Archive for March, 2010

On The Rising Tide of Violence from the Far Right

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


 The Hutaree Milita: A bunch of deluded assholes


 Now is the time to take action!

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

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

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

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

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

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


Mucking Around In Our history

Posted in Book Reviews, Cultural Matters, Playthell on politics with tags , , on March 17, 2010 by playthell


 Dr. Carter G. Woodson: Father Of Afro-American History


On The Texas Text Book Imbroglio

Serious students and professors of history are alarmed by the news from the increasingly wacky state of Texas that the politicians, not scholars, will now decide the content of history text books.  This is the sad consequence of demands by misguided parents backed by organized right-wing groups, and the result was graphically illustrated in a letter to the editor in the March 16, edition of the New York Times. Written by Dr. Daniel Czitrom, a professor of history at Mount Holyoke College, he tells us how a book he co-authored was excluded “allegedly for an offensive passage discussing prostitution on the western frontier.”

Even if that was the real reason it would have been an outrage, but Professor Czitrom was to discover that his book – “Out of Many: A History of the American People” – was sacked for a more ominous reason. “Many conservatives are simply unwilling to accept how much the writing and teaching of American history have changed in the last forty years.”  He writes. “They want an American history that ignores or marginalizes African Americans, women, Latinos, immigrants and popular culture.  They prefer a pseudo-patriotic history that denies the fundamental conflicts that have shaped our past.”

Professor Czitrom’s comment regarding the last forty years in the historical profession really struck home with me.  It was forty years ago that I became a professor at the University of Massachusetts, which was right down the road from Hampshire College.  For anyone teaching history on the college level it was an exciting time, because it was an era of revisionist writing in American history. And the relationship between politics and history were crystal clear to those of us who were attacking the prevailing master narrative of American civilization.

According to this narrative American society has always been committed to the proposition that “all men were treated equal and endowed by their creator with unalienable rights.”  Dominant themes in the American story – slavery, genocide, sexism, apartheid, imperialism against Latin American nations, the seizure of large slices of Mexican territory by force of arms, suppression of the right to vote, etc. – were omitted or reduced to insignificance.  The Black Studies movement spearheaded this flush of revisionism in the historical canon, and the W.E. B. Dubois Department of Afro-American Studies – the first degree granting department in the country, of which I was a founding member – was in the forefront.

Now that all of this revisionist research and writing has resulted in a more accurate narrative of the building of the nation, one which includes all of the heretofore excluded peoples and events, the hysterics on the right are calling for a rewriting of the text books that dredges up the same old white racist, sexist fictions and call it “balanced and unbiased” history.  It was this kind of history teaching that caused Dr. Carter G. Woodson to establish “The Association for the Study of Negro Life and History,” in the second decade of the twentieth century. Dr. Woodson believed the racist mythology that was being taught as history in American schools supplied a defense for the system of white supremacy that prevailed in American society.

Here the distinction between history and propaganda becomes of critical importance.  History is the process by which we attempt to understand the present through the objective study of the past.  Propaganda aims to manipulate or falsify facts about the past in order to serve objectives in the present.  The American Exceptionalist ideologues on the right are interested only in propaganda that can be employed in the service of their reactionary objectives.

These are the types of people who are leading the Texas fight to nullify years of prodigious research by professional historians to try and get the true story of the making of America written.  Alas their actions reflect the general Republican contempt for education that has led them to even denigrate Ivy League degrees, and celebrate ignoramuses like Sarah Palin.  Hence the present attempt to deny America’s school children the opportunity to know from whence they came, is but one many disservices these demented charlatans have inflicted on America’s students.  Yet this is an especially grievous offense, for this knowledge is essential equipment for successfully living in contemporary American society.

Should the Texans get their way with the history books, their folly then becomes a national problem. Since Texas is the largest market for text books they could influence which books will get published.  And this will be a disaster that will surely set our country back a half century, or more, in terms of achieving an ethnically diverse, pluralistic society with justice for all.



Harlem New York

March 17, 2010


Now’s The Time!

Posted in On Foreign Affairs, Playthell on politics with tags , , , , on March 12, 2010 by playthell


 A Very Pugnacious Pol

 President Obama Must Stand Up and say no to Bibi Netanyahu

The announcement by Israel that they will be building an additional 1600 housing units on occupied Arab lands in East Jerusalem is a blatant insult to the Palestinians, and a brazen slap in the face of President Obama. The fact that the announcement was made during a visit to Israel by Vice President Joe Biden, who had come on a peace mission intended to help reopen serious talks between Israel and the Palestinians, insures us that the Israeli government is not seriously interested in a just and speedy resolution to this long festering conflict.

Although most of the world, speaking through the United Nations and the European Union, have declared the Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem are illegal, 180,ooo Jews have continued to settle on these occupied Arab lands.  Theses settlements are an insurmountable barrier to peace because no Palestinian leader can accept them and survive, but removing them will prove a Herculean task because, unlike what most Americans appear to believe, we are not talking about makeshift tent cities that can simply be packed up and carted away. 

These are modern developments that look like a South-western American suburb.  It is not surprising the Arabs suspect that the Jewish settlers intend to stay put; after all they are ultra-orthodox Jews who believe that they are fulfilling divine prophecy. Hence the announcement of new housing construction only confirms the worst suspicions of the Arabs. Already the Palestinians are talking about nixing further peace negotiations, which might well scuttle all of the diplomatic efforts by special envoy George Mitchell to get the peace talks started again.

