Archive for the Cultural Matters Category

Conjuring Goddesses and Nymphs

Posted in Cultural Matters with tags , , , , on January 5, 2014 by playthell
Exhibition at the John Natsoulas Gallery circa 2013

The Neo-Classic Womanist Art of Michelle Gregor

Not that long ago I thought of clay – in the rare instance when I thought about it at all – as toys to be manipulated and twisted into fantastic shapes by curious children, or as a medium for modeling the work of sculptors for works to be cast in bronze.  This view was fashioned from watching two great New York based artists – Vinnie Bagwell and Gabrielle Koren – who create heroic sculptures in bronze.

However in the San Francisco Bay Area I discovered a community of sculptors for whom clay is the material of choice: ceramic artists.  These sculptors have developed a series of techniques that enable them to produce art objects whose beauty and intricate design place them among the first rank of fine artists.  Professor Michele Gregor is one of the leading lights in this vibrant and growing artistic community.  Mention of her name among colleagues, critics and gifted up-and-comers elicits a torrent of panegyrics.

Her colleague Susannah Israel, herself an outstanding ceramic sculptor and college teacher, wrote of Ms. Gregor’s work in an essay titled Transcendent: Michelle Gregor, David Kuraoka, and Don Reitz – published in Ceramics Art and Perception, Issue 88, 2012.       “Michelle Gregor is a neoclassic ceramic sculptor with a contemporary flavor,  inspired by the urban diversity of the San Francisco Bay Area and informed by previous travel to Bali and Southeast Asia…(she) distills the best of figurative art traditions world-wide, mixed with contemporary influences, to give us the personal expression of an artist whose first allegiance to beauty.”

The recently mounted exhibit at the Natsoulas Gallery, located in the bucolic University town of Davis, set in the heart of Northern California’s agricultural region, was a praisesong to beauty.   Whether we look at the exquisitely executed forms and finishes of the sculpture, or the pathos, pain, wisdom and gravitas on the faces of Ms. Gregor’s women….. everywhere we witness revelations of beauty manifested in myriad ways.  Her sculptures are full figured voluptuous women that radiate an aura of strength and sensuality, no bulimic babes or anorexic Annies here; Professor Gregor is clearly no slave to au courant notions of feminine beauty.

There is also a generous dose of truth in the emotions with which Professor Gregor has invested her sculptures, for it accurately reflects the predicament of women in the world at the dawning of the 21st century.   Whether we take our cue from the dastardly machinations of the Republican Party’s attacks on the rights of American women – at present one of the freest and most empowered groups of women in the world – or women in the Islamic world, who are the most oppressed, we see the rights of women under attack everywhere.

I advance these views as speculation only.  Alas,  it is a risky business attempting to read the minds of artists, since their sensitivity and imagination often operate on a different frequency from the rest of us.  Yet if the artist offers the  work for public exhibition without instructing us on how we should view it, then we must assume that they intend us to make of their offering what we will.  That is what I have done with Ms. Gregors’ splendid show.

Fascinated by my discovery of what great ceramic artists can do with clay, which is a fancy name for special sand, I have sought to learn how these latter day alchemists turn clay into timeless art treasures. Looking at the delicate colors in the sculptures of Professor Gregor in the photographs below, they remind me of impressionist paintings about classical myths.  The question every thoughtful observer must ponder is: “How is it possible to heat an object to over 2,000 degrees and it not turn out charred?”

The answer to this lies in the fact that great ceramic artists must know something of science, because in ceramics art and science merge.  Professor Israel, who can go seamlessly from discussing techniques for glazing and firing sculptures in a wide variety of kilns, to the chemical uniqueness that distinguishes clay from mere sand, is a classic example of this merger.

In discussing the techniques Ms. Gregor employed in producing the beautiful sculptures in this exhibit,  Israel tells us “Gregor emerged early on as a particularly fine colorist, and her subtle brush work shows the unmistakable evidence of originality and dedicated practice.  Her figures wear colors as subtle and sophisticated as an oil painting, but here, these effects depend upon intensive thermochemical changes occurring within molten glass inside the kiln.  Calculated to a nicety, she layers raw glaze, so delicately positioned that it melts and flows, to create the convincing illusion of a silk garment over skin.”  There are several sculptures in this exhibit that demonstrate this technique.

A splendid Example of Professor Gregor’s Technique
Turning Clay into fine Art

Fortunately, it is not necessary to possess even a small fraction of what Professor Israel knows about ceramics in order to be edified and spiritually elevated from experiencing Ms. Gregor’s art.  Many of these works possess great spiritual power, and the messages they communicate are as universal as the poignant portraits of human character painted by Shakespeare.

The power of Ms. Gregor’s art as womanist propaganda was succinctly explained by Chairman Mao Tse Tung, leader of the largest mass transformative movement in history.  In his famous Lectures at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art, held in his mountain hideaway during the heat of a revolutionary war, Chairman Mao observed: “All art is propaganda but not all propaganda is art….in order for art to succeed as propaganda it must first succeed as art.”  Hence Professor Gregor’s power as a propagandist for universal humanist values lies in her spectacular success at producing great art.


Pictures From the Exhibition









Nineth Choice






































































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Edit - (2)


Pinkface (2)


I Loooves Michelle!

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Cried John Natsoulas, Gallery Director

A Deep Communion


Between Art and Artist

Professor Israel Droppin Science!


Offering an impromptu disquisition on the elements of great Art


Professor Gregor
Michel the Artist
Hangin with her Peeps

Note: I first met Michelle Gregor – Professor of Art and head of the Ceramics Program at San Jose City College – in September while she was working on this exhibition and I found her to be very well informed on the major issues that converge to shape the human condition in our time.  She was not only knowledgeable but committed to adding her voice to those calling for the elevation of humankind.  Hence it comes as no surprise to me that her work mirrors this concern; not as mere agitprop but as fine art achieved on the highest level.  Thus she is a paragon of what the French call the “Engaged Artist.”

For a demonstration of how ceramic artist work their magic…
…double click to see master potter David Mcdonald
 See Professors Gregor and Israel conduct a workshop 
Double click on link above
Text and Photos by:
Playthell G. Benjamin
San Francisco, California
January 2014

On Mandela, the Movie Version

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

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

Idris Elba as Nelson Mandela

 Recreating a Major Historical Figure Is Not Easy to Do

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Robbin Island

Mandela, and ANC comrades from movie

Convicted ANC Leaders Salute the Courtroom Crowd

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

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

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

Nelson and Winnie Meet


Elba and Harris are Magical

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

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

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

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

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


Playthell G. Benjamin

San Francisco, California

December 27, 2013

Dr. Lateef’s Spirit Dances with Ancestors

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


 The Master with his Horn

The Legendary Musician and Composer Steps off at 93

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

………A Gift that keeps on Giving


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

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

By Herb Boyd

Special to Commentaries on the Times

Dr. DUBOIS Then and Now

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

All Motion is not Progress

Dr. DuBois and Mao

My favorite picture of The Doctor

            I wonder what  witticism provoked such merriment.


