It’s Time to Call It Treason!

Posted in On Donald Trump, On Foreign Affairs, Playthell on politics with tags , , on July 15, 2018 by playthell

Putin Instructing his Puppet?

Impeach the Moscow Candidate

The charge of treason is clearly defined in the US Constitution. Article 3 Section 3 states: 

“Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort. No person shall be convicted of Treason unless on the testimony of two witnesses to the same overt act.”

 Hence the question before the nation is what constitutes a state of war with a foreign country, and has Donald Trump given the enemy “aid and comfort.” First let us consider whether Russia committed an act of war against these United States of America. Like everything else in our lives, digitization has changed the nature of war as dramatically as it is changing the nature of work. Alas, it is quite enough to point out that a massive Cyber-attack by a hostile power has been added to the list of events that would justify a nuclear response. That is the ultimate act of war!  Yet the entire nation has witnessed our President giving “aid and comfort”  to the perpetrator.

Although commentators in and outside of government routinely refer to the Russian Cyber-attack that may well have determined the outcome of our presidential election as an act of war, they don’t respond to this attack with the same fervor and conviction they would have if the Russians had torpedoed an American submarine. Everyone would be up in arms demanding retaliation, and if the president dismissed the unanimous assessment of our intelligence agencies – the best in the world – and instead accepted the word of the leader of the hostile nation that launched the attack instead, there would be a deafening cry for his impeachment!

And if the President took no action to protect our nation’s assets from further attack, refused to even issue a scathing denunciation of the aggressor’s action; then arranged a meeting with the president of the hostile nation in which no one from the American government or press would be present; just the two presidents, there would be an urgent movement in Congress to impeach him for “giving aid and comfort to the enemy” Which is the definition of Treason!

All of these things are true in regard to Donald Trump’s response to the Russian Cyber-attack on our national election. Many astute observers believe the attack changed the course of American history by putting Trump in the Oval Office, and this now redounds to the benefit of the Russians. When we add the fact that US intelligence agencies unanimously concluded that the objective of the Russian attack was to help elect Donald Trump President, we have the motive for Treason! But what of the evidence people ask? Will the evidence support a charge as serious as treason?

Many legal scholars, former prosecuters and pundits – this writer included – believe the evidence is near overwhelming, a prima facie case.. However on the this a charge of such gravitas that many Americans are bewildered by the possible consequences. Indeed, Lawrence Tribe, Harvard Law Professor and the nation’s leading authority on the US Constitution, has just published a book on question in an attempt to clarify this complex process,To End a Presidency: The Power of Impeachment.” It is no picayune matter that there have been only two impeachments of presidents in American history, and in each instance, after the Bill of Impeachment from the House of Representatives was presented to the Senate and the President was be put on trail, they beat the rap. However none has ever been charged with treason.

Andrew Johnson, Abraham Lincoln’s Vice-President who ascended to the presidency after the assassination of Lincoln, was the first president to be impeached. However Johnson was impeached by the “Radical Republicans” of the Reconstruction period in the aftermath of the American Civil War, and his impeachment was the result of policy differences.The US Civil War was the most destructive and murderous war the world had ever witnessed by the mid-19th century. This is because it was the first modern war where arms could be mass produced by virtue of the development of an industrial base. Hence death and destruction could, and was, be dispensed on a massive scale.

Thus “Binding up the nations wounds” with “Malice toward none and charity for all,” as the martyred President had called for before before he was shot to death during a night out at Ford’s theater, was much easier said than done. The nation’s problems were monumental: complex, illusive, and in search of solutions in an atmosphere of inter-sectional and racial hatred, passionate resentments and despair. It was the kind of poisoned atmosphere in which there was little chance that “the better angels of our nature” would prevail, as President Lincoln had prayed.

President Johnson was a pro-union southerner who, like the northerner Lincoln, came from the poor white working class. However, although he hated the rich, arrogant, decadent, slave holding planter class he was also a virulent racist with no sympathy for Afro-Americans. Hence he opposed every effort of the Congress to help Afro-Americans overcome the handicaps resulting from 250 years of chattel slavery, a system the great freedom fighted Harriet Tubman said was “Worse than hell!” And the peerless Afro-American Abolitionist writer and orator Frederick Douglass said “would disgrace a nation of savages.” When the Radical Republican Congress, led by Pennsylvania’s Thaddeus Stevens in the House and Charles Sumner of Massachusetts in the Senate, had their fill of the Southern domcrat’s obstructionism they Impeached him! Although Johnson survived the Senate trial by one vote when Senator Edmund Ross of Kansas surprised his colleagues by voting “not guilty,” the great abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner said of him: Andrew Johnson is the impersonation of the tyrannical slave power. In him it lives again.”

