My old friend Richard Greener was a business associate of James Brown for many years. In this interview we compare notes on the great rhythm and blues musician prompted by my review of Alex Gibney’s documentary “Mr. Dynamite” and the feature film “Get on Up” in CounterPunch.
December 7, 2014
October 28, 2014
From Marcus Rediker’s “The Amistad Rebellion: An Atlantic Odyssey of Slavery and Freedom“:
During the fall of 1841, Madison Washington, a self-emancipated former slave from Virginia, knocked on the door of Robert Purvis in Philadelphia as he was on his way back south to assist his wife’s escape from bondage. Washington had certainly come to the right place. Purvis had been active for several years in the Vigilance Committee and the Underground Railroad. He remembered, years later, “I was at that time in charge of the work of assisting fugitive slaves to escape.” Purvis already knew Washington because he had helped him gain his freedom by getting to Canada two years earlier. Washington had since “opened correspondence with a young white man in the South,” who had promised to ferry his wife away from her plantation and to bring her to an appointed place so that the two of them could then escape northward. Purvis did not like the plan. He had witnessed others undertake such dangerous labors of love and fail. He was sure that his visitor would be captured and reenslaved. Washington, however, was determined to carry on.
By coincidence Washington arrived at the abolitionist’s home on the very same day a painting was delivered: Nathaniel Jocelyn’s portrait, “Sinque, the Hero of the Amistad,” as Purvis called it. It so happened that Cinque and twenty-one other Amistad Africans had also been in Purvis’s large, majestic home on the northwest corner of Sixteenth and Mount Vernon streets, when they visited Philadelphia on their fund-raising tour of May 1841. (Cinque later sent a message, “Tell Mr. Purvis to send me my hat.”) Purvis had long been inspired by the Amistad struggle and in late 184o–early 1841, as the Supreme Court prepared to rule on the case, he commissioned Jocelyn to paint the portrait.
Washington took a keen interest in the painting and the story behind it. When Purvis told him about Cinque and his comrades, Washington “drank in every word and greatly admired the hero’s courage and intelligence.” Washington soon departed, headed south-ward in search of his wife, but he never returned, as he had hoped to do in retracing his steps toward Canada. Someone betrayed him, as Purvis had predicted (and only learned some years later). Washington was “captured while escaping with his wife.” He was clapped into chains again and placed on board a domestic slave ship called the Creole, bound from Virginia to New Orleans in November 1841.
As the Creole set sail, Washington remembered Cinque’s story—the courage and the intelligence, the plan and the victory. Working as a cook aboard the vessel, which allowed him easy communication with his shipmates, Washington began to organize. With eighteen others he rose up, killed a slave-trading agent, wounded the captain severely, seized control of the ship, and liberated a hundred and thirty fellow Africans and African Americans. Wary of trickery, Washington forced the mate to navigate the vessel to Nassau in the Bahama Islands, where the British had abolished slavery three years earlier. In Nassau harbor they met black boatmen and soldiers, who sympathized with the emancipation from below and took charge of the Creole, supporting the rebels and insuring their victory.
Representatives of the federal government literally screamed bloody murder, just as those of Spain had done two years earlier, following the rebellion aboard the Amistad. They demanded the return of the slaves, who must, they insisted, be tried in the United States for rising up to kill their oppressors. U.S. officials self-righteously defended the institution of slavery and called for all property to be restored to its rightful owners. The British government, however, refused to comply with the order. Madison Washington and many of his comrades gained their freedom, boarded vessels bound hither and yon around the Atlantic, and left no further traces in the historical records.
The reverberations of the Amistad rebellion were beginning to be felt in the wider world of Atlantic slavery, as predicted by abolitionist Henry C. Wright, an associate of William Lloyd Garrison. He foresaw that Purvis’s painting, properly displayed, would confront slaveholders and their apologists with a powerful message about successful rebellion against bondage. To have it in a gallery would lead to discussions about slavery and the “inalienable” rights of man, and convert every set of visitors into an antislavery meeting.
Wright did not imagine a meeting of only two people, one of them a rebellious fugitive, nor could he have known that the painting would inspire radical action on another slave ship, which would result in both a collective self-emancipation and an international diplomatic row between the United States and Great Britain. The combination of the Amistad and Creole rebellions had a major impact on the antislavery struggle, pushing activists toward more militant rhetoric and practices. As Purvis concluded many years later, “And all this grew out of the inspiration caused by Madison Washington’s sight of this little picture.”
October 8, 2014
Harpers Magazine, September 2014
Washington is Burning
Two centuries of racial tribulation in the nation’s capital
By Andrew Cockburn
On a sunny Saturday in June, thousands gathered on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” This year marks the two-hundredth anniversary of Francis Scott Key’s composition, officially adopted as the national anthem in 1931 following news that leftist members of the Erie, Pennsylvania, city council were opening meetings with a rousing chorus of “The Internationale.” As the melody rang out over the grass and along Constitution Ave- nue, it echoed off neighboring memorials and galleries, including the partly built National Museum of African American History and Culture a block and a half down the street.
Although preceded by a lengthy program of musical performances, the anthem it- self got short shrift. As usual, only the familiar opening verse was sung, because of various ideological stumbling blocks in subsequent verses—most especially the third, with its fervent hope that
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
from the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave.
For myself, the words always evoke a glow of family pride, because Key’s malign desire that fleeing slaves should find no refuge was directly inspired by the actions of my distinguished relative Admiral Sir George Cockburn of the Royal Navy. Two hundred years ago this August, he fought his way to the White House at the head of an army partly composed of slaves he had freed, armed, and trained and torched the place, along with the Capitol and much of official Washington. In the course of a two-year campaign, he rescued as many as 6,000 slaves, and despite Key’s hopeful verse, not to mention angry demands from the U.S. government, he sailed them away to freedom.
Obviously, the admiral qualifies as one of the great emancipators, and I am proud to claim a connection. In a recent conversation with Dr. lonnie Bunch, who is over- seeing the creation of the African-American museum as its director, I suggested that he include George Cockburn in a Hall of the Righteous, cheek by jowl with Abraham Lincoln and William Lloyd Garrison. He was nice enough to hear me out, although he made it clear that his intention is not to produce a black version of the nearby Holocaust Memorial Museum, with its Wall of Rescuers, but something far broader in scope. The real challenge, Bunch told me, is to avoid a “rosy view of the past. Romanticized memory is not history.”
(Read full article in the print edition of Harpers. I have been subscribing since 1981 or so and have looked forward to each copy.)
