It’s 25 years old: Tupac’s ‘Keep Ya Head Up’ is hip-hop’s definitive ode to black women ‘Tupac cares, if don’t nobody else care …’

Tupac Shakur’s 1993 sophomore album, Strictly 4 My N.-.-.-.A.Z., was his last “pure” album. The project predates the cultural controversies, his sexual assault case, his incarceration, the 1994 Quad Studio shooting and the Death Row era that became his life’s final chapter. Released Feb. 16, 1993, S4MN is a fluid, aggressive, emotional and erratic project immortalized mainly for three singles: the rebellious “Holler If Ya Hear Me,” the joy-in-promiscuity classic “I Get Around” and the evergreen “Keep Ya Head Up.” Grounded by a sample from The Five Stairsteps’ 1970 “O-o-h Child,” ‘Shakur’s sentimental remake — things are gonna get easier — remains rap’s hallmark ode to black women.

Raised by women, Shakur’s soul found solace in his mother, Afeni Shakur, and close friend Jada Pinkett. “Keep Ya Head Up,” written when he was 21, not only spoke to black women, it defended them from within a genre that was and still very much is a man’s game. As his legal troubles mounted, and his demeanor toward women came under fire, Shakur’s devotion to the song never wavered. “I think the s— that I say, no one else says,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1995. “Who was writing about black women before ‘Keep Ya Head Up?’ Now everybody got a song about black women.”

Shakur was a classic Gemini — it’s no surprise “I Get Around” and “Keep Ya Head Up” are on the same album. But the latter resonates on a far deeper level. It’s a record made for black men to inherit, hence the dedication of the song to his “godson, Elijah.” Black women are so often stereotyped, and scapegoated in hip-hop and in pop culture in general, but Shakur embraced the strength and importance of black women. Strong women fueled him. He also dedicated “Keep Ya Head Up” to a “little girl name Corin” — the daughter of Salt-N-Pepa’s Cheryl “Salt” James.

“He had this long conversation with her and, I don’t know, I guess she just struck him somehow,” James said last year. “He called me this one time and said, ‘By the way, I dedicated a song to Corin’. I never really understood why.”

“Pac had a liking and admiration for us as women, as artists,” said James’ group mate, Sandra “Pepa” Denton.

Shakur’s life ended three years after the release of “Keep Ya Head Up.” And one of those years was spent in prison for a crime he was convicted of having committed against a black woman. He denied the charges until the day he died. “I have no patience for anybody that doubts me. None at all. It’s too hard out here,” he said in a 1994 interview. “If my people don’t stand up for me, who is? I understand these white folks looking at me like that because they don’t know me. They didn’t hear ‘Keep Ya Head Up.’ That ain’t no fluke. ‘Keep Ya Head Up’ ain’t no god damn come-up. I didn’t do that for m—–f—–s to be smiling in my face to say, ‘Oh, he’s cool.’ I did that from my heart, so if they do try to put a rape charge on me my sisters can say, ‘He ain’t ’bout that.’ Now if my sisters can’t say that, you won’t hear another m—–f—ing ‘Keep Ya Head Up’ out my mouth.” Chaos in the midst of unyielding love. There are many ways to describe Tupac Amaru Shakur. But those are definitely two of them.

Who is the best Black Marvel character?

Who is the best Black Marvel character?

1 Black Panther

16 Nick Fury

7 Monica Rambeau

10 Cloak

3 Luke Cage

14 Shuri

5 War Machine

12 Moon Girl

Storm 2

Bishop 15

Blade 8

Misty Knight 9

Miles Morales 4

Doctor Voodoo 13

Sam Wilson 6

Riri Williams 11

UPDATED: FEB. 12 | 7:45 A.M.

UPDATED: FEB. 12 | 7:45 A.M.

The Competition

(top, left to right) Black Panther, Storm, Luke Cage, Miles Morales, War Machine, Sam Wilson, Monica Rambeau, Blade, Misty Knight, Cloak, Riri Williams, Moon Girl, Doctor Voodoo, Shuri, Bishop, Nick Fury

The heavens have opened, the choirs are singing and clapping, and the parade of happy black and brown faces is making its way from the cookout to the movie theater. It’s practically the modern-day version of The Wiz’s “Everybody Rejoice” out there.

What’s the cause for all of this celebration? Well, after waiting for what’s felt like eons and obsessing over every new teaser, trailer and GIF we could find, the release of Marvel’s Black Panther is finally here.

In preparation for what could be the blackest and nerdiest moment in the history of blacks and nerds, we got to thinking in the particular way that nerds do. Among the pantheon of black comic book characters, who could beat who in a fight? Instead of deciding for ourselves, we’re going to let you, the fans, decide in our Who is the best Black Marvel character? bracket. For the sake of staying on theme with Black Panther, all 16 of the bracket’s entrants come from the Marvel Universe and were seeded using a system based on their popularity, fighting abilities and prevalence in both comic books and film/television.

The power is yours from now through Thursday. Cast your vote on each round of matchups to help decide the ultimate Marvel bracket winner.

Biographies Ordered by seed

Black Panther (1)

Height:
6’0”
Weight:
200 lbs.
First Marvel Appearance:
Fantastic Four Vol. 1 #52 (1996)
Powers:
Unarmed combat; vibranium-laced suit; catlike reflexes and senses
Backstory:
T’Challa, the king of the fictional African nation of Wakanda, is both Marvel’s first black superhero and the first American comic book hero of African descent. Black Panther, who predates the Black Panther Party, battled the Ku Klux Klan in 1975’s The Panther vs. the Klan.

Storm (2)

Height:
5’11”
Weight:
127 lbs.
First Marvel Appearance:
Giant-Size X-Men #1 (1975)
Powers:
Manipulation of weather; wind-assisted flight; skilled lock-breaking
Backstory:
Ororo Munroe, a descendant of African royalty and part-time leader of fabled group the X-Men, evolved from homeless thief to commander of weather and, through her marriage to Black Panther, the queen of Wakanda.

Luke Cage (3)

Height:
6’6”
Weight:
425 lbs.
First Marvel Appearance:
Hero for Hire #1 (1972)
Powers:
Superhuman strength, unbreakable skin, expedited healing
Backstory:
Born Carl Lucas in Harlem, New York, Cage was arrested after police found planted heroin in his apartment. While in prison, Cage was the test subject of a botched cell regeneration science experiment that led to him accidentally being given enhanced strength and nearly impenetrable skin.

Miles Morales (4)

Height:
5’8”
Weight:
160 lbs.
First Marvel Appearance:
Ultimate Fallout #4 (2011)
Powers:
Spider-senses; wall-crawling; super strength; web-shooters
Backstory:
Brooklyn-born Miles Morales, a 13-year-old child of African-American and Puerto Rican descent, assumed the mantle of Spider-Man in 2011 after being bitten by a radioactive spider and after the “death” of the original Spider-Man, Peter Parker.

War Machine (5)

Height:
6’1”
Weight:
210 lbs.
First Marvel Appearance:
Iron Man #118 (1979)
Powers:
Iron Man armor, cybernetic limbs, unparalleled piloting skills
Backstory:
James “Rhodey” Rhodes, a U.S. Marine, is a close friend of Tony Stark’s — otherwise known as Iron Man. While Stark recovers from alcoholism, Rhodes takes on the Iron Man name before eventually being given a suit of armor of his own, named the War Machine.

Sam Wilson (6)

Height:
6’2”
Weight:
240 lbs.
First Marvel Appearance:
Captain America #117 (1969)
Powers:
Telepathy; wing-assisted flight
Backstory:
Wilson, better known as the Falcon, regularly fought alongside Steve Rogers/Captain America to combat crime in New York City. Wilson took over the Captain America role on more than one occasion: once when Rogers was “killed” and the other when Rogers was aged to that of an elderly man.

Monica Rambeau (7)

Height:
5’10”
Weight:
130 lbs.
First Marvel Appearance:
Amazing Spider-Man Annual #16 (1982)
Powers:
Exceptional gun skills, electromagnetic transformation, light-speed flight
Backstory:
A former New Orleans law enforcement lieutenant, Rambeau took over the Captain Marvel (also a Brie Larson-helmed movie slated for 2019) mantle in 1982’s Amazing Spider-Man Annual #16, becoming the first woman and (only) African-American to use the Captain Marvel moniker.

Blade (8)

Height:
6’2”
Weight:
215 lbs.
First Marvel Appearance:
Tomb of Dracula Vol. 1 #10 (1973)
Powers:
Ageless; superhuman strength and stamina; martial arts expertise
Backstory:
The London-born Eric Brooks is the son of a woman who, during childbirth, was bitten by a vampire, thus passing on the abilities and strengths of vampires with few of the weaknesses. Blade turned to fighting other vampires and the undead after the death of his close friend, musician Jamal Afari.

Misty Knight (9)

Height:
5’9”
Weight:
136 lbs.
First Marvel Appearance:
Marvel Team-Up #1 (1972)
Powers:
Bionic arm; outstanding markswoman; skilled martial artist
Backstory:
Mercedes “Misty” Knight is a former member of the New York Police Department who, while trying to dispose of a bomb before it detonated, had her right arm amputated after the explosion. Through Tony Stark, Knight was given a new, bionic arm, which she used to fight crime with partner Colleen Wing.

Cloak (10)

Height:
5’9”
Weight:
155 lbs.
First Marvel Appearance:
Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man #64 (1982)
Powers:
Manipulation of darkness; teleportation; life force absorbance
Backstory:
Tyrone Johnson, a South Boston native who fled to New York City after the police-involved shooting death of a close friend, was, along with female friend Tandy Bowen, aka Dagger, injected with a synthetic drug, giving him the appearance of a shadowy darkness.

Riri Williams (11)

Height:
5’2”
Weight:
100 lbs.
First Marvel Appearance:
Invincible Iron Man Vol. 2 #7 (2016)
Powers:
Iron Man armor; advanced intelligence
Backstory:
Williams grew up in Chicago, where, at a young age, she was determined to be a supergenius, allowing her to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology at just 15 years old. In her spare time, Williams created her own version of Tony Stark’s Iron Man armor using material she could find. Eventually, Williams took over for Stark, becoming the Ironheart.

