Archive for the Cultural Matters Category

On Blacks in the White House

Posted in Cultural Matters, You Tube Classics with tags on July 25, 2016 by playthell

barack-and-michelle-obama-fashion

President Obama and the First Lady

A Must See Documentay by Professor H.L. Gates

Serious students of history have a different, and deeper, understanding of the present. Indeed, as the great Afro-American historian Benjamin Quarles – a long time professor of history at Morgan State University and author of “The Negro in the American Revolution,” warned: “He who would understand the complexities of the present need the added dimension of historical perspective.” The video below supplies that mush need historical perspective what the election of Barack Obama as President of the USA tells us about how far we have advanced in America.

This is a much needed perspective because there are far too many black people, especially the so-called “radicals,” who evaluate everything in terms of political victories i.e. the achievement of specific policy goals. Yet the election of Barack Obama has a significance that goes beyond politics and speaks to a pscho-cultural revolution in race relations that has opened up possibilities that were unimaginable when I went off the college at Florida A&M University in the fall of 1959.

The student sit-ins began that spring of 1960, and a brash young boxer named Cassius Marcellous Clay danced himself to a Gold Medal in Rome a few months later. He would go on the become a powerful symbol of the revolt of my generation. We set out to change race relations in ths country by destroying the de jure (legal) racial caste system in which the subordination of black people and white supremacy was the law!

There was no shame in those crackers game. Well we did destroy it! And while we have not solved all of the problems confronting America, and others gave arisen over the last half century:We have come a long way baby! I know first hand of which I speak because I WITNESSED IT!!! I watched these events unfold as an activist; a soldier in America’s nuclear strike force; a professor of history; an award winning journalist; music and theater critic; broadcaster; bandleader and boxing promoter. I saw it from ALL SIDES!

This film below, produced by “The Root” and narrated by Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., Professor of the Humanities at Harvard, is a brilliant, succintly rendered, history of Afro-Americans in the White House. This is a GREAT CONTRIBUTION to the full understanding of our history in this Republic, and Professor Gates – a cultural treasure – presents a learned and moving narrative accompanied by a splendid array of photographs and paintings.

http://theroottv.theroot.com/embed/player/container/1366/667/?layout=&content_type=content_item&playlist_cid=&media_type=video&content=RNYV4J3G2YCX7N72&read_more=1&widget_type_cid=svp&referrer=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2F

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A You Tube Classic
Selected and posted by: 
Playthell G. Benjamin

What Jesse Williams Should Have Said

Posted in Cultural Matters, On the 2016 Presidential Election with tags , on July 1, 2016 by playthell

LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 26: Honoree Jesse Williams accepts the Humanitarian Award onstage during the 2016 BET Awards at the Microsoft Theater on June 26, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/BET/Getty Images for BET)

Jesse Williams: June 2016

On Recieving BET’s Humanitarian Award

To the Black entertainment Network, the audience, and my wonderful parents sitting out there; thanks for inviting me, thanks for listening to me….and thanks for raising me right mom and pop; for equipping me to overcome life’s adversities and make a contribution to our community. Like it or not, those of us who have managed to achieve some measure of fame and fortune are duty bound by an ancestral imperative to use our platforms to advance the struggle for full justice on behalf of our brothers and sisters who still face racial discrimination as an everyday fact of life.

We must raise our voices in a swelling chorus and pledge our money to this herculean struggle for justice.  For that is how we have come thus far along the way – as the poet and Reniassance Man James Weldon Johnson wrote in the immortal anthem: Lift Every Voice and Sing, composed by his brother J. Rosamond Johnson in 1901, just 31 years after the abolition of 250 years of chattel slavery here in the “land of the free.”

Yet unless we fully understand the complex problems confronting us, we could end up like “Jack the Bear,” whom Duke Ellington – that indefatigable painter of Afro-American life in song – immortalized.  We’ll be making tracks but getting nowhere!  Some of our problems are obvious, like fatal encounters with the police.

Yet as horrible as it is we can envision a solution to this problem: Mandate that all police everywhere video tape every encounter with a citizen and pass a federal law requiring the states to hire Special Prosecutors to try every case involving the police use of firearms… or fatalities by any means. These measures will pretty much put an end to this problem.  But even so, alas the major danger to our lives from random gunfire remains a nihilistic, angry, uneducated young black male. The statistics are indisputable cause numbers don’t lie.

However as the prescient Afro-American sociologist and Harvard Professor William J. Wilson demonstrates in seminal texts like “The Truly Disadvantaged,” “When Work Disappears” and “The Declining Significance of Race,” we are facing devastating problems that limit our chances in life and the solutions are elusive. For these problems are deeply rooted in American history and exacerbated by the realities of a predatory economic system where Darwinian laws of the jungle prevail.  As Senator Bernie Sanders has adroitly pointed out: The big dogs are taking all the bones in a cruel environment that’s red of truth and claw. It’s a for real jungle out there!

Hence while continuing to vigorously fight the lingering vestiges of the American racial caste system we must not be so blind that we fail to see the wider struggle between economic classes.  If the US economy continues in the direction  it is headed, with runaway cyber-technology wiping out millions of jobs and no plan for the survival of workers who are rendered obsolete, it won’t matter what your race or ethnicity: we are all be in the same sinking boat!  It is this economic disaster that fuels social pathologies from widespread out of wed-lock births, drug and alcohol addiction, spiraling homicides, mass slaughters, etc.  And it is devastating the working classes of all racial and ethnic groups.

This is why silly talk about not voting, or there is no difference between the candidates, represents a dangerous intellectual laziness…or worse an impulse to cut off your nose to spite your face.   Either choice is self-destructive folly.  If I had unlimited time on this podium I could obviously say much more on these critical issues….and much more certainly needs to be said.  But as I am laboring under the tyranny of the clock I shall proceed directly to the marching orders.

The first and immediate plan of action is to defeat Donald the Clown, a vain megalomaniac and intellectual light-weight who would set our country back and endanger the entire world.  So register to vote! Get your friends and family to register to vote, and badger them to badger their friends and family to register and vote.  To put the argument in a nutshell, I shall leave you with quotes by two philosophers: One an ancient Greek, the other a twentieth century African.

“Unless you are a God or a beast your life will be ruled by politics” warned Aristotle.  “Seek ye first the political Kingdom and all else shall be added there unto,” spoke Kwame Nkrumah, independence leader and President of Ghana, the first modern African nation.  Impassioned rhetoric is fine, it’s inspirational, it makes us feel good, but if we not act its just a pity party!

For as our great ancestor Frederick Douglass warned: Where there is no struggle there is no progress….power concedes nothing without demand…it never has and it never will.  We may not always get what we pay for in this life…but we shall sure as hell pay for all that we get!  I thank you for this honor.

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A Note of Clarification on My Purpose

Jesse Williams was brought to my attention by the persistent and vociferous praise for his acceptance speech upon receiving the “Humanitarian Award” presented by Black Entertainment Television. So I looked the speech up online and watched it for myself.  I found Mr. William’s to be eloquent, impassioned and poetic; the kind of verbal virtuosity that excites the emotions and fires up a crowd.  But this is what one would expect from an accomplished actor giving a great performance.   Alas, I had hoped for something different…something more.

If Mr. Williams had been allotted twice the amount of time this would have been a great closing commentary. Appeals to the emotions can be powerful adjuncts to a substantive speech, a means of inspiring people to action after a precise analysis of the problem, and clear marching orders to correct it.   Only then are powerful rhetorical exercises truly useful in waging real struggle.

