What Jesse Williams Should Have Said

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

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

Jesse Williams: June 2016

On Recieving BET’s Humanitarian Award

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A Note of Clarification on My Purpose

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Click on Link and wait for video to appear to watch the Speech)


Reflections on American Exceptionalism!

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

Setting the Record Straight

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

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

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

Madison Grant
Madison GrantHitler’s Bible!

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

Real American Heroes!

Harlem Hell fighters 69th Infrantry

The 369th Regiment aka “Harlem Hell Fighters

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

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

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

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

To view History Channel film on “Harlem Hell Fighters” click on link below.”)


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


Heeeeare’s Donnie!

Posted in On Foreign Affairs, On the 2016 Presidential Election with tags , , on June 25, 2016 by playthell

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a news conference, at his Turnberry golf course, in Turnberry, Scotland, Britain June 24, 2016. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne

A Chump on the Stump

 Dumb Dangerous Donnie Cuts the Fool in Scotland

The presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump, loves to talk about all the great lessons he learned from his daddy, but apparently old Fred Trump never told his son it is far better to be thought a fool than open your big moth and remove all doubt!   From the moment Trump’s helicopter landed at his golf resort and was met by reporters he immediately let the world know that he is clueless about world affairs.

Trump walked up to the microphone and announced that he supported the people of Scotland’s decision to “take your country back” by voting to leave the European Union.  His remarks elicited snickers of derisive laughter from the press on the scene as well as the commentators on the set of WNBC’s Morning Joe.  Their laughter was provoked by the fact that Trump evidently did not know that two thirds of the Scots had actually voted against the decision to take Britain out of the EU!  It was par for the course with Dumb Donnie.

Never able to pass up a chance to mouth off whether or not he has any idea what he is talking about, this proved to be just the beginning of a series of harebrained comments. Unlike all other major party candidates for the American presidency instead of visiting with officials of the country in an attempt to develop personal relationships, Trump concentrated on promoting his two golf courses in Britain.   Hence when he was asked what he thought about the fact that the Pound was being devalued by Britain’s exit from the EU, Trump replied that he thought it would be good for his business because the weak pound would make the United Kingdom an attractive vacation choice for American tourists.

Donnie showed not the slightest glimmer of regret for the trials of the Scottish people; instead he revealed his true colors as a New York real estate hustler – a gang of economic predators whose values rank several notches below the ethics of Barbary pirates – and began presenting a sales pitch for the luxury apartments and restaurant located on “the best par three in the world.”  He then described the state of the art sprinkler system he had installed and raphsodized about the beauty of the ocean waves crashing against the rocks.  Trump was shameless in pitching his properties and got so caught up in his sales presentation that for a moment he appeared to forget where he was; pointing to the lighthouse that contained some especially plush suites and declared: “This lighthouse is very important to Florida.”

The Donald resembled the bumbling cartoon character “Mr. Magoo,” with that goofey cap pulled down on his head, and he sounded as silly as he looked.  When asked if he thought the breakup of the EU was a good thing, he responded with a rambling anecdote about some German friends that really loved their country but was considering immigrating because of all the undesirable aliens being allowed to settle there.  Trumps answers were so off the wall that one of the reporters asked if he consulted with any foreign policy experts.  To wit Dumb Donnie said yes but they were just advisors and offered different opinions.  He went on to say that he saw no reason to meet further with foreign olicy experts, especially any who have been instrumental in formulating foreign policy in the last five years. Hence it came as no surprise that when Trump was asked to point out the members of the Scottish government in attendance he couldn’t.

Trump’s performance was so far beneath what seasoned political reporters expect from a potential president of the USA, more than one of them described it as “surreal.”  Mike Barnacle, one of the commentators witnessing this fiasco on Morning Joe, felt compelled to remark “We would be remiss if we didn’t point out that in great historical moment for Great Britain Trump choose to talk about real estate zoning laws.”  He was a complete embarrassment to educated Americans, and the idea that this clueless clown could be our next president seemed at once ludicrous….and terrifying.

The extent of his cluelessness was nowhere more convincing than when he began to explain how the vote to quit the EU was sparked by the fact that the Brits and Scots hate President Obama, and they did it just because he was against it. Yet the fact is that President Obama is widely admired in Britain and Dumb Donnie is both feared and despised.