Many observers of the Israeli / Palestinian conflict, which has been ongoing since the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, saw trouble ahead when the hawkish Bibi Netanyahu was elected Prime Minister – this writer included. And for good reason too.  In an interview conducted just before he took his oath of office last March, Mr. Netanyahu told Jeffrey Goldberg of Atlantic magazine “The Obama presidency has two great missions: fixing the economy, and preventing Iran from gaining nuclear weapons…”  In the Israeli Prime minister’s view all of “Western civilization” will have failed if Iran was allowed to acquire nuclear weapons. 

Mr. Netanyahu elaborated on his tragic vision of the decline of the west should Iran get the bomb.  “You don’t want a messianic apocalyptic cult controlling atomic bombs.” He said. “When the wide-eyed believer gets hold of the reins of power and the weapons of mass death, then the entire world should start worrying, and that is what is happening in Iran.”  However I beg to differ with Mr. Netanyahu on two points. 

First of all the introduction and use of atomic weapons by a western nation against an Asian nation, when the US bombed Japan, and the continued technological improvement and stockpiling of such doomsday weapons for use against each other, although everyone knows that this is a prescription for the extinction of the human species, if not all life on this planet, yet no formula for disarmament can be found, is irrefutable evidence that western civilization has already failed as we sit on the brink of apocalypse!   And secondly, nuclear weapons are already in the hands of Islamic fanatics in Pakistan.  Further Israeli aggression with American complicity will only heighten the possibility that these weapons will find their way into the hands of the Jihadists.

The problem with Mr. Netanyahu’s argument is that he believes it is perfectly alright for some nation’s in the world to possess nuclear weapons but not others. And his choices as to who should be allowed to have them reveals a white western imperialist frame of mind, which is, after all, a reflection of the fact that Israeli leaders have always identified their interests with those of the western imperialists from the earliest days of the modern Zionist movement. 

This is an incontestable fact.  One need only read ‘Weitzman and Smuts, A Study in Zionist Afrikaner Collaboration,” by Professor Richard Stevens, or the Works of Jewish Historians and theologians like Dr. Mark Ellis and Lenny Brenner to find abundant evidence in support of this view.  In the exchange of letters between Chiam Weitzman and Jan Christian Smuts – two architects of the state of Israel and the Union of South Africa respectably – they are clear about the similarity of the predicament, mission and destiny. For instance in one letter Weitzman says to Smuts that while the Africaner struggle was one of civilization against the jungle, the Zionist struggle was civilization against the desert.

It is a matter of historical record that founders of Israel were settler colonists, and followed the same pattern of military conquest, land alienation, and political domination of the native population that we witness in the formation of the USA, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Liberia. Settler colonialism is a class of phenomenon that exhibits the same basic characteristics wherever we encounter it in the world. In the Liberian case we have the only example where the colonizers were black. 

However if you study the writings of black scholars like Dr. Hollis Lynch’s “Edward Wilmont Blyden: Pan-Negro Patriot,” The works of the prolific Historian and literary scholar Dr. Wilson Jeremiah Moses’ works on Bishop Alexander Crummell and other black American nationalist leaders and thinkers of the 19th century, you will recognize the similarity of their thought and actions with those of the European imperialists.   And a careful reading of the Philosophy and Opinions of the great early twentieth century Black Nationalist leader Marcus Garvey you will find the same mode of European derived imperialist thinking one finds in the thought of the Zionists, whose ideological and spiritual paterfamilias Theodor Herzl was educated in the same 19th century German University system – where pan-Germanic romantic ideas flourished – as Dr. W.E.B. Dubois. 

Hence Pan-Africanism, Zionism and Nazism sprang from the same intellectual roots. All three ideologies celebrate the racial and spiritual unity of a people.  However given the differences in the race and class status of the three men these ideas played themselves out in radically different ways.  But with the advance of science in the twentieth century – especially after the NAZI disaster and the defeat of European colonialism – the world now knows how dangerous such ideas can be.  

In any case, the relationship of the western nations to the rest of the world has changed as a result of the relentless struggles of oppressed peoples against colonialism, neo-colonialism, and all forms of imperialist domination.  And the hands of the clock will never be turned back.  The relationship between the Arabs and the Israeli’s belong to another world; a world that has faded from the stage of history.  And the Arabs will never accept the present situation. One thing is certain, so long as the Palestinians remain strangers in their own land with no nation they can truly call their own, a nation that affords them the chance at life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – the ideals that inspired the American, French and Haitian revolutions – there will be no peace in the Middle East!  And no amount of Israeli military might will make them secure. 

This is the real lesson of 9/11 – a fact which all but a few of our wise men, pundits and politicians refuse to concede.  Hence the Israeli obsession with Iran is misplaced.  Because whether they get a nuclear weapon or not the future of Israel will remain problematic.   And so long as the US rails against the possibility of the Iranians getting a nuclear weapon, when everybody knows that Israel has an abundant nuclear arsenal, we will be viewed as spineless hypocrites and shills for the Israeli’s.  Hence we will remain a target. 

