Archive for August, 2010

Big Time Bunko!

Posted in On Right Wing Pundits and Bloviators with tags , , on August 30, 2010 by playthell


A self Aggrandizing Bunko artist


Glenn Beck Plays the Long Range Con

Although the rotund Rushbo is great at self-aggrandizement, he could take some lessons from the new kid on the block – Glenn Beck – a consummate con-man who has set new standards in the art of bullshitting the public.  In a much hyped Washington rally with the nebulous objective of “Restoring America’s Honor”– held on the same date and venue of Dr. Martin Luther King’s great Speech at the historic March On Washington for Jobs and Freedom – this cubby little fellow with the squeaky voice, and shaky moral foundation, somehow managed to do the impossible: make vanity look like altruism in the eyes of his followers.  It was a con from beginning to end.

The con began when he claimed not to have been aware of the fact that he called his rally on the same date as the historic “March on Washington” nearly a half century ago, or that the venue he chose for his shallow diatribe was the very same venue where Dr. King presented the oration that has been voted the greatest speech in American history by a panel of distinguished scholars. My granddaddy George had a saying that expresses my feelings exactly: “That Boy’s a liar and the truth ain’t in him!”

Beck piggybacked off and exploited our soldiers sacrifices in the cheesiest way: by pretending to honor them while basking in their reflected glory.  That’s really playing to the cheap seats!  Everyone who cares about this issue knows that if Beck were really concerned about the vets he would be supporting our First Lady Michel Obama’s admirable efforts on behalf of military families.  

Although I am inclined to be contemptuous of this delusional far right confederacy of dunces – who routinely vote against their own interest, scoff at the public interests while protecting the privileges of the Plutocrats, and get their rocks off mis-quoting the Bible spouting nonsense as constitutional dogma – I ended up actually feeling sorry for many of them. They had journeyed to Washington earnestly seeking answers to the myriad crisis’ that plague their lives…but found only a pompous little poseur spouting hot air. 

I have previously described the Tea Party crowd as a motley collection of sad sacks, misfits, deluded white supremacists, misanthropes, vulgar opportunist, religeous fanatics and lost souls looking for hope in all the wrong places – with an obsequious self-loathing Negro lickspittle here and there.  Nothing that happened on Saturday changed that opinion. It goes without saying that Republican political opportunists are everywhere in the mix, stirring up the pot, trying to gain personal and party support.  We’ll see how that work’s out for them. 

Thus far it looks like the Grand Obstructionist Party has made a Faustian bargain with the Tea Party mob and the Devil has come to claim their souls.  Just look at how the Tea Party – directed by the lunatic right’s idea of a militant feminist intellectual, Sarah Palin – are knocking off the Republican establishment’s candidates, right and further right, with straight up space cadets. The most spectacular example of this is the apparent upset in the Republican primary in Alaska. 

As I write the Tea Party candidate, Joe Miller, is leading the sitting Republican Senator Lisa McCulsky by 1500 votes.  And you have to listen to what Mr. Miller believes to understand how Alaskans would have to be even dumber than I think – and since they voted Sarah Palin Governor, given what I’ve written about her, you can imagine how dumb I think they are! – to vote for this guy to represent them in the Senate.

The curious thing about Mr. Miller is that in spite of his excellent education he still talks as crazy as Palin, and they both talk like fools.  I will have more to say about Mr. Miller in a forthcoming commentary on the new radical constitutionalists in the south in the Republican Party.  But one observation will suffice here: Based on Miller’s public comments about the nature of Federalism and the evolution of the US Constitution, he is either an ignoramus or a charlatan.   Should he win this primary, and I hope to God he does, the Democrats stand a fabulous chance of winning a seat that has been held by the McCulsky family, who are yellow dog Republicans, for over thirty years!

Furthermore, I can envision no scenario where there will be enough morons in the state of Nevada to elect Sharon Engle, hence the Republicans will lose a Senate seat that the establishment’s candidate was predicted to win.  Notwithstanding how backwards and racist many white folks are in Kentucky – a state that, for most of it’s history, either enslaved black people or subjected them to legal caste oppression, which treated our skin color as a crime – I still cannot believe they will elect a cluless political Neanderthal like Rand Paul.

Paul is the best example why people with a broad liberal, i.e. humanist, education are better suited to the leadership of society than narrow minded technocrats, no matter how clever they are.  Although political science is a real discipline in the academy – and an important one too– the practice of politics and governing is a fine art!  And art is the province of the humanities!

If anything was clarified by this rally, it is that Glenn Beck’s real agenda is to replace Oprah as the #1 television talk show in America and become the biggest mogul in the media!  And he intends to use this disillusioned and untutored mob to achieve it. Looking like the little poot butt boy who never got the girl, who was smacked upside the head and had his lunch money taken by school yard bullies, Glennie Boy reminds me of a slimmer version the old character Jackie Gleason used to play: “The Poor Soul.”  Except in this episode the poor soul is getting his revenge against all who refused to recognize his uniqueness.  He’s having a horse laugh at all of our expense – and he’s laughing all the way to the bank! 

Although he is shamefully untutored in subjects like sociology, foreign affairs, political science and history – things you need to know something about in order to advance grand speculations about the direction our complex post-industrial society should take. Listening to his “speech” I fairly quickly came to two conclusions: Beck is a megalomaniacal numbskull, a deluded frog who fancies himself a prince. And his followers are the sad silly mob I thought they were!  

Taking some of the grand themes in American history, Beck rambled on ad-nauseum – confusing his metaphors, posturing false analogies, profaning sacred texts, boring us with hackneyed clichés, and trying his best to play us for fools. Since his audience was basically the same crowd that turned up at the Republican National Convention I have no doubt that his message – whatever it was – resonated with most of them.

I say this with some certainty because during the convention the reporters and producers at WBAI FM took to the streets with our tape recorders and interviewed them en masse.  We decided to just ask the pertinent questions and allow them to express themselves freely.  No editorial excoriating them, regardless of how scurrilous, could equal the indictment they gave of themselves. 

It is fair, I think, to conclude that this may well have been the dumbest group of people ever assembled any where in the world to choose a candidate who would govern a great nation.   Hence although Beck went over like a lead balloon with me, I could tell from the ecstatic stares and spacey smiles on their pasty faces that he was uplifting the spirits of many in this cluless mob.

Glennie was getting off on it too.  Buoyed by the good vibes emanating from the crowd, he actually started to believe he had skills as an orator – based on some of the things he said before the rally; perhaps he thought he was channeling Dr. King!  Such is the feeling of omnipotence that the roar of the crowd can inspire in little men with deep seated feelings of impotence and self loathing. 

This is what Whoopi Exposed about his character when he made the mistake of going on The View, after having lied about something or the other.  Whoopi looked Glennie straight in the eyes and called him a “Lying sack of spit!”  and Glennie bitched up on the spot!  He looked like he wanted to jump up and run because Whoopi acted like if he said the wrong thing she just might break her foot off in his posterior.




 Although I tend to stay away from pop-psychology, since there are others who are much better qualified to venture speculations about human character and personality. But the thoughtful observer, who understands something about how personalities are molded, need not have studied Dr. Freud to recognize that this is a little man who is having his big moment.  It is enough to have read Wilhelm Reich’s “Listen Little Man” and “The Mass Psychology of Fascism” in order to have a good idea what was going on here.

However I strongly suspect that Beck cares not a fig for the goals of the Tea party buffoons or the Republican Party hucksters.  And he has said as much; he has occasionally reminded people that he is an “entertainer” and his principal concern is the success of his show – Rush has said the same thing.  Although he has employed racist innuendo and slander to advance his agenda – which is the means by which the Republicans mobilized white resentment into a political movement that converted the south from solidly Democratic to solidly Republican – I don’t think Beck gives anymore of a good goddam about race than he does about politics.

 That’s why he declared that the rally was not about politics and expressly forbade political signs. And there were no establishment Republicans on the bill.  This also explains how Beck could allow Martin Luther King’s niece to speak without a vetted script.  And she shocked many of the rednecks in the crowd with her no holds barred denunciation of racism in America. The enthusiastic applause that greeted her introduction quickly subsided when she began to speak on an issue the Republican right is built upon denying.  As a speaker she was mediocre alas, and her overall message was muddled without a clear direction. 

Her attempt to reiterate Dr. King’s famous refrain:”I have a dream” was embarrassing. I could not escape the feeling that she is not very bright and that her main reason for appearing at this sad rally was self-promotion. After all, her cousins are certainly cashing in on the King Legacy, and her father, A.D. King, walked with his famous brother Martin….until he turned up dead in a swimming pool, with nasty rumors swirling around that he had gotten drunk, fallen in, and drowned. 

But in the matter of self promotion she was typical of all who spoke at this media contrived talkfest. However she is a rank amateur compared to the grand Meisterss of shameless self-promotion, Silly Sarah, whose great contribution to American political discourse thus far is to make ignorance fashionable.  The whole event, with very little teweaking,  was described perfectly by Shakespeare  in  Act 5, scene 5, 19–28  of MacBeth: They were but walking shadows, poor players, That struts and frets their hour upon the stage, And then is heard no more.  It was a tale told by idiots, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”




Playthell Benjamin

Harlem, New York

August 30, 2010


Are Media Provocateurs Inciting Violence?

Posted in On Right Wing Pundits and Bloviators, Playthell on politics with tags , , , , on August 28, 2010 by playthell


 Glenn Beck: Just your Friendly Demogogue!


 Some Reflections On the Ahmad Sharif Affair

 The attack on Ahmad Sharif, a Muslim American cab driver working Manhattan, by Michael Enright, a big blond boyish looking white college student wielding a knife, should come as no surprise.  Given all the anti-Muslim hysteria generated by right-wing media provocateurs, and the boisterous protests against the building of an Islamic cultural center in downtown Manhattan, this was predictable.  I’m waiting with baited breath for one of these enraged fanatics to take a shot at President Obama any day now. 

The  constant haranguing of frustrated Americans – who are mostly white, male, and imbued with a deep sense of entitlement by virtue of their race and gender – with hysterical propaganda about how everybody is out to get them, will inevitably drive some to violence.  Republican politicians who echo the extreme views of these media fear mongers must share equal responsibility for the crimes they inspire.

Nearly a year ago I  posted a commentary titled: “Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck Incite Mayhem and Murder.”  What occasioned that piece was my alarm over the rising number of dramatically violent incidents that were perpetrated by men who gave reasons for their actions that echoed the themes of daily rants by Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, and their fellow verbal arsonists on the right. The three cases I  cited back then were Richard Popolowski, Steven Von Bruhn and Scott P. Roeder.

