Archive for May, 2013

A California Thug in the People’s House!

Posted in Playthell on politics with tags , , , , on May 24, 2013 by playthell
Dayrl Issa
Thug Life: Yo you talkin to me?

 Daryll Issa is a Menace to America

Why wasn’t I surprised to discover that before he became a Congressman Daryll Issa was a car thief, a liar and a repeat offender?   Because he is still a liar, a bully and runs his committee like a gangster.  The way he conducts his committee is so outrageous that Attorney General Eric Holder, a mild mannered gentleman not given to hyperbole, called his behavior “shameful” to his face.  And he is still a thief; now he is trying to steal the last election by misusing the investigative powers of his committee to nullify the Democratic victory by tying up key components of the government in an attempt to make it impossible for President Obama to govern; to do the job the people elected him twice to do.

Instead Issa is engaging in a transparent attempt to create an atmosphere of hysteria designed to produce the preconditions for the impeachment of the President on bogus charges.  Hence I am not surprised that he has a criminal past because he has a criminal mind.  In essence he is still a liar and a thug.

When you look at the nature of his crimes they clearly denote basic issues of character that are not easily overcome.  For instance it was brought to our attention by Martin Bashir – A transplanted broadcast journalist on MSNBC who brings a nose for scandal among the high and mighty typical of the British press – that Issa has a vocal accuser who is not shy about going on the record.

Jay Bergey, who was in the same army troop with Issa, says his most enduring memory of Congressman Issa was when Issa stole his yellow Dodge Charger during December 1971.  When he heard through the grape vine that Issa was the thief he says “I confronted Issa, I got in his face and threatened to kill him, and magically my car reappeared the next day abandoned on the turnpike.”

Three months later, on March 15, 1972, after mustering out of the army Issa and his older brother was arrested in Ohio and charged with stealing a red Maserati from the showroom of a car dealership in Cleveland.  However since Issa was a veteran and had enrolled in college before the case came to trial, a sympathetic judge dismissed the case.  And he did so despite the fact that Issa, a habitual offender, was arrested on an illegal gun possession charge while the Maserati case was still pending.  On December 1, nine months after the Maserati bust, Issa was pulled over by police in Adrian Ohio who discovered a 25 caliber automatic pistol, a box of ammo and a tear gas gun with cartridges for it.

In court Issa argued that he was carrying weapons to protect his car and defend himself.  He was charged with carrying a concealed weapon, but pleaded to the lesser charge of possession of a unregistered gun, paid a small fine and was sentenced to six months’ probation.  There is a familiar scenario here, Issa got “the white boy pass;” which means that he was allowed to walk for a violation that many young black men have been sent to jail for!

This is this kind of white male privilege that contributes to the arrogance of white boys like Mitt Romney, who was allowed to get away with things that Barack Obama would have been crucified in the press for; things such as refusing to disclose tax returns or making the dealings of his Cayman Island bank accounts and dummy corporations in Bermuda public.  And if Barack had ever been a member of the Nation of Islam, the press would have allowed us to forget it…not to mention if he were still an unapologetic Minister when he ran for President.

Yet mum was the word on Mitt’s religion despite the fact that Mormon theology regarding black people is a mirror image of the Black Muslim theology on whites: Mormons preached that blacks were spawns of the devil and the NOI preaches that whites are the devil!  Looks like six on the one hand and a half dozen on the other to me.

This vast disparity was apparent to all careful observers, and the decision to give Mitt a pass on this when nobody in black American believes that they would have remained silent if the shoe was on the other foot, contributes to an almost paranoid attitude about the intention of the “white media” regarding Afro-Americans.  Which is why the press Prima Donnas who are wailing like banshees, because they were investigated by the US Attorney General, is finding little sympathy in the black community.

The major media has been even worse in their reporting of Issa’s criminal past.  The watch dog organization Media Matters has studied the coverage of this man who heads one of the most powerful committees in Congress and they report that “In 11 interviews since Election Day, no network or cable anchor has asked Issa about the allegations against him.  Their study covered the period from November 3, 2010 to   January 201l.

In print publications during the same period Media Matters examined 15 articles that dealt with Issa in major journalistic publications and only one even mentions his criminal past! Among the publications examined were: The Washington Post, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Los Angeles Times, et al.   Does anybody believe that if Congressman Cummings, a black Democrat from Baltimore who serves on Issa’s Committee, had such a criminal record everybody wouldn’t know about it?

Darryl Issa is one of the worst politicians to ever chair a Congressional Committee, and given the collection of charlatans, scoundrels, fools, thieves, slave masters and Indian killers who have sat in that chamber this is no picayune charge.  He is a shameless hypocrite and malicious thug who consistently places his party’s interests over the national interests.  The hearings Issa is presently holding on the Benghazi killings is nothing more than vulgar exploitation of a national tragedy to gain a partisan political advantage.

His fained outrage over the misuse of the investigative powers of the IRS is a transparent sham; for he was silent as a lamb when the IRS employed those very same powers in a malicious attempt to intimidate the NAACP into silence on George Bush’s invasion Iraq.  That’s why Julian Bond, the former President of the NAACP and legendary activist for justice in the US, has come out strongly in support of the IRS action.

Although a dear friend who is also abrilliant and  indefatigable tutor in matters of tax law thinks the IRS Director of Exempt Organizations  Lori Lerner, who took the Fifth at Congressman Issa’s hearing, should be jailed for her actions at the IRS; I am persuaded by the Arguments of Lawrence O’Donnel – a journalist, Harvard trained lawyer and former Congressional staffer who was tasked with interpreting IRS regulations in drafting legislation – and Eleanor Holmes Norton, a long time Washington lawyer and member of congress representing the District of Columbia.

Both of these observers feel the IRS was fulfilling the law, and that a regulation added by unelected government bureaucrats cannot trump the basic statute.  This is a matter that will be passionately debated and obviously I am not qualified to resolve this growing legal dispute, but I am one heart with them in this matter.

Hence I think Ms. Lerner treated Devious Daryll exactly the way he deserves to be treated: Like a verbose asshole who is unworthy of his exalted position and does not deserve a serious commitment of her time and effort.  In a terse statement she said:” “I have not done anything wrong; I have not broken any laws. I have not violated any IRS rules or regulations, and I have not provided false information to this or any other congressional committee.”

Let him hear what she has to say in court, since he has already decided she is guilty.  This half-baked hustler from Cali apparently does not even understand the Constitution that he is constantly citing. His response to her decision to invoke her constitutional rights under the Fifth Amendment is scandalous; a real scandal, not the fake scandal lust the Republicans are perpetually promoting.  But sham and deceit have long been favored tactics of Daryll Issa.

A Malignant Cancer in Congress preventing the ability to govern
The harm this clown is doing could injure millions of Americans

The Much Maligned IRS


 Issa met his match in Lori Lehrer

Issa was also investigated for suspicion of setting a fire in the warehouse of his own company in order to collect the insurance money.  He became a suspect when a secretary told investigators that all the blueprints and other documents necessary to resume the company’s business were mysteriously move to a vault in another location before the fire, and he greatly increase his insurance coverage.

And the fact that the inflammable substance that started the fire was poured in the one area of the building that was not covered by the sprinkler system led investigators to conclude that the fire was started by somebody who knew the design of the building.  All these factors made Issa a logical suspect in the arson but they never managed to tie the fire to him. Once again the rascal slipped away unscathed, and all the richer for it.

Issa began his involvement in politics as a lobbyist for business interest, and he was a supporter of reactionary pro-corporate Republican polices from the outset.  In a long and revealing article by Ryan Lizza in the New Yorker, we are told:

In 1994, according to one version of Issa’s official biography, he “received Inc. Magazine’s Entrepreneur of the Year Award.” He began to work with consumer-electronics trade associations, made trips to Washington to lobby for the industry, and started to get involved in politics. In an increasingly Democratic state, he soon became one of the biggest donors to Republicans. He helped fund Proposition 209, a 1996 ballot initiative that would ban affirmative action in public institutions. It passed with fifty-five per cent of the vote. He helped bring the Republican Convention to San Diego in 1996 and got to know the Party leaders. “It was an evolution of involvement,” Issa told me.”

