Archive for May, 2014

In Remembrance of Brother Elombe

Posted in In Remembrance of Brother Elombe Brath with tags , , on May 27, 2014 by playthell

Elombe_4001 (1)

Pleading the cause of African Peoples

 Praise Song for a Tireless Pan-African Soldier

A more committed fighter for black liberation
Has yet to be born
And his mother is dead
Now that he has danced and joined the pantheon of honored ancestors
We shall never see his like again
For when the Gods fashioned Elombe Brath
They smashed the mold

I first met Elombe Brath at the Speaker’s Corner, which was at the intersection of 125th Street and Seventh Avenue in his beloved Harlem, 52 years ago.  There was no state office building there at the time, and Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. – for whom the building is named and whose statue now stands on that spot, – was alive and well and giving the southern redneck crackers hell…… in the halls of Congress.  Where the State Office building now stands was Michaux’s book store – which displayed a sign over the entrance that announced: “The House of Proper Propaganda!”

There one could purchase every book on black history and radical political thought in print.  It was a worthy annex to the Schomburg Collection, the largest collection of materials on the black world to be found anywhere.  It was here that leaders of the newly liberated African nations and revolutionary movements fighting to rid Africa of all vestiges of European colonialism on the continent spoke to the people of Harlem.

Kwame Nkrumah, who led the first Ghana, sub-Saharan African nation to independence spoke there; Robert Mugabe spoke there just before he negotiated the independence of Zimbabwe at Whitehall in Britain, and the great Madiba, Nelson Mandela spoke there right after he was released from the prisons of the Apartheid South African government.  Elombe was the Master of Ceremonies on that great day and he  invited Duruba bin Wahad, an Afro-American revolutionary who had spent 27 years in the prisons of racist America, just as Mandela had done in South Africa, to speak.

Elombe Standing on Point while Duruba commands the mike
Elombe, Dhoruba, Mandela 2  1And Nelson Mandela Listens Carefully

This corner was also where home grown Pan-Africanist revolutionaries like Carlos Cook – who first tutored Elombe in Black Nationalism – “Pork Chop Davis,” Malcolm X, and Drs. Ben and John Hendrik Clarke held forth in grand orations that recounted the African past, envisioned the redemption of the motherland and called for a renaissance that would create a modern African culture capable of producing a mighty civilization that could defend African peoples against European domination everywhere. It was an incubator of revolutionary freedom dreams, a place where revolutionaries came for spiritual fortification and freedom highs.

It was here that a curious Vietnamese sailor – who visited New York on a French freighter and was chased uptown by white racist who told him his place was in Harlem – accidentally stumbled upon a rally where the great orator and Black Nationalist leader Marcus Garvey was holding forth.  He was so inspired by what he witnessed on this corner that he went home and began organizing a nationalist movement in his country.  When white folks heard of him again he had crushed the French army at Dien bien Phu, and was known to the world as Ho Chi Mien!

This is the corner where Elombe and I first met. I was up on a ladder, as was the custom at the time, running down an impassioned Marxist rap.  Standing below me checking me out with a blasé stare was this sharp dude, a Harlem hep cat who looked to smooth to move.  He held a stack of what seemed to be magazines under his arm, and he was accompanied by another dude fumbling with a camera who kind of favored him and I surmised that they must be related.

I thought I was really droppin science, the “Science of Society,” as I had been told by my political tutors – a very impressive group of older black radical leftist intellectual/activists that Queen Mother Moore had recently introduced me too.  But when I came down from the ladder, the guy with the magazines said “Where you from Jack….that stuff you talkin went outta style in the forties here in Harlem.  Revolutionary Pan-African Nationalism is what’s happenin now brother….you got to check out George Padmore Brother…Pan-Africanism or Communism!”

He introduced himself as Ronnie Brathwaite, and the other guy as his brother Cecil – they would later become Elombe and Kwame.  Before I could recover from his cavalier dismissal of my speech, he dropped a copy of the magazine on me; which turned out to be a softback book of cartoons titled “Color Us Cullud.”

I took the book and when I got back to Philadelphia, where I was living at the time, I gave it a close reading and was thoroughly fascinated by its contents. To say that I had never seen cartoons of such power and irreverence is an understatement.  I had seen scandalous cartoons before, such as the notorious “Tijuana Bibles,” which featured all of the most popular cartoons from the nation’s newspapers and animated shorts in the movie theaters that preceded the feature films, performing pornographic acts.

But these cartoons were irreverent in a different way: they were incendiary political statements. I can still remember some of those cartoons as if Elombe gave them to me yesterday, such was their power.    In fact, one of his biggest fans was Malcolm X – even tho he took a little swipe at them too.

Although most people know Elombe as a tireless activist, compelling orator and walking archive of the African revolution who seemed to have the entire history of the modern African struggle against European colonialism neatly filed in his head, and could call it up in detail at will…the Griot of the African revolution. He was all that and more.

Yet Elombe was by training and sensibility an artist.  He was the first person I ever met who viewed art as a potent weapon for liberation and knew how to wield it with the devastating effect of a Zulu warrior with an assegai. Since Elombe was a Black Nationalist he was naturally skeptical of, and even hostile to, the integrationist ideology that was the dominant trend in the mid-twentieth century.

He belonged to a tradition that had been the reigning ideology of black Americans in the mid-19th century, a time when secular black intellectuals like Dr. Martin Delaney and Robert Campbell as well as scholarly clergymen like Bishop Alexander Crummell and Edward Wilmont Blyden were all ardent nationalists and emigrationist that actually travelled to Africa on a mission of redemption. They were Pan-Africanists before the term was invented.

The great scholar on this subject, Professor Wilson Jeremiah Moses, tells us in his seminal book, “On the Wings of Ethiopia,” that Black Nationalist ideology was so pervasive during this period, when millions of Africans in America were regarded as livestock under southern laws crafted by slave masters, that it is virtually impossible to distinguish black Christianity from Black Nationalism.

