On Being Black in London

An Afro-American View

Sugar Ray, Me and my Partners in Superstar Wars Unlimited

 

How The Boxing Business Introduced me to London

If the situation were not so tragic it would be somewhat amusing listening to the media wags attempt to explain the uprising in England that brought enraged mobs into the streets night after night smashing windows, looting stores and battling with the British Bobbies after the slaying of an unarmed black man and father of four by white police.  Witnessing events unfold on television reminds me of scenes from documentary movies about the bombing of London by the Nazis during World War II. The flames from burning buildings, torched by enraged demonstrators, leapt high into the sky and give the impression that all of London was burning.

Yet the British Prime Minister David Cameron, ignoring the horrendous racism, class inequality and increasing poverty which has been exacerbated by his budget slashing “austerity program,” blames the rebellions on “bad parenting” and a “sick” element in British society.  This is dangerous self-serving nonsense!  Based on my experiences on a visit to England 30 years ago, and my long association with the London Press, I could have predicted this social upheaval would come.  The only thing that surprised me is that it took so long.

My views on race and class in Britain were formed first as a businessman trying to raise ten million dollars to promote a boxing match between Sugar Ray Leonard – the Undisputed Welter-Weight Champion of the World – and Marvelous Marvin Hagler, the Undisputed Middle- Weight Champion of the World.  And it was later refined through my interaction with editors and reporters at the great British Newspapers in which I published my work for several years – the Guardian, Sunday Times of London and The Independent.

The boxing match would feature Sugar Ray challenging Marvelous Marvin for the Middle-Weight Crown.  It was the fight everybody in the world with the slightest interests in the “Sweet Science,” as the great essayist E.J. Liebling called the sport of boxing at its best, was dying to see.

Hence with what I had learned about the art of the boxing deal from my tutelage under the legendary promoter Butch Lewis, especially when the match is of epic proportions, the kind of classic matchup that becomes a permanent part of the hype of boxing lore, I thought selling this fight to the right investors would be as easy as throwing a grape through a Hula Hoop!  When my main man and friend for life Robert Ellis, aka “Bad Black Bob,” set up a meeting with a group of rich Europeans who called themselves “The Euro-Investment Group” for me to pitch the fight, I hopped a plane and split for Jolly Old England.

I arrived at Heathrow airport in London early in the morning, about seven o-clock, which put me right at the beginning of rush hour traffic.  By the time I claimed my bags and got through customs, rush hour was at its peak.  So I was advised to take the underground train to Hyde Park, which put me right at my hotel.  Thus my first impression of London was travelling with the populace on their way to work.

The class differences were readily apparent to me in a way that would not be at all obvious on a New York subway.  This is mainly due to the great material abundance in America that makes it hard to tell who’s who at first glance.  But in London gainfully employed people were wearing threadbare bargain basement clothes that any New Yorker with a job wouldn’t be caught dead in!  This was 1981, and things were tight for the working class in the UK.   I would soon discover that late 20th century London was as much a tale of two cites as was 18th century Paris, in terms of the distribution of wealth, power and privilege.

When I emerged from the underground at Hyde Park, my hotel was just across the circle.  It was my introductory lesson on the realities of the British class system. I was stunned by the opulence when I took my first good look at the Dorchester, which, depending upon who you asked is the most fabulous hotel in London.  Rolls Royce’s and Bentley’s were everywhere, with a smattering of sleek shiny Jaguars.  This was the stomping ground of the elite and the ambience of the place was such that, given the conventions of class in England, fairly screamed: There’s no room in this Inn for the common rabble!

The Lobby of the Dorchester Hotel

This is how the London Swells do it!

At the time I was in a unique position the evaluate the Dorchester, because I had just finished a stint as the Director of Publicity for Butch Lewis Productions during the great Michael Spink’s first defense of his World Light-Heavy Weight Championship title, and I had encamped in several top flight American hotels. I had been hanging out at the Waldorf Astoria, just a couple of days before.

There was a feeling of permanence about the elegant opulence of the Dorchester that seemed deeply rooted in the marrow of tradition, like it had been ever thus and would always be.  I quickly learned about the much celebrated British art of service, which was performed on such an elevated level it quickly became clear that it was rooted in the class ideology of British society…”each man to his station in life.”  Most Americans who work in service view it as a temporary affliction that one wishes to escape as soon as possible by hook or crook.

But in England, which has a long legacy of servant classes, working in service is viewed as a profession. Thus they take pride in their work!  The psychology of this relationship was brilliantly examined in the long running BBC dramatic series: Upstairs / Downstairs.” I also discovered the ideology of class is so powerful it trumps race at the Dorchester.  Servants are to cheerfully attend to the paying guest whether they are ambassadors of great nations, captains of industry, media moguls, or a nattily attired colored man from Harlem.

The object was to make the guest feel like one of the masters of the earth.  And so far as I could tell they are very good at it.  When I arrived at my suite there was a first rate British secretary waiting to turn the draft of my business proposal – which I had written on the flight over – into a typed and properly formatted document.  The reason the document was still in my hand writing is because the whole thing had happened so fast…. and there were no laptops back in the day.

One evening right after I had wet my feet in the big time boxing game with Butch Lewis Productions, it occurred to me that neither Leonard nor Hagler were under exclusive contract with promoters.  Due to the fact that both were advised by first rate corporate lawyers, they were free agents, who wisely stayed away from the exclusive promotional arrangements.  Thus I recognized that any organization with the money and promotional know how could bid on their services.   I immediately called my man Bob, who was on a business trip in London, to see if he was interested.

After I described the kind of money that could be made off the fight if properly promoted, he was sold and told me that he would be meeting the next day with a group of European money men who could easily guarantee the purse.  He asked if I could put the proposal together in writing and present it to them in London the next day, because after that they would be scattering to the four corners of the globe.  I assured him that I could get it together, and before I knew it I was sitting in a fabulous suite in the Dorchester going over my proposal with the secretary the next morning.  Curious about how the working class felt about the aristocracy, I began to pepper her with questions.  She loved the Queen, felt no particular resentment toward the titled class, and after witnessing me tip a room service waiter admonished me for being “much too generous with my tip!”

Titled “Scenario for a Super Fight” the proposal laid out every aspect of the promotion from beginning to end, and upon completion of the document the secretary told me that she typed business documents every day but mine was the best written business proposal she had ever worked on and predicted: “You are going to be very successful sir.”  She carried herself with what seemed like a studied deference, as if she was ever conscious of her subordinate status.