I know that some will complain that I am judging the Brother too harshly, and I answer their complaints by simply pointing out that had Mr. Williams been presented this award as an actor I would have judged him as an actor and simply applauded his performance. For he certainly did what actors do and did it well.  However Mr. Williams was presented an award for his activism with “Black Lives Matter.”   It was announced that the award was given for “His continued effort and steadfast commitment

Hence his speech has to be judged by a different standard.  The question before any activist who is provided such a powerful platform, a chance to speak to millions, in these turbulent and dangerous times, is how can I make the best use of the opportunity to advance the struggle?  If that is the objective then it will determine the form and content of the speech.  The role of a movement orator is always the same: To move the masses to action with the magic power of the spoken word; what our Swahili speaking brothers call “Nommo.”

But action without a correct analysis and a plan is an invitation to chaos and defeat.  Hence as an able actor adept at tugging our heart strings and jerking our tears Mr. Williams gave a bravura performance.  But as a charismatic revivalist giving direction to a movement he was a bust.  Fortunately, all is not lost, for there is a valuable lesson to be learned here.

We will forget at our peril that actors, be they Bernie Sanders surrogates like Susan Saranden, or Black Lives Matter’s spokesman Jessie Williams, spend their working lives a vehicles for the thoughts of others; those who write the script.  Hence all Mr. William’s or Ms. Sarandon need is a good script to give a great speech that can move the masses to positive, constructive, action…not simply emotional catharsis and continued confusion.

The great Afro-American intellectual historian, cultural critic and political theorist Harold Cruse argued in his masterpiece “The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual” that the problem with lack actors is that do not turn to black writers for their scripts. It is with that objective that I suggest “Here is What Jesse Williams Should Have Said.”

(Click on Link and wait for video to appear to watch the Speech)
http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2016/06/27/actor_and_activist_jesse_williams_gave_a_fiery_speech_at_the_bet_awards.html

 

Reflections on American Exceptionalism!

Posted in Cultural Matters, The 2016 Presidential Race, You Tube Classics on June 30, 2016 by playthell
James-Reese-Europe
James Reece Europe and the Harlem Hell Fighters Band

Setting the Record Straight

In the coming months we will hear endless praise for “American Exceptionalism,” and while the Republicans are sick with this, some consider commitment to this ideology a litmus test for one’s fitness to become President, large numbers of Democrats are also seduced by this self-serving fiction.  Alas, since “patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels,” as George Bernard Shaw observed, we must look at those who boisterously wrap themselves in the American flag with a jaundiced eye. The ground breaking Afro-American historian Dr. Benjamin Quarles, author of “The Negro in the American Revolution” advised us that “he who would understand the present realities need the added dimension of historical perspective.”

This is especially true when evaluating the doctrine of “American Exceptionalism,” which argues that America is exceptional among the nations of the world in promoting freedom, equality and justice “for all” people. This point of view is especially promoted by Republicans and ding bat White Nationalists like the supporters of Donald Trump, but it is shared to some extent by virtually all white Americans, and some black Americans as well as misguided immigrants who know little of America.

However it is a fiction. The actual history of the US reveals it to be the most racist nation earth! Both Adolph Hitler and the White South Africans got their racist ideology from white American eugenicists – especially Madison Grant’s tome “The Passing of the Great Race” – which Hitler called “My Bible” in a recently discovered letter in Grant’s papers.  Furthermore, the Nazi’s based their racist laws on America’s  anti-black laws.

Madison Grant
Madison GrantHitler’s Bible!

Although Afro-Americans have fought in every war since the Revolutionary war against Britain – which Professor Quarles details in his book, their courage and manhood was still being denigrated at the outbreak of World War I.  However when the all black 369th Regiment from New York, the famous “Harlem Hell Fighters,” was assigned to the French Army they became the most highly decorated of ALL American military units in the First World War.  Yet upon returning home their racist American government refused to recognize their valor, and had even tried to prevent the French government from decorating them!  That was certainly EXECPTIONAL among the nations of the world.

Real American Heroes!

Harlem Hell fighters 69th Infrantry

The 369th Regiment aka “Harlem Hell Fighters

Afro-American music, and the dances it inspired, changed the popular culture of Europe. One European philosopher remarked that had it not been for the popularity of Afro-American music they would have been left to listen to European classical music, and in the spiritual angst that engulfed the European intelligentsia trudging among the ruins of a civilization gone mad in the aftermath of World War I “we would have all committed suicide.”   The Afro-American Renaissance Man, James Weldon Johnson, may well have been right when he called the Harlem Hell fighters band “The greatest military band ever assembled!”

Yet true or not, one thing is certain, the Harlem Hell Fighter’s Band won the hearts and minds of Europeans through the power of music in a way that military power could not.  And I cannot think of a more powerful example of positive American Exceptionalism. For a further discussion of this question see my critical essay on Woody Allen’s thoughtful and artistic film about the period, “Midnight in Paris: A Flawed Masterpiece,” at https://commentariesonthetimes.me/…/midnight-in-paris-a-fl…/  This is a multi-media presentation with text, photographs and video of the Hell Fighter band performing in Paris.

As one who taught history in a variety of situations from church basements and adult ED classes, to university seminars, I have learned how to plan an effective lesson.  Fortunately I am lucky enough to be living in interesting times, a period of tumultuous change, and the Gods of the pedagogues have provided me with the internet, a marvelous medium in cyberspace that allows me to publish my Commentaries on these events to a world-wide audience.

Furthermore, on the Internet I am able to publish my views without the censorious mediation of editors who are owned by corporate media organizations that determine what we shall see, hear and read.  Added to these blessings are the magnificent video files on You Tube; which provide compelling evidence to buttress my often controversial arguments.  The videos cited here are prime examples, because they support my arguments in the essays superbly.

To view History Channel film on “Harlem Hell Fighters” click on link below.”)
http://www.history.com/…/wor…/videos/the-harlem-hellfighters

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Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
June 30, 2016

 

Celebrating the Art of Jazz with Pizazz!

Posted in Cultural Matters, Music Reviews with tags , , , on May 19, 2016 by playthell
Jazz Men ditDrummer George Gary Led his hard Swinging Quartet

At the Central Brooklyn Jazz Coalition’s Annual Feast

From the moment I walked into the beautiful Weeksville Heritage Center I thought of my good friend Jo Ann Cheatum, who recently danced and joined the honored ancestors.  I had been thinking about Jo Ann a lot lately, because I have a solo Photographic exhibition on display at the Dwyer Cultural Center in Harlem, and I shot it with a camera given to me as a gift by Joan.

After looking at a couple of photos I shot to illustrate an article I wrote for her magazine Pure Jazz , a rare publication devoted to high quality journalism on the art of Jazz published by an Afro-American, she said “you have an eye for a good photograph, but you need a more advanced camera.”  A couple of weeks later she gave me one; it is the same camera that I shot the photos for this essay with.

 Jo Ann had also worked side by side with the founders of the Weeksville historical project that resulted in this venerable black community gaining landmark status. The Weeksville Heritage Center,  imaginatively designed with big spaces and large windows that enhances the feeling of openness, is one of the conspicuous fruits of their efforts. And finally, Jo Ann was a long time member and moving force of the Central Brooklyn Jazz Coalition and would surely have been sitting front and center when I took the podium to deliver the keynote address.  Like a welcome version of Banquo’s ghost her spirit was popping up everywhere.