Popolowski ambushed and murdered three Pittsburg Policemen who were answering a routine domestic disturbance call placed by his mother.  Von Bruhn murdered an Afro-American guard at the National Holocaust Museum, and Scott Roeder murdered gynecologist Benjamin Tiller – whom that pompous windbag Bill O’Reily labeled “Tiller the Baby Killer” because he performed abortions.  And old crazy Billy Boy even gave out the Dr.’s address on the air.  Although he can never be sure of the role he played in causing the Doctor’s death O’Reiley, arrogant megalomaniac that he is, remains unrepentant.

What all of these crazed killers have in common is that they had been obsessing over issues that are the daily fare of the radio arsonists.  Popolowski thought Obama was going to take his guns away so the government could oppress white men; Von Bruhn – a white supremacist and eugenicist – is convinced that non-white aliens are taking over the USA, and whites must take their country back by force of arms. Scott Roeder thinks abortion is mass murder and felt compelled to stop it by murdering medical doctors who treat women seeking legal abortions.  The violent attack on Mr. Sharif by Michael Enright follows this same pattern of obsessive irrational behavior.   Their obsessions are the same issues the right-wing media provocateurs harp on everyday.  Hence I think the Attack on Ahmad Sharif is a harbinger of things to come…so long as Limbaugh, Beck and company remain in business.

Sharif says they were carrying on a civil conversation when Enright suddenly shouted the Muslim salutation “Ai Salaam Alinkum” and began stabbing him. Unless the greedy amoral corporations who profit from the ignorance and bigotry spewed by murderous windbags over the airwaves put the national interest above corporate profits, or those opposed to their destructive business find a way to effectively strike at their bottom line, this murderous monologue will go on. 

 Ahmad Sharif


 After His encounter with A Christian Avenger

 Until they are restrained either by their bosses or the forces of the marketplace, the verbal arsonists in right-wing media will continue to incite murder and mayhem.  Alia Lateef, speaking on behalf of the Taxi Drivers in New York, has no doubt that the attack was incited by the constant anti-Muslim diatribes in the media.  That’s why I intend to join my fellow citizens who are standing up for the rights on Muslims to build their Mosque wherever they wish.  In my view the issue is clear: To make any attempt to deny them this right is religious bigotry!   Any attempt to curtail or mediate that right – which is absolute under the US constitution – is unacceptable and illegal if it involves any act of government.




Let me be clear where I am coming from on this question.  I am not, as many mistakenly believe, pro-Islam.  Rather I agree with Franz Fanon, the black Psychiatrist from Martinique in the French Antilles who became the leading theoretician of the Algerian Revolution against France.  When the leadership of the FLN was debating about what a liberated Algeria would be like, the Islamicist wanted to establish Sharia law, but Fanon protested, arguing that establishing an Islamic theocracy would be “a return to primitive medievalism!” However I think that Christian fundamentalist control of the US government would also be a return to primitive Medievalism too.  

 I believe the molders of the US constitution got things just right!  The government shall have no role in promoting specific religious beliefs, and freedom of religion also means freedom from religion.  I am now, and have been for over half a century, an avowed atheist.  I refused to indoctrinate my children with any kind of religious dogma, and specifically warned by daughters against acceptance of religious philosophies that would deny them full equality on all planes of existence with their male counterparts.   So when it comes to religious fundamentalist of any stripe, I say a pox on all your houses!  But it is not my business what others choose to believe, and it’s certainly not the government’s business.

 Thus there is no alternative for those who love our Constitutional liberties but to support the Muslim’s right to build their mosque wherever they choose – even if it is directly on the site of “Ground Zero,” let alone five blocks away!  I take this position in spite of the fact that my first wife was a casualty of the 9/11 attack, and several friends also died there. This is because I don’t equate all Muslims with Al Qaeda any more than I would equate all Christians with Timothy McVey and the “Christian Identity movement. ”   Furthermore, if most Americans were not so abysmally ignorant about the rest of the world, they would know that fourth fifths of the world’s Muslims are not Arabs, and don’t live in the Middle East!  I am therefore compelled to oppose those who oppose the building of the Mosque downtown because I cannot stand idly by while ignorant and bigoted rabble turn my beloved city into a racial and ethnic battleground.  You see, I am a New Yorker who loves this city as much as anyone alive.   

I have often said publicly: “I would rather be a fire hydrant in New York City, and be pissed on by dogs all day long, than a king in a castle anywhere else!”  I witnessed the plane crash into the second tower, and experienced the terror of that moment; if I’m not mad about the Mosque’s location then I am unmoved by the vitriolic rhetoric of those out in the boonies.  I am suspicious of those talking heads in the media who have neither the best interests of this city, or the nation for that matter, at heart.  These bogus bloviators, who are stirring up all the trouble, only care about increasing their ratings so they can maintain their multi-million dollar salaries and princely lifestyles.   And they have told us so publicly!

Thus it is safe to conclude that the people who will journey to our nation’s capitol this weekend to attend Glenn Beck’s rally, will be disproportionably composed of emotional cripples and abysmal ignoramuses. It would behoove all of us to pay close attention to what happens there.  It is an obscene burlesque on the great March on Washington in 1963, which was a march against racism, war, poverty and avarice – all the things that Beck and his Tea Party cronies promote. 

This vulgar side show, hosted by an amoral clown who incites homicides for fun, featuring Sarah Palin as keynote speaker – a racist vulgar opportunist who has the values of a barbarian and the intellect of a Neanderthal –is both an insult to the memory of Doctor King and the great work he did.  And it is a dangerous diversion for the poor deluded white folks who sincerely believe that this scurrilous buffoon is offering wise counsel that will show them the way out of their misery.  Not so. 

Instead they will be provided and opportunity to engage in a collective venting of rage – not unlike the giant Nazi rallies at Nuremburg Germany in the 1930’s.  In those rallies the major issues were also rooted in economic dislocation and a growing feeling that the “true Germans” were having their country taken over by alien elements of their own population.   And as any historian of the period will verify, protestant fundamentalism and Catholic complicity played a major role in the rise of Fascism that led to the Holocaust.   There are many who throw the Nazi analogy around falsely, but I’m dropping some real science here. Check it out!!!   In any case I will have more to say on this subject in a forthcoming commentary.

Alas, Beck’s rally may prove cathartic for the moment, but no solutions to the problems of struggling white folks who despair that they may ever realize their American dreams will be provided by this shameless charlatan, verbose ignoramus and friendly fascist.  For when it is all said and done, they will still be in the same boat: the Darwinian struggle for bread that is the lot of the working class of all colors in an increasingly post industrial cybernetic American economy that no longer needs them. 

Who knows, if we use the past as a guide to understanding the present and predicting the future, this mass outpouring of white grievances – the great majority of which are imagined in the fevered mind of Beck and his ilk – could well push more clueless white saps into violent attacks on Muslims and people of color.  That’s what usually happens when white Americans descend into a state of racist rage popularly known as “white backlash.   There is a rush to convince us that the attack on Sharif was an aberration, the demented act of one deranged individual and we need not worry about a recurrence…We’ll see.

 The White Christian Avenger


 Just Another Poor Sap Pushed Over the Edge?




 Playthell Benjamin

Harlem, New York

August 2010

Makeda Voletta At Club Camarada!

Posted in Cultural Matters, Photo-Essays with tags , , , on August 25, 2010 by playthell


 Dancing The Mambo In Spanish Harlem!


 A Note On Cultural Fusion

There is much talk about the phenomenon of multi culturalism in the United States today, and those who oppose it view it as an ominous threat to the national identity of the nation.  Some of this fear is based on a long standing misperception of what the USA actually is…and is not.  You can see it most clearly in the signs and slogans of the so-called “Tea Party” movement,” an incoherent social formation composed of an untutored mob fueled by rage, racism and ignorance of the political realities contrived and stoked by professional Republican lobbyists  who call themselves “Freedom Works,” and financed by reactionary corporate plutocrats. 

Their most impressive effort at “Taking our country back” thus far is the Arizona anti-immigration law and the “Birthers,” those racist imbeciles who are trying to convince the American people that Barack Obama’s presidency is illegitimate, because he was not born in the US.  For these crackpots it is a recurrent nightmare every time they see Barack carrying out his constitutional duties as the Chief Executive of our government, and Commander-In-Chief of America’s mighty armed forces.  However, they are anachronisms, because cultural fusion and diversity is a reality in America today.  Nowhere is this truer than in America’s greatest City – New York.  Makeda Voletta, a native New Yorker, is an example of this cultural trend, for she is a true Multi-cultural American.

Although her family is African and native American, she was raised in the crucible of African American culture with no acknowledgement of her native American heritage.  This she would later discover as a result of conducting  research into her family history after she began dancing with Hispanic companies and the Latino’s – who are far more connected to their indio roots – began too inquire about her native American kinships; of which she was cluless but they were sure existed.  Makeda’s intellectual foray into her murky family past has enlightened us all about our American heritage, and made her ever more curious about the diverse strains of humanity that make up the American people. 

Growing up in New York Makeda heard the Afro-Latin music of the Spanish Caribbean, especially it’s most dynamic and influential sound – The Afro-Cuban Son Montuno.  That’s because Makeda is my daughter, and I have been playing conga drums for very near half a century.  Which means that I have been playing all of her life, over twenty years before she was born in fact.   I am crazy about the Son Montuno style, and the Latin/Jazz -New York Salsa styles that it inspired; I introduced Makeda to this music at an early age.

From the outset I identified the music – which is now universally called Salsa – as “Afro-Cuban music.”  This is because when I first heard it performed it was by the black Cuban students attending Florida A&M University, which had a world famous music program, having produced the likes of “Cannonball” and Nat Adderley.  It was clear that the Son was as much an Afro-Cuban  invention as  Jazz is the creation of African Americans – this is why when Mario Bauza and Dizzy Gellespie put their heads together they created Cu-Bop – Dizzy introduced the conga drums into jazz by hiring Chano Pozo – which is the true  father of all “Latin-Jazz.”   I loved the piano and the bass rhythms and I dug the singing – although I had not a clue what the lyrics meant; it was just music, like scat singing, and it was all good – but I was indifferent to the drums. 

Dizzy and James Moody

With Pioneering Afro-Cuban congero Chano Pozo


That’s because I was a rudimental trap drummer and was also studing the drum set, so the Conga drums seemed like crude Tom Toms to me, and I did’t quite know what to make of the Timbales.  But I liked the music a lot.  I began playing a few years later when I was living in Philadelphia and fell in love with a beautiful Puerto Rican Lady who was a dancer, and she introduced me to the conga and bade me play it.  I couldn’t even get a sound out of the skin at first.  A few days later she took me to see the Great Afro-Cuban virtuoso Mongo Santamaria…and my life has never been the same.  I became good friends with Mongo, and a life long devotee of the art of the conga – as a performer and avid fan.



