Playthell Benjamin: Independent Public Intellectual

Writin is Fightin: Playthell is Far More Dangerous as a Verbal Pugilist!

 

Thumbnail Sketches of an Unusual Life

Playthell George Benjamin is an author, award winning radio producer, photojournalist and commentator on culture and politics.  He has been twice nominated for the Pulitzer Prize: Distinguished Commentary and Explanatory Journalism in feature writing. His essays have been widely published in the American and British Press, where he regularly wrote for the Sunday Times of London and the Guardian /Observer. He was an Editorial Page columnist with the New York Daily News and a feature writer on politics and culture with the Village Voice. He also appeared on the CBS Sunday Edition Reporters Round Table in New York and was a popular guest on several national television shows – which can be seen on You Tube – as well as the BBC.   His analysis of the O. J. Simpson trial published in his Daily News columns, commentaries on Pacifica Radio, a CBS News Special Report, and Politically Incorrect, hosted by Bill Mahr, so impressed Attorney Johnny Cochran, that he contacted Playthell and thanked him for his objectivity, despite the fact that Playthell had made it clear that he was no fan of O.J.   And on a trip to New York to attend a party for News Anchor Katic Couric, he invited Playthell along.

Heeeeere’s Johnny!

Playthell was a relentless defender and avid supporter of Jazz at Lincoln Center from its inception, employing his ubiquitous media presence to promote the project.  From the outset he saw JALC as one of the most important monuments to American cultural achievement and a glorious celebration of Afro-America’s gift to world culture. A widely published music critic, Playthell was commissioned by Wynton Marsalis, the Artistic Director, to write essays that served as program guides for Jazz at Lincoln Center concerts.   

Playthell is a co-founder of the WEB DuBois Department of Black Studies at the University of Mass. Amherst.  The first free standing, degree granting Black Studies Department in the world.  Founded in 1970, they celebrated the 50th anniversary 2020, in a ceremony held on Zoom due to the pandemic. It can be accessed online. Playthell held an assistant professorship of history in the DuBois Department – the first person in a major American University to hold a Professorship in African and Afro-American History – and was appointed to an adjunct associate professorship in Journalism at Long Island University in 2009.  His is work was selected for study in a seminar on Long Form Journalism at the prestigious Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, conducted by Professor Gottlieb.

He has lectured widely at universities at home and abroad – including Harvard, Columbia, University of Pennsylvania, and the Sorbonne in Paris.  From 2018 – 2022 he was the Publisher, Editor and principal writer at (www.commentariesonthetimes.wordpress.com) which is presently being moved to another platform, http://www.Playthellscommentaries.wordpress.com a forum where all of the great political and cultural issues of the day – national and international – are thoughtfully dissected.

Since he began publishing the Commentaries, Playthell began to study the art of photography so that he could produce images for his reportage, especially reviews of events on the lively cultural scene in New York City.  Over the last decade he has become skilled enough as a photographer for his work to be presented in a solo exhibition in the beautiful galleries of the Dwyer Cultural Center, a major venue in Harlem.  The Theme of his first Exhibition was “The Elegance of Afro-Americans: Black style as a Weapon of Liberation,” and the opening was accompanied by a lecture from Playthell on this theme.  His second Exhibition will open in February, an eclectic show with many different types of photos titled: ”My Favorite Things.” The Commentaries began as a radio series on WBAI radio and has been broadcast for over 35 years.

After the successful establishment of the DuBois Depart at U-Mass Playthell taught for a couple of years, then left the academic life to pursue his life -dream of becoming a professional musician.  In 1975 he formed Jade. an eight-piece band – a five-man rhythm section and three horns – which became the touring band for the Columbia Records star vocalist, Jean Carn, a great singer. They played a variety of venues including a sold-out performance at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall.  Jade also was employed as the studio band for “The Sound of Brooklyn,” a state-of-the-Art recording Studio that was a project of  Restoration  Plaza in Brooklyn

For a period of time in the early 2000’s Playthell wrote the essays that served as Program Notes for Jazz at Lincoln Center concerts. The video link below captures some playful moments with Maestro Marsalis and the virtuoso musicians in the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. They are warming up for a historic concern featuring Ahmad Jamal. one of the greatest pianists of the 20th Century. The musicians in this internationally acclaimed orchestra are among the most accomplished instrumentalist in the world. They can play ANY GENRE of music brilliantly! Check out the bon homie among these great artists. CLICK ON, https://youtu.be/ZqtHqCIMyMs