Although it was the 17th annual CBJC banquet, this occasion was unique because it was free.  The leadership of the coalition made it clear that this was a benefaction to the supporters of their work, and was made possible by virtue of some very successful fundraising this past fiscal year.  In the announcement for the event there were explicit instructions to the guest that they should dress to the height of fashion…or a bit above it.  And they used a picture titled “The Bebop Dancers;” taken from my photo exhibition  “The Elegance of Afro-America, to set the standard.

The Bebop Dancers….
Photo XV- Jazz Dancers
Struttin their Stuff in Charlie Parker Park

After a meet and greet session in the large vestibule we were seated in the elegant dining room and treated to a swinging performance by the George Gary quartet. The band played straight ahead Jazz, no watered down quasi-rock or “easy listening” fusion music.  This was hard core Bop based swing – Bird and Dizzy’s thing!  It was hard to tell who was having the most fun, the musicians or the audience; it was a mutual admiration society….nothing but love.  It was one of those special occasions that musicians look forward to, an occasion where true symbiosis occurs between audience and performer – mutual thrills.

The menu was fine gourmet cuisine, artistically arranged and skillfully served on elegantly set tables.  The whole experience was designed to satiate the most epicurean taste.  A series of brief speeches that featured a formal Welcome by CBJC President Clarence Mosely and Executive Director/President of the Weeksville Heritage Center Ms. Tia Powell Harris, were offered up.  They were followed by remarks from  CBJC Treasurer Bessie Edwards, who gave an accounting of the financial health of the organization.

Ms. Edwards was followed by City Councilman Robert Cornegy. After a thoughtful speech reflecting on his love of Jazz and reminicing about old Jazz shrines in the Brooklyn he grew up in,  the Councilman shared with us how he had sucessfully cultivated a taste for Jazz music in his five kids.  And he heaped abundant praises upon the Central Brooklyn Jazz coalition and the Weeksville Heritage Center for their ongoing good works and the lavish banquet

When he was finished the Master of Ceremonies introduced me to the audience for the Keynote Address. They gave me the kind warm and enthusiastic reception that is usually reserved for cultural heroes and I was both energized and inspired when I took the podium.  My presentation consisted of two parts: Reading a wide ranging essay on the influence of Jazz, philosophically as well as musically on world culture.  I explained that Jazz as music captured the imagination of serious instrumentalists everywhere, and the values it embodies in its social organization and performance etiquette captured the imagination of intellectuals seeking a working democracy that promotes personal freedom and innovation.

Since the text is written and can be read by clicking the link at the bottom of this photo-essay I shan’t belebor it further here.  The second part of my presentation was a an extemporaneous critique of the feature film “Miles Ahead,”  a film about the great master trumpeter, band leader and Jazz innovator.  I explained that although I entered the theater wanting to love Mr. Cheedle’s film, excited that the story of this enigmatic Afro-American genius had finally made it to the movies, I was profoundly disappointed alas. For we never  As for the Banquet, all in all it was an enchanted evening and I had a ball!

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The Speakers

At banquet (2)

Playthell Spoke on the influence of Jazz on World Culture
The City Councilman

A Brooklyn Councilman Speaks

Spoke Eloquently of his long love Affair with Jazz
The Feast was permeated with beautiful People and Soulful Vibes

Seasoned Foxes III

Women of Substance: Bessie and Coalition Member

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At Banquet

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At Banquet Edit XX

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At the Banquet Edit III

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 At the Banquet Edit IV

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At the Banquet Edit VIII

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At the Banquet Edit XXI

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At the Banquet XI

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At the Banquet Edit XXIII

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At the Banquet Edit XIX

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The Band was Swinging Hard! 

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Bassist - Edit I

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the Pianist

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Rome Neal Spittin Verse

Rome Neal jumped up and Started Spittin Verse
The Band Played On….. 

Jazz Men Edit I

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And Oh How They Danced!

Rome Dancing VI

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Rome Dancing V

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Rome Dancing VII

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Rome Dancing IV

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Jazz Dancers Edit I

The Joint was Really Rockin!

Jazzmen Edit II

It was a Swingin Affair!!!

Double Click on Link to hear Miles, Trane and Cannonball

So what?

Click on Title “Jazz Around The World” for text to my speech 

Jazz Around The World!

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Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
May 17, 2016

Resurrection of a Heavy-Weight

Posted in Cultural Matters, Theater with tags , , on April 11, 2016 by playthell

 

Jack Johnson - played by Tommy Moore II

Tommie J. Moore as Jack Johnson
Tommie Moore brings Jack Johnson to Life in “Dare to Be Black”

Of all the difficulties facing an actor in the theater, the one man play is arguably the greatest.  Without a cast of actors to play against, the lone thespian must hold the attention of the audience and create dramatic tensions on his own.  He must be able to create bathos and pathos – comedic and tragic moments – with his verbal delivery and body language alone.  With only stage props, and sometimes recorded music, the actor must create an imaginary world and purely on the basis of his telling of the tale transport us into that world and make it real.

It is a task that has much in common with a solo piano performance for the artist, in that any shortcoming will be magnified and thus only a consummate master can pull it off.  Tommie Moore pulls it off grand fashion; it is as if Jack Johnson sprang before us fully alive and complete….like the goddess Athena sprang into the world full blown from the forehead of Zeus.

Mr. Moore is also the playwright, and as Shakespeare warned us: “The play is the thing.”  Hence the fate of a theatrical work is sometimes dictated before the actor ever looks at the script.  For if a play is badly written – or fatally flawed – not even great actors can salvage it no matter the caliber of their performance.  In this instance Moore has scored on all points because the script is brilliantly written.  And the way Mr. Moore came to write this work was a serendipitous affair; like so many creative works, whether it be in the arts or scientific discoveries.

The play has its origins in a chance encounter he had with an actress, who he now remembers only as “Barbara,” who was performing a one woman show playing Harriet Tubman, the great female abolitionist and “Conductor on the Underground railroad” that ferried runaway slaves out of the South into “Free Territory.” It was she who gave him the idea of writing a one man play about Jack Johnson. He recalls:

She told me that I should write a 15 minute monologue about Jack Johnson. At this time, I knew very little about Jack Johnson. I did much research and I was amazed.  His life was so intriguing. As I continued to research Jack Johnson, I felt sorry for him. How is his story not told? Why is Hollywood staying away from his true story? Why are Blacks staying away from his true story? It was then, I made a commitment to write a full production play. I wanted people to see Jack’s power, charm, and intelligence. He was not only a great boxer. He was a one-man activist. His life was an activist. He refused segregation. Whatever whites could do, Jack did. So now, here I am trying to educate the world about our First Black Heavyweight Champion. As well, as get him a pardon”

The paramount problem for any artistic treatment of historical subjects is to capture the zeitgeist of the era, to recreate the historical milieu so that we can experience the tenor of the times.  The most important themes of that era of American history was white supremacy and the inferiority of peoples of color, especially black people who had only recently emerged from slavery, in fact Jack Johnson’s parent’s had been slaves.  It was a time when the ideology of white supremacy permeated all phases of worthwhile human endeavor.  And the belief that white men were not only smarter that black men, but physically stronger and more courageous, was conventional wisdom.

And it was taken as gospel truth that white men were naturally also more sexually desirable than black men, hence any white woman that had sex with a black man was either deranged white trash or it was rape. And this assumption, like the ideology of white supremacy itself, was an article of faith throughout the dominant white world, which had conquered and colonized the millions of people living in “Africa, Asia, the Americas and the Islands of the seas” as Johnson’s black great intellectual giant and contemporary would put it in his famous statement: “The Problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line!”