Moon Girl (12)

Height:
3’9”
Weight:
48 lbs.
First Marvel Appearance:
Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur #1 (2016)
Powers:
Advanced intelligence; able to swap consciousness with Devil Dinosaur; enhanced strength
Backstory:
Lunella Lafayette, a 9-year-old elementary school student from Manhattan, is given the disparaging nickname “Moon Girl” by her classmates after a debate with her schoolteacher. Lafayette shares a bond with Tyrannosaurus rex-like mutant Devil Dinosaur.

Doctor Voodoo (13)

Height:
6’0”
Weight:
220 lbs.
First Marvel Appearance:
Strange Tales #169 (1973)
Powers:
Control of fire; command over animals
Backstory:
Jericho Drumm, a Haitian who eventually immigrated to the United States, gained the powers of Doctor Voodoo, a powerful 17th-century lord, after the death of his brother, Daniel. A voodoo teacher fused the spirits of Jericho and Daniel, leading Doctor Voodoo to use his powers to help others, including Spider-Man and Black Panther.

Shuri (14)

Height:
5’9”
Weight:
150 lbs.
First Marvel Appearance:
Black Panther Vol. 4 #2 (2005)
Powers:
Vibranium claws; transmorphic; skin that turns to stone
Backstory:
The younger sister of T’Challa, Shuri is the heiress to the Wakandan throne. During 2009’s Black Panther Vol. 5, a trained fighter like her older brother, took over as the Black Panther while T’Challa recovered from critical injuries suffered in a plane crash.

Bishop (15)

Height:
6’6”
Weight:
275 lbs.
First Marvel Appearance:
Uncanny X-Men #282 (1991)
Powers:
Energy absorption; exceptional marksman; energy-fused blaster
Backstory:
Lucas Bishop was born in Brooklyn, New York, in a “alternate future timeline” where virtually all of the X-Men have been destroyed. Along with his sister, Shard, Bishop joins a ragtag group of mutants named the Xavier Security Enforcers (X.S.E), who work to create harmony between mutants and humans.

Nick Fury (16)

Height:
6’1”
Weight:
221 lbs.
First Marvel Appearance:
Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos #1 (1963)
Powers:
Decelerated aging; Special Forces training; black belt in taekwondo
Backstory:
The original character of Nicholas Joseph Fury was a white World War II hero and leader of superhero intelligence agency S.H.I.E.L.D., but comic book duo Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch turned him into a Samuel L. Jackson lookalike in 2002’s The Ultimates’ limited run.

Sweet 16 Voting Ends Today at 6 p.m. EST

Matchup 1/8 Black Panther vs. Nick Fury

The likely favorite going into this historic first matchup would likely be T’Challa, king of Wakanda and the hero known far and wide as the Black Panther. Because of his prestigious titles, he has access to more resources than anyone can properly measure as ruler of the wealthiest and most technologically advanced nation in the world. He just so happens to also have superhuman strength, speed and agility. Combining these with his superior intellect and money makes him a near-perfect superhero.

Not that T’Challa’s opponent this round should be taken lightly, though. Nick Fury may not be royalty, but he is the commander of an army all his own as the Director of S.H.I.E.L.D., a worldwide spy agency that protects the world from domestic, international and alien threats. Fury may not have the ability to run as fast as a car or jump from one skyscraper to the next, but he can likely find a soldier or two under his command who can and will gladly do it for him.

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Matchup 2/8 Storm vs. Bishop

This matchup pits two characters most commonly associated with X-Men titles against each other, as Storm faces Bishop.

Storm, aka Ororo Munroe, is considered by many to be a goddess. The child of an African priestess and an American journalist, Storm inherited an ability to control the weather, including the ability to wield lightning, bring down heavy rains and whip up winds to hurricane-level speeds. With the use of her own ingenuity and understanding of weather patterns, Storm has used these skills to become one of the most powerful members of any group she’s been a part of — X-Men or no.

While a hit from a quick bolt of lightning would be enough to leave most of Storm’s opponents incapacitated, if not worse, Bishop has a clear advantage: the ability to absorb and disseminate energy. Does that include lightning? We’ll have to wait and see.

It also doesn’t hurt that he was born 80 years in the future into a world where the X-Men are no more and most mutants live in concentration camps. His experiences in this postapocalyptic world, knowledge of warfare and ability to produce energy blasts could work in his favor as he battles his former teacher.

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Matchup 3/8 Luke Cage vs. Shuri

Despite what the rankings suggest, this matchup is extremely close on paper. Luke Cage is a household name after appearing in multiple Netflix’s Marvel television series, including his very own. It wasn’t hard in this day and age for fans to gravitate toward a hero who’s literally a bulletproof black man with super strength. He gives pretty much anyone a tough time in a fight because he’s basically a walking, talking tank. But his opponent in this round has a few tricks for him.

If you think T’Challa is something serious, wait until you find out about his sister, Shuri. Shuri was already just as capable as her brother as a fighter, technological genius and ruler (if not more so.) She even filled in as Black Panther for a brief period. But Shuri’s gotten a serious upgrade recently in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ run after returning from an alternate realm called the Djalia. She now has the ability to turn herself into stone and a giant flock of crows whenever she pleases. So she could potentially make herself as hard as stone and hit Luke with weapons made from one of the hardest substances on the planet AT THE SAME TIME.

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Matchup 4/8 Miles Morales vs. Doctor Voodoo

This bout brings science and mysticism to blows. Miles Morales, much like his predecessor, Peter Parker, developed superpowers after being bitten by a scientifically modified spider. He has the same powers as Parker, including super strength, the ability to stick to walls and that trusty “spider-sense” that warns him of danger. But as the new and improved Spider-Man, Morales also has a venom blast that can shock and paralyze opponents and the ability to camouflage himself into invisibility.

Doctor Voodoo, formerly known as Brother Voodoo, may have what it takes to give Miles a run for his money, though. Jericho Drumm can possibly equalize most of Miles’ abilities with his manipulation of smoke and fire to both hinder his vision and prevent him from getting close enough for a finishing blow. There’s also that whole spiritual possession thing he can do for an unpredictable X-factor.

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Matchup 5/8 War Machine vs. Moon Girl

War Machine got a lot of flak for basically being Tony Stark’s sidekick who only got his start with Iron Man’s glorified hand-me-downs. This isn’t untrue, but it’s not completely fair to forget that these “hand-me-downs” are composed of some of the most advanced and capable weapons on the planet created by one of the world’s most genius geniuses. In other words, James “Rhodey” Rhodes is a walking arsenal with enough artillery to take out a medium-sized army on his own. Only questions are (1) Is he willing to use all firepower against a preteen? and (2) Will they work against a dinosaur?

These are questions Lunella Lafayette, aka Moon Girl, and her partner Devil Dinosaur are going to find the answers to in this matchup. While War Machine utilizes technology from one of the greatest minds the world has ever known, Lunella owns one of the greatest minds the world has ever known and a dinosaur she can move that mind into thanks to her inhuman DNA. Brawn, meet a highly superior intellect. Brain, meet a prehistoric killing machine.

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Matchup 6/8 Sam Wilson vs. Riri Williams

This matchup is likely to be the first time many readers are introduced to Riri Williams, the heir apparent to Tony Stark’s Iron Man technology after Rhodey’s passing and Tony being taken out of the picture for a while. Williams may be new to her role in the world of superheroes, but she’s definitely capable of holding her own.

Having a suit of armor is one thing. But having the genius-level intellect to use it and a built-in artificial intelligence based on Tony Stark himself could be just enough to give her an edge.

On the other hand, Sam Wilson is a seasoned veteran in the ways of superheroes and even spent a couple of years serving as the Captain America while Steve Rogers was out of commission. This battle is likely to take place in the sky, as both have no problem with flight, which could be costly for Riri given Sam’s ability to mentally connect with birds. The numbers could stack up against her in a matter of minutes if she isn’t careful.

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Matchup 7/8 Monica Rambeau vs. Cloak

This may be the battle we don’t deserve this soon. But we’re not going to complain because the idea of someone who can manipulate light and energy, Monica Rambeau, fighting someone who can control darkness, Cloak, is always welcome.

Monica Rambeau is a [constantly slept-on] hero who has a list of abilities longer than the Celtics’ win streak to start the 2017-18 season. She’s got your superhero basics like flight and super speed, but she also comes with the unique abilities to absorb, duplicate and fire energy and to make herself both invisible and intangible. Good luck trying to hit something you can’t see or, you know, hit.

Part of Monica’s abilities are a result of her connections to an alternate universe, which may work in the favor of her opponent, Cloak, who also gets his powers from a similar circumstance. Because of his connection to the Dark Dimension, Cloak can teleport, make himself intangible and completely flood his environment with darkness. Honestly, this matchup could end up in a stalemate and it would be entirely understandable.

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Matchup 8/8 Blade vs. Misty Knight

We have Ms. Mercedes “Misty” Knight versus the daywalker. One is a human-vampire hybrid who seemingly has the best assets from both worlds: super strength, an increased healing factor and the ability to live freely in the sunlight. The other is a skilled detective with a bionic arm.

Both are trained martial artists with the ability to land devastating blows because of their enhancements, whether they be vampiric or cybernetic. Comic book fans are more than likely familiar with Blade’s combat work (in other words, his tendency to hit professional wrestling moves and bring on Mortal Kombat fatalities with ease). But they may be surprised to know that Misty Knight is honestly just as capable as fan favorites like Black Widow, if not more so, when it comes to hand-to-hand combat and the use of weaponry.

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Come back tomorrow to vote in the Quarterfinals.

Come back to tomorrow to see Sweet 16 results

Kevin Durant: A letter to my neighborhood The NBA Finals MVP reflects on growing up, giving back and the pleasures of going home

I hail from Seat Pleasant, Maryland, a predominantly African-American town of about 5,000 people just east of Washington, D.C., that certainly has had its share of struggles. If I could talk to myself when I was a young man growing up there, I would say that having tunnel vision when you’re passionate about something is a gift and a curse. While I knew how bad my surroundings were, and how tough it is to make it out, I had a laser focus on achieving what was necessary to leave my community. I didn’t want to abandon my hometown, but there was always something going on: police brutality, poverty, crime. In order to get out of this mess, I ultimately had to turn a blind eye to what was going on. I had to ignore it. And I felt like basketball was the only way I could get out of that wreckage.