September 28, 2014
A few days ago I had been consulting Douglas Blackmon’s “Slavery by Another Name”, a very fine history of post-Civil War forced labor, as part of a long-term research project to rebut Charles Post’s thesis on slavery as “precapitalist” when I came across a revealing reference to the Nation Magazine. As I have pointed out in the past, the magazine was a primary source of arguments on behalf of winding down Reconstruction. I had completely forgotten about the passage but was reminded of it today when a Facebook thread on Eric Alterman’s opposition to BDS prompted the query why the magazine puts up with him. In my view, the Nation has been problematic from its inception, lurching from abolitionism to articles attacking moves to make the KKK illegal. For a fuller discussion, I’d refer you to a piece I wrote in 2003: http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/american_left/tainted_nation.htm
A new national white consensus began to coalesce against African Americans with shocking force and speed. The general white public, the national leadership of the Republican Party, and the federal government on every level were arriving at the conclusion that African-Americans did not merit citizenship and that their freedom was not able enough to justify the conflicts they engendered among whites. A growing body of whites across the nation concluded that blacks were not worth the cost of imposing a racial morality that few in any region genuinely shared. As early as 1876, President Ulysses S. Grant, commander of the Union army of liberation, conceded to members of his cabinet that the Fifteenth Amendment, giving freed slaves the right to vote, had been a mistake: “It had done the Negro no good, and had been a hindrance to the South, and by no means a political advantage to the North.” “The long controversy over the black man seems to have reached a finality,” wrote the Chicago Tribune, approvingly. Added The Nation: “The Negro will disappear from the field of national politics. Henceforth, the nation, as a nation, will have nothing more to do with him.” That the parent had once sacrificed enormously to rescue the less favored child only made its abandonment deeply more bitter.
August 29, 2014
This is an extraordinary article from my hometown newspaper in upstate NY, the Middletown Times Herald-Record. Ellenville is a sleepy little village about 10 miles from Woodridge, the hamlet I grew up in. The area was once a thriving resort area but now it is mostly home to failing farms and low-paying jobs at the local hospital, fast food restaurants, etc. In a recent CounterPunch article, my friend John Halle posed the question whether Ferguson is the American Spring. By the looks of this article, I’d say it was.
Deaths inspire calls for justice
ELLENVILLE — Maude Bruce, in her yellow NAACP hat and T-shirt, walked in front of a crowd of about 80 people Thursday evening and spoke of the death of Eric Garner.
“Here we are again. Demanding justice,” Bruce said. “Whenever this happens, it touches me.”
Maude spoke from experience. About 27 years ago, her 20-year-old son Jimmy Lee Bruce was killed by a chokehold applied by a white, off-duty Middletown police officer.
Bruce, who is the head of Ellenville’s NAACP, led the rally at Ellenville Liberty Square. It came in the wake of the deaths of Garner, who died of a chokehold applied by a cop in Staten Island, and Michael Brown, an 18-year-old shot by a police officer in in Ferguson, Missouri.
Both men were black, both were unarmed and both incidents are under investigation.
The deaths of the two men have spurned nationwide anger over police tactics, racial profiling and the racial makeup of police forces.
Second march this month
The rally was at least the second locally this month. Two weeks ago about 50 people gathered in front of Kingston City Hall to chants of “hands up, don’t shoot” at a vigil for Brown organized by Citizen Action.
Eric Monroe took off his bucket cap, threw on his black beret, and got up in front of the crowd wearing his black shades.
“How many more deaths do we need before we realize we’re all in peril,” Monroe said.
Monroe, executive director of the Sullivan County Human Rights Commission, said an ingrained police culture is sometimes more to blame than race for abuses of authority. But he stressed police need to equally represent the people they police, too.
“The police department has to reflect the community,” Monroe said.
Wilbur Aldridge, regional director of the NAACP, told the crowd that police who abuse procedures need to to be held accountable. And scrutiny on those problems will increase.
“It’s our job to hold police to the fire,” Aldridge said. “It will no longer be the fireplace, it’s going to be the furnace as far as law enforcement and anyone doing anything they shouldn’t be doing.”
Eben Nettles-Abrams, 17, told the crowd that “a good society hears the cries of a community and responds” and that the death of Brown, just 18, sparked a nerve among him and his friends.
“It kind of scares us,” he said. “It seems like that’s the trend.”
A.J. Williams, SUNY New Paltz black studies professor, talked of blacks’ roles in history, work and war.
“We must take the bull by the horns. Black people must begin to own their history,” he said. “Our grandchildren cannot grow up thinking this is the way it has to be.”
August 26, 2014
A week ago the popular news and gossip website Gawker published an article titled “Who Are the ‘Revolutionary Communists’ Allegedly Agitating in Ferguson?” by Michelle Deane, the author of illuminating pieces such as “Your End-of-August Cocktail Is A Lemon Rosemary Vodka Fizz”.
Since I confess to not being a regular Gawker reader, I thought I’d take a quick look at its provenance through the generally reliable Wikipedia. A Brit named Nick Denton, whose politics are rather hard to pin down, launched it in 2003. His main ambition seems to be making money. For some odd reason, he decided to launch a website inspired by the sorry career of Tina Brown, the former editor of “Vanity Fair”, the obvious inspiration for Gawker.
I was intrigued to see that Choire Sicha spent a couple of years as editor there. Sicha launched The Awl, a website covering pretty much the same terrain as Gawker. I have it bookmarked and spend about 15 seconds there each day in a futile attempt to find something worth reading.
N+1, a Marxist literary and political print magazine I read from cover to cover, published an article on Gawker that sums it up fairly well:
Gawker had always sold itself as mean but it now became, actually, very mean. Sicha, who liked to pretend to be a news organization, had sent “correspondents” and “interns” to official media events. Coen found more of them, and she sent them not only to launches and readings but also to private parties, where they took embarrassing party photos. This was the important development: the decision to treat every subject, known or unknown, in public or private situations, with the fascinated ill will that tabloid magazines have for their subjects.
It makes some sense that if you are following in the footsteps of Tina Brown, you are likely to cross paths. Brown founded The Daily Beast in 2008 and was largely responsible for the vast financial losses that Newsweek suffered after an ill-advised merger with her dubious project. Although the Beast no longer has no connections to Brown, her spirit lingers on.