The logic of white male sexual dominance was simply stated by the French General/Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte in the 18th century.  When Napoleon was informed that Alexander Dumas, a handsome black man who was his leading cavalry general and one of the greatest swordsmen in France, was banging his sister Bonaparte had him arrested.  He explained his actions thusly: “How can you convince a man that you are his superior if he is sleeping with your sister!”  While intellectuals like Dr. Dubois, Dr. Kelly Miller, James Weldon Johnson, Monroe Trotter, Ida B. Wells and others debated the veracity of the white supremacist myth, Jack Johnson shattered them by his actions: defeating Tommy Burns and winning the Undisputed World Heavy-Weight Championship and openly sleeping with white women.

Jack Johnson and Socialite Etta Durea
Jack and White Sweetie II
He openly violated the central Taboo of the era.

boxer-jack-johnson-and-wife

She turned her back on white America for black Johnson

Indeed Jack contemptuously flaunted his violation of this all American taboo.  According to historian Jeffry T. Sammons in his seminal book “Beyond the Ring: The Role of Boxing in American Civilization,” Johnson would routinely sleep with three white women after publicly humiliating white men in the ring.  Hence one of the enduring mysteries about Jack Johnson is why such a man was not lynched i.e. murdered in a public “ritual of blood” as the Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson describes lynching in his chilling and insightful text “Rituals in Blood,” which he argues  is a form of “cannibalism” when black men were burned alive.

When Jack Johnson won the Heavy-Weight Championship in 1908 black men were being crucified in such murderous rituals at the rate of one every two and a half days, and as Dr. Rayford Logan shows in his masterwork “The Betrayal of the Negro,” this had been going on at that rate for twenty years!   That Johnson was able to do the things he did yet remain alive gave him the aura of a superman, and outraged white men of all classes.

He was a living breathing refutation of the white man’s claim to superiority over black men because they had acclaimed the Heavy-Weight Champion of the world the most potent man on earth!  Hence Johnson was the filthy black fly in their pristine bowl of white milk that must be removed at all cost. Yet, ironically, they only way to fully discredit Johnson and nullify the effects of his victory was to find a white man who could kick his black ass fair and square.  Thus began the search for “the great white hope.”

Amazingly Johnson was almost as interesting outside the ring; he was a bass player, bandleader, nightclub owner, aficionado of fast cars, a great dresser and lady’s man.  He was articulate, witty, cocky and was famous for his “golden smile – a reference to the gold crowns he wore on his teeth.  Tommie Moore manages to capture this unique outsized personality and his strange times in a bravura performance that brings this complex character to life and takes us back to the racially troubled milieu of early 20th Century America.

From the moment he walks out onstage, which is at the same level as the audience, except for the boxing ring that dominates this sparse set, he jokes with the audience and talks jive to the ladies in character.  Early on he hooked us and never let up as he spun tall tales about his life and times.

When he strips to the waist, displaying his finely muscled physique, the ladies squealed and we were amazed at how much he actually resembled Jack Johnson, who also possessed a sharply defined Physique.  Moore makes great use of the fact that Johnson fancied himself a thespian.  He aspired to play Othello, who like Johnson was a great black fighting man in a dominant white society who enraged some white men because he won the love of Desdemona, a beautiful white woman.

Choosing the scene where Othello is brought before the authorities and accused by her father of employing Black Magic to place her under his spell, Moore renders Othello’s explanation with a power that does justice to the Bard.  He also comes out in one scene, dressed to the nines in the fashion of the times, turns the music up on the radio and dances a dance that was au courant in that period.

Jack Johnson in fighting gear

Jack Johnson as a young fighter

He became the dominant sex symol of his day among white women

The play encapsulates the major issues that Johnson faced as a man who dared to be unapologetically black, and who whipped the toughest white men in public for a living.  Moore allows us to share Johnson’s disgust at the fact that after he defeated Tommy Burns for the World Heavy-Weight Championship the white press continued to refer to Jim Jefferies, who had retired while still Champion, as the Champ.  One of the things that make this play so powerful is the extent to which Moore incorporates Johnson’s actual words into his script, and here he renders them with perfect blend of amusement, anger and contempt.

This work is a tour de force that deserves a much wider audience, and unless all the producers in New York are blind, tasteless, spineless or racist in should find a path to Broadway.   As in all of his pearls of wisdom Shakespeare was certainly right when he observed “the play is the thing,” but it takes great actors to make it feel real….and Tommie Moore made us forget that he was just acting.  Which is what the Great British Thespian Sir Lawrence Olivier meant when he warned aspiring actors: “Acting is a noble profession…but a real actor must never be caught doing it.”

(See the Historic Johnson v Jefferies Fight)

https://youtu.be/esnq-orAvo8

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Playthell G. Benjamin
New York City
April 11, 2016

 

On The Elegance of Afro-America!

Posted in Cultural Matters, Photo-Essays with tags , , on March 19, 2016 by playthell

Jazz Dancers

Scrapple from the Apple: Bebop Dancers in Charlie Parker Park

Black Style as a Weapon of Liberation

A Multi-Media Photographic Exhibition and lecture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pretty Fred: The Patron Saint of Black Cool

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

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Frederick douglass III

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

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

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

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

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A Black, Brown and Beige Fantasy

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

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CEO Warner-Chappell Worldwide
The Word Sorceress!

Jessica Care Moore (2)

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

Seasoned Beauties

At the Mecca of Black Theater in New York

Perla Negras!

Photo XIII- Perla Negras

Hot Chocolates
A Sophisticated Lady

Photo XII-Michelle

Actress/Producer Michel Turner

Michele Edit XIII

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

Senator Perkins

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

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

Lisa Edit I

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

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

LIVE ON WBAI NEW YORK!

At WBAI Jpeg

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

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

Easter Sunday circa 1984

Lisa's Edit on Family Pic

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

Playthell and Makeda

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

Hakim Mutlak

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

 

When Black Heavy-Weights Ruled Sports

Posted in Cultural Matters, On Sports! on February 27, 2016 by playthell

louis-joe-22_display_image

 Was the Brown Bomber Democracy’s Secret Weapon?

 Reflections on the Biggest Prize Fight in History

“He knows not cricket…who only cricket knows”
C. L. R. James

A fantastic myth is rapidly becoming conventional wisdom among casual boxing fans – and some fairly knowledgeable commentators too – that Floyd “Money” Mayweather, pound for pound the best pugilist in the game today, is “the greatest prizefighter of all times;” a claim that is quickly followed by the equally extravagant claim that his fights are also the most popular in the history of the boxing game.

Disproving the first claim would require a rigorous analysis of the art of pugilism, beginning with defining the objectives and techniques of the sport and then assessing how the best boxers – the great world champions – mastered the tools of their trade.  To do this on the level that such a complex question deserves would require extensive film study of their greatest fights, and conducting a comparative analysis.

Clearly such a tedious and sprawling task is beyond the scope of this essay.  Yet while  belabor the point, candor requires me to confess for the record that I believe Sugar Ray Robinson would have knocked “Money” out, Sugar Ray Leonard too – just like he did his daddy – “Hit Man” Hearns, “The Mo-town Cobra,” would’ve wiped him out with  overwhelming combination  of speed and power.  And Aaron” The Hawk” Pryor would have  rained a blitzkrieg of power punches, launched from every angle at warp speed, and packing the punch of human hand grenades.  While Pretty Boy is almost as hard to ht as the Lotto Jackpot, all of these guys would have hit him hard and often!  There are other greats I could mention…but I have already said too much on this score.

