Archive for December, 2013

On Mandela, the Movie Version

Posted in Cultural Matters, Film Criticism, Movie Reviews with tags , , , on December 27, 2013 by playthell

Idris Elba as Nelson Mandela in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

Idris Elba as Nelson Mandela

 Recreating a Major Historical Figure Is Not Easy to Do

Mandela, a biopic on the life of the great South African leader that lately danced and joined the ancestors, a man whose struggle for justice and wise political leadership inspired people around the world, opened in theaters on Christmas Day all across America.  I saw the film yesterday and was impressed with how the filmmaker conceived his task and carried it out.  But I know there will be naysayers, and I will be surprised if some do not condemn the film. I fear it is in the nature of things. Attempting to put the life of a recently departed and much beloved personality on screen as a feature film is a risky business that sometimes rises to the heroic, depending upon the aims and abilities of the filmmaker.

When the subject of the biopic is a political figure with passionate supporters and detractors, whatever the filmmaker does will provoke criticism, some of which can be quite harsh.  Spike Lee was called “a traitor to his race” and a “counter-revolutionary running dog for the capitalists” in response to his movie on the life of Malcolm X, despite the fact that Spike was obviously an admirer of the man.  And for the record I thought it a splendid movie that should have won several Academy Awards.

Despite the risk of being maligned by passionate partisans, enraged because something they thought was critical to the story was neglected by the film maker, director Justin Chadwick and screenwriter William Nicholson forged ahead and produced this important film.   In an eventful life that encompasses nearly a century and interacted with so many important personalities, ideas, and political events the first problem for the film makers was how to tell the story, where should the emphasis lie.

Since this is an authorized bio-pic – meaning it is the story Nelson Mandela’s family and the African National Congress has approved – and is based on Mandela’s autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom,” the basic outline of the story was a given.  The task of the filmmaker was to provide us with a series of vignettes from an epic life that will allow us to peer into the soul and psyche of the man and tell us who he was and what motivated his extraordinary sacrifices in the struggle to elevate his people and free them from the Nazi like rule of the racist apartheid regime in South Africa, a regime that the world tolerated for nearly half a century after the destruction of Nazism.

The film makers rightly decided that this story should be told from the perspective of Mandela the man rather than Mandela the political icon.  Hence we see what the struggle cost him on the personal level, with the destruction of his family and denial of any role in the upbringing of his children, because his children were not allowed to see him until they were sixteen and the South African government intercepted and destroyed his letters to them. They also refused to allow him to attend the funeral of his first born son who was killed in a car crash, or that of his beloved mother.

The news he received about the ordeals Winnie was going through during his internment on Robben Island intensified his agony.  No one watching this film whose morality is not deformed by racism could fail to be moved by the myriad pains inflicted on the Mandelas by the South African government; this is why a world-wide movement rose up against it.  However their story is not all gloom and doom, there are moments of beauty and romance too; Idris Elba and Naomi Harris as Winnie and Nelson Mandela do a splendid job of portraying both.

 Naomi Harris as Winnie Mandela
Idris Elba and Naomie Harris Nelson and Winnie as Young Lovers

In fact, one could view the movie as a tragic love story, for Winnie and Nelson met as he was a rising young leader in the ANC, and like many South African women she found him irresistible.  Screenwriter Bill Nicholson tells us: “Drafting the screenplay for Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, I discovered it was his human side that made him a hero to so many – and that his marriage to Winnie was at the heart of the story.”   Yet the movie makes no attempt to hide the fact that Nelson was quite the lady’s man in his youth.  And how could it have been otherwise?  There is an abundant historical record that demonstrates the sexual attractiveness of men who are brilliant public speakers and identified with a great cause; they are aphrodisiac for many women.  It is a universal phenomenon that crosses the boundaries of race, class and nationality.

This fact was pointed out to Henry Ward Beecher – the famous anti-slavery American preacher and brother to Harriet Beecher Stowe – by the brilliant 19th century feminist firebrand Victoria Woodhull, when she threatened to expose his many affairs with the wives of powerful men in his congregation at Plymouth Church.  Frederick Douglass, Paul Robeson, Martin Luther King, et al were all chick magnets.  And like David, Samson and Solomon, three of the greatest men in the Bible, they all crumbled in the face of temptation.  Hence Mandela was a true man of his calling.

But the great importance of this movie to my mind is the portrait it paints of the resolve of the militants in the African National Congress, brave patriots who would not give an inch on their bedrock principles, beginning with their decision not to offer a defense against the charge of “sabotage” of government facilities with the aim of overthrowing the South African government.  And they refused to appeal a sentence of life imprisonment on Robben Island, a place designed to crack the spirit and destroy one’s soul.

On Robbin Island

Mandela, and ANC comrades from movie

Convicted ANC Leaders Salute the Courtroom Crowd

From the moment we see the horrid conditions under which they would live, and hear the words of the jailer who tells them that he wishes they had been hanged and promises to make their lives so miserable they will wish they had been sentenced to hang, we began to realize what the ANC leadership endured for 27 years!  It also places our government’s complicity in this crime in bold relief.  It is a part of recent American history all US citizens should know about and this film is a good place to start.

Of the many virtues of this film its cinematography, script and superb acting stand out.  The movie utilizes the spectacular landscape of South Africa to maximum advantage in telling his story.  The contrast between the magnificence of the landscape and the decadence of the society is ever present and often magnified, especially when we see the difference between the barren and impoverished areas consigned to black Africans and the plush areas reserved for whites or “Europeans,” especially after the passage of the Group Areas Act which assigned 80% of south Africa’s land to whites, only reducing the African population to landless paupers who had to work the farms and mines owned by whites to survive.

The movie does not shrink from graphically portraying the violence against Africans committed by the apartheid government, such as the “Sharpsville Massacre,” and it also shows how the ANC became proficient in building bombs as a result of training in other African countries.   The dialogue is powerful and the cast of superb actors, led by Idris Alba as Nelson and Naomi Harris as Winnie, bring the characters to life in their full human dimensions.

Nelson and Winnie Meet


Elba and Harris are Magical

Alba and Harris are actors of rare accomplishment.  The daughter of a Jamaican Mother and a Trinidadian father Ms. Harris was born and raised in London. Her mother was an actress and screenwriter hence Naomi literally grew up in the theater.  Her acting credits are many and varied and she brings the full weight of her training and gifts to bear in her portrayal of Winnie Mandela. Her portrayal of Winnie’s evolution from a sweet and gentle wife, mother and social worker into a hardened revolutionary who could order the assassination of people she believed to be snitches is a tour de force.

Idris Alba is an actor of amazing versatility.  I first saw him in American Gangster, and he was so convincing as a Harlem thug playing beside Denzel Washington that I nearly fell out of my chair when I later saw him interviewed on television and heard him speaking with a distinct British working class accent.  I would have bet my last quid that the boy was Afro-American.  Then I saw him again in the moving Tyler Perry flick “Daddy’s Little Girls” where he played a struggling single father in the hood whose wife had abandoned the family and run off with another man, and he had to deal with a haughty and beautiful female lawyer he chauffeured about that was a royal pain in the ass played by Gabrielle Union, and he was just as convincing in that role.  And now he is playing Mandela splendidly.

Another thorny matter the movie handles superbly is the estrangement of Winnie and Nelson Mandela after he returns from 27 years in prison.  Although she walked with him on his victory march upon release from prison, and they shared a house together for a while, she was involved with another man and was living with Nelson because that’s what the world expected since her claim to fame was as the long suffering wife of Nelson Mandela.  Mister Elba, is splendid in portraying Mandela’s calm dignity when all of his comrades were whispering about his wife’s open affair with another man.

I think that, when all the problems of making this film are considered, this is a splendid film that should be seen by anyone who is interested in the struggle for freedom, dignity and justice by oppressed peoples.  Judging by the reception the film got at its premiere in London, its place as an important film will be assured in the history of cinema.

Last Thursday,” writes Bill Nichols, “I was sitting in the Odeon Leicester Square, London, a row behind the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, as the film I’d written Mandela : Long Walk to Freedom, was heading towards its end. There was some sort of quiet commotion going on, people leaving their seats, scuttling up the aisles. Prince William was handed a phone. Then Kate was crying. As the credits rolled the royal couple were led away. The audience was on its feet, giving a standing ovation. The film’s South African producer, Anant Singh, appeared on stage, with Idris Elba, our Mandela. The applause redoubled. The producer signed for silence and told us about the death of Mandela.”


Playthell G. Benjamin

San Francisco, California

December 27, 2013

Dr. Lateef’s Spirit Dances with Ancestors

Posted in Cultural Matters, Guest Commentators, Music Reviews on December 25, 2013 by playthell


 The Master with his Horn

The Legendary Musician and Composer Steps off at 93

          At the close of his autobiography, Yusef A. Lateef, the renowned musician, composer, and Grammy Award-winning recording artist wrote, “My life has been a series of ‘warm receptions,’ and, after a while, it becomes difficult to separate them, to determine which was most rewarding and heartwarming.”  Lateef’s thousands of admirers will ponder now about which of his concerts and recordings were most rewarding for them in his highly productive life.  Lateef, 93, died Monday morning at his home in Amherst, Massachusetts.

Lateef, a versatile artist of global influence, made his transition peacefully, according to his wife, Ayesha Lateef.

“My dear husband was himself an extension of warmth and love towards others,” his wife said. “He saw every human being with the utmost value and respect. He approached all of us as he did his music, with enthusiasm, imagination and longevity.”

While Lateef chose to define his music as autophysiopsychic, that is, “music from one’s physical, mental and spiritual self,” his critics and fans heard him as the embodiment of jazz and the blues, and that expressive quality, however termed, placed him among the finest performers and composers of his generation.

A Hard Swinging Tenor Man!
Yusef II
Blues and the Abstract Truth

Born William Emmanuel Huddleston on Oct. 9, 1920 in Chattanooga, Tenn., he moved with his family to Detroit in 1925, settling in the heart of the city’s storied Paradise Valley.   It was about this time that his father—for an unknown reason—changed their surname to Evans.

Paradise Valley was basically the entertainment enclave of “Black Bottom,” where the city’s black population was centered, and where William Evans (he changed his name to Yusef Lateef in 1948 and became a member of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community and for the rest of his life he remained a devout Ahmadi Muslim fulfilling requirements including the lesser and greater pilgrimage to Mecca) was immersed in a vibrant culture where a profusion of music was part of the daily routine.

He introduced Exotic New Instruments….
 Yusef Lateef-flute-bmboo
To the Art of Jazz
And made them sing the Blues
YUSEF LATEEF - Basson And Swang them too!

At Miller High School, he fell under the tutelage of John Cabrera and joined such illustrious future jazz immortals as Milt Jackson.  But it was a local saxophonist, Lorenzo Lawson, who most impressed and influenced him to set aside the oboe and drums and focus on the tenor saxophone.

Soon, he was so proficient that he had the first chair in Matthew Rucker’s Band, and given the band’s prominence, Lateef’s reputation reached across the city and all the way to Chicago where he was now a member of Lucky Millinder’s big band.  In 1948, along with his adoption of Islam, he joined the Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra, which included an array of world class musicians such as James Moody, J.J. Johnson, Ray Brown, Kenny Clarke, and the amazing Cuban conga drummer Chano Pozo.

Diz, Chano Pozo and James Moody
Dizzy and Chano pozo
Playing Rebopped Cubops!

By 1951, Lateef was back in Detroit with his first wife Sadie, a daughter Iqbal and a son Rasheed.  In no time at all he was back in the swing of things performing with a number of groups and at several of the top clubs in town.  Among the stellar leaders who requested his presence was guitarist Kenny Burrell.  When bassist Alvin Jackson, Milt’s brother, assembled a quartet, Lateef was featured on tenor saxophone and flute, which he had begun studying at the Larry Teal School of Music.  The group, including pianist Barry Harris and trombonist Kiane Zawadi (Bernard McKinney) was the house band at the Blue Bird Inn, a legendary jazz spot on Detroit’s Westside.

The Joint was Really Jumpin!
blue bird inn It’s what’s inside that Counts

Lateef was fronting his own ensemble by 1954 and began a five-year stint at Klein’s Show Bar.   Now with a steady gig he had to relinquish his job at Chrysler.  With Hugh Lawson (and sometimes Terry Pollard) on piano; Curtis Fuller on trombone; Ernie Farrow on bass; and Louis Hayes on drums; for two years the band worked six nights a week and became one of the most popular groups in the city.  So popular, in fact, that jazz writers began to spread the word.  They were extended a contract by Ozzie Cadena, a producer at Savoy Records, and their first album was “Jazz Mood.”  A succession of albums would follow, alternately between Savoy and the Prestige labels, and it was during this phase that Lateef was able to introduce an assortment of unusual instruments normally heard in various ethnic cultures.

“Where one relaxes on the axis of the wheel of life”
Cannonball Adderly
Great Virtuosos like Cannonball Adderly anointed audiences in Detroit’s clubs

From a veritable academy of musicians who were in and out of his ensemble during the nights at Klein’s, Lateef sharpened his musical knowledge which was bolstered even further by the classes he took at Wayne State University.  But by 1959, he was ready for a new scene.  “I had done about all I could in the realm of music in Detroit,” he wrote.  “There was a scarcity of clubs during this period and to make ends meet I took a part-time job unloading banana trucks. Whether you were a writer, painter, or a musician, it wasn’t a good time to be in the city.”

The Big Apple was the only option for him and by the early sixties Lateef was a regular at jam sessions, recordings, and concert dates with such notables as John Coltrane, Charlie Mingus, percussionist Babatunde Olatunji, and numerous homeboys such as Lonnie Hillyer, Donald Byrd, and Sonny Red.  But Lateef’s stature grew exponentially during his tenure with Cannonball Adderley’s band, and it provided him with additional experience to form his own ensemble by 1965.

Yusef and Cannonball
cannonball-with-yusef-lateef Masters of the Horns: Original voices on Alto and Tenor Saxes

Holding a band together while attending the Manhattan School of Music was challenging, but Lateef was equal to the task, earning his master’s degree and continuing to record at a phenomenal pace.  Under contract at Atlantic Records where producer Joel Dorn gave Lateef the latitude he needed to express the full extent of his artistry.  His “Gentle Giant,” recorded in 1971 was among his most memorable dates and featured bassist Bob Cunningham, drummer Tootie Heath, and pianist Kenny Barron.

Nothing was more eventful for him in the early seventies than his meeting and marriage to Tahira at Chicago State University.  Winning her hand and defending his dissertation were momentous occasions and the birth of his son, Yusef in 1975, completed a trifecta of jubilation.

From 1975 to 1980, Dr. Lateef studied in Africa, mainly in Nigeria where he undertook the mastery of the Fulani flute.  In addition to his research and teaching obligations, he was commissioned by the government to compose a symphony and to write a book based on his research.  Seeking new musical spheres after Africa, he embarked on a series of concert dates with Eternal Wind, an advanced group of younger musicians that included Charles Moore, Frederico Ramos, Ralph “Buzzy” Jones, and Adam Rudolph.   “Yusef was so open and accessible,” Rudolph recalled during a recent interview.  “There was always this love, peace and freedom about him.  And you could feel all of this through his music, which defined him in the same as Picasso’s art or Miles Davis’s music defined them.  We’re evolutionists, he would tell us and we have to keep on stepping.”

Invisible Wind
Eternal Wind
The Vehicle through which Yusef produced autophysiopsychic Sounds

 And stepping Dr. Lateef did, thanks to Eternal Wind and the tireless Rudolph.  Even so, there was time for teaching and composing, to say nothing of his other artistic ventures into writing and painting, and running his record and publishing company, FANA Music.

His beloved wife Tahira passed in 2009, Dr. Lateef later remarried  Ayesha, and his final days were as fruitful and productive as ever, and he leaves a remarkable legacy of cultural achievements.

“I daily and nightly thank Allah for continuing to bless me and to allow me to bring love, peace and joy to the world,” he wrote.  And that love, peace and joy resonates with all the conviction his formidable talent could command, and all we have to do is to listen to his music.

Dr. Lateef  is survived by wife Ayesha, his son also named Yusef Lateef, his grand-daughter Iqbal, and great grandchildren.  Funeral arrangements are in the planning stages.

The Master Sonic Alchemist left a healing sound….
Yusef images (2)

………A Gift that keeps on Giving


To watch Ahmad Jamal and Yusef Lateef
 Double Click on this link

To Hear Yusef Perform “Stella by Starlight”
Double Click On Link Below

By Herb Boyd

Special to Commentaries on the Times

Look What They’ve Done to My Party!

Posted in Playthell on politics with tags , , on December 22, 2013 by playthell

    The Commander-In Chief would be P O’d!

General Dwight David Eisenhower: Great Republican

 Ike would be Banned by Today’s GOP!

One of the great ironies of American political history is that Dwight David Eisenhower – US Army General, Supreme Commander of the Allied forces that defeated the Nazis, and Republican President of the United States – would now be a pariah in the Republican Party, much like former US Army General, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Of Staff, National Security Advisor, and Secretary of State Colin Powell.  He would be labeled a RHINO – “Republican In Name Only” – by the radical right-wing zealots in the Tea Party faction that has seized control and drives the agenda of the Republican Party.

