Archive for the Cultural Matters Category

A Blast From Our Cultural Past!

Posted in Cultural Matters, Film Criticism, Movie Reviews, Uncategorized with tags , on November 27, 2020 by playthell

Spike Lee and the Malcolm X Movie Mess

A reprint from 1991

“We know we can’t satisfy everybody’s vision of Malcolm X. He has achieved mythic proportions …but we knew going into it that we’d have that problem,” said Spike Lee about his current work-in-progress, then he declared his intention “to be as honest as possible” and “to make a great film.” But in tackling this project Spike has not only undertaken a monumental artistic task, he has also waded into troubled political waters.

It will be hard enough to capture Malcolm’s complex personality and the epic tale that is his life story within the scope of a single feature film. But that may turn out to be the easy part. For around this film all the prickly questions of the relationship of politics and art have already begun to swirl. Given a decent script, I have no doubt that Denzel Washington will resurrect that warm charm and sunny smile, biting sarcasm, regal bearing, fearless posture and verbal virtuosity that combined to form the alchemy of Malcolm’s persona. But Spike will have to negotiate myriad hurdles-artistic and political-before the Malcolm X story reaches theaters.

This is not the first attempt to project the amazing life of Malcolm X onto the silver screen. All the other attempts failed. And they all faltered attempting to produce a .workable script that would satisfy the decision makers who could green light the project. Some distinguished names are associated with this history of failure, which extends over a period of 20 years. In 1967 film producer Marvin Worth acquired the rights to The Autobiography of Malcolm X, co-authored with Alex Haley, from Malcolm’s widow, Betty Shabazz, now an administrator at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, N.Y. Worth commissioned the distinguished Afro-American novelist James Baldwin to write the script.

On the face of it, this was an excellent choice. For not only did Baldwin know Malcolm personally, he was also deeply committed to the black liberation struggle. However, after a year of livin’ large in Tinseltown at studio expense, he failed to come up with a usable and finished script. Two other novelists tried their hand at it and failed: David Bradley, a black college professor and author of the celebrated novel The Chaneysville Incident, and Calder Willingham author of the novel Eternal Fire. Two Pulitzer prize-winning dramatists also bit the dust trying to produce a viable script: Charles Fuller and David Mamet.

Fuller, a product of the sixties Black Arts Movement, was significantly influenced-like most of us of that generation-by the example of Malcolm X. So there can be no doubt that he took his task to heart. A brilliant playwright who has taken us on marvelous excursions into the soul of African American culture, he seemed destined for the project. But alas, zilch. After Fuller wrote the script, director Norman Jewison, with whom Fuller had collaborated on the Academy Award-nominated film version of his Pulitzer prize-winning’ play, A Soldier’s Play, abandoned the project.

Jewison told Mother Jones, “If I knew how to do it, I would move heaven and high water tomorrow to do it. The man’s an enigma to me. I just haven’t licked it. I know Spike Lee wants to get involved, and, at the moment, I would encourage him to do it because the film should be made.” As for Charlie Fuller, he ain’t talkin’. So perhaps we’ll never know what really went down with the script. And David Mamet, the much acclaimed white playwright, met a similar fate after writing a script that • director Sidney Lumet described as having a “breathtaking sweep and extraordinary language.” But perhaps its untimely death was the best fate, because Lumet had planned to cast Richard Pryor in the lead role. That would have been a travesty, for while Pryor is an extraordinary performer, he does not posses either the physical stature or the resources as a mature dramatic actor to play Malcolm X.

So if Malcolm’s story is going to reach the screen anytime soon, in a fashion that will do him proud, it looks as if Spike is going to have to do it. Whereas all the other writers have chosen to start from scratch, Spike is rewriting the James Baldwin script which had been completed by Arnold Perl. I thought it was a great script except for the last third-because a lot of history about Malcolm’s assassination has come out since it was completed.” But even with the Baldwin/Perl script as a foundation, Spike will have his work cut out for him.

First of all, there is the question of a suitable length. Everyone who has worked on this project agrees that the normal two and a half hours allotted for most feature films will not suffice. And while the question of length involves aesthetics, in Malcolm’s story it is also political. It is difficult to imagine a situation where the competing claims of politics and aesthetics impinge upon the creative process as much as in the present film. One film pundit confided, “If Spike makes this film anything less than four hours long he’s doomed.” Another assured me, “It can’t be done in one movie. The only way you can tell Malcolm’s story effectively is with two movies of about three hours and ten minutes each.”

But Spike is tightlipped about the length; all he is saying is, “I will have final cut-It’s an epic story.” An epic story indeed, for Malcolm X’s life symbolizes the triumph of the African American spirit over the crippling experience of racial caste oppression. It is also a metaphor for the American Dream: the rise from poverty to prominence. Hence it is a quintessentially American story that embodies as much of Americana as the music of Duke Ellington. Neither of these phenomena could have happened anywhere else in the world. As the premier American promoter and great bullshit artist Don King would say, “Only in America.”

The story of Malcolm X begins with a working class black family in Lansing, Mich., where the father-a militant black nationalist and Garveyite preacher-is mysteriously killed by a trolley car. The mother, a West Indian immigrant who could pass for white, is driven mad while Malcolm is still a child. The family is fragmented and Malcolm ends up years later as a Harlem hipster who only wants to snort nose candy, rag down in fly zoot suits and lindyhop his ass off at the Savoy Ballroom and other dance emporiums.

He has a strange sadomasochistic love affair with a beautiful Boston white girl whose folks are holding grand-theft dough. He later goes to jail, after participating in a variety of criminal activities, and in yet another incarnation emerges from his dungeon as Malcolm X, the most devoted and inspired disciple of Elijah Muhammad, the founder of the Nation of Islam. As the chief spokesman for the Nation, Malcolm becomes one of the most influential charismatic revivalists of the turbulent sixties. Like Othello’s, his is a hell of a story.

No one understands the magnitude of the task of telling Malcolm’s story more than Spike Lee, who has said, “Everybody else who’s working on this film-if they don’t think this is the most important film in the history of cinema, I don’t want them on it.” Spike is gping all out to bring forth a film that will be distinguished by its fidelity to Malcolm’s life and times. Aside from Malcolm’s autobiography, Spike is reviewing journalistic accounts from the sixties, reading Malcolm’s speeches, watching TV clips and, most of all, interviewing family, friends and associates.

Among those he has personally interviewed is Minister Louis Farrakhan. This is a critical interview, because Farrakhan and Malcolm were as tight as Dick’s hat band during the crucial years of Malcolm’s ministry in the Nation of Islam. And beyond that, Farrakhan, although never linked to the shooting, in the minds of many people who lived through that era, was implicated in Malcolm’s assassination. This question continues to dog Farrakhan, and it came up in an interview conducted by EMERGE(see August 1990).

Farrakhan burst into tears when confronted with a clipping from Muhammad Speaks, in which he seems to be calling for Malcolm’s demise because he was a traitor to the Nation of Islam. By his account, Spike did not fudge the issue when he spoke with Farrakhan. “I showed him the paper clippings from Muhammad Speaks, where his comments suggested Malcolm ought to be killed,” said Spike of his meeting with Farrakhan in Chicago.

He frankly admitted his role in creating the conditions of hostility leading to Malcolm’s assassination and said, ”It was the climate of the times. I would do it differently if I had to do it over again.” But interestingly enough, it was not his own image that caused Farrakhan concern. ”He was most concerned about how the Honorable Elijah Muhammad would be portrayed,” said Spike. ”But Minister Farrakhan did not ask to see the script or anything. He just said, ‘Listen to everybody’s truth Spike, pray, and then come up with your own truth.'”

The greatest danger to the realization of this film has to do with neither art nor commerce but with politics, intergroup and intragroup politics. On the one hand there is the age-old struggle of African Americans to control their image in the mass culture and on the other, there is the fight for artistic autonomy from those in-group political factions that would make creative endeavors subservient to the demands of politics.

The fight waged by Afro-Americans to control their own image goes back to the 18th century, when Benjamin Banneker-scientist and writer-was forced to challenge and debunk Thomas Jefferson’s racist ruminations on black people by word and deed. This resistance grew throughout the 19th century and manifested itself in a steady stream of written and spoken polemics, political struggle, art, music, dance and finally, musical theater.

One could argue that history was a major impetus to the rise of a native Afro-American musical theater that produced works like Chlorindy: The Origin of the Cake Walk, by the Paul Laurence Dunbar and composer Will Marion Cook, or In Abbyssinia , a musical review by Bob Cole, J. Rosamond Johnson,  and his brother James Weldon Johnson. “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a multi-stanza art song popularly known as the ”Black National Anthem,” by James Weldon Johnson and his J. Rosamond Johnson.

Afro-American film historian Donald Bogle, the premier authority on blacks in American movies, concluded, “American films are still dominated by stereotypes and distortions. And the history of blacks in films remains one in which individual actors and actresses have often had to direct themselves; rather than playing characters, they have often had to play against their roles.”

The first black character in American movies appeared in the 1903 silent film Uncle Tom’s Cabin, based on the 19th century novel of the same title. But as Bogle points out, “The great paradox was that in actuality Torn was not black at all. Instead he was portrayed by a nameless, slightly overweight white actor made up in black face.” And he offers this analysis of the evolution of the Afro-American image on the silver screen: “After the Torn’s debut, there appeared a variety of black presences bearing the fanciful names of the coon, the tragic mulatto, the mammy, and the brutal black buck. All were character types used for the same effect: to entertain by stressing Negro inferiority.”

Bogle argues that these archetypes survived into the 1980s and says, of the white American films of the last decade that, “the 1980s might be viewed as the age of the hybrid stereotype: a time when major stars played characters who were sometimes part coon/part buck, sometimes part coon/part mammy. Then, too, black men frequently found themselves de-sexed, rarely permitted romantic roles. Women had few major parts.”

The fabulous flowering of the first authentic Afro- American cinema was sparked by the achievements of one young man: Spike Lee. Like trumpeter Wynton Marsalis-who has almost single-handedly inspired a renaissance in classical acoustic jazz-Spike is the father of the contemporary black film movement. In his five films that have made it to theater screens, he has given us a fascinating portrait of Afro-American life. From the outset, Spike has sought to bring artistic values to black cinema. Hence, we have an array of vigorous and varied black characters that run the gamut from sophisticated cosmopolites to uncouth ghetto fools. He has explored important topics previously ignored in American movies and brought African American art music, i.e., jazz, to the sound tracks of his films, thus introducing it to new audiences around the world.

And while Spike has not always succeeded in his creative efforts, I agree with Bogle’s assessment of his contribution, that “the director’s style (and his refusal to make a formula picture) proved fresh and original.” She’s Gatta Have It “was a true rarity; a black film with a black sensibility.” However, this assessment is not shared by some members of the black community.

Some even accuse Spike of subverting black culture, distorting the history of the black liberation movement, and just generally calling us out of our names. Some of the charges that are now being leveled at Spike, by people who oppose his efforts to make the Malcolm X film, are equivalent to calling him a charlatan or an ignoramus. Most offensive in this regard is Amiri Baraka, ne LeRoi Jones, the aging sixties radical, who recently showed up . at Spike’s door and presented him with a letter stating his concerns about how Spike would handle Malcolm’s story. “We were holding a meeting at the time,” said Spike. “So, I just accepted the letter and told him I would read it.”  But before he could respond, Baraka went public.

Railing against Spike at a Harlem rally on August 3, Baraka exhorted a crowd of about 200 listeners not to let Malcolm X’s life “be trashed to make middle-class Negroes sleep easier.” He also announced that he had come “to bring the issue of Mr. Lee’s exploitation film to the masses.” However, some observers who have worked with Baraka in the past and know him well, are skeptical about what motivated this latest outburst. Dr. Maulana (Ron) Karenga, whose Kawaida philosophy Baraka once passionately embraced and then denounced-along with Karenga himself-when he converted to Marxism, thinks: “LeRoi Jones is just trying to call attention to himself, get a little free publicity.”