Alas this moral chameleon and deluded egotist, who seems devoid of shame or compassion that now chairs the powerful House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which the rules of the House says “may at any time conduct investigations of any matter.”  This means that Issa has the power to subpoena anyone. The result is the fiasco we see now.   These bullshit sideshows posing as serious Congressional hearings would have embarrassed the architects of the US Constitution.  Although many of them were just as morally depraved as Issa, they at least understood the need to govern, and that governing is a serious business!

However the Issa clown show, a tragi-comic farce directed by a poot-butt pretender posing as the guardian of American democracy, will go on because the Obama administration has offended the pompous, prissy Prima Donnas of the press, who in their unbridled egotism and self-importance think their right to scoop the competition, even if it imperils the lives of American operatives trying to prevent another 9-11, should be defended at all cost.

So while they are whining about being investigated, right-wing nuts are doing their best to bring the machinery of government to a halt, makes them de-facto enablers of the cretins like Darrell Issa.  It is no wonder that when Issa  got out of the service he went into business and got rich selling alarms to foil car thieves….it takes one to know one.


Playthell G. Benjamin

Harlem, New York

May 23, 2013


At The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame!

Posted in Cultural Matters, Music Reviews with tags , , , , on May 20, 2013 by playthell

              rock-and-roll-hall-of-fame-2013-15-1024     Q!  Still On the Block Droppin Science

 Rockin into History

The Rock and roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony was a remarkable evening by any accounting.  It was an evening of moving speeches, joyful reveries and reflections on the lives and works of the goddesses and Gods of American popular music; music that won hearts and influenced musicians around the world.  The argument about what represents art, and what’s mere commercial trash, is a long and tortuous one and I harbor no conceit that I can resolve it here; although I do believe that it is possible to distinguish between the two.  The problem is that few among us possess the combination of intelligence, taste, objectivity, technical knowledge and open mindedness to pull it off.  And even fewer are capable of recognizing when one succeeds or fails at it.

Hence engaging in such speculations are risky business; therefore I shall seek refuge in Duke Ellington’s axiom: “There are only two kinds of music: good and bad.”  I always took Duke to mean that each genre of music should be evaluated by its own standards, and by that measure there is greatness in every type of music.  Since this was the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction fete, the artists who performed were the crème de la crème of the Rock/Rhythm & Blues/Rap world.  And they really rocked the house!

There were several intoxicating highs and magic moments throughout the evening, as living legends were showered with extravagant panegyrics, then told their stories and thanked their fans for the love and support even as they were thanked for the memories.  All of the inductees had provided the background sounds to which their fans choreographed the drama of their lives.  Priceless memories of halcyon days and bright moments are enshrined in their melodies and verse; a song poetry that engages life’s triumphs and tribulations, the literature of the masses.

There were so many great songs sung on this occasion, and so many stellar performances, the choice of any act for special praise is almost as much a matter of personal taste as artistic merit. That said, my favorite performances were Jennifer Hudson’s tribute to the great disco diva Donna Summers; the tribute to Bluesman Albert King by the virtuoso blues guitarists John Mayer and Gary Clark Jr.; the reunion jam by hard rocker inductees Heart; Public Enemy, who were also enshrined in the Hall, brought the noise and reminded us when Hip Hop was attempting to address serious issues.

Usher’s evocation of Michael Jackson’s performance of Rock With Me was superb, and inductee Randy Newman’s performance of his marvelous song poetry while holding down the piano chair in the band, was beyond category.   Although songwriter Carol King can’t really sing – not when compared to real singers such as Jennifer Hudson – like her fellow tunesmith Bob Dillon, the power of their songs carry the performance.  And in any case she is Carol King, a living legend in the business of music, so her appearance of itself was a highlight of the evening.

Jennifer Hudson! 
28th Annual Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame Induction Ceremony - Show
Rockin the House


28th Annual Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame Induction Ceremony - Show

They broke the Gender barrier in Hard Rock
 John Mayer and Gary Clark Jr. Stomping the Blues
28th Annual Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame Induction Ceremony - Show
Albert Kings Legacy Lives on

 Added to the great musical performances were some moving oratory; both in the nominating speeches and the responses of the Inductees.  Among the standouts from a torrent of eloquent tributes was the pioneering lady guitarist from Heart, whose induction speech recalled the limited employment possibilities for women when she began her career.  She summed it up by saying “women weren’t expected to rock,” and celebrated the vast distance women had traveled over the last half century.

A silver haired Randy Newman’s speech was riddled with self-deprecating humor while tossing a few barbs at the arbiters of popular music that decide who is worthy of induction in the Hall of Fame by suggesting that he had begun to believe that he would have to die to get in.   Cheech and Chong were outrageously funny in their induction speech for the legendary Producer Lou Adler, pointing out that he produced the greatest rock and roll stoner movie of all time, “Up In Smoke,” and promoted the path breaking June 1967 Monterey Music Festival that presented white acts like Janice Joplin and the Grateful Dead, to black acts such as Rhythm and Blues star Otis Redding, and Jimi Hendrix, the father of electric rock guitar.

A stunningly beautiful Kelly Rowland, groomed and decorated to the height of fashion, offered impassioned praise songs in behalf of Donna Summers’ induction that was one of the evening’s brightest moments.  Spike Lee and the legendary artist/activist Harry Belafonte both gave moving speeches on behalf of “Public Enemy,” the first Rappers to be enshrined in the Hall.  Spikes’ remarks were thoughtful and told us how he selected Chuck D. to write the signature tune for his innovative movie “Do The Right Thing.”  Chuck D. responded with a thoughtful and moving speech, in which he addressed all those who disparage Hip Hop as art even as he expressed deep gratitude to those who chose them for induction.  Clearly he saw it as a vindication for Rap music as a genre.

Public Enemy Brings tha Noise

28th Annual Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame Induction Ceremony - Show

But Are They Real  Revolutionaries?

Despite the usual eloquence and intelligence of Harry Belafonte’s remarks, he quickly transgressed the boundaries of legit compliment and lapsed into hyperbole as he declared the group “revolutionaries.”  I don’t know how much Harry really knows about the group, but I was writing about the Rap scene at the Village Voice when they burst upon the scene in the 90’s and addressed that claim at the time.

Some people had begun to argue that Rappers were the new spokesmen for black people, the 90’s counterparts of 1960’s leaders such as student protests leaders Stokley Carmichael and H. Rap Brown. And they pointed to Chuck D. and his rapid exhortatory style as evidence or their claim.  Some even compared them to Dr. King and Minister Malcolm X.  I thought such talk was dangerous folly at the time and I am even more convinced today.

To begin with the sixties leaders were involved in actual struggle, organizing people to empower themselves against vicious foes who demonstrated on numerous occasions that murder was an acceptable method of suppressing their efforts to induce change through peaceful struggle.  And the SNNC organizers worked for subsistence wages in the most violent areas of the south.  And leaders like Malcolm and King spent many years studying – in theory and practice – preparing for their leadership roles in a movement that changed the most powerful nation in the world – and they were both murdered on the job.

To refer to Public Enemy as “revolutionaries” is to cheapen their sacrifice.  Harry should have known better, as a performing artist himself he should know that most writers of protest songs are working from inspiration and intuition, rather than an in-depth understanding of the problems they sing about.  And they are clueless as to how to go about solving them.

The apex of the evening for me was the induction of Quincy Jones.  In an elaborate introduction by Oprah Winfrey – in which she pointed out that not only had Quincy produced the two biggest selling records in history – Michael Jackson’s Thriller and We Are The World, which featured the biggest acts in the business – Oprah reminded us that Quincy has been nominated for the Grammy 71 times and won it 27 times, the most in the history of the prestigious award.  Then Quincy walked humbly to the stage.

