books
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THE LUMUMBA PLOT
Stuart A. Reid
2023 Alfred A. Knopf
 
African nationalist Patrice Lumumba worked to get his country liberated from Belgian colonial rule in the late 1950s and went on to serve as the first prime minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He lasted two months in that position in 1960, before being deposed in a military coup in the Congo and later executed.

Across the 600 pages of this richly sourced and well-written account, a deeply engaging story emerges of an African nation rising to independence in 1960, along with 16 other countries on the continent in the much-touted “Year of Africa,” then quickly falling apart. This was due as much to the fatal political mistakes made by Lumumba, a complicated and contradictory figure, as it was to interference and sabotage in the Congo by foreign powers (Belgium and the USA, primarily) amid the west’s hyper-Cold War paranoia over the Soviet Union.

That the United States government’s Central Intelligence Agency was deeply involved in helping to finance and foment that coup against Lumumba is no surprise. What we do learn from
The Lumumba Plot, the debut book by journalist Stuart A. Reid, is how much of a role then-U.S. president Dwight Eisenhower played in ordering the CIA to assassinate Lumumba — the first such order by an American president to kill another world leader — and the deceptions of the United Nations as well in what was then called the “Congo crisis”.
 
The date was 18 August 1960; the place was the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington DC, as author Reid sets up the scene:

It was likely at this point in the discussion that the president [Eisenhower] made a fateful utterance. Robert Johnson, the official note taker for the meeting, noticed the president turn toward [CIA director Allen] Dulles. Then, he recalled, “President Eisenhower said something — I can no longer remember his words — that came across to me as an order for the assassination of Lumumba.” Fifteen seconds of stunned silence followed Eisenhower’s remark, as the room digested the apparent directive. It was just one sentence, and a somewhat euphemistically phrased one at that, but Johnson would forever remember the shock he felt in that moment.

When Johnson returned to his desk to type his notes, he asked his boss what to do with the comment [by Eisenhower] and was told not to mention it. The only written record of the order that appears to survive comes from the notes of Gerard Smith, the [U.S.] State Department’s director of policy planning. It is an admittedly inconclusive piece of evidence: in the margins of his legal pad, he wrote “Lumumba” and, beside that, a bold
X.

Eisenhower’s words would become the subject of debate for decades to come. …Subsequent events would belie these defenses. Whatever the exact phrasing, Ike’s message that day came through clear enough: Will no one rid me of this turbulent prime minister?

Eisenhower’s directive did not appear to weigh heavily on his conscience. Having just become the first-ever U.S. president to order the assassination of a foreign leader, he headed to the whites-only Burning Tree Club in Bethesda, Maryland, to play eighteen holes of golf with his son and grandson.

What was it exactly that the U.S. government found so intolerable about Lumumba, the new democratically elected leader of the Congo? The Belgians certainly had nothing nice to say to the USA about Lumumba following the end of Belgium’s 75-year-long colonial rule of the Congo. Over at the United Nations headquarters in New York, meanwhile, the amiable UN secretary general at the time, Dag Hammarskjöld of Sweden, was losing patience with Lumumba and his incessant demands that the UN send a special peacekeeping force immediately to the Congo to kick out the remaining Belgians and to help the Congolese government put down an ethnic secession in the country’s province of Katanga. Hammarskjöld, too, had all but concluded that Lumumba had to go.

And Lumumba had made a fateful move of his own: Since the U.S. government under Eisenhower would not bother helping him and since the UN peacekeeping mission under Hammarskjöld’s supervision was moving much too slowly and half-heartedly to help prop up Lumumba’s teetering government in the Congo, Lumumba turned as a last resort to the Soviet Union for financial and military aid. Lumumba was not known to be anti-American; he was making the choice of playing one side of the Cold War against the other for his own aims. That was all the proof the Americans needed, however, to convince them that Lumumba was an irredeemable communist puppet for Moscow. Thus, he had to be removed from the scene.

The Americans back then, as author Reid notes and which time has shown the world, could not have been more wrong. And the main protagonist behind this major miscalculation was a CIA station chief working on the ground in the Congo back then, Larry Devlin. A bit of a bumbler, Devlin secretly used CIA money to pay off members of the Congolese congress to try and strip Lumumba of his presidential powers. Also on the CIA payroll via Devlin was Joseph Mobutu, a loyal protégé of Lumumba who was serving as the prime minister’s military chief of staff.

