‘Marshall’ turns Thurgood into the contemporary hero Americans want, but ignores the one he was Not enough of the real NAACP lawyer shows up in Chadwick Boseman’s portrayal

Marshall, the new film from director Reginald Hudlin about the late Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall, comes from a production company called Super Hero Films.

It’s an appropriate moniker, given that the star of Marshall is Chadwick Boseman — or, as he’s sure to be known after February, Black Panther. But it’s also appropriate given the way Marshall presents the man once known as “Mr. Civil Rights” as a swashbuckling, arrogant, almost devil-may-care superhero attorney barnstorming the country in pursuit of justice and equality.

Written by Connecticut attorney Michael Koskoff and his son, Joseph, Marshall is not the story of the first black Supreme Court justice’s entire life. The movie takes place decades before Marshall was ever nominated to the court. Instead, Marshall provides a snapshot of young Thurgood through the course of the Connecticut trial of Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), a black chauffeur who was arrested in 1940 for the rape, kidnapping and attempted murder of his white boss, Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson).

Marshall, at the time an attorney in the NAACP’s civil rights division and seven years out of Howard University School of Law, travels to Connecticut to defend Spell. When the white judge presiding over the case refuses to let Marshall be the lead lawyer on the case, Marshall enlists a local Jewish attorney, Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), as the puppet for his legal ventriloquism. Marshall feeds Friedman his strategy, arguments and ideas and sits on his hands as he watches Friedman clumsily make his way through them.

Hudlin ends the film with an image of Marshall after he’s pulled into a train station in the Deep South. A mischievous smile creeping across his face, he grabs a paper cup to get a drink of water from a whites-only water fountain. Marshall tips his hat to an older black gentleman who’s watching, clearly astonished, and continues on his way.

The scene exposes how Marshall is more of an exercise in reflecting contemporary black attitudes about race and rebellion than it is connected to the way Marshall enacted that rebellion in his life as an NAACP lawyer, solicitor general under Lyndon Johnson, and then as a member of the Supremes. It’s certainly ahistorical. The real Marshall was a skilled politician, which made him an effective courtroom lawyer. He was charmingly persuasive, according to those who knew him, able to persuade white Southerners to do his bidding even against the wishes of fire-breathing racist sheriffs.

“He wasn’t an activist or a protester. He was a lawyer,” Marshall’s NAACP colleague, attorney Jack Greenberg, said in a 1999 documentary that asserts Marshall always followed the rules of the segregated South during his many trips there.

In any fictive portrait based on true life, a certain amount of interpretation is expected. But Marshall fundamentally changes our understanding of Marshall as a person and a real-life superhero. Thanks to accounts from family, colleagues and biographers such as Juan Williams, we know Marshall was smart, strategic and conscious of preserving his life and safety so that he could live to fight another day.

Hudlin superimposes modern conceptions of black heroism onto a period courtroom drama. He’s not the first to do so, of course. Both the 2016 adaptation of Roots and the now-canceled WGN series Underground told historical stories calibrated for a modern audience that wants and deserves to see black characters exhibit agency over their fates. Combined with the decision to cast the dark-skinned Boseman and Keesha Sharp as Marshall and his wife, Buster, Hudlin’s choices feel reactive to the colorism and racism in modern Hollywood. That choice ends up flattening an aspect of Marshall that certainly had an effect on his life: his privilege as a light-skinned, wavy-haired lawyer who grew up as the middle-class son of a Baltimore woman with a graduate degree from Columbia and a father who worked as a railway porter.

If ever there was a couple who fit the profile of the black bourgeoisie, it was Thurgood and Buster Marshall. Casting Boseman and Sharp may be a way to thumb one’s nose at the screwed-up obsession with skin tone that pervaded the black elite in the early 20th century and continues to block opportunities in modern-day Hollywood, but it also erases part of our understanding of how Marshall moved through the world.

Marshall possessed a terrific legal mind and used it to hold the country accountable to its founding ideals. He was a pioneer for daring to think that equality could be achieved by challenging the country’s institutions, but he also expressed a deep reverence for and faith in them. He would have been seen by whites in the South as a Northern agitator, and he knew it — the real Thurgood slept with his clothes on in case a lynch mob decided to confront him in the middle of the night. Altering Marshall so much in a movie meant to celebrate him ends up cheapening the gesture. It’s like making a biopic about Barack Obama and turning him into Jesse Jackson. He just wasn’t that type of dude.

It wouldn’t matter so much that Boseman’s Marshall strays so far from the real man if it wasn’t for the fact that Marshall tends to exist now mostly as a Black History Month factoid (even though multiple biographies have been written about his life and work).

Thurgood, a 2011 HBO movie starring Laurence Fishburne, goes too far in the opposite direction. Clips of Fishburne show a stiff and overly reverential character better suited for a museum video re-enactment or a Saturday Night Live sketch.

I sound like the story of Thurgood Marshall is a Goldilocks conundrum. Fishburne-as-Marshall was too stiff. Boseman-as-Marshall was too loose. Maybe a third attempt will get it just right.