At the Daily Beast you can find the same sort of article on Ferguson that Michelle Deane wrote. Titled “The Communist Agitators Trying to Ignite Ferguson”, it is the sort of thing that was once popular in the 1950s when communism was a force to be reckoned with. The article has a glaring typo in the second paragraph, a dead giveaway as to the Beast’s editorial standards:
The Revolution Club of Chicago took to the streets Monday, busy “working with people.” After darkness fell and while the crowd of protesters grew larger and more boisterous, Carl Dix walked along West Florissant Avenue with Joey Johnson and Lou Downey, members of the Chicago club. It was clear that Nix—a leader in the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP)—was the point man in this small operation, with Johnson, Downey and several others following him as committed political disciples.
Is it Dix or is it Nix? (It is Dix.)
Gawker’s coverage at least had the merit of being written with the obligatory “sassy” style that pervades the magazine:
According to a website called the Missouri Torch, the man French is referring to is one Greg “Joey” Johnson, of Chicago. They have a variety of other images and videos of Johnson and assorted “commie” — their word — friends being shown around Ferguson. It’s pretty plain they’ve identified him correctly.
Johnson has been kicking around the paranoid end of American politics for some time. (To be utterly clear to any conservatives getting excited just reading this, that paranoid end is a 360 degree circle, really, comprising members of all stripes of political thought.) But he hasn’t been wholly ineffective, as an activist. For one example: those of you who went to law school, might recognize him as the same Gregory Johnson who was the defendant in Texas v. Johnson, the case which held that flag-burning is a protected activity under the First Amendment.
The group with which Johnson is affiliated, the Revolutionary Communist Party, is nowadays largely regarded as crank-ish even by many self-identified Communists. It is routinely referred to as a “cult of personality” for its leader Bob Avakian. Avakian, who lives in self-imposed exile… somewhere, still believes that Communist revolution is possible and writes long tracts to that end, identifying the end of racial oppression as key to the eventual overthrow of capitalism. He is also the sort of fellow who writes like this:
One important aspect of boldly spreading revolution and communism everywhere is the work of building what we have characterized as a culture of appreciation, promotion, and popularization around the leadership, the body of work and the method and approach of Bob Avakian. Now, I recognize that some people (especially among the middle strata, frankly) may find it “immodest” (and perhaps, to some, strangely disturbing) for me to speak about this (and, for god’s sake, to refer to myself in the third person!). But, first of all and fundamentally, “modesty” (or “immodesty”) is not the essential issue, not the heart of the matter.
Unfortunately Deane relied heavily on the video coverage of Ferguson that appeared in the Missouri Torch, a far-right website that is published by the Missouri Alliance for Freedom, a group that seeks to:
- Reduce taxes and decrease the size of government.
- Protect parental and children’s rights while encouraging the traditional family unit.
Apparently Sarah Kenzidor, a contributor to al-Jazeera and other nominally progressive outlets, has been tapping the Missouri Torch as well to “expose” outside agitators.
Jacobin Magazine, which has been linked with N+! as the voice of the Marxist Young Turks, published an article by Richard Seymour that took issue with the “outside agitator” narrative without naming any of the culprits. In addition to Gawker and The Daily Beast, the same sort of article appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, CNN and the Wall Street Journal. Richard wrote:
The metaphor of exteriority, of being outside, has two important connotations. First, one is transgressing the spatial ordering of the state. States constitute social spaces like districts, wards, and counties — a process that is historically far from racially innocent in the US.
Second, is that one’s political being is “outside,” and thus traitorous and disloyal. It is not just that one traveled from one city to another — that’s fine, provided the political agenda one brings is benign for the system — but that one brought ideas that are not only not native to the destination, but actually foreign to the nation, the free world, civilization itself.
While I am in total agreement with Richard’s analysis, I do want to take a few moments to look at the RCP intervention that some on the left view somewhat more benignly than I do. Blogger Stanley W. Rogouski wrote in conclusion to an article on Ferguson and outside agitators:
The RCP got it right with World Can’t Wait. Radicals had to take over liberal outrage against the Republicans or watch the “Bush Regime” become the new normal. That they proposed, and with a very straight face, that the alternative to George W. Bush could be Bob Avakian was hilariously delusional. But they were onto something. Perhaps that’s why, now, they’ve become the face of the “outside agitator” in Ferguson.
Sarah Kendzior knows her competition when she sees it.
With so much attention riveted on Avakian’s group, I thought I’d go pay their website a visit. The last time I had any contact with them was back in the 1980s and early 90s when I used to visit their well-stocked bookstore in Chelsea.
The home page of Revolution, their newspaper, made clear who was their main man:
As I trawled through their coverage of Ferguson, I found plenty of militant rhetoric:
We stand with the defiant ones. We stand with the angry ones, the rebellious ones, the ones who will not take it, the ones who tell the truth—and the ones they lie about. Without defiance, without rage, without righteous rebellion, without people insisting on their rights and defending those rights in the street—very few people would even know about Michael Brown and how he was shot over and over with his hands up, murdered by pigs and then left to lie there in the streets, as if he were an animal. Very few people would have shared the grief of his parents for the terrible loss of this young man, at the very beginning of his life. Without the rebellion, this terrible state-done murder would just be another rerun of the same old all-too-familiar story, the same murderous stuff that happens to Black and Latino youth over and over again.
But because of the defiance and rebellion, the whole world knows the story. Now everybody has to deal with this. And people all over the country and all over the world support this fight. You, the defiant ones, are changing the thinking of millions and millions of people… you are calling out to everyone NOT TO TAKE IT… you are making history—in the way it badly needs to be made.
So, yes we stand with the defiant ones—and we will defend them and stand with them in deed as well as word.
But it was not exactly clear what this meant in terms of strategy and tactics. This is not surprising since the RCP is what might be called a “maximalist” organization. Their preoccupation is with REVOLUTION, not any mealy-mouthed intermediate steps that can move the struggle forward. Although I have very little use for James P. Cannon, the founder of American Trotskyism, I live by his observation that the art of politics is knowing what to do next.
In 1938 Trotsky wrote the Transitional Program in an effort to address the task of knowing what to do next. He described it as an alternative to the minimum/maximum divide that existed in the social democracy:
Classical Social Democracy, functioning in an epoch of progressive capitalism, divided its program into two parts independent of each other: the minimum program which limited itself to reforms within the framework of bourgeois society, and the maximum program which promised substitution of socialism for capitalism in the indefinite future. Between the minimum and the maximum program no bridge existed.
Although Trotsky does not delve into this, the two programs effectively became the banner of the Second International and Third Period Stalinism before the two movements began to overlap through the Popular Front period. In the late 20s and the early 30s, the CP would organize foolish adventures along “maximalist” lines that backfired against the workers movement. In Germany, they united with the Nazis to unseat a socialist party politician embodying their belief: “After Hitler, Us”.