Evidence of the contempt in which the Scots hold him could be seen in everything from newspaper editorials  – which he does not read, nor appear to have anyone reading them for him – to the Mexican Flags they were flying near his properties; to the box of golf balls with Swastikas on them presented to him by a Scottish citizen; to Scots waving a large banner reading “Dump Trump!”

The Scots were Clear in their Sentiments!
Donald Trump in Scotland Dump Trump
They want no part of “The Donald”

Donald Trump - Greatest Liar

There was nothing that Dumb Donnie said which suggested he has any idea how the European Union came into existence, what its mission is, nor its accomplishments.  Verbose airhead that he is Donnie just prattled on ad nauseum with no  hint that he was talking like a fool, to the shock and amusement of the onlookers.   Just as when he said on an earlier occasion when asked who was advising him about ISIS: “I mostly consult myself because I have a good brain.”

A pompous megalomaniac and shameless charlatan, Trump spouts nonsense as if it were divine wisdom. Watching his act conjures up memories of Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini – two other charismatic demagogues who excited the passions of insecure and untutored mobs in search of a savior, and soulless amoral elites that knew better but thought they could use them as point men in their quest for power.***  History tells us how that turned out, and prudence dictates that we heed the warning of the late Harvard Philosopher George Santayana: “Those who refuse to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat its mistakes.”                                                                                                                                                                                                    ***************          

                To see Trump’s Speech and News Conference  double click on Link        


****For a thorough discussion of the Similarities between Hitler, Mussolini and Trump my multi-media presentation on this question see: “Is Donald Trump a Uniquely American Fascist?”

Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
June 24, 2016

Bravo Samori! Good Show My Boy

Posted in Photo-Essays, Samori Graduates from SUNY with tags , on June 21, 2016 by playthell

At Samori's Graduation and lake Merritt 2016-06-16 141 - Edit

Chillin by the Fountain at Lincoln Center

A Joyous Baccalaureate at The Lincoln Center

There were many special things about the graduation ceremony for SUNY’s Empire State College class of 2016, but it was extra special for my son Playthell Samori Benjamin. Like many other students he was completing his degree as an older student who had to work while finishing his studies, and like all of these persistent students he deserves hearty applause for his tenacity.  Beyond these things that he has in common with his classmates however, Samori has a special relationship with this part of Manhattan and the Lincoln Center which is unique.

A Native New Yorker and lifetime resident of Manhattan Samori went to elementary school about twenty blocks away; he went to Junior High school – the unique “Museum Science School” – about ten blocks away, where he had a staff pass at the world renowned Museum of Natural History and he graduated from the Beacon High School which was even closer to the Lincoln Center where he was now graduating from college.  Furthermore, upon his first graduation from elementary school I took him and his twin sister Makeda to a concert in this very hall.

The great trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra was performing.  Since Wynton was a good friend of mine and I was a passionate supporter of the Jazz at Lincoln Center project in my newspaper columns and feature stories as well as my weekly radio show, I had the run of the place and took Samori up into the sound and lighting booth because he was curious about how it all worked.  The lighting technician was very gracious to him and allowed Samori to operate the lighting board; he then pressed the wrong button and plunged the entire auditorium into darkness while Wynton was soloing.

It was a hairy moment but quickly corrected by the technician.  Afterward we had a big laugh about it hanging out with Wynton.  I lost the photographs of Samori and Wynton from that night, which is why I am determined to preserve the images from this special night.  Fortunately I dis preserve a photograph we took at home just before departing for the Lincoln Center.

Samori’s First Graduation Night
Just before leaving for the Lincoln Center

 Hence the graduation ceremony at Lincoln Center was something like coming home to a very familiar place, the return to scenes in which he had lived out the various stages of his development – the Upper West Side of Manhattan.  It was this reality that made this graduation, already a high point in his life, extra special for Samori as he donned his cap and gown and marched down the ailse to receive his sheepskin.

There had been many important stops along the way:  Norfolk State University; Sports Editor and broadcaster at WBAI FM; maintaining a website featuring his interviews with top athletes and articles on various aspects of sport; researching and writing a soon to be published book on baseball.  And finally back to the Upper West side and Lincoln Center to receive his Bachelor of Science Degree.  BRAVO SON! BRAVO!! And big ups to the class of 2016: THE WORLD IS YOURS AS MUCH AS ANYONE’S!