The raison d’etre for this essay is to challenge the claim that “Money Mayweather” aka “Pretty Boy Floyd,” is the most popular fighter in history i.e. that his greatest fights attracted more attention than any before him, and that he is the most widely known fighter in the history of pugilism.  This is not merely an argument about sports trivia, but an effort to set the record straight about the importance of boxing in the twentieth century, when the game formed a critical nexus between race and politics.  When viewed from this historical perspective Mayweather’s claim is fairly easy to disprove, like taking candy from a baby in the hands of an able analyst.

Yet it is constantly voiced, as if it were gospel, by Mayweather himself and endlessly echoed by a Greek chorus of yes men in and out of the media, on or off his payroll.  This is based on the vast amounts of money Mayweather has made.  But I contend that the size of Money Mayweather’s  purses reflects the vast increase in revenue for boxing and sports in general, including amateur sports like track and field and college football, and is a function of the technological revolution that has occurred in mass communications, especially in the last 20 years.

This quantum leap in communications capabilities has created a world –wide viewership on the basis of pay per view available to everyone, everywhere, that has a TV set or computer screen, a few dollars and a dream.  In other words the big money “Pretty Boy Floyd” is making is due to a greater efficiency in marketing and distribution capabilities made possible by virtue of innovations in technology that revolutionized mass communications.  Added to this development is also the rise in importance of fighters in the lower weight classes, and the marvelous artistry of Floyd Mayweather, whose style personifies what the writer E.J. Liebling meant when he called boxing “The Sweet Science.”

Yet Muhammad Ali was far more popular on a global scale, as was Joe Louis aka “the Brown Bomber” before him, and Jack Johnson who created the mega-fight back before television was invented and the telegraph was the only way to transport information over vast distances quickly.  For most of the history of the sport the Heavy-Weight division ruled, because the World Heavy-Weight Champion was viewed as the most powerful and potent man on earth.

And during the golden age of white supremacy, when Europeans and their descendants abroad ruled the world, that man was assumed to be white.  In the view of virtually all white people everywhere a black Heavy-Weight Champion seemed to go against the laws of nature, to upset the natural order of things, to fly in the face of divine providence, and thus there was blasphemy in the thought and the deed unthinkable.  As the Ibo’s would say: “Such a black man had not been born and his mother is dead!”

Hence the prize fights that attracted the most interests in history all involved the Heavy-Weight Crown in the 20th century.  The second fight between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling attracted the most attention in the history of the game; the title fight between Jack Johnson and “The Great White Hope” Jim Jefferies ranks second.  And all of Muhammad Ali’s fights were the most discussed events in sports after he won the Heavy-Weight title from the terrifying Sonny Liston.

Although this impressive victory was big news for a sports  event, when Cassius Clay changed his name to Muhammad and Ali announced his membership in the Nation OF Islam, a black nationalist organization founded by Afro-Americans whose leader, Elijah Muhammad, preached that “the white man is the Devil,” Ali became front page news and stayed there throughout his career.  The public interest in this young champion grew even more intense after he refused to be drafted into the US Army during the Vietnam War; especially after he announced “No Veitcong ever called me a nigger!”

The worldwide notoriety of these fighters, absent the powerful technological apparatus available to Floyd Mayweather’s promotional team,  is a function of the fact that the significance of their fights was such that they mirrored the Zeitgeist – a term coined by German philosophers that translates as “spirit of the age” – and therefore transcended the sport of boxing.

Their fights became identified with issues far bigger than boxing as they flowed with, or against the Zeitgeist.   Floyd Mayweather has never been involved in a fight that transcended the concerns of the fight game and he has never identified with a cause higher than making money.  And in this, he has proved peerless.  While there may be questions about his place in in as a performing artist in the boxing pantheon, as a businessman he reigns without a rival.

Thus he is merely a wildly successful entertainer in a sport marketed to a limited fan base and is of little or no interests to the general public.  This is a discussion that would profit from the advice given by the distinguished Afro-American historian Benjamin Quarles: “Those who seek to understand contemporary events need the added perspective of history.”

To the student of history the contemporary world looks different from those who are ignorant of the past – which includes most people.  In fact, political theorist and cultural critic Harold Cruse tells us that Americans are “anti-historical” in their view of the world; a condition that may well result from the fact that our actual history of racist repression, slavery and genocide is in direct contradiction with the self-serving myths that masquerade as popular American history and supplies the foundation for the master narrative of our civilization.  Whatever its origin alas, fear, ignorance and indifference to the facts of our past has filtered down to all levels of society.

Hence when a night time television talk show host ventured out on the streets on Columbus Day and conducted a random sample of what Americans know about Christopher Columbus the ignorance of their responses – mostly white folks too – was shocking.  The majority either had no idea when he landed in the Americas, or the most popular answer was 1842!  And when he asked a group walking together what was Columbus’ first name, everybody stood around looking puzzled, staring like country cows witnessing their first steam engine.  Finally one of them said “He was Spanish right?”  A hint to the “wise” deemed sufficient another quickly replied “Well his first name was Juan!”  At that they all chimed in eager to agree and assumed a “so there!” posture.

Floyd “Money” Mayweather

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Unquestionably the Greatest Fighter in the game today!

In view of the epidemic of historical ignorance sweeping the land it comes as no surprise that most people know so little about the history of the boxing game that they could go for the okey-doke and accept the inflated claims of the Mayweather camp and their boosters that he is the most popular pugilist in history.

A seven times World Champion, whose box office receipts have earned him 500 million dollars, “liquid” as he likes to say, Money” Mayweather is by far the biggest earner in the history of the boxing game. And while there may be questions as to his claim of being the greatest fighter, he is unquestionably the best businessman!

He is a marvel of niche marketing and more people actually got a chance to see perform in real time than any other prizefighter, but he has never been associated with a momentous historical event that would elevate him to the importance of Joe Louis, Jack Johnson or Ali.  As the erudite literary and cultural critic Albert Murray points out in “The Hero and the Blues” a man may be good, and even virtuous, but he must slay a dragon to become a hero!

This explains why even in the relatively primitive media environment of his time Joe Louis was better known than “Money,” because in his fight with Max Schmeling he slayed the dragon of Nazi master race theory, and emerged a hero to millions of people around the world who had no interests in boxing at all.  Schmeling, who Adolph Hitler had declared a hero of the Nazi Reich and a paragon of the superior Aryan male, had defeated Louis in a 1936 fight, before The Brown Bomber won the Heavy-Weight title, and the return match was widely advertised as “a battle between fascism and Democracy.”

This was a reflection of the looming battle between Nazi Germany and her allies, the fascist Axis powers of Italy and Japan, vs. the Western Alliance of Democratic nations France and Germany led by the United States.  That Joe Louis should represent “American Democracy” was a cruel irony that boldly testifies to white American hypocrisy.  Nowhere is the contradiction between what white Americans preached and what they practiced more dramatically exposed than in its treatment of Afro-Americans, in law and custom.

The US was in fact a racist Herrenvolk democracy with a color caste system based on a master race theory that the Nazi’s adopted.  Under this system Afro-Americans were deemed an inferior race, that could be segregated from whites by law and forced to live under inferior conditions. Furthermore the prerogatives of democratic governance were largely confined to whites; millions of Afro-Americans living in the southern states were denied the right to vote, despite constitutional guarantees and lived under police state conditions.  Joe Louis himself had been driven from his Alabama home when his family escaped to Detroit fleeing white terrorism, just as Afro-Americans had made their way to Detroit in order to cross over into Canada seeking freedom during the era of chattel slavery.