Alas the Republican Party has become a very different place, a place where thoughtful reasonable leaders are an endangered species.  And although the Republican establishment, whose agenda is driven by the prerogatives of the plutocrats, is beginning to fight back in a desperate attempt to save the party from disgrace and impotence, it remains to be seen if they can restrain them from further self-destructive actions.

With their party’s public approval ratings at an all-time low after forcing the recent government shutdown, and their failed presidential bid in the last two shutdowns, the big boys with their heads on straight have decided to stand up to the far right fanatics whose inflammatory rhetoric and reckless actions have endeared them to the white Lumpen-proletariat, struggling lower middle class, racist and nativists of all stripes, and hard core anti-tax and regulation zealots in the business sector. The Republican establishment  has created a grotesque political Frankenstein that is now out of control; despite the tough talk from House Speaker John Boehner  and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell last week, it remains to be seen if they can calm the Tea Party monster before it devours their political future.

The mindless Tea Party fanatics who reject science and are contemptuous of the public interests have turned the Grand Old Party of Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Dwight David Eisenhower into the “Grand Obstructionist” Party of John Boehner and Mitch McConnell.  The party whose conservative wing was once represented in the media by Ivy League-trained intellectual, prolific writer and master of the English language William F. Buckley, whose PBS television show “The Firing Line” was a real forum for high-brow intellectual discourse, is now represented by the ignorant verbal arsonist, shameless charlatan,  and porcine dope fiend Rush Limbaugh, who according to his mother “failed everything” during his brief tenure in a local college, and appears to never have entertained a serious thought in his life.

Not only have the Republicans strayed far from the party of Bill Buckley, it is hardly recognizable as the Party presided over by Dwight Eisenhower.  These are not merely cosmetic difference but involve matters of real gravitas. We can surmise what Ike would have thought of the ideology and policies of the present Republican Party based upon what he thought and did when he was President.  A few examples will suffice to demonstrate the difference between the GOP then and now.  An examination of Ike’s views on civil rights, organized labor, the arms industry, foreign military intervention, government investment in infrastructure, and especially the contentious matter of taxes, will reveal that on all of these critical issues Eisenhower was almost diametrically opposed to the views of the contemporary Grand Obstructionist Party.

For instance, we know, based on his refusal to be lured into foreign military adventures such as the Suez Crisis, that there is no way a cabal of neo-con intellectual eggheads like Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle in a think tank like The Project for a New American Century could have talked Ike into invading Iraq on cooked up “evidence.”  And I have no doubt the General would have had little sympathy or much patience with the outrageous destructive policies proposed by the poot-butt Tea Party gang that have seized control of his party.

The mere idea of Republican congressmen shutting down the federal government because they couldn’t get their way through the regular processes of orderly governance would have appalled him.  This was, after all, a man who had laid his life on the line to defend the democratic process bequeathed to the American people in the US Constitution – which President Obama, a constitutional scholar, explained so well in his speech after he signed the bi-partisan bill passed by Congress just before the midnight deadline.  As a military man Ike revered order and respected the chain of command, hence it is safe to assume that he would have supported President Obama’s position.

I can envision no circumstance where Ike would have supported the behavior of the Tea Party zealots who shut down the government and threatened to destroy the “full faith and credit” of the USA by fooling around with lifting the debt ceiling, an event that could trigger a world-wide depression.  It is unthinkable that Ike, a serious and responsible leader, would have been down with any of this embarrassing and dangerous foolishness that threatens our national security and is making the USA a laughingstock around the world.  Yet some members of the GOP in the House and Senate led by Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, supported by a hefty Tea Party faction in the House, are threatening to do it again after the holidays!  They would have been able to conjure no more potent enemy than Ike.

From what we know of Eisenhower’s tenure as President we can be certain that he would be flummoxed and outraged at the Republican controlled House’s refusal to appropriate any funds for President Obama to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure, and provide jobs for a multitude of unemployed workers, although it is obvious that the nation desperately need both.  We can say this with certainty, because we know that President Ike presided over the building of the nation’s interstate highway system, one of the largest publicly financed infrastructure construction projects in American history.

Hence there can be no serious question that he would have been enraged by the fact that the Republican shutdown will cost the nation around 24 billion dollars with no benefits, when these same Congressman have repeatedly rejected President Obama’s $21 billion request to rebuild the nation’s crumbling infrastructure and put a multitude of Americans to work!  I am certain that Ike, like me, would have thought it an absurdity that ought to be a crime.

Unlike most of these know-nothing buffoons who now control the policy agenda of his party, people with little to no experience in government or military leadership, Ike was a developed leader molded in the military chain of command and steeled in the fires of a world war when the fate of the nation was at stake had the Fascist Axis powers of Nazi Germany and the Japanese Empire won World War II.  Hence he possessed a vision and wisdom that the present Republican leaders are innocent of, and the nation is paying a dear price for it.  A poignant example of this is how Ike learned the critical importance of building a modern super highway system on the “Cloverleaf” model from his wartime experiences in Europe.

Waging war against Nazi Germany, Ike witnessed the rapidity with which they could move large amounts of men and materials over great distances while fighting on two fronts.  Hence it was in the heat of battle that he discovered the great value of having a highway system that enables motor vehicles to enter and exit without disturbing the flow of traffic.  Thus when he became President he built a highway system modeled on the German autobahn, with rest stops along the route that will allow a driver to go from New York to California without ever leaving the highway.

The interstate system contributed to an increase in the GDP – Gross Domestic Product – by dramatically facilitating the shipment of goods throughout the country. Today 80% of all the products on the shelves of our stores are delivered by trucks. This is a poignant illustration of the value of investing in the nation’s infrastructure; it is a lesson that has been lost on the pugnacious Republican Neanderthals who presently have a stranglehold on the appropriations process in the House of Representatives.

 The German Autobahn
Ike’s Model for the American Superhighway
On a California Super Highway
Ike’s Gift to America

Nothing demonstrates the dramatic difference between the way President Eisenhower viewed the role of government and the contemporary Republican Party’s stance than the matter of taxes. Whereas the House Republicans, egged on by Texas Senator Ted Cruz, are prepared to shut down the federal government and destroy the “full faith and credit” of the United States in order to prevent the plutocrats from paying a 37% tax rate, Ike taxed them at 91% and thought they were fortunate, given all the blessings of living in America. After all, he spent the prime of his life as a military man prepared to sacrifice life and limb to protect this country that had made them so rich for a peon’s pay. 

The General retained his wisdom and Perspective…
images (1)
……after he entered politics

While cutting taxes is the first priority of the Republicans in Congress today, despite whether it will decrease incomes by laying off hundreds of thousands of government workers performing vital services to the public, and dangerously slash government spending – which recent history has shown will lead to economic chaos – President Eisenhower made his views on taxation crystal clear in a news conference of February 17, 1953.  “And now, our last subject: Taxes.”  Ike told the assembled reporters, “in spite of some of the things I have seen in the papers the last 8 or 9 months, I personally have never promised a reduction in taxes. Never.”   Lest we forget, at the time the tax rate on top earners – people like Mitt Romney – was 91%….today a Republican can lose their seat in congress by voting for a 37% tax rate on the plutocrats!

He would clarify his views further in the following comment  “The fact is there must be balanced budgets before we are again on a safe and sound system in our economy.  That means, to my mind, we cannot afford to reduce taxes, reduce income, until we have in sight a program of expenditures that shows that the factors of income and outgo will be balanced.  Now that to my mind is sheer necessity.”  We can clearly discern the Republican concern with balancing the federal budget in Ike’s remarks, but here it is a balanced and reasonable concern.

In today’s Grand Obstructionist Party, cutting taxes has become a dangerous obsession that threatens the economic health of the nation, as Republicans in Congress engineer reckless budget sequesters and threaten the destruction of the world financial system with arbitrary shutdowns of the US government for ideological reasons.  From his own statements on the matter of Taxation we can safely assume that Ike would have been with Obama in the present budget battles.

However for many Americans, this writer included, it was the position President Eisenhower took on race, federal law and state’s rights that is his greatest legacy.  Although it has become conventional wisdom in some quarters to say that Ike was a racist and cared not a whit about Civil Rights, his actions say otherwise…and action speaks much more profoundly than words.  And since I have no way of reading his mind, I shall rely on the facts.  The fact is that President Eisenhower appointed both Chief Justice Earl Warren to the Supreme Court, and Judge Ronald Davies to the Federal Circuit Court.

Thurgood Marshall and Team: George Hayes and James M. Nabrith

Thurgood Marshall and Team

Aall smiles after winning “the Case of the Century

Frederick Douglass pointed out nearly a century earlier, “History holds no more august claim than where there is no struggle there is no progress….The struggle may be moral, or it may be physical, or it may be both, but there must be a struggle!….Power concedes nothing without demand, it never has and it never will.”  This warning would prove true in the ending of slavery and the fall of segregation.  For had the NAACP Legal Defense Fund not waged a relentless struggle against legal – i.e. de jure – segregation over several decades the case of Brown v The Board of Ed would never have come before the supreme Court.

Under the able leadership of Charles Hamilton Houston, a former US Army officer and a graduate of Harvard Law, the NAACP had built up a formidable body of legal decisions against the system of segregation.  Facing an uphill swim because when he began his litigation segregation was legal under federal law, Houston developed a strategy to first prove in the federal courts that “segregation is inherently unequal.” Then topple the wicked system.  To accomplish this Houston decided to attack the southern states case by case and force them to live up to the letter of the law by providing “equal facilities” for Afro-Americans as specified in the Plessy Decision of 1896.

Aware of the fragile economic predicament of these underdeveloped southern states Houston calculated that the system of racial segregation would eventually fall from the financial burden it imposed.  To prove his case Houston became one of the first lawyers to introduce film as evidence in an American courtroom.  And he won some stunning decisions, such as the University of Texas Law School case, which resulted in southern states with segregated graduate and professional schools in state universities, being required to pay for the graduate and professional education of Afro-Americans from their states who sought higher education elsewhere.

When the Brown Case finally reached the Supreme Court its potential for mandating a radical change in American race relations was such that it was billed in the press as “The Case of the Century!”  The lawyers who argued the case for the NAACP were students and protegees of the great Charles Hamilton Houston.  The lead lawyer Thurgood Marshall had been a colleague and apprentice of Houston’s who either founded or shaped both the Howard University Law School and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.  His co-council James M. Nabrith Jr.  had been a professor on the Howard Law faculty since 1936, where he offered the first formal course on Civil Rights in 1938.  George E. C. Hayes, the third lawyer in the victory May 17, 1954 photograph standing on the Supreme Court’s steps, was a second generation lawyer from Richmond Virginia, had worked with Houston at Howard Law, form which he was a 1918 graduate.

Hence they were the reigning experts on Civil Rights litigation.  Added to their masterly legal arguments the lawyers introduced Amicus Curie briefs by Dr. John Hope Franklin and Dr. Kenneth B. Clark, two distinguished Afro-American academics.  Franklin. an authority on American history and race relations, wrote a historical overview of black oppression in the US.  Clark was a psychologist, who along with his wife Dr. Mamie Clarke, conducted the famous “Doll’s Experiment” which purported to demonstrate the deleterious effects of racial segregation on the psychological development of Black children.

When the Court ruled in favor of the NAACP’s case it was a momentous moment in American history, it’s significance can be easily gaged by the fact that the entire evil racist system of de jure racial apartheid collapsed in less than ten years!  But if Ike had not appointed the jurist he did to the federal judiciary, all of their brilliant litigation might have come to naught.  After all: The law is whatever the Supreme Court says it is!                           

Chief Justice Earl Warren
earl Warren
His Court ended de jure School Segregation
Judge Ronald Davis
He ordered the immediate integration of Central High

It was the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown vs. The Board of Education in Topeka Kansas in 1954 that outlawed de jure segregation in the nation’s public schools, and the order to integrate Central High School in Little Rock Arkansas issued by federal judge Ronald Davies, on September 3, 1957, that led President Eisenhower, acting as Commander – In – Chief of the US Armed Forces, to order federal troops into the south on a combat mission since the dreaded American Civil War.  The historical record leaves no doubt President Eisenhower would have preferred to have left the enforcement of the Court order to the state.

But when Oral Faubus, the Governor of Arkansas refused to enforce the order of the Federal Court, offering some bogus argument about it contradicted state law, Ike issued him a warning that the order must be enforced, and when Faubus called out the Arkansas National Guard to prevent the black children from going to school, Ike federalized the national guard, removing them from the authority of the Governor and placed them under the US Army chain of command.  Then he ordered the 110th Airborne Division to pacify the city, which had exploded in white riots, and enforce the court order by escorting the black children to school.  The paratroopers – a crack army combat force – escorted the children through the screaming, menacing crowd, with fixed bayonets!  All of the white south was enraged, but the southern rednecks were the Democrat’s problem back then, when they were known as the “Dixiecrats,” they are now all in the GOP and are known as “The Patriots’ Tea Party.”

After a Clash with bayoneted Paratroopers
 Fixed Bayonets
The rabble quickly retreated to their hovels

And the Black Students

Black Students escorted

Were escorted to class!
                The angry white mob became a sideshow
Little Rock crackers
accenting the heroism of black students

The Little Rock Nine

The Little Rock 9

They became heroes to people around the world

By his actions we know that Ike would have had but little patience with the kind of “State’s Rights” blather we hear from Republicans these days; which is driven by the Tea Party faction.  These far right iconoclasts hail from the same states that provoked the Civil War in the 19th century, and waged a bloody resistance effort against the movement to gain full Civil Rights for Afro-Americans as spelled out in the Constitution – especially the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

Hence it should come as no surprise that they are the most reactionary section of the country at the dawning of the 21st century and have produced a political movement, aided by the Republican Party, which shamefully pandered to their racial resentments and anger which now threatens to destroy them. Since I have written about this transformation elsewhere I won’t belabor it here.  For those interested in a succinct analysis of how this transformation occurred read: “Hailey Barber is a Lying Fat Redneck” on this blog at:

Despite the fact that it is the democratic presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson, that have received sustained accolades for the dramatic progress in the Civil Rights of Afro-Americans during the 1960’s,  it was President Eisenhower that revived federal interest in the Civil Rights question.   This is no mere conjecture; the evidence bears it out.  Aside from appointing Judges whose rulings overturned the Plessy v Ferguson Decision of 1896, the notorious “Separate but Equal” opinion, which legalized racial segregation in the United States, nullifying the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, he also passed the first Civil Rights bill since the Reconstruction era a century earlier.

He also was the first president to appoint a black presidential Aide with the selection of Fred Murrow in 1955, and his appointment of Attorney George E.C. Hayes to the Public Utilities Commission of the District of Columbia, was the first time an Afro-American had such an important position in a municipal government in a century! The appointment made the Civil rights attorney the highest rankning black official in D.C. city government.

Thus based on the historical record of Dwight David Eisenhower’s tenure in office, it is reasonable to conclude that he would have been as out of place in today’s Republican Party – which has descended from the Grand Old Party of Abe Lincoln to the Grand Obstructionist Party of McConnell and Boehner – as a priest in a whorehouse!

Dwight David Eisenhower
 10365_66cm 027
Republican President of USA
Old Soldiers Never Die!
Eisenhower Salutes
And history will not allow this one to “just fade away.”

Dr. DUBOIS Then and Now

Posted in Cultural Matters, Photo-Essays, The Founding of Black Studies, Vingnettes From a Remarkable Life with tags , , , on December 15, 2013 by playthell

All Motion is not Progress

Dr. DuBois and Mao

My favorite picture of The Doctor

            I wonder what  witticism provoked such merriment.


“I would have been hailed with approval had I died at fifty, at seventy-five my death was practically requested.”

— W.E.B. Dubois, on or around his seventy-fifth birthday

Exactly one hundred and forty five years ago (1868) a mere five years after Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation (and in splendid historical coincidence, the year of the ratification of the 15th amendment which established that no American could be excluded from the fundamental democratic right to vote by reason of “color, race or previous condition of servitude.”), in a small western Massachusetts mountain town—as the crow flies no more than thirty-five miles from where I write this—a manchild was born into a family of black artisans and small farmers. His mother was of the black Burghardts, whose antecedents were, as the name suggests, once the property of a Dutch landowner. His father was light skinned, from a Haitian Creole family of more recent American arrival hence the infant’s impressive array of names William Edward Burghart DuBois.

Soon after his birth the Haitian father would abandon the marriage and his mother’s economic circumstances would become very straitened indeed and would remain so for the rest of her life. (She would die in his 17th year a few months before he left for college in the South.) In the small-town New England of his birth secondary education was class—hence race-based—and very elitist, the province only of the children of families sufficiently affluent to afford the fees of private academies. Consequently few working people, of any race, received more than a few years of elementary education, and in all likelihood saw no practical need for it. They may well have been right.

