there.  I can envision no scenario where anything that is commonly understood as a “victory” is achievable in  that country.  First of all, there is not a single instance in the historical record where a full blown insurgency, or people’s war, has been defeated by a foreign occupier.   This is true whether we are talking about the French in Vietnam or Algeria, or the Portuguese in Africa – both of whom committed myriad crimes waging near genocidal wars in their attempt to defeat the insurgents. Even after years of warfare with France the Vietnamese still managed to defeat the mighty US military machine in a protracted war.   

The white supremacist, American Exceptionalist and militarists among us have never reconciled themselves to this humiliating defeat resulting from our misguided attempt to resurrect a failed French colonial project.  Hence they view the present wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as a chance for the US to redeem ourselves and reclaim America’s status as an invincible warrior nation.  This attitude is particularly powerful among some members of the warrior class and militaristic policy wonks who presided over the Vietnam debacle.  That’s a major reason why I opposed John McCain’s bid for the presidency.  (see “John McCain is Not qualified to be Commander-In-Chief.”)  It was abundantly clear from McCain’s rhetoric that he would seek redemption for his humiliation in Vietnam by making a stand in Afghanistan. I am convinced such a policy would result in another disaster on the scale of Vietnam.

Afghanistan is a more difficult theater to wage war than Vietnam. Aside from the mountainous geo-physical profile of the country which renders conventional warfare ineffective, there are qualitative differences in the nature of the enemy.  The Vietnamese revolutionaries were atheistic political militants whose strategy and objectives were firmly rooted in Mao Tse Tung’s theories of protracted warfare; which were in turn rooted in the doctrine of Prussian military strategist Von Clauswitz.  The fundamental conception of all warfare in this view is that war is an extension of politics.  Mao put it this way: “Politics is war without bloodshed, war is politics with bloodshed.” 

The Taliban on the other hand is made up of religious zealots who are convinced that they are the carrying out the will of God; hence they are indifferent to the objectives of those who are motivated by politics.  Whereas politics is the art of the possible and thus the strategy of political actors is shaped by that reality, the Muslim Jihadists are concerned with crushing the infidel invaders and establishing Sharia law. 

 Mullah Omar, a fearless warrior and the supreme leader of the Taliban, which began as an organization of militant seminarians from a Madrassa where he once taught, epitomizes this other worldly view.  And if one is carrying out a mandate from God compromise with earthly realities is not an option.   Hence, the Taliban take a very long view of their mission – after all, the Sunnis and Shiites have been slaughtering each other for more than a thousand years over a theological argument and they are still going strong.  Furthermore the Taliban leaders – having defeated a Russian army of a half million men – know that Americans will eventually tire and go home.   It is in the nature of things.  The only question is: How much American blood and treasure, along with innocent Afghan lives in collateral damage, will be spent before American armed forces pack up and go home?  I am arguing that the time to get out is now!

 Mullah Omar

 Mullah_Omar, Taliban Leader

An Authentic Afghan Rebel Leader

Although I could write a book on why we ought to remove our ground forces from Afghanistan, I shall confine myself to minimum essential  reasons for withdrawal.  First of all we have lost any moral authority because we are presently, and for the foreseeable future, supporting a thoroughly corrupt gang of dope dealers and criminals who do not have the trust or support of the majority of the Afghans. Thus they had to steal the last election to remain in power, and the Afghan people know it; what is worse is they know we know it too.  And  it remains to be seen if holding a new election will assuage the cynicism of the Afghan people toward the Karzi government.  It will not in any case win the Taliban, because as believers in Sharia they desire a theocracy.  

Hence it is to the rest of the Afghans that American policy must be directed in the battle with the Taliban for the allegiance of the Afghan people. General  McCrystal  correctly argues that we cannot win this war without winning the hearts and minds of the Afghan people first.  At present our soldiers who are entrusted with training the Afghan army to fight the highly motivated Taliban forces, who are inspired to selfless sacrifice by visions of an after life in Paradise with a harem of beautiful virgins at their beck and call, report that Karzi’s army is fueled by hashish and Yankee gold.  Check out the video “The Hashish Army” on You Tube and witness the impossible task our young people have been assigned!  The footage in this video was shot on the front lines in the Afghan mountians, and I think it would be criminal to continue sending brave young Americans – many of whom joined the military because they lacked opportunities in civilian society – into this deadly quagmire.

 Thirdly, the mountainous landscape and difficulty in identifying the enemy means that American forces will continue to kill innocent people attending weddings and funerals that our armed forces mistake for Al Qaeda conclaves.  And this is certain to increase hatred for the “Infidel American invaders.”  It is the best recruiting tool the Taliban and the entire Islamic Jihadist movement could wish for.  The recognition of this simple fact led William Hoh, a Foreign Service officer serving in Afghanistan, to recently resign his post after concluding that the very presence of American forces in Afghanistan is the major factor fueling the armed insurgency!   

 Indeed, the recent statement from Mullah Omar marking the end of Ramadan, the holiest period on the Muslim Calendar marked by intense fasting and prayer, supports Mr. Hoh’s conclusion.  “”The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan calls on the public of the West not to be deceived by the assertions of Obama,” the statement reads, “who says the war in Afghanistan, is a war of necessity. The West does not have to wage this war… “The invaders should study the history of Afghanistan from the time of  the Alexander…Still, if they are bent on ignoring the history, then they themselves saw with their own eyes the events of the past eight years. Have they achieved  anything in the past eight years?”  Those who are hell bent on pursuing this war will argue that the lack of progress in a war that has already lasted twice as long as world War II is the natural result of bungling on the part of the Bushmen, who squandered the resources in a war of choice in Iraq that they should have committed to a war of necessity in Afghanistan.  A month ago that was my position too.

 However when I consider Mr. Hoh’s comment in light of Dr. Daniel Ellsberg’s  recent observation that before he joined the Foreign Service Mr. Hoh was a Marine officer who had commanded combat troops in Afghanistan, just as Ellsberg had once done in Vietnam before he became a national security analyst and opposed that war,  therefore Hoh should be regarded as a more reliable authority on the military possibilities than the Generals, I am confirmed in my conclusion that now is the time to quit Afghanistan!  The President should turn the global war against terrorists over to Special Ops and the CIA; and focus on their destruction with the precision of a laser beam.  Policing and restraining the murderous repressive policies of the Taliban – especially their treatment of women and girls – is a noble calling to be sure; but it is a task that should be undertaken under the auspices of the United Nations and regional organizations with generous American support.

