On The Elegance of Afro-America!

Jazz Dancers

Scrapple from the Apple: Bebop Dancers in Charlie Parker Park

Black Style as a Weapon of Liberation

A Multi-Media Photographic Exhibition and lecture

The exhibition which opened at the beautiful Dwyer Cultural Center in Harlem on March 6, 2016 consist of a gallery showing select portraits I shot in Miami, Los Angeles, Atlanta and New York of  Afro-Americans just going about their business – some of whom are quite prominant persons.  I call these photographs “living fashion,” as opposed to a staged event or “fashion show.”  The gallery exhibit was accompanied by a lecture explaining how the traditional Afro-American penchant for elegance grew out of our struggle for human rights and personal dignity against the anti-black racism of white Americans; a set of beliefs that promoted white supremacy while subjugating Afro-Americans institutionally and ideologically.

The expression of elegance in self decoration over time is illustrated in the images shot by photographers from the 19th and 20th centuries.  Following the lecture “The Evolution of Afro-American Style as a Weapon of Liberation,” a slide show accompained by music was presented comprised of 275 photographs.  The exhibition is divided into three parts: Sophisticated Ladies, Duets and Old School Cool Rules!

The Afro-American tradition of high style cannot be understood aside from the racist history of the United States.  The most powerful theme in American history is the persistence of white racism.  It ebbs and flows with the tenor of the times but it always returns like the nightmarish melody of a bad song.  One could argue with convincing evidence that the main reason for this persistence is the need to justify a history of racist policies that include some of the most odious crimes against humanity in world history.

The white settler colonialists from Europe who landed in the America’s fleeing myriad oppressions – religious, ethnic, political and “racial” – disregarded the rights of the original inhabitants, Native American “Indians,” and stole millions of acres of fertile lands at gunpoint. When the Indians resisted, as any people would, they were slaughtered as the whites adopted a policy of genocide killing men, women, children and the elderly.  No one was safe from the ravages of this land hungry flotsam of European Society.  This was America’s Original Sin, and it was central to the birth of the United States.

When the Native Americans proved inept at performing hard labor for long hours in the hot climates that the system of plantation production required, these planter / capitalists bought African workers from international slave traders, the greatest of which were the pious New Englanders with their swift Yankee clipper ships; despite their praising the virtues of freedom ad nauseum.

The requirements of the labor intensive plantation system meant that atrocities were standard fare; an essential element in the relations between the planters and slaves. Horrendous acts that were common practices for 250 years in the US -such as denying Afo-Americans the right to marry and selling our children as if they were piglets – are now viewed with such horror that white Americans are engaged in a wholsale denial of their blood stained history as oppressors in favor of myths like “American Exceptionalism.”  Texas, one of the nation’s largest states, is trying to write the slave era out of their history textbooks altogether. Yet this and legal caste oppression based on skin color cover two thirds of American history!

This presented a serious problem for the emerging American nation, which claimed to be a “Christian Nation” that cherished the Ten Commandments and followed the teachings of Jesus Christ.  In a desperate attempt to camouflage this glaring contradiction between the lofty ideals of the nation and the realities of their sinful inhumane policies, they denied the humanity of black people with pathological theology and pseudo-scientific theories of white superiority. And they created a racist iconography to give visual expression to their bogus claims.

For Black Americans, suffering under the oppression of white supremacy in law and custom, statute and etiquette, subjected to constant psychological warfare by a barrage of racist imagery from the media of white America – which reached its apogee in the black face minstrel show – the style in which we decorated ourselves became a weapon in the struggle for liberation.

We dressed for success long before this idea became au courant here in the 21st century.  As was revealed in the exhibition “Reflections in Black: Smithsonian African-American Photography,” curated by photography historian Deborah Willis and mounted at the Studio Museum in Harlem,  almost from the moment Afro-American photographer Jules Lion introduced the art of daguerreotypes in 1840, black photography shops began to pop up all across North America.  Among these were Augustus Washington in Connecticut; Daniel Freeman in Washington, D.C.; Harry Shepherd in Minnesota; and James Presley Ball in Cincinnati Ohio and Helena Montana.

A major reason why black photographers flourished in in 19th century America is due to the advocacy of Frederick Douglass – the great abolitionist orator, writer, publisher and premiere spokesman for what Dr. DuBois would later call the “Spiritual Strivings” of Afro-Americans. Douglass quickly recognized the power of this new art form as a potent weapon in the fight against the racist and degrading caricatures of Afro-Americans designed to deny our humanity by painting us as animalistic brutes.   Douglass, arguably the 19th century’s most insightful and prescient observer of socio-political developments, as well as the most powerful voice advocating the abolition of slavery, was also “the most photographed American of the 19th century according to the authors of the seminal book “Picturing Frederick Douglass: An Illustrated Biography of the Nineteenth Century’s Most Photographed American.” 