Looking back at my childhood, I wish I would have just opened my eyes. I lived in a 95 percent black neighborhood with 80 percent of us living in poverty. But I didn’t really have the maturity or the voice to get involved back then. Today, I realize that my achievements are rare for somebody from my neighborhood. Today, I know that I can give a lot of hope to people who feel like they don’t have a way out. While I have regrets that I didn’t realize this earlier, today I can make amends to my community by providing hope and joy to people who come from where I come from and that struggle the way I struggled. Now I am aware of the problems.

When we’re given the gift of a great environment where people care for us and support us, it is our duty to give it back. We need to invest in our own communities. Invest in our kids.

I am in an unusual place—I feel like I’m living two lives, one as an NBA player and another as a black man from an impoverished neighborhood.

After winning an NBA championship, I was in the optimal position to help inspire my hometown. I brought the trophy back last August and saw that the people in my neighborhood were happy about it. It meant everything to me that the people of Seat Pleasant showed up for my championship parade, especially because it was on a weekday in the middle of the day. Usually, people have to work and go provide for their families. I thought about my mom’s struggle and how she could have never shown up to that celebration back in the day. Seeing my community’s reaction to my success proves that if we’re put in good positions by being given the necessary help and resources, we can flourish.

There’s just so many loving, caring and amazing people in Seat Pleasant. But it’s difficult to sustain the foundation of happiness in our souls when our surroundings bring out ugliness. When we’re given the gift of a great environment where people care for us and support us, it is our duty to give it back. We need to invest in our own communities. Invest in our kids. I believe communities will blossom and our country as a whole will be better because of it.

There are many great people who are trying to fight their way out of the struggle. For people like me who come from that struggle, it’s relatively easy to give money back or say how much we care. It’s a tough job, however, for us to really put our feet on the ground and put our imprint on those communities. But it is not an unattainable ideal.

Sadly, back home there is little progress. People are stuck in the same cycle every day, surviving minute by minute. I have been blessed to see the other side. Once given financial freedom, the world opens up. Your eyes open up. Every community needs resources, and those resources give people opportunities to do things they are passionate about and get their minds focused in the right direction. It has a trickle-down effect: a better household, a better community and a better future for our kids.

If I could give some advice to the youth of Seat Pleasant, it would be to find something that you love and do it as if your life depends on it. It sounds cliché, but it’s really that simple. If you put your mind to it, have faith and seek support, all with the foundation of a strong work ethic, the world will open for you. And once the world is open for you, then the conversations with close friends and family about how we can effect further progress in our communities will come from your own fulfillment, joy and freedom. So try to find your passion every day. See what the world has for you.

Love,

Kevin Durant from Seat Pleasant

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine’s Feb. 5 State of the Black Athlete Issue. Subscribe today!

Sundance previews ‘Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and  The Notorious B.I.G.’  Will it have the same vibe as FX’s award-winning ‘People v. O.J. Simpson’?

PARK CITY, UTAH: Before the start of the panel about Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and The Notorious B.I.G — a limited series coming to USA Networks on February 27, a DJ blasted tracks that made both of the legendary rappers household names. More than twenty years after the genre-lifting rappers were killed, people are still celebrating, dancing and rapping along to the music that soundtracked much of the 1990s. “We get to see what we’ve rarely gotten to see, which is the friendship between biggie and Tupac,” said director and executive producer Anthony Hemingway, who shared Emmy victories for The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. Also on the panel was showrunner Kyle Long, co-producer / music supervisor Lyah Leflore, Josh Duhamel (L.A. to Vegas, Call of Duty WWII) Marcc Rose (Tupac) and Wavyy Jonez (Big).

Before the start of the conversation, guests viewed an amazing never-before-seen trailer. “We get to see them from a young age,” said Hemingway. “We deal with Biggie before he was a celebrity. We get to learn who they were as artists, and get to see their pain.” Actor Duhamel said that his series is done very in the vein of People v. OJ. While in college, he rushed home daily to watch the real-life courtroom drama and because of that, he thought he knew everything about OJ — but was was blown away by the FX because he realized how much he didn’t know. “Even those who grew up on the rappers’ music,” says Duhamel, “and were around during the times of their deaths, will be astounded at all that they discover [in this series].”

John Legend at Sundance: ‘We need to humanize the young people’ ‘Even when they make mistakes,’ he says of the new film, ‘Monster,’ ‘they’re worthy of our grace.’

PARK CITY, UTAH — At a Saturday afternoon panel discussion, Blackhouse Foundation leader Brickson Diamond touted the record 39 black projects being featured at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Behind him, John Legend, Tonya Lewis Lee and moderator Jason George (Grey’s Anatomy; chair of SAG-AFTRA’s Diversity Advisory Committee) applauded along with the standing-room-only crowd — which included black-ish creator and Girls Trip co-writer Kenya Barris. This was a moment. Never have so many black projects been a part of the film festival.

This specific panel was set to discuss the hotly anticipated film Monster. Based on Walter Dean Myers’ award-winning novel of the same name, the film is about a creatively gifted black teen who is accused of a crime he says he did not commit — and who endures an unrelenting criminal justice system. Lewis Lee and Nikki Silver produced. “We were looking for partners who were invested in social justice issues. … [That] led us to John Legend,” Lewis Lee said of the Grammy-, Tony- and Oscar-winning Legend.

Legend, an executive producer of Monster, said from the stage that the project is in line with a mission close to his heart. “Once I read the script, I was on the edge of my seat,” he said. “I was super into what was happening on the page. I spend a lot of time thinking about mass incarceration, and how we end mass incarceration, in America. We’re the only country in the world that puts our kids in solitary confinement. … We need to humanize the young people. We need to … even when they make mistakes, they’re worthy of our grace, our consideration and our love. We failed to protect them from trauma. This film is about … is a kid allowed to make mistakes? Is a kid allowed to be a kid?

Monster’s ensemble cast includes Kelvin Harrison Jr. (The Birth of A Nation), Academy Award winner Jennifer Hudson (Dreamgirls), John David Washington (Ballers), Jeffrey Wright (The Hunger Games: Mockingjay), Jennifer Ehle (Zero Dark Thirty), A$AP Rocky (Dope), Nas (The Get Down) and Tim Blake Nelson (Fantastic Four). Other panelists included director Anthony Mandler, writer Cole Wiley, Silver, Mike Jackson, Aaron L. Gilbert and Kelvin Harrison Jr., the film’s star.

What if the Muhammad Ali we knew had never existed? From his brief kinship with Malcolm X to the ‘Thrilla In Manila,’ five alternative universes for Ali — and the world

From Michelle Obama, Dwyane Wade and Betty White to Steve Harvey, Jan. 17 offers an embarrassment of riches for celebrity birthday followers. One name in particular, however, towers above the others: Muhammad Ali. The self-proclaimed and globally anointed “Greatest” would have been 76 today. To say Muhammad Ali is an inspiration for Team Undefeated is an understatement.

Loved and feared, Ali was captivating and personable. Flawed and fearless. An unparalleled showman and a ruthless instigator. There are few stones left to turn over on Ali, a man whose life has been under the microscope since he burst onto the scene at the 1960 Olympics — the Summer Games that also introduced Oscar Robertson and Wilma Rudolph to the world. How Ali’s life played out is American scripture. But what if there’s an alternative universe in which certain things panned out differently? In some ways, thankfully, we’ll never know. But in others? Follow along …

What if young Cassius Clay’s bike had never been stolen?

If anyone represented the embodiment of the phrase “When life hands you lemons, make lemonade,” it’s Ali. This story has been told a million times, but it’s always fascinating because of the butterfly effect. A 12-year-old Cassius Clay sat on the steps of the Columbia Auditorium in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. He was angry and sobbing. Joe Martin approached young Clay. “If I find the guy who took my bike,” Clay told Martin, “I’m gonna whup him.” Martin ran a boxing gym and told the adolescent if he was going to fight, he’d better learn how to fight. Until that point, Clay had never given a thought to boxing.

The rest, as they say, is history. If his bike is never stolen, who’s to say he doesn’t go through life as a normal kid who doesn’t even care about boxing outside of the occasional fight? And what if that same kid one day gets drafted into the Vietnam War — a battle Cassius Clay from Kentucky would have had to fight because he wasn’t a heavyweight champion of the world with religious beliefs that forbade it? It’s wild how life can change in the blink of an eye. We’ll just leave it with this: Theft is a crime and should be treated as such. But bless the soul of the person who decided to steal this kid’s bike. That’s one time when doing bad actually did a world of good.

What if Malcolm X and Ali never had their falling-out?

In order to survive, as a great man once said, we all have to live with regrets. One regret for Ali was his all-too-brief bond with Malcolm X, a fellow product of the Muslim teachings of Elijah Muhammad. X fell out of favor with the teacher, and Ali chose to follow Muhammad’s lead. At the time of X’s assassination in February 1965, the two were not on speaking terms. Never apologizing to Malcolm haunted Ali for the rest of his life. “Turning my back on Malcolm was one of the mistakes that I regret most in my life,” he wrote in his 2004 autobiography The Soul of a Butterfly: Reflections on Life’s Journey. “I wish I’d been able to tell Malcolm I was sorry, that he was right about so many things. … I might never be a Muslim if it hadn’t been for Malcolm. If I could go back and do it over again, I would never have turned my back on him.” For a fascinating and detailed breakdown of their life and times, check out Johnny Smith and Randy Roberts’ Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X.

What if Ali didn’t sacrifice the prime of his career by protesting the Vietnam War?