And writer Greg Tate takes a similar view: “Baraka is just jealous because he’s no longer getting the kind of attention he used to get. Spike has the ear of the people, and he doesn’t anymore, and I believe he can’t stand it. He seems to hate any young black person who is successful.” One irony is that Spike has collaborated on three books, all associated with the release of his films, with Lisa Jones, who is Baraka’s bi-racial daughter by his first marriage.

But whatever motivated Baraka to launch this bitter and ill-conceived attack on Spike, his speech up in Harlem suggests that he is losing his grip on reality. After all, he denounces the black middle class, while just retiring from a protracted war with Rutgers over tenure demands. And what, pray tell, is more bourgeois than a tenured professor at a major white university? And the 200 or so curious onlookers hardly constituted the African American “masses.”

Indeed, this appears to be the rhetoric of a sadly deluded man. And it is not the worst of it; there are other aspects of Baraka’s behavior regarding the role of Spike Lee as a filmmaker that are troubling. For instance, when Baraka appeared on my radio show over WBAl on July 30, he argued that Spike was part of a conspiracy to trash and discredit the Black Liberation Movement of the sixties and subvert the black cultural revolution, a phenomenon he never defined. As proof of Spike’s evil intentions, Baraka pointed out that Spike had refused to publish his critical treatise on Spike’s movies in his recent anthology Five For Five (Stewart, Tabori & Chang). And he said of Spike, “There is a retrograde trend to people here who are being aggrandized based on the fact of their opposing the historical struggles of black people, and I see Spike Lee as one of those. I don’t see where his films have supported the Black Movement.”

This attack was bad enough, but when I read Baraka’s essay “Spike Lee at the Movies,” I knew why Lee didn’t publish it. A vulgar Marxist tract, handicapped by leaden prose and anachronistic ideas, it reads like the ranting of a religious devotee who has flipped his wig. Coming from the pen of one of the most important writers to emerge from the sixties Black Arts Movement, it is a sad and alarming document that is distinguished by a total absence of original thought.

Baraka’s essay is riddled with Marxist cliches and sloganeering which often substitute for thoughtful analysis. For instance, Spike’s innovative and artistic low-budget satire on male-female relations, She’s Gotta Have It, was “tied to an ingenuous bourgeois feminism. (It’s best defense.) The ‘turn-around’ Nola practices, as equality, is still not correct. Revenge, perhaps, but here an entitlement of her philosophical freedom.” Then he tells us why the film is finally unrighteous: “Womanizing among men is negative and needs to be opposed. Manizing by ‘free’ women is normal bourgeois society.”

The fact that Baraka can only perceive Spike’s sexy, stylish and riotously funny film in such morose terms exposes this self-proclaimed revolutionary as a closet puritan. But Ishmael Reed, a novelist poet and essayist of extraordinary intellect and imagination, who is attacked along with Ralph Ellison in Baraka’s cliche-ridden diatribe, has Baraka’s number on this issue: “His remarks about Spike Lee just reinforce the stereotype that the black intelligentsia slavishly devouring intellectual scraps that are thrown out from the academic big house. They seem to always be behind the trends. Marxism, as an economic theory, is being abandoned all over the world. They are still writing essays that use the language of deconstruction when this theory is being abandoned. They still think phenomenology is hip. If Baraka doesn’t like Spike’s films, he should make his own.”

Spike concurs with Ishmael’s view: “With all the problems that plague black people, why are they attacking me? Baraka is full of shit. “When Malcolm was alive, I was a little kid but Baraka was a grown man. And what was he doing? He was running around the Village with Allen Ginsberg being a beatnik. He didn’t even move uptown to Harlem until after Malcolm was assassinated! I don’t tell Baraka what to write in his books, and he can’t tell me what to say in my films.”

However, Baraka is not alone in his skepticism about Spike’s intentions for Malcolm’s story. A pamphlet issued by the hastily formed United Front to Preserve the Legacy of Malcolm X and the Cultural Revolution echoes many of the questions raised in Baraka’s essay. In fact, much of it reads as if written by Baraka, whose name is prominently displayed in it. The United Front is largely composed of middle-aged political activists, many of whom knew Malcolm X. Its purpose is to further ,Political objectives. But Spike Lee, and all artists, must fervently resist any effort to reduce them to nothing more than vehicles for political propaganda. For this possibility poses a far greater danger to the future of African American culture than any honest mistake Spike might make in telling Malcolm’s story. In a work of art, the vision of the artist must be paramount.


Playthell G. Benjamin

Reprinted from Emerge Magazine

November Issue, 1991



An American Treasure

Posted in Cultural Matters, Music Reviews, Wynton Marsalis on CBS Sunday Morning with tags , on May 12, 2020 by playthell

Maestro Wynton Marsalis after Performing at U-Cal Berkley

CBS Sunday Morning Celebrates the Musical Marsalis’s 

This feature story from the vast archives of CBS television is a priceless treasure. It is a segment from the feature stories on Jazz hosted by the late GREAT Dr. Billy Taylor on CBS Sunday Morning, which introduced a largely unknown musical genius named Wynton Marsalis to the world.

A virtuoso on the piano and a composer / arranger, who also held a PhD, Dr. Taylor was the ideal impresario to present Wynton, a musically ambidextrous virtuoso of the trumpet who at 20 had mastered the two great traditions in western music: European Classical Concert music, and the modern Afro-American complex instrumental music popularly known as “Jazz.” While there have been other musicians who could ably perform in both traditions – flautist Hubert Laws, bassists Richard Davis and Carlos del Pino, trumpeter Miles Davis, percussionist Max Roach, pianists Herbie Hancock and Chucho Valdez, to name a few – none has achieved the level of success that Wynton enjoys.

Looking back at this interview, conducted in the inimitable style of Dr. Taylor, a combination of weighty erudition and cool hipness, with an elegant style accompanied by a beguiling smile, we can see how prescient he was in forecasting greatness for young Wynton. Although barely past his teenage years at the time of the interview, Wynton spoke with the wisdom of a learned elder and played with the technical virtuosity and musical gravitas of a master!

This was no accident, as we learn when we meet his father Ellis Marsalis, a brilliant pianist, influential teacher, and splendid father who, although a quintessential modernist, embodied the entire tradition of Jazz in his playing; beginning with the great musicians of his home town New Orleans, where Jazz was invented at the turn of the 20th century.

It is Ellis who gave Wynton his name, honoring his favorite pianist Wynton Kelly, who performed with andmade great recordings with the virtuoso trumpeter and imaginative innovator Miles Davis. Alas, this splendid man and great musician, was recently taken from us by the Corona-Virus plague…I believe if there is a heaven out there somewhere beyond the rainbow, where good souls go when they die, Ellis Marsalis is jammin with Gabriel in a celestial orchestra.

I knew Billy Taylor, and I first saw Wynton perform when he was around 20 years old in a concert with the great Herbie Hancock VSOP band. I had only vaguely heard of him from a few gigs he had performed around the Big Apple with the great Art Blakey’s “Jazz Messengers,” an iconic band in the history of Jazz, that had caused a buzz among aficionados.

From the moment I heard him play I knew Wynton was special and would become one of the greats. As a failed trumpeter who abandoned that extremely difficult instrument in a fit of despair during 9th grade, after I heard Clifford Brown play “Delilah,” accompanied by the quintessential modern percussionist Max Roach, in a quintet they led, I could easily recognize the brilliance of Wynton’s playing. Just like every failed basketball player can instantly reognize the greatness of Lebron James.
We would soon become good friends and over the years I wrote about him in a variety of publications from the Village Voice and the Daily News, to the Manchester Guardian – now the Guardian Observor of London – the Sunday Times of London, and Commentaries On the Times. I have an essay coming out in a new book of essays on Jazz, edited by the distinguished Jazz critic Willard Jenkins. It is titled “WYNTON IS THE GREATEST!”

This treatise on the art of the trumpet makes the case for Wynton’s place in the history of the instrument, and was originally published as a multi-media essay at:
This CBS SUNDAY MORNING feature is a wonderful blast from the past, if you are inspired by brilliance, especially rarely celebrated Afro-American brilliance, despite the fact that it is EVERYWHERE, check this out! it will make your spirit dance in these dismal times of myriad trials and troubles.


Click on Video


Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
In The Time of the Great Plague
May 11, 2020

The Great Pavarotti!

Posted in Cultural Matters, Movie Reviews with tags , on June 27, 2019 by playthell

The Porcine Lothario of Grand Opera 

A Cinematic Homage to the Maestro

On father’s day my twin children, Samori and Makeda, took me out to the movies to see “Pavarotti,” a documentary on the great Italian tenor who dominated the Grand Opera stage for the second half of the 20th century, brilliantly directed by Ron Howard. I had chosen the movie when they asked what I wanted to do on my special day. It provided an opportunity for me to resume my efforts to tutor them in the complexities of fine art music; the two greatest examples of which are Jazz – a uniquely American classical music invented by Afro-American musicians – and European Classical concert music. Although I privilege instrumental music, the great singers in all genres often have the widest appeal to audiences. And in European music the highest form of vocal artistry is the Grand Opera, where the great composers collaborate with librettist in creating musical dramas that tell wonderful stories in song.

In a career that spanned two centuries – the 20th and 21st – Luciano Pavarotti dominated the Grand Opera stages of the world, and the movie captures his amazing career marvelously. One of the reasons for the success of the film is that we learn as much about the man as his music; which is to say that the film transcends the Opera stage. The artistic choices of the film makers does much to capture and hold the attention of an audience, who may not be opera buffs, by the way they jump-cut from the stage to real life in a seamless narrative.  And most of the music centers around  arias from Pavarotti’s most moving performances.

This is a wise choice because the non-opera fan who would become bored with large segments of an opera, are enthralled listing to the arias. The reason for this was explained by Robert Merrill, venerable baritone with the world renowned Metropolitan Opera. An avid baseball fan who sang the National Anthem at Yankee Stadium countless times, Merrill saw the game of baseball as a metaphor for the opera. He pointed out that baseball is often considered boring for the non-fan until there is a home run, or triple play, or spectacular catch in the outfield, Or acrobatic fielding by the short stop, or a strike out by the pitcher. For Merrill, these magic moments on the baseball diamond were the equivalent of the aria on the Grand Opera stage.

In the Italian opera, an art they invented, it is the tenor who most often sings the great arias with the soprano, and for those who know the score the most dramatic moment comes when the tenor is required to hit the high C. For fans with sadistic sensibilities, or are pissed because their woman has a crush on the tenor who is professing his love in heroic song, their fervent wish is that he will miss…. or at least crack the note. The movie reveals that Pavarotti was well aware of the possibility of disaster, and always took to the stage with great anxiety; announcing in the wings before taking the stage: “Now I go out to die!”

His fears proved fruitless, for The Maestro never missed a high C in performance. Two of the arias that present the greatest chance of failure is the challenging Ah! mes amis” from Daughter of the Regiment,” by Gaetano Donizetti, which contains nine high Cs!  And the hauntingly beautiful Nessum Dorma, from Puccini’s Turandot, in which the challenge is the high B, and Pavarotti is featured in flawless performances of both. In discussing the ever present possibility of a spectacular failure in attempting to perform these operatic masterpieces with the Maestro, who says he is never confident he will succeed singing the great arias, the audience is provided with deep insights into the difficult art of classical singing.

We learn that all great singing is produced in the diaphragm not the throat, and that this is an art where few will succeed, even after many years of rigorous training. And we can count on one hand those who have reached the heights traversed by the great Pavarotti, whose sudden rise to international stardom in 1963 was serendipitous. He was hired to fill in for Guiseppe de Stefano in the role of Rudolfo in Puccini’s La Boheme, at London’s renowned Covent Garden, and overnight a star was born.

