Archive for Playthell’s Commentaries

Chillin with the Stars at the Cigar City Club

Posted in Cultural Matters, Hangin with Dr. J with tags , , , on October 20, 2015 by playthell
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Kwaku Saunders, Playthell, Julius and Doreese Erving
An evening of Fine Cigars, Great Cuisine, Music and Beautiful People

Oh what a night!  When businessman /promoter Dana Pitcher invited Event Producer Kwaku Saunders and me to join him at the Cigar City Club  to watch the Atlanta Falcons football game I thought it would be fun.  As a serious football fan who loves a good cigar it seemed a can’t miss proposition.  I liked the atmosphere of the club from the outset; the elegant décor with fine wood paneling, crystal chandeliers, leather seats and thick carpets complimented by fine food and drinks it was the ideal venue to watch a game with the hometown crowd.  So long as you were not rooting for the other team.

Since I am a Seattle Seahawks fan I had no dog in the fight.  Hence I was not glued to the TV set and was free to roam about taking pictures of the room and the beautiful people lounging about after deciding that I wanted to document this unique Black business. To my knowledge there is nothing like it in Harlem, which has long been considered the Cultural Capitol of Black America, and was once considered the Metropole of the black world.

When I first arrived at the Cigar City Club I didn’t know it was owned by an Afro-American businessman, Julius Bolton, but once it was made known to me I decided to make a record of my visit.  I chose to do this because I view this club as yet another example of the uniqueness of Atlanta’s Afro-American community.  Ever since I was a boy growing up in St. Augustine Florida, black Atlantans were known for two  things: Higher education and black business enterprise.

To this grand tradition has been added black political power and expanded wealth.  One can easily see the expression of black political power from the moment you set foot in the airport and witness that magnificent photographic exhibit on the history of black Atlantans posted along the walls of the corridor, and the marvelous stone sculptures by artists from Zimbabwe!  And the legacy of black enterprise is embodied today in establishments like the Cigar City Club.

After Dana introduced us and we struck up a conversation, Bolton struck me as a low key unassuming guy.  I would never have picked him out of the crowd as the owner, as there were several others in the room who looked the part.  But then some guys look like players and turn out to be farmers.   I was intrigued by how he happened to open this Cigar club, because I have been smoking Cigars for decades and have never visited a Cigar Club…in fact it never occurred to me.

Bolton told me that he liked to enjoy good food and drinks with a fine cigar and entertainment but had noticed that in his travels he could never find all of these things in one place.  This was the inspiration for his establishment and he has realized his dream beautifully.  The club has a great live music act, “The Jas Trio,” which on this night featured swinging performances from singer Quida “Sugapuddin” Fanklin  They are a swinging straight ahead jazz ensemble that plays the classic jazz repertoire known to all aficionados of the music.  They could hold their own in any jazz venue.

Bolton is employing technology to best advantage: The cigar store is a giant humidor with a wide number of choices; the television is programmed to switch from voice to silent text while the game is going on, and he has even employed Social Media man, Joshua McCoy, to keep the public apprised of what’s happenin at the club.

The Real McCoy!

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 He’s got the world at his fingertips

 However the highpoint of the evening for me came with a surprise visit from Julius “Dr. J” Erving, a first ballot basketball Hall of Famer who gets my vote as the best ever on the hardwood court.  Kwaku Saunders and Julius Erving have been best friends since boyhood and I met them both when they were students at the University of Massachusetts in 1969.  There were other students in their class who also did well, like the singer Natalie Cole, but I don’t think any have equalled Kwaku and Julius’ impact in their chosen fields.

It was an exciting time in the country, radical changes were taking place in the status of women and minorities, propelled by the energy of the black Civil Rights Movement, which began in the South and engulfed the nation.  Kwaku was a student activist who was a leader of the students that demanded the establishment of a Black Studies Department, and thus sat on the student committee that interviewed the perspective professors who would design the department and offer courses.

I was the first Professor hired and along with a group of distinguished international colleagues we built the first degree granting Black studies Department in the world in Amherst and name it after the most distinguished scholar in the black world: The WEB Dubois Department of Black Studies.  (See:”Dr. DuBois Then and Now” on this site.)  For an extended discussion of Dr.  DuBois’ life and work see the book “Reconsidering the Souls of Black Folk” by the present writer.

They also demanded that black students be given a block of air time on the University radio station, which was called “The Black Mass Communication Project.”   I thought Kwaku a bright young man who was mature beyond his years and would go far in life.

Julius Erving, although just a sophomore, was the most popular student on campus.  People used to point him out to me and declare that he was the “best forward in college basketball.”    I dismissed such talk as home town hype.  Admittedly my opinion was greatly influenced by the fact that at the time I was involved with a lady who was a professor at UCLA, who were the National Champions of collegiate basketball.

Hence I had attende numerous basketball games in the fabulous UCLA arena known as “The House Kareem Built;” it was a fabulous place with real Hollywood stars sitting at courtside.  Sydney Wicks and Curtis Rowe were the forwards on the team and they looked and acted like stars.  Since the conventional wisdom among sports commentators was that this tandem were the best forwards in college basketball I was sure the accolades heaped upon the skinny bushy head kid on campus, who I and nobody I knew outside of Amherst had ever heard of, was nothing more than overinflated puffery and I refused to believe the Hype – as his fellow Long Islanders Chuck D and Public Enemy would exhort us twenty years later.

However as it turned out Julius Erving was the real deal.  I first discovered this when a friend of mine, big Jim Corbin, who had been a college All-American football player and later a high-school basketball coach suggested that we go check this young man out and see for ourselves if all the fuss was justified.  That night U-Mass played Providence and Julius was pitted against their 6” 9’ forward Marvin Barnes, who went on to a solid NBA career but was then the terror of the Yankee Conference – which I had never heard of before coming to U-Mass.  Julius dominated this great player – who was bigger than him – in every phase of the game: rebounding, defense and scoring.   And he did it in such a convincing fashion that Big Jim said Julius was “the best college basketball player” he had ever seen.  And he predicted he would go on to achieve greatness as a pro.  History has proved both of our hunches true!

Kwaku went on to make history as the first black music agent at the powerful William Morris Agency, after a stint with the legendary Norby Walters where he represented virtually all of the top black stars in Rhythm & Blues as well as the pioneering Rap acts that rose up from the playgrounds and small clubs in Harlem and the South Bronx and made Hip Hop a billion dollar industry whose product is enthusiastically consumed world-wide and changed the character of youth culture everybody: for good and bad.