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

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

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

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

Mary Burghardt


Dr. DuBois Mother with Little Willie in Tow

Alfred DuBois

Dubois's Dad II

Dr. DuBois’ Father: A Soldier Against Slavery

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Southern Ring Shout!

Ring Shout Georgia2

The kind of black Religious Ritual DuBois Saw

The Fisk Jubilee Singers

Cherif Guelal

Young DuBois heard their voices in the stones of Jubilee Hall

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

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

Harvard: Class of 1891


Arming himself for Battle!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

from my purpose till I die…

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

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

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

of my brothers and sisters making their lives similar. The

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

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

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

means the best development of the world . . .”

Let the church say, “Ahmen and Selah.”

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

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

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

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

Dr. DuBois after College in Berlin

DuBois in Berlin

Well Armed for Intellectual Combat

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

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

The White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan

Ku Klux Klan

Demonstrating their power to the Politicians

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

 White America’s Favorite Entertainments!

lynching Bee

True American Exceptionalism


Eddie Cantor: Jews and Gentiles “Blacked Up!


Assassinating the Character of a Race

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

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

The White Man’s Burden?

Belgium Congo

Everywhere Mighty Whitey Was In Charge

Afro-Jamaicans on sugar Cane Plantion around 1905

Condition Were Horrendous in Caribbean and South America too!

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Funeral of Dr. Dubois In Ghana

Dr. DuBois' Funeral III

An Affair of State

Madame Dubois is Escorted by President Nkrumah

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

Laying Hands on the Casket

Dr. DuBois Funeral

The Doctor Danced and Joined the Ancestors

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

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

The Public Intellectual at Work

Dr. dubois in the Crisis Ofice

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

Crisis Magazine II

Langston Hughes said his Grandmother Kept it beside her Bible

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

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

Always Sharp as a Tack!

Dubois at the Paris Exhibition in 1900

At the Paris Exhibition circa 1900

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Jules Chemetzky: Professor of English

Mass Gathering_for_Jules_Chametzky

Co- Founder of Mass Review with Sid Kaplan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sid Kaplan Edit 

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

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

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

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

 Ivanhoe speaking at the 50th Anniversary of SNCC Founding


A Political Mastermind who guided the elections of many important politicians

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ekueme Michael Thelwell

Mike Thelwell and Stokely

Working with longtime comrade Stokely Carimichal In SNCC

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But on Friday you said…”

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

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

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

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

Enter UMass, fighting mad.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Dr. Johnetta Cole

Dr. Johnetta Cole

Anthropologist, and Director of Musem of African Art

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

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

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

Dr. Bernard Bell

Dr-Bernard Bell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Shirley Graham DuBois

Shirley duBois

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


Dr. and Madam DuBois With Ghana President and First Lady

Kwame Nkrumah

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

With Dr. DuBois in China

Dr. DuBois and wife in China

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

Max Roach


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

Archie Shepp

Archie Shepp

Double Click to see Professor Shepp Perform

With the Great Afro-Cuban Pianist Chucho Valdez

A Post Racial America…Really?

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

Barack Obama and First Lady

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

  Separating Myth from Reality

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

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

 The America of Roosevelt and Taft
 lynching Bee
 A Southern Carnival

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

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

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

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


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

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

Really Dicky?

 Tea Party Racism

 If the Tea Party ain’t Racist……

 Tea Party Racism II

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

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

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


William Katz
New York City
December 12, 2-13

Reflections on the Meth Menace

Posted in Cultural Matters with tags on November 19, 2013 by playthell
Addicted to Meth
A Portrait of the Ravages of Meth

 A Cautionary Tale about Dancing with the Monster

I happened to stumble upon a video report on the state of Meth- Amphetamine addiction in Fresno California – which can be accessed by doubling clicking on the link at the bottom of this essay – and it was shocking…to say the least.   I am amazed that Meth is still a problem in the US.  This is a very dangerous drug!  I know whereof I speak; I tried it once almost fifty years ago.  I was living in Philly at the time and we called Meth “Monster.”  The way I came to try it was happenstance.  And although it was my first and last time, it was one of the most memorable experiences of my life!

I had been awake over 24 hours reading William L. Shirer’s engrossing masterpiece “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,” a massive tome based on official German documents captured and translated by western intelligence agencies after World War II.  It is a book of several hundred pages (I forget the exact number) and I couldn’t put it down.  So I had taken to drinking black coffee to stay awake, when a friend of mine – Jomo Jones – came by my crib about six in the evening.  I began telling him about the book and noted how I was fighting off sleep to continue reading.

“So you wanna stay awake?’ he asked. Well I got something here that will keep you awake as long as you want to stay up.”   He broke out a little plastic bag with some white crystal powder and said just snort some of this up your nose like you would a Vicks inhaler whenever you feel yourself getting sleepy.”  Well, this was the beginning of a nightmare which landed me in the hospital three days later convinced I was having a massive heart attack. 

I was so convinced of it that I ran out of my crib eight o clock at night in my drawers clutching my chest and screaming that I was dying from a heart attack!  I ran up to a group of my neighbors passing by, clutched my chest, and announced that I was having a heart attack, then I dramatically fell to the ground as if I was dying!  They of course quickly called the emergency wagon and I was soon off to the hospital in an ambulance with lights flashing and siren blaring!!

I was rushed  into the emergency room of Hanneman Hospital on Broad Street laid out on a stretcher, and a team of doctors hurried to save my life.   But the more they examined me they quieter they got.  They hooked me up to a machine and measured my heart rate….looked at each other again, and began to mumble back and forth.

They just stared at me silently, until the appointed spokesman asked “Sir, what makes you think you are having a heart attack?  There is nothing wrong with your heart.”   When they told me I was alright, I sat right up as if nothing had happened and tried to play it off with some improvised BS.  But the doctors’ weren’t buying my story and insisted upon knowing why I Thought I was having a heart attack.

In my still paranoid mind I thought they were trying to entrap me, that they had figured out I had ingested an illegal drug and had either called the police already or were planning to do so.  Suddenly, visions of the gendarmes coming to put me in chains danced about in my head – especially since I was a radical activist and was half paranoid anyway – I started to jump up and flee, but I thought the better of it since I was dressed only in a hospital gown.  Hence I decided to use my verbal skills to plead my case.  I began to tell them that I was a honorable young man during serious work and they were about to ruin my life and career by turning me over to the cops!

