Kendrick Lamar’s ‘DAMN.’ good run places him face to face with the president Kendrick Lamar’s ascension coincides with college football’s big moment and President Donald Trump

Fifteen-year-old Kendrick Lamar likely never thought he’d be performing at halftime of one of the biggest sporting events of 2018. Certainly not when he, as a teenager, was getting stomped at Compton, California’s, Avalon Swap Meet. But a decade and a half after the fight he references on “ELEMENT.,” from 2017’s Grammy-nominated album DAMN., here he is: headline performer at halftime of the college football national championship — the NCAA’s Super Bowl. The all-Southeastern Conference main event is Monday night in Atlanta.

College halftime shows traditionally feature marching bands. But in an effort to mirror February’s actual Super Bowl, the College Football Playoff and ESPN announced last spring that an artist would perform. Lamar’s résumé of course warrants his booking.

Forbes placed Lamar on its December 2017 cover, lauding the “antisocial extrovert” for his business decisions such as ending his long relationship with Reebok and launching a new collaboration with Nike. Lamar’s tour dates routinely gross more than $1 million per night. And in 2017, not only did he surpass even Beyoncé and Bruno Mars with more than 2 billion radio spins, but Lamar also had five of the most streamed songs of 2017. And while his 2012 “m.A.A.d city” (featuring MC Eiht) is featured in the next week’s Den of Thieves, Lamar recently confirmed that he and his Top Dawg Entertainment are producing the soundtrack for Black Panther, led by a collaboration with SZA titled “All The Stars.”

All the stars are expected to flood box suites to watch the Quavo-endorsed University of Georgia versus the crème de la crème University of Alabama. This VIP list reportedly includes President Donald Trump. From self-doubt to self-proclaimed greatness, Lamar’s ascension coincides and often collides with the United States’ 45th president.

Trump, a frequent sporting provocateur, has been an occasional target of Lamar’s lyrics dating to 2015. So speculation is swirling: What will this moment mean between the lyrically sharp MC and verbal live-wire commander-in-chief? Lamar’s fellow Comptonite, and perhaps hip-hop’s most famous Trump antagonist, YG, has at least one suggestion for Lamar.

There is drama leading up to the moment. What statement will Lamar make? Will outside forces — the NCAA, sponsors or even Disney — attempt to define the parameters of his performance? Will he even make one at all?


 

Tell me what you gon’ do to me / Confrontation ain’t nothin’ new to me/ You can bring a bullet, bring a sword / Bring a morgue / But you can’t bring the truth to me.

— “All The Stars” with SZA (2018)

Lest time forget, Lamar’s 2015 To Pimp A Butterfly is a fingerprint for an era defined by Black Lives Matter, police brutality and the final months of the country’s first black president’s administration. The record features a handful of Lamar’s most complex and analytical cuts: “i,” “Hood Politics,” “Mortal Man” and President Barack Obama’s favorite “How Much A Dollar Cost.” But undoubtedly, Butterfly’s star is “Alright.” It’s the generational equivalent to James Brown’s “I’m Black and I’m Proud.”

Presidential critiques aren’t foreign to Lamar’s catalog. Seven years ago, Lamar painted a picture of gangland Compton (decades before gentrification arrived) on “Ronald Reagan Era (His Evils).” 1987, the children of Ronald Reagan raked the leaves, he said of the generation directly affected by the legacy of the 40th president’s Reaganomics, Your front porch with a machine blowtorch.

The Obama era, for Lamar, brought reverence and clarity. The reality of a black president inspired pride and accomplishment. But he wasn’t blind to current and past issues: Streets don’t fail me now, they tell me it’s a new gang in town /From Compton to Congress, set trippin’ all around/ Ain’t nothin’ new, but a flu of new Demo-Crips and Re-Blood-licans, he opined on 2015’s “Hood Politics.” Lamar understood Obama’s power as president was in constant opposition with forces that sought to derail, override and neuter. Red state versus a blue state, which one you governin’? / They give us guns and drugs, call us thugs / Make it they promise to f— with you / No condom, they f— with you / Obama say, ‘What it do?’

Later that same year, while then-candidate Trump was still seen by some as a political punchline, Lamar addresses growing right-wing hysteria on “Black Friday,” saying, I’m the son of the pioneer that near the sun /Play with him / B—- you better off voting for Donald Trump.

A year later, in 2016, as Trump-mania gained indestructible steam, Lamar again directed his attention to the candidate nearly two months to the date of the presidential election. Might stay in the Trump Tower for one week, he rapped on “What’s Wrong.” Spray paint all the walls and smoke weed / F— them and f— y’all and f— me. In 2017, as the reality of a Trump presidency set in, Lamar observed.

Donald Trump is a chump / Know how we feel, punk? Tell ’em God comin’ / And Russia need a replay button, y’all up to somethin’, Lamar rapped on “The Heart Pt. 4,” a month before Robert Mueller was named special counsel for the ongoing Russia investigation. But for “XXX.,” on DAMN., the reality set in for Lamar. Donald Trump’s in office / We lost Barack and promised to never doubt him again / But is America honest, or do we bask in sin?

Lamar is an atypical selection for such a widely viewed event. He’s not “safe,” nor is he “routine.”

In the coming weeks we can anticipate an impending marketing avalanche for Panther, perhaps “the biggest and blackest blockbuster of all time,” with Lamar a critical component. Later this month, the seven-time Grammy winner looks to add more with seven new nominations, including going head-to-head with Jay-Z for the evening’s most coveted award, album of the year. I said it’s like that/ Dropped one classic, came right back/ ‘Nother classic, right back/ My next album, the whole industry on a ice pack, he vowed a week before DAMN.’s arrival. The promise has him on the doorstep of Grammy history on Jan 28.

Trump, in Lamar’s eyes, is the complete antithesis of what his much-loved music is about, but in many ways he is a source of inspired frustration. And the nature of Monday night’s halftime performance, even with Friday’s free-to-all dress rehearsal, is difficult to predict. Despite his undeniable star power, Lamar is an atypical selection for such a widely viewed event. He’s not “safe,” nor is he “routine.” It easy to imagine part of Lamar’s performance being veiled shots: I know how you work, I know just who you are/ See, you’s a, you’s a, you’s a— / B—- ...

So, does Lamar feel the pressure to symbolically take a knee Monday night? I, for one, don’t think it’s wise to believe anxiety will play a part in Lamar avoiding The Elephant In The A. He and TDE are from Compton, a cultural ground zero where wearing the wrong hat, or walking down the wrong block with the wrong shoelaces, sometimes came with fatal consequences. A halftime show, by comparison, is a field trip to Calabasas, California.

Illuminating truth to power is daunting. Kanye West knew what would come of his comments about President George W. Bush, but he became a larger-than-life figure afterward. Colin Kaepernick understood that taking a knee would all but involuntarily retire him, but he is now the millennial Muhammad Ali. Lamar’s life has been one risk after another — a butterfly effect set in motion as documented in the mind-numbing odyssey “DUCKWORTH.,” DAMN.’s closing number.

Trump vs. Lamar is quite the undercard for Monday night’s main event. It could very well be a culture-shifting moment spearheaded by the man who has been bestowed with the heavy title of “voice of a generation.” Lamar is well-aware of the moment he occupies and times he’s become a voice for. His message to Trump could very well come in words, via actions or even purely via symbol. Does this mean halftime will be his Kanye West 2009 MTV Video Music Awards moment? Who knows.

Whether he decides to stir the pot, whether he fulfills YG’s wish, there is a reality evident about Lamar. Nothing looks to stop the momentum he’s built over the past year. Not even the president of the United States.

The tragic loss of Erica Garner Garner’s own loss of her father made her a woman her family wants remembered as a ‘human: mother, daughter, sister, aunt … She only pursued right, no matter what. No one gave her justice.’

It’s cruelty befitting a Greek tragedy.

A young grief-stricken daughter reluctantly transforms herself into an activist after her father is killed by police during a controversial encounter — a struggle in which the officer chokes the very life from the father, apparently deaf to his repeated gasps of “I can’t breathe.”

Three years pass, the daughter, now an outspoken hero to countless others who have lost loved ones at the hands of police brutality, is a high-profile face for an insistent new police reform movement called Black Lives Matter.

Then, in a twist of fate that mirrors her martyred father’s horrifying demise, the daughter herself is felled by a heart attack brought on by a breath-depriving asthma attack. As if to compound her family’s seemingly endless suffering, the daughter dies during the holidays, Christianity’s celebrated season of miracles, wherein the faithful are offered a path to redemption.

That is the heart-shattering story of Erica Garner. In 2014, the then-23-year-old was thrust into the global spotlight when her father Eric Garner died from an illegal choke hold after resisting arrest by New York police. Eric Garner’s videotaped dying words; “I can’t breathe” became a rallying cry for the anti-police brutality movement, helping to fuel the Black Lives Matter crusade for police reform.

That 2014 choke hold reopened a wound in the African-American community, one that is not God-given, but rather inflicted by law officers who vow to “serve and protect.” In his 2013 book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, theologian James H. Cone writes: “In the ‘lynching era’… white Christians lynched nearly five thousand black men and women in a manner with obvious echoes of the Roman crucifixion of Jesus. Yet these ‘Christians’ did not see the irony or contradiction in their actions.” Indeed, as Eric Garner’s death proves, there is a crooked and disingenuous through-line between the Crucifixion and the kangaroo-court justice visited upon blacks since the Jim Crow era. Eric Garner’s death, along with those of many other blacks killed in fatal police encounters, was a chilling reminder that state-sanctioned executions are still a frightening component of African-American life.

Into this millenniums-old narrative arrived Erica Garner. The spitting image of her dad, Erica said she even inherited her father’s take-no-guff spirit (“If he had survived what happened to him, he would be out here advocating and doing exactly what I’m doing, if not more,” she once said.) But while she aligned herself with the Black Lives Matter movement, Erica demonstrated a diplomat’s conciliatory grace, carefully framing police brutality as a universal problem that affects everyone. “This is not a black-and-white issue,” she said during a 2014 CNN interview. “This is a national crisis.”

She displayed that same sensibleness when it came to the topic of activism itself. Writing in 2015, Erica urged peace and unity within the police reform movement. “As we activists fight each other, our opposition — from killer cops to corrupt elected officials — upholds this broken system and covers up injustices,” she wrote. “No movement is immune to conflict, but it’s up to every last person on the side of justice to make the decision to move forward together.”

It was Erica’s yin-yang combination of persistence and political savvy that prompted many to post condolences and tributes upon news of her death. Rev. Al Sharpton described her as “a fearless outspoken activist that never stopped fighting for justice for her father,” while Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders tweeted: “Though Erica didn’t ask to be an activist, she responded to the personal tragedy of seeing her father die while being arrested in New York City by becoming a leading proponent for criminal justice reform and for an end to police brutality.” Her family commented, “When you report this you remember she was human: mother, daughter, sister, aunt … She only pursued right, no matter what. No one gave her justice.”

Nor, it seems, did destiny give Erica a fair shake. The world had a scant three years to know Erica, yet she shined brightly during her short time on the international stage. Her father’s death was such a cause célèbre that many people would have excused her for simply expressing inchoate rage over her dad’s mistreatment at the hands of police. Yet instead of being consumed by anger, Erica became of an insistent voice of reason during one of the most racially sensitive periods in America’s modern history.

Her entry into activism was a veritable trial by fire, a learn-as-you-go experience. “It was something that happened basically overnight,” Erica recently told New York Magazine. “I started out with protests, small little gatherings outside the post office … and then I traveled to different cities to talk about this issue with local communities and elected officials.”

Spurred by grief and indignation — she said she watched the video of her father’s death “over and over again” — Erica helped organize a 2014 “die-in” at the Staten Island location where her dad was killed. There, she and other protesters lay on the cold pavement, creating a haunting tableau vivant in tribute to the scores of citizens injured or killed during police encounters. She continued to lead a series of weekly marches at that same spot, all conducted after 6 p.m. to increase participation from workaday nine-to-fivers. Erica claimed the New York Police Department attempted to dissuade her and others from marching. “They’ve stopped protesters from coming across the water [to march],” she told NBC News. “They’ve followed me in unmarked cars, and even barricaded the Supreme Court steps so people will think [the march] isn’t happening.”

Erica was applying increasing pressure on one of the world’s most assertive law enforcement agencies, the New York City Police Department, which has been consistently dogged by accusations of institutional racism. Evidence has revealed that blacks and Hispanics make up most of the citizens stopped for street interrogations allowed under the department’s stop-and-frisk policies. Since the 1980s, the department has made international headlines for fatal encounters involving blacks, including Eleanor Bumpers, Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, and countless more. In 2004, the department acknowledged the existence of an intelligence unit designed to perform surveillance on rappers and others involved in the city’s hip-hop scene. This is the police organization Erica fearlessly challenged during her stint as an activist.