The better question is, what if the U.S. never involved itself in Vietnam? Whatever the case, Ali’s exile turned him into a larger-than-life figure. At one point in American history, world heavyweight champion was the most coveted title in all of sports. Here was Ali: a young, handsome, outspoken black man who not only dismantled opponents in the ring but also took on America’s ugliest parts in a verbal fashion that has not been seen or heard from an athlete since. And he did all of this while looking the federal government square in the eye, essentially saying, “Come and get me.” Although legions of critics took a carousel-like approach to demeaning him, Ali’s popularity had skyrocketed by the end of 1967. His stated reason for objecting, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong,” is tattooed in the fabric of American race relations. Ali’s most controversial fight, for his beliefs and for our dignity, reverberated worldwide. It cost him the years of 1967-70, when he would’ve been between the ages of 25 and 28 — a fighter’s peak years. As transcendent as his career was, even four decades after his final fight, we’re left to wonder how great it could have been if Prime Ali hadn’t been entangled with the U.S. government at that same time. Which bleeds into the next alternative universe …

What if Ali called it quits after the third Frazier fight?

Maybe it was a subconscious thing, for Ali to make up for lost time in the ring as he continued to fight in his later years. Maybe it was financial. Maybe it was a combination of both. Whatever the reason, the cold reality is that his last iconic moment in the ring was 1975’s “Thrilla In Manila,” the end of the trilogy with Joe Frazier. The fights — Frazier handed Ali his first career loss shortly after he returned to boxing in 1971, and Ali won the 1974 rematch — define perhaps the greatest rivalry in sports history, with an extremely brutal and even more bitter feud spurred largely by Ali’s vicious and grossly disrespectful racial taunts toward Frazier. Their final clash proved a potluck of haymakers, blood and near-death premonitions. “It was next to death,” Ali said after the fight — a contest he actually won. “When a fight as hard as this one gets to the 14th round, you feel like dying. You feel like quitting. You want to throw up.” Frazier was never the same after that fight.

And it took decades for Ali and Frazier to quash their beef. By the time Ali called it quits in December 1981, Ali was a beaten and battered man and his Parkinson’s disease was imminent. Those closest to Ali’s former cornerman and doctor, Ferdie Pacheco ( who died in November 2017), say he lived with remorse for not having saved Ali from himself. He begged the boxer to quit after the third Frazier fight. Studies from Arizona State scientists discovered Ali’s speech slowed down 26 percent between the ages of 26 and 39 and he was visibly slurring his speech in 1978 — three years after the final battle with Frazier.

Would calling it a career after the Thrilla In Manila have saved Ali future medical concerns? Who knows. A trilogy with Ken Norton — one of the hardest punchers of all time, who broke Ali’s jaw in their first match and whom some feel Ali lost all three fights to — came with its own undeniable punishment. After his 1977 fight with power puncher Earnie Shavers, who landed a massive 266 punches, Ali’s speech reportedly slowed 16 percent from prefight calculations. “Ali did damage to himself, and he knew it and kept boxing too long,” says Jonathan Eig, author of last year’s Ali: Life, “but he didn’t have the information we now have about CTE [chronic traumatic encephalopathy].”

What if Parkinson’s had never robbed Ali of his most powerful punch — his voice?

America tried to emasculate the greats / Murder Malcolm, gave Cassius the shakes

— Jay-Z, “F.U.T.W.” (2013)

Ali’s decision to boycott the Vietnam War was supported by many black athletes and large pockets of the black community, but Ali was also media-blitzed from all corners. A May 2, 1967, New York Times editorial theorized that the support Ali was hoping to generate would never develop. The late political reporter and columnist Tom Wicker called Ali “… this strange, pathetic Negro boxer superbly gifted in body, painfully warped in spirit.” Less than a week later, the harsh attack on Ali’s character was rebuked by Boston University professor Theodore Brameld who said, “… because, with his warped spirit, he has the courage and integrity to refuse to participate in a war that millions of us with weaker courage and weaker integrity, and certainly far less to lose, continue to tolerate against our own consciences?”

Much like Martin Luther King, Ali’s legacy, in many ways, has been sanitized. Ali only became a truly lovable figure (to some) once he lost his ability to speak. When he no longer could use his actual voice to deliver knockouts, he was no longer a threat (again, to some) to the status quo. Ali’s political beliefs had always come under fire from both sides of the aisle. But the reality is that Americans 35 and under have no recollection of the charismatic ball of energy that earned him global acclaim and domestic scrutiny. Some prefer this image of the legendary boxer. Ali, the heavyweight champion who continued to vibrantly and verbally shake up the world into his latter decades on earth, is a bracing thought. Seeing Muhammad Ali minimized and marginalized by a handful of quotes and yearly tributes that fail to paint the full features of the man — that is beyond scary.

Behind the scenes of ‘Black Lightning’ reveals the intersection of race, social justice and culture Jefferson Pierce just might be DC Comics’ most complex character yet, and here’s why

The CW’s newest comic-book-turned-TV-series Black Lightning is the first African-American DC superhero to have his own stand-alone comic title and premieres Jan. 16 — the day after Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

The series follows Jefferson Pierce (played by Cress Williams), a retired superhero who is forced to return as Black Lightning after nine years when the rise of the local gang, The One Hundred, threatens his family and leads to increased crime and corruption in the community. The gang leader is Tobias Whale, played by Los Angeles rapper Marvin “Krondon” Jones III.

Jones best describes his villainous character as a mix between the former Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who put the city through a corruption scandal so vast that it accelerated Detroit into bankruptcy, and Detroit drug kingpin Big Meech, who made an estimated $270 million in sales before his 30-year prison sentence.

Unlike other superhero shows, Black Lightning isn’t battling two-headed monsters and aliens, but the realistic and metaphorical villains who exist in the modern world — gangs, gun violence, drugs, sex trafficking, corrupt politicians, racism and racial profiling.

Black Lightning reopens the dialogue about the best approach to the fight for justice — mirroring King’s stance of nonviolent protest versus Malcolm X’s defense of justice achieved “by any means necessary.”

On one hand, Jefferson is a community hero as the principal of a charter high school that was a safe haven from violence and gangbangers. In the comic book, he is one of the athletes who raised a fist during the 1968 Olympics during the national anthem. But on the other hand, as Black Lighting, he is the vigilante whom the community rallies behind after they’ve lost faith in an ineffective law enforcement and justice system.

The Undefeated visited the set of Black Lightning in Atlanta and spoke with executive producer Salim Akil and several members of the main cast to talk about the show’s deeper meaning and impact they hope to spark in viewers.


Tracey Bonner as LaWanda and Cress Williams as Jefferson Pierce

Richard Ducree/The CW

Why is it important to have a black superhero on TV fighting real-life issues happening in today’s world?

Cress Williams (Black Lightning/Jefferson Pierce): It’s definitely and desperately important to have everyone represented because superheroes are also role models [and we as a whole] need to learn more about different cultures and races. In order for this genre of superheroes to thrive, it has to diversify and evolve by exploring how it would be if we lived in a world where superheroes existed. How would they help with real-life problems and what challenges they face? It’s a way to see what’s really going on in the world and generate discussions around it.

Christine Adams (Lynn Stewart, Pierce’s ex-wife): These are stories that need to be told from the black perspective. But that doesn’t mean it’s only for the black audience; it’s for everyone, because the issues we address are coming straight out of today’s newspapers. Many times when we read stories on gun violence and gangs, we only see them as bad people. No one is just a bad person. People are complex, and it’s a series of events that leads them to the things they do. We easily look at people from a distance and make a judgment before really learning what shaped them to who they are today.

Damon Gupton (Inspector Henderson): It’s been time. We’re such an important fabric of popular culture that it only makes sense that we have a black superhero. As a child, I was a fan of Superman and X-Men, but if I had seen a superhero that looked like an uncle and was commenting on something that I had seen down the block from me, I’d feel like I’d have a voice and be empowered.

We see different approaches to fighting for change on the show. From Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and other approaches. What are the reasons behind your characters’ approaches?

Salim Akil (executive producer): It’s a debate that keeps going on inside of me, especially now that I have younger boys. I understand extreme violence, what a gunshot or a dead person on the street looks like, from my own life and friends’, so I know what violence is. It never leaves anyone … but in a certain way it leads to freedom. Nobody ever fought for freedom without adapting.

Williams: When Jefferson was younger, he flirted with the idea of just taking the Malcolm X way until his wife gave him the ultimatum after she couldn’t take another night of him putting his life on the line. So he went the Martin Luther King route for nine years as a school principal, not using his powers until he realized that although the school was thriving, everything around it wasn’t [and eventually the school would become affected too].

Yes, education, positivity and nonviolence need to be paramount, but sometimes you just gotta mess some things up, and Jefferson begins to realize that it takes both.

Nafessa Williams (Anissa Pierce): Anissa fights the Malcolm X fight all the way even before she has powers and becomes Thunder. Malcolm X is one of her heroes, which creates an ongoing back-and-forth with she and her dad [who wants to protect her from the dangers of taking that route]. [As Black Lighting inspires hope to the community], she sparks strength and boldness, knowing what your purpose is and literally walking in it every day.

Gupton: Henderson has the unfortunate position of being a law enforcer at a time when people are looking for results at seeing things get better. He’s telling the community that he’s trying, but they don’t believe him, so they call him names like ‘Uncle Tom’ or ‘Oreo.’ It puts him in a rock and a hard place because he truly believes he can make a difference in the community.

It’s got to mean something to him that the community has a sense of pride in Black Lightning as the guy who can fix their problems. Maybe a little bit of him wants that, or just a thank you, from time to time.

How will viewers relate to Lynn Stewart in not wanting her family to put themselves in danger?

Adams: It’s a push and pull for Lynn, which will be a very relatable concept for viewers. It’s hard when your children aspire to do good in the world, like serve in the military, but ultimately it is endangering their own lives. I’m sure for Lynn, she was hoping her loved ones would have gone about it as teachers or social activists but not superheroes.

How do you personally relate to these characters?

Akil: I’m definitely using a lot of my own life experiences. Jefferson and Tobias are both a part of me and the people I grew up with in Richmond [California]. My mom went to prison a few times and I was on my own for a bit, but one of the things she would always tell me is: ‘If I ever see you out here selling drugs, I will kill you.’