Every time I see a film by a black director or that stars black people and I love it unreservedly, I experience a mélange of awe, reverence and respect that comes from witnessing an amazing work of art. And then comes the wave of relief.

Because the stakes are so high — every so-called “black film” must succeed to secure another! — you feel some kind of way about having to type all the reasons a film doesn’t work, knowing that those words have consequences but still need to be expressed. In short, it’s the feeling of “I don’t know if I like this, but I need it to win.”

I hate this feeling. If ever there was a selfish reason for wishing the film industry would hurry up and achieve racial and gender parity, this is it.


Hudlin’s directorial oeuvre is squarely commercial. His gaze is unfussy, with few stylistic flourishes, likely influenced by his past 15 years directing episodic television. His last movie was Wifey, a TV movie starring Tami Roman. His last feature was the 2002 romantic comedy Serving Sara, starring Matthew Perry and Elizabeth Hurley, but he’s probably best known for Boomerang, House Party and The Ladies Man. Thus it’s no surprise that Hudlin directs Marshall as a crowd-pleaser, but the nuances of Marshall’s life get lost.

What’s disappointing about the way Marshall is translated for the big screen is that real-life heroes come in a variety of forms. They’re complicated. They’re not saintly, nor are they all hot-headed crusaders. And that’s OK.

One of the most admirable aspects of Loving was that it was a historical drama with the patience to tell the story of Richard and Mildred Loving, portrayed by Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga, as the quiet, country people they were. They seem as unlikely a pair to make civil rights history in the film as they were when they lived. But Loving came from the Focus Features division of NBCUniversal, a production house known for unconventional work. Marshall is not an art house film, and I don’t think it needed to be to tell Marshall’s story. Hidden Figures was another historical drama meant for wide consumption. It’s not perfect, but Hidden Figures was so full of charm that it overcame the white saviorism added to Kevin Costner’s character, which didn’t exist in Margot Lee Shetterly’s book.

The shortcomings that separate Marshall from Hidden Figures and Loving are the same ones that give it the feeling of a TV movie. Aside from focusing on one specific area of Marshall’s life rather than the whole of it, Marshall does little to escape or subvert some of the most irritating biopic tropes.

For instance, the screenwriters jam Boseman’s mouth full of exposition about his accomplishments rather than demonstrating them. He rattles them off to Friedman in the form of a verbal resume.

The movie includes a nightclub scene that functions as little more than a non sequitur to shout, “HEY, THURGOOD MARSHALL WAS FRIENDS WITH ZORA NEALE HURSTON AND LANGSTON HUGHES. DID YOU KNOW ZORA AND LANGSTON HAD AN ICY RELATIONSHIP? BECAUSE WE DID!”

The three aren’t around long enough to discuss anything substantive. Their interaction doesn’t serve as foreshadowing for some other part of the movie. They’re just there because they all lived in Harlem. It’s little more than fat to be trimmed in a nearly two-hour movie.

But the most obvious weak point may lie in the flashbacks to the interactions between Strubing and Spell, which are filled with so much melodrama that they’d be perfectly at home on Lifetime. It’s not that those tropes don’t have their place. It’s just not on a screen that’s 30 feet high.

Boseman, as watchable as ever, makes Marshall a winking, confident wisecracker with a disarming smile. He’s full of smarts and bravado, communicating the real off-hours aspects of Marshall’s ribald sense of humor.

In the future, though, I hope screenwriters and filmmakers have more faith in the capacity of audiences to appreciate all kinds of heroes. As tempting as it is to superimpose modern politics onto historical figures, it can be more edifying to simply let them breathe so that we can appreciate their efforts within the context of their own times. Such context allows us to more fully understand the cost of their struggles and celebrate them all the more for winning.

Black female gun owners speak about Russian Facebook ads ‘I don’t want to be used as propaganda’

Black women who own guns don’t necessarily fit the common conceptions of gun owners. They’re rarely the picture of recreational shooting or gun classes. And some fear that even if they procure the proper training and licensing, they’re not protected by laws designed to shield gun owners from prosecution.

The distance between perception and reality surfaced this week when The Washington Post reported that imagery of a black woman firing a rifle was used in the Facebook ads that Russians bought to influence the 2016 presidential election. The image, which has not been publicly released, might have been intended to encourage African-American militancy and also fan fears among whites, according to the Post report.

Without context, a picture of a black woman firing a rifle is not a neutral image, said Kaitanya Bush, a 42-year-old paralegal in Austin, Texas, who recently bought a 9 mm pistol to protect herself and her family.

Bush said she immediately thought of the cartoon of Michelle Obama on the cover of The New Yorker before the 2008 election. Obama was depicted as a rifle-wielding radical sporting a bandolier and giving her secret-Muslim husband a “terrorist fist jab.” The cover was meant to be satirical — pointing out the ridiculousness of the worst fears of Obama opponents, given that the Obamas were moderate, well-to-do liberals, not the second coming of Assata Shakur and Fred Hampton.