Mary Burghardt


Dr. DuBois Mother with Little Willie in Tow

Alfred DuBois

Dubois's Dad II

Dr. DuBois’ Father: A Soldier Against Slavery

It was the advent of public education in the 1870s with the establishment of the Great Barrington High School that made the youth’s education at all possible. There—the sole brown face among the students—driven by his mother’s pride and ambition for him, as by the encouragement of two kindly and perceptive women teachers who were impressed by “Little Willie’s” uncommon and precocious intelligence and industry, the youth flourished despite the regimen of odd jobs necessary to help his mother cope. He would later credit Mr. Hosmer, the principal with guiding his intellectual development and steering him into the college preparatory curriculum heavy with Latin, Greek and the canonical western “classics” of the time. Providentially, during the high school years, the arrival of a small community of southern black folk, who promptly founded an AME Zion church, where the black Burghardts faithfully attended services, would provide him with at least an introduction to the religious culture of his people.

By his graduation in 1884 at the age of sixteen, young “Willie’s” academic accomplishments had made him something of a local prodigy among the townsfolk. The graduation class consisted of seven boys and six girls and young “Willie” delivered an apparently well-received oration on the abolitionist Wendell Phillips. The local Berkshire Courier reported that, “William E DuBois, a colored lad who has had good standing gave an excellent oration and provoked repeated applause.”

The graduate’s ambition was to attend Harvard but for reasons as much financial as social i.e. racial, this was not to be… at that time. A disappointment which would prove most fortunate for his real education. His principal Mr. Hosmer joined by the principal of the local private academy and two congregational ministers, persuaded four congregational churches to underwrite his education at Fisk University, a Congregational school for Blacks in Tennessee. He was seventeen years old when he left New England for the South in 1885. He would later recall this as a “great adventure” into the “south of slavery, rebellion and black folk” where at last, he would be surrounded by other people of color.

He was, he professed, delighted to go South because, consequence of the New England upbringing he in fact knew very little about the real life of Black folk. In Tennessee he would be immersed in the Africa-inflected culture of rural, post slavery southern black communities while teaching “out in the rural”. Here his true education would begin. As was to be expected his New England small town sensibilities were appalled by the prevailing, “ignorance”, squalor and poverty that surrounded him but there was more.

But he would also perceive, as though “through a glass darkly”, something else, something real if elusive, for which nothing in his education, experience, or the prevailing discourses of the day had prepared him, or given him any language to articulate or fully process. All around him he detected many signs of a distinctive black culture only dimly perceived, but tantalizingly indicative of something real, present and consequential which he would later refer to as “the soul of black folk”.

He struggled for a language in which to process these perceptions because in the New England of his youth “culture” was euro-focused, a consequence of America’s much deplored colonial complex. A “cultured” person spoke French or German, read Latin or Greek, listened to European classical music and understood—enjoyed was quite another question—Opera. That was “culture”. Anything black was “primitive” and uncivilized. So what could this be that he was now seeing and listening to?

A Southern Ring Shout!

Ring Shout Georgia2

The kind of black Religious Ritual DuBois Saw

The Fisk Jubilee Singers

Cherif Guelal

Young DuBois heard their voices in the stones of Jubilee Hall

Indeed much of his early writing would be devoted to the attempt, not at first entirely successful, to create a vocabulary capable of accurately conveying and defining—in its own terms—black cultural truths free from the crude and “unscientific” language of condescension or denigration of all things “Negro” which permeated the literary and academic discourses of the time. The struggle to liberate discussions of black reality from the ignorance driven, reductive racialist formulations of white establishment “scholars” would remain an enduring mission of his life’s work.

The Fisk Graduating Class of 1888
Dubois's Graduting class from fisk
Willie Dubois is Center Left

Harvard: Class of 1891


Arming himself for Battle!

After graduation from Fisk there would be Harvard (where he would be befriended by William James) for a second undergraduate degree, then a Master’s in History and ultimately a doctorate, the dissertation for which –“the Suppression of the Slave Trade to America” would inaugurate a Harvard series of historical monographs. However, the disciplined intellectual effort which resulted in such spectacular academic achievement, formidable though it must have been, paled into insignificance against the grinding necessity of a struggle at every stage, simply to convince white academic admission committees or funding agencies that a young black man was capable and deserving of education at this level. That the said young man succeeded in doing so while conducting himself with dignity rather than the fawning self-abasement from Negroes which these “Grandees” understood to be the natural order, is as worthy of respect as are the formidable accomplishments which resulted.

For example, how DuBois secured support to pursue advanced study in the new discipline of sociology at University of Berlin is wondrously instructive, both of DuBois’ character and of the times. An enormously endowed and influential body, “The John F. Slater Fund for the Education of the Negro” run by a former American president had conceded that “the principle of higher education” was the province of all regardless of race. To which end they welcomed, but had been quite unable to attract any suitably “qualified” black candidates. (Has a curiously contemporary ring does it not?)

This announcement apparently provoked so fierce a confederate backlash that the Fund retreated to mumblings about “industrial education of heart and hand” the mantra which would so endear Booker T. Washington to the South and northern philanthropists. The Fund made no awards to Blacks and DuBois’ application for a stipend was ignored, as were a few others. When he inquired he was informed by the Fund’s director that the news reports had been exaggerated, and in any event the “plan had been given up”. However DuBois could take comfort that had this not been the case, his candidacy might otherwise have “deserved attention.”

Evidently the young DuBois was sufficiently comforted as to reply to the Fund‘s president, none other than one Rutherford B. Hayes lately president (if a strongly disputed one) of the United States.

Did he beg, importune and plead his case as a deserving darkey was expected to do? No, indeed, he confronted them. With admirable audacity the twenty two year old addressed Hayes as an equal, first unequivocally declaring “As for my case I personally care little, I am perfectly capable of fighting alone for an education if the trustees do not care to help me.” However, the Fund’s behavior confirmed his suspicion that their claim to searching in vain for suitable (Negro) candidates had been less than sincere. Then he proceeded to school the former President, to wit:

“… the injury you have—unwittingly I trust—done the race I represent and am not ashamed of, is almost irreparable. You went before a number of keenly observant men who regard you as an authority on the matter and told them in substance that the Negroes of the United States either couldn’t or wouldn’t embrace a more liberal opportunity for advancement when presented.”

Dubois’ missive concluded, “…from the above facts I think you owe an apology to the Negro people.”

I have no idea exactly how Hayes and his cohorts received that scolding. One would have expected the uppity Negro to be summarily dispatched to the outer reaches of philanthropic darkness, “there”, like Lucifer upon his expulsion from Heaven, “to dwell in adamantine chains and penal fire”. This time however—which would not always prove the case—his impudence was not punished. Instead, to the Trust’s credit he was able to convince them of the long-term social benefit of his being able to explore the new discipline of Sociology in Germany.

Later, however his letter,(along with those of two distinguished German professors) explaining that its support for just one more term in residence would enable him the prestige of a German doctorate proved beyond the Fund’s tolerance or resources. There is speculation that it was the prospect of having the first such degree to be earned by an American going to a Negro which proved the last straw.

I tell this not merely for what it reveals of the young Dubois’ character, determination and talent, but because it prefigures an enduring conundrum of his long and extraordinarily productive professional life. Combining the necessity of constantly having to seek support for necessary, important and groundbreaking work—invariably on his peoples behalf—with a steadfast refusal—or inability—to prostrate his or his people’s dignity, interests or rights, compromise political principle, professional standards or intellectual integrity before the altars of powerful, ignorant, ill-informed even when well-intended, plutocrats.

(Anyone having taught Black Studies at white universities can readily sympathize with having to justify ones purposes to people not as intelligent as oneself and who entertain not the foggiest notion of the meaning or importance of what it is one does.)

Soon enough, his German sojourn coming to a close, the young man on his twenty-fifth birthday took a glass or two of wine and repaired to his room for an exercise in quiet introspection. What emerges, once stripped of the fruit of his education,—a ponderous overlay of classic conceptual language and reference adorned with heavy doses of German romanticism, is not just revelatory but prophetic and powerfully affecting. On the one hand it is typical of youth: the musings of any sensitive and thoughtful young person on the unknowable: the meaning of life, the uncertainty of the future, the goals worthy of one’s life while reaching for terms and principles; those values upon which one might stand to honorably engage an indifferent if not hostile world.

…in the long, dark winter of northern Germany, I felt a little lonesome and far away from home… I arose at eight and took coffee and oranges, read letters, thought of my dead parents, and was sorry.

I will in this second quarter century of my life, enter the dark forest of the unknown world for which I have so many years served my apprenticeship. In the chart and compass, which the world has given me, I have little faith yet I have nothing better. I will seek till I find and die.

I began to feel that dichotomy which all my life has characterized my thought:

How far can love for my oppressed race accord with love for the oppressing country?

And when these loyalties diverge, where shall my soul find refuge?

The hot, dark blood of a black forefather is beating at my heart, and

I know that I am either a genius or a fool. I wonder if life is worth the

Sturm. I do not know-perhaps I never shall know: But this I do know,

be the Truth what it may I will seek it on the pure assumption that

It is worth seeking-and Heaven nor Hell, neither God nor Devil- shall turn me

from my purpose till I die…

This represents my attitude toward the world. I am striving to

make my life all that life may be-and I am limiting that

strife only in so far as that strife is incompatible with others

of my brothers and sisters making their lives similar. The

crucial question now is where that limit comes. I am too often puzzled to know.

…I therefore take the world that the Unknown [God] lay in my hands and work for

the rise of the Negro people, taking for granted that their best development

means the best development of the world . . .”

Let the church say, “Ahmen and Selah.”

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

It would be hard not to be touched by the evident idealism as by the ambition and indeed, the bravery of the forgoing. Or was that simply the arrogance of youth? Inevitably and very soon to be dissipated by reality: the cold winds of time and the ‘hard school’ of experience from which none us are spared. Unavoidable, even were the author some over-privileged, upper-class European princeling, unquestioned beneficiary of the world as constituted in the closing decade of the 19th Century. But for a young Negro American without affluent and influential family connections, the issue of a people but one generation removed from bondage? And, at the time of writing, without a job or even the prospects of one?

At twenty five DuBois proposed to take the world (and what a world) in his hands and work to ensure the rise of his people. Driven, in his words by “pride of race, lineage and self” and armed, as his best biographer wrote, “only with a brain, a pen and audacity”? One can add to that an almost superhuman determination, discipline and focus, tireless effort and uncommon longevity. Even so give it five years, ten at the most. Then we shall see how much of that high-minded vision and noble commitment survives. What in this is truly astonishing is the remarkable early self-knowledge it displays and the way it prefigures an extraordinary life with an uncanny prophetic accuracy.

The America to which the twenty-five year old DuBois would return from Europe sans the doctorate which, but for a technicality he had fully earned, was for his people no hopeful land of opportunity. The South having lost the war and their former slaves ramped up a campaign, (the baleful effects of which haunt the society to this day), that would succeed magnificently in winning and disfiguring the peace; ultimately coming to dominate national congressional politics and damn near making the mind of the South the mind of the Nation.

Dr. DuBois after College in Berlin

DuBois in Berlin

Well Armed for Intellectual Combat

Over the next half-century, the rancorous confederate resurgence would succeed in subverting democracy; rewriting history, disfranchising the third of its population that was black; reducing the southern black population to economic near-slavery by a system of peonage called sharecropping; establishing white supremacy and legalizing “Jim Crow” apartheid (“A place for everah Niggah an’ evrah Niggah in his place) by utilizing the violence of the mob and when necessary the state.

The Klu Klux Klan would become for a time a national organization, the lynching of Negroes accepted social practice among the “lower classes”, (and apparently, given their voting record, the national congress). In the academy “scientific” studies projecting the mental, moral and genetic inferiority of “the black race” became an accepted means to professional advancement. “Coonery”, the caricaturing of our physical features and the parodying of our speech and manners became a regular fixture of the national press.

The White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan

Ku Klux Klan

Demonstrating their power to the Politicians

The rise of a commercial popular culture would be launched out of Blackface Minstrelsy—the first of many crude commercial appropriations for profit of our people’s culture—while reducing it to a racist instrument of mockery, ridicule and painful insult to the culture they were hijacking and its creators. Significantly enough, this genre, an invidious, overtly racist attack on our people’s humanity, would become the first transnational popular culture export of the United States. An early excursion into world cultural leadership in which post-racial America can retrospectively take appropriate pride?

 White America’s Favorite Entertainments!

lynching Bee

True American Exceptionalism


Eddie Cantor: Jews and Gentiles “Blacked Up!


Assassinating the Character of a Race

Worldwide, our peoples’ circumstances were faring no better. All of Africa, north and south with the exception of Ethiopia, was being subjected to a particularly rapacious European colonization and all its attendant ills. While colonialism’s most obvious and visible effects were always political and economic, its most enduring destructive effects (particularly in black Africa, DuBois’ ancestral homeland) being of a cultural, religious and psychological nature, were at their worst.

Worse because this entailed the systematic assault on, and dismantlement of, those native institutions which ordered human affairs. This was nothing less than the systematic disparagement and dismissal of all conventions of indigenous culture and thought by which people articulated their values, defined their universe, organized their societies and understood and passed on the meaning and consequence of their presence and place in the world.

The White Man’s Burden?

Belgium Congo

Everywhere Mighty Whitey Was In Charge

Afro-Jamaicans on sugar Cane Plantion around 1905

Condition Were Horrendous in Caribbean and South America too!

In the Diaspora a different version of the same dynamic was at work. The Caribbean labored under colonization and there, as in Central America, their African populations —DuBois’ kinsmen and his father’s side—struggled in societies informed by economic arrangements as well as social attitudes and practices deriving directly from their histories of plantation slavery.

Here I have been, however briefly, at considerable pains to sketch out something very like a report on the dismaying “State of the Race” across the world. Why so? Because there is, quite literally, not a single aspect of any of all this which DuBois would not fearlessly confront with determination, tireless political activism and rigorous intellectual discipline during a public and scholarly career over some seventy years. Generations would come and go, intellectual fashions ebb and flow, ideological certitudes discredited or abandoned, war would follow wars, powerfully transformative new analytical systems would make their mark, as this country went from a former slave holding, largely agrarian nation to a world leading industrial society, and the modern world emerged, slouching like Yeats’ “rough beast” towards nuclear annihilation.

Throughout all of which DuBois was not still. He observed and thought, grew, changed and evolved with the times but purposefully so, always from an unchanging, centered set of concerns sustained through every advance and the many reversals of his people’s fortunes. What did this development mean for his people’s interests and progress? What did this one portend for the possibility of true democracy in this country, in the world? In these he never wavered, never deviated and apparently never tired. In this he was not simply the preeminent and most effective American public intellectual since perhaps only Jefferson (a distant second), he was the very model and contemporary archetype of the species.

In the smithy of his art he did indeed “forge the consciousness of a race” and summoned the ancestors to struggle. As even Roy Wilkins, his longtime opponent in the fierce NAACP insider wars, finally had to concede. As a very young man at the March on Washington, I vividly remember sitting in the headquarters tent and watching on T.V. as Wilkins announced the Doctor’s death in Ghana and told the suddenly hushed multitudes that despite recent historical ironies,

“… It is incontrovertible that at the dawn of the twentieth century, his was the voice calling you to gather here today in this cause.”

Dr. King  Greets Crowd at Great March on Washington
Dr. King at March on Washington
Dr. DuBois died in Ghana the night before the March

The Funeral of Dr. Dubois In Ghana

Dr. DuBois' Funeral III

An Affair of State

Madame Dubois is Escorted by President Nkrumah

Dr. DuBois's funeral II“A Mighty Tree Has Fallen in Africa”  

Laying Hands on the Casket

Dr. DuBois Funeral

The Doctor Danced and Joined the Ancestors

Which is why our most recent confederacy of dunces is such a travesty. This being the rabblement (of certain but by no means all, as folk like the admirable Michelle Alexander, Robin G. Kelley and—on his better days—Reverend Brother Cornel demonstrate), black, self-proclaimed “public intellectuals” who apparently answer to no principle visible to the naked eye, political, intellectual or moral. Either from cowardice or self-advancement, these careerists never risk engaging the doctrinal absurdities of global capitalist establishment propaganda. Instead they are content to prostrate themselves before every successive quasi-theoretical cult and pseudo-intellectual fad proceeding out of the entrails of post-industrial, post-colonial, post-modern, post-structural, post-intelligence, post-coital, post-language, “post-racial” America.

Instead of being instructed by the rigor, courage, integrity and consequence of the DuBoisian example, personal and professional, they pick over the corpus of the oeuvre tearing away fragments and minutiae, from which—devoid of any context—they hope to “deconstruct under color of theory” the “intellectual mystique” of DuBois. They need to abandon that effort as well as that self appropriated term by which apparently they hope in vain to imply equivalence. Please, DuBois was a public intellectual; these are public embarrassments.

The Public Intellectual at Work

Dr. dubois in the Crisis Ofice

Editor of the Crisis, Afro-America’s most influential Magazine
The Best of black America on Review

Crisis Magazine II

Langston Hughes said his Grandmother Kept it beside her Bible

That is the public and professional DuBois, but what of the remarkable personality of the man? In appearance and deportment he displayed a style and affect that was distinctly European rather than American or indeed “Negro” as that was then understood. This persona was sufficiently striking as to invite caricature and accusations of foppish self-regard and overweening vanity from his many detractors. But for their own reasons they preferred to look only at surfaces.