Young African-American men and women are self-motivated, so since my father wasn’t around and all of the men I knew were hustlers, I’d watch Johnny Carson and The Honeymooners and try to figure out what that world was. Then I turned to Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali. I happened to pick those guys, but some of my friends picked gangsters.

Marvin Krondon Jones III (Tobias Whale): Life prepares us for every role, no matter what the character is calling for. If you are in tune with yourself and life, the work is there. While preparing for this role, it slowly revealed itself to me that Tobias was in me or I was in Tobias, so I had to do a lot of soul-searching.

As a gold medalist of the 1968 Olympics, Jefferson Pierce appears to be living a very modest life. Why didn’t he capitalize on fame like other athletes?

Akil: I asked [Black Lightning comic book creator] Tony Isabella and he told me how [he made] Jefferson one of the athletes who bowed his head and raised a black-gloved fist during the national anthem at the 1968 Summer Games in Mexico City, just as real-life African-American Olympic sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos did then. [If you remember what happened back then, many Americans were outraged from what Tommie and Carlos did. They received death threats and were suspended from the U.S. team, but neither apologized for it, nor ever felt the need to.] Like them, Jefferson got hit with that. We may explore that in the series later down the line.

Gun violence is a common theme in most comic-book-turned-TV-series. How is Black Lightning addressing this issue differently?

Akil: Young people are being shot, and people are going into churches, schools and movie theaters killing people. Gun violence in this country is real, and I didn’t want to make it feel good when viewers watched it on the show. I didn’t want shootings of just aliens or faceless folks but people that viewers would become familiar with and begin to care about. It’s one thing to read it [in the comic book], but it’s another to watch it because it affects you in a different way [for both the cast and viewers]. And that’s what I wanted.

Early in the series, Jefferson is pulled over by a white cop for essentially being a black man. Why was it important for you to have this scene in the series?

Akil: A lot of my black police officer friends get pulled over by the police. Before they can say that they are officers too, they have to be black first and hope that the person coming to the window is not affected with the disease of racism to the point that they pull the trigger before asking questions.

What’s your thought process in playing a black police officer in a time when law enforcement doesn’t have the best stigma?

Gupton: It’s the first time in my life where I had to think of what a black law enforcer has to be feeling and thinking when they are confronted with yet another scene of something atrocious that has happened. What is going on in their mind and heart knowing that they probably got into the force wanting to protect and serve the things that are now on fire, but still have to represent this beast. Are they protecting people who are corrupt, or are they corrupt themselves? Obviously, not my character, but what’s their psyche like as a black law enforcement officer at a time where law enforcement is intriguing, to say the least.

With a combination of music from Kendrick Lamar and your son [Yasin or Nasir], why is music such a strong component in Black Lightning?

Akil: You can’t separate us [black people] from music. It got us through slavery, Jim Crow laws, [racism and inequality]. Music has always been a part of who we are as people and as a culture and inherently gave America its most original music. People get upset when I say this, but we are the American dream. James Brown and Miles Davis aren’t black music. They’re so much bigger than that. It originated in America, so it’s American music. It’s about how you want to characterize it, and I characterize it as a gift to America. It’s the most American thing that we have, so we need to take ownership of that.

In the story of heroism, everyone doesn’t have superpowers but everyone plays a part. What is your advice to the average Jane and Joe who want to be part of the fight in making the world a better place?

China Anne McClain (daughter Jennifer Pierce): There’s always something that you in your own uniqueness can bring to the world. Find what that is and go for it. Don’t take no for an answer. Whatever is it that you want to tackle, do it because you can.

James Remar (Peter Gambi, Jefferson’s father figure, mentor and tailor): Stick by your truth and be guided by love. When we start to bend our personal truth and the truth out of mouths, that’s when we start to get into trouble.

Jones: Everyone has the power to fight for justice and change, whether you are a single parent, student, police officer or even the bad guy. What we’re seeing in the series is that everyone has a bit of superhero in them. It’s a choice.

Gupton: People can vote, volunteer, teach and connect. I consider those superpowers. My mom is a lawyer, and I see that as her superpower. Hopefully, we have the power to bring together the theme of family, community and togetherness to connect with this series.

Adams: Heroism doesn’t always get the thanks that it should. We have teachers who are working at schools with not a lot of funding and using their own [low] wages to buy supplies. And even the people who ran into strangers’ homes to help them get out during the recent California fires. These are the unsung heroes.

Meet the cast of the CW’s Black Lightning

‘The Chi’ premieres and Lena Waite talks about what makes it different from every other show set in Chicago Television Critics Diary: An early victory lap for the Showtime drama set on the South Side

PASADENA, California — The Chi, the new Showtime drama set on the South Side of Chicago, finally makes its television debut tonight at 10.

It doesn’t really do it justice to call The Chi a crime drama, although that’s what it is. It’s a thoughtful story of interlocking family traumas that begins with the murder of one Chicago boy and quickly leads to another.

The pilot, which was shot by Dope director Rick Famuyiwa, has been available to stream for a couple of weeks now. On Saturday, executive producer Lena Waithe joined the cast and co-executive producer Common for a triumphant panel at the Television Critics Association press tour.

Waithe made history a few months ago when she became the first black woman to win an Emmy for comedy writing for a deeply personal coming-out story she penned as an episode of Master of None. Showtime president David Nevins, who spoke Saturday on a separate panel, made sure to mention that the network had seen promise in Waithe long before then. Showtime purchased Waithe’s script for The Chi in June 2015.

“She brought in a script that felt like a really interesting inverse to the crime shows that are set in Chicago where the characters that are generally the guest stars, the sort of objects of the investigation, were the subjects of this show,” Nevins said. “And she had really interesting things to say about them. And there were a lot of them, but they had distinctiveness. Each character, sort of, had their own moment.”

This was intentional on Waithe’s part, and she confirmed during the Chi panel that she starts by writing characters first because she wants to craft multifaceted human beings who inspire compassion and curiosity. And she’s especially interested in providing that sort of consideration for characters who are black.

“My whole house looked like True Detective when I was figuring out the pilot because I was like trying to figure out when this person would meet this person, when this person comes to this and all these things would happen,” Waithe said. “And then I began writing. So that way I had a road map of how to get to where I needed to go, and I think just based on the reactions I’ve gotten from the pilot, I’m really grateful because it means all the work was not in vain.”

The story of The Chi is set off by a magnetic cast, from The Wire’s Sonja Sohn to Mudbound star Jason Mitchell, to Sleight leading man Jacob Latimore, who’s finally in a role that takes full advantage of the playful, youthful moxie he brings to the screen. But I was most impressed by The Chi’s corps of child actors, led by Alex Hibbert, who played Little in Moonlight.

The Chi asks a lot of the children in it. These characters bear witness to horrific tragedies that they barely have the skills to process. Of course, it’s not just the child actors of The Chi who have taken on this task. I found myself astonished at the depth of what’s been asked of the cast of Stranger Things, another show that features kids giving complex emotional performances in service to stories that are really for adults.

“My whole house looked like True Detective when I was figuring out the pilot.”

But The Chi provides something special in its reflection of black childhood, i.e., how often it’s cut short and how children are expected to mature quickly for the sake of their own safety. When black children are allowed to be too innocent or naive about the realities of the world, it can cost them their lives, be it Tamir Rice or Emmett Till, the son of Chicago whose casket is on display in the Blacksonian.

Waithe manages to expertly balance the teeter-totter of black youth. She incorporates the horrors that children witness and also the wonderful ordinariness of age-appropriate problems, like deciding to try out for the school musical because a girl you like is doing it. She lets us see the innocence that’s only a part-time reality for the kids of The Chi, which makes the harsher realities of their lives that much more devastating.

“For me, growing up in Chicago, I talked a lot like these kids talk on the show. I was cursing like a sailor at 8 and 9, but it’s because I was ear hustling my family,” Waithe said. “I grew up in a house with a lot of women in the house who cursed like sailors, and I was trying to be like them. … You hear about things you shouldn’t hear about. My father, who is deceased now, he suffered from a lot of substance abuse and things like that that my family couldn’t necessarily keep me away from as much. So there were things that I knew about, that I heard, and I saw probably a little bit too young.

“­­But what it did was, it did grow me up a little bit. And I think what it does is it definitely impacts the way I write children, particularly black children, particularly children who are on the South Side of Chicago, because I just know that they’re these little adults. … That, to me, was really interesting to show, is that gut innocence, but also the maturity that kids have in inner cities that they sort of are forced to have.”

I asked if it was possible to protect young actors like Hibbert, who is 12, so as to maintain some level of innocence in real life separate from what they’re asked to recreate on screen. The answer was complicated.

“It’s not far from what I’ve seen,” Hibbert said. “To piggyback off what [Waithe] says, we hear from our family, and they curse. And a lot of the kids that we hear from, not just in our grade level but in higher grade levels, we hear off of them.”

There just wasn’t that much space between the screen and real life, not just for Hibbert but also for Mitchell, 31. It’s easy to think of actors as enjoying privileged lives. The cast of The Chi reminds us that’s not always the case, that there’s real pain that informs a show like The Chi, and that provides the essence of what makes it so compelling.

It’s also what makes it stand out from a sea of copy-and-paste broadcast dramas about Chicago.

“I grew up in a fairly violent environment,” Mitchell said. “I’m from New Orleans, Louisiana, and I went to the top four worst schools in the nation. … It was imperative to be able to be tough and still have to be happy. It’s hard to be a kid when you’re in this really grown-up environment, you know, when you are pressed to bring some sort of money home or, you know, you never really know these people’s story.

“So it’s good to see this TV show. It’s good to soak this in and see, you know, this sort of ecosystem and this domino effect that it has to open up a child’s eyes so early because, I mean, in Chicago if you make it to 21, they’re considered an OG, which is, like, an original gangster. And to think that you’re an original at 21? Like, you can’t even rent a car yet.”

‘The Rape of Recy Taylor’ explores the little-known terror campaign against black women Just as black men were lynched, black women faced systemic sexual violence under Jim Crow

For Southern black women, the era of separate but equal was also a decades-long reign of white sexual terror. If Southern trees bore strange fruit, the homes and streets they shaded contained secrets that until recently have largely been swept over and ignored.