This is the tradition that Marcus Garvey inherited and plugged into when he arrived in Harlem from Jamaica during the second decade of the 20th century, and explains why he was able to build a mass movement based on Black Nationalist ideology among the black minority in America and not in the West Indies where there was a black majority.

Elombe Brath belonged to this tradition and forged and ideology that was much like that of Kwame Nkrumah, who defined his philosophy of liberation as being part Garveyism and part Marxist.  I think Dr. Clark pegged him just right when he said “Elombe is a good Garveyite and a middling Marxist.”

Hence Elombe’s political cartoons reflected his nationalist ideology and contempt for integrationist doctrine, just as Bishop Crummell expressed his contempt for integrationist in the 19th century by constantly referring to the great Abolitionist Frederick Douglass as “that mulatto showman!”  For instance, among Elombe’s drawings was a cartoon of SNCC activist marching with a big banner that read “Masochism is our Stick Baby!”

His thinly veiled reference to Dr. King as “Reverend Eat A. Chicken Wing,” or his series of caricatured images of Sammy Davis Jr. under the headline “Sammy Davis Jr. is a Race Man…racing after white women, racing after white society, etc were poignant statements that raised the art of the political cartoon to a high level..   It is a testament to the power of these images and their biting witty scandalous captions that I remember them so graphically after half a century!

It was Elombe’s remarkable understanding of the power of art to inspire and fuel a movement for liberation that led him, in conjunction with his brother Kwame, to found the African Jazz Art Society in 1956 and recruit the great Jazz artists Max Roach and Abby Lincoln – the First Couple of what would soon become the Blacks Arts Movement in the 1960’s – to join them in their effort to create and promote a revolutionary black art.  There are some highly influential art movements whose origins can be traced to a particular time and place.

Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln
Max and Abbey
 Avatars of a Revolutionary Black Artists

Max and Abbey - Freedom suite

Movement Music: Soundtrack of the black Liberation Struggle
Kwame Brathwaite
Kwame,  Hubbard remembered
Photographer of the Black Liberation Struggle

For instance DaDa, – a European art of random choice born of a loss of faith in organized modern technological civilization in the aftermath of the barbarism of World War I – can be traced to the Café Voltaire in Geneva Switzerland.  And the Bebop revolution, in which Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and Kenny “Klook” Clarke transformed modern western music, can be located in Minton’s Playhouse here in Harlem.

Thus the Black Arts Movement of the 1960’s, which changed the cultural consciousness of African Americans, began with the founding of the African Jazz Art Society in New York City. While others have emerged in popular lore as “The Father of the Black Arts Movement,” the real fathers of the movement are Elombe, Kwame and Max Roach.  For the record, when these Brothers founded the African Jazz art Society, Leroi Jones, who would become Amiri Baraka over a decade later, was happily married to Hettie Cohen, living in Greenwich Village, and was a leading poet in the Beat literary movement.

By virtue of the fact that Elombe was an artist he saw the black struggle in visual terms, and he was well aware that black people everywhere were inundated with racist images designed to degrade us, to portray us as less attractive than the lighter races.  If virtue itself was white, and God was a blue eyed white man with long flowing blond hair, then where does that leave those of us who are “of the deepest dye” – as the 18th century black scientist and designer of Washington DC Benjamin Banneker described himself in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, accompanied by a mathematical treatise, defending the intellect, indeed the humanity, of the African.

Elombe, like the great Afro-Brazilian scholar/activist Abdias do Naciemento, saw attacking the white standard of beauty as fundamental to the psychological liberation of black people who had suffered centuries of slavery and racial discrimination. Do Nascimento addressed the problem by organizing beauty contests for black women and mulatto women in Brazil, and The African Jazz Art Society, which  combined jazz performances with exhibitions of visual art, added fashion shows by the Grandassa Models, stunning black women with Afro hair styles and Afrocentric clothing.

They would host shows with titles like “Naturally 63.”   I remember when they came to Philadelphia to do a show and I thought I had stumbled into an African wonderland, where Black was unquestionably beautiful.  It was a revelation to many people.   Hence the slogan “black is beautiful,” natural hair styles and Afro-centric dress all started at the African Jazz Art Society, and spread across black America…and then the black world, like wildfire.

I know whereof I speak because I witnessed it!   What is all the more remarkable is that Kwame and Elombe were teenagers when they first came up with some of these ideas. They began by promoting Jazz concerts in the Bronx and their first artist was the great Betty Carter – which is a demonstration of their exquisite artistic taste. And furthermore they did this without following the dictates of some well formulated theory, figuring it out as they went about. When they encountered obstacles they just improvised like the performances of the Jazz musicians they so admired.

Like Duke Ellington, who came to New York as an art student at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn but found his greater calling in music, Elombe would find a greater calling in revolutionary struggle.  And just as Duke’s training as a visual artist greatly influenced the character of his music, Elombe’s essential artist’s soul affected his approach to politics.  Both Duke and Elombe were brilliant autodidacts, self-taught men who made highly original contributions in their chosen field of endeavor.

In this sense Elombe belongs to a larger tradition of the broadly learned activist autodidact. The tradition of Frederick Douglas, CLR James, J. A. Rogers, Hubert Harrison, John Hendrik Clarke, Queen Mother Moore, James Boggs, Harold Cruse, James Baldwin, Malcolm X, et al.  Although Elombe never got a college degree, I don’t know any academic that had a greater command of the facts regarding the African liberation movement, and its relationship to the world revolutionary movements of the 20th century.

I say this having taught African history and politics in the WEB Dubois Department of Black Studies at the University of Massachusetts, alongside Chreif Guelal, who was a central committee member of the Algerian National Liberation Front, that fought and won one of the greatest revolutions in the twentieth century, and had served as an aid de camp to Dr. Franz Fanon, one of the most profound black revolutionary thinkers of the 20th century.