A century later Richard M. Nixon, a Republican, had just won a second term in the presidency by a historic landslide when he faced imminent impeachment due to the Watergate scandal resulting from operatives working for The Committee to Reelect the President aka CREEP breaking into the Democratic Party Headquarters in Washington’s Watergate Hotel. The group, a motley crew led by former intelligence officers known to history as “The White House Plumbers,”was on a mission to find damaging information on the democratic Party that could be used to damage their presidential candidate.

Nixon’s attempt to cover up White house involvement in the crime led to Congress passing the first Article of Impeachment on July 27, 1974 for Obstruction of Justice – one of the charges now being considered against Trump. With Impeachment a certainty Nixon chose to resign instead….the only President in US history to do so. In a striking historical irony, 44 years later we have another Republican President under investigation for interfering in the campaign of a democratic candidate for president, and is also facing the possibility of Impeachment for Obstruction of Justice!

However whereas as the Nixon era Republicans used former US intelligence operatives, the Trump campaign is being investigated for colluding with active agents in the Russian military intelligence establishment, several of whom have just been indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. This is no picayune matter, for whereas the Nixon operatives were guilty of a botched burglary, the Trump campaign is alleged to have conspired with a hostile foreign power to steal massive amounts of documents from the Democrats that were used in an attempt to sway the presidential election in favor of Donald Trump…which he won by a mere 77, 000 votes spread over three states while losing the popular election to Hillary Clinton by 3, 000,000 votes.

This was a political event that has no precedent in US history, nor has a US president ever chosen to believe the leader of a hostile foreign power over his own intelligence agencies. Yet Devious Donald has embarked on a campaign to discredit those agencies, comparing them to the evil genocidal Nazi gestapo, and labeling the American press “enemies of the people” for objectively reporting the facts about Russian cyber-aggression and the unfolding evidence of collusion by members of his campaign. In fact, many professional prosecutors have noted that Trump’s behavior fits the description of what they call “consciousness of guilt” on the part of suspects.

Alas, it has been repeatedly pointed out by a variety of observers that Trump is famous for coining demeaning nicknames for anyone with whom he has a disagreement, including many fellow Republicans – “Lyin Ted,” “Little Marco,” “Sloppy Steve,” Low Energy Jeb,” et al – and he still refers to his former Democratic adversary as “Crooked Hillary.” But Trump has NEVER called Vladimir Putin out of his name! “Whassup wit dat?” many people are asking. Speculation about the reasons for this abound, some people have even coined some sobriquets for him. My personal favorites are: “Putin’s Puppet” and “Putin’s Pussy!”

Yet whatever Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s and other investigations proves to be the case, on the face of it we can see there is a rottening in the Oval Office. It is clear from readily available facts that the President is violating his oath to “defend the Constitution from all enemies foreign and domestic.” Just now, he has become an enemy of the Constitution with his constant attacks on the legitimacy of the free press, whose independent role as a watch dog over those who govern us and a protector of the public interest is guaranteed in the Constitution.

Thomas Jefferson, one of the wisest of the Founding Fathers, thought it so important he said if given a choice between a free press and no government or a government and no free press, he would choose the free press and no government. By attacking the legitimacy of our free press and trashing US intelligence agencies, the front line soldiers in the Cyber-war against Russia, setting Americans at each other’s throats in the process, Donald J. Trump has failed in his pledge to “insure domestic tranquility,” as the Chief Excutive of the nation, and by refusing to confront the Russians about their military cyber-attack on our nation he has abdicated his constitutionally appointed role as “Commander-In-Chief.”

Yet in a couple of days Trump has the unmitigated gall to meet with Putin in private without a single representative of our government, military or press in attendance. This inexplicable folly will further disgrace his office and destroy confidence in our government for millions of Americans who are already greatly disillusioned by his behavior. For many loyal Americans who have served in the military- this writer included-Trump is a draft dodging coward; a blabbermouth chicken hawk who loves to wrap himself in the flag and claim to speak for veterans, but the chump is all blow and no go! Eric Watree – a writer an honorably discharged Marine who volunteered for service in our most audacious fighting force when Donnie Dipshit was using his daddy’s money and influence to escape military service – has penned a song titled “Draft Dodging Donnie,”which gives expression to how every veteran that I know feels about this slacker stinking up in the Oval Office.

We consider this meeting with Putin a far greater offense against flag and nation than NFL players taking a knee to protest white police murders of their unarmed black brothers, a fate that could easily befall them. After all, they are simply exercising their First Amendment rights under the Constitution that Trump has sworn to defend and instead he calls them “sons of bitches” on national television. On the other hand, Devious Dastardly Dirty Donnie’s cloak and dagger huddle with KGB Colonel Vladimir Putin has the stench of Treason!