But not only was Erica was courageous, she also demonstrated an impressive knack for diplomacy. In a tremendously polarized nation where taking a stand against police brutality often results in accusations of being “anti-police,” Erica’s agitating for justice was no small risk. To have any hope of earning sympathy from her reflexively unsympathetic critics, she suppressed whatever rage she must have been feeling, opting instead to coolly advocate for due process. And when due process failed her family, she continued to press for justice. “People ask, ‘When will you stop marching?’ ” Erica said. “ ‘What do you want from marching?’ He was my father. I will always march.”

Erica’s cause was taken up by pro athletes, including NBA stars LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Kyrie Irving and more. Eric Garner’s dying sighs of “I can’t breathe” became a galvanizing slogan for the Black Lives Matter movement. Before long, Erica was fielding interview requests and speaking invitations from schools, colleges, churches and social justice organizations. She made television appearances, both nationally and in her native New York. After a grand jury declined to indict the officer involved, the Garner family brought a wrongful-death lawsuit against New York City, winning a $5.9 million settlement.

While Erica may have been soft-spoken, she was fiercely independent. When many blacks threw their support behind Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, Erica raised eyebrows for backing Bernie Sanders, citing the Vermont senator’s long-standing civil rights record. At the time of her death, she was in the process of starting a nonprofit to identify and endorse candidates sympathetic to the cause of police reform.

Like Rodney King — himself a police brutality victim who pleaded for peace amid the havoc of the 1992 Los Angeles riots — Erica never sought to become a civil rights lightning rod. She occasionally let her frustration slip, like in 2017 when she voiced her exasperation with the Department of Justice. (“The DOJ literally gathered my family in one place,” she tweeted, “after we have been waiting for answers for 3 years to say they cant answer S—!”). By all appearances, Erica was catapulted into activism by her father’s death, and was carried along by her own grit and a sense of purpose. “I had no idea what I was doing, but I connected with the right people and went from there,” she said.

By and large, Erica wore the mantle she assumed with powerful restraint. Now, the pain many of us felt after viewing her father’s protest-prompting death is magnified by Erica’s own passing. The hurt we experienced after her dad’s killer was let off the hook is now magnified by the knowledge that Erica’s two kids will grow up without their mother.

The daughter who tirelessly sought justice for her slain father has gone to join him in the afterlife, all too soon.

The Undefeated does 2017 The highs, the lows and the must-reads

Here at The Undefeated, we spent a trying 2017 attempting to cover the world through your eyes. We had the Colin Kaepernick saga on lock, the NFL protests covered. We learned from Timberwolves center Gorgui Dieng that “the biggest misconception is people thinking Muslims are terrorists.” We reveled at Whitley Gilbert’s wardrobe and watched Tarik Cohen shine at North Carolina A&T before he was a rookie standout with the Chicago Bears. We showed you chic street style at Afropunk, brought back Drumline and demonstrated that love knows no color. 2017 was a tough year, but TU brought it to you, warts and all.

Hey, 2017, we’d hate to miss you but love to watch you leave.

Experiences

Collage of significant black Americans

The Undefeated 44 most influential black Americans in history A collection of dreamers and doers, noisy geniuses and quiet innovators, record-breakers and symbols of pride and aspiration.

Sports

Artist rendition of LeBron James making his way to the court from the locker rooms

LeBron Is Crowned On a Detroit night, about a decade ago — via 48 points in double overtime — LeBron graduated from ‘phenom’ to ‘grown man’

Culture

Artist rendition of Whitley

Whitley’s World “You can’t unsee A Different World. You’ve seen it, it’s kind of engraved in your psyche.”

HBCUs

Photo of the Honey Beez performing

Alabama State Honey Beez bring positive plus-size attitude to HBCU dance scene “Where one of us lacks, the other one will pick up. We’re plus-size girls and we still go through bullying in college. But we’re more confident now, so it’s not as bad. But we have a real sisterhood, and this is our home away from home. The Honey Beez took me all the way out of my shell, and I love it.”

The Uplift

Serge Ibaka and his daughter in a pool

NBA standout Serge Ibaka is a standout single father too “Since I was young I always dreamed of myself traveling, envisioned at least three, four kids, five. And then, I’m living my dream right now and something I always love to do, and it’s fun. It’s really changed my life. It’s changed everything about me. The way I think and the way I live my life. It changed everything.”

Videos

Leon Bridges at his piano

Leon Bridges sings his rendition of the national anthem The critically acclaimed soul singer explores the themes of the anthem, creating a beautiful rendition that feels like both a hymn and a benediction

Original Photography

Woman with a wig made of pink flowers

Inside Afropunk “They’re just the ‘standard of beauty’ and here you can be what you want and THAT’S beauty.”

Podcasts

The Plug podcast logo

The Plug It’s the debut of The Plug, hosted by Chiney Ogwumike, Kayla Johnson, Justin Tinsley and Tesfaye Negussie. In episode 1, the crew dives into current events, discuss LaVar Ball’s latest news, NFL social activism and more. Plus, hip-hop icons Jadakiss and Fabolous join.

  • All Day – The Undefeated Podcast: Clinton Yates spent a day in New York profiling various parts of the culture, when news broke that a legend had died. After spending the morning with the creators of Jopwell, a startup helping students of color in the tech industry, the the afternoon with Nike for a new shoe release, he ends up in Queens to talk with a family friend and musician about the life and influence of Mobb Deep’s Prodigy.
  • America’s Black History Museum: 9/20/16 – Jill Hudson, Justin Tinsley and Clinton Yates talk about the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the 86th Emmy Awards. Plus, Mike Wise discusses his story about Joe Paterno.
  • Morning Roast – The gang is all together, talking national anthem protests, possible NFL players strike, potential renaming of Yawkey Way and latest Bachelor in Paradise drama.
  • The Morning Roast & Live at NABJ – Clinton Yates is in for Bomani, and in hour three he is joined by Marc Spears and Myron Medcalf to discuss all the happenings at the National Association of Black Journalists convention.
  • Rhoden Fellows: HBCU 468: 5/11/17 – Stephen A. Smith praised Isaiah Thomas’ compelling effort in the playoffs and explained Kevin Durant’s impact on Golden State. He also talked about attending a historically black university.
  • O.J.: Made in America: 6/11/16 – Domonique Foxworth is joined by guests Jason Reid, Raina Kelley, Ezra Edelman, Sarah Spain and Carl Douglas as they take a look at O.J.: Made in America.

A veteran black officer teaches police how not to kill people

Sgt. Curtis Davenport The shooting instructor 27 years in uniform

“I was born black. I’m going to die black. I’m a black man before I’m anything else. The fact that I’m a police officer is a job that I do. It’s an oath that I took.”“I was born black. I’m going to die black. I’m a black man before I’m anything else. The fact that I’m a police officer is a job that I do. It’s an oath that I took.”

At the end of an unmarked driveway in a wooded area of southeast Atlanta, past the SWAT team barracks and armored vehicles, next to the firing range where bullets pierce paper heads and hearts, Sgt. Curtis Davenport teaches police how not to kill people.

As commander of the firearms training unit, Davenport’s basic responsibility is to make sure Atlanta’s 2,000 officers can hit those paper targets. But over the past five years, as police killings of unarmed African-Americans caused a national uproar, Davenport’s job evolved to include “de-escalation” training — encouraging police to avoid pulling the trigger at all.

One Wednesday this summer, 22 police officers filed into Davenport’s classroom inside a small, one-story building. He stood at a lectern wearing khaki pants and an olive drab polo shirt. The pop-pop-pop-pop-pop of gunfire was audible from the range 40 yards away. On the walls hung promotional photographs of Glock firearms, including one that showed a close-up of a pistol clenched in a white fist, ATLANTA POLICE printed along the barrel, the muzzle an ominous black tunnel. “Confidence,” the caption read. “It’s What You Carry.”

Surrounded by all this deadly force, Davenport began his mission of peace.

He had invited me to attend his two-hour class, shoot on the range and participate in a video simulation of dangerous police encounters, all to help counter today’s anti-police narrative. The backdrop was the city of Atlanta, cradle of the civil rights movement and the modern black mecca, where 54 percent of the population and 58 percent of the police are black. Atlanta is one of the few major American cities where the police force comes close to reflecting the diversity of the population — which has not deterred Black Lives Matter protests and activism within its city limits.

Davenport is 50 but looks 35. He still has the muscular physique of the college fullback who reached the last round of cuts at Atlanta Falcons training camp. He can talk with the spin of a politician — Davenport was the Atlanta Police Department spokesman for three years — or break fool like your country cousin. He can quote Scripture or Ice Cube. Relying on the laws of God and man, he walks the tightrope between black and blue with serenity and confidence.

“I was born black. I’m going to die black. I’m a black man before I’m anything else,” Davenport said. “The fact that I’m a police officer is a job that I do. It’s an oath that I took. I swore to uphold laws. I swore to protect your rights. I swore to protect you when you can’t protect yourself. So while that is a part of my responsibility, being a police officer does not make Curtis Davenport who he is.”

Yet, after 27 years in uniform, he sees the world through a blue lens and can’t help but feel the pressure.

“Police officers to a certain extent have been dehumanized,” he said. “We’re not people with feelings. It’s like they want us to be robots.”

“It’s hard to change public perception, it’s hard to change what people think and feel about you, it’s hard to change their interpretation of what you do. But what we can do is we can change ourselves.”“It’s hard to change public perception, it’s hard to change what people think and feel about you, it’s hard to change their interpretation of what you do. But what we can do is we can change ourselves.”

Change, get fired or quit

Inside Davenport’s classroom, 16 of the 22 officers were black, including two women. Everyone carried a gun except Davenport. He clicked his PowerPoint to life and began:

“The public demanded that police be reformed down to their training, and this is one of the results,” he said, citing former President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. “So they came up with this course, and if I were to sum it all up in a phrase, it wants the police officers in America to get out of the warrior mentality. And they want you instead to adopt what’s called a guardian mentality.

“That may be kind of hard for some people, especially those who’ve been doing this a long time or those who don’t think that’s what they want to do.”

For the resistant cops, Davenport offered three options: You can change. You can keep acting the same and get fired, possibly indicted. Or you can quit.

“It’s hard to change public perception, it’s hard to change what people think and feel about you, it’s hard to change their interpretation of what you do. But what we can do is we can change ourselves.”

Next came the details. Davenport drilled down into exactly when and how the Constitution and the state of Georgia permit police to use force. He told the officers to look for alternatives — just because they can legally use force doesn’t mean they should. The ultimate goal is “voluntary compliance.”

“De-escalation is all about utilizing other options,” Davenport said. “It’s not about taking away use of deadly force. What it’s about is, do I have to use deadly force? Do I have another option present?”

He covered tactical details such as how distance determines appropriate force. He reviewed what every officer already knew: The law allows you to shoot unarmed suspects. Always shoot at center mass — not at a leg or shoulder. Shoot as many times as necessary to end the threat. But if you shoot one unnecessary bullet, it can cost you your job or your freedom.

Over and over, he advised officers to control their egos. Everybody who wears a badge has a big ego, he said. “That is our biggest hindrance.

“If you work an extra job and somebody gotta leave, you tell them to leave like, ‘You, out, get on out of here.’ They walking to the door, ‘Ah, you sorry m—–f—–, I’ll whoop your a– on the street.’ Guess what? He walking out. I don’t have to have ego. People looking at it, ‘Aw, you see that police, man, he a chump. He took all that stuff.’ End of the day, I got voluntary compliance. Make sense? That’s de-escalation in a nutshell.”

There was a caveat, though, that explains why many police who kill unarmed civilians are not prosecuted.

“De-escalation is only to be used when you’re dealing with nonviolent suspects,” Davenport told his class. “If you’re dealing with a violent suspect, do what you do.”

Kevin D. Lilies for The Undefeated

Kevin D. Lilies for The Undefeated

Sgt. Davenport works with officers in the classroom of the Atlanta Police Department Pistol Range on how to de-escalate situations and what indicators might lead to drawing one’s weapon. Officers work on their accuracy on the shooting range to ensure they do no more damage than is necessary to subdue an attacker.

Life after football

Davenport was born and raised in the city, with summers spent on his grandparents’ rural Georgia farms. After graduating from Lithonia High School east of Atlanta, he earned a computer science degree at Clark Atlanta University while playing football as a 5-foot-10, 260-pound battering ram of a fullback. In four college seasons, he had four carries for 4 yards and four touchdowns. The running back he blocked for got drafted. Despite stone hands and slow feet, Davenport almost made the Falcons from their 1989 training camp. He still feels like he has one more bone-crunching block in him.

After football, Davenport needed a job and the police department was hiring. His physicality served him well when he began patrolling Atlanta’s roughest neighborhoods in 1991 and became an undercover narcotics investigator in 2005. Arrests led to lots of fights — “You’re taking somebody someplace they don’t want to go.” He has a scar on his thigh from being bitten by a 300-pound woman who wanted no part of his handcuffs. He trained in taekwondo, kung fu and ground fighting. He learned how to head off physical battles just with the bulge of his arms and chest beneath his tailored uniform. He’s 230 pounds now, still works out ferociously, would like to be 215 but his wife bakes a mean batch of cookies.