The Rape of Recy Taylor, a documentary that opens in New York theaters Friday, concentrates some much-needed sunlight on this period of American history and the women who lived through it. Directed by Nancy Buirski, the woman behind both the narrative film Loving and the documentary The Loving Story, The Rape of Recy Taylor brings attention to a little-discussed but common reality for black women in the Jim Crow South: racially motivated rape by white men.

Taylor lived in the small town of Abbeville, Alabama. In 1944, when she was 24, Taylor was walking home from church when she was kidnapped, blindfolded and raped at gunpoint by six white men. Forced to beg for her life, Taylor promised to stay silent so she could go home to her husband and 9-month-old daughter.

But Taylor wasn’t silent. Left on the side of a dark country road, Taylor walked home and told her family about what happened. Rosa Parks, who began her career in civil rights as an anti-rape activist, came to Abbeville to agitate for the prosecution of Taylor’s attackers. For their troubles, Taylor’s home was firebombed, forcing her and her family to move in with relatives. When the family turned to the police, they found no refuge. Rather than pursuing justice, Abbeville’s sheriff circled the home of Taylor’s relatives, eventually stopping to drag Parks out and threaten her with jail if she did not leave town.

It’s a horrifying account, made worse by two startling facts:

1) Taylor’s rape was not an exceptional occurrence. It was part of a continuous campaign of terror that was just as much a threat to women as lynching was to black men.

2) The history of black women as victims of white terror has largely been ignored, silenced and minimized, even as their quest for safety fueled their pursuit of civil rights as far back as the 1890s.

What happened to Taylor and countless other black women and the obscurity of their story within the broader narrative of American history is emblematic of the way black women’s trauma is repeatedly given short shrift even today. The absence of black women from the spotlight of #MeToo has historical roots that predate Taylor’s rape. Taylor’s story isn’t just about her. It’s about thousands of women just like her whose stories we may never know, who were victimized and brutalized without recognition or recompense for their injuries.

A campaign of terror

Buirski’s documentary focuses on Taylor’s life and the devastation that followed her attack: Her marriage fell apart, she was unable to have more children and her only child died in her early 20s in a car crash. The book that inspired the film is far more expansive and devastating. Historian Danielle McGuire spent a decade researching At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance — a New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power. She writes of more than 40 separate cases but insists there are far more stories that went untold, calling her work “the tiniest tip of the iceberg.”

“Between 1940 and 1965,” McGuire wrote, “only 10 white men were convicted of raping black women or girls in Mississippi despite the fact that it happened regularly.” It was rare for white men to be arrested for attacking black women, and even less likely for all-white grand juries to indict them. Convictions were even rarer.

“These are not just bad apples,” McGuire told me during a recent interview. “This is part of a systemic approach to dehumanizing black women and girls.”

In one chapter, McGuire detailed an attack against Melba Pattillo, a 12-year-old Arkansas girl. A white man chased her into the woods, tried to pull off her underwear and rape her, and yelled, “I’ll show you n—-s the Supreme Court can’t run my life.” The attack happened on May 17, 1954, the afternoon the Supreme Court announced its decision in Brown v. Board of Education.

In the same chapter, McGuire recounted the story of Annette Butler. On Mother’s Day 1956, four men in Tylertown, Mississippi — Ernest Dillon, Ollie Dillon (his brother) and their friends Olen Duncan and Durora Duncan (who were cousins) — went searching for a black woman to rape. Armed with a shotgun, they entered the house of Stennis Butler, a black sharecropper, and took his 16-year-old daughter, Annette, holding off her mother at gunpoint. The men drove her away deep into a swamp, raped her, then left her to find her own way home. They were charged with “forcible ravishment and kidnap.” Ernest Dillon pleaded guilty to assault and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. The other three men served no jail time for rape. One pleaded guilty to kidnapping, another was acquitted despite a confession and the third had his charges dismissed after his trial produced a hung jury.

At best, white law enforcement officials were lackadaisical about investigating sexual assaults on black women. At worst, they were perpetrating such assaults, not only on public streets but also in jails.

“These are not just bad apples. This is part of a systemic approach to dehumanizing black women and girls.”

In March 1949, Gertrude Perkins, 25, was assaulted by two Montgomery, Alabama, police officers. She was walking home in the dark when they stopped her, accused her of public drunkenness and forced her into their car. They drove, McGuire wrote, to the edge of a railroad embankment and raped her at gunpoint.

Even if men were convicted of rape, the political system found ways to excuse them. According to Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow, Cole Blease, the governor of South Carolina from 1910-14, made prolific use of his pardoning powers, issuing 1,700 during his tenure. Blease pardoned both black and white men who had been convicted of attacking black women and girls. In an official pardoning statement, Blease stated, “I am of the opinion, as I have always been, and have very serious doubt as to whether the crime of rape can be committed upon a negro.”

McGuire details how rape was used with lynching to terrorize and subjugate black people in the years leading up to and during the civil rights movement. Other historians, such as Darlene Clark Hine, have stated that the onslaught of interracial sexual violence visited upon Southern black women during Jim Crow was just as much a motivator for the Great Migration as lynching was.

“If you have a slave culture for hundreds of years, what happens when slavery ends?” McGuire said. “Does the culture change? That was part of my question doing this research, and the answer was of course it didn’t. White men were raised to believe that they could do whatever they wanted to do to black women and there would be no punishment, and when they did whatever they wanted to do, there usually wasn’t a punishment. These are lessons handed down from grandparents and fathers, uncles. They were encouraged to get a black woman for their first sex act so that they could practice … in the ’40s, they just picked them up on the side of the road just like Recy Taylor.

“It happened all the time.”

Disappearing history

If the violation of black women was so widespread that it contributed to one of the most monumental migration patterns in American history, why don’t more people know about it? How did our understanding of black women and interracial rape begin with slavery and end largely with the conclusion of the Civil War?

There are multiple reasons for this absence: Race men like Booker T. Washington didn’t think civil rights organizations had a role to play in protecting black women from rape. White women’s organizations were equally reluctant to acknowledge that their husbands and sons were attacking black women. White women like Rebecca Latimer Felton, America’s first female senator, not only ginned up fear that black men were raping white women en masse, they sucked away attention from the real epidemic of rape that was actually occurring.

Furthermore, the documentation of abuse was limited. Often, stories of abuse were passed down orally by grandmothers and mothers. Even now, it’s difficult for historians to find detailed, written accounts of these attacks. McGuire referred to it as “detective work.”

And these threats weren’t memorialized in song, as was lynching in Billie Holiday’s 1939 recording of “Strange Fruit.” If there were references, they were so oblique as to require their own decoder ring.

Even in places dedicated to telling the story of black American history such as the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., or the Great Blacks in Wax Museum in Baltimore, there is limited acknowledgment of interracial rape during Jim Crow, and certainly not as a reality endemic to black Southern life.

The Blacks in Wax Museum has an entire room dedicated to the horrors of lynching, which includes a re-creation of the murder of Mary Turner and her 8-month-old fetus in Brooks County, Georgia, but nothing specifically about the rape of black women during Jim Crow. The Blacksonian does include displays of news clippings about the assaults on Taylor in 1944 and Perkins in 1949. And it also produced videos that include quotes from Ida B. Wells and Dorothy Height about the threat black women faced.


While black women such as Wells, Mary Church Terrell, Nannie Helen Burroughs and Anna Julia Cooper were all devoted to mobilizing to secure black women’s safety from sexual violence in the 1890s, they’re remembered chiefly as anti-lynching activists or as buttoned-up practitioners of respectability politics. The same goes for their ideological sisters who came later, like Parks and Height.

In her speech as the first president of the National Association of Colored Women, Terrell addressed their estrangement from the rest of society.

“We wish to set in motion influences that shall stop the ravages made by practices that sap our strength, and preclude the possibility of advancement,” she said, referring to rape by white men.

Cooper bitterly implicated black men in black women’s victimization. “It is absurd,” she said in 1892 in A Voice From the South, “to quote statistics showing the Negro’s bank account and rent rolls, to point to the hundreds of newspapers edited by colored men, and lists of lawyers, doctors, professors, D.D.’s L.L.D.’s etc. etc. etc while the source from which the life-blood of the race is to flow is subject to the taint and corruption of the enemy’s camp.”

While the national office of the NAACP was working to dismantle separate-but-equal, the organization determined that any mention of interracial marriage or sex would derail its efforts. “Everything had to be as asexual as possible,” McGuire said. “Working on rape cases of black women who had been assaulted by white men would screw that up.”


There is so much photographic evidence of lynching, in part because it was a public spectacle, complete with photographers who profited from the murder of black people the way modern artists might sell concert posters. Genitals and other body parts of black men were preserved in jars and kept as mementos. Their charred bodies, hanging from trees, served as ominous warnings to other black people that they best remember their place.

But there is little visual record of the interracial rape of black women, save for photographs of them clutching their obviously biracial children. In The Rape of Recy Taylor, Buirski offers these images as a small record of an enormous epidemic.

We use art to document and memorialize the human condition. But the art that preserves the experience of black women during Jim Crow is limited and often deliberately opaque. The race films of the early 20th century are among the few remaining cultural artifacts that re-created black women’s experiences under threat from white men. Buirski employs their footage in her documentary.

But, by and large, the work of tracking and quantifying interracial sexual assault is difficult for historians. The language referring to such attacks in first-person accounts is often not explicit, although news clippings from the black press were clearer. Furthermore, there was a concerted effort to silence and discredit black female victims. That silencing was often twofold: first in the primary documents, such as white newspapers and police reports, and then again by white historians and archivists who may have deemed such accounts unworthy of preservation. In Taylor’s case, her attackers slandered and dismissed her as a prostitute whom they paid.

There is little visual record of the interracial rape of black women, save for photographs of them clutching their obviously biracial children.

“There wasn’t a good uniform record keeping of these kinds of assaults, largely because of racist police forces that didn’t take black women’s stories seriously, and also because a lot of these assailants were police officers,” McGuire said. “Sometimes within their own community there would be perhaps shame and silence in coming forward for a crime like this just because of the gender politics of the time, which were not limited to racial groups.”