Even former CIA Director John Brennan, and former military intelligence operative Malcolm Nance – author of two seminal books on the role of Russian intelligence agencies in engineering the Trump presidency – has openly suggested the possibility that Trump could actually be a Russian intelligence asset! A kind of modern “Manchrian candidate” made in Moscow. To me it is something of a moot question, because if he is not Putin’s puppet I cannot imagine what he would do differently if he were. Alas, enough of the shilly shally: I say if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, its a fuckin duck! If it talks like a traitor and acts like a traitor: It’s probably a goddamed traitor! In any case it’s time to charge Trump with treason and put his ignorant arrogant ass on trial; that is the only way to finally solve this enigma that poses a grave danger to our democratic Republic.

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Playthell G. Benjamin

Harlem, New York

July 15, 2018

On the Immigration Question

Posted in On Immigration with tags , on July 12, 2018 by playthell

Latin American Immigrants at the US Border

An Afro-American View

When the question of immigration is considered from the perspective of Afro-Americans it is clear that it is not in our interests. One need only look at the history of the traditional black community – those Afro-Americans who are the descendants of slaves, many of whom’s ancestors go back to the founding of the American republic – to recognize a distinct relationship between immigration and Afro-American economic development. Simply stated the pattern shows that African-Americans experience the most dramatic economic growth during periods of low foreign immigration.

Indeed, evidence of the inverse relationship between Afro-American economic advancement and immigration is not confined to statistics, but is also noted in the real time testimony of thoughtful Afro-American leaders. For instance, Frederick Douglass recalls European immigrants trying to run him off the job when he was working in the Baltimore shipyard as a skilled slave that his master hired out to collect his wages. The immigrants felt that Douglass – who soon escaped slavery and went on to become the most insightful commentator and critic of a hypocrital American society that perpetually preached the virtues of freedom while practicing a tyranny which Douglass said “would embarrass a nation of savages!”- had no right to work on the job because he was black.

Over a century later I would be told by an arrogant Eastern European immigrant on a New York construction site “you are only working here because you are black!” He was referring to the anti-discrimination laws that required the contractor to employ a racially diverse work force, which he resented. Although Douglass and I were born and raised in America, and the immigrants had literally just got off the boat, they felt they should be given preference over us in the job market.

In his 1895 speech at the World Exposition of Cotton Growing States held in Atlanta Georgia, Booker T. Washington, founder and principal of Tuskegee Institute in the black belt of Alabama, who would succeed Frederick Douglass as the most influential spokesman for black America, made a desperate plea for the economic salvation of Afro-Americans, who were trying to gain an economic foothold as a free people after enduring 250 years of chattel slavery. His famous refrain in the speech, “Cast down your buckets where you are,” was a warning to black Americans who were fleeing the increasing white terror and drudgery of rural southern peonage that the northern cities was no paradise.

Washington’s extensive visits to the north investigating the fate of Afro-Americans who had fled to the north convinced him that they were worse off in the unhealthy conditions of the wretched city slums. And he attributed their poverty to the fact that they were excluded from the employment opportunities offered by an industrializing America by the massive waves of poor immigrants from Europe!

This has been the experience of Afro-Americans with immigration. And there is no reason to believe it will be significantly different with Hispanic immigrants, a labor force made docile by the lash of hunger back home and often harboring racists attitudes toward black people, as Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. has shown in his revealing PBS documentary “Black in Latin America.”

Yet, despite the opposition of many Afro-Americans to immigration, the transparent racism of Donald Trump, and the odious spectacle of US government agents snatching the children of Hispanic immigrants seeking asylum, even separating toddlers from their mothers who are then confined to cages, has turned most Afro-Americans against his “Zero Tolerance” policy. Hence it is virtually impossible for black politicians and intellectuals to assert our interests in the ongoing debate over immigration without being tainted by the arguments and policies of the Trump administration. Yet Afro-Americans have a special truth to tell regarding the negative effects of mass immigration that grows out of our experience, and it must be told.

However I share the view and concerns of Robert Beck, author of the insightful book, The Case Againist Immigration, who noted:

Unfortunately, to write about the problems of immigration is to risk seeming to attack immigrants themselves. Even worse is the risk of inadvertently encouraging somebody else to show hostility toward the foreign born.” After noting his extensive relationships with immigrants, and the fact that his children’s friends were mostly immigrants or the children of immigrants, Beck writes,” Thus, as with the case for millions of other Americans, I have a very personal stake in not wanting to hostility or discrimination toward the foreign born who are already living among us. To be sure, this proximity to so many foreign born persons include some less than positive experiences, along with the delightful, which preclude me from from a superficial, romanticied view of immigration. The influx into my own community clearly has been too fast and in too large a volume.”

Alas, the way the debate has been shaped at the moment, one is either a racist right-wing Trump supporter who is hostile to immigrants from South of the border, or a left-wing radical who believes that anybody that presents themselves at the US border with a hard luck story should be allowed to enter. The former position is morally repugnant and the latter position is well meaning but unsustainable.