Davenport was raised in the church and was saved in 2002. Giving his life to the Lord made him more patient and tolerant, and also unwilling to take shortcuts that some officers considered permissible.

He keeps a Bible in his office at the firing range. It’s as much a part of his job as the dozens of bullets all over his desk — inside ammunition boxes, encased in curved rifle magazines, loose in a plastic cup. After the class, explaining his belief that policing is based on biblical principles, he read from Romans 13:1:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.

Then verses 3 and 4:

For he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.

The bullets on his desk looked more lethal now. Davenport closed his Bible.

“I ain’t asking you to agree with it,” he said. “I’m just telling you what it says.

“When I put my actions up for judgment, I didn’t put it up for your judgment,” Davenport said. “Sometimes, by pleasing him, I don’t please them.

“Sometimes,” he added, “ ‘them’ is other police officers.”

I thought about the off-the-books lawmaking “contempt of cop” punishable by a night in jail, and remembered Freddie Gray running from police, getting cuffed and then being carried out of the police van with a broken neck.

Last June, the police chief asked Davenport for his expert opinion of a video that showed an officer punching a man in the face while trying to arrest him. Davenport referred back to his secular Bible — the Standard Operating Procedures of the Atlanta Police Department.

“Force must be reasonable, and it must be necessary,” he said. “Was what he did reasonable and necessary? The answer is no.”

The officer was suspended for 20 days without pay. That upset the rank and file, as the arrested man had a reputation for fighting back against police. Davenport said that a few years ago the officer would have received little to no punishment.

I asked whether that’s a positive development.

“Whether good or bad,” Davenport replied, “it lets you know that policing has changed. He did the old actions, and he got the new punishment.”

Is there a downside?

“We have a lot of police reform, but no community reform,” he said. Criminals “are still doing the same stuff, but I can’t do the same stuff to combat it.”

Davenport recognizes that mass incarceration has devastated the black community. He believes African-Americans are treated unfairly in the justice system. But he sees another part of the equation too.

“Let’s be honest. Was anybody protesting when Ray Ray shot Peanut?” he said. “Just two people who live in the ’hood. I think that’s a far bigger issue, black-on-black crime, than blue-on-black violence.”

It was time to shoot on the range, a manicured green quadrant with a steep hill of red dirt at one end. Davenport outfitted me with a holster and police-issue 9 mm pistol. He instructed me how to hold the weapon, sight down the barrel and ignore the “unnatural event” of setting off a tiny bomb in my hand. Pulling the trigger took as little effort as turning on my phone. A hole appeared in the paper person’s head, and I was filled with sadness at the thought of black boys carrying death in their pockets.

Black and Blue: A veteran black officer teaches police how not to kill people

Ferguson and Sunday dinner

The biggest complaint Davenport has with police work is the pay. In Atlanta, a sergeant’s salary tops out at $72,000 before overtime. Davenport brings in another 10 or 20 grand a year with extra jobs, primarily as security at the Tabernacle concert hall, so he can “enjoy some of the comforts of life.”

It was very comfortable riding in the black leather passenger seat of his new Ford F-150 King Ranch pickup. We pulled up to his five-bedroom brick home at the end of a cul-de-sac in the suburb of Decatur. Inside the garage was his beloved 2007 Harley-Davidson Street Glide, parked near a black leather jacket emblazoned with the name of his old motorcycle club, the Buffalo Soldiers. Davenport and his wife, Valerie, who works in the UPS finance department, bought the house out of foreclosure in 1996.

Curtis and Valerie, an amateur bodybuilder, cooked Sunday dinner together in their cozy kitchen. Their pit bull puppy, Bella, rescued from a shelter, scampered underfoot. Curtis dropped steaks and salmon on the grill. Valerie sautéed cabbage and prepared mac and cheese and cornbread. A box of takeout fried chicken sat open on the island counter. Crab legs boiled, sending enough “Slap Ya Mama” seasoning through the air to draw a cough. Nothing special, this spread. Just a regular Sunday.

Their sons arrived: 23-year-old Clayton, who attended Alabama A&M on a football scholarship and now works as a plumber, and 21-year-old Cameron, who went to work for CSX Railroad out of high school. Next came Davenport’s father, Jimmy, and his stepmother, Karen. Jimmy and Karen got married when Davenport was 16; he calls her Mom. Last to arrive was their daughter Sydney, 20, a sophomore at Albany State University.

A lawnmower buzzed outside, pushed by a former Atlanta police officer who went to prison in the aftermath of a scandal over falsified search warrants. Davenport could mow his own lawn, but the former officer needs the work.

Sitting in a paid-off house, bellies full, paychecks steady, driveway full of cars, the Davenport family’s biggest immediate concern was whether the Falcons could make it back to the Super Bowl. Curtis and Jimmy have season tickets. Nobody felt conflicted about police work or passionate about Black Lives Matter.

Valerie described her husband as a loyal, responsible, dedicated man who follows the rules. Clayton recalled his dad often bringing his poor teammates from youth football over for weekends. “We always were bringing in strays,” Valerie said. “He wants to do his part. He wants to help. Helping is part of his job. He really enjoys what he does now, because it’s a responsibility for him to make sure those police do what they’re supposed to when they have that gun in their hand.”

When the brownies and ice cream came out, I asked whether the family had argued over any of the recent high-profile police killings.

“Michael Brown,” Davenport said, referring to the unarmed 18-year-old killed by officer Darren Wilson in 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. “They was all for that poor Michael Brown. The dirty police, they did him wrong. Y’all was ready to picket and tear up Atlanta for Michael Brown.”

Davenport told his family all along that Wilson would not be charged with a crime. There was no apparent distinction between “would not” and “should not” in Davenport’s mind. According to the Justice Department report released by former Attorney General Eric Holder, Brown punched Wilson in the face when confronted, grabbed his gun, was shot in the hand, ran away, then charged back at the officer. The law allowed Wilson to shoot Brown.

When the killing first hit the news, Davenport’s father, Jimmy, was angry. A retired post office supervisor, he was born in 1947 in Wedowee, Alabama, where segregation was the law, white people called him “boy” and there were no black cops. But once the facts of the case came out, Jimmy Davenport agreed with his son.

Jimmy’s wife, Karen, wouldn’t go that far.

“Curtis was talking about the law and what the policeman did. I was talking about the broader perspective of policing,” said Karen, a retired school principal and college administrator.

“If Michael Brown had been white, let’s just play it out,” she continued. “If he had been white and stole something from the store, the police would probably be like, boys will be boys, he didn’t mean to do it. It wouldn’t have escalated.”

Her sergeant son interrupted. “Wait a minute now,” Davenport said. “Did it escalate because of the police officer’s actions? Or did it escalate because of Michael Brown’s actions?”

“It escalated because of both actions,” his mother said. “I think it escalated also because he was a black guy, they said he stole something from the store, and then he became confrontational, and then it escalated.”

“Who became confrontational?” Davenport asked.

“Michael Brown.’’

“So he was the aggressor.”

“My point is, Curtis, if it was a different situation with a different complexion young man, I really wonder if it would have escalated to that extent.”

“If ands and buts were candy and nuts, oh, what a party we’d have,” Davenport said.

Everybody laughed. Love filled the room, not the vitriol that tore through America after Brown’s death sparked riots and turned Black Lives Matter from a hashtag into a movement. But the philosophical chasm remained. Karen Davenport saw Brown’s death in the context of policing as a tool of mass incarceration, in a society rife with racial bias. Sgt. Davenport focused on what he teaches in his course — when the law says an officer can pull the trigger.

De-escalation is only for nonviolent suspects. Otherwise, do what you do.

A scandal in the department

Atlanta buys its heroin in the Bluff, where addicts and dealers lurk in abandoned houses as children play nearby. Davenport worked these west Atlanta streets as an undercover narcotics investigator, making drug buys and serving warrants. Jumping out of an unmarked van, ready to deliver some justice, that was fun. If a suspect wanted to put up a fight, the crew stepped aside and Davenport took him down.

“It’s a different kind of trust we had, where you trust your partner with your life,” Davenport said. “Is there any greater trust than that? If you’re not in that circle, it’s hard to compare it.”

He would masquerade as a junkie, walking shirtless into a drug house or wearing a suit and tie like a downtown businessman. Once he was buying crack in a second-floor apartment when two men burst in, fired their guns in the air, and robbed the drug dealers. Davenport thought about pulling his hidden weapon but decided against blowing his cover. That was the closest he ever came to firing his weapon at someone.

In 2006, he was promoted to sergeant and left the squad. Six months later, Davenport’s former narcotics team, led by Officer Gregg Junnier, crept onto a porch in the Bluff, wearing plainclothes. They smashed through the door and burst inside. The homeowner, 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston, thought she was being burglarized and fired her revolver at the intruders. The officers fired back and killed her.

At first, authorities said police had bought drugs from Johnston’s house that same day. But Johnston’s neighbors knew she was innocent. Soon it was exposed that Junnier lied on the search warrant, lied on other warrants and was breaking other laws too. Junnier and two other officers went to prison.

It hurts Davenport to admit that Junnier, a man he would have taken a bullet for, was a crooked cop. He believes he should have seen it. He wonders how many warrants he served that Junnier falsified. Davenport was never accused of any wrongdoing connected to Junnier’s crimes. But Junnier’s crimes get Davenport accused of wrongdoing just for wearing his uniform.

Yet even after the Johnston scandal, which resulted in an overhaul of the Atlanta Police Department narcotics unit, Davenport doesn’t see systemic problems with policing.

“I would say 98 percent of police officers throughout the country do a fantastic job day in and day out,” he said. “But that never gets publicized, right? You don’t have the family members from somebody you helped on Good Morning America telling about that. But the 2 percent are the guys who make bad decisions and do bad things that gets 98 percent of the publicity.”

There’s a difference, though, between outliers on the police force and in other professions. Those 2 percent of bad cops can ruin lives, even take them.

Davenport accepts that higher level of responsibility and says police departments need to do a better job of identifying problem officers.

“You don’t go from being a good, honest cop to being someone who plants drugs or evidence, or might be a little bit quick to kill. There are other signs. They might take shortcuts prior to that. When we see that we have to report it, and we got to either get them retrained or get rid of them.”

“It’s a different kind of trust we had, where you trust your partner with your life. Is there any greater trust than that? If you’re not in that circle, it’s hard to compare it.”“It’s a different kind of trust we had, where you trust your partner with your life. Is there any greater trust than that? If you’re not in that circle, it’s hard to compare it.”

Engaging the threat

After shooting at the range, Davenport took me to the police academy, where pictures of 39 slain officers hung on a wall. Inside a darkened room was the Milo Range Theater 300, a $120,000 system featuring a circle of five huge video screens that create an immersive training experience.

Since 2015, Atlanta police have killed nine people, including seven African-Americans, two of whom were unarmed, according to The Washington Post’s national database of police killings. That’s about the same number of killings as the comparably sized cities of Kansas City, Missouri, and Long Beach, California.

A half-dozen officers watched as I strapped up with a video-game-type pistol. Davenport said to look for the threat and engage it. I asked what “engage” means.

“You can talk,” he said, “or handle it with your sidearm.”

A scene unfolded: A traffic stop of a pickup truck. I approached on the driver’s side and saw an old man behind the wheel. I asked him to put his hands on the wheel — he did not comply. I demanded that he put his hands out of the car window — nothing. The camera backed away. I was about five paces behind the truck. The man got out. I drew my weapon and yelled at him to lay down on the ground. He kept walking toward the tailgate. I yelled I would shoot if he did not lay down. My heart pounded. I felt frustrated and discombobulated by his refusal to obey. Was he sick? Stupid? The old man grabbed something from the truck bed and spun toward me. I blasted him. He fell down and dropped the gun in his hand. The screen went dark.

Davenport said I could have shot him sooner. But what if he didn’t intend to pull out a weapon?

“What do I care more about?” he said. “Going to jail, or going home alive?”

Another scene: A call about a “disturbance” at a park. Such sketchy information is often all police have to start with. Two young men were talking near a parked car. I questioned them, but they didn’t respond. I put my hand on my gun. They put their hands up and I saw one had a gun in his waistband. A woman suddenly got out of the vehicle and approached me with something in her hand. I almost shot her. She was filming with her phone. I yelled at everybody. She lay down in the road. I felt much more scared with three people than with one. I threatened to shoot the gunman if he didn’t lie down. He bolted toward the woods. I let him go. The screen went dark.

Davenport observed that it’s not against the law in Georgia to carry a gun in your waistband. Nobody had broken any laws in that scenario.

Then Davenport tried one.

Another traffic stop. A young woman got out of her car and put a gun to her head. Davenport went into de-escalation mode. He asked her to calm down. “Let’s talk, let’s just talk, you can put the gun down,” Davenport said. She didn’t listen. Davenport kept talking, his gun in hand but pointed at a 45-degree angle toward the ground.

Was this a nonviolent subject? Could he shoot? Should he?

The woman swung the gun toward Davenport and fired. Davenport let off eight shots. The screen went dark.

The technician played back a recording of the encounter. The woman shot first. Davenport’s first shot missed.

“This might have been my bad day,” he said.