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               Playthell has a long history of activism in the struggles against racism and war. He began as a participant in the Black Student Sit-In movement against segregation in Florida at the inception of that movement in the spring of 1960, when he was a Freshman at Florida A&M University.  It was in the heat of these demonstrations, especially the hostility directed against them by white racists, which caused him to ask three questions: How did my people get in this predicament in America?  What were we before our arrival in this strange and hostile land?  And how are we going to get out of this disastrous situation?   Although he dropped out of school after his freshman year due to a conflict with the university administration over Civil Rights activism, Playthell’s dogged pursuit of the answers to those three questions – doing independent study under the tutelage of several outstanding scholars over a decade – resulted in his becoming a founding member of the DuBois department of Black Studies nine years later.

After leaving College he served a stint in the Strategic Air Command, the premiere American nuclear strike force at the time, where he was stationed at Glasgow, a base in Montana on the Canadian border whose mission was the nuclear destruction of the Soviet Union.  As he enjoyed a Top-Secret security clearance due to the nature of his work in “Combat Defense,” Playthell was privy to US nuclear war fighting strategies.  This knowledge made him a lifelong advocate for the abolition of nuclear weapons, which by their very nature are genocidal weapons,  and thus he believes the stockpiling of nuclear arsenals is a crime against humanity.  He is in total agreement with the Union of Atomic Scientists, who believe the fate of the earth can be determined by a single human miscalculation.

While stationed at Glasgow, the Strategic Air Command base located on the DEW Line – Distance Early Warning – in the Great plains of Montana, he was surprisingly forced to continue the struggle against the racism he had just left in the south.  Although a major reason he joined the armed forces was because he had been assured that it was a meritocracy, where men were judged by character and courage not color, but due to the fact that white segregationists were suddenly forced to live and work with Afro-Americans as equals, and even subordinates based on rank, racial antagonism persisted, but in a much subtler form.

It was in this environment that Playthell was introduced to a series of books on Black History by an Afro-American Master Sargent, whose objective was to fortify black soldiers on the base against the persistent psychological assaults of racism.  Coming from a family of teachers, preachers, and other professionals who stressed that education was the surest path to a dignified and productive life and had made him presents of books since he was a little boy, Playthell treasured books and revered learning.  And once he began to study the history of African peoples that, along with activism in pursuit of racial justice, became the grand obsession of his life.  Which, even by the standards of a romance novel is a tall tale, and one that he is finally writing due to the urging of colleagues and friends.

After continuing the fight against racism that began at Florida A&M on the Strategic Air Command base where he was stationed in Montana, Playthell was given an early discharge, at the “Convenience of the Government Under Honorable Conditions.” Witnessing the plight of Native Americans on the Great Plains, which in many respects were worse than the condition of Afro-Americans in Florida, Playthell became actively committed to the struggle for racial justice and equality in AmericaHe spent countless hours researching the history of African Peoples in the Schomburg Collection, Van Pelt Library at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia Public Library, Hakim’s Book Mart, and the New World Book Fair.

On his 20th Birthday Playthell was presented on the progressive talk radio show “The Listening Post,” produced and hosted by the legendary Judge Joseph H. Rainey III, and broadcast over WDAS am in Philadelphia.  Playthell created such a sensation with his hour-long lecture, “Was Ancient Egypt an African Civilization?” that he was invited to become a regular contributor to the show where he was featured twice a month in an hour-long history lecture followed by two hours of questions and conversations with the listeners. Sixty years later on May 25, 2022, the world-renowned Metropolitan Museum of Art has adopted Playthell’s view of Egypt, mounting an exhibition titled “The African Origins of Civilization,” which demonstrates the African basis of ancient Egyptian culture.

Joe Rainey and Jackie Robinson on the Listening Post

Playthell’s work as a “Radio Historian” began a career that led to his becoming a founder of the first Black Studies Department at the University of Massachusetts in 1969, where the taught African and Afro-American history.   In recognition of Playthell’s contribution to the advancement of the Black community as an activist/intellectual during the 1960’s, his portrait is mounted on the “Wall of Heroes.”

