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April Fools?

Posted in On Donald Trump, On Foreign Affairs, On War and Peace in the Mid East!, Uncategorized with tags , on April 7, 2017 by playthell

Dumb and Dumber

Trump Strikes Syria!

“All Motion is Not Progress” observed Mao Tse Tung, a revolutionary philosopher and leader of the great Chinese Revolution.  Americans who are applauding the strike on Syria with 59 Cruise missiles, at a cost of nearly 30 million dollars for the missiles alone, should take a pause and consider the implications of this action by our government.  The paramount questions that begs an answer is: what is the strategic objective of US policy in Syria, and what role does this strike play in achieving that goal?

Based upon the public pronouncements of Donald Trump, who ordered the strike, and his surrogates the answers to these questions are elusive.  This is because we have a President for whom the complexities of international relations are at best a mystery, as is the art and science of governing in general.  Hence for years he has been an ardent opponent of the US taking any action against the Assad government.  The comments of this tweeting twit on Twitter are prolific on this question.

Yet when a chemical weapon was dropped on a group of Syrian civilians, some reports claim in was the deadly Sarin gas, Trump was quick to blame it on President Obama’s weakness in failing to act in 2013, when somebody launched a gas attack in Syria. The criticism of President Obama’s failure to take military action is based on the fact that he had drawn a “Red Line” in the sand that would prompt an American military response if Assad crossed it.

However, President Obama’s reluctance to act militarily in this case was based on several factors: Uncertainty as to who employed the gas; the fact that he had pledged to voters that he would end America’s protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and keep us out of new wars in the Middle-East, and failure of the US Congress to authorize a military attack on Syria which he requested.  Many people who voted for Obama did so based upon his promise of pursuing peace, I know I did.

Hence in my view, President Obama’s management of the Syrian situation displayed Solomonic wisdom. Furthermore, I would argue that this was characteristic of his approach to foreign policy in a turbulent time that witnessed the revolutionary outburst of mass movements collectively called the “Arab Spring,” the conflict in the Ukraine which could have thrown us into a military conflict with a nuclear armed Russia, and the rise of the militant Islamic Caliphate called ISIS, which arose from the ashes of the misbegotten US attack on Iraq.  How fortunate we would be if only Trump were only half as wise.

All objective observers of US foreign policy during the Obama administration agree that his actions were well thought out and based on a strategic vision of international relations; he sought to build effective alliances with concerned parties in troubled areas of the world, and acted deliberately not impulsively.   None of this is true of Donald Trump.  He has no strategic vision because he does not appear to have ever thought deeply about anything beyond his next real estate or branding deal.  His abdominal ignorance of the problems that he must now address is exemplified by his recent observation “Nobody knew that health care could be so complicated,” and his sudden discovery that there are atrocities being committed against children in Syria.

Trump’s ignorance and indifference to the enormity and complexity of the Syrian conflict was exemplified in the policy statement by his Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson: “The fate of President Assad will be determined by the Syrian people.”  To begin with, this was a repudiation of the Obama doctrine that the pre-condition for a permanent settlement which could bring peace to Syria was the removal of Assad from office. Tillerson’s announcement was no fluke; it was a restatement of a long-held belief of his boss, whose views on the matter are widely documented in the public record.

Hence Trump’s attempt to blame President Obama for the recent gas attack is the acme of hypocrisy! It is the pronouncement of a shameless charlatan and pathological liar. At the time, while others condemned Obama for his restraint in Syria, “The Donald” praised it!   His attempt to cast blame on Obama now is a transparent attempt to shift the blame from his ill-conceived policy of support for Assad expressed by Tillerson: Which is the real cause of the chemical attack. Since both Trump and Tillerson are novices at politics and foreign affairs, they failed to recognize that their statement was viewed by Assad as a green light to do whatever he wanted!

Viewed from this perspective, Trump’s attack on Syria must be seen as a smoke screen designed to deflect his responsibility for the horrendous gas attack on Syrian civilians; which the whole world viewed with stunned horror.  Hence, like the clueless scatter brain that he is, Trump acted on impulse and attacked Syria.  This is not part of any strategic plan because he has none.  This is verified by the fact that just a few days ago he had no problem with Assad’s leadership – as Tillerson’s policy statement nad Trump’s long record of support for the Syrian butcher will testify.

All observable evidence suggest that Trump gave no more thought to this assault on a sovereign country – with no attempt to get the support of the United Nations, the Arab League, the US Congress, or any of the regional powers – than his pre-dawn Twitter attacks.  It is an erratic, irrational, temper tantrum with no thought about its consequences.  And as the dawn of a new day approaches – Alas, I am writing this in the wee hours because the gravitas of the questions raised by this latest American military assault invades my dreams and destroys any attempt to sleep – we can only wonder what new dramas it will bring.

Just as when George W. Bush invaded Iraq with the spectacular bombing spree labeled “Shock and Awe,” millions of Americans are applauding this attack on Syria by American military forces.  I titled my essay on Bush’s attack “March Madness,” and I warned of its unintended consequences;which verily came to pass pretty much as I predicted.  I am titling this essay “April Fools?”  The title reflects my contention that this strike is not well thought out and the unintended consequences could prove disastrous.

Aside from the fact that we might have injured or killed some Russian military personnel, which would throw us into a crisis with a nuclear armed Russia that can reduce every city in the United States to a pile of radio-active rubble in a half hour from now, this attack on Syria is as illegal under international law as was the invasion of Iraq.  Yet after all is said and done, the most alarming thing about this attack is the real possibility that Trump launched it to improve his popularity in the opinion polls, where his approval rating is at a historic low.

As cynical as this sounds, when we consider the fact that Trump closed America’s doors to the children of war torn Syria seeking refuge in America, despite pictures every bit as horrible as those from the gassing, a thoughtful person cannot help but view his present concern for their welfare with a jaundiced eye, a cynical attempt to benefit from their tragedy.  As depraved as this seems, it is typical behavior for a “con man” with “no moral center;” which is how Donald J. Trump was routinely described by his fellow Republicans…..before he won the election, moved into the Oval Office, and promised to make all their right-wing dreams come true.

One of the most troubling questions raised by this attack is, if Trump can so quickly turn on a Head of State whom he has supported for years, what effect will this have on other nations at whom Trump has directed a steady stream of threats and invective such as North Korea, Iran and even China.

As I write the Chinese leader is visiting with Trump at his palatial estate in Florida, where he spends almost as much time as he spends in Washington, at great expense to American tax payers.  Although his home town, New York City, is much closer: he dare not come here.   In fact, Trump is so dispised in this city he may never be able to come home again!  It will be interesting to hear what Chinese President, Xi Jinpin, has to say about the attack on Syria.  Being a disciplined political actor skilled at the art of diplomacy I suspect his remarks will be restrained, respectful of the norms that mediate relations between nations.

Xi Jinping is here on a mission to improve relations with the US, China’s main trading partner.  As the leader of a nation with 20% of the world’s population, the Chinese are very careful to avoid military conflicts despite their formidable armed forces.  It is a policy that serves them well; it has allowed them to modernize at a rapid pace and grow the second largest economy in the world, which is predicted to surpass the US in GDP by 2050.

The paramount principle that guides Chinese foreign policy is non-interference in the affairs of other sovereign countries.  And they stick to this policy without significant deviation.  They have the largest army in the world but no foreign bases or troop deployments.  On the other hand, the US, with a fraction of China’s population have bases and soldiers all over the world and are fighting in multiple wars that seem unending.

The amount of blood and treasure we expend on foreign military adventures – along with the failure of the plutocrats to pay their fair share of taxes – is the principal reason why we cannot afford to rebuild our aging crumbling infrastructure, which is essential to our prosperity.  The Chinese see this all to clearly, and they are determined not to follow our example of meddling in everyone’s affairs as if the Gods gave America a mandate to rule the world.

This is why I am convinced that the Chinese will not play the role of disciplining North Korea for developing a nuclear weapons program that the US has assigned them. And given the US attack on Syria, the North Koreans are probably going on a war footing for real, imperiling the future of South Korea, which would be devastated if a war broke out on the Korean peninsula.

However listening to the pundits and the politicians on both sides of the aisle, as they raise their voices in something resembling victory cheers, I dispair for the prospects of peace.  The danger of perpetual war is real and is reflected in the comment of that old warmongering chameleon John McCain: “This is not the beginning of the end….but the end of the beginning.”  

History will judge Trump and his belicose confederates with unrelenting candor…and their deadly devious deeds will be duly noted.  But, alas, dealing with the unintended consequences of the Twittering Twit’s impulsive bombing of Syria, remains the burden of all Americans at this moment.

It’s On!

The US War on Syria has begun!

Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard Dissents

Tellin it like it is!

There is an avalanche of opinions now being expressed on Trump’s attack on Syria, but none is more compelling than that of Congresswonam Tulsi Gabbard, a Democratic Representative from Hawaii.   Congresswoman Gabbard’s remarks are especially important because she is a former combat officer from the Afghan war,  Her experience in combat there has made he a passionate non-interventionists who is hostile to “Chicken Hawks” who promote wars for other’s to fight.  Like Donnie Trump . a notorious Vietnam era draft dodger, who avoided the war not for principled philosophical or religious reasons. but because he was a rich, entitled, cowardly party boy.  The great columnist and native New Yorker, who also hailed from Queens like Donnie, had this to say of his Homie: “Trump is a fake tough guy who couldn’t fight his way out of an empty lot!!!”
Athough celebrated corporate pudits such as Thomas Friedman, the three time Pulitzer Prize winning Foreign Affairs columnist at the New York Times, Joined by David Ignacious and Bob Woodward of the Washington Post, are gushing over the reckless bravado of Donald Trump,  I remain highly skeptical about the mission’s motive, utility and consequences.
Yet because he is such a pompous know-it-all the contrarian in my soul cannot resist pointing out that Tommy Friedman was grieveously mistaken about the Iraq War; he went so far off the beam in supporting Bush’s war of choice with spurious ahistorical arguments that he was forced to write a column apologizng to his readers for having led them astray  by “not asking the right questions.”  On the other hand my essay, written on the eve of the invasion, has withstood the test of time and been confirmed by history.   Titled “The Iraq Attack: Bush’s March of Folly,” it reads as if it were written by Nostradamus, and can be read on this site under the heading “The Prophetic Commentary on Iraq.”
What Friedman and other “major” corporate  mooks of both of both political pursuasions had to say on that subject is analyzed in my essay “How the Iraq War Was Hatched in a Think Tank.”   The fun part of this essay is when their views about the Iraq War is compared to mine!   Alas, what these same pundits had  to say on Trump’s bombing of Syria last night sounds like pompous American exceptionalist bullshit when compared to what  Tulsi Gabbad had this to say about the fake President’s military adventure:
 “It angers and saddens me that President Trump has taken the advice of war hawks and escalated our illegal regime change war to overthrow the Syrian government. This escalation is short-sighted and will lead to more dead civilians, more refugees, the strengthening of al-Qaeda and other terrorists, and a possible nuclear war between the United States and Russia.
This Administration has acted recklessly without care or consideration of the dire consequences of the United States’ attack on Syria without waiting for the collection of evidence from the scene of the chemical poisoning. If President Assad is indeed guilty of this horrible chemical attack on innocent civilians, I will be the first to call for his prosecution and execution by the International Criminal Court. However, because of our attack on Syria, this investigation may now not even be possible. And without such evidence, a successful prosecution will be much harder.”
A Decorated Combat Officer

For more on this remarkable woman search her name on this site.
Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
April 7, 2017



In the Sorceress Workshop

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on December 25, 2015 by playthell

In the Wizards Workshop

Marvelous Conjurations in Clay

 Revealing the Secret Beauty Of Clay

A couple of years ago I thought of ceramics as tiles – floors, walls and ceilings – and ceramic artists were the marvelous Italian tile men that did the fabulous works in fine homes and commercial buildings in New York City – of which I had seen many during my forays into the construction industry as a member of the Society of Master Painters, Local 18 District Council 37 of the Brotherhood of Painters, Plasterers and Allied Trades.