They looked at me like the madman that I was and the spokesman calmly replied “We have already figured out that you have been experimenting with some kind of controlled substance,” but explained that in order to help me they needed to know what it was.  The doctor when on to calmly explain “We are neither preachers nor policemen; we are physicians.  We are not interested in the moral or legal aspects of your behavior, only the pharmacology.”  When T told them I had ingested something called “Methodrine” they became alarmed.

They explained to me that this was a very dangerous drug, and when I tried to tell them how much I took by referring to the approximate size of the pile Jomo had poured, they told me that since it was made by crooks they had no way of really measuring how much I had ingested because not knowing it’s exact chemical composition “we don’t know what a dose is.” 

These things had never occurred to me when I snorted the Monster.  Now I was sitting in the emergence feeling like the world’s biggest fool.  The doctors conferred with each other, and after a series of grunts and nods of the head they told me they were going to put me on sedatives for the next couple of days and ordered me to my bed.

Then came the most surprising moment of the evening.  Although I had Blue Cross/Blue Shield – cause I had a job with benefits, an increasingly scarce opportunity for young people entering the work force today – I didn’t know my policy number and other important information, since I was healthy as a horse and had never had occasion to use it.  So as I began to discuss he could arrange payment for my visit – since I had arrived in my skivvies with neither money nor identification papers on my person – the doctors offered to barter their services.

The spokesman said to me “There is a demand that has emerged from the Civil Rights Movement that is all over the news and has a lot of people confused.  And you look like if anybody can explain what it means you can.”  I guess he surmised that from my sizable Afro and beard, which was usually well groomed bit was looking real wild and crazy at the time.  And with a deep breath, as all eyes fixated on me, he put the question forthrightly: “What does Black Power mean?” 

With a sigh of relief, I sat straight up on my bed and held forth in a compelling lecture.  They thanked me profusely, gave me a robe, and arranged for me to be driven home.  That was the end of me and Meth.  However I had other friends whose decision to dance with the Meth Monster ended tragically. One example will suffice. 

I once had a dear friend who was highly educated, a lawyer and a musician and great at both, a husband and father of the first order.  One night on a gig he was turned on to meth by a fellow musician who told him it would keep him awake and alert better than cocaine, the dangers of which my friend knew and thus stayed away from.  He thought Monster was a safer choice, plus it was cheaper.  Well, he got hooked.  To make a short tragic story shorter, I’ll cut to the chase.  One Christmas morning his wife called me in a fit of hysteria, she said my friend had “lost his mind.”  First he was running around the house saying there were zombies and Vampires hiding in the closets and they were trying to pull him in.

He terrified the children and then he ran screaming from the house, jumped in the car and sped off, crashed into a steel pillar holding up the elevated train, totaled the car and killed himself…on Christmas morning.  That was enough to scare me away from hard drugs and especially the hallucinogens forever. Hence I went through the sizzling sixties and never took an acid trip, never ate any mushrooms, never smoked Peyote or messed with Mescalito.   Except for wisdom weed, rum and wine I was sober as a judge while all around me people were experimenting with them all!

Yet I thought there were enough tragic stories about the disastrous effects of abusing the Meth Monster to have have driven it off the market.  Not so, I discovered in this gripping video report.  Instead I learned that, as with cocaine, Meth addicts are now smoking it the way coke heads turned to “Free Basing” and then to Crack.

If you have any friends or loved ones who are abusing this dangerous drug, you should intervene immediately, if not sooner, and let them know that it is as addictive as crack and far more destructive to the body!  Plus it can make them do some very crazy destructive things – to themselves and all those around them.  For this reason the Monster must never be legalized…and abusers should be forced into treatment by order of the courts….and the suppliers should feel the full force of the laws: the more draconian the better!

Messing with the Monster can Fuck you Up
Addicted to Meath II
I bet she wishes she had never met The Monster!!
 Double click yo view video report


 Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
Harlem, New York







Liberation from White Ladyship?

Posted in Cultural Matters with tags , , , , on November 7, 2013 by playthell

Gorgeous proper blon gangbanged

A pretty, perky, Proper White “Lady” and her Five Bangers

 Is the Interracial Gang Bang a White Feminist Statement?

In the now classic English novel Lady Chatterly’s Lover, written by D. H. Lawrence in 1928, which provoked quite a scandal at the time, there was a class of men called “Fuckers.” They were generally working class men of strapping physiques, well-endowed private parts and great stamina. They were the bulls selected by high class ladies to get their Jones fixed, sexual toy boys that filled the gaps left yawning by their effete, effeminate, or indifferent husbands.  The novel’s view of sex and class in British society sparked a wave of outrage and was even subjected to an obscenity trial in England.

The fact that D. H. Lawrence’s once bawdy novel now barely raises an eyebrow among the reading public bespeaks the radical change in attitudes toward sex and class in Britain.  Just as the seemingly endless and ubiquitous videos of white women engaging in sexual “gangbangs” with groups of generously endowed black males signals a paradigm shift in attitudes toward race, gender and sex in the United States.

For people born after the struggles of the 1960’s were over, and even for black men who always lived in the North, the full extent of white male rage over the very thought of white women having sex with black males is unbeknownst to them, and unimaginable to most Americans today.  It was once the ultimate taboo in American society; in the Deep South it may well have been more abhorrent than incest.  But those of us who are of the same generation as Emmett Till,  and were living in the South during the 1950’s when this spunky black teenager from “up North” was beaten to death by a posse of enraged white men because he whistled at one of their wives, remember that white male rage all too well.

 Emmitt Til

News story about lynching Emmitt til

A signal moment in the life of black southern males 
The Funeral of Emmit Till
Emmitt Till
This is what happen to black men that flirted with white women

We also remember how it was a badge of honor among southern white men to have sexual relations with black women, which they did with impunity even though they had passed the anti-miscegenation laws forbidding interracial sex.  It was a southern tradition extending back to slavery times; a situation that caused many black men to fantasize about fucking a white girl just to settle a grudge against white men.

The unfairness of the rules regarding interracial sexuality was highlighted by the fact that racist white men openly consorted with their black women, who were willing partners in crime.  They even came to visit their chocolate delights at their homes in the black community; some even had several children by them.

Some prominent white men had white families on one side of town, or in a nearby town and a black family in Dark Town.  And there was nothing that black men could do about it because white male sexual access to black women was one of the sacred pillars of white supremacy.  A striking case in point was Jimmy Brock, the manager of the Monson Motor Lodge, the guy who put the acid in the pool when Dr. Martin Luther King tried to swim in the motel pool; Brock sired multiple children by several black women!