Anyone who has visited Latin America recognizes that there is a multitude of people trapped in appalling living conditions with no real prospect for change. And one does not have to agree with Trump’s silly ideas about building a wall across the Mexican border – which would cost millions – to recognize that since all people want a better life for themselves and their children, they would immigrate to the US en-mass if economic hardship were made the test for gaining admission to the US.

Many people will argue that this was the basis upon which millions of European immigrants entered this country including the grandfather of Donald Trump. While that is certainly true, it must be viewed in historical context. The massive European immigration of the late 19th and early 20th century occurred during a period of rapid industrialization centered in the city, and the massive expropriation of Indian lads by white settlers in the American West, hence the US economy could absorb the new immigrants.

Today neither condition exist, rather the US economy is rapidly moving toward a post-industrial phase in which jobs are being permanently eliminated due to digitization, in which people are being replaced by robots. This epochal change is rendering human labor obsolete. Jobs as diverse as professional drivers – trucks, trains, buses, cabs, etc – to behind the counter clerks; accountants and even newspaper editors. Man of these are jobs that were believed to require human workers not that long ago. The projections of scholars studying this development concur that millions of workers who are gainfully employed today will be obsolete in the not too distant future.

Hence any analogy between the great waves of European immigration in the 19th and twentieth centuries, and the immigrants now seeking to enter the US in the second decade of the 21st century, is a false one. Hence the question of immigration must be viewed in the light of contemporary American economic realities. And aside from farm work which native born Americans appear to be unwilling to do in sufficient numbers to meet the requirements of large scale farmers.

This would suggest that immigration policy should be adjusted to meet that economic need; some have proposed a guest worker program would address this problem. On the other hand, a policy of allowing large scale immigration into the US at this time that would pit foreign born workers against the native born for a dwindling number of jobs is bound to create social anxieties and conflict that give birth to reactionary right-wing nativist movements of the sort that put Donald Trump in the Oval Office.

Since this is a White Nationalists movement, Afro-Americans are bound to lose hard won ground as they enact racist policies. And should immigration policies favor “people from Norway,” as Donald Trump – a latter day eugenicist aka white supremacist – has proposed it would only swell the ranks of the white majority.

Alas, having lived under “The tyranny of the majority” – a term coined by Alexis de Tocqueville to distinguish mere majority rule from genuine democracy in his magisterial 1831 study Democracy in America –” increasing the ranks of whites in the US is not an outcome that would favor black Americans.

Then there is the fact that immigrants tend to band together and aid each other to the exclusion of native born Americans. This produces antagonisms, especially with Afro-Americans who are still struggling for full inclusion in American economic life. Hence, from any point of view, large scale immigration from any quarter is not in the interests of Afro-Americans.

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Playthell G. Benjamin

Harlem, New York

July 12, 2018

Queen Makeda Astounds the Cubanos!

Posted in Makeda Dancing in Cuba with tags on July 8, 2018 by playthell

Making Magic on the Dance Floor

 Queen Makeda Murders the Mambo in Old Habana!

It was a sultry summer afternoon in old Habana and the bright Caribbean sun bathed the old stone buildings as well as the black, brown and beige brick house bodies on display, in a shower of golden sunlight.  Afro-Cuban Cojuntos were ubiquitous, woven into the fabric of Cuban life, which seemed to move and groove to the rhythm of the Clave.  Grand Sonoros and Sonoras sang from street corners and open air cafes, captivating the promenaders with the sensuous sounds of Son…. not everywhere but anywhere….not all the time but anytime.

El Grande Sidewalk Sonoro!

 A Performance Worthy of Carnegie Hall

 As chance and the ancestors would have it, I was strolling through the elegant old city with my daughter Makeda when we happened upon a smoking Cojunto whose lead singer fancied himself something of a Mambo King, a monarch of movement who invited all comers to step to him in a friendly challenge dance and match his marvelous moves.  After bedazzling a couple of daring Cuban Senoras and Senoritas with his complex footwork, brazenly showing off his mastery of this sensuous dance of romance, he met his match.  Queen Makeda, the Renaissance Amazon from the Big Apple, whose Mambo skills were forged in the Ritmos Caliente of Spanish Harlem.   And I knew if he called her out she would step up and represent!

A great fan of dance, especially the Mambo, witnessing the dance well done is a natural high for a Congero like me; rooted in the Afro-Cuban vernacular dance tradition, upon whose rhythm’s the Mambo is dictated…along with the timbales, bass and clave.  Armed with my camera, and understanding that photography is often an art of chance, I clandestinely contrived to get Queen Makeda and the Cuban cock of the walk out on the dance floor…I knew it would be a great show!

I walked over to the gloating Mambo King and offered a simple suggestion: “Dance with her, she’s from New York.” The mystique of New York City is no less bewitching on the fascinating Ilse of Cuba than elsewhere in the world, thus with a devilish grin and graceful serpentine strut the Mambo Maestro proceeded to take my advice and invited Makeda to dance.