Despite my acknowledged skill as a writer I often found myself laboring alongside my Blue Collar brethren after writing something that pissed an editor or publisher off and abruptly caused a parting of the ways.  Since I thought virtually all of them were intellectual lightweights I was usually beating them down whenever fate would have us cross swords – Alas, I regard intellectual polemics as a blood sport and neither ask, nor give, any quarter.

As a result we often came to a parting of the ways and I returned to the construction business, where I got to see the greatest artisans in the world lay tile in fantastic color coded patterns, especially the Italians, who seemed to have passed their techniques down from Roman times.  I thought I had witnessed the best of the achievement of ceramicists….and then I discovered Ceramic Sculpture!  It was a revelation when I first saw the works of Susannah Israel, an internationally renowned ceramic Sculptor and Professor of Sculpture.

I would later learn that she was part of a venerable tradition of mud magicians who could fashion works of fine art from clay.   This was all the more surprising since all of the sculptors that I knew in New York were into bronze and used clay only as a throwaway material employed to create models for the molds that produced the bronze sculptures.  The works of Susannah and her colleague Michelle Gregor first captured my imagination and I composed multi-media photo essays on their works

Under the careful direction of Professor Israel, the Resident Artist Director of the budding Oakland Museum of Ceramics – which was the original vision of her late husband Bill Lassell, who sought to provide a permanent home for the many works of Susannah and her colleaguesI have been carefully documenting these works of art for a forthcoming multi-volume photo essay on the artists and their works.  Since I find the fashioning of fine art from mud a splendid alchemy indeed, this has been a real labor of love.  Here are some selected photographs of Susannah’s work from my forthcoming book “Molding Marvels from Clay.” Some of them will be displayed in a show here in New York this winter; the invitation has been extended to me and accepted.  I will announce the time and place as soon as a firm date has been agreed upon.  This is a Christmas card for art lovers designed to make your spirit dance!


In the Wizard's Workshop III


Poseidon’s Daughter

Posieden's Daughter Edit

A Freshly Fired Beauty…..

Posieden's Daughter II

Still in the Kiln
The Marvel is….

Posieden's Horses rear view

….. Susannah Conjures the horse’s form and spirit from all perspectives

The Royals!

Royals Standing Tall

Standing Head and Shoulders above
Above the Common Lot
Royals Exacting Tribute
Their Nobility…..
Is Reflected….
Royals Presiding over their subjects
In their Regal Bearing
Wisdom and Confidence is Projected
Royals Standing Tall
In their faces and body language
An Enchanted Place where Natural and Supernatural Creatures….

The Soul Patrol III

Commune with one Another
All Manner of Visual Alchemy is Conjured Here
Fire Horse I
Even Multi-Media Marvels
Like Horses flying through Fire Clouds

Fire Horse II

Stuff that Messes wit yo Mind!
Through Imaginative  Multi-Media Minipulations….

Mimo's horde

We can make Clay horses flee New Guinea Ghosts!
Or Fly through Silver Clouds
First Choice
Like Mythic Apparitions
Then Descend to Earth under the Omnipotent Gaze of Ceramic Idols
Descending to Earth
Landing with elegance of movement and figure
Sometimes they fly in the window to escape the storms
Anything can happen in the Sorcerer’s Workshop
They Even Run through Cosmic Fires
And Emerge Magically Unscathed!
Sometimes they just Cavort About
 First choice
 Racing through an enchanted Forest
The Intrepid Art Collector
Posieden's Daughter and Suitor
Will discover many rare treasures 
At the Oakland Museum of Ceramics!
 At the Oakland Museum of Ceramics
A Tent of Aesthetic Miracles!

Edit I

Where endless art treasures are fashioned from clay!
Even the Light is Magical 
Light and Shadows A Place where Light and Shadows play Hide and Seek
 Kristopher Mandell: The Sorceress’ Apprentice

The Sorceror's Apprentice

A budding Ceramic Artist
The Sorceress!

The Wizard V

Sculptor Susannah Israel Chillin in a Contemplative Mood
Or Planning her Next Magic Show

First Choice 

Bill Lassell
Bill Lassell
The Visionary who Conceived the Oakland Museum of Ceramics
PhotographerPlaythell Benjamin
Photographed by Susannah Israel


Playthell George Benjamin
Harlem, New York
Christmas Morning 2015

US Employing Wrong Strategy Against ISIS

Posted in On Foreign Affairs, On War and Peace in the Mid East!, Uncategorized with tags , , on September 6, 2015 by playthell
ISIS Leader Caliph Ibrahim: The Sword of Allah

On Repeating the Mistakes of History

American foreign policy and diplomacy seems to have lost its way. While we spend thousands of hours in league with other nations negotiating a treaty to prevent Iran from acquiring a single primitive atomic bomb – which the US Senate is threatening to reject – a US led NATO is engaging in activities in Eastern Europe that could accidently lead to a nuclear war that would destroy all life on this planet in an hour!  And our search for an effective strategy against ISIS, a clear and present menace to much of the world, has proved an exercise in futility characterized by a series of fool’s errands alas.  In fact, all the evidence suggests that US policy makers have learned nothing from the disastrous adventure in Iraq under George Bush.

While there are myriad lessons to be learned from that catastrophe, I believe the most important is to understand that the US invasion of Iraq as a response to Al Qaeda, the perpetrator of the 9/11 attack on the US, was a cold and cynical deception.   It was clear to all serious students of politics in the Islamic world that Iraq had no relationship to al Qaeda; yet Dirty Dick Cheney, Donny Rumsfeld and their henchmen among the policy wonks like Dr. Paul Wolfowitz argued that their objective was to prevent Al Qaeda from obtaining weapons of mass destruction.  Hence these incompetent ideologues invaded Iraq, when subsequent events have shown that the wisest course of action for US policy would have been to form a military alliance with Sadam Hussein against Osama bin Ladin.  This would have been a piece of cake!

In Sadam we would have found a wise, willing and ruthless ally; exactly what we needed to defeat the Jihadists in al Qaeda.  He was wise because no one had been more effective in suppressing Muslim fundamentalist militants i.e. “Jihadists” than the secular military strongmen of the Islamic world.   Abdel Gamel Nasser of Egypt, and his successors Anwar Sadat (who was assassinated by a Muslim fanatic) and Honsi  Mubarak.  Mummar Quadafi of Lybia; General Musharif in Pakistan, and Sadam Hussein in Iraq were all cut from the same mold as anti-Jihadist strongmen.

Sadam and al Qaeda were natural enemies because according to the theology of al Qaeda all Arab heads of secular states are apostates.  And the penalty for apostasy is death!    The only legitimate governments are those based on Sharia Law in their view.  Hence if al Qaeda came to power in Iraq Sadam was a dead man. Thus it was either madness, or a grand deception, guided by the advice of right-wing Republican policy wonks in The Project for a New American Century, that led George Bush to invade Iraq in response to an attack by Jihadists from Egypt and Saudi Arabia, America’s closest allies in the Middle-East.  (See: “How the Iraq War was Hatched in a Think Tank” on this blog)  It would be like us getting attacked by Canadian terrorists and invading Mexico in retaliation.  As silly as it sounds, the decision to invade Iraq was not a jot or tittle smarter.

Now we are facing a far more deadly Jihadist enemy that al Qaeda, The Islamic State of Iraq, Syria and the Levant aka ISIL or ISIS.  Whereas al Qaeda is a stateless organization consisting of loosely coordinated cells spread around the world that can be activated to carry out clandestine surprise attacks, ISIL is an actual 21st century Islamic Caliphate with a government structure that is divided into civilian and military departments, a tax collection system and a sizable territorial base that is divided into provinces.  But most of all it is a base for revolutionary Islamic forces who ae pledged to cleanse the Islamic world of apostates and then spread the law of Muhammad to the entire world.

Ready to die for Islam…..
ISIS Militants II
And Kill Too!

ISIS Burns Pilot

Even Committ Mass Murders….

ISIS Mass Killings

In the Name of God!

As with al Qaeda, ISIS is first of all concerned with its enemies in the Muslim world, those who refuse to accept their version of Islam as the one true doctrine.  The question of what sacred edicts and scripture actually mean in the real world has been the cause of much bloodshed throughout history – especially among the Semitic monotheists i.e. Christians, Muslims and Jews – but with ISIS it has become a matter of life and death as it was in the medieval world.  And to make matters even more horrifying they have greatly expanded the definition as to which acts qualify as apostasy.

Originally apostasy had to do with denying the divine mission of the Prophet Muhammad or rejecting his teachings, but under ISIS’s theology it can range from selling alcohol and shaving your beard, to voting for a Muslim candidate in an election and being s Shite.  All Shiites are considered Apostates because they innovated on the original teachings of the prophets such as praying at the gravesides of departed Imams, and the public self-flagellation rituals that are central to Shiite religious practice.  For these eighteen hundred year old theological disputes Caliph Ibrahim, the absolute ruler of ISIS who holds a PhD in Sharia Law, thinks all Shiites should be put to the sword.  Hence it is perfectly acceptable to blow up their Mosques and murder them where the practice their apostasy!

Who could make better allies against ISIS than Iran: the greatest nation of Shiites in the world?  Try as I might I can conjure no rival to the Shiite Persians as allies against the Sunni Jihadists.   An August 27 article by Rick Francona – a former air-force intelligence officer and CIA operative stationed in Iraq during the Iraqi invasion of Iran, who now works as a military analyst for CNN – titled “Is your Government lying to you about ISIS?” supplies further evidence in support of my position.  After questioning “the rosy portrayal” of American successes against ISIS forces “coming out of the pentagon,” assuring us that ISIS forces are on the defensive, Col Francona tells us:

I remember the reports of the “success” of the Iraqi Army in ejecting ISIS from the city of Tikrit, when most of the actual fighting was done by Iranian-trained and led Shi’a militias. As the Pentagon assured us that ISIS was now contained, the Islamists mounted a successful assault on the city of al-Ramadi, the capital of al-Anbar province, located on the Euphrates River just 65 miles from Baghdad – all the while under attack from the air. This hardly fits the definition of ‘on the defensive’”

From all observable signs and measurable activities the US is not winning the war against ISIS; they are growing more powerful as I write alas.  And the Republicans are sure to attempt to block any workable strategy.  They are to blinded by ideology, racism and Iranophobia that they propose absurd self-defeating policies and oppose strategies that could lead to success.  It would be crazy to arm the so-called “Free Syrian Army” because if we employ history as our guide it is easy to predict that those arms will end up in the hands of ISIS.

However if victory is the goal of US policy against ISIS an alliance with Iran will insure it!  President Obama’s looming success on the nuclear treaty with Iran will avert the probability of war just now,  but the Republican’s show no signs of concede defeat on Iran policy; the Coker-Cardin bill , which attempts to bar President Obama from waiving the sanctions that were imposed by Congress is their latest effort.  But because this legislation, pretentiously titled “the Iran Nuclear Agreement Act of 2015,” would violate the terms of the treaty, it has no real chance of becoming law unless the Republicans hold the Congress and elect a Republican president in 2016.

However, I believe that running on a platform of repealing the treaty and starting a war with Iran may help win the Republican primary, it will prove a milestone around the necks of Republican candidates that could well sink the Grand Obstructionist Party in the general election.  And that would be a good thing for America….and the world.


Playthell G. Benjamin

On the Road in Cali

September 6, 2015

Reflections on Abraham Lincoln and Slavery

Posted in Uncategorized on January 5, 2015 by playthell


Rappin with Robert Allen Jones, Janie Jones and Miss Barbra 002 The First Baptist Church of St. Augustine Florida

 A New Year’s Remembrance circa 2015

When I was a boy the black churches in Florida used to hold a “Watchman” service every New Year’s Eve. As I remember it we would gather in First Baptist Church around ten o’clock, and there would be singing and sermons and communal prayers. At some point the electric lights would be turned off and we would sit by candle light as the preacher would call out “Watchman what time it is!” And the Watchman would reply “It’s eleven o’clock” and so on at various intervals growing shorter as we got round bout midnight until the New Year dawned and the congregation rejoiced in jubilation. Then we would enjoy a delicious repast prepared by the sisters in the basement of the church.