The liberation of African peoples is an amazingly complex subject that requires knowledge of European, Asian, and Latin American history and political affairs.  The program Elombe hosted for many years  on WBAI, “Afrikalidescope,” was a vital forum for serious informed discussion of African issues that has no counterpart in American media.

As an activist we can only marvel at the scope of his interests and the source of his energy.  He was a soldier in the struggle 24/7.  It is as if he felt that the weight of the entire black world was on his shoulders.  I remember being at a party once and Elombe disappeared.  When I asked where he was, somebody said “He’s probably in the bathroom holding a meeting!”

It is nothing short of amazing that, working without any kind of foundation or philanthropic support, Elombe managed to carry on the work of providing support for leaders of African liberation movements exiled in the US. For half a century!  Beginning in 1975 this work was conducted under the auspices of the Lumumba Coalition, an organization Elombe founded and named in honor of Patrice Lumumba, the assassinated leader of the independence movement in the Belgium Congo who became its first Prime Minister.  Some of the African revolutionaries Elombe supported became important government officials after winning independence.

Comrades in struggle
ElombeMandelahandshake
Nelson, Winnie and Elombe

 Thus he could have left the US and spent his later years as an honored guest in Africa, but he never abandoned our struggle.  He visited Africa, basked in the abundant accolades, yet he always returned to the protracted struggle on the home front, much of it as a member of the December 12th Coalition,  and remained a fighter until the end – a noble warrior carried out on his shield. Remarkably, commitment to the struggle for the advancement of the black working class seems to be encoded in the genes of this family.

In Barbados, the ancestral home of the Braithwaite family, Elombe’s cousin, Clenell Wickham, waged a long fight in behalf of black workers from his position as an Editor of the Herald, a local newspaper, during the era of British colonialism. Yet throughout his many years in the fight, Elombe maintained a job as a graphic artist at WABC television, where he was a strong union man and shop steward, going in to work on the graveyard shift after a day of movement activity.

He was there when Gil Nobel came to ABC to host Like It Is; he reached out to Gil and his contributions to the character of that show is beyond measure….and was responsible for much of its popularity among serious movement people. Elombe was responsible for virtually all of the coverage of African issues, after all before coming to ABC Gil was a newsman on black radio.  He, like most of the black newsmen in major white media at the time, was hired as a result of the black urban rebellions when white reporters were afraid to go into black communities to cover the story.

Gil Noble had not spent his life dealing with African issues and radical Afro-American American movements like Elombe; hence Gil was mightily instructed by their association.  The fact that both of them were Jazz lovers – Gil was a pretty good pianist – no doubt helped to cement their relationship.

Elombe and Wife

Elombe and Wife

A dedicated husband and Father
Elombe and Helene
Elombe and wife II
Married to the Movement

Any remembrance of the life of Elombe must point out that, unlike all the so-called “revolutionaries” who claim they were too busy making the revolution to marry their baby’s mama and raise their kids, Elombe was a steadfast husband and father who along with his wife of many years, Helene Normsa Brath, a former Grandassa Model, raised seven sons in Harlem.  His wife homeschooled some of them and they went on to college, none of them went to jail!

If this were his lone achievement in these trouble times, it would be worthy of sustained applause. My standards for heroes are rigorous; hence I have few of them.  Elombe was at the top of my list, a hero worthy of our youths; the highest expression of manhood.  A mighty tree has fallen in Harlem….and we are all poorer because of it.  So I say to my departed comrade: Hail and farewell!

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

 

Playthell Benjamin
Harlem New York
 May 27, 2014
**Photos of Elombe by: Kwame Brathwaite
Photo of Kwame by: Playthell Benjamin

A Beautiful Moment in Time

Posted in On Sports! with tags , , on May 23, 2014 by playthell
Seahawks at the Whitehouse II If you hear a little Noise…It’s Barack and the Boys!

As I watched President Obama aka “Chilly B Knowledge” rapping with the Seattle Seahawks at the White house, I reflected on the magnificence of the moment.  Given the history of race relations in the USA, none of them should have been there.   It is a moment I never thought I would see in my lifetime: an Afro-American President congratulating an Afro-American quarterback who had just won the superbow, and it is without question irrefutable evidence that the status of Afro-Americans has undergone a paradigm shift since I fled Florida in 1960.

What it means, among myriad of other things, is that most white children and youth have a black hero that they idolize, and many of their parents do too.  Considering the fact that Rush Limbaugh’s audience averages 67 years of age – the geriatric crew that grew up in the golden age of white supremacy and are so bewildered by the radical changes in race relations they no longer recognize the America they grew up in, thus they roam about like disoriented zombies chanting “we want our country back!”

I am now convinced that the amazing success on black athletes paved the way for other changes in race relations, beginning with Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson.  However I did not always recognize the critical role of sport in promoting social change.  During the height of my revolutionary days, when everything that wasn’t about the revolution was cast aside, I stopped watching sports.  And I became so self-righteous about it that I began to bug my friends who remained sports fans.

One day when I had become a particular pain in the ass, my main boon coon Booker T. Quattlebaum, who taught writing on the college level, pointed out that the greatest writers in history were sports fans and produced a volume from his shelf that had selections on sports which began with the ancient Greeks. He also pointed out that the revolutionary socialist countries that I so admired was all sports fanatics; in fact they used sports as a measure of their social development.

I eventually saw his point and began to look at sports through new eyes.  The mere fact that in the ancient world the largest buildings were temples to the Gods, but in modern societies they are often sports stadiums, is eloquent testimony to the importance of sports in human affairs.  For one thing it is an alternative to war in supplying an outlet for male aggression – especially sports like football!

However in the context of American society, a society based on “white male supremacy” black success in sports  gave birth to a crude counter-argument.  Once it was obvious that white men were not physically superior to black men then the argument became…”well they can play sports but we are intellectually superior.”