My intention was to capture their performance on film, but I was confronted with an important aesthetic decision: Should I go for still shots or video?  Given the hypnotic character of moving images with sound, and the widespread public fascination with the electronic spectacle, logic would seem to dictate that I produce an audio-visual presentation. But I was going for something different, and from my perspective something more.  I wanted to capture the intricacies of the dance and freeze them in time forever.  And I believe that still shots are the best way to do it.  Hence I took out my camera, popped in an 8 Giga-bite file, and prepared to shoot.

Queen Makeda: Renaissance Amazon
Dancer/Shaman/Scientist

What the Mambo Maestro didn’t understand was that he was jumping in the ring to do battle with a Black Magic Woman, who had a wide vocabulary of dance moves encompassing many genres at her command.  She is an Artist, Athlete, Scientist and Shaman and as her God-Father Mookie Jackson would say: “An she doos em all good!” Like her intellectual God Mothers Kathrine Dunham, Pearl Primus and Zora Neal Hurston, Makeda is interested in the values, mores and folkways of the Neo-African cultures of the Atlantic diaspora that produced the dances she performs.  Hence, she is an avid reader of scholarly treatises on the subject which allows her to experience the deeper meaning of the dance.  Her performance with a Haitian company in a powerful ritual to heal that devastated nation after the earthquake is a poignant case in point.

A quintessential Womanist named after the powerful Ethiopian Queen of Sheba, she prefers Goddesses to male Gods and feels a closer kinship to Oshun and Yemaja than Jesus or Allah.  And she danced a homage to Pele, the goddess of fire on the edge of the Volcano that is presently erupting in Hawaii.

Sacred Dancing in the Pacific Ring of Fire

A Homage to the Goddess Pele

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Ritual Dances to Heal Haiti

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The bold and fearless sense in which she approaches life also informs her attitude toward dance.  Her performance with the Afro-Cuban dancer/sonoro on that sunny afternoon in a case in point.  They delighted the crowd of onlookers, who applauded boisterously, as they expressed astonishment that an Afro-American girl could dance the Mambo so.  The pictures tell the story of that enchanted evening, magic moments in Old Habana.

Mambo Diablo!

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Their Performance was greeted by wonder and Surprise…. 

They asked: How can an American dance like that? 

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See: The band Makeda Danced With!

Mui Caliente!

But What the Cubanos Didn’t Know……

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Was Keda had Killed the Mambo Before

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At Club Camarrada

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In Spanish Harlem

Or, Dancing With Big Papi

To the Ritmos Caliente

Of Zon del Barrio

Rocked by “The Great Oreste” on Congas!

Dancing Under the Stars

At Manhattan’s South Street Seaport

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She’s Oshun’s Daughter…A Black Magic Woman

What a Wonderful Night for a Moon Dance!

A Renaissance Amazon: Scientist, Shaman, Athlete Artist

I Believe She Can Fly!!!

Jump up and Touch the Sky!!!

Although I was once an avid advocate of the idea that pride in one’s ancestors was essential to the development of self-esteem, observing it in practice over half a century I have begun to regard that argument with suspicion; to view it with a jaundiced eye.  Far too often I have witnessed pride in one’s ancestry degenerate into mere racial, national or ethnic chauvinism, or become a thin veil to camouflage one’s lack of individual achievement.  In which case it amounts to riding on somebody else’s cool.  Hence I have come to believe that we actually have no right to lay claim to our ancestors, or other members of our racial or national group’s achievements.

Alas, that’s not a foundation on which genuine self-esteem can be built. We may justly celebrate their great works, but in the end true self-esteem must involve worthwhile achievements on the part of the individual.  That being said, we may justly show pride in our children if they are outstanding, and if we were good parents that helped shape them into the what they have become.  Hence I am a shameless doting dad!

Despite the fact that words are my game – a claim repeatedly affirmed by great editors at distinguished journals in which my work has been published on both sides of the Atlantic – I can conjure no words to adequately express my pride in and admiration for my junior daughter Makeda.  And my handiwork is imprinted all over her; from her respect for scholarship in forming conclusions about important matters; her independent cast of mind, and her absolute refusal to be a slave to either social convention or conventional wisdom in her fields of interests; which are eclectic and spans art and science.  Although we have a similar approach to knowledge, our differences are  distinguished by the fact that she has spiritual proclivities that tend toward the mystical, while I am a cold rational materialists.

Although whenever I invoke the authority of the “scientific method” as the ultimate arbiter of truth, she is not shy about reminding me that she has the superior scientific education.  However there is one arena where we are completely simpatico, and that is our love of Afro-Cuban and other Neo-African music and dance traditions of the Black Atlantic diaspora. This is obviously because she is a dancer and I am a drummer who is not reluctant to get on the dance floor when he is not playing the Congas.