Perhaps the most telling comment as to the spurious nature of Mr. Netanyahu’s argument regarding the unique danger of Iran building an atomic bomb was his response to Mr. Goldberg’s question as to whether he  “believed Iran would risk its own nuclear annihilation at the hands of Israel or America?”  To which Bibi replied: “I’m not going to get into that.”  But this is the heart of the matter; this question is the basis of the MAD doctrine – Mutual Assured Destruction – that deterred the US and the Soviet Union from attacking each other during the dangerous years of the cold war!  In spite of the irrational statements of some of it’s leaders, I don’t believe that Iran is any more inclined to commit national suicide by inviting a nuclear a nuclear attack than any other nation in the world.  And if they are building a nuclear weapon – which is a matter in serious dispute and after the Iraq deception we must be extremely sceptical of such claims – – it is for the same reason that America, China, Russia and Israel has them.

It is precisely this kind of hypocrisy that allows the Jihadists to convince Muslim’s around the world that America is indeed “The Great Satin.”  If anything about the so-called “War on Terror” is clear, it’s that this is a war for the hearts and minds of the millions of discontented souls who watch our actions on Al Jazira and become willing recruits for the Jihad.  And their numbers grow with every instance of injustice committed by the western nations, who either support or arm Israel and the US in their slaughter of Muslims, quite a few of which, by our own admission, are innocent bystanders. 

Thus the murderous rage we witnessed in Dr. Hassan, an army psychiatrist of Palestinian lineage, will multiply.  Already we are living in an atmosphere of creeping paranoia about where the next strike will come from as the Jihadist who seeks to wreak havoc upon us constantly change faces from brown, to black, to white.   There is no purely military solution to this global scourge; certainly there is a role for military action but it must be accompanied with a sincere effort to address the legitimate grievances of the Muslim peoples.  And given the dimensions of the mess decades of misguided American policies have made we don’t have a moment to waste. 

The Changing Face Of Jihad

 “Jihad Jane

This is why President Obama’s attempts to reach out to the youths of the Muslim world and consider the interests of all parties in the Middle East with a sense of equity and justice, while attempting to annihilate the hard core Jihadist who are beyond negotiating with, is the best way to go.  In fact, I believe it is the only hope of seeing peace in our time.  But any solution must begin with justice for the long suffering, beleaguered, Palestinian people.  And this means, first and foremost, standing up to Israeli intransigence.

Alas, the Israeli rejection of the Goldstone report documenting their war crimes in Gaza, and Israel’s insinuations that an attack on Iran may be forthcoming in their version of the Bush doctrine of “preemptive war,” threatens to embroil the US in yet another armed conflict in the Islamic world. Since we are already in the absurd position of fighting fanatical Muslim Judaists that the CIA created in Afghanistan due to misguided American policies – as the Iranian president sarcastically noted on a state visit to Afghanistan last Wednesday – President Obama should dispatch Rahm Emanuel to make it clear to Mr. Netanyahu that should he start a war anywhere he’s on his own, and the US government will immediately cut off all military and financial aid!

In his defiance of American wishes Mr. Netanyahu is obviously counting on the fact that President Obama’s approval rating in Israel is a paltry 4% and, as Dr. Henry Kissinger once observed, “Israel has no foreign policy only a domestic agenda.”  He is probably also counting on the power of the American Israel lobby to influence US policy in Israel’s favor, and figures that Mr. Obama is so weakened by the bloody battles over his domestic agenda he will have no spirit for the fight.  All this appears to have emboldened the Israeli Prime Minister; that’s why Barack must stand up and crush Bibi like a flea.  That’ll show him who is in charge!



Harlem, New York

March, 2010

A Night At The Oscars

Posted in Cultural Matters, Film Criticism with tags , , , on March 9, 2010 by playthell

Actress Anika Noni Rose

How Far Have People Of Color Come?

They say if you live long enough you will eventually see everything.  That’s the feeling I got watching the Academy Awards last night.  Ever since my parents first took me to the movies I have been bewitched by the special magic of the silver screen.  In the period before the advent of wide screen color television, going to the movies was a very big deal – especially after the invention of Cinemascope and Technicolor films.

The importance of “moving pictures” in our popular culture can be readily seen in the grandeur of the movie theaters of the mid twentieth century – just as the magnificence of Grand Central station reflects the critical importance trains once were to our material culture.  These palatial edifices were modern secular temples where we went to worship the gods and goddesses of popular culture as they cavorted about the giant silver screen conjuring up grand illusions.

All of the theaters had stages with heavy velvet curtains. And as the giant speakers pumped out symphonic music announcing the coming attractions, the curtains opened slowly, titillating our senses and filling us with great expectations.  In those days people dressed up in their Sunday best – suits and ties for men, silk stockings and gloves for women – when they went out to the movies.

It was a very big deal indeed, especially if you were living in a small southern town where there wasn’t much to do, and if you were black it was your only window into the goings on in white America.  And If you were black you always had to be on guard for racist insulting images of your people.  Often times I was glad that we were sitting in segregated balconies – which the white folks called “the Crows nest” – so I wouldn’t have to watch them smirk at the black buffoons on the screen.  Glamour and heroism, the staples of Hollywood fantasy, was confined to white characters exclusively.

Black people were either mindless African savages terrified of the white Tarzan, or grinning, shuffling, Sambos who waited on and fussed over white folks with ever ready smiles.  They had no families, no lovers, no network of friends, and no life beyond serving or amusing white folks.  Indeed the great Afro-American writer Langston Hughes pointed this out after concluding a stint in Hollywood.