The response of many well-meaning folks in the black community is to disparage sports as unimportant and only intellectual achievement matters. This is a false dichotomy, and it reflects a retrograde way of thinking – despite the self-righteous claims of those who hold this point of view.  When I was a boy growing up in racist apartheid Florida, our elders used the brilliant exploits of Jackie Robinson, Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, etc to point out that just as whites folks claimed we were not good enough to compete with white men in professional sports was a god damned lie….their claim to intellectual superiority was an even bigger lie.

jackie-robinson- Calvery Officer

Lieutenant Jackie Robinson: Calvary Officer

The example of Jackie Robinson – a handsome, eloquent, ebony black UCLA graduate, US Army Calvary Officer, four sport college athlete, star of the Brooklyn Dodgers, eloquent gentleman, corporate Vice President upon his retirement from Major League baseball –  as irrefutable proof that achievement was a matter of preparation and opportunity.

They went on to point out that given the education and opportunity to compete we could beat white men at anything just like Sugar Ray Robinson and Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson were kicking their ass in the sports arena. The lesson for us was not that we could only be great athletes, but that the athletes were setting a standard of excellence that we should emulate in all of our endeavors.

The great Paul Robeson was held up as the gold standard.  A super athlete – who made All-American in football and starred in basketball, baseball, and track- Robeson also graduated first in his class at Rutgers, while working  as a tutor to his white class mates in Greek and Latin, and singing in the Glee Club. Robeson was the greatest example of human perfection in his time.  He went on to earn a law degree from Columbia University, became an internationally acclaimed Shakespearean actor and concertized as a singer world-wide.   He was so widely revered in Russia that they named a mountain after him.

Paul Robeson: The Greek Ideal of Mind Body Perfection

paul-robeson_1945

He would have made a better President than his white Contemporaries
 Robeson of Rutgers: All American

Paul Robeson - All American

The Greatest Football Player of his Time

This is the message that contemporary black critics of athletic achievement fail to understand.  Instead they have embarked on a silly, self-destructive, self-righteous denunciation of black achievement in sports – an arena that has brought us more wealth and glory on the world stage than any other field.  Among those who have offered vociferous critiques of this wrongheaded argument is Dr. Nathan Hare, a former professional boxer who holds two Ph.Ds.

This false dichotomy of sports vs. intellectual achievement was thoroughly critiqued by a distinguished group of black scholars in a conference at New York University hosted by Dr. Jeffery Sammons, a history professor and author of “Beyond the Ring: The Role of Boxing in American Society,” which is hands down the most important book ever written on boxing in America.

The conference was called to respond to Darwin’s Athletes,” a book written by a Dr. John Hoberman, a German American history professor at the University of Texas, that promotes the Athletic vs. Intellectual achievement argument;  he attributes the disparity between black athletic and intellectual achievement to socio/cultural rather than biological factors.

I have written an extensive essay that is both a report on the conference and a critique of Hoberman’s spurious thesis.  See: “On Race Culture and Sports,” which exposes Hoberman’s argument for the pompous misguided prattle that it is.   There are examples all around us that black men are quite capable of outstanding athletic and intellectual achievement.

They are everywhere, from Hall of Fame NFL tackle Allan Paige, who became Chief Justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court, to Tampa Bay linebacker Dewey Selmon, who took a Ph.D in ancient philosophy at University of Oklahoma, to John Wideman, All-American basketball star at the University of Pennsylvania, who turned down an NBA career to pursue study at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, and became one of the greatest American writers of the 20th century.

I believe it is in recognition of the extraordinary achievement of the scholar/athlete that president Obama gave such props to Richard Sherman, who has been mercilessly maligned by white racist for being to vocally assertive for a young black man and tried their best to unjustly hang the “thug” label on him.  Just as they have done to President Obama himself – who has been called a Chicago thug more than once by these deranged creeps.

But the love the President showed Sherman as he recounted his remarkable achievements has obliterated the chatter of the haters and raised Sherm up where he belongs.  Thus when I sat and watched the world champion Seattle Seahawks, the reigning Super Bowl champions, hangin out in the White House, it was a very beautiful moment to me.

Barack Reaches out to Richard Sherman

Seattle Sea Hawks barack shakes hads with Sherman

 In a Single Gesture Barack Raised Sherman to Worldwide Celebrity
 Sherman Studies the Master Rapper at Work

Seattle sea Hawks at the White House- Sherman

Looking Beyond football?

In the Huddle

Seahawks at the White house

An Image of real black male power: Physically and Intellectually!

 

Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
May 22, 2014

On Racism, Privilege and Power

Posted in Cultural Matters with tags , , on May 16, 2014 by playthell

Donald-sterling-v-stiviano1

Beauty and the Beast: An Ugly Old Jew and his Gorgeous Young Afro-Latino Concubine

 The Deeper Meaning of the Donald Sterling Affair

After watching Donald Sterling, the disgraced owner of the L.A. Clippers basketball team, attempt to explain away his racist comments in a television interview two things are apparent: You can make a lot of money and yet know nothing of the world beyond business deals, and Donald Sterling is just what Snoop Lion  said he is: “A racist piece of shit!”

It is also obvious that no one told him when you are in a hole you should stop digging, or in any case he didn’t take the advice. Sterling sat there on CNN, with the whole world watching, and spouted mindless babble that was part self-serving apologia and part racist diatribe, while trying to convince us that he is not a racist but a jealous lover driven to distraction by his envy of black men.  The only part of his story that is believable is that he is “jealous” of black men; which I believe is an inadvertent admission that he suffers from acute penis envy.

Alas, this is a widespread phenomenon among white males that has deep roots in American history.  When I was a boy growing up in Florida, if a white woman chose a black lover she was condemning him to a certain death by mob violence if their relationship was discovered by white men, but many of those same white men kept black concubines just like Donald Sterling while promoting racist policies against the black community.

The most notorious examples of this in American history are Thomas Jefferson – a founding father who sired seven children by his slave concubine Sally Hemmings – and Strom Thurmon, the longest serving senator in the history of the senate who led the fight to maintain racial segregation in the South while secretly siring a black daughter.  In St. Augustine Florida, my home town, it was Jimmy Brock, the manager of the Monson Hotel.