The Dancer Who made Me a Congero


That was in 1962.  By 1966 I was good enough to subsitute for the great Mongo Santa Maria with his magnificent Orchestra.  The gig was at Pep’s Show Bar, a famous Philadelphia  Jazz Club in the Mid twentieth century, and I got to play with the band because Mongo was having his hands treated.   Since I know that the many variations my life has taken – Political activist, History Professor, Boxing Promoter, Journalist, journalism Professor, Congero,  Band Leader – are hard for many readers to believe if they don’t know me; I have provided a picture of that performance below.   And one can see my recent performances on Conga by checking me out on You Tube. 

The band in this picture is one of the greatest Latin Jazz Orchestras ever!  If you look to my far right( the readers left) you will see great Hubert Laws – the greatest flautist of the twentieth century.  Hubert was more versitile on woodwinds and reeds than Wynton Marsalis is on the trumpets and cornet – and that’s saying a hell of a lot, considering the fact that Wynton is the greatest trumpet virtuoso on record!  Hubert also played the tenor saxophone in the band and he was as soulful as his gifted brother Ronnie Laws.  The guy standing right next to me, to Hubert’s left,  is Bobby Capers; the younger brother of the great pianist and Professor Of Music, Valarie Capers. 

Which means that, like the Laws family – Bobby also came from a musically gifted clan.  Valarie’s genuis as an instrumentalist is all the more impressive because she is blind.   Marty Scheller is on trumpet and he was also the band’s principal arranger and Music Director.  Rogers Grant, who was also Afro-American, was the pianist; the great Dominican showman and virtuoso Timbalero Carmello Garcia rocked the Timbales as he executed dramatic dance steps, and the Mexican bassist Victor Venego held down the bottom as the pulse of the band. 

Thus Makeda grew up in a household where Afro-Cuban music was played as often as Rhythm&Blues or Jazz.  As a trained dancer – she began the formal study of classical ballet at the world renowned Dance Theater Of Harlem at Five years old and studied for nearly ten years – she naturally noticed all dance oriented music.   Acutely aware of the brazen racism against black ballerina’s, I introduced Makeda to modern black dance; taking her to see “Cityscapes, ” a modern black ballet performed by the Garth Fagan Dance company with music by Wynton Marsalis and his Orchestra.  That opened up her mind to possibilities outside of classical ballet; and as she was always a big fan of Afro-American vernacular dance, it didn’t take long before she began to be infected by the bewitching rhythms of the conga, timbales and clave! 

 Makeda, like her father before her, soon fell under the spell of this magical Afro-Latin sound…and the pictures below document the result of the kind of cross-cultural fusion that can happen when we approach each other’s culture with respect, and are willing to do the necissary study that will allow an outsider to participate fully in the experience – to speak the cultural language without accent.   The Mambo,  aka Salsa, is a dynamic, elegant, romantic, passionate mating ritual that allows women to be sexy with class, and men to be macho and graceful at the same time – like a bullfighter without the danger. 

Here, the worse fate a male can encounter is to prove uninteresting to your partner, since the man controls the dance.  It is the last living dance tradition in America where men and women truly dance together as partners, and Latin clubs are surely the last dance venue where you can actually dance to a live band on the stand!  Viva La Musica!!

Note: This dance, when properly executed, is improvisational; with the steps choreographed in the moment.  The stiffs on “Dancing With The Stars,” who pass off those awkward, mechanical, esthetic atrocities, as the Mambo – often without even using authentic music – should take note.  For in their cultural arrogance they are profaning a grand dance tradition.   This is the real deal…this is how it’s done by it’s authors, and only they can set the standard of authenticity and excellence.  On this night, in club Camarada, a Puerto Rican night club in Spanish Harlem, Miguel and Makeda tore the dance floor up!  If you listen carefully to the video clip at the end of this photo-essay, you can hear the salutations of approval from the crowd.  I just happend to have my camera and started taking pictures.  The whole thing happened on the spur of the moment…and they were magic moments.  (For maximum viewing effect of this essay, expand your screen  to 150%.


Playing Mongo’s Congas

In My Master’s Chair!



On The Clave!


Twirling On A Dime!


 Creating Geometric Complexities

In And Around the Beat!


Moving In Sync

Like Swiss Clockworks 


An Afro-Latin Pas de Deux!


 Workin It!


 Matching Each Other Step For Step!


 Without Skipping A Beat!


 Miguel Is Masterful!


Directing The Dance Of Magic!


 Dancing With Dad On His 67th Birthday!


Makeda’s First Tutor In The Art Of Mambo


Below are three video links:  The first is of the Chappotin Allstars, an Afro-Cuban cojunto performing A Descarga.

The second video is of Makeda and Miguel dancing

The third is of Myself dancing with a partner on the 4th of July.


Double click to see the Chappotin Allstars

Double click to see Miguel and Makeda Dance

Double Click and Watch Poppi Dance the Mambo!

El Chocolate Dances to Zon Del Barrio

Live in Central Park July 4, 1010

 Old School Mambo Moves!




Playthell Benjamin

Harlem, New York

August 24, 2010

* Photographs and Text by: Playthell Benjamin

*Except for the picture of Dizzy and Chano and the picture he appears in.

An Open Letter to Dr. Laura

Posted in On Right Wing Pundits and Bloviators, Playthell on politics with tags , , , , , on August 21, 2010 by playthell
 The Dr. Laura I Remember

Hi Dr. Laura

You may not remember me, but I remember well the night we met.  Let me refresh your memory.  It was at a book party for the prolific and erudite Rabbi Shmuley Boetec about six years ago.  It was a posh affair on Fifth Avenue where you and I were guest speakers.  I was not familiar with your work beyond the fact that you were considered a prominent and well respected relationship expert.  In fact, that was the raison d’ etre for the discussion, as Rabbi Shmuley was also a celebrated relationship expert, having written the wildly popular Book: “Kosher Sex.”  I admired your spunk and intellect that night, as you boldly pointed out that you disagreed with some of the learned Rabbi’s relationship advice because he was a male chauvinist!

You might remember that I was the last of an impressive array of speakers, all of whom had been given strict time limits; I was the last to speak precisely because Rabbi Shmuley wanted me to speak with no limits.  This was because Schmuley and I were co-hosting a radio show on WWRL AM in New York at the time, he had heard my take on class, ethnicity and race in the US and he wanted the audience to hear my analysis of Afro-American / Jewish relations in historical perspective.

We had known each other less than a week, but after our first encounter on air he began to read up on me.  He discovered a feature story I had written in Emerge magazine, “Blacks and Jews: Our Tattered Alliance,” which had attracted a lot of attention in news paper reviews around the country and resulted in my being invited to present a lecture on the topic at Harvard – a recording of which I shall soon place online.  Shmuley, who has a great admiration for Dr. Martin Luther King – whom he has repeatedly said “has done more to bring the teachings of the ancient Hebrew prophets to life than any Rabbi I know” – thought my views on the subject of blacks and Jews in America would bring some much needed clarity to the muddled thinking on this subject.

Considering the uniqueness of the event – the audience was packed with blacks and Jews of varying class and educational backgrounds, religious and secular – I’m sure you must remember it despite your whirlwind schedule.  Hence you may recall the tremendous ovation my presentation received. For no one greeted my message more enthusiastically than you,  as you embraced me warmly and showered me with accolades.   I had no doubt that your expression of fraternity was genuine, as you gave me your private phone number and invited me to call and chat sometimes.

 Rabbi Shmuley

 spreading a message of racial Harmony in the US

That’s why I was shocked and surprised when I heard of the racial imbroglio that you now find yourself in.  I confess that I have not followed your career closely, but when I found myself being stalked by a deranged female fan of my radio show, you were the first person I considered calling for advice as to how to handle the situation.  Especially as she was using the internet to launch anonymous attacks and I had read where you had been the victim of several such attacks.  But I had written your number in a phone book and never transferred it to my computer file and when I looked it up the ink had faded on a couple of the digits and  I couldn’t make out the entire number; I started to call your show but thought the better of it.  But judging from the way you “helped” the young black female caller that touched off the present firestorm,  perhaps I made the right decision.

However it was then that I learned how big you had become.  According to the information I am reading now you are the biggest female radio show host in the nation – and the only radio host of either gender who has your own You Tube channel.   Now it has all suddenly come crashing down…what happened?  How could it all end with a single phone call?   I guess you must be wondering the same thing.  After taking a close look at the incident that precipitated your demise I would attribute your dramatic fall from grace to two fundamental factors: A lifetime of white Privilege and the arrogance it produces in dealing with nonwhites, and the hubris that results from feelings of omnipotence when one is constantly sought out by others for their superior wisdom in dealing with the trials and tribulations that life presents to us all.

Unless I am to assume that you had dropped a tab of acid, or ingested some other mind altering drug, when you were browbeating the black female caller from Colorado who sought your advice in dealing with friends and family of her white husband that constantly accosted her with racially offensive remarks, then the explanation for your behavior must either be the reasons suggested above, or you are indeed a cold blooded racist!

Since I grew up in the apartheid South in the hey day of white supremacy I think I know an avowed racist cracker when I see one, and you just don’t strike me as that.  But when ignorance, arrogance, and a sense of white entitlement are combined with hubris the result may well be a distinction without a difference.  How dare you assume that you know best when Afro-Americans should be offended by the use of the word Nigger?  Who appointed you the arbiter of our sensibilities?

Failing to heed the adage, “When you are already in a hole stop digging,” you attempted to justify your racist drivel by accusing the young black woman – who went by the nomme de Plume “Jade’ – of being “too sensitive.”  Then you offered the silly half baked explanation that because black comedians say “Nigger” it should be cool for whites to say it: “”I don’t get it. If anybody without enough melanin says it, it’s a horrible thing,” you screeched.  And you accused her of “NAACPing me,” what the hell was that all about?  I cannot imagine a response that more perfectly combines ignorance, arrogance and white chauvinism.  Since you are a Jew let me put this in terms that you will surely be able to understand.  Unless you really are as silly and shallow as you appear to be in this instance.

Have you ever heard Jewish comics perform in the Borscht Belt resorts of the Catskills?  Well I have.  When I was in the boxing business I had occasion to spend time in the training camps of the great pugilists Michael Spinks and Timmy Witherspoon, who trained at The Concord and Kutchers.  The way the deal worked was that the fighters were to make themselves as visible as possible while training there, which included having dinner in the main dining room, which is also where the floor shows were staged.  The shows always included a comedian, that’s why these Borscht Belt resorts became the training ground for so many great Jewish comedians.

Minnie Tonka: Jewish Burlesque Commediene

Would Jews find this routine funny if performed by a black woman?