 But let there be no mistake: escalating the war in Afghanistan is dangerous folly – as the distinguished historian Barbara Tuchman – who has twice won the Pulitzer Prize for historical writing – defined it in her seminal book: “The March Of folly.”  Which is a term she coined to explain the decision of leaders throughout history who pursue policies that all the observable facts testify is against their nation’s interests.  For Lyndon Johnson the motivation was ego; for George Bush it was ignorant macho.  Barack must not bog this nation down in Afghanistan to prove he is a man, not the wimp the Republicans are sure to label him should he decide to pull out. For saving face is not worth a single drop of American blood.



Playthell Benjamin

Commentaries On The Times

             Harlem New York

October 28, 2009



On Religion, Race, Paranoia and Politics

Posted in Cultural Matters, Playthell on politics with tags , , , , on October 27, 2009 by playthell

 Jeremiah Wright: A Man On A Mission 

 A Prophetic Christian


 Race, Religion and the Presidential Campaign

 The Raging debate around what Barack Obama must do to atone for the alleged sins of his pastor, the Reverend Dr. Jeremiah Wright, a man who has come to symbolize everything that scares a clueless white America about outspoken black men, has conjured up mass historical amnesia and denial on the part of millions of white Americans. All of a sudden they are shocked and outraged by the fact that many Afro-Americans, even among the highly educated, view reality differently from them and they just can’t figure out how such a thing is possible; everybody knows the way white folks see things is the way things really are!

Understanding that Amnesia and Denial are mental aberrations does much to help thoughtful Afro-Americans cope white reaction to Reverend Wright. To these irate and self-righteous white folks Reverend Wright is a blasphemer and spawn of the devil, whose unjustified hostility toward white privilege and aggression border on madness, and for whom there can be no redemption.

But as the Afro-Martinican psychiatrist, revolutionary theorist and armed militant in the Algerian revolution, Dr. Franz Fanon, tells us in his classic study of a revolution in progress The Wretched of the Earth, the French colonialist believed the Algerian militants were crazy too.  But when Dr. Fanon began to examine them as a psychiatrist with the French military in Algeria, and listened closely to their stories, he switched sides and joined the Arab revolutionaries.  From this experience he not only came to understand that a collective anger among oppressed people was psychologically healthy, but concluded that injuring or killing your oppressor was therapeutic!

Hence, instead of complaining about his tough talk, white folks should be thanking their lucky stars that Jeremiah Wright is a gentle man of the cloth, because as a former Marine he might have gone off and wreaked havoc like Kevin McVey, a veteran of the first Bush war in Iraq who blew up the government buildings in Oklahoma, or Mr. Muhammad, the former army sniper who shot up all those innocent people down in the Washington D.C. area.

In spite of his public rejection of Dr. Wrights ideas that have come under attack, the howling and untutored mob demands that Barack curse the name of Jeremiah, who is beloved by much of his home constituency in Chicago, and banish the powerful preacher to the netherworld; erasing all memory of the Reverend’s good works the way the Chinese Communists treated ideologically incorrect comrades during the Great Cultural Revolution.   And all because of something he said!  Just like in China or Iran after the Islamic revolution. 

One waits in vain however for any mention of the right-wing white evangelical preachers around John McCain. The legit press and the talk show air-heads remain curiously mum on this guy, despite the fact that an objective analysis of US national security priorities will reveal that the right wing preachers supporting McCain are far more dangerous than Jeremiah Wright. The Reverends John Hagee and Rod Parsley are exhibits A and B.  Any  comparison between Rev. Wright’s statements that have been looped and played ad nauseam with some of the things routinely preached by the Revs. Hagee and Parsley will verify my charge.

What exactly did Reverend Wright say that has so many white Americans up in arms and the brightest lights of the punditocrisy babbling like morons?  Journalists Roland Martin, an election analyst for CNN, has listened carefully to the entire sermon and outlined its major themes in an online article 3/21/08, and early on the picture of Dr. Wright is radically altered in the eyes of the thoughtful reader.  Martin proved an excellent choice to report on this sermon, because on top of being an excellent journalist he is also Afro-American and an ordained preacher.  

The Sermon that is the source of all the angst was delivered on September 16, 2001, five days after the devastating attack by Al Qaeda, and it was titled “The Day of Jerusalem’s Fall.”  After reading Martin’s report I listened to the sermon myself on the link provided by CNN. And I am appalled by the absence of anything approaching objectivity in the press coverage.

I found the sermon to be for the most part true, and I had written a commentary a few days after the 9/11 attack with a similar interpretation of the causes of the attack.  Titled Aftermath of the Disaster: Irony, Fantasy, Denial, Self-Righteous Preachment…But Little Truth, it can still be read online at US Crusade.Com: and there is not a dimes worth of difference between my view of the causes of the event and Rev. Wright’s views.

It turns out that the most often cited comment that enrages white Americans across the board, Wright’s observation that “The Chickens have come home to roost” was really a quote from Edward Peck, a former ambassador to Iraq and deputy director of Ronald Reagan’s Terrorism Task Force.  Rev. Wright makes this abundantly clear in the speech, something you would never know from following the story in the press.  And in any case Rev. was right!   

The evidence is overwhelmingly in his favor; from the overthrow of the democratically elected Iranian government of the liberal European educated modernizer Muhammad Mossadek by the CIA in 1953 – America’s way of chastising him for threatening to nationalize the British Petroleum oil company –  which led directly to the Islamic revolution in Iran; or the fact that Osama bin Laden was  trained in urban terrorist techniques by the CIA, back when the US government regarded the Muslim fundamentalists fanatics in the Afganistani Moujahadin as “freedom fighters” and valued allies in the geopolitical chess game that characterized America’s relations with the Soviet Union in the Cold War Era.

There is also the fact that the 9/11 terrorists were trained in Afghanistan under the Taliban regime, who came to power as a result of the training and weapons they received from the CIA.  And virtually all of the 9/11 suicide squad came from Egypt and Saudi Arabia, America’s two closest allies in the Arab world.  None of these facts are in dispute, so I am puzzled at the outcry from a self-righteous abysmally ignorant American punditry and other opinion leaders.