Held in the shadow of the old slave market, whose iron and stone structure was still standing a few blocks away just as it was during ante-bellum times, the Watchman ceremony had real meaning to the people at First Baptist. For unlike today, when young black people talk so glibly about how “nothing has changed” and a New York Times sports writer who ought to know better titles his book about rich black professional athletes “Forty Million Dollar Slaves,” there were still people in our community who had been been born into slavery and they and their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren were among those huddled in the church waiting for the clock to strike midnight.

The Old Slave Market in Downtown St. Augustine

My Trip to florida with Makeda ETC 509

We viewed this as a sobering symbol of how far we had come

 I have no doubt that if these people who carried the memories of slavery in their hearts and minds could hear 21st century Afro-Americans, living in a time when a black family occupies the White House and many other black people doing everything they are good enough to do, comparing their problems to those of slaves they would surely have regarded such words as the mutterings of fools or a scandalous attempt to mock their ordeal in the hell of American slavery – one of the worse systems of human bondage ever devised by the minds of evil men. Harriet Tubman said it was “worse than hell” and Frederick Douglass told a white audience “One minute” as an American slave “was worse than centuries of that which your forefathers arose in armed revolt against.” Hence to anybody that actually experienced slavery – like my Aunts Gussie and Sally, who showed me the lash marks from the overseer’s whip – the casual equations of their conditions with the problems faced by present day Afro-Americans would be viewed as blasphemy.

They would also have looked upon the denigration of Abraham Lincoln’s role in ending their bondage and bringing about the Day of Jubilee, when the Emancipation Proclamation became law, as sacrilegious. The reverence with which President Lincoln was held by Afro-Americans in St. Augustine Florida is self-evident in the name they chose for their community, the oldest in the nation, which before the Civil War was known as “Little Africa,” but after Emancipation was renamed “Lincolnville.” Even Frederick Douglass – who famously spoke in the city after the Civil War put an end to slavery – and was quite candid in his criticism of Lincoln, had this to say about the assassinated president at the Washington dedication of the statue by Thomas Ball known as the “Freedman’s Memorial,” on April 14, 1876:

“We are here in the District of Columbia, here in the city of Washington, the most luminous point of American territory; a city recently transformed and made beautiful in its body and in its spirit; we are here in the place where the ablest and best men of the country are sent to devise the policy, enact the laws, and shape the destiny of the Republic; we are here, with the stately pillars and majestic dome of the Capitol of the nation looking down upon us; we are here, with the broad earth freshly adorned with the foliage and flowers of spring for our church, and all races, colors, and conditions of men for our congregation — in a word, we are here to express, as best we may, by appropriate forms and ceremonies, our grateful sense of the vast, high, and preeminent services rendered to ourselves, to our race, to our country, and to the whole world by Abraham Lincoln.”

Douglass would go on to say: “we, the colored people, newly emancipated and rejoicing in our blood-bought freedom, near the close of the first century in the life of this Republic, have now and here unveiled, set apart, and dedicated a monument of enduring granite and bronze, in every line, feature, and figure of which the men of this generation may read, and those of aftercoming generations may read, something of the exalted character and great works of Abraham Lincoln, the first martyr President of the United States.”

The Freedman’s Memorial

Freedman's Memorial II

A Commemoration by Former Slaves

Having begun by unambiguously enumerating Lincoln’s virtues, Douglass, the most incisive and thoughtful commentator on the great issues of his time, understood that in order to learn from history one had to first tell it like it was. Hence he made no attempt to mask Lincoln’s shortcomings. He told the august gathering:

We fully comprehend the relation of Abraham Lincoln both to ourselves and to the white people of the United States. Truth is proper and beautiful at all times and in all places, and it is never more proper and beautiful in any case than when speaking of a great public man whose example is likely to be commended for honor and imitation long after his departure to the solemn shades, the silent continents of eternity. It must be admitted, truth compels me to admit, even here in the presence of the monument we have erected to his memory, Abraham Lincoln was not, in the fullest sense of the word, either our man or our model. In his interests, in his associations, in his habits of thought, and in his prejudices, he was a white man.

He was preeminently the white man’s President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men. He was ready and willing at any time during the first years of his administration to deny, postpone, and sacrifice the rights of humanity in the colored people to promote the welfare of the white people of this country. In all his education and feeling he was an American of the Americans. He came into the Presidential chair upon one principle alone, namely, opposition to the extension of slavery.

His arguments in furtherance of this policy had their motive and mainspring in his patriotic devotion to the interests of his own race. To protect, defend, and perpetuate slavery in the states where it existed Abraham Lincoln was not less ready than any other President to draw the sword of the nation. He was ready to execute all the supposed guarantees of the United States Constitution in favor of the slave system anywhere inside the slave states. He was willing to pursue, recapture, and send back the fugitive slave to his master, and to suppress a slave rising for liberty, though his guilty master were already in arms against the Government.

The race to which we belong were not the special objects of his consideration. Knowing this, I concede to you, my white fellow-citizens, a pre-eminence in this worship at once full and supreme. First, midst, and last, you and yours were the objects of his deepest affection and his most earnest solicitude. You are the children of Abraham Lincoln. We are at best only his step-children; children by adoption, children by forces of circumstances and necessity.”

Frederick Douglass

Frederick douglass III

The Wisest Voice in the Nation

Then with his characteristic eloquence and unfailing evenhanded approach to argument, he noted:

“When, therefore, it shall be asked what we have to do with the memory of Abraham Lincoln, or what Abraham Lincoln had to do with us, the answer is ready, full, and complete. Though he loved Caesar less than Rome, though the Union was more to him than our freedom or our future, under his wise and beneficent rule we saw ourselves gradually lifted from the depths of slavery to the heights of liberty and manhood; under his wise and beneficent rule, and by measures approved and vigorously pressed by him, we saw that the handwriting of ages, in the form of prejudice and proscription, was rapidly fading away from the face of our whole country; under his rule, and in due time, about as soon after all as the country could tolerate the strange spectacle, we saw our brave sons and brothers laying off the rags of bondage, and being clothed all over in the blue uniforms of the soldiers of the United States; under his rule we saw two hundred thousand of our dark and dusky people responding to the call of Abraham Lincoln, and with muskets on their shoulders, and eagles on their buttons, timing their high footsteps to liberty and union under the national flag; under his rule we saw the independence of the black republic of Haiti, the special object of slave-holding aversion and horror, fully recognized, and her minister, a colored gentleman, duly received here in the city of Washington; under his rule we saw the internal slave-trade, which so long disgraced the nation, abolished, and slavery abolished in the District of Columbia; under his rule we saw for the first time the law enforced against the foreign slave trade, and the first slave-trader hanged like any other pirate or murderer; under his rule, assisted by the greatest captain of our age, and his inspiration, we saw the Confederate States, based upon the idea that our race must be slaves, and slaves forever, battered to pieces and scattered to the four winds; under his rule, and in the fullness of time, we saw Abraham Lincoln, after giving the slave-holders three months’ grace in which to save their hateful slave system, penning the immortal paper, which, though special in its language, was general in its principles and effect, making slavery forever impossible in the United States. Though we waited long, we saw all this and more.”

The wise and candid Douglass, who had devoted his entire adult life to the struggle for the abolition of slavery, who had rejected the call to African emigration issued by the nationalist intellectuals who opted for “African Redemption,” a euphemism for Afro-American colonization of Africa supported by the white racist in the American Colonization Society, asked if free blacks left America: “who would speak for the millions in chains.” Having been a slave – unlike the African Redemptionist such as Reverend Alexander Crummell, Dr. Martin R. Delany, and Reverend Edward Wilmont Blyden -no one was more emotionally invested in the evolution of the Emancipation Proclamation in a land where the enslavement of Africans and their descendants was a life sentence.   And he provides us moving first hand testimony as to the mood of African Americans on the eve of the Emancipation…the first “Watch Night.”

Can any colored man, or any white man friendly to the freedom of all men, ever forget the night which followed the first day of January, 1863,” he asks, “when the world was to see if Abraham Lincoln would prove to be as good as his word? I shall never forget that memorable night, when in a distant city I waited and watched at a public meeting, with three thousand others not less anxious than myself, for the word of deliverance which we have heard read today. Nor shall I ever forget the outburst of joy and thanksgiving that rent the air when the lightning brought to us the emancipation proclamation. In that happy hour we forgot all delay, and forgot all tardiness, forgot that the President had bribed the rebels to lay down their arms by a promise to withhold the bolt which would smite the slave-system with destruction; and we were thenceforward willing to allow the President all the latitude of time, phraseology, and every honorable device that statesmanship might require for the achievement of a great and beneficent measure of liberty and progress.”

Black Folk at Watchman Ceremony

Watchman Service on New Year's Eve

A black southern church in the early 20th century

For anyone interested in a balanced assessment of Abraham Lincoln this speech by Frederick Douglass is a must read; the text can be easily found on Google. But for the purpose of this essay I shall offer but one other quote. It was selected for its clarity in stating a fact that few of Lincoln’s contemporary critics recognize: Politics is the art of the possible! Douglas, astute political analyst that he was, understood that Lincoln was not a king; that his power was checked by two other branches of government, and that powerful members of both branches vehemently opposed any attempt at emancipating black slaves. Given that reality he had to make deals, enter into compromises that offended moral purists. He did not always understand this and was wont to condemn these vacillations, but in the end Douglass saw the light.

I have said that President Lincoln was a white man, and shared the prejudices common to his countrymen towards the colored race. Looking back to his times and to the condition of his country, we are compelled to admit that this unfriendly feeling on his part may be safely set down as one element of his wonderful success in organizing the loyal American people for the tremendous conflict before them, and bringing them safely through that conflict. His great mission was to accomplish two things: first, to save his country from dismemberment and ruin; and, second, to free his country from the great crime of slavery. To do one or the other, or both, he must have the earnest sympathy and the powerful cooperation of his loyal fellow-countrymen. Without this primary and essential condition to success his efforts must have been vain and utterly fruitless. Had he put the abolition of slavery before the salvation of the Union, he would have inevitably driven from him a powerful class of the American people and rendered resistance to rebellion impossible. Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.”

Alas, as the learned and insightful social/intellectual historian and thoughtful commentator on America politics and culture Harold Cruse has observed: Americans are anti-intellectual and anti-historical. Thus people who regard themselves as well educated enough to post their opinions about weighty historical matters on Facebook – that great unmediated forum of opinion – do not take the time to read what Frederick Douglass thought of President Lincoln, despite the fact that they were contemporaries and Douglass watched his every move because ending slavery was the grand crusade of his life. Instead they seek the opinion of popular historians and magazine writers and swear by them.

Indeed, the raison d’etre of this essay is just such an opinion posted on Facebook. The self-assured commentator is convinced that he has found out “the truth” about Lincoln he feels compelled to spread it with the conviction of a Jack legged preacher proclaiming “the good news,” and with no less conviction.

“Folks really need to read Lerone Bennett’s book on Lincoln, “Forced Into Glory.” the writer tells us, “People like Lyman Trumball, Wendell Phillips, Thaddeus Stevens, all more progressive than Lincoln on race. Lincoln used nigger more than Richard Pryor and refused to sign two of the Confiscation Acts which would have doomed slavery years before the Emancipation Proclamation. And the emancipation thing enslaved a half million black people when it was enacted and freed none. But yeah I get the popular mythology of Lincoln”

President Lincoln at Antietam Battlefield

Abraham Lincoln Antietam

The Civil War….and Lincoln’s prosecution of it is no myth

Like most polemics that prize passion over reason this argument misses the mark by a mile.  From the outset our self-styled savant is fatally handicapped by his ignorance of history.    Lyrone Bennet Jr, a friend and respected scribe with whom I shared the podium on several occasions, was a very compelling magazine feature writer, not a professional historian.  This is a distinction that laymen are not equipped to understand but is in a very real distinction nonetheless.