Since he is used to making his statements with music, Quincy’s remarks were simply and to the point.  Yet despite the absence of oratorical flourishes, no statement uttered on this evening prolific with verbal extravagance was more moving or weighted with gravitas.  He began with a tongue in cheek signification about finally being discovered after nearly 70 years in the music business.  Then he became deadly serious as he told us how he grew up in a Chicago neighborhood where Al Capone’s gang operated and constantly finding the bodies of murder victims lying about.

He assured us that he was heading for a similar fate, the grave yard or prison, although he was only eleven!  Then one night while participating in a burglary he stumbled across a piano.  He sat down and pressed the keys and it changed his life.  At that moment he decided that he wanted to learn how to play music.  It was obviously the best decision he ever made because his mastery of music rewarded him with a fairy tale life that took him all over the world and it seemed like he spoke to everybody twice.  It was a gift that never stopped giving.

The highpoint of this extraordinary testament to the magic power of music came when pointed out that his greatest lessons came from masters like Duke, Ellington, Count Basie, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and his brilliant contemporary and life-long friend Ray Charles.  Quincy Jones went on to excoriate the music critics and cultural historians for not giving these great master musicians their props, despite the fact that their contribution to 20th century music is second to none.

He looked into the camera and declared to the world that he is certain a hundred years hence historians will correctly view them as America’s version of Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, et al.  Then Quincy told the surprised audience, who had come to worship at the altar of “Rock and Roll,” that everything they do comes from gospel, blues, and Jazz which is the basis of the world’s most popular music – whatever name they choose to call it.  To which I uttered a hearty “AMEN!”

 Back In The Day


The Master at Work!

 Quincy and Michael

 quincy-jones-320  II

They Made History!



Playthell G. Benjamin

Harlem, New York

May 20, 2013

Our Oracle Shuts the Door

Posted in Book Reviews, Cultural Matters, Guest Commentators on May 16, 2013 by playthell

Achebe Elder

The peerless scribe and Master Teacher at work

 A Brief Tribute to Professor Chinua Achebe

I wouldn’t like to describe Professor Chinalumogo Achebe as an Iroko tree.  No, he was mightier than that.  In a thick forest of copious trees, one tree always stands out: the Uzi tree. It is taller than the Oroko.  The Uzi is always rare; sometimes, only one appears in an entire forest.  But there could be many Irokos in a forest.  They even stand on the streets, everywhere.  No, Achebe was not that common.  He was loftier than his fame.

The bark of an Uzi tree is medicinal. Many herbalists, experienced and upcoming, approach it with machetes to cut off a portion to cure diseases, yet the tree stands unscathed. It does not shed its leaves. It does not bleed. It only exudes its sap when the herbalists immerse the shredded bark in a keg of alcohol or water, in order to have the medicine seep out. During windy, fierce hamattan seasons, irokos could have their branches broken. This deficiency does not apply to Uzi. And whenever there is need for wood, people hack irokos down, but the Uzi is revered, with its lush, swanky green leaves attracting a large pilgrimage of avian animals. Achebe’s fiction is medicinal, undeniably sacrosanct.

It has cured the world of many diseases of the mind: racial discrimination, religious intolerance, mental slavery, subjugation of thought, entrapment of black intellects, disdain for Africa’s indigenous cultures and religions, among others. Chinua Achebe, through his extraordinary defensive literature, gave Africa a new positive interpretation. Africans became proud of Africa, although there are still islands of mental and religious slaves around the continent. His rare shrewdness detected every prejudice against Africa, no matter how nuanced, and he reacted appropriately.

As a young boy growing up in rural, southeastern Nigeria, I did not have the privilege of reading foreign books. Even as a toddler, I never read illustrated children’s books. They were not available in the village. I depended on indigenous African literature, which I didn’t buy, couldn’t buy, but I read as much as I could borrow from friends and neighbours. I realised that each time I went borrowing, I was offered a Chinua Achebe book. One of my primary school teachers once lied to me that the Bible was written in heaven and flung down to the world.

I started to wonder whether Achebe’s books were among those things that God had created in the sky and thrown down, because the books were ubiquitous in the village—and understandable. When I went to the stream to fetch water, students from secondary schools discussed Achebe’s fiction with joy. I could identify with the things written there: our village foods, our masquerades, our family system, our method of farming, our animals and many other native valuables embellished in his stories. It was as though the stories were set in my own village. It became normal, for me, that one must read Achebe so as to be considered educated.

In the village, the ability to speak a speck of correct English was applauded. We, the village children, gathered around city boys and kids who had returned home for Christmas, listening to their English, willing ourselves to speak asupili supili like them, a fact that made us almost detest our native Igbo Language. Our inability to speak English early enough caused a sort of inferiority complex in us. We spoke English with fear and conservative dignity because we thought it difficult, full of strict rules of grammar that one could not break. I later figured out, my ribs bashing with amusement, that the city people’s English was odiously ungrammatical, a local contrivance to achieve fluency: pidgin. Achebe, through his books, demystified the English Language for me. The books are simplified with supple details. Achebe made English approachable, configured it to taste like Igbo in my mouth.

I comprehended that one could speak English with a stocky Igbo mouth, found out that English is not better than Igbo; they are both equivalent in all ramifications. As an adult, I did not have the grace of meeting him, face-to-face; it was not necessary because I meet him daily through my stack of his books, my treasures. The human mouth is full of lies, but Achebe’s fiction is full of truths, undeniable facts. The immortality of his writings is unquestionable. Some men shouldn’t die!

Today our oracle has shut the door, but he still remains inside the holy shrine. In Africa, people don’t catapult themselves to unknown destinations when they die; they stay (in the spiritual world) around their families to plan and supervise the affairs of the mortals, sheltering the humans with divine protections of all sorts. Chukwu chebe muo gi!

Professor Chinua Achebe has joined the league of worthy ancestors, a dynasty of international literary forefathers and mothers whose works remain perpetual: Eudora Welty, William Shakespeare, Cyprian Ekwensi, Edith Wharton, Charles Dickens, Zora Neale Hurston, Amos Tutuola, Ernest Hemingway, Margaret Mitchell, Thomas Hardy, Flannery O’Connor, Willa Cather, and many others. Achebe will stay in the land of prestigious African ancestors to inspire new pieces of fabulous fiction in the new generation of African writers. We are all waiting for his inspiration.

Writers don’t die. Has Chinua Achebe died? No! The Uzi tree does not die like that. The Igbo say uwa bu ahia—the world is a market: you come, trade and step aside, and not necessarily die. Achebe lives in every creative mind, solidly.

Father of a Tradition

Achebe III

 He set the standard for African Novelist


Jekwu Anyaegbuna


 Originally published in the Massachusetts Review.  Reprinted with permission of MR.

Jekwu Anyaegbuna is a Nigerian writer. He won the 2012 Commonwealth Short Story Prize for Africa. He has just completed his first novel. His story “The Waiting Stool” appears in the current
issue of MR.

Vilaida Snow: Forgotten Genius!

Posted in Cultural Matters, Music Reviews with tags , , on May 14, 2013 by playthell
A virtuoso trumpeter / conductor who performed with the greatest male bands

This Lady Could Do It All!

In her memoir about the world of American show business doing the golden age of Hollywood, the famous actress Maureen O’Hara said the producers were always looking for performers who were “triple threats,” meaning they could sing, dance and act.  However she forgot to mention the fact that the performer also had to be white.  This is the only logical explanation as to why Valaida Snow was not the greatest star of the era, for she was a triple threat and more.  None of the white stars of the Hollywood musical extravaganzas could match her talent.

In his book “The World of Earl Hines,” one of a series of books by the indefatigable British Jazz historian Stanley Dance, in which Jazz musicians tell us in their own words about their life and work, there are some poignant descriptions of Valaida Snow told by the great pianist and bandleader Earl “Fatha” Hines.  One of the greatest figures of twentieth century American music, a major innovator on the piano, and a seminal figure in the development of the modern complex Afro-American instrumental art music popularly known as “Jazz,” Hines performed in every type of venue imaginable.  Thus he is as reliable an eyewitness as we are likely to find; an unimpeachable source.