A glimpse inside a high-tech police simulation at the Atlanta PD

The lesson of Jonah

Davenport, an ordained minister for 12 years, is an assistant pastor at Greater Travelers Rest House of Hope Atlanta, performing weddings and baptisms and leading Bible studies. I sat with him one Sunday in a front pew of the majestic 7,000-seat sanctuary, close enough to the concert-grade sound system to feel the stomp-stomp of the bass drum.

Black faces filled the ground-level pews and the two balconies. Stained-glass black faces gazed from the windows behind the choir. Cameras broadcast live on the internet. Aged mothers in white hats and dresses were honored. The band played “I’m Nothing Without You,” “Jesus Is My Help,” “The Lord Is Blessing Me Right Now.” Davenport worshipped calmly, tapping his gator-clad toe to the music, with no waving hands or extra amens.

Then Dr. E. Dewey Smith Jr. got to preaching about Jonah.

God told Jonah to go to Nineveh, but Jonah rebelled and boarded a ship for Tarshish. Smith described how God sent a storm to afflict Jonah’s ship. His honey-coated voice was calm, but we knew what was coming. Smith described how the terrified sailors started praying to their pagan gods and throwing things overboard.

The ship captain went below and saw Jonah sleeping. “What is this? Sleeping? Get up!” Smith barked, paraphrasing the Scripture. “Pray to your God! Maybe your God will see we are in trouble and rescue us.”

“Jonah!” Smith shouted. “STAY WOKE!”

The congregation bubbled. Davenport remained silent. Pastor Smith is his friend, but Davenport knew what was coming.

“Stay woke and see it’s OK for Alton Sterling and Philando Castile to get shot in Minnesota,” the pastor said. “It’s OK for police to shoot somebody live on camera with a baby in the back seat, who has gun ownership and a license to carry and see him get five bullets into him and the officer is acquitted and gets paid to leave with no repercussions! It’s OK for a 2-year-old baby to get shot in Minnesota, an 80-year-old woman to get shot in Minnesota, a 12-year-old — all unarmed — to get shot in Minnesota and nothing happens. But as soon as a woman is shot, whose skin is much, much lighter than yours and mine, then all of a sudden the police chief has to resign! All these other folk got shot and nothing ever happened! I gotta tell you, you better STAY WOKE!”

The congregation exploded in agreement, a bullet aimed at the heart of a servant who believes in the nobility of policing. Davenport’s face betrayed no emotion as he balanced between the black and the blue.

Nikki Giovanni knows everyone needs a good cry and she bares all in her new collection ‘A Good Cry’ reveals the poet and activist’s thoughts on life, growth and pain

The understanding of the intersections between race, gender and national consciousness has long been part of the unique genius of one of the most celebrated poets of our complicated times. Nikki Giovanni has been shedding her light on our social consciousness through riveting literary work since graduating with honors from Fisk University in 1967.

The poet, activist and professor has reeled audiences into a world of power and self-awareness for decades. Now she’s captivating a new audience with new verses of grief, sorrow, laughter, growth and healing in her powerful new collection, A Good Cry: What We Learn from Tears and Laughter.

She recalls her relationships with loved ones who have gone on, including her late mother, Yolande Cornelia Sr. She colorfully and sometimes playfully draws space and time through raw emotions. Giovanni’s writing extracts a pureness at heart, by expressing moments of truth that should provoke tears but that many so often repress.

“I know crying is a skill. … Maybe I will learn,” she writes. “My mother did when she thought I was asleep.”

Crying is necessary, as Giovanni expressed. Especially after the death of a family member, friends, loved ones or others who have made a deep and lasting impact on the lives of others.

“My mom died some years ago,” Giovanni told The Undefeated. “There’s so much to do, and you’re holding things in. And then my aunt died. And so again, you’re holding a lot in, you’re trying to get things done. I was thinking, you know, I could use a good cry. And my doctor’s always teasing me, and I tease him too. He’s a nice guy and he’s cute, and he’s always saying things like, you know, you have to learn to take it easy and stuff like that. And I thought, and said to Gregory at one point, I don’t think that I need to take it easy. I think that what I need to do is to learn to cry. And I’ll get it out. So he and I have been arguing about that ever since, because I think that everybody needs a good cry.”

A Good Cry reveals in-depth emotions about Giovanni’s thoughts on the late Ruby Dee, poet Maya Angelou, Fisk University, her roots, her home state of Tennessee, Black Lives Matter and even sports.

Giovanni’s work, as described on her website, has “spurred movements, turned hearts and informed generations. She’s been hailed as a firebrand, a radical, a healer, and a sage; a wise and courageous voice who has spoken out on the sensitive issues, including race and gender, that touch our national consciousness.”

Now, Giovanni takes readers to the most intimate part of her life: drawing the geography of her heart and how it has shaped her. She reveals her family history to put the reader into her development through childhood and adulthood. Her energy offers a glimpse into the mirror of her soul and yours.

Her selfless acts over the years are also displays of the respect she has for herself and others. Her arm bares the words “Thug Life” after the rapper Tupac Shakur was gunned down in Las Vegas and later died in 1996.

Giovanni’s life is multitudes. She loves watching football. Her favorite sport is tennis. Included in her new collection are pieces about the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Black Lives Matter, volleyball and the Delta Sigma Theta sorority.


How do you feel this particular piece of work differs from the other pieces in your body of work?

A Good Cry is more vulnerable. You know, as you grow older — I’m a big fan of growing old, by the way, and I think it’s important as you grow older, you’re learning more and you’re looking at the world a little differently. When you’re young, you’re impatient, you think, ‘Oh, I gotta get this done, I gotta get this done. I gotta make people understand.’ And then you start to get a little more mature, and it’s like, well, let me share this and let me share that. And I think that’s kind of wonderful to just to try to figure out where you are and how you’re going to go forward with it.

What do you think involves learning how to cry?

It helps to have a good friend, and so if you can cry with a good friend, you’ve got a really good thing going. But it also helps to just accept the fact that things are not going, or things are going as you, things, are changing. And you really want to make a difference. You want to let it out, and then you want to go take another step. And I’m at the stage now that several of my friends have lost their parents and or losing their aunts and uncles. You know, these things are going on. And it’s sad. And we’re always saying to people, oh, you’ll, it’ll be all right, you’ll get over it. But you won’t get over it, and it won’t be all right.

You have to deal with it, you have to bring it in and say, OK, this is why I’m upset, this is why I’m crying. And I think it’s important. And of course I love the blues, so the blues definitely lets you let it out. That’s why the blues was invented. It gets the emotion out. And I think A Good Cry is a much more emotional book than any of my other books.

I read your piece in The Huffington Post you wrote that really intersects race, sports and culture. And I really liked the last few lines of it. ‘Kneeling was a sign of love … our athletes who are kneeling and asking the Constitution, will you be mine?’ How do you think that sentiment can be communicated going forward by athletes?

The athletes are doing what they understand, what they want to do. They’re doing their job. I’m a football fan. And you are watching all the people in the stands, many of whom are of course not black. And they’re cheering for the players on the field, many of course who are. And then they’ll come off the field and not like black people. It’s like, you know, y’all got to get over it. If you’re going to cheer for us, then keep it up — you cheer on the field and off the field.

You were born the child of athletes. What’s your favorite sport?

Tennis. I used to play. I watch it. My mother was quite an exceptional tennis player, and she played during the days of segregation. They had the black tennis tournament, which was at Wilberforce. And Mommy made it to the finals one year and played Althea Gibson. Of course Miss Gibson defeated Mommy, but it was so great, she had the runner-up trophy. I wasn’t born then, but I love tennis. When Mommy was here, we went to the tournament every year. They have a tournament in Cincinnati just before the US Open.

Which tennis player do you love to watch most?

I am a big Venus [Williams] fan. Oh, my. If somebody said Venus is playing, you know, in Timbuktu and I’d say, ‘Oh, OK, if I can get a flight.’ I just love her; she’s such a classy young lady. And she’s come through some health issues and she’s held that together. Venus isn’t a friend, they’re too young, but when you meet her, she is just gracious. She’s just a gracious young lady. And there’s so many trashy, ugly, stupid people in the world that running into people like Venus is so wonderful. She’s my favorite athlete, period. I cheer, and I always will. Serena [Williams] is great, it’s not that. It’s that Venus brings it all together. Venus is the princess of tennis. She brings it all together.

Graduating from an HBCU (historically black college or university), Fisk University, how do you view the relevance of the education of HBCUs now?

We need the black education, and like all other schools, we need to have non-blacks coming to our schools. I’m a Fisk graduate, and if you look at what Fisk has brought, W.E.B. Du Bois invented sociology. The Jubilee Singers took the spirituals around the world. They became the Jubilee Singers because they were invited to England to present themselves, as it were — they stayed for quite a while — to Queen Victoria. And she awarded them ultimately 50,000 pounds. And they were able to save the school because the school was going bankrupt. And they stayed and she had the court painter paint a lovely portrait, which is right there in Jubilee Hall. And they became the Fisk Jubilee Singers in honor of Victoria.

It’s like, we’re going to let you sit anyplace on the bus now, so you don’t need your own school. Well, of course you need black schools, and you need the history that we teach and we need the diversity that these schools offer. So I’m very proud.

Do you recall the first time you knew your words had so much power?

Not really. You know, people will quote you. I think that probably people really liked Ego Tripping. And people would come up to me and I would say, wow, they were treating that poem like we treat some of the songs we like. Like when Aretha walks in, people go RESPECT.

So you have an idea that people enjoy your work. And I do so much with history, and I think that maybe I’ve opened up some doors that people haven’t considered before.

Are you enjoying your time at Virginia Tech?

Oh, my, yes. I like teaching and I like young people, and I know I’m one of the people who needs a rhythm. If I didn’t have a routine, I would get work done but I wouldn’t be as disciplined. So it’s very nice. I teach one class and I get up and I go into my office; the kids can drop in. I also get other work done while I’m there. But it’s nice to go and have an office and to sit and, you kind of get work done at a different rate. And I’m lucky because the sun, I have a corner office.

I know you’re still asked this all the time, but can you shed light on your ‘Thug Life’ tattoo?

Oh, my, yes. You know, when Pac got shot I was hoping he would pull through. I was really hoping, and he didn’t, as we know. And my mother was with us still. And I said to my mother, I said, ‘Mommy, I’ve gotta do something, I think I’m going to go get a tattoo.’ And she said, ‘Oh,’ because your mother, I don’t know about your mother, my mother did not want me to have a tattoo. And she said, ‘Where are you thinking about putting it, baby?’ My mother was never one of those people that said no, but she was like, and where you going to put it? And I said, ‘Well, I’m thinking about running it down the side,’ which I was. I was just going to run it down the right-hand side. And I could see that that shocked her — that was understated. And she said, ‘Well, I can see your point, Nikki, but you won’t be able to look at it if you do that.’

I said I’ll put it on my arm. You know, Pac had it on his abdomen. But I’m a girl, and he was in way better shape than I am. And I couldn’t put something on my abdomen and then pull my blouse up and share it with people. So it was on my arm. And I wanted his mother to know that we all miss him, that he was special to us.

What are you a fan of?

I’m a big fan of Black Lives Matter. I think it’s important, and I think we should acknowledge that, that Black Lives Matter are the people who made the Klan take their hoods off. But now the Klan has to come during the daylight. They have to let us know this is who I am. And I think it’s so wonderful, because without Black Lives Matter, that wouldn’t have happened. I think that’s wonderful. I think Black Lives Matter, and of course you’ve seen too, you know, White Lives Matter, All Lives, you know, you see that everybody’s got this response to it.

We’re the people who’ve been getting shot down, innocent people. Unarmed people being shot down. I love to see what the kids are doing. And it just gives me great pleasure to think that my generation has helped to bring this next generation up. And so I’m very proud that they’ve taken what we have to give, what we had to share, they have taken it and taken it to the next step. I think it’s wonderful. They should be very proud because they’re doing their job. I’m sure that their grandmothers sitting there saying, ‘Yeah, that’s my baby.’

HBO’s ‘Baltimore Rising’ shows a city stuck after Freddie Gray’s death An instant-message conversation about the documentary’s portrayal of a community and police department struggling to find solutions

A better name for Baltimore Rising, the new HBO documentary on black life in the city after the death of Freddie Gray, might be Baltimore Stuck. To characterize the city as rising, as director Sonja Sohn does, might be a reach, given the deeply entrenched problems of its poorest residents.

Baltimore Rising attempts to highlight ways community leaders and the Baltimore Police Department are addressing the divide between police and the citizens they’re supposed to protect. It’s a refrain that’s all too familiar: A young black man dies at the hands of police and his community reacts with anger, frustration and contempt for a criminal justice system that appears heavily tilted against them. By the end of the film, which airs Monday night on HBO, there’s not much of a resolution. The city’s problems of joblessness, drugs, violence, racism, structural inequality and intergenerational poverty seem far too complex for one documentary.