He was not a physically imposing figure being on the short side and almost slightly built. However, he was of robust constitution, well coordinated and physically adept, a strong swimmer, a devoted and skillful dancer and excellent tennis player. (One student at Fisk remembers him cutting so fine a figure in his tennis clothes that a  group of young ladies would regularly congregate at the courts for the pleasure of admiring his legs.) The length of his life and the variety, volume and demanding nature of his work and popular intellectual leadership attest to an uncommon physical constitution.

Always Sharp as a Tack!

Dubois at the Paris Exhibition in 1900

At the Paris Exhibition circa 1900

And size notwithstanding, he certainly had presence, and to spare. As a young student in Germany he had affected a Van Dyke and moustache inspired by that of the young Kaiser, which he maintained all his life. In public he was always formally attired in the manner of a Victorian gentleman or “Dandy” if one prefers: well-tailored vested suits, a pocket watch on a gold chain, a hat (frequently a homburg), and occasionally even spats along with an elegant cane, which invariably he flourished as he walked. If, as detractors scoffed, the style was not “Negro”, the impulse certainly was Black enough. “In yo’face cracker”, Black. That clearly was deliberate on his part, as his untaught, simple folk would have easily recognized, “Bless mah soul, that doctah do be styling. Yes indeedy, he styling lak a big dowg.”

At a time when the preferred—indeed required—and most widely and sentimentally celebrated quality in Negroes (among white folk) was our natural “humility,” DuBois carried himself always with an evident pride, which naturally was seen as haughtiness. While courtly and formally correct, he did not suffer fools of any race or status gladly, making him that bane of white male sensibilities and affront to the natural order, “an arrogant Negro”.

People emerged from interviews or public addresses remarking on the “frosty”, “cold”, “intimidating formality” of his aspect, while others were disposed to see something “leonine”, “noble” or even “regal” in his bearing. Or, as novelist Henry Miller would write after seeing him control a potentially rowdy crowd during the McCarthyite hysteria, “The very majesty of the man silenced any would-be demonstration.” During this period one black editor observing his manner and deportment before a hostile investigating House committee, emerged personally and racially validated. “No one seeing him”, he exulted, “can ever again see me as inferior.”

Yet the apparent “contradictions” seemed endless. He was denounced as ‘elitist’ but his deeply democratic instincts and abiding commitment to the interests of, and faith in the abilities of the masses of black folk was unrivalled. He was said to be self-absorbed and like Caesar, personally “ambitious,” yet he never sought self-promotion on the back of other black folk or the expense of his people’s interests. An “ambitious intellectual” who never succumbed to the temptation to disguise his contempt for the received wisdom and fashionable consensus in the establishment on race, class and capitalist cupidity?  Derided as “Eurocentric” even as he launched into the colonial capitals then ruling the world, the offensive that would lead to the movement for African independence some fifty years later?

Then too, this “stiff, frosty” and allegedly “patriarchal” prototype was deeply and unwaveringly committed, counter to expectation, to the struggle for the rights of women and especially those of his race. From his undergraduate days at Fisk he became a profound admirer of the beauty and sensuality of black women, though not exclusively so. More than that, he was genuinely a friend to women, recognizing their hidden strengths, insight and value.

He liked and respected independent women who in turn, admired his politics, were attracted to him and sought his company. He  fostered their careers wherever he could, worked with them politically, encouraged their ambitions in literature and the arts and in return fairly gloried in the admiration, loyalty and love of a number of intellectually accomplished and artistic women. Evidently beneath the surface of that stiff, cold “Victorian” formality there lurked deep reservoirs of passion, warmth, sensuality and fun. How could he possibly have found the time? But indeed he had. Clearly in the idiom of his folk, the Doctor was a “nachral man”. Or in the argot of the Black street, “Ohwiie, wid dem ladies Li’l ‘Dab O’ Sugar Willie’s got him some game, Jack. Oh yes he do.”

Sometime in the early seventies I was in Great Barrington at an event connected to the University’s undertaking the development of the Dubois family home site. The location of this site had been painstakingly researched and brought to the university’s attention by an admirer of DuBois’s. This man, whose name I have unfortunately forgotten, was white, a workingman, as I recall a carpenter by trade, and a man of profound insight and, as I would discover when I thoughtlessly sought to thank him, few but eloquent words. I needn’t think to thank him he said because,

“…The Doctor lived a good life. He fought all the right fights and he made the correct enemies. He was a great man.”

Which, come to think of it, summarizes all I have been laboring at such length to say. Let the Church say, “Ahmen an’ Selah”.

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

What follows is a narrative of a series of apparently discrete events, which in consequence however, can be seen to account for the evolution of the relationship between Dr. Dubois (or at least his legacy and family) and this University, where his papers reside and the main library bears his name. In a graphic reversal of the law of unintended consequence, we will see a chain of causality in which each apparently, separate event would lead to and fortuitously influence the next one and the next, on and on, to a most happy if unpredictable conclusion.

The first step in this process begun in early 1969 with a group of us who were putting the finishing touches on a proposal for the establishment of a department of African-American studies here. During the prior couple years this notion of “Black Studies” new, innovative and controversial, clearly a spin-off from the Black Power phase of the civil rights movement, had been roiling the academic waters across the nation.

In Amherst we anticipated no serious problem. This was to be no surprise suddenly sprung without warning on the Administration. There had been some preliminary discussions with a group of uncommonly able and intelligent leaders of the upper administration—Chancellor Tippo, Provost Gluckstern and Dean of Humanities Seymour Shapiro. We’d had very civil and substantive discussions in which we explained that what was envisioned was a corrective expansion of the entire curriculum in the liberal arts to take into accurate and rigorous account the role, effect and consequences of the African presence in the evolution of the society.

They appeared to agree that the continued exclusion of this element of the national experience from the national curriculum rendered it not just incomplete, but resulted in a falsification of history and a denial of reality, which the nation could no longer afford. This would not be a gesture to placate the expected influx of Black students. Rather, as we all agreed, any failure to fill this gaping lacuna in American scholarship would simply continue the impoverishment of the education that all our students had been receiving.

This was not—as seemed the case at a great many other institutions—an entirely new discussion. At the university, Professor Sidney Kaplan in particular had been raising such questions continuously, eloquently and effectively for many years. The previous year, Professor Jules Chametzky had organized a discussion of the subject in the Massachusetts Review, for which he secured contributions from leading figures—black scholars and activists—prominent in the national debate.

 Jules Chemetzky: Professor of English

Mass Gathering_for_Jules_Chametzky

Co- Founder of Mass Review with Sid Kaplan

That Mass Review forum had become the authoritative text across academe. Both these colleagues were serving in an advisory capacity on the committee for Black studies. So the ground had been pretty well prepared. We had an agreement in principle and all that was left was for the proposal to articulate the practical means by which these goals might best be accomplished here.

Which was not then as easy a question as it might now appear. This, you must remember, was something unprecedented in any American university’s experience. There were a host of questions for which there were no ready answers. What form should the new entity take: college, department or program? Depending on that answer would it grant degrees, offer majors or simply an academic “concentration”. What would its effect and reception by faculty in existing departments be? Who would teach in it? Where was “qualified” faculty to come from? On what scholarship would it be based? And even, believe it or not, whether white students would be admitted to Black Studies courses.

What would student, (here read white) and their parents’ reaction be? And above, all how was it to be afforded? It was the exceeding good fortune of the enterprise that the University was then in the middle of its expansion from Agricultural College to Flagship University. Consequently there were far more new space and resources (imagine one hundred new faculty positions every year for a decade?) to be deployed than otherwise would have been the case. Absent this reality none of what follows would have been even remotely possible.

The proposal addressed all said questions in clear and, (if I dare say so) practical and persuasive terms and we were days from submitting it to the governance processes of the University. There was among us complete unanimity only on its most politically sensitive proposition. This we made clear was not negotiable—the form which the new entity had to take. This would be that of a Department rather than a program, which had been the strategic ploy common to most universities.

A program could offer no discrete major and hire no faculty: all incoming faculty being joint appointments, would require agreement from the pre-existing (read white) departments in that discipline, as would any courses it defined. This would in effect give pre-existing departments veto power over appointments and courses, an insulting colonial arrangement of overseer-ship, which on no account was acceptable. We were to have a department, freestanding and independent, which could hire its own faculty and define an organic, logically articulated curriculum, or nothing.

On that we were agreed. So that a literally last minute inspiration that the new department bear the name of the native son of Western Massachusetts who was the unquestioned intellectual progenitor of the field, met some not unreasonable resistance.  Academic departments are never named after people so why this one? The political fight is likely to be uphill enough as is, so why add the burden of DuBois’s political baggage? (the Doctor made all the correct enemies…) What do we gain? All good questions.

First of all, it’s an appropriate act of homage and respect to the man without whose pioneering advocacy for black higher education none of us would be here. And yes, he was born here in Western Massachusetts, but that is much more than empty geographic symbolism. Have we not said that our emphasis is going to be on education for service, community responsibility and struggle? That is his legacy.

Second of all, what other (white) departments do or have done is beyond irrelevant. What we are about is something unprecedented, sui generis, quite literally something that has never before existed, a Black Studies Department. What we do, is what we decide to do. That being so, how can there be any precedents which can apply?

It would be several months after this discussion that I would discover unassailable proof the accuracy of our choice. I discovered a remarkably prophetic speech at Fisk from 1933, in which DuBois talking about “The Negro University”, and cutting against the grain of prevailing educational philosophy then and now, would anticipate the central tenets of our black studies agenda forty years in the future. “A Negro university begins with Negroes. It uses that variety of the English idiom which is indigenous to them; and most of all, it is founded on a knowledge of the history and culture of their people in Africa and the United State, and of their present condition.” Enough said!

In any event, the name was duly affixed to the top and the document sent off into the labyrinthine processes of university governance where the name elicited few questions and no real objections. Some nine months later (April 23rd, 1970) the W.E.B. Dubois Department of Afro-American Studies came into official existence.

Which is somewhat misleading because, in truth and in fact, it had been—as kind of a phantom entity—completely functional that previous year. Even while having no official existence we had recruited and hired a splendid faculty but …into the English Department. In this, that department (home to Sidney Kaplan and Jules Chametzky) had been splendidly cooperative. Thus the university acquired a collection of unlikely “English professors” of high intellectual quality, very diverse experience and unconventional academic provenance.

There was for example Playthell G. Benjamin an autodidact “historian” with one year of college, Ivanhoe Donaldson in Political Science with an undergraduate degree from Michigan State and Cherif Guelal whose academic credentials were unclear because he had dropped out of the Sorbonne sans degree.

Prof Sidney Kaplan: An Authority on Blacks during the American Revolution

Sid Kaplan Edit 

A Staunch Intellectual Comrade and Ally of the Dubois Department
Playthell Benjamin
img.407 Presenting a Lecture at U Mass

Benjamin was a captivating lecturer with an encyclopedic knowledge of African and Afro-American history and a photographic memory. (Soon enough, for their own excellent reasons—I shan’t speculate as to what extent, concern for “eroding standards” had played any role)—the History Department invited him to present a lecture on the scholarship in black history. I remember with still undiminished pleasure, sitting in the back of that room while Benjamin conducted an audience of mostly skeptical white historians on a tour through the historical scholarship from ancient Africa to the contemporary United States.

Speaking without notes for over three hours, he cited the important works—author, title and date, giving astute and witty capsule analyses of the contribution (or lack thereof) of each historian to the evolution of the field. I distinctly recall (I was watching closely) that no one left the room before he finished. I watched as the astonishment and growing respect of the audience would erupt at the end in a hearty standing ovation. I was not at all surprised, because it had been just such a virtuoso performance after we had nearly come to blows at a conference where we met, that had led to his recruitment.

Ivanhoe Donaldson, the political scientist with merely an undergraduate education, was the legendary SNCC field organizer immortalized in the documentary film, “Ivanhoe, the Story of a SNCC Field Secretary”. A shrewd and canny political strategist, Ivanhoe had guided several successful racially groundbreaking electoral campaigns: first that of Julian Bond, to the Georgia House of representatives; Andrew Young, first to the US Congress then the Atlanta mayoralty; Carl Stokes, the first black mayor of Cleveland, Ohio as well as that of our former SNCC ally, the misfortunate Marion Barry in the Nation’s Capitol. While in the department he would be architect of the historic National Black Power Conference in Cleveland. Though I had known Ivanhoe since we were both twelve years old, it was only in Amherst that I would discover that he was far and away one of the smartest people politically I have ever known.

 Ivanhoe speaking at the 50th Anniversary of SNCC Founding


A Political Mastermind who guided the elections of many important politicians

Cherif, actually Ambassador Cherif Guelal, was revolutionary Algeria’s first ambassador to the United States, a close friend and intellectual collaborator with Franz Fanon. The reason for his terminating his Sorbonne studies had been to serve in the Government in Exile of the FNLA (Front for the National Liberation of Algeria) during the Algerian war of independence. Subsequently it was the overthrow of Ben Bella which had cost him his diplomatic posting and made him available to our department. His courses “Revolution in The Third World” and “The Writings of Franz Fanon” were not only popular with students here but were a true innovation in the American academic curriculum of the time.

 Cherif Guellal: A solder on the battlefield, class room and boardroom
Cherif Guelal
A Comrade of Dr. Franz Fanon Cheirf gave students an inside view of Revolution

He would leave our department for the presidency of what was said to be at that time, the world’s largest corporation when the Algerian government decided to nationalize and incorporate all its petroleum reserves and wisely called Cherif back to engineer that process and manage the result. Another “English” instructor was Ben Wagara a Kenyan graduate student who taught Swahili.

The other “English” professors in Afro-Am—Esther Terry and myself—were not at all academically esoteric having been trained in “English” right here. Esther would be the Department’s longest serving chairman, a vice chancellor of the university and go on to the Presidency of Bennett College, her Alma Mater.

This discussion is crucially important in understanding the next chapter. In the proposal we had written that the shortage of conventionally trained academics for our purposes would dictate that most initial faculty would have to be drawn from the ranks of “intellectual activists” in the black world. Why should conventionally trained academics not be available? Because for many years graduate committees across the nation, for their own good to be sure, had been strenuously advising doctoral candidates in no uncertain terms, that any dissertation addressing any aspect their own people would not be permitted since professionally “there simply is no future in it”.

Which explains our nonconventional appointments. However, these had been celebrated in the student community, and more important, seen by the administration as so successful, that I guess we were encouraged to push the envelope a bit further in the direction of “unconventional appointments “on the next round.

Once the trustees consummated the deal, (April 23rd, 1970) our papers were transferred from Bartlett Hall to New Africa House and we all officially became Black Studies professors. But even from our position of bureaucratic limbo the search for faculty had gone forward to excellent effect. So that by the time I left the country that spring, ostensibly to write a (yet unwritten novel) about Nat Turner, four files for new appointments were ready to be sent forward to the Administration. My return for the fall semester was delayed by certain unexpected difficulties. (“Mr. Thelwell, travel to the united states is not a right it is a privilege, over which I have total discretion.” Consular Officer, U.S. Embassy, Kingston, Ja.).

These difficulties were only resolved by the intervention of the University and a successful expedition into the federal bureaucracy in D.C. by three members of the upper administration.

(That story merits telling because it illustrates perfectly an unusual spirit of intolerance for arrogance, red tape and bureaucratic inanity in the administration of the day that I came to so greatly admire. However, in retrospect I can see clearly that this problem was almost entirely of my own creation. My great mistake being to behave in my native land (at least in the American embassy there) as though I were in Amherst.

See, when I moved from foreign student to fulltime university employee my visa status had to be changed. Dean Shapiro, who handled that, had an ironic, mischievous glint in his eye when he told me that the most convenient way of affecting that change was for the administration to apply on my behalf for a class of visa reserved for “distinguished aliens rendering invaluable service to the national interest.” I modestly accepted the designation, the application was duly submitted and I took off for home.

September and the new school year was approaching when Dean Shapiro called to say that I was officially “a distinguished alien” and should expect a call from the embassy to that effect. Sure ‘nuff, said call came from a consular officer informing me that my visa having been approved, I should bring in my passport to the embassy to have it affixed. I should ask for him, Mr. Keeshan.

Then in rapid succession, my three foolish mistakes. First was to attire myself in a flowing Yoruba agbada. The second, in my haste and excitement, was to forget to take with me my passport. The third was that when asked my business I did not mention the officer’s name but merely said that I was there about a visa. Consequently I was curtly directed to the appropriate place for people seeking the greatly coveted American visa.