“Valaida was very versatile and very musical” Hines recalls.  “She could sing, dance and produce a show.  She could play trumpet, violin and piano…She had all the physical attractions one could want in a girl, and she made a heck of an impression.  All this came out after she had begun working at the Sunset, and I thought she was the greatest girl I had ever seen.”  Hines went on to describe her performance, “In her act she had seven different pairs of shoes set out front, and she’d do a dance in each of them – soft shoes, adagio shoes, tap shoes, Dutch clogs, and I don’t know what else, but last of all Russian boots.”  Hines went on to tell us: “She’d do a chorus in each, and on on the tap number she tapped just like Bojangles.”

Now, that’s a hell of a claim, since Bill “Bojangles” Robinson was unquestionably the greatest tap dancer in the world at the time…and arguably is the most influential figure in the history of tap dancing.  All of the great masters in the complex Afro-American art of rhythm tap dancing – whose complex rhythms influenced some of the greatest drummers in the jazz tradition, as Professor Jacqui Malone ably documents in her seminal text “Steppin on the Blues” – pay homage to Bojangles as the patron saint of their art.  Including the peerless Sammy Davis Jr.  And since Earl Hines played for Bojangles’ many times – often as his sole accompaniment since “Bo” didn’t really like to use drummers because they often interfered with the complicated rhythms he was tapping out – Hines had an intimate knowledge of Robinson’s art.

Hence when he compared Valaida’s performance to Bojangles, this was no picayune matter: it was nothing less than a sensational compliment.  And he is not the only one who was astonished by her dancing skills.  “Louis Armstrong had a fit when he saw her,” Hines tells us. ‘”Boy I never saw anything that great’ he told me.  She broke up the house every time.” Hines said.  However Louie Armstrong grew up in the flourishing show business world of New Orleans and had worked in Chicago, and New York, not to mention the countless performances he had played in every section of the country; so he had seen plenty!

A Dancer’s Dancer
No ordinary Hoofer

Hines had witnessed all the major acts in American show business strut their stuff – white and black – but since most of the biggest white acts were employing Afro-American cultural forms as the basic ingredients of their act, once you saw the black acts you had seen the state of the art.  This had been true since the end of the 19th century, but even before that, ever since the rise of black faced minstrelsy performed by white Americans in burnt cork during the 1840’s and becoming the most popular form of theatrical performance throughout the balance of the 1800s, but minstrelsy was mostly parody of black culture.

By the turn of the century, with the rise of Ragtime music and the Cake Walk, Afro-American music and dance reigned supreme.  That’s why the presence of famous white performers at black performance venues was common fare and is mentioned in virtually every account of the period.  In a fascinating reflection on the 1890’s contained in his classic memoir of blacks in New York City, Black Manhattan, James Weldon Johnson describes the rich creative milieu at the Marshall Hotel – a black owned hotel and nightclub located in the “Tenderloin District” on the West side of Manhattan in the 50’s.   This area was also known as “Black Bohemia” because so many Afro-American artists resided there. Performers of all kind stayed at the Marshall, especially musicians, and they performed in the club.  Hence Johnson tells us that white performers were always in the audience “looking for Negro stuff” to incorporate in their acts.

So thorough was the wholesale pillage of Afro-America’s cultural storehouse by white performers seeking material for their blackface “coon shows,” that the great Afro-American vaudevillian team, Bert Williams and George Walker, billed their act “Too Real Coons,” when they got together in San Francisco during 1893. Although they were on the other side of the continent they encountered the same situation as that described by Johnson in New York.

A great poet, lyricist, librettist, lawyer, and diplomat who would become the first black Executive secretary of the NAACP, Johnson was no ordinary witness.  An early twentieth American Renaissance Man, Johnson, in collaboration with his composer brother J. Rosamond Johnson and Bob Cole, a gifted tunesmith and choreographer, wrote a series of musical revues that contributed to the formation of the Broadway musical, and were also among the principal creators of the American popular song with hits like “Under the Bamboo Tree” and patriotic songs such as “Rally round the Flag Boys.”  As a savvy lawyer as well as a creative artist, it is not surprising that James Weldon was also a founder of ASCAP – American Society of Composers Authors and Publishers- the principal agency that protects the royalty rights of musicians today.

And the evidence of Johnson’s charge of white cultural pilfering is everywhere.  From Paul Whiteman being acclaimed the “King of Jazz” in the 1920’s, to Bennie Goodman being promoted as The King Of Swing, in the 1940’s, to Elvis Pressley being declared the “King of Rock and Roll” in the 1950’s and 60’s, to John Travolta and the Bee Gee’s becoming the “Kings of Disco,” to Slim Shady being dubbed the Master poet of Hip Hop.

What all of these acts have in common is that they built acts based on Afro-American cultural ingredients, yet they made more money than the black creators because of institutionalized racism – which throughout the 19th century and most of the twentieth century, barred black acts from performing in many of the most lucrative venues.  This allowed white performers to get away with performing mediocre versions of Afro-American -Acts to all white audience that had never seen the real thing…and get fabulously rich and famous doing it.

This fact does much to explain why the most talented female performer of the period is a forgotten figure in the history of American performing arts.  Although she was a big star in her time in the black community, she never received her just recognition in the world of American show business at large.  And she is still denied her proper place in the American cultural pantheon, due to a general ignorance of the role of race in shaping American popular culture abetted by cultural and gender chauvinism practiced by Euro-Americans males and men in general.  Hence Valaida suffered from a double whammy: racism and sexism.

When we consider the fact that Valaida Snow was as good a singer as a dancer, plus a virtuoso on several instruments that have nothing in common – string, brass and keyboard – she was arguably not only the greatest woman performer in American show business…but the greatest performer of her time male or female.  Her versatility was astounding.

Valaida as Headliner


 Master of Several Arts

Earl Hines tells us:

“After the Sunset closed she went on the road and was in several big shows. The last time I saw here before she came back to Chicago again, she was with Nobel Sissle and Hubie Blake in a show called “Rhapsody in Black.”  They had about thirty musicians and she conducted the whole band in the first part of the show.  Then she had her own spot, and after that she did a number with the Berry Brothers.”

Musicians like Sissle and Blake, and dancers such as the Berry Brothers, were among the best in American show business.  The fact that Valaida was performing with them is further evidence of her multi-talented genius.

Sissle and Blake in 1926
They wrote and performed all kinds of Music including Broadway shows

Nobel Sissle and Hubie Blake were great song writers who penned hit songs, at a time when the music business was in transition from an industry largely based on the sale of sheet music to one based on record sales.   And many of their most popular tunes originated in Broadway musicals they wrote.  For instance the tune “I’m Just Wild about Harry” was introduced in their hit Broadway musical “Shufflin Along” in 1922, and became so popular that it was adopted as Harry Truman’s campaign song in his run for the presidency almost thirty years later.  And the Berry Brothers was one of the premier tap dance acts.  Insofar as show business was concerned, Valaida was “moving in high cotton” as the old folks used to say when I was a boy in Florida.

 Sheet Music for….


The Smash hit
 The Berry Brothers


 A Fabulous Dance Team

Although Valaida Snow was excluded from exhibiting her talents in many venues because of her beautiful tan skin by people suffering from “Whiteitis” – a bizarre malady that makes white people believe that the earth and all its bounty belongs exclusively to them, – there was a large black audience and she worked all the time entertaining them on the TOBA circuit.  Again Earl Hines informs us “When the show finished Ed Fox got in touch with her and had her come to the Grand Terrace.”

This was a premiere nightclub in Chicago, a fabulous place that catered to an Afro-American audience, but Earl “Fatha” Hines’ orchestra was the house band and therefore people of all races and ethnicities who love great music was drawn to the spot….just as they had been draw to the music and posh ambience of the  “Cabaret Du Champion,” the fabulous Chicago Nightclub owned by Jack Johnson, the first black heavy-weight champion of the world, a generation earlier.