There was no shame in her game; it was almost artful.  Buoyed by her prediction, I strode into the meeting with an extra measure of confidence.  By this stage of my life I had lost count of the public presentations I had made, after all I was a former professor and had spent years before that making public speeches in a wide variety of forums all over America and beyond.

Thus I was quite confident of my ability to win over any captive audience if I was well prepared on my subject.  But this was different, now I was trying to convince sophisticated hardnosed European businessmen to put up a ten million dollar Letter of Credit on a prize fight – promoted by a colored fellow from New York who was a former Professor that had never been the principal promoter of an event of this magnitude – Or any public event for that matter.

So the secretary’s vote of confidence was a welcome boost.  The meeting was held in Bob’s suite, which was on a higher floor and large enough to have a conference room with a table that could seat a dozen people.  Rupert Murdoch kept a suite just down the hall, and he was pointed out to me in the lobby several times.  When Bob’s Australian friends, two rather stunning young women, saw Rupert they would become visibly excited…but he was just another country looking Aussie to me.

As things turned out, the secretary was prescient in her prediction; the presentation went better than I could have imagined in my most extravagant fantasies.  The business was concluded fairly quickly after I assured the chairman of the Euro-Investment Group, Mr. Henry Faulkner, that I could arrange for Sugar Ray to pose for a picture being decked by him; he said would make him a hero to his grandsons.  They drew up documents authorizing me to make the match and proceeded to set up a company to promote the fight:  “Superstar Wars Unlimited!”

Authorization Letter from Euro-Investment Group

This document authorized me to negotiated with fight managers

Authorization Letter II

This document authorized me to negotiate site rights etc 

We shook hands all around, slapped each other on the back, popped Champaign corks and rhapsodized about the adventure we were embarking upon. This was not the sort of business deal they were accustomed to, but a world championship fight has a special glamour; especially when it featured the two greatest prize fighters in the world!   It’s a curious thing, but everybody likes to be around the biggest stars of the moment.  In a way it is a sign that one has arrived, even if they are already filthy rich.

One need only check out who is sitting at ringside during World Title boxing matches, which cost a king’s ransom, to see the kind of rich and powerful people that turn out to see and be seen.  It is not just the event inside the ring that attracts such people. The whole spectacle is a show, and it’s all the way live!   All who are on the scene become part of the act.  There is nothing quite like a world title fight featuring a much hyped match.  The businessmen at the meeting acted almost as if I had done them a favor by proposing a deal in which I was asking them to put up ten million dollars of their money – although I had structured the deal on paper in such a way that it seemed a can’t miss proposition.

Marvelous Marvin Hagler

 The Undisputed Middle-Weight Champion of the World

It was during the Christmas season and London was alive with holiday revelers spending money and partying hearty.  It seemed that Arabs driving Rolls Royce’s were everywhere, greeted by sizzling stares from resentful Englishmen, who used to get their oil for free but now must pay.  After the deal was done I decided to hang out a few days and explore London, which was the home of historical landmarks that I had seen all of my life.  I had also heard since I was a boy that London was the biggest city in the world, and sang songs about London Bridge falling down.

Like every literate American I had studied England’s great poets and the world’s premiere dramatist William Shakespeare – on whom I have published a rigorously argued treatise analyzing his use of the black presence in his plays and sonnets – “Did Shakespeare Intend Othello to be Black: A Meditation on Blacks and the Bard.”  So I was excited about getting out and about in London Town.

One of the investors and I really hit it off.  He was an older man, very rich, and a Jew who had been interned in a Nazi concentration camp during the Second World War – he even showed me his ID tattoos from the camp.  This experience had cleansed him of racist feelings and he is one of the few people I’ve met for whom race meant nothing.

When I discovered that the great Afro-American Diva Shirley Verette – one of the world’s greatest Mezzo-Sopranos – was performing with the Royal Opera and Ballet singing the role of Delilah in Saint-Saens’s beautiful opera Samson and Delilah, I told my British host I wanted see the show and discovered that he was an avid fan of Grand Opera.

Although in truth, I much prefer instrumental music, and even oratorios, to Opera; but I wanted to see the gorgeous gifted Shirley Verette. He managed to score some tickets and it was a jolly good show!  Shirley, wearing an au naturel coif and Africanesque gown, was magnificent.  Again I was bursting with pride, as my friend marveled at yet another example of Afro-American excellence.

Shirley Verette: A Grand Diva

 

She was magnificent as Delilah

The investor lived in a beautiful marble townhouse in Southwest London and had a crib in Jamaica; where he had acquired a love for Reggie Music and Wisdom Weed.  His opulent pad was always filled with the thumping sound of the Reggae bass and the smell of Jamaican “Lamb’s Bread” – the highly potent bud of cultivated female plants from the mountains of Jamaica.

When he discovered that I shared his affection for the wondrous euphoric herb after a dinner party at his posh pad, he saw to it that I was well supplied.  Not wanting to subject me to the possibility of getting busted with any sizable quantity of the forbidden fruit, he would have his chauffer deliver a couple of high grade buds to my suite each morning ensconced in a plastic sandwich bag.

Having been into riding horses since I was a boy, I was well aware that I was coming to the home of the equestrian art.  When I lived in Amherst Massachusetts I owned my own horses and I still had my riding gear; which I brought with me in the hope that I would get to ride some fine English steeds.  I was in luck because there were stables right across the street in Hyde Park and my English friend hooked me up.  So I would begin my day with a good toke of wisdom weed and a canter around the park with other fashionable dressed equestrians.

Upper Class Equestrians in Hyde Park

 Willy Sluiter (1873-1949)  Horse riding in Hyde Park, London

Riding my Favorite mount

playthell-horse-2

I was having a ball hobnobbing with the London upper crust.  In fact I was the life of the party everywhere I went.  I was showered with compliments about my facility with the English language, which they said was quite impressive “for a Yank.”  And I regaled them with my response: “I belong to a secret band who are pledged to preserving the Queen’s English – the language of Chaucer, Shakespeare and the King James Bible – even in the wilderness of North America!”  This always elicited hearty chuckles and cries of  “hear!  hear!”