In a nutshell what it boils down to is that historians go to the original records and attempt to present objective arguments based on that evidence regardless of their personal feelings about the subject.  And the work they produce is subjected to rigorous peer review.  Stacking the evidence in order to make a polemical point is called “Special Pleading.”  In its worst manifestation it is called “popular mythology,” which is what magazine writers do.  It is an approach to historical writing that is universally rejected by professional historians, and for very good reason.

Lyrone Bennett was Senior Editor of Ebony Magazine, whose role as stated by its founder and longtime publisher, John Johnson, is to report positive news about black Americans and denounce racist discrimination.  It is a noble goal but it is not what professional historians are about.  The failure to understand this distinction is what led so many black writers to attack Dr. Manning Marable’s book on Malcolm X.  If you really want to understand something about the writing of modern scientific history read my essay “Is Dr. Marable’s Malcolm yet another Reinvention?” on this blog. ( And by the way, if you wish to know what qualifies me to present  this analysis read my resume on this site under “A thumbnail Sketch”)

For anyone to suggest that Abraham Lincoln was a passive figure in the emancipation of American slaves reveals an embarrassing ignorance.  The Emancipation Proclamation was a war time executive order, which ONLY a president could issue.  That way Lincoln could avoid the machinations of a contentious Congress, which would NEVER have voted to end slavery!  Furthermore Lincoln’s position on slavery evolved while he was in office.  When the South started the war he was a “Free Soiler” who mainly looked at slavery as an economic issue, although he personally abhorred the system he was a lawyer who recognized that it was LEGAL and thus had no intention of overthrowing it where it was already established, but he was opposed to its expansion onto “free soil” i.e. non slaveholding states.  However during the war he became a passionate abolitionist who believed that slavery was a mortal sin.

There is no better indication of the depth of his commitment to ending slavery everywhere in the US than his refusal to make a compromise with the Confederates to end the war by allowing them to retain their slaves.  To those that know but little of history this may not seem like a big deal.  However let me point out a couple of facts that should be considered in assessing Lincoln’s opposition to slavery on moral grounds. The US Civil War was the most destructive war in the history of the world at the time, because it was the first war that used modern methods of production, transportation and technology.

Before it began nobody could envision what a bloody affair it would become.  That’s why Lincoln was urged by his closet advisors to end the war by compromising with the Confederates and allowing them to retain their slaves but he refused their advice! This is a compromise that he would have readily made BEFORE the war, but during the travails of war Lincoln spent his evenings reading Shakespeare and the Bible; he came to believe that the horrors of the war was God’s punishment of America for the “sin” of slavery – just as the “Founding Father” Thomas Jefferson, a former president and slave holder had earlier confessed regarding slavery: “I shudder for my nation when I reflect upon the fact that God is just.”   And Lincoln believed: “The judgments of the Lord are always right and just.”

Like everybody that ever lived Lincoln had his contradictions, but for a white man of his time he was enlightened in his view of race, otherwise he would NEVER have invited Douglass to the Inaugural Ball – the first black American to attend that prestigious gathering of the nation’s power elite – and definitely not proclaim him “the most meritorious man in the nation.”  These were radical acts by 19th century standards and cannot be dismissed with simple minded, ahistorical rhetoric based on 21st century standards.  That kind of thinking is mindless propaganda designed to make points in contemporary polemics not scholarly history.

Such tampering with the historical record may help win political arguments but does little to help us understand our past. Of course, I do not expect the average person to understand these distinctions, and thus to recognize their value, but being a compulsive pedagogue who is genetically predisposed to combat ignorance wherever I find it – especially about things that really matter – I feel compelled to offer this explanation of the difference between history and propaganda….i.e. “popular mythology.”

I reiterate: the greatest justification for presenting history based on rigorous adherence to the evidence is that this is the only way for us to learn the lessons it can teach. For instance the criticism made of President Lincoln by our Facebook savant is strongly reminiscent of the criticisms made of his fellow Illinois native Barack Obama today.  When the Facebook savant argues:“People like Lyman Trumball, Wendell Phillips, Thaddeus Stevens, all more progressive than Lincoln on race. Lincoln used nigger more than Richard Pryor and refused to sign two of the Confiscation Acts which would have doomed slavery years before the Emancipation Proclamation. And the emancipation thing enslaved a half million black people when it was enacted and freed none.”

In this one passage we can discern the basic themes in the anti-Obama polemics endlessly reiterated by critics among black and white leftists and Black Nationalists, who have accused him of everything from being a tragic mulatto with divided racial loyalties, to “the brown face of American imperialism.” The comparison with Trumbull, Phillips and Stevens with no mention of the powerful opposition Lincoln faced, is echoed in Cornel West’s criticism of President Obama for not being like Dr. Martin Luther King and other “black prophetic voices” of the past. It is an absurd expectation, the product of a mind trained in theology and philosophy and appears to have no idea of the complexities of politics or the different roles philosophers and politicians must play in society – for a thoughtful discussion of this difference see “On Moral Preachment vs. Political Realities” on this blog.

Then there is the ever present problem of “presentism” when layman discusses historical figures.  The charge that Lincoln used nigger more than Richard Pryor “ is a classic case in point.  Our Facebook savant obviously did not take into account the fact that the use of “nigger” to describe black folks was au courant at the time and was used by a wide variety of people of varying political views, including abolitionists passionately fighting to end slavery.  It was certainly not the subject of near universal condemnation as it was when Richard Pryor was using it in his monologues like a stuck record.  Yet there is no one who believes that Pryor’s intention was to insult or injure black people.  Here the commentator does not appear to make any distinction between words and deeds in assessing the intentions of the speaker or taking the measure of a man, only the race of the speaker is considered….and he is totally indifferent to historical context.

Randall Kennedy, an Afro-American Professor of law at Harvard, has made such distinctions in a thoughtful and provocative discussion in his book titled “Nigger.”  Professor Kennedy selects two white American historical figures that made monumental contributions to the political and cultural advancement of Afro-Americans, and thus based on their deeds cannot reasonably be accused of seeking to injure or insult us despite their documented use of the word “nigger”: Carl Van Vechten and Lyndon B. Johnson.

Van Vechten is well known to students of the Afro-American cultural movement of the 1920’s known to history as the Harlem Renaissance,  because he was one on the men who helped make it happen by introducing the works of black writers to major white publishers, and arranging salons in his downtown digs so that black artists could meet and fraternize with the patrons and exhibiters in the downtown art world, etc.    Yet Professor Kennedy tells us “Carl Van Vetchen, for instance, wrote of ‘niggers’ in correspondence with his friend Langston Hughes and Hughes did not object…should he have objected?” asks Kennedy.  To wit he replies “No. Van Vecthen, a key supporter of the Harlem Renaissance, had shown time and time again that he abhorred racial prejudice, would do what he could to improve the fortunes of Afro-Americans, and treasured his black friends.”

We see this same  attitude about the use of “nigger” by whites who are considered friends in the position taken by black players on the Miami Dolphins football team during the dispute between the Afro-American tackle Johnathan Martin and the white defensive end Richie Icognito.  When Johnathan Martin accused Incognito of hurling racist epithets at him the black players said it was cool for Ritchie to call them “niggers” because he was “more of a brother” than Martin. While this all sounds crazy to me, because I am not down with any white folks calling me nigger under any circumstance, we can see that other black people view the use of the word by some whites differently.

For Professor Kennedy it is purely the intent of the speaker that matters.  In President Lyndon Johnson he provides another compelling example of a friend of Afro-Americans who used the word “nigger” liberally in private conversation; about as often as Abraham Lincoln is said to have used it.   He tells us “In 1967, President Lyndon Baines Johnson decided to appoint an African American to the Supreme Court for the first time in American history.  First on Johnson’s list of candidates was Thurgood Marshall – “Mr. Civil Rights” the hero of Brown v. Board of Education and, of course, the man he ended up putting on the Court.  But before he announced his selection, Johnson asked an assistant to identify some other possible candidates.  The aide mentioned A. Leon Higginbotham, whom Johnson had appointed to the federal trial bench.  Reportedly, the President dismissed the suggestion with the comment “The only two people who ever heard of Judge Higginbotham are you and his mamma.  When I appoint a nigger to the Supreme Court, I want everyone to know he is a nigger.”

It ought to be obvious to all thoughtful readers by now that it is folly to equate Abraham Lincoln’s use of the word nigger with a hatred for black people.  And it ought to be abundantly clear that all talk about President Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation having nothing to do with the abolition of slavery is nothing more than ignorant prattle that reveals an innocence of any knowledge of the history of the period, alas.

Those who care to read a biography of Abraham Lincoln that reveals this complex man in all of his virtues and flaws, a man of conviction who vacillated to accommodate the realities of politics, read With Malice Toward None by Dr. Steven Oates.  And for an excellent account of how Lincoln was viewed by the abolitionist movement read Black Abolitionists, by the pioneering black historian and first biographer of Frederick Douglas Dr. Benjamin Quarles.  And finally, whatever contemporary Afro—Americans may believe about Abraham Lincoln, to those who endured American slavery and witnessed the coming of freedom, the people who huddled with their descendants in black southern churches as the Watchman called out the hour of night…Abraham Lincoln was their deliverer. Of this the great Frederick Douglass left no doubt:

Had Abraham Lincoln died from any of the numerous ills to which flesh is heir; had he reached that good old age of which his vigorous constitution and his temperate habits gave promise; had he been permitted to see the end of his great work; had the solemn curtain of death come down but gradually — we should still have been smitten with a heavy grief, and treasured his name lovingly. But dying as he did die, by the red hand of violence, killed, assassinated, taken off without warning, not because of personal hate — for no man who knew Abraham Lincoln could hate him — but because of his fidelity to union and liberty, he is doubly dear to us, and his memory will be precious forever.

Fellow-citizens, I end, as I began, with congratulations. We have done a good work for our race today. In doing honor to the memory of our friend and liberator, we have been doing highest honors to ourselves and those who come after us; we have been fastening ourselves to a name and fame imperishable and immortal; we have also been defending ourselves from a blighting scandal. When now it shall be said that the colored man is soulless, that he has no appreciation of benefits or benefactors; when the foul reproach of ingratitude is hurled at us, and it is attempted to scourge us beyond the range of human brotherhood, we may calmly point to the monument we have this day erected to the memory of Abraham Lincoln



Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
 January 4, 2015

Putin, Obama and the Ukrainian Crisis

Posted in On Foreign Affairs, Uncategorized with tags , , , on March 8, 2014 by playthell

Barack - putin-obama_2252410b

Can Barack and Putin work it out?

 Successful Diplomacy or Nuclear Apocolypse?

The Ukrainian crisis is a very complex affair, dramatic changes are occurring so quickly things could fall apart. In the past few weeks we have witnessed a democratically elected president driven from office and into exile by raging mobs in the street who disagreed with his decision to form closer economic ties with Russia, rather than seizing an opportunity to form closer economic ties with the European Union.  A new government of questionable legitimacy has been hastily cobbled together, with the new President, Arseniy Yatseniuk, also holding the office of Chairman of the Parliament, although the Fatherland Party, which he represents, only holds 25% of the seats in the Ukrainian parliament.

This is equivalent to President Obama being overthrown by an armed right-wing mob and somebody from the Tea Party becoming President, Speaker of the House and the Majority leader of the Senate.  While the US accepts this arrangement, albeit temporarily until new elections can be held, the Russians do not, they view these developments as an illegal coup engineered in Washington and the European Union, with Andrea Merkle of Germany playing a major role.