On June 2, 1939 – just as Hitler was beginning to plunge Europe into a war that would kill 50 million people – Langston spoke to a conference of radical writers at Carnegie Hall.  The title of his speech was Democracy And Me, and he said of the black image in Hollywood’s popular films: “On the screen we are servants, clowns, or fools…in so far as Negroes are concerned, Hollywood might just as well be controlled by Hitler.”

In such a world it was obvious that come Oscar night there were no black faces on the red carpet.  And although in eighty two years no black director has won an Oscar  for a feature film – in spite of the fact that Spike Lee should have won several – and no black executive can green light a film at a major company, African Americans are now an integral part of the film business.

Tyler Perry has his own “back lot” in Atlanta – 3000 miles from Hollywood – and thus green lights his own films, and Ice cube is a genuine movie mogul who makes all decisions about his projects.  Will Smith is the biggest movie star in the world, and although Morgan freeman and Denzel Washington are consummate masters of the actor’s craft, they are but two of a gifted phalanx of black actors and actresses who are both talented and well schooled.

And they cut as glamorous a figure with their beautiful black, brown and beige selves as any of the alabaster stars Hollywood can offer.  They exhibit all the elegance one hears in Duke Ellington’s classic tone poem “Black, Brown and Beige Suite.”

Back in the day it would have been impossible to imagine a movie about a heroic African such as Nelson Mandela – for whose portrayal Morgan Freeman garnered an Oscar nomination – hence this is definitely a sign of progress.  Yet Hollywood, like the rest of the white dominated media, still appears to prefer pathology over heroism when portraying black life.

My daughter Makeda observed for instance, that while the white critical establishment has gone ga ga over “Precious” and “The Blind Side,” for which Sandra Bullock finally received an Oscar, they were practically indifferent to “The Great Debaters,” a wonderful film that was both exciting and spiritually uplifting.

The Motion Picture Academy ignored this film in spite of the fact that it was heavily promoted by Oprah Winfrey – who produced it and whose endorsement is usually enough to insure commercial success – and starred Denzell Washington, who also directed the film.  The obvious difference between this film and the Oscar winning films is that they depict radically different views of African American life.  And that difference is instructive.


The Great Debaters

In this year’s two Oscar winning movies the most pathological aspects of African American life are presented to the world with great fanfare.  Here the black youths are nihilistic grotesqueries who are nearly sub-human; while in The Great Debaters the black youths are brilliant, optimistic, joyous, elegant and self-confident; in a word heroic!

And since the movie is based in a black college in the deep south during a period when African Americans lived under a system of “white supremacy,” sustained by armed white terrorist in and outside of the government, the black adults who taught them and prepared these Youths to compete in a system where everything was arrayed against them were some of the most heroic figures this nation has yet produced.  And it was based on a true story to boot!

Professor Melvin Tolson, the distinguished poet and fearless freedom fighter played by Denzell Washington, is such a fascinating historical figure he deserves a full length film just on his life and works.  Melvin Tolson was the son and grandson of preachers – those black clerical bards who created the greatest oratorical style in the world, poets by audience demand – and he was at times a poet, professor and professional pugilist.

Hence Tolson was a natural at the art of debate, and the students he trained were invincible!  As the late James farmer, the founder of CORE, cavalierly observed after vanquishing Malcolm X in a debate: “ Malcolm never had a chance; he didn’t come up under Professor Tolson.”  This is the stuff of heroic epics, but the Motion Picture Academy was unmoved.

Hence this years Oscar awards suggest that when it comes to the Afro-American image on the silver screen the more things change the more they remain the same.  White folks are still more comfortable with bizarre tales of black pathology than uplifting stories of black heroism, and apparently a lot of black folks too, judging by ticket sales.

This is why the white critical celebration of “Precious” has been greeted with suspicion by some of the smartest black film critics and pundits.  In spite of my having disagreed with him from time to time – in print and radio commentaries – the reigning Dean of Afro-American film critics Armond White sometimes gets it right.  And he has been vociferous in his critique.

Speaking of Afro-American media moguls Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey’s role as “Executive Producers” of the movie White argues, “Perry and Winfrey naively treat Precious’ exhibition of ghetto tragedy and female disempowerment as if it were raw truth. It helps contrast and highlight their achievements as black American paradigms—self-respect be damned. “

Had Mr. White left it at that, one might have been tempted to say Amen!    But Mr. White is too often like the proverbial cow that gives a great bucket of milk then kicks it over before it can be used.  His review “Pride and Precious” published in the November 4, 2009 edition of The New York Press, a small downtown newspaper from which the above quotation was excerpted, supplies incriminating evidence of this tendency.

For instance, Mr. White does not just dismiss the film as art, he goes on to besmirch the character and question the motives of Ms. Winfrey and Mr. Perry in a convoluted argument that strikes me as pretentious and irrelevant sophistry.  It is a tedious polemic that confuses more than it clarifies, obfuscates more than it enlightens.

A representative sample of what I am talking about can be seen in the following passage: “Let’s scrutinize their endorsement: Precious isn’t simply a strivers’ message movie; Perry and Winfrey recognize its propaganda value. The story of an overweight black teenage girl who is repeatedly raped and impregnated by her father, molested and beaten by her mother comes from a 1990s identity-politics novel by a poet named Sapphire. It piles on self pity and recrimination consistent with the air-quotes’ own oft-recounted back stories. Promoting this movie isn’t just a way for Perry and Winfrey to aggrandize themselves, it helps convert their private agendas into heavily hyped social preoccupation.”