Earl “Fatha” Hines
Virtuoso Pianist and Bandleader

The great music also attracted Al Capone and his gang, who secretly took control of the club.  Big Al loved the band and “Fata” Hines paints an intriguing portrait of his relationship with the famous Italian Gangster. “Along with so many of the bad traits people said Al Capone had, he had some good traits, too.  He used to run a restaurant twenty fours a day where poor people could get free meals, and he took over real estate where these same poor people could move in and live.  He used to come by the club at night, and if I met him at the door he might put his hand up and straighten my handkerchief, and there would be a hundred dollar bill.  Or he might give me a handshake and put a twenty dollar bill in my hand.”  From Hine’s descriptions here damned if Big Al don’t sound like Robin Hood.

A Contemporary Billboard
The Greatest Jazz Pianist In America?

This is the world that Valaida Snow entered when she took the gig at the Grand Terrace.  And she was a smash!  Fatha Hines tells us “I can’t remember who was headlining, but she came next after a great dance couple from Cuba.  She was what we call an ingénue then, in front of the chorus.  She sang The Very Thought Of You, and that kind of thing.”   Hines was also impressed by her ability to deliver a song in character.  “I always remember, too, how she used to sing Brother, Can you Spare a Dime She would come out all raggedy and wearing an old cap on her head.  During the Depression she would break people up with that song.”

Anyone who has listened carefully to Yip Harbrough’s clever, biting and cynical lyrics cannot fail to recognize its sharp critique of the callous greed of the plutocrats.  And the insightful observer can readily discern a class consciousness in the perspectives of Capone and Hines – the gangster and the artist.  It seems clear that both were poor boys struggling to survive and thrive in a country with a rich ruthless chauvinistic WASP ruling class, who held lower class Italians in slightly less contemot than Afro-Americans, the best way they could.

And like jazz fans of all backgrounds, Capone dug Hine’s band.   As it turns out, Valaida was not just a great performer at the Grand Terrace, but she quickly rose to producer of the show, which required her to bend both the gangsters and macho male musicians to her will.  And she manipulated them as skillfully as she manipulated the keys of her trumpet.

After spending the summer months on tour with Valaiada Snow, Earl Hines was captivated by her talent and beauty and marveled at her polymorphic guise once they were back at the Grand Terrace. “When we came back,” Hinds recalls, “they were having trouble with producers and directors. ‘Valaida,’ Fox  said ‘do you know anything about producing’ ‘sure’ she said. ‘I can put the show on for you.’”  I guess Ed Fox,  the owner of record, had seen enough of her versatility to suspect that she might be capable of doing anything in show business.

So Fox took a chance.  “After all,” says Hines, “she could dance and she could sing and she knew what to do.  She put that show together herself.  She saved him an awful lot of money, too, because whenever a new show went on there had to be a lot of new arrangements for it.  She was so talented she picked out numbers from the bands book that could be used, memorized them, and hummed or scatted them to the chorus.  Then when we came in the rehearsals were very short, because the girls already knew the band’s routines.  Bubbling over was one of the numbers she produced.  Beer and wine had come back after prohibition, and that was the inspiration for the song.  She always knew what she wanted and nobody could fool her.”  In reading Hine’s reminiscences about Valaida, one should remember that these extravagant accolades are coming from a great artists working at the apex of show business.

Despite living in a country whose ruling ideology was white supremacy, enduring constant insults intended to enforce the myth of white superiority, and barred from displaying her genius in the major entertainment emporiums of her native land, Valaida was nevertheless a star in her world “behind the veil” as Dr. Dubois described the segregated world of black America, and she lived like one.  “She had a Mercedes and a chauffeur,” says Hines, “and she used to send him to pick me up and take me home…She used to dress luxuriously and look very, very glamorous.  She was just a beautiful and exceptionally talented woman.”

Valaida As Featured Trumpet soloist
A Beautiful and Exceptionally Talented Woman

As an instrumentalist Valaida Snow was top shelf, a bonafide member of the Jazz virtuosi that shaped the art during the first half of the twentieth century.  Indeed her virtuosity was seemingly preordained.  Born into a family of musicians in Chattanooga Tennessee in 1903, she showed an early talent for music.  Hence aside from the three instruments she was playing when Earl Hines met her – piano, violin and trumpet – her mother taught her to play the cello, mandolin, banjo, harp, accordion, clarinet and saxophone.  She was a gifted musician indeed.

Her broad knowledge of music and not only propelled her to the top ranks of instrumental performers during a golden age of show business before television when people went out to see live performances, and before the disco replaced the dance hall bands with recorded music.  It was a period when there were more famous instrumentalists than singers.  Hence you had to be sharp on your axe or you would be cut from the band in the Darwinian world of the Jazz orchestra.

The great William “Count” Basie describes the cut throat competition among musicians for chairs in the great bands of the era in his autobiography “Good Morning Blues,” written in collaboration with Albert Murray, a brilliant writer and jazz critic who danced to those bands in his youth.  To illustrate the point Basie tells a story about being slightly late to the band stand and hearing another guy playing his butt off in his piano seat.  He didn’t have to listen long to recognize that his goose was cooked; he went right over to the club owner and asked for a job as a valet parking the cars of the guests.

Valaida Conducting the Boys


The Lady who Swings the Band

Thus in assessing Valaida Snow’s musicianship it is enough to know that during her career she played with the Fletcher Henderson, Count Basie and Earl Hines, and along with Blanche Calloway – whose pioneering career I shall examine in a future essay – was the first woman to conduct a male orchestra, to recognize her outsize talent as a musician.  She was so admired by her fellow musicians she was featured as a soloist with major white bands on occasion.

Had it not been for the racial taboos and gender discrimination of American society at the time, those bands might well have been fighting over her.  After all, aside from being beautiful and could sing and dance, she was so good as a trumpet soloist her nickname was “Little Louie” because she had a big sound like Louis Armstrong  – the father of jazz trumpet, who called her “the world’s second best trumpet player.”

Although for most of her career Valaida performed in black nightclubs and theaters like New York’s Apollo, Chicago’s Regal, the Howard in Washington and the  Earl theater in Philly; the so-called “chittlin circuit.”   She also appeared in Broadway shows, like “Chocolate Dandies,” written by Sissle and Blake, where she was also required to act.  And like many great Afro-American performing artists, her friend Josephine Baker topping the list as the toast of Paris – she was a sensation in Europe as an instrumentalist and in Musical theater.  She even hung out socially with European aristocrats.

A tragic event occurred in her life during one of her many European forays in the early forties that shattered Valaida’s career.  While concertizing with her all-female orchestra in Denmark, she was arrested by the Nazi’s on morals and drug charges and sent to Wester-Faengle, concentration camp for two years during 1940-42.  Incredibly, Valaida was the victim of the motion of history; she was caught up in the swirl of world events.

As a sexually liberated black female jazz musician who appeared to be batting from both sides of the plate, liked getting high and playing around with white girls; she was viewed as a menace by the NAZI Gestapo – those murderous thugs entrusted with enforcing the objectives of the Third Reich.  And for blond Aryan women the Nazi objective for them was to produce pure Aryan warriors to serve the Thousand Year Reich.  Thus they dispised any sign of lesbianism or race mixing.

It appears that Valaida was oblivious to the political situation she was in.  Although it is hard to imagine how that could be so naive, the great Afro-American novelist John A. Williams imagined it in marvelous detail in “Clifford’s Blues,” his gripping and insightful novel about a gay black American jazz instrumentalist and singer who gets arrested on morals charges – drugs and homosexuality – and sentenced to imprisonment in a concentration camp.  (  see my review under the “book Review” section )

Williams uses this story to explore the entire question of sex, race and culture in Nazi Germany.  It is such a finely told tale that I would recommend it to anybody who would like to experience vicariously what Valaida’s experience might have been like.  Clifford, whose story is the raison d’etre of this finely realized novel, was having such a great time in Weimar Berlin – where cocaine could be purchased from the newspaper vendors, gay nightclubs flourished, and his black complexion only enhanced the attractiveness of his talent.  Cliff was the toast of the gay scene in Berlin and everybody wanted a piece of his dark meat.