One of us (Fletcher) has lived in Baltimore for 36 years and once worked for The Baltimore Sun. When Gray died in the custody of Baltimore police, he wrote an essay about the many circumstances that converged to lead to Gray’s death. He’s also written about Sandtown, the neighborhood where Gray was from, and the parallels in the lives of Gray and William Porter, one of six officers charged after Gray’s death.

We shared our observations of Baltimore Rising in an instant message conversation that has since been edited for length.

Soraya: What did you think of the documentary overall? I felt it wasn’t able to get a granular focus on the historical causes behind eruptions like the ones after Gray’s death.

Michael: I really like how it started. I like how the focus immediately went to the roots of the uprising. It raised urgent questions. Why did this happen? Why do we tolerate entrenched poverty? But, in the end, I’m not sure it answered those questions.

Soraya: It says this tension between the community and the police started when cops began driving their beats instead of walking them. I was a little skeptical of that. Does that ring true to you?

Michael: It is one of those convenient things to say. Like when everybody talks about the good old days when neighbors would discipline kids. I’m old enough to remember the good old days, and I think those narratives, like many narratives, are oversold. Back when cops patrolled the streets on foot in Baltimore, the city was hypersegregated. For years after they introduced patrol cars, black cops in Baltimore were not allowed to use them. The roots of the problem are so much more complex than the lack of foot patrolmen, or footmen, as some say in Baltimore.

Soraya: Right. I feel like this could easily be a documentary series, broken up into episodes. That would allow for an opportunity to look at everything with more detail and nuance.

Michael: That’s it. Just to linger on the police for a moment, you often hear things about policing such as cops should be from the communities they patrol, as if that would be some panacea. But here in Baltimore, where more than 40 percent of the cops are black, many officers are from the neighborhoods they patrol. Some of that is captured in the doc. But the tensions and distrust persist. Why? You could do an entire episode on that.

I’m old enough to remember the good old days, and I think those narratives, like many narratives, are oversold.

Soraya: You mentioned in your essay that Baltimore’s policing problems aren’t necessarily about race. So is it class? Is it just abuse of power? Given the Fraternal Order of Police’s reaction to any sort of community oversight, it seems like there’s just way too much concentrated power. And that always ends up screwing over the people with less.

Michael: Probably a bit of both, along with a lack of empathy. I am often struck by the disdain some cops display to people they are sworn to protect and serve, just as I am sometimes appalled by the lack of respect some people accord to cops. Add to that what I think is Baltimore’s biggest problem, the tens of thousands of people addicted to drugs, and you have what you have. Not to be too cynical, but I think you could staff the cops’ trial board with nothing but ACLU lawyers and the city would not be much better off. The issue is attacking poverty. We have to figure out how to do it as a society, and we haven’t.

Soraya: I kept thinking as I was watching that you have to address the social issues that lead to crime in the first place: namely, poverty. And Genard Barr, one of the community organizers working with the cops, said that too. When police commissioner Kevin Davis is asking him what’s needed to prevent another uprising, he’s like, ‘Jobs.’ He seems to have the most realistic perspective on what’s needed. And that’s not something that can be solved overnight.

But I was also frustrated with Davis. Because if you know that’s so much of the problem, is it fair to expect people to just ignore their situations because the city doesn’t want property damage and ongoing footage of flames on CNN?

There’s this line in the movie where Davis is meeting with cops and community members and someone says that they want residents to ‘value [their] city.’ But it doesn’t seem to value them. And they know that. How are you supposed to feel ownership over something that’s not really yours, that really wasn’t built for you?

Michael: Exactly. And we have to be clear-eyed about the investment that takes and the frustration that is involved. And it is more than jobs, per se. We have to get people ready to work. National coverage sometimes creates the impression that Baltimore is an economic wasteland. It is not. I looked it up: Baltimore’s official unemployment rate is 5.2 percent (however flawed that number is). Yet, it is more than double that figure for African-Americans. And this city has had black leadership for more than a generation. But walking around town, you see ads for $13-an-hour jobs at the Amazon warehouse, for decent-paying jobs in restaurants and the tourist trade. So it’s all very complicated.

Soraya: So we’re also talking about specific neighborhoods within Baltimore, not the whole city, right? Is that because of redlining?

Michael: It is partially because of redlining. It is partially because of middle-class flight. It is partially because of the rise of poverty in some areas, and all that comes with that: disinvestment, crime, drugs, the disintegration of community and even many families. These issues plague huge swaths of West and East Baltimore. But there also remain many strong black working-class communities populated by teachers, bus drivers, postal workers, etc.

Is it fair to expect people to just ignore their situations because the city doesn’t want property damage and ongoing footage of flames on CNN?

Soraya: The film focuses on the neighborhood of North Penn, although Freddie Gray was from Sandtown.

Michael: They are basically adjoining neighborhoods in West Baltimore. Very similar too. Thurgood Marshall is from over there. Billie Holiday, and many other legends, performed on Pennsylvania Avenue during its heyday. Interestingly, the young activists we meet in the film seem to be from the ‘other,’ more prosperous (but still black) Baltimore.

Soraya: Let’s talk about them for a bit. Sohn [who played police Detective Kima Greggs on The Wire] focuses on three main characters: Genard Barr, Makayla Gilliam-Price and Kwame Roseborough. Makayla was a high school senior, and Kwame was 21 at the time this was filmed. It’s that age when you see things that aren’t right and you want to protest them. It’s always young people who are on the frontlines of that. Genard’s a little different, though. He’s a former gang member whose father was a cop.

Michael: They added an intriguing element to the film. To my mind, Genard — who works at a drug treatment center and has connections with gang members, and works to get the formerly incarcerated into the workforce — is the one most deeply immersed in the hard realities of Baltimore. The others, as you say, are committed, bright and passionate, but young. I found the conversations between them and their parents especially illuminating. At one point, Makayla is reading an autobiographical piece and her mother basically tells her she doesn’t recognize the person described in the essay. I found that fascinating. Kwame’s brunch with his parents, who are at best ambivalent about his choice to quit work to be an activist, was also interesting.

Soraya: Their parents seem much more pragmatic. And they’re side-eyeing their children’s idealism a bit. The parents are like, ‘Get your education so you can do something substantive about this.’ And the activists are like, ‘We have to raise our voices about this RIGHT NOW,’ which I can understand. When you see someone your own age or younger be killed, and no one faces any real consequences for it, I imagine that’s incredibly galvanizing. And also scary.

I wish the film, again, had a little more focus. Because Makayla actually seems to have a bit of a journey from when we first see her. By the end, she’s talking about recognizing that protest by itself doesn’t bring about change. I’ve said this about other documentaries, too, not just this one, but I always find myself wanting to know more about policy and what can be done to change people’s lives. I want to see illustrations of the way structural racism or bad policy is baked into governing and how that ends up resulting in black death, mass incarceration, etc. I don’t think we got enough of that. Though, given the FBI’s targeting of ‘Black Identity Extremists,’ I do think it’s important to include how modern protesters and organizers are targeted for retaliation. I had questions about Kwame, in terms of where he fits within Campaign Zero or other Black Lives Matter orgs that funnel money to protesters for bail funds, legal assistance, etc. Is he outside of that network? What’s going on there? I wish Sohn had spent more time on the Justice Department’s findings from its investigation into the Baltimore Police Department and tying that back to Gray’s death, and others.

Michael: I agree with all of that. And here’s maybe my bottom line on the film: If all I knew about the state of Baltimore police-community relations was what I saw here, I’d be confused. As portrayed here, the police are the only ones really getting their hands dirty dealing with Baltimore’s harshest realities. Talk about black death: The city has already seen more than 300 murders this year, as it did last year. The cops we see: commissioner Davis, Lt. Col. Melvin Russell, Detective Dawnyell Taylor, are shown on the street fighting what looks like an unwinnable fight.

There is no mention of the cops on the city’s gun squad indicted for stealing drugs and reselling them. Or the cops accused of planting evidence on suspects. Or the millions paid out to brutality victims. There is a backdrop of injustice, as we hear about the cops charged in the Freddie Gray case acquitted one by one. It feels infuriating, because Gray’s case is so stark. He is arrested, put into a police van and comes out with his neck broken.

But as someone who followed the trial closely, I can tell you that the evidence was thin. The presiding judge (who was the decider, as these were all bench trials) was a black man who formerly prosecuted bad cops for the Justice Department! I say all that to note that there is so much more to explore.

Soraya: Oof. I’m not sure, if you do a deep dive into all that, that you can still call the movie Baltimore Rising. It doesn’t sound like an accurate name. What I see is a city that’s stuck. And I just don’t think things like football games between gang members and cops fixes that. It’s a tiny, tiny Band-Aid.

Michael: At first, the football game came off to me as almost trivializing the deep issues the film raises. But its one virtue is that it humanizes people on all sides. Perhaps that is the only hope here: if we can see the humanity that exists behind these labels we all use — gang member, cop, ex-con, poor person.

Whitley’s World: A brief history of Bad and Boujee Black Girl Style Jasmine Guy’s Gilbert is the blueprint for ‘Insecure’s’ Molly, ‘Dear White People’s’ Coco, and ‘Living Single’s’ Regine

No other show explored the life of coeds from a historically black college as thoroughly as NBC’s A Different World. The show’s colorful characters gave us everything we didn’t know we needed, from a young black man who made solving for x extremely sexy to a free-spirited redhead who would certainly be on the frontlines of any and every Black Lives Matter protest today.

But if “bad and boujee” was trademarked last year by Migos, it originated on the fictional Hillman College campus and was created by the grande dame of the dorm known as Gilbert Hall: Whitley Marion Gilbert. The Louis Vuitton luggage-toting, siditty Southern belle, as portrayed by Jasmine Guy, had a legacy at the prestigious university that went back generations. At 5-foot-2, her frame was petite, but her style was colossal. The Whitley character not only reflected the most fashionable trends of the ’80s and ’90s, but she also influences contemporary style and serves as an inspiration for many young black women and black creatives today.

As one of the first examples of young, black affluence on television, Whitley paved the way for a long list of pivotal TV personalities. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’s Hilary Banks, Saved by the Bell’s Lisa Turtle, Living Single’s Regine Hunter, CluelessDionne Davenport, GirlfriendsToni Childs, Dear White People’s Colandrea “Coco” Conners and even Insecure’s Molly Carter all seem to draw inspiration from the Richmond, Virginia-born beauty queen who, now via streaming apps, continues to personify the style and essence of bad and boujee black girls everywhere.

“She’s not about trying to be white, or anything else — she’s being very black, and this is a very black situation.”

Her impact also went beyond the small screen. In 2015, when the show became available to stream on Netflix — its license agreement expired in 2017, and it is now available on Amazon Prime — Pinterest boards, Instagram handles and Halloween costumes (including one from yours truly) dedicated to mimicking Whitley’s style became a dime a dozen. But imitation certainly is the highest form of flattery, and nobody knows that better than Whitley Gilbert.


The Devil is in the Details

Thirty years ago this week, we got a first-class ticket to a historically black college in Virginia. A group of students evolved from inexperienced adolescents to dynamic adults. From 1987 to 1992 we came to know and love Dwayne Wayne’s nerdy swag, Whitley Gilbert’s siditty style, Freddie Brooks’ free-spirited eccentricity, Kimberly Reese’s steadfast levelheadedness and Ron Johnson’s zany antics. And although the show initially aimed to follow the coed life of Cosby kid Denise Huxtable (Lisa Bonet), it shifted its focus in the second season to the whole crew’s college experience and to Whitley and Dwayne’s love story.

A Different World touched on relevant social themes such as workplace sexual harassment and racial injustice, and it celebrated black heritage. It also featured iconic dayplayers such as Patti LaBelle, Diahann Carroll, Whoopi Goldberg, Jada Pinkett and even Tupac Shakur, ushering in a wave of classic black television shows. “It deepened,” said Jasmine Guy, “the tone of black sitcoms.” Guy is currently filming Mario Van Peebles’ new SyFy series Superstition, as well as season two of BET’s The Quad, which is set at a historically black college not named Hillman.

The cast of A Different World

NBCU Photo Bank

To authentically portray her, Guy says, she created a backstory for Whitley that helped bring her to life. She decided Whitley had attended a primarily white, private school — so for her, Hillman’s campus truly was a different world. “She thought she was black, and she is. But there are all different kinds of ways to be black,” Guy said. “And … the Hillman College experience gave her a new sense of who she was and the community she belonged to. I noticed in the writing how she grew. Over the arc of a season you could see that that character had a lot to learn.”

The show was mostly written by Susan Fales-Hill and Yvette Lee Bowser. Creating a character with as much style development as Whitley, and the whole A Different World crew, started with the script, says Ceci, who worked as costume designer on the show for five seasons (1989-92).

“You can’t unsee A Different World. You’ve seen it, it’s kind of engraved in your psyche.”

“The inspiration comes first from the writing,” she said. “[It] shaped who these characters are, absolutely and situationally. … Whitley is waking up in the morning, but what is she waking up to do? You should be able to turn your TV on mute … and kinda know what’s going on when you see the character. I’m supporting the dialogue and the intentions that the writer and director are trying to convey. I’m doing that visually, through the wardrobe.”