What struck me most emphatically about the performances of these comedians was that Jews were often the butt of their jokes.  Just like black comedians working the chittlin circuit – although the comics of the past had a better sense of the racial realities and far too much self respect to yell “Nigger!” in public.  Yet when the language of the Jewish comics is appropriated by outsiders it was considered anti-Semitic.  Just like when whites appropriate the language of those black comedians Afro-Americans consider it racist!   Furthermore the anti-Jewish epithet ‘Kike” is a term German Jews created to describe Jews from Eastern Europe.

But does that give others the right to use this term with impunity?  When put in these terms it is clear that your logic does not hold and your argument falls apart!  Furthermore, no group on earth is more sensitive to ethnic insults that American Jews!  You all even have an organization with a vast research capability that monitors not only what is said about Jews in the media – broadcast and print – but also scours academic and literary texts for arguments considered injurious not only to American Jewish interests, but that of the far away state of Israel as well.

It’s called the Anti-Defamation League, and the black community has no watch dog guarding our interests that even begins to approach the power of Abe Foxman, who has destroyed quite a few careers of people for transgressions far less odious than yours!  If you don’t know about this, then you should Google the late great investigative journalist Robert I. Freedman and read his work on the ADL.  So why didn’t you tell Jade “Don’t do an Abe Foxman on me?”  You accuse black people of applying a “double standard” because we tolerate remarks from black comedians that we find offensive when others use them against us – although there is a clear difference in intent if your are laughing with me or laughing at me – yet Jews are just as guilty of this.  Double standards indeed!


Abe The Grand Inquisitor!

Why you did not recognize this is anybody’s guess; only you know for sure whether the motive was ignorance or arrogance.  I strongly suspect it was a bit of both – as opposed to the plain old racism of which you stand accused.  In other words, like most white media talking heads, you just didn’t have a clue what the fuck you were talking about!   According to the information I have been able to acquire about your academic training you hold a Doctorate in physiology from Columbia University.  Although that is an impressive achievement, it in no way qualifies you to pontificate authoritatively on matters that require knowledge of sociology, psychology and history.  Which means that you were in over your head to begin with in attempting to answer the question the caller put to you; hence a little humility would have been in order rather than the haughty arrogance you displayed.

Perhaps people who call radio show hosts to seek advice on matters about which the host has no demonstrated competence – either in terms of academic credentials, demonstrated excellence in performance, or a written paper trail – deserve whatever they get.  But then, arrogant radio show hosts who offend entire sections of the population with racial or ethnic insults that encourage injurious behavior against the offended group deserve what they get too.  And the spectacle of a millionaire bloviator – who has amassed a fortune broadcasting opinions she is unqualified to offer  over 250 radio stations nation wide crying about her First Amendment Rights being violated when listeners complain – is ludicrous!

It is a rare occasion when true wisdom flows from the mouth of Howard Stern, but he is certainly right regarding your ridiculous whining about having your first Amendment Rights violated.  It remains to be seen if he is also right in his prediction that you are faking the funk when you say that you are going to retire from radio, and you may be sure that I shall watch your career moves with interests.  And I shall henceforth offer critical comments on your bloviations when the situation demands it.

But let us dwell a bit on the First amendment issue, because it is a dramatic illustration of the point I wish to make about your ignorance regarding history.  It also demonstrates my long standing contention that white commentators don’t necessarily have to know what they are talking about to be provided a platform to pontificate to the multitudes on critical issues.  The First Amendment was designed to prevent the government from suppressing unpopular speech, mainly speech critical of government itself.

It was conceived by men who knew all to well the tyranny that results from unchecked power because they had witnessed it under the monarchies of Europe.  This is the same impulse that led the architects of the Constitution to prohibit the government from establishing a state religion; for they had also witnessed the power of the Church of England.  What the first Amendment does not do, nor was it ever intended to do, is protect people like you from being muzzled either by your boss – in this case the station owners who broadcast your shows – or the machinations of the marketplace.

Therefore if parties who are offended by your caustic pontifications decide to boycott your sponsors unless they dump you, that’s not a violation of your First Amendment Rights!  And you discredit yourself as a serious commentator on important societal issues every time you say so.  Furthermore, it marks you as a hypocrite since the organized Jewish community is the best in the country at playing this game and I have never heard you utter a peep about it.

Of course –  like Rush and Sean and Glenn – you appeal mostly to mindless sycophants, the kind of people  the late great Dean of American letters and insightful judge of human foible and folly H. L. Mencken called “Boobus Americanus.”  Thus it is no surprise that you have received thousands of e-mails supporting you in your mindless folly.  But there is one e-mail that you must publicly disavow – and the sooner the better for the sake of your reputation – and that’s the one from Silly Sarah Palin, the verbose Alaskan barbarian.  The reasons why you must reject her offer of sisterly support is first because you are on record calling her a ignoramous and an unfit mother after John McCain choose her as his presidential running mate – thus you will look like a shameless charlatan if you don’t – and second because she is a transparent racist who is apparently willing to incite a race war in America if it serves her interests: political and personal.

Palin’s Role Model


 A Real Vicious Bitch!

Sarah is, by her own admission. “a pit bull in lipstick;” which is synonymous with an evil dangerous bitch!  And you cannot lie down with dogs without getting up with fleas.  How you handle your newly minted relationship with Sarah Palin – who is not only a transparent racist but is as shallow as a dry creek bed – will tell us even more about who you really are than anything you have said or done thus far.  As the Zen Master said to his devotee: “We’ll see.”


Ps: You say that you want to debate these questions: Really?

Well I’m available 24/7, call me ASAP and let’s get it on!




 As always, Playthell George Benjamin

Harlem, New York

August 21, 2010

Sunday Night At Dizzy’s Club

Posted in Cultural Matters, Music Reviews with tags , , , , , on August 18, 2010 by playthell


Eric Reed


Cyrus Chestnut



Night of The Cookers!

For music lovers New York is a fabulous feast of magnificent variety.  On a very hot Sunday night during the heat wave in June I had a thirst for some good music and dropped in at Dizzy’s Club, a fabulous night spot located in Jazz At Lincoln Center, having no idea who was performing.  But I was sure whoever was playing they would be cooking.  Dizzy’s is quite possibly the most beautiful nightclub in the world – with its glass wall behind the bandstand  looking down on the fanstasic fountains in Columbus Circle at 59th and Broadway, then out over Central Park to fabulous Fifth Avenue.

When the lights are low it provides a spectacular back drop for the magic vibes the musicians conjure up onstage.  For Dizzy’s is quite possibly the greatest Jazz club in the world in regard to the artists who are featured there – considering that it is the premiere performance venue in the Mecca of Jazz.   On this night the headliners  happened to be the great young pianists Cyrus Chestnut and Eric Reed, accompanied by virtuoso players on bass and drums that provided a powerful and seamless rhythmic cushion.


 Inside Dizzy’s

This is an unusual instrumental combination; generally a trio features one piano.  Given the dominance of the piano in the jazz ensemble – whether it is a trio, quintet, septet, or big band it is not easy for pianists to collaborate in this fashion.  Jazz music being what it is – a free flowing musical conversation among master musicians conducted within certain agreed upon boundaries demarcated by chord changes and rhythmic configurations – successful performance requires a high level of collegiality. This means that the performers must really listen to what each other are doing and respond intelligently in ways that coalesce rather than clash, thus enhancing the overall sound of the band in a coherent aesthetic statement.

To accomplish this the musicians must approach their task with a highly developed sense of democracy and a reverence for invention and personal freedom; which makes Jazz the most representative of American fine art forms.  In the smaller ensembles like quartets a high degree of instrumental virtuosity is assumed – since each player is expected to make a solo statement sometimes during the performance.  But that is just the starting point. To excel at this endeavor the instrumentalists must have a fertile imagination, blues sensibility, good taste, a finely developed sense of nuance and proportion, and know how to tell a story with their solos.  But even so, as Mr. Ellington warned: “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing!

The great Jazz players have mastered all of these elements, and their performances can achieve a kind of sonic alchemy; that’s why listening to this quartet was akin to a continuous eargasm.  They were swinging so hard they rocked the house and wiped the audience out with musical statements that reached such intensity they became ecstatic. It was the kind of performance that combined technical virtuosity with deep emotional content.  The band worked with the precision of a 24 jeweled Swiss watch.  To the untutored listener, unfamiliar with the ways Jazzmen construct their music, it would be impossible to believe that they were not playing from a score

The way that Eric and Cyrus played off each other is possible only among master musicians with the kind of profound mutual respect that allows a deep spiritual communication.  It is only then that competition and cooperation is possible in a performance where each is trying to push the other to achieve their greatest potential. Listening to these pianists and watching the way they complimented each other when speaking to the audience about the music, it was clear that we were witnessing a mutual admiration society.  That’s why their performance reached such a high level of artistry.

  I was reminded of a story the great alto saxophonist Jackie McLean told me about Bird and pianist Bud Powell – two of the greatest artist in the Jazz pantheon who’s playing has influenced everyone who practices the art form with any competence and respect for tradition. Bud and Bird were shooting pool one day and Bird bested bud in the game.  Bird began talking smack, telling Bud: “you can’t beat me doing nothing.”  But when Bud said: “I guess that includes playing music too,” Bird quickly replied: “No man that’s different, playing music is something else. It takes the contribution of everybody in the band to make great music.”

 Willie Jones III


 This is the kind of thinking that underlay the musical rapport between the members of the quartet – especially Eric and Cyrus.  Sometimes they would play together, and other times they would play separately as a trio with the drums and bass.  At other times they played solo, as in Cyrus Chestnuts’ trio rendition of Billy Strayhorn’s beautiful ballad, ” A Flower Is A Lonesome Thing,” a composition that combines joy and pathos in ways that suggest a sound portrait of the brilliant composers’ tragic life, and Eric Reed’s solo tribute to the peerless piano master Hank Jones, who lately danced to join the luminous souls who have moved to what the poet William Cullen Bryant calls “that mysterious realm where each shall take his place in the silent halls of death.” 

Eric selected “Standing In The Need Of Prayer,” a gospel tune, to perform in Hank’s memory.  Recalling a conversation with the elegant piano virtuoso Eric, who is a knowledgeable and eloquent spokesman for the art of Jazz, pointed out that Hank told him: “A little gospel never hurts.” For Eric this was like returning the rabbit to the briar patch, because he began his career as a musical performer playing in the church.  This was no prissy Episcopalian affair but a rousing Pentecostal church, where the congregation passionately heeds the biblical injunction to “make a joyful noise unto the lord!” 