It is hard to find a more compelling example of erudition and nonsense in one paragraph.  Mr. white ranks right up there with pundits like Monica Crowley and David Brooks in demonstrating that ideology can trump erudition when passion triumphs over reason.  I had hoped for a more useful i.e. coherent critique from Mr. White alas.

Being a pugnacious polemicist by nature, I am tempted to deconstruct his pretentious albeit muddled tract, but so expansive a discussion is far beyond the scope of this commentary.  Yet if the argument around “Precious” and the proper  role of black cinema persists, I may be forced into the fray.  However the rhetorical excesses of Mr. White notwithstanding, there are some legitimate questions surrounding “Precious” that cry out for thoughtful discussion.

To begin with it is fair to ask if there is an ancestral imperative that require black artists to clarify and diversify the black experience in this country; to honor their struggles, which, after all, made it possible for them to be doing what they are doing and be recognized and handsomely paid while pursuing a labor of love.  One of the major battles of our most thoughtful and committed ancestors was to counter the dehumanizing images of black culture and personality that flowed from the white owned and controlled apparatus of mass cultural indoctrination.

Indeed, Dr. Carter G. Woodson, founded the Association For the Study Of Negro Life and History in the 1920’s because he thought the physical survival of African Americans in this country depended upon changing the racist images of  whites were painting of us in the mass media, especially movies! A good place to begin in an attempt to asses how far we have come would be to critique the images of black women in “Gone With The Wind,” seventy one years ago, with the images in “Precious.”

While most black Americans I knew found Ms. McDaniel’s character “Mammy” embarrassing, compared to Monique’s character Mary Jones she was a paragon of virtue. While Mary Jones is a nihilistic socio-path engaged in criminal child abuse, a scourge on society, Mammy was the vessel through which the highest values of the ante-bellum and post-bellum southern aristocracy was communicated to the children of the high and mighty.

She was a critical link in the socialization of the white southern elite.  Consider what the white racist Mississippi novelist and Nobel Laureate William Faulkner had inscribed on the tomb stone of his black maid: “Mammy, her white children bless her.” And in his eulogy delivered at her funeral he credited her with teaching him how to become a civilized man and said: “If there is a heaven Mammy will be there.”

Then Faulkner named his next novel after her favorite Afro-American spiritual “Go Down Moses,” and dedicated the book to her memory.  Which, of course, is irrefutable evidence of how racism fucked up even the smartest white southerners!

Both Hattie and Monique are full figured dark skinned women; and in their roles they were cast as the antithesis of the glamorous movie star. With shabby clothes and bandanas on their heads, the publicity pictures for both films are remarkably alike. Both are perfect representations of the black mammy stereotype physically.

Yet if Hattie’s antebellum slave mammy was a far more humane character cast in a racist, sentimental plantation romance from over half a century ago the critical question becomes: what does this say about the judgment of those who celebrate this film as a triumph for black Americans in the cinema; the taste of the black literary audience that has made pathology laden “ghetto novels” the best selling genre of black fiction; or the preferences of the hundreds of whites who make up the motion picture academy that award the Oscars?

This is, to be sure, a touchy question. For I am against imposing a politically correct conception of art on black creative artists that amounts to a dramatic version of “the sunshine news.” This would be a dangerous business, because as Mao Tse Tung observed in his “Lectures at the Yeman Forum on Literature and Art, all art may be propaganda “but not all propaganda is art.”  I am inclined to let a thousand flowers bloom, and as all who are familiar with Milton’s “Paradise Lost” recognize: The Devil is more interesting than God as a subject for literary treatment.

This is because the essence of drama is conflict and thus unsavory characters and dirty doings make for exciting stories that can also provide an opportunity for moral lessons.  But to pull this off requires sharp intelligence, deep insight into human character and sound literary technique.  Otherwise a narrative can slip unintentionally from tragedy to farce. I have yet to decide in which category Precious rightly belongs, but I for one hope it’s success does not accelerate this trend toward the bottom in Afro-American popular culture which seems to be growing ever stronger.

Hattie McDaniel and Vivian Leigh


A mountain of Strength and  Purveyor of Aristocratic Southern Values

Monique As Mary

A Twisted Nihilistic Child Abuser

Monique Wins It All!

Unlike many of the Oscar winners last Sunday, Monique seemed neither shocked nor lost for words when her name was called out as winner of the Academy Award. Like anyone who received such a coveted prize she was visibly moved, but she never lost her composure.  Indeed, her acceptance speech was ideal: eloquent, cogent and brief.

“First, I would like to thank the Academy for showing that it can be about the performance and not the politics.” She said.  And I jumped for joy when she said “I want to thank Miss Hattie McDaniel for enduring all that she had to so that I would not have to.”

As she was walking to the stage, decked out in a blue dress with white flowers in her hair like Hattie McDaniel wore when she received her Oscar, I was thinking about Ms. McDaniel, the first black actress to win an Oscar, who also won for Best Supporting Actress in the plantation school fantasy “Gone With The Wind” – a racist, sentimental romance bemoaning the “lost cause” of the confederacy.

It is a measure of how far we have advanced in American society that when the movie was released Ms. McDaniel was not allowed to attend the premiere in Atlanta, while today Monique hosts a nightly television show from that same southern city that’s broadcast nationwide over the black entertainment Network.