Jimmy Brock Pouring Acid in Motel Pool
Jimmy Brock - Copy
But he loved having sex with black women

 The case of Strom Thurmond, longtime Senator and quintessential southern gentleman, is a representative anecdote of the story of white men and black women in the South during the era of segregation and open white supremacy.  Thurmond, who served in the Senate for over half a century, was an exemplar of the so-called “southern way of life.”

Although while a young man of 22, he was tupping his family’s sixteen year old black maid, who gave birth to his first child, a daughter.  Although this fact was well known in the black community in South Carolina – especially to her fellow black students and Administration of South Carolina State College, it was never acknowledged in the white community.  Nor did it restrain him from becoming a firebreathing racist, denouncing “niggers” and cursing “race mixing,”

I was first told about Strom’s daughter by a friend of mine who went to college with her, and clearly remembers Senator Thurmond coming to the college and the administration – who depended on state funds to survive – setting aside a special room for them to meet.  It is virtually impossible to imagine what his daughter must have been thinking when as a young woman she witnessed her father, who was the leader of the Southern “Nullification” movement that vociferously fought against civil and voting rights for black people; the people who had nurtured her even as her father’s people refused to recognize her existence.

However we can get some idea of what she might have felt from reading her testimony.  In her book “Dear Senator: A Memoir by the Daughter of Strom Thurman,” which she published after 70 years of silence, Essie Mae Washington-Williams recalls what it was like when she visited her father in his law office in South Carolina to collect child support payments. “He never called my mother by her name. He didn’t verbally acknowledge that I was his child.”

Curiously, Essie Mae also tells us that even as she watched her father become the leader of the “Dixiecrats” in 1948, the southern branch of the Democratic Party that broke with the national party after liberal Minneapolis Mayor Hubert H. Humphrey succeed in getting a civil rights plank adopted in the Party Platform in the Presidential election that would sweep Harry Truman back into the Oval Office, she remained silent about his racial hypocrisy.

Strom Thurmond and his White Wife take a Ride on Fine Horses
Strom Thurmon on horse back 
Like Jefferson: A front porch puritan and backyard lecher!

She remained silent even after Thurman declared: “There’s not enough troops in the army to force the southern people to break down segregation and admit the nigger race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes and into our churches.” Essie Mae stood in the shadows and remained silent even as her father spoke on the Senate floor for 24 hours without a break to filibuster the 1957 Civil Rights Bill.  

Essie Mae stood and watched as dear old dad opposed all of the Civil Rights legislation of the 1960’s that bestowed upon her full civil rights for the first time in her life, and dramatically increased the life chances of her children and grand-children in American society. All of these acts piled insult upon injury, but she never said a mumbling word.

Why did she do it? Why did she follow in the footsteps of her mother and say nothing as this man did his best to keep her people under the heal of white supremacy?  In her memoir she offers a terse explanation, He trusted me, and I respected him.”  Say what?  Essie Mae is a representative example of the kind of black southern women who was capable of loving a man that despised her mother, her mother’s people, and denied her existence.

This is a tradition that began during slavery, and is exemplified in the long running relationship between Thomas Jefferson and his slave concubine Sally Hemings, with whom he sired seven children, and never formally freed them or her from slavery. Indeed he denied them even as they lived under his roof.  Yet the persistent rumors of a sexual relationship with “Dusky Sally” almost cost Jefferson the Presidency.  Alas, sometimes think Condoleeza Rice is also just a sophisticated updated version of Sally, especially when I reflect upon her relationship with George Bush.

Senator Strom Thurmond and his Oldest Daughter Essie Mae
Strom and his black daughter
An excellent parent, devoted teacher, a daughter anyone would be proud of

However as southern white women gained a broader education beyond that required to be a good home maker – which was referred to in the parlance of the age as “women’s work,” they began to think critically about southern society and their role in it.  And in 1949 a group of these white southern women got together and issued a manifesto seeking to redefine that role in a critical – even revolutionary way.

Lillian Smith, a moving force in the white anti-racist women’s revolt, wrote a letter to Eleanor Roosevelt, the First Lady of the US for three terms, explaining her goal at the time: “I have been trying for six or seven years to prove to white southern women of my social class that we can speak out plainly about racial democracy, that we can take a public stand against discrimination and even against segregation without losing too much prestige and without suffering martyrdom. It seems very important to me for a southern woman to demonstrate this successfully”

To this end she not only ran a progressive private school for well-to-do white girls in Georgia and wrote “Strange Fruit” in 1944, a shocking novel about interracial love that was banned throughout the south, then wrote a seminal analysis of the pathologies in white southern culture, especially the sexual hypocrisy of the southern white patriarchy.  Appropriately titled “Killers of the Dream,” I believe this text to be the best single volume on the nature and consequences of what people like Strom Thurmond affectionately called “The southern way of life.”  The picture she paints is not pretty.  To begin with, she calls proper white southern white Christian men, beginning with the Founding Fathers, “front porch puritans and back yard lechers!”

Lillian Smith
   A brilliant writer and champion of black southern Men

Lillian Smith’s unique insights into the pathological nature of the celebrated “southern way of life” was aided by what Dr. W.E.B. Dubois called the “second sight” or ‘double consciousness” developed by outsiders who must make their way in a hostile culture.  As a woman who rejected the concept of “southern womanhood,” which she saw as nothing more than an extension of white patriarchy over women; an open dissenter against the system of racism and segregation, which she viewed as another expression of the power of white male patriarchs; a feminist and a sexual rebel who had love affairs with women, Lillian was a radical dissenter in the south of the mid-twentieth century. 

And she saw the question of sexual freedom as critical to personal freedom, which is why she supported the right to interracial love.  It is interesting that many of the most progressive white women on the race question also recognized its relationship to the oppression of women because of their sex.  And the more radical feminist recognized that male control of their choice of sexual partners was an expression of masculine privilege and power, the more they sought to subvert…some by becoming lesbians.

Some of these women rebels – like Eleanor Roosevelt and the progressive lesbian intellectuals with whom the First Lady carried on sexual liaisons in a cottage on their estate in the New York suburbs, while Franklin carried with his mistress – conceived some of FDR’s most progressive policies which were planted in the President’s head through Eleanor’s pillow talk.  This is not a matter of speculation; it is well documented in the recently published book “One Nation Under Sex,” an excellent history of deviant sexual behavior in America’s political leaders from the founding of the American Republic.  Written by Dr. David Eisenbach, a professor of American history, and published by radical free speech advocate and erstwhile pornographer Larry Flynt, this seminal text is a wild and crazy tale that significantly alters how we must view American history.

The Women’s Liberation Movement in America is a mass transformative movement whose objective was to elevate the status of women in American society through winning legal rights and expanding individual freedom.  In this sense it is the same class of phenomenon as the Civil Rights Movement or the Algerian Revolution, hence despite their obvious ideological differences and specific tactics, it has many things in common.