In the course of a stem winding sermon lamenting the powerlessness of the world’s poor, Rev. Wright began to enumerate America’s transgressions against peoples of color at home and in the developing World; including the atomic bombing of Japanese civilians.  And it is true that there was no remorse on the part of the people who perpetrated this horror – the pilot of the Enola Gay that dropped the bomb said he never missed a night’s sleep over it – which many historians of World War II believe was unnecessary.

Although the reverend’s indictment of American foreign policy and race relations at home was poetically expressed with great emotion, it remains a matter of fact.  In a speech that built up to a dramatic crescendo Wright skillfully employed a repeating refrain, raising the decibel level of his voice with each verse, a technique well known to skilled orators, and electrified the crowd as he explained how our nation’s sins had come back to haunt us: the CIA call it “blowback.”

As far as I can see truth and history are on the Reverend’s side; I didn’t hear a word of a lie.   So if the truth will set you free, people should listen carefully to Reverend Wright and free their minds.  The 9/11 tragedy was a topic that no pastor worthy of his pulpit could avoid, and Dr. Wright addressed it with passion and candor. His sermon was firmly in the historical tradition of the progressive Afro-American church – a subject I shall have more to say about in a future commentary – and far more worthy of the teachings of Jesus Christ than the blood thirsty jingoism of the white preachers on the Republican right.

If you are not going to come clean in the House of the Lord, where will you ever tell the truth?  The real question here is how so many people who call themselves Christians could respond the way they did to his message.  Have they never heard the biblical admonition: “Ye shall reap what ye sow?”  I can’t envision a more fitting situation to apply the biblical warning: “Pride goeth before the fall!”


A Gruesome Twosome


The Two Johns


Senator McCain and Rev. Parsley


Rev Rod Parsley: a Dangerous, Deluded, Dude!

The one issue on which I disagreed with Rev. Wright however, is his charge that the US government purposely infected Afro-Americans with the Aids virus.   Yet it does not at all surprise me that some black people believe this.  Since the Aids virus began to run amuck in the black world many black people have speculated about the possibility of our government having a sinister hand in it.

After all, this sort of germ warfare would be nothing new because many of us have heard the story of how John Amherst gave the Indians blankets infected with smallpox and killed them off.  And he has one of America’s most prestigious liberal arts colleges named after him! It’s in the history books; check it out.  And we also know about the far more recent “Tuskegee Experiment,” where black men were allowed to go untreated for syphilis so that white doctors could observe the progress of the disease in order to devise treatments for white folks.

 Furthermore some of us know about Fort Detrict, where the US Army houses its germ warfare program; it was here that the weaponization of germs was invented.   And I have had scientists at Harvard and the Columbia University Medical School tell me that they believe the HIV virus was created there.  Then there is the fact that Reverend Wright lives in Chicago, which is the same town as Dr. Haki Madhubuti, who teaches at Chicago State University.  In 1990 Dr. Madhubuti wrote a compelling paper titled “AIDS: The Purposeful Destruction of the Black World?”

 This paper explores the claims that AIDS is a form of covert biological warfare against black people, and analyzes the scholarly literature on the subject.  Dr. Madhubuti concludes: “In the white world when it comes to warfare, there are few coincidences.  That is why the United States has war colleges, one of the largest standing armed forces in the world, think tanks, and thousands of secret research projects underway at universities and private companies coast to coast.

There also exist in this country a spineless media and a corporate structure that will maintain its power ‘by any means necessary.”  Then he says with a sense of bewilderment: “I do not have the answer to this one.”  In other words after combing the literature on the subject he didn’t know what to believe.  So lighten up on Reverend Wright, because I’m sure he has read this too.

 While this may come as a shock to white folks, a lot of black people sincerely believe that the government developed the AIDS virus to wipe us out!  And if this is paranoia it is induced by the absurdity of life under the racial caste system that is as American as apple pie and even now is only partially dismantled.

 That’s why most Afro-Americans ain’t mad at the Reverend Dr. Wright, while white folks are clueless regarding our response.  Hence a sermon that strikes whites as outrageous slander against their government has the ring of truth to many blacks.  Even some who are in high up in the medical profession.

This is because black and white Americans hold different views of reality based on our experiences.  Dr. Dubois called this “double consciousness” and described it in his 1903 book The Souls of Black Folks, an American literary classic.   He wrote “The Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second sight in this American world…It is a peculiar sensation, this double consciousness…One ever feels his twoness – an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings, two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

The jury is still out on Rev. wrights charge that US government agencies has been involved in the importation of drugs into America’s inner cities.  I once interviewed a retired DEA agent and ex-Marine, officer Celerino Castillo III, who wrote a book titled Powderburns: Cocaine, Contras and the Drug War in which he claims to have witnessed CIA agents under the command of Colonel Oliver North shipping cocaine from Central America to the US in order to covertly finance the Contra war in Nicaragua in circumvention of the Boland Amendment, which cut off US funding to the Contras.

This story was corroborated by a much contested story in the San Jose Mercury, a northern California newspaper, which claimed government operatives supplied cocaine to black drug dealers like the notorious “Freeway Ricky Ross,” who operated in Congresswoman Maxine Waters’ district.  She certainly believes the story and tried her best to get to the bottom of the matter.

Furthermore, in the introduction to “Powderburns” former DEA agent Michael Levine, whose adventures in the anti-drug wars was the subject of the movie Deep Cover, starring Lawrence Fishburn and Jeff Goldblum, tells us: “In my books articles and media appearances I told of deep cover cases from Bangkok to Buenos Aires, that were destroyed by the covert agencies of my own government; cases that would have exposed people who had been given license to sell massive amounts of drugs to Americans in return for their support of Oliver North’s Contras,” says Levine.

He went on to claim, “I could easily prove that these investigations were intentionally destroyed and that our cover was blown by our own government, but I only had circumstantial evidence linking the events to the Contras.  Celerino Castillo, as you will see in these pages, had the smoking gun.”  And indeed he does.  Yet all of these so-called learned pundits who are unceasingly attacking Reverend Wright have obviously never read any of this material, verbose air-heads that they are.   And yet they expect to be taken seriously by serious people!