The American role in manipulating events that led to the overthrow of the elected president Ukraine, Victor Yanukovych, is confirmed in statements made on the phone by Undersecretary of State for Europe,Victoria Nuland, which was tapped by some hacker and put on the internet.  Nuland’s conversation with the American ambassador to the Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, leave no doubt that Washington was moving people and parties as if the Ukraine were a chessboard….they were involved in the overthrow of the president up to their teeth.  I have attached the transcript of Secretary Nuland’s conversation with Ambassador Pyatt’s conversation to the bottom of this essay, so the reader can see for themselves the extent of American meddling.

Victoria Nuland and Geoffrey Pyatt
American diplomats Victoria Nuland and Geoffrey Pyatt Plotting the future of Ukraine with Vitali Klitchko and Arseniy Yatseniuk

 Now the question is whether the country will break up, when the predominately Russian-speaking population in the Crimea region votes on whether to rejoin Great Russia in the upcoming referendum. This is such a volatile issue the country could quickly descend into civil war. In such a scenario the Russians will certainly become militarily involved, and the fact is that an American guided missile ship is steaming by the Crimean Peninsula right now –  probably armed with nuclear missiles – right through the shipping lanes where the Russian naval vessels routinely patrol.

This strikes me as an extraordinarily reckless move, and I am surprised that President Obama let his military advisors talk him into it – or maybe he ordered this despite the advice of the Joint Chiefs. In any case, despite the lame explanation that this voyage had been planned before the Ukrainian conflict began, I find the President’s decision to order an American warship into these troubled waters impossible to reconcile with the geo-political realities of this historical moment.

The USS Tuxton Cruising the Black Sea
American Missile Ship in Black Sea
An American Missile Ship armed with Tomahawks and other weaponry
A Russian Delta Class Nuclear Submarine
Playing A Deadly Game of cat and Mouse on the High Seas

I becomes even more puzzling when we learn that the Tuxton, which is armed with Tomahawk Cruise missiles, is steaming to the Black Sea in order to participate in joint naval exercise with the Romanian and Bulgarian navies.  The US government has announced that we will be sending in 12 F-16 fighter planes and 3oo air-force service personnel to Poland, at the request of Polish Minister of Defense Tomaz Simoniak, who is concerned about the Russian takeover of Crimea.  And the US sent five F-15 fighter planes to Lithuania last Thursday, because their Minister of Defense was alarmed by “Russian Aggression in the in Ukraine.”

The Pentagon has also announced that these American fighter planes will be patrolling the skies over the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.  What we the people desperately need to know is what are their orders, what are the rules of engagement and with whom are they to engage.  We need to know the answers to these questions because if these American fighter planses have orders to engage Russian aircraft this is a scenario that could spark a nuclear confrontation!  Yet the US cannot avoid these actions because of NATO.

The essential problem with NATO,  for the US government, goes back to a decision made a decade ago on May 2, 2004, when the 19 member states of NATO decided to admit seven former members of the Warsaw Pact, including former Soviet Republics which had become independent states after the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, whose center of power was Moscow, thirteen years earlier.  Latvia, Estonia, Romania, Lithuania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Bulgaria all joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Many observers thought this was a bad idea at the time – this writer included – and believed that it would come back to haunt us.

Well, we were right.  In the euphoria following the collapse of Communism, when talk of a “new world order” based on a unipolar world where all roads led to Washington, and projections for “a new American Century” appeared to be simply acknowledging the obvious, people forgot that nationalism and religious fanaticism have led to more wars than communism ever did.  These are the forces that America now struggles to deal with in the Mid-East and  in Eastern Europe, with the eye of the storm in Russia, which is well armed with nuclear weapons and whose armies are invincible on Russian soil.  Hence bombing Russia or invading her are both out of the question.

Yet the US is committed to an organization whose fundamental objective is mutual defense.  And NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer left no doubt when he told the Foreign Ministers assembled for the admission of the former Russian allies: “The accession of Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia demonstrates the principle that freedom is irrepressible.   From now on, 26 Allies will be joined in a commitment to defend each others’ security and territorial integrity. This is the strongest, most solemn commitment nations can undertake.”

Herein lies our problem and it is a mess.  This commitment means that should any of these former Soviet Republics get in an armed dispute with Russia, the US is bound by NATO protocol to act as if the attack was against America!  And yet, as if we are not  in enough of a quagmire, there are Republican Senators calling for the Ukraine to be admitted to NATO.   It is an invitation to disaster!

The dangers portended by Ukrainian events require the most calm and thoughtful deliberation, exactly the kind of approach that President Obama has been pursuing.  Unfortunately, he is not indifferent to the vicissitudes of American domestic politics and this crisis is unfolding just as the Republicans are holding their C-Pac convention.

This is where all those who pretend to the presidency hold forth before the most rabidly right-wing sector of the Party – the so called Republican base – who are rabid Obama-haters.  A parade of presidential hopefuls seeking to seduce this crowd and gain their support try to out-do each other in rushing to the far right of the American political continuum.

They all know that the easiest way to get some love from this crowd is to bash President Obama, so we see the President trying to conduct very difficult and dangerous diplomatic relations with Russia while assailed by a constant chorus of ridicule from Republicans Rudy Giuliani and John McCain, to Lindsay Graham and the Alaskan Barbarian Sarah Palin.

There are two themes that run through their attacks on the president. “The Ukraine crisis is the result of Barack Obama’s “weakness” in asserting American military power in promoting US foreign policy objectives in places like Syria and Iran, and this has emboldened America’s adversaries around the world.”  And “he is being bullied in the Ukrainian conflict because President Putin knows Obama is a punk.”

These vociferous denunciations of President Obama are accompanied by praise songs for the “toughness and decisiveness” of Putin; one wise media wag has labeled the phenomenon “Putin Love.”  None dare call it by its proper name: disloyal opposition bordering on treason! When you consider that far from doing nothing,  as the Republicans charge repeatedly, the evidence shows that President is doing far too much in the Ukrainian mess; this baseless criticism exposes the same deep-seated racist attitudes that compelled white American soldiers to permit German Nazi prisoners of war to share bathrooms with them, while the black American soldiers guarding them had to relieve themselves in ditches beside the road!

What Dr. DuBois said of Jack Johnson, the first black Heavyweight Boxing Champion of the world, is also true of Barack Obama, the first son of an African father to become President of the most powerful nation in the world.  Whites didn’t hate Jack Johnson because of anything he did, because they had done far worse; the source of their hatred is his “unforgivable blackness.”  Hence they see in Barack things that are not there, but are projected onto him  – by envious, racist whites who become hysterical at the very thought of a black First Family in the White House,   an uppity nigger with an African name who is way smarter than they are, running the USA….which they believe is a white man’s job and it just drives them bonkers!

The Republican warmongers hold an Oxymoronic position regarding the President: on the one hand they hate Putin and call him a ruthless dictator – House Speaker John Boehner call the Russian President “a thug” – but they are pissed off because President Obama is not more like him.   Sarah Palin, one of the loudest and most mindless voices on the right, denounces Obama as “a tyrant who ignores the constitution and constantly violates the law”, but gushes over Putin: “He rides bare-chested on a horse, wrestles bears and drills for oil….while Obama walks around in Mommy Jeans.”  This white trash debutante who nearly became vice-president on the US appears to cream in her jeans when she rhapsodizes about the manly virtues of the Russian President…Putin Love indeed.

 Alexander Putin: Tough Guy or…..
Alexander Putin on horseback  Just A Wrinkled old White Boy Riding a Nag

The more we hear from these twisted people the more obvious it becomes how lucky we are that Barack Obama and not John McCain became president five years ago. Under a McCain presidency we would be in wars everywhere, and the Alaskan Barbarian would be a heartbeat away from the Oval Office.  When viewed from the perspective of the Bush Administration’s foreign policy, Barack’s wisdom in managing this nation’s foreign affairs has been Solomonic.

He has found and offed Osama bin Laden, something the tough talking Bushmen never managed to do…in fact George Bush gave up trying to find him. The former President said he wasn’t even thinking about him anymore as he waged a war of choice against Sadam Hussein and Osama bin Laden became “Osama been Forgotten.”

Barack has also devastated Al Qaeda’s leadership, successfully wound down two wars the Republicans started that have become by far the longest running wars in our history – over twice as long as World War II – and he has kept us out of other foreign wars that John McCain would have eagerly waded into.  And Barack is the only American President to have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  He was awarded the Prize even while waging two wars, but they were wars that he inherited from the Bush years and the wise members of the Nobel Prize committee were prescient in their vision of Barack as a peacemaker who would steer American away from the war path.  In his acceptance speech President Obama displayed his gift for reconciling contending forces that he has employed in his diplomacy. (See: “Hooray for the Juggler!”)*

Alas, with the Ukrainian crisis we are witnessing the return of all the warmongering cretins from the neo-con cabal hatched in The Project for a New American Century – see “How the Iraq War was Hatched in a Think Tank” – that pushed a clueless George W Bush into invading Iraq; the same crew that his wiser father George I called “The Crazies” – Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, John Bolton, et al.

Once again the Grand Obstructionist Party is sending in the clowns….and they are a murderous bunch with blood and gore on their hands…..much of it innocent blood from the needless slaughter of women and children.  And these homicidal jokers are itching to start another war.  Just look at that madman John Bolton, Bush’s UN Ambassador, whining about President Obama’s reluctance to intervene in every crisis that arises in the world with armed forces, or that little grinning jackal Bill Kristol, who, from his position as Editor of the influential right-wing Journal The Weekly Standard and Director of the Project for a New American Century, played a major role in convincing Bush to invade Iraq on phony information.

Now here he is again, while the nation is still recovering from that criminal folly, recklessly calling for ratcheting up tensions with the Russians by “humiliating Putin.”  These neo-con clowns never learn; they are stuck on stupid.

Bill Kristol
 Bill Kristol
A tough talkin mouse
 Dirty Dick Cheney
Dirty Dick Cheney
War Criminal!

However this little poot-butt provocateur, Wee Willie Kristol, who like Dirty Dick Cheney has never spent a day in the military, does not seem to understand that provoking a military conflict in the Ukraine is a very different class of event from invading Iraq, because within such a conflict lies the seeds of our own destruction; which was never a possibility in the invasions of Iraq, Afghanistan, or even Vietnam.

Yet any military conflict with Russia could devolve into nuclear war; a prognosis that has been greeted with disbelief, even ridicule, by some really smart and thoughtful people. They are certain that the mostly straight white males who monopolize the instruments of power are rational actors, and supreme egotists, committed to self-preservation.  Therefore any mention of the possiblilty of a nuclear exchange between the US and Russia over the Ukraine is prima facie “absurd.”

It is fairly certain that no rational person would make a decision to destroy modern civilization.  I even had a wag with a PhD in political science tell me as much in this very language as he dismissed my concerns, and I must confess that on the face of it he appears to be right.  Yet the leading nations are well-armed with nuclear weapons and nuclear war remains an option, despite their awareness of the fact that all mankind has achieved during our history on earth would evaporate in a flash.  And those who survive would be struggling to sustain life on a radioactive planet with Stone Age technology.  This could be our fate an hour from now if the US and Russia had a nuclear exchange.

Such an event is, in fact, unthinkable.  Until you begin to consider that the mere possession of nuclear weapons is evidence of a collective madness among our leaders, who are prepared to perpetrate a massive crime against humanity, a catastrophe of biblical proportions, for their deployment would be worse than the sum total of all the atrocities man has committed against man in the history of the world.  An attack with nuclear weapons would instantaneously achieve mass murder on a scale that would make the Nazi holocaust look like a minor event.

Yet the most advanced civilizations in the world are awash in these weapons and cannot find a way to rid mankind of this horror!  This means that all of these “rational actors” in whom my friend has placed his confidence are ready and willing to slaughter millions of innocent civilians; all they need is the right scenario to develop on a computer screen and they will launch.  And since I have been in the room with the people who are assigned this task during a stint in Strategic Air Command at the height of the Cold War, right on the cusp of the Cuban Missile Crisis, I have no doubt that they will do it.