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A Contemplative Moment Reflecting on the Gravitas of the Event
As the Students Marched In

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We Witnessed a the “Gorgeous human Mosaic” that People New York City

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All Races, Ethnicities, and Genders were Representin!

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Some Calmly Pondered their Programs
While Others Stood Awaiting the Call

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To Proudly March Down the Asile

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Of the Grand Auditorium in Geffin Hall
After Much Pomp and Curcumstance

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The Newly Degreed Students Marched out Triumphantly

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TheDeans and Professors bade them a Fond Farewell 

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As they Walked into the arms of Friends, Family and Loved Ones

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Samori with hsi Mother June and Twin Makeda
Samori and Aunt Adjuwa

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She watched him grow up
Samori and Makeda

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The Twins and a Good Friend

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Chillin with Mom and Dad

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Samori and Mom Joyously preserving Memories of Magic Moments

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Playthell G Benjamin and Playthell S. Benjamin
The food and drinks were delicious and plentiful

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A Token of Appreciation for the Graduates

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The Student’s faces reflected Determination
And Hope

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And Joi de Vivre!

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Plus Lots of Love, Optimism and Good Wishes !

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And the Shutter Bugs were Documenting it all for Posterity!

At Samori's Graduation


Text and Photos by: Playthell G. Benjamin – excepting those in which he appears.
June 19m 2006
New York City

Stompin the Blues

Posted in Music Reviews with tags , , on May 29, 2016 by playthell

Albert Murray--classic photo

Elegant in Style and thought
Memories of Mr. Murray… a Modern Renaissance Man

From the first time I was introduced to Albert Murray by Larry Neal – a distinguished poet, Critic, teacher of literature at Yale and founding father of the Black Arts Movement – I knew he was the real deal; a first class intellect in the possession of a man whose elegance of style and manner was exceeded only by his eloquence and erudition.  Albert Murray was a marvelous mixture of unique virtues, and the span of his interests was such that he met the measure of a modern Renaissance Man.  Alas, this is a much abused and misused term; most of the time those who are called “Renaissance Men” are mere polymaths.

The two are as often confused as the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution; folks are always quoting from one and attributing it to the other, just as one is inclined to confuse any person that is smart in several subjects, the Polymath, with a Renaissance Man.  Yet the distinction of the Renaissance Man is that they are not only knowledgeable in several subjects but they transcend the boundaries between and science and art.

A brilliant, insightful and original critic of music, literature and art Albert Murray was equally at home discussing the science of military aviation, of which he was a Professor; the difference between the orchestrations of the Ellington and Basie Bands; the idiomatic nuances and philosophical insights of the Blues; the Sweet Science of Sugar Ray Robinson in the boxing ring; the meaning,  magic and heroism of “blues idiom dancing;” the black literary tradition and its relationship to the western canon, or the au courant trends in fashion – which was conspicuous in the elegant manner in which he groomed and decorated himself. These are the attributes of a modern Renissiance Man, and I would argue if Leonardi Di Vinci is the classic model, Professor Murray fits the modern mold.

It was precisely his knowledge of art and science that enabled him to critique the works of Social Scientists with such unique insights. Murray argued that their studies tended to promote a “folklore of white Supremacy” and a “fakelore of black pathology.”  His critiques of the much celebrated works by Dr. Gunnar Myrdal and Dr. Kenneth B. Clarke are classic cases in point. An American Dilemma – a lavishly funded massive sociological treatise on race relations in America authored by the distinguished Swedish Social Economist Gunnar Myrdal – is chock full of statistics of every kind and was universally acclaimed as the most objective and informative scholarly tome ever produced on race in America.

However Professor Murray contemptuously observed that it was a waste of money, pointing out that any study of Afro-Americans that failed to interrogate the meaning of the Blues in our culture was worthless – in fact he called the researchers “mere Social Survey technicians” and declared their statistical method of analysis “an elaborate fraud!”

He also dismissed the claims of Dr. Kenneth Clark – a famous black social-psychologist of Caribbean back ground – whose research in the famous “Dolls Study” had helped convince the Supreme Court Justices to outlaw racial segregation in public schools in the Brown Decision.  Yet Mr. Murray boldly denounced Dr. Clark’s much celebrated study of Harlem, “Dark Ghetto” as a book written by “A Negro who hates himself.” Murray argued that things in Harlem couldn’t be as bad as the portrait Clark painted “even if half the residents robbed the other half every night.”