A fundamental characteristic of all such movements is that despite their commitment to a mutually shared goal –i.e. women’s liberation – the individual organizations that make up the mass movement have widely varying ideas about what “liberation” means.  This was true in the 19th century when the feminist movement was born.  There were the respectable Christian ladies like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, and irreverent radicals like the beautiful brilliant Victoria Woodhull, a business woman and newspaper publisher – who presented public lectures arguing that it was more honorable for American women to be whores than wives.

Victoria Woodhull
Victoria Woodhull
19 Century Feminist Firebrand

The ideological diversity of the 20th century Women’s Liberation Movement was even more complex, ranging from disgruntled housewives like Betty Friedan, who just wanted to win full equality for women in all areas of American life in order to improve relations between men and women, to the radical Feminists whose militant hostility to men were expressed in the Red Stockings Manifesto.

The ultimate declaration of war on the male species was expressed by the radical feminist philosopher Ti Grace Atkinson. For many of these women, sex with men was an act of betrayal.  Born to privilege in a well to do white family in Louisiana, Atkinson first took a degree in fine arts at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1960’s and worked for a while as a critic and arts administrator.

Then she discovered the French Existentialist writer, and gal pal of the famed philosopher John Paul Sartre, Simone De Beauvoir’s feminist book “The Second Sex.” Grace was so inspired by this treatise she entered Columbia University and earned a PhD in philosophy.  She began a correspondence with Simone, who told her to seek out Betty Friedan, the founder of the National Organization of Women.  Like the women in NOW, and quite unlike Grace, Simone loved men; although she may well have been bisexual.  Rumor has it that she was bangin the handsome Afro-American novelist Richard Wright, who was the toast of Paris at the time. Richard Wright has said only “Simone really knows how to be a woman.”

Grace began her feminist activism as a member of NOW, but soon rejected their goals and methods as became the voice of the ultra- radical lunatic fringe of the Women’s Liberation Movement, calling the women in NOW stinking Jackals!  She was in such a state of militant rage and desperation that she sought the advice of Joe Columbo, a mob leader in New York City, because she wanted to make her “sisterhood’ as strong as his brotherhood.”

She also penned an essay titled “The Institution of Sexual Intercourse,” in which she argued that the male erection is an act of hostility against women, and for there to be true equality between the sexes men would have learn to cum with flaccid penises.  And, of course, according to Grace, women don’t truly enjoy vaginal intercourse with men anyway because all of their erotic sensation is in the “joy button.”  That this dyke inspired penis envy is transparent poppy-cock – which I can attest to on my own authority based on the injection of hard evidence – is beside the point.  What is important is that this unscientific drivel was being argued as gospel truth by some very smart women, which is a measure of the desperation felt by militant feminist lesbians.

There were puritanical feminist ideologues who adhered to conventional notions of sexual morality, and others felt that the entire notion of “acting like a lady” was to acquiesce in allowing their role in society to be defined by the perogatives of patriarchy.  Some of these women rejected the role of “lady” and chose to be tramps, sluts, whores; the polar opposite of the male defined role of “lady.”  Hence being a slut became a radical act of liberation.  Thus the feminist porn stars, such as Mary Rexroth and Annie sprinkle were born, along with provocative sexual “performance artists” like Veronica Vera.

Dr. Annie Sprinkle: Feminist Porn Star
Annie Sprinkle II  Goddess/Guru to feminist Sluts

These radical sexual activists use public sexual performances to destroy any vestige of the respectable lady as defined by male dictated norms.  And the white ladies who are the stars of interracial Gangbang movies are their spiritual heirs, whether they know it or not.  It does not matter if it is a conscious act of rebellion against gender and race-based sexual taboos, no more than it matters whether women in the military understand the fight and thought that made their existence possible; they are standing on the shoulders of the women who preceded them.

  Veronica Vera

Veronica Fairy Color

 Feminist Sexual Performance Artist


Veronica’s Act
Veronica Vera's twat 

 The Vagina as Performance Prop

There is no question that these white women – all of who are well spoken, fairly well educated women – would not be making these movies if they were bound by the conventional wisdom and morality regarding ladylike decorum. With an almost religious joy on their faces, they enthusiastically engage in every imaginable sexual act with a group of 5 to 7 well hung energetic black males, who vigorously penetrate all their orifices, and then the self-identified  white “sluts” routinely swallow their sperm with great fanfare.

While it is conventional wisdom that women in porn are ruthlessly exploited victims of an amoral male dominated industry, the testimony of the women themselves range from those who feel exploited – a la Linda Lovelace of Deep Throat fame, to those who find the experience empowering and often pleasurable…they love their work and don’t wish to be rescued.

Nina Hartley: Enthusiastic Seasoned Slut
There’s no shame in this Gal’s Game!

The venerable Nina Hartley, who is billed as having “the best ass in porn,” earned a nursing degree from the prestigious San Francisco Medical Center before she ever entered the sex entertainment business.  She is the quintessential example of a woman who gets off on her job.  She started as a stripper in North beach clubs, the made her way into the porn industry where she found her true calling.  Determined to do what she wanted as a woman without regard for prevailing social conventions, Nina had sex with black men despite warnings from porn producers that she would lessen he market value with white men, who are the majority of porn consumers – which, incidentally, has turned out to be untrue.

Nina Hartley with Ray Victory
Flaunting Racial Taboos

Now well into her fifties, Nina is still making movies for a new generation of fans.  In fact, she has helped spawn a new genre called MILF films – “Moms I’d Like to Fuck” – which are becoming increasingly popular with young and older fans, male and female; like most porn Queens Nina is bi-sexual.  She is also a high price “escort.”  From everything she has said for the public record, and as an intelligent articulate women she has said plenty, she really enthusiastic about here work – which she has been at for over thirty years and thousands of flicks.

Nina as MILF


She’s into Black gangbangs too

When questioned about why she chose a career in sex work by writer Vanessa Pinto, in the San Francisco Huffington Post in March of 2012, Nina said ever since she was a teenager, before she went to college. She thought about becoming a prostitute, but it was illegal and dangerous.  Then she explained:

“”Why sex? Because sex is my thing. It is what I am about both as a queer person, but also as a nurse and a health professional. In our society sexuality is sick and sick people need a nurse’s care. I am here not just for my own jollies, of which I’ve certainly had plenty. I am also here to talk about sex with people who cannot talk about it. A nurse’s role includes education, role modeling and advocating for those who cannot speak for themselves. I educate people in safer sex and how to be better at it. I advocate about sexual freedom and sexual autonomy for people who are still in danger of losing hearth, home, children and job, should their sexual lives become known. So I am out here because I don’t have any kids to embarrass.”