“You can see how that imagery [in the Russian ads] can evoke the same feelings that those had about Michelle Obama bringing this militant side out of the nice and gentle Barack,” Bush said. The New Yorker cover depicted Michelle Obama as “threatening, and fearful, and manipulative, that there is an ulterior motive to this. That we are the temptress.”

Bush said the fear of black women’s radicalism reminded her of the reaction to Colin Kaepernick’s girlfriend, Nessa Diab, after she tweeted an unflattering image comparing Baltimore Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti and Ray Lewis to characters from Django Unchained.

Lewis attributed the Ravens’ decision not to sign Kaepernick to the tweet, which he called a “racist gesture.”

Outside the context of law enforcement, military service, or criminality, images of black people with guns tend to be associated with political radicalism, whether it be the Black Panthers, the photo of Malcolm X holding a rifle and peering out of a window, which Nicki Minaj adopted for the album art of her 2014 single, “Lookin A– N—-,” or The New Yorker cover of the Obamas. Images of gun-wielding black people are metonyms for black militancy.

Black gun ownership is historically connected with defending oneself from state violence or lack of state protection, from Harriet Tubman to violent uprisings of enslaved people. And of course there’s a long history of black people who hunt, or shoot for sport, like the women in this 1937 image of the Howard University women’s rifle team. But such representations of black gun users aren’t as well-known.

Black women with guns don’t enjoy the same positive associations as someone such as Charlize Theron in Atomic Blonde or Angelina Jolie in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, who made the empowered and unafraid gun-toting archetype a key part of their appeal as movie stars. That tide may shift slightly with the upcoming film Proud Mary, which stars Taraji P. Henson as a sexy, skilled hit woman. There’s also Lana Kane, the smart, sensible spy in Archer voiced by Aisha Tyler, whose biting comebacks and uniform of clingy sweater dresses set off by two TEC-9s made her a cult hero. But at the end of the day, Kane is a cartoon.

And so the limited context in which armed black women are seen may have provided an opportunity for Russia.

“It makes complete sense to me that they would do that just to incite some sort of rise out of people,” said Marchelle Tigner, a 25-year-old firearms instructor in Savannah, Georgia, who calls herself the “Trigger Happy Panda.” “When articles came out about me or videos came out about me, I would read the comments. And a lot of the comments were extremely negative, like, ‘Oh, black women have guns now. They’re gonna start shooting people. They’re angry and irrational, and the crime rate in black neighborhoods is gonna go up now.’ They were really hurtful, really mean, and really racist comments coming out, so it makes sense that if Russia wanted to get a rise out of people or incite some kind of hateful feelings in a lot of people, they would post pictures of black women with firearms.”

Tigner is an Army veteran who began carrying a gun as part of her job as a military intelligence officer. It made her uncomfortable, but after she was sexually assaulted at age 19, shooting at the gun range became cathartic instead of anxiety-producing. She now travels the country instructing black women in gun safety. When Tigner saw the news that Russia may have used an ad featuring an image of a black woman firing a rifle as a way to sow division and disrupt the election, she was not pleased.

“Although I might not agree with a lot of people’s beliefs, I would never want to be used as propaganda,” Tigner said. “I never want to be a gimmick. That’s why I carry myself professionally when I’m teaching because I never want my words or my images to be twisted and used against me, or against people for making that decision.”


Nobody’s expecting me, this 25-year-old black woman, to have a firearm and to be able to draw and defend myself, and I like that. I like that I’m underestimated.

Courtesy of Marchelle Tigner

Black women interviewed for this story believe they will not necessarily be afforded equal protection under the law as licensed gun owners because of their blackness. As a result, there’s a cost-benefit analysis that takes place. On the one hand, they feel unsafe in America because of their blackness, and that includes experiences as a gun owner. But they have decided that it’s still worth having the gun to protect themselves from, among other things, racially-motivated violence.

Even though North Carolina is an open carry state, Dione Davis, a 32-year-old cosmetologist and mother, said that she chooses to conceal carry her Glock with a permit. The reason is because she’s black, Davis said.

“I guess I feel like I’m covered but I’m not covered,” Davis said. “I would say … there is a double standard as to how we’re viewed, black gun owners versus white gun owners. Nobody’s looking at my husband or myself as … college-educated … law-abiding citizens when we have a gun. Nobody’s thinking about whether I have four kids at home when you look at me at with a gun. Nobody’s thinking about those things. … White America always has the positive view: They’ve got a family at home, they’re always viewed with life behind them. Black Americans, we’re viewed with no life behind us.”

Philando Castile had a permit for his gun, but died in 2016 after the Minnesota police officer who pulled him over shot and killed him, citing fear that Castile, who disclosed that he had a weapon, would kill him. Marissa Alexander, a black woman from Jacksonville, was imprisoned for firing a warning shot in self-defense at her abusive husband after a judge rejected her defense under the state’s “stand your ground” law.