Ekueme Michael Thelwell

Mike Thelwell and Stokely

Working with longtime comrade Stokely Carimichal In SNCC

This turned out to be a long, dim and extremely crowded room. Poor black folk were crammed together on long wooden benches. My people looked hot, anxious, uncomfortable and ill at ease. There was no conversation, which is not usual with Jamaicans. It was as though everyone was trying to hide hopelessness beneath a desperate but transparent show of optimism. It was a depressing scene. Which quickly became offensive when a woman employee entered, wrinkling her face in ill-disguised distaste, while moving down the line with a can from which she sprayed bursts of pungent air freshener just above the peoples’ heads. And none of the people so disrespected said a mumbling word! They looked off into space and avoided eye contact as though pretending they had not noticed the insult. Again, totally out of character for my proud, self-respecting people.

In the circumstances I thought my restraint admirable. I merely inquired of the lady very calmly, politely, and even diffidently, whether it had not occurred to her that the people might perceive her action as perhaps…just the slightest bit disrespectful? She seemed astonished that anyone there would dare to so address her. But I don’t recall that she made any answer before stalking off.

I have never been able to decide whether she was an Afro-American or a low level local employee relegated to that distasteful duty and anxious to keep her job with the Americans even at the expense of her peoples’ dignity? I tend to think the latter to be the more likely. It seems unthinkable, in the charged racial climate at home during those times, that any white bureaucrat would so direct an African American. Or that she would meekly accept so demeaning an assignment. But one never knows does one? In any event I have no idea what, if anything, may have been reported upstairs about my mild intervention.

Once I explained that my mission there was not to apply for a visa, but to pick up an already approved one, I was somewhat more respectfully conducted to the right place. There Mr. K., a young white man slightly older than I, seemed not pleased. Perhaps my appearance—my age, the large Afro, beard and African attire—was entirely wrong either for his image of a Jamaican and especially of a “distinguished alien”. I’ll never know. But my feeble attempts at polite small talk failed dismally. He was having none of it, “Just hand me your passport, Mr. Thelwell, I’ll stamp in the visa.” That’s how close I came.

For when I could not produce said document his face reddened. “What? You, you’re not telling me that you… forgot it?” “I’m sorry, Sir. This is so embarrassing… in a hurry… my apologies…but I’ll just bring it in… early Monday morning.” I have since been told that my forgetfulness was for him the final straw compounding the other errors. On what should have been the  single most important day of my life, forgetting a passport was entirely too casual, not the overwhelming gratitude he was accustomed to from such as I.

On Monday he brushed aside the fateful passport, “Oh, it turns out we shan’t be needing that after all.”

“But on Friday you said…”

“Yes, quite so, but you see, since this visa is not going to be issued, it won’t be needed…”

“Not to be issued? But, I don’t understand? Hasn’t it been already approved in Washington? The State department… this part’s a mere formality is it not? How can anyone here over rule them?” That’s when I got the little speech about how mistaken I had been and the difference between travel rights and privileges to folk like me. For the first, and as it would turn out the only time, Mr. K could not disguise his palpable satisfaction in a conversation between us Slowly and clearly, he savored every word of what could have been a rehearsed little speech..

“What you fail to understand, Mr. Thelwell is that while authorization to issue does originate in Washington, the final decision rests with people like me. Here on the ground, “in country” so to speak. That is policy. So that your travel to the US is a privilege over which I have full and complete discretion. A privilege, which I either bestow or withhold. And I can assure you that you will never again….(Fifty years later these are his almost exact words which have been etched into my memory)

Mr. K must have worked his ass off over the weekend, searching files and wracking his brain to formulate some rationale to justify overturning the DC decision. Of course this was never shown me, but I’ve since come to gather that in his version I am described as both an “undesirable” and a “subversive” whose best service to national interests was exclusion. Quite a comedown, what? Needless to say I’ve never since ‘forgotten” a passport.

Enter UMass, fighting mad.

On the phone Dean Shapiro’s indignation was comforting. “He said that did he? The arrogant little shmuck! Don’t worry Mike, we’ll see about that. Hold tight.” Hearing that I did not feel so isolated and vulnerable.

The Good Dean sprang into action. Letters and phone calls to Foggy Bottom, no result. Mobilizing the Massachusetts congressional delegation, Sen. Kennedy and such notables, still no result. Finally, all other options being exhausted, a delegation consisting of Mssrs Gluckstern, Shapiro and Bromery was dispatched to the nation’s Capitol.

A long, frustrating meeting with the head of the Latin American section who patently un-impressed with a group of academics from the rustic hinterlands of New England dug in his bureaucratic heels. So same result. “As we have repeatedly told you “the man in country” has final jurisdiction. You must accept that this case is not going to be reversed, no precedent. So there is nothing to be done. Sorry.” Total defeat? But be of good cheer, here come to best part.

Bill Bromery To The Rescue… Go Bill Bromery, Go, Go, Go!

Thoroughly disgruntled and at the end of their options our people were heading back to the airport in frustration when Bro Bromery, who if you recall, had some experience with the turf rivalries within Beltway Bureaucracy sat up.

“Turn the cab around,” he commanded, “we ain’t licked yet.” I tell you turn the cab round. We’re going to Bill Scranton’s outfit.” To the uninformed, recall that the previous year any number of American universities had been shut down by thousands of angry students protesting the war and the Kent State massacre. Former Pennsylvania Gov. William Scranton had been drafted by Pres. Nixon to head the President’s Commission on Campus Unrest to study the issue, but more importantly to anticipate and head off further outbreaks where possible. “Look diplomats don’t share our interests; to them we’re just academics.” The Brother explained. “But is there an operation within the Beltway that does? Course there is, and that’s where we should’ve gone first.”

Received by the Governor, the pitch was perfect, indeed inspired. First they established “common ground.” What’s with this government, Governor? Seems like the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing? Absolute Cross purposes here it seems.”

“Whatever are you talking about? Best you explain.” Or words to that effect from the Governor.

“Well Governor, it’s like this: here you are doing your best to curb campus unrest across the nation. Here we are concerned with averting eruptions on our campus. That’s what brings us all the way to DC. We are desperate, at our wits end. Yet the government seems almost schizophrenic. Because across town at State, some knucklehead is taking a position guaranteed to have our Black students burn down the university come September.” Well, to coin a phrase, a little exaggeration in pursuit of (my) liberation is no vice. Our students were no more incendiary than I distinguished, but whatever works. And this did. Notice how deftly the brother played the two notes calculated to get Scranton’s attention? Not just campus unrest, but race driven campus unrest. After hearing the story the Governor got on the phone.

Next day or so Dean Shapiro was on the phone. “Mike get out your passport, within the hour your phone will ring. It will be your Mr. Keeshan and …”

“Wow, Dean Shapiro, I can’t believe…thank you…But how do you know it will be him…”

“No, it will be him, I promise. Just wait for the call, O K.”

Sure enough the call came and it was indeed himself. It was now my turn to enjoy our conversation.

“Mr. Thelwell, bring your passport down to the Embassy…”

“Oh Mr. Keeshan,” I wailed. “This is such a cruel joke. Much too cruel, quite unworthy of you. Have you not told me, in no uncertain terms, that I would never again travel to…”

“Just bring the goddamned passport,” he snarled and hung up.

I think I was there before the phone settled on the hook, but in his office Mr. K was nowhere in evidence. I was met by his secretary. “He’s been called away”. “But he told me to…” “Just hand me the passport”, she said, “I’ll stamp it.”)

Too long I know, but the telling just got too good to me.


Feeling inordinately “privileged” and grateful for the administration’s loyalty, I returned to find classes underway and three new faculty settling in nicely. These were Josephus Vidal Olufemi Richards of Sierra Leone, an amazingly erudite African Art historian and fabric designer; Dovi Afesi, a young African historian from Ghana (in his high school graduating class his chief rival for top academic honors had been a bright young man named Kofi Annan); and Johnnetta Cole an anthropologist who went on to the presidency of Spellman College and is now director of the Museum of African Art at the Smithsonian Institution.

Dr. Johnetta Cole

Dr. Johnetta Cole

Anthropologist, and Director of Musem of African Art

In the prevailing excitement of arrival after the narrow escape, it took me a few days to realize that something, the fourth appointment, which was of an historian on American Slavery, was missing.

“Wait a minute,” I asked, “what happened to the Aptheker appointment?”

“Waal”, drawled Bernie Bell who been interim Chair in my absence, “that’s something the administration been wanting to talk to you about.”

Dr. Bernard Bell

Dr-Bernard Bell

Distinguished Scholar on the Afro-American Novel
Dr. Herbert Aptheker: Historian and Custodian of DuBois Papers
Aptheker signing for purchase Dubois Papers
With Madame Signing for University Purchase of DuBois Papers

This was an appointment we had thoroughly discussed among ourselves. Dr Aptheker, a serious scholar of slavery and as I was to discover, something of a disciple of DuBois, had written a book, “American Negro Slave Revolts” which had excited the ire of a cabal of establishment southern historians particularly C. Van Woodward of Yale. According to this group, Aptheker’s work was inferior if not spurious scholarship.

We were convinced that the real issue was that the book definitively refuted the long since discredited “Sambo theory” of slavery, which was at that time curiously influential. This version of our ancestor’s experience held—in total contravention of the preponderance of evidence—that Africans had been so traumatized by the institution that they had been reduced, like Zombies, to a state of psychological paralysis and utter dependence so severe as to foreclose any possibility of resistance.

This was the so-called “Sambo Personality” theory advanced by Stanley M. Elkins, a professor of history at Smith College, just down the road in North Hampton.  In an essay titled “Slavery and the Sambo Personality,” Elkins compares the behavior of Jews in Nazi concentration camps with that of African slaves on American plantations, and comes up with something akin to an American version of the Stockholm Syndrome in black and white.  The “Elkin’s Thesis” has since been widely debunked, most notably by Professor Sterling Stuckey in his book “Slave Culture.”

Resume edit – Our friend and mentor Professor Kaplan (a founder of the Massachusetts Review) had repeatedly challenged these gentlemen in print to produce evidence of error, even a single instance of omission, carelessness, or falsification of evidence in Aptheker’s work. None were ever forthcoming. Nevertheless Dr. Aptheker, despite impressive publication, had never received appointment to the faculty of any university in the country. Whenever this possibility arose it was always dismissed by reason of “dubious” scholarship though we suspected that the real reason might just possibly have been Dr Aptheker’s prominently held position as “chief theoretician” of the Communist Party, USA. But, of course, we could have been wrong. (I often wondered, but was afraid to ask, just exactly what were the duties of a “Chief Theoretician”?)

However we concluded that since the “poor” scholarship charges seemed clearly a canard, denying a fine scholar employment because of political beliefs was an equally scandalous violation of fundamental principles of academic freedom of which the Academy should be ashamed. And oddly enough, when we had approached Dr. Aptheker he had not discussed ideology nor had he tried to convert much less “brainwash” us. The names Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin or Josef Stalin never arose in our discussions though those of David Walker, Nat Turner and Frederick Douglass had. We discussed black history and found that our positions on that subject were in strong agreement. Which was the basis on which the nomination was made. Now the administration, for which we had complete respect, wanted to discuss it further?

The meeting was to prove very consequential. The top administration was in place when we arrived. Chancellor Tippo, Provost Gluckstern and Dean Shapiro looked real serious. In fact so serious and so bristling with gravitas, that it actually occurred to me to greet them with a bow and the opening words of Othello’s greeting to the Venetian senate, “Most Potent, Grave and Reverend Seigneurs, My most Noble and assured Good Masters,” as Esther, Johnnetta and Ivanhoe seated themselves. But unsure how this might be received, I restrained myself but often wondered what might have happened had I not.

Of the many good qualities I appreciated about Chancellor Oswald Tippo, his principled, directness and a guileless, blunt honesty stand out. He came, as always, straight to the point. They’d looked into Aptheker and everything we said about his scholarship appeared accurate. He agreed that the denigration of his work simply wasn’t fair, and was in fact disgraceful. His work seemed to fit the Department’s mission so on that score it would be a sensible appointment. And, he agreed, in a just world a fine scholar would not be kept out of the Academy because of his political ideas and commitments.

But, that said, there was absolutely no way he was gonna make this appointment. And let’s be quite clear. This is not about scholarship; it’s the communist thing. His administration appointing one of the leading figures in the Communist Party to the faculty? No way. Forget it. As Chancellor he had to be responsible for the interests of the entire University. This appointment would be an utter and complete political disaster. Quite simply it could not be done.

Our side understood, sympathized and expressed measured disappointment. But would it really be such a disaster after all? Assorted importunings were uttered evoking “… the high road… correcting historical injustice… institutional pride… courageous leadership… setting an example… affirming fundamental principle… doing the right thing… leading the way in higher education… Academic freedom.. Yaya, yaya, on and on.

They listened patiently. Look it will not, and simply cannot happen they said. This university has real enemies in the Legislature. Someone, I think Dean Shapiro said,

“Jesus, can’t you just see what Blackie Burke would do with something this?” Looks of genuine horror crossed their faces. “We’d be giving that bastard the knife he’s been looking for to cut the university’s throat.”

Senator Burke, the loud, abrasive and very conservative chairman of the committee out of which the university’s appropriation came, was not a friend of public higher education. At least not in Western Massachusetts anyway.

So we cannot appoint Aktheker but there are things we can do. We can invite him to give a series of eight well-remunerated lectures next year, one each month of the academic year, on the life of Dr DuBois. Further we can assign the department four new positions for which searches can begin immediately. What do you think? Of course what did not need saying was that in return, the department would not publicly raise the issue of academic freedom in connection with the Aptheker appointment. It would not, as in the climate of those times, we were perfectly capable of doing, mobilize some kind of national movement around the issue.

“We appreciate that this is a very thoughtful proposal Gentlemen. But of course, you understand that we shall have to caucus?”

Outside, strange as it might sound today, I actually was torn. There were real principles, important issues of fairness and justice at play. My SNCC instincts were towards riding principle wherever it might lead. On the other hand, I deeply admired the men in that room and, only recently had excellent reason to have been grateful for their support with that arrogant and vindictive consul in Kingston. Also they clearly had respected, perhaps even shared our feelings, about the seriousness of the issue.

I had gotten the distinct impression that they—particularly Chancellor Tippo—would have liked to be able to redress the injustice to Aptheker. But they had to do what they had to do, period… These were not bureaucratic careerists but honorable and intelligent men. Men who shared a thoroughly admirable view, to which I subscribed completely, about the role and possibilities of public higher education. And a truly inspiring vision of the kind of university they intended to build here. Embarrassing them or in any way damaging their mission at the University was the last thing I wanted to do… but principle was principle and standing on principle was easy only when it didn’t cost anything.

In the caucus I suppose we all knew what we had to do but we had to go through the radical motions anyway. Ways to “heighten the contradictions”, or” “bringing pressure to bear” were tossed around. Then Ivanhoe cut to the chase incontrovertibly.

“Who y’awl kidding? What will any of that get us—one national press conference, two at the most, and after that what?” Whereupon good sense was immediately restored.

Back in the meeting the administrators had the grace to pretend relief as though they had not known that we had no sensible other choice. We affected that we were making a painful concession only out of loyalty. Of course we would have to consult Aptheker on the offer but we believed we had achieved common ground. The tension broken, the gathering relaxed and an administrator, Dean Shapiro I think it was, entertained us with the story below about the bush league provincialism that oft-times characterized state politics.

One of those new positions went to John Henry Bracey—now serving his second term as chairman—as it were, trading one fine historian for another. Two were used for Chester Davis and Bill Strickland from The Institute of the Black World in Atlanta and the fourth went to the inimitable and unforgettable Acklyn Lynch. (Bill Belichek never did better with his draft picks, but as he would be the first to tell you, it always is a bit of a gamble.)

The Dean’s Story. Statehouse scuttlebutt on exactly how petty Massachusetts politics can be. Turns out Senator “Blackie” Burke had an ally on the committee even more vocal and relentless in his opposition to the University’s interests. But, as it turns out, this opposition was not primarily a matter of policy but of deep personal grievance, very, very personal. Seems this gentleman, from the southeastern part of the state had, so to say, a close enemy, his next-door neighbor. This was no casual disagreement between neighbors. This was open, mutual hostility. Their relationship had long since deteriorated to the point described in an expressive Igbo phrase translated as “Fight to the knife, knife to the hilt.” Hell, one or both men could simply have moved away, no? But neither would.

So, what has this got to do with the university’s budget you may well ask? Well, both had sons. The time came for college. The senator’s son was accepted at Tufts and he proudly enrolled him there, all the while sneering at the neighbor’s son who had “settled” for Umass, Amherst. However, when school opened that Fall, the neighbor’s son set out for Amherst ostentatiously driving a shiny, brand new car. The senator was aghast to hear the neighbor crowing that while certain idiots were paying in the region of 30K to Tufts, his son’s fees in Amherst were around 13K. The kid’s snazzy new car represented just one year’s savings. A reasonable man might have concluded that the thing to do was to have his son transfer to Umass, but not the Senator. That cheapskate next door can laugh now, he comforted himself, but he’ll very soon see which education is the superior value.