He would later become an artist manager whose group “The Sounds of Blackness” was declared his “favorite group” by that intrepid saxophone player in the White House, President Bill Clinton.  During his tenure there Kwaku had several occasions to book his group at White House events and “Sugar Willie” even broke out his horn and joined them on one occasion!

Before Kwaku became the manager of this group they were just another choir in the Twin Cites of Minnesota. It was under his astute and careful guidence that they became a world wide attraction.  Kwaku is now a successful producer of big live events around the world.  As I write he is producing a concert with the legendary R&B artist Charlie Wilson at the River front Amphitheater in Montgomery Alabama on November 7.

After his Hall of Fame basketball career Julius returned to what he would have done had he not made it into pro-basketball, become a successful businessman.  Today Julius is involved in international deals that take him as far away as China!  As a long time student od Chinese society I had many questions for him, and his thoughtful observations conveyed a sense of wonder at the size of Chinese cities and the pace of modernization.

Sitting and rapping with them my mind wandered back over four decades when they were just young men with enormous promise, and reflecting on how that promise has been fulfilled in grand fashion.  In a solemn moment of reflection Julius noted the passing of his former coach in high-school and U-Mass, Ray “Speed” Wilson,” and told me that he would soon be departing for Rhode Island to deliver the Eulogy at his final rites. There was a profound humility in his voice as he spoke of this man who he says taught him much more than the game of basketball.

What I find most impressive about these two old friends – whose relationship is explored in the outstanding NBA Television documentary “The Doctor -”  is how little success has changed their fine personalities and character.  In this documentary, which was aired nationally, we learn that Kwaku actually nicknamed Julius “The Doctor” and he in turn called Kwaku “The Professor.”  And there we were almost a half century later hangin out and reminiscing in Atlanta’s cigar club….Oh what a night!

 

It was a Grand Party!

The “Doctor” and the “Professor

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Friends 4 Life
Debating the Atlanta Falcon vs. New Orleans Saints Game
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Much pompous drivel was spouted before the Saints crushed their hopes
 Big Dana Pitcher Was in da House

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A Louisiana Businessman and Bon Vivant making his mark in Atlanta
Although he is a relativly Young Man Dr. J’s hair is Steel Grey

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Julius Says its a family trait; his father had it and he loves it
And from the look of things…..

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…….so do the ladies
A Visionary Entrepreneur

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He saw a vacuum and filled it: fine food, drinks, live music and great cigars
He created and elegant environment

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That attracts a Smart and Stylish crowd
It’s a Cigar Smoker’s Paradise

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That offer a dazzling array of choices
A Well Designed Humidor

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Carfully designed to satisfy the taste of the most demanding epicure
Exotic Tobacco Leaf from Far away Lands

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Find their way to these shelves
Its the kind of Posh Place…..

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Gentleman of high style and substance are drawn to
And beautiful women flitter about…..
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Like luminous technicolor fire flies in Africa’s night
Satin Dolls like Duke Elington Conjured up……

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In Black, Brown and Biege
It’s also the Lair of…..
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…………..Redbone Foxes!
 Even the waitresses are fine!

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Like this Tall, Tan, Terriffic Beauty
Or this Pulchritudinous Eye Candy

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The guys get a kick outta watching Sarah work the floor….perhaps some girls too
And there was great Music!

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James Schneider and the JAS Trio was Killin
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 The bass and the drums were locked in the pocket!
Quida “Sugar Puddin” Franklin
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Swung a Jazz Song with Blues and Soul
For those whose taste runs to Chess and Champaign

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Its Yours Upon Request
From Night to Night you’ll find Him…..

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Watching over the care of his customers
And big Dana….Who invited me to the Cigar Club

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Scoped the scene with a for real  Louisiana Players Lean

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Double Click on links below to view videos
Playthell Benjamin Television Commentary
https://youtu.be/MpafVd8puCo
The Sounds of Blackness
https://youtu.be/RE08EFwKyLA
Julius “Dr. J. Erving: A Documentary
https://youtu.be/X3_1hZDi-qw
Photos and Text: By Playthell Benjamin
Video selections by: Playthell Benjamin
Multi-Media presentation conceived and designed by Playthell
Atlanta, October 2015

Should Senator Harry Reed Resign?

Posted in Playthell on politics with tags , , , , on January 10, 2010 by playthell

 A Deeply Repentant Senator Begs For Absolution

 “Beware of the Stranger who comes to the funeral  ….
…. and cries louder than the berieved!”
 Traditional Ibo Proverb

 

 The Sunday morning TV talkfests were alive with hysterical chatter about the revelation that Nevada Senator Harry Reed told reporters during the Presidential election that he thought Barack Obama had a chance to win the presidential election because the Illinois Junior Senator “is light skinned and only speaks in Negro dialect when he wants to.”     What the Senator actually meant when taken in context was that he thought Barack Obama – whom he considered superbly qualified for the job – could only transcend the racist animus and suspicion that millions of white Americans continue to hold regarding their African American countrymen because he wasn’t too black and talked like white folks.  Well…duh?  Is there anyone in the United states who is not an ignoramus or a damn liar that would dare dispute the transparent truth of Senator Reeds claim?

The loudest voice of protest from the African American community as I write is Michel Steele – the Republican puppet and shameless intellectual quisling who pretends to head the Republican Party, but whose protracted lips to posterior genuflection before Rush Limbaugh reveals who the real boss is.  However since President Obama has already absolved Senator Reed by swiftly and graciously accepting his apology, mischievous Michel is in the untenable position of trying to be more royal than the king!  

Furthermore,   the fact that a militant black man and Yellow Dog Democrat like me ain’t mad at the Senator, the sanctimonious ramblings of a poot-butt Kneegrow shill for the party of white racist reaction strikes me the same way that the stranger at the funeral struck my wise Igbo ancestors.  He bears watching with a jaundiced eye! The late Audley Moore – who was popularly known as “ The Queen Mother” Of the black radical movement of the 1960’s – was fond of saying that “Negro” meant “No, Nay, never grow!”   And in the case of Mikie Steele that’s apparently so.

However the black community would be making a fatal political error if they go for this okey doke and allow themselves to be distracted from the real  life and death challenges confronting African Americans and the world.  The solution to these problems – availability of health care, strong government enforcement of anti-discrimination laws in the workplace, ending racist police brutality, serious regulation of financial institutions, working for peace among nations, strong funding for public education, increased support for the arts and sciences, saving the environment, eliminating nuclear weapons, stimulating a failed capitalist market economy, an intelligent approach to combatting the Islamic jihadists, etc – can only be found in government actions.  In spite of a constant barrage of Republican propaganda to the contrary, the history of the expansion of freedom and prosperity in the US Republic confirms my argument.