While the sermons of Dr. Wright are a repudiation of America’s promiscuous use of military and covert violence against poor peoples of color around the world, and a warning against the pitfalls that accompany the arrogance of national power, the sermons of John Hagee and Rod Parsley are just the opposite.  Both of these men are white American Nationalists who deeply believe in the doctrine of American Exceptionalism, the idea that god has chosen America to lead the world, which is a built in justification for imperialist aggression – like the misguided invasion of Iraq.

However I will have much more to say about these two mugs in a forth coming commentary on Senator John McCain’s spiritual advisors.  For the moment suffice it to say that when compared to these warmongering sharks Rev. Wright is a paragon of virtue; Christian charity and sound judgment was the dominant theme of his sermon, and these virtues also characterized his work in the community.

In their swelling vanity most white Americans heard his critique as treason and blasphemy.  While it would amount to an act of political suicide for Barack to defend his pastor any further, black journalists and intellectuals plus all Americans of good will who care about the truth, must rally to his defense and tell the whole truth about Rev. Wright’s life and work.

   Barack and Jeremiah




Playthell Benjamin

Harlem, New York

December 2, 2009

Hail To The Chief

Posted in Playthell on politics on October 27, 2009 by playthell

A Soulful StrutA Soulful Strut 



 The First Family

All Together 

 Signed, Sealed and Delivered he’s ours!



On the Role of Personality in Politics

   Students of modern Chinese diplomacy often spoke of “the five smiles of Chou en Lai.”  And those who negotiated with the great Foreign Minister of the People’s Republic of China swore that they could tell how the talks would go based upon the smile he wore that day.  Well, my man Bam also has a megawatt smile that seems to perpetually grace his face; he can lift the spirits of a crowd or defang a vicious opponent with the nuances of that mystic quicksilver smile.  We witnessed its versatility and power during the presidential debates; especially when John McCain came at him with outrageous arguments and Bam would reduce him to an absurd scowling figure in the eyes of the audience with an intricately nuanced smile.  Suddenly the Presidential debates became a contest between a prince and a troll.

 The only smile I ever saw that could match Bam’s power and versatility was the smile of Malcolm X, to whom Barack bears more than a slight resemblance for those of us who remember Malcolm before he grew a beard.  He is tall and lanky like Malcolm, dirty red complexion like Malcolm, graceful of movement like Malcolm – Bam is a b-ball player and Malcolm was a great dancer – a spell binding orator like Malcolm, wears his hair in a Quo Vadis like Malcolm, has a Muslim name like El Hajj Malik Shabazz, and has a killer smile that can convey love or malice with an uncanny ease…just like Malcolm. 

            Sometimes the resemblance was so uncanny that one amped up commentator suggested Bam was the secret love child of Malcolm X, while me and my friends thanked the Gods and the ancestors that Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity are far too ignorant of history to notice the amazing similarity in their speaking styles; especially the way they employed their smile in the service of their argument.   The broader point suggested by this observation is that had Malcolm X not come of age in an apartheid America, he might well have been what Barack Obama has become.  After all, Malcolm’s youthful ambition was to become a lawyer, until his racist high school adviser told him Negroes couldn’t become lawyers and suggested that he learn to work with his hands, and Malcolm had a gift for moving masses with the sound of his voice…just like Bam: My, how the times have changed

Through-out  this election, even when the Alaskan pit bull got down and dirty, inciting the untutored racist mob into a murderous frenzy calling for his head, Bam never got ruffled and nary a frown ever clouded his face.  The smile my man was smiling last night as he looked out at a wildly cheering crowd that extended as far as the naked eye could see, and no wide angel camera lens could capture in its full grandeur, was the smile of victory.  The fancy dancing Chicago Kid had trounced the Arizona brawler!   If it had been a boxing match it would have been a knockout early on – a wipeout!

As great as the moment of victory was, when the knockout came the Kid had landed so many telling blows that the outcome had long become a fait accompli in the minds of the wise guys, it was almost anti-climatic; this time the smart money got the nod.  Although the Arizona brawler had constantly thrown punches beneath the belt, the sure mark of a dirty fighter that would be disqualified in the boxing ring, the kid was so swift on the cap if they had been in the ring the brawler couldn’t hit the kid with a hand full of rice from point blank range.  And that’s on the real; Bam was that great folks

Fulfilling an Ancestral Imperative

 Campaign 2008 Sharpton

Barack Obama and Long time Civil Rights Activist Rev. Al Sharpton

In rising to the pinnacle of power on a progressive platform of expanding the democratic process and serving the public interests by offering programs that serve the needs of the broad masses of the people, rather than the special interests of the economic elites, Barack has shown a proper respect for his ancestral imperatives. Here I am referring to a kinship based on culture and political struggle rather than blood ties.   Hence if Obama’s smile is the mirror of his soul, Jesse Jackson’s tears mirror the hopes and dreams of past generations.  I know, because I am a part of that heroic generation who confronted fascism in the south during the turbulent Sixties; challenging the claims of white supremacy by placing our lives on the line for the right to vote. 

As the great Jewish theologian Abraham Herschel, an internationally renowned authority on the Hebrew prophetic tradition observed of Dr. Martin Luther King: “Moralist of all ages have been eloquent in singing the praises of virtue,” but “the Distinction of the prophets was in their remorseless unveiling of injustice and oppression.”  The African-American activist who challenged the southern police state were inspired by that prophetic tradition as expressed in the black church – the tradition represented by the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright, a great preacher of the gospel at whose feet Barack learned the art of oratory as practiced by the Afro-American protestant clergy.   A tradition that has produced the greatest orators the world has yet seen.  