So that when, upon graduation, both young men gained admission to the same prestigious law school (somewhere in the eastern part of the state), the Senator was way beyond outraged. As much, one imagines by the financial injustice as by his neighbor’s insufferable self-satisfaction. The use of taxpayer dollars to subsidize educational welfare to such riff raff was just what was wrong with “Taxachussetts”. This was a political scandal. A misuse of taxpayer money, which it was his clear duty to do everything in his power to end, beginning for precisely that purpose, with a seat on that budget committee …

Looking today at the dramatic downward arc of legislative appropriations to the University and the upward swing of tuition costs to working families in the Commonwealth since then, one really has to wonder… But Senator, I can assure you that tuition still costs a hell of a lot more at Tufts, so sorry! Since this was in 1970 this excellent public servant must have long left the political stage and gone to his well deserved rest. But alas, his legacy survives him.)


Dr Aptheker seemed unsurprised by our news, thanked us for our efforts and reassured us that we were right, building the department had to be our priority and he would be delighted to offer the lectures on DuBois. In the event, the Five College community was treated to a truly extraordinary educational experience. Nothing could have better justified to the community our reason for the association of that name with the department. Aptheker’s evident devotion, combined with his historian’s attention to detail, his intimate acquaintance from working with Dr. DuBois over many years and the respectful care which he obviously devoted to preparing each lecture was a revelation.

DuBois the man was presented all his complex, admirable quirky and enigmatic humanity and the remarkable career of struggle, endurance and accomplishment was situated in the context of history. I had heard Dr. Aptheker speak while at Howard and had not thought him capable of such affecting eloquence. I attribute it to his reverence for the subject. I don’t know whether Dr. Aptheker ever published these lectures, but they certainly, certainly, certainly Lord, deserve to be.

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

One afternoon towards the end of the first year of the Department’s official existence my phone in New Africa House rang. It was Vincent Harding, Director of the Institute of the Black World in Atlanta, and his voice fairly quivered with excitement. “Mike I can hardly believe what I’ve just this minute discovered,” he burst out. “… This house, the one where we have the Institute, turns out to be one in which DuBois actually lived while at Atlanta University!” His excitement was infectious; this really was beyond coincidence, though not being the Christian minister Vincent is, I was not prepared to attribute it to intelligent design so I said something like,

“Wow. Really? That can’t be an accident my Brother. Truly the ancestors do not sleep, nor do they slumber. But how’d you find this out?”

Well, I’m here talking to Madame DuBois and…”

“Madame? … You, you can’t mean Shirley Graham Dubois can you?”

“None other. That’s exactly who I mean”, he said. “Matter of fact she’s sitting across the room from me right now.”

It was my turn to be flabbergasted. Tell the truth, I hadn’t been entirely sure whether Mrs. DuBois was still alive. I knew that Gamal Abdul Nasser (peace be unto him), had sent a plane for Nkrumah’s wife and family at the time of the coup that overthrew Osageyfo. I’d assumed that his protection would have extended to DuBois’s widow since I had heard that she had moved to Cairo sometime after. But I hadn’t really had reason to think about her. So it was kind’ve a shock to hear that she was actually in the country. My excitement matched Vincent’s, “Oh Man, tell her she’s gotta come to Amherst. Please Brother, you gotta persuade her. Please.”

Vincent left the line then came back to report that Madme. Dubois said that a visit to Amherst, intriguing as it was, simply was not going to be possible this trip. Of course she’d like to come but perhaps next time. I asked to speak with her and explained how great an honor and inspiration it would be if she could come to see what was being done in her husband’s name here at the University of Massachusetts.

She was very gracious. Said that Vincent had said as much but she explained why it simply wasn’t possible. The trip had been a year in the planning. The scheduling was in the hands of organizers who’d had to decline a great many important and attractive invitations that she’d have loved to be able accept. And now the visit was coming to its end. She couldn’t see how another stop could possibly be fitted in.

I begged, pleaded, cajoled, flattered (subtly, to be sure,) and exaggerated shamelessly all in about three minutes.

“You really are most persuasive, young man. Tell you what. I can’t promise anything because it really is out my hands. But I will take the matter to the organizers, old friends whose judgments I respect, and then we’ll see. But don’t get your hopes up.”

I had my fingers crossed but had no way of knowing exactly what those trusted “old friends”, among whom I’m sure Herbert Aptheker would have been prominent, might have said of us… But within a week Madam DuBois called. It was possible for her to be in Amherst for three days after all.

The administration shared our excitement. If there is a university equivalent of a state visit that is what was rolled out for the occasion. Madam DuBois was received onto the Campus by the top leadership. Among us she was impressive and business-like. She spent much time in New Africa House, met the faculty and the students, scrutinized the department proposal and asked really astute and probing questions about everything.

She was a petite lady with a strong face, a no-nonsense demeanor and very alert eyes, which appeared to miss nothing. By the second day, I suspected that she had satisfied herself and reached her conclusions because she visibly relaxed and became expansive. She answered our eager questions about the Doctor, shared their experiences of Ghana and China as well as impressing us with her candid impressions of people like Nkrumah and Nasser and their replacements in office. Before her departure she paid a “courtesy call” on the Chancellor and his close associates, which seemed to go on much longer than mere courtesy would seem to have required. But I thought nothing of it at the time.

My recollection is that although I’d gotten a strong impression that Madam DuBois looked favorably on our efforts, it never would have occurred to me to be so presumptuous as to invite her to join our faculty. I came to suspect though, that such an invitation may have been issued during that unduly lengthy, last courtesy call. In any event Mrs. D did indeed join the department for the 1974—75 academic year. A few years later her son David Graham DuBois would join the faculty and return as a visiting professor in Journalism until his death at the turn of this century.

 Shirley Graham DuBois

Shirley duBois

An intellectual, Writer and Teacher
Dr. and Mrs DuBois at State Function in Ghana


Dr. and Madam DuBois With Ghana President and First Lady

Kwame Nkrumah

North, South and the American Diaspora
 A Widowed Shirley Strolling with Malcolm X
 Black Revolutionaries from everywhere visited Ghana
With President Nkrumah and Stokely Carmichael
madame Dubois, Nkeumah and stokely
She Embraced and Instructed Revolutionary Youths

With Dr. DuBois in China

Dr. DuBois and wife in China

The author of a number of books, Ms D. taught courses in literature for us. In the manner of many of those old time black teachers of our youth she was exemplary and very disciplined. She devoted great care to her teaching preparation and enormous time and concern to her students. In the department’s early days faculty meetings were of necessity much more frequent and one of my most enduring images of her comes from those meetings. As Chair I had to be punctual. But every time I’d arrive exactly on time for a meeting Mrs. Dubois would’ve beaten me there, a solitary, business-like presence sitting erect in the front of the room alert, pen in hand, notebook at the ready.

I’d sit with that elderly lady and, over the next half hour or so, watch the rest of the faculty everyone at least twenty-years her junior, casually straggle in. I grew to admire Mrs. DuBois very much and I was able to spend time in her company.  From our conversations I learned a great deal, as much from what she did not say as from what she did but especially from the way she conducted herself always. And in retrospect it is possible to see that certain things, which she did not share, had been perhaps her greatest lesson.

At the end of the year she meticulously completed all her duties, took her leave and departed for China, there to die of cancer in what seemed a very short time. All year she had neither requested nor accepted any special treatment based on age or status. Yet as seems quite evident, she had to have known at least for a considerable portion of that year; that she was terminally ill and may very well have been in some pain. And so far as I know, she never breathed a word to anyone in Amherst.

One day Mrs. DuBois came into my office so angry that she could not sit still nor get her words out. She paced back and forth fuming and unable to control some very strong emotions. Never having seen this dignified lady in such a state this was totally out of character. I was quite concerned and tried to calm her. When she was able to speak it was apparent that she was having difficulty suppressing tears of anger.

“I’m just back from Harvard and I simply can’t remember being as angry. The arrogance…”

Wishing to lighten her mood I attempted quite unsuccessfully a bit of humor.

“Oh, Harvard Mrs. D? Well, that explains everything. Remember what someone said about ‘Harvard, a place where fake pearls are tossed before real swine’?” The lady was in no mood to be distracted or amused.

“No that doesn’t explain anything.” She gestured impatiently; “Now this is serious, you listen …” She had gone there to finalize discussions about Harvard’s acquiring the DuBois papers. DuBois having earned his doctorate there, they felt his papers were theirs as a matter of right, institutional prestige and previous condition of (his)… Really, it was quite unthinkable they could possibly rest anywhere else but the Widener.

On the value and price of the papers there was complete agreement. And once acquired the University would oversee and undertake their appropriate publication by the University’s press. Mrs. D. agreed and pointed out that obvious editor for that project would be the historian who had figured significantly in gathering the collection and consequently best understood them. This was of course Dr. Herbert Aptheker.

Mrs. DuBois was then made to understand in no uncertain terms that once the papers were Harvard’s property only the university would determine their disposition. And she should understand that there was absolutely no possibility of Harvard University’s entering into any such professional relationship with Aptheker. I can only speculate as to what, if any reasons were presented in justification but I’m pretty sure apprehension of the dread “Blackie” Burke was not one of them.

From the intensity of Mrs. D’s outrage and repeated mention of “arrogance”, I suspect that slanders of Aptheker’s scholarly integrity and competence, which had ossified into received wisdom among a certain coterie of academics, may have entered the conversation. They watched her end the discussion and storm out, probably entirely too confident that inevitably she must “come to her senses” and be back cap in hand. What alternative did she have? What alternative for those papers could there be to Harvard? Well, that they were soon to discover.

(To the extent that the Harvard grandees had been surprised by Mrs. DuBois’s indignation they really should not have been. It was pretty common knowledge that Aptheker had for many years done yeoman work tracking down and collecting as many of Dubois’ papers as he was able. And, so the grapevine went, he had done so entirely at personal expense, free from the contamination of a dime of the institutional or philanthropic monies usually awarded as a matter of course to collections of this historical, literary and intellectual significance.

It was the department’s resident historian John Bracey who had given me the sharpest, most enduring image I retain concerning this, “Yeah man, it was nobody but Herbert and Faye Aptheker by themselves, working long nights in their basement organizing, annotating and coordinating that mountain of documents, which is why these papers even exist in their current form at all.”)

Listening to Mrs. DuBois I was relieved to see that recounting the experience seemed to calm her down appreciably.

“Oh Mrs. D don’t distress yourself. Calm yourself; this ain’t the end of the world. In fact, it just might be the best thing that could have happened.” She appeared startled and looked at me as though contemplating the possibility that I had taken leave of my senses.

“No Ma’am, I’m serious. Harvard isn’t the center of the universe, they only think they are. Look over there,” I pointed west out the window; “we can almost see Great Barrington from here. And this university plans to build a great new library. Maybe this is the place where the ancestors intend those papers to find a home, why on earth not?”

Mrs. D was silent and thoughtful for a long minute or two. Then suddenly and completely her face brightened into a radiant smile,

“Yes,” she said with excitement, “yes. That is so right. And this, this is the State University of Massachusetts, isn’t it? It will always be here. At least as long as there is a state.” Mrs. D. was a socialist so that misconception was understandable, and I felt that wasn’t the best moment to enlighten her about the politics of the “Blackie” Burkes of the world or its implications for the university’s permanence.

By then Chancellor Tippo had been succeeded by Randolph “Bill” Bromery a truly extraordinary black man. After flying with the legendary Tuskegee Airman, Bromery had availed himself of the GI bill to become a geologist, worked in government in DC then come to Amherst as Chair of the Geology Department and within a decade had risen to the Chancellorship. From which you might assume, and quite correctly so, that Bro. Bill was uncommonly politically astute and effective.

“Brother Chancellor, Mike Thelwell. Guess who I have in my office? Mrs. DuBois and there’s something important she wishes to discuss with you. No, no. I think it best you hear it from her. But I’m sure this is something that could redound to the great credit of the University and, of course, of your administration. Interested? Of course, I’ll drive her right over.” The rest, to coin a phrase, is history.

Dr. Randolph “Bill” Bromery
Geo-Physicist and Chancellor U-Mass
Bill Bromery: Fighter Pilot
Bill bromery_aircorps
A Tuskegee Airman

But how Chancellor Bromery accomplished it is worth some attention. I have no idea how the papers were evaluated financially. But within a week of their talk the brother began the process to secure the necessary funds to acquire them without recourse to a penny of state funds. He called up the president of “The Friends of the Library”, an alumnus named William Manchester, author of the first published biography of the recently martyred John F. Kennedy which had been a runaway bestseller, an American book of the year, and brought its author extremely high literary visibility. To Manchester’s enthusiastic efforts in those circles, Bromery added chips he could call in from executives of oil companies who had excellent reason to be grateful for the lucrative oil fields his geological expertise had been able to help them locate.

Next came the Aptheker question. He was appointed editor. To allay the long-standing canards re scholarship, an advisory committee of prominent, i.e. “respectable” American historians, chaired by Professor Sidney Kaplan was established to “oversee” publication by the University press. Sid had carefully selected all the members of this committee with the clear understanding that the work would not be onerous. Sid was nothing if not a man of his word, so much so in fact that I cannot recall this supervisory group’s ever having met. So much for oversight. Each of the volumes published have won high critical acclaim for the intelligence brought to the selections and the probity and editorial judgment displayed in their presentation. As I said, Bromery was a man of uncommon resourcefulness and political dexterity.

The next significant event in this “history’ is the naming of the Library. This came in 1994, almost exactly two decades after the events just recounted. This initiative is something for which neither the W.E.B. DuBois department nor the general faculty can take any credit beyond perhaps, having signed a student-generated petition.

All credit belongs entirely to a determined group of progressive graduate students and the leadership of the undergraduate student government who created a campus-wide alliance called the W.E.B. Dubois Petition Coalition to advance a number of issues. In University histories student contributions are accorded obligatory lip service but only rarely the credit that the students sometimes actually deserve. In this case there are two leaders of the Graduate Student Senate without whose devotion, energy and skill there would be no library with the name DuBois on this campus.

Shamala Ivatury, a grad student in Chemistry and Colin S. Cavell, (Polsci) are the students who generally did the heavy lifting. These two organized the coalition, devised the petition and planned and ran a long campaign which ultimately was successful at least in one area, that of the naming of the library. The full petition was testament either to unrealistic student idealism or to deft strategic planning on their part. It challenged the administration to increase Alana student enrollment to 20 percent; minority faculty appointments also to 20 percent; to ensure scholarship availability to all economically challenged students as well as to name the Tower Library for Dr. DuBois. It is not hard to imagine that faced with that list, the university leadership may have arrived at the DuBois Library demand with some considerable relief.

To his great credit the Chancellor David Scott publicly endorsed that element of the student initiative. Presumably against the advice of the more fiscally pragmatic of his advisors who felt the library’s name to be a valuable commodity that could profitably be “branded”, for example perhaps, The Goldman Sachs Research Center or The Kentucky Fried Chicken Library at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

I must have signed the petition, difficult imagine that I wouldn’t have, but I do not remember when or where. What I do remember was a number of phone calls from journalists with questions about DuBois’ joining the communist party, which I was happy to discuss. “That was not on Dr DuBois’ part, an act neither of political naiveté, senility or as your question seems to suggest, “disloyalty to America”. It was at the age of 93 an act of immense courage in affirmation of the most “American” of values, which the Supreme Court had failed to do by refusing to disqualify the McCarran Act.

This now discredited legislation required American citizens—and certain parties suspected of communist sympathies—to register themselves as foreign agents with the government. As an affirmation of every citizen’s fundamental right to freedom of thought and association, Dr. DuBois made public application for party membership. And this during what Lillian Hellman had famously called “scoundrel time” because of the cowardice of many progressives in the face of the McCarthyist hysteria of the period.” If I wondered about the source of this sudden flurry of press inquiries the answer was not long in coming.

As we are constantly and painfully reminded, all motion is not progress. In the two decades since the acquisition of the papers, a particularly extreme brand of student conservatism, ideologically nurtured and amply funded by forces outside the universities, had made an appearance on campuses across the country. This university was not spared so that March the local rightwing student paper had sounded the alarm, urgently appealing to the President and Board of trustees to save the library and the university community from itself.

There’s a radical movement sweeping across the U-mass campus,” it thundered, “attempting to impose a twisted ideology upon an unsuspecting student body. A few misguided individuals here on campus are in the process of immortalizing an admitted communist and racial separatist.”

Nonetheless that same month university President Michael J. Hooker announced the decision of the Board on the students’ petition and the W.E.B DuBois Library of the University of Massachusetts came quietly into existence. In announcing their decision the Trustees were uncommonly eloquent in finding especially appropriate language from the great man himself,

“In 1903 W.E.B.DuBois wrote, a university is a human invention for the transmission of knowledge and culture from generation to generation through the training of quick minds and pure hearts, and for this work no other human invention will suffice…”

Then in their conclusion the Trustees outdid themselves by working in elements of DuBois’ more famous quote from 1903.

“As we march into the twenty-first century, we feel that it is time to go beyond the color line and appropriately name the tower library in honor of one of the finest heroes, not only of Massachusetts but of the world –William Edward Burghardt DuBois.”

Sometimes institutions do make really good decisions, and for right and honorable reasons. “Give praise and thanks. Let the Church say, Ahmen.”