I would have done it!   That’s the way we were trained and I, like everybody else in Central Security Control, would have been convinced that I was serving the best interests of my country.  Yet I would not have raped a woman, mugged anybody and robbed them of their coin, and would readily give the elderly or handicapped my seat on the bus…in fact I was something of a Good Samaritan in everyday life…but I would have pushed the button and launched a nuclear attack on Russia upon command. This is what the philosopher Hanna Arendt meant by “The banality of evil.”

The real danger here is not that a group of men will sit quietly around a table ensconced underneath a mountain somewhere and decide to launch a nuclear attack, even though I believe the only reason they won’t is not moral restraint but the MAD doctrine: Mutual Assured Destruction, because I know men are indeed capable of such evil.  The clear and present danger that confronts us is that it could all happen by accident.

In the event of a serious miscommunication where a computer says the other side has launched an attack ,there is so little time to retaliate by those who believe that their nation is under attack they would have to launch immediately.  This is why fomenting hostility and mistrust between the US and Russia is akin to playing Russian roulette with the whole world.

Hence all the talk from Republicans about building anti-missile systems on the doorstep of Russia in places like Poland, and recruiting Poland, Georgia and Ukraine into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, NATO, is a doomsday scenario.  The people who advocate this madness often talk as if the rest of us are fools.

For instance Lindsay Graham, a Republican Senator from South Carolina, often talks this way. A smart man, albeit unprincipled, this former Air Force lawyer is openly calling on President Obama to invite former Republics that were a part of the Soviet Union until the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 – and they became independent nations – to join NATO.  We are left to speculate as to what the senator’s motives are, but he talks like a man who is intoxicated on the opiate of “American Exceptionalism,” terrified by a Tea Party threat to “primary” him, and seduced by the limelight that follows actors on the stage of national politics.

Professor Stephen Cohen – the Director of Russian Studies Centers at Princeton and Columbia Universities –is convinced that should the US pursue this course it will lead to nuclear catastrophe.  Dr. Cohen – whom I regard as a cut above former  functionaries in the US foreign policy establishment like Madeline Albright, Ziebnew Brzezinski, and Hilary Clinton – argues that if the US put troops in  Poland, which has now joined  NATO, the Russians will militarily occupy the Ukraine and they will be prepared to defend their position at all cost, including nuclear holocaust!

Since Romania and Bulgaria, who were formerly Russia’s allies in the now disloved Warsaw Pact, have also joined  NATO, should the US gain control of the Ukraine they would have succeeded in bringing their forward military position to Russia’s front door.  The Russians will resist this advance and any conflict between Russia and one of these new NATO countries would immediately become a military confrontation between the US and Russia. It is in the nature and letter of the agreement.

This is a plausible scenario of how a nuclear war could begin, because when there are military tensions between nuclear armed nations they put their nuclear forces on Alert. And once this happens the possibilities for an accidental nuclear conflagration greatly increases.  That’s why we need careful diplomacy in times like these and any suggestion of introducing military forces into the equation, such as conducting military maneuvers in the area, deploying American forces on Polish soil, or promoting any military activity in Crimea is destabilizing.

The Crimean Peninsula

Crimea -

Is it worth risking war with Russia

Never has this nation needed the calm deliberative style of President Obama more than now. His choice of quiet diplomacy over saber-rattling and caustic rhetoric calms the situation and gives everybody time to think. If John McCain were president just now the world would be in a state of nuclear terror as the destruction of our planet hung in the balance. Rejecting this old whacko warmonger in favor of the humanist visionary Barack Obama was the American electorate’s finest hour!

One of the greatest dangers of the American Exceptionalist doctrine is that it encourages national chauvinism and prevents Americans from recognizing the just claims and interests of other nations; they view the world with blinders on, like a draft horse pulling a wagon in city traffic that you want to look in only one direction. Alas, while this may be a good thing for draft horses it is suicidal in international politics where nuclear weapons are involved.

In order to understand how Putin would view the Ukraine entering NATO, one need only recall the US response when the Russians deployed missiles in Cuba.  The US government under President Kennedy was prepared to start a nuclear war over it.  When Kennedy ordered the US Navy to blockade Cuba and challenge a nuclear armed Russian fleet on the high seas, the world came so close to destruction the Cuban Missile Crisis –as it has become known in historyhad a lasting effect on Robert McNamara, the American Secretary of Defense at the time.

Before coming into government Robert McNamara was a hot shot corporate Titan, a former Air Force captain who was computer savvy – which was unique in the early 1960’s – McNamara was president of the Ford Motor Company, but after he left government he spent the rest of his life promoting peaceful development among the world’s poorest countries by employing the resources of the World Bank, which he headed.

Later in life he produced a documentary film titled “The Fog of War” in which he recounts how close they came to destroying the world during the Cuban Crisis.  He even traveled to Russia and Cuba and talked to his counterparts on the other side.  The question he most wanted them to answer was “would you really have launched your nuclear weapons?”  The fact that they said yes, as did he, shook him to the core, this question hounded him to his dying day is: “how could a group of rational, intelligent, sane, men even consider such a crime against the earth?

I believe the answer lies in our basic instinct for survival and the strong impulse to protect home and family.  The US government felt Americans could not live with the threat of Russian nuclear weapons just 90 miles away on the Island of Cuba because it threatened our national existence.  Hence no measure was too extreme to prevent it….even gambling with the fate of the earth.  That’s how the Russians feel about American incursions into their spheres of influence: and there is every reason to believe they will use any means necessary to prevent Americans from gaining military hegemony on their door step.

This is why President Obama must remain steady as she goes in steering the American ship of state through these troubled waters, and he must pay the Republican clowns screaming on the sidelines no mind.  First of all their criticisms of his foreign policy, like their claims that he is a lawless dictator who has usurped the Constitutional powers of the government, are all a damned lie!  These jackanapes –who chatter on ad nauseum spouting putrid nonsense like drunken magpies – foam at the mouth as they denounce the president’s “weakness” and “indecisiveness” in refusing to “do something” about the Russian transgressions.  This, like all of the criticism in their narrative of the Obama residency is a balantant lie!

They conveniently forget – and some are so ignorant of US history they never knew – that the Russians invaded several Eastern European nations while Republican Presidents occupied the Oval Office –and these were actual invasions, not like this little walkabout in the Crimea, where nobody will even admit they are Russian soldiers. There was the 1956 invasion of Hungary under Eisenhower – a Five Star general who only a decade earlier had led the victory over Nazi Germany as the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe.  But he refused to intervene despite many calls to do so.  Ike weighted the costs – a possible nuclear war with Russia – against the nebulous benefits, and decided to chill out despite the shrill cries for intervention on the right.

General Eisenhower
Ike Maintained his Cool

When the Warsaw Pact forces – a group of five Eastern European countries led by the Soviet Union – invaded Czechoslovakia during the presidential elections of 1968, Richard Nixon did nothing to intervene in the situation after he won by a landslide.  Nixon, who had been Ike’s vice-president when the Soviets invaded Hungary, was no stranger to Russian invasions and was enraged by the Czech affair, but made no attempt to intervene in the situation because he knew that the Soviets had gained parity in nuclear weapons with the US.

Furthermore, given American actions in invading Cuba after the Revolution led by Fidel Castro turned in a socialist direction, Nixon, a very bright but morally deformed man, must have recognized that the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia to overthrow the Dubcek government, which was moving away from the Russian communist model, mirrored US actions in Cuba, although they would never admit this obvious parallel.  So he sought the friendship of China, breaking an American policy of ignoring mainland, or “Red China,” that had prevailed since the triumph of the Communist Revolution led by Mao Tse Tung, and promoted the absurd fiction that “the real China” was the off shore island of Taiwan. 

The strategy of exploiting serious ideological difference between the two communist titans, China and Russia,  by cozying up to China,  led  to an American rapprochement with China and Detente with Russia. This artful foreign policy was possible because Nixon was advised by Henry Kissinger, whereas George Bush was advised by people like Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and their Guru, the neo-con warmonger Paul Wolfowitz and his PNAC cabal.

In 2008 the Russian army invaded the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, and Bush, already burdened with two wars that he started, did nothing!  And although Senator John McCain is demanding an investigation of the CIA to find out why they didn’t predict a situation that erupted at rapid speed, a question whose answer does not require a costly congressional investigation; the answer is obvious to any reasonably informed person looking objectively upon the situation rather than through a veil of bias.

The fact is that there is nothing unusual about the CIA getting caught off guard: they got caught off guard in each of the full scale Russian Invasions under three Republican presidents. Thus all of this self-righteous posturing and demonstrations of outrage from people like John McCain,  that smug Howdy Doody looking charlatan that sits in the governor’s mansion in Louisiana, that fat dumb dope fiend Rush Limbaugh and that evil hysterical anorexic witch Gun Boat Annie Coulter are pure bullshit, as the Princeton Philosopher Harry G. Franks describes bullshit arguments in his book  “Bullshit”.

Consider the account of Daniel Fata – the assistant secretary of defense for European and NATO policy from September 2005 to September 2008, which was most of George Bush’s second term.  He recalls in an interview with Professor Stephen Benedict Dyson, a Professor of political science at the University of Connecticut,  that when the Russian Army invaded Georgia ““We were scrambling for information during these critical initial hours. My desk officer, who had great personal ties at the highest levels in Tbilisi, had the most usable real time information via texts from his friends in Georgia.” And he went on to observe “Putin was never punished by the international community.”  Notice he said nothing about the Bush Administration punishing Putin…it appears to have never entered their minds!

Bush evidently decided that he had gotten in enough trouble listening to Cheney, Rumsfeld, and their neo-con crew.  In view of the history of Republican presidential inaction in the face of actual Russian invasions…..why are these chattering clowns so hard on President Obama, who has not even been confronted with a “Russian invasion?”  At worse, thus far, the president is dealing with a pooty-pop police action.  And as I have shown: Barack has already done far too much!

To treat the Crimean situation as some major aggression by the Russians that threatens US interests, and therefore requires our intervention, is surely some species of madness. This peculiar madness is magnified when you reflect upon the fact that American officials travelled to the Ukraine and openly encouraged the insurgents to overthrow the pro-Russian President

Yet given the level of routine obfuscation and outright lying, the massive and systematic disinformation campaign being conducted by the right-wing media complex, and the fact that the overwhelming majority of their listeners are pugnacious airheads whose understanding of political reality is akin to the man who couldn’t tell his rectum from a hole in the ground, you have an untutored impassioned mob who can be manipulated into believing anything.  Hence the Republican politicians who are hurling slanders at the President that have not a trace of truth, but plays big with their audience, could just be playing politics.

If that is true, and given the intellectual shallowness and situational ethics that inform the actions of many Republican politicians in could well be true – then they are even more dangerous than the true believers.  Intelligent people who hold sincere beliefs can be persuaded to change their view, but a soulless, ignorant, charlatan has nothing there.  They’ve got a hole in their soul, and thus could demagogue a grave issue of national security for partisan political advantage.

These are people for whom only money and power are sacred; so even now they are trying their best to tie the conflict in the Ukraine to the refusal of President Obama to sign the Canadian pipeline deal.  Aside from confusing the foreign policy debate, their constant chatter, scripted lines repeated ad nauseum,  paid for by plutocrats and beamed into the skulls of the vast untutored working class – and that includes many white collar “professionals” – shamelessly plays on their fears in order to panic them into voting reactionaries into political office who despise them and constantly injure their interests.

President Obama is in a tight predicament.  He is bound by an attitude of fear and suspicion toward Russia that has long been cultivated in this country. The ignorance of Americans regarding Russia is abominable, hence they are prepared to believe the worst.  When coupled with the sense of American Exceptionalism that almost all Americans in their smug self-righteousness believe in, it makes sense to them when the Republican clowns cry out about President Obama’s weakness in the face of Russian aggression.

Since they know nothing of American history, they really believe that Putin would never have committed such a criminal act of aggression if that “lily livered; mommy jean wearing; secret agent for Al Queda; European socialist communist low down dirty half-breed mongrel nigger” had not “duped the American people and wormed his way into the White House”.