The Apple Didn’t Fall Far From the Tree!

El Chocolate and Fabulous Afro-Cuban Dancer Jasmine del Pino

El Chocolate Caliente: Congero!

That is why I composed this photo-essay on Makeda as a dancer, capturing an impromtu Mambo performance with an Afro-Cuban Conjunto in a recent visit to Old Habana; Mecca of the Son Montuno, which I love to play, and which is ideal for dancing the Mambo.  She more than held her own, she represented New York splendidly, just like I knew she would when I instigated the dance with the Afro-Cuban virtuoso.  But then, I believe she has the smarts and grit to be or do whatever she desires in the world.  The truth be told: I BELIEVE SHE CAN FLY!

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Watch Makeda Dance the Mambo with Miguel in Spanish Harlem

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Text, Video and photographs by: Playthell G. Benjamin**

**Except the photographs in Hawaii; Makeda in the Gold Lame dance Costume; the magnificent leaping shot; and the Moon Dance Silhouette.

Chicag

Life Among the Aryans  

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

Happy Former White Racists who took the “Black Shot”

 A Profound Play that Speaks to Our Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Outstanding Members of  The Cast

                                          Director Rome Neal                                  

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Maurice Carlton

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Timothy Mullins

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Angela Shaw and Kim Austin

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Rome Neal  and Maurice Carlton

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Rome Presenting the Shekere Award to Newly Minted Actor

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Monisha Shiva

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Rome Serenading the Audience

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Audience Members Passionately discuss the Play

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

Captain Oliver Law Takes Command!

Posted in A Rendezvous With History, Guest Commentators, On Foreign Affairs with tags , , , on June 18, 2018 by playthell

Anti-Fascist Hero of the Spanish Civil War

 Heroic African-American Communist Fights Fascism in Spain

 General Colin Powell was three months old when at 33 tall, broad-shouldered Texas African American Oliver Law, became the first Black Commander of an American Army. The date was June 12, 1937. Law was selected by a committee of three white officers to lead this integrated army.  Heard of Colin Powell but never heard of Oliver Law? Hardly surprising. Law’s not mentioned in school books or social studies classes and has yet to find a place in most college texts or history courses. But Law made his mark on world history in June 1937 and for very good reasons.

Oliver Law was among a brave band of 2800 American men and women (including 90 other African Americans) who rushed to help the Spanish Republic Spain during its Civil War (1936-1939). Their aim was to stop Hitler and Mussolini from seizing and using Spain to launch their march across Europe. This was a crucial Nazi warm-up for World War II. These brave Americans were joined by 40,000 other men and women fro52 countries who also volunteered to save Spain’s Republican government from Hitler and Mussolini and General Francisco Franco, their Spanish fascist ally.
For the only time in world history a global volunteer force left their homelands to defend democracy in a distant land. Though few volunteers had any military training they aimed to shame and prod their governments to stop fascist aggression “at the agates of Madrid.” But at this point England, France, the US and other democratic governments did nothing about fascist aggression – and England and France encouraged it. So, as one American Volunteer said, “someone had to do something!”

Among the US volunteers in the “Abraham Lincoln Brigade” military experience ran a low fourth to enthusiasm, commitment and sheer guts. Oliver Law was different. In Texas he had served six years in the Buffalo Soldiers, “US Colored Troops.” This was during the long night of US segregation and lynching lasting through World War II. US War Department policy prevented Law from becoming an officer or reaching higher than corporal.
But for African Americans in Spain life was different. “I can rise according to my worth, not my color,” Law said. This volunteer army included Black and white men and women who united during the Great Depression to fight for unemployment insurance, union rights and social security, and to end to segregation, discrimination and lynching.
After the Lincoln Brigade’s first battle at Jarama, Law’s courage was
rewarded with a promotion to lieutenant. Next he was placed in charge of a machine-gun company. Then Lincoln Brigade Commander Marty Hourihan recommended him for officers’ school.

When the position of Lincoln Brigade Commander became available on June12th, a committee of three white Brigade officers voted Law a Captain and Brigade Commander. One of the three, Steve Nelson, who had worked with him in Chicago, told why they picked Law: “He had the most experience and was best suited for the job.” Further, he was “the most acquainted with military procedures on the staff at the moment . . . he was well liked by his men . . . .” Nelson continued, “When soldiers were asked who might become an officer — ours was a very democratic army — his name always came up. Itwas spoken of him that he was calm under fire, dignified, respectful of his men
and always given to thoughtful consideration of initiatives and military missions.”
The rest of the story is sadder — for Law, the Lincoln Brigade, the International volunteers and the world. At 10:00 AM on July 9th at the battle of Brunete Commander Law insisted on leading his men against a fortified fascist position at Mosquito Ridge. Law, his runner New Yorker Harry Fisher recalled, was “running to the top of the hill,” waving his men on. Law did not “attempt to protect himself, and in a matter of seconds, machine-gun fire ripped into him.” Law’s other runner, Jerry Weinberg of Chicago, crawled across the battlefield to pull law to safety.  It was too late: “He died less than an hour later, Fisher recalled.