Hence when he saw those crazy guys in brown shirts running around the place harassing Jews he was just glad that for once it wasn’t black people getting the shaft and went about his business.  It wasn’t until he was nabbed by the Nazi’s that he really notice how much things had changed for a gay black musician playing inferior “jungle music” in Germany.  This tale bears such an uncanny resemblance to Valaida’s story that I am compelled to wonder if that’s where John A. Williams got the idea.

Like Clifford, I’d bet Valaida was equally clueless about the political situation in Denmark at the time – since this had been one of the most sexually and racially liberal countries in the world before the Nazi invasion.  It is the ultimate irony that in liberal Denmark Valaida should encounter, and be victimized by, a master race theory the Nazi’s imported from the US – a consequence of Adolph Hitler becoming obsessed with the racial theories proffered by American Eugenicist Madison Grant, in his racist tome “The Passing of the Great Race.” At some point she must have recognized the similarity between the Nazi attitudes toward Jews and the attitude of the white south toward her on people.  That’s why she, and millions of other Afro-Americans, fled the south.

Valaida’s experience in the Nazi concentration camp wrecked her physically and psychologically; she was never the same performer again.  Already in middle age, she was unable to fully retrieve her artistic prowess, although she continued to perform in various venues until the 1950’s, when she toured with a group called “The Honey Drippers,” who were pioneers in a new music that would soon sweep the world: Rhythm & Blues.  On May 30, 1956, while in New York City, Valaida finally danced and joined the musical Gods.

View A New and Wonderful Documentary on Vilaida
Double Click on link below
Watch Valaida in Perform in a French movie

Watch her perform on a soundie

View and interesting video on Valaida Snow
Valaida with Ellington’s Orchestra singing caravan and taking a trumpet solo
Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York

May 14, 2013

Behind the Eight Ball!

Posted in On Foreign Affairs, On War and Peace in the Mid East! with tags , , on May 6, 2013 by playthell

 Barack behind the eight ball

                     President Obama in Israel

 Barack Looks for a Way out of Syrian Quagmire

As the Israeli’s escalate their attacks on Syria, offering the most spurious justifications for military aggression, we see the lingering effects of the Bush policy regarding preemptive strikes; which means attacking a potential adversary on the belief that they may someday strike you. President Obama should call for an immediate halt to Israeli aggression; it would be the wise and just thing to do.

But he dare not; lest he be sure to attract a hail of criticism from Republicans and Democrats in Congress, and suffer a merciless skewering in the press.  This would complicate everything else he is trying to get through a recalcitrant congress.  That’s why he is attempting to justify it in a public statement of support, arguing that Israel is acting in their national security interests against the machinations of Hezbollah, an Iranian armed proxy.   President Obama has evidently decided that choosing the wise and just decision would prove politically disastrous.

The President is trapped in his own rhetoric. In a moment of bravado designed to intimidate Syrian President Bashir Assad, an attempt to persuade him not to even think of deploying chemical weapons against his adversaries in the Syrian Civil War, President Obama drew a symbolic “red line” that, if crossed, would be Assad’s undoing.  The impression given by that statement was that should the Syrian president cross the red line, Barack Obama would make him pay big time.

Now that there are claims such chemical weapons have been detected, the war hawks on the right, who are unceasing in their efforts to besmirch Barack Obama’s foreign policy record – which I regard as a demonstration of diplomatic virtuosity just like his orchestration of domestic policy – are calling for military intervention.  In their ceaseless attempts to discredit the President, the Republican opposition has come very close to being not only disloyal…but a menace to our national security.

It used to be understood that in matters of war and peace, playing partisan politics is not only obscene but dangerous.  It should be taboo for people who are entrusted with guarding the national interests to act as if they were shooting crap with the fate of the nation.   How is it possible that intelligent men such as Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham could so cavalierly speak of the US getting involved militarily by arming the rebels and even establishing a no-fly zone over Syria?  These are acts of war.

Five years ago, when Barack was running against McCain for the presidency, I wrote an essay supporting the position of General Wesley Clarke that McCain was no better qualified to be commander-In-Chief than Barack Obama; despite McCain’s experience as a military officer.  However I went even further. I argued that McCain was in fact unqualified to be Commander-In-Chief.  My argument must have appeared ridiculous to many Americans in light of the Senator’s much vaunted military record.

However I thought his deep psychological need to “prove himself” by winning another war, after the debacle in Vietnam, meant that McCain would be prone to go to war at the first opportunity. The reasons are complex and since I have elucidated them elsewhere I shall simply refer the reader to the essay “General Clarke was Right: John McCain is unqualified to be commander-In-Chief!” on this blog.

Although the charge of sarin gas use is disputed by some experts, who told the Guardian- Observer of London that the evidence was highly suspect.  After considering the testimony of eyewitnesses to the explosion they concluded that there wasn’t sufficient reason to believe that what they described was indeed a Sarin gas attack.  The evidence, such as it is, is based on the analysis of soil samples.

Yet even if traces of Sarin gas have been detected it raises more questions than it answers. Where did it originate?  Who gave the order to use it?  Was the president talking about small traces of gas that are barely detectable when he drew the red line; or a large scale gas attack clearly ordered by the government that inflicted mass casualties?  The last question is the most crucial.

Given the chicanery we have witnessed in the past by people who wanted to start a war based on bogus events, the President is displaying Solomonic wisdom in waiting for a thorough investigation by disinterested scientist before taking any action; the consequences of which are unclear since an American intervention might well make a bad situation worse.  This would compound the problem of finding a peaceful settlement in Syria.

That’s why the Israeli attacks are so dangerous.  US commitments to Israel in the matter of defense are very complex, but it is enough to know that our entanglements are such that any war Israel starts in the Mid-East will eventually involve the United States.  Already their aggressions are being applauded by the usual suspects on the right, but President Obama has also given his approval while admitting that the US helped supply the intelligence that guided the Israeli attack.

We can be sure that hysterical cries for Barack to follow the lead of Bibi with no-fly zones, arming factions identified as being friendly to Israel and the US, and even airstrikes of our own.  Yet given the confusing nature of the opposition it is hard to predict what the outcome of such actions will be.

After an Israeli Attack

Israeli bombing of weapons research center in Syria The Syrians say this is a declaration of war

 And that’s how it looks….


…..Down on the Ground

The forces clamoring for the US to become involved in the Syrian civil war base their demands on President Obama’s loose talk about ill defined “red lines” that would trigger an American intervention. Senator John McCain has already snidely remarked that President Obama’s red lines “must have been written with disappearing ink.” This guy can hardly wait to start another war; chomping at the bit like a race horse at the starting gate.

Perhaps all of the morons on the left and Black Nationalist ideologues will finally understand why the President is wise not to adopt their rhetoric.  Intellectuals like Cornel West and Boyce Watkins can say anything they please, just like  whacko Republican elected officials who say crazy things; it is just hot air, “all sound and fury signifying nothing” as Shakespeare said.

But when the President of the United States makes a statement it has real consequences. Alas, it may even result in the US being pushed into a war that neither the President nor the American people want because of Israeli actions.  The Israeli’s justify their aggressions with the argument that their actions are surgical strikes aimed at preventing the Lebanon based pro-Palestinian group Hezbollah from receiving missile shipments from Iran, who is the ultimate target of the Israeli government, because they will eventually be used against Israel.

The problem with this argument is that it is a self-fulfilling prophecy given Israeli actions.  And the President must resist all attempts by the Israelis to draw us into their war plans because we just can’t stand another war in the Mid-East in terms of blood, treasure or the long term prospects for peace.  It ought to be clear that the President of the United States needs to be level-headed and thoughtful about the consequences of military action.