Hence we Black Americans must vigorously resist attemps by  Cynical Republican charlatans to involve us in any effort to remove Senator Reed from the US Senate – which would greatly benefit their backwards anti-black anti-worker agenda.  We must judge him by his deeds as a legislator, and right now, as the man who guided the massive health care reform bill through the Senate in face of an unprincipled and reckless Republican resistance – something no Majority leader has been able to do in a century – he is batting a thousand!  

Hence Senator Reed is a true hero for our times.  And those hypocritical white wags who are attempting to draw a moral equivalence between Senator Reed’s statement – which was a candid statement of the racial attitudes of millions of white Americans – with the ex-Republican Senator and unrepentant Mississippi red neck neo-Confederate Trent Lott’s praise song for the late South Carolina Senator and racist hypocrite Strom Thurman, an argument in favor of the NAZI like ideology and apartheid practices that I grew up under in the old South, expose themselves as moral cripples beyond redemption! 

Everybody knows who cares to know – including Colin Powell himself – this was exactly the same reason Republicans thought Colin Powell could win the Presidency: He is light skinned and didn’t sound black like Jesse Jackson!  Any Republican  who denies this  is “a liar and a mink/their feet stink/ and they don’t love Jesus!” as the old Afro-American folk saying declares.  Hence it would be wise for us black folks to stand by Senator Reed and pay the racist reactionary Republicans and their Negro Marionette “no rabbit as mind” as my wise grandfather Walter surely would have advised.

 

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Harlem, New York 

January 10, 2010

President Obama and Rev. Wright

Posted in Cultural Matters, Guest Commentators with tags , , , , , , , , , , on November 2, 2009 by playthell

Barack and Reverend Wright  

The President and the Preacher

 

On the African-American Jeremiadic Tradition

 Because of his cool, calm, ostensibly detached speech performances and persona, some folks, especially African Americans of his post-Civil Rights generation, call President Barack Obama, “No drama Obama.”  Many African Americans of the pre-Civil Rights generation even see him as such  despite his background as representing the awesome fulfillment in their lifetime of the African American messianic tradition.       

Unlike the charismatic Rev. Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr., his former pastor and advisor, President Obama was not raised in the bosom of the black church or African American Baptist and Methodist Jeremiadic tradition.  The son of a black Kenyan father and white Kansan mother, he was raised in a different time, place, and culture by pre-Civil Rights white maternal grandparents in Hawaii. 

How, then, should we understand the historical and cultural contexts as well as the truth of President Obama’s angry claim that his former pastor’s comments do not accurately portray the perspectives of the black church?

In criticism of the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah’s defensive interview on the Bill Moyer show, didactic keynote address at the NAACP convention, and defiant, signifying  speech at the National Press Club, a TV reviewer wrote that President Obama’s former pastor emerged as “a voluble, vain and erudite entertainer, a born televangelist who quotes Ralph Ellison as well as the Bible and mixes highfalutin academic trope with salty street talk” (Stanley A1, 14).  

Responding finally to the unrelenting criticism and political pressure of Senators Hillary Clinton and John McCain during the presidential campaign, as well as of media critics to denounce his retired pastor for righteously reminding his predominantly black congregation of the wrath and damnation of God to come to America for its alleged if not actual historical sins, President Obama angrily denounced the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah and severed his long, close relationship with him in an April 29, 2008, news conference. 

“His comments were not only divisive and destructive,” President Obama declared, “but I believe that they end up giving comfort to those who prey on hate, and I believe that they do not portray accurately the perspective of the black church. . . .They certainly don’t portray accurately my values and beliefs” (qtd. in Zeleny and Nagourney A1, 17).  While some people may still have questions about the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah’s influence on President Obama, it is more enlightening at this time after the election to question the caricature of the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah and to examine the facts about the relationship of his beliefs and values to “the perspective of the black church,” which was and is mainly Baptist or Methodist for most African Americans.

 ********

 

Generational Shifts in Cultural Identity

“At 11:00 on Sunday morning when we stand and sing and Christ has no east or west,” as typical black elders of the pre-Civil Rights generation of the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah who were raised with black brothers and sisters in African American Baptist and Methodist churches know, and as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., reminded us in 1963, “we stand at the most segregated hour in this nation.  This is tragic.  Nobody of honesty can overlook this” (King).  Is this one of the probable reasons that so many typical white media journalists and pundits, as well as politicians, reduced the complex identity of the unashamedly black and unapologetically Christian Rev. Dr. Jeremiah to spliced controversial sound bytes from his sermons?  

Quoted repeatedly out of context during the presidential campaign by the news media from sermons he preached in 2001 and 2003, the sensational sound bytes, as in yellow journalism, fostered the false impression that he is an unpatriotic, radical black separatist and racist bigot who deserves vilification and crucifixion.   Some in the media and in blogs even exacerbated their historical, political, cultural, and rhetorical disingenuousness or ignorance by questioning President Obama’s reference to his pre-Civil Rights white grandmother’s belief in racial stereotypes and prejudice as that of the typical white person of her generation. 

Typical is hardly an esoteric word.  Nor is that commonly used adjective as difficult to define as the commonly misused and abused abstract nouns patriotism, separatism, racism, and terrorism.  So, what is there about typical that ordinary educated folks don’t understand?   Well, Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary reminds us that typical means “combining or exhibiting the essential characteristics of a group.” 

Although academic postmodern theorists and critics like Jean-Francois Lyotard undermine the traditional grounds for belief in the essential or core principles in master narratives of national identity, unity, community, truth, and reality, readers and listeners do not have to be high-school graduates to know that the media have helped to foster and perpetuate the negative racial stereotypes, myths, and prejudice that constitute some of the fundamental characteristics of our shared national identity that President Obama seeks to change.[1]

 Preaching Truth to Power!

Jeremiah Wright - preacher of the gospel An avatar of the Afro-American Jeremiadic Tradition

 Who, then, is the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah?  And how does his dedication, like that of Jeremiah and the other fifteen prophets of the Old Testament, to a social Gospel, and his commitment to an African American sermonic, especially jeremiadic, tradition, like the Reverends Martin Luther King, Jr., Wyatt T. Walker, and Jesse Jackson, contribute to the complexity of his identity as one of the most respected and influential, until recent political attacks, African American ministers in the nation?[2] 

President Obama’s former spiritual advisor and the retired senior pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ (TUCC), a primarily African American megachurch in Chicago, Illinois, with more than 6,000 members, the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah is the Philadelphia son of a Baptist minister, a veteran of the U. S. Marine Corps and U. S. Navy, a graduate of Howard University (B.A. and M.A. in English), the University of Chicago Divinity School (M.A. in Divinity), and the United Theological Seminary (DMin).