Murray’s caustic criticism of these texts came as a shock to me, for I had relied so heavily on sociologists in analyzing the condition of black folk in America. Murray not only dismissed THEM….but also trained his critical cannons on some much celebrated black novelists of the time.  He declared if Harlem was as bad as James Baldwin said it was it could never have produced him! And when downtown book reviewers declared Claude Brown’s bestselling novel “Manchild in the Promised Land” an authentic portrayal of life in Harlem, Mr. Murray told them it was no such thing.

It was the story of one Negro growing up in Harlem “and evidently had a hard time doing so” he said.  Professor Murray pointed out that Brown’s book tells one nothing about what it’s like to be Sugar Ray Robinson; the Society Editor of the Amsterdam News, a Surgeon at Harlem Hospital, Duke Ellington, Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, or one of the people who operate the most complex mass transportation system in the world!   Mr. Murray also warned us about calling Harlem a “ghetto,” pointing out that this was a term that defined Jewish communities in Eastern Europe, and suggested that its use Afro-american activists in describing Harlem was the result of “too much pillow talk between black intellectuals and their Jewish lovers.”

Mr. Murray was no less candid in his criticism of Richard Wright for painting such a bleak portrait of black life in Chicago in Native Son, while never allowing us a glimpse of the elegance, high art and heroism that took place at the Grand Terrace Ballroom every night when Earl Fatha Hines struck up his hard swinging orchestra and the stylish black, brown and beige crowd took to the dance floor.

These attitudes toward those who would play us cheap, portray us as less than we are, regardless of race, inform all of Mr. Murray’s writings. Where others see only a bare cupboard Professor Murry envisions a grand cornucopia of cultural riches sufficient to shape the sensibilities of the most powerful civilization in the history of the world; a sensibility best expressed in Afro-American music and dance – bewitching black arts that prizes personal freedom, promotes innovation, and practices a symbiotic relationship between musicians and dancers that is a blueprint for democratic relations. All of America’s most cherished values…”America as she is swung” in Mr. Murray’s parlance. It is such a thing of grace and beauty no wonder it has made Afro-Americans the most imitated people in the world!

The Elegance of Blues Idiom Dancing

Photo XV- Jazz Dancers

Stomping the Blues!

Famous big-band and jazz composer and leader, Count Basie, directing his orchestra on stage. --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

Yet by virtue of the fact that he remained a well-mannered southern colored gentleman at heart, like my Uncle Jimmy who was also a military officer and a southern gentleman, Mr. Murray thought it was bad manners to boisterously proclaim Afro-American superiority – even where it is clearly obvious – such as militant cultural nationalists of my generation felt compelled to do.

During the Harlem Renaissance people often said:Nobody enjoys being a Negro as much as Langston Hughes.”  Well, I suspect Mr. Murray may have enjoyed it even more. One could argue that his life was “a fully orchestrated blues statement,” a phrase he coined.  In the theater of my imagination I can see Mr. Murray “Truckin” through the Pearly Gates waving his finger, while Basie’s band wails on Moten Swing, a strutting magnificent sound performed with the “velocity of Celebration” and all the grandeur befitting such a man as Professor Murray.

In his linguistic improvisation and daring word play, seamlessly blending the sophisticated with the vernacular, his ironic signifying and heroic optimism, Mr. Murray’s works are the literary counterpart of what the musicians he celebrates were doing: Stompin the Blues!  Yes life can be a low down dirty shame, but we gotta keep on swinging anyway!  These unique elements so blended in Albert Murray that I am convinced…. we will not see his like again.  And the intellectual legacy he left us will prove to be a priceless benefaction that can only grow more valuable with time.


** This lecture was presented at a forum on Albert Murray honoring the centennial of his birth held a Jazz at Lincoln Center on May 24th 2016. It was preceded by a reading I gave from his book “South to a Very Old Place,” in the chapter titled “Mobile.”

 *** Photo of the Basie and by: © Bettmann/CORBIS

NOTE: Double Click on link to see the Basie band in concert

For a great treatise on Basie and his music see: “Good Morning Blues.”  This is the Autobiography of Count Basie as told to Albert Murray.
Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
May 28, 2016

Celebrating the Art of Jazz with Pizazz!