It is clear that Nina not only adores her job but believes she is providing an important human service.  And Nina is not alone.  It’s kind of an individual thing.  Acting in porn movies is a voluntary career choice however, so the very act of choosing is an exercise in self-determination that represents a newfound freedom for females.  And while many contemporary porn stars may not understand this legacy any better than many black and Hispanic baseball players understand that they are the progeny of Jackie Robinson, there are some who do.

For instance in a February 23, 2013 article by Dylan Ryan titled “How I Became a Feminist Porn Star,” we find clear evidence of intellectual continuity between the pioneering pro-sex feminist strain in porn and the present generation. Ryan tells us:

“My engagement with porn was not one challenged by shame. I respected the women who I saw in the films and had little to no preconceived judgments about them, but I would find myself critiquing them as performers and considering what I would do differently and better… I was exposed to images of some of the scions of feminist pornography including Annie Sprinkle and Nina Hartley. I watched Nina Hartley’s films and felt admiration for her clear and frank way of talking about sex. I loved that she was completely present and aware of herself and her presentation. The films Nina, Annie, and others made represented a sexuality that was open, honest, and without shame; they showcased sex that was fun and consensual. They had a sexual agency that I found arousing.”

However Ryan does not shrink from engaging the issues of shame that any “respectable lady” would be expected to feel from indulging in explicit sexual acts in a public forum, and the coercions that most outsiders assume female porn stars are subjected to.  She tells us:

While I know that I feel good about what I am doing and do not experience coercion in my sex work, it can be difficult to communicate that to others. It can also be difficult to express my personal belief that a woman has the right to engage in consensual objectifying activities without shame. Looking back on interviews I gave in the past, I see how my responses have evolved. I became more aware of what kind of career I was crafting for myself in the porn industry, and I became more comfortable with articulating that to people. My initial ideals about my role in porn slowly transformed into what I actually did in porn. Porn has been a positive choice for me. It is no longer something I think will be good for me, it is something I can say has been empowering and strengthening rather than oppressive and denigrating.”

Those who find it difficult to connect willing female performers in porn movies with women’s liberation should consider the fact that defining and controlling female sexuality is a cornerstone of the patriarchal order worldwide.  One need look no further than the fact that there are still countries where they would be stoned to death for such bawdy sexual behavior – Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Iran, Jordon, etc.

To understand the extent to which patriarchs will go to control the sexuality of women one need only consider the case of Misha’al bint Fahd, a beautiful Saudi Arabian Princess from the House of Saud, who went to study in Lebanon at the age of 19.  There she met and fell in love with the nephew of the Saudi ambassador and they had a sexual relationship. Upon her return to Saudi Arabia word had reached the kingdom, conveyed by spies who wished to gain the favor of the Royal family, that the princess had conspired to meet with her young lover alone on several occasions.

Based on that flimsy charge the Princess and her lover were charged with adultery, her close family begged her not to admit it, but she confessed that she and Khaled al Sha’er Mullhallal had been lovers after a failed attempt to flee the country disguised as a man.  Under sharia law they were both executed in the public square by beheading!

 The Public Execution of Princess Misha/al bint Fahd

Death-of-a-Princess The Ultimate Male Tyranny!
  An Adulteress in Somalia
Somali Woman stoded to death 
This is the fate of women who break male norms

There are gruesome executions like this, often by stoning, all over the Islamic world even in the 21st century.  And as I write another Saudi Princess is in England hiding out from her husband who has pledged to execute her, with her family’s blessings no less, because he suspects her of committing adultery.

Princess Misha was executed in Jedda Arabia on 15 July 1977, and was the subject of a BBC documentary “Death of A Princess.”  This sexist atrocity was committed eight years after the radical feminist Red Stockings Manifesto, and it is reasonable to assume that American feminist were aware of it.  And it could not have helped but fire the radicals up for a full frontal assault on all the vestiges of patriarchal power and privilege, which was mostly exercised by hetero-sexual white males.

It does not take a great deal of imagination to see how the status of women in a male dominated world could fuel them for the fight everywhere.  However women in Muslim dominated societies don’t enjoy the constitutional right to free speech guaranteed to American women.  Hence the rejoicing of young Arab women in France at the banning of the Muslim veil by the French government, which saves young girls from having those oppressive medieval customs imposed on them by their families – is indicative of the way many educated women feel in Islamic countries.

An Arab Girl in France Rejoices at Outlawing of the Veil in France
 Arab Girl in France, celebrating the French decision to Ban the Burkka
She know this law will liberate her Islamic Oppression

This contemptuous attitude toward the anachronistic puritanical custom of veiling women – to prevent them from tempting men – is widespread among educated Arab women I have discussed this question with them in England and the US.  One of the main ways they are showing their absolute contempt and hostility towards these dangerous, often murderous, male methods of repressing female sexuality is by putting their bodies on display in what are considered sexually provocative ways, and fucking black men – behavior that would get them stoned to death in the old country.

In fact I have known several well born Arab women who were living a liberated life in American University communities; and they were all pretty wild.  In fact, one of their black male lovers told me that he was beginning to understand why Arab men were afraid of their sexual prowess and felt the need to suppress it; the other wondered if they “were on a secret mission to assassinate black American men with pussy!”

The Ultimate Taboo in 1865
A racist poster miscegenation
The Fear that Provoked a War

The bloody history that surrounds sexual relations between black men and white women in the US, leaves question that the willingness of white American women to appear on screen in living color and violate the most longstanding taboos about proper behavior for lovely white ladies – by banging a group of burly ebony black men packing a yard of dick -represents a radical transformation of conventional mores on sex, gender and race in American culture and society.  

Charlotte Stokely: Heir to Nina Hartley


A Joyful Banger!
There Seems no End to Willing White Women

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Who happily Bang Black Gangs!
Some Even Become Superstars

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Like Inari Vachs

The old order of white male sexual tyranny has been overturned and white females are seeking liberty in a variety of ways.  There can be but little doubt that the ability of white women to publicly engage in wanton sex with black men on films, without worrying about violent attacks from outraged white boys driven by racist hysteria, represents a newfound freedom for white women in the US; notwithstanding what one may think of the wisdom of morality of their choices.

Yet, after all is said and done about this issue, I tend to agree with the late comic/philosopher/provocateur/ social critic Lenny Bruce on the question of obscenity in movies.  Noting the insatiable American appetite for gunplay in films, even as they condemned pornography, Bruce – who had been arrested on moral charges for his sexually explicit act – observed with deep sense of the absurd: “A penis shoots life…a gun shoots death! “


It is virtually impossible to properly understand the full magnitude of the cultural changes that made possible interracial gangbang films without the viewing it in historical perspective. The hysteria of white southern males regarding sex between black men and white women was on dramatic display in the case of the Scottsboro boys in the 1930’s.