As my friend Bob, a black man of “the deepest dye” – as the 18th century black American scientist Benjamin Banneker described himself  in letter to Thomas Jefferson –  has a unique gift for neutralizing the race issue in his dealings with powerful white folks; the race issue never came up with the rich whites among whom we operated.  And in the rarified circles in which I was travelling I had had no interactions with blacks…until I walked in the lobby at noontime one day after my morning ride and encountered a party of elegantly dressed young black men taking tea and pastries as the waiters served them from an elegant silver service cart.

We spotted each other about the same time, and after quickly checking me out one of the brothers waved me over. “Eddie McFarland  here,” he said in an upper class Oxford accent, rising from his seat to extend his hand.  He had chocolate brown skin and was vined down in a finely tailored blue pinstripe suit, and he wore a monocle in one eye.  I was taken aback by this very proper Afro-Saxon gentleman and figured him for an Oxford educated Ambassador from some African or Caribbean Country, and I figured the other brothers standing about were members of his formal entourage, a couple looked like dead ringers for security men. He asked if I was staying in the Dorchester, where I was from, and what was my business, but with a sense of friendly curiosity not an interrogation.

The vibe was more like two brothers reaching out to each other in an alien white milieu.  I invited them up to my suite, but asked them to give me a half hour to freshen up and answer my phone messages.   As I went about my business I went in the bathroom, turned on the air, and fired up some wisdom weed.  Then I lit a cigar to disguise any lingering trace of the unique bouquet of Cannabis Sativa.  The brothers knocked at the door right on schedule; their punctuality a measure of the seriousness with which they took the appointment.

They walked in the suite and as I was taking their cloaks I saw the dude with the monocle, Eddie McFarland, began to sniff around like a blood hound.  Then he burst into a gale of laughter and said “Rhatid!  De Bwai is smoking de Lambs Bread bretheren!”  I was shocked.  In fact I was doubly shocked!  Shocked that he knew I had been smoking weed and shocked at the transformation of Eddie and his boys from upper class Afro-Saxon gentlemen to Jamaican Rude Bwais!  We looked at each other, slapped fives, and cracked up laughing!!!   It was a question of game recognizing game…

That’s how I met “Fast Eddie” and “Sweet T.”  They became my passport into the world of black London.  I discovered that one of the guys I thought was a security man was a local boxer who went by the name “Sweet T.”  Thus he was intrigued by my mission.  As a light-heavy-weight he was a devoted fan of Michael Spinks, whom I had just worked with and consider the best Light-Heavy weight of all times!

Undefeated as a Light-Heavy Weight Spinks moved up in class and defeated the great Larry Holmes, and became Heavy-Weight champion of the world.  So Sweet T. had good taste in pugilistic role models and quickly established himself as a student of the game…he talked a very good game but I never found out how good a fighter he was.  The more we rapped the better we liked each other; we became fast friends.

 Michael Spinx vs. Larry Holmes

 Spinks took the Heavy-Weight Crown in this Fight

For tax purposes the investors wanted to charter Superstar Wars Unlimited in London, and we even considered staging the fight there.  However we quickly discovered that there was no Don King’s in England…no Butch Lewis either.  The boxing game in London was controlled by a land loving pirate named Mickey Duff, and it was impossible to stage a bout at Wembly Arena, the premiere boxing venue in Britain, without cutting Duff in on the deal.

While the possibility was still under consideration I decided to seek out a spot to hold a press conference, in which Sugar Ray and Marvelous Marvin would fly over to announce the fight.   I started looking for a place to hold the event, and was turned on by a London cab driver to the hottest new night club in London, Stringfellows. 

My encounter with the cabbie gave me another important insight into the class divide in England. The cabbie spoke Cockney, that working class brogue that assaults the Queen’s English every bit as badly as any black Ebonics speaker in America.  As a speaker of Standard English, for the most part, I had to really struggle to understand what the bloke was saying. That’s why I wasn’t surprised by an incident years later that left so many Americans puzzled.

A dude who was on tour in Buckingham Palace wandered off and somehow ended up in the Queen’s bedroom, but when she tried to alert the guard on the palace intercom he didn’t understand what she was trying to tell him because he was a deep Cockney speaker!  The social distance between the aristocrats and the working slubs in England have been such that they actually speak different languages.

I understood him well enough to gather that Stringfellow’s was the flyest spot in London at the time, so that’s where I wanted to be.  Recognizing the protocol of class I decided to have the Concierge at the Dorchester make all of the arrangements for me to go over and check out the place. He informed the owner, Peter Stringfellow, an American boxing promoter was considering renting his club as the venue for a press conference to announce a forthcoming fight for the Undisputed Middle-Weight Championship of the World between Sugar Ray Leonard and Marvelous Marvin Hagler, and it worked like black magic.  I decided to show up with an entourage to create an air of excitement – remember I was a PR man in the boxing game – so I invited Fast Eddie and his boys to join me and Bad Black Bob on our visit to the club.

From the moment we pulled up it was apparent that this was a plush spot.  The Doorman/ Greeter was Alan Minter, who had been a top Middle-Weight contender.  And he headed a crew of tough looking white dudes who were probably ex-pugs like him. They were decked out in black tuxedos and had an attitude that warned: “Don’t even think about startin no shit in here!”

Fast Eddie, as it turns out, was driving a Rolls Royce and Bob had a leased a Bentley; when we rolled up to the club dressed to the height of fashion, all eyes was on us.  Bob and I were wearing elegantly tailored suits with silk ties and breast pocket handkerchiefs,  French cuff links, western Stetsons and spit shined cowboy boots.

I was wearing a white hat and Bob wore a black hat.  Since we were in London, I figured elegantly dressed black cowboys would naturally create a spectacle…but I would later discover there was more to it; there was another reason that we attracted so much attention and it would reveal itself as the evening progressed.

As soon as we entered the club Peter Stringfellow suddenly appeared at our side. I was immediately impressed as he began to show us around.   I began to swell with pride as I peeped the scene.  Afro-American music was everywhere!  In fact, I can’t think of a club in New York with as hip a musical menu.  There were three floors, and on every floor a different genre of Afro-American music was featured.