A highly distinguished national and international preacher and speaker, as well as an accomplished musician and writer, he is the author, editor, or co-editor of more than eight books, many articles, and a vast number of sermons.  He also serves on several national committees and boards of directors.  His numerous awards include eight honorary doctoral degrees and three presidential commendations.

An important demonstration of his and his congregation’s dedication to the social Gospel are the more than 70 TUCC ministries that serve the community, including HIV/AIDS, Drug & Alcohol Recovery, Health Advisory, Can-cer-vive, Domestic Violence Advocacy/Care, Housing, and Career Development.[3]  These facts suggest that the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah’s comments, beliefs, and values are consistent with the tradition and perspective of many urban black American Baptist and Methodist churches.

  The Trinity Church in Chicago

 Trinity Church UCC

 A Modern Temple of the Social Gospel

 The commitment of the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah to the African American jeremiadic tradition is more dramatically demonstrated in the complete fiery sermons delivered in TUCC than on the video sound bytes by sensationalizing journalists and newscasters.  ABC News reporters Brian Ross and Rehab El-Buri, for example, open their March 13, 2008, yellow-journalism column “Obama’s Pastor: God Damn America, U.S. to Blame for 9/11” with the sensational, fallacious statement that “Sen. Barack Obama’s pastor says blacks should not sing ‘God Bless America’ but ‘God damn America.’” 

According to these reporters,  “The Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s pastor for the last 20 years at the Trinity United Church of Christ on Chicago’s south side, has a long history of what even Obama’s campaign aides concede is ‘inflammatory rhetoric,’ including the assertion that the United States brought on the 9/11 attacks with its own ‘terrorism.’” Based on an alleged review by ABC News of “dozens of Rev. Wright’s sermons,” Ross and El-Buri claim to have “found repeated denunciations of the U.S. based on what he described as his reading of the Gospels and the treatment of black Americans” (Ross and El-Buri). 

 So let us examine more closely their claims and those of some anti-Rev. Dr. Jeremiah bloggers.  Even though many people will express different interpretations of  historical facts, of patriotism, of racism, of terrorism, and of the invention of HIV, the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah was speaking truth to the people and to power as a preacher and prophet in the African American jeremiadic tradition when he engaged in hyperbolic rhetoric and passionate denunciations of America for its national sin of racialized slavery, for its violation of the founding principles of the nation with institutional anti-black racism, and for its selective demonizing and violent destruction of non-democratic, non-Christian peoples as suspected threats and terrorists to the United States. 

In “Love of God, Love of Man, Love of Country,” a speech on American slavery in 1847, Frederick Douglass stated:  “So long as my voice can be heard on this or the other side of the Atlantic, I will hold up America to the lightning scorn of moral indignation.  In doing this, I shall feel myself discharging the duty of a true patriot; for he is a lover of this country who rebukes and does not excuse its sins.  It is righteousness that exalteth a nation while sin is a reproach to any people” (qtd. in Foner).  While it is rarely mentioned when speaking of the great abolitionist and moral clarion, Frederick Douglass was also an ordained minister in the African Methodist Episcopal church.

 Frederick Douglass

 Frederick Douglass

 He Cursed America For Her Sins!

 This is the tradition to which the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah bears witness.  According to the responses in the blogs of some people, especially African Americans, ABC News and other media are shamelessly guilty of reprehensible yellow journalism for sensationalizing, distorting, and misrepresenting the rhetoric and character of the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah by quoting him out of historical and cultural context.

In “Confusing God and Government,” his April 13, 2003, sermon, he did not say, for example, that blacks should sing “God damn America.”  Assuming the traditional role of the preacher and prophet in many black American Baptist and Methodist churches and communities, like his father the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright, Sr., he passionately declared in righteous indignation that “The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing ‘God Bless America.’  No, no, no, God damn America, that’s in the Bible for killing innocent people.  God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human.  God damn America for as long as she acts like she is God and she is supreme” (qtd. in Cooper). 

Why do so many people, especially those with access to such research engines as Google, blind themselves to the unpopular, unpleasant facts about our government?  Why have so many newscasters, pundits, politicians, preachers, and everyday Americans failed to understand the relationship of the sin of blasphemy in the adverbial clause, i.e., “for as long as she acts like she is God,” to the American and African American jeremiadic traditions? 

In other words, the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah prophesies that until America repents its sins of overbearing pride against God and man—for acting like God, “for killing innocent people,” and “for treating our citizens as less than human”—the nation is destined for divine—not man’s, not the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah’s—wrath and damnation.   Perhaps more Americans would understand better our complex national identities, moral transgressions, and historical fate if they learned and lived the lessons of the Bible, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution of the United States, as well as the lessons in classic books on American and African American language, literature, and life!

We learn, for instance, in the Old Testament of the King James edition that the prophet Jeremiah is empowered by the Lord to curse the political corruption, oppression, immorality, and idolatry of the king of Judah, his son Shallum, and the Hebrew nation.  “Woe unto him,” the Lord angrily declared in the voice of Jeremiah, “that buildeth his house by unrighteousness, and his chambers by wrong, that useth his neighbor’s service without wages, and giveth him not for his work” (Jeremiah 22:13).  

Similarly, in preaching to his predominantly black working-class and middle-class congregation, the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah was justifiably angry at the crimes and sins of our government for breaking the covenant with God that all men are equal and endowed with such inalienable rights as life and liberty; replacing that covenant with the myth of white supremacy. 

 The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., was also similarly impassioned with righteous indignation at the injustice of the Memphis government.  As Taylor Branch, a Pulitzer Prize-winning King biographer, reminds us in “The Last Wish of Martin Luther King,” two sanitation workers, “Echol Cole and Robert Walker, had been crushed in a mechanical malfunction; city rules forbade black employees to seek shelter from rain anywhere but in the back of their compressor trucks, with the garbage” (15).  

The night before he was assassinated on April 4 while supporting civil demonstrations by black Memphis sanitation workers in 1968 for higher pay than $1.27 an hour and for more healthful working conditions, he completed writing his Sunday sermon with the jeremiadic title, “Why America May Go to Hell.”[4]  Like the anti-war voice of the post-1963 Rev. Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, the voice of the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah was radical.  

Both voices were in the tradition of the antebellum David Walker, a free North Carolina black man who owned a second-hand clothing store in Boston and whose jeremiad, “Walker’s Appeal in Four Articles” (1829), culminated in rebuke and scorn by the government and his death by anti-black racists.