Finally, there is the arresting and insightful portrait of Pavarotti the man that emerges from this film. Through footage of the Maestro, supplemented by 53 interviews with those who knew and worked with him in a variety of capacities, we see a man who possessed a zest for life that few among us will ever know. He was a loving devoted father that found real joy in the role; he was an admiring son who honored his father by following in his footsteps as a tenor voice and winning the acclaim that was denied to his father; who made his living as a baker and sang on the side. We see his gluttonous love for wine, food and women – which showed in his generous girth – and his mutual adoration with his audiences reveal a generosity of spirit as abundant as his physique. But we also see his unpalatable side alas.

With multitudes of finely clad voluptuous beauties flashing ‘come hither” smiles and “fuck me” body language, responding as if their ears were connected to the clits, it would require an impotent pooty pop or a righteous Saint with a greater will than David, Samson and Solomon to have resisted such temptations. And although a miraculous singer with a heavenly voice, Pavarotti was no Saint. Indeed, from all appearances he was a potent stud. Given the amount of time spent on the road performing around the world, he was bound to stray. This eventually led to the break-up of his family when his wife had had enough of his prolific philandering. But he would be married again to a beautiful younger woman; although she had no talent or interest in music, she was smitten by Pavarotti and proved to be an excellent business partner and soulmate.

Perhaps the thing that best revealed The Maestro’s expansive love of music is the series of concerts he performed billed as Pavarotti and Friends, and his stint with The Three Tenors, in which he shared the stage with the great Spanish tenors Placido Domingo, who could also credibly claim to be “the greatest tenor in the Grand Opera, and Jose Carreas.” This act was so wildly popular that a documentary was made on them and all three stars set records for earnings with Jose Carreras amassing a net worth of 250, million dollars, Pavarotti 275 million and Placido Domingo – who is also a conductor, 300 million!

This is big time Rock Star and Hip Hop mogul money, and the fact that they could accumulate these sums singing Classical Music is a testament to their unique appeal.  Although Opera, especially the magnificent Italian tenor of the early 20th century Enrico Caruso, was once quite popular.  For instance, the first record to sell a million copies was Caruso’s performance of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci” in 1907.  Pavarotti’s  performances in the Pavarotti and Friends concerts, which were dedicated to raising money for charity, put Pavarotti on stage with the world’s biggest stars of popular music. He performed with Rock megastars like Sting and Bono, plus Rhythm&Blues icons such as Barry White and James Brown.

White, a singer/songwriter who was an overweight sex symbol with a girth comparable to Pavarotti’s, sold 100 million records, including 106 gold albums, with 41 becoming platinum. He also had 20 gold and 10 platinum singles. Which makes him one of the most beloved singers of all times worldwide; yet at 20 million dollars White’s net worth is a fraction of Pavarotti’s, who at one point was the most popular singer in the world. This wonderful film captures the complexity and presents an unvarnished narrative of the Maestro’s life, with all his vices and virtues, that’s more than worth the price of the ticket!  


Watch Pavarotti Perform Nessum Dorma at the MET

Hear Pavarotti sing “Ah! mes amis”

Watch: The Three Tenors Sing “O Sole Mio”

Watch The Overweight Lovers: Pavarotti and Barry White

Watch Pavarotti and James Brown Sing “It’s A Man’s World

Blues For Brother Zach

Posted in Cultural Matters, On the Passing Of Brother Zach, Playthell on politics with tags , , on November 5, 2018 by playthell

Zach as Student Leader at Columbia

On The Passing of a Tireless Freedom Fighter

Upon hearing that the great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy had passed, the novelist Gorky said on behalf of other Russian writers whom Tolstoy had inspired:”Now… we are all orphans.” That is how many of us feel who recognize, and often relied upon, Brother Zach’s leadership; he was indefatigable in his efforts to uplift and advance the interests of the Black community. He seemed to be anywhere and everywhere, anytime and all the time, lending his considerable talents to a wide array of causes 24/7. More often than not he did it pro-bono, which is the truest measure of commitment.

Brother Zach was what they called “Race Men” in the 20th century, the century that shaped him and defined his values. And he has planted positive seeds in many places that will bear fruit to nourish the minds and spirits of generations yet unborn. With his ever present smile and heroic optimism in the face of persistent adversity, he was one of a kind.

Over the course of what has turned out to be a fairly long and eventful life, I have traveled over the ocean seas, and resided for nearly half a century in this grand metropolis at the center of the world. It sometimes seems that I have met every variety of human being and spoke to everybody twice, thus I am certain that I have met a representative sample of what humanity has to offer.

Yet I have never met a better man than Brother Zach, and I am certain that I never will. As our Ibo ancestors – whose prolific and profound proverbs appear to have encapsulated all the world’s wisdom regarding the human condition and the vicissitudes of life – would say on this question: “A better man than Zachary Husser has not been born….and his mother is dead.”

When I heard Brother Zach had danced and joined the ancestors, I was devastated. I had just hung out with him a few weeks ago and he seemed healthy as a race horse, moving in triple speed running hither and yon as was his habit. He was a man on a permanent mission, a man who lived a purpose driven life. One need only look at his Face Book page in order to see a catalogue of the myriad activities that he was involved with. It caused the thoughtful observer to wonder when he slept…or just chilled.

Yet despite the fact that he was always in the trenches did not make him bitter or depressed. Like the blues, Zach understood that life could be a low down dirty shame…but we had to keep on swinging anyway. It was this irrepressible spirit embodied in the blues that enabled the Afro-American people to keep our souls in tact in the face of the horrors of American racism.

Hence Zach always had a ready smile; whose incandescence was made the brighter when contrasted with his regal ebony hue. He was – as the brilliant 18th century Afro-American scientist Benjamin Banneker described himself in a letter to Thomas Jefferson introducing a mathematical treatise authored by himself – “a negro of the deepest dye.”

There was a grandeur about him that reminded me of the ancient Ethiopian King Menelek the II, and a benevolence worthy of a saint. I cannot remember a time when Brother Zach was not in good spirits and convinced that if we just kept the faith and continued the struggle…victory is assured!

Hence the question before us now is how do we remember such a grand spirit? How should we honor and celebrate him? Well, first we must approach the task with humility given the gravitas of the subject. I have searched for words sufficiently poetic and profound to describe the debt we owe for his service to us. And more importantly how do we pay it.

Although words are my game, they sometimes desert me when the gravitas of a subject is such it challenges the power of words to describe – even if one relies on the poetic treasure trove manifest in language of Shakespeare, Gwendolyn Brooks, The King James Bible, Zora Neale Hurston, Chaucer and James Weldon Johnson. Now is such a time.

However, knowing Zach as I do – and I knew him very well – I think we will honor him best by continuing the fight for the things he fought for since he was one of the leaders of the historic student strike at Columbia University as a teenager.*  He would no doubt have smiled at the many good things that will be said of him, but joining the struggle is the best way to keep his spirit alive. His works will live on because great works, whether in literature or life….will long endure. 

This Struggle Attracted National Leaders

Chillin On the Beach


* To read about the Columbia University Strike see:

Playthell G. Benjamin


November 6, 2018

Saturday Night at Bill’s Place!

Posted in At Bill's Place, Cultural Matters, Music Reviews with tags , on October 7, 2018 by playthell

Bill Saxton: Jazz Guru and his Diciples

An Intimate Setting for Classic Acoustic Jazz

For those in search of a unique Jazz venue reminicent of oldtime Harlem Jazz clubs, Bill’s Place is the joint. Located in a former Speakeasy from the 1920’s, that fabulous era when Harlem was the most famous neigborhood in New York – a period vividly dscribed in “When Harlem Was in Vogue,” written by Puliter Prize winning historian David Levering Lewis – Bill’s Place features world class virtuoso’s who have performed all over the US and Abroad, sharing the bandstand with up and coming youngsters trying to learn the art of Jazz performance.

For unlike European classical music, whose techniques can be taught in the academy, the secrets of playing extended improviastional solos over chord changes, creating coherent musical statements at the speed of thought, telling a nuanced story while swinging with a Blues feeling, can only be learned jamming on the bandstand with masters of the trade.

Bill’s Place – founded by Virtuosso saxophonists, composer, arranger and band leader Bill Saxon, and his lovely brilliant wife Theda, is the ideal spot for the young seeker after the blues and abstract truth that is the essence of Jazz. Harlem born and bred, Bill Saxon – whose name suggest that he was born to play the saxophone and thus presages his destiny – is a graduate of the prestiegous New England Conservatory of Music.

Bill was annoyed by the fact that most of the Jazz clubs were located down town. Yet uptown Harlem was a major incubator of this quintessential American art, invented and bequeathed to the world by black musicians in the United States; the most imitated performing artists in the world! Hence, along with his lovely wife Dr. Saxon, they opened Bill’s Place with the objective of providing a place for Jazz afficianados – performers and fans – to enjoy an authenic evening of real Jazz in an intimate friendly environment devoted to unabridged performance of this modern complex instrumental  art music.

The photographs below capture some magic musical moments from a typical Saturday night at Bill’s Place. The images show a mixed group of performers and fans comprising men and women representing the “gorgeous human mosaic of New York,” as former Mayor par excellence David Dinkins put it. It is a visual representation of the inclusive democratic character of the art form; which promotes individual liberty and improvisation that by nature assaults conventional wisdom. At the bottom of my Photographs is a video link showing Bill and friends jammin at Bill’s Place.



The Sax Sorceror and his Apprentices


Trading Twelves


Groovin High


Talkin Back


The Rhythm Section was Swinging Hard





The Songbirds Swooped By


They Were Singing Bebops!

I Mean Rebopped Bebops

They Were Rightously Wailing


Mesmerized by the Muslc…

The Audience Came from Everwhere

They Came All the Way from Sweden

And Amsterdam

In Search of an Authentic Harlem Jazz Experience

Lydia and Samaad….

A Sunday Kinda Love…that Lasts Past Saturday Night


Internationally Renowned Artist Artist Ademola Was There

Cultural Entreprenuer and Co-Owner of Harlem’s Dwyer Cultural Center

She Came Up From Baltimore


The Joint Was Jumpin


Old School Cool

Chillin On Hot Jazz Vibes

Baptized in Blues and Swing!

By the Jazz King of Harlem

Bewitched by a Conjour Man

We Were AnointedWith Soul!

 The Wind Beneath his Wings

Dr. Theda Saxon: Manager of Bill’s Place


Listen to Bill and other Muscians discuss the history of Harlem Jazz

Listen to Bill and Friends Perform Monk’s Music at Bill’s Place

“Evidence,” Composed by Theolonius Monk



Sunday Arts Feaure


Text and Photographs by: Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York


Life Among the Aryans  

Posted in Cultural Matters, On Ishmael Reed, Theater with tags , on June 19, 2018 by playthell

Happy Former White Racists who took the “Black Shot”

 A Profound Play that Speaks to Our Times

Once more Rome Neal, distinguished actor and Director of Theater at the Nuyorican Poets Café, a cultural landmark in the East Village, located on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, has brought us a new work by Ishmael Reed.  Mr. Reed – a McAarthur “Genius” award winner and prolific author of fiction, essays and plays – is an iconoclast armed with a pen who is not timid about slaughtering sacred cows if their demise will reveal truth!  He has proclaimed that “writin is fightin,” and certainly pulls no punches in the present play. With his customary erudition and devastating mad cap humor, Ishmael attacks all the hidden hypocrisies of the GOP – Grand Obstructionist Party – in the age of Trump, who is thinly disguised as PP Spanky in the play.