On the ground floor lounge there was a septet on the bandstand – all white musicians – who were playing “All Blues” the Miles Davis classic from the album “Kinda Blue.”  On the second floor was an elegant restaurant where the Afro-American big band tradition was featured, when I walked in Sarah Vaughn was singing with the Ekstine band I believe.  And on the top floor there was a disco, with a beautiful black female DJ.  As I walked past the dance floor everybody was grooving to “Get Down On It,” by Kool and the Gang.  I had published a  big essay on Afro-American music and its influence on the sensibility of twentieth century western culture (See: Western Culture Revised: The Century of Afro-American Music, in the “Freedomways Reader” )  But it was something to observe its influence in action.

I was really pumped up when I discussed renting the place with Peter Stringfellow, who was acting like he thought he was dealing with Don King, in spite of his efforts to appear nonchalant.  The truth be told I was sharper than Don King, after all he is from Cleveland and I was a natural New Yorker. I was not born or raised in the City but I had the city in my soul and found life insufferable anywhere else.

I am a cosmopolite by taste and training, and New York may well be the most cosmopolitan city in the world.  Those big Cuban cigars like Castro smokes are banned in New York, but easily attainable in London…and I was sporting them to the max.  Me and Bob peeped Peter’s hole card early on and played him like a fiddle.

When we asked him for a price to rent one of the floors for an evening he pulled out a pad and starting figuring.  When he said “Let’s say in the neighborhood of 18,000 pounds,” Bob appeared to quibble but I cavalierly announced “Why don’t we just make it 20 thousand.”  It was all Peter could do to keep from break dancing.

After all, he was making out like a bandit and we knew it.  By holding a press conference announcing a world championship bout between the two most popular champions in the world, we would have made Stringfellows and its owner world famous overnight!  He would never be able to pay for even a small portion of the world wide publicity.  And he was going to be paid 20 thousand pounds too.

After our meeting peter was in a jovial mood and we strolled around the place drinking on the different floors until I decided which room I wanted.  Everywhere we went in the club we were the center of attention, and when we finally settled down at a table near the dance floor in the discoteque I got a chance to see how many beautiful women were in the house.  It was the most diverse crowd I had ever seen in a club; all of the former British Empire was representin on the dance floor. But there were three ladies who stood out from the crowd like roses among cactus.

One was white; one was Arab, and one was black – at least by American standards. In England she was bi-racial and in the West Indies she would have been classified as a “brown girl” of mixed blood.  But she looked like many Afro-American women.  Among Afro-Americans she was not even “high yella.”

She was what we call pecan tan, and she was built like a brick house, the personification of  kind of women the Commodores was referring to in their smash hit “She’s a Brick House!”  Wearing a flaming form fitting  red dress and spiked heels, she had long black curly hair, a generously proportioned elegantly sculpted derriere, and full pouty lips that seemed to be fishing for a kiss.   She was easily the most stunning woman in the club!

Yet as I watched her grooving on the dance floor with her girlfriends – which was au courant in London at the time – it became all too obvious that she did not think herself the most beautiful of the group.  I could see it in her body language.  She displayed something of what the old folks in Florida used to call “a hang dog” attitude.

I was puzzled, because not only was she the best looking she was by far the best dancer.  Fast Eddie went over and asked her for a dance, and I got an exhibition of the skills of black Brits on the dance floor.  Although they had a style that was different from Afro-Americans, even when dancing to our music, they could dance their butts off!

When Eddie returned to the Table he brought the bronze beauty with him and told me, “This lady would like to meet you.”  We introduced ourselves and I invited the brown British lady and her girlfriends to join us at our table.  Bad Black Bob is what we used to call a “bigwayer” in Philly, so he told the ladies to order whatever they wanted and we had had a ball!

 Peter Stringfellow

 

He reminded me of a British Guido!

Her name was Ann Marie Brown, and as the evening proceeded I learned a lot about the racial situation in England from talking to Miss Brown.  First she told me what had intrigued her about me.  She said the thing that first caught her eye was the fact that here was a group of black men that had been admitted to the club without escorts, and she explained that that was taboo…a striking violation of club policy.

It was well known that black men who showed up without women were refused admission, but there was no similar policy for black women.  Indeed, single black women were welcomed if they met the standards of beauty the club had set.  Like Studio 54, the hot spot in New York, Stringfellows had so many people clamoring to get in they could employ a selective admissions policy. “It was quite a surprise to see you all walk in by yourselves; they never let black men in if they don’t bring women with them!….I guess they think it will keep them from flirting with the white women in here,” she said wryly.

As I listened to her talk I began to understand the reluctance I heard in Eddie’s voice when I invited him to accompany us to Stringfellows.  “Just seeing you all strolling about the place was surprising,” said Miss Brown, “but is was shocking to see the way Peter Stringfellow was kowtowing to you!”

Her revelation spoke volumes about racial attitudes in Britain, but I had seen that sort of thing before.  That’s how sophisticated racist behave at top white clubs  in New York…unless the black man in question is a star.  But while rich black star boys were fairly common in the US, they seemed rare as pink elephants in  Britain.

“I had an argument with my girlfriends about you,” she said.  “They thought you were a Brixton Gangster, but I told them that you were not from London at all.  I bet them you were American.  The way you walk, and your commanding manner with Peter…I just knew you weren’t from Brixton.  I could tell some of your friends were from Brixton, but I knew you and your friend in the black cowboy hat were Americans.”   She loved to dance, but after seeing her get down, I decided to adopt a “tough guys don’t dance” persona and get off watching her star in the freak show on the dance floor.

Over the course of the evening she asked where I was staying in London.  When I said “the Dorchester,” she was visibly impressed.  With a winsome look in her eyes she told me how she was a sprinter on her college track team and often worked out in Hyde Park, and she reflected on the many times she had walked by the Dorchester and wondered what it was like inside.

I told her she need wonder no more and invited her to a dinner party Bob was having the following evening.  When she showed up for the party I learned another lesson about race in London; she was detained by house detectives on her way up to Bob’s suite.  When they called up to inform us that she had been detained and asked if she was his guest, Bob went ballistic.

We hurried down stairs and while I apologized profusely to her, Bob went off on the Concierge and other responsible parties.  We were in an office off from the Lobby so there was no danger of creating a scene in front of other guest.  And he read “told those Brits head a mess” as my grandmother use to say.  Part of it was theater, he wanted Miss Brown to see a black man exercising  power over these previously intimidating white male authority figures that had embarrassed her.