Like the Rev. Dr. King and David Walker, the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah was impassioned and provocative in developing  his jeremiad on American national sins:   “y’all looking to the government for only what God can give.  A lot of people confuse God with their government” (qtd. in Cooper).

Reverend Dr M. L. King

 Dr. M.L.King

A Great Preacher in the Prophetic Tradition

 The Sacred and Secular Origins of the American Jeremiad

 As defined in the Oxford English Dictionary, jeremiad means a “lamentation; a writing or speech in a strain of grief or distress; a doleful complaint; a complaining tirade.”  It is derived from the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, who, between the sixth and seventh centuries B.C., predicted the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem as divine punishment for the Israelite violations of the Mosaic covenant.   Jeremiah also prophesied the future redemption and restoration of Israel after its atonement in a golden age. 

The complete rhetorical structure of the American jeremiad, according to David Howard-Pitney in The Afro-American Jeremiad (1990), has three elements: “citing the promise; criticism of present declension, or retrogression from the promise; and a resolving prophecy that society will shortly complete its mission and redeem the promise” (8).[5]

The corridors of American history resound with the cries for justice and prophecies of national disaster by blacks in the tradition of Jeremiah and other Old Testament prophets.  Many cultural historians argue that the messianic rhetoric of the American and African American jeremiad has its ori­gins in the Judeo‑Christian tradition, the Bible, and New England Puritanism. 

The historians George Bancroft, Perry Miller, Henry Nash Smith, R.W.B. Lewis, Sacvan Bercovitch, Ernest Tuveson, David Noble, Wilson Moses, and David Howard‑Pitney credit sacred and secular myths of origin as the foundation of the providential interpretation of Ameri­can history and America’s self‑righteous mission of saving the world and establishing the kingdom of God on earth. 

For example, in his ten‑volume History of the United States (the first volume appeared in 1834 and the last in 1873), George Bancroft, the father of American history and the most widely respected nineteenth‑century interpreter of America, celebrated a providential view of Americans as a chosen people covenanted by God to save the world—not to purify America—and usher in the millennium by spreading the American way: freedom, individualism, capitalism, and democracy.

This is the Judeo‑Christian myth and mission, secularized in the ironies and paradoxes of the American Dream, that informed our nation’s City-upon-a-Hill “civil religion” of 1630, whites only Naturalization Act of 1790, anti-Europe expansionist Monroe Doctrine of 1823, and transcontinental Manifest Destiny of 1845 as well as our   imperialism in the Spanish‑American War of 1898.  This myth of origin and mission of ourselves as a Chosen People also informed both President George Bushes’ declarations of a new world order of the American way in the wake of the balkanization of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union in our own time.

In addition, recent studies in the field of African American studies by such historians as John Blassingame, Nathan Huggins, Lawrence Levine, and Leslie Owens argue persuasively that vestigial elements of African religious customs have endured through the process of syncretism, that is, the merging or hybridization of African and non‑African cultural patterns and sign systems. Perhaps the most illuminating discussions of the relationship between African religious survivals and black messianism are in Roll, Jordan, Roll (1976) by Eugene Genovese and Black Messiahs and Uncle Toms (1982) by Wilson Moses.

 Derived from the Hebrew mashiah, or “anointed,” messiah, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “the Hebrew title … applied in the O.T. prophetic writings to a promised deliverer of the Jewish nation, and hence applied to Jesus of Nazareth as the fulfillment of that promise…. An expected liberator or savior of an oppressed people or country.”  In Black Messiahs and Uncle Toms, Moses concisely summarizes the Judeo­-Christian tradition of messianism:

The belief in a messiah grew out of the Hebrews’ experience of oppression at the hands of the great Middle‑Eastern empires. It symbolized their hopes for an improvement in the fortunes of their nation and the restoration of their ancient ideals. The messiah would usher in a messianic age. The chosen people would revolt against their political oppressors and revitalize the conservative values advocated by the prophets. Messianic ideas were adapted by the early Christians, who saw Jesus of Nazareth as the long-awaited messiah (Christos in Greek means the anointed one).

After the death of Jesus, the early Christians began to await his second coming, at which time he would inaugurate a messianic era of a thousand years’ duration. This belief came to be known as millenarianism or chiliasm, from the Latin millenarias and the Greek chilios (a thousand)….  A messianic people are a chosen or anointed people who will lead the rest of the world in the direction of righteousness.  The messianic people traditionally see themselves as a conscience for the rest of the human race—some­times as a suffering servant or a sacrificial lamb, some­times as an avenging angel. (4-5)

 During the civil rights movement in the 1960s and 1970s, the African American jeremiadic cry was “No more water, the fire next time,” as well as “We shall overcome!”   The recurring jeremiadic shift between lamentation and righteous anger is grounded in the contradictions and paradoxes of a nation founded simultaneously on the principles of freedom and equality and on the practice of slavery and inequality. These contradictions, however, find synthesis in the mixed emotions of faith, perseverance, and hope in the cry from black folk for social and moral justice, cries which have deep historical roots in the Old Testament tradition of Jeremiah and the other prophets, as well as the principles of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution of the United States. This tradition has also been syncretically combined with elements of sub-Saharan African religious beliefs and values.

Perry Miller’s The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century (1939) reveals the sacred Puritan roots of the secular myth of Americans hold of themselves as a chosen people, whose exodus from the corruption and bondage in the old Crown‑dominated church in England took them to the promised land of religious freedom and “a city upon a hill” in America. 

In The American Jeremiad (1978), Sacvan Bercovitch identifies the American Jeremiad as the crucial rhetorical ritual that has charac­terized the major writings of Anglo-American culture since the Puritan era. This rhetorical ritual involves three stages: promise, declension, and prophecy. According to David Noble in The End of History, the promise of the first stage held that “the exodus of the Puritans as a New Israel was leading toward the millennium.” The second stage of the Jeremiad was the assertion of declension:

“Although the Puritans as a Chosen People had crossed the frontier threshold from the medieval past in which history had no meaning, they, as individuals and as a group, had not fully accepted their responsibility to make history a progressive path toward the future Kingdom. They were slothful. They were distracted and pursued false and evil values. And they received divine punishments for their failures to act as a Chosen People. This Progressive jeremiad … established great tension in the community of saints as the distance between the perfection of the promise and the imperfection of daily activity was examined and deplored.” (Noble 5)

 The third and final stage of the jeremiad was “a proph­ecy that the Chosen People would accept their responsibility, reject their sinful life­styles which looked so similar to those of the corrupt medieval past, and construct the environment for the Kingdom in the immediate future” (Noble 5).  This myth of God’s covenant with Puritans as a chosen people informed John Winthrop’s sermonic proclamation on the Arbella in 1630 of the Massachusetts Bay Colony as “a city upon a hill.”