 A Paragon of Male elegance Joe Was a Chick Magnet
_and_joe_louis Jean_stovall_anderson 
He also Shared Duke Ellington’s Tailor

Looking at pictures of Joe Louis and his Afro-American associates in Harlem and Chi-town it’s hard to believe that they were not welcome anywhere and their company sought by everyone, given how fabulous they were.  This was the elegant world Duke Ellington, who was trained as a painter, portrayed in his Black, Brown and Beige Suite.  Unlike today’s celebrities, Afro-American stars use to live and hang out in the black community, and Harlem was the showplace of the black world.  Hence it was not unusual for Duke to run into Joe Louis hanging out in a local show bar at 155th and Edgecombe, where Duke pulled him aside and schooled him on how to be a star.

When Duke met Joe he had not yet won the World Heavy Championship, but Joe was the leading contender and the way he was bombing people out all knowledgeable fight fans knew it was just a matter of time.  In his autobiography Joe Louis, My Life, written in collaboration with Afro-American sports writer Art Rust, Louis tells us he was approached by “a tall handsome man who was dressed like a king” that told him he was a fan and since he was going to be a champion soon he should start dressing like one, and offered to introduce him to his tailor.  Joe was astonished when he recognized that this man was Duke Ellington, who was already world famous, and he happily took Dukes advice. That’s how Joe became one of the best dressed men in the world!

 Joe Louis’s Role Model in Sartorial Affairs
Duke+Ellington - paragon of elegance 
The Duke at His Piano: A Paragon of Male Elegance

The biggest obstacle to Joe Louis becoming the world Heavy-Weight Champion was not the opponents he would fight, but the racism he faced as the next black heavy-weight to challenge for the crown after the notorious reign of Jack Johnson.   In his masterful text Beyond the Ring: The Role of Boxing in American Society, arguably the best book ever written on boxing, Afro-American historian Dr. Jeffrey T. Sammons tells us:

“Since prizefighting has been characterized by some as a true test of skill, courage, intelligence, and manhood, boxing champions have traditionally stood as symbols of national and racial superiority.  Consequently, black challengers to white American champions have been perceived as threats to white and national superiority. If football was ‘the strength of the Anglo-Saxon, the dominant spirit of a dominant race,’ then boxing reduced this expression to individual terms.  Indeed, the progressive era’s concern with ‘racial betterment’ was often tested in the world of sport.”

Football was the perfect sport for a young warrior nation born in armed conflict, settled by centuries of continual war against the indigenous inhabitants, chose a war song for its national anthem, and a bird of prey as its national mascot, and embarking on an imperialist adventure.  Teddy Roosevelt, arch imperialist and proponent of “gunboat diplomacy and “muscular Christianity” was football’s greatest champion; some even credit him with saving the sport from extinction after a movement of impassioned reformers declared it a barbaric sport and urged the colleges to abandon it.

The fact that 18 students in the elite universities died from collisions on the football field in 1905 alone!  Roosevelt publicly repudiated the effort to ban football “just because it is a rough game with occasional injuries.”  To Roosevelt it was the ideal sport for young American males; he was quite unambiguous on this question: “I would rather my son’s play football than any other sport.”  He had a similar affection for boxing, which, like millions of Americans he regarded as a test of one’s manly virtues.

Thus it is no surprise that after Jack Johnson’s demise, which, as we shall see, was a national project in which even agencies of the federal government conspired, the princes and powers who ruled the corrupt boxing game were determined that Johnson would be the first and the last black Heavy-Weight Champion.  They were not much concerned about the lower weight classes, where there had been several champions – Lightweight Joe Gans, et al (complete List) – but the Heavy-Weight title was different because of what it symbolized.  Hence for 22 years no black fighter in the world had been allowed a shot at the crown, the most prestigious trophy in sports.   That’s why Joe Louis was constantly counseled “don’t be like Jack Johnson!”

“Eventually,” writes Dr. Sammons, “to facilitate Louis’s rise to the top of his profession and to hero status, promoters, handlers, and the press worked in harmony to develop the proper image for the young fighter…Appropriately, Louis accepted the prescribed role of a god fearing, bible reading, mother-loving, clean living, humble young man.  His somewhat carefree and childlike habits, such as his voracious gum chewing and ice cream eating, revealed the wholesomeness of his ‘vices’ and his naiveté.”  Joe was advised not to gloat after defeating white boys, not to flaunt his wealth when he became champ, to assume an overall humble posture when appearing before the news cameras and reporters, and most of all: “Never have your picture taken with a white woman!”

This is the true origin of Joe’s humble image, and explains why his favorite saying after knocking out some white fighter was “Oh we had a lot of luck tonight.”  It was also the source of his famous “poker face” expression, in which he always seemed unaffected by events, he continued to wear this mask of humility even after he defeated Max Schmeling and became something of a national hero, the symbol of democracy’s superiority to Fascism, and perhaps the best known man in the world.

  Captain Jackie Robinson: US Calvary
jackie-robinson- Calvery Officer

However the real Joe Louis, like baseball great Jackie Robinson who integrated the Major Leagues, was something quite different.  For instance Jackie Robinson was really a hot tempered tough guy and a Calvary Officer in the US Army.  In fact, had it not been for the intervention of Joe Louis, who was widely admired among white superior officers in the chain of command, Jackie

Contrary to his carefully cultivated public image, Joe Louis was a cocky, dashing, lady’s man who was sleeping with Lena Horne and Lana Turner – a famous white movie star – at the same time.  There is an amusing albeit representative anecdote in Joe Louis, My Life about an incident involving this fascinating threesome, in which Joe was assigned to make a training film for the US Army after he was champ.

It turned out that the studio lot where the film was to be shot was also in the in the process of producing movies featuring Lena and Lana, and Joe had to sneak about from one trailer to the other.  Lena found out about Lana and punched Joe in the face while excoriating him in language that Joe recalls would have embarrassed a sailor. Trained to respond to punches, before he could check himself he dropped her with a left hook!

Joe was also undercover lovers with Sonja Hiene, the beautiful Scandinavian Olympic Gold Medalist in figure skating.  He was well aware of his attractiveness to women of all colors and nations, and he speculates that because he was the Heavy-Weight Champion of the world women assumed that he was a stud and were all too anxious to find out.  And like powerful white men of the era who kept beautiful mistresses of all races…so did Joe.

Lana Turner: Movie Star
Lana Turner
The Dream Girl of Millions of White Men

Sonya Henie

Sonji Hiene
Triple Olympic Gold Medal figure Skater and Movie Star

Lena Horn

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Singer/Dancer/Actress

Thus Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson were nothing like the “humble Negros” projected in their public persona.  They were playing a very old role that extended back to “slavery times” as Afro-Americans of their generation called the slave era.  This kind of role playing is symbolized by a folk ditty that is widely recorded in the testimony of ex-slaves from all regions of the south: “Got one mind for white folks to see / Got another mind I know is really me / and they don’t know my mind.”

This attitude was immortalized by Paul Laurence Dunbar – who was the son of slaves and the first Afro-American poet to win literary distinction – in his poem: “We Wear the Mask.  “We wear the mask that grins and lies, It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,— This debt we pay to human guile; With torn and bleeding hearts we smile And mouth with myriad subtleties…”

In order to pursue their careers in sports Joe and Jackie were playing a role that accorded with what the white public demanded of black men.  But Jack Johnson had refused to don the mask of humility and play that role and this was the source of all his troubles.  Yet it was not just black men who were forced to assume a false face in order to placate a bigoted public; such was the fate of all men deemed inferior by the white Christian majority.