Taking no chances, Devlin ordered a vial of poison to be flown into the Congo from the USA; the plan was to put the poison into Lumumba’s food or his toothpaste, killing him instantly. But the CIA money paid to military chief Mobutu did the trick first, and Mobutu informed his CIA handler, Devlin, of the precise date and time that Lumumba would be apprehended, with the intention of executing him. Devlin made no effort to stop the Lumumba assassination plan from being carried out and, in fact, told no one at CIA headquarters back in Langley, Virginia what was about to happen.

Lumumba was captured, imprisoned and tortured by Congolese military soldiers working under Belgian military officers, then taken out into the countryside and executed by firing squad. His bodily remains were desecrated and nearly all destroyed, so as to leave no evidence of his existence behind. For the CIA and the Eisenhower administration, Lumumba’s death was mission accomplished.

So, what did the Congo get in return? Mobutu as a CIA-sponsored military dictator, one who destroyed all semblance of democracy in the country and ruled with an iron fist for the next three decades up until the 1990s. He literally drove the country into the ground. The “Congo model” worked so well for the CIA, on the other hand, that it became the blueprint of sorts for the agency to follow in dealing with other cheeky Third World countries throughout the Cold War period. And Lumumba, in death, became a martyr of sorts for the causes of Pan-Africanism and anti-colonialism.

Stuart A. Reid, a widely published writer of articles and an executive editor at the influential New York-based magazine Foreign Affairs, has done a great public service in revisiting the “Congo crisis” issue and investigating the loose strands of U.S. foreign policy and UN geopolitics in the latter half of the 20th century. It is a story that has long begged to be retold with Lumumba at the center, and Reid is the right person to tell it. The book chapters of The Lumumba Plot are well organized, with an enticing writing style by Reid that keeps the narrative flowing along at a natural pace.

(And if I might also be so immodest as to point this out: Reid, in this book’s introduction, apparently borrowed some turns of phrase of mine from the introduction to a book chapter I wrote some years ago about the
Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan. All done in good taste, of course.)

The Lumumba Plot is required reading for anyone wanting to know the facts and truth behind the rise, fall and ongoing struggles of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the USA’s role in destabilizing this emerging, independent African nation in the early 1960s. Even if the U.S. government never learns any lessons from its bad old days in the Congo, it is crucial that a well-informed public, in the USA and beyond, does learn them now.
音楽 music
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RAINBOW REVISITED
Thandi Ntuli with Carlos Niño
2023
Lihlanzekile
Thandi Ntuli with Carlos Niño
 
What do you get when you cross soulful, hard-hitting jazz from the southern tip of Africa with an American west coast cosmic vibe? You get something like this newest album by pianist, vocalist and composer Thandi Ntuli of South Africa.

Rainbow Revisited follows Ntuli’s three other studio album releases in recent years, each one a stunning musical statement, and a live set as well recorded at a jazz festival.

While those earlier dynamic works affirmed her place as one of the rising stars among the younger generation of South African jazz artists, this latest recording by Ntuli takes a sparser, more minimalistic turn — due, no doubt, to the left-field influence of musician Carlos Niño of the United States, who produced this album.
 
The title track, “Rainbow Revisited,” is a reworking of the song “Rainbow” from Ntuli’s acclaimed 2018 album Exiled. But in a wider context, this new album overall is also, as she points out in the album’s liner notes, a spiritual reclaiming of the failed promises of post-apartheid South Africa, the country once dubbed a diverse “rainbow nation at peace with itself and the rest of the world” by the late icon Nelson Mandela.

That said, only a couple of the 10 tracks on
Rainbow Revisited have a distinctly South African feel to them: “Lihlanzekile” (audio clip above) and “Nomayoyo (Ingoma ka Mkulu)”.

Most of the other tracks — including the two-part tune “The One,” and the related numbers “Sunrise (in California)” and “Sunset (in California)” — feature Ntuli simply soloing on piano and vocalizing wordlessly in her inimitable style, while Niño adds some subtle splashes of percussion.

A self-professed spiritual and musical “communicator,” producer Niño makes his influence felt especially on two tracks, each one a sound “experiment” blending sounds of breathing (both his and Ntuli’s) with a swirling collage of sound effects and synthesizers. These two tracks don’t quite fit in with the rest of the album.

If this latest endeavor by Ntuli also feels a few years old, it’s because it is: The album actually came together back in 2019 during a trip Ntuli had made from Johannesburg, South Africa to southern California, where the album was recorded and mixed. It was finally released in late 2023.