Still, when we compare the image of black women in “Gone With The With The Wind” and “Precious,” and the latter turns up wanting, the thoughtful observer must wonder exactly how far we have come in terms of controlling our image in the movies?  And in searching for the answer to this complex question, it is no small matter that this movie is based on a text written by a black woman and created by a black scriptwriter and director.

Monique concluded her acceptance speech with generous props to those who made the movie possible.  Looking out into the  audience where they sat she said, “ Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey because you touched it, the whole world saw it. Ricky Anderson, our attorney of Anderson & Smith, thank you for your hard work. My entire BET family, my Precious family, thank you so much. To my amazing husband Sidney, thank you for showing me that sometimes you have to forego doing what’s popular in order to do what’s right. And baby, you were so right. God bless us all.”

The lady has a point alas.   Whatever one may think of the subject matter, the enthusiastic response of those who saw it tells us that some people find it a compelling story. And thus one can argue that it deserves to be told.  And great performances should be rewarded whether we like the characters or not.  Furthermore, when one listen to Monique’s explanation of why she  chose to play the role one begins to see the project in a different light.

Revealing that she was sexually abused by her brother, Monique says that she became committed to this project after reading the script because she felt it would throw a light on  family abuse and inspire people – men and women, black, white or other – to stand up and speak out because help is available and they can heal themselves with professional help.

While therapy and moral instruction are certainly worthy goals, it’s long past time to celebrate the heroism in Afro-American history and culture.  To make movies that inspire our youths to strive for greatness; to reach for those things that others say are beyond their  grasp is the essence of the ancestral imperative.

I want to see some movies on brilliant and talented afro-Americans like the Astronauts Dr. Mae Jamison – a pioneer in space medicine who is  brilliant and beautiful – and Dr. Ronald McNair, a PhD in laser physics from MIT, an accomplished jazz saxophonist and a black belt in Karate.

Before his life was prematurely ended in the Challenger explosion he was planning to hang out at the space station and practice Charlie Parker riffs on his sax, which were already out of this world.  Dr. McNair was also a splendid husband and father.  Not bad for a black man who began life as a sharecropper in the racist state of South Carolina.

And where, the thoughtful person must ask, are the movies on Duke Ellington and the beautiful gifted pianist/singer Hazel Scott, and her husband Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. who was also the pastor of the venerable Abyssinia Baptist church.  And how is it possible that a major movie has been made on that crude, sadistic, palooka Jake La-Motta while the story of the fabulous  of Sugar Ray Robinson – who whipped La-Motta four out of five times, spanking him like he was his daddy – remains untold on the silver screen.

Aside from being considered by many boxing wise guys as the best pound for pound pugilist ever, Sugar was also a drummer and tap dancer who was good enough to headline an act.  He was also the best dressed man in America, with such high style the Caddillac company produced a special Flamingo Pink color just for his cars!  And what of Daniel “Chappie” James, the air force fighter pilot who became a four star general and commander of NORAD with the power to launch nuclear weapons without consulting the president that could destroy the earth!   I could go on, but the point is made.

Jenny From the Block

Yet the question remains: When will stories of Afro-American heroism trump tawdry tales of gloom and doom as the principle themes for artistic explorations of black life?   In a way this is the question being asked by all non-white American minorities seeking to define their image and culture in the popular imagination.

The feisty Nuyorican actress Rosie Prez, who speaks English with an El Barrio brogue, has observed ironically that she and Selma Hyak are the only actresses who regularly play Latina’s in American movies because the others are often cast as various European nationalities – especially the gorgeous Jennifer Lopez, the biggest Latin movie star of them all.

Hence achieving a fair representation of our people in the mass image making machinery is the challenge that now confronts the black and Latin communities, no matter what we may think of Precious.



Harlem, New York

March 2010

Charlie Rangel Finally Had A Bad Day!

Posted in Playthell on politics with tags , , , on March 4, 2010 by playthell


 The Chairman steps Down


In his autobiography Congressman Rangel – the embattled Harlem Democrat who chairs the powerful House Ways and Means Committee –  recounts his experience in one of the bloodiest encounters of the Korean War in which he was one of few survivors and observes “I haven’t had a bad day since.”   In fact, to underscore the point he even named the book: “I Haven’t Had a Bad Day Since.”  Well…on the Ides Of March, Charlie Rangel finally had a bad day!  After 39 years of devoted service to his Harlem constituency, in which he has been a model public servant in terms of bringing home the goods and providing progressive leadership on national policy, the Chairman was forced to temporarily step aside due to pressure from his colleagues, spooked by an ongoing investigation of his financial affairs by the House Ethics Committee.

I live in Harlem and have written about Congressman Rangel for twenty years.  And I have penned only one critical piece: when he attacked President Chavez of Venezuela for hinting that George Bush might be The Devil.  Although I understood that Charlie was playing politics, I nevertheless felt compelled to point out that he was not speaking for all Harlemites, because many of us feel that Bush is The Devil.  The only reason this writer does not concur with that opinion is because I don’t believe in God or the Devil.   If I did I’d have no trouble concluding that George bush would be exactly what The Devil would look like at the beginning of the twenty first century. 

On the other hand, at the time Citgo, the oil company owned by the Venezuelan government, was providing fuel oil to Harlemites who couldn’t afford it and would otherwise have been suffering in cold homes while Bush, a product of the American oil industry, offered nothing to Rangel’s constituents.  He was too busy cutting taxes to the rich, hanging out with ENRON con man Kenneth Lay and allowing big oil executives to write the nation’s energy policy. So many of us believed President Chavez deserved applause not condemnation.  And I felt he should be reminded of that. 