Yet even if we discounted all the other madness in this description of our fabulous President, arguably the best ever, and simply accepted that they believe Barack could deceive the Secret Service, the FBI, the National Immigration Service, the National Security agency et al, even  believed that Donald Trump’s alleged private investigators could detect such fraud, is frightening testimony of the epidemic of irrational thinking among millions of Americans who come out aggressively and vote!

Barak Obama’s actions and pronouncements regarding the Ukrainian situation are formulated with an eye toward domestic politics.  After all, he is not only a politician but a great one….perhaps the greatest of all times.  In fact I have argued this very point elsewhere see: “The GOAT: Greatest of All Times” on this blog.  And the first step in being a successful politician is to recognize that politics is the art of the possible!  Barack not only recognizes this, he understands how to win elections.

The fact that fact a young black guy who looks like he might be hanging out on the basketball, courts in Chicago waiting for a pick-up game, and is married to a big fine chocolate, brilliant, sassy soul sister who can dance her ass off and will bust a move anywhere, getting himself elected president twice, is driving a lot of these white boys like Donald Trump – who was born to the purple but can’t get elected to the villager dogcatcher’s post in Washington – clear out of their  minds!

So the Republican propaganda machine, disguised as news sources, make up lies about him and broadcast them on a non-stop loop, right into the fickle brains of Dumb Dora and Joe Six Pack.  And they have done it so well that millions of Americans – most white but some black leftist too – actually believe it.  And that is part of my evidence for his greatness: with all of their researchers they cannot come up with an authentic complaint against Obama.  Yet perception is reality in the eyes of the beholder.  Hence President Obama must pay homage to the prevailing American myth….because it is firmly rooted in the Master Narrative of American civilization.

Hence we see President Obama, a brilliant man who must recognize that Russia has a legitimate right to their Sphere of Influence, and that Putin is doing nothing that the US has not done –and far worse – all over the world!  Yet he must pay lip service to the American Exceptionalists vision or be labeled a traitor and hung if they had their druthers. And he knows that none of his major policy objectives can be realized so long as Republicans control the House of Representatives, and should they take the senate in the elections this year he will spend the rest of his second term mainly casting vetoes, Barack must pay attention to domestic politics.  All of these factors figure strongly in the presidents public posture toward Russia.

As important as these other issues are, they are picayune matters compared to a military conflict with Russia.  This is as serious as it gets.  Things on the ground in the Ukraine are changing so fast the President must focus on the fundamental issues involved here and correctly decide where American interests truly lie. Considering that he has ordered an American guided missile ship into waters off the coast of Crimea, one wonders if he is becoming confused on this issue.  Hilary Clinton, his recently retired Secretary of State is obviously confused by the Ukrainian affair because she is talking like a babbling idiot….  spouting dangerous and misleading nonsense comparing Putin to Hitler and muttering about the similarity to the Munich Conference?

This kind of crazy talk invites comparison of President Obama to the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. I am expecting to hear cries of “appeasement” from the Republicans any day now.  Although she has tried to equivocate on here statement, saying she was not implying an exact comparison, Hilary comes across as either a fool or an opportunist.  Conversations about Hitler and Munich conferences from the middle of the last century is not the conversation we should be having now….for it confuses far more than it clarifies and provides fuel for the verbal arsonists in right-wing media.

All of this is a distraction.  The thing that should remain uppermost in President Obama’s mind and that of all American political leaders is whatever happens in the Ukraine it is not worth one ounce of American blood, nor the profligate squandering of American treasure. President Obama should also be aware that many thoughtful Americans, this writer included, resent the fact that the Republicans who control the House of Representatives quickly voted a billion dollars in emergency aid to the Ukraine, while denying benefits to American workers suffering long term unemployment, and kills every program President Obama proposes to help desperate Americans and rebuild the nation’s crumbling infrastructure.

Yet above and beyond all everything else, no matter what, the President must constantly think about avoiding any action that could make the Russians nervous about their national security, because they will surely put more nuclear weapons on alert….alas some are already on alert.   For most people these weapons are like something out of science fiction like the transformers firing laser beams, that explains why most are going merrily about their business totally unaware that 40 minutes from now our world go up in radioactive flames. They are like sheep quietly going to slaughter; for if they had any idea what a nuclear war means they would out in the streets demanding that President Obama call off the proposed naval exercise involving the US and Romanian forces in the Black Sea.

Ignorance about the world is dangerous in any case, but ignorance about the nuclear forces of the US and Russia could prove fatal.  Both nations have triple threat strike forces that consists of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, Long range bombers, and naval forces composed of nuclear submarines and missile ships that fire from surface platforms.  The IBMs can be launched from silos on land or beneath the sea; they go up out of the earth’s atmosphere and return to earth to hit their targets.  They also have MIRVED warheads – Multiple Independent Reentry Vehicles – which means that a single missile carry up to eight separate warheads capable of being programmed to strike different targets.

In order to gain some understanding of the scale of destruction a single missile can wreak consider the following facts.  The atomic bombs dropped on Japanese cities had an explosive power equivalent to 20, 000 tons of high explosive TNT, plus the intense heat from the nuclear reaction and the radioactive fallout. The nuclear warheads carried by the MIRVED missiles are 5 megatons each, which amounts to 45 million tons of TNT per missile!   And we have thousands of them ready to launch at a moment’s notice….and so do the Russians.  And since this is a neutron hydrogen bomb, the radiation is immeasurably more intense.

I can still remember the day I first found out about all this.  It was in an orientation class for those of us with Top Secret security clearances when I arrived on the Strategic Air Command base in Glasgow Montana, up on the DEW line – Distance Early Warning – out in the Great Plains near the Canadian Border, where I would be stationed.  At the time SAC was the center of the US nuclear strike force and from where we were the giant B-52 Strato-Bombers, which flew at supersonic speeds at very high altitudes, could be over Moscow in less than an hour.  After showing us the official SAC films on the atomic bombing of Japan, an unspeakably horrible event, the colonel conducting the class said, “Or this is nothing…those bombs are like firecrackers compared to the ordinance we have on this base.”

After seeing the giant radioactive fireball rise up over Japanese cities, and heard the tales of poisonous black rain and the nuclear night that followed the atomic flash upon detonation, creating such intense heat people who saw it eyeballs melted and people were bursting into flames everywhere.  And all this was from the little 20,000 tons of TNT bomb; the instructor pointed out that we had bombs of 100 million ton capacity!  I thought it was madness, and I have never changed my views on the matter of nuclear weapons.  As I have said previously, I consider the mere possession of them to be a crime against humanity.

However the bombers, while still active, are third in destructive capacity in the tripartite US nuclear war machine. There are the missiles I described, and then there are the nuclear submarines, marvelous frightening instruments of mass destruction, one of which has more firepower than all of the ordinance exploded in World War II, including the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan.  And we have about a dozen of them prowling under the world’s ocean seas.

Should a nuclear exchange begin there will be two chain reactions: the atomic one and a human one.   For once it starts the computers will take overs and both sides will empty their arsenals in order to make sure the other side will not survive….the computers are programmed to see to that.  It is such an unspeakable horror, the destruction of all life on our planet, it is no wonder people don’t want to think about it, but I’m just keepin it real!  It is no exaggeration to say that those who do survive for a while will envy the dead.  This is the possibility we are playing with as I write.

The way things are developing in terms of the rapid deterioration of US/Russian relations over the crisis in the Ukraine is frightening to those who pay attention to the possibility of blundering into an accidental nuclear war.  As I said early on in this essay I was prompted to write it because of an exchange I had with a friend who smugly assured me that a nuclear exchange between the US and Russia couldn’t happen.  However I take my cue from the people who understand this problem best: The Bulletin of Atomic Scientist.  Their views regarding the danger of an outbreak of nuclear war – which is to say its probability – is succinctly expressed by the position of the hands on the Doomsday Clock.

This clock was created in 1947 by the scientists from the Manhattan Project, the guys who invented the atomic bombs that were dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki only two years earlier, the only time atomic weapons have been used in human history.  Over the last 67 years the hands on the clock have been moved 18 times by the scientists affiliated with the Bulletin, which includes 18 Nobel Laureates, an astonishing number for any organization.  The scientists move the hands on the Doomsday Clock based on their assessment of how close human beings have come to self-annihilation.

At present the hands on the clock stands at five minutes to mid-night! And, despite so major changes in US/Russian relations, the nuclear arsenals possessed by these nations remain the most dangerous threat to continued human existence.  The Bulletin of Atomic Scientist sums it up thusly:

“Today, the mind-numbing possibility of nuclear annihilation as a result of a deliberate attack on the other by the United States or Russia seems a thing of the past, yet the potential for an accidental, unauthorized, or inadvertent nuclear exchange between the United States and Russia remains, with both countries anachronistically maintaining more than 800 warheads on high alert, ready to launch within tens of minutes”.

That’s why President Obama had better move with the greatest caution in his policy choices regarding the Ukraine.  He must maintain his fabled cool as – “No Drama Obama” – pay the hysterical hawks on the Republican right no mind and make keeping the peace his first priority.  Because as we know from former Defense Secretary Bob McNamara: things get confusing in the fog of war. And before you know what happened we could be the late….great….planet earth.



It could come to this!


Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
March 8, 2014

****** Transcript from hacked phone conversation between Undersecretary of State for Europe, Victoria Nuland for and the US Ambassador as they secretly  minipulate the political events in Ukraine.

An apparently bugged phone conversation in which a senior US diplomat disparages the EU over the Ukraine crisis has been posted online. The alleged conversation between Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and the US Ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, appeared on YouTube on Thursday. It is not clearly when the alleged conversation took place.

Here is a transcript, with analysis by BBC diplomatic correspondent Jonathan Marcus:

Warning: This transcript contains swearing.

Voice thought to be Nuland’s: What do you think?

  • Jonathan Marcus: At the outset it should be clear that this is a fragment of what may well be a larger phone conversation. But the US has not denied its veracity and has been quick to point a finger at the Russian authorities for being behind its interception and leak.

Voice thought to be Pyatt’s: I think we’re in play. The Klitschko [Vitaly Klitschko, one of three main opposition leaders] piece is obviously the complicated electron here. Especially the announcement of him as deputy prime minister and you’ve seen some of my notes on the troubles in the marriage right now so we’re trying to get a read really fast on where he is on this stuff. But I think your argument to him, which you’ll need to make, I think that’s the next phone call you want to set up, is exactly the one you made to Yats [Arseniy Yatseniuk, another opposition leader]. And I’m glad you sort of put him on the spot on where he fits in this scenario. And I’m very glad that he said what he said in response.

Jonathan Marcus: The US says that it is working with all sides in the crisis to reach a peaceful solution, noting that “ultimately it is up to the Ukrainian people to decide their future”. However this transcript suggests that the US has very clear ideas about what the outcome should be and is striving to achieve these goals. Russian spokesmen have insisted that the US is meddling in Ukraine’s affairs – no more than Moscow, the cynic might say – but Washington clearly has its own game-plan. The clear purpose in leaking this conversation is to embarrass Washington and for audiences susceptible to Moscow’s message to portray the US as interfering in Ukraine’s domestic affairs.

Nuland: Good. I don’t think Klitsch should go into the government. I don’t think it’s necessary, I don’t think it’s a good idea.

Pyatt: Yeah. I guess… in terms of him not going into the government, just let him stay out and do his political homework and stuff. I’m just thinking in terms of sort of the process moving ahead we want to keep the moderate democrats together. The problem is going to be Tyahnybok [Oleh Tyahnybok, the other opposition leader] and his guys and I’m sure that’s part of what [President Viktor] Yanukovych is calculating on all this.