Brock had sired children by two black women in the town; yet he was such a staunch defender of racial segregation – the cornerstone of “white supremacy” the ideological undergirding of the system of institutionalized racism – that he poured acid in the hotel’s pool when Dr. Martin Luther King led a party of interracial citizens for a swim!

It was such a notorious act it attracted the attention of the national media, and pictures of this vicious racist attack published in the nation’s newspapers appalled people around the world – just as the sound track of Sterling’s covert racist hostility is shocking people everywhere as they listen to it on the internet.

 Racist Hypocrite Jimmy Brock
Jimmy Brock - Copy
Donald Sterling’s Soul Brother

Donald Sterling is cut from the same cloth as Jimmy Brock.  The difference between them was well understood by the wise Afro-Americans who raised and tutored me about the ways of the white world.  “The only difference between racist white men in the north and south,” they would say, “ is that the southern white man will tell you how he feels up front, while white men up north will smile in your face and stab you in the back.”

This is the reason why many of them preferred to remain in the south, choosing to deal with the devil they knew to the demons they didn’t.  Sterling’s comments to Anderson Cooper on CNN provides evidence that this is still true…except now, when racism is unfashionable and it’s corollary racial discrimination is illegal, covert racism is the preferred tactic in every section of the US.

Ironically the white Anglo-Saxon and Scotch Irish Protestants who ruled the American south didn’t like Jews either, as is evidenced by the anti-Semitic proclamations of the Ku Klux Klan. So the question arises as to why Sterling appears to have chosen these white racist as his role models…or at least adopted their values. This is the critical question in understanding Donald Sterling’s attitudes about race.

I think the answer lies in his own experience as a Jew in America.  Sterling is 81 years old, which means that he was born during the great depression in the US and the Nazi holocaust in Germany.  It was a time when Jews faced serious anti-Semitism in America and Europe. However unlike Europe, where Jews had experienced centuries of oppression, in the US there was a pigmentocracy based on skin color.

In this deranged skin game people of color were America’s “untouchables” – especially those of African descent no matter how slight – and those designated as “white” enjoyed special privileges.  Hence the trick was to be included among those defined as “white.”  The difference in the life’s chances and life styles of those who were considered white and those considered Negroes were like heaven and hell.

Walter White
Walter White
He Could have “Passed” but Chose to Remain “Black”
Jack Johnson
Jack Johnson as a young fighter
Both White and Johnson were classified as “Negroes”

The arbitrary nature of racial designation in America in which a person of white skin like NAACP leader Walter White and the ebony complexioned World Heavy-Weight Champion Jack Johnson could both be classified as “Negroes” – due to an irrational social construct called “the one drop rule” – made it possible for people legally defined as “black” who looked “white” to secretly “pass” over the color line and become “white.”

And considering the difference in one’s opportunities based on this superficial distinction it is no wonder that some people chose to “pass;” it was literally a choice between freedom and quasi-slavery. The wonder is that everybody who could pass didn’t.  However many Afro-Americans who were light enough to pass chose not to because they grew up with black people, loved their cultural inheritance, and hated the arrogance and racism of whites, which they understood better than their darker brothers because whites, believing themselves to be talking to a fellow white American, would share their deepest feelings about race with them.

This is why Walter white, who could easily have passed, chose to remain in the “world behind the veil” as Dr. Dubois described black life in the early twentieth century. For Jews, who were also outsiders to the Anglo-Saxons who ruled America, “passing” was a lot easier.  They only had to change their names from obviously Jewish ones like Benjamin Swartz, to Anglo names like Tony Curtis.

Many of the biggest movie stars of my youth were Jews who anglicized their names: Jeff Chandler, Edward G. Robinson, Kirk Douglass, et al.   And the titan of television Jack Benny was also an anglicized Jew. Ironically the pressure to pass as Anglo-Saxons was placed on these Jewish actors in and industry owned and controlled by Jews!

Kirk Douglass
Kirk_douglas_photo_signed
Born: Issur Danielovit  
Jeff Chandler
Jeff Chandler
Born: Ira Gossell
Tony Curtis aka Bernard Schwartz                  
Tony_Curtis_as_Houdini
Playing the Leading man with blond Shiksa Tony Curtis with
Blond Movie Goddess Marilyn Monroe
Tony Curtis and Marylin Monroe
As Benny Schwartz “Tony” would have offended white southerners 

The distinguished Jewish film historian Neal Gabler deals with this question with candor and insight in his seminal text “An Empire of their Own.”  Among the many important revelations offered up in this book is the fact that the Jewish movie Moguls who created Hollywood and made it the jewel in the crown of American popular entertainment, were European immigrants who desperately wanted to become real Americans and succeed in business.

It is not hard to understand why a man like Samuel Goldwyn, a self-educated Polish immigrant who was born Shmuel Gelbfisz and raised as a Hasidic Jew in a Warsaw ghetto, was not anxious to become a crusader for Jewish causes in America. In his native Poland Jews faced a hellish existence akin to that of Afro-Americans.  After observing their lot in Europe first hand when he was a student in Germany in the late 19th century, Dr. Dubois thought it might be worse.

Samuel Goldwyn
Sam goldwyn-portrait
Hollywood Movie Mogul

After making his way to America and assuming a new identity, first as Sam Goldfish, and then Samuel Goldwyn, he quickly recognized that despite anti-Semitism America offered great opportunities to “white” men so long as he didn’t make his Jewishness an issue. Hence he assimilated into “white” America as much as possible, went into the developing moving picture business and became a rich and powerful Hollywood Mogul.

Goldwyn and his Jewish colleagues achieved tremendous wealth and influence by producing films that appealed to the major market; which was white, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant.  It is these little swarthy Jews who created the blond sex goddess: May West, Gloria Swanson, Marylyn Monroe, et al.  By glorifying the fantasies of white America they became the arbiters of popular taste and the shapers of the American dream.