Ceci’s resume includes work on iconic shows such as Living Single and Sister, Sister (both of which are apparently being rebooted) and now she is drawing on that experience: She’s costume designer on Netflix’s Dear White People. Each of these shows features personalities communicated via style, a characteristic she says was used deeply on A Different World. “You’d never see Freddie Brooks wearing anything the Whitley character would wear,” she said. “Jaleesa wouldn’t wear anything Whitley would wear. Each of those characters are … being true to who they are.”

Whitley Gilbert is certainly in a world of her own. There aren’t many episodes in which the girl with the sass and twang isn’t draped in Chanel suits and/or silk scarves. Unlike so many college students who roll out of bed in sweats, Whitley spends her days in heels, fur coats and pearls. “She’s a society girl,” says Mel Grayson, a designer who worked on the show’s early seasons before Ceci took over as costume designer. “She was highfalutin.’ ”

Grayson, a Dallas native, drew his inspiration for Whitley from his own upbringing — and shows that featured affluent characters like the women of CBS’ Dallas (1978-91). “I kept it sexy and hip, taking elements of French couture … elements of Southern church ladies who sat in the front row,” he said. “I’d take a bit of that kind of styling and move it down a few levels. Cut off the shoulder pads, kill the big heels and the big ruffles but still make her regal, and still make her stand out as somebody that had class.”

Whitley’s wardrobe wasn’t cheap. Both Ceci and Grayson say they shopped at high-end stores such as the Dallas-based Neiman Marcus but also had to get creative to stretch what was a meager budget. They augmented new purchases with consignment shop pieces. Tailoring was important: It was hard to come by clothes that fit Guy’s petite frame. “There were clothes that you’d know [were] quality just by the way they fit the body,” Grayson said.

NBCU Photo Bank

“Everything had to be altered to fit her perfectly,” said Ceci. “Thought was given to each decision — is this fitting too close, or too tight? No, she’d wear silk, she wouldn’t wear cotton. She’d wear probably pink, not black. Black is too harsh. Every time you look at Whitley, she’s not out-of-place. Everything about her is supporting this one style aesthetic.”

Ceci would often swap basic original buttons for gold ones, or choose a classic pump over a slouched boot. The key was to capture an authentically upscale young black woman who consistently remained true to herself. Would Whitley wear an unbuttoned blazer? Would she ever have a pimple? If so, how many? That pimple question alone sparked a production meeting debate that lasted at least 30 minutes.

“Those are the details,” said Ceci, “that help subconsciously round out a character.”


Boujee — and black

The first season of A Different World received scathing reviews and is often ranked last on lists of fans’ favorite seasons. Season four — it begins with Whitley’s epic shade toward Dwayne’s new girlfriend, Kinu, and ends with Dwayne asking Whitley to marry him — is the best season, by far. And while season two was a goodbye to Bonet’s Denise Huxtable storyline and a largely white production staff, it was a hello for legendary director and producer Debbie Allen, who ensured the show was both authentic and unapologetic.

During Allen’s tenure, the show created endless opportunities for black Hollywood professionals and designers. The Howard alum even took the writing staff on “annual field trips” to the Clark Atlanta, Spelman and Morehouse campuses for inspiration. What emerged was a show that was very black. “When Debbie Allen came on the show in the second season, she made it more specific, and more clear who all these people were — including Whitley,” Guy said. “Because she did know people like that. She brought little things like, ‘How can y’all have a cafeteria with no hot sauce on the table?’ ”

Despite Whitley’s often insufferable entitlement and occasional disregard for peers outside of her tax bracket — in one episode she defends Kimberly’s scholarship from a company that hasn’t divested from South Africa and separates herself from the anti-apartheid struggle with a flippant “I don’t know those people” — Whitley maintains a shatterproof pride in her blackness.

“When Debbie Allen came on the show in the second season, she made it more specific, and more clear who all these people were — including Whitley.”

“Yes, she’s a socialite, she’s got her nose in the air, she’s got great hair — and it’s straight,” said Grayson. “She’s got a light complexion; she could pass the paper bag test. But she’s a girl that wants to be a black girl. She’s not about trying to be white, or anything else. She’s being very black, and this is a very black situation.”

“There’s a distinction,” Guy said. “And I guess that’s why they call it ‘bad and boujee,’ because there are bougie black people that are not trying to be white. I think that is a misnomer that Whitley was WHITEly. I was determined not to go into that direction because this kind of character does exist in the black community and has the same issues as her friends.”

For Ceci, communicating that black self-confidence through Whitley’s clothing meant altering the styles that luxury brands were creating, particularly as those styles weren’t often intended for black girls.

“A lot of times when you go to high-end stores, that classic look is a color palette that is better for blond hair and blue eyes,” said Ceci. “We can wear those colors, [and] we can be more bold. I tried to let Whitley … not try to emulate what an affluent white person would look like but what an affluent African-American young woman in college would look like. But that really didn’t exist [on television]. It was up to me to imagine what that looked like. The trick with her was trying to make her look affluent but still approachable.”

Throughout the show, Whitley comes to life draped in jeweled tones rather than monochromatic. She’ll wear cream pants with an emerald blouse, or pair a black pencil skirt with a golden peplum blazer. A delicately placed broach here. A chain-linked belt there. Classic, polished styles mixed with elements of youth. “The trick with her was color,” said Ceci. “If I couldn’t find something colorful, I would often dye things. If she wore all taupes and beiges it would be like, ‘OK, who are you?’ ”

Maintaining that authenticity was particularly important when it came to portraying Whitley’s wedding day. This was long before wildly popular black wedding sites and Instagram handles like Munaluchi Bride existed. Seeing a black woman in a bridal gown was rare. “Bride’s magazine would never, ever have anybody of color in their magazine,” said Bethann Hardison, a pioneering African-American runway model and advocate for runway diversity whose son, Kadeem, portrayed Dwayne Wayne. “If they thought to do it, it was maybe a bridesmaid — but that came a lot later. We never saw anyone in a bridal gown that was of color.”

NBCU Photo Bank

A Different World’s pivotal 1992 wedding episode gave viewers something they couldn’t get anywhere else. It not only featured iconic guests — including Joe Morton, Diahann Carroll and Orlando Jones, among others — but it also served up the proverbial peak of Dwayne and Whitley’s relationship. Whitley had been dating future senator Byron Douglas III (portrayed by Morton) and was at the altar when Dwayne interrupted, asking her to reconsider.

According to Guy, the whole scene was done in one take, and Dwayne’s epic “Baby, please!” followed by Carroll’s “Die, just die!” weren’t actually written into the script. The episode — in which Guy wore a delicately embroidered fit-and-flare gown with puffed, capped sleeves reminiscent of Princess Diana’s and a dramatic train with bow detail — put black and bridal in the same sentence long before anyone else would. And if anyone knows how to dress for a momentous occasion, it’s Whitley Gilbert. So the pressure was on.

“We were trying to go with something that was sophisticated but still Southern,” said Ceci. “Something that had some sweetness … not over the top but still a little sexy. It had to have a little bit of everything … this one dress, striking the balance of demure but still sophisticated — and not too mature or revealing.” Unlike other episodes where she had the chance to communicate who Whitley was in multiple outfits, Ceci had to sum up all the character’s elements in one ensemble. “Wedding dresses are a challenge,” she said. “I’ve got one shot.”

The pressure was also on for Guy, who knew seeing a black bride on television was particularly significant for young black women. “Little girls dream of those things, and they don’t necessarily know it’s possible for them,” she said. “All the little girls are looking at Whitley being bougie, getting knocked down, getting up and then realizing, ‘Look at what she had to learn before she got married.’ That’s what I’m hoping young people will see: Look what it took to get to this point, and look how it’s worth it.”

The gown, which was made in-house rather than purchased, not only matched Whitley’s boujee bridal needs but also echoed Bethann Hardison’s words to magazine editors: “Black people get married too.”


Whitley’s World

The impact of A Different World goes far beyond the small screen. Its storylines tackled topics such as HIV/AIDS, interracial dating and apartheid — and enrollment at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) drastically increased while the show was on in prime time. “The show was so contemporary at that moment,” said Bethann Hardison. “A Different World was the first show that ever tackled all the issues, from date rape to race relations. It’s a show that stands the test of time.”

Networks also started making room for more black TV shows. “We were a part of a wave,” said Guy. “I didn’t realize that we were the end of the wave. I thought the business had changed. And then it went back to very few black people. It wasn’t until cable, and the birth of all these other outlets, that the networks couldn’t afford to be so cocky about what they put on and don’t put on.”

As for Whitley, her style and boldness showed up in other shows. In the 1990s, the presence of affluent young black women became less rare with the creation of characters such as Lark Voorhies’ Lisa Turtle, Karyn Parsons’ Hilary Banks, or even Stacy Dash’s Dionne Davenport. There was also another strain of young female TV personalities who weren’t born with money but via hard work became accustomed to the finer things in life, such as Kim Fields’ Regine Hunter, Jill Marie Jones’ Toni Childs and Antoinette Robertson’s Coco Conners. That sensibility is also evident in Insecure’s Molly on HBO, as portrayed by Yvonne Orji, whose power suits and fashion sense are a contemporary remix on Whitley’s wardrobe. There’s also, of course, Olivia Pope of Scandal, who stakes a claim to bad and boujee herself.

“I think that is a misnomer that Whitley was WHITEly. I was determined not to go into that direction.”

The HBO show’s costume designer, Ayanna James, recently talked to Fashionista about the inspirations for Molly’s character. “As far as examples we’ve had on television, we have Kerry Washington on Scandal … who is a very popular character for her fashion, but that’s somebody that is a bit more confident than Molly. The inspiration behind Molly was, ‘What would a lawyer look like if she was really, really into fashion? If she was the person who might take a weekend off to go to New York Fashion Week?’ She lives in L.A., she makes money, she works in an office … run by the old boys’ club, so how do we balance that to make it fashionable and make it relevant?”

“I saw a lot of Whitley-esque influence in a lot of characters,” said Grayson. “In Living Single and Girlfriends. They were a bit more risqué, but they had that same sensibility.”

Ceci said she wasn’t as aware of the influence in real time. But looking back, she sees correlations. However, she said the clothes she chose for characters such as Regine and Coco signify more aspirational efforts than did Hillman’s own pride and joy. “The Regine character, she is like a Whitley character. She wasn’t born with money. She has … humble beginnings and is a little more sassy and expressive,” said Ceci. “Coco didn’t have the affluence that the Whitley character has. So while there might be some parallels in terms of trying to be pulled together … those two characters are never gonna be able to hit the mark in terms of the polish and the etiquette of the Whitley character.”

Guy said she was more aware of women who paved the way for her as Carroll did in Dynasty (1981-89). While she agrees that both Hilary Banks and Regine Hunter fall into the same category as Whitley, she said they each had unique characteristics. “We were all a part of that theme, we were just different in our bougieness,” she said.

Both Grayson and Ceci acknowledge that although Whitley can be antagonistic, even when you hate her, you still want to dress like her. “Now when kids look at Whitley,” said Ceci, “they feel like she’s like a baby baller. They’re like, ‘I wanna look like her when I grow up.’ ”

“It just made young girls realize that you don’t have to be that … dowdy girl and just wear … jeans and your old flannel shirt,” said Grayson. “You can pull yourself together and go to school … and look a little more elegant, and not care what other people have to say about that — because you wanna be dressed.”

And Ceci is proud and humble at the same time. “You can’t unsee A Different World,” she said. “You’ve seen it. It’s kind of engraved in your psyche. And perhaps subliminally that’s a reference point, or even consciously. … I don’t know if I defined what African-American female affluence was at that time, but … I’m just coming to embrace the impact the show had, and my part in it … I feel proud and privileged and honored to have … been a part of that.”

As a fan of fashionable jewels and a curator of fine art, Whitley knows that reprints are acceptable. But there’s nothing like the original. Although her character set a part of #blackgirlmagic in motion, no one has matched her level of polished sophistication, and perhaps no one ever will. Ms. Gilbert would have it no other way.

Prosecutors, not just police, can also play a part in the abuse of black lives The exclusion of black jurors changes the game

 

Various players, during last weekend’s slew of NFL games, reignited the protest efforts against racial injustice. Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett, for instance, sat on the bench during the national anthem and raised his black-gloved fist after sacking San Francisco 49ers quarterback Brian Hoyer. Before the game, his brother Reshaud led a Black Lives Matter rally through the streets of Seattle’s International District, chanting, “Black lives are under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back.”

Now close your eyes and imagine what they demonstrated against. What scenes invade your mind? Most will picture episodes like what Bennett described as happening to him in Las Vegas — an officer forcing him to the ground, his nose smelling pavement, his ears filled with threats and a handgun aimed at his head — a scared and innocent black man fearing death was looming.

We generally finger cops and incidents like Bennett’s as the reason many people of color distrust the criminal justice system while ignoring a potentially far guiltier culprit — the prosecutor. With considerable authority in the legal system, many prosecutors have the ability to trample upon the constitutional rights of black criminal defendants. This malfeasance can reveal itself in a variety of ways, but one is when prosecutors deliberately make juries as white as possible.