Continue reading the main story

Ukraine unrest: Timeline

21 November 2013: Protests start after Ukraine announces it will not sign a deal aimed at strengthening ties with the EU

17 December: Russia agrees to buy $15bn of Ukrainian government bonds and slash the price of gas it sells to the country

16 January 2014: Parliament passes law restricting the right to protest

22 January: Two protesters die from bullet wounds during clashes with police in Kiev; protests spread across many cities

25 January: President Yanukovych offers seniorjobs to the opposition, including that of prime minister, but these are rejected

28 January: Parliament votes to annul protest law and President Yanukovych accepts resignation of PM and cabinet

29 January: Parliament passes amnesty law for detained protesters, under the condition occupied buildings are vacated

Nuland: [Breaks in] I think Yats is the guy who’s got the economic experience, the governing experience. He’s the… what he needs is Klitsch and Tyahnybok on the outside. He needs to be talking to them four times a week, you know. I just think Klitsch going in… he’s going to be at that level working for Yatseniuk, it’s just not going to work.

Pyatt: Yeah, no, I think that’s right. OK. Good. Do you want us to set up a call with him as the next step?

Nuland: My understanding from that call – but you tell me – was that the big three were going into their own meeting and that Yats was going to offer in that context a… three-plus-one conversation or three-plus-two with you. Is that not how you understood it?

Pyatt: No. I think… I mean that’s what he proposed but I think, just knowing the dynamic that’s been with them where Klitschko has been the top dog, he’s going to take a while to show up for whatever meeting they’ve got and he’s probably talking to his guys at this point, so I think you reaching out directly to him helps with the personality management among the three and it gives you also a chance to move fast on all this stuff and put us behind it before they all sit down and he explains why he doesn’t like it.

Nuland: OK, good. I’m happy. Why don’t you reach out to him and see if he wants to talk before or after.

Pyatt: OK, will do. Thanks.

Nuland: OK… one more wrinkle for you Geoff. [A click can be heard] I can’t remember if I told you this, or if I only told Washington this, that when I talked to Jeff Feltman [United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs] this morning, he had a new name for the UN guy Robert Serry did I write you that this morning?

  • Jonathan Marcus: An intriguing insight into the foreign policy process with work going on at a number of levels: Various officials attempting to marshal the Ukrainian opposition; efforts to get the UN to play an active role in bolstering a deal; and (as you can see below) the big guns waiting in the wings – US Vice-President Joe Biden clearly being lined up to give private words of encouragement at the appropriate moment.

Pyatt: Yeah I saw that.

Nuland: OK. He’s now gotten both Serry and [UN Secretary General] Ban Ki-moon to agree that Serry could come in Monday or Tuesday. So that would be great, I think, to help glue this thing and to have the UN help glue it and, you know, Fuck the EU.

Jonathan Marcus: Not for the first time in an international crisis, the US expresses frustration at the EU’s efforts. Washington and Brussels have not been completely in step during the Ukraine crisis. The EU is divided and to some extent hesitant about picking a fight with Moscow. It certainly cannot win a short-term battle for Ukraine’s affections with Moscow – it just does not have the cash inducements available. The EU has sought to play a longer game; banking on its attraction over time. But the US clearly is determined to take a much more activist role.

Pyatt: No, exactly. And I think we’ve got to do something to make it stick together because you can be pretty sure that if it does start to gain altitude, that the Russians will be working behind the scenes to try to torpedo it. And again the fact that this is out there right now, I’m still trying to figure out in my mind why Yanukovych (garbled) that. In the meantime there’s a Party of Regions faction meeting going on right now and I’m sure there’s a lively argument going on in that group at this point. But anyway we could land jelly side up on this one if we move fast. So let me work on Klitschko and if you can just keep… we want to try to get somebody with an international personality to come out here and help to midwife this thing. The other issue is some kind of outreach to Yanukovych but we probably regroup on that tomorrow as we see how things start to fall into place.

Nuland: So on that piece Geoff, when I wrote the note [US vice-president’s national security adviser Jake] Sullivan’s come back to me VFR [direct to me], saying you need [US Vice-President Joe] Biden and I said probably tomorrow for an atta-boy and to get the deets [details] to stick. So Biden’s willing.

Pyatt: OK. Great. Thanks.

Jonathan Marcus: Overall this is a damaging episode between Washington and Moscow. Nobody really emerges with any credit. The US is clearly much more involved in trying to broker a deal in Ukraine than it publicly lets on. There is some embarrassment too for the Americans given the ease with which their communications were hacked. But is the interception and leaking of communications really the way Russia wants to conduct its foreign policy ? Goodness – after Wikileaks, Edward Snowden and the like could the Russian government be joining the radical apostles of open government? I doubt it. Though given some of the comments from Vladimir Putin’s adviser on Ukraine Sergei Glazyev – for example his interview with the Kommersant-Ukraine newspaper the other day – you don’t need your own listening station to be clear about Russia’s intentions. Russia he said “must interfere in Ukraine” and the authorities there should use force against the demonstrators.

An Evening at Madison Square Garden

Posted in On Sports!, Uncategorized with tags , on March 4, 2014 by playthell

Samori Live at Madison Square Garden

Sportswriter Samori Benjamin at the Garden Hoping for a Win

 In the Mecca of B-ball with a Knick Icon

Going to check out a New York Knicks game at the Garden is an exciting experience under any circumstances – the grandeur of the massive arena, the roar of the crowd, the celebrities from show biz and politics, the exciting floor shows….and then there is the game – but going to the Garden as the guest of Dr. Dick Barnett, a Kick icon who played on the only World Championship teams in franchise history is a very special trip.  This became immediately clear as we entered the building to watch the Knicks Play the San Francisco Warriors.

The guards at the entrance recognized Dick in the bustling crowd, which was moving at a snail’s pace due to the body scans by electronic metal detectors and hand searches of bags, and waved him to the front of the line along with me and Zach Husser – a former Columbia University football and basketball player who originally introduced me to Dr. Barnett and invited me to attend the game with them.  Once inside we went straight away to the Delta Lounge on the 5th floor, a VIP sanctuary where the big shots and their guest congregate.  The average fan does not know this place exist, and even if they do they have no idea of its extravagance.  Everything – food and beverages – is free, except for alcoholic drinks. And this is no mere finger foods, but lobster tails, corned beef, loads of fresh steamed vegetables, fruit juices, exotic breads and the like.

There were large flat screen television sets everywhere, so the swells could watch the game without mingling with the boisterous mob in the stands.  Actually, this was a place to meet and greet, see and be seen, to “network” with Gotham City’s movers and shakers.  The congregants in the lounge, like the common lot of fans, were mostly white and about half of them seem to have been invited by somebody else with juice, since they were running around gawking like Alice in Wonderland.  After a while it became apparent that some of these people were much more interested in networking than watching the game.  Perhaps because they knew the home team would break their hearts before the evening was over.

After a while I went to the exit that led into the arena and the Knicks were just going through their pre-game ritual, a kind of primitive male war dance to hip hop beats in a darkened house, while a voice on the loud speaker egged the crowd on, prodding them into such a state of excitation they let out a blood curdling collective primal scream that ricocheted off the walls and echoed throughout the cavernous arena.  I was anxious to get to our seats by tip off time but I had to prod Dr. Barnett in order to get him out of the lounge where he was comfortably ensconced in a prominent place so that everybody who came through could see him as he chatted with passersby.

Doc was lukewarm about getting out into the arena because he too has lost faith in the ability of the Knicks to win a game, and it is a source of great disappointment, having played on the Knicks team with legendary ballers like like Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, Walt “Clyde” Frazier, Willis Reed, Dave Debusshere and “Dollar” Bill Bradley, that won the NBA Championship in the 1969 -70 and 1972-73 seasons.   As he pointed to their Jerseys hanging atop the arena, it must have been painful to watch as these imposters in Knicks uniforms disgraced themselves and abused the fans; which had parted with their hard earned coin and trudged out in sub freeing weather to watch them stumble around the court in a danse macabre; a comedy of errors that was more embarrassing than funny.

The Only NBA Champions in Knicks History
New-York-Knicks Championship team
Dick Barnett is seated to the far right next to Earl “The Pearl” Monroe

As the game plodded on I began to suspect that perhaps success and failure may both be imposters after all.  For as I watched the hapless Knicks fall behind by 21 points at halftime I wondered how these jokers had ever won a game in the NBA.  How they had once been thought of as serious contenders.  While it seemed that everything the Warriors tossed in the direction of the basket went in, as they ran a series of razzle dazzle plays, the hapless Knicks were stiff as stuffed owls anchored to their pedestals.

What masqueraded as an offensive strategy for the Knicks consisted of passing the pill to Carmelo Anthony, then cavalierly watching the giant overhead monitor screens waiting for him to put the ball in the hoop.  But, alas, on this night Mello was as cold as the icicles hanging on the roof outside; the boy couldn’t throw a grape through a hoola hoop. But aside from an occasional three pointer from the point guard, J.R. Smith and Tim Hardaway JR, they just kept passing the ball to Mello and staring up at the monitor screen.

Perhaps because Mello had been on a scoring streak the last few games, shooting forty points or more had become common fare, his team mates thought he was a gift that would just keep on giving. Alas they were wrong, and nobody seemed able to come up with a second act.  Every time Mello got the ball the defense collapsed on him with two and sometimes three players guarding him; yet it never seemed to occur to him to look for the open man and pass the ball off.   He seemed to believe, like the rest of the team, that scoring the ball was his gig.

Mello Shooting the Ball
A human scoring machine

Carmello shooting

But he needs help…especially when he’s cold!

As halftime approached the drubbing the Knicks were undergoing became so painful for loyal fans it was akin to witnessing a loved one being pecked to pieces by diabolical crows from an Alfred Hitchcock movie.  My son Samori, a sports writer who has been covering the Knicks for years on WBAI radio and, assured me that the suddenly silent crowd was anxious to go crazy but the Knicks gave them no cause for applause.

Thus in what appeared to be a desperate attempt to give the home crowd some reason to cheer, a picture of Mark Jackson, the San Francisco Warriors coach, appeared on the giant overhead screens with the caption “All Time Knicks Great Point Guard,” then they proceeded to show video highlights of some of Jackson’s smooth moves. The crowd finally had a reason to cheer and they went crazy cheering for the coach of the team that was kicking the home team’s ass!  It was, to say the least, bizarre.

Dr. Barnett flashed a smile of approval as he watched the video of Mark Jackson in action, but when the Knocks flashed a tribute to “Sweetwater Clifton” the former Globetrotter who became the first African American player to wear a New York Knickerbocker Jersey, Doc’s mood went from mirthful to salty.  “There are playing Sweetwater up big now, but they didn’t do shit for him when he was driving a cab later in life to put food on the table.  Walt Frazier managed to bust in the organization beyond the court as an announcer, but the Knicks usually don’t do shit for black players.” he said.

Dick Barnett in 1972
That Championship Season!

As an aside he commented “The Pearl just had knee replacement surgery a couple of days ago.”  Dick Barnett had escaped the fate that befell Sweetwater Clifton and many pro-Athletes after their playing days are over – the great Allen Iverson of who played in Philly is the latetest example – by acquiring a PhD, becoming a professor of Sports Management and writing several books.

We departed at the conclusion of the first half, unable to bear any more of the drubbing, since the Knicks were down by 21 points in a half where the Warriors had scored over 70 points, and only the real fanatics operating on blind faith believed things would get better in the second half.  Alas, we felt the Knicks were engaging in fan abuse and we had had more than our share; would enable them no longer.  Doc decided to hang out in the Delta Lounge, and wait for his old pal and former Knick Cal Ramsey, who was wheelchair bound.

As me and Zach were leaving a couple of the guards who saw us come in with Dick  came over to us shaking their heads “couldn’t take it no more huh?” one of them asked….”It beats me how they manage to fill up this place for every game, win or lose the people still show up come rain or shine”  As I listened to this rather incredible revelation, I thought to myself: I guess that’s why the call them fans….which is short for fanatics.


                  Double Click on Link to view Documentary On Barnett
Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem New York
March 3, 2014

Dr. DUBOIS Then and Now

Posted in Uncategorized 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