In every class she holds, Tigner said, black women voice their worries about not having their rights respected or acknowledged. “I’ve even had women say that they didn’t want to be in the photo that we take at the end of the class because they didn’t even want anyone to know that they were in a firearms class,” Tigner said. “It’s kind of scary to think that you can’t learn how to defend yourself without being a target or being looked at as a threat. Even Tamir Rice, he was a kid and had a toy. Not even a real firearm, being a child, and was killed in less than two seconds after [police] arrived on the scene. Things like that are why a lot of parents don’t even want their children to learn about firearms or to take a class, because they don’t want them to be seen as a target, like my parents didn’t. We talk about that in the class a lot.”

For Tigner, the decision not to open carry is a tactical one. “If I was a bank robber and I walk into a bank and you’re open carrying, I’m definitely gonna make sure I take you out first. It just makes you an immediate target and an immediate threat. That’s how criminals think. They look for the harder target. Nobody’s expecting me, this 25-year-old black woman, to have a firearm and to be able to draw and defend myself, and I like that. I like that I’m underestimated.”


With regard to the Russian Facebook ads, Tiffany Ware, the 44-year-old Cincinnati-based founder of The Brown Girls Project and founder of the Brown Girls With Guns workshop, didn’t think it was possible for racial tensions to get worse than they already are.

“My only thought was how could they think that would create more of a divide than what already exists?” Ware said. “From where I live, my view, my perspective, there’s always been this huge divide between African-American people and others. Now there’s even more of a divide. I don’t see how they thought seeing that image would create a greater divide, because I come from a very strong and proud background and all I’ve ever received was pushback for being that way.”

She first became interested in guns after a team she managed was harassed while canvassing for Hillary Clinton. Her team members told her they’d been called “n—–s” and that their campaign signs had been destroyed. Ware said she’s lived in Cincinnati for most of her life and before last fall had been called “n—-” twice. Since December, she’s been called the N-word four times.

Witnessing her children’s anxiety after President Donald Trump won the election spurred Ware to action to protect herself and her family.

“It just made me think and I was like, gosh, what if somebody did — anybody, not just some crazy racist person — but what if somebody did run up in this house, what would I do?” Ware said. “Like, how do I handle that? I need to figure it out.”

When Ware began organizing gun training for black women at a Cincinnati gun range, she said, she and the women in her group would draw stares and the owners made it clear they were not welcome. “They told us we couldn’t continue to come because there were so many of us that we were knocking out their Sunday regulars,” Ware said. “We knew what it was.” So they found another range.

“From white supremacists who terrorized that young child’s birthday party to the little boy who took the trash out for his mother and his neighbor shot him down on the side of the street, you know these are realities for us,” Bush said. “And I as a lawful citizen of this country, if I am going to come up against someone who may have a weapon on them, I am not going to be in that position where I have to fear for my life, where I’m unable to protect my family.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

André Chung for The Undefeated

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

André Chung for The Undefeated

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

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

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

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


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

André Chung for The Undefeated

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Ibram Kendi

André Chung for The Undefeated

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

André Chung for The Undefeated

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bree Newsome’s social justice fight continues two years after taking down the Confederate flag in South Carolina ‘Staying quiet is also like its own form of death’

It has been more than two years since Bree Newsome became a household name for climbing a 30-foot flagpole on the grounds of the South Carolina statehouse and removing the Confederate flag. She knew jail would follow. However, Newsome, now 32, knew it was a task she had to do.

The mood in South Carolina at the time was bleak following the evening of June 17, 2015, when Dylann Roof gunned down nine black members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The flag that Newsome removed was originally raised in 1961 as a statement of opposition to the civil rights movement. Many individuals have always hated what the flag represents.

In many communities, Newsome became a hero and her actions caused a domino effect. In August, two years after Newsome’s act, 22-year-old Takiya Thompson was arrested after helping to take down a Confederate statue in Durham, North Carolina. Thompson was charged with disorderly conduct by injury to a statue, damage to real property, participation in a riot with property damage in excess of $1,500 — and inciting others to riot where there is property damage in excess of $1,500, according to the Durham County Sheriff’s Office. This was following a white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia, that turned deadly and prompted a call to action by many people for the removal of Confederate statues.

“I just see this shifting in the consciousness, and people just kind of reaching a point where we just can’t be quiet anymore, because I think there has been, in some ways, this belief that we keep ourselves quiet in order to survive,” Newsome said. “But staying quiet is also like its own form of death. I think people are just tired of living that form of death.”

Newsome is now a local organizer in Charlotte, North Carolina, and focusing on housing.

“We have a real affordable housing crisis going on in our city, as many cities around the country are,” Newsome said. “We have communities that were redlined in the late Sixties, that’s kind of when the cities drew, basically, lines around areas that were predominantly black that had been segregated. So, these are areas that were basically divested from, by the city and now they are prime real estate. So we have a lot of developers wanting to develop in this land, but the folks who have lived here for decades are not benefiting from it. So, housing remains an ongoing justice issue.”