One of the most notoriously miscarriages of justice in any modern democratic country, nine young black men from Alabama were riding the rails as hobos during the depression in search of work.  When the boxcar was opened by during an inspection by police in Scottsboro Alabama two white women were found hovering in a corner on the other side of the car.  Since they were dressed like raggedy men and ugly as sin, the boys had not noticed them.  And in any case the racial etiquette of the south at the time would not have encouraged fraternal relations between white and black men.

  The Scottsboro Boys

Scottsboro boys

Condemned to Death for a Rape they didn’t Commit!

The Sad Sack White Bums they were Convicted of Raping
White girld the Scotts boro boys were accused of rapng
Poor and Powerless they Dared Not Speak the Truth
A Mass Movement Organized by the International Labor Defense Committee
Demonstrations for Scottsboro Boys
This Movement, Organized by the Communist Party, saved their Lives

None of this mattered once the white cops discovered that two white females were riding in a railroad car at night with nine black “bucks.”  The young men were charged with rape and sentenced to death.  The verdict set off an outcry that was heard around the world.

Hence the Emmett Till lynching of 1957 was but one many instances of white male madness on the question of white women and black men enjoying a sexual relationship.  The extent and variety of their pathological obsession on this issue is revealed in the notorious 1957 “Kissing Case” in Monroe North Carolina.   The pertinent facts of the case involve a group of white and black children playing together chasing fireflies and the like.  One of the white kids suggested that this white girl give the black boys a kiss, and she kissed each on the cheek.  And that’s the long and the short of it.

The trouble started when the little girl innocently told her mother about her kissing the black boys.  The parents called the police and told them the boys had raped their daughter.  The boys, 9-yr old james Hanover Thompson and 7 yr-old David Simpson, were arrested and charged with molesting a white girl.  Here is one of the boy’s recollection of the event as an adult.

“They uh….took us down to the bottom of the police station to a cell.  And they had us handcuffed – they started beating us to our body, you know?  They didn’t beat us to the face; where nobody could see it; they just punched all in the stomach, and back and legs.  We thought they was gonna kill us.”

On the other hand,  Louis Medlin, a white Monroe resident charged in 1959 with assaulting and intending to rape a black woman who was eight months pregnant, was acquitted by the court despite extensive evidence of his guilt.  The fact of the acquittal was bad enough, but the argument of the defense so enraged the black community that Robert Williams, a veteran of the US Marine Corps and President of the Monroe NAACP, told black men that they must judge their white transgressors and carry out the sentence on the spot.

Williams called for the black community to arm themselves and he began training them.  This would soon result in an armed clash between blacks and whites that put the Klan to flight and resulted in a federal warrant for Robert Williams on trumped-up charges.  Rob didn’t wait around he skipped town… and then the country; he wasn’t willing to take his chances with the American justice system – a system he had fought to preserve.

Despite the myriad injustices that were the everyday lot of Afro-Americans living under white supremacy, it was the southern attitudes regarding interracial sex that most often led to violence.  However there was an unintended consequence of all the white male hysteria about sex between black men and white women: It made both of them curious about the other, and both became angry about white male privilege.

This curiosity and anger would result in black men and white women tasting this forbidden fruit in the fifties and sixties as undercover lovers, then out in the open as legal barriers fell…and now they are doing it in  movies that seem to be everywhere on the world wide web!  It is important to remember that this is a market-driven phenomenon, a business, which means that these films exist because there is a demand for it.

It was a telling development when one of the first commercial blockbusters in the hardcore porn industry was “Behind the Green Door,” an interracial flick featuring Marilyn Chambers, the effervescent fresh faced blonde model from the Ivory Snow Ads.  Paired with the muscular ebony complexioned Johnny Keyes, her alabaster skin was accented, magnifying the racial differences.

It was a smash hit, Marilyn Chambers became the first porn superstar, and things have never been the same regarding the depiction of explicit sex between white women and black men in erotic movies.   An indication of how dramatically attitudes have changed on this once explosive issue we need only consider the fact that Marilyn Chambers ran for the Vice Presidency in 2004 and 2008 on the tickets of the Libertarian Party.

Marilyn Chambers as VP Candidate

Marylyn Chambers today

Just Another Suburban Politician

This was no picayune development in American popular culture.  In fact, in one of the most dramatic turnarounds in the history of American race relations, the image of the black penis has gone from menace to fetish in these interracial Porn flicks.  In film after film, the generously proportioned black penis is an object of veneration reminiscent of ancient Phallus worship cults.

We see this tendency toward veneration early on in these interracial porn scenes, such as in the early pairing of Ray victory and Nina Hartley.  The way in which she holds his generously proportioned ebony member in her alabaster hands, adores it with voracious stares…before sucking on it as if she were suckling on the tree of life.

If we consider the long history of employing social ostracism, extra-legal mob violence,  and the coercive power of the state to prevent black men and white women from having sex, it is hard to overstate the radical nature of this development.  And the symbolic significance of the gangbang as a rejection of the historic status of the “White Lady,” a reverential status in American society bestowed upon them by white males, for the despised role of a “nigger lovin slut” obsessed with BBC – Big Black Cock in the parlance of porn – is virtually impossible to comprehend…especially by people who grew up after the demise of legal segregation in America.

 The Ivory Snow Girl
Marylyn Chambers
 She shocked the Nation!

Open adulation, coupled with unabashed penis envy, is most apparent in the cuckold films, where white men get off watching their wives being sexually ravaged by black men.  There is a whole genre of these films which are advertised as home-made amateur films shot by the husband as his wife cavorts with her black bangers.  And given the abundance of advertisements from white couples on the internet seeking young hung black men willing to gangbang a white wife while her husband watches, one is not certain if these films are a case of life imitating art, or art imitating real life!

There are myriad films where the white husband’s puny penis is compared with some king-sized black penis while he is being excoriated for his shortcomings by his wife.  But the ultimate celebration of the black penis is in the gangbang movies. Here the white females seem unable to get enough, and after she wears them all out, it is regarded as proof of superior female prowess for many of the women who watch these movies.

More importantly however, the freedom to make such movies represents the liberation of these women, and the legions that experience it vicariously by watching, from the restrictions imposed on women by the role of “Lady.”   This is a recurrent theme in the commentary of the early feminist porn stars, who were all highly intelligent women that hailed from a wide variety of backgrounds.

While their choices may appear bizarre to most people, everybody’s got their own idea of personal freedom…and there are many roads to get there. In a free society adults ought to be free to do what they please so long as they are not injuring others.  But, of course, when speaking of controversial cultural products what constitutes “injury” is a matter in dispute. It is a subjective judgment determined by one’s value system.  Hence I shall confine my determination of “injury” to its legal definition.