It is a subject worthy of a Shakespeare, but since Sweet Willie is unavailable let us thank the Gods and Ancestors that we have the sizziling secular gospels of Ishmael.  This secular evangelist has chosen the novel and the play as the vehicle for his revelatory sermons, and the theater is his church. While there were no references to religious texts there was much moral preachment, excoriation of sinners, and advocacy on behalf of the poor and powerless – just as Jesus Christ commanded us to do and the blaspheming Bible thumpers masquerading as “Evangelical Christians” have failed to do.  However, the erudition of the script was leavened by generous doses of humor.  Ishmael has been roundly praised for his brilliant use of satire, Irony and parody, and these gifts were on prominent display in Life Among the Aryans.

Ishmael uses several narrative techniques to explore the ideas and emotions of those deranged white supremacists who brought us the Trump phenomenon, and also gives voice to those with opposing arguments.  As is the case with his novels, Ishmael employs innovative methods to tell his tale, the essence of which he describes thusly:

“The time is the future. Having elected a clown president, whose administration was the worst disaster since the regime of the Romanovs, Brietbart nationalists are now confronted with the election of a Jewish President, whose FBI  head is a Black man, the ultimate nightmare of Brietbart  nationalism.  The last straw occurs when the government decides to Black citizens whose ancestors suffered the horrors of slavery.  Two White nationalist, John Shaw and Michael Mulvaney have come under they sway of an ethno-nationalist leader, the smooth talking leader Matthews.  He has persuaded his followers that a violent revolution has to occur and will take place as soon as the trucks bringing manure for the purpose of making explosives arrive.  It’s been a year, and his donors are getting restless.”

To relate this absurdist futuristic fable, Ishmael uses newscasters played by Monisha Shiva, and N. Allam Forster to set up the scenes.  Shiva’s character is positioned on stage in such a way as to approximate a television news anchor, and Foster plays an on the street reporter Dobbin Robb Sobbins, a New Yorker who has traveled out in the boonies to do live interviews with the “real Americans” whom the coastal elites have either reduced to figures of ridicule or ignored all together.  Sobbins approaches his task as if it is safari among near savages, lamenting the fact that he is forced to give up his Eggs Benedict breakfast for grits, and his lattes for Maxwell House Coffee.

Early on we are given a peek into the psychic of the type of people that marched in Charlottesville Virginia, shouting the Nazi slogan “Blood and Soil.”  They are symbolized by two down and out white males who have fallen out of the work force, are structurally employed, and had been living in the criminal underground economy.  Played by Tom Angelo, Michael Mulvaney is an angry displaced factory worker who is selling the dangerous drug Meth Amphetamine – which has become the drug of choice for many dispossessed and disillusioned white Americans.  John Shaw, his close comrade in the local white supremacists brotherhood, played by Frank Martin, is a former dealer in pirated interracial porn flicks.  To our surprise, Rome announced after the performance that Martin had never acted before this production.

In the conversations between them we hear much of what passes for conventional wisdom in this sad sack white trash crowd.  They rejoice in the fact that “the monkey family” has been removed from the White House, Obama and his “prostitute wife and crack head daughters.” They rail against the outrage that the niggers are getting everything, and poor whites are getting nothing.  They look forward to the day of their deliverance when a million heavily armed white men “march on Washington.” Ishmael is relentless in his portrayal of their stupidity, which is magnified by their blind faith in the local white supremacist leader Jack Matthews, who bleeds them for every cent he can get.  Not only do thy go into debt, which their hard-working wives must pay, but they even rob a bank to get the money Matthews needs to open the new headquarters.

But then, Ishmael is always full of surprises and things seldom are what they seem. First Sobbin’s interviews reveal that the white supremacists are not all losers, as he finds out that the president of the local college is among their number. Then we discover that Matthews – convincingly played by the imposing figure of Timothy Mullins – is a professional con artist whose street name is “Chicago Ed.”

Ed’s true identity is revealed when he runs into a black fellow grifter that he has known for years, who is posing as a Dr. Korkman, wonderfully played by the versatile actor Maurice Carlton, who is running a racket that is making money hand over fist.   The way the two old bunko artists greet each other, and the enthusiastic camaraderie among them, reminds me of the relationship between Donald Trump and the black boxing promoter Don King, from whom Trump learned the long-range con.  I have written about this in some detail in “Game Recognizes Game” * (see link to article at bottom of page this essay.)

The racket Dr. Korkman is running, which is a major plot of the play, comes as a big surprise and reminds me of a famous novel “Black        No More,” written by the caustic and irreverent satirist George Schuyler in the early 20th century.  However, Ishmael flips the script. Whereas in Black No More a white doctor comes up with a pill that will make black people white, Dr. Korkman has a shot that can make white people black!

At the time Schuyler wrote his novel Afro-Americans were living under the hellish conditions of legal apartheid, which was a blueprint for institutionalized white supremacy.   Hence the incentive for blacks wanting to become white.   The incentive for whites to become black in the play is the US government’s decision to pay all black Americans a cash payment of $50.000 as reparations for the enslavement of their ancestors.  The white supremacists rail against the payments…until they discover Dr. Korkman’s magical shot that could get them 50 grand, the formula for which he stole from a graduate student then set up shop.  This act exposes the “White Nationalists” to be as venal as they are stupid.

Perhaps the greatest gift that Ishmael has as a writer is his ability to combine great erudition with side splitting humor to impart complex critical information.  This is no picayune achievement, given the difference in the nature of the tasks, and few have managed to pull it off successfully.   However, through the liberal use of the monologue, a device much beloved by Shakespeare, Ishmael pulls it off marvelously!

Although any successful drama begins with the script, it is the actors that must bring the dramatist’s vision to life and “keep it real” as the rappers say.  In talking with the actors after the play, it became abundantly clear that breathing life into these complex monologues – in which Ishmael sometimes becomes more pundit that poet in addressing the great issues he confronts – was no easy pickings.

They spoke of the challenge in bringing them to life, but they testified to the joy of mastering this unique and immensely relevant material. It is much like listening to virtuoso musicians who have performed a great score; for when the composers conceive of music it is the complexities of the music, not the difficulties of the musicians, that is foremost in their minds. They write the music as they hear it in their heads; it is up to the instrumentalists to development the technique to play it.  So it is with actors.  And there was no finer example of this than Eric Frazier’s electrifying performance as Black Man/Black John, or Malika Iman’s charming performance as Doris Johnson as she warned the reporter Dobbin Robb Sobbins about the perils of “Sundown Towns.”

In a statement titled “Words from the Author” printed in the program, Ishmael makes his purpose abundantly clear:

“All of my plays have been done at the Black Repertory Theater in Berkeley, California, and the Nuyorican Poets Café.  Not once has my director, Rome Neal, or the Nuyorican attempted to shut down my message.  These are the times when, as with the living newspaper, a WPA theater of the 1930’s, artists have to step in and do the job that the corporate media, which makes excuses for haters, fails to do.”

In commercial talk radio it is an article of faith among producers that the most successful product is “edutainment;” to find that special combination of material that enables the broadcaster to educate and entertain his audience simultaneously. This is the task that Ishmael routinely takes on in all of his works with great artistic success; life among the Aliens is no exception.  When I saw the play at the Sunday matinee the house was full and the audience enthusiastic.

Yet despite the brilliance of the play and the skill of the actors, the role of the support crew is indispensable to the success of a play.  Hence the costume designs of Carolyn Adams; the Poster Graphic designs of Afiya Owens; the Sound Design of Alex Santulo, the Set Design of Marlon Campbell and the work of Doug Wade, the Master Carpenter that built the sets, which were illuminated with the Lighting Design of Rome Neal all contributed mightily to our experience of the play.


Outstanding Members of  The Cast

                                          Director Rome Neal                                  



Maurice Carlton


Timothy Mullins


Angela Shaw and Kim Austin


Rome Neal  and Maurice Carlton


Rome Presenting the Shekere Award to Newly Minted Actor


Monisha Shiva


Rome Serenading the Audience


Audience Members Passionately discuss the Play


Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
June 18, 2018

The Real Vanguard!

Posted in Black Student Rebels at Columbia. 1968, Cultural Matters with tags , on June 10, 2018 by playthell

Veterans of the Columbia Student Rebellion Circa 1968

Black Columbia Rebels Reclaim their History

Stokely Carimichael and H. Rap Brown show Solidarity with black Students in Hamilton Hall

On Saturday June 2, 2018 a group of Afro-American alumni of Columbia University gathered in the law school on campus to commemorate their pivotal role in the student rebellion at that world-renowned university 50 years ago.  I decided to attend the event because of an invitation from Zachary Husser, who had been one of the student rebels.  My first inclination was to decline, because I was finishing a critical essay on Donald Trump and preparing for an upcoming trip to Cuba, where I will be investigating the state of race and class relations in the first socialist republic in the Americas almost 60 years after the Revolution.

However, this caused me to reflect on the fact that I was a freshman in college during 1959, the year the Cuban revolutionaries overthrew the corrupt, racist, decadent regime of Fulgentsia Batista. The southern student sit-in movement began it the spring semester of 1960, when black students from North Carolina A&T sat down at a “whites only” lunch counter in Greensboro.  We at Florida A&M soon joined the movement, and I jumped in with both feet.

That was the beginning of the student revolt of the 1960’s, and as Zach persisted in urging me to come, insisting on the historical importance of the Columbia Revolt, which occurred eight years after we launched the uprising in southern black colleges, I became curious to see how far the movement had evolved as that decade of unprecedented student struggle came to a close.  And I wondered how different black student demands would be in an elite northern white university, where de jure segregation in the wider society off campus was not an issue.

As things turned out, Zach was right; this commemoration proved enlightening and certainly of historical importance. Which is why I decided to document my impressions of the occasion in a photo-essay that the participants could have as memorabilia to mark the occasion.   The distinguished sociologist William J. Wilson – heir to the tradition of Dr. WEB DuBois and E. Franklin Frazier in the scientific study of Afro-American life – once told me that my writing reveals a “sociological imagination,” perhaps, but I generally view events from the added dimension of historical perspective in order to place them in their proper context. That is what I have attempted to do in my reportage on the commemoration.  I shall leave it to the readers, especially those who participated in these events, to decide the extent to which I have succeeded.

The former student activists had gathered at Columbia not only to celebrate their struggle, but to reclaim its place in history by setting the record straight.  Aside from sharing their memories of the event, they unveiled a documentary film in progress whose raison d’etre is to fill the gaps in what has become the standard historical narrative of the Columbia student revolt in 1968.  Their complaint that the role of black students had been whited out in the media’s coverage of the student rebellion was confirmed later that very evening when CNN aired a marathon report titled, 1968: The Year That Changed America.  The report was ambitious in the scope of its concerns, yet as one who lived through this period as an activist in nation-wide struggles, I found that it short changed the contribution of Afro-Americans in bringing about that change in general, politically and culturally, and it virtually ignored the critical role of Black students in their recounting of the uprising at Columbia.

It was a startling experience, because I happened to stumble upon the program by accident. Rarely does a reporter or historical investigator have such compelling evidence for a seriously contentious claim simply fall into his hands with little or no effort.  Yet all of the complaints I heard earlier from the Afro-American alumni that attended the commemoration were on display in the CNN report.  While some may regard this omission as evidence of a conspiracy to deny black students their rightful place in history, I see it as the logical consequence of the flaws in the original reportage on the rebellion.

Yet in the final analysis this has proved to be a distinction without a difference when we consider the outcome. Whether it was a conspiracy or incompetent reporting, the end result is that the critical role played by black students has been whited out.  When I first heard the charges raised by the participants in these events of half a century ago, it was a revelation.  For although I was speaking to black student activist all over the country who were fighting for various reforms in University practices at the time, and knew black community activist in Harlem, which bordered Columbia’s campus and figured prominently in the student rebellion, I was not aware of the centrality of the black student activists in shaping the outcome of those events.