When sexual violation was recorded, survivors often recounted their experiences through allusion. A woman might not say she was raped, but that a man “talked under my dress” or “played with my body.”

While “Strange Fruit,” the dirge made famous by Holiday, is the most recognizable protest song of the lynching era, there is no such work from the era that deals so explicitly with the threat of rape. Instead, in the same way historians must read between the lines of slave narratives, oral histories and other accounts of rape, so too must those examining art of the era. And so songs such as Nina Simone’s chilling rendition of “Pirate Jenny” and Aretha Franklin’s “At the Dark End of the Street” take on more sinister undertones when interpreted through this lens. They’re both songs appropriated by black women to tell different stories from the ones they were originally telling. The difference in tone, phrasing and the style in which these songs are sung is designed to evoke a dark, unsettling horror.

That sort of opaque doublespeak was another form of self-preservation. Anything other than silence could be punished with death. Remember, Taylor’s attackers firebombed her home because she told her husband what happened to her. Just as it was de rigueur to ignore that slaveholders owned fair-skinned children who bore their features and mannerisms, it became standard to look at black women during Jim Crow and ignore the obvious source of their lighter-skinned children.

Modern implications

There are through lines from the epidemic of sexual assault during Jim Crow to our modern era. The most obvious may be the case of Daniel Holtzclaw, the Oklahoma police officer who sexually preyed on poor women of color with criminal records. His predation was directly connected to the way law enforcement made black women’s lives worse. If black women weren’t directly victimized by police, their assaults weren’t taken seriously, which is why white men were so rarely prosecuted for them.

Even the current #MeToo moment is different for white and black women.

“I think the floodgates have opened for white women,” actress Gabrielle Union recently told The New York Times about #MeToo. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence whose pain has been taken seriously. Whose pain we have showed historically and continued to show. Whose pain is tolerable and whose pain is intolerable. And whose pain needs to be addressed now.”

The Equal Justice Initiative is behind the national lynching memorial that will open in 2018 in Montgomery. An official from EJI told me the organization has plans for “an entire section dedicated to the sexual exploitation of black women, including Ms. Recy Taylor” in its Legacy Museum, which will open on April 26. But it doesn’t appear that there are plans to include sexual violence against black women in the lynching memorial, which will exist alongside the museum.

“I don’t think they need to be separate because, again, it’s part of the same terror structure, systematic terror against black people,” McGuire said. “Part of the issue that I’ve always had with cold case civil rights investigations and even in some ways the Equal Justice Initiative’s focus on lynching is that it becomes heavily gendered and is another way of kind of disappearing black women’s experiences under a regime of white supremacy and American apartheid. By focusing on those kinds of cases only, we’re not getting a full picture of the reign of terror that existed and that was inflicted upon black communities and black bodies. It ends up focusing on what happened to black men.”

Even as she was decrying lynching, Wells made a similar point in 1900 to a crowd gathered in Chicago.

“The negro has been too long associated with the white man not to have copied his vices as well as his virtues,” Wells said. “But the negro resents and utterly repudiates the efforts to blacken his good name by asserting that assaults upon women are peculiar to his race. The negro has suffered far more from the commission of this crime against the women of his race by white men than the white race has ever suffered through his crimes. Very scant notice is taken of the matter when this is the condition of affairs. What becomes a crime deserving capital punishment when the tables are turned is a matter of small moment when the negro woman is the accusing party.”

The way these stories were silenced reinforces a social hierarchy that contends black women should be grateful for attention from white men, even if it’s unsolicited or unwanted. Worse, it tells the world that black women and the assaults on us simply don’t matter. Ignoring this area of history has enormously harmful consequences, feeding into how we process accusations of sexual assault from black women today.

The rape of Recy Taylor and so many other unnamed, unrecognized and unheard black women reminds me of Cooper’s words from 1892: “Only the black woman can say ‘when and where I enter, in the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing or special patronage, then and there the whole … race enters with me.’ ”

A young black officer tries to bridge the divide between the police and his people

Officer Aundre Wright The Bridge Builder 3 years in uniform

“I hear something on the radio, I go. Ease the gap between black and white, between police and non-police. Show we’re human.”“I hear something on the radio, I go. Ease the gap between black and white, between police and non-police. Show we’re human.”

One Saturday this fall, as little black boys collided between chalked white lines, officer Aundre Wright mingled comfortably with the crowd at Willie Stargell Field. A swarm of uniformed police patrolled this youth football venue, where the talent and style on the field is challenged by the potential for danger off it.

A woman had been shot in the face outside a game earlier in the season, and Wright wore a bulletproof vest over his blue police uniform. But as he hugged and dapped parents and coaches, everyone recalled a younger Wright wearing the colors of the Garfield Gators or Homewood Bulldogs, ripping across the turf in a blur of speed and aggression.

The 29-year-old went on to play for the University of Pittsburgh before a torn knee ligament derailed his NFL dreams. He wasn’t on duty today, but he came on a mission to “spread love.” Since becoming a police officer three years ago amid the national outrage over police killings of unarmed African-Americans, Wright has waged a personal crusade to bridge the gap between black and blue.

That strained relationship is evident here in the Homewood neighborhood. This is one of the most deadly parts of Pittsburgh, a largely segregated city of 300,000 where blacks make up 20 percent of the population. The police department, which has about 900 officers, did not provide diversity statistics but has been trying to recruit more black officers. Asked about the police, spectators talk about being profiled and cops having bad attitudes for no reason. They mention Leon Ford, an unarmed black man who was paralyzed after being shot by an officer in a 2012 traffic stop. Metal detectors at the field entrance stand vigil to the violent Catch-22 of poor black life across America.

But the people here say Wright isn’t a regular cop — he’s “Dre” from the East Side. They know Dre’s mama. Their son or brother played against Dre the baller. They appreciate how Dre the cop treated their troublemaking cousin. They respect what Dre the man did when a 25-year-old mother of three was shot dead in her car outside the East Hills projects last year.

The murder of Myanne Hayes hurt Wright in a new way. Maybe because his reckoning of the gangster code says women aren’t supposed to be targeted, or because he had seen other men who threatened women walk free. Wright, who was off-duty when he got the news, drove to a Home Depot and bought some signboard and Sharpies. He parked his 2003 Camry on the corner of Wilner and East Hill Drive, not far from where Hayes’ body was found. Wearing civilian clothes, Wright inked out his feelings and placed three signs on his car:

I CARE STOP THE VIOLENCE STOP SHOOTING

He held a fourth sign aloft:

HONK 4 PEACE

Kids getting off school buses stopped to watch the one-man protest. Moms came off their porches with hot chocolate. Every honk from a passing car felt like a chip out of a prison wall. A passer-by put the scene live on Facebook, where 611 people tuned in. Hours passed. Night fell. The December temperature dipped toward freezing.

Wright felt liberated.

“At least somebody knew I cared,” he recalled. “I do think it made a difference. When somebody sees a young black man trying to be positive, everyone gravitates toward that. Even if I reached one person that day and they would think, ‘Maybe I should chill. Maybe I shouldn’t shoot women.’

“Even if it touched that one somebody — that’s all I wanted.”

“If you can prove harassment, if you can prove police are doing the wrong thing, by all means handle your business. But if you’re just complaining because you got stopped and you didn’t get a ticket or there was nothing other than time lost — come on now.”“If you can prove harassment, if you can prove police are doing the wrong thing, by all means handle your business. But if you’re just complaining because you got stopped and you didn’t get a ticket or there was nothing other than time lost — come on now.”

A wild child

Wright thinks often about his first encounter with police. He doesn’t remember it, but his mother, Charise, told him the story. She was on drugs and nodded off downtown. Three-year-old Dre’s stroller rolled into the street. He was grabbed by a passing cop and placed in foster care.

That inspired his mother to clean up her life for good — Charise became a prison counselor, social worker and devoted mother. Money was tighter than young Dre’s cornrowed hair, and she moved him and his older brother through more than a dozen apartments across Homewood, East Liberty, Garfield and the rest of the city’s black neighborhoods. Nowadays, Pittsburgh feels like a small town to Wright because he can hardly drive a mile in his patrol car without running into a familiar face. Except his father’s. Wright doesn’t know who he is.

Wright was a wild child, full of energy and what he now recognizes as anger. Football was a perfect outlet. He started at age 4 in the all-black City League, which has a different flavor from predominantly white leagues in other parts of Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania. Players sport two differently colored socks, two-toned face masks, and back pads sagging below their jerseys. Outside the lines, there’s gambling, occasional arrests of coaches and, every few years, gunfire. Many parents choose to avoid the danger and play their boys elsewhere, which only increases the City League’s fierce pride.

Despite his small stature — Wright stands 5-foot-8 today — he terrorized other tykes as a runner, receiver and defensive destroyer. People still remember how he stiff-armed a defender into a backflip. “He was a monster,” said Melvin Lewis, a City League coach who grew up with Wright. “Fast, elusive, vicious, smart. Not too many like Dre. He’s something like a ’hood legend.”

That ’hood was no joke. At age 13, Wright saw a friend’s head shattered by a bullet. He was robbed at gunpoint and threatened with firearms numerous times. While a freshman at the Perry Traditional Academy, a public school across town on the North Side, Dre was so poor he wore the same outfit 30 days straight – black thermal crew neck, black Dickies, black Timberlands. His hair stayed in four thick, fuzzy braids. But Dre was also a cutup who made everybody laugh, according to Desmond Brentley, his best friend and quarterback of the football team.

The inseparable Des and Dre followed the ’hood rules for dealing with cops: “You don’t talk to them, you don’t deal with them,” Wright recalled. “When you see them, you leave. If you see them coming in that wagon, you run.”

The pair got pulled over while driving all the time. Wright didn’t consider it harassment — just the normal course of life, like hearing gunfire or getting robbed. Why dwell on the negative when there were touchdowns to score and girls to chase? Plus, he didn’t engage in criminal activity. So if the cops wanted to search him? Go right ahead.

“You’re usually not as upset if you’re not guilty,” Wright said.