 The Congressman At Home



Attending a Recent Concert at the Dwyer Center In Harlem

The allegations against Congressman Rangel include falsely disclosing his personal assets, failing to pay federal income taxes on a vacation property, and renting rent-stabilized apartments in Harlem at rates far below market value; which his accusers claim violates House rules prohibiting members from accepting gifts that cost above $50.  Rangel has asked Speaker Pelosi to grant him a leave of absence until the committee completes its investigation.  Since the Republicans are using the fact that a black Harlem Democrat who heads the committee that writes tax policy may not have paid his full taxes against incumbent Democrats, the Chairman says he decide to step aside “in order to avoid my colleagues having to defend me during their elections.” 

Since Charlie Rangel is the right man to chair Ways And Means at this critical time – by virtue of his knowledge of the issues, legislative skill and commitment to serving the people rather than corporations – it will not be his tragedy alone if the Congressman is forced is to permanently resign his chairmanship.




 Harlem New York

March 4, 2010

 *Photo 0f Congressman Rangel and Me by:

Kakim Mutlaq

The Misguided War Against Terrorism

Posted in On Foreign Affairs with tags , , , on March 2, 2010 by playthell


  Taliban Leader Mullah Omar


 On Double Agents, Panty Bombs and the Afghan Delusion

With each passing day the evidence mounts that the Muslim Jihad against the US has many fronts and a variety of faces.  This comes as no surprise to those who understand that the Jihad is based in an idea not a country. And although nobody in the US government will dare admit it, the source of the this conflict lies in the exploitive policies that western nations have employed in dealing with the Islamic world over the past two centuries of colonialism and imperialism, and it has turned on us because of our unqualified support for Israel in any and all disputes with the Arabs, as well as our long term support for repressive regimes in the Muslim world.  Quite simply, the Jihad is the bitter fruit of the seeds western nations have planted in that polluted soil. 

Furthermore, exposure of the most recent policies employed by the United States – the torture of prisoners and their indefinite detention in Abu Grahb and Guantanamo for instance – have provided the most powerful recruiting posters the Jihadists could have hoped for.  And as the entire Muslim world witnesses Dick Cheney and other Republican leaders passionately argue in defense of these policies on Al Jazera, the soldiers that populate the ranks of Al Qaeda will come from everywhere in the Muslim world: Africa, Arabia and the vast hordes of central Asia.  They will also come from Europe and the USA!   This is the way the dynamics of social movements work; this is how they grow.

The Muslim Jihadists are a full blown transformative movement that is global in scope, and has all of the elements that it needs to grow.  As Dr. Luther P. Gerlach has shown, a movement needs specific elements in order to grow.  The first thing a movement must have is a comprehensive ideology that defines their vision of the world, but can be expressed in power packed slogans like “Allah u Akbar!”  They must also have an independent means of propagandizing that message to its intended audience – this used to be newspapers, radio and TV but now the internet has been added.   Furthermore a movement must have devoted followers who are willing to engage in face to face recruiting, and a means of financing their activities. 

The critical element that brings all the others together like a catalytic agent is the Charismatic Revivalist, the great orators whose exhortations inspire the masses to action.  That’s why the Imams, Mullahs and Ayatollahs play such a critical role in the Jihad – of course this is a religious movement, but Fidel Castro, Vladimir Lenin, Mao Tse Tung, Kwame Nkrumah and Marcus Garvey were secular men leading a secular movement.  Once all of these elements are in place there is one final ingredient, without which there can be no movement: A clearly identifiable enemy!   That’s the one factor that the movement activist cannot control.  Conversely, it is the only factor that the US government controls in the Global War against the Jihadist. 

Hence any successful strategy to defeat the Jihadist movement must recognize that this is not simply a military problem; it is also a battle for the hearts and minds of the hundreds of millions of Muslims in the world!  The only alternative to this is to kill them all; yet given the geo-political and demographic realities this is not a realistic possibility. That’s why the simple minded and misguided approach of the Bush Administration has not only failed to destroy the Jihadists – in spite of spending Trillions destroying Iraq and billions in Afghanistan – but has energized the movement and contributed to its growth.  These are incontrovertible facts, and I welcome a debate with anybody who wishes to questions my conclusions.

In order to understand the nature of the protracted war we presently find ourselves waging against “terrorism,” it is important to understand the nature of the “terrorist.”  As I have previously written, referring to our enemies as simply terrorist does nothing to help us gain insight into the real nature of the threat – which is to say comprehending their world view and the objectives dictated by that view.  The answer to this particular puzzle lies in the way in which the seminal theologian of the modern Jihad, Sayyid Guthb, envisioned their mission because it is this vision that informs their strategy.  Guthb is clear in his position that Islamic civilization was never the property of the Arabs, but is a message for the entire world.  That, in his view, was the real message of the prophet Muhammad; if that were not true then he could not be the “seal of the prophets,” the last prophet that God sent to man.  Hence, like Christianity, Islam is a proselytizing religion that proclaims a universal message.

A Rich Student and Notorious Panty Bomber!

Is This The Face Of A Terrorist?