For instance, Jewish men were also forced to play a demeaning role as comic figures not to be taken seriously.  Hence Jewish men not only invented the standup comedian act in American show business, but Jewish boxers were portrayed as clowns in the boxing ring.   Professor Sammons tells us:

The stereotypes attached to Jewish boxers vividly underscored the prejudices they faced.  Maxie Rosenbloom, as the light heavyweight champion, received press coverage as demeaning as any given to blacks.  So disrespectful was the media that it called him ‘Slapsie Maxie and the ‘Harlem Harlequin:’ indeed, readers who did not know his race wondered if he were black.”

Maxie Rosenbloom
Slapsie Maxie RosenbloomAlthough Max Was a World Champion the White Goy Press cast him as a clown!

Since boxers have always come from the lower rungs of society different groups have been dominant at different times.  In the US it went from poor Anglo-Saxons, to Irishmen, to Jews, Italians, Afro-Americans and Latinos.  As each of these groups advanced in American society and produced more and different role models boxers became less important.   But in the 1930’s, when times were hard and racism intense Afro-Americans were hungry for a hero who could provide them some victories over whites, even if they were symbolic vicarious victories.  Joe Louis would fill that need.

But Joe also filled another need at the time, the desperation of boxing promoters to find a new heavy-weight talent that could revive a dying boxing business.  Sammons explains why Joe was ideal: “In 1934 a powerful, good-looking, speech-impaired, light-skinned black boxer appeared on the scene.  Everything about Joe Louis Barrow spelled success for some lucky boxing promoter even with his handicap, which ensured relative silence at a time when only a humble quiet, unassuming black would do.”

However contrary to popular belief it was not whites who first encouraged Louis to distance himself from a defiant persona that would conjure up unpleasant memories of Jack Johnson, it was his black handlers and advisors who steered him in this direction first.  While most people know of Louis’ relationship with his Jewish promoter Mike Jacobs, the real powers guiding Joe was his black co-managers John Roxborough of Detroit and Julian Black of Chicago, two old school gentleman gangsters popular known as “Policy Kings” i.e. “numbers” bankers who ran an illegal lottery in the Afro-American community.

And Joe was trained by Jack “Chappie” Blackburn, who had to be talked into the project by “Roxy’ and Black.  a ring wise veteran who knew Jack Johnson, Chappie was convinced that backing a black heavy-weight was a losing proposition because the white princes and powers that controlled the boxing game would never allow another black fighter anywhere near the Heavy-Weight Championship.

With the insights essential to black hustlers who lived successfully outside the law, Roxborough and Black understood well that white Americans, their vision and judgment impaired by racist delusion, viewed Afro- Americans through a series of stereotypes.  Where black men in particular are concerned, the dominant archetypes are the “Good Nigger” and “the Bad Nigger.”And they knew that in order to get at the big money it was critical that white America saw Joe as a “good nigger.

Hence they played what professional ” bunko artist” call “the long range con,” and they did it so well references to Joe as a “good nigger” showed up in the pages of the white southern press.  These distinctions between good and bad ‘niggers” persist even until today in the minds of many whites.  I encountered a version of them as late as 1988, when I was interviewing whites in my home town that had grown up during the era of segregation and witnessed the Great Civil Rights Movement, who spoke nostalgically about the disappearance of the “beloved Southern Negro.”

While Mike Jacobs, a Jewish businessman, promoted his fights, Joe Louis’s closest advisors were his managers John Roxborough and Julian black, along with Jack “Chappie” Blackburn who trained him –all of whom were black.  Roxborough and Black were Midwestern “Policy Kings” whose income from the illegal “numbers’ lottery was disguised by legitimate business activity.  They were gentlemen gangsters, master players who understood well the ways of the white world and were adept at pulling the wool over “whiteys” eyes.   Working with Mike Jacobs they skillfully maneuvered Louis into a title bout.

Louis’s first big fight which brought him national and international attention was his 1935 bout with the Italian boxer Primo Carnera, a mobbed up ex-circus strong man.  At six feet seven and 260 pounds Canera towered over Louis, who was about 6”1’ 195 pounds.  In Italy the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini – an avid boxing fan – had come to power and was threatening to invade Ethiopia.

The symbolism of little Ethiopia battling a bigger more powerful Italy and a Louis /Carnera fight was not lost on Mike Jacobs, who quickly made the match, and it was quickly noted by the white sporting press and the Afro-American press.  The fact that Mussolini was a fan of Carnera, and had once intervened on his behalf with the US government in a deportation case led some to regard the fighter as “Mussolini’s Emissary.”

For Afro-Americans the issue was clear.  As the late Dean of Afro-American historians John Hope Franklin observed, because of Ethiopia’s unique status as the only ancient African country to remain independent during the period of European colonialism, a successful invasion of Ethiopia by fascist Italy would “symbolize the final victory of the white man over the Negro.”  Throughout the centuries when black people suffered slavery, lynching and segregation Ethiopia was a singular beacon of hope.

Afro-American preachers, searching for a serviceable theology that could explain God’s mysterious divine plan in to Afro-Americans in light of their benighted plight in a way that gave them hope for a better future, would quote passages from the bible where “Ethiopia stretched out her arms to God” and told their flocks that it predicted a future time when black people would rule the world; when the “bottom rail would be top” and   ”the meek would inherit the earth.” The pervasiveness of the Ethiopian Myth in 19th century Black Nationalist /religious thought verifies its importance in the way Afro-Americans envisioned themselves in the cosmic scheme and explains its recurrence as a major theme in 20th century Black Nationalist ideology.

For instance one need only consider the lyrics to the anthem of the Universal Negro Improvement Association – a mass organization founded and led by the Jamaican immigrant Marcus Garvey during the 1920’s – in order to demonstrate the tenacity of the Ethiopianist trope. “Ethiopia thou land of our fathers/ Thou land where the Gods love to be.”  Many a tear was shed by impassioned souls as Afro-Americans devoted to racial uplift and African Redemption gathered in “Freedom Halls” and sang these lyrics in fortissimo.

To Afro-Americans in the 1930’s living amid the economic collapse of the “Great Depression” and increasing white terror in the southern states, having witnessed the Garvey Movement’s destruction by the clandestine machinations of the US government under J. Edgar Hoover aided by the folly of Garvey himself, Ethiopia, led by His Majesty Hallie Selassie – believed to be a direct descendent of King Solomon and the black Queen of Sheba, whose physical safety would be endangered by an Italian invasion – was the last shining example of black power and national glory in the world.

Hence black folks everywhere prayed for Joe Louis to kick Carnero’s “Guinea” ass!   When Joe stepped into the ring with the Italian giant he carried the hopes of the entire black world on his shoulders. Needless to say, despite his many millions earned in the ring as the darling of pay-per-view television: Floyd Mayweather has never known such a grand moment.

Louis and Carnera met in the ring on June 25, 1935 in New York City, less than four months before Italian armed forces invaded Ethiopia on October 3, over the protest of the US government and many other nations.  The black and white film footage of the fight  – which can be seen along with footage from all the fights described herein can be seen by double clicking on the links at the bottom of this essay – although somewhat murky, clearly shows Louis dominating the Italian hulk.