The twentieth century African American Renaissance man James Weldon Johnson called these wizards of the spoken word “God’s Trombones.”  The Reverend Jesse Jackson is one of their number; having been tutored in art of preaching the social gospel by the greatest orator of the twentieth century: Martin Luther King.   Largely on the basis of his quick witted intelligence and oratorical virtuosity Jesse made the idea of an African American running for President plausible.  The triumph of Barack Obama, who began as a community organizer in the city of Chicago where Jackson has made his base for years, was the fulfillment of a long and tortuous struggle.  As a tireless advocate for the poor and powerless in America, witnessing Barack’s rise up a path he blazed had to be a magical moment for Jesse…I know it was for me.   And my tears flowed right along with his, and Oprah’s and Roland Martin’s, and Steve Osumsami’s, and Skip Gates along with his posse of Harvard professors, and legions of others.  General Colin Powell, a sure enough tough guy steeled in the fires of combat, says at his house “everybody cried” when the announcement came of Barack’s stunning victory.”  My lord, what a morning!



 Playthell Benjamin

Harlem Janurary 2009


Lift Every Voice and Sing

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

 Inauguration Day in the Ancient City

My Trip to florida with Makeda ETC 533 

 Faces of Change in the New South


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

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

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

 Restoring the True history of St. Augustine

 My Trip to florida with Makeda ETC 283

Black Soldiers at Fort Mose!


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

 The Castillio de San Marcos

My Trip to florida with Makeda ETC 258


This fort was never taken!

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

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

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

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

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


Hallelujah!   The day of Jubilee

 My Trip to florida with Makeda ETC 488

 Oh Happy Day! 


Odd man out!

My Trip to florida with Makeda ETC 515


Arrested Development!





Photo and Text by: Playthell G. Benjamin

St. Augustine Florida

January 2009

Encounter with A Georgia Peach

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

on the roqd in the dirty south 083 

 On the Road 


Notes from my Journey through the Heart of the New South

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Professor Thomas Dorsey: Father Of Modern Gospel Music

 Dorsey_Thomas with Mahalia Jackson


With his protégé the great Mahalia Jackson


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

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

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


Hanging With My Daughter in the Ancient City

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


My Trip to florida with Makeda ETC 256


Makeda searches for her Seminole Ancestors


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Makeda and the Great Seminole War Chief Osceola

My Trip to florida with Makeda ETC 309


Members Of the Same Tribe?


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

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

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

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

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

Makeda in the prison of Osceola

My Trip to florida with Makeda ETC 263 

 Standing silently under the portal where Grand Dad said Osceola escaped

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

This sign Speaks volumes

My Trip to florida with Makeda ETC 208


The Evidence of Things Unseen!

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

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


A memorial to the plains tribesmen

My Trip to florida with Makeda ETC 326 

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


My Trip to florida with Makeda ETC 319 

 Faces of the Damned

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

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

 My Trip to florida with Makeda ETC 322


The caption explaining the meaning of the drawings

 My Trip to florida with Makeda ETC 324

Aftermath of the Genocide

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

 Rummaging through the archives

My Trip to florida with Makeda ETC 340 

 In search the truth about her ancestors

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





Text, Photos and videos by: Playthell Benjamin

St. Augustine Florida

January 2009


*Note: 2, 417 words

This Bud’s For You

Posted in Cultural Matters, Playthell on politics with tags , , on October 23, 2009 by playthell


 Firing up some high grade bud in the Land of the Flowers


It’s Time to End the Anti-Marajuana Laws

Anti-Marijuana laws are a tyranny of the majority!  Hence the announcement by Attorney General Eric Holder that the federal government will no longer prosecute providers and users of marijuana for medicinal purposes, in states where such use is legal, comes as welcome news indeed.  However it is at best an awkward half step in reaching a final solution to the problem of marijuana use as a law enforcement issue.

 To put it succinctly, it is like applying a band aid to a cancerous sore.   The devil here really is in the details.   First of all trying to distinguish who is smoking marijuana for medical reasons and who is smoking because it enriches their spiritual life – like Rastafarians for instance – or who is smoking for the pure pleasure of it, will certainly prove an impossible nightmare!

 The seeds of failure are embedded in this approach.  For instance the Feds have stated that vigorous prosecutions will continue to be directed against those who deal marijuana for profit, because they are the main source of income for the murderous Mexican cartels.  This is true, hence the tragedy here is that this policy will fuel the cartel’s enterprises in the US: The more dangerous the traffic becomes the higher the price of the product, thus the greater the profits.  That’s the way the market works.

The only way to end this is to legalize marijuana completely with no more controls than those on tobacco – a really deadly vice!  Anything short of this will not end the horrendous street crime and official corruption associated with the illegal trafficking in this euphoria inducing plant.  And there isn’t enough jail cells in America to imprison everybody who will continue to smoke this wondrous weed not matter what the law says!

 I am no novice on the drug issue; I have given much thought to the question of recreational drug use and once won an award for accuracy and honesty in drug reporting when I was a columnist at the Daily News.  The Tom Focade Award is presented by “High Times” magazine, the preeminent authority on recreational drug use.

My  opinions on the matter are grounded in serious research among scientists and medical professionals devoted to treatment and cures for drug addiction – but a great deal of my research was conducted employing a time honored anthropological method: The participant observer.

No one understands better than the Times editors how much hypocritical nonsense surrounds the issue of recreational drug use: Especially marijuana smoking!  And they agreed with the analysis and conclusions of my News columns: Anti-Marijuana laws are anti-democratic and represent a tyranny of the majority that Alexis de Tocqueville warned us would happen if the rights of minorities are not protected.

The Marajuana laws are the source of the violent crimes associated with drug use, thus they cannot be the solution, and Marijuana is far less dangerous to our health and spiritual well being than alcohol and tobacco consumption.  The legalization of marijuana would address two of these problems immediately, and contribute to a solution for the destructive practice of alcohol consumption by providing a safer way to get high!


Some High grade bud!

  “Cannabis Sativa,” as the botanist call it, has a long and honorable history. As near as I have been able to discover after years of detective work, Marijuana was first cultivated by ancient Hindu sages over three thousand years ago.  Their towering wisdom is verified by the names they gave it: “The Poor Man’s Heaven” and “The Heavenly Guide.”  The Jamaicans, who have a flourishing Marijuana cultivating and smoking culture, call the herb “Ganga,” a word of obvious Indian origin.

And from my years of investigating the affects of smoking this marvelous weed – the “joy weed” that the prophet Abraham is said to have smoked before he had his transcendental experiences that produced prophetic visions – I’d say the Hindu wise men were never wiser than when they named the Ganga.  It is a little noted fact – both by the mainstream media as well as the anti-marijuana fanatics – that some of the most brilliant personalities of our times have been avid herb smokers.