Just last July, Washington state’s Supreme Court overturned the conviction of a black criminal defendant after the prosecutor prevented the only potential black juror from serving on the jury. California’s Supreme Court in June overturned the convictions of three Latino criminal defendants, ruling that the prosecutor discriminated against prospective Latino jurors.

When players protest the national anthem, also envision this: Right now, at least one person of color, almost certainly many, in fact, is seated in the criminal defendant’s chair in a courtroom somewhere in America. That person will gaze over at the jury box and spot few if any nonwhite faces because the prosecutor wanted it that way.

Batson v. Kentucky

The prosecutor and defense attorney have “peremptory challenges,” the right to strike a potential juror from serving on a criminal jury without giving a reason. Each side winnows down the jury pool through these challenges until, in most jurisdictions, 12 jurors and four alternates are seated. Many prosecutors habitually exploit this tool by striking people of color based on race, resulting in disproportionately white juries.

This happened in the early 1980s, when James Kirkland Batson of Louisville, Kentucky, stood accused of second-degree burglary and receiving stolen goods. During jury selection, the prosecutor struck all four black potential jurors and all-white jury convicted Batson.

In 1986, the Supreme Court overturned his conviction. This decision barred prosecutors from considering race when striking jurors, declaring unconstitutional a practice that had lasted more than a century.

Defense attorneys can now initiate a “Batson challenge.” This process generally begins after a prosecutor strikes two or more nonwhite people, often raising the eyebrows of defense attorneys, who can then argue they notice a racial pattern and tender supporting reasons. The judge, if convinced the defense has advanced a substantive initial case, will ask the prosecutor for race-neutral reasons for each reason to strike. If the prosecutor fails to convince the judge that race played no role, the judge will find a Batson violation.

The viability for the Batson decision to curtail this scourge hinged on whether discriminating prosecutors would be impeded by the requirement to proffer race-neutral explanations. Justice Thurgood Marshall in the Batson decision argued they could easily concoct reasons that courts would be “ill-equipped to second-guess. …” The Batson challenge, to Marshall, would falter because it “cannot prevent clever lawyers from using peremptory challenges to strike potential jurors based upon impermissible rationales as long as they pretend to use other, permissible bases.” This would mean that only “flagrant” abuses would be punished. Marshall concluded that “only by banning preemptories entirely can such discrimination be ended.”

Three decades of evidence validate Marshall’s pessimism.

 

Widespread Prosecutorial Jury Discrimination

A report from the Equal Justice Initiative, a racial justice organization in Montgomery, Alabama, exposes how prosecutors freely articulate discriminatory statements in open court. In a Louisiana case, for example, a prosecutor disclosed that he struck a juror for being a “single black male with no children.” One Alabama prosecutor struck black prospective jurors “because he wanted to avoid an all-black jury and asserted in other cases that he struck African-Americans because he wanted to ensure other jurors, who happened to be white, served on the jury.” A Georgia prosecutor challenged a juror “because he was black and had a son in an interracial marriage.”

Courts, in these cases, sided with the defendant. These are the blatant occurrences that Marshall figured courts could prevent. When prosecutors behave more cleverly, judges, as Marshall predicted, poorly guard black rights.

Judges routinely allow prosecutors to strike black prospective jurors because they have “low intelligence,” a “lack of education,” children out of wedlock, live in a “high crime area,” are unemployed, or rely on government assistance programs such as food stamps. A South Carolina court allowed a prosecutor to strike a black man because he “shucked and jived” as he walked. One prosecutor struck a prospective juror for “look[ing] like a drug dealer.” A Louisiana court condoned the rationale. An Arkansas judge allowed a prosecutor to rely on a hunch that a black woman would be “unfavorable to the state” even without the prosecutor ever questioning her to find out.

Zooming out from these details reveals a dispiriting tableau — rampant prosecutorial jury discrimination.

Barbara O’Brien and Catherine M. Grosso, two Michigan State law professors, examined at least one jury trial for each inmate on North Carolina’s death row as of July 1, 2010. Their study examined “strike decisions” for more than 7,400 potential jurors in 173 proceedings to discover how prosecutors used peremptory challenges in capital cases. Their data was clear — prosecutors were far more likely to strike potential black jurors.

Across all the proceedings, “prosecutors struck 52.6 percent of eligible black venire members, compared to only 25.7 percent of all other eligible venire members.” These disparities worsened in cases with black defendants. There, prosecutors struck 60 percent of black potential jurors versus 23.1 percent for all other races. “In every analysis that we performed,” O’Brien and Grosso recapped, “race was a significant factor in prosecutorial decisions to exercise peremptory challenges in jury selection in these capital proceedings.”

When asked what their research reveals about America writ large, O’Brien and Grosso responded by email, “from all the evidence we have seen — both experimental work and analysis of strike decisions in real-life trials — there’s nothing unique about North Carolina: Race is a huge factor in the decision to exercise peremptory strikes everywhere.”

Take the Peremptory Challenge Away from Prosecutors

The true number of defendants who have languished in prisons or died there after being convicted by a discriminatorily composed jury would likely startle even the most well-informed, although the exact total will forever elude us.

Society can best address this by pursuing the prophetic wisdom of Marshall: Strip the peremptory challenge from prosecutors, a power they persistently mishandle.

Take the former Montgomery County, Alabama, district attorney, for example. Her office had at least 13 of its convictions reversed for Batson abuses. She, nonetheless, held her job 21 years before stepping down in 2014. She kept enjoying re-election, and voters likely did not know or care she was habitually violating the rights of black criminal defendants.

Her victims, like that of any prosecutor who denied defendants their constitutional right to an impartially selected jury, suffered no police abuse that an onlooker recorded and posted online for the world to witness. But when black athletes conduct their national anthem protests, we should also keep in mind the image of the purposefully constructed all-white jury that could determine their guilt or innocence.

Ibram Kendi, one of the nation’s leading scholars of racism, says education and love are not the answer Founder of new anti-racism center at American University sees impact of policy, culture on black athletes

It’s a Wednesday night at a bookstore in a well-off part of Washington, D.C., and every seat is taken. More than 100 people spill into the aisles or crowd the stacks past the philosophy and cookbook sections to hear Ibram X. Kendi talk about the racist ideas that founded the nation. About how racial progress is always followed by new and more sophisticated racist progress. And, especially, about the deeply held beliefs that most Americans, including black people and liberal whites, woke up with this morning that they don’t even know are racist and wrong.

For instance, “Black neighborhoods are not more dangerous than white neighborhoods and neither are black people,” Kendi tells the crowd. Layers of racist ideas account for why we think so.

Last year, the 35-year-old scholar became the youngest person to win the National Book Award for nonfiction in 30 years for Stamped from the Beginning, The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.

And this year, his moment continues. He’s just moved to Washington, where he is launching the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University next week. He’s a historian of racism at a time when our public conversation is fixed on it, when successive presidents have triggered the tribal apprehensions of our Mason-Dixon lines, and when the threat of shoot-you-down, run-you-over racial violence feels as close at hand as the peril to the republic from fake facts and revisionist history. This convergence of circumstances keeps him perpetually on book tour.

Ibram Kendi, right, addresses the audience as Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery, who was the presenter for the event, stands by.

André Chung for The Undefeated

A diverse group made up a standing-room-only audience during Dr. Ibram Kendi’s recent book promotion event at Politics and Prose.

André Chung for The Undefeated

With the breadth of his scholarship and expanse of his reach, Kendi has been compared to the famed late historian John Hope Franklin, except he wears his locs long and his edges laid. He used to fantasize about a career in the NBA — or, at the very least, on SportsCenter. He’ll hit you back on Twitter.

Just so you know, black people are not inherently better athletes than white people, Kendi says. We only think so because “black people have not only been rendered inferior to white people, they’ve been rendered like animals,” and thus physically superior creatures. It’s an old racist idea that helped justify African-Americans’ suitability for backbreaking labor and medical experiments and the theft of their children. “When we embrace this as part of our identity,” Kendi says, “we don’t understand.” He wants to correct our misunderstandings.

Education, love and exemplary black people will not deliver America from racism, Kendi says. Racist ideas grow out of discriminatory policies, he argues, not the other way around. And if his new center can help identify and dismantle those policies in the U.S. and around the world, he believes we can start to eliminate racism. At least that’s the goal.

As the evening wears on in the crowded bookstore, people line up at microphones to question, challenge or offer up hosannas to this young scholar, who, in many ways, is just getting started.


Ibram Kendi is the new founding director of The Anti-Racist and Policy Center at American University. He is a leading thinker on race and his 2016 book, “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America” won the National Book Award.

André Chung for The Undefeated

Kendi apologizes for the spare office space he shares with a colleague inside American University’s School of International Service. The walls are bare, and his name has not yet made it outside the door. He’s still unpacking from the move to D.C. with his wife, Sadiqa, a pediatric emergency room physician at Children’s National Health Center, and their 1-year-old daughter, Imani. It’s an ambitiously busy life.

Besides being the founding director of the research center, he’s teaching history and international relations as part of a joint appointment that brought him from the University of Florida, where he was a professor of African-American history.

He’s learning the city, and working on priorities for the center — part think tank, policy shop and incubator for anti-racism strategies — which formally launches next fall. It joins dozens of other customized centers of racial research. One of the earliest and most notable, the W.E.B Du Bois Research Institute at Harvard University, rose to prominence under the leadership of Henry Louis Gates Jr. This year, “year zero,” is to raise funds and recruit researchers, faculty and students.

The goal is to identify inequalities, identify the policies that create and maintain those inequalities, and propose correctives in six areas: criminal justice, education, economics, health, environment and politics. Kendi also hopes to create an online library of anti-racist thinking. He’s still considering initial projects.

But when he talks about racism, he is not still puzzling out his ideas. Kendi has spent thousands of hours reading thousands of documents, including “some of the most horrific things that have ever been said about black people,” to uncover the origins of racist thought. His words are distilled, precise, authoritative. His voice never rises. He is, temperamentally, an antidote to the heat of the subject matter and the hyperbole of the times.

“We have been taught that ignorance and hate lead to racist ideas, lead to racist policies,” Kendi said. “If the fundamental problem is ignorance and hate, then your solutions are going to be focused on education, and love and persuasion. But of course [Stamped from the Beginning] shows that the actual foundation of racism is not ignorance and hate, but self-interest, particularly economic and political and cultural.” Self-interest drives racist policies that benefit that self-interest. When the policies are challenged because they produce inequalities, racist ideas spring up to justify those policies. Hate flows freely from there.

The self-interest: The Portuguese had to justify their pioneering slave trade of African people before the pope.

The racist idea: Africans are barbarians. If we remove them from Africa and enslave them, they could be civilized.

“We can understand this very simply with slavery. I’m enslaving people because I want to make money. Abolitionists are resisting me, so I’m going to convince Americans that these people should be enslaved because they’re black, and then people will start believing those ideas: that these people are so barbaric, that they need to be enslaved, or that they are so childlike that they need to be enslaved.”

Kendi boils racist ideas down to an irreducible core: Any idea that suggests one racial group is superior or inferior to another group in any way is a racist idea, he says, and there are two types. Segregationist ideas contend racial groups are created unequal. Assimilationist ideas, as Kendi defines them, argue that both discrimination and problematic black people are to blame for inequalities.

“The actual foundation of racism is not ignorance and hate, but self-interest.”

Americans who don’t carry tiki torches react viscerally to segregationist ideas like those on display at the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that left one young counter-protester dead. Assimilationist ideas are more subtle, seductive and coded.

“You can be someone who has no intention to be racist,” who believes in and fights for equality, “but because you’re conditioned in a world that is racist and a country that is structured in anti-black racism, you yourself can perpetuate those ideas,” says Kendi. No matter what color you are.

Anti-racist ideas hold that racial groups are equal. That the only thing inferior about black people is their opportunities. “The only thing wrong with black people is that we think there is something wrong with black people,” a line that Kendi uses like a mantra.

The Blue Lives Matter (the problem is violent black people) Black Lives Matter (the problem is the criminal justice system, poor training and police bias) and All Lives Matter (the problem is police and black people) arguments are extensions of the same, three-way debate (segregationist, anti-racist and assimilationist) that Americans have been having since the founding of the country.

“We’ve been taught American history as a steady march of racial progress,” but it’s always been a dual march of racial and racist progress, which we see from Charlottesville to “their Trump Tower,” Kendi says.

This is the jump-off Kendi uses to frame the most roiling issues of the day. But before he could build that frame, he first had to deal with his own racism.


Ibram Kendi

André Chung for The Undefeated

Kendi was born Ibram H. Rogers in Jamaica, Queens, New York, to parents who’d been student activists and were inspired by black liberation theology. He grew up playing basketball and still is an ardent New York Knicks fan.

The family moved to Manassas, Virginia, where Kendi attended Stonewall Jackson High School (named for the Confederate general) and dreamed of a career on the hardwood. The slim, 6-foot-1 former guard says he specialized in the no-look pass. “I consider the beautiful pass the most beautiful part of the game of basketball,” he says.