Carnero, like a lot of muscle bound guys who are not very artful in their approach to boxing, sort of pushes and paws with his gloves while Louis is throwing sharp crisp punches – which are more punishing.  Although Joe was not fleet of foot like Jack Johnson before him, or Muhammad Ali, who came along over twenty years later, he was a highly skilled boxer with lightning fast hands and knock out power in either fist.

Although Carnera towered over Joe Louis, just as Italy towered over small technological Ethiopia, Joe beat him up, hitting Carnera at will, while making himself harder to hit than the Lotto Jackpot.  In the six round Joe dropped Primo with a right hand and knocked him out with a sizzling left hook launched at lightning speed.

David and Goliath

Joe Louis and Primo Canerra
A Rehearsal for the Italo-Ethiopian War? 
 
His Imperial Majesty Ras Tafari  of Ethiopia

Hallie selassie2

King of Kings! Conquering Lion of Judah, Hero to Afro-Americans
A Descendant Menelik II:  Son of King Solomon and Queen Makeda
Hallie selassie1
He is Worshiped as a God by Jamaican Rastafarians
Primo and Benito
primocarnera4 and Benito
Chillin with the Fascists
 The Brown Bomber Smashed the Giant Italian Palooka!
Joe Louis - Carnera II And African Peoples Everywhere Cheered!

 

Ninety five Thousand people turned out to witness the fight!

The Roar from Yankee Stadium could be Heard in Harlem

However the second fight between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling dwarfed the Canero fight.  Whereas the Italian invasion was opposed by many nations; it was a life and death matter only to black people, who viewed it as a measure of their place in the world as a race.  But in the Louis vs. Schmeling fight the issue was the survival of modern civilization, as Hitler threatened to exterminate “inferior races” and enslave all who were not Germans.   Thus it was a splendid irony that this fight was viewed symbolically as a struggle between civilization and barbarism now that white Americans and their European kith and kin were threatened with the fate that they had imposed on the “inferior” colored races for centuries.

The Anglo Saxons of the US and England openly denounced the “master race” vision of the Nazis as criminal barbarism, despite that fact that Hitler had proposed no treatment for them that they had not meted out to the colored peoples over whom they had ruled in Africa, Asia and the Americas; employing the same “master race” logic to justify it.  And it required a special hypocrisy that these same whites chose Joe Louis, whose people were among those that suffered most from their pretensions to racial superiority, defend their values in the clash of ideologies!  Yet such was the state of affairs when Joe Louis met Max Schmeling in their return match in 1938.

However fight this would have been exciting event if viewed in wholly pugilistic terms.  Schmeling was the only man to have defeated Louis thus far in his professional career and by a knockout no less!   In their first fight on June 19,th 1936 Louis entered the ring undefeated with a record of 22-0 compiled in less than two years.  Everybody figured Louis as a sure shot to win the Heavy-Weight Championship – including Louis himself – it was just a matter of time. 

Unfortunately, Louis, seduced by the siren song in the press, must have taken his ordination to heart and forgot that he still had to fight the fight.  And Schmeling, who had a brief reign as the Heavy-Weight Champion from 1930- 1932, when he became the only man in boxing history to have won the crown on a default in his match with “Jack Sharkey in Yankee stadium on June 11, 1930,   was anxious to get another shot.

A true sportsman, Schmeling had been disappointed at the way he won the title.  Sharkey had been ahead on points when he was  called for fouling Schmeling in the fourth round, and the German was awarded the crown.   He gave Sharkey a rematch two years later and lost the title on points.  But he gained many fans in losing, especially since his promoter was screaming to the press “We wuz robbed!   Having tasted the glories that accompanied the Undisputed World Heavy-Weight Championship, Schmeling longed to return to the most prestigous pedestal in sports.   Thus he was training like a para-trooper headed for a dangerous combat jump, while Joe Louis was hanging out on the golf course at Lakeview New Jersey – which was close to his camp in Pompton Lakes.

When he wasn’t practicing his swing on the fairways Joe was Lindy Hopping to Jimmy Lunceford’s swinging paean to dance “I’m A Rug Cutter.”  Boxers often have a favorite song they like to train with.  For the ferocious Sonny Liston it was Bill Doggets “Night Train;” for Michael Spinx it was Frankie Beverly’s “Joy and Pain,”  and Joe loved to boogie down to the red hot rhythms of the Jimmy Lunceford big band.  After all, Lunceford’s motto was “Rhythm is My Business!”

Chillin on the Greens
Joe Louis plaring golf
Cooling his Heels while Schmeling Trained
 While Joe Played…..

Max Schmeling mit Trainer und Manager

……Schmeling was training to The Max

Max Schmeling in training

A Man on a Mission

Schmeling training II

Preparing to shoot down the Brown Bomber
 Building his Endurance with Road Work

Max Schmeling doing roadwork

Boxing is a sport where the training regimen remains pretty much the same, even as there are radical changes for preparing for competition in other sports.  The basic elements in training boxers

As part of his preparation for the fight, Max also studied films of Joe Louis’s fights and he would be richly rewarded for his diligence.  While wise guys in the press and betting parlors gave Max only two chances to win, thin and none, the German bruiser walked around with a confident swag, shit eatin grin, and IDGAF attitude.  When inquiring wags wanted to know from whence his confidence sprang, he simply said that he had discovered a flaw in Louis’ style that would assure him a  victory. Whenever the public got a glimpse of Schmeling the smile never left his face and the pep in his step seemed to heighten in the days approaching the fight…the Louis camp figured it for the fake bravado of a man facing execution.

He was kidding himself everybody thought. Hence Louis played while Schmeling worked. The fight jumped off in Yankee Stadium on June 19th 1936, and Max Schmeling revealed the secret he had been keeping which he had repeatedly told the public would lead to a victory over the undefeated top contender, who everybody believed was on a straight path to a shot at the title.  But as the fight progressed it became increasingly clear that Schmeling had Louis’s number as he fought with greater and greater confidence, repeatedly tagging the brown bomber with power shots.

What Schmeling had learned from studying films of Louis is that he had a tendency to drop his guard after throwing a left hand.  Once Schmeling got his timing down he simply countered with straight right hands to Joe’s Jaw.  These were vicious punches and Schmeling dropped Louis for the first time in his professional career in the fourth round.  For the next eight rounds the fight ebbed and flowed but Schmeling was very disciplined, took no chances, and continued to land the right hand.

As the rounds piled up Joe began to tire, the result of his lack of training, and as his reflexes slowed Schmeling began to hit his exposed chin at will.  Louis couldn’t figure out what was happening, at least not in time to avoid a knockout; which came with a perfect right to the jaw in the twelfth round!  Hitler rejoiced, America mourned, and Harlem screamed “Fix!”

  On Fight Night

The Brown Bomber Crashes

The Brown Bomber Crashes!
And Schmeling Shocked the world
Joe decke by Schmelingimages
And Joe paid the price for overconfidence
 Joe Louis Stops James J. Braddock at Cominsky Park

joelouis stops James J. Braddock

And Becomes the Undisputed Heavy-Weight Champion of the World! 
The New Champion Strolling in Harlem with wife Marva Trotter

A-JOE_LOUIS and Marva Trotter

The Poker faced Pride of Black America!
Max Schmeling: Hero of the Third Reich!

Maz schmelinghitler

The Only man to have Defeated Joe Louis
 Gentlemen Jim Corbett

Gentleman Jim Corbett

The Father of Scientific boxing

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

Playthell G. Benjamin
February 27, 2016
On the Road
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