The military might at a President’s disposal as Commander-In-Chief of the greatest fighting forces in the history of the world, can create feelings of omnipotence. Especially when military power is augmented by vast intelligence networks, funded with billions of dollars annually, and is capable of conducting spy operations all over the world. It could even make a US President believe that he has the power to determine the course of history through the use of covert actions and the outright projection of military power.

One need only look at the history of contrived events that have justified the US going to war based on bogus claims in order to find adequate reasons for skepticism in the present charges of chemical warfare in Syria.  Looking back to the war that many historians feel marked the beginning of America’s foray into empire building, the Spanish American War; it was the suspicious sinking of the Maine in a Cuban harbor that supplied the justification for a war with Spain that resulted in far flung Spanish colonial possessions in the Atlantic and Pacific coming under US control: Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines.

Americans were persuaded to support a war in Vietnam because of a purported attack on an American vessel in the Gulf of Tonkin off the course of North Vietnam.  We have subsequently learned that it was a bogus charge.  And the invasion of Iraq was justified by the claim that Iraqi leader Sadam Hussein was hording “weapons of mass destruction” such as weaponized germs, poison gasses, and most of all nuclear weapons.  That claim also proved to be untrue, but it will still cost us trillions of dollars, nearly 5000 thousand American lives and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives.

This sordid history is reason enough for us to view the increasingly hysterical calls for an aggressive American policy in Syria with a jaundiced eye, especially based on such spurious evidence. For instance one distinguished member of the independent commission investigating the charges, Carla Del Ponte, says she has evidence that it was the opposition who used Sarin gas.  As a former Swiss Attorney General and prosecutor with the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia, Ms. Del Ponte is eminently qualified to conduct this type of investigation.

Given this possibility, along with the Russian and Chinese denunciation of the Israeli attacks on Syria and the US justification and support for them, it’s a safe bet that the US will not get UN backing for sanctions against the Syrian government.  Although John Kerry is planning a mission to Moscow, the Russians have already made their position clear.  Without specifically naming the America government, although it is pretty clear at whom Alexander Lukashevich’s remarks were intended.

Speaking on behalf of the Russian foreign ministry regarding Syria, he noted “signs that world public opinion is being prepared for possible military intervention. “ I think he is right, because I see the same signs; their frequency and vehemence are growing as I write.  Now Democrats are joining Republicans in calling for direct American military intervention in Syria, and they are citing the Sarin gas claim as the raison d’etre.  Senator Bob Casey, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, is calling for the US taking out the Syrian air force while it is on the ground with surface to air missiles.

And longtime diplomat and New Mexico Governor Richardson appeared somewhat trance like as he repeated the growing mantra for American military intervention in the Syrian crisis. And all of them join in religiously, almost speaking in unison, chanting “but no boots on the ground!”  In the minds of these mighty whiteys it’s all going to be a neat sanitized affair waged from the air.

Although I was in the Air Force, I agree with that old army man Colin Powell, who says the fly boys always promise more than they deliver in these kinds of civil wars.  And the situation could get very messy.  If these jokers manage to push Barack into yet another war we’ll see.  In the meantime it is incumbent for all thoughtful Americans to let the President know, by letter, telegram and phone that we wish to study war no more!

 The Ravages of War in Syria


Will Giving These Guys More Guns Make Things Better?


Playthell G. Benjamin

Harlem, New York

May 4, 2013

Once Black Jockeys Ruled the Tracks

Posted in On Sports! with tags , , , , , on May 4, 2013 by playthell
J. Winkfield Two Time Kentucky Derby Winner riding Alan a Dale

Then they Disappeared: What Happened?

Everything that comes with the Derby right now for me is not the same as the majority of the other riders, or any other riders, because I’m the only African-American rider in the race,”

Kevin Krigger

The rise to prominence of this young black Jockey, Kevin Krigger, mounted on Goldencents in today’s Kentucky Derby strikes most contemporary racing fans as a strange unprecedented phenomenon. This is but further evidence of American’s ignorance of their history.  And more often than not when the issue involves the shameful racist history of white Americans the official mythmakers, as well as average white citizens, prefers to forget it, bury it under a pile of empty self-serving mythology about all people being equal in “the land of the free.”

Some southern states, which have the worst records on race relation, are even attempting to remove all references to white America’s bloody oppression of Afro-Americans.  Hence the tawdry racist history of thoroughbred racing is best left in obscurity to these people.  But the history of black jockeys is far to fascinating a story to lie in obscurity; for while they are extremely rare today they once dominated the sport.

In his his reveries about Afro-American life in New York City, Black Manhattan, James Weldon Johnson recalls that when he first came to New York in the 1890’s, among the wealthiest and most famous black men were prizefighters and jockeys.  Indeed, in this period black Jockeys dominated in thoroughbred racing.  This is because in the US horse racing began during slavery, a time when black men handled the care and training of horses on the plantation.

It is even said that some of the Africans were skilled horsemen before they enslaved in America.  This is not at all hard to believe because there were Hausa and Fulani’s among the slave population and they were great horsemen.

Fulani Horsemen of Nigeria


The source of America’s first great Jockeys?
 Hausa Horsemen in Nigeria


 Riding in battle formation

Whatever their source, black Jockey’s dominated thoroughbred racing in the US during its early days.  Before professional racing there were races between plantation owners, and even races down Pennsylvania Avenue in the nation’s capital, and the Jockeys were generally African American slaves.  Already an established sport in England, it would become a major American sport with million dollar prizes.

Today is the 139th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, the jewel in the crown of professional horse racing in the US, an event on which black jockeys were once kings.  They were once so ubiquitous little statues of black jockeys were cast for people to place in their yards…thus the famous “lawn Jockeys” that we still see holding street lights or address signs on the lawns of white America.  Like the Tango in Argentina, they are the only evidence that black jockeys ever existed, although as with the Tango nobody connects them with real black people.

Owners of greatest horses from around the world would like to run their magnificent beasts in this race, but only the cream of the crop among three year olds will be permitted to compete.  Hence the choice of jockeys is critical.  And those choices are made by owners and trainers in a very closed process. It is a process where black riders must struggle to be recognized.  In fact the very idea of a black professional jockey strikes many people as an oxymoron.

However when Churchill Downs opened for business with its inaugural race on May 17, 1875 the elegantly attired crowd of men in waistcoats and high hats, and the ladies in fine frocks and spectacular head pieces were not at all surprised that the winning jockey,  Oliver Lewis, mounted atop a chestnut colt, was black.  In fact, they probably discussed everything about the Derby winner except the race of the rider, since 13 of the 15 jockeys competing in the great race were black!

First Derby Winner Oliver Lewis


He set the standard!

Isaac Murphy


Three time Kentucky Derby winner!

 Lewis won by a length and set the fastest time that has ever been run by a three year old horse.  He set a standard of excellence on the race tracks that was expanded upon by other black jockeys to enter the tracks, and they dominated thoroughbred racing in the US for the next thirty years.  Afro-American Jockeys won the first Eight Kentucky Derbys, and fifteen of the first twenty eight.

For instance during the  1890’s Isaac Murphy won the derby three times, a feat that only four other Jockeys have managed to duplicate in the history of American thoroughbred racing.   Isaac Murphy also has the all-time record in percentage of races won.  These achievements on the track have convinced some racing experts to conclude that Ike was the best ever.  The son of former slaves Murphy was born and raised in Kentucky, where many of the horse trainers were black – just as was the case with horse handlers when I was a boy in Florida.  Hence black jockeys had plenty of clout in Murphy’s day…unlike today when Kevin Krigger had to literally beg white trainers and owners to give him a chance to mount up.   The last black superstar on the tracks was Jimmy Winkfield, who won back to back Kentucky Derby’s in 1901 and 1902.

Resentful of having to compete with blacks for purses, and often losing, white jockeys followed the example of the trade unions affiliated with the recently formed American Federation of Labor and formed an all-white jockey’s union and barred blacks from riding in professional races. If the great black jockey’s wanted to continue participating in the sport they loved they had to accept jobs as mere grooms, curry combing horses for white boys who were often their inferiors to mount.  If they were lucky they could become trainers or exercise riders.