Bob wanted her to understand that the power of wealth and status trumped race!  He wanted to show her that personal success could change her life.  Bob, like every self-made rich black American I know male or female, believes that after all is said and done the only thing you can really count on in life is money!  His philosophy was summed up in the observation “Whatever happens, it will be easier to bear rich!

That’s what the game of life is all about.  Not just the mere possession of money, but the good that can be done with it.  In this sense he was a lot like Andrew Carnegie – who believed he was an instrument of God’s grace.  That’s why a poor boy that started life with nothing was allowed to amass such great wealth: To contribute to the public good.  Bob had come up very poor and had experienced firsthand the humiliation, powerlessness and chaos of poverty, and he seemed to remember every minute of it.  These experiences left an indelible mark on Bob’s character, and it was revealed at its best in his forever taking the side of the underdog.  This was just one of many such instances.

I would learn from Miss Anna Mae Brown that her gorgeous bronze skin was the source of many racist humiliations.  It began in her childhood.  The daughter of a black Jamaican father and a British mother, her parents broke up when she was a girl and her mother left London and moved back to the English country side.

Thus Miss Brown had grown up in an almost totally white environment.  Her dusky complexion, full lips and fabulous butt that marked her unique beauty in my eyes were objects of ridicule among the flat bottomed, little lipped, beak nosed, paleface girls among whom she grew up.  Well, if Princess Diana – who was pale as a ghost and built straight up and down with nary a curve to be seen – was the standard of beauty, Miss Brown was the odd gal out!

Black Beauty In Briton

 Super Model Naomi Campbell

That’s just the kind of reception she got when she presented her portfolio to modeling agencies in an attempt to pursue a career as a model. Years later, the black British beauty  Naomi  Campbell became a Supermodel, but she was built more like white girls – straight no curves – and she got much of her Success living in the US.   Anna Brown said the only thing that saved her from developing an inferiority complex growing up in the British boonies was reading Ebony and Jet magazines, and watching  Soul Train on television.

In these Black American cultural products she found her identity. There she saw many women who looked like her and they were doing all sorts of wonderful things. And in the Jet centerfold, titled  “Beauty of the Week,” she often saw women who looked just like her. She told me how she practiced the dances on Soul Train for hours and dreamed of one day coming to America and dancing on the show. She was wild about Michael Jackson, as well as  the Great Muhammad Ali, whom all the black and Asians rooted for every time he fought.  And Ali’s women often looked like her.

When I recognized the role these Afro-American cultural heroes and publications had played in shaping her conception of herself as a black woman, I began to understand the admiration she held for us.   I advised her to finish college because a good education would best equip her to negotiate the obstacles of race, and I decided that after the fight was over I would pay for her to finish her education in the US.  But whatever happened I wanted her to learn what Frederick Douglass learned more than a century earlier: “Education is the road to freedom!”

 ***********

Fast Eddie’s story supplied a different view of the racial quagmire in which blacks in London found themselves.  He and his mother were born in England, but his father was a Jamaican immigrant.  Both parents were of Jamaican descent and their families “back home” were strong supporters of the People’s National Party.  So when Michal Manley led the PNP to power some favors were called in and Eddie got lucky.   He ended up winning a multi-million dollar contract from the Jamaican government to supply a large order of concrete.

Normally this kind of a contract is enough to get a Letter of Credit to cover the transaction from any bank.  As it would be paid upon delivery of the commodity…but Eddie couldn’t find a single bank in London that would finance this multi-million dollar deal!  He told me this was common fare for Blacks trying to do serious business in Britain.  And he felt a large part of this was that white Britons tended to view all blacks as aliens, immigrants, even if they were second generation citizens like him.

Although there were similar problems in the US due to racism, there was no question that we were genuine Americans; simply because there is no America without us.  Afro-Americans were there at the birth of the nation.  They were the first to fall in the initial battles of the Revolution, heroes in the battles of Bunker Hill and Lexington and Concord. And they fought against the British Imperialist in the thousands.

When you look at the influence of Afro-Americans on the humor, ideals, arts and cuisine of this nation the USA is impossible to imagine without us.  America would certainly be a less exciting place…and less free too.  It is Afro-Americans who loved liberty most and proclaimed most loudly and consistently its virtues.  Our experience is the real truth of what America is.

That’s why we walk around like we own these streets.  Not so with the blacks I’ve seen in European cities, who are made to feel like aliens.  While there has been no shortage of Euro-Americans who claim the US is “a white man’s country” most Afro-Americans know better.  However it has to be different for blacks living in European cities since these civilizations were fully formed when they arrived.

Not only do most Englishmen not see black people as true Brits, many of the young blacks, Arabs and Asians are deeply alienated from those societies and identify with the homelands of their parents.   Brandon Ward offers an interesting insight on this question.  A Guyanese immigrant to the US who became a Mechanical engineer and resides in grand style in Brooklyn Townhouse, Ward once travelled to England in pursuit of a lovely Afro-British lady.

Smitten by her charms, he sought to win her affections and lure her back to New York.  During his Sojourn among the Afro-Saxons of London he discovered that when talking to outsiders they described themselves as British, but among themselves that identified with the ethnic heritage of their parents.

Like bright, ambitious, enterprising, daring young men everywhere blacks in Britain found ways to get around the racist economic embargo against them.  In London working class Jamaicans, and British descendants of the Caribbean Island,  did it by controlling the trade in Wisdom Weed.  I got a firsthand view of how this lively commerce worked one evening when I was riding around London with Eddie.  Earlier in the day in the day I saw the same hostile stares directed at us that I had earlier noticed directed at the Arabs in Rolls Royce’s by white Englishmen.   He had pointed to the war memorials that dot the cityscape, and observed of our antagonists: “Those are the working class white guys who fought the last war, and now they are just holding on.  So they resent seeing a young black guy, an ‘immigrant,’ who appears to be doing so much better than them.”

Brixton During the Uprising of 2011

We stopped near a non-descript building in Brixton, and walked up to a steel door with a peephole that had a camera lens mounted in it.  On a screen inside they could see anybody who approached the entrance, but if you didn’t know the camera was there you would never see it.  Eddie looked up into the camera so that they could identify him and we were buzzed in.

We walked across a room with a concrete floor in what looked like an auto-body shop.  He pulled up the steel cellar doors and we went down into a barely lit underground corridor that seemed like a small tunnel.  Suddenly lines from Edgar Allen Poe’s classic short story of treachery and deceit The Cask of Amontillado, which my English teacher had introduced me to,  echoed in my head.