Pretty Fred: The Patron Saint of Black Cool

A Photo II-Frederick Douglass 1848 - Gift to Susan B. Anthony

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Frederick douglass III

The Best Dressed Man in 19th Century America?
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The  authors tell us “Frederick Douglas was in love with photography, during the four years of the Civil War, he wrote more extensively on photography than any other American, even while recognizing that his audiences were “riveted” to the war and wanted a speech ‘only on this mighty struggle.’  He frequented photographer’s studios and sat for his portrait whenever he could.  As a result of this passion, he also became the most photographed American of the 19th century.”  This was not mere vanity, but a planned offensive in the protracted psychological war white Americans was waging against Afro-Americans, a war in which racist propaganda was their most powerful weapon

Douglass understood their strategy well, for instance he pointed out that whites always put forth the most attractive images of themselves and urged Afro-Americans to follow their example by dressing up in their finery, have themselves photographed, and whenever possible make those photographs public.  This is why Douglass looks like a fashion plate every time we see him. He set the example by practicing what he preached!

It is in that spirit of self-celebration, and the ancestral imperative of celebrating the insightful and intrepid photographers that captured that tradition of elegance and preserved it for us, that this exhibition was mounted.  I believe must now preserve images of this tradition in our time to inspire generations yet unborn.  Note: This is a multimedia presentation, see video and sound links at the end of the essay.

Playthell Lecturing at the Opening of the Exhibition
Playthell lectuting at his Pfoto Exhibition 3 -6-16
“On Black Style as a Weapon of Liberation”

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A Black, Brown and Beige Fantasy

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The Grandest Lady in the Easter Parade
Big John at the Living Legends Awards in LA

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CEO Warner-Chappell Worldwide
The Word Sorceress!

Jessica Care Moore (2)

Poet Jessica Care Moore at the National Black Theater in Harlem
Jessica Care reciting - great side shot- (2) Mesmerizing the Audience with her Verbal Alchemy
The Best Dressed Man in Congress!
Photo I- Charlie Rangel
The Honorable Charles Rangel Hanging Out in Harlem
Abiodun's Tribute 115
Classic Harlem Style before the Hip Hop Fashion Disaster
Thespians at the Audelco Awards

Seasoned Beauties

At the Mecca of Black Theater in New York

Perla Negras!

Photo XIII- Perla Negras

Hot Chocolates
A Sophisticated Lady

Photo XII-Michelle

Actress/Producer Michel Turner

Michele Edit XIII

Conjured from the Golden Age of Black Atlantic City
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 A Seasoned Hottie
The Maestro!
Wynton in Berkley
Wynton Marsalis: The World’s Greatest Trumpeter
Artistic Director, Jazz at Lincoln Center
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The Songbird
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We were Mesmerized  as Celestial Blues filled the Room
An Evening at the Theater
Holder and Scott
Award Winning Historical Playwrite Laurence Holder and Jazz Diva Cynthia Scott
Dr. Logan Westbrooks and Wife Gerry at Living Legends
Dr. Westbrooks
 The Businessman/philanthropist and his Educator wife Arrive in their Bently
 President of the Oakland City Council

At the University Of California at Berkley to Hear Wynton and the JALC Orchestra
A Woman of Elegance and Gravitas
Harlem’s State Senator  

Senator Perkins

The Honorale Bill Perkins, setting the Sartorial Standards for the Empire State
Lady Lana Turner: Harlem fashionista
Photo XI- Lana
Businesswoman, Dancer, Bon Vivant
A Swinging Centarian
A Centarians Birthday
Celebrating her 100th Birthday!
Big Ups to the Dwyer Cultural Center!
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Harold Thomas adds an Expert Eye
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The Opening was a Smash!

The Audience was as Elegant as the portraits on the Walls
A Seasoned Brown Fox
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A Vintage Beauty Edit III
A Sizzling Senior Citizen 
 The Don!
Don Raphael -Edit I The Essence of Old School Cool
Poet /singer Don Raphel with Actor / Director Rome Neal
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Killer Dillers!
A Statuesque Beauty 
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Kil and Poet -Edit VII
The Opening was a Sold out Affair!
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One of three Theaters that are linked by Video Ccreens
Renowned Photographer Lisa Dubois was there…..

Lisa Edit I

With her inimitable Style
Lisa and Lana
Lana and Lisa Edit II
Made quite the Dynamic Visual Duo
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The Gallery Was Packed!
 Keeping the Tradition of Frederick Douglass Alive!
playthell-horse
Sunday at the Horse Show
A Public Intellectual Defending President Obama’s Achievements
Droppin Science at Springfield College
Explicating Complex Problems of Politics and Policy at Springfield College
Professor Benjamin Lecturing on Jazz  at Conference on American Studies 

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At the Sorbonne in Paris
Photo by: Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Professor of Humanities at Harvard

LIVE ON WBAI NEW YORK!

At WBAI Jpeg

An Award Winning Producer Reading Commentaries on the Times for Thirty Years!
A Master Percussionist in Performance

Jamming with the functionaries 013

At Red’s Java House in Sanfrancisco
Making a Super Match in the Boxing Business
scan0002 Sugar Ray Leonard and Marvelous Marvin Hagler for Middle Weight Championship!
 A Newly Wed
 Playthell&June - picasa edit
 Playthell and June Benjamin Circa 1977

Easter Sunday circa 1984

Lisa's Edit on Family Pic

Playthell, June and their twins Samori and Makeda Hangin out in New York
The Twins All Grown Up
Playthell&Samori II
 Playthell and Samori
Playthell and Makeda

Playthell and Makeda

These last three photographs of Playthell and Children were shot by:

Hakim Mutlak

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https://youtu.be/_8LLfFY9pQg?list=RD_8LLfFY9pQg
Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, Spring 2016

 

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