This is why it is folly to over estimate the value of profiling “Middle Eastern” types, when the very nature of the Jihad means that Muslims anywhere in the world can heed the call.  The testimony of those captured, such as Umar Farouk and other affluent Muslim Youths who hail from places outside of the war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan, verify the fact that they feel personally assaulted by the US attacks on Muslims in those countries, especially all of the non-combatants, including women and children, who are killed by wayward American drones, missiles and “friendly fire.”   And these incidents, which the US military euphemistically refer to as “collateral damage,” are happening with increasing frequency in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. Although the accidental slaughter of innocents receive scant attention in the American media, and are routinely reported without the outrage expressed by newsmen when the slaughtered innocents are Americans, they are reported in grisly detail in the Muslim media.  And this is swelling the ranks of the Jihadists with Muslim soldiers willing to become Martyrs all over the world.

The ultimate irony of the Republican position as argued by Dirty Dick Cheney and his Republican partners in crime, is that it is the best approach to insure Jihadism will remain a growth industry, while President Obama’s approach of reaching out to the Muslim world, with an olive branch in one hand and a grenade in the other, is by far the superior approach to finding a workable solution to the present imbroglio.   If the US is unwilling to admit it’s past misdeeds in dealing with the Muslim world, and yet tortures prisoners and slaughter thousands of innocents, justifying it with self-righteous rhetoric that suggests Americans are not bound by the same rules of war and international relations that the rest of the world is expected to follow, we are bound to continue to produce legions of Muslim soldiers willing to give their lives to bring down “The Great Satan.” 


About one thing there can be no question: The Republican chicken hawks whose incompetence and misplaced hubris allowed 9/11 to happen, then started a war in an unoffending country that allowed Osama bin Laden to escape from Afghanistan and the Taliban to reconstitute itself as effective fighting force, have demonstrated by their disgraceful record of failure that they haven’t a clue how to defeat the global Jihad.  And engaging in silly arguments about how often the President uses the word “terrorists” will not contribute to the development of a winning strategy.   Fundamental to developing a workable strategy is to recognize that our nation’s policies in the Middle East are such that no class of Muslims – even those who are successful and well to do in Europe and the USA – can be exempted as potential recruits to the Jihad.   

The Fort Hood Shooter

Major Hassan: The Army Doctor Turned Muslim Avenger


Failure to recognize this reality results in situations like Major Hassan’s massacre at Fort Hood, and the recent assassination of seven crack CIA agents in Afghanistan.  In both instances these acts were carried out by people who were members of the American armed forces or covert intelligence operatives whose role is to fight the Jihadists!   Alas Umar Forouk, a rich and highly privileged Nigerian student who lived for years in a luxury condo in Britain, does not fit the profile for Muslim Jihadists, who are widely presumed to be poor and dispossessed Arabs.   What the evidence clearly shows is that aggrieved Muslims willing to give their lives to strike a blow against the US can hail from anywhere at anytime. 

Since the Jihad is connected to no nation state, it makes little sense to attempt to defeat them by invading and occupying particular nation states, expending massive amounts of American blood and treasure engaging in nation building.  Viewed from this perspective the escalation of the war in Afghanistan makes no sense, and the war in Iraq not only makes no sense as a strategy for defeating the Jihadists it has advanced their cause.  The accusation that Iran “sponsor’s” terrorism – which means that they support their side in the protracted wars in Israel /Palestine and Iraq – threatens to lead to an attack on that country by the US or our Israeli proxies as right wing wags like Monica Crowley are howling for, and we also seem on the verge of invading Yemen.  US attacks inside Pakistan are also increasing.   At present US policy in the “war on terror” looks more and more like a game of whack a mole.  And it’s going to remain that way for the foreseeable future.  While the Bushmen were blundering around fighting a war of choice in Iraq, Al Qaeda has be organizing cells and planning attacks all over the world!  

This is the colossal mess the Bushmen dumped into Barack Obama’s lap, and there is no magic wand he can wave and wish it all away.   His chances of successfully ordering American forces to wipe the Jihadist out with fire power are about equal to old King Chanute ordering the tides not to rise.   If any thing is certain at this juncture in history, it is that there will be more double agents in our intelligence operations and panty bombers will continue to pop up here and there.  The fact that new recruits are joining the Jihad from every region and class background in the Muslim world means that there will always be Jihadi soldiers who are not in our computer surveillance files; and thus there will be many more Umar Forouks employing various devious means of inflicting deadly violence on Americans.  Furthermore, since the Jihadists are religious fanatics who believe themselves to be on a divinely ordained mission to establish Sharia law everywhere under a global theocracy, any attempt to just disengage and walk away from the battle will be construed as the triumph of Allah’s will; encouraging them to persist in their offensive against the West.  Hence surrender is not an option – although many serious people on the left seem to think so.

Cleary what must be done now is that the Obama administration should fulfill the recommendations of the 9/11 commission and fortify the homeland; pull our troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan, and concentrate on wiping out the infrastructure of Al Qaeda using special forces guided by the CIA.  For these efforts to have any chance of success they must be accompanied by real diplomatic efforts to support the democratic modernizing forces in the Middle East when they ask for our support.  And equally important is the adoption of a truly even handed policy in the Arab/Israeli conflict that fairly considers the legitimate interests of all concerned parties, beyond that the problems of Iraq, Afghanistan and even Iran must be placed under the purview of the United Nations since other countries also have vital interests in what happens in that region of the world. These are the minimum essential steps that must be taken in order to have any chance at prevailing in the protracted war with the global Jihad.  It is in view of this reality that I am convinced the decision to expand the Afghan war will prove a deadly delusion! 




Harlem New York

March 2, 2010