Sweet passing aside, his basketball aspirations were irrevocably dashed his sophomore year when he failed to make the junior varsity team. “I was so crushed,” Kendi says.

He studied journalism at Florida A&M University and initially wanted to be a broadcaster or a sportswriter. But after internships at The Mobile Register and The Atlanta Journal Constitution, he began to shift his career focus. He wound up getting a doctorate in African-American studies from Temple University. His first book, on the black student protest movement in the ’60s and ’70s, was published in 2012. He began researching Stamped from the Beginning the following year.

That’s when he started to re-examine some of his most deeply held beliefs about race. “I was born into a world of racist ideas, many of which I had consumed myself,” says Kendi. “I had to come to grips with … some of the things that I imagined and thought,” about black people “and one of the first and most obvious ones was the idea that black neighborhoods are more dangerous than white neighborhoods, which is a very popular idea.”

The highest instances of violent crime correspond with high unemployment and poverty, and that holds true across racial lines, Kendi found. Most white poverty, unemployment and thus violent crimes occur in rural areas, while for blacks those ills are more concentrated in densely populated urban neighborhoods. If impoverished white communities “had five times more people, then that community would have five times, presumably, more violent crime.”

“I was born into a world of racist ideas, many of which I had consumed myself.”

Another racist idea: “I believed that black children were achieving at a lower level than white children. And I believed in the existence of an achievement gap,” says Kendi. Standardized tests prioritize reading and writing as measures of verbal proficiency, as opposed to the wider ability to articulate. And they test subject areas where black schools are vastly underresourced.

“I certainly am somebody who advocates equalizing the resources of school and creating a situation in which we actually live up to our pronouncements that we live in a meritorious society,” says Kendi. “But even if these schools persist in being resourced unequally, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the students in the schools with lesser resources are intellectually inferior to the students with better resources.” He reaches into history to illustrate his point: Just because slaves’ lives were circumscribed, they faced more adversity and they dealt with more violence, that doesn’t mean enslaved people were inferior to people who were free.

A “more lighthearted area” he had to confront was his ideas about dating black women. “Black women were angry, they didn’t know what they want, they’re difficult,” he’d heard. “And from my standpoint, those are some of the things that I said when I was having some difficulties in dating.” When we have negative experiences with individuals, “we often say there’s a problem with that black group,” without realizing those are racist ideas.

Now, he’s a poster child for black love. He and his telegenic wife met on Match.com and debuted their new last name Kendi (“loved one” in the Kenyan language of Meru) at their 2013 wedding in Jamaica, which was featured in Essence magazine.

Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of African and African-American studies at Duke University, calls Kendi part of a vanguard of young black historians, which includes Treva Lindsey at Ohio State and Brittney Cooper of Rutgers, who are transforming the field. Part of what makes him right for the moment is his ability to speak to millennials, who have access to lots of information but can’t always decipher what is good or bad. “What he has written is an accessible history of black folks,” said Neal. In terms of a book for general readers “that covers such a wide historical period, the only thing I can think about in terms of comparison is John Hope Franklin’s From Slavery to Freedom.”

Kendi’s book resonates like the 2015 National Book Award winner, Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, said Neal. “Ta-Nehisi’s was kind of an emotional analysis of what this moment is. Kendi’s was to bring that kind of energy, except to do it in a historical context. I think it’s important to be able to talk about the history of these racist ideas, the impact they’ve had on black people and black life.”

With regard to the most front-and-center issue in sports today, athletes and activism, Kendi says it’s important to remember that the athlete/activists of the 1960s — Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown and Tommie Smith — all spoke out in the context of the Black Power movement, which is “precisely what’s happening now” with Colin Kaepernick and others who were inspired by Black Lives Matter. “We look for athletes to generate movements, when historically athletes have been good at being athletes, which is precisely what they should be good at, and we should be looking to activists to generate movements.” There will then be those athletes who use their platforms to support those movements and ideologies.

Kendi says that while the numbers of black players on the fields, courts and arenas have increased dramatically over the past 50 years, it’s been harder to make shifts at other positions.

“We should determine diversity in sports, just like outside of sports, not by the transient players but by the people who are permanent, like the owners, like the coaches, like the sports writers, like the executives.” If those groups “are lily-white, then [a sport] is simply not diverse.”

This kind of analysis gives Kendi cachet beyond the ivory tower and makes him popular with students, Neal said. Young people see Kendi with his locs and his ability to communicate in a vernacular they know and that expands their thinking about the possibilities for their own lives. They’ll say, “This is somebody I can imagine being somewhere down the line,” said Neal.

“We should determine diversity in sports, just like outside of sports, not by the transient players but by the people who are permanent, like the owners, like the coaches, like the sportswriters, like the executives.”

Peter Starr, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at American University and one of those responsible for bringing Kendi to the university, cites Washington as an organic place to do anti-racist work. “To make real lasting change, change that lasts beyond changes of administrations and flips from one party to the next, you really need to reach out to people who are making more fundamental policy on the ground, in the agencies and throughout the government,” he said.

Starr calls Kendi’s vision to use researchers from around the country an approach that mirrors what happens in the sciences. “He’s got a very expansive vision of the center, and we really think this is a center that’s not just the usual, relatively small, one-person shop,” he said.

He calls Stamped from the Beginning the kind of book scholars write in their 50s and 60s. But Kendi’s impact will transcend the written words, Starr said. Especially since American has struggled with racist incidents recently.

In May, bananas were found hanging from nooses at three locations on the American University campus. This followed racist social media messages and a banana thrown into a black student’s dorm in the past few years.

For students of color and “all students, being able to look to someone like Ibram Kendi, who is a model of intelligent scholarship and activism informed by deep contextual and historical understanding,” is powerful, said Starr. He’s got “a fire to make a difference in the world that I’m not sure I’ve ever seen in another scholar, frankly.”


Ibram Kendi greets fans at Politics and Prose after discussing his book.

André Chung for The Undefeated

At the bookstore, the questions, and disquisitions posing as questions, continue as the crowd grapples with, or pushes back against, Kendi’s ideas about race and America.

“I think that the issue is that the Africans and the Europeans really can’t mix,” one person steps to the mic to say.

Across the room, another questioner says, “Gentiles are underrepresented on Wall Street. White males are underrepresented in the NBA. At what point does the assimilation shift into something where other factors come into play?”

“All right now, tell it like it is,” says E. Veronica Pace, a genealogist who steps to the microphone and identifies herself as a student of Howard University sociologist E. Franklin Frazier. She asks about the book’s title, which was taken from a speech in which Confederate President Jefferson Davis called racial inequality “stamped from the beginning.”

Finally, the talk is over and people form a line that stretches toward the door to have him sign their books. “If we are all mindful about this and put our hearts and souls into it, we can turn this ship around,” says James Kilgore, whose wife is in the line. He’s says he’s waiting to see what Kendi is going to do.

For starters, he’s working on another book, a memoir entitled How to be An Anti-Racist. “Racist ideas become almost like a drug. Once you hear them and become hooked, you need more in order to sustain the way you see the world, right?” Kendi says. “I was hooked for a long time,” and now “I’m trying to relieve other people.”

And he’s focused on launching the center he’d like to help change the world. The former sports reporter reaches for a metaphor. It’s a rare moment where his equanimity seems to falter, just for a bit, perhaps from the weight of the task at hand. “I’m on the court and I’ve suited up. Now the game is about to start and I have to be ready to perform,” Kendi says. “And to win.”

Gabrielle Union, Angela Rye, Lisa Ling lead town hall at NC A&T Union: ‘We have to be brutally honest about what it is, what we live up to’

Beyoncé’s “Run the World” provided the biggest hint on how the night would go down to the capacity crowd at North Carolina A&T University. Bey’s 2011 ladies anthem played on a loop from 5:15 p.m., when the lines wrapped around Harrison Auditorium started moving, until 6:09, when NC A&T alumnus and town hall moderator Danya Bacchus riled up the crowd with chants of “AGGIE PRIDE!”

When CNN correspondent Lisa Ling, political strategist Angela Rye and actress and advocate Gabrielle Union took the stage, with Union getting the biggest ovation when she flashed her phone for an audience selfie, there was an openness to the conversation about some serious issues affecting women.

“Balance is a farce,” Union said when asked about how she keeps it together as a mother-wife-actress-social advocate.

“Women are supposed to be everything — a freak in the bedroom and a chef, too, apparently, with your own luxurious hair,” she went on, throwing her hair off her shoulders. “Let people off the hook. Stop expecting what’s not realistic.”

Thus the tone and feel was set for this Chancellor’s Town Hall, which covered a range of topics affecting women, including health and welfare, success, safety and survival, as well as the devaluing of women in pop culture.

Courtesy of North Carolina A&T

When asked about social media, Union, who had the largest following of the women on the panel, didn’t hold back.

“Nothing that you see is real,” said the star of BET’s Being Mary Jane, who is married to Chicago Bulls star Dwyane Wade. “There’s all sorts of things you can do to doctor photos, so what you think you’re comparing yourself to doesn’t actually exist. What’s making you anxious is a farce. The cars you see … those are leased, at best. The homes — rented. So many people I came up with in the industry are in bankruptcy. I left college in debt, mainly because I used my student loan money at the mall. So we have to be brutally honest about what it is, what we live up to.”

Ling, the former co-host of ABC’s The View who is currently the executive producer and host of This is Life on CNN, agreed. “Your social media profile is the life you want people to believe you live,” she said. “At a certain point as a mother, it scares me. Take a break from it. We are communicating with each other so much less that it’s starting to affect us a culture.

“You’re at a dinner party with friends watching other people’s life on Facebook — what does that say about your life? I’m as addicted to social media as anyone, but I sometimes feel bad to look at other people’s life because they’re posting seemingly perfect images of their life that isn’t reflective of their life.”

Of all the panelists, Rye kept it the realest, confessing:

“I know I’m sometimes too open and transparent. As women, I would say it’s important to have certain people around you who you can be honest with. What you realize is there is too much to bear. It’s not mine to carry alone. We’re not in this alone, even when we feel like that. Put the device down and look around, you’ll see that you’re not alone.”

Union agreed, referencing her Snapchat post at the gym earlier in the day in which she said, “I’m struggling today … I don’t have it today.”

She took a moment to explain, saying shortly after that post a tear fell down her cheek, revealing what she said was a moment: “You’re not weak for admitting that you have a mental health issue,” said Union, who mentioned that she was raped at 19, something she has spoken about many times. “It’s empowering to each other. You’re not alone. Everything you’re experiencing, we’ve all experienced it. Don’t look at the end result. Ask about the journey.”

When the topic was double standards, Ling didn’t hold back.

“Double standards exist because men are still running things, for the most part,” she said. “I don’t think it’s malicious; sometimes they just don’t see you. As an Asian woman, I was always told to be grateful and quiet. My agent has even said, ‘Let me do your negotiation because you will sell yourself short.’ ”

Rye tactfully disagreed with Ling, saying, “It may not have been malicious intent, but it was malicious impact,” she said, to audience applause. “I’m often called a race-baiter on social; the comments say I’m always playing the race card. What does that even mean? The point I’m raising is … it’s OK to call a fact a fact, but we have to ensure that we speak up. It may open a door for somebody else.”

Courtesy of North Carolina A&T

The level of honesty, and the rapport among the women, was real. Ling talked about how she had to learn to stand up for herself. Union — whose book, We’re Going To Need More Wine, is due out next month — boasted that she turns 45 next week and admitted to having seen a therapist. Rye acknowledged that she’s still a work in progress but is unabashed in her views.

Union made references to Insecure (“That’s my jam!”), recalling the episode when Molly found out that her male co-worker was making more than her. “What Molly went through,” Union said, “that’s real. It’s unfortunate that we can’t show passion for our jobs without it being held against us come evaluation time. Mastering the art of tongue … it’s not my strength, which is why Being Mary Jane has so many outbursts.”

When asked why pay disparities still exist today, Rye reminded the crowd why she’s a leading political strategist and advocate for social change. “It’s because of who runs the show,” she said. “When you hear people say, ‘black lives matter,’ they’re also saying black pay matters too. Not only do we matter, but our work is on par. Those are the types of stereotypes we can deal with. The president can say HBCUs are unconstitutional — not based on fact … ”

Rye stopped herself, as the audience groaned. “Oh, let me not go there.”

Courtesy of North Carolina A&T

When Bacchus read a statistic that 1 in 5 women is sexually assaulted while in college, it struck a chord with Union. “I was lucky because I was supported,” she said, “but it didn’t stop the question: What did you have on? But there was a rallying around me. When they say rape is the most unreported crime in the world, I can’t drive that home enough. We are in your dorms. We’re related to you. All I can say is you’re not alone. You didn’t ask for it. You didn’t have it coming. You’re strong when you’re here. Strong when you’re having a breakdown. And the sooner that we recognize that, especially in communities of color, we have to give each other a break. Rape jokes should be nonexistent.”

Added Rye: “I try to put out positivity [on social]. My platform is to inform. To me, that’s empowering.”