Portrait on the Wall of Heroes in Philadelphia

A Larger than Life Oil Painting

On his 80th birthday, May 25, Playthell achieved a wish on his bucket list and made ha debut as a Stand-Up Comic, at the world-famous Nuyorican Poets Café in Manhattan’s East Village.  It was billed as “A Wise Man Plays the Fool,” and was inspired by the fact that he was tired of professional fools – Bill Mahr, D.L. Hugely, Trevor Noah, et al – playing wise men.  Hence, he decided to flip the script!   It was very well received, and the producer has already contracted Playthell to do other shows and the next one will be posted on You Tube. Alas, the technical quality of the video from the first show,  which was taken from the live feed on Zoom, is  not of broadcast quality. However, Playthell can be seen in a variety of interviews and commentaries on You Tube – including a lively debate with the late Christopher Hitchens on the Iraq war, live from the iconic Great Hall at Cooper Union.  A lecture discussion of  a tribute to the award-winning historian Stephen B. Oates, presented by the history Department September 9, 2022, just enter Playthell Benjamin in the search Engine.

Playthell is the father of three children, two daughters and a son – his eldest daughter danced and joined the Ancestors last year – a long-time resident of Harlem, he resides in a landmark apartment that once belonged to the great Paul Robeson.

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 Playthell’s Pulitzer Prize Nominations
For Feature Writing/Explanatory Journalism
 
 Nomination II

For Distinguished Commentary

 

Daily News Column Written After his Harvard Lecture
 
 Playing Conga Drums with the Mongo Santamaria Orchestra
 
The Great Flautist Hubert Laws is on his Far Left

Peps Show Bar, Philadelphia 1966

 

Playthell and Mongo Santamaria
Taking a break during a performance 
Manhattan Center 1976
Playthell and the Great Singer Jean Carn

 

 Chillin on the Terrace of his Manhattan Penthouse
Circa 1975
 

A Lifelong Love!

 

 Rockin tha Congas at Red’s Java House

San Francisco 2009

 

 On National Speaking Tour

 

 Twin Cities OIC 1966
Minneapolis-St. Paul Minnesota

 

Lecturing to His Class at U-Mass 1969

 

 

A Life-Long Equestrian he Taught  Many Students to Ride
 

Playthell on his Farm in Belchertown Mass

 

 At The Horse Show

 

Bucks County Pennsylvania Circa 1989

 

 A Boxing Promoter

Negotiating with Welter-Weight Champion “Sugar” Ray Leonard

For a match with “Marvelous” Marvin Hagler

The World Undisputed Middle-Weight Championship was the Prize 1984

 

Click PDF to view Document from investors Authorizing Playthell to negotiate the fight

PDF Link 

Hagler-Leonard_I

Negotiating With El Grand Champion Alexis Arguello

 

 A Multi-Weight Hall of Fame Fighter

Circa 1984

 

The Benjamin’s of Sugar Hill

Hangin Out in the Big Apple on Easter Sunday

Harlem 1984

 Playthell was Twice Married

 With First Wife Dorothy…an Afro-Cuban Lady

 With His Second Wife June

 

 The Afro-American Mother of His Beloved Twins: Makeda and Samori
 

The Benjamin’s of Sugar Hill Revisited

 

With June and the Twins All Grown up
 All Family Photos by: The Great Hakim Mutlaq

 

 Playthell and Dr. Robert O’Meeley

Professor of English and Director of Jazz Studies Center at Columbia U

 Debating the Jazz writings of Albert Murray at the Sorbonne, Paris circa 1996

 

Presenting A Lecture on Jazz and American Civilization

 

With Harvard’s H.L. Gates, Rhodes Scholar and Major American Novelist John Wideman, other Internationally Renowned Intellectuals

University of La Laguna

Spanish Canary Islands Circa 1995

 

Playthell as Journalism Professor 2009
 

 On the Campus of Long Island University

 

LIVE ON WBAI NEW YORK

Reading a “Commentary on the Times”

 An Award-winning Producer Live on WBAI FM New York

Click to hear Playthell’s live commentary the day after Barack Obama’s first Victory, advising The President elect to make signing the new nuclear arms treaty with Russia his first order of business.  And he DID!