 In Eric’s performance we were once again reminded of the spiritual roots of jazz, after all gospel music is just the flip side of the blues, and many of Jazz’s brightest stars developed their skills playing in church.  One of the routine miracles in Jazz is the way the musicians can take a simple tune and develop it into a magnificent musical presentation with their erudite improvisations – which were called variations on a theme in Mozart’s time. That’s what Eric accomplished in grand fashion, as he built increasingly complex statements that combined poignant emotions and technical brilliance with a fecund imagination to invoke the spirit, if not the presence, of the divine – converting the nightclub into a temple celebrating sacred art and obliterating the age old distinction between “God “ and “the Devil’s” music. And when he played his last note the audience erupted in tumultuous salutation.

Cyrus Chestnut also brought the house down in his performance of Strayhorn’s haunting ballad.  He has a laid back style that makes the most difficult musical passages seem effortless.  And such splendid taste it sounds as if he has mulled over each phrase for days; yet he is inventing the music right before our eyes, composing at the speed of thought.  Over the course of the evening we were treated to the entire vocabulary of piano playing in western music.

The pianists moved effortlessly from Bach to the blues, with citations from Professor Thomas A. Dorsey – the blues pianist who invented modern gospel music when he quit his gig as Ma Rainey’s pianists and began writing songs for the great Mahalia Jackson.  At some of the hottest points of their performance, when the music was swinging hard, Cyrus and Eric would exchange passages from the compositions of European classical music masters without missing a beat.  They are extensions of the great virtuosos of the tradition such as: Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson, Bud Powell, Oscar Peterson, Ahmad Jamal, Hank Jones, Ramsey Louis, Jacki Byard, Herbie Hancock, et al.

 Aside from the technical brilliance and musical erudition of the pianists, this kind of improvisational freedom was made possible by the tightly constructed, relentless swinging of the bassist and drummer Willie Jones III.  Quite naturally I, like any serious jazz fan, especially those who have been around the New York Jazz scene for a while, thought the drummer was related to the great Brooklyn percussionist Willie Jones. I figured him for a grandson.  Hence I was more than a little surprised to discover when I talked to him after the show that they were not kinsmen.  However his hard swing and superb taste sounded as if it might have been seasoned by several generations of grooming. His playing was both dynamic and subtle, something many seasoned drummers – like Danny Richmond for instance – find nearly impossible to achieve.


 Derzon Douglas


I was especially impressed with the young bassist, Dezron Douglas, because I had recently had the rare privilege and exquisite pleasure of listening to three of the best bassist in the business: Stanley Clarke, Esperanza Spaulding and Carlos del Pino. So I was not inclined to be easily impressed. However when it comes to a big warm sound and solid swing Dezron Douglass was excellent. He and Willie constructed a firm rhythmic foundation, on which Cyrus and Eric erected their improvisations like epic tone poems; spitting off streams of bullet like notes in brilliant timeless Jazz statements.

I get a special exhilaration whenever I hear Eric and Cyrus play because I saw them early on in their careers.  I first heard Cyrus at Betty Carter’s jazz festival for young artists held at the BAM Majestic Theater in Brooklyn.  In fact, I wrote about him in a essay for the Sunday Times Of London – it was published in their arts magazine, The Culture, under the title “School For Cats.”  At these events the late Mistress Of Swing scoured the country in search of the most talented young jazz virtuosi and provided them an opportunity to sharpen their skills by performing together under the watchful eyes and instruction of seasoned pros. 

Over a decade has passed since then and Cyrus has fulfilled the promise I saw in him back in the day.  Much of his growth and development occurred during his tenure as the pianist in Ms. Carter’s band. Although quite young Eric Reed was an accomplished pro when I first heard him; as he was the pianist with the world renowned Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra, under the direction of Maestro Marsalis, he has gotten better.

I have heard a lot of young pianists lately who have excellent technical skills, but they strike me the way many of the young Classical pianists affected the great piano virtuosos Arthur Rubenstein and Vladimir Horowitz: They can’t tell the difference between technical exhibitionism and making music!   To our good fortune, Eric Reed and Cyrus Chestnut has decided making beautiful music is paramount, and their prodigious technique is employed to achieving that end.  Bravo!




 * To see Eric reed in Performance click this link:

* To See Cyrus Chestnutt Click this link:

Playthell Benjamin

Harlem, New York 

June 28, 2010



The Death Of Sister Soul

Posted in Cultural Matters, Music Reviews on August 16, 2010 by playthell

 Adding Her Voice to The Celebration Of New Orleans


Reveries of  Abbey Lincoln

From the first time I ever heard of Abbey Lincoln she was associated with the struggle for the freedom and dignity of black folks.  Since I was a boy I had been a fanatic for her husband Max Roach’s drumming.  Growing up in a community where mastering a musical  instrument was considered a heroic deed, and playing the drums was a manifestation of manly prowess only slightly less masculine than playing football – which was a civic religion in Florida – Max Roach was both a manly role model and artistic icon, a God like presence with mythical powers. 


The Beautiful Abbey Lincoln

 When Max married Abbey she instantly became something of a Goddess in my mind.  And since I had already rejected the God people around me worshipped, I was free to pick and choose my own Gods: So why not them?  I had never heard of Abbey before she married Max, but they quickly became the first couple of the Black Arts Movement.  Teasing brown and strikingly beautiful, she was well spoken, a talented singer and actress, and carried herself like an African warrior Queen prepared to do battle in defense of her own freedom and dignity, and by word and deed that of her people.

Although her fame would have been restricted by white racism – a white girl with her attributes would have blown up as big as ice cream – she still could have found commercial success.   But Abbey was committed to higher goals, like the liberation and elevation of her oppressed people; once you experience that freedom high nothing can compare with it.  Many years later Abbey was still unrepentant about her decision.  In a 1992 Essence magazine interview she told Jill Nelson: “People make you over, they give you other songs to sing, you wear the clothes they choose, they find you a personality they think will sell. It’s all about prostitution, when you come down to it.”


The Magnificent Max Roach

 Abbey was one of the first black female stars, following the great folk singer and freedom fighter Odetta, to wear her hair “au natural.”  Unlike Odetta however, Abbey had the look that could have made her a famous glamour girl ala Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge.  It is enough to see her in that red dress in the 1956 movie “The Girl Can’t Help It” starring Jane Mansfield, to know that this is no exaggeration.  This dress had been previously worn by Marylyn Monroe in “Gentlemen Prefer Blonds,” but I prefer Abbey – honey brown and gorgeous with more curves than a country road in the hills of Jamaica.

However, unlike Lena and Dorothy, who allowed their images and career paths to be molded by white producers and public relations experts, Abbey chose a different role for herself and rejected the superficiality of pop fame in favor of becoming a serious artist in the complex Afro-American art music called Jazz.  This was a risky business compared to the instant stardom and the spoils that come with it if one achieves success in pop music or the movies. 

Abbey As Glamour Girl 

 When Abbey joined Max and the Braithwaite brothers, Kwame and Elombe, in creating the “African Jazz Art Society” in Harlem during 1958 it was the beginning of the “Black Arts Movement.”  She caught the zeitgeist and moved with the spirit of the times. The result was one of the most interesting collaborations in twentieth century American music.

 Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln cultural warriors

 The apotheosis of that collaboration was the “Freedom Suite,” which was recorded as “We Insist: Freedom Now!” in 1960.  It was a prophetic work of art that presaged the militant struggles that would mark the decade and scared a lot of the white cultural critics to death.  With music by Max Roach, who had a degree in composition from the Manhattan School of Music, and lyrics by the great Chicago song poet and musical dramatist Oscar Brown Jr. the album was electrifying.  Listening to it now, I hear echoes of the era, a sound portrait of one of the most dynamic periods in American history. 

It is no exaggeration to say that the events of the 1960’s reshaped the way millions of Americans view their country.  Everything from the way we treat the environment to gender relations, and even the definition of gender itself, were called into question as a result of the Afro-American assault on the racial caste system and the cultural redefinition inspired by that movement. The freedom suite gave artistic expression to that ferment.

On compositions like “Driva Man,” “Tears for Johannesburg” and “Triptych: Prayer / Protest / Peace” the power of Abbey’s soulful contralto voice gives life to Max’s  music, and power to Oscar’s poignant lyrics.  The dramatic timbres and dark indigo colors of her voice embody all the pathos of the experience the compositions describe in words and music. Given her talents as an actress Abbey was the ideal artist for this project, which often required her to assume the dramatis personae suggested by the lyrics she sang.  Triptych, which is just Max on drums and Abbey’s vocalese, is blood curdling: no one can listen to it and not be moved.

The testimony of the New Orleans writer and college teacher Kalamu ya Salaam’s description of his response upon first hearing it when Max and Abbey came to New Orleans and performed at Dillard University – a black school – mirrors what many of us felt:

I just stood next to the stage, holding my camera in my hand but not raising it to shoot. I was mesmerized. Abbey Lincoln was riveting. I was stunned. I literally just stood there. I’m sure my mouth was hanging agape.”  He goes on to explain: “Abbey and Max made me believe in time travel, believe in the power of a secular Holy Ghost, a terrible Shiva-force that destroyed you to renew you. I was afraid for her—and for myself also. It seemed as though she might hurt herself. It seemed as if I should do something helpful and not just be a stationary stump while she was going through this. This was not just jazz. This was a religious experience. A new way to live.”


 Max  and Abbey split up after a decade of marriage and an even longer period of collaboration.  Max never worked with a singer on a regular basis again and Abbey went her on way, but she has been clear about the role Max played in the artistic path she took. In a 1970 interview with Gallery 41, Abbey recalled: “I was in New York, miserable because I was working supper clubs but I wasn’t expressing myself. I was really unhappy with my life. I saw Max again and he told me I didn’t have to do things like that. He made me an honest woman on the stage. I have been performing in that tradition since. I feel that I’m a serious performer now whereas then I wanted to be but I didn’t know how.”

Abbey would appear in two memorable movies: “Nothing But A Man” with Ivan Dixon and “For the Love Of Ivy” with Sidney Portier. Although these films did not lead to a rash of roles for Abbey – which is par for the course where black actresses are concerned – these performances do display her versatility as an actress.  In the former film she is a proper daughter of the middle class, and in the latter she is a working class woman, and she is quite convincing in both roles.  She also became an essayist and apowerful lyricist. 