Rainbow Revisited may not be her strongest musical project to date, but it in no way detracts from her stellar skills as a composer and performer in the jazz tradition. She continues to inspire live audiences everywhere with her high musical chops and warm feel on the piano keys, along with her unique scat-singing style.

Thandi Ntuli is among the younger generation of musicians who today follow in the giant footsteps of many major South African musicians of old, daring to pave their own original path in these times and carry the music forward into the future. Many great works are still to come from her, an exciting prospect indeed for the global music scene.
映画 film
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SILVER DOLLAR ROAD
Raoul Peck, director
2023 100 min.
 
ProPublica, the investigative journalism outlet, reported in 2019 on one African American family’s struggle to keep its waterfront property in rural North Carolina from being taken away by a white-owned land developer, and the institutional abuse suffered by family members when they dared to fight back.

Documentary and feature film director Raoul Peck now elevates that story of injustice and Black land theft from the page to the cinema screen with
Silver Dollar Road, a masterful piece of moviemaking that spotlights the Reels family as they try to hold onto their legally owned land and keep it from falling prey to greed and economic exploitation in modern-day America.

At the center of the story is 65 acres of forested marshland, cut through by a two-lane stretch of roadway called Silver Dollar Road that ends at the sandy beach of Adams Creek, an Atlantic coast tributary located in Carteret County, North Carolina. Those 65 acres, considered worthless by white landowners in the area, was bought by family patriarch Elijah Reels in 1911.
 
The Reels family cleared and worked the land over time, turning it into highly valued property without overdeveloping it. Silver Dollar Road, as the area came to be known, was a safe and welcoming haven for Black folks for miles around. The land was passed on through the Reels family as heirs’ property, a legal concept in which land ownership is affirmed through inheritance even if no printed will exists.

The Reels’ problems began in the late 1970s when one unscrupulous member of their clan — without ever informing the other relatives — tried to snatch up a good chunk of the waterfront property for himself, eventually selling it to a real estate investment company. The Reels were now being treated as trespassers on their own land.

When two brothers in the family — Licurtis Reels, who was building his own home, and Melvin Davis, a local nightclub owner and a shrimping fisherman — refused to leave their property in the Silver Dollar Road area, they were cited with contempt of court by a judge. Normally such a contempt charge would mean a few months in jail at most. The two brothers were locked up in jail for eight years from 2011 to 2019, reportedly becoming two of the longest-serving inmates for civil contempt in American history. They had never been charged with a crime and they never had a jury trial.

That travesty of justice and the background story behind it are compellingly told by the film’s main protagonists: Mamie Reels Ellison, the sister of Melvin and Licurtis, and their niece Kim Duhon. Those two strong women, a generation apart in age, help hold the Reels family together during the whole ordeal.

Director Peck, who hails originally from Haiti and grew up in the central African nation of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, covers much of the same ground in
Silver Dollar Road that he did in 2016 with his acclaimed documentary film I Am Not Your Negro, about the late African American writer James Baldwin. “It’s the same story about capitalism, racism, colonialism, exploitation, injustice. It’s the same themes again and again. So I felt at home in the sense that this is a continuation of what I’ve been doing,” Peck relates.

Peck had served as minister of culture in the Haitian government in the late 1990s. In the early 2000s, he founded the film production company
Velvet Film, through which he has released several hard-hitting documentaries and feature films.

Silver Dollar Road, released by Amazon MGM Studios, is arguably Peck’s best cinematic endeavor yet. He combines direct video interviews, home movies and digital graphics, along with some video footage shot by the ProPublica crew, to tell the quintessential story of an American family confronting poverty and racism in these tumultuous times.

It’s not an isolated case either, by any means: On the opposite side of the USA from Silver Dollar Road, a different African American family, the Bruce family, had its prime beachfront resort property confiscated in the 1920s by the city government of Manhattan Beach in Los Angeles County, California. It has taken nearly 100 years for the Bruce family descendants to get back their land, which is today a public park called “
Bruce’s Beach” that is wedged in between prime real estate plots.

The same fate may well await the Reels family in North Carolina; the end of this land-grab story is not yet written. Filmmaker Raoul Peck, to his credit, avoids falling into the trap of journalistic “objectivity” as he subjectively tells the tale of a Black family’s fight for their rightful wealth and property claim despite all odds.
Silver Dollar Road may not have gotten all the media hype that other big-budget Hollywood blockbusters have mustered this year, but it stands far higher than those others when it comes to conveying the hard truths of America.