If you want to understand the RCP politically, their primary influence was Third Period Stalinism, which in the USA was expressed through the period in which William Z. Foster led the CP.
Trotsky proposed the Transitional Program as a way of circumnavigating the treacherous waters dominated by the CP and the social democracy in the late 1930s, two massive movements that had little to fear from the Fourth International that was based on a sectarian model even if its emphasis on “transition” was perfectly lin line with Marxist theory.
When I first came across the Transitional Program in 1967, I was struck by Trotsky’s very first sentence: “The world political situation as a whole is chiefly characterized by a historical crisis of the leadership of the proletariat.” That is just as true today as it was when I read it 47 years ago. Just look at the Middle East and North Africa.
It is also true of Black America that many analysts have begun to compare to oppressed people in MENA, particularly the residents of Gaza who carried signs hailing the struggle in Ferguson.
I was struck by the anger and distrust directed against the official Black leadership in Ferguson, even expressed by some Black elected officials. Back in 1967 the SWP was propagandizing for an independent Black political party, one that could begin to organize and generalize struggles such as those occurring around cop killings now. It had hopes that the Panthers could become that party but they succumbed to Maoist maximalism unfortunately.
As the Black membership of the SWP grew in the 1970s, it became capable of helping to move toward such a party. There were national conferences to launch such a party that withered on the vine, partly out of the participation of Black CP’ers who wanted to squelch any potential challenges to the Democratic Party. The same thing happened with efforts to build a Labor Party, with officials lacking the guts to organize election campaigns that would antagonize their allies in the labor movement.
In the 1970s and 80s, efforts to build such parties was undermined by both the generally more sanguine state of the economy and by the sectarian madness of the organized left, including the SWP. Now that the economy has turned to shit and the sectarians—including the SWP and the RCP—have been reduced to cults around a believe leader, the time is ripe for moving once again to build class struggle alternatives to the Democrats and Republicans in the electoral arena.
August 22, 2014
In St. Louis, Missouri on April 28th, 1836, a lynch mob burned Francis McIntosh alive. He was a mixed-race freeman who worked on a riverboat. His crime was refusing to assist two cops who were chasing after another sailor who had been in a fight. When under police custody, he learned that he would have to spend five years in prison. In an attempt to flee from an obviously unjust punishment, he stabbed one of the cops to death and wounded the other.
Wikipedia reports on what happened next:
After a brief chase, McIntosh was captured and placed in jail; however, a white mob soon broke into the jail and removed McIntosh. The mob then took him to the outskirts of town (near the present-day intersection of Seventh and Chestnut streets in Downtown St. Louis), chained him to a locust tree, and piled wood around and up to his knees. When the mob lit the wood with a hot brand, McIntosh asked the crowd to shoot him, then began to sing hymns. When one in the crowd said that he had died, McIntosh reportedly replied, “No, no — I feel as much as any of you. Shoot me! Shoot me!” After at most twenty minutes, McIntosh died. Estimates for the number present at the lynching range in the hundreds, and include an alderman who threatened to shoot anyone who attempted to stop the lynching.
During the night, an elderly African-American man was paid to keep the fire lit, and the mob dispersed. The next day, on April 29, a group of boys threw rocks at the corpse in an attempt to break the skull. When a grand jury was convened to investigate the lynching on May 16, most local newspapers and the presiding judge encouraged no indictment for the crime, and no one was ever charged or convicted. During the grand jury trial, Judge Luke E. Lawless remarked in court that McIntosh’s actions were an example of the “atrocities committed in this and other states by individuals of negro blood against their white brethren,” and that with the rise of abolitionism, “the free negro has been converted into a deadly enemy.”
On January 27, 1838 Abraham Lincoln gave the first important speech in his life to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois. A Lyceum was a place where politicians or other celebrities could give talks to the up and coming professional, sort of like the 92nd Street YMHA. Titled “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions”, it was a plea to resist mob rule and adhere to the rule of law. He referred to the lynching of Francis McIntosh as a threat the American republic:
Turn, then, to that horror-striking scene at St. Louis. A single victim was only sacrificed there. His story is very short; and is, perhaps, the most highly tragic, if anything of its length, that has ever been witnessed in real life. A mulatto man, by the name of McIntosh, was seized in the street, dragged to the suburbs of the city, chained to a tree, and actually burned to death; and all within a single hour from the time he had been a freeman, attending to his own business, and at peace with the world.
Such are the effects of mob law; and such as the scenes, becoming more and more frequent in this land so lately famed for love of law and order; and the stories of which, have even now grown too familiar, to attract any thing more, than an idle remark.
At first blush, this sounds like the Lincoln we know from Stephen Spielberg’s biopic—a man committed to emancipation. But not so fast. Lincoln goes on to say:
He had forfeited his life, by the perpetuation of an outrageous murder, upon one of the most worthy and respectable citizens of the city; and had not he died as he did, he must have died by the sentence of the law, in a very short time afterwards. As to him alone, it was as well the way it was, as it could otherwise have been.–But the example in either case, was fearful.–When men take it in their heads to day, to hang gamblers, or burn murderers, they should recollect, that, in the confusion usually attending such transactions, they will be as likely to hang or burn some one who is neither a gambler nor a murderer as one who is; and that, acting upon the example they set, the mob of to-morrow, may, and probably will, hang or burn some of them by the very same mistake.
As someone who is not that fond of Lincoln’s ornate circumlocutions, let me paraphrase it in Proyectesque terms. Lincoln said that McIntosh deserved to die but only after being found guilty in a court of law. One can only imagine what a jury made up of his “peers” would have decided in a state that passed a law in 1825 stating that Blacks were not competent to testify in cases that involved Whites.
Even more worrisome was Lincoln’s remarks on abolitionism. In the South, there were laws that banned the promotion of abolitionist ideas. Lincoln warned against “mob rule” that would attempt to circumvent the rule of law. Once again, you have to put up with the circumlocutions: “There is no grievance that is a fit object of redress by mob law. In any case that arises, as for instance, the promulgation of abolitionism, one of two positions is necessarily true; that is, the thing is right within itself, and therefore deserves the protection of all law and all good citizens; or, it is wrong, and therefore proper to be prohibited by legal enactments; and in neither case, is the interposition of mob law, either necessary, justifiable, or excusable.”
When I first got wind of Barack Obama in 2007, I noticed that he was a big fan of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals”, a study of Lincoln’s presidency that found great merit in his appointment of men who were hostile to abolitionism. Obama, of course, was inspired to appoint a bunch of shithooks every chance he got, to show how determined he was to be like Lincoln.
Upon taking office, Obama told a reporter: “”I will tell you, though, that my goal is to have the best possible government, and that means me winning. And so, I am very practical minded. I’m a practical-minded guy. And, you know, one of my heroes is Abraham Lincoln.” He referred the reporter to “a wonderful book written by Doris Kearns Goodwin called ‘Team of Rivals,’ in which [she] talked about [how] Lincoln basically pulled in all the people who had been running against him into his Cabinet because whatever, you know, personal feelings there were, the issue was, ‘How can we get this country through this time of crisis?’”
Well, we know how that turned out. Badly.
We have had six years now of an administration that is to the right of Richard Nixon’s. It harasses reporters, favors the rich, sends drones to blow up wedding parties, creates health care “reform” more beneficial to the insurer than the insured, and caves in to the Republicans every chance it gets.
And, now returning to the crime against a Black man in St. Louis once again, we have Obama following in Lincoln’s footsteps. Which means trying to straddle the fence and be acceptable to Black voters and to the white racists who would as soon see them get the short end of the stick just like the Palestinians. No wonder the people of Ferguson carry signs in solidarity with Gaza.
July 15, 2014
The Long, Low Black Schooner (pages 114-118 from above)
On September 2, 1839, three days after the Amistad Africans arrived at the New Haven jail and thousands of people had already filed through to see them, the Bowery Theatre of New York began its performance of The Black Schooner, or, The Pirate Slaver Armistead; or The Long, Low Black Schooner, as it was more commonly called. An advertisement announced “an entire new and deeply interesting Nautical Melo-Drama, in 2 acts, written expressly for this Theatre, by a popular author,” almost certainly Jonas B. Phillips, the Bowery Theatre’s “house playwright” during the 183os.36 Based on “the late extraordinary Piracy! Mutiny! & Murder!” aboard the Amistad and the sensa-tional newspaper reports of “black pirates” that had appeared in the press before their capture, the play demonstrated how quickly the news of the rebellion spread, and with what cultural resonance. The title of the play came from the title of the New York Sun article about the Amistad rebellion published on August 31, 1839, which in turn had drawn on the recent descriptions of a pirate ship captained by a man named Mitchell, who had been marauding in the Gulf of Mexico.37
In 1839 the Bowery Theatre was notorious for its rowdy, raucous working-class audiences: youthful Bowery b’hoys and g’hals (slang for young working-class men and women of Lower Manhattan) and dandies, as well as sailors, soldiers, journeymen, laborers, apprentices, street urchins, and gang members. Prostitutes plied their trade in the theater’s third tier. The audience cheered, hissed, drank, fought, cracked peanuts, threw eggs, and squirted tobacco juice everywhere. During an especially popular performance, the overflow crowd might sit on the stage amid the actors and props, or they might simply invade it and become part of the performance. The owner and manager of the theatre, Thomas Hamblin, employed a pack of constables to prevent riots, which on several occasions exploded anyway. That the Bowery Theatre was associated with a big, violent anti-abolitionist riot in 1834 makes its staging of The Long, Low Black Schooner all the more remarkable.38
Paired with Giafar al Barmeki, or, The Fire Worshippers, an orientalist fantasy set in Baghdad, the play attracted “multitudes” to the nation’s largest theater. If performed every other day for two weeks (it may have run longer) at only two-thirds capacity of the theater’s thirty-five hundred seats (it may have been greater), the play would have been seen by roughly fifteen thousand people, about one in twenty of the city’s population. Another way of estimating the number in attendance is to divide the production’s gross earnings of $5,250 by prevailing ticket prices (most were twenty-five cents, some were fifty and seventy-five cents), which also suggests roughly fifteen thousand viewers. The play therefore played a major role not only in interpreting the Amistad rebellion, but in spreading the news of it soon after it happened. It was not uncommon for playwrights to work with timely and controversial events in order to draw larger audiences to their theaters.39
No script survives, but a detailed playbill provides a “Synopsis of Scenery, Incidents, &c.” Set on the main deck of the Amistad, the play featured the actual people who were involved in the uprising. The leading character was “Zemba Cinques, an African, Chief of the Mutineers,” based on Cinque and played by Joseph Proctor, a “young American tragedian,” perhaps in burnt-cork blackface, as was common at the Bowery.40 The “Captain of the Schooner, and owner of the Slaves” was Pedro Montes, the actual owner of four of the enslaved who sailed the vessel after the rebellion. The supercargo was Juan Ruez, based on Jose Ruiz, owner of forty-nine slaves on board. Cudjo, “a deformed Dumb Negro,” who resembles the “savage and deformed slave” Caliban in Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, was apparently based on the “savage” Konoma, who was ridiculed for his tusk-like teeth and decried as a cannibal. Lazarillo, the “overseer of the slaves,” probably drew on the slave-sailor Celestino. Other characters included Cabrero the mate, sailors, and the wholly invented damsel soon to be in distress, Inez, the daughter of Montes and the wife of Ruez.41
Act 1 begins as the vessel sets sail from Havana, passing Moro Cas-tle and heading out to sea. The history of Zemba Cingues, the hero of the story, is recounted as a prelude to entry into the “hold of the schooner,” where lay the “wretched slaves!” The bondsmen plot and soon take an “Oath of vengeance.” In a rising storm, also noted in the accounts of the rebellion, “The Slaves, led by Zemba Cingues” force open the hatchway, which results in “MUTINY and MURDER!” The rebels seize the vessel and reset its course, heading eastward across the Atlantic to their native Sierra Leone. “Prospects of liberation” are at hand.42 Act 2 shifts to the captain’s cabin, now occupied, after the rebellion, by Zemba Cingues, as Montes and Rues sit, as prisoners, in the dark hold of the vessel (as their counterparts actually did). The world has been turned upside down: those who were below are now above, and vice versa. The reversal poses great danger to Inez, who has apparently fallen into the clutches of Cudjo and now faces “terrible doom.” Someone, probably Zemba Cinques, rescues her, forcing Cudjo to “surrender his intended victim.” Did the audience see a black hero rescue a white woman from the hands of a black villain? This is a theme of no small significance, given prevailing popular fears of racial “amalgamation,” which had ignited anti-abolition riots.
Zemba Cingues then sees a vessel (the U.S. brig Washington) sailing toward them, and holds a council among his fellow mutineers to decide what to do. They choose death over slavery—a sentiment repeatedly ascribed to Cinque in the popular press—and decide to “Blow up the Schooner!” (The Amistad rebels made no such decision, as many of them were off the vessel at Long Island when the sailors of the Washington captured their vessel.) Alas, it is too late as the “Gallant Tars” of the Washington drop into the cabin from its skylight and take control of the Amistad.
The end of the play is left uncertain, much like the fate of the Amis-tad captives, who were sitting in the New Haven jail not far away, awaiting trial on charges of piracy and murder. The playbill states: “Denoument—Fate of Cingues!” What indeed will be his fate? Did the play enact his execution, an ending that many, including Cinque him-self, expected? Or did it dramatize his liberation along with all of his comrades?43 The Long, Low Black Schooner was not an unusual play for its time. Slave revolt and piracy were common themes in early American theater. Rebellious slaves appeared in Obi, or, Three-Finger’d Jack, a play about a Jamaican runaway slave turned bandit, which was a staple after its American premiere in 1801; and in The Slave, an opera by Thomas Morton about a revolt in Surinam, first acted in 1817 and many times thereafter, into the 1840s. The Gladiator dramatized the famous slave revolt led by Spartacus in ancient Greece. It premiered in 1831, starred working-class hero Edwin Forrest, and may have been the most popular play of the decade. Pirates headlined popular nautical melodramas of the 183os, such as Captain Kyd, or, The Wizard of the Sea, performed first in 183o and numerous times thereafter, then published as a novel by J. H. Ingraham in 1839. John Glover Drew adapted Byron’s The Corsair for performance at Brook Farm in the early 184os. The great African American actor Ira Aldridge would soon act the lead in The Bold Buccaneer. Slave rebels and pirates sometimes appeared in the same plays, as they did in The Long, Low Black Schooner: “Three-Finger’d Jack” was something of a pirate on land, and indeed had been called “that daring freebooter.” Pirates also played a significant role in The Gladiator.44
Like other melodramas of the times, The Long, Low Black Schooner featured virtuous common people, usually laborers, battling villain-ous aristocrats—in this case, enslaved Africans striking back against the Spanish slaveholders Montes and Ruez. “Low” characters like Zemba Cingues spoke poetic lines in honorable resistance. They were routinely celebrated for their heroism, encouraging some degree of popular identification with the outlaw who dared to strike for free-dom. As Peter Reed has noted, audiences “could both applaud and fear low revolts, both mourn and celebrate their defeats.”45
The theater shaped the news of the Amistad rebellion as it spread it. A sympathetic, even romantic view softened the violence of the original event. Cinque’s poised and dramatic personal bearing during the legal proceedings earned him comparison to Shakespeare’s Othello.46 He was also likened to “a colored dandy in Broadway.” He clearly had the “outlaw charisma” so common to the “rogue performances” of the era. Having captured the attention of the theater world and the public at large, it was fitting that The Long, Low Black Schooner should be followed, in December 1839, by a production of Jack Sheppard, or, The Life of a Robber!, also written by Jonas B. Phillips. Like Sheppard, whose jailbreaks became “the common discourse of the whole nation” in Britain in the 1720s, and to whom the public flocked, paying admis-sion to see him in his cell, the “black pirates” of the Amistad were winning in their own bid to take the good ship Popular Imagination. A “Nautical Melo-Drama,” based on real people and dramatic current events, was playing out in American society as a whole.47
June 3, 2014
On Thursday the NY Times reported on the death of a legendary African-American lesbian and gay activist:
Storme DeLarverie, a singer, cross-dresser and bouncer who may or may not have thrown the first punch at the 1969 uprising at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, but who was indisputably one of the first and most assertive members of the modern gay rights movement, died on Saturday in Brooklyn. She was 93.
I encourage you to read the entire obituary but want to hone in on one paragraph:
There was a long period in Chicago, where, she told friends, she was a bodyguard for mobsters. From the mid-1950s through the 1960s Ms. DeLarverie was the M.C. of the Jewel Box Revue, billed as “an unusual variety show.” She dressed as a man; the rest of the cast members, all men, dressed as women. One of the show’s stars was Lynne Carter, a female impersonator who later performed at Carnegie Hall.
As it turns out, I had an encounter with one of the male cast members when I was about 10 years old. This is from the abortive memoir I did with Harvey Pekar (relax, Joyce, this is considered “fair use”):
The Kentucky Club was a hot spot in my little village that drew vacationers from all through the Borscht Belt. Buses used to drop off women from the local bungalow colonies and small hotels to take in what amounted to the original La Cage Aux Folles. They loved the Jewel Box Revue, especially the surprise ending when it was revealed that the male MC was actually a woman—Storme DeLarverie.
I refer to the dancer as Miss Vicky but in reality that was just a name I gave the man who was sitting next to my mother. In all likelihood it was probably Don Marshall, one of the few Black men performing in drag at the time (I couldn’t find his stage name).
Since I was only 10 years old when I met Don Marshall, I had no idea what being gay meant although I was quite puzzled to see a man wearing a dress. I barely could conceive of a man and woman having intercourse, let alone people of the same sex. A couple of years later I’d find a copy of “Marital Hygiene” in my parent’s dresser and things would become much clearer.
The best introduction to gay performers can be found at http://queermusicheritage.com/, with news, for example, on the bearded cross-dresser Conchita Wurst who won the Eurovision Song contest. For information on the Jewel Box Revue, go to http://queermusicheritage.com/fem-jewl.html.
On December 4, 2012, Wayne Anderson, a LGBT rights activist and gay veteran of the U.S. Army, wrote about the revue in the Huffington Post. The opening paragraphs:
In 1939, during a time when gay people were viewed as abhorrent subversives and a threat to society, two gay lovers, Danny Brown and Doc Benner, created and produced America’s first racially inclusive traveling revue of female impersonators. It was staffed almost entirely by gay men and one gay woman and was known as the Jewel Box Revue. In many ways it was America’s first gay community.
A recent and insightful paper (http://www.lvc.edu/vhr/2012/Articles/dauphin.pdf) by Mara Dauphin argues that the early drag/female impersonation revues of the 1940s and 1950s were “highly instrumental in creating queer communities and carving out queer niches of urban landscape in post-war America that would flourish into the sexual revolution of the sixties.” And though there were other popular female impersonation clubs, such the famous Finnochio’s in San Francisco and the infamous mafia-owned Club 82 of New York City, with the exception of the Jewel Box Revue, all the revues were operated and controlled by straight people, who were not always very gay-friendly (a notable exception being the Garden of Allah cabaret in Seattle, which featured the Jewel Box Revue as their opening-night act in 1946). Robin Raye, who performed in several early establishments, including Finocchio’s and the Jewel Box Revue, once said of Mrs. Finocchio, “I don’t think she liked gay people, but she certainly knew how to use them.”
In 1955 there were very few out of the closet gays and lesbians. However, there were very many ways in which homosexual identity was conveyed under the radar. I would strongly recommend Vito Russo’s “The Celluloid Closet” for more on this, which can be seen on a Netflix DVD or Amazon streaming.
But for me the closest anything came to an open portrayal to a mass audience at the time was professional wrestler Ricky Starr who wore ballet slippers and minced around the mat before, during and after bouts. He used to toss miniature ballet slippers to the audience as a ritual before each bout. Years later, after Stonewall, gay men would tend to eschew the queen identity but in 1955 it was safer since it was seen more as being a “sissy” then being a “pervert”.
Here’s Ricky versus Karl Von Hess, who some regarded as a Nazi-identified wrestler but who had much more to do with traditional Prussian values.
I recommend a look at Sharon Glazer’s “Professional Wrestling: Sport and Spectacle” on Google/Books. This is a scholarly analysis of the sport that in my view was a lot more entertaining in the 1950s than it is today. Here she is on the classic Starr/Von Hess contest:
Starr’s performance especially his taunting of von Hess, is explicitly (homo)sexual. He wiggles his buttocks under the other wrestler’s nose while pretending to straighten his shoe, performs a series of pelvic thrusts, and hops on and off von Hess’s back, controlling his opponent with apparent ease and leading the commentator at one point to worry half-seriously about the network censors: “Mr. Starr is just loosening up. Nothing wrong with that. With he would loosen up out of camera, though. This is a family network, you know.” As Starr continues, the commentator informs us that Starr was taught his moves by an old (male) burlesque star who went by the name of “Toots” and that: “This program [is] sponsored by bumps and grinds incorporated.” Von Hess snarls and plays it as straight as a villain can under the circumstances. Clearly the loser in the fan sweepstakes as well as the match, he is finally defeated by Ricky Starr’s rapid and proficient series of drop kicks. In a coda to the match, von Hess gets into a slugfest with the referee, which ends when Starr intervenes on the ref’s behalf, taking a hit himself in the process.
Glazer’s scholarly treatment of professional wrestling is matched by Amber Clifford’s dissertation “Queering the Inferno: Space, Identity, and Kansas City’s Jazz Scene” that will be published soon as a book. You can look at it on Google/Books as well. Here is Amber on Storme DeLarverie:
A clear example of how this silence about sexuality is prevalent in the history of male impersonators lies in the story of Storme DeLerverie. DeLarverie worked as a female singer in night clubs before joining the Jewel Box Revue in 1955. The Jewel Box Revue was a female impersonation floor show and touring act. Founded originally in Miami in 1939, the Jewel Box relocated to New York in 1955, where the Jewel Box had its base ofoperations until it closed in 1973. DeLarverie was the only female in the show, and the only African-American member of the Jewel Box Revue. [I have contacted Ms. Clifford on my contact with Don Marshall.] She joined the show as a male impersonator and emcee and gave birth to the Revue’s tagline “25 men and a girl.” Photographs of DeLarverie from the Jewel Box Revue program show a slender African American who looks liken a young man in a slim cut suit and tie, cl close-cropped hair and an inscrutable look, holding a cigarette on a pinky-ringed left hand. The caption reads “Miss Storme Larverie The Lady Who Appears Be a Gentleman”. Throughout the program, photographs of female impersonators show them in both costume and masculine street-clothhig. No such juxtapositional photographs of Storm DeLarverie appear.
Research about Storme DeLarverie and her work with the Jewel Box illuminates several aspects of Jacobs’s biography. First, according to scholar Elizabeth Drorbaugh, DeLarverie avoided any gendered or sexualized labels. DeLarverie’s cross-dressing helped spatialize her as ‘family” in the world of gender impersonation, a position she did not wish to endanger by discussing her own desires shares commonalities with Jacobs, who entered her work as an impersonator after a stint as a singer. Jacobs, perhaps, felt included in the community at Dante’s [a Kansas City drag club], the world she “learned a lot from,” and did not want to endanger that world by revealing her own sexual desires, whatever they were. Another aspect of this question of identity is pivotal to understanding the subjectification of gender impersonators, we cannot forget that they were performers. According to Drorbaugh, performers of gender impersonation resisted being read as one gender or another, preferring ambiguity to identification.
One can certainly understand the need for ambiguity in 1955. The homophobia was so intense you could have cut it with a knife. Let me conclude with another snapshot from my youth:
March 22, 2014
Two documentaries arriving in New York this week are stirring testaments to the political and cultural heritage of the Black community. Ironically, the first—“American Revolutionary: The Evolution Of Grace Lee Boggs”—that opened yesterday at the AMC Loew’s on 19th Street is about a 98 year old Chinese-American woman whose entire political life was so enmeshed with the Detroit Black struggle that everybody regarded her as an African-American. The other film is “Brothers Hypnotic”, a film about the young sons of an alumnus of the Son Ra Orchestra who formed a brass ensemble that simultaneously reflects their father’s Black consciousness while stubbornly sticking to its own musical agenda. It opens on Monday at the Maysles Theater in Harlem, the go-to place for outstanding documentaries engaged with the Black experience.
For those who follow my film reviews, you are probably aware that I avoid the kind of hyperbolic praise that gets attached to those full-page ads in the NY Times. So when I tell you that “American Revolutionary: The Evolution Of Grace Lee Boggs” is the greatest documentary about an American leftist I have ever seen, I mean it. Granted that they are far and few between, this is still a movie that had me spellbound from beginning to end. It reminded me—and would remind anybody who ever passed out a leaflet—what it means to challenge the system and why such a life is so much worth living, no matter how many times your nose gets bloodied in the process.
Grace Lee Boggs, the daughter of a man who owned a successful Chinese restaurant, began studying at Barnard College just as the Great Depression was at its deepest point. Like so many other children of privilege, she decided that her lot was with the unemployed and the working class. But unlike most of her peers, she gravitated toward the Trotskyist movement rather than the CP. Obtaining a PhD in philosophy from Bryn Mawr in 1940, she found herself deeply influenced by Hegel and particularly the role of the dialectic that she thought useful in understanding capitalist society. This Hegelian predisposition naturally led her to the Workers Party shortly after hearing CLR James speak in Chicago. James had been a co-leader of the “Johnson-Forrest” tendency in the SWP (he was Johnson and Raya Dunayevskaya was Forrest) and a leading theorist of the Black struggle.
The film does not really delve too deeply in the Byzantine twists and turns of the Trotskyist movement (broadly defined) but James and Dunayevskaya broke with the Workers Party because of what they considered its foot-dragging in the Black struggle and rejoined the SWP in 1947. In 1950 the Johnson-Forrest tendency abandoned the SWP and set up shop as the Correspondence group, named after their magazine.
One of the more important members of the Correspondence group was James Boggs, a working-class African-American from the Deep South who after meeting Grace Lee wasted no time in proposing marriage. The Boggs’s closest collaborator was Marty Glaberman who was the editor of the magazine.
Chinese-American director Grace Lee’s first film was “The Grace Lee Project”, an attempt to find namesakes who defied the stereotype of an Asian woman who was as Rotten Tomatoes described it: “a quiet, studious over-achiever who was cheerful, Christian, and never got into trouble.” Nobody could be more unalike from that than Grace Lee Boggs who not only didn’t think of herself as Chinese but also was just one step ahead of being thrown in jail as a subversive. The new film includes footage of the 2005 documentary with a spry 84-year-old Grace Lee Boggs walking so fast that the director could barely keep up with her.
“American Revolutionary: The Evolution Of Grace Lee Boggs” includes a generous helping of James Boggs footage, a man I regret never having read. When the couple moved to Detroit, James took a job at Chrysler in order to understand the changes in the working class as well as changes in the industry. This was not a “colonization” effort but much more of an attempt to make a living while conducting research on the class struggle. Boggs wrote a book titled “The American Revolution: Pages from a Negro Worker’s Notebook” that includes some of the earliest insights into the role that automation would play in the capitalist system. It is interesting that both he and Harry Braverman, another defector from Trotskyist dogmatism, would explore such a major transformation of American capitalism during its infancy.
Grace Lee Boggs is nowhere near as spry today as she was in 2005 but her mind is as sharp as it ever was. The film shows her interacting with young activists for whom she is a legendary figure. Although Detroit has pretty much become “Destroit” as SWP comrades from that city used to refer to it in the 1970s, she remains optimistic about its future. Her most recent projects include community gardening and safe street initiatives seemingly different from her more militant activism of 50 years ago but that still incorporate her deepest humanistic impulses.
Toward the end of the film, there is a fascinating exchange between the director and her subject over her unceasing optimism. Doesn’t she have any regrets about what she did with her life, including her decision not to have children? And how could she feel fulfilled when so many of her projects withered on the vine?
In 1999 Paul Buhle wrote a review of her memoir “Living for Change” that addressed the question of the disjunction between goals and the achievements that is worth quoting:
Lee herself moved to Detroit in 1953, married black auto worker James Boggs, and commenced a life of unceasing local activism. Much of the rest of Living For Change settles into a detailed description of personal life that defies summarization, but offers a rewarding, intimate study of ideas and activities in the cauldron of race and class contradictions during the 1950s-1990s. I remember once calling Detroit information without Grace’s home address and the telephone operator exclaiming, “You mean Grace Boggs!” It is no exaggeration to say that tens of thousands of Detroiters regarded the couple as perennially scrappy but beloved members of an extended family.
In some ways the story is heartbreaking. The group around C.L.R James disintegrated and one by one, the Boggses broke with their erstwhile comrades over personal and political differences. The early promise of the civil rights movement, which so roused black Detroit and the Boggs’ supporters, was stifled by the waves of massively destructive “urban renewal,” suburbanization and plant closings, bringing increased poverty and despair. New organizations, like the groupings around the Manifesto for a Black Political Party and their own National Organization for an American Revolution, failed after making a contribution to educating young (especially black) radicals through pamphlets, study groups and endless personal appearances by the two at conferences. In the end, as once-radical mayor Coleman Young bowed to the corporations to keep Detroit afloat, and the black middle class followed whites in abandoning the inner city, the Boggses with the rest of the Left were outgunned, bypassed by the postindustrial recklessness of capitalism.
But Grace Lee Boggs was never one to be kept down by mere defeats. As memorable volumes by James Boggs for MR Press pushed beyond received truths to creative adaptation-sometimes right, sometimes wrong, but always creative-race found new ways to make herself useful. ln identifying with the black community for decades, she emerged during the 1970s-1980s as a public speaker and intimate advisor for (and to) Asian-American Studies. Meanwhile, she joined with other community activists in new coalitions against drugs, violence, and casino-gambling in Detroit, among many other causes. Ossie Davis catches the spirit when he says about her story, ” Here is a book for the hungering heart, or even a picnic.” With Grace Lee Boggs, it could not be otherwise.
My very highest recommendation for “American Revolutionary: The Evolution Of Grace Lee Boggs”.
In one of the more memorable comments from Grace Lee Boggs in the aforementioned film that dates from the early 60s, she says that Blacks are not trying to become equal to whites but equal to the image they have in their mind of a fulfilled and free Black American.
That would describe Phil Cohran to a tee. Born in 1927, he was a successful jazz musician who turned his back on moneymaking gigs and founded the Affro-Arts Theater and the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in Chicago during the 1960s, projects associated with cultural and political challenges to the status quo.
The Affro-Arts Theater was a regular venue for Black militants, so much so that it became the obsession of the local Red Squad. After Stokely Carmichael spoke there, the cops convinced a judge to shut it down.
His personal life was just as radical as his artistic life. In addition to the eight children he fathered with one wife, he initiated relationships with two other women who moved into his Chicago home. At one point twenty-four of their offspring were living with Phil and his three wives in a sort of benign version of Philadelphia’s MOVE. The house was a vegetarian and Black consciousness haven dedicated most of all to the religion of Black music, particularly jazz. As luck would have it, all three women were trained musicians.
8 of the Cohran boys would study brass instruments from an early age. Like any other young men, they rebelled against their father without any likely nod to Freud’s Oedipal Complex. Instead the rebellion was based on their own ideas about what kind of music they would play.
The band they formed, Brothers Hypnotic, was an eclectic blend of jazz, gospel, hip-hop and what sounds to my ears a lot like Gabrieli—with a complex polyphonic texture. They started off as a street band but later evolved into a more conventional concert venue act that toured Europe and performed with stars like Prince and Mos Def.
Directed by first-timer Reuben Atlas, the film adheres pretty much to concert tour documentaries that have been made about groups like the Rolling Stones or the Beatles. Most of it consists of performances or the musicians talking about music and their lives.
What they seem to share with their father after all is said and done is a fierce independence of mind that makes them wary of becoming just another band signed with a commercial label. Unlike so many hip-hop artists with a crass devotion to filthy lucre, the Hypnotic Brothers are committed above all to their artistic vision. As such, this documentary has inspirational value in a period of history lacking much in the way of inspiration.