 Astronomer and Television Star Carl Sagan


 A Brilliant Scientist and Avid Herb Smoker

Among the self-confessed pot heads are the great astronomer Carl Sagan.  Writing in the 1969 book, Marijuana Reconsidered, under the alias “Mr. X”, Sagan wrote the following testimony on his experience smoking herb:

When I’m high I can penetrate into the past, recall childhood memories, friends, relatives, playthings, streets, smells, sounds, and tastes from a vanished era. I can reconstruct the actual occurrences in childhood events only half understood at the time. Many but not all my cannabis trips have somewhere in them a symbolism significant to me which I won’t attempt to describe here, a kind of mandala embossed on the high. Free-associating to this mandala, both visually and as plays on words, has produced a very rich array of insights.”  We know that Mr. X was actually Carl Sagan because he later confessed it, after his stature in the scientific world had grown beyond reproach.

The brilliant novelist Norman Mailer, one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century often turned to the  “Heavenly Guide” for inspiration.  I know this because he told me so.  From our first encounter we fired up some bush.  It was the day of the second Ali Norton fight and I was dabbling in the boxing business at the time.  Driving uptown on  the Avenue of The America’s I was caught by the red light at 50th Street.

I was driving a classic car – a white Duisenberg in fact, and I had just got it hand washed causing the silver chrome piping that ran into the engine to glisten in the mid-afternoon sun.  All of a sudden I saw this short graying white man in a trench coat stop in front of the car as he was crossing the street and bow down as if genuflecting before the golden calf of Mammon.  Had he not performed such a dramatic gesture I probably would never have looked at him closely enough to notice who he was – what with all the beautiful stylish ladies all about, eye candy galore.

 Norman Mailer



Even after I got a good look at him I still couldn’t believe it was him – although I have since learned that when you see somebody in Manhattan who looks like somebody famous they usually are. I got so excited without thinking I jumped out of the car and blurted out:” Dam if you don’t look just like Norman Mailer!”   He smiled his slightly devilish smile and said “I should look like Norman mailer because I am Norman Mailer.”

I proceeded to tell him what an unexpected honor it was to meet him because I considered him one of the great writers in the English language.  He seemed genuinely surprised that I knew who he was because I didn’t look like the literary type at the moment.  I asked him where he was going and if I could give him a ride, and he said “Really, well I was heading over to the Upper East  Side.”  I bade him hop into my dream machine and away we went.

My Fly Ride 

And Away We Went!

Since I had recently see him in a television interview where he talked about how smoking reefer fired his imagination, and his love for boxing was well known – he had even gone to the gym and trained with the World Light-Heavy Weight Champion Jose Torres – I engaged him in a conversation about the much anticipated Ali-Norton rematch and then offered him a joint of some El Primo High Grade Sensemillah  bud straight out of Humboldt County in Northern California.

I told him that I saw the TV interview and he relaxed and fired up.  I ducked into Central Park at 59th street and we cruised uptown.  The conversation soon turned to politics and literature, after a while he got high and was just staring at me as I was discussing Shakespeare’s use of color symbolism – A topic I later published an extensive essay on titled: “Did Shakespeare Intend Othello

To Be Black?  A Meditation on Blacks and the Bard,” which can be read in the Anthology “Othello: New Essays By Black Writers” edited by the distinguished Indian Shakespeare scholar Dr. Mathili Kaul, and published by Howard University Press.  Suddenly Mailer said to me, who are you? It’s confusing: You talk like a professor but you look like a gangster!”  It was a funny question, because he was obviously smashed from the dynamite weed.

The father of Jazz – America’s great contribution to world culture – Louis “Pops” Armstrong, was also an herbalist. And George Washington, the father of our Republic – smoked herb too, only he referred to it as “smoking hemp.”   One would be hard put, in fact it would be a fool’s errand, to try and find a more impressive group of men anywhere in the modern world!


Pop’s Armstrong: Longtime Pothead


 He Invented and Art Form that Captured the World!

It is no wonder the Rastafarians – a Jamaican religious order who use Cannabis Sativa as a holy sacrament – call it “Wisdom Weed!”    


Wisdom Weed

 Wisdom weed II

Simply Heavenly!

My attitude toward anti-marijuana statutes is conditioned more than any thing else by the fact that I strongly believe the laws against smoking wisdom Weed to be a misuse of the police power of the state that could be better utilized fighting serious crimes; and the legal doctrine that justifies it is a perversion of the ideal of democracy.

In the world famous two volume treatise Democracy in America, written by the brilliant French social philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville in 1830,  the author predicts that American style democracy was ever in danger of degenerating into a mere “tyranny of the majority” if the rights of unpopular minorities were not protected in the laws.

As a black person in America I and my ancestors have always lived under the tyranny of the majority; we were living under a tyranny of the majority when de Tocqueville wrote his great work.  After all, most black Americans were held in chattel slavery in the south, and the perceptive Frenchman noted that: “Hatred of the black race seems strongest in the northern states that have abolished slavery.”

Hence, having lived under the tyranny of the majority due to my race, I now refuse to bow down to a tyranny of the ridiculous old fools who abuse their power by outlawing the smoking of Wisdom Weed – and who may now be the majority only in power and influence.

Aside from the sheer pleasure of it all – it’s no coincidence that medical doctors specializing in sexual dysfunction, whose minds are not fettered by false doctrines,  routinely prescribe this wonderful weed to help stimulate desire.  And there are proven medical benefits for people suffering from serious afflictions such as: Cancer, Muscular dystrophy, Aids, glaucoma, etc.

However aside from polemics about personal liberty and the medicinal properties of Cannabis Sativa, I return to the the undeniable fact that the main reason for the drug wars in Mexico, which are increasingly spilling over in the towns and cities of the US, is the anti-marijuana laws.

 Yet from the talk emanating from our newly minted Secretary of Homeland Defense, Janet Napolitano, the rum drinkers just don’t get it!  No amount of police power – short of turning the country into a fascist police state – will successfully suppress the marijuana trade.