Born in Chicago in 1930, during the Great Depression,  Abbey Lincoln, whose given name at birth was Anna Marie Wooldridge, was raised in rural Michigan as the tenth of twelve children.  She was a woman who reinvented herself several times before she finally became Aminata Moseka.  In an interview with Lara Pellegrinelli she explained her fantastic journey from Anna Marie to Aminata:

 “I’m Aminata Moseka. I got a bunch of names. Anna Marie Wooldridge was the name I was born with. Then I took Gaby because the people at the Moulin Rouge in Los Angeles wanted me to have a French name. They didn’t know I already had one. I didn’t either. Anna Marie is as French as it gets. And Wooldridge is English. They gave me Gaby and kept Wooldridge so I had a German and an English name. It’s America! [laughs] And then Bob Russell named me Abbey Lincoln, because we used to sit and talk about life. He understood how I felt about my people because he felt the same way about his. He said to me, “Well, since Abraham Lincoln didn’t free the slaves, maybe you could handle it.” Named me Abbey Lincoln and I laughed, but that’s the name that I took. Abbey for Westminster Abbey he told me, and Lincoln for Abraham Lincoln. He was aware of his self and of his people—socially aware. He’s the first socially aware person that I met. Bob Russell. Roach is socially aware. Duke Ellington, all of the great ones.”

 It goes without saying that she too is one of the great ones.  The marvelous saga of her life is evidence of it.  It is not often that we witness a performer walk away from the glamorous life of fame and fortune to stand on principle and devote her life to the service of others out of sheer love of their people.  Aminata Moseka was a great lady and cultural warrior who used her art as a weapon for the oppressed.  The last two times I saw her perform was at the funeral of Betty Carter, where she gave a soul stirring rendition of “Land of the Midnight Sun” and she healed the spirits of the refugees from the destruction of Katrina in the great celebration / fund raiser for the Crescent City at Jazz at Lincoln Center.  I shall always remember her voice as a healing vibration – a salve for wounded spirits. There are not nearly enough of such generous people in this world; if there were the world would be a better place.  We shall miss her; for we shall not soon find her equal…if ever.

 Aminata Moseka

A Cultural Warrior to the End!





* to see Max and abbey In Perfromance click this link:

 * To See Abbey in Nothing but a Man Click this link:


Playthell Benjamin

Harlem, New York

August 16, 2010 

* Cover Photo by: Frank Stewart 



La Homenaje Santos Lolita Lebron!

Posted in Cultural Matters, Playthell on politics on August 10, 2010 by playthell


Pastor Lydia Rivera Welcomes The Supplicants


The memorial mass for Lolita Lebron held at the elegant little church – which was originally built by Germans – called “La Resurrection,” was both a celebration of the life and struggles of this great Puerto Rican patriot as well as the Afro-Latin Caribbean people and culture from which she sprang and was the abiding love of her life.  And before it was over the ceremony evolved into a celebration of the beauty and strenght of Puerto Rican women collectively.  There were many testimonials to Lolita’s life and its meaning offered up in praise poems and compelling prose, in Spanish and English.  One of the myriad virtues of this celebration is that the speakers had mastered the idiomatic nuances of the language they spoke; an art for the orator and a pleasure for the listener.  Thus the elegant sanctuary was filled to the rafters with eloquent and moving oratory. 

Part of the service was in Spanish – which was rightfully given pride of place – and part was in English.  Although I understood little of what was said by those who spoke entirely in Spanish, the sheer sonic beauty of this lyrical mellifluous language was a joy to hear.  Without understanding much of the vocabulary I could nevertheless understand the basic tenor of the message by studying the body language and intonations of the speaker’s voice.  Not to mention the tales the eyes tell.  The Pastor is a wise Latina in so many ways, but one her most moving and thoughtful gifts to this memorial was the marvelous music she assembled for the service.

“Music gives resonance to memory” wrote the great Afro-American Novelist and essayist Ralph Waldo Ellison; and so it was on this occasion.  This is because music, especially the best popular music, is a sound portrait of the soul of a people. It is the literature of the masses; it is both a refuge from the troubles of the world and a means of rejuvenating the spirit through joy. It is the soundtrack of our lives.  I don’t know for sure that Lolita was a music lover, but being a Latina and a daughter of the working class I’d bet my bottom daughter she loved to dance. 

When I think of Lolita it is not always about firing a pistol in the House chambers; often I fantasize dancing the Mambo with her at the Palladium.  For during the 1950’s, when she was toiling in the garmet center in downtown Manhattan and living in The Bronx,  New York City was engulfed in a Mambo craze, and the Palladium at 52and Street was the Mecca.  In those days Machito and his Afro-Cuban’s was the premier dance band, but there were Puerto Ricans in the group. One of the longtime singers with the band – who has just completed a book on her experiences traveling with the orchestra and singing with the great Gracella – was at the memorial, and she reminded me that we had met at Gracella’s home on her 90th birthday.

I was fortunate to attend this fascinating congregation of Latin musicians at the invitation of the legendary Puerto Rican broadcaster Malin Falu, and notice the longtime friendship and joyous camaraderie amon the Cuban and Puerto Rican musicians.   The relationships between Cuban and Puerto Rican musicians – which became essential once the seminal Puerto-Rican bandleader Rafael Cortijo orchestrated La Bomba and  substituted  conga drums for the barrales – reflects the much deeper political relationships between the two Spanish speaking Caribbean island nations.  This relationship was expressed on the highest level of solidarity when several thousand Puerto Rican revolutionaries volunteered to fight in Cuba during their war of national liberation against Spain in the 19th century.  And it was reiteratied in Che Guevara’s impassioned tribute to “El Maestro” Albizu Compos, President of the Puerto Rican Independence Party and Lolita’s comrade and mentor.

Like the African cultures from whence the drums in Afro- Caribbean music derived, dance in Afro-Latin Creole cultures is often a part of religious ritual rather than the sinful thing Protestant fundamentalists preach against and often seek to ban. All of the music at the memorial mass, which was recorded by great Puerto Rican artists, is dance music.  Anybody who thinks dance music cannot achieve the spiritual gravitas to accompany religious ritual should stop and listen to “Mi Bandera” by Richie Ray &Bobby Cruz. In this celebration of Puerto Rico you can hear the perfect blend of a robust rhythmic statement that commands the body to dance, combined with a triumphant spirituality that inspires the spirit to flight.   Hence I felt an otherworldly sensation as I listened to this music while my body sat still and my spirit danced. 

And the fact that the opening selection, “Olas DE Yemaya” by Tiempo Libre, is a celebration of Yemaja: the Yoruba Goddess of the water, mother of the other dieties and patron deity of women.  This is the Goddess that sustained African women through the long ordeal of slavery throughout the American diaspora.  Yemaja would eventually syncretize with catholic saints manifesting similar virtues and become an object of veneration for women of all races in Latin America.  It is this cultural Mondongo that produced the unique character of the Puerto-Rican people and their marvelous music.  And obviously the wise Latina who put this together understood all of this.  No wonder Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor, a Puerto Rican woman from the Bronx, sang their praises to the consternation of ignorant racist and Anglo- Saxon cultural chauvinists like Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama.

Employing the structured improvisation of the music and dance, the ceremony was free flowing and offered opportunities for personal participation and self expression from the audience.  As the floor was opened up for anyone to offer their thoughts on Dona Lolita we heard a variety of moving testimony that revealed aspects of her character that were unknown to the general public, and even admirers, this writer included.  One of the most interesting things I learned was that Lolita was very religious; as a speaker told us how she attended the ceremonies for the elevation of a Puerto Rican Archbishop at the Vatican.  She carried with her a parcel of soil from Puerto Rico and asked the Pope to bless it.  There were many magic moments – such as when a Hostos college Professor who had known Dona Lolita spoke with great poignancy and passion about the great lady, and the Poet “La Bruja” evoked her spirit in a moving recitation that rocked the house of the Lord.  The revolutionary vibes became so powerful that I was first moved to silent tears then compelled to testify.

The high point of this moving ceremony however was unquestionably the sermon preached by Pastor Lydia Rivera. A woman of intellect and vision, her love of country and admiration for its patriots inspired and informed her magnificent sermon.  As one who was trained as an orator by my Aunt Rosa – an English teacher who sponsored an oratorical team – and heard my Uncle George, a learned and eloquent preacher of the Gospels who was a Presiding Elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, preach on many occasions, I know a great sermon when I hear one. 

Reverend Rivera fashioned a sermon, which she delivered in elegant Spanish and flawless English, which gave Lolita the imprimatur of the church.  And we were made to understand that her love and sacrifices for the liberation and human dignity of the Puerto Rican people was the amazing grace of a saint…not the actions of a criminal! As she spoke in the rolling cadences of sacred incantations designed to call forth the spirit of God so we could feel the presence of the divine, I reflected on the Afro-American novelist, essayist and folklorist Zora Neal Hurston’s observation: “A preacher must be a poet to survive in a Negro pulpit.”

And I knew that this preacher, with her fire and eloquence, who wielded words like a sword to slay the enemies of the people and a salve to heal their spirits, would not only survive but thrive in a pulpit that is the incubator for the greatest orators in the world.  In her revolutionary spirit and love of her culture and country, Reverend Rivera is a true daughter of Dona Lolita.  When I left that little community church in the South Bronx – where the common people she served and her comrades in struggle gathered to pay their last respects to Lolita – I knew that this was my tribe too, my familia.  And my soul was fortified for the fight ahead.  The struggle continues.  Que viva Puerto Rico Libre!

 The Flag Bearers

 Carrying The Symbols Of The Puerto Rican Nation


Icons Of A Patriot

Saint Lolita Gazes At Her Comrades


It Was A Joyous Occasion!

 Rev. Lydia Lebron Rivera Celebrates The Life Of Lolita


The Sanctuary Was Filled To Capacity

When The Saints Came Marching In


Telling Lolita’s Story


Let The Praise Songs Begin


A Poet Of The People Leaves The Church

Supported By Strong Women

La Bruja!

Spouting Words Of Fire!


This Speaker Burst Into Song

Singing From The Heart


A Hostos Professor Spoke Movingly Of Lolita

Bursting with Pride and Passion


And We Heard From Conscious Youth

 Keeper Of The Dream


La Bruja And El Chocolate!


 Exchanging Salutations


Standing With The Courageous Pastor

Lolita’s Daughter In Struggle


La Bruja Communes With Venezuelan Ambassador


Revolutionary Notes


Passing On The Tradition

A Conscious Father Schools His Daughter


The Celebrants Were Multiracial


 Comrades In The Struggle


The Joy Of The Occasion

Was Etched On Their Faces


An Afrocentric Woman



A Mother And Son

Attorney John Price And His Revolutionary Mom


Lions In Winter

Still in The Struggle after all these years

Down Wit it and can’t Quit It!


A Musician And Author


 This Former Singer with Machito’s Orchestra paid her respects


Conscious Photographers Turned Out

Preserving The Homage For Dona Lolita


Brother Stewart Sang Lolita’s Praises…

And Brought Grettings Of Solidarty from his falsely Imprisoned Wife Lynn


A Stalwart Soldier Stood On Point

The Struggle Continues!