https://www.dropbox.com/t/sIaxWZGl4ZkSIKa3

 

Playthell And Maestro Marsalis

Artistic Director: Jazz at Lincoln Center

Circa 2019

At Home with the Greatest Trumpeter in the World! Eight Time Grammy winner for Jazz and European Classic Performance

Pulitzer Prize winning composer

Playthell’s essay, “Wynton is the Greatest,” explicating the qualities that set Wynton apart from his peers, can be read in the anthology “Ain’t But a Few of Us,” published by Duke University Press, released on December 2, 2022.  (To watch Playthell and Wynton backstage before a Concert in JAZZ AT LINCOLN CENTER. Click On,  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZqtHqCIMyMs

 

Playthell is a Versatile Music Critic

From Jazz Giants to Rock star Terrance Trent D’Arby

 

To Rappers
 
With Fellow Wordsmith Mellie Mel, A Founder of hip hop
 

 From the Photography Exhibition: The Elegance of Afro-America

Lisa Dubois and Omowale Clay

Photos by Playthell G. Benjamin

 

 The Grandest Lady in the Easter Parade

 On Fifth Avenue

 

My Favorite Things

Playthell’s Coming Exhibition

 Magical Equines the Mess Wit yo Mind

 The Council

 Sculptures by: Susannah Israel

The Internationally Renowned Artist/Critic/College Teacher

In her Oakland Studio

 Playthell and Christopher Hitchens in the Great Hall at Cooper Union

Go and Sin No More!

Backstage After the Great Debate on Iraq War

Watch Playthell’s Opening Statement

(1) Debate: Iraq – Christopher Hitchens vs. Playthell Benjamin 1 – YouTube

 

 Playthell is Also an Insightful Art Critic

               Below are two examples of his commentaries on Art.  One a written treatise, the other a five-part discourse on the art of Ademola Olugbefola, conducted with the artist at an exhibition of his works.  As a founder of the Weusi Academy, the most important visual arts pioneers in the great Black Arts Movement of the 1960’s, which was centered in Harlem and is perhaps best viewed as the second phase of the Harlem Renaissance which began 40 years earlier in the 1920’s.  Both movements had a profound effect on Afro-American culture and influenced black artists throughout the Black world.  These were two of the most important developments in 20th Century American culture.  In the photo essay “Afro-Futurism Come to Harlem,” and the five-part video on Ademola Olugbefola cited here, Playthell is analyzing Afro-American art in the late 20 and early 21 centuries. 

Afro Futurism Comes to Harlem

 Image Great Art Photographer Lisa Dubois

Read review at  https://playthellscommentaries.wordpress.com/category/cultural-matters/

 

On the Afro-Modernist Art of Ademola

Ademola Olugebefola

(1) Black Arts and Culture USA Part 1 – YouTube

 All Photographs by: Playthell

 

 Playthell Begins the Octogenarian Years!

 After working out on my 80th Birthday

May 25, 2022

 

Debuting As a Standup Comic Celebrating His 80th Birthday

 Playthell aka “El Chocolate Caliente”

Live at the Nuyorican Poets Café in New York!

May 26, 2002

 

Two Commentaries on Playthell’s Stand-up Debut

Ishmael Reed is a much-celebrated Novelist, Playwright, Essayist, and longtime literature teacher at U-Cal Berkley.  He is the winner of the prestigious “Mark Twain Award” for humor, has been called “the greatest American satirist since Mark Twain”  by Time Magazine.  He offered this assessment of Playthell’s performance: “Playthell Benjamin is a brilliant writer comedian who doesn’t depend upon scatology to make his points. He is probably the most intellectual of them all.”

 Dr. HL McCurtis is a practicing Psychiatrist in Manhattan who is conducting a study of comedy writes: “Man this took me back!  I Listened to the show several times when it was up on Zoom. The history of Rap and the cold generic root that compares J Z to Shakespeare BRILLIANT!  The humor on religion was masterful and intimately linked to our cultural fidelity.  But “Shine” and that damned “Signifying Monkey” took me back to nights sitting on the porch on summer nights in Paris Texas.  This was a masterpiece!”