The price of success in their business was to completely camouflage their Jewish identity to the extent that they not only required Jewish actors to disguise their ethnic identity, but name changes were sometimes accompanied by “corrective” cosmetic surgery to change their noses to fit the Nordic ideal.  And movies addressing the Jewish experience, especially anti-Semitism, were taboo!

It was so bad that Jewish organizations called them out on their game of ethnic hide and seek.  However another critical component in the quest of the Jewish movie moguls to become “real” white Americans and give the public what it wanted was the projection of racist stereotypes of Afro-Americans in their films.

Before movies were invented in the early 20th century the most popular form of American entertainment was the blackface minstrel show, in which white men “blacked up” by smearing burnt cork on their faces, painting on ludicrous big red lips, and engaged in racist parodies of Afro-Americans.  It was such a rage among whites in the 19th century that the great song and dance men Bert Williams and George Walker named their act “Two Real Coons” when they got together in San Francisco during 1994.

However they were the first Afro-American act that refused to wear the burnt cork mask that white audiences insisted black performing artist don, in order to assume the identity that had already established by white Minstrels.

The Great Bert Williams and George Walker
Williams-Walker-opener
Two Real Coons?

The black face Minstrel tradition, although begun by WASP like “Daddy Dan Rice” with his famous “Jump Jim Crow” act – which is where the term “Jim Crow” used to describe institutional racism originated – it was taken over by white ethnics and immigrants.  Irishmen dominated Minstrelsy by the late 19th century and Jews followed their lead.

Hence by the time the first “talkie” appeared – the first film where the characters spoke, bringing an end to the silent film era that was dominated by the Englishman Charlie Chaplin – it was Al Jolson, an immigrant Eastern European Jew, who starred in the movie which was titled “The Jazz Singer.               

Al Jolson Singing his famous tune “Mammy”
Al Jolson
The World’s Greatest Entertainer?

 

By blacking up Al Jolson – who was dubbed “The Greatest Entertainer in the World” before he appeared in the 1927 film – became a cultural hero in white America, a status he would never have acquired had he simply presented himself onstage as Asa Yoelson, the Russian born Jew.  Hence by donning the black face mask Joelson was engaging in a double masquerade: an immigrant Jew solidifying his “white American” identity by masquerading as an Afro-American while denigrating black culture and character; a role that was quintessentially white American.

The movie was based on a Jewish play, “Day of Atonement,” with the screenplay and direction by Jews. When blackface acts went out of style the Jewish movie moguls brought the same obsequious comic domestic figure that was so popular in the live “Coon Shows” to the silver screen with real black actors.  The most famous of these was Lincoln Perry, aka “Stepin Fetchit,” whom white Americans found a much more fetching personality than the Jack Johnson “Bad Nigger” type.

The Jewish businessmen who ran Hollywood understood the seemingly insatiable appetite of white Americans for grotesque images of Black Americans, and they delivered them in abundance.  However according to his biographer Mel Watkins, in real life Lincoln Perry was far more like Jack Johnson than Stepin Fetchit; to whom he bore no resemblance, just as the American society portrayed by the Jews in Hollywood bore no resemblance to social reality.

It was a world of make believe in which Anglo-Saxon protestant heroes and heroines were the ideal, Jews didn’t exist, and black Americans lived to serve whites with a smile, whether cleaning house or tap dancing.  In any case Afro-Americans were simple minded happy go lucky darkies who could gleefully sing, as indeed the Jewish composer George Gershwin had a black character sing in his opera Porgy and Bess: “I’ve  got plenty of nothing/ and nothing’s plenty for me.”

Stepin Fetchit aka Lincoln Perry with Will Rogers
Stepin Fetchit
The black faced Minstrel Character brought to film played by real blacks

The Real Lincoln Perry

Stepin Fetchit book cover

A Tough Guy and Militant Fighter for the rights of Black Actors

This is the Los Angeles in which Donald Tokowitz – Donald Sterling’s given surname – grew up as a poor and powerless Jew.  Born in Chicago to immigrant Jewish parents’ in 1934, just after Hitler had come to power in Germany, the family moved to an economically depressed, racially mixed, LA neighborhood called Boyle Heights in 1936, where his father eked out a living as a produce peddler.

There were blacks, Mexicans and several white ethnic groups living there at the time.  Ironically, Sterling’s girlfriend Saviano also lived there. In a May 6, article on Sterling in the Boston Globe, “Becoming white: Donald Sterling’s past offers clues to current outcry,” Journalist Farah Stockman quotes sociologist Bruce Phillips, whose father had also grown up the neighborhood during the same period as Sterling.

““During the Depression, no one had any hope of getting out of Boyle Heights,” Phillips observed, and he described the position of the Jews in the racial stratification system Boyle Heights: ““On the ‘social distance scale, Jews were in the middle, between people of color and white ethnic groups. They were either the most acceptable non-white ethnic group, or the least acceptable whites.”  Outside of Boyle Heights the most conspicuous achievement of Jews in Los Angeles, Hollywood, was not promoted as a Jewish triumph by the movie moguls but consciously portrayed simply as an American, i.e. white American, success story.

This was especially true in this period when white racist groups like the Ku Klux Klan and Nazi sympathizers argued that Hollywood was a Jewish conspiracy to corrupt the morals of white Christian youths. By 1960, when Donald Tokowitz graduated from law school and set out to make his fortune in the rich and glamorous city of Los Angeles, where the Hollywood Jews had found fame and fortune, he had learned his lesson well and followed a tried and true path to the privileged position enjoyed by successful white men in America.

Thus it is not surprising that one of the first things he did upon graduation was to scrap Tokowitz and formally change his name to “Sterling.”  Although he has attempted to put the name change on his father, court documents examined by enterprising reporters tell a different tale. In the legal papers submitted to the court Don Tokowitz claimed he wanted the change his name to Sterling because his colleagues had a hard time pronouncing Tokowitz.  He went on to say that this could hinder him professionally.