Ekwueme Michael Thelwell,
Pelham, Ma. September 26, 2013


Editor’s Note: The WEB DuBois Department of Afro-American studies was also the first department to successfully include Jazz – Afro-american classical music – into the curriculum  when we appointed the master musicians Max Roach – drummer/composer/bandleader – and Saxophonist/composer/ bandleader Archie Shepp to the faculty.   Max roach was one of the most influential percussionist in the world with generations of musicians studyin his innovations.  Professor Roach was a giant of the Bop and Post-Bop periods and Professor Shepp innovator of the 1960’s avant Garde.

Max Roach


Double click to see Max Perform
With the Virtuosso South African pianist Abdullah Ibrahim

Archie Shepp

Archie Shepp

Double Click to see Professor Shepp Perform

With the Great Afro-Cuban Pianist Chucho Valdez

A Post Racial America…Really?

Posted in Cultural Matters, Guest Commentators on December 12, 2013 by playthell

Barack Obama and First Lady

 The Huxtables are in the White House ….and All is Well

  Separating Myth from Reality

 In 2013 we have Barack Obama, a two-term African American President, hundreds of other black men and women elected to state and local offices, and a country that officially celebrates Black History Month. Even more, no white official would dare publicly use a racist slur. As a result, our intellectuals, our historians, and our media are all on board with a consistent message: “We live in a post-racial America.”

 Well, maybe. Bill Keller, who served for eight years as executive editor of The New York Times, and is the author of a children’s book on Nelson Mandela, recently wrote the Sunday Times Book Review of Books front page essay on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book The Bully Pulpit, which examines Presidents Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. Keller extolled them as “politicians of stature and conscience.”  Really?  As Presidents neither made any serious effort to improve race relations or protect minorities from violence. Neither challenged the forces promulgating segregation, discrimination and lynching.

 The America of Roosevelt and Taft
 lynching Bee
 A Southern Carnival

Though their Republican Party controlled the House and Senate from 1900 to 1910, neither Roosevelt nor Taft paid more than lip service to Lincoln’s “new birth of freedom.” Neither enforced the 13th, 14th, or 15th Amendments that promised former slaves liberty, justice, and equality. Neither challenged “the new slavery”—the debt-peonage, sharecropping, and convict lease systems that ground down millions in the South.  Roosevelt spoke as a proud champion of “the Anglo Saxon race,” and urged his people to embrace “the clear instinct for race selfishness.” He advocated imperialism with the claim, “It is wholly impossible to avoid conflicts with the weaker races.”

Roosevelt and Taft vigorously courted southern “lily-white” members of both parties. During an era of weekly southern lynching carnivals, Roosevelt told a black audience the “rapists and criminals” among them “did more harm to their race than any white man can possibly do them.”

In 1909 President Taft told African American college graduates in North Carolina: “Your race is meant to be a race of farmers, first, last and for all times.” Taft had the distinction of being the first Republican presidential candidate to campaign in the South. He announced he would never enforce “social equality” and told black audiences that the white southern man was their “best friend.”   People of color could find little comfort, justice or even safety during the age of Roosevelt and Taft.

But this is a different time, and we as a nation wish to move toward “a more perfect union,” to follow the Constitution, and embrace its promises. Why then do some intelligent people still manage to distort our past to send a wrong message? Perhaps they do so because lying about the past makes it easier to dissemble about the present. As Richard Cohen wrote in the Washington Post in November:


“Today’s G.O.P. is not racist, as Harry Belafonte alleged about the Tea Party, but it is deeply troubled—about the expansion of government, about immigration, about secularism, about the mainstreaming of what used to be the avant-garde. People with conventional views must repress a gag reflex when considering the mayor-elect of New York—a white man married to a black woman and with two biracial children. (Should I mention that Bill de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, used to be a lesbian?) This family represents the cultural changes that have enveloped parts—but not all—of America. To cultural conservatives, this doesn’t look like their country at all.”

The Tea Ain’t Party Racist Dicky C?
 Tea Party Racism III

Really Dicky?

 Tea Party Racism

 If the Tea Party ain’t Racist……

 Tea Party Racism II

 Eggs aint poultry, Grits ain’t groceries…and Mona Lisa was a Man!

 Sadly, just as Cohen believes we are post-racial, modern influencers such as Keller would have us believe that Taft and Roosevelt were also not racist—they were simply Presidents who advocated for policies that would ensure that “traditional” values would continue to rule. Never mind that many of those values had racial animosity at their core. We can’t move toward the fulfillment of the Constitution—for the common good—if we either continue to see the past through a racial revisionist lens, or continue to misconstrue the racism in our present.

It might be more accurate to state some white American die-hards can’t help but choose to live in a post-Mandela world. While they may celebrate his courage and achievements in the abstract, they cannot fully digest this brave South African who sacrificed his freedom and life for a world where people of all races, ethnicities, and kinds will try to live in peace and harmony.


William Katz
New York City
December 12, 2-13

Nelson Mandela: Freedom Fighter!

Posted in On Nelson Mandela with tags , on December 9, 2013 by playthell

Nelson Mandela, the former South Africa

A Statesman for the World to Emulate

 What Manner of Man?

There are some black men who make me proud to be a black man just by virtue of their example.  Muhammad Ali was such a man, so was Dr. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X too.  Nelson Mandela was an inspiration to all of them…and millions more.    It makes me wonder if all the suffering that has accompanied being black in the modern world is perhaps what it takes to produce the grandeur of their vision, the hunger for justice, the will to struggle against near insurmountable odds, and even to die for a great cause.  Such men embody in their persona the aspirations of the people and that is why the people follow them by the multitudes, even unto the shadow of death.

Now the great Madiba has danced his last Toi Toi and joined the pantheon of noble ancestors who spent their lives in dedicated service to the people, giving their all to uplift the race.   It is hard to imagine a more formidable task than that which they chose, for they were confronting an enemy who was the best armed ruling elite in the history of the world.

This ruling elite built a global civilization upon an ideology of white supremacy that justified some of the worst crimes ever committed on this planet.  These racist crimes were committed against all the colored, i.e. non-European peoples on earth; but African peoples were the victims of the most horrendous crimes for the longest period of time.  To understand a man like Nelson Mandela, one must first understand the nature of the European conquest of Africa in the modern world.

In his history of capitalist development Karl Marx noted “the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black skins signaled the rosy dawn of capitalism.”  As Dr. Eric Williams, a great historian and the first President of Trinidad, demonstrated in his master work  “Slavery and Capitalism,” the modernization of Europe, beginning with the industrial revolution in England, was largely financed by the Triangular Trade which was built upon the Trans-Atlantic trade in African slaves.

Due to their geographical position, and the military might of the Zulu nation, South African never became a part of the Atlantic Slave Trade.  And it took until the west was into the modern age before the whites had the weapons to conquer South Africa.  But once they acquired this military capacity they enslaved the African people in their own home land.

To administer these conquered peoples Europeans designed two basic systems of colonial rule: Direct and Indirect.  Under the system of Indirect rule, which was perfected by the British in West Africa and India under the leadership of Lord Frederick Lugard, the colonizing power governs through a native elite composed of traditional leaders and British trained civil servants.  This style of leadership was well suited for India because of its size, enormous population and well developed traditional leadership structure.

And it was mandated by the West African environment where the climate and diseases were so devastating to Europeans the area became known as “the white man’s graveyard.”  However in those areas of Africa located in temperate zones suitable for European habitation, such as the Kenyan highlands, European settler communities developed.  And it was in these settler societies that the oppression of Africans was most severe.

The system established by the European invaders in South African belongs to this class of phenomenon labeled settler colonialism, which has similar features wherever it arises in the world.  It begins with a military conquest of the indigenous peoples.  This is followed by massive land theft, which is accompanied by laying claim to all wealth produced by the land, agricultural and mineral.  To produce this wealth the native peoples are subjected to forced labor. And they are denied civil rights.

If the indigenous population resists they are brutally repressed and in some instances exterminated, which was the pattern throughout the Americas.  And when the decimation of these populations was not achieved solely by military conflicts and forced labor regimes, the introduction of foreign diseases, for which the indigenes had neither immunity nor cures, finished the job.  Hence long before the rise of the German Nazis in the twentieth century the “enlightened Christian” nations of Europe had practiced both “ethnic cleansing” and germ warfare against Third World peoples.

These inhumane practices were justified by an ideology based on the claim  of natural superiority of the colonists. In Africa this ideology was white supremacy and Africans were indoctrinated in this belief in school and church during the period of colonial rule.  However this is also what happened in the USA, Australia, Israel, New Zealand, Kenya, South Africa, Brazil, etc.  With the rise of the social science of Anthropology, Europeans began to systematically study the belief systems that defined the universe of Africans and the cultural mores which determined social relations and upon which traditional authority was based.  We get an inside view of how this knowledge was employed by colonial authorities to undermine the Africans’ confidence in their traditional beliefs in Chinua Achebe’s classic novel “Things Fall Apart.” 

Achebe brilliantly demonstrates this in a single scene.  During an annual ceremony to venerate the ancestors, when masked dancers perform a ritual in in which they are supposed to embody the spirit of the ancestors,  it was believed by the people of the village that anyone who unmasked one of these dancing ancestral spirits would be struck dead.  And the sacred grove from which they emerged and returned was forbidden territory to the villagers, to enter it meant certain death.  Once the British colonial governor understood what was happening he walked up to the dancers and snatched off their masks, revealing them to be just members of the village who belonged to a secret society.  When nothing happend to the white man who unmasked the dancer the villagers were thrown into confusion.  And when he had the sacred grove burned down and built a Christian church on the spot their universe fell apart!

The point of this discussion is to demonstrate how the traditional universe of Third World peoples was transformed by their encounter with post Renaissance Europe beginning in the 16th century; the people who emerged from this process were a new people.   Ironically this was not all negative, because it was through this clash of cultures that the traditional societies of the Third World – Africa, Asia and Latin America – entered the modern world.  However the colonists provided a modern education to their colonial subjects based upon their needs; it was designed to prepare them to serve the interests of the Metropole i. e. “mother country.”  But the irrepressible desire for freedom and dignity on the part of all peoples resulted in an unintended consequence: Nationalism.

The growth of nationalist sentiment among colonized peoples resulted in National Liberation movements, which intensified as colonial subjects were conscripted to fight in two world wars.  It is no wonder that many of the leaders of the liberation movements in Africa and Asia had served in colonial armies, this was also true of many of the black men who became leaders of the Civil Rights movement in the American South.  This is why Malcolm X – who had no military training of any sort – sounded so silly to these men with his tough talk.

The emergence of Nationalist movements among the colonized was an unexpected consequence of the actions of the colonists by virtue of introducing the forces of modernity into these traditional societies.  One of the tasks of the new post-colonial man – the French referred to them as the “Evolue” and the Portuguese called them “Assimilados” – who emerged as the leaders of these anti-colonial liberation movements was to forge a modern identity for the new nations they were bringing into being.  All of the leaders of modern Africa fall into this category, including Nelson Mandela.

During the movement phase, this effort centered on clarifying a cultural identity which was often expressed in a form of cultural revivalism that Dr. Franz Fanon called “the return to a golden age,” which was typically based more on myth than historical fact.  This phenomenon is typical of Black Nationalist ideology in the USA also.  A black colonial subject from Martinique, the Caribbean island nation located in the French Antilles, Dr. Fanon wound up as a top leader of the great revolution in the French colony of Algeria in Arab North Africa.

As a member of the central committee of the National Liberation Front, an organization that contained factions with very different visions of the post-colonial society they wished to create, Fanon participated in all the ideological discussions.  After listening to the Islamist faction he concluded that establishing an Islamic caliphate in Algeria would be “a return to primitive medievalism.”

Since the modern nation state is a European invention, it is no wonder that the nations that Third World leaders built upon independence trended toward the western model of multi-party participatory democracy with universal suffrage – one person one vote – or the one-party state favored by the Eastern communist nations which selected their leaders by a process called “Democratic Centralism.”  The western model is generally accompanied by “free market” capitalist economics that sanctify private property, and economic “progress” is measured by Gross National Product rather than equity in income distribution.

The “Eastern” or communist model favors a socialized economy which is directed by the government based on an ideology that preaches “from each according to his deeds, to each according to his needs.”  The capitalist model promotes a Darwinian struggle for profits that leads to vast inequities in the distribution of society’s wealth, such as we are presently suffering under in American today.  The communist model disdains private profit and argues that economic production should be based on human need.

Confronted with these two models, African leaders in the 20th century struggled to choose the best path to build their new nations. The most thoughtful African leaders struggled to find a middle way, and their most popular innovation was an ill-defined concept called “African Socialism,” a mixed economy that favors central planning directed by the government with room for a limited private sector.  Some favored single-party politics and some multi-party.

However in his masterwork on Third World revolutions, “The Wretched of the Earth,” the ever insightful Dr. Fanon noted another disturbing development in the anti-colonial liberation struggle in a chapter titled On the Pitfalls of National Consciousness.  “Before independence,” he writes, “the leader generally embodies the aspirations of the people for independence, political liberty, and national dignity, but as soon as independence is declared, far from embodying in concrete form the needs of the people in what touches bread, land, and the restoration of the country to the sacred hands of the people, the leader will reveal his inner purpose: to become the general president of that company of profiteers impatient for their returns which constitutes the national bourgeoisie.”

One of the major ways in which this attitude is revealed is the refusal of post-independence African leaders to peacefully relinquish power to a successor.  Indeed, this was a major argument employed by leaders of the white minority settler communities in southern African in order to justify their racist anti-democratic monopoly of power.  They coined a slogan that expressed their criticism of the politics of post-independence African countries where black majorities seized political power.  To the cry “one man one vote,” the whites in southern Africa replied cynically that under black rule the reality was “one man one vote once!”  And, unfortunately, the evidence for their claim in post-colonial Africa is abundant.

Among the many things that distinguish Nelson Mandela as an African statesman is his attitude toward personal political power.  Here he stands out like a rose among thorns.  When we consider the price he paid to gain political power, and the ease with which he gave it up, one could argue that he is unique among professional politicians everywhere in the world, which is, of course, my position.

When one thinks of the long struggle Mandela waged, risking his life as a militant with the African National Congress in the fascist police state that was apartheid South Africa; then spending nearly three decades behind bars in the hellish prisons of the Afrikaner government; passing up several opportunities for release from captivity because he refused the demand to denounce armed struggle by an embattled government under fire around the world from people demanding his release, a demand that arose from parliaments to pubs,  it is something on the order of miraculous that he was willing to give up the presidency after serving only one term.

Born to privilege as a prince among his people – the Themba branch of the Xosa – and educated as a lawyer, Nelson Mandela could have had a life of relative ease in his native country and a life of affluence and prominence in England or Amsterdam.  Tall, ruggedly handsome and of regal bearing, elegant of style and manner, possessed of an oratorical style that combines eloquence and erudition in equal measure, Nelson  Mandela was a born star.  So impressive was his persona, so unimpeachable was his character, that even his jailers came to admire and respect him.

Many observers of this remarkable man have openly wondered at his unassailable sense of personal dignity.  They marvel at the fact that a black man born and raised in a society whose official ideology preached his inferiority and reinforced this claim it in the policies of their government, could hold such a high opinion of himself.  “The first thing to remember about Mandela is that he came from a royal family,” a former comrade and cell mate Ahmed Kathrada told the New York Times, “that always gave him strength.”

Other close comrades told the Times that Mr. Mandela’s uncanny ability rise above hatred for his oppressors was possible  “because he always regarded himself as superior to his persecutors.”  These observations confirm what I have come to believe about the nature of true self-esteem: The most important ingredient is how one feels about one’s family and the extent to which one is made to feel valued within that family.  Beyond that it is what one manages to achieve as a result of one’s own efforts.  This seems to be clearly the source of Nelson Mandela’s intestinal fortitude and supreme self confidence.

When he was finally released from prison Mr. Mandela  shocked the world with his message of racial reconciliation and preference for pragmatism over ideology in his approach to governing.  Recognizing that a race war would have been an unmitigated disaster for everybody, especially black people, Mandela kept his eyes on the prize of black majority control of the government and refused to be intimidated by critics on the white right or the black left.

Following his own star the great helmsman steered the ship of state through very troubled waters into the safe harbor of political stability.  We are provided a glimpse of the the crucible in which his leadership style was formed in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom.  Recalling eavesdropping on tribal councils conducted by his uncle, a paramount chief, when he was a boy, he tells us the chief was  “like a shepherd…he stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along that they are being directed from behind.”  Thus we  see the source of Mr. Mandela’s gift for consensus politics enabled South Africa to avoid disaster…although given the persistent inequities inherent in the deal that led to majority political rule, race war remains an ever present possibility.

Among President Mandela’s most impressive political achievements was to never deny those who supported the struggle of the South African people, even as he wooed the support of their enemies.  For instance President Mandela honored El Presidente Fidel Castro of Cuba, despite the fact that the US government had long maintained hostile relations with Cuba, and the mainstream American media had so demonized Dr. Castro in a half century of disinformation that he is beyond rehabilitation in the mind of the US public.