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

At the Central Brooklyn Jazz Coalition’s Annual Feast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Speakers

At banquet (2)

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

A Brooklyn Councilman Speaks

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

Seasoned Foxes III

Women of Substance: Bessie and Coalition Member


At Banquet


At Banquet Edit XX


At the Banquet Edit III


 At the Banquet Edit IV


At the Banquet Edit VIII


At the Banquet Edit XXI


At the Banquet XI


At the Banquet Edit XXIII



At the Banquet Edit XIX








The Band was Swinging Hard! 









Bassist - Edit I


the Pianist


Rome Neal Spittin Verse

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

Jazz Men Edit I


And Oh How They Danced!

Rome Dancing VI


Rome Dancing V


Rome Dancing VII


Rome Dancing IV


Jazz Dancers Edit I

The Joint was Really Rockin!

Jazzmen Edit II

It was a Swingin Affair!!!

Double Click on Link to hear Miles, Trane and Cannonball

So what?

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

Jazz Around The World!


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

Francofonia: A Panegyric to the Louvre

Posted in Movie Reviews on May 13, 2016 by playthell
Louvre - Hubert Robert_Projet_daménagement_de_la_Grande_Galerie_du_LouvreThe Grand Gallery

On the Ordeal of Art Museums in Times of War

Of the myriad films that will be released this year Francofonia will stand out as unique.  This is because it addresses a topic that is seldom discussed among most people and few rarely give it a thought.   What dose great museums do to protect its priceless art treasures, the cultural heritage of mankind, in times of war?  Although this film references other great museums, mainly the Hermitage in Russia, its focal point is the Louvre in Paris, which in the view of many art historians and critics houses the greatest collection of paintings in the world.  Although many New Yorkers would make that claim for the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  And upon one of my visits to the Louvre I encountered an Italian woman who said “What do the French know of art…or wine?  You must come to Rome!”

Needless to say, I am not the one to settle this argument, for I have neither the expertise nor desire to do so.  However the claims of cultural nationalist aside, the Louvre is a marvelous place; a grand temple dedicated to the preservation and exhibition of the world’s greatest works of art, the best that the human imagination could conjure in painting and sculpture.  This wonderful creative film provides a penetrating look into the workings of the Louvre and the heroic effort its Director undertook to save their great works of Art.

Written and directed by the Russian master Alexander Sukorov, the film employs a unique narrative method.  Mixing film from newsreels of the period and footage they shot, much of the story is told with a voice over by an omniscient narrator who reads a script that often sounds like an epic poem.  The monologue meditates on the meaning of art to civilization and the importance of museums in establishing the cultural identity of a people.  The combination of the spoken words and images –and in this case the written word since this is a foreign language film with subtitles – provides a powerful experience.

Much of this power derives from the fact that images of great art are juxtaposed with images of real Nazi forces occupying Paris.  The film opens with an aerial view of Paris as we listen to the voice of a person anxiously trying to find their way to the Louvre.  The drama is heightened when we see that it is the voice of Adolph Hitler, riding down a Parisian boulevard in an open car like a conqueror leading his victorious troops while commenting on the design of the city as he makes his way to visit the Louvre.

Here we are reminded that Hitler was a failed artist who once harbored ambitions to become a great architect.  In fact these failed ambitions played a key role in the monster he became.  His failure to gain admission into a prestigious art school in Vienna was blamed on Jews, and his close relationship with architect Albert Speer reflects his desire to realize his architectural ambitions through the talents of this young architect who became the vehicle for the Nazi dictator’s ideas.  In fact, at the Nurnberg trials Speer denies that he ever shared Hitler’s Nazi beliefs but was simply an ambitious architect who graduated from school during a period of profound economic crisis in post-World War I Germany.

Hitler Entering Paris
Hitler Entering Paris
Following his victorious Legions
Hitler’s Painting of a German Castle

Hitler's painting of German castle

A Photograph and Hitler’s Painting of the Castle

Suffering from the financial burden imposed by the Versailles Treaty, the German economy was in chaos, which was reflected in the disastrous decline in the value of German currency and mass unemployment, which was exacerbated by a world-wide depression induced by the collapse of the stock market in America. Hence Speer argued that, like most Germans, he was looking for work wherever he could find it and Hitler offered him the opportunity to realize his grandest dreams.  After all Hitler promised a Thousand Year Reich when Germany would rule the world and Berlin would be its center, just as Rome had been in the ancient world.  And as Hitler’s personal architect he would get to design the grand edifices in the capitol city of the new German empire.