Newsome says housing is a human right.

“A lot of times people say, well, it’s just a byproduct of development. But, it’s really important, again, to understand why,” Newsome said. “That’s obviously one of the basic things that we need in order to live. Then, it’s a justice issue, because we’re still very segregated. Segregation is not forced upon us anymore, it’s not part of the law, but we are still largely racially and economically segregated. How are we addressing any of these issues with wealth and with race if folks are being pushed out of their homes?”

Newsome’s father, Clarence G. Newsome, served as the dean of the Howard University School of Divinity and was the president of both Shaw University and the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. Her mother spent her career as an educator addressing the achievement gap. Newsome studied film at the New York University Tisch School of the Arts.

She spoke to The Undefeated about social justice, today’s battle for equality and her plans.


How do you feel about today’s racial climate?

What we are seeing today is kind of part of a pattern, I would say, in history. On one hand, I was born in ’85; in my lifetime it is maybe one of the most tense periods, racially, that I have experienced. But, when I look back over the history of America, it’s kind of part of a pattern where racial tensions kind of ebb and flow.

We’re integrating certain institutions. We obviously had the election of the nation’s first black president. Now what we’re seeing is, again, this period of racist backlash to that. But there is, kind of, this pattern of like, we make this progress forward and then there is this racist backlash. No, it’s not as bad, and I think if you talk to most folks, like my grandmother, my grandmother is 91 years old. When she saw on TV the police in Ferguson tear-gassing folks in their yard, she said, ‘It reminds me of the Ku Klux Klan.’ So, on one hand, yes, we’ve gone far, but clearly we haven’t gone far enough at all.

When I look at what is going on today, the main thing it says to me is that we cannot rest on our laurels. And that’s part of what spurred me toward becoming an activist in the first place, it was after the Trayvon Martin case.

What do you think about the protests for Colin Kaepernick?

I think that’s amazing. I support that. Two histories in America that I find really fascinating is the treatment of black veterans and the treatment of black athletes. … Even at the college level, there’s a real justice issue around the treatment of black athletes. They are clearly the majority, especially when you are talking about a sport like football. The majority of athletes are black men. They generate billions of dollars for this industry, not just in pro football, but also in college football. In many ways they are exploited. They are exploited physically. We see the kind of damage that is done physically to their bodies.

Part of what I think is really awesome about what is happening right now is there’s greater solidarity. In some ways, it’s bigger than the NFL. It’s about protesting for Colin Kaepernick to have a fair shot, but it’s also kind of bigger than that because it’s like, he has a right, as a human being, to speak. Especially to speak about a system that is killing us. When he’s out of uniform, and he’s off the field and he’s just driving down the street, he has just as much a chance of getting killed by the police as anybody else. I think that that is sometimes what people forget. They think just because a black man puts on a uniform and goes in to play football that he is supposed to disconnect from all the other realities of the nation in which he lives.

Do you recall the first thing you did as an activist?

I don’t know if you remember the Moral Monday movement that was happening here in North Carolina. That was organized by Reverend Barber and the North Carolina state chapter of NAACP. This was back in 2013. This was the same summer that George Zimmerman was acquitted. This is the same summer that the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act. North Carolina just went H.A.M. on the voting issue. They hadn’t yet passed it, but they brought up this legislation, House Bill 589, and at first it was this five-page bill that focused on student voter ID. It said the students could no longer use their IDs to vote.

I go up to this Moral Monday protest about voting rights. At that time, I wasn’t considering myself an activist. I was very much aware of things that were going on. Literally overnight, between that Monday and the Tuesday, they sent the bill from the House to the Senate and they added almost 50 more pages to the bill. It was clear that they were targeting black people. They had things like ending Sunday voting.

That was the wake-up moment for me. I had always been socially and politically conscious, but I wasn’t the person out on the street protesting.

Why did you make the decision to fight for justice in North Carolina?

When I was about 2, my family moved up to Maryland. I grew up in Columbia, Maryland. I would spend all of my summers in Charlotte, North Carolina, where I live now. That’s where my grandmother is.

My grandmother would come stay with us during the school year and then I would come stay with her during the summer. Then my dad’s family is from eastern North Carolina, so the Carolinas have always been kind of like home. In a way, it’s kind of like my family home. It really wasn’t until I got back in the Raleigh-Durham area and Moral Monday was going on and I kind of connected with the folks there and I was like, ‘Yeah, I can’t go back to work now, this is too crazy.’

What has been the hardest part of your journey?

I think it’s always finding the balance. I would say, you know, in 2013 when I’m walking to the protest and I was like, ‘I can’t go back to anything, I’ve got to stay in the street.’ And I pretty much did, for like the next two years. Just protesting. I went up to Ohio when John Crawford was killed. I marched with the Ohio Student Association. I went down to Florida. We were just out protesting, just trying to raise this awareness around what was happening.

I was getting to a point where I’m exhausted. It’s traumatic. … When you ask me what has been the greatest challenge or struggle, I think it has been finding out how to sustain in this work. … How do we continue to support ourselves and do this important work? How do we balance life, and all these other things, because we’re out here fighting for our lives and there really is nothing that’s more important. But I know I reached a point where I was, like, you know, I have to live too.

Living is also resistance. If I’m out here killing myself, that’s not, at a certain point I’m no longer resisting. I have to thrive at the same time.

How would you describe your personal feelings after seeing what happened in Charlottesville?

The first word that’s coming to my mind is revelation. But I don’t know if that’s the right word. I’m trying to think of a word that is kind of revealing, because I feel like what happened with Charlottesville was, like, it was all there. All of that was there. But, it was kind of like Charlottesville was the moment that it could no longer be denied. … We’ve known for a while, we’ve known since 2008, at least. Because as soon as Obama was elected, you had a surge in white supremacist groups.

White supremacist groups have been out here organizing. They have been out here planning and connecting. And in a lot of ways folks are looking away.

So, when I think about Charlottesville, to me it was kind of ‘blatant.’ It was like that’s when America could no longer look away from what had been going on, cause here you had all of these white supremacist groups from around the nation organizing and converging on this city over this monument. And, the same way people kept saying, ‘Well, you know, does the monument really represent this, does the Confederate flag really represent that?’ People were really trying to still be kind of wishy-washy about it and it was like Charlottesville was the moment that they could no longer deny what had already been there. It’s not that Charlottesville was new. It’s that Charlottesville made plain what was already there.

How do you see your work in social justice?

The way I look at the work is two ways. One, I think we have system-facing work. There’s work where we are trying to dismantle a racist system. We have a system of white supremacy, and that’s one of the main things I speak about all the time is trying to get people to understand. Racism is not just prejudice. It’s not just, ‘I don’t like somebody because of the color of their skin.’ It’s a system that was designed. It’s an economy. It’s a social caste system that is built based upon, not just the color of a person’s skin, but African ancestry. It is built on the subjugation of people who are descended from Africans. So, I think there is system-facing work and then there is community-facing work. And I try to get people to see both ends. Because I think sometimes we think it’s either-or. Either we’re out here fighting white supremacy or we are doing work in the community. We’re trying to come out of 500 years of slavery.

My family was enslaved in South Carolina and North Carolina. So, I know the personal story of my family trying to come out of slavery. But as a people … that’s the work that we’re trying to do. It’s about economic freedom, it’s about mental freedom. It’s about having agency over ourselves. It’s about how do we break free of oppressive dynamics that we have internalized from the people who have oppressed us. … Sometimes I’m speaking to the system and then sometimes I’m just talking to my people.

Why Floyd Mayweather can still box after beating women No photos, no central authority and black victims

He might be a coarse, past-his-prime boxer, but plenty of people are still willing to pony up the paper to see 40-year-old Floyd “Money” Mayweather fight again and risk his unblemished record of 49-0. And even if boxing spectators are aware of the physical and emotional damage he’s inflicted on the black women in his life for nearly two decades, there’s little in American society that’s more beside the point.

Why does Mayweather remain such a compelling figure despite his repeated and documented instances of domestic abuse? Let us count the ways: There are no publicly available photos showing the evidence of his crimes; there’s no central organization to hold Mayweather and other abusive boxers to account; and there’s an understanding, however contentious, that some boxers are inherently violent, their rage uncontrollable. Furthermore, there’s a long-standing pattern of victims, especially black women, holding their tongues to protect the black men who hit them.

All of those factors leave some fans torn, some indifferent and some completely disgusted. Despite the moral split decision, many boxing fans remain reliable spectators who continue to reward Mayweather with cultural cachet, fame and money, money, money.


Mayweather has consistently deflected and dismissed the abuse he’s inflicted. His explanations are twofold: “Only God can judge me,” he’s repeatedly said. He’s also maintained that there is no photographic evidence of his misdeeds. (That’s because it’s been locked away or legally destroyed by Las Vegas officials, according to reporting by Deadspin.)

ESPN Video Player

Mayweather, for all the talk of his over-the-top public persona (his other nickname is “Pretty Boy”) is a savvy media operator. He understands the damning nature of video and photography, which is why he’s repeatedly insisted on pointing out that there are no photographs of his crimes. In 2015, after journalists Michelle Beadle of ESPN and Rachel Nichols, then of CNN, publicly challenged Mayweather on his history of domestic abuse, the boxer responded by trying to ban them from covering his fight with Manny Pacquiao.

Mayweather’s representatives did not offer any comment when contacted this week by The Undefeated.

“Everything has been allegations,” Mayweather told The Guardian in 2015, despite court cases that said otherwise. “Nothing has been proven. So that’s life.”

When the news organization pressed him about the contradiction, Mayweather responded, “Once again, no pictures, just hearsay and allegations.”


Mayweather’s record of domestic abuse:

2001: Mayweather punches Melissa Brim, the mother of his daughter, Iyanna, in the neck during an argument over child support at a Las Vegas mall. In March 2002, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, he pleaded guilty to two counts of battery against Brim and received a suspended sentence.

2003: Mayweather is accused of punching two female friends of Josie Harris, mother to three Mayweather children, at a Las Vegas nightclub and chasing them out of the club. Mayweather receives a suspended sentence after being convicted of two counts of battery, according to the Las Vegas Sun. He’s ordered to undergo “impulse control” counseling. The verdict is later vacated and the charges “dismissed per negotiations.”

2005: Mayweather stands trial for felony battery after allegedly punching and kicking Harris and dragging her out of his Bentley after she confronts him about cheating. Harris changes her story on the witness stand and says she lied to police about the fight and Mayweather’s history of abuse. Mayweather is acquitted.

2010: Mayweather and Harris have split, but she still lives in a house Mayweather owns. Mayweather confronts Harris at the house for dating NBA guard C.J. Watson. After police head off the initial fight, Mayweather returns shortly before dawn and beats Harris in the back of the head and threatens to beat his children if they call the police, according to the arrest report. In an account given to Las Vegas police, Harris’ son Koraun, then 10 years old, says, “I saw my dad was on my mom and my mom said go to the office my dad was hitting her… my dad kick my mom and he told me to go in my room.” Mayweather, who contends that he was trying to restrain Harris, is charged with multiple felonies. He pleads guilty to misdemeanor domestic assault and harassment and is sentenced to 90 days in jail, the Associated Press reported. He’s released a month early for good behavior.


Photographs may be the new burden of proof in the era of 24/7 cable news and social media, but Mayweather’s abuse isn’t “alleged.” He’s served jail time for it. So why hasn’t he suffered more professional repercussions, like former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice? In 2014, the NFL suspended Rice for two games for hitting his then-girlfriend, now-wife Janay Palmer, knocking her out, and dragging her unconscious body out of an elevator at an Atlantic City, New Jersey, casino. It wasn’t until TMZ published video of the incident that the NFL treated it more seriously. Commissioner Roger Goodell eventually suspended Rice from the league indefinitely. That decision was eventually overturned in federal court, but no team has signed Rice since.

According to boxing experts, it’s not just the video that’s missing, it’s also the ability of the sport to sanction fighters or even maintain the most basic rules and standards of behavior.

Football has something boxing does not. That’s “a governing body,” said Rock Newman, a former boxing promoter whose most famous fighter, Riddick Bowe, was a two-time heavyweight champion. “Baseball, football, basketball, most professional sports, soccer, you know, hockey, you pretty much have a clearly defined set of rules in which you’re expected to operate by on the field and, by extension, off the field,” said Newman, who now hosts a public affairs show on Howard University Television.

There’s no central authority in professional boxing. Four sanctioning bodies govern the sport, and they each award their own belts: the World Boxing Council (WBC), the World Boxing Association (WBA), the International Boxing Federation (IBF) and the World Boxing Organization (WBO). Even if one decides to suspend a boxer, there are three others that may decide otherwise, which means there’s going to be a fight somewhere, sanctioned by someone, especially if there’s a lot of money on the line.

Newman, a longtime advocate for oversight to curtail the exploitation of fighters, says a single governing body could also insist on putting moral turpitude clauses in fighters’ contracts that would affect their ability to earn a living.

Gary “Digital” Williams, creator of the Boxing Along the Beltway blog, agrees. “There’s no one entity that can say to a boxer, ‘You cannot fight because you have had issues with domestic violence.’ ” And there’s a long history of boxers who’ve had those issues.

Some are famous names: Jack Johnson beat women (some of them white) as he rose to fame in the early 20th century. Decades later, Joe Louis beat Lena Horne. Mike Tyson, Sugar Ray Leonard and Riddick Bowe all had issues with domestic abuse. In 2014, Robin Givens wrote a first-person account for Time explaining why she stayed after Tyson hit her. Leonard told sportswriter Buzz Bissinger he hit his wife, Juanita Wilkinson, while she was holding their infant child and threatened to kill himself if she left him. Bowe was not only arrested for second-degree assault, but served prison time for kidnapping his first wife and their five children. Edwin Valero, a WBA and WBC featherweight and lightweight champion, committed suicide in a Venezuelan jail cell after his arrest for stabbing his wife to death.


Boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr. goes through moves during a media workout at the Mayweather Boxing Club on Aug. 10 in Las Vegas.

John Gurzinski/AFP/Getty Images

Boxing’s appeal is atavistic. It’s the same reason everyone runs toward the school yard melee when somebody yells “Fight!” And the qualities that make someone an excellent boxer do not necessarily translate well outside of the ring.

“If somebody hits them too hard in the ring, they can retaliate any way they like, as long as the referee doesn’t call them on it,” said Gail Wyatt, a professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at UCLA. “At home, if somebody pisses them off, it’s hard to say, ‘Well, now, I’m not supposed to exhibit the same kind of behavior here as I am there.’ So many times, they act like they are in a ring.

“They’re actually at war. Many times they don’t have any kind of anger management, because anger management, it’s only appropriate for those people who require it. You can’t have anger management in boxing — you wouldn’t box. … There are some sports that just work against a person understanding the kind of respect and boundaries that people have to have in a relationship to keep a partner safe.”

Sugar Ray Robinson used to say that “boxing is the hurt business.” Newman says that’s true both inside the ring and out. We cheer the fighter who walks into the ring knowing he’s going to get “his face smashed in, but continuing to come back” when most people would run. “They stand there and endure that, and we cheer. We rise to our feet and cheer that kind of gladiator mentality, and we’re surprised or act like we’re shocked when they’re caught doing 110 mph in a 30 mph zone, or when they beat the hell out of their wife.”

Mayweather comes from a troubled home. His mother was a drug addict. His father was a drug dealer who was part of a family of renowned boxing brothers. Mayweather’s father was imprisoned for drug trafficking when the boxer was a teenager. Newman has known Mayweather since he was an 8-year-old watching his father and uncles fight and mimicking their every move.

In Newman’s experience, fighters often come from tough or abusive homes. “That gladiator appeal is a result of, most times, of fighters who come from homes that have been taught very little in the way of conflict resolution skills,” he said.

“It’s ‘God damn it, you took my crab cakes, I’m going to beat the s— out of you.’ ”

We are conditioned to expect domestic violence among poor people because economic insecurity is often tied to increases in domestic violence, according to the American Psychological Association. But leaning too heavily on that correlation can be dangerous. Since we expect higher rates of domestic violence from poor people, we’re more likely to excuse it.

Being brought up in poverty alone does not cause domestic violence. Rich men enjoying the spoils of generational wealth beat up their partners too, and they use the same excuses to explain or minimize it. It’s just that their wealth and social status can sometimes allow them to outrun the stain in ways that their less economically fortunate counterparts cannot.

When Mayweather uses the Las Vegas judicial system to reclaim or disappear photographic evidence of his crimes, he’s doing what rich and powerful men do: Use their wealth to quash the less savory aspects of themselves they’d prefer not be revealed.


Floyd Mayweather on Jimmy Kimmel Live! on Aug. 15.

Randy Holmes/ABC via Getty Images

Despite his notoriety, Mayweather is still seen as a compelling, charismatic figure in the court of public opinion. Last week, for instance, he was a guest on Jimmy Kimmel Live! and the interview wasn’t even briefly uncomfortable for Mayweather.

Kimmel’s interview was another late night exhibition of fawning grotesquerie: 12 minutes of chatting about money, boxing and strippers in which it would have been bad form to bring up that time you beat your girlfriend’s ass. The only time women even entered the conversation was when Kimmel asked about — and, as a result, plugged — Mayweather’s Las Vegas strip club.

“I got into the strip club business because I knew breasts, the vagina, alcohol and music would never go out of style,” Mayweather said confidently. Kimmel laughed, then cut to commercial.

We have a hard time reconciling our understanding of such men with intimate partner violence. That’s in part because of how we consume and distill our understanding of such violence through pop culture. On screen or stage, domestic abusers are often pitched as obsessive, psychotic, mouth-breathing villains, from the titular character in Othello to Billy Campbell in the 2001 film Enough to Patrick Bergin’s in Sleeping With the Enemy (1991).

On-screen fictive portraits of domestic abusers are often flat in the same way portraits of racists are. In film and television, racists are typically depicted without nuance, as unambiguously evil, isolated individuals. They provide an emotional shorthand for audiences: This guy is bad. And so we see such characters as evil, mean, with no particularly redeeming qualities, rather than as humans who are messy and complicated and morally ambiguous. It’s more difficult to process accusations of assault when they’re aimed at people we find likable.

In the case of intimate partner violence, this also makes it easier to blame women for the abuse they endure. If he’s so awful, society asks, then why does she stay?


Mayweather’s five documented accusers are all black women. In response to their allegations, he has cast himself as the true victim, a beleaguered black man bearing the cross of race-based resentment in a white society that doesn’t want to see him succeed. In a January interview with ESPN’s Cari Champion, Mayweather’s language was a reminder of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s testimony after Anita Hill accused him of sexual harassment during his 1991 Senate confirmation hearings. Thomas referred to the process as a “high-tech lynching” and cast Hill as an agent of white supremacy angling to bring a black man down. Mayweather, too, was defiant.

“That was in my past, and of course, with any situation, when someone talks about domestic violence with a fighter like myself, when they say, ‘Floyd was involved with domestic violence’ — restraining someone, yes I did that,” Mayweather told Champion. “I’m guilty of restraining. But as far as stomp, kicking, beating a woman, I think that the world would see photos.

“You must realize this. For so many years, for so many years, they tried to defeat me in so many different ways — negative things. But I couldn’