Spreading from the New England Puritans to all colonial Protestants in the eighteenth century, the Puritan jeremiad became political and American by 1776. “The promise was a virtuous republic,” writes David Noble.  “The Revolution was the exodus from the Egyptian bondage of monarchy.

The new citizen‑saints found themselves living in a state of declension, reflecting their failure of the promise and the gap between the ideal republic and their imperfect political experience. But political prophets pointed out their failings, explained their sufferings as punishment for those failures, and pointed toward redemption and the fulfillment of the promise in the future” (6).

More important for black Americans, Moses indicates, is the evolution of two varieties of American messianism: hard‑line and soft‑line. Hard-line messianism “eventually developed into the doc­trine of white racial supremacy, ruthless expansionism, religious intolerance, and economic insensitivity”; the latter grew “out of the unrealized ideals of the Jeffersonian tradition and the American enlightenment, which came to emphasize America’s mission to preserve the inalienable rights of man.” According to soft‑line messianism, “the American mission was not to dominate the rest of the world, forcing it into the paths of righteousness, but to serve as an example of the spiritual per­fection that human nature could aspire to in an atmosphere of political freedom” (Moses 8).

Many students of American history are familiar with Thomas Jefferson’s advocacy of political, religious, and educational freedoms as principal author of the Declaration of Independence and Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom and founder of the University of Virginia.  Fewer are familiar with his advocacy of the myth of white supremacy in Notes on the State of Virginia (France 1785, England 1787), which includes an American jeremiad that contains a classic ironic illustration of the fusion of oppositional varieties of messianism:

And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath?  Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever; that considering numbers, nature and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation is among possible events; that it may become probable by supernatural interference! The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest. (289)

 Although Jefferson believed that abolition followed by deportation was the best solution to his personal guilt and fear about the national sin of slavery, Notes also reveals his belief in white supremacy.   Such racist comments as “the blacks are … inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind” (270) and that blacks prefer white mates “as uniformly in the preference of the Oranootan [sic] for the black woman over those of his own species” (265) were answered in black jeremiads by “Othello,” Benjamin Banneker, and David Walker.

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  The African American Jeremiad

 In Black Messiahs and Uncle Toms, Moses defines the African American jeremiad as “mainly a pre‑Civil War,” ingenious adaptation of messianic traditions in the form of “constant warnings issued by blacks to whites, concerning the judgment that was to come for the sin of slavery” (30-31). 

Diverse scholars from W. E. B. Du Bois, Melville Herskovits, and E. Franklin Frazier to Lawrence Levine, Albert Raboteau, and Orlando Patterson persuasively argue that evidence of the retention and reinterpretation of vestigial African religious traits by black people in the Americas is stronger in the Caribbean than in the United States.

As historian Wilson Moses notes, “The religion of black slaves in the United States was similar to both that of West Africans and that of Europeans. These similarities may be attributed to African retentions, syncretic tenden­cies, and spontaneous parallel evolution” (28).

A dramatic, historical example of the so­ciocultural, sociopsychological dualism, or double consciousness, of black Americans is the connection between revolutionary black nationalism and African religious survivals. This is apparent, on one hand, in the role of conjuring by Gullah Jack, a leader in the 1822 slave revolt of Denmark Vesey, and, on the other hand, in the messianic avenging angel mission that Nat Turner assumed in his 1831 revolt.

Both, similar to the contemporary examples of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Minister Malcolm X, involve a synthesis of orthodox and unorthodox faith in the ritual power of the spoken word:  incantations, curses, blessings, and prayers, as well as the magical power of charms, fetishes, and totems to bridge and balance the physical and spiritual, historical and mythical realms of reality, knowledge, and truth.

 In Spite of his Islamic Veneer

Malcolm_speaking 

 Malcolm X was also in the Afro-American Prophetic Tradition

Some scholars believe that the African American jeremiadic tradition began in 1788 with the “Essay on Negro Slavery” by a free black from Maryland who used the pen name “Othello.” Adapting the American jeremiad and warning of God’s wrathful judgment for the American national sin of slavery, he wrote, “Beware Americans! Pause—and consider the difference between the mild effulgence of approving Providence and the angry countenance of incensed divinity” (qtd. in Moses 33).

There are four important responses to the racial injustice and social inequality expressed in Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia and in American life of the time: Benjamin Banneker’s letter in 1791, the Reverends Richard Allen and Absalom Jones’ “Address to those who keep Slaves, and approve the Practice” in 1794, Prince Hall’s speech “Charge Delivered to the African Lodge at Menotomy” in 1797, Robert Alexander Young’s Ethiopian Maifesto in 1829, and especially David Walker’s “Walker’s Appeal” in 1829.

Black Americans have responded historically to the hypocrisy, injustice, and immorality of white Americans both by reacting ambivalently to the prophecies of false prophets and by reinterpreting the prophets and prophecies in a manner consistent with their own bi-cultural African American tradition of faith, hope, resistance, resilience, and resourcefulness. 

Probably the most moving passage in President Obama’s memoir, Dreams from My Father (1995, 2004), is his tearful memory of the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah’s “meditation on a fallen world” in his sermon, “The Audacity of Hope.”  “‘It is this world, a world where cruise ships throw away more food in a day than most residents of Port-au-Prince see in a year,’” the reverend chants, “‘where white folks’ greed runs a world in need, apartheid in one hemisphere, apathy in another hemisphere…That’s the world!  On which hope sits!’” 

 Drawing on the story of a barren and taunted Hannah in the Book of Samuel and the analogy of a bruised and bloodied woman harpist playing on a single frayed string in a museum painting titled Hope, “Reverend Wright spoke of Sharpsville and Hiroshima, the callousness of policy makers in the White House and in the State House” before his stories “became more prosaic, the pain more immediate,” our new black president recalls his former preacher’s and advisor’s words.  “‘Like Hannah, we have known bitter times!  Daily, we face rejection and despair…And yet consider once again the painting before us.  Hope!  Like Hannah, that harpist is looking upwards, a few faint notes floating upwards towards the heavens.  She dares to hope….She has the audacity…to make music…and praise God…on the one string…she has left’” (293)!  