Reborn as Donald Sterling

Donald Sterling as young lawyer

Donald Tofowitz became a Rich LA Lawyer/Businessman

Thus by changing his name – which is a ritual of rebirth – his intention was to blend in with the rest of his white countrymen.  For being a Jew at mid-twentieth meant exclusion from the major law firms that were known in the legal community as “White Shoe” firms, where the high powered corporate deals were packaged. While not subjected to the kind of racial oppression that Afro-Americans suffered, many Anglo-Saxons regarded Jews as not quite white.

Ms. Stockman observes that this “almost white status” led many Jews “to focus feverishly on full acceptance. As they grew more prosperous, nearly all of the Jews in Boyle Heights moved to white suburbs in places like the San Fernando Valley, where blacks and Hispanics couldn’t follow.” And when Sterling became a big real estate owner he adopted illegal racist discriminatory practices that made sure even those Afro-Americans who could afford it would be denied entrance into those neighborhoods – and he was not alone, it was a common practice among racist white realtors.  Yet according to the government agencies that heard the complaints against him, Sterling is one of the worse and received the highest fines ever awarded in a housing discrimination case.

It was yet another bid by sterling to be a “real” white man. When viewed from this historical perspective the comments to his Afro-Latina concubine V. Stiviano makes perfect sense.  In essence he was telling her to do what he did: escape her ethnic identity and all the problems it brings.  This is abundantly clear when Sterling tells her not to bring black men to the games or be seen “associating with black people” online, and she reminds him she is part black.  “It bothers me that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people” says a furious Sterling.  “I just saying, in your lousy instagrams, you don’t have to have yourself with, walking black people.” At another point he says to her why can’t she just project herself as a nice Latina.

I guess when you have run away from your own heritage in search of, rejected your birthright for fool’s gold, it seems reasonable to demand it from your concubine – whom he describes as “a street girl” with fifteen Mexican brothers and sisters to support.  It is all too obvious that Donald Sterling is a sad deluded old fool, a shameless liar and hypocrite who burst into tears on world-wide television when he recounted how much he had done for his young Afro-Latina concubine who he “thought really cared” for him.

From all appearances this guy is a perpetual trick, a pathetic clueless Putz who thinks he can buy some young love that is only slightly soiled, and his “girl” V. Stiviano, which is one of several aliases she has used, is a hard hearted hustler out to take this chump for all she can get. It is a tawdry tale about racism, privilege and power in contemporary America in which beauty conquers the beast.  Alas, they deserve each other.

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

Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
May 16, 2014

May the Circle Stay Unbroken

Posted in Cultural Matters, Music Reviews, On Foreign Affairs on May 1, 2014 by playthell

Duke Ellington in Stetson

The Sound Sorcerer wielding his Mighty Axe; his sound was heard around the world

 Jazz and Modern Black Culture in South Africa

It is interesting to read Playthell’s article, “An Evening with Edward Kennedy Ellington;” it got me thinking of life in the Ghetto of Soweto, in South Africa. The Townships might not have had the architectural wonders of New York and its chic urbane life-style, but, Duke still affected and influenced the life, music and self-esteem of Africans under Apartheid. There has long been a struggle against Apartheid by the indigene refuting the claim that we were uncouth and backward.

As the Township of Soweto expanded and grew, so did the music scene: the South African Jazz Scene. Some of the jazz groups had “American” as their names. There were Jazz big bands; the fashion of the day were Dobbs brim hats, Florsheim shoes – some two tone – double breasted jackets with broad lapels and the whole dress code as was worn by the Americans of the ’30s, 40s and 50s.  I guess what I am saying is that, because of the inhumanity of Apartheid we witnessed an oppressed people immerse themselves in the American Jazz music and African American culture, language and mannerism as a way of keeping our souls intact.

Louis Armstrong Master Musician and Fashion Plate
Louis_Armstrong_and_Velma_Middleton,_Carnegie_Hall,_New_York,_N.Y.,_ca._Feb._1947_ Notice the sharp two toned shoes

John Hodges

 JohnnyHodges0161-thumbnail

 Notice the elegant broad lapels

The sleeve jackets of the LPs were the point of discussions from the Shebeens – Taverns/Speak Easies – of the day. Discussion about music, styles, musical signatures of The “Duke”, the “Count”, Hodges, Archie Shepp, Philly Jo Jones(some People even renamed themselves after their favorite artist here in Mzantsi), Coltrane, Monk, Miles, Bessie Smith, Sonny Rollins, Stitt, Sidney Betchet, Stachmo, Jelly roll Morton, Fats Waller, Charlie Parker, Ida Cox, Lucille Hegamin, Rosa Henderson, Bertha “Chippie” Hill, Sara Martin, Trixie Smith, Lizzie Miles, Sarah Vaughn, Mahalia Jackson, Mamie Smith, Josie Miles, Edna Benbow HIcks, Eartha Kitt, Mae Harris, Lulla Miller, jimmy Lunceford, Billie Holiday, Etta James, Charlie Christian, Ron Carter, Yusef Lateef, Ella Fritzgerald, Scot Joplin, and a host of other many American musicians-too numerous to list here.