Even after witnessing the depravity of white anti-Castro Cubans like Texas Senator Ted Cruz and his whacko daddy – whom the Cuban people justly call “guisanos” or maggots – most Americans still don’t recognize that President Castro has been a benefaction to that nation.  That’s because most Yankees are mucho loco when it comes to Cuba!

Nothing demonstrates the hollowness of American criticism of Dr. Castro more than the fact that the US government supported the anti-democratic fascist South African government while the Cubans supported the oppressed black people of that country in a wide variety of ways, even sending crack Cuban troops who volunteered to fight the white South Africans in Angola.

The defeat of South African forces at the historic 1987 battle of Cuito Cuanavale, led by Cuban forces, marks the beginning of the end of white “invincibility” in the region.  That’s why Fidel was warmly embraced by a beaming Mandela, and received a rousing ovation second only to that given to Mandela himself by the black masses when the Cuban revolutionary leader visited South Africa.

These same people praise Ronald Reagan, a shallow opportunist and transparent racist, who not only based his presidential campaign strategy on attracting disaffected white racists enraged by the Democratic Party’s support for Afro-American Civil Rights – the so called “Reagan Democrats” – but he also branded Nelson Mandela and the ANC “terrorist,” while breaking the law by supporting real terrorists in the Nicaraguan Contra-movement.

In one of the most blatant acts of presidential contempt for the law, Ronald Reagan allowed a group of rogue military officers to run a secret operation from the basement of the White House designed to support terrorists in Central America in violation of the Boland Act expressly forbidding it.  Yet we are expected to believe that Reagan was innocent of the whole affair.  Everybody knows if this had happened on Barack Obama’s watch he would have been impeached by the same Republican house members that now praise Reagan to high heavens.

When nations around the world were calling for an economic embargo against the fascist South African government, this scurrilous puerile hypocrite, in league with that cold blooded British hag Maggie Thatcher, opposed it. He even vetoed bi-partisan legislation establishing economic sanctions against South Africa, while muttering some incoherent fiddle faddle about preserving “freedom.”

This doddering, venal old fool – whom Clark Clifford, the distinguished Washington lawyer and former member of President Carter’s administration called “an amiable dunce” – will appear as a spark to a raging fire when historians take their measure in times to come.  By then it will be clear that the Soviet Union collapsed from its own inner-contradictions and Ronnie the Rhinestone Cowboy had nothing to do with it.  His greatest legacy will be as the reverse Robin Hood who made the rich richer and supported right-wing tyrants around the world!

After the historians have sifted through the historical record they will see that Nelson Mandela was a great statesman and moral clarion for the ages, and Ronald Reagan was a well-managed pretender whose moral commitments were about as deep as a dry creek bed during a drought!

History will also verify the fact that the same people that Ronnie Reagan – the Tinsel Town Cowboy – supported in Cuba are the same crowd that he supported in South Africa: The racist white blood suckers who fleeced the poor, employed police state tactics against popular opposition and cared not a whit about democracy!  By contrast Fidel Castro and Nelson Mandela will emerge in the light of history as champions of the poor and the oppressed.

Comrades in Struggle Rejoice!
Mandela and Castro
Mandela Refused to Allow the Imperialist Hypocrites to pick his Friends!
 Mandela Fidel

Viva La Revolution!

Mandela and Arafat: The Dreaded Connection!

Mamdela and Arafat

Brothers in Struggle against the Settler Colonists

The relationship between Yasser Arafat of the Palestinian Liberation Organization and Nelson Mandela was another embarrassment for the USA.  Because Mandela was the towering moral icon of our time, beloved, respected, and even idolized by millions around the world, the US government dare not criticize his choice of friends – especially in light of the shameful history of US collaboration with the apartheid regime and its long legacy of racism against its own black population.  The question of the US connection to Israel and its treatment of the Palestinians was another matter the American government preferred to keep off center stage.

What most troubled US policy makers was the connection some intellectuals and activists were making between the US, Israel and South Africa.  For instance, the fact that all three were settler colonialist societies that began with an invasion which led to dispossession and genocide against the native populations.  All three had justified this mass robbery and murder, by  arguing that their actions were divinely ordained.  With the US it was “Manifest Destiny,”  with the Israelis it was the covenant God made with Moses that Israel should belong to the Jews, his “chosen people,” and the Afrikaners envisioned themselves as having a mandate from heaven that entitled them to take the land from the African heathens.

The last thing the US government wanted was for people to learn of the long relationship between Israel and the apartheid government of South Africa.   Thus when Dr. Richard Stevens exposed this relationship in to path-breaking scholarly works – Weisman and Smuts: A Study in Zionist/ Afrikaner Collaboration and Israel and South Africa – he was practically drummed out of the American academic community.  The last I heard of him he was teaching at the University of Khartoum in the Sudan!  Since Dr. Stevens’ research is solid and cannot be dismissed, powerful pro-Zionist forces in the US moved to silence him.

Chiam Wiezman
Chiam Wiezman

Arch Zionist

Jan Christian Smuts

jan3Jan Christian Smuts

Architect of Apartheid

It is conventional wisdom that no such censorship exists in America, but if one’s work is critical of Israel the normal rules about free inquiry don’t apply.  One need only look at the fate of scholars, both Jew and Gentile, who have written critically about Israel: the learned Jewish theologian Mark Ellis, the courageous investigative journalist Robert I. Freedman, the independent Jewish scholar Lenni Brenner, and especially the non-Jewish scholars John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt, authors of the penetrating study The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy.

The authors, who hold professorships and Harvard and the University of Chicago, two of the world’s most distinguished universities, and said that they expected to be attacked by intellectual hit men sponsored by the Lobby, proved to be prescient.  Abraham Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League, and lead attack dog for the Israel Lobby, predictably tried to confuse the issue by accusing the authors of anti-Semitism.

But due to the fact that they are tenured professors, and people who read the study, like this writer, know that Foxman is merely a propagandists for Israeli interests and cannot be taken seriously, they have been fairly insulated from the slings and arrows of Abraham’s outrageous attacks.  And their work remains readily available online. And anyone who seeks to understand why US policy in the Middle-East is so one-sided, even when it is clearly against our national interests, should read Professors Meirsheimer and Walt’s study of the machinations of the Israel Lobby.

Despite their outrage, the operatives of the Lobby were somewhat subdued when President Mandela embraced Yasser Arafat and called him Comrade.  For had they attacked him they would have put a spot light on their activities…something they don’t want. Dr. Richard Stevens had to be silenced because his work exposes some very unflattering longtime connections between Israel and South Africa.

For instance, he researched the letters exchanged between Chiam Weitzman, the first President of Israel, and Jan Christian Smuts, the architect of the apartheid state: The Union of South Africa.  In one exchange the two leaders and close comrades are discussing their mutual predicaments.  Smuts says the problem for the Afrikaner in South African is “civilization vs. the jungle.”  To wit Weizman retorts that the situation of the Jew in Palestine is “civilization vs. the desert.”  Spoken like two soul mates.

However this conception of a unity of interests goes far beyond mere simpatico for each other’s cultural plight;  these countries also collaborated on how to best control their indigenous populations.  This would eventually extend to cooperation between their intelligence agencies of anti-insurgency methods.  In fact the relationships became so close that the Israeli MOSSAD, South Africa’s BOSS and the American CIA were like branches of the same organization.  Hence it comes as no surprise that the CIA and MOSSAD fingered Nelson Mandela for the South African Bureau of State Security when he was a fugitive living underground.

The South African Fascists couldn’t find him; it had become a colossal embarrassment as Mandela was evolving into a legendary figure that people were calling “The Black Pimpernel!”   This was a reference to the “Scarlet Pimpernel,” a fictional character from a famous play and novel about the French Revolution written in 1903 by an English writer.  The Scarlet Pimpernel was the secret identity of a British nobleman who rescued people destined for the guillotine during the French Revolution.  He was a master of disguise and a brilliant escape artist who constantly eluded his captors despite leaving clues.

In his autobiography President Mandela explains that he managed to elude the authorities during his life underground because of the radical white comrades who shielded him.  This is why he never lapsed into a blind hatred for all whites and was clear in his understanding that the enemy was a specific ideology and the system it supported.

The fact that most South African whites supported this system of white privilege based on an ideology of white superiority, enforced by police state tactics, did not blind him to the fact that there were also whites who openly opposed that system, like the courageous parliamentarian Helen Suzman, and the fearless communist activist Joe Slovo, who became a member of the highest leadership circles of the African National Congress.

Both Slovo and Suzman are Jews, this is why despite Israel’s long collaboration with the fascist apartheid regime Nelson Mandela and the ANC leadership never descended into the simple condemnation of “the Jews” that so many Black Nationalists in the US fall for.  They understood that all whites who opposed the fascist apartheid government  willingly risked their lives and property by supporting the work of the ANC.  If he had not had the vision to recognize this, Mandela would not have been successful in ending apartheid in South Africa.

Helen Suzman

Helen Suzman, Nelson Mandela

An Unflinching Foe of Apartheid!

Joe Slovo: Revolutionary Communist Leader!

Mabdela and slovo in color

Winnie, Nelson and Slovo Comrades in Struggle

If he had given in to his emotions and acted out of a desire to make all whites in South Africa suffer in order to seek revenge, it might have been cathartic for him, but it would have been disastrous for his people.  Interestingly enough, Mandela’s ability to remain calm and focused during his fight against the evil Apartheid regime was due to the discipline he learned as a boxer.

A talented heavy-weight who was greatly inspired by the Afro-American world champions Joe Louis and especially Muhammad Ali , Mandela understood what all good fighters must understand: the best way to get beat is to become angry and lose your head during a fight!    Hence Mandela “kept his head” in the fight for Freedom and won by a knockout, as he went from a prison cell to the Presidency in one of the greatest stories in the history of world politics…written by one of our brightest stars!  May you rest in peace Madiba, generations yet unborn will be inspired to greatness by your example.

Race Warriors !

Mandela boxes ali
A Mutual Admiration Society! 


The Struggle is one!


Playthell G, Benjamin

Harlem, New York

December 9, 2013

The Undisputed Truth!

Posted in Theater with tags on December 4, 2013 by playthell

Mike Tyson Kicks Off Australia Speaking Tour In Brisbane

Mike Tyson on Broadway

 Iron Mike Spins Tales from the Hood

Mike Tyson’s one man Broadway show, The Undisputed Truth, which was is now being broadcast as an HBO special, came as quite a surprise to many who witnessed it – the present writer included.  Speaking in what appeared to be an extemporaneous style, Mike was by turns serious, ironic, and comedic.  He slipped seamlessly from donning the masks of tragedy and comedy in a way that would be impressive for a trained actor who had logged many hours on the stage.

But to carry a one man show and keep the audience entertained for over an hour, conjuring moods of pathos and bathos at will, was far beyond anything the audience could reasonably expect from a man who had spent his life in the boxing ring and had a public image as a barely articulate brute who didn’t merely want to subdue his opponents but maim or even kill them.   After watching one of Tyson’s fights Larry Holmes, one of the all-time great Heavy-Weight Champions, remarked: “Most boxers just want to win the fight, but this kid acts like he wants to kill somebody!”

When Tyson burst upon the boxing scene I had been involved in the game as a publicist for Butch Louis Productions – in fact, I created the publicity department in 1981 – where I represented the Olympic Gold Medalist and World Light-Heavy Weight Champion Michael Spinks, one of the all-time greats.  I also represented Greg Page and Tony Tubbs, all of whom became World Heavy-Weight Champions.

After leaving Butch Louis I became involved with the promotion of fighters in the lower weight classes, the highlight of which was negotiating a match between the Undisputed Welter-Weight Champion Sugar Ray Leonard vs. the Undisputed Middle Weight Champion Marvelous Marvin Hagler for the undisputed Middle-Weight title.  When Leonard got a detached retina in a tune-up fight with Bruce Finch at the MGM Grand Casino in Reno, Leonard retired and I quit the boxing game.

Negotiating with the Great Sugar Ray Leonard
Trying to make the match with Marvelous Marvin 

When Mike Spinks and Mike Tyson met in a match to unify the Heavy-Weight title on June 27, 1988 I attended the prefight party hosted by Donald Trump in Manhattan.  It was a posh affair and everybody was dressed to the height of fashion.  Perfumed and pomaded, dressed in a black tux, white silk bow tie and cummerbund, Spinks looked like a parlor pimp.  Actress Robin Givens Tyson, Mike’s wife, was dressed in a chic upper-class style that reflected her Sarah Lawrence education and reminded one of Jackie Kennedy.  She was running around like a chicken with a freshly wrung neck, anxiously awaiting the arrival of her husband.

Although I was there as a journalist I was hanging out with the Spinks camp.  And as is characteristic of prize fights, the Spinks and Tyson camps were selling woff tickets trash talkin each other.  The boxing game has its of style of trash talkin.  For instance, despite the fact that the fighters will enter the ring alone and suffer the battering and bruising, everybody in their respective camps are yelling “We want Spinks!” or “We Want Tyson!”  I was prepared to talk a lot of smack until Tyson actually showed up.

Dressed in a pair of wrinkled pants, with half of his shirt hanging out of his pants B-Boy style, he wore a scowl on his face accompanied by a definite IDGAF attitude that seemed to say “Speak outta yo  mouth wrong and I wll bust yo ass!” He was a menacing figure; the only professional prize fighter I have ever been around who gave off that kind of vibe.  So as he walked by me, I remained as quiet as a church mouse. The guy really looked like he would smack a spectator who mouthed off to him.  He was a dangerous guy, like a ticking time bomb.  And when he and the great Michael Spinks met in the ring, the fight lasted all of ninety seconds: the shortest Heavy-Weight Championship fight in history!

At the height of his career Tyson was viewed as pretty near invincible.  The youngest fighter to wear the Heavy-Weight crown, he was a whirlwind of rage and fury, as one opponent after another crumbled under his non-stop blows. Given the ring sobriquet “Iron Mike,” because of the way he simply crushed the best boxers in the Heavy-Weight division, Tyson was not the kind of artless brawler with a granite jaw that could simply punch hard and was always trying to get the knockout while absorbing a lot of punishment from more skilled opponents.

On the contrary he was a gifted pugilist who had mastered all the elements of the game.  He was a superb boxer/puncher who was so skilled at slipping punches it was hard to hit him with a hand full of rice, and a devastating puncher who could dispatch an opponent to dream land with a variety of punches from either hand.  Mike was indeed a great master of his trade.  And he was well beloved by boxing fans, most of whom are as bloodthirsty as the mobs in the ancient Roman arenas.  And Mike loved it!

Iron Mike Demolishes Michael Spinks
Mikea_tyson vs spinks Spinks was undefeated and had never kissed the Canvas

Perhaps it is because he had found a métier where he was able to acquire fame and fortune in vast quantities, and had developed and affection for the roar of the crowd, which led Mike into show business.  And the decision to reminisce about his life story on stage has proven to be a bold and brilliant decision, because Mike’s life is a virtual treasure trove of material from which an able actor/playwright could fashion a moving theatrical experience.  Shakespeare gave us the key when he declared “the play is the thing,” and Mike Tyson’s life story is one hellava play.

Spawned in the bowels of Brooklyn and growing up on the mean streets of Brownsville, his story has the elements common to most who choose the blood sport of boxing as a vocation.  But not all boxers experience the level of family disorganization as Mike.  And while he suffered the deficit of guidance experienced by most fatherless boys growing up in big cities, he also came of age in the final decades of the twentieth century when many young black boys began to get their moral education from rappers rather than reverends.  And since human beings are creatures formed by narratives through which the values of society and the purpose of existence are imparted; whoever tells the stories shapes the moral compass of the youths.

It is clear that the moral universe in which Mike Tyson’s consciousness was formed is chaotic and nihilistic.  He was one of the lost boys personified by the “Thug Life” values of Tupac Shakur, one of Mike’s favorite rappers. It is such a tangle of pathology and confusion that even fame and great wealth couldn’t save them from their self-destructive tendencies.  Hence Tupac wrecked his life acting out his “gangsta” fantasies,and Mike Tyson squandered several hundred million dollars as he went from rags to riches and ended up struggling to avoid ending up in rags again.

This is the marrow of the saga he spins onstage; it is by turns tragic and comic, and his telling of these tales is riveting.  A talented raconteur, he laughs and frowns, acts out fight scenes, impersonates the characters in his marvelous tales, and takes us with him all the way as he establishes an intimacy with the audience reminiscent of a great stand-up comic who tells stories rather than jokes ala Richard Pryor.  If you liked Mike as a boxer you will love him as a thespian, for it is obvious that he approaches this performance with the same dedication that characterized his performances in the ring as he takes us on an intimate journey into one of the epic lives of our times.

Through word and movement Mike paints poignant word portraits of human folly and foible that keeps the audience on the edge of their seats in anticipation of what he will say next.  His monologue is brutally honest and raw like Sushi, as he names names, airs dirty laundry, and puts some well-known people’s business in the street!  I found it one of the most entertaining one man shows that I have witnessed –and I have seen some great ones.  In the end we see a courageous human being who bares his tortured soul to the audience and exorcises his demons in public with extraordinary candor and amazing grace.  I say more power to the Brownsville bully…Bravo Iron Mike!


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