Now Montresor began to develop the perfect plan of retribution. During this time, Montresor was careful not to arouse Fortunato’s suspicions. “…[N]either by word nor deed had I given Fortunato cause to doubt my good will. I continued…to smile in his face, and he did not perceive that my smile now was at the thought of his [destruction].” Fortunato had a weakness which Montresor felt could be advantageous to implementing his plan. Fortunato prided himself upon being a connoisseur of fine wines.”

In this grim tale Fortunado, for whom Montesor holds a concealed hatred, was invited down into Montesor’s wine cellar to taste some Amontillado,  a fine wine of  rare vintage.  However once he got Fortunado down in  his cellar Montesor got him drunk, chained him up and sealed him the wall alive with bricks and mortar!

It suddenly occurred to me that I really didn’t know these dudes that well, yet on the promise of some splendid high grade Cannabis Sativa I had followed this trickster into a cavernous tunnel under the streets of London.  In retrospect the folly of it all is hilarious, but at the time I had been drinking and toking and was beginning to get a bit paranoid.  There was no chance of escaping from harm’s way because I didn’t even know where I was.  So I maintained my cool and hoped for the best.

Before long we arrived at a large space, a wide room illuminated by electric klieg lights.  It was filled with Jamaican Rasta rebel boys selling prime Jamaican bud.  It was like a tobacco auction where retailers came to purchase their supplies.  Each Rasta man, with dread locks that sometime came down to their waist, had a pile of weed displayed on a mat in front of them.

The buyers strolled by and examined their wares.  A haze of reefer smoke filled the room, and one could fly quite high just from the atmospherics.  For a voracious pot head like yours truly, it was the joint…I found myself humming the hook lines from the Ohio Players hit “Heaven Must be Like This!”

While Fast Eddie had wandered off with one of the sellers for a brief business meeting I perused the produce.  I was 39 at the time, which means that I was approaching my 20th year as an avid smoker of Wisdom Weed.  I had smoked every variety of the exotic bud over that two decade period and was so skilled at judging its quality I felt like Albert Dimes, “the Tetley Tea Taster.”  But Cannabis not tea was my claim to fame. One particularly aggressive wholesaler, noting my careful eye and sartorial elegance, mistook me for a big time buyer and began a sustained sales pitch.

I waved him away repeatedly but to no avail.  Suddenly I wheeled around and in my best Jamaican rude bawi patois shouted: “Boomba claat mon!  G’way befo yo make I vex!”  He recoiled in surprise and before he could respond Fast Eddie showed up with the high grade thriller and we split the scene.  As I was leaving the auction I heard the puzzled dread head whisper cynically: “Look pun tha play play Yankee…the bwai him a Sam-fi,” which is Jamaican slang for a con man,  “But he forgot hisself, and him Jamaican come out!” proclaimed the Rastaman.

Rolling around London town with Fast Eddie provided me an entirely different view of that fabled city; the center of a vast global empire on which the sun never set.  But Europe was so weakened after the carnage they wreaked on each other in two world wars during the first half of the Twentieth Century, they were unable to muster the forces to prevail against the rising tide of nationalism in the colonized third world.

Hence the entire European world order – based on naked white supremacy and military conquest – crumbled after the second world war and a new international order emerged with dozens of non-white nations coming into being.  The British seemed to still have been searching for its new role in the world and adjust to it.  One of the things that many white Britons clearly did not want was an expansion of the non-white population.

It was fine to tell all of those Indians, Arabs, Africans and Caribbean peoples that they were Englishmen when the Brits were robbing them of their labor and resources…It is quite another to welcome them as brothers now that they no longer ruled them and these former colonial subjects are showing up in their neighborhoods.  What’s more they are competing with them for jobs. The resentment of working class whites began manifesting itself in things like “Paki Bashing,” where groups of Englishmen would set upon south Asians and beat them down just for being born the person they were.

It was clear to me by the time I left England on New Year’s Eve that they had some serious unresolved problems of race and class and it was just a matter of time before they exploded.   It was a city of dreams deferred, and I found myself reflecting on the verse of Afro-American poet Langston Hughes’s contemplation on the predicament of Afro-Americans at Mid-twentieth century: “What happens to a dream deferred/Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? /Does it cake over like a surpy sweet and the run / Does it sag like a heavy load / Or does it explode!”

When I departed from Heathrow airport I thought I would be back to London before long, and I fully expected to develop long lasting relationships with some of the people I met.  I was on the verge of becoming a wealthy man who could travel around the world at will, and since I found London intriguing the city was at the top of my list of places to slip away to…but that was before I saw Paris!

However just a few weeks later, I witnessed the death of my dream of promoting what promised to be the most profitable fight in history.  It was slaughtered by an obscure club fighter named Bruce Finch, when he got in a one in a million shot on a careless Sugar Ray – who considered Finch dog meat and had taken the fight as a tune up and an easy pay day – and detached Sugar’s Retina.

Facing the possibility of blindness if he continued to fight, the great Sugar Ray Leonard retired from the ring.  Me, Bad Black Bob, and a couple of the investors were sitting ringside for the bout at the fabulous MGM Grand casino in Reno Nevada watching the disaster.  I hung around the boxing business for a couple of years – even participated in the promotion of a USBA Welter-Weight Championship fight featuring Gary “The Ice Man” Guiden vs. Alejo “The Heat” Rodriguez.

The fight was held in Portland Maine and my partner “Big Douggie” Pendarvis, who operated out of Boston, was the principal  promoter.  It was after that fight that I recognized what a unique opportunity I had lost with the Leonard /Hagler match.  It was clear that such an opportunity might never come again!  I had two young children to raise so I decided to move on.  And I eventually lost contact with my Black British friends.

Alas, there was no e-mail or Facebook or unlimited phone services like Magic Jack.  Sugar Ray and Marvelous eventually did fight five years later in 1987 at Caesars  Palace in Los Vegas, but I was out of the boxing business by then.  It was a magnificent fight, and Sugar Ray gave one of the greatest exhibitions of the “Sweet Science” on record.  As he convincingly took the Middle-Weight Championship from Marvelous Marvin Hagler, one of the all-time greats in the most competitive of all the weight-classes.

Sugar Ray Dethrones Marvelous Marvin circa 1987

 It Was An Epic Battle!