The Abraham Lincoln Brigade in Battle

Oliver Law’s comrades buried him under a sign that proudly declared
him the first Black commander of a US military unit.  Hitler, Mussolini and Franco defeated democracy in Spain and five months later, Nazi Germany’s marched into Poland and began World War II. Had the democracies heeded the warning of the 40,000 volunteers, the
story of World War II might have been different.
Though Oliver Law and a majority of the Americans died in Spain,
survivors returned home to again fight fascism after Pearl Harbor. After the war veterans of the Lincoln Brigade continued to battle racism in the United States and oppose imperialist wars abroad, some into the 21st century. Now this year the last one has died.

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By: William Katz

 

NOTE:  This article is based on THE LINCOLN BRIGADE: A PICTURE HISTORY and based on interviews with Brigade veterans Steve Nelson, Harry Fisher, Sam Walters, and others during two trips to Spain with the veterans and their families.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Old Mad King Donald’s Delusions of Grandeur

Posted in On Donald Trump, On Foreign Affairs, Playthell on politics with tags , on June 14, 2018 by playthell

Spouting Madness at the G-7

Donnie Dimwit Cuts the Fool in Canada

If the Bard of Avon was right, “all the world is a stage and we are but players upon it,” Donald Trump was born to the role of fool and perpetually panders to the poot-butts in the cheap seats.  Alas, his recent performance appears to have been based on a script written by ideologues and charlatans intoxicated by the opiate of American Exceptionalism, mesmerized by American military might, and Donnie Dimwit seemed to have arrived straight out of central casting to play the fool yet again.

After analyzing that incoherent drivel masquerading as a serious speech, delivered by clueless Don before his early departure from the G-7 Summit headed for Singapore, long time intelligence operative Malcolm Nance, whose bestselling book “The Hacking of America,” provided early warning of interference into the US presidential election by Russian Intelligence operatives, remarked that Trump came across as “Mad King Donald.”

In response to Trump’s comment that he didn’t need extensive preparation for his upcoming summit meeting with Kim Jung Un of North Korea, because he would be able to tell in the first few minutes if it was possible to do a deal or not, MSNBC host Joy Reed asked Nance how he thought Russian and North Korean intelligence services viewed Trump.

“I’m almost afraid to say what a professional intelligence officer would think about someone who is potentially recruitable, and asset, or a person who becomes a useful idiot,” says Nance. “He’s a fool!  And fools are easily manipulated.  If it’s about money you give them money.  If its about ideology you give them an ideology. And if you need to coerce them you coerce them by finding something you have compromised their integrity with.  Donald Trump has all of those!  He is a dream for a foreign a intelligence case officer.  He is being handled right now by a former KGB human intelligence officer who has him by the puppet strings.   And the North Koreans understand if you want to manipulate Donald Trump, you give him something for his ego.  The Chinese will give him licenses for his daughter and the Saudis will try to buy him outright!  No President has ever been like this!”  Nance went on to observe that’s why many of these leaders didn’t like President Obama: “His integrity level was so high there was no getting at the man.”

When Trump’s treatment of longstanding American allies at the G-7 Summit is calmly reviewed in retrospect, it is easy to see how one could conclude that Trump is working in collusion with the Russians to advance their interests as repayment for the role they played in his election – a charge US intelligence agencies unanimously agree on despite Trump’s vociferous denials. Yet even if there is a method to his madness…the way he goes about it is madness none-the-less.

One need only consider Trump’s child like temper tantrum when President Justin Trudeau, as calm and reasonable head of state as one will find among world leaders, in order to recognize that Donny Dimwit is a wakadoodle.  In response to Trump’s bogus claim that the US is running a trade deficit with Canada, and his decision to levy tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum in retaliation, Trudeau announced that Canada would respond in kind.  His statement was as calm and reasoned a response as one could expect from a leader whose country has just been the target of a hostile act:

It would be with regret but it would be with absolute certainty and firmness that we move forward with retaliatory measures on July 1st. Applying equivalent tariffs to the ones Americans have unjustly applied to us.” Said Trudeau.  I have made it very clear to the President that this is not something we relish doing but it is something we absolutely will do.  Because we are Canadians, we are polite and reasonable. But we also will not be pushed around.”

To this perfectly reasonable, almost milquetoast statement, Trump and his economic advisors unleashed a gaggle of vulgar tirades against the Canadian Prime Minister.  Trump, who arrived at the Group of Seven economic summit late and left early, was in the air when he saw Trudeau’s press conference on television, tweeted his outrage against Trudeau -calling him “very dishonest and weak” –  and decided to throw a monkey wrench into the machinery of economic cooperation among the US and her closest allies by ordering American representatives not to sign the joint declaration by the G-7 on their basic economic goals.