Given the pervasiveness of pornography on the internet and the number of viewers it attracts, there can be no question that it has become an important influence on American culture in sexual matters.   In an article titled, How Much Porn Does the Internet Hold, “journalist Adam Tarantola tells us:

The world’s top porn sites—XVideos, LiveJasmin, YouPorn, Tube8, Pornhub—are on par with Google and Facebook. XVideos alone averages 4.4 billion page views per month, double what Reddit pulls over the same time and triple what CNN can do. And it’s not just the amount of traffic that these sites generate, it’s the length of individual visits as well. Most sites, Gizmodo included, average three to six minutes per visit. Porn sites average five times that—15-20 minutes per visit.

In terms of actual data usage, porn sites are behemoths. Most sites average 50 – 200 TB of material, which individually really isn’t all that much. But during peak times, when the site’s loading image galleries, downloading content and streaming video, its data usage soars.”  Then he cites statistics from Extreme Tech, who monitor the internet, and according to whom:

“You Porn hosts  over 100TB of porn”, and serves “over 100 million” page views per day. All told, this equates to an average of 950 terabytes of data transfer per day, almost all of which is streaming video. This is around 28 petabytes per month, which means our 29PB estimate for X videos is on the low side; it probably serves 35 to 40PB per month.  It gets better! At peak time, You Porn serves 4000 pages per second, equating to burst traffic in the region of 100 gigabytes per second, or 800Gbps. This is equivalent to transferring more than 10 dual-layer DVDs every second.”

Considering the world wide audience for their sexually explicit videos posted on the internet, it would be folly to deny that the decision of white women – who are often pretty and intelligent – to appear in them does not represent a profound cultural statement.  And I have no doubt that the roots of this rebellion of white women against white male defined roles regarding gender and race are rooted in the pro-sex radical feminist thought of an earlier generation.

I met several of these women and interacted with them off and on over a 20 year span from the mid-1960’s to the middle of the 80’s.  Those who made the greatest impression on me with their radical feminist ideas were Ti Grace Atkinson, Annie Sprinkle, Veronica Vera and the brilliant Australian feminist intellectual Germaine Greer, author of the best-selling book “The Female Eunuch.”

I have said little of Greer, since she is Australian, and it is beyond the scope of this essay to try and cover every important feminist thinker whose contribution to the redefinition of sex and gender roles is reflected in the revolt against white Ladyship.   Yet this essay would be incomplete without reference to her.

A highly educated albeit mercurial thinker, Greer is said to have challenged the father of Rock Guitar, Jimi Hendrix, to an arm wrestling match and won. She has described herself as an anarchist with Marxist leanings…which explains why her analysis of the place of women in society is so confusing to her intended audience, as well as other interested readers who have grappled with “The Female Eunuch.” 

However her attacks on marriage, the family, chastity, elegance, high heels, and “femininity” itself – along with her declaration that the “Buck Negro” is the most sexually potent male on earth, and her admonition to her white middle class sisters to fuck anybody they want – Dr. Greer, a Shakespeare scholar, must take some of the credit, or bear the blame depending upon your perspective, for the wholesale abandonment of all the perceived virtues that attend respectable ladies.  Now, in her dotage, she apparently regrets it.

Germaine Greer
Germaine Greer
Whassup?  Looks like a model right here

As I weigh the evidence, it appears that the interracial gangbang featuring a white woman and a posse of well-endowed black males is as much about money and personal empowerment as sexual pleasure. Financial independence and empowerment are two of the enduring issues of the women’s movement harking back to 19th century.

For Victoria Woodhull these aspirations converged with the desire for sexual freedom among the free thinking radicals.  She not only was a spiritual leader who preached “free love” and declared it more honorable to be a whore than a wife, but she established the first female owned investment bank with a clientele of Madams who ran the country’s many whorehouses and their “working girls,”   Vicky was also the first woman bold enough to run for the US Presidency, with black Frederick Douglass, who was rumored to be her undercover lover – as Vice President.

My objective in this essay is to ponder the cultural significance of the increasingly popular genre of hardcore porn featuring the interracial gangbang, a sexual free for all involving a single white woman with five to seven hung young black males.  And they perform every sexual act they can think of. Given the history of sex between black men and white women – which for most of the history of the USA was a life and death matter- this must mean something of real importance.

What, one wonders, is the meaning of the “cuckold” movies that purport to be home movies filmed by the husbands as their wives fuck a platoon of black hung like horses, or the flicks where the “husband” cleans the semen of black men from the vagina’s of their wives with their tongues?  One does not need to be an expert in human psychology to recognize the symbolic destruction of the prerogatives of white patriarchy in these acts.

Just as it is obvious that the growing genre of “interracial bondage gang bangs” represent a perverse expression of total freedom for the white women who engage in them.  This freedom is emphasized in the interviews conducted with the women who appear in the videos before the shoot, in which it is made clear that this is role play and the women are always in charge.  They ask them what kinds of things they have fantasized about, and what they will or won’t do.

Then they give them a code word and gesture to use if the role playing became too rough.  None of them ever stop the action in the films I studied, although the action gets very wild.   Whatever the motives for the production of these films, whether cultural or commercial, and I have little doubt that financial imperatives were paramount, the willful participation of these well educated eloquent white women – no dem and doze “Dumb Dora” types here – represents a conscious decision to violate every taboo associated with the “White Lady.”

I have spent little effort on explicating to motives of the men who appear in this flicks.  that’s because the motives of males are far less complicated.  While some are no doubt turned on at the chance to humiliate white males by demonstrating their sexual prowess – the historical revenge motive – most are motivated  by pussy and money.  Revenge, pussy and money have moved men to treachery and greatness throughout history; in all times and places.  I believe there is nothing deeper than that going on with the gang bangers in these movies; as near as I can tell these dudes just seem to be banging white boxes for bucks and having a ball!

An Act of Freedom?
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Scene from a Bondage Gang Bang

Although I would not want any woman I care about to be involved in the porn business, I have taken no moral position on the performers in porn movies or the genre itself.   The best that can be said, if one wanted to be completely fair and objective, is some people’s vices are other folks virtues….Let those who are without sin cast the first stone.

                                                    Chocolate Phallus Worship…


…Or liberating Ritual?


A Nordic Nazi Wet Dream Genuflecting before black phalluses 


Click on link to see Kagney Lynn Carter in a Gang Bang.  Kagney has confessed in interviews that she has “Jungle Fever,” meaning that she is addicted to sex with black men.  Since she is the ideal blond beauty, and therefore this represents a special insult to white supremacists.  Both her disregard for the feelings of white male patriarchs and her freedom to do this are indications of a paradigm shift in race relations in the US.

Note: Videos featuring all these women in Gang Gangs can be found online.
Playthell G. Benjamin

Harlem, New York 

November 2013