Virtuoso Trumpeter Miles Davis
miles-davis-Fashion Icon
Fashion Trend Setter
He Was Miles Ahead in his Ideas and Style
 miles davis  Fashion Icon
In Music and Fashion!
 South African Jazz Trumpeter Hugh Masakela
Hugh masekela-1959 Miles’ Musical Progeny
Real Cool Cats

THE THREE JAZZOMOLOS

Swinging the Blues in South Africa
 Ella Fitzgerald….You Send Me!
 Ella-fitzgerald-4ec7911607ac3
The First Lady sings while master trumpeter / jazz innovator Dizzy Swoons

 

 Sarah Vaughn: The Divine One!
Sarah Vaugh II
The Afro-American elegance and sophistication that inspired South Africans

 

The Divine One and Ella’s Musical Daughters
 SWINGIN DEAUVILLE 1991
Merriam Makeba with the Great Gillespie

 

 This South African Songstress

 South African Jazz singer

She can feel it in her soul: Dem dirty blues and all that Jazz
Jazz Musicians were Africa Conscious
Africa Brass - Coltrane
And Glorified the “Motherland” in their Music

The American Jazz idiom was dominating thoroughly and completely here in Mzatnsi. How do I know all these name of all these musicians.  Well, as kids in the early sixties, we would sit with our Uncles and fathers and hear them argue and debate that was the best on drums, saxophones, composition and arrangements, and passions would rise to pitch level.

There were people who never thought of other artist as deserving mention or to be listened to because they did not meet their standard of what was Jazz or the like. So as we grew up in the late sixties, we were exposed to a variety of different artists of this American genre. Well, in most cases, my generation was scoffed-at by our old timers for not listening to real and classic Jazz when we listened to Jimmy Smith, John Patton, Harold Mabern, Blue Mitchell, Lou Donaldson, Billy Cobham, Booker T., Soul Music and funk.

We were ridiculed by these stalwarts and keepers of the Old Jazz, as me and my peers referred to Classical jazz as “not listening to Jazz,” and knowing nothing about it. But today, with most of them gone, and many of those who survived apartheid – the old timers I referred to above – have formed Jazz Clubs here in South Africa. They meet on weekends and bring out their best collection and spend the whole day listening to jazz, eating and imbibing large amounts of alcohol.

And whilst engaging in this celebration of jazz here in Mzantsi, you would hear talk like Playthell’s, whom I will cite below, as being what was said about these musicians by our elders. Most of the other stuff was learned and read from the LP liner notes by some Jazz critic or aficionado, and From Down Beat Magazine and so forth. It would go something like this passage from Playthell’s essay:  

“Some of these people had crossed an ocean to attend the concert earlier in the day. After a while, it was clear that several of the guests had seriously followed Duke’s work for thirty to forty years. … As Duke responded to requests and moved from one tune to another, I was impressed by the fact that most of these songs were now part of the standard repertoire of American music. … I wondered at the artistic sensibility that could conceive these elegant tone poems, based in sophisticated urban blues and surrounded by consistently inventive orchestrations…. ….When he composed his suites to various regions of the world he never wrote the music when he was in those places.

‘I don’t want to be overly influenced by the local musical traditions, so I always wait until I’m back home to write my impressions.’ And he also confessed to me after a few rounds of Champaign: ‘I’m a sophisticated savage.’ Before I could persuade him to elaborate on his colorful claim our conversation was disrupted by others demanding the attention of the great man. I understood and bowed out.  That enchanted evening in July, 1974 demonstrates that rest the world has long recognized the extraordinary creative contribution of the Duke. It is long past time this prophet became s hero in his own land.”

To be honest, what Playthell wrote above would be taken by these Jazz aficionados, turned on its head, made theirs. And included in their folklore about Jazz, as if it was they who spun the yarn above, and had experienced it, so that they have a one-up on their fellow Jazz buffs.. But, with time, those with the means, have been visiting The Newport Jazz Festival, Montreux Festival, and many of those in Europe.. And the comeback with fantastic tales of their visits and so forth, today (Most of it exaggerated, somewhat, but with some kernel of Truth.

Duke, Armstrong and Singer Jimmy Rushing
Duke Ellington,  Rushing, Louis Armstrong, Billy Strahorn with Photomodels at 1962 Newport Jazz Festival 
Hanging out with High Fashion Models Backstage at Newport 1962

 Today in south Africa, we have come a long from the days I described above.. People are not more able to listen to jazz without the pressures of apartheid dehumanizing us. But African American Jazz in South Africa made our lives more bearable and full of hope. We never gave the Boers a chance to tell us nor believed we were barbarians or savages. Duke and the rest of the African America Jazz Masers, confirmed to us, since most of us looked like many of them and vice-versa- we knew that we were better than what the Apartheid monsters said we were.

There were many Jazz bands that were spawned as a result of our exposure to the American music scene and its Jazz Masters. These I might talk about in another palaver we might have on this subject. But Playthell’s article, with its cultural opulence and high art life-style, is still what makes our world go round. Duke was our demi-god when it came to Jazz, Style, dress/fashion, comportment and Class. He personified all this and then some to my uncles and their friends.

A Paragon of Male Elegance
Duke Ellington esq-best-dressed-duke-ellington-lg-2
Esquire Magazines “Best Dressed Man”
A Playful Moment with the Great Ray Nance
Ray Nance
 Jiving around onstage in Sweden
A Triple Threat and More….

Ray Nance II

Sweet Ray Nance: a Master of Trumpet, Violin and Dance….he could Sing too!

Our Elders copied many of Duke’s mannerism that Playthell describes above, which he observed on his visit to the Maestro’s apartment.  As you can imagine, many have tried, albeit not on par with Playthell’s analysis, to be what the Duke represented and even added they own spin to the act. Apartheid, in its evil intent to dehumanize us, failed dismally because many Africans in South Africa knew that their Nazi-like oppressor’s claims of racial superiority were lies.

We lived our lives full of Jazz and our spirits danced above the concentration camps they built for us Called Townships… Like the humongous one called Soweto (Southern Western Townships) Digging jazz is still the way to go.. although the present-day youth in south Africa – as in the United States – are out of sync and do not know any better.. Some of us still know what time it is when it comes to Jazz music…

Young South African Jazzmen
 South African Jazzmen.jpg Today

 All Races come together playing Jazz

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 Double Clink on Link to see Duke and Ray Nance

http://youtu.be/gOlpcJhNyDI 

The Ellington Orchestra in live Concert, Zurich 1959

SkhoKho Sa Tiou

 Mzantsi, South Africa

May Day 2014