 Unlike such false prophets and charlatans as Daddy Grace and Father Divine, the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah has scriptural and secular authority for his prophetic mission of warning the nation of divine judgment for transgressing our personal and national covenant with God and man.  Like “Othello,” Benjamin Banneker, Richard Allen, Absalom Jones, Prince Hall, David Walker, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Benjamin “Pap” Singleton, Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Jesse Jackson, the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah is respected by many black Americans, especially Baptists and Methodists, as an African American prophetic preacher in the tradition of Jeremiah.  Can I get a witness?

 

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[1] Bill Schneider, “Wright Flap May Hurt Obama,” CNN Political Ticker, 21 Mar 2008, 6 Apr 2008 <http://politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com/2008/03/21>.[2] “Rev. Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright Biography,” The History Makers, 11 Jan 2002, 6 Apr 2008 <http://www.thehistorymakers.com/biography/biography.asp?bioindex=331&category=religionMakers>. 

 [3] “Ministries: Christ, Community, and Culture,” Trinity United Church of Christ, 2008 6 Apr 2008 <http://www.trinitychicago.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=13&Itemid=28

>

[4] David J. Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (New York: William Morrow and Co., 1986) 622.  [5] Martin, Roland S., “The Full Story Behind Wright’s ‘God Damn America’ Sermon,” Anderson Cooper: 360  21 March 2008, 6 Apr 2008 <http://ac360.blogs.cnn.com/2008/03/21/the-full-story-behind-wright%E2%80%99s-%E2%80%9Cgod-damn-america%E2%8%9D sermon/>.

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By: Dr. Bernard Bell

Professor of Literature

Penn State University

November 2009

 

* This essay was originally published as President Barack Obama, the Reverend Dr.  Jeremiah Wright, and the African American Jeremiadic Tradition.”  The Massachusetts Review (Autumn 2009): 332-343.

 

 


 

 

 

Hanging With My Daughter in the Ancient City

Posted in Cultural Matters, Travels in the New South with tags , , , , , , on October 23, 2009 by playthell

 

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Makeda searches for her Seminole Ancestors

 

From the outset it was a spiritual sojourn.  When I contemplated the gravitas of the event, the inauguration of Barrack Oboma as the 44th President of the United States of America, a land that once enslaved people like him, I knew I had to be somewhere special to mark the occasion with symbolic significance.   For one thing was certain: There would never again be a day like this if I lived another hundred years! 

The fact that Frederick Douglass was easily as smart as Abraham Lincoln, and a far better speaker, yet he was also a slave, and even when he was no longer a slave he was in constant danger of being re-enslaved until the nation erupted in war, makes the election of Barack Hussien Obama even sweeter for African Americans.  The source of this satisfaction lay in the fact that we always knew we were qualified to do anything human beings do…in spite of how hard the white folks tried to convince us otherwise.  

It was obviously the biggest story I would ever come across in my writing life, and the most inspirational story a generation of American youths had seen, or were likely to see, and I wanted to try and help my progeny understand the full measure of the event that was unfolding.   Yet it soon became clear to me that while my younger daughter, Makeda, rejoiced at the election of our nation’s first African American President, and that the lovely brilliant Michele is now America’s First Lady, these events did not mean the same thing to her that they meant to me.  It was a generational thing.   

While Makeda and her twin brother Samori have a sense of history, and thus understand on the intellectual level the significance of President Obama’s ascension to the most powerful office in the world, they never doubted that he would win because he was so obviously the best qualified candidate.   People of my generation, white and black, were not persuaded by this fact, because we had seen too many highly qualified black people passed over in favor of whites with inferior credentials. This unbridled optimism expressed by my progeny is the result of them having attended school and competed with whites in the class room and the athletic fields and held their own. 

Furthermore, they had also gone to schools that emphasized academic achievement and were staffed by progressive teachers who were overwhelmingly white, yet they never experienced any racism from them.  In fact they were more often than not the teacher’s pets.    Makeda and Samori also got on fabulously with their multi-racial school mates, and white parents who wanted their children to have diverse friends often sought them out as the preferred playmates for their children because they were just the kind of well scrubbed, well behaved, bright black kids that white parents found ideal.  They both graduated from the prestigious Beacon School – the same high school that Governor Patterson proudly announced that his son had been admitted to in his inaugural address – both were two sport athletes and also graduated with honors in science and the humanities.   Furthermore Samori was voted captain of the fencing and baseball teams…and he was the only black kid on either team. 

While Samori opted  to attend a black college, Makeda attended a big white  private university where she was a Division I sprinter competing in the 100 and 200 meter races, a choreographer and principal dancer in a university dance company, plus a Science Merit Scholar and a Dean List student. Makeda got the loudest applause at graduation ceremonies when it was announced that she had been admitted to graduate school at the elite Columbia University; and the Dean of the School of Health Sciences personally told me and her mother what a wonderful student she had been.  

Hence Makeda has successfully competed against whites in a number of endeavors – among the best and the brightest too – and her identity as an African American woman is a source of pride.  Like the poet Langston Hughes, she gloried in her blackness.  And the fact that the actor Samuel L. Jackson, was once her baby sitter; Trumpet master Wynton Marsalis, writer/McArthur Fellow Stanley Crouch, and Harvard biologist S. Alan Counter were friends of her daddy’s, all contributed to the notion that anything was possible if you were talented and worked hard enough.   And the election of Barack adds an exclamation point!

 However as Makeda began to explore the dance traditions of the Spanish and French speaking African Diaspora in the Americas, and compared them to African traditions in dance and drumming, she discovered a much lager input from the cultural inventories of Native Americans than she had expected.   And as she performed more and more with dance companies that specialized in the dance traditions of the African Diaspora, the more her colleagues would inquire about her Native American ancestry –  which was obvious to Latin Americans from her facial features.  She heard this so often that she began to research her family for evidence of Amerindian ancestry. 

 Makeda and the Great Seminole War Chief Osceola

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Members Of the Same Tribe?

 

 When her research revealed that she has a Native American great grandmother, a grandfather with a Seminole surname, and several other Native American ancestors,  it set her off on an intellectual  quest to uncover her Native American roots and honor them as distinguished ancestors  just as I she has honored her African ancestors.  However, Makeda is a serious intellectual with an encyclopedic approach to gathering data on  subjects of interest to her.  Her detective work in uncovering her Native American ancestry has led Makeda to interrogate her parents and other family members about our shadowy Native American kinsmen.

Makeda’s research into the genocide against Native Americans by the European invaders has left her contemptuous of white America’s claim to ownership of this bountiful land.  And the more she learns about the myriad ways in which Native Americans extended a helping hand to African slaves in the US, including intermarrying, the deeper her disdain for the indifference that Afro-Americans show to the present plight of Native Americans, as well as our Native American heritage, which she authoritatively points out is stronger in many black Americans than the African heritage  we celebrate.   This she can demonstrate from the perspectives of physical and cultural anthropology.