A Big Surprise and a Very Special Honor

Words From My Commentary Completes The Program




Playthell Benjamin

Harlem, New York

August 10, 2010

*Pictures and Text by Playthell Benjamin

Except for pictures in which he appears.


On Moral Preachment Vs. Political Realities

Posted in My Struggle On the Left!, On Black Pundits, On Dr. Cornell West, Playthell on politics with tags , , , on August 7, 2010 by playthell

The Learned Professor West in his Element

A Response To Dr. Cornel West

Anybody who was looking for evidence that history repeats itself need only read my critiques of Dr. Cornel West since the first Bush election – when he thought it was wise to support Ralph Nader over Al Gore.  Well, we all know how that worked out. But let me declare from the outset that I consider Cornel West to be one of the most learned and humane citizens to ever call him self an American, and I agree with him 90% of the time.

As a fellow Democratic Socialist we share the same basic vision and hopes for America.  But from time to time I am forced to part company and criticize his views on a particular question.  In the past we disagreed on his assessment of the character of Dr. WEB Dubois, and the viability of Ralph Nader’s bid for theu presidency and its implications for African American political strategy.  And now I passionately disagree with his assessment of President Obama’s political strategy and policies.  It is this question that I wish to address in the present commentary.

The differences between me and the learned Dr. West derives from our ways of looking at socio/political reality.  Dr. West is a philosopher and theologian, which means he is given to grand mystical musings and philosophical speculations; whereas I rely on the evidentiary rules of the sober historian dispassionately assessing provable facts, and my strategy is determined by the cold realities of the political arena – a heartless place red of tooth and claw where grand speculators, dreamers, preachers and wishful thinkers are devoured like Christians facing the lions in the Circus Maximus of ancient Rome.  In other words Dr. West is a moral scold whose actions are motivated by what he believes is right, no matter what, and I am a political animal who is looking for the best deal I can get because politics is the art of the possible!

It’s all well and good to speak in utopian language about everybody loving each other if your work is in the church, temple. Mosque or synagogue.  There it is sufficient to speak in vague moral platitudes.  Don’t misunderstand me; I too am interested in brotherely love and Christian charity.  But in politics you have to have clearly defined earthly goals and a means of achieving your ends.

Alas in America today prayer and high minded ideals won’t deliver the bacon, this means one must  find a way to successfully put together coalitions in Congress to get the votes you need for your agenda enacted into law. This is about hard nosed bargaining i.e. horse trading….And compromise!  Such is the reality of politics in a participatory democracy.  In our system of government we debate the issues, each side takes their case to the voters, and whoever convinces the majority of the electorate carries the day.  That’s how it’s done.

In view of this reality, Professor West’s observation in the following passage from his recent NPR interview with I Cox makes no sense.

I know my dear brother, President Obama, has a bust of Martin King right there in the Oval Office, but the question is are is he going to be true to who that Martin Luther King, Jr., actually is?  King was concerned about what?  The poor. He was concerned about working people. He was concerned about quality jobs. He was concerned about quality housing. He was concerned about precious babies in Vietnam, the way we ought to be concerned about precious babies in Afghanistan and precious babies in Tel Aviv and precious babies in Gaza. 

“Martin King was fundamentally committed to the least of these. Of course, he was a Christian soldier for justice from the 25th chapter of Matthew. And so more and more black folk tend to be well-adjusted to Obama’s presidency, but does that mean they’re well-adjusted to injustice?  Because we don’t hear our president talking about the new Jim Crow, the prison-industrial complex.”

I am, to say the least, disappointed at this niggling level of analysis from one of our leading critical thinkers and activist public intellectuals.  In whose intrests was the President laboring when he expended loads of political capitol to push a national health care plan through Congress?  Something popular Presidents of both parties have attempted to do and failed since Teddy Roosevelt proposed it over a century ago!  And in whose interests was he laboring when he rammed equal pay for women into law?

Professor West, Pray tell us whose interest he served when he forced BP to establish an open ended fund to clean up the Gulf of Mexico and compesate the victims of the rig blowout, which began with a mandatory deposit of twenty billion dollars?  And this at a time when Republicans were apologizing to the oil execs and criticisizing President Obama’s magnificent deal!

It is the clear task of the intellectual left to educate the public as to the real difference between what President Obama is doing and what the Republicans advocate.  And for African American intellectuals it is an ancestral imperative!Instead we see leading intelectuals on the left, Professor West chief among them, whining about the fact that he cannot instantly address their favorite complaints, no matter that he is dealing with matters that are more important to stability and home and abroad.

Do we really want our President to be bogged down in discussions about “the prison industrial complex?” Just what country does Professor West think he’s in? The last thing on most of the electorate’s mind – black, white or Hispanic – is the plight of convicts. With black and Hispanic communities plagued by murderous criminals and dope fiends, many people believe there should be more prisons!  This writer included!!!

But then, I live in Harlem, while Professor West resides in the pristine lilly white well protected precints of Princetown.  And most white Americans certainly don’t want to hear about how hard convicts are having it when they are struggling to keep a roof over their heads, food on the table, and personally know good law abiding people – friends and family – who have lost the ability to do both.

I voted for Barack Obama, and campaigned for him with my voice, pen and personal efforts.  And he’s doing just what I want him to do.  But then, I voted for a President, not a preacher or protest leader.  The difference between what I expect and what Dr. West longs for is clear from his comment in the Playboy interview, where he wished the President was “more Martin Luther King like.”  This statement, like most of his critiques of the President, reveals that the good Professor is clueless in regard to the type of leadership the present moment requires form the Chief Executive of these United States.

This is not about rethorical moralizing; it’s about the exercise and retention of power  – which is the ability to do what you want when you want to doit, to get others to do what you want when you want to do it, and to get the most, and the best, of what ever there is to get!  Hence we need sober pragmatist who know how to keep their eyes on the prize; who see the world as it is and not how we wish it to be.  Cornel West’s evocation of Dr. King demonstrates that in spite of his prodigious learning he does not understand this fundamental point.

Dr. King was a charismatic revivalist in a mass transformative movement whose objective was to change the moral tenor of American civilization – to persuade racist whites to recognize the error of their ways in race relations and repent.  Hence his training as a theologian and philosopher was, when coupled with his verbal virtuosity as an Afro-American preacher, ideal tools for his task.  But Barack Obama is the President of the USA, a demanding job unlike any other on earth,  for which a different skills set is required.

To begin with, Dr. king did not have to seek the votes of a diverse constituency who are largely non-black in order to keep his position as head of SCLC and “leader” of the Civil Rights Movement.  But Barack Obama does.  Dr. Kings’ objective was to engage in “creative” disruptions of society in order to dramatize his point.  Which is the proper role of outside agitators, but as President Barack is the ultimate insider. So his interest is in maintaining the orderly working of society with as few disruptions as possible.

This explains why revolutionaries so often became staunch law and order advocates once they seize power.  It is in the nature of things.  One’s perspective changes with one’s position in society.  Revolutionaries are totally concerned with disrupting the existing order and seizing power; therefore the tactics they choose are suited to achieving that goal.  But once they succeed in taking power then they have the problem of governing, creating a society more fulfilling to its citizen’s aspirations that the government they overthrew. And that requires a radically different program; in their new role the old tactics are no longer useful.

Barack Obama is tasked with rebuilding the nation from the rubble of eight years of disastrous Republican mismanagement of the nation’s affairs.  It is, to say the least, a Herculean task even if all things remained equal and he received no opposition from the Grand Obstructionist Party. But our President has not been so lucky.  His task is more difficult than that of the Hebrew slaves who were ordered to build bricks with no straw, or that of Booker T. Washington in Tuskegee Alabama a mere generation after slavery  who was tasked with “building buildings in America with no money.”

Since, as Harold Cruse correctly argued, “Americans are anti-historical,’ let me remind the good Professor that when Barack Obama took office the nation’s economy was virtually crumbling around him, and he was presented with two foreign wars both bogged down in a quagmire.  And he has been burdened by a do-nothing obstructionist Republican minority, and a right-wing mass media apparatus dedicated to scandalizing his name, casting doubt on the legitimacy of his Presidency, and apparently trying to get him assassinated.

If I believed all the vicious lies they tell about him 24/7 on WABC AM and Fox television, I’d want to knock him off myself.  Then the critics on the left have been only marginally better.  Both extremes exhibit what the distinguished American historian Richard J. Hofatader calls “the paranoid style in American politics.”  After reading Dr. West’s comments the great novelist and peerless essayist Ishmael Reed has concluded in his ever insightful and candid fashion: “progressives” and their front men are out to destroy Obama just as they did Humphrey, Carter, etc. they’re staying home and pouting will lead to Republican victory and a corporate plant plain victory in 2012. Then you can forget about Social Security, Medicaid, welfare, etc.” because of progressives’ ego.”

And from where I sit this prescient brother has got a point.  Everything that President Obama has done since he took office has been to try and fulfill the promises he made to bring about substantive change that we can believe in.  And this has sparked a vilification campaign like none that I have witnessed in my lifetime.  The Republican opposition has made no bones about the fact that they have one objective: To bring Obama down.  I believe, as the courageous comic Wanda Sykes said at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner last year, what some of these crackers are doing verges on treason!

And now we hear Professor West, a moral clarion of the democratic socialist left, railing about the President being more concerned about saving Wall Street than unemployed workers.  Since I have written a piece on the subject I won’t belabor it here– for an intelligent discussion of this question see:  ‘Can President Obama solve the Unemployment Crisis?” at  The plain fact is that the only way a President can directly influence the unemployment situation is to make the federal government the employer of last resort.

Yet in the present political climate that’s impossible because there are not enough votes in Congress to pass another economic stimulus bill – despite the fact that the country clearly needs one.  In fact, the Republicans are running against the last stimulus package, although it prevented an imminent castastrophe that would have resulted in the firing of thousands of critical public sector workers all across the country and deepened the recession.  Hence to blame President Obama for high unemployment is ridiculous, and to criticize him for bailing out the banks at the same time, when failure to do so would have brought on a world wide economic collapse, is well….just plain silly!

But what is even more disturbing in Professor West’s case, his criticism seems to be sparked by the fact that he feels ignored, or snubbed, by President Obama.  Recalling an incident where he was in attendance when the President spoke, Dr. West tells Tony Cox:

“He made a beeline to me, though, brother, and he was deeply upset. He talked to me like I was a Cub Scout, and he was a pack master, you know what I mean? I said, well, my mother and father raised me right. I respect my dear brother, but I don’t like to be demeaned and humiliated in that way, and I didn’t get a chance to respond to him. And I hope maybe at some time we can. But it was very, it was a very ugly kind of moment, it seems to me, and that disturbs me because then it raises the question for me: Does he have a double standard for black critics as opposed to white critics?  Frank Rich, Paul Krugman, Maureen Dowd, a whole host of brilliant, courageous critics say all kinds of things, and he treats them with respect. They get invited to the White House. I say the same thing, he talks to me like I’m a Cub Scout.” 