Since their exclusion from the tracks mirrored what was happening to Afro-Americans in all areas of American society since the Supreme court legalized racial segregation and discrimination in employment in the Plessey v Ferguson Decision of 1896, some black jockey’s accepted their fate, while others left the US to race on foreign tracks.  After winning back to back Derby’s in 1902 and 03, Winkfield came in second in 1904.

As racial hostilities intensified in his native Kentucky Winkfield came to New York to race.  And while there were owners and trainers willing to give him a mount, the white jockey’s banded together to drive him from the track by boxing him in driving him into the rail, kicked his shins and ankles as they rode beside him and repeatedly hit him with riding crops.  And they warned owners that they would not allow a black jockey to win major purses.

Facing such formidable odds Winkfield gave it all up in his first season and shipped out for Russia, where he became a superstar, riding horses for Russian nobility,  earning over $100,000, and hanging out with habitués at the court of Czar Nicholas Romanoff II.  He learned to speak Russian, dressed in high style, and was the toast of the town.  He was having a ball…until the Bolshevik revolution ended it all and he was forced to flee in a daring ride with 200 of Russia’s finest thoroughbred horses across several countries before reaching their destination. He would go on to distinguish himself on tracks all over Europe.

When he was invited back to Louisville during the run for the roses at the 1961 Kentucky Derby, along with his daughter who became a horse doctor, he was almost denied admission to the ceremony because most of the ignorant racist in attendance didn’t even know who he was!  So much for life in the “land of the free.” The young black jockey competing in the Derby today, Kevin Krigger, is well aware of this history and he has sought out Winkfield’s daughter who is now 88 years old.  And he has promised to win the Derby in honor of her father.

Jimmy Winkfield
130503172938-jimmy-winkfield-story-top Sitting atop his mount after winning the 1901 Derby
Jimmy Winkfield and Superstar Bing Crosby at the Derby
 Winkfield and Bing Crosby
His racing days done, Jim is sharap as a tack at the track

Born and raised in St. Croix in the Virgin Islands, where he learned to ride, Kevin was surprised at the racism directed at him by his fellow jockeys on US tracks – both white and Hispanic.  But it’s a different day and if they tried some of the tactics employed a hundred years ago they would be suspended and Kevin might well  break his foot off in their ass to boot!  Krigger has ridden “Goldencents’ to victory in the Santa Anita Derby – the first black jockey to win it in the 78 year history of the event – and today he is going for the win at the Kentucky Derby.  In fact, with a Muhammad Ali like swagger…he has promised not to just run for the roses but to win them.  I say God speed to you young brother!!!

Kevin Krigger in Action!

Kevin Krigger

 Winning the Santa Anita Derby on Goldencents


Stylish Afro-Americans at the Derby

Lynn Whitfield at the Kentucky Derby

The beautiful Lynn whitfield

His Airness!


Mike chillin at the track



Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York 
May 4, 2013









Jamaica Against the World!

Posted in Guest Commentators, On Foreign Affairs on May 2, 2013 by playthell


Cheering their Olympic Champions in Kingston

The Budget Debate: Austerity or Stimulus?

The world economy fell apart in Fall 2008 and five years after the crunching collapse of financial markets, the world economy is still struggling to gather new momentum.  The European Union opted for austerity and found itself in a double- dip recession.  Greece had to be bailed out by the European Central Bank.  There are signs of recovery in Ireland but Italy and Spain, inundated with sovereign debt, are struggling to find a growth path to prosperity. The debate all over Europe is whether the austerity measures have exacerbated the economic crisis or would stimulus economics be a more appropriate path to economic recovery.

David Cameron, Prime Minister of Britain and leader of the Conservative Party, opted for austerity and as a consequence Britain stumbled into a double-dip recession.  Cameron is too wedded to austerity to shift gears despite the dismal results of this policy.  His poll numbers have plummeted and it will take a miracle for the Conservative Party to remain in office when the British electorate votes to determine who should govern and who should occupy the opposition benches.

Germany has the most powerful economy in Europe and German economic policy has had to factor in the impact on the German electorate as well as its obligation to rescue the floundering and weaker economies of Europe.  Chancellor Merkel faces re-election in the Fall and her re-election will be pivotal to the nature of the economic recovery program that will be pursued in Europe.

The major cause of the collapse of the world financial markets stemmed from the irresponsible speculation and greed in the US that became the culture of Wall Street.  In a de-regulated environment, Wall Street investment companies abandoned sound investment practices, over-leveraged, and once the housing bubble in the United States was punctured, the financial house of cards came crushing down, taking the world economy in its wake.  It is worth noting that a plethora of serious crimes were committed in this financial fiasco, for which no one has gone to jail.

Yet the American economy has fared much better than its counterpart in Europe.  The stock market has returned to the levels of 2008 and the housing sector, stimulated by low interest rates, has recovered.  Nonetheless, the recovery has been far from robust and unemployment remains disturbingly high.  The debate in the United States has been similar to the debate taking place in Europe.  The Republican Party has been clamoring for austerity as personified by the recently adopted sequestration budgetary reduction.

The Democratic Party and President Obama prefer a more delicate balance, raising taxes to reduce the deficit and the debt but investing in research, development and human capital to ensure future growth. The American governmental system is more complicated than anything that exists in Western Europe and the divisions in the legislature have led to policy paralysis.

The drivers of the world economy for the most part are the BRIC countries, Brazil, Russia, India and China.  China has been for the last couple of decades the world’s fastest growing economy.  The growth rate of the Chinese economy has hovered around 10 percent.  In the last quarter, the Chinese economy has slowed to approximately 7 percent of GDP as China seeks to expand domestic consumption and to become less reliant on export markets.

In the world of track and field, Jamaica towers above the rest of the world.  As in the last Olympic Games and the recently concluded Penn Relays, Jamaica is a gargantuan force but in the world of international economics, Jamaica is readily trampled by the elephants.  The debate involving austerity vs stimulus is very much germane to Jamaica’s budgetary process.


The Fastest Relay Team in the World!
Led by Ussain Bolt: The Fastest Man in the World
Dr. Peter Phillips


Jamaican Minister of Finance

That budgetary process got underway in April when the Minister of Finance, Dr. Peter Phillips, presented his Budget 2013-2014 before the Jamaican Parliament.  For decades, Jamaica has not been able to get its economic act together.  GDP growth has been a rarity, rather than the norm.  Irrespective of the political party, the country’s finances have been out of whack.  At this juncture, the debt burden amounts to 140 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.  The design of the Minister of Finance is to reduce that debt burden by 2020 to 95 percent of GDP.

Jamaica finds itself in a terrible bind. The level of inequality is so pronounced that the social order is exceedingly brittle.  Property and violent crimes are too high and labor productivity has been inexplicably low.  During the years of the Jamaica Labour Party, 2007-2001, an economic agreement was signed with the International Monetary Fund. The Golding administration failed to achieve the benchmark measures set by the IMF and simply walked away from the agreement. A new agreement has been signed by the PNP government, and they will have to adhere to the strict measures of austerity in fiscal matters demanded by the agreement.

This is a historic moment for Dr. Peter Phillips.  His previous counterparts, Dr. Omar Davies for the PNP and Mr. Audley Shaw for the JLP failed to extricate the Jamaican economy from the debt trap and to expand production in the economy.  Dr. Phillips has held a series of previous portfolios but this is the most critical undertaking.  Jamaica cannot continue indefinitely to be a basket case in the world’s economy.

Portia Miller
The Jamaican Prime Minister

A series of reforms have been undertaken. Success can be measured on a yearly basis.  Paradoxically, Dr. Peter Phillips, who failed in his challenge to Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller for the leadership of the PNP, will now determine the success or failure of the Portia Simpson Miller administration.

The Prime Minister and her Minister of Finance
Once Rivals…they will sink or Swim together


Dr. Basil Wilson

New York City

May 2, 2013