However, as a former history professor and co-founder of the first free standing, degree granting department of Black Studies – the WEB DuBois Department at U-MASS Amherst in 1969 – I fully understand the importance of preserving our legacy of struggle, and I know that the history of black activism in American universities in this period is still being written.  I also understand that writing the history of any period is never fully finished.  That’s why even the most distinguished historians routinely refer to their works as “a history,” rather “the history” of a period or event.  And since journalism is widely regarded as a “first draft” of history, it is of paramount importance to get the initial story right. That is why it is imperative that we record the testimony of those who lived through, participated in, or witnessed the events.

Hence, when viewed from the perspective of the historian, the testimony of former student activists who came together on Columbia’s campus to share memories of their struggle a half century earlier is priceless.  The fact that they are recording their testimony on film will insure that it will last forever in the archives of ancient wisdom,  and countless generations who follow in their wake will be informed and inspired by their heroic example. It is impossible to overstate the importance of telling our own story as Afro-Americans, unmediated by Euro-American interlocutors.

As the distinguished Afro-American writer and blues philosopher Albert Murray warned in his broadly learned, deeply insightful, and highly original text, The Omni-Americans, that whenever white editors or producers are given a choice between “a story of black heroism or a tale of black pathology, they will most often choose the tale of black pathology.”  Murray argues that it is essential to preserving and propagating “the folklore of white supremacy and the fakelore of black pathology.”  This is such a widespread practice that it led General Colin Powell to reply to a white editor who told him that his prominence was such that they would no longer mention his race when writing about his achievements – after he was appointed Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Of Staff in the armed forces – “Don’t stop now!”  Powell exclaimed. The General went on explain: “If I was out here mugging or murdering somebody you would certainly mention my race then.”

The belief that white Americans cannot be trusted to represent us accurately, and routinely promote the worse rather than the best in Afro-American life and culture, is widespread among educated thoughtful black folks as I write and it has a long history.  That’s why as soon as he saw the new art of photography, which was transported from Paris to New Orleans in 1840 by Jules Lion, an Afro-American photographer who introduced the art into America, Frederick Douglass called for free Afro-Americans to dress up in their finest clothes and have themselves photographed; then place their photos in newspapers and other public media as a counter-statement to white racist imagery of them.*  WEB DuBois – who mounted a prize-winning photography exhibition of Afro-Americans at the Paris Exposition of 1900 – also noted this racist practice of denigrating the character of black people in his powerful, prophetic, erudite, and poetic text “The Souls of Black Folk,” published three years later in 1903.  Dr. Dubois, one of the most insightful observers of race relations ever, concluded that the  white commentators and critics of the Afro-American community were guilty of “the cynical ignoring of the better and the boisterous welcoming of the worse.”

Many people believe that this explains the tendency of the record and movie industries to promote products with pathological messages and imagery over more wholesome uplifting works.  As I write there is a raging debate among black women in the recording industry as to whether the rising prominence of the foul-mouthed “gutter” rapper Cardi B, is due to a conscious effort by the “Suits,” – i.e. the white boys that make the decisions on how promotional dollars are spent – to counteract the enormous positive, uplifting, images of Afro-American women and culture projected in the works of Beyoncé!  This view is also shared by black businessmen in the music industry who have co-signed this charge in conversations with this writer.

There are also black movie critics who believe it was this kind of thinking by white members of the film academy who selected “O.J. Made in America” over “I’m Not Your Negro,” a view of the black struggle in the 1960’s told through the writings of the brilliant novelist/essayist James Baldwin in a voice over the images, and the selection of “Moonlight” over “Hidden Figures” for Best Picture.   Although in the absence of confessions by the voters it is impossible to prove this charge, it remains a suspicion. For even if all things were equal artistically, the radical difference in the representations of Afro-American character and culture lends gravitas to the charge that white cultural arbiters prefer black pathology over heroism.


The participants in the commemoration on Saturday are just the kind of thoughtful, conscious Afro-Americans who are well-aware of this issue; this tendency on the part of our white American countrymen to try and present us as something less than we are.  As graduates of a great university they have gone out into the world and worked in a variety of fields ranging from law, academia, business and high finance, etc. And they have had to compete with white colleagues in institutions where they are always outnumbered and were most often evaluated by white supervisors.

This interaction has made them well-aware of the widespread ignorance about Afro-American history and culture among Euro-Americans.  And it is in the nature of things that this ignorance is complicated by the belief on the part of many whites that they know things about us which they presume to be “facts” but are not true.  Which, alas, is the worst sort of ignorance.  Although the participants didn’t say this explicitly, it was implicit in the things they did say.  The conviction that much of white racist ideology is based on ignorance or denial of the facts of our history was a major theme in the comments of those who spoke.  It was like a powerful, haunting, refrain that recurs throughout a song and gives meaning and coherence to the separate verses. And, tragically, this ignorance of the heroic character of Afro-American history has psychologically damaged some of our untutored brethren, even if they are rich and famous like Kanye West; who recently said that our ancestors made “a choice” to be slaves!   That silly boy needs to get his ignant ass in a library quick, fast, and in a hurry.   I think we should organize a boycott against him and no black person should buy another record of his until he writes a rap begging the forgiveness of the black community for profaning the memory of our enslaved ancestors.

This is why black students reclaiming their rightful place in the history of the radical student movement of the 1960’s holds such importance.  As one of the world’s great institutions of higher learning, what happened at Columbia is destined for inclusion in the history books.  And the former student activists at the commemoration are determined to insure that when the heroes of the movement come marching into the hallowed halls of history they will be in that number.  Their statements echoed the sentiments expressed by Frederick Douglass, the greatest American moral clarion of the 19th century; who was a reluctant keynote speaker at the unveiling of the Freedman’s Memorial to Abraham Lincoln in Washington during 1875, ten years after the end of the Civil War.

**Douglass had ambivalent feelings about the statue, much as he had about the man it was intended to honor.  Created by Thomas Ball, a white sculptor residing in Paris, the statue portrays Abraham Lincoln towering over a black slave on his knees, with the emancipation Proclamation in one hand and the other hand hovering over the head of the slave whose eyes are cast skyward.  Douglass preferred that the now former slave had assumed a more manly posture; he said it looked as if Lincoln was saying “Go and sin no more.”  Douglass thought it added insult to injury. Hence, he began his speech by saying: “I am here today because I will not have it said that the colored man is a man that can show no gratitude.”  But he goes on to point out “Truth is beautiful and proper at all times and in all places, but it is never more beautiful or proper than when speaking of a man who will be commended to history.” Clearly, the black Columbia alumni and movement veterans were there to tell the truth of their struggle and see to it that it becomes a part of the historical record.  And like Othello, they told “a round unvarnished tale.”

The most enduring truth to emerge from their testimonies is that the black student’s actions were the heart and soul of the movement and saved the white student movement from being crushed by the police power of the state, which had already unleashed on the white students that had occupied buildings.  This is because the white students didn’t have the kind of widespread support in their community that the black students had in nearby Harlem, then the unquestioned capitol of Black America, which was percolating with all the volatile tectonic social forces that were erupting in burning cities all across America in the aftermath of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the apostle of peace, just the month before.

In their recounting of the rebellion at Columbia the alums constantly emphasized the connection of their struggle to the wider black movement centered in Harlem.  And in the excerpt from the documentary now in the final stages of production, this point is graphically illustrated with rare film footage of the Black students in real time.  In one scene we see the people of Harlem bringing home cooked food to the black students who had barricaded themselves in Hamilton Hall.  The students were in a jovial mood and declared that the Harlem cuisine was the best food they had eaten since they had been at Columbia!

The film maker, Dr. Paul Cronin, who is British and teaches screen writing at NYU, has been working on this project for ten years and he explained how hard it was to find some film footage of the Black students inside Hamilton Hall.  As I listened to him explain his passion for the project, I thought of how the excavation of Black History – whether in Africa, the US or the broader Black Atlantic Diaspora – has always been a multi-racial project.  Indeed, Dr. Franz Boas, for many years a Professor of Anthropology at Columbia during the early 20th century, inspired the great southern writer Zora Neale Hurston to collect the Folklore of the all Afro-American community of Eatonville Florida where she grew up, when she was a Barnard Student.

These stories were published in her classic folkloric works such as Mules and Men and her important novel on black southern folk preachers Jonas Gourd Vine.   The experience of researching the novel led Zora to conclude “A preacher must be a poet in order to survive in a Negro pulpit.”  Had Zora not studied with “Papa Boaz,” as all his students called him, there is no reason to believe that these classic works would ever have been written.  And Afro-American culture would be impoverished by their absence.  Boaz’s researches into West African Civilizations also fired the imagination of WEB DuBois, the premier American humanist intellectual of the 20th century, a founder of black histography and the most influential thinker in the black world.

According to this great Afro-American scholar, quintessential “race man,” and Pan-African freedom fighter, hearing Boaz lecture on the “Civilizations of the Western Sudan,” inspired him to write the pathbreaking and revelatory book: “The World and Africa.”  And the history department at Columbia trained the great historian of Afro-American resistance Herbert Aptheker, whose “History of American Negro Slave Revolts” and A Documentary History of the Negro People in the United States, although published before the student revolt 50 years ago, remain unchallenged scholarly milestones in Afro-American histography.

This is but a glimpse of the monumental contributions made by white scholars, in the US and Europe, who were driven by intellectual curiosity fueled by a sense of justice and a commitment to set the record straight about who done what in racial matters.  This is what Dr. Carter G. Woodson, a father of Afro-American history and founder of the venerable Journal of Negro History, intended for Afro-American historiography to become: A multi-racial endeavor conducted by scholars who are committed to challenging the racist Master Narrative of American civilization with objective truth.

Hence it was enlightening and inspiring listening to Professor Cronin discuss his film on the role of Black Students in the great Columbia rebellion of 1968; which from what I saw promises to be a definitive statement that will fill a lot of the historical gaps that was the central concerns of those at the commemoration who participated in the events.  In fact, there was a symbiotic relationship between the showing of the film and the live testimony from the participants.  Especially since some of the voices in the documentary were the same as those speaking from the floor. One of the most revelatory themes in their testimony was the distinctions between them and their white colleagues regarding their relationship with their parents and community.  They pointed out that whereas many of the white students held their parents and the hypocritical values of the society they created in contempt, the black students universally loved, honored and respected their parents; all of whom had overcome monumental obstacles in a sick society that made their skin color a crime.

The black students understood well that it was only by virtue of their parent’s discipline, hard work, nobility of character, and spiritual gravitas, that they had managed to help them “thus far along the way,” as the black bard James Weldon Johnson penned in the Lyrics to “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” an eight stanza art song that was written as the class song for the first black graduating high school class in Florida in 1901 – just 36 years after the end of 250 years of enslavement – and is still known as the Black National Anthem 117 years later because it expresses the hopes and dreams of Afro-Americans struggling against the racial oppression that has marked our entire four hundred year sojourn in America.  In fact, nothing demonstrates the dichotomy in the way whites and blacks have experienced America than the current controversy over black football players taking a knee when the “white” National Anthem is played to protest white police murders of unarmed black men.

Yet, if our history was understood it would make a compelling argument that black Americans should NEVER stand for this white war song, written by a slaveholder – Francis Scott Key – who hailed from a multi-generational family of slave holders, who penned the Lyrics to the Star Spangled Banner – the third stanza of which celebrates slavery and called for the death of black folk who attempted to escape or resist their masters – while being held captive as a prisoner on a British ship during the War of 1812, a war sparked by the British attempt to suppress the African slave trade.  The truth be told, the reason white Americans have gone to such extraordinary lengths to suppress Afro-American history is because it contradicts the central myth of America as “the land of the free and home of the brave” where “all men are created equal.”

Zachary Husser’s eloquent and moving panegyric to his semi-literate father, who was forced to drop out of school in the third grade, set the standard. Over and again we heard the participants sing the praises of their parents, which struck a chord deep in my soul because that’s exactly how I feel about my parents, in fact when I try to describe my feelings toward them and other family members in my extended family, the language of Chaucer and Shakespeare seem suddenly impoverished of suitable superlatives.  It was a public expression of love to America’s unsung heroes, who were truer exemplars of America’s most cherished values than many highly celebrated white Americans have ever been!