Ironically, it was this ambition of Hitler’s and the claim that the Nazi’s were the protectors and purveyors of civilization that would work to save the great landmarks of Paris such as the Opera House and especially the Louvre.  This is reflected in the fact that no bombs were dropped on Paris, and the orders given to German soldiers instructing them how to handle these cultural treasures with care.  However Hitler showed no such restraint regarding the Hermitage in Russia, which in his view housed the flawed artifacts of the inferior Slavs.

Furthermore most of the German officer corps, unlike many of the Nazis, came from the upper classes and in the early 20th century it was a mark of the well-educated man to have knowledge of French Culture.  Many of the Germans spoke fluent French – plus not that long ago the Russian intelligentsia wrote in French – and all of them professed an interest in and knowledge of great art.

However all of the top Nazi officials also feigned an interest in fine art, but one suspects that this is because they were all yes men to a murderous, temperamental, megalomaniac who was an avid art lover.  In any case, Sukorov made the most of German admiration of French culture and affection for great art by building the plot around two men, one French and one German: Jacques Jaujard and Count Franz Wolff Metternich, played by the French actor Louis-Do de Lencquesaing and Benjamin Utzerath, who is German.

Louis -Do de Lencquesaing and Benjamin Utzerath

Louvre - Francofonia_5_-_Louis_Do_De_Lencquesaing__Benjamin_Utzerath

As Jacques Jaujard and Count Metternich

The actors gave outstanding performances as former combatants in World War I – which had formally ended a mere 21 years ago – who first met in 1940 after the German invasion of Paris.  The dramatic tension in this film lies in the fact that Jaujard was Director of the Louvre and Count Metternich – an art historian in civilian life – was the German officer assigned to take over as the custodian of art  Museums in Paris.  Ironically, despite the fact that they represented different sides in the war, they were united in their desire to preserve the great art in the louvre.

Motivated by a deep seated distrust of German intentions, Jujard did not believe that attempts to appease Hitler by the French and British would restrain his aggresion in Europe.  Hence as early as 1938, as he witnessed the German occupation of Poland, Jujard began to secretly remove the art works from the Louvre in a stealth operation that employed art students, workmen, teachers, artists, et al.

Jujard wrapped and crated these treasures into 1,862 wooden cases, assembled a convoy of 203 vehicles, then shipped them off to safe havens in castles and chateaus throughout France.  Hence when Count Metternich arrived at the Louvre on August 16th 1940, and found the Louvre empty, instead of going into a state of rage Jujard wrote in his diary that Metternich almost seemed relieved.

This reflects the fact that Count Metternich, like most German aristocrats, was not a member of the Nazi Party and proved to be as determined as Jujard to keep these great art works out of the hands of Nazi leaders like Hitler, Goring, Goebbels, et al.   Thus each man was in a conflicting position regarding loyalty to their government versus their love of art and commitment to preserving it.

It was especially trying for Jaujard because the French government had capitulated to the Nazi’s and he felt no loyalty to them but continued to serve in his government position rather than run off and join  the “Free French” resistance because of his dedication to preserving the artistic heritage of the Louvre. And he found such a kindred spirit in Metternich that when the war was over and all the art treasures were retrived undamaged,  The cooperation he recieved from Metternich was of such a scale that Jujard requested that De Gaulle award the Légion d’honneur, France’s highest tribute.

There are many revelations in this film, the most disturbing of which is that Hitler’s attitude toward preserving the art works in the Louvre was far more enlightend that George Bush’s attitude regarding the preservation of the even more priceless antiquities in the Museum at Bagdhad.  A sad commentary indeed.  Sukorov employs some novel cinematic techniques in the telling of this tale, but it is a tale well told.  This is an important and thoughtful film that is well worth the price of the ticket.

Fantasy and Reality as conceived in the European Mind

Louvre paintings I

Are visualized in the paintings in the Louvre
 Ancient Greek Godesses such as Nike Goddess of Victory

Louvre - Winged Victory

Has been on display in the Louvre as “The Winged Victory” since 1884


Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
May 12, 2016