 *******************

A decade passed before I became involved with Brits again.  This time it was as a writer with the great English newspapers.  There was an air of serendipity about how it happened.  I had written an 8,000 word cover story in the Village Voice on Reverend Al Sharpton and his legal advisors in the Tawana Brawley affair.  Brawley, a young black woman from upstate New York had accused white police officers of raping her and smearing feces on her body, and also accused the DA of being involved and covering it up.

The accusation was so outrageous it turned New York State into a racial powder keg, especially after Rev. Al Sharpton and his lawyers Vernon Mason and Alton Maddox became Ms. Brawley’s “advisors.”   The irony was that the incident need not have become a catalyst for racial conflict, because everybody of all races sympathized with Ms. Brawley.  The Governor of New York, Mario Cuomo, said he would pursue justice as if “Tawana Brawley is my own daughter.”

Although her story was later exposed as a hoax by the Afro-American Pulitzer Prize winning investigative reporter Les Payne, at the time I and legions of others didn’t question Ms. Brawley’s account of events.  I took her word without giving the matter a second thought because it reminded me of an incident that happened in Florida before I left the South.

But I was appalled at the way Sharpton – who was young and reckless back then – was handling the matter, which I was convinced only served to needlessly promote racial antagonism around an issue that people of all people of good will could unite regardless of race, class, religion, or ethnicity.  So I wrote a scathing investigation into their methods and objectives which appeared as a feature story titled “Jive at Five: How Big Al and the Bully Boys Bogarted the Movement.”  The widely read article was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in the area of Explanatory Journalism. 

 My First Pulitzer Nomination

 The article would also come to the attention of Ian Mayes, the features Editor at the Manchester Guardian, when he was looking for writer to do a major Profile on Reverend Sharpton.  It was a year later, Reverend Sharpton was making his first trip to England at the invitation of a black British organization, and the Guardian decided to publish a major feature story on him.

 The Guardian reader’s look forward to the Thursday profile, an in-depth feature story on some great personality in the news; it is a very prestigious affair and I was assigned the story.  That was my maiden voyage in the British press and it was sensational.  Over the next few years I published many pieces in the Guardian, especially after they discovered that I could also write about music and sports too.

When Jocelyn Targett, the great Arts Editor at the Guardian, was appointed Editor of The Culture, a prestigious magazine devoted to art and culture which is a component of the Sunday Times of London, I was given carte blanche to write a piece for every issue if I chose.  And I wrote many important features – reviews and cultural criticism- for the Sunday Times.

There was a time when I had a phone number where I could call the Guardian toll free from anywhere in the world and request a copy taker.  A crack British secretary would come on the phone and take down an article which I would dictate.  We would do the grammatical corrections as we progressed and these secretaries were more efficient that the spell and grammar checks on my computer.

As editors moved around I moved with them, and I ended up writing for the Independent too. I wrote about politics, film, music and sports.  And I was treated royally by my British editors.  I brought other black folks in to share my good fortune, getting them published in the British press and hiring photographers to take the pictures that would illustrate my stories.

Yet my editors and I knew each other only through phone conversations.  But that changed a hundred days after the election of Bill Clinton, when a team of about a dozen Guardian writers visited the US to take a look at the state of American society.  Their essays would be published as a series in the Guardian, then as a book.

They informed me that when the paper did these kinds of investigations of foreign countries they always invited a distinguished writer from that country to come to England – all expenses paid – and write a series of pieces on how they view British society.  They told me I had been selected to write the response to their investigation of the US.  I was deeply flattered.

The Guardian is unique among the great newspapers of the world.  First of all, because of the way it is financed, the paper is not beholden to advertisers.  Founded in Manchester England in 1791, only four years after the drafting of the US Constitution, the Guardian newspaper is owned by a trust and is financed by a conglomeration of companies that make up the Guardian Media Group, which exists to carry out the sole objective of the Scott Trust: to secure the financial and editorial independence of the Guardian in perpetuity.”

Hence the Guardian’s editors and writers are free to write and publish stories as they see it, without fear of being censored, or censoring one self, for fear that you might offend some powerful financial interests that might affect the bottom line.  For an irreverent writer of eclectic essays, who hate to write in news speak, the Guardian was a gift from the Gods!

I loved writing for them and to be asked to come over a write my impressions of Britain was an honor.  But then I had a revelatory experience that changed both my view of the paper and the Editors who ran it.  When their party arrived the Guardian reporters decided to stay at the legendary Algonquin Hotel, because of its history as a hangout for famous American writers.

Their location was ideal for a dinner date at B. Smith’s, the posh restaurant owned by the beautiful Afro-American Model.  The Brits were blown away by the place; highly impressed by the ambience as well as the owner and the elegant black patrons. And at one point the editor said to me “You know there is nothing like this in London…a black middle class scene like you have here in New York.”

While I was trying to digest that observation he went on to tell me that there were no black writers in London of my caliber.  I noticed that I never saw any black writers in the paper, but I had never given it much thought because all of the writers who had made me aware of the progressive tradition of the Guardian were black – especially C.L.R. James and George Padmore.

These central figures in the African independence movement had published extensively in the pages of the Guardian during the years of that great struggle.  So I just assumed that Blacks in London were still writing for the paper.  In view of this history and what the Guardian stood for, this was a shocking statement and I didn’t believe it for a minute.  After all, there were too many great writers among African and West Indian writers – including Nobel Laureates Nigerian dramatist Woyle Soyinka and Caribbean poet Derek Walcott – for such an outrageous statement to be true.

A few days later I was browsing through the used book stalls of sidewalk vendors around Columbia University and stumbled upon a volume titled “The Struggle for Black Arts in Britain.”  It was an anthology of essays by black writers living in London, explicating the racial barriers they encountered trying to gain recognition for their work in England.  As I began to read the text I encountered some of the finest English prose composition I had ever read.  The words virtually danced of the page with their wonderful rhythms and graphic imagery.  I was deeply impressed, and I encountered several writers who were easily my equal.  Since I thought it was hokum from the beginning I was not shocked when I discovered that the editor was mistaken.

The implications of the incident were unmistakable: If they were invisible to these people, where were black Londoners to turn for recognition?   That’s when it became clear to me that black intellectuals in London were in pretty much the same position as black workers and aspiring business people: their progress was hampered by artificial racial barriers.  They were strangers in their own land.  And now that the government is shredding the social safety net and dismantling the welfare state their prospects have grown bleaker, and the rising aggressiveness of the white police have made a bad situation far worse.