Her study of the dispossession of Native Americans led Makeda to argue in a graduate school paper, written in reply to a query about the disappearing family farm due to the onslaught of massive corporate farms associated with agri-business: “I have no sympathy for the white farmers who are being forced off their land by agri-business; now they have some small idea of what the native Americans suffered as a result of the wholesale theft of their lands, which, having no concept of private property, the willingly shared with the European settlers.  As a descendent of enslaved Africans and Native Americans who were the victims of genocide, I do not recognize the rights of whites to fertile American farm lands anymore than black South Africans recognize the claims of white farmers to their land, which they stole under the oppressive racist laws of apartheid and now wish to keep.”  

 Since St. Augustine Florida is the first European settlement in North America, there is a rich historical record of how the European invaders dealt with the Native Americans – whom they called “Indians.”  There are primary documents from the Spanish era in the city’s historical archives, and there is the massive Castillo de San Marcos which dominates the downtown skyline.  Ever since I was a boy I heard the apocryphal dramatic escape of Chief Osceola from a prison cell where he was imprisoned by white Americans.  The wily and fearless chief is said to have starved himself until he became thin enough to escape through a sky light  in the massive stone wall.   I was moved by the story when my grandfather first told it to me, and my daughter is just as fascinated with the tale today. 

When we visited the Castillo it was a moving experience; Makeda read every word posted about Native Americans, especially the Seminoles with whom she shares ancestry.   This was her spiritual journey, a foray back into the blood stained history that shaped the character of our nation.  Thus when she entered the prison cell of Osceola it was a metaphysical experience, and she offered a silent libation to his heroic resistance against the enslavers of Africans and slaughterers of Native Americans. 

Makeda in the prison of Osceola

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 Standing silently under the portal where Grand Dad said Osceola escaped

The evidence of these massive crimes against humanity is everywhere here in St. Augustine, where the dispossession and genocide against the Native Americans began.  Just a few blocks from the Castilio stands the old slave market, where her African Ancestors were sold like live stock, and the evidence of genocide against the native peoples of this land is ubiquitous in street markers and exhibits.  She even taught me a thing or two about the relationships between Africans and Native Americans right here in St. Augustine, and I’m a former history professor.  For instance, due to her sharp powers of observation Makeda spotted the marker announcing that the African American community that I grew up in – which was originally known as “Little Africa” but was renamed “Lincolnville” after the Civil War in honor of the “Great Emancipator” – was originally a Native American community. 

This sign Speaks volumes

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The Evidence of Things Unseen!

I had never known this bit of St. Augustine’s story, and to tell the truth, I had never thought about it; nor had I ever heard anybody else in the African American community talk about.  This is just the sort of silence and ignorance that so annoys Makeda: and justly so. However it was the exhibits at the Castilio and the primary documents from the era of Spanish rule in the historical archives of St. Augustine that interested Makeda the most.  Armed with and inspired by an unusual combination of intellectual interests and skills – dancer, scientist, athlete, writer – her main problem intellectually has been to find an area of study that can accommodate her diverse interests.  She seems to have found it in the field of Medical Anthropology, in which she is presently preparing to pursue a PhD program.  Her main interests is in the traditional healing practices of non-European peoples – the rest of the world – and what they can teach the conventionally trained western scientist about the healing arts.  

A voracious reader of scientific treatises, Makeda can rattle off a dizzying array of scientific studies extolling the wisdom of traditional cultures in the uses of medicinal plants and spiritual rituals in maintaining the physical and emotional health of the populace. And she convincingly argues that the decimation of the Native American population has as much to do with the spiritual death that occurred when their cultural rituals were suppressed and denied them – their music, dance and religious practices – as the physical slaughters that attended their relations with whites.  In the exhibits on display in the Castilio, Makeda found solid evidence for her hypothesis, especially the exhibit on the tribes from the western plains who were brought to the Castillo as prisoners of war.

 

A memorial to the plains tribesmen

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Some of the prisoners who were once free men in the “Wild West”

 

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 Faces of the Damned

 The texts that accompany the images above tell how the United States government systematically removed these “Braves” from their homelands because they led the resistance against the dispossession of their people by the European invaders.  The Native Americans never really had a chance because they were still in the Paleolithic period, where hunting and gathering cultures were the norm;  alas they were facing the onslaught of a culture that was already in the modern industrial age.  

 Furthermore, the US government had perfected the techniques of modern warfare – which they practically invented during the American Civil War that had only recently concluded.  Yet there was no way for these warriors of the Great Plains to know that the wagon trains bearing the murderous “palefaces” would not stop coming because they were only the advance guard of an expanding predatory civilization.  Hence in spite of their bravery, the Native Americans never had a chance.   That’s why we have records of the phenomenon of “ghost dancing” that was widely observed among the tribes of the Great Plains.  It was their attempt to communicate with the spirits of their slaughtered kinsmen.  In the exhibit at the Castillo there are drawings done by prisoners that are the counter-part of ghost dancing expressed as graphic art.   Both rituals represent a deep feeling of loss created by a people who had lost everything of value to them in the last days of the genocide.

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The caption explaining the meaning of the drawings

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Aftermath of the Genocide

The things that intrigued Makeda most was those texts that told of the intricate and far flung trade networks established by Native Americans, which showed them to be intelligent people who were capable of building a self-sustaining culture, and thus exposes the rationale for the European policy of dispossession and genocide  against them as nothing more than transparent racist apologia, what Fredrick Douglass eloquently labeled a thin veil of hypocrisy designed to camouflage “practices that would disgrace a nation of savages!”   Hence to Makeda’s mind it was the European invaders that were the real savages.  They were the one’s who destroyed the lives, homes and culture of a people who had received them as brothers and helped them survive in the wilderness of North America.  And everything she learned from her research in the ancient city supplied compelling evidence for her thesis.

 Rummaging through the archives

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 In search the truth about her ancestors

 Since she was scheduled to perform with a Haitian dance troupe at the inaugural ball hosted by “Haitians for Oboma” in Washington, it was virtually impossible to get her out of the Castillio, as she tried to soak up all the knowledge she could in the short period of time, and since she is in great condition and full of energy – intellectual and physical, she nearly wore me out.  Given Makeda’s scholarly interests, she will pay many more visits too the Ancient city, where so much of her family history is rooted.

 

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Text, Photos and videos by: Playthell Benjamin

St. Augustine Florida

January 2009

 

*Note: 2, 417 words