A 20 Year Old Zach Husser Holding Sign

The sign depicts solidarity between the Vietnamese and the Black struggle

Following closely behind was their expressions of love and kinship for the black community of Harlem. But this identification of Harlem as a nurturing refuge is an old story with black students studying at Columbia.  Paul Robeson – who had graduated Phi Beta Kappa and class Valedictorian at Rutgers, four letter athlete and All-American football player, a first-rate scholar/athlete who was the embodiment of the ancient Greek ideal of mind body perfection – enrolled in Columbia Law School, where the commemoration was held, in 1920, and was very much influenced by events in Harlem. This was the period in which a cultural movement known as the “Harlem Renaissance,” was beginning to flower and the black students of that day were affected by it just like the Black Power/Arts Movement influenced the students who were studying at Columbia in 1968.

 The Great “Robeson of Rutgers”

Paul Was Easily the Most Famous Student on Campus


Zora Neale Hurston:

Barnard’s First Black Graduate

One of the most famous writers of the Harlem Renaissance

Langston Hughes

He went on to become “The Poet Laureate Of Black America

Zora Neal Hurston, the first black graduate of Barnard, Columbia’s women’s college, arrived on campus in 1925, two years after Paul Robeson graduated law school.  Hence, she entered the Columbia scene at the height of the Harlem Renaissance, a period when black leadership was divided between the Universal Negro Improvement Association, a Black Nationalist movement led by the Jamaican immigrant Marcus Garvey, and the Integrationist Movement led by the likes of Walter White, Dr. WEB Dubois and James Weldon Johnson of the NAACP, Dr. Charles Johnson of the Urban League, and Mary Church Terrell, of the hugely influential National Association of Colored Women. 

Ironically, while the Garvey movement was nationalist in its political philosophy it was very British in its cultural orientation, which led Dr. Wilson Jeremiah Moses, the reigning authority on the subject, to label them “assimilationist Black Nationalist” in his path breaking book “On the Wings of Ethiopia.”  On the other hand, the integrationist leaders were promoting the Afro-American cultural nationalist trend that characterized the Harlem Renaissance, which was driven by the belief that Afro-Americans could advance their movement for full human rights in the US by demonstrating excellence in the cultural arts.

This may seem naïve, or even a bit silly by today’s standards. But when viewed within the context of the times, a period when the belief that black people were an inferior species was widely held by the white majority this strategy takes on a different meaning.  In any case Harlem was bustling with cultural activities promoted by people felt they were uplifting the race.  As the two-time Pulitzer Prize winning Afro-American historian David Levering Lewis shows in his seminal book on the period,” When Harlem Was in Vogue,” even black gangsters like Casper Holstein, and wealthy entrepreneurs like Madam C. J. Walker and her daughter Alia, financially supported the aspiring artist. 

We can see in the influence of these ideas in the subsequent careers of Robeson and Hurston.  For instance, Robeson soon abandoned a career in the law for a career as a singer and actor.  Only a year after leaving Columbia Robeson describes his belief in the power of black artists to advance the Afro-American struggle in an October 1924 article in The Messenger – a Harlem based journal published by A. Phillip Randolph and Chandler Owen, which billed itself as “The Only Magazine Dedicated to Scientific Socialism Published by Negroes in the World.”

Robeson wrote: “One of the great measures of a people is its culture, its artistic stature.  Above all things, we boast that the only true artistic contributions of America are Negro in origin.  We boast of the culture of ancient Africa.  Surely in any discussion of art or culture, music, the drama and its interpretation must be included.” Based upon this argument on the importance of cultural production Robeson cites the example of a great Afro-American singer, a classically trained tenor, who although barred from the grand opera stages has won world renown singing the great arias in recital: “So Today Roland Hayes is infinitely more a racial asset than many who “talk” at great Length.  Thousands of people hear him, see him, and are brought to a clearer understanding of human values.”

Two years later, in 1926, Langston Hughes – poet, essayist, playwright, novelist/short story writer and memoirist – published his now famous statement on the role of black artist “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” which is widely regarded as a blueprint for black artist who are searching for a genuine racial aesthetic, and rightly so.  He writes:

So I am ashamed for the black poet who says, “I want to be a poet, not a Negro poet,” as though his own racial world were not as interesting as any other world. I am ashamed, too, for the colored artist who runs from the painting of Negro faces to the painting of sunsets after the manner of the academicians because he fears the strange unwhiteness of his own features… We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too. The tom-tom cries and the tom-tom laughs. If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.”

Hughes had also attended Columbia University’s School of Mines, Engineering and Chemistry in 1921, at the insistence of his businessman father who refused to pay for an education in the liberal arts. He left after the first year, published his first volume of poetry “The Weary Blues,” and dashed “off to see the world.”  Hughes who would become a major figure in the Harlem Renaissance, raised questions and took positions on Afro-American artists and the role of culture in our struggle that resonated with the 1960’s “cultural revolutionaries” who launched the Black Arts Movement.

Hughes and Robeson would become activist on the left and supported many activities organized by the Communists, who were the only American political party that militantly denounced racism, offered top leadership to black members, and supported Afro-Americans right to self-defense against violent white racist. Although the American cultural establishment, which is funded by the great capitalist corporations, has done an effective job of expunging this history, Dr. Gerald Horn –  the John and Rebecca Moores Professor of History at the University of Houston, who holds a Ph.D. from Columbia – has done a heroic job of resurrecting this story in a series of Brilliant scholarly texts.

Hughes and Robeson became leading voices in the movement against Fascism – which would metastasize into the Axis Alliance between Germany, Italy and Japan, launching a world war that killed 50 million people –  travelling to Spain to support the Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War, which they correctly perceived as a rehearsal for World War II  Both were ardent supporters of the black Americans who fought on the front lines against the fascist in Spain, and Robeson, who had become a prominent actor on stage and screen, wanted to make a movie about Oliver Law, the Afro-American Communist who first commanded the machine gun unit and rose to Commander of the entire Abraham Lincoln Brigade, the American contingent in the Spanish Civil War, before being killed in battle.  This is the rich legacy of militant thought and struggle that the radical black activists of the 1960’s inherited, especially the young intellectuals like the students at Columbia, whether they were conscious of it or not.  This heroic legacy so permeated the atmosphere around the struggle they absorbed it by osmosis.


When former student rebel Ray Brown, now a prominent New York attorney, took the floor to reminisce about the atmosphere among black students on Columbia’s campus in 1968, the influence of the wider black movement centered in Harlem was evident. As one who had been a participant in that movement for eight years at the time of the Columbia Rebellion , much of what he said had a powerful familiarity; especially their insistence upon having an independent black position on the issues in question at the university.

In this they were reflecting a growing black nationalist trend throughout the national movement, even in Civil Rights organizations that were staunchly committed to interracial cooperation like CORE and SNCC.  The influence of this nationalist trend on the Columbia students became irrefutable when Brown recounted how “You couldn’t walk across this campus without hearing people discussing the writings of Franz Fanon or talking about colonialism.” The interest in colonialism, and especially the writings of Dr. Fanon, reflects the degree to which black radicals identified with the anti-colonial movements in the “Third World” – Africa, Asia and Latin America – whom we viewed as our comrades in the struggle against the world-wide domination of the colored peoples by a racist white “imperialism.”  By 1968 this feeling of solidarity was universal in the Black Liberation Movement.

Dr. Franz Fanon

The Leading Theoretician of the Algerian Revolution

This explains why Franz Fanon, a black psychiatrist from the French Caribbean colony of Martinique, had mesmerized radical black activist all over the country when Grove Press published “The Wretched of the Earth,” a unique treatise on anti-colonial revolution written in the heat of an actual revolution in progress on the African continent.  Since the original text was written in French, Grove, which was located just downtown from Columbia’s campus, played a pivotal role in making Fanon’s idea’s available in English.   Among the ideas that intrigued radical black activists was Fanon’s analysis of the positive role of violence in the great Algerian Revolution, and especially his conclusion that killing one’s oppressor was therapeutic!

This was a welcome message to the ears of Afro-Americans that had rejected the non-violent preachments of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as a form of collective masochism. In fact, Harlem based revolutionary activist /artist Elombe Brath had portrayed the non-violent struggle in his irreverent illustrated book of radical cartoons “Color Us Cullud.”  Elombe had drawn a cartoon of non-violent black demonstrators being attacked by violent whites, who held up a sign proclaiming: “Masochism is our Stick Baby!” Malcolm X used to say “Color Us Cullud” was his favorite political cartoons.

Elombe was a very influential figure in the black radical movement of the 1960’s; he was a Pan-African revolutionary and major organizer of US support for African Liberation Movements.  He was an important force in organizing  boycotts against South Africa, and Nelson Mandela would personally express his gratitude when he visited Harlem after he was released from prison.  Elombe introduced Mandela when he spoke to the people of Harlem.  Elombe was also deeply committed to local struggles of Black people, and no one among the Harlem activists supported the black student movement more than him.

Despite the fact that Amiri Baraka is often cited as the founder of the Black Arts Movement, it was Elombe along with his photographer brother Kwame, were the true founders of the “Black Arts Movement,” which was the vanguard of the national “Black Consciousness Movement” that swept the country and the black world.  Just as one could point to the Café Voltaire in Switzerland during 1917 as the incubator of the “Da Da” art movement in Europe, or Minton’s Playhouse as the birthplace of the “Be Bop” revolution in music, the founding of the “African Jazz Art Society” in Harlem during 1958 by the Brathwaite brothers in conjunction with the revolutionary musicians Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln, signaled the birth of the Black Arts Movement; where art became a vehicle for revolutionary politics.

Elombe Brath Welcoming Mandela to Harlem
Elombe is Wearing Brown Nehru Suit Standing to Mandela’s Right
Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln

The First Couple of the Black Arts Movement

This movement produced such seminal cultural thinkers and innovative artists in literature, theater, visual arts and music such as Larry Neal, Amiri Baraka aka Leroy Jones, Askia Muhammad Toure, Yusef Rachman, Don Pullins and Milford Graves, Archie Shepp, Ed Bullins, Ademola Olugbefola, Sonya Sanchez, et al.  And standing like colossus over it all was the titanic figures of Katherine Dunham and Pear Primus, who, although of an earlier generation, the influence of their contributions to the esthetics of black dance was everywhere. It is no accident that Max Roach – an innovator and arguably the greatest improvisational percussionist of the 20th century – and his beautiful actress/singer wife with here au naturel hair style, were regarded as a heroes and comrades by those of us who were advocating armed struggle in the Revolutionary Action Movement.

RAM was founded in Philadelphia during 1962 and spread across the country as a largely underground organization.   But by 1964 one of it’s co-founders and leading theoretician Max Stanford, aka Dr. Muhammad Ahmed, had relocated in Harlem.  And it was from there that he would organize the first Black Panther Party outside of the South – taking the name, “Black Power” slogan, and Black Panther symbol from the Student Non-Violent Co-ordinating Committee in Selma Alabama, who created the original BPP, and replacing its reformist program with a revolutionary ideology that advocated armed struggle. Hence, RAM was one of the main disseminators of the ideas of Dr. Fanon on the role of violence in the liberation struggle against European colonization.  Not only did we reference “The Wretched of the Earth,” but also Fanon’s other books on the struggle against colonialism and its effects on African peoples such as “Black Skins White Masks,” “Studies in a Dying Colonialism,” and “Essays Toward the African Revolution,” which was a collection of Fanon’s writings after he fled Algeria and became the editor of Al Moujahid, the principal ideological journal of the FLN, the National Liberation Front of Algeria.