***********

Thus it is both sad and dangerous that the simple-minded gibberish spouted by British Prime Minister David Cameron, about the causes of the rebellion, was quickly adopted and repeated ad nauseum by the American media.  A notable exception of is WBAI FM in New York City, where Esther Armah, a black Brit and able writer, hosts the morning show.  Esther has been reporting on the rebellion with a highly informed insider’s perspective. Thursday morning, for instance, we heard much excellent reporting from the scene of the troubles from a variety of sources.

They included penetrating reports from Al Jazzera on the Muslim Community, and a reporter from the only black owned radio station in England.  The persistent theme that emerged from all of these sources is that non-white youths, who are mostly the children of immigrants that were born in Britain, feel alienated from British society due to the antagonism resulting from racial discrimination and the hopelessness spawned by economic deprivation and lack of opportunity.

However from the television reports we can see that white youths also began to join the uprising, recognizing that their white skin carries little meaningful privilege in the absence of wealth and power.  The shredding of the welfare state constructed in the twentieth century in a kind of grand bargain between the English working class and the elite is destroying hope that tomorrow will be better than today.  This is especially true when we consider the fact that educational opportunities – the most reliable ladder to upward mobility in a rigidly class based society – are evaporating for large segments of the working class.  And this is happening in a country that still has an aristocracy who believe that they are ordained by divine providence to enjoy a privileged status and posh lifestyle no matter what.

Esther Armah: Sweet in the Morning

 A Playwright and  Seasoned Journalist

 The attitude of Cameron Brown, the clueless British Prime Minister, reminds me of Louis XVI of France just before the masses rose up and overthrew the aristocracy, putting them to the sword while beheading Louis and his Queen Marie Antoinette in Paris’ Place de la Concorde. When Brown refuses to acknowledge the racial and economic factors fueling the firebugs who are torching the cities of England, I think of the statement Louis wrote in his dairy that fateful August morning in 1789.

The diary is now on display in Versailles Palace, and the entry reads: “Just another uneventful day.”   This is what the King of Francewrote  shortly before the enraged mob stormed the palace and he lost his head.  This was the second of the three great bourgeois revolutions of the 18th century that greatly expanded human freedom: the American, French and Haitian revolutions.

I am not suggesting that what we are watching is a revolution; I don’t think a violent revolution is possible against a well-armed modern government like England’s, which has a monopoly on the use of organized violence and endless surveillance capabilities. Yet the rebellions in the streets of England today arose from complaints of the powerless that are similar to those which sparked the French revolution: the greed and oppressive policies of the aristocracy.

These issues are fueling resentments among the working and middle classes across race and ethnic lines…but the anger is most acute among young non-white Britons, whose hopes for a better future are melting like popsicles in a pizza oven.  The event that sparked the uprisings, the murder of Mark Duggin, was the latest of 338 police killings of black youths since 1998, and no British Bobby has ever been convicted for any of them.

Hence to view the Duggin event in isolation and attempt to argue, as does Mr. Cameron and much of the press, that the uprising amounts to nothing more than the anti-social antics of opportunistic criminal gangs who used the killing as an opportunity to pillage, is a dangerous delusion. The problem goes far deeper than that.  This is what the long time London writer/journalist and broadcaster Darcus Howe was saying in a BBC interview on the causes of the uprisings*

Mr. Howe, who describes himself as “an old West Indian Negro,” says that he has lived in London for fifty years and is not at all surprised by this social explosion. To the astonishment of the quite proper white British female reporter, Howe insists that the upheaval should not be called a “riot;” which is to mislabel the event and promote confusion rather than enlightenment.

What we are witnessing, is a genuine “insurrection” he says; the same thing we are wittnesing from Egypt to Port of Spain Trinidad.   It is an expression of collective outrage by a people whose humanity has been devalued to the point that a British Bobby, who until recently didn’t even carry guns – could shoot an innocent young black man in the face!

In Howe’s view the white police executed an unarmed man under the cloak of law enforcement.  He goes on to recount the horror stories told to him by his son and especially his grandson about being harassed by white police.  He describes his grandson as a gentle soul – “an angel” – who has never thought of breaking the law, yet when asked how man tines he had been stopped and searched by the police his grandson said “I’ve lost count.”

The reports from Al Jazeera about racist attacks and police repression of the Asian/Muslim community echo these same grievances.  While the British government and press denies that there is any chance the reasons for the rebellion are rooted in the material conditions under which the lower classes and racial minorities are forced to exist, I know better.

 Aside from the objective data that can be found in published sources, my firsthand experiences continue to inform my view of these issues.  And I think Richard (RJ) Eskow, in an August 11, column for OurFuture.org, summed up the meaning of the London upheaval succinctly “Conservatives still trapped in the sixties argue that the rioters are acting out the rage of the left. But the angry crowds are really the mirror of a right-wing, instant gratification, get-rich-quick philosophy that exalts materialism and condemns anyone who can’t afford goodies like those flat-screen TVs carried out of burning UK shops. The rioters know they’ve been thrown away by Britain’s elites and they’re responding in kind. The looters and burners are the flipside of greed, the castaways of consumerism, prosperity’s prodigal children.”
This description of social realities and popular values that gave rise to the British insurrection could easily apply to the US.  All the same ingredients are to be found in the American social milieu as I write.  It is a miracle that we seem to be getting through this long hot summer without a single riot in a major city.  But if trends continue as they are it’s just a matter of time.  Although race relations have progressed to the point that Americans put a black family in the White House and a black man in the Oval Office, while it remains impossible to imagine a black family encamped at 10 Downing Street in London, and a black man as Prime Minister, the gap in wealth between blacks and whites in America continues to widen…and dramatically so!
That’s because the distribution of wealth between the races is the result of the entire history of the USA, which begins with genocide and slavery committed by whites against Afro-Americans and Native Americans in one of the largest theft of land and labor in history. Like all of the third world, we were victims of the consequences of the second rise of Europe that permanently altered the face of the globe.  Hence non-whites, in American as elsewhere, continue to suffer from centuries of a white monopoly of wealth, power and privilege.   In this sense being black in New York has much in common with being black in London.

****************

Playthell Benjamin

Harlem, New York

August 19, 2011

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: