The Brown Paper Dolls talk about their YouTube dramedy series ‘Milk + Honey’ HBCUs helped prepare them for the tough life in Hollywood

Jeanette McDuffie, Dana M. Gills, and Asha Kamali May, the women behind Brown Paper Dolls, a multimedia production company based in Los Angeles, are rapidly becoming wizards behind the camera and in front of it.

Before Hollywood, they grew up on the South Side of Chicago and each of them attended a historically black college and university (HBCU): Florida A&M University, Howard University and Spelman College.

On June 14, the trio’s series Milk + Honey, a scripted digital dramedy featuring Debbie Allen, Lance Gross, Boris Kodjoe and Faune Chambers, returned on Issa Rae’s YouTube channel.

The Undefeated sat down with two-thirds of Brown Paper Dolls to talk about their past and how they work together.

What is Brown Paper Dolls? How did you come up with the name?

Jeanette: The name was born from the idea of creating with what you have. As we were writing, creating characters sometimes felt like playing – like playing with paper dolls. Your imagination can run free as you breathe life into them. The name reflects the idea of the universal little girl who can play and create characters and stories using just what she has – cutting paper dolls from a brown paper bag. Whether she is on the South Side of Chicago or Bangladesh or Kenya – rich or poor – she can create.

All of you are from Chicago? How did you meet?

Jeanette: Dana and I were childhood friends. Asha and Dana became friends in high school. Dana introduced Asha and me soon after I moved to L.A. We all came together to work on this project because we didn’t want to wait for other people to give us permission to do what we love.

Talk about your HBCU experience and how it aided where you are today.

Jeanette: My years at FAMU were some of the best of my life. You were there to witness. I got to Tallahassee and felt like I was home. It was an environment that really sowed into me and expected my best. I wanted an experience where I could be ‘Jeanette’ and not ‘the black girl in someone’s statistics class.’ We were in school with such a wide array of black people from all over the country. So many varied personalities and experiences. As a result of my time at FAMU, I have a network that inspires and supports. No matter what images are fed to me in the media, I have so many examples of black excellence that counteract that.

Asha: Wow. I am a third-generation HU [Howard University] graduate. My grandmother graduated from Freedman’s nursing school. Charles Drew was her professor. She was the first black nurse in Rockford, Illinois. My older sister went to HU, my aunt and a slew of cousins. My mother went to an HBCU [Central State University] and my middle sister went to HBCU, Xavier.

What did you major in?

Jeanette: I was in the School of Business and Industry, a business administration major. Upon graduation, I decided to try corporate America for two years and then follow my real passion – directing film. I did just that. Navy and black suits with pantyhose and pumps weren’t my thing. Years later, after I’d been working in film, I went back to school and got my MFA in film production at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts.

Did you ever imagine doing what you’re doing now?

Asha: Always. But that also becomes problematic when the nos come. It can be a very confusing time in your early adulthood.

In Kid Cudi’s “Pursuit of Happiness,” he raps: “Tell me what you know about dreamin’/ You ain’t really know bout nothin’/ Tell me what you know about the night terrors every night 5 a.m. cold sweats, waking up to the sky/ Tell me what you know about dreams/ Tell me what you know about night terrors nothin’/ You don’t really care about the trials of tomorrow, Rather lay awake in the bed full of sorrow.”

As entrepreneurs, creators, producers and risks-takers, can you relate?

Jeanette: There is no set path, which is both exciting and daunting. You get what you put into it. And sometimes you don’t. It really is a marathon. There’s so much that we don’t have control over and sometimes the way things turn out isn’t what you imagine. Sometimes it’s better than you imagine.

In 2011, Jeanette was telling me about Brown Paper Dolls. Tell me about the journey.

Jeanette: This was just a God-led project. We would take a step forward and he would take two. There have been so many great collaborators along the way, including writer Kevin A. Garnett, who we collaborated with on these new episodes. Everyone shared their talents with us for the love. I remember shooting some days and really thinking about how blessed we are.

Asha: Well, it certainly is God’s plan. My voice professor would always say, ‘Your plan is s—.’ You can plan for it. You can work at it … but God will create opportunities that have nothing to do with your plan.

What’s Milk + Honey about?

Jeanette: It’s about the promised land — the journey to your dreams, the good, bad and ugly, along with the blessings of friendship and love that carry you through it. It’s about young women navigating the smoke and mirrors of Hollywood. The show is about anyone who ever had a dream and then had the courage to pursue it.

Is Idris Elba still on board? Who else is involved?

Jeanette: He was the show’s executive producer for a while and poured so much love into the show and is still a supporter of the project. We recently had the great fortune of partnering with Issa Rae Productions to release the current three episodes. She’s proving that the stories of people of color are profitable and make good business sense.

The great Debbie Allen is involved. What’s it been like to work with a living legend?

Asha: Full circle for me. I met Ms. Allen while I was at Howard — when I was Miss Howard. She became my mentor over the years. She is a personal hero for me. I am a dancer and choreographer in addition to an actress, so you can imagine the role she has played in my life. I have prayed that one day I’d work with her — I mean she was on my vision board for years … so, yeah, for me … I’m still pinching myself.

You three have similar skill sets but also different strengths. How do you work as a collective?

Asha: We all do very different things and I believe we do them very differently and very well.

Jeanette has a meticulous eye in all things camera, lighting, tone and style of the show.

Dana is a connoisseur of everything dope and spectacular. She understands our audience’s sensibilities and the appetite of the industry and in a finite way as our lead producer. Dana is extremely detail-oriented and catches everything.

I am a ‘get it done’ personality. I am fearless. I’m the one that will go up to the president of a network and ask for a meeting.

We all get THIS story, because it is so close to us.

You are committed to content that highlights diverse stories of people of color. How challenging is this?

Jeanette: It’s def challenging. The business itself is a beast. It is an art form that is very capital-intensive and competitive. For a while, even when we originally debuted Milk + Honey a few years ago, stories about black people weren’t in the mainstream. We’re happy that we’re in a moment in time where the business is open more to the stories of black people and people of color in general. And there is a voracious appetite for content right now.

Asha: It is indeed challenging. The answer is in the doing. And we know that our stories are funny, layered, twisted and interesting. We know that our audience is beyond ready to see their experience on-screen. We know that black women are magic. And we know that we are ready for the world to see all of that. That is what keeps us going.

R. Kelly story makes us realize that no one cares about black women The evidence is clear: In this country, some women don’t matter

For far too long, I’ve been arguing about the basic worth of black women and girls. It’s tiresome, and frankly, at this point my face should really look like I belong with these guys:

Members of the Blue Man Group.

AP Photo/Ariel Schalit

And as long as I’ve been arguing, both in my personal life and in my professional one, that black women and girls matter, Robert Kelly, better known as rhythm and blues singer R. Kelly, has been a central and contested point of that discussion.

Fifteen years ago, when I was a freshman at Howard University, I got into a heated argument with the boy I was seeing and his friends. The now-notorious video of Kelly urinating on a 14-year-old girl was available for consumption on the internet, to satisfy either a sick curiosity or darker urges. (It later became the central piece of evidence in his 2008 criminal trial for making child pornography in which he was acquitted of all charges.) It was widely referred to as the “R. Kelly sex tape.”

The boy, who was 19 at the time, and his friends argued that Kelly was not guilty of rape and certainly should not be held responsible for engaging in sex with an underage girl.

“Did you see what she was doing in that tape?” he asked. “She didn’t look 14.”

“It doesn’t matter!” I remember screaming, my words echoing through the halls of Howard’s architecture studio. “SHE’S STILL 14! SHE’S A CHILD!”

The boys’ opinion was so commonplace that it didn’t even register as scandal, let alone as the sort of sentiment you kept to yourself if you didn’t want to be seen as a rape apologist. This wasn’t an idea he was too ashamed to share. Quite the contrary.

I was furious and hurt. I was supposed to be at a place surrounded by men and boys who loved and respected black women. But we had differing opinions, not only about how respect was defined but also who was deserving of it. It was clear that they’d learned that some black women simply didn’t matter.

Rather than interrogating why a 14-year-old would have this sort of sexual knowledge (someone “older and wiser” must have taught her), and whether the sharing of such knowledge was remotely ethical, the boys had immediately identified the girl as a slut. This wasn’t just a moral judgment, it was one that absolved them, and other men, of any obligation to see this girl as just that — a girl, on the short end of a screwed-up power dynamic.

Her worth was tied to her morality, which was tied to her sexual experience. And since she appeared to be experienced, and inappropriately so, she was disposable. She certainly wasn’t worth bringing down the musical empire of someone as famous and important as Kelly, they thought.

This is a message women hear over and over again, from the trial of Stanford swimmer Brock Turner to the high-profile rape cases out of Steubenville, Ohio, and Maryville, Missouri.

And it’s one that carries a special resonance for black women and girls. We make conscious and unconscious decisions about who matters and who does not. As Zora Neale Hurston put it in Their Eyes Were Watching God: “De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see.”

In November 2013, Mikki Kendall created the hashtag #FastTailedGirls to discuss the premature sexualization of black girls and how we punish and blame them for it rather than hold black men and boys responsible for their actions.

Even when they realize something’s wrong, black women and girls are continually pressured to keep their mouths shut to protect black men who commit violence, sexual or otherwise, against them because of some warped definition of racial solidarity. Every once in a while, that pressure bubbles over and into the news, as it did in the 2016 Buzzfeed News story about the way accusations of rape are scuttled at Spelman, Morehouse and other historically black colleges and universities. It sprang up further when another anonymous Spelman freshman, driven to leave the school, started a Twitter feed, @RapedatSpelman.

“Spelman has taught me to be a free thinking woman and also to be a woman who has to keep her mouths closed to protect her ‘brothers,’ ” she tweeted.

In 2015, Jewel Allison, a writer and music educator who accused Bill Cosby of sexual assault, revealed that she’d kept the assault a secret “because [she] didn’t want to let black America down.”

And now we’re talking about R. Kelly again.

We were talking about Kelly in 1994 when he married Aaliyah when she was 15.

We were talking about Kelly in 2002 when a video appeared to show him sexually assaulting a 14-year-old girl.

We were talking about Kelly again in 2013 when The Village Voice revisited the accusations against Kelly.

And yet he’s still free, he’s still rich and, according to a new Buzzfeed News story from former Chicago Sun-Times reporter Jim DeRogatis, who broke the original stories, Kelly allegedly has been brainwashing young women and holding them inside a “cult.” Kelly issued a statement denying the new allegations.

Hats off to DeRogatis. But it only takes a cursory glance at the news and events of the past few years to see the fuller context of how black women and girls are dismissed in America:

  • Black girls are perceived as less innocent and less in need of protection than white girls, according to a new study from the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality. The study’s authors call this phenomenon “adultification.” Little wonder then that state legislatures across the country send the message that the bodily autonomy of young women and girls doesn’t matter, in the form of laws that still allow adult men to marry girls as young as 12.
  • Black women suffer from higher rates of death from domestic violence, and yet the Mississippi Legislature refuses to make domestic violence grounds for divorce, essentially throwing women away to be battered. “Mississippi Goddam,” indeed.
  • The then-president of the United States created a program called My Brother’s Keeper that targets boys of color. But girls of color, specifically black girls, are suspended from school at higher rates and endure systematic criminalization designed to push them out of school.
  • When black girls and women are fired from their jobs or suspended from school for having “inappropriate” or distracting hair.
  • When Marissa Alexander doesn’t enjoy the same protections offered by Florida’s Stand Your Ground law when attempting to protect herself from domestic violence as George Zimmerman was.
  • When the “Grim Sleeper” is able to kill at least 10 black women, and possibly as many as 25, over the course of two decades because no one bothered to engage in meaningful detective work when they went missing.

The parents of the women Kelly is allegedly holding will soon hold a news conference about their accusations, DeRogatis has said. It’s noteworthy that these parents refuse to be cowed by Kelly’s money and social standing.

But beyond that, a public event like this serves another purpose: It says that for once, when it comes to black women, someone gives a damn.

Even after 40 years, Maze and Frankie Beverly play on A loving history of the band that always spreads happy feelings before they let go

In 1976, a demo tape came across the desk of Capitol Records vice president Larkin Arnold. The clunky reel-to-reel featured songs written and performed by Raw Soul, an unsigned San Francisco combo that had created a buzz opening shows for Marvin Gaye. Arnold cued up the tape and was immediately struck by the band’s deft reconciliation of groove-intensive rhythm and blues and California-style singer/songwriter balladry. “It reminded me,” Arnold recalled, “of a black, Eagles-type sound.”

His curiosity piqued, Arnold arranged to attend a Raw Soul concert at San Francisco’s now-defunct Fillmore West. Just minutes into the band’s performance, it was clear that Raw Soul’s feel-good vibes translated well to the stage, fueled by the soulful voice and teddy bear charm of frontman Frankie Beverly. “It wasn’t a hard-driving, rhythm and blues band,” said the now-retired Arnold from his Los Angeles home. “They were more melodic … a seductive sound. Before you realized it, they had you moving.”

Arnold was sold. As a means of getting Raw Soul to join the Capitol family of artists, he said he made singer-songwriter Beverly an offer he couldn’t refuse — sign on the dotted line, and you get to retain the publishing rights to all your songs. So Raw Soul signed with Capitol, home to some of pop’s most influential acts, from Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole to the Beach Boys, the Beatles and Pink Floyd. When the septet finally issued its 1977 debut, it was released under its new moniker: Maze Featuring Frankie Beverly.

This year, Maze and Frankie Beverly celebrate the 40th anniversary of that now-iconic debut. Showcasing the R&B hits “While I’m Alone,” “Happy Feelin’s” and “Lady of Magic,” the self-titled album has long been certified gold. Maze generated 10 recordings for Capitol, including six studio albums, two live albums and two greatest hits collections. Seven of those recordings are gold, including 1978’s Golden Time of Day, 1979’s Inspiration, 1980’s Joy and Pain and Live in New Orleans, 1983’s We Are One, and 1985’s Can’t Stop The Love. The band racked up impressive sales when it defected to Warner Bros. Records in the late ’80s, scoring two more gold certifications for 1989’s Silky Soul and 1993’s Back to Basics.

For a band whose success has gone wholly undetected by mainstream media, Maze’s influence and positive regard within the black community is nothing short of incredible.

But though Maze never enjoyed gargantuan crossover success or earned a Grammy, the band is still something like a phenomenon. Classic Maze tracks such as “Happy Feelin’s,” “Joy and Pain” and “Back In Stride” are essential listening for black baby boomers and many of their kids. Attend a wedding, picnic, backyard barbecue or any similar black American family outing and you’re bound to hear Maze tracks on the playlist, the band’s full-bodied funk blending seamlessly with edgier fare by the rap and R&B idols of the current day.

Indeed, over the course of its four-decade career, Maze has endeared itself to the black community in a special way. Some fans cite moments when the band’s upbeat lyrics helped get them through personal struggles, prompting them to prescribe Maze tracks like a doctor might prescribe antidepressants (“Listen to ‘Inspiration’ and get some rest, girl!”). Other fans report being so spellbound at first hearing Beverly’s billowy voice that they remember the experience as vividly as their first encounter with their spouses. For a band whose success has gone wholly undetected by mainstream media, Maze’s influence and positive regard within the black community is nothing short of incredible.

And as with just about everything in America, race plays a role in the saga of Maze and Frankie Beverly. The band evolved into a decidedly black R&B phenomenon, but Arnold believes Maze’s rootsy sound could easily have played across a range of traditionally “white” radio formats, including Top 40, adult contemporary and even the rock stations where white, soul-influenced acts such as Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers held court. In Arnold’s mind, Maze had crossover potential on par with Stevie Wonder and Earth, Wind & Fire, yet Maze never breached the multiplatinum stratosphere. The question is, why?


We’ve been judging people by colors/ maybe we should all be color blind …”

— “Color Blind,” by Maze featuring Frankie Beverly, 1977

Philadelphia. 1970. Philly Soul was making inroads, with manicured, Motown-influenced acts such as The Delfonics and The Stylistics and writers and producers such as future Hall of Famers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff climbing Billboard’s R&B charts. Unfortunately, for a young singer named Howard “Frankie” Beverly, the City of Brotherly Love wasn’t showing much affection to his band, the very raw Raw Soul. Having recorded some independently produced singles that went nowhere, Beverly boldly decided to pack up the band and head to the then-freewheeling San Francisco. Raw Soul thrived in the multicultural Bay Area.

Music lover Michael Burton first encountered the band in the East Bay, at a 1973 Contra Costa College performance. At the time, the band’s lineup was Beverly, drummer Joe Provost, bassist Robin Duhe, guitarist Wuane Thomas, and percussionists McKinley “Bug” Williams and Roame Lowry. “It was a mixed crowd: black, white, and some Spanish,” Burton recalled of the audience. “Frankie played all his own music. He could either sing Top 40 or stay Raw Soul, and he chose to sing Frankie Beverly. He didn’t veer from his commitment.”

That Contra Costa performance blew Burton’s mind — it gave the 20something a purpose in life. Like a commoner abandoning his old ways to become an apostle, Burton threw his lot in with Raw Soul, becoming the band’s self-styled stage manager. He purchased a van to haul equipment, then booked Raw Soul into venues along the California coast, from Stockton and San Pablo to Santa Rosa and Tomales Bay. “At the time, a lot of Grateful Dead-kind of music was going on, and people would all support a particular bar or club,” said Burton. “You had these venues that already had a built-in following, and they loved the kind of music Frankie played.”

Rumor spread about the no-nonsense Bay Area funk band with the dynamic singer, and before long Raw Soul had gained an influential fan in the form of Jan Gaye, wife of Marvin Gaye. “Come to find out, one day Marvin was in the audience,” Burton said. “Blew us away! That was when Marvin opened the door for Frankie.”

“New York was one of my hardest markets to break Frankie. It was a disco city … and Frankie really didn’t fit into that category.”

Marvin Gaye was so enamored of Raw Soul that he took the band on the road with him as an opening act in 1976. Gaye even afforded Beverly the opportunity, at the infamous Marvin’s Room recording studio, to perform on one of his recordings. That distinctive clinking sound heard on Gaye’s chart-topping 1977 “Got to Give It Up” is Beverly playing an improvised cowbell. “That’s Frankie on the milk bottle! Marvin was [recording], and Frankie goes down there, but he didn’t bring his ax,” said Burton. “So Marvin’s like, ‘Here’s a milk bottle. Get in the groove!’ ”

But while Gaye loved Beverly’s group, he took a dim view of the name Raw Soul. He felt it did a disservice to the band’s honey-drip R&B sound. “For the next [few] months, we kicked names in the butt,” Burton said. “We go back to Marvin and say, ‘How about Maze Featuring Frankie Beverly’? We did a name check and found out there was a band already called Maze. Marvin said, ‘Don’t worry about it, we’ll take care of that.’ From my understanding, we bought the name. It’s been Maze Featuring Frankie Beverly ever since.”

As Capitol Records geared up to release the band’s debut album, Arnold instructed the label’s art department to create an album cover incorporating a maze. They came up with a seven-digit hand in the form of a maze, each finger representing a band member. The puzzlelike design instantly became Maze’s official logo, as identifiable as the Rolling Stones’ splayed tongue or Led Zeppelin’s cryptic runes.

Maze’s debut album was released in 1977, the same year as historic albums by Rufus featuring Chaka Khan, Peabo Bryson, Bootsy Collins and more. It was also the year of classic singles such as Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Serpentine Fire,” the Commodores’ “Brick House,” Parliament’s “Flashlight,” and the Isley Brothers’ often-sampledFootsteps in the Dark.” Amid this funk explosion, artists such as Chic and Donna Summer were starting to get traction with their opulent disco sounds. The year concluded with the release of Saturday Night Fever, the album that would ultimately lift disco from the underground gay clubs of New York into the annals of record sales history.

Caught in the crossfire of all this was Maze Featuring Frankie Beverly, an album recorded in Tacoma, Washington, by a band from Philadelphia, that migrated to San Francisco, yet sounded like they came from Long Beach, California. British music writer David Nathan described it as “California Soul,” citing the album’s laid-back grooves. “Obviously, the sound is rooted in traditional R&B,” said Nathan. “It’s got a smoothness to it, and of course, sometimes they’re very funky … Frankie’s voice has got a kind of yearning to it … smooth yet soulful.”

Across the country, many were having the same reaction to Maze’s music, and Arnold saw an opportunity to shore up his reputation as the man who put Capitol Records on the R&B map. A Howard University law grad, he’d been given the task of starting Capitol’s black music department from scratch. At the time, the label’s black catalog featured iconic but out-of-vogue jazz artists such as Nancy Wilson and Cannonball Adderly. But with the signing of talented up-and-comers such as Natalie Cole, Bryson and Tavares, Arnold gave Capitol much-needed R&B clout. But they were still struggling. “We went from being not any way in contention,” he said, “to like the seventh or eighth [in] black music … in the business.”

Armed with the premiere single “While I’m Alone,” Arnold stormed radio stations. “I knew I could bust the [song] out of Los Angeles, D.C. and Houston; those were my three biggest markets,” Arnold said. “I went over to Howard University and WHUR, which is the No. 1 station in D.C. Back then, if you broke a song in D.C., you could go from Philly down to Baltimore and Richmond, Virginia. New York was one of my hardest markets to break Frankie. It was a disco city … and Frankie really didn’t fit into that category.”

Even without the Big Apple’s support, Arnold’s cross-country hustle made Maze Featuring Frankie Beverly a steady seller. The band took to the road in a couple of station wagons and a U-Haul, stretching the little cash support they received from Capitol. That first national tour saw Maze opening for some of the biggest acts of the day, including Teddy Pendergrass, the Isley Brothers and the Brothers Johnson.

In concert, the band applied all the lessons learned from roughly a decade of performing. “I’ll tell you this for a fact: Some of the headliners didn’t want to come on after Frankie Beverly,” Burton said. “A lot of them said, ‘Oh, hell naw! I’m not going on after this guy no more!’ Sometimes, they wouldn’t let Frankie close the show. … We used to call it, ‘Let’s go out and Put The Hand on these m—-af—as!’ ”

Betty Shaw experienced Maze’s engrossing stagecraft firsthand. She was 25 when she first saw the band in 1978. At the time, Shaw was a recently separated mother of three with dim employment prospects and a deeply troubled mind. One day, she took her sister up on an invitation to attend the Kool Jazz Festival in Milwaukee. There, during Maze’s performance of “Happy Feelin’s,” Shaw had an epiphany. “It was such an experience,” she recalled. “I had never even heard ‘Happy Feelin’s’ … but the way Frankie presented the song, it was giving you the feeling like everything is going to be all right. The song says, ‘I’ve got myself to remind me of love,’ and since I have this love in me, I’m not going to give up on life. It was like a turning point in my mind.”

With Maze winning converts on the road and Arnold converting the nation’s programming directors, the stage was set for Maze to become a crossover breakthrough. Yet, despite all the hard work, debut album sales stalled at around 600,000 copies. It was an impressive showing by ’70s industry standards but far from the million-plus units that Arnold had envisioned. He believes Capitol didn’t try hard enough to help the album realize its tremendous sales potential.

“I had a lot of fights with my pop promotion department because they would never expose the album to white FM,” Arnold said. “That first time I saw Maze at the Fillmore West, the whole audience was white. I know if white people were exposed to Maze, they’d like it, but the belief at the time was, ‘Well, white people really don’t want to listen to black music.’ And I’m saying, ‘Look — it’s not just ‘black’ music!’ ”

Beverly may not have been on what was then the all-powerful FM rock radio, but he must have been making serious bank. He had initially signed with Capitol on the condition that he retain his own music publishing, and in the record biz, that’s where the big bucks are. Publishing is intellectual property, and most record companies negotiate to split copyrights with composers. The annals of pop music teem with horrifying stories of naïve artists who signed away their publishing rights to calculating record moguls. That wasn’t Frankie Beverly. Every time a radio station played Maze jams such as “When I’m Alone” or “Happy Feelin’s,” the royalties went straight to Beverly’s publishing company. Not even rock luminaries such as Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger enjoyed such a perk.

Hoping to capitalize on their momentum, Maze repaired to a Colorado recording studio to create the band’s 1978 sophomore album, Golden Time of Day. Recording was an easygoing affair, with Maze refining the organic sound that made its debut a gold-certified smash. “The way Frankie made records, he didn’t use a lot of frills, so it sounded more for-real,” said former Maze drummer Ahaguna Sun. “There’s a lot of toys in the studio, and if you don’t really know how to produce a good record, you can get swallowed up … you might go out on tour and not be able to play that way. That’s one of the things I admired about Frankie. He kept [the arrangements] close to the way we played them in the studio, so on a good night, we sounded better than the record.”

Maze returned to the road, this time doing popular shows like Soul Train. Still, the band just couldn’t clear the half-million sales hurdle. That was it. Exhausted from his experiences, a frustrated Arnold departed Capitol in 1979. He would eventually become senior vice president at CBS Records, where he found a kindred spirit in the form of CEO Walter Yetnikoff. Together, they transformed Michael Jackson’s Thriller into a crossover sales juggernaut. In a raspberry rebuke to the old radio dictum that whites won’t listen to black music, Thriller today ranks as the biggest-selling LP of all time.

Burton left the Maze crew on friendly terms in 1979. He still resides in California, working in music management. He believes the recording industry never gave Beverly a fair shake because the singer refused to sign over his prized publishing rights. “He still hasn’t won an award,” an indignant Burton said. “That’s all motivated because he didn’t open up to these [recording industry] people. You got George Clinton still fighting for royalties. You got Sly Stone just now winning a multimillion-dollar claim against the industry. And then you’ve got Frankie Beverly, who kept all his s—. He didn’t go to the crossroads and sign his soul over to the devil. And because he did that, the industry turned their backs.”

Beverly, now 70, still dresses in low-key white outfits that give him the appearance of a sporting R&B archangel.

But while Maze never enjoyed gargantuan crossover success or even earned a Grammy, the band is still something like a phenomenon. The seven-piece group tours annually, having earned an ironclad reputation for delivering hypnotic performances that all but transform 10,000-seat auditoriums into intimate clubs. This year is no different, with the band embarking on a nationwide jaunt called The People’s Tour. Fans are flocking to shows, grateful for the opportunity to party again with Beverly, now 70, who still dresses in low-key white outfits that give him the appearance of a sporting R&B archangel.

The singer is notoriously media-shy, having consented to precious few interviews in recent years. True to form, Beverly did not respond to The Undefeated’s repeated requests for an interview, but the people who know the singer insist his diffidence toward the media isn’t peevishness. “He’s very intelligent, very easy to talk to … not a harsh personality,” said Nathan, co-founder of SoulMusic.com and a longtime acquaintance of Beverly’s. “I’ve always thought of him as someone who wasn’t affected by being a fixture in the music world. Frankie didn’t go to Hollywood.”

Maze’s touring success bucks convention. The band hasn’t had a studio album to promote since 1993, a lengthy abstention that today seems symbolic. Around the time that Maze stopped recording, pop culture took a sharp turn into fashionable edginess — the funereal gloom of grunge rock, the Lolita coyness of teen pop, the boastful criminality of gangsta rap. Maze and Frankie Beverly made their bones back in the ’70s and ’80s crooning about happy feelings, sweet Southern girls, and how joy and pain are two sides of the same coin. It’s conceivable that Beverly mulled the possibility of competing in an increasingly coarse pop world and decided ain’t nobody got time for that.

“Maze is like the urban version of the Grateful Dead.”

The Maze lineup has changed consistently over the years, with Beverly and percussionist Lowry being the only remaining founding members. The band was dealt a devastating blow in 2011 when original member Williams died suddenly of a heart attack. By all accounts, that death in the family is by far the saddest wrinkle in what has otherwise been a funk fairy tale. Maze could easily borrow the often-quoted refrain from a popular Grateful Dead song: “What a long, strange trip it’s been.” Or, as Beverly himself sang back in the day, Ain’t it strange / How things do change.

The similarities between those two lyrics underscore what some fans have noted for years — that Maze and the Grateful Dead are kindred spirits. The theory is summed up by ELWarren Weatherspoon, drummer for We Are One, a Maryland-based Maze tribute band. “Maze is like the urban version of the Grateful Dead,” said Weatherspoon. “Anytime you can have an artist who hasn’t had a new record for 30-something years, and the fans still will come out, that’s like [the Dead].”

The notion of Maze being the Grateful Dead’s sepia-toned twin isn’t as far-fetched as it might sound. Both bands came up through San Francisco’s Bay Area, home to liberal University of California-Berkeley and West Coast hippie culture. The region incubated the psychedelic rock movement, spawning pioneering counterculture pop acts such as Sly & the Family Stone, Santana, Janis Joplin and Jefferson Airplane. Maze arrived in San Francisco from its native Philadelphia in the early ’70s, and its simmering R&B sound fit the northern California music scene hand-in-glove.

Yet, while both bands were raised in the shadow of San Francisco’s anti-war movement, neither Maze nor the Dead has ever been stridently political, at least not overtly. As evidenced by Maze favorites such as “Love is the Key” in 1983 and “Working Together” in 1978, the band’s politics have always taken the form of nonconfrontational pleas for peace: We are one, no matter what we do/We are one, love will see us through. Moreover, although Maze and the Dead were both signed to major record labels, neither band succumbed to industry pressure to dilute their respective sounds for broader appeal. If either band was ever going to score a multiplatinum hit, it would have to be on their own terms. In the case of Maze, that meant radio listeners would have to accept the band’s mellow musicianship and just-folks image.

As a result of their stand-pat stubbornness, both Maze and the Dead loom today as symbols of integrity in a sellout world. Most fans insist Maze is incapable of delivering a subpar performance. To the band’s devotees, a Maze show is more than just a concert. Rather, it’s a gathering of America’s urban tribes, a come-as-you-are block party with seven of your best friends providing the butt-bumping soundtrack. Until recently, Maze routinely closed the Essence Music Festival in New Orleans, an annual residency that implicitly tagged Maze as the official house band for black America.

But the Maze concert experience has changed in recent years. After 50 years of constant performing, Beverly’s velvety baritone is today a crackling shadow of its former self. The singer often has difficulty getting through shows without his voice sputtering or giving out entirely at times. Yet this isn’t a problem for his devoted followers. Beverly enjoys such a strong bond with fans that his compromised voice has become a curiously integral part of Maze performances. When his voice founders, the fans gleefully step in, completing Beverly’s verses en masse. It’s a beautiful thing to experience, a heart-melting demonstration of love between performer and audience, like witnessing lovers affectionately finishing each other’s sentences.

No Grammy. No American Music Award. No Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction. No worries.

Those who believe in God might even view Beverly’s faltering voice as divine intervention, a heavenly plan designed to strengthen the ties that bind the singer to his followers. Many Maze aficionados describe the band’s performances as spiritual experiences, during which time Beverly presides over his personal congregation with self-styled hallelujah fervor. One such fan is author and PBS talk show host Tavis Smiley. Raised in a strict Indiana home where secular music was prohibited, the multimedia star spent much of his formative years attending Pentecostal church services. If anyone can attest to the ministerial qualities of a Maze show, it’s Smiley.

Smiley recalls the first time he witnessed Maze at an Essence Festival performance in New Orleans back in the ’90s. “The Superdome is filled to capacity with black people,” Smiley remembered. “Everyone is there for a Maze and Frankie Beverly concert, and everyone is joyful. People are on their feet, swaying and singing. It was the kind of spiritual experience I’d never had outside of a church. You could feel the spirit. I’ve never done drugs in my life, so I can’t imagine what it’s like to be high. But on that night, I felt one of the highest highs I have ever felt.”

Like many fans, Smiley is amazed by Beverly’s ability to break down people’s defenses and turn 10,000 perfect strangers into a community. “We live in a world where everybody wants to be cute, where everyone wants to make a fashion statement and be seen,” Smiley said. “When you go to a Maze concert, nobody is holding a mirror up to themselves to see how they look. Nobody cares if they’re sweating, or standing up for the entire show. It’s a spiritual connectivity that you feel with the person to your left and to your right, to the person in front of you and behind you.”

Beverly’s messianic magnetism has made him a role model to some, with his peace-loving songs motivating certain fans to do more than just purchase concert tickets and replace their worn-out CDs. Inspired by Beverly, a retired Savannah, Georgia, teacher named Cynthia Harris Casteel formed a social group called Frankie’s Angels in 2000. Initially intended as an online prayer group for their hero, over time the group has articulated a mission to make the world a little bit better on behalf of their hero. To date, Frankie’s Angels has sent Mazecentric care packages including food, mood-lifting knickknacks and, of course, Maze souvenirs to victims of Hurricane Katrina, U.S. soldiers and even crime victims. “That is our mission, to spread happy feelings, just like Frankie spreads them,” said Harris Casteel.

In 2009, Casteel self-published a fictional book aptly titled Frankie’s Angels, about five female Maze fans who tap Beverly’s lyrics for comfort and guidance. “I always say there is a Maze song for every occasion that you’re going through,” said Harris Casteel. “If I’m feeling down, I can pull up a Maze song and it lifts me. If I’m already happy, I can go to a higher level and be happier. That’s the spiritual part of Frankie’s music. I don’t say ‘religious’ … but it touches your soul … makes you want to do better.”

And Burton and Arnold are disappointed by Beverly’s lack of peer recognition; friends say the singer is philosophical about his career. OK, so he never scaled the high-wire heights of pop icons like Michael Jackson, Prince, Whitney Houston or Tupac Shakur, but neither has Beverly been assessed the catastrophic tax those idols ultimately paid for flying close to the sun. Moreover, Beverly is still filling coliseums and amphitheaters. No Grammy. No American Music Award. No Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction. No worries.

“I think Frankie stopped caring long ago about accolades and honors,” said Smiley. “I think the most important thing [to him] is that it comes from the people. Being honored by an institution is wonderful … but being loved by individuals is a far greater thing. And that’s what Frankie Beverly has.”

Pots & pans: My parents, both born on July Fourth, didn’t live to see their American dream For my father, our nation was fundamentally immoral. My mother saw a work in progress.

Tomorrow, I’ll pause and think of my parents, both born on the Fourth of July. My father grew up in the rural South, part of a sharecropping family. My mother, the daughter of a laborer and a conjure woman, was born in Philly, just as our nation was.

Sometimes, after summer Sunday dinners with Monday’s toil hours away, they’d cruise into a familiar conversation. It would begin with scenic meanderings about what they’d do after they retired. It would end at a fork in the road, if not an impasse: a discussion of how black people should seek to live their lives in America.

My mother, a child of the Depression, gloried in every example of black people doing unprecedented things, from Jackie Robinson playing major league baseball to Marian Anderson and Leontyne Price in opera.

Although my mother didn’t live to see it, the election of Barack H. Obama as president of the United States exemplified her fondest dream: a black person climbing to unprecedented heights, buoyed by hard work, intelligence and faith.

My father, born before the beginning of World War I, saw America as a nation whose fundamental immorality was revealed in its inability to recognize black people as decent and hardworking. If he’d lived, he’d see post-Obama America and the rise of white nationalism here and throughout Europe as ample evidence that nothing had changed and nothing ever would.

My mother felt that things changed all the time. She helped change things in small ways. When she was a young woman, she stood up for herself on her government jobs. “Jeffery,” she’d say, “I was a pistol.”

Had she lived, my mother would have smiled while the black president of the United States spoke at her grandson’s 2016 Howard University graduation. She would have smiled when she learned that her grandson had the audacity to hope he could earn a living as a film critic.

Had he lived, my father would have shaken his head when the black president said in that graduation speech that to make progress folks had to be willing to compromise, even with those they knew were wrong. My father didn’t believe anything could be gained from compromising with people he knew were wrong.

Although my father would not have discouraged my son’s ambitions, Daddy would have shaken his head at a grandson who, like me, didn’t hope to work for himself.

Although my father worked on an assembly line in the 1960s, he’d owned a garage in the 1950s and a store before serving in the Navy during World War II. He’d also tried to start an import-export business. On occasion, he played and hit the street number. He was always looking for ways to free himself and his family from the dictates of workaday life in black America.

His childhood in a sharecropping family had taught him that the people who owned the land and kept the books also made sure that the workers remained in poverty.

My mother believed fervently in the richness of the American promise. While striving for success, she sought to stand on the shoulders of her ambition and commitment to excellence. She thought that setbacks dictated that she or the larger black community had to work harder or employ different strategies, set new goals.

My father believed that anyone who committed himself to competing in a game where he didn’t make the rules was bound to lose again and again.

Neither of my parents lived to retire. Their Sunday conversations from more than 50 years ago live only in my fond memories. But the explosive question of how black people should best pursue the American dream, or endure when that dream gets deferred, gets answered by each new generation in different ways, by individuals and through national movements, Crispus Attucks to JAY-Z, abolition to Black Lives Matter.

As always, the African-American journey continues in our country. We are not alone: We lock arms with everyone who knows that the nation’s greatness is rooted in its people rather than clever phrases. With each step forward, we carry the nation and its most cherished ideals to higher ground.

And the rockets’ red glare.

Maryland politician heads giant county government while caring for his wife who has Alzheimer’s Rushern Baker, of Prince George’s County, Maryland, is part of a growing trend of male caregivers

Rushern Baker is county executive in Prince George’s County, Maryland, a Washington, D.C., suburb that is the wealthiest majority-black county in the nation.

Originally elected in 2010, Baker is halfway through his second four-year term and just announced that he is a Democratic candidate for governor. He oversees a budget of $3.1 billion in a county with a population of 900,000, which makes it the second-largest county in the state.

During his time in office, crime is down 55 percent and he has attracted $12 billion in economic development and 55,000 jobs, according to his spokesman. But today, during an interview in the community room of a busy Wegman’s supermarket near the county seat, Baker is not here to talk about his economic and political achievements. He’s here to talk about his wife, his family and how he does what he does every day.

Baker is the primary caregiver for his wife of 30 years, Christa Beverly, 57, a former attorney who has suffered from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease since 2010. That disease affects 5 million people in the United States.

“I had to pick up from one of the most devastating things in life and move on,” said Baker, 58. “But you continue to live your life. You don’t stop.”

Historically, women have been primary caregivers in families affected by long-term health issues. As a result, their careers, salaries and lifestyles suffered.

But a new report from AARP says that men are increasingly stepping into the role, now representing 40 percent of the nation’s caregivers. Baker sees that trend in his own neighborhood in Cheverly, Maryland, where three neighbors are primary caregivers for their wives, all with Alzheimer’s.

“I realized that there are a number of men who are caring for their wives and parents,” he said. “So, there’s quite a number of us out there.”

Jean Accius, caregiving expert at the AARP Public Policy Institute and author of the report Breaking Stereotypes: Spotlight on Male Family Caregivers, said there are 40 million caregivers in the U.S. “The majority are women,” he said. “Over time we noticed that 4 out of 10, or 16 million, were male: husbands taking care of wives or partners, sons taking care of mothers. They are doing work and not recognized for work.”

The trend is fueled by a population that is aging as people live longer, he said. “Ten thousand people each day are turning 65. Family sizes are changing. There are more women in the labor force. All those things coming together facilitating the number of men doing this work.”

In another high-profile case of early-onset Alzheimer’s, restaurateur, television host lifestyle guru B. Smith said two years ago that she was suffering from the disease at 64 and was shutting down the last of her restaurants. Dan Gasby, her husband of 24 years, is caring for her. Their memoir, Before I Forget: Love, Hope, Help, and Acceptance in Our Fight Against Alzheimer’s, was published last year.

Accius said that despite the stress, male caregivers are generally reluctant to talk openly about it. The report was an attempt to change that. “The amount of work they are doing in addition to a full-time job and juggling working and caregiving is amazing,” he said. “It is a balancing act. It’s something to see the number of men giving injections and helping with tube feeding.”

Baker begins each day at 5:30 to 6 a.m., “so I can get her dressed. She can’t do anything. She can’t dress herself, go to the bathroom or feed herself.

“Then I set out her medication for the day,” he said. “If it’s going to be a long day, I get her medicine ready for the evening.” He gets to work by 9:30 or 10 a.m. “That’s the normal day, six days a week.”

On Fridays and Sundays, he tries to arrange his schedule so he can take her out, maybe to the park or the National Harbor. And on Sundays, there is church. Which leads us to his biggest regret.

“For a long time, I wouldn’t take my wife to church,” he said. “She would fall asleep, she would drool. I didn’t want people to see her in that condition.”

He changed that philosophy after a few years. “When I went [back] to church, it was one of the best experiences. I felt bad that for two years I did not take her.”

Rushern and Crista Baker at the Red and Gold Senior Gala on December 16, 2014

Courtesy of Mike Yourishin

He still talks to her and looks for reactions in her eyes. On good days, she recognizes people.

“Everything that she did, we will do,” he said. “When her sorority sisters met in Atlanta for a line reunion, we drove to Atlanta. When they come [to the Washington, D.C., area] she will host a brunch.” They come to the house and greet her and talk to her as they did before she was stricken with Alzheimer’s, he said.


The family first noticed something was wrong in 2008. Christa, or Cis as he calls her, a Howard University graduate with a law degree from the College of William & Mary, had just left her job at the Thurgood Marshall Scholarship Fund and was about to begin a search for a new job. Baker was on a business trip when their oldest daughter, Aja, called. On a trip to her parents’ home in Richmond, Virginia, where she grew up, Christa was lost. She was around the corner from her parents’ home but couldn’t figure out how to get there. There had been other “little things” before, such as forgetting things and losing her keys and glasses.

He tried to talk his wife into seeing a doctor, but she refused. There were several other episodes of her forgetting things or getting lost. She got lost while picking up her youngest daughter, Quinci, from high school, a school all their children attended and where they had driven for eight years. Still, she refused to see a doctor.

Finally, Baker talked to a doctor friend and figured out a way to get her in, under the guise of a medical appointment for him. In the exam room, the doctor also suggested that she test Christa while she was there. She agreed. She passed the brain scan, but the doctor said something was “not quite right” and she should have regular tests.

In February 2010, when she was about to turn 50, Baker took Christa in for a routine exam with a neurologist. The doctor asked her questions. She remembered her children’s names but couldn’t answer a number of simple questions, like the age of the children. Frustrated, she began to cry and looked at him for help with the answers. The diagnosis was early-onset Alzheimer’s.

“When he told us, she was mad and said, ‘I’ll never see this guy again,’ ” Baker said. “But by the time we got in the car, she had forgotten all about the incident. And that started our journey.”

The reason his memory is so vivid, he said, is that after two unsuccessful attempts, he was in the middle of his third campaign for county executive. He considered quitting.

“After the neurology exam, I went to my wife’s primary care physician and said I don’t know if I should run,” Baker said. “He said, ‘I don’t know if you can not run. If you don’t run, she will know something was wrong.’ ” His wife, by then, was an integral part of his campaigns and was well-known in the county.


Today, she can only walk a few steps, so she uses a wheelchair. She doesn’t have the ability to speak or eat through her mouth. “But as far as recognizing people, she has moments when she knows who folks are. She looks great. But a few months ago they had to put a [tracheotomy tube] in to help her breathe.”

“Every day has its challenges,” Baker said. After being in the hospital for three months, she was able to go to their son Rushern IV’s wedding and understand that their youngest daughter, Quinci, graduated from college.

Quinci was 15 when her mother was diagnosed and was a major help in those first two years, Baker said. She is now 22, and she and Aja, 25, recently moved out of the family home, reluctantly, to their own apartment. They are not far away, but he wanted them to establish their own lives.

Rushern Baker gets a tattoo done in his wife’s honor his daughter looks on.

Rushern Baker’s tattoo in honor of his wife, Crista and her battle with early onset Alzheimers.

“They are still there for me if I have a meeting [in the evening],” he said. “I was training for a marathon, and they were there for me.”

His role as caregiver has certainly made him more aware of the challenges facing other caregivers, especially those who work for the county. He has become active in Alzheimer’s groups: Us Against Alzheimer’s, an advocacy group, and the Alzheimer’s Association, which promotes research into the disease. There is now a chapter of the association in Prince George’s County. He and all three children went on a local radio show to raise money for Alzheimer’s research and agreed to get tattoos if they raised $6,000. They did. (Baker’s tattoo of his wife’s initials along with the Alzheimer’s Association symbol is on his right forearm.)

Home care is always an issue, he said. It has to be someone you can trust, because “my wife can’t speak.” One of the nurses who cares for his wife left for another job. “I had to take off a week to find someone.”

It was overwhelming, especially in the beginning, Baker said. “When I took over the county, all of the issues … I was basically building a government from scratch, and it was not easy.” He sometimes had to work until 3 a.m. He was gaining weight.

Finally, his predecessor, Wayne Curry, gave him some advice. “He said you’ve got to do something else. He pushed him to do the things he loved — reading, running and tennis — to relieve the stress. He started running in the mornings three days a week with county police cadets. He started carrying a book to read.

It still can be overwhelming at times, especially in a job as demanding as his. “You need something to relieve the stress and you need others to help, or you will get sick yourself, and then you can’t care for your loved one,” he said.

His biggest lesson: “Seek and accept help. Don’t try to do it yourself. You need support. Don’t be embarrassed to accept help.”

Another lesson: “Be open and honest with your family, especially your children. I tried to shelter my daughter. Looking back, it was wrong.”

The last thing: “Accept the fact that every day is the new normal.” That means when his son, Rushern IV, was getting married, he needed to get his wife there in her wheelchair and then figure out how long they would need to be outside during the ceremony and proceedings.

“You start to put things into perspective,” he said. “I had to pick up from one of the most devastating things in my life and move on.”

Why’d it take so long for some of us to find out about Juneteenth? Some people think that it should be independence day for black Americans

I’ve been celebrating July Fourth for as long as I can remember, but I only learned about Juneteenth last year. Before you ask for my black card, hear me out.

1. Why social media is necessary

It takes a few hours for President Donald Trump’s tweet about a fake word to go viral, but it took almost 20 years for me to learn about a holiday celebrating the end of slavery in Galveston, Texas.

What’s more, I’m not alone. Nine out of 10 college students I know learned about the holiday just within the past five years.

We as a people are lacking education on a holiday that’s supposed to be ours in our classrooms and in our communities. “There’s so much vital history that school textbooks leave out, especially when it’s about African-Americans,” said Daryl Riley Jr., a junior at Hampton University. “Growing up, all I knew was that we were slaves and about Martin Luther King Jr.”

2. Holidays need branding too

The description of Juneteenth is not consistent. The San Diego Union Tribune described it as “a combination of June and nineteenth, the day in 1865 when many slaves in Texas learned they were free. Although emancipation had taken place more than two years earlier, federal troops were sent June 19, 1865, to tell slaves in Galveston, Texas, of their freedom after that news had been kept from them.” The Tribune called it the day slavery ended in America.

The Post Newspaper of Galveston County said it was the day “enslaved people were freed after Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was ‘read on a harbor pier in Galveston.’ ”

Al.com says the day commemorates the abolition of slavery.

As a result, it’s hard to tell exactly how many people even observe Juneteenth or whether they know exactly what they are celebrating. The Galveston Island Convention and Visitors Bureau says 40 states around the country host official commemorations.

3. Now that we know, what do we do?

The NAACP hosts annual Juneteenth gatherings to teach new generations about the day.

“Throughout my undergraduate career, I performed annually at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, NAACP’s Juneteenth celebration,” said Alexjandria Edwards, a recent graduate of the University of Michigan. “Each year, I performed Negro spirituals while other artists, traditional folk storytellers, dancers and designers displayed varying forms of black excellence.”

Lyndsay Archer, a junior from Wayne State University, said, “In order for black people around the world and people of color to progress, we must be able to acknowledge and embrace our past history, learn from those experiences, and gain a sense of both pride and humility in our rich narratives.”

Come to find out, many African-Americans have mixed emotions about celebrating July Fourth. After all, blacks weren’t free in 1776.

Lauren Smith, a junior at Howard University, is one.

“I celebrate the Fourth of July because we built this country for free, so every holiday belongs to us.”

Robbie Osborne, a sophomore at Hampton University, doesn’t celebrate July Fourth as a holiday at all. “I don’t celebrate the Fourth of July because it doesn’t represent the liberation and freedom of all races in America.”

I’ve been debating whether I should look at Juneteenth as the true independence day for black people.

I’m aware that the slaves were officially freed by the Emancipation Proclamation two years earlier, but I’m in solidarity with some of the last black folks to find out. I hate being the last to find out about anything important.

I will still celebrate July Fourth because it provides my family a chance to take a break from work, to celebrate each other, eat great food and watch fireworks. I appreciate the opportunities afforded to me as an American citizen, but Juneteenth as independence day resonates more strongly for me.

Juneteenth is the celebration of black freedom from slavery in the U.S., so why is it 2017 and so many black Americans are just learning about the holiday?

Perhaps the answer is connected to why freedom, as it was intended by the Founding Fathers, feels like an impossibility for black folks. Given all of the black people in prison, the numerous unarmed black men and women who are killed by police, the wage gap between blacks and whites and all the black girls who are discouraged from rocking their natural hair in schools or at work, I’m dubious about how free we are today.

I have only known freedom, but there are still so many black people who don’t. Like the Solomon Burke song says, “None of us are free if one of us is chained.”

‘Queen Sugar’: What Oprah and Ava DuVernay say to expect from season two OWN is dialing up the intrigue in its show about rural Louisiana

Queen Sugar, OWN’s marquee family drama created by Ava DuVernay, returns Tuesday night with its second-season premiere, with the second episode airing Wednesday.

The network only released the first episode in advance, so this isn’t a review. However, I did speak with executive producers Oprah Winfrey and Ava DuVernay at recent press events in Los Angeles about the upcoming season.

Season one closed with Charley (Dawn-Lyen Gardner) deciding to leave her rapey pro basketball player husband and start the Queen Sugar mill, the first black-owned mill in her family’s Louisiana home parish of St. Josephine’s. She rounded up commitments from many of the community’s black farmers to use the Bordelon mill to grind their cane, assuming it’s up and running in time. And Charley’s raising the hackles of competing white male farmers, especially Samuel Landry (David Jensen), who owns the biggest farm in the parish.

Here’s what’s in store:

Dialing up the drama

Winfrey’s been quite vocal in her support of Queen Sugar and announced a second-season pickup last year before a single episode had even aired. She’s been similarly effusive in advance of the second season. Winfrey joked about keeping the Bordelons in a state of some dysfunction because it makes for more entertaining storytelling that can be spooled out for multiple seasons.

“I pray Ralph Angel and his sisters get it together,” Kofi Siriboe said of his character, Ralph Angel, during a roundtable with Winfrey and Gardner.

Winfrey pursed her lips a bit and said, “Not soon.”

Ralph Angel (Kofie Siriboe), Blue (Ethan Hutchison) and Darla (Bianca Lawson) in a scene from Queen Sugar.

Alfonso Bresciani /Courtesy of OWN

While all that soapy, melodramatic goodness is great for fans, it spells trouble ahead for Nova (Rutina Wesley), who’s still fighting for justice in her job as a newspaper journalist, and Ralph Angel as he struggles to get Charley to respect his skill as a farmer. Meanwhile Aunt Vi, played by the utterly vivacious Tina Lifford, is still showing us just how great retirement age can be, opening the season clad in a crop top on a trip to a nightclub with her nieces.

Apparently Winfrey had toyed with the idea of playing Aunt Violet herself but was booked on OWN’s other drama Greenleaf, which led to a long search before she and DuVernay cast Lifford.

A continued spotlight on Louisiana’s criminal justice system

One of the most compelling B-stories of the first season was Too Sweet’s (Isaac White) trials after being swept into Louisiana’s overextended criminal justice system. Unable to afford an attorney, Too Sweet became another juvenile warehoused in jail as he awaited face time with a public defender barely acquainted with the facts of his case. Without Nova highlighting the injustices of his case, he could have simply been lost in the system.

Rutina Wesley and Dawn-Lyen Gardner as sisters Nova and Charley Bordelon.

Alfonso Bresciani / Courtesy of OWN

This season, Queen Sugar takes a sharper look at the influence and limitations of class when it comes to how black people are treated, with Micah (Nicholas L. Ashe) undergoing his own harrowing experience with law enforcement.

A continued look at the lives of rural black people

The Washington Post recently released the results of a survey that shows a broadening divide between the worldviews of rural and urban Americans. It also found completely different outlooks between rural blacks and whites.

According to the Post:

Black rural Americans — most of whom live in the South — are far less likely than their white neighbors to feel positively about their communities, the poll finds. Sixty percent of blacks say their area is an excellent or good place to raise children, compared with 80 percent of whites. Rural blacks are 25 percentage points less likely than rural whites to give their community positive marks on safety and are 29 points less likely to say their area is a place where people look out for one another. Rural Hispanics tend to fall in between whites and blacks in rating their communities.

There are few shows on television that bother grappling with the experiences of rural Americans in a way that steers clear of obvious and insulting stereotypes, and fewer still that focus almost exclusively on black rural Americans. But Queen Sugar does. And it illustrates the racial divide that the Post discusses. While St. Josephine’s parish may be small enough for everyone to know each other, it’s still deeply segregated, and the economic disparities between the parish’s black farmers and its white ones are huge.

“[The Bordelons] know exactly which white people in their community owned their family,” DuVernay said. “We’re trying to be really explicit in our intentions in playing with and unpacking race and culture, but do it in a way that’s wrapped in contemporary romance and beautiful people and personal relationships while we have this cultural/historical context over it.”

Visions from new directors

Regardless of Julie Dash’s talent as a filmmaker, no one was beating down her door to do more work after Daughters of the Dust, which debuted to rapturous reviews in 1991. We can credit the aesthetic references to Dash’s work in Beyoncé’s Lemonade film to the resurgence in interest in the director, who is now a film professor at Howard University. She, along with five other women — DeMane Davis, Cheryl Dunye, Aurora Guerrero, Amanda Marsalis and producing director Kat Candler — were responsible for continuing DuVernay’s vision in season two.

Dash’s experience with being unable to convert obvious skill into steady and challenging work is hardly anomalous among female directors, and DuVernay spoke at length about the difficulty for them to get hired. It’s what influenced her decision to have both seasons of Queen Sugar be directed entirely by women.

http://www.espn.com/video/clip?id=19687535

See what the cast of Queen Sugar has to say about working with Julie Dash.

“I wanted to say, ‘Look over here. Look at how it can be and how wonderful it can be,’ ” DuVernay said. “I’m proud that other shows have followed suit. I’m proud of Melissa [Rosenberg] at Jessica Jones following suit and some other shows starting to really step into the gap and say, ‘We will have balance.’ …

“I’ve tried to, with Oprah’s blessing and Warner Horizon’s blessing, over-index and go the other direction. I always say if Game of Thrones can have three seasons of all male directors, why can’t we have three seasons of all women directors? If they can do it, why can’t we do it? And you only do that because you can and you want to. You only say, ‘We will not have women’s voices, we will only center the man’s perspective,’ in terms of the perspective of the show, because you want to. On the other side of the things, we’re going to center women as much as we can because we want to. And we’re at a network owned by a woman, so it makes it easier.”

DuVernay is a bit busy, shooting and now editing the much-anticipated Wrinkle in Time, juggling duties at Array, her independent film distribution company, and prepping for other projects, such as her upcoming adaptation of the Robin Givhan book The Battle of Versailles for HBO Films. So this season, Nashville alumnus Monica Macer served as showrunner, supervising the writers room in Los Angeles, while Candler ran the set in Louisiana. The show also promoted two writers, Anthony Sparks and Jason Wilborn, to producer. This season she wasn’t on set, but DuVernay maintained final approval of scripts, casting and editing.

“It’s hard to hand your baby off, but it’s easy when it’s family,” she said.

Thanks to DuVernay’s insistence on using only female directors for the first season of Queen Sugar, her contemporaries are busy too. Besides bringing a new set of stories to the small screen, DuVernay’s created a professional pipeline for other female directors.

“I started out looking at women who had at least directed one film, so the great majority of women from the first season have at least one film under their belt. Can you believe that these women had directed a film — a film that played at film festivals around the world, many of them had won at festivals around the world — and couldn’t get hired in Hollywood for one episode of television? On any network, they would not be allowed in the door,” DuVernay said, clearly peeved. “So all of the women in our season one, all of the women have gone on to be heavily, heavily booked.

“I got a call from a really well-known television show just last week asking, We had someone drop out as a director. Can you refer us to one of your season one directors?’ I got on the phone and tried. None of the season one directors are available. Not one of them. They’re completely booked. I called Victoria Mahoney and I was like, ‘This is a pretty good show.’ She’s like, ‘The show’s good. I’m booked till February of 2018.’ I’m like, ‘Word!’ ”

Pots & pans: We need to celebrate our heroes and heroines both past and present this Juneteenth No matter the when, they are all making it possible for blacks to realize the true American dream

On this date in 1865, black people enslaved in Galveston, Texas, were told the Union forces had won the Civil War and that they were free. Since then, black Americans have marked Juneteenth with jubilation, feasts, strawberry soda and other red drinks.

Today, I raise my glass of strawberry soda to salute some of the people I believe exemplify the continuing struggle to gain full civil and human rights for black people in our country, a struggle that has helped America draw closer to the vision outlined in the Declaration of Independence.

Consequently, I toast LeBron James and Kevin Durant. Since 2010, James has gone from the Cleveland Cavaliers to the Miami Heat and back again, winning three NBA championships along the way. This season, K.D. moved from the Oklahoma City Thunder to the Golden State Warriors and led that team to a 4-1 victory in the NBA Finals over LeBron’s Cavs, the defending champs. Furthermore, they triumphed by competing against each other vigorously while respecting each other as athletes and as men.

Although some deride and dismiss the significance of millionaire black athletes deciding their fates, their actions represent a generation of black athletes who feel free to pursue happiness and league championships on their own terms.

I toast broadcast journalist April Ryan and U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris from California, wonder women who seek to lasso the truth with their probing questions. They have asked questions that revealed inconvenient truths about the white male political establishment that has sought, without success, to dismiss them and shut them up.

Meanwhile, I toast Ta-Nehisi Coates and Chadwick Boseman. The two Howard University men continue the integration of the nation and the world’s fantasy life. Coates, a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation genius grant winner, has been writing the comic book Black Panther, about a genius inventor and one of the world’s smartest people. Boseman, who has captured the physicality and emotional complications of James Brown and Jackie Robinson on screen, will continue playing the Black Panther in an eponymous 2018 movie.

As Coates and Boseman champion black inclusion in society through a superhero, Lynn Nottage uses ordinary people to help America better understand today’s challenges, which are made worse by racial and class divisions.

She earns a strawberry soda salute with her bittersweet Sweat, her Pulitzer Prize-winning play that explores the end of work and the emotional chaos that follows. Colson Whitehead, a Pulitzer Prize winner for The Underground Railroad gives us a poetic vision of slavery and its aftermath. And Tracy K. Smith, another Pulitzer Prize winner (Life on Mars), and the new poet laureate of the United States, finds majesty in the everyday, just as Gwendolyn Brooks and Rita Dove did before her.

They meld the intellectual ambition of W.E.B DuBois and Booker T. Washington’s veneration for sweat and craft. They show that the road to higher ground is paved with a commitment to excellence. They show that great art is fundamental to our survival. I toast them all.

And I toast all the black people, especially the slaves, lost to the years. They bore the lash. They prayed. They loved.

And they live in today’s triumphs, undefeated and unbowed, now and forever.

Muhammad Ali knew how to play the villain, but dodging the draft turned him into a pariah An excerpt from Leigh Montville’s ‘Sting Like a Bee’

The famous quote did not come until a day later. The interviews on the lawn at 4610 NW 15th Street were long finished when Ali took a phone call in the morning from Tom Fitzpatrick, a 39-year-old sportswriter for the Chicago Daily News. The fight with Ernie Terrell was scheduled to take place in less than six weeks, March 29, 1966, at the International Amphitheatre near the Union Stock Yards in Chicago. Tickets had to be sold. There were reasons to talk to sportswriters from Chicago.

The Daily News was an afternoon paper, so Fitzpatrick was looking for a different angle, different words from what everyone would read over breakfast. He was not disappointed.

“I am a member of the Muslims and we don’t go to no wars unless they are declared by Allah himself,” Ali said into the phone. “I don’t have no personal quarrel with those Viet Congs.”

Bingo.

That second sentence, the one about the Viet Congs, would become the defining quote for all that followed for the heavyweight champion of the world. The initial rush of self-indulgent emotion recorded by Bob Halloran and the other reporters was enough to get America agitated about a man who talked too much, loved himself too much. The mention of the Viet Cong, first reported in the afternoon edition of the Daily News, then repeated on the wire services to newspapers across the country, brought a focus to that agitation, put all the anger into a convenient package.

“Those Viet Cong are not attacking me.”

Nothing against those Viet Congs? This was the hook. Was it dissent or was it treason? Common sense or sedition? No boldface or italics were needed. The words would jump off the page without help.

“We Muslims are taught to defend ourselves when we are attacked,” Ali further told Fitzpatrick. “Those Viet Cong are not attacking me.

“These Viet Congs are fighting a very nasty war over there,” he added. “There’s a lot of people getting killed. Why should we Muslims get involved?”

Variations of “I don’t have no personal quarrel with those Viet Congs” would be included in all future biographical stories about Ali. This would become his stand, his legacy: the ten words that changed his life. The quote would become part of American historical dialogue, stuff for schoolkids to remember. Who said “Give me liberty or give me death”? Patrick Henry. Who said “I don’t have no personal quarrel with those Viet Congs”?

An added quote would be assigned to him later: “No Viet Cong ever called me ‘n—–,’ ” but he did not say that. Not now, not for many, many years, if he ever did. The quote was said by other people — activist Stokely Carmichael, for one — but somehow was assigned to Ali in slippery history. His quote was, “I don’t have no personal quarrel with those Viet Congs.”

He would try later to give the words context. He would claim in his 1975 autobiography, The Greatest: My Own Story, that on his way back from the gym that day when he received the news, he had seen some kids throwing rocks at a little girl. He said he stopped and asked what was happening and the kids told him they were playing “army and Viet Cong” and the little girl was Viet Cong. The words made him flash to pictures he had seen in a magazine of a little girl walking among dead bodies outside Saigon. Troubled, he took this little neighborhood child in his arms and walked her home, away from the trouble. The incident was still in his head when he spoke later.

None of this happened. The autobiography would be filled with these little feel-good memories that were too good to be true, bedtime-story perfect, invented by the champ and ghostwriter Richard Durham. He never mentioned the little girl to any reporters on that day. He never even mentioned the Viet Cong until his late interview with Fitzpatrick. The quote that became remembered was another part of his daily torrent of words. Captain Sam Saxon, the man who first introduced Ali to the Nation of Islam in Miami, said he was with the champ at one point in the day and told him, “You got nothing against those Viet Cong,” and the champ agreed, yes, he had nothing against those Viet Cong. Ali perhaps remembered and repeated the phrase in the interview, nobody really conscious of the impact. There was no plan; the words came out with all the other words. The difference was that these words landed in the catch basin of the national mind.

Those Viet Cong were killing more than 18 American kids every day. The death total for 1965 had been 1,928 (double the casualties of any year in the Iraq War), and that would be tripled, to 6,350, in 1966 with the new escalation (more deaths in one year than in the entire Iraq War). In 1968, the height of the Vietnam War, 16,899 American kids would lose their lives. That would be 46 per day.

Not being upset with the Viet Cong seemed much worse than not submitting to the draft or not wanting to be involved in the war. Graphic pictures of these dying American boys had begun to appear on the nightly news. The enemy was supposed to be the enemy.

“I don’t want to scare anybody about it, but there are millions of Muslims around the world watching what is happening to me,” Ali said to Fitzpatrick. “I’m not making a threat [that they’ll get angry and do something]. I’m just saying maybe.”

This was heavy stuff.


Ali was familiar with the role of villain. He had chosen it in the early stages of his professional career, tried it on as if it were a black hat and a scowl discovered in the back of a family closet. He kept it when he found that it brought increased attention and larger paydays.

His marketing idea was that bad was much more interesting than good, an approach that newspapers, the television nightly news, and the gossipy woman next door had adopted long ago. People were more interested in paying money to see Sylvester the Cat than Tweety, Tom more than Jerry, Wile E. Coyote more than that beep-beep Road Runner.

This approach was adopted when Ali returned from the 1960 Olympics with his light-heavyweight gold medal and found himself back at the beginning in the professional side of the sport, no more than another low-watt attraction fighting unheralded opponents named Terry Hunsaker, Herb Siler, Tony Esperti, and Duke Sabedong. Where was the money, the instant payoff for those hundred-plus amateur fights? (His amateur record has been recorded in various places with various numbers, ranging from 99-8 to 137-7.) Where was that joy the country felt when he stood on that podium in Rome, the “Star-Spangled Banner” played for the world to hear? He was in a hurry. What would make people notice again? The answer appeared on his television screen.

“Soon after I turned pro, I discovered that even though I won the Olympic title, I wasn’t making any money,” Ali said to Alex Haley in Playboy. “I was the only champion who didn’t have no jack jangling in his jeans. . . . One night I was watching Gorgeous George on TV. He was jumping around making a lot of noise and threatening his opponents and I said to myself, ‘This guy’s on to something. I think I’ll put some of that into my act.’ ”

Gorgeous George, whose real name was George Raymond Wagner, was an eighth-grade dropout from Nebraska who had become one of television’s first stars in the Fifties, as notable as Lucille Ball or Milton Berle or Bishop Fulton J. Sheen. He strutted into the ring in sequined robes and high-heeled shoes and had bleached-blond hair that looked as if it came from the same bottle Marilyn Monroe used. His personal “valet” preceded him, squirting perfume into the air. George was a sissified, exaggerated stereotype of a homosexual, effeminate to the ultimate, totally in love with himself. He also was a sneaky, dirty wrestler once the matches began. The combination was irresistible. People howled from the moment he was introduced. A ringside spectator named Hatpin Mary sometimes would stick said hatpin into George’s grand backside somewhere during the proceedings, to everyone’s amusement.

Ali, as Cassius Clay at the time, adopted pieces of this act — the villain was known as the “heel” in wrestling, the hero known as the “babyface” — and added some of his own. The adopted parts involved the self-important bluster, the constant confidence, the repeated declarations about how pretty he was, the demonization of every opponent. He became a shouter, eyes bugged out of his head, one of those people who always seemed to be ticking, ready to explode. The predictions, the rhymes, the nonsense were part of his act.

American boxer Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali) in the ring after his defeat of Sonny Liston in their world heavyweight title fight at Miami Beach, Florida.

Harry Benson/Express/Getty Images

He was especially insufferable and comic in the buildup to the first fight with Liston. He called Liston “The Bear,” and wore a light blue jacket that said “Bear Huntin” on the back. He went to Las Vegas, screamed outside the champ’s house, confronted him in a casino, made his life miserable. He asked if that big bear was as “rangy and fast and pretty as me.” Gorgeous George couldn’t have done any better.

Ali was familiar with the role of villain.

“[Clay] is light-hearted and breezy and has just enough twinkle in his eyes to take most of the obnoxiousness from the wild words he utters,” Arthur Daley of the New York Times said before the fight. “When they are imprisoned in print, however, the twinkle is never captured and Cassius just becomes nauseous.”

The twinkle made its last unadulterated appearance in the moments after Ali won the title. He was outrageous, comical, as he shouted in triumph from the ring at the sportswriters who picked Liston to win easily. He boasted about his looks, his ability, his battle plan for the odd fight that he had won when Liston refused to come out for the seventh round. No doubt about it, the night the young challenger captured the title he was a hoot. He made even his worst detractors admit they had been wrong about what would happen.

The change came the next day with his announcement that he was a member of the Nation of Islam. The comedy of the past was overwhelmed by the message of the present. The bigmouthed character became a Black Muslim. This was not what most of the paying public wanted to hear. The villain’s words now meant something. The jokes took second place to personal philosophy.

“I don’t have to be what you want me to be,” Ali said at his press conference. “I’m free to be who I want.

“I go to a Black Muslim meeting and what do I see?” he said. “I see there’s no smoking and no drinking and their women wear dresses down to the floor,” he said. “And then I come out on the street and you tell me I shouldn’t go in there. Well, there must be something in there if you don’t want me to go in there.

“In the jungle, lions are with lions and tigers with tigers and redbirds stay with redbirds and bluebirds with bluebirds,” he said. “That’s human nature, too, to be with your own kind. I don’t want to go where I’m not wanted.”

The softness here was in contrast to the national image of the NOI and the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. For the white folk who had paid attention, not a large group at the start, this was a cult more than a religion, a theology that talked about white devils and spaceships and a black scientist named Jakub, who had an enormous head and created the white devils 6,000 years ago to persecute the black man.

The Muslims had demands. What was it that Malcolm X always said? “Nobody can give you freedom. Nobody can give you equality or justice or anything. If you’re a man, you take it.” Most national stories about the faith mentioned the large number of convicted criminals who now were members.

At first, there was the thought that Ali’s conversion was a phase, a mistake by a 22-year-old guy — 22 years, 39 days at that — who had landed in a new situation with new levels of fame and economics. He had been brainwashed by some slick salesmen, sold this bill of curious religious goods. He would grow out of it soon enough. A Black Muslim? He would realize a heavyweight champ could have a much easier life.

“He’s always been such a good boy,” said his mother, Odessa Clay. “He’s been taken in by these Muslim people. We pray he’ll see the light — and we think he will.”

Muhammad Ali at the Howard university with the Muslim journal ‘Muhammad Speaks’ produced by an African American organization (Nation of Islam).

Henning Christoph/ullstein bild via Getty Images

“That Muslim stuff is a phony religion,” said his father, Cassius Clay Sr. “They brag that they don’t drink, smoke or fool around with women. That is only one commandment. There are Ten Commandments.”

The depth of Ali’s belief soon became established. If this was a brainwash, it was a very good one. Standing at the side of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad after Malcolm X’s death, the heavyweight champion of the world became a potential target for revenge. He never blinked.

As city after city rejected the idea that it should be the host for his rematch with Liston because of worries of Black Muslim violence, because of the potential for his assassination, his commitment never changed. As the fight finally landed in a hockey rink in Lewiston, Maine, and he trained in Chicopee, Massachusetts, trailed by five policemen every day as he went from his motel room to the converted banquet hall where he sparred, he laughed about the threat. As he was guarded by more than 200 policemen on the night of the fight, with hourly reports of Malcolm X Muslims coming north from New York to kill him, he laughed some more. He then dropped Liston in one round with one “anchor punch,” supposedly taught to him by old-time actor Stepin Fetchit, and as all of America wondered what the hell was going on, he exulted.

“Nobody wants to kill me,” he said. “If they shoot, the gun will explode in their hands, the bullets will turn, Allah will protect me.”

Booed during the introductions, booed during the lopsided fight, booed at the end, Ali converted the night into a morality play.

The Lewiston win was followed six months later with the 12th-round TKO embarrassment of Floyd Patterson. Poor Floyd, 31 years old, was a gentle man, a practicing Catholic, a two-time heavyweight champ who had been knocked out twice by Liston in the first round, causing him to disguise himself in shame when he walked the streets after the fights. He was cast here as a classic babyface by Ali, drawn for the fight as “The Rabbit,” as the white man’s version of a good black man, yessir, nosir, Uncle Tom. Ali cast himself, of course, as the heel. He was the belligerent black man the white man feared in the night.

Booed during the introductions, booed during the lopsided fight, booed at the end, Ali converted the night into a morality play. True Black Man pummels Fake Black Man. He would use this plotline often during his boxing career, no one ever sure if he was kidding to hype the crowd or was as serious as could be. The answer was left to the observer to decide. Ali simply laid out the story.

His domination of Patterson was obvious. The challenger, who claimed he hurt his back in the fourth, didn’t win a single round. Ali played with him, taunted him, called him “the white man’s black man,” said, “Come on, black man, fight for America.” He seemingly could have knocked him out in any round, finally dropped him in the sixth, then finished him in the 12th. Ali would claim that he was waiting for the referee to stop the fight all night, that he tried not to hurt Patterson, but the ringside view mostly was that he punished the challenger for insisting on calling him “Clay,” not his Muslim name, in the prefight publicity whirl. Fake or real, the villain was in charge all the way.

“He’s mean,” legendary retired champion Joe Louis said. “He worked that poor Floyd over good. He handled him like a baby and he gave him more than he had to give him. I think he could have knocked him out from the first round if he wanted to, but he didn’t want to. I think he just let him have it for fun.”

“While we were fighting, Clay said maybe once or twice in the earlier rounds, maybe like in the third or fourth, ‘What’s my name?’ and I said ‘Cassius,’ ” Patterson said years later. “And finally, in the latter part of the fight, I’d say in the ninth, tenth or eleventh round, and I was really taking a really bad beating, suffering, he said ‘Now what’s my name?’ I believe I said the same thing, ‘Cassius Clay and that’s what it’s always going to be, regardless of the results of this fight. Cassius Clay.’ ”

“Round one, I said, ‘What’s my name?’ ” Ali said, some number of years later. “He didn’t say nothing. So round two, round three, I hit him with my right hand. ‘What’s my name?’ He said, ‘Muhammad Ali, Muhammad Ali.’ ”

Either way, the fight was a showcase for Ali. This was how well he could box. The two bouts against Liston had been characterized by their strange conclusions. This fight was characterized by Ali’s abilities. He had dazzle, flash, incredible speed. There never had been a heavyweight champ like this young guy. He danced and moved like a middleweight, but had the size and power of a heavyweight. He had told everyone before the fight that Joe Louis would have been too slow to beat him. Rocky Marciano would have been too short. Jack Johnson would have been too ugly. Jack Dempsey would have been too light and couldn’t punch. That left him at the top. The Greatest. He looked the part against poor Patterson.

He said he didn’t need love. He had talent.

“I’m not worried about those boos,” he said. “Those were white people. I got all the black people, some white people, too, and the people of Africa and Asia.”

That theory would be tested with his remarks about the draft and the Viet Cong. The volume became louder. Starting now.

National Urban League hosts real talk about the State of Black America in 2017 TV special tries to addresses questions about an uncertain political future and protecting progress

When National Urban League president and CEO Marc H. Morial walked on stage Tuesday at the Howard Theatre, the message he was there to spread applied as much to the building as it did to the black community. The iconic venue in Washington, D.C.’s, Shaw neighborhood, down the block from Howard University, reopened with much fanfare in 2012 after decades in disrepair. But it’s now facing financial trouble and may have to close again.

And with President Donald Trump rolling back nearly every important policy that America’s first president of color (and the first lady) put in place, it feels like we may be going back to a darker era. Hence the theme of the proceedings: “Protect Our Progress.”

The nonpartisan civil rights organization and TV One taped a two-hour town hall special on the State of Black America with the release of its annual report of the same name. It highlights issues facing the community, complete with tangible data to better understand how to tackle these issues.

“Backward never, forward ever. We are bold. We are mighty. We are empowered. We are Urban Leaguers. Protect our progress. Resist the rollback!” was the call-and-response chant that Morial led with those gathered at the 2017 Legislative Policy Conference, before moderator and TV One host Roland Martin took over the proceedings.

While the taping schedule made it a slightly different vibe from a live town hall meeting — the show airs May 31 — Martin kept the crowd loose while also directing the show from the stage. The first panel featured culture critic Toure; Angela Sailor, former director of the Republican National Committee’s Coalitions department; CNN’s Symone Sanders; and activist/TV host Jeff Johnson, who has covered income inequality, education and mentorship in the black community.

Things moved from polite sharing of ideas to actual disagreement when Martin asked Sailor whether black people should trust the Department of Education’s budget when it comes to opportunities for children. She implied that the larger solution would involve more than that anyway.

“We know that they’re not because the budget is not reflective of it,” Sanders retorted. “It is incumbent on us to demand. I think we are doing something. Organizations like us … are definitely showing up in their communities, showing up to the elected officials or coming to the funding table with private and public partnerships to make things work. But we cannot let the Department of Education and other folks off the hook when they don’t include us in their budget. That’s absolutely ridiculous.”

Shortly afterward, Johnson described how black folks too often get caught up in the dream of college — the “bougie wonderland” — and get themselves into debt instead of learning skills that make them marketable in a global environment. I could have listened to him talk about that subject for the rest of the event, but alas, they moved on.

According to the latest State of Black America report, the 2017 National Equality Index compared with white America is 72.3 percent. The Hispanic Index is 78.4 percent. The index looks at five areas: economics, education, health, social justice and civic engagement.

When trying to cover so many topics with so many voices in a limited amount of time, it’s impossible to delve into any one in a truly meaningful way. But the crowd was given Q&A sessions with each panel. “No sermonettes; ask a question,” Martin sternly advised the crowd with a wink.

Before most segments, a vignette was shown about a specific initiative that the Urban League had helped with. In a similar vein before the taping, corporate sponsor Toyota, through its Freedom To Move program, highlighted “Hiplet,” a Chicago dance center that is loosely described as “rap ballet.”

The second panel featured Sailor and author/professor Michael Eric Dyson, along with CNN commentators Parris Dennard and Angela Rye. My favorite moment came from Dyson, who mentioned Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert while discussing the plight of Detroit, which is undergoing one of the harder-core gentrification processes in the country.

“I grew up in Detroit. It’s not just crime, it was white flight that exacerbated the tensions in the city,” Dyson said. “The [areas] around Detroit began to absorb those resources, then they marginalized poor people. Gentrification is predicated upon the access to capital and the ability to own a home, while upwardly mobile, largely white people — and then, in some cases, black and brown people — who then push out those people who are there.

“Once into the exurbs and suburbs, where they were banned, now, as Roland said, there’s no transportation network out there. They’re stuck out there, while Dan Gilbert, who owns the Cleveland Cavaliers and is one of the greatest landowners in Detroit, is creating the tension because he owns so much of the property and now along the lakefront and the waterfront, where blacks are banned. White brothers and sisters are establishing their bona fides while black people are left behind. That’s a problem of not crime. The real crime is white neglect and white flight from a city, then reappropriating black resources.”

Whether any problems were solved Tuesday wasn’t really the point. Some smart minds got together to discuss the problems facing our community. When it airs later this month, I hope discussions will spread outside of that as well.