All repressive measures do, aside from raising the price of weed, is attract a more ruthless element to the trade as risk increases and the commodity becomes more valuable.  It is the ultimate folly, as that term is defined by historian Barbara Tuchman in her thoughtful and learned book, The March of Folly – which a concept she employs to describe the behavior of leaders who pursue a policy that all the observable facts suggests is against the nation’s interest!

Hence for all these reasons and more, I shall smoke the Wisdom Weed until my dying day.  In fact, I intend to take a toke of the high grade just before I dance and join the ancestors.  So to those who would profane their high office and subvert the quest for a true democracy by abusing the power of the state passing repressive laws designed to prevent me from taking a toke, I have some parting words.

I have purposely chosen doggerel because I think such scurrilous scoundrels unworthy of poetry.  Low verse is their just dessert: “The winds may blow / the trees on high / The bees may kiss the butterflies / The sparkling Champaign may kiss the glass /but all you silly mother fuckers can kiss my ass!




 Playthell G. Benjamin

Commentaries On the Times

Harlem, New York 

Friday the 13th, March 2009


Another Open Letter To Rush Limbaugh

Posted in On Right Wing Pundits and Bloviators, Playthell on politics with tags , , , , , , on October 22, 2009 by playthell



The Philosopher king of the Untutored Mob


Yo Rushbo!

  I was sitting here at my table working on a book when I saw your rotund figure on television exclaiming that the President’s response to the unlawful arrest of Skip Gates – my friend and the most distinguished Academic in America – was “a black militant response!”  You also said that “agents of Barack Obama and Sonia Sotomayor” had attacked the poor white fireman in New Haven” and now white policeman are under attack from the “East Wing of the White House.”  Although I know you are a meglo-maniacal know nothing who will do most anything to boost your ratings and stay in the news, I was still shocked at this rancid incendiary rhetoric.

The more I hear from you the more several things become crystal clear: You are totally without any sense of decency or responsibility; you are not deeply committed to anything beyond gratification of your enormous appetites, which obviously dominate your life; You are embarrassingly ignorant and unread; you will say anything to keep your ratings up; you care nothing for the poor white saps who are so devoid of self esteem or real knowledge about the world that they self-identify as “Ditto Heads.”  Which means that they rubber stamp anything you say. 

You are their philosopher king Rush.  And if there were enough of them, I’d bet my bottom dollar they would put you in charge of the country.  Thank goodness they are a small fraction of the American population, and they are obviously the dumbest.  It is hard to tell if this is tragedy or farce.  After all, Senator Al Franken was right about you: You are a big fat idiot!  Hence in you we find the tragic-comic absurdity of the jabbering jester as philosopher king

Yet every time I attempt to dismiss you as an inconsequential fool, I remember what the great American film maker Frank Capra says about how Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini looked like cartoon characters to military film makers at the onset of World War II.  Tasked with making ant-Axis propaganda films for the US Army, Capra said their work was complicated by the fact that Hitler looked like the great silent movie comic actor Charlie Chaplin, and Benito looked like he was having a fit, with all of his over the top dramatic gestures.  And we know how dangerous these two jokers turned out to be.  The problem was how do you get people to recognize the danger of two guys who looked and behaved like cartoon characters.

So I recognize the fact that because you look like W.C.Fields on dope, and talk like a professional fool, does not mean you aren’t  dangerous. Talk radio is a powerful medium because it comes right into your ear and you can listen while you are doing something else.  So people who drive around all day can listen to you.  Although frankly, anyone who would rather listen to you everyday rather than the musical fare radio offers – from Bach to the blues – probably suffers from some sort of intellectual deficit and is emotionally disturbed. 

These lost benighted souls turn to you for what amounts to therapy or catharsis alas, and you repay them with the equivalent of intellectual junk food, the kind of stuff that’s devoid of spiritual nutrition, ingredients that can enrich their lives and lift them to a higher plane.  Everything you do is designed to bring out the worse in them and cannot possibly lead them to viable solutions to their problems. Another thing we can assume about your audience given the time of day you are on the air: They are not the people who are running this country, and in all probability they don’t hold a job that requires serious attention at all.  Hence they are far from the brightest bulbs in the box.  Not many Ivy League grads there.

In fact Rush, they are the same kinds of people that Hitler and Mussolini appealed to. But the Nazi experience is most instructive in your case, because interestingly enough the Italian fascist movement was not anti-semitic in the beginning. In fact there is evidence that Mussolini thought Hitler was a nut on the Jewish question, after all, as the Jewish Historian Lenni Brenner has shown, there were Jews among the founding members of the Italian fascist movement.  Hence the centrality of racism to the Nazi project makes it resemble the American experience more than the Italian.  And for good reason: Most of the Nazi ideas about race came from here, as David Blaine has shown.

It is well know by serious students of the rise of the Third Reich in Germany that the most important vehicle for transporting the German nation from a leader in science, philosophy and art music to a nation of barbarians capable of murdering six million of their countrymen was the way Dr. Goebbles employed talk radio to incite the untutored mob by convincing them that all of their problems were caused by the Jews. 

The fact is that Germany’s problems at the time were mostly caused by the Armistice conditions set in the Versailles Treaty of 1919, under which the Germans were punished for starting World War I.  Just like the present economic crisis is the result of misbegotten Republican military adventures and economic incompetence.  But to listen to you, and your Republican partners in crime like Patty Buchanan,  one would think the problems of the white working class are caused by black and Hispanic people!

I confess that I am at a lost to understand what your end game is Rush.  Do you want to start a race war in America?  Well in spite of many similarities, this is not Weimar Germany.  For one thing a black man sits in the White house and there is a black man sitting in the Attorney General’s office who controls the federal police forces.  Hence if any of your brown shirt ditto heads attempt a beer hall putch they will be crushed by the strong arm of the state, just as Hitler was.  But unlike in Germany they will get no second act in America Today.  You came along too late Rush; the best you are going to accomplish with your version of Operation Helter Skelter is to incite some poor dumb rednecks to murder ala Charles Mansion.  You appeal to the most backward and unstable elements in white society, the genuine failures who are looking for a scapegoat to explain away the fact that they are white men without wealth or power in a land set up for them to make it.