All of these radical ideas about politics and culture informed the rich environment of struggle that existed in Harlem when the Black Students revolted on Columbia’s campus in 1968, two years before the climax of a decade that was among the most turbulent and consequential in American history.   Hence it is no wonder they were reading Dr. Fanon and talking about “colonialism,” and organizing cultural institutions in Harlem.  They were reflecting the ideas swirling around in the larger black community. Viewed from this perspective, it is unsurprising that the students received the kind of support from the Harlem community that they recounted at the commemoration.

Looking at the film footage from the revolt I saw seasoned activists that I knew from the radical movement such as Sam Anderson.  And the presence on campus of two of the most influential black radical activist in the nation, Stokely Carmichael and H. “Rap” Brown – SNCC leaders and founders of the original Black Panther Party in Lowndes County Alabama – was irrefutable evidence of the student rebels’ organic connection to the national Black Liberation Movement. And Professor Bill Sales’ recollection that they received a letter expressing solidarity from Mao Tse Tung – the “Great Helmsman” who led the Chinese Revolution, the most powerful mass transformative movement in history – verifies the fact that the black student revolt was part of the revolutionary zeitgeist sweeping the world in the mid twentieth century.

Other testimony from students about debates that they engaged in around the efficacy of starting cultural programs in the Harlem community emphasizing the arts, demonstrate the indelible influence of the Black Arts Movement on student aspirations, and the program begun by Akosua Brathwell Evans, to recruit more black women to Barnard that expanded their numbers from four to one hundred, reveal a budding feminist consciousness in the student movement. Akosua, now a successful businesswoman in the financial industry, was in the avant garde; as the black movement in general was so completely involved in the struggle against the devastating effects of racial oppression we were tardy on the gender issue.

Although, it must be said, the National Organization for Women, NOW, was only founded two years earlier under the prodding of Betty Friedan, and the founders readily admit that their movement was inspired by the black struggle for Civil Rights.  But, as in all matters of importance in American history, the Afro-American contribution is either muted or erased in most accounts of the rise of the Feminist Movement.  This is why it is so important that the pivotal black student role in the historic Columbia uprising be enshrined in the historical record.

Professor Cronin’s documentary film is a giant step in this effort.  For not only are the powerful voices of the black student activists prominently displayed, but there are also compelling interviews with white students and faculty that provide solid verification for the revisionist narrative provided by the black students.  All of the white witnesses testified to the central role played by black students, pointing out the fact that they were restrained from unleashing the police on them because they were terrified of the possibility that black Harlemites would storm the university and burn it down!  Like everybody else in America, they were witnessing enraged black mobs setting fire to American cities from coast to coast and didn’t want to press their luck.  Their fears must have reached the brink of hysteria when H. Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael – the pesonification of militant black anger – showed up on campus to support the Black Students!

The white participants in the student revolt as members of Students for a Democratic Society also agree that accounts of the outsize leadership role of Mark Rudd was a fiction, a creation of the press led by the august New York Times.  Given the role that the Times played in creating the Rudd Myth, it is only fitting and proper that this powerful publication should play an important role in correcting the record 50 years later.  That debt to posterity received a substantial down payment when they published a reflective Op-Ed essay by Mark Rudd, appropriately titled “The Missing History of the Columbia 68 Protests.  He tells us:

“We entered Barnard and Columbia in the mid-1960s optimistic, eager to learn and proud of our new schools. By the end of May 1968, almost a thousand of us had been arrested, beaten or expelled (as I was) by our beloved university.”

That said, Rudd moved quickly to the raison d’etre of his essay.  In an amazingly candid statement he recounts:”

“We had grown up in the wake of World War II and watched the civil rights movement take shape in the South, and the university’s support for the war and its institutional racism shook us to our core. We had often wondered whether we would have been “good Germans” under Nazism, or whether we had the moral courage of the civil rights protesters, many of whom were black students our own age.

By April 1968, S.D.S. had joined in a loose alliance with the Student Afro-American Society, comprising the more politicized of the few black students at Columbia. On April 23, both organizations found ourselves occupying Hamilton Hall, Columbia’s main undergraduate classroom building. For a time, we even held the dean of the college hostage in his office.

There was a difference between us, though. We white kids were ragtag, messy, arguing constantly with each other. We were unsure of what to do once we had occupied Hamilton. But the black students, inspired by the civil rights movement in the South and by their own parents’ lifelong struggles, were certain that they had to barricade the building as their own disciplined statement.”

Mark Rudd’s statement goes on in this remarkably candid fashion. It is distinguished by what strikes me as a genuine humility that calls into question charges that he is some sort of ego-maniac, who has claimed for himself a larger role in history than the evidence supports. He may have been that guy once upon a time, but that’s not who he is now.  And his essay is well worth reading, as it corroborates the black student’s critique and helps insure their narrative of events will prevail. Mark Rudd’s final comments come across as the testimony of a man who sincerely wants to set the historical record straight; while giving some solid advice to the present generation of student activist who face even greater obstacles. And we are all the richer for it.

The events at Columbia became a symbol and a model of student rebellion for the next two years. I often run into people who tell me that Columbia ’68 changed their lives. As for myself, after a rocky few years pursuing the fantasy of anti-imperialist and socialist revolution, I settled into a lifetime of teaching and organizing. Most of us have spent our lives in professions committed to the common good such as health care, the law, education, social work and labor and community organizing.  I do not regret what we did that spring; I hope that young people today can draw inspiration as they design protests around gun control, mass incarceration, racist policing and climate change. But in doing so, it’s imperative that they learn from our mistakes as well.”

For those who wish to understand the nature of leadership in mass movements, perhaps the most valuable lesson to be learned from studying the historic uprising of the 1960’s is that both Marx and Malcolm were wrong.  Neither the “proletariat” nor the “field Negroes” emerged as leaders of the struggle.  In the first instance it was, as is always the case, discontented, alienated or declasse intellectuals who seized the helm. And in the second instance, it was the “House Negroes” who organized the successful slave rebellions. Neither Nat Turner, Gabriel Prosser, Denmark Vessey, Toussiant L’Overture, nor Fredrick Douglass were “field Niggers.”  And virtually all of the leaders of the Radical movement – the 20th century counterparts of those who led the slave rebellions or the abolitionist movement – became professionals or career intellectuals – mostly academics, writers or lawyers….and an occasionally business person here and there. And most have remained engaged with the problems they sought to solve in their activist youth, which remains the best way to honor that struggle.

Although it goes against long standing romantic notions about the special revolutionary insights and virtues of the masses, which is conventional wisdom on the left, those farthest down seldom organize effective movements. There is no mystery here; for it requires a certain level of education and leisure to successfully plot a complex revolt.  Alas, those advantages are generally not available to the poorly educated toiling masses but are quite accessible to middle class intellectuals.  Like the engaged young intellectuals that led of the Columbia student movement in 1968.

                                               A Hero’s Gallery


The Master of Ceremonies

Zachary Husser:  1968 Student Protester


He Went from Columbia Basket Ball Star

To Wall Street Investment Banker


Ray Brown In a Contemplative Mood

He Went into the Practice of Law


Intellectual Amazons
They Were on the Front Lines of Battle


Watching Moving Pictures of the Way They Were

Akosia started a program to recruit Black Women to Barnard


Women of Substance

Commiserating on the State of the Race


Professor Bill Sales Holds Forth

Recalling the Letter of Solidarity from Chairman Mao


Sharing Priceless Memories

Of Halcyon Moments Back in the Day


Setting the Story Straight


Litigating the Strategy and Tactics of the Revolt

Airing Age Old Grievances against the Theoreticians
Yet Others Seemed Content with the Course of Their Movement

The Know they Were in the Right


It is Evident in Their Smiles

She Exuded a Calm Wisdom


This is How You Look…

When You Know You Helped Make History


All of the Avant Garde Had that Look

They Understood their Place in History


The Pride in their Accomplishment was Evident in their Smiles

As they Mixed and Mingled at the Reception


There Were Sophisticated Ladies


Elegant of Style and Manners

Spirit Children of the Vanguard


She Brought a Feminist Dimension to the Movement


Professor Paul Cronin

The Film Documentarian


Getting the Inside Dope from the Source

And They Are Setting the Historical Record Straight


Photographs and Text by:
Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem,New York
June 10, 2018

AUTHOR’S NOTE: My concern with the relationship of black folks with Columbia University runs deep into my family history.  My favorite Uncle, James Strawder Sr. was denied admission to study journalism  upon his discharge from the army in World War II.   The fact that he was a combat officer WITH BATTLE DECORATIONS and performed outstandingly on the entrance exam wearing his uniform meant NOTHING!!!!   He once showed me the letter they wrote him.  The congratulated him on his outstanding service record and test scores,then said unceremoniously: “However, Columbia college has its quota of Negroes.”   Well, Uncle Jimmy, a never say die soldier, took the position that “Columbia Owes this family a degree.  Well several members of the family have attended Columbia since then, and MY SON WILL BE ATTENDING THE COLUMBIA GRADUATE SCHOOL OF JOURNALISM IN AUGUST!!!!  Although Uncle Jimmy  danced and joined the ancestors at 93, I am sure his spirit is dancing!!!  To read about this story of black triumph see:, 

Notes on Claude, Cooper and Coates

Posted in Book Reviews, Cultural Matters, Guest Commentators with tags , , on October 13, 2017 by playthell

A Meditation on the Meaning of the Obama Years

A Book Sparks Reflections from a Manchild in New Jack City

 First, let me say the Ta Naheshi Coates’s new book, “We Were Eight Years In Power” is powerful. I am still traveling within it but already I have been abducted by the fine writing and weaving of this piece, and the sure hand of the conductor on this train. Now, as to the title here…Growing up in Harlem, my serious reading began with Claude Brown’s “Manchild In The Promised Land.”

I can remember this is when I started to understand a bit more about the hard streets I was given to play on. It wove together a black experience I was made to realize every day. I flew down the five flights of stairs from our old tenement building ecstatic about the discovery that somebody had painted such a powerful portrait of my world. But the book was also about failure and survival. It hypnotized me, readjusting my focus and better setting my attention and aspirations higher than I might’ve otherwise thought of.

My own time outside of that book was spent unknowingly navigating what I had learned from it, as I grew up just a few blocks from where Claude Brown told his story of the world we came from. I was just starting a new school they built above the #3 train yard on 7th Avenue right down from my block, “Frederick Douglas Intermediate School 10,” affectionately known back in the day as “The Dime.” One of my very best friends back then was Barry Michael Cooper. I didn’t know it then, though we spent a lot of our time discussing our neighborhood’s blessings and curses, that he would grow up to become a brilliant writer with an original voice and penned such insightful and powerful film scripts as “New Jack City,” “Sugar Hill,” and “Above The Rim,” providing a gripping first-hand view of the style and substance of Street Life in an American metropolis.

Novelist Claude Brown

Manchild In the Promised Land

The Best Selling Novel that called the nation’s attention to the black Urban  Plight
Barry Michael Cooper

A Peerless Chronicler of the underbelly of Urban Life

A harrowing report from the front lines of the crack wars

Ta Neheshi Coates

A Brilliant commentator on the Black Experience in America

These flicks were an extension of Barry’s stellar chronicling of Harlem’s early rap, drug and gangster scenes in gripping essays published in the Village Voice, during its glory days of the 1980’s and 90’s, to large applause from careful readers and media critics. Barry had thought to write all this stuff down from our boyhood conversations while sitting by the old bust of Dr. King in Esplanade Gardens, the upscale middle-class Harlem apartment complex where he lived. Barry and I were actually witnessing and living what Claude Brown had written about in his own life many years earlier in the 1960’s, on even slicker, more dangerous streets.

So between these two guys, Claude Brown and Barry Michael Cooper, I now come to Coates. His book has taken me on another journey into the deeper understanding of all this stuff in my nearly 60 years of life. Instead of Brown’s sort of “Playbook on surviving the streets” tone, and then Cooper’s kind of voyeur takes on it all happening to us in real time, Coates has cross-stitched the varying realities together with even greater depth and perspective, while casting a keen eye on the larger history of what has gotten us out from between a rock and a hard place, or left us dazed and bewildered still within it.