He graduated in 2006, spent a year in prep school to raise his abysmal grades and signed to play football for Pitt. He had a promising first season, averaging 21 yards per kickoff return, and his time of 4.37 seconds in the 40-yard dash tabbed him as an NFL-level talent. But his role was reduced as a sophomore under a new offensive coordinator who liked big receivers. He moved to cornerback in spring practice and tore his ACL trying to toss a 300-pound lineman.

While rehabbing his injury, Wright interned with the Police Department. During a ride-along, his trainer responded to a call about a girl whose bracelet had been snatched. Despite instructions to watch from the car, Wright couldn’t help himself when the suspect was spotted — he jumped out and gave chase.

“As soon as we brought her stuff back,” Wright said, “it was like, I want to do this.”

Wright wasn’t healed enough to play his junior year. Afterward, the coaches said he was no longer in Pitt’s plans. He graduated in May 2011 with a degree in criminal justice, two years of eligibility remaining and an infant son with his college girlfriend. He accepted a scholarship offer from Division II Indiana University of Pennsylvania but left after a month, doubting that IUP could get him to the NFL and in need of money to support his son.

He spent the next year working as a security guard for $8.80 per hour and driving a school bus for $33 per trip. One day, he was assigned to pick up the football team at Perry, his alma mater. Coach Bill Gallagher boarded the bus, looked at his former star player and said, “Dre, what happened?”

“That was pain, right through the heart,” Wright said. He went home and Googled “how to become a police officer.”

Three years later, Wright was patrolling his old neighborhoods in Pittsburgh.

Showing we’re human

At first, he didn’t know how the ’hood would receive him. Every patrol and call brought a familiar face. Most of the response was positive. But sometimes, making an arrest, he would hear “Uncle Tom this and Uncle Tom that. I’m like, ‘Really?’ I don’t run from it, I try to explain it to them. ‘What else you want me to do? You know I played football, blew my knee out. What am I supposed to do now?’ ”

He realized his mere presence could help defuse tensions: “Let me get in the middle of it so I can bridge the gap in case it turns bad. I want to be able to calm the officer and assure him, and calm the subject.”

Then there were the foot chases.

“When I first got here, for some reason there was a spike in stolen cars. They would jump out and start running,” he said. “It was like a dog and a ball. When they try to run from me, you’re just like, ‘Oh, come on.’ You’re not chasing them to hurt them, you’re just chasing them like a sport.

“You’re running? OK, come on, let’s run!”

Still, each time he put on his uniform, he wondered whether he would make it home. He drew his weapon many times while responding to calls about armed suspects, although he has never pulled the trigger. He began to dream about being forced to shoot someone. Slowly, the dreams turned to nightmares.

After a year and a half on the 4 p.m. to midnight shift, he wanted more of a sense of normalcy. Wright got an assignment as a community resource officer in a racially and economically mixed group of neighborhoods. He attends community events, mediates neighborhood problems and backs up officers who respond to 911 calls.

“I hear something on the radio, I go. Ease the gap between black and white, between police and non-police. Show we’re human.”

His main goal is to show that he cares and that he wants to help. That starts with listening, really listening, to what a person has to say. Patience is one of his most useful tools. Another is assistance. That could mean explaining why someone is being arrested and how to bail him out. Other times, just being black and sympathetic helps. If things are already hostile, he might give both cop and citizen an avenue to back down.

“It’s love. Just spread love. Not many police rep it,” he said.

Why him? Wright goes back to the cop who grabbed his stroller out of the street, and how it changed his mother’s life: “You never know who that person is and how you can change their life just off of anything.”

It doesn’t have to get that dramatic for Wright to believe that’s he’s making a difference.

One December morning, Wright parked his cruiser near the blighted corner of North Homewood and Frankstown avenues. Walking past the barbershops and liquor stores, he received the same pounds and daps as at the football game. A toothless drug addict stopped Wright to ask about another cop who’d promised to get her to rehab. Wright pulled the officer’s number up on his phone and texted him. He listened to the addict ramble on for five minutes.

“People ask for me by name over here,” Wright said. “That’s all I need.”

Harassment or normal life?

Asked about Colin Kaepernick and NFL players kneeling during the national anthem, a protest that has torn apart America’s most popular sport, Wright stepped into his familiar place in the gap. But this tightrope isn’t so easily navigated with charm and goodwill.

“I commend Kaepernick. If that’s your thing, that’s your thing. If you feel like you should stand up for something, stand up for it,” Wright said — and then tried to balance the scales. “I don’t know him personally. I don’t know if it’s a legit angle from him. If he feels like he has a purpose, I respect him. It cost him his spot in the league, so I have to respect it.”

Kaepernick started the protests by citing police violence that left “bodies in the street.” That statement doesn’t sit well with Wright, although he won’t come out and say so. Killer cops don’t jibe with Wright’s three years of experience on the Pittsburgh force — there have only been two fatal police killings during that time, both of them of armed black men — or with his life lessons as a law-abiding youngster.

When Wright turns on his flashers, the camera in his police car is recording everything. If he detains or arrests someone, his report needs to include a solid reason for the stop. There may be a few bad apples, Wright says, but they should and will be held accountable.

His friends at the football game may complain about harassment. But Wright thinks back to his experience as a young man joyriding in his hooptie with his best friend Desmond, screaming out the windows at girls and blasting music through their crummy speakers. The way Wright remembers it, there was always some legal reason, however thin, for them to get pulled over. They missed a stop sign, or circled the block five times, or had beads hanging from their rearview mirror that technically could obstruct their vision. The cops were looking for guns, drugs and drunken drivers. None of that applied to them. Getting stopped wasn’t harassment. Just a normal part of life.

Today, Officer Wright asks how police are supposed to keep drugs and guns out of the black community if people object to legal stops. “If you can prove harassment, if you can prove police are doing the wrong thing, by all means handle your business. But if you’re just complaining because you got stopped and you didn’t get a ticket or there was nothing other than time lost — come on now.”

What about the Freddie Grays, the Tamir Rices — all the times when police have not been held accountable?

“Go to your legislator, representatives, speak out, [tell them] this is outrageous. And if he ain’t do nothing, go over his head.”

Speaking out is what Kaepernick and the NFL players are doing. But the chasm they have opened is so wide even Wright has trouble reaching across it.

“You have to understand that we’re supposed to run into the danger. That takes a certain mindset.”“You have to understand that we’re supposed to run into the danger. That takes a certain mindset.”

‘I’m laying you down’

Wright was at his best friend Desmond Brentley’s house one Saturday, watching college football on the television in the kitchen. After high school, Brentley played quarterback at Grambling State and Robert Morris, and he now handles corpses as a city medical examiner. If you see Des and Dre at the same time, “it’s a real bad day for you,” Brentley said.

The childhood friends started talking about the arrest of Michael Bennett. The Seattle Seahawks defensive end had accused Las Vegas police of racial profiling and excessive force. After a report of shots fired, Bennett was tackled and handcuffed. He said the officer put a gun to his head while he was facedown and threatened to “blow my f—ing head off.”

Wright sided with the police. “There’s shots fired, it was a black male, black hoodie. If a black male in a black hoodie comes by, you’re going to put him on the ground — ”

“It wasn’t a black male in a black hoodie, though,” Brentley said. “It was just a casino, shots fired.”

“We don’t know what came on the radio,” Wright responded. “But if that happens, I will put you down. He said he was going to blow his head off. The only reason I think that would be necessary is because you’re running towards the fight and you’ve got to psych yourself up. … It’s going to turn into bolder language.”

“Everything you’re saying, you think that’s right or wrong?” Brentley asked.

Wright stood up.

“If there’s shots fired and somebody runs past, and I’m the fastest dude, I’m laying you down,” he said.

Wright didn’t want to vouch for the specific actions of the officer who arrested Bennett: “I don’t know the angle. I don’t know how far he was away from the shots fired.” What he wanted his childhood friend to understand was the emotion of a cop in that situation, and why he would threaten to kill a suspect.

“You have to understand that we’re supposed to run into the danger. That takes a certain mindset,” Wright said. He crouched in a stance, poised to burst off the line of scrimmage. “I had to rev myself up to take you down. You’re not a robot. You’ve got to talk yourself up to it, or it’s not going to happen. At that point, if you’ve got to kill that dude, that’s what you’re saying. That’s going to be the process in your head.”

Brentley, seated at the kitchen counter, asked Wright whether he had seen the video of Bennett’s arrest, when he was facedown and handcuffed. The video looked like excessive force to him.

“It was probably warranted,” Wright replied, still standing.

Later, Brentley said he tries to empathize with Wright’s descriptions of life as a cop.

“I still don’t know,” he said. “I still get scared by the cops, all these years later.”

The nightmare

Every four or five months, the nightmare returns.

Wright’s gun is in his hand. He says, “Stop! Stop! Stop!” The suspect ignores his commands. “And you’re screaming, you’re screaming, you’re screaming. And then, you just have to.”

Wright’s bullet hits the suspect.

“And you know at that point, your life is probably over, regardless if you’re right, wrong or indifferent. So it’s a nightmare.”

The nightmare nearly turned real one day last year. Wright was driving alone in his cruiser when a call came over the radio. Officers were pursuing robbery suspects on Fifth Avenue in the Oakland neighborhood. They were chasing a white Honda Civic with a broken window. The occupants were four black males, armed.

Wright joined the chase. Through East Liberty, up Negley Run Road, around the Hill District. Wright had been driving these streets his whole life. Every turn the suspects made, he knew where it led. Up in Oak Hill, the Honda crashed and the four people in the car jumped out and ran. Once again, the chase was on.

As he sprinted down the street, adrenaline surging, Wright thought about a local officer recently killed while responding to a domestic dispute.

He tripped one suspect, lay him down and kept running. His second target bent over. Wright wondered whether he was about to get shot. “I just dove. Boom. I tackled him.”

The suspect was a teenager, no more than 17. He didn’t have a pistol — just a BB gun.

“Ouch!” the kid said. “You hurt my shoulder!”

Relief flooded through Wright’s body, then heartache and disappointment at another young black life derailed.

At that moment, there was no gap to be bridged, nowhere to spread the love. Just a young cop trying to keep himself and his community alive.