It’s not surprising that you understand this lunatic fringe of losers, because in your heart you must say: “There but for the grace of God go I.”  For no one knows better than you that without the gift of gab and talent for buffoonery you would be one of their number; your history in broadcasting attest to this possibility.  You were on your way to failure in the broadcast industry when you stumbled upon the angry white guy routine and things turned around.  And I am convinced that it is the desire for money and adulation that motivates you.  And the struggles of the poor dumb peckerwoods that you fleece of their emotional energy and affections matter little to you except as a body count for Arbitron ratings.  That’s how your bread is buttered, and from the look of things we can surmise that you consume a mighty share of it.

I fully understand that given the fact that you are a big fat idiot this conversation is way above your head – after all, your success with the untutored mob is a function of the fact that you are not much smarter than your listeners.  It is a classic case of the blind leading the blind.  Yet I feel compelled to pull your coat to a couple of things, and as with much of what I have said here this too is intended to enlighten a wider audience.   First off, even if skip Gates had shouted at the cops and told them to “get tha fuck outta here” after he showed them his Harvard I.D. and Drivers License they should have got tha fuck out! 

Cops are public servants not our masters.  The reason we have constitutional protections against “unreasonable search and seizure” is to protect American citizens against the arbitrary abuse of police powers exercised by the occupying British Redcoats during colonial times.  In fact all of our constitutional rights were created in response the tyrannical practices of the British crown!   But since you recently confused the Constitution with the Declaration of Independence I don’t expect you to understand any of this.  Still, ignorance of the constitution is no excuse.

 The second point I must make before ending this letter is: President Obama’s response to the Abuse of the police powers of the state in violating the soverign rights of a citizen was measuered and reasonable in the extreme.  A black militant would have said: “This is just another example of how racist peckerwood pigs behave when dealing with black people.  These pussies are being driven mad with penis envy – just like that fat dumb ass motherfucker Rush Limbaugh.  All of them racist crackers can kiss my ass!  As far as I’m concerned They are all a bunch of paleface blue eyed Devils just like the Honorable Elijah Muhammad taught us.  They are evil by nature so what can we expect.  But Allah is going to bring these evil  cracker mother fuckers to their knees soon, because we are living in the last days and time and Amerikka is going down just like Babylon!  In the mean time I urge my brothers and sister to buy guns just like the whiteys are doing… and if one of those pale ugly no-lip booty-less devils put their hands on you put their ass six feet under!!!”   that’s how black militants talk Rush. 

 In truth Barack Obama’s statement was measured and milquetoast; just like virtually all of the black commentators who are given prominence as spokesman on black issues on the tube.  If I didn’t have first hand knowledge of how black commentators are selected in white controlled media I would be scratching my head and wondering where they find these guys.  But let me be clear Rush, all though you are far too dumb to dig it: none of the people whom you and other right wing white hysterics call the far left of the Democratic party are what you say they are.  I am a life long Democrat – a Yellow Dog Democrat in fact – and I represent the far left of the Democratic party.  And I’m not nearly as nice as the people you continuously slander.  I hope you die the death of a polecat and stink your way to hell!  Now that’s how we roll.



Playthell Benjamin

Fall 2009

Venus Rising

Posted in On Sports! on October 22, 2009 by playthell



Venus in Orange


Power and Grace!


She came into the Wimbledon Games, one of the most prestigious events in sports, rated number 14 in the world. Many commentators on the tennis game openly questioned whether she could still compete seriously for a grand slam title, the most coveted prize in the game.  Others thought that whatever talent Venus had left would be eclipsed by the brilliant play of her sister Serena, who had dominated the woman’s game for the past few years.  However Serena, who came into the tournament ranked # 4 in the world but badly out of shape, was blown out by Jill Craybas in straight sets early in the competition. 

But Venus, following the example of the bumble bee who doesn’t know that according to the science of Aerodynamics he isn’t suppose to fly so he flies anyway, humiliated her little sister’s conquerors by crushing Jill Craybas in straight sets, 6-2 6-0, and dethroning the reigning champion Maria Sharapova in a one sided match where the tall Russian often looked like she just wanted to get away. Then Venus went on to play a historic match against Lindsay Davenport, at over two and a half hours the longest women’s championship in Wimbledon history, and emerged the Wimbledon Champion for the third time. A magnificent feat against the #1 rated women’s player in the world.

The competition was grand between these two California girls who have played each other 27 times, and the sportsmanship was of the highest order.  Eschewing the perversion of the ideal of sport as envisioned by the Greeks in the ancient Olympiad and once taught to American athletes in the venerable adage “It’s not whether you win or lose but how you play the game that counts,” an ideal revered in the US before it was replaced by Vince Lombardi’s vulgar dictum: “Winning is the only thing!”  Fortunately the attitude now so prevalent in professional football – a game that, like “The Star Spangled Banner” symbolizes the warmongering character of the US – has not totally captured the elite women’s tennis game. 

Thus at the end of the hard fought match that Lindsay came close to winning in straight sets, but was skillfully robbed by the indomitable Venus, she was a paragon of grace in defeat, embracing Venus warmly at the net and showering her with compliments in later interviews.  “I felt she deserved it.  She fought hard; she played well,” Said the gracious Davenport.  Venus was no less gracious in victory.  Although she literally jumped for joy after her incredible victory, Venus humbly observed “Lindsay played so well, so many times I was playing to save the match.”  Then this magnificent athlete, who the smart money had counted out, observed “You don’t know what life will throw at you.  I’m just happy when the sun comes up every day.”  Many observers thought that this statement was inspired by the recent murder of her sister in Compton, her old neighborhood, where she learned the game on glass strewn courts while on the lookout for stray bullets.



Venus Triumphant!


So I say hats off to the marvelous Venus, a woman whose grace and beauty reminds me of a thoroughbred mare my grandfather owned when I was a boy in Florida.  Her name was ”Blackout,” inspired by her gleaming ebony coat.  I consider equines to be the most beautiful of all the animals, and Blackout was among the most beautiful of the species.  She was tall, beautifully built, designed for speed and power, and graceful beyond words.  When eloquence and high intelligence is added, this sounds like a perfect description of Venus Williams, Olympic Champion and Queen of Wimbledon.  While the sports pundits were putting her down Venus was rising, and success is always the best revenge.  I can hardly wait to see her when she brings her game to the US Open.

Playthell Benjamin

Harlem New York

July 6, 2005