Every word of this book is interesting, and so is Coates. A college drop-out with the eruditeness of another brilliant Harlem writer I was blessed to know as a co-conspirator and friend, Playthell Benjamin, who has the same sort of unique story of not going exactly the “right” ways to reach success or just to be heard. Perhaps their visions of success were different, as both their voices in the struggle are made of grand knowledge of all the great warriors but at the same time uniquely their own. You will love this book; it pieces together the larger history of Afro-Americans and tracks our progress, while comparing it to yesterday through the perspective of the Obama years in the White House. Yet it is not just about this amazing man and his wife, but more so about us all, the good and the not so good told by a variety of our heroes and unknowing villains.

Coates is an amazing young brother that is an impressively grounded and gifted writer. It’s not about whether you agree with everything he says; he is telling a story in perhaps the most unique time in our history, not just the big picture but every intricate detail of the frame and hooks on the backside, heck even the covered wall and dogged nail holes underneath. It is a fascinating work, not told by an elder but by a young buck that was listening and carefully watching what brothers like Claude and Cooper caught great whiffs of in their own revealing journeys.

I hope one day I get the opportunity to meet Ta-Nehisi Coates (and maybe, hopefully by then I will be able to better pronounce the brother’s name), as in my time, I have happily met and known both Claude Brown and my man, Barry Cooper. I think he’s in NYC, and I’m just across the GWB, so hopefully we shall meet. And y’know, I have also written a book myself, though never got around to publishing it, but given all the new ways of publishing that have emerged due to the internet.

What I do know is that it is writings like those described in this essay that have inspired me most all along my way. These agitations, echoes and experiences mirror my own, and those of many other Afro-American males, and I can feel the spiritual connection as they show the way forward and sometimes confusingly back again. Everyone should read We Were Eight Years In Power; it is a tonic and torch for the mind and soul of seekers after wisdom and truth.


Click on Link to Hear Coates Discuss his Book
Marion Boykin
Inglewood, New Jersey
October 13, 2017

Facing the Truth about Racism

Posted in A Rendezvous With History, Cultural Matters on October 4, 2017 by playthell
Mike Barnnicle holding forth on “Morning Joe”
 On Racism, the Media and American Exceptionalism
 Listening to Mike Barnicle – a grizzled old wag and serial plagiarizer who was fired by the Boston Globe but is now a regular on “Morning Joe,” MSNBC’s morning show hosted by Joe Scarborough, a former Republican Congressman from the backward, violent, racist state of Florida, where I came of age – was asked what should we tell our children about the state of the nation? What can we realistically tell them, when the nation is plagued by gun violence and mass murders are common place, racial tensions are rising as black Americans oppose racism in and ongoing struggle that spans centuries.
Added to this is a president who embodies ALL of the vices and NONE of the virtues of American civilization…a despicable braggart, bunko artist, narcissist, sexist, racist, shameless charlatan and avaricious ASSHOLE!!!!! Barnacle’s response to the question was a passionate screed about how we should just tell them to “study American history” and they will see that “America is the greatest nation in the history of the world!” SAY WHAT?? His pronouncement had that air of unassailable truth, like when my grandfather George Benjamin used to say: “And that’s the gospel truth…jes a sho as the lawd is sitting up on his throne wearing a crown of gold in heaven!” The panel was all white, apparently clueless, thus there was nary a voice of dissent.
Alas, one of the persistent problems I had working in the major news media was having to constantly correct the ignorance of my white colleagues. It was a situation that inevitably became redundant because I was a former Professor of history in the WEB DuBois Department of Black Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst; thus I possessed a world of knowledge which they were wretchedly ignorant of. Most believed in “American Exceptionalism,” the idea that the US is the most enlightened nation on earth; a nation whose greatness is matched by it’s goodness; a nation that has always stood for freedom justice and equality for all people, and this is evidence that America is the most favored nation of God.”
I on the other hand, armed with the facts of our history, view American Exceptionalism as dangerous bullshit, a self-serving myth for a narcissistic white Euro-settler population that invaded North America, engaged in the greatest land theft in history; committed genocide against the indigenous peoples, enslaved Africans for 250 years, and a hundred years thereafter subjected them to a legal caste status based on an ideology and a system of laws that were adopted by Adolph Hitler and the Nazis!
That is a capsule of US history that moved the great Irish writer George Bernard Shaw to remark “America is the only nation in the history of the world that went from barbarism to decadence…without EVER passing through CIVILIZATION!” Now that is true American Exceptionaliam.  Hence I disagree with Mike Barnacle that studying American history in search of a “Golden Age” of American justice and equality will make white kids feel better about either themselves or their civilization. But it might make them want work to realize the “American Dream” of freedom justice and equality for all!
Since Barnacle, like his co-panelist on Morning Joe, the Wall Street Journal Columnist Peggy Noonan, is Irish-American, and both are dumb as cake dough regarding the role of the Irish in America’s horrid bloody history of racism.  This shameful tale of a poor peasant people, force to flee Ireland because of British oppression, and immigrating to the US where they became among of the worst oppressors of black people in their quest to be recognized as  “white,” is told in the learned path-breaking book: “How the Irish Became White.”   
Before recommending that children “study our history,” Mike and Peggy should heed his advice read this book…it is an excellent place to start!
Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
October 4, 2017

Blues Fanfares for the Matriarch

Posted in Cultural Matters with tags , , on August 6, 2017 by playthell

Sound the Brass in Celebration

N’orleans Pays Homage to the Queen Mother of Jazz

Deloris Marsalis: Elegant, Charming, Intelligent and Compassionate

One a sizzling summer day in the Crescent City Deloris Marsalis, mother of the marvelous musical Marsalis Clan, and wife to the master musician Ellis Marsalis, danced and joined the ancestors in her eightieth year.  Although I met the grand lady only once, I feel close to her by virtue of my twenty year friendship with her illustrious son Wynton – the peerless trump virtuoso, bandleader, and brilliant composer – and her husband Ellis; two paragons of the musician as intellectual and cultural leader.  And the there were all the wonderful stories I heard about her from family friends.

However according to her obituary and the testimony of friends she was quite nonchalant about the fame of the Marsalis men.  Indeed we are told in the obit:

Being the matriarch of what would become a famous family of Jazz musicians should have been the lede, but for her it was not. That note would be reserved for the second paragraph. If you came to her to talk about her famous husband or sons it would not have been a very long conversation. If you wanted to talk about what you were doing, what you were interested in and how you were making it in the world, she was all ears.” 

We are also reminded of her generous but no-nonsense disposition.

But the absolute best of her was her…love for those who have been brought low, by life, by circumstance, by mishap, or even by their own hand. She would help those in trouble financially, and she would often lend an ear of support by letter, postcard or phone call whether you were in your home, hospital, jail, or just waiting for your next place. Other than her husband, few if any would know of the scope of her ministrations.”

However Deloris was no pushover that could be easily gamed, rather she was a schrewd judge of character who could detect the okey doke or con before it was played:

Not one to favor pity – she could sniff this out with the best – over actually helping you by getting you to help yourself. She would not tolerate “foolishness” or self-pity, if you needed a shoulder to cry on it was there, but only for a minute before you would get the “Now let me tell you something…”.

Despite her stoic manner in dealing with people in crisis, she is also remembered as a witty woman with a great sense of humor: “One of the more unique parts of her was her funny bone. It was a sudden wit and humor that would present itself no different than a strike of lightning. If you had ever thought you could get the best of her, you were quickly reminded that you had not.”  But the thing that won the heart of Ellis Marsalis, the man with whom she would spend 57 years of her life and have six sons with, was her love of music especially Jazz.  “She was one of the few girls who that I knew who actually liked jazz” Ellis recalls.

Hence, although she was not a musician, her life became deeply embedded in the music scene.  And New Orleans was the perfect venue, where the action was.  New Orleans is a city where music making is intricately intertwined with the basic rituals of life in a unique way.  It is the fabled “birthplace of Jazz,” the quintessential American art, a complex instrumental music whose origins lie in the church, the Opera House, the whorehouse and street festivals.  It is an enchanted city where people will make music and dance in the streets at the slightest inticement…a cultural phenomenon that bewitched my dancer daughter who fell under the spell of the “Big Easy.”

It is in the nature of things that music should play such a central role in the last rites for the departed in N’orleans, especially in the culture of the Afro-American community from whence the Jazz tradition sprang.  And thus it is fitting and proper that her gifted sons – whose contribution to keeping that tradition alive is incalcuable – should turn out and lead the parade in the funeral of their beloved mother – just as Wynton has done at the funerals of so many Jazz greats in New York City.

I have witnessed the black musicians of the Crescent City rise up and express the mourning of the entire city after the devastating blow from hurricaine Katrina, when the whole town went under water.  In a concert held at Lincoln Center, filed with memorable performances, the passion and pathos in the sound of the music the Crescent City players made was a healing balm for wounded spirts that gave hope to all who heard it.

Just as all who heard the musicians of the community, led by the son’s of Deloris Marsalis, joined by singers from all stations in life, felt their spirits dance while joyously singing the old hymn “I’ll fly Away.”  There was more triumph than tragedy in the air as the lyrics rang out, soaring above the sound of the horns: “I’ll fly away O glory/I’ll fly away/When I die halilujah by and by/I’ll Fly away,” while the funeral marchers cut a jubilant “second line” step for which New Orleans funeral processions are world famous.

Although the pain of loss was clearly visible on their faces – Wynton and Jason especially – one could see in the dance an affirmation of the wonderful life she lived, and the lives that are yet to be lived by future generations of the Marsalis clan.  Ellis Marsalis, her long time husband and patriach of this family that has given so much beauty to the world, was a paragon of calm dignity as he turned out to pay his final respects to his partner and queen.

Ellis Arriving at the Church

Pater-familias of the Magnificent Marsalis’

The triumphant procession was led by her grandson Mckenzie Marsalis, decked out in the grand New Orleans style with Bowler hat, gloves, shoulder sash, colorful parasol and drill master’s whistle; Cake walking down the avenue steppin high.  Mother Marsalis was given the kind of grand send off befitting a culture hero who worked her magic from the wings as her husband and progeny took center stage and weaved their alchemy in the lime light.

Yet anyone who has ever spent any time in the company of the Marsalis men will recognize the civilizing touch of this wise mothers hand.  For there is not to be found a more gracious, charming, humble bunch of superbly gifted men.   While Ellis was their muse and inspired them to make a living in music, she was their pre-eminent guide to making a good life as men of substance.  Their deep sense of loss at her departure from this life was palpable – which is poignantly portrayed in the photographs – even amidst the celebration of her life in the transcendent ambiance of the occasion conjured up in the majesty of their song.

Scenes from the Going Home Ceremony of the Queen Mother of Jazz

Wynton Directs the Musicians Waiting to follow the Casket

McKenzie Marsalis Leading the Procession

Let the Trumpets Sound!

“I’ll Fly Away”…Delfayo Marsalis Raises his Voice in Song

And Joy Cometh to his Soul

His Drumsticks Put Away…Jason Marsalis Walks in Silence

While the Brass Celebrated with Fanfares

Spike Lee Offer Words of Consolation to Wynton
The Marsalis Brothers offer a Libation to The Ancestors for their Mother

A Sunday Kind of Love

Ellis and Deloris in the Autumn of Life


Click on link to see the Funeral Procession.
First there is the dirge as the leave the church.  The band is playing “Amazing Grace.  Later they perform Elijah Jane.

“When I die halilujah by and by/I’ll fly away”
See the performance at:


Text by: Playthell G. Benjamin
Photos and Video: courtesy of the New Orleans Advocate
Harlem, New York
August 6, 2017