That Dr. West felt the need to tell this tale is bad enough, but that he did so without irony or shame on public radio is shocking!  It seems to never have occured to the self-important Professor that the three pundits he mentioned are among the best and the brighest of the punditocricy, and since they all appear on the editorial page of the New York Times, all the most powerful people in the world reads them!

On the other hand, despite his brillance – or perhaps because of it – his audience is far more limited.  And besides, precisely because he is a brilliant and broadly learned African American intellectual Barack had every right to expect him to understand what the real deal is.  And to be pissed off that he didn’t!  I know I feel like pulling a Stanley Crouch and bitch slapping him myself when I read what he says sometimes.

Yet when all’s said and done, the most disturbing development is that  on some critical questions the left’s position is becoming indistinguishable from the reactionary right. The anti-bailout hokum is a graphic case in point.  Instead of closing ranks behind our visionary and courageous President and defending him from the Tea Party Brown Shirts, employing their formidable intellectual skills to counter the relentless ideological war being waged against him on the right, the left, who appear to be content in the role of a permanent national debating society with no chance of taking power, is finding common cause with the enemy!

Yet in the face of all these seemingly insurmountable obstacles Barack Obama’s performance has been nothing short of outstanding!  I’d give him an A+ faster than the Lone Ranger could draw his gun.  While Professor West may seek salvation in some heavenly realm, I shall abide by Kwame Nkrumah’s axiom: “Seek ye first the political kingdom, and all else will be added there unto.”


Reflections On The Passing Of Lolita Lebron

Posted in On Foreign Affairs, Playthell on politics with tags , , on August 4, 2010 by playthell

 Lolita in the Clutches of D.C. Cops


 “If the men don’t fight for the liberty of P.R., we,

the women will.  Tell your men!”

 I first heard of Deloris “Lolita” Lebron Sotomayor from Queen Mother Moore, one of the great African American freedom fighters of the twentieth century.  Queen Mother and Lolita lived lives that made them sisters in struggle and kindred spirits.  An activist since the days of the Universal Negro Improvement Association – a mass Black Nationalist organization of the early twentieth century led by Jamaican immigrant Marcus Garvey –  she later joined the communist Party,  because they were leading a militant fight against the Scottsboro decision condeming nine innocent young black men to death on a false charge of raping two white female bums hoboing on freight trains.

Audley “Queen Mother” Moore stayed on in the party after the Scottsboro struggle because the communist took the position that the former states of the Confederacy was actually a “Negro Nation;” paid for with black blood, sweat and tears within the United States.   and that nation had the right to “self-determination.”  This was the 1930’s,  at the height of white supremacy and racial violence aggraviated by the economic chaos of the Great Depression.  Hence Queen Mother was a natural ally and admirer of the fearless Puerto Rican revolutionary nationalist Lolita Lebron, who was fighting the same enemy.

Audley Moore: Queen Mother of the Afro-American Struggle 

Like Lolita: a revolutionary activist into her Eighties!

That sense of comradeship with the Puerto-Rican nationalists was enhanced when Queen Mother married Jose Cuevas, an activist in the Puerto Rican Independista movement who was forced to leave his beloved Island and seek refuge in the US.  She was with Jose when I first met her.  It was they who schooled me on the Puerto Rican revolutionaries. This was in 1962; only twelve years after revolutionary Puerto Rican nationalist had tried to deliver a letter from Dr. Albizu compos – the President of the Puerto Rican Independence Party – to President Truman at Blair House in Washington, and got into a shootout with the guards; killing one of them.  And it was a mere eight years after the Nationalists shot up the US Congress, wounding five Congressmen!

To those of my generation who had grown disillusioned with the non-violent Gandhian tactics of the US Civil Rights Movement in the face of unremitting white violence, the Puerto Rican nationalists were heroes – as were the victorious Cuban revolutionaries. The two most compelling figures among the Puerto Rican nationalists were Dr. Pedro Albizu Compos and Lolita Lebron. After serving as an officer in a segregated black unit of the United States Army, Albizu acquired an engineering degree from the University of Vermont and a law degree from Harvard.  Spurning offers to Clerk for a Supreme Court Justice, and opportunities to practice law in the US, Albizu Compos returned home to defend the poor in courts of law.

Lt. Albizu compos

 He was Lolita’s Comrade and Mentor

In 1930 Dr. Compos became the President of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party, and he soon emerged  as the most powerful leader in the revolutionary movement; combining oratorical virtuosity with a brilliant mind to inspire the people to action.  And they would honor him with the title: “El Maestro,” “The Teacher.”  By creating the first Women’s Nationalist Committee in the city of Vieques, he paved the way for Lolita Lebron Sotomayor; who would become one of his most trusted field commanders and led the daring 1954 attack on the House of Representatives.

Lolita was as beautiful as Jennifer Lopez and absolutely fearless. In the press conference held after they were taken into police custody for shooting up the Congress, she said the whole action was her idea; an ideal she shared with her comrades. And she had no regrets because their pleas for liberty and justice for Puerto Rico had too long gone unheeded. Like Martin Luther King and Fidel Castro, Lolita concluded that justice too long postponed is justice denied!   Studying the news coverage from the American media after Lolita and her comrades were captured on gets no sense of this; the dominant theme that emerges when the motives of the Nationalist are discussed is that they were insane in the brain.  They are repeatedly describes as crazed fanatics.

As one who has studied race relations for half a century now, and the European-American attitude toward peoples of color, it is not surprising that even professional journalists, the people whose job it is to interpret reality for the masses, perceived this as a wholly unjustified act carried out by unthinking deranged fanatics.  Surely these white – and they were all white – commentators did not know about the myriad crimes committed against the Puerto Rican people by the US government in their name, and with their tax dollars.

For instance, did they know how the US government invaded Puerto Rico and  brutally annexed them as an American protectorate without their consent; suppressing the Puerto Rican flag and attempting to negate their national identity?  Did they know how the Puerto Rican people were fleeced of their wealth by American economic policies that drove indigenous businessmen out of business?  Did they know about the armed suppression of the will of the Puerto Rican People, and the horrendous massacre at Ponce in 1937?

The Ponce Massacre

 The soldier continues to fire in spite of dead bodies at his feet

Whether they knew these things or not I cannot say, but there are two critical points we need to understand today.  The first is that it really doesn’t matter if they knew or not,  because the interests they served would not have cared.  Thus willful ignorance on their part was an act of self preservation.  Secondly, it is important that we understand these issues now because only then can we properly asses the morality of theirrevolutionary  acts.  There is raw film footage of the actual Ponce massacre on You Tube.  It is presented without comment because the inhumanity and moral depravity of the slaughter is self-evident.

However there is much learned commentary on this event on other atrocities on You Tube videos, especially the discussion on Pacifica Radio’s “Democracy Now,” hosted by Amy Goodman and the brilliant Nuyorican journalist/Author Jaun Gonzales, who has written an authoritative book on US /Puerto Rican relations.  Among other things we learn that the Ponce massacre occurred during a celebration of the abolition of slavery in Puerto Rico, which took place on that date.  The celebration had also turned into a demonstration against the jailing of Albizu Compos, who had just begun a ten year sentence for “sedition.”

Thus the massacre was intended to teach the Puerto Ricans a lesson about the danger and futility of challenging white American power. The American exceptionalists would prefer to forget this history as it fucks up their master narrative.  That’s why they are so pissed at President Obama because he did not attempt to defend and justify the historic crimes of American imperialist policies in Latin America  Which are, in any event, indefensible.   Some well meaning but misguided folks – Puerto Ricans among them  – would prefer to forget this blood stained  past and just “let bygones be bygones.”  I beg to differ!

I agree with the outstanding Afro-American historian, Dr. Benjamin Quarles, that in order to fully understand contemporary events “one needs the added dimension of historical perspective.”  Viewed from the perspective of the victims of a brutal American occupation, the Nationalists revolutionary acts take on a radically different meaning than when viewed from the perspective of the colonizer, the exploiter.  This is why in spite of all the outrage among North Americans, Albizu Compos and Lolita Lebron are heroes to the masses of Puerto Ricans, just as George Washington, Patrick Henry, Tom Jefferson and the other colonial rebels – whom George III would surely have hung if he could have caught them – are heroes to US citizens.  And the revolutionary American patriots would have been roundly applauded if they had knocked off the British King!  One man’s subversive is another man’s patriot.  And that’s the long and the short of the matter!

When I look at Deloris Lolita Lebron Sotomayor, standing tall in shackles, unintimidated by her armed white male captors towering over her, staring defiantly into the cameras and saying yes I did it and I regret nothing!  I see not an unthinking fanatic, but a brave and nobel soldier and patriot that was motivated by the same pride and passions as those that fired George Washington and Nathan Hale; who said “I regret that I have but one life to give for my country.

She was moved by the same fierce love of country as John Paul Jones, who shouted  as his ship was sinking under British fire: “I have not yet begun to fight!”  And she hadn’t.  Even after doing 25 years in America’s hellish prisons, upon receiving a pardon from President Jimmy Carter she went back to Puerto Rico to a hero’s welcome and rejoined the struggle. She can be seen leading demonstrations against the US Navy conducting maneuvers in Vieques, and plunging into other struggles on behalf of the Puerto Rican people well into her eighties.  After a life time of struggle her body might have been tired but her soul was at rest.

 The Lioness in Autumn


Queen mother of the Puerto Rican  Struggle still  active in her Eighties!

The most interesting and telling portrait of Lolita that I have read is to be found in the autobiography of Conrad Lynn, her African American lawyer titled “There is A Fountain.” A brilliant radical lawyer who had reversed the death sentence against the Scottsboro boys in Alabama, Lynn was no stranger to difficult cases involving race and class issues.  And he speaks of both Albizu Compos and  Lolita with reverence.

He paints Lolita as a kind of revolutionary saint, who once told him that men were always after her body, wanted to praise her beauty, but that none of that mattered to her at all – she only had eyes for the liberation struggle.  Lolita remained a committed revolutionary until she danced La Bomba last Sunday and joined the ancestors after 90 years in this world…a consequential life indeed.  In the pantheon of great freedom fighters, Martyrs  and revolutionary nationalists of the twentieth century she belongs sight up there with Dr. Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Ho Chi Mihn, Patrice Lumumba, Fidel Castro, Enersto Che Guevarra, et al.   Viva Lolita!  Que viva Puerto Rico Libre!!



 Playthell Benjamin
Aughust 3, 2010
Harlem New York