Based on Justin’s false statements at his news conference, and the fact that Canada is charging massive Tariffs to our U.S. farmers, workers and companies, I have instructed our U.S. Reps not to endorse the Communique as we look at Tariffs on automobiles flooding the U.S. Market!”

Trump’s outrage and vile characterization of Prime Minister Trudeau was echoed in the statement of Peter Navarro, a White House trade advisor, fulminated: “There’s a special place in hell for any foreign leader that engages in bad-faith diplomacy with President Donald J. Trump and then tries to stab him in the back on the way out the door.” And Larry Kudlow, Director of the National Economic Council, declared with great indignation on CNN’s State of the Nation on Sunday Morning: “POTUS is not going to let a Canadian prime minister push him around, He is not going to permit any show of weakness on the trip to negotiate with North Korea, nor should he.”

And John Bolton, the walrus mustachioed chicken hawk from the Project for a New American Century – the think tank that engineered the Iraq invasion – reincarnated as Trump’s National Security Advisor, tweeted a photo of a scowling Trump surrounded by G-7 members.  This was soon followed by the following statement to the press: “Just another #G7 where other countries expect America will always be their bank, The President made it clear today. No more.” 

In his outrage against members of the G-7 Trump has even threatened to stop trading with countries that refuse to accept his economic nationalist agenda.  Trump’s belligerence has left America’s closest and oldest allies, Britain and France, angered and puzzled; all thoughtful Americans cannot are embarrassed and dismayed that our president has once more decided to play the fool on the world stage.

Statesman and Clown

Trump Should take Lessons from Trudeau in Diplomacy

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Playthell G .Benjamin

Harlem, New York

June 14, 2018

The Real Vanguard!

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

Veterans of the Columbia Student Rebellion Circa 1968

Black Columbia Rebels Reclaim their History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A 20 Year Old Zach Husser Holding Sign

The sign depicts solidarity between the Vietnamese and the Black struggle

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

 The Great “Robeson of Rutgers”

Paul Was Easily the Most Famous Student on Campus

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Zora Neale Hurston:

Barnard’s First Black Graduate

One of the most famous writers of the Harlem Renaissance

Langston Hughes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr. Franz Fanon

The Leading Theoretician of the Algerian Revolution

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

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

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

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

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

The First Couple of the Black Arts Movement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                                               A Hero’s Gallery

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The Master of Ceremonies

Zachary Husser:  1968 Student Protester

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He Went from Columbia Basket Ball Star

To Wall Street Investment Banker

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Ray Brown In a Contemplative Mood

He Went into the Practice of Law

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Intellectual Amazons
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They Were on the Front Lines of Battle

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Watching Moving Pictures of the Way They Were

Akosia started a program to recruit Black Women to Barnard

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Women of Substance

Commiserating on the State of the Race

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Professor Bill Sales Holds Forth

Recalling the Letter of Solidarity from Chairman Mao

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Sharing Priceless Memories

Of Halcyon Moments Back in the Day

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Setting the Story Straight

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Litigating the Strategy and Tactics of the Revolt

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

The Know they Were in the Right

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It is Evident in Their Smiles

She Exuded a Calm Wisdom

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This is How You Look…

When You Know You Helped Make History

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All of the Avant Garde Had that Look

They Understood their Place in History

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The Pride in their Accomplishment was Evident in their Smiles

As they Mixed and Mingled at the Reception

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There Were Sophisticated Ladies

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Elegant of Style and Manners

Spirit Children of the Vanguard

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She Brought a Feminist Dimension to the Movement

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Professor Paul Cronin

The Film Documentarian

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Getting the Inside Dope from the Source

And They Are Setting the Historical Record Straight

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

AUTHOR’S NOTE: My concern with the relationship of black folks with Columbia University runs deep into my family history.  My favorite Uncle, James Strawder Sr. was denied admission to study journalism  upon his discharge from the army in World War II.   The fact that he was a combat officer WITH BATTLE DECORATIONS and performed outstandingly on the entrance exam wearing his uniform meant NOTHING!!!!   He once showed me the letter they wrote him.  The congratulated him on his outstanding service record and test scores,then said unceremoniously: “However, Columbia college has its quota of Negroes.”   Well, Uncle Jimmy, a never say die soldier, took the position that “Columbia Owes this family a degree.  Well several members of the family have attended Columbia since then, and MY SON WILL BE ATTENDING THE COLUMBIA GRADUATE SCHOOL OF JOURNALISM IN AUGUST!!!!  Although Uncle Jimmy  danced and joined the ancestors at 93, I am sure his spirit is dancing!!!  To read about this story of black triumph see: https://commentariesonthetimes.me/2018/04/03/big-ups-to-playthell-samori-benjamin/ee,