The audience at the Nuyorican Poets Café, a world-famous cultural venue in the East Village of Manhattan, a hot bed of innovative artistic activity just as the West village had been in the early 20th century, was very receptive to Playthell’s performance.  It was highly original.  His major theme was that having grown weary of “professional fools playing wise men” i.e. Bill Mohar, Trevor Noah, DL Hugley, Steve Harvey, et al he was “flipping tha script and a wise man would play the fool!”  Hence his show was a well-designed mixture of erudite commentary on the follies and foibles of the human condition and ribald humor combining story-telling and jokes in a seamless narrative that brought the house down!  His presentation reflects Dave Chapelle’s comment that: “A successful comedian must always be INTERESTING!”

Presenting A Tribute to Professor Stephen B. Oates

 

Presented by the History Department, U-Mass Amherst

September 9, 2022

Let the Trumpet Sound! A Tribute to Professor Stephen B. Oates

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZubNOs32FOk

My Panel is from 41:38 til 200 on the counter.  You can see my presentation with great sound, along with the standing ovation and a brief question and answer session, from 140:00  to 2001

 

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Three Presentations by Playthell on Politics, Culture, War and Peace from You Tube

Based on their oeuvre no pundit working in the America media today can equal the intellectual range of Playthell’s writing, public lectures, radio productions and  television commentary.  His series “Commentaries on The Times,” which began on WBAI FM radio in New York City, and later published on a blog by the same name, covered an eclectic amalgam  of local, national, and international issues in politics and culture.  In 2003 he published “Reconsidering The Souls of Black Folk,” a book on the Intellectual Legacy of Dr. WEB DuBois – co-authored with Stanley Crouch, a McArthur “Genius Award” winner, a great American essayist and Jazz Critic.  The book is composed of two separate essays, each under the author’s by-line.  Playthell’s essay on intellectual and cultural history is four fifths of the book takes the lead. 

Below is the link to their joint appearance on C-Span’s Book World. The book was the initial discussion at the National Black Writers Conference, an annual event sponsored by the English Department at Brooklyn’s Medgar Evers College.  The venue for this event is the famous Harlem Studio Museum.  This is a lively and learned discourse in which Playthell displays his wide range of knowledge regarding history, politics and cultural matters.

C-SPAN BOOK WORLD

https://www.c-span.org/video/?176136-1/reconsidering-souls-black-folk

 

Why I Opposed the Iraq War from the Beginning

During the US vs. Iraq War, there was a debate about the justification for the invasion of that small Arab country.  The dominant narrative was that the US had to affect a “regime change” because Iraqi President Saddam Hussein conspired with Osama bin Laden to attack America on 9/11.   However, Playthell saw it differently.  He first stated his opposition to the invasion in a 3, 500-word treatise titled “The Iraq Attack: Bush’s March of Folly.” ( Read the text on my blog)  A careful reading of the text now sounds like prophecy. 

Here is an extended Television commentary on the reasons Playthell opposed the war when impassioned voices on the right and left, fueled by the reportage in the media, was  enthusiastically supporting the attack on Iraq.  In a fact driven analysis, which has now been confirmed by the unimpeachable testimony of history Playthell reflects on America’s tragic war of choice in Iraq.  Click on     

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MpafVd8puCo

On the State of American Politics

Playthell Interviewed by Activist/Intellectual Dr. Lenora Fulani

In this interview, conducted right after a Republican victory at the polls, Playthell dissects the anatomy of American politics with the precision of a surgeon.  It is a learned  critique of American politics rendered from a historical perspective.  Dr. Fulani, a smart and insightful political analyst/activist, asks just the right questions to inspire responses of real gravitas.  Hence, although this dialog took place during the last decade of the 29th century,  the analysis presented here was prophetic and thus remains a useful framework from which to understand the complex politics of 21st century America.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xCLKxb-pEQ4&t=26s

Playthell and Bill Mohr: Politically Incorrect!

Unedited Studio Out Take…that;s why there are pauses and color bars,  Just continue watching

NOTE: It was the response Playthell’s comments received from this audience that convinced him he could do comedy.  And on his 80 birthday he finally did.  His performance evoked a grand response from the audience!

Selected Essays on Politics and Culture from Muck Rack

https://muckrack.com/benjamin-playthell/portfolio

New Blog Under Development

https://playthellscommentaries.wordpress.com/

The 1300 Essays from the former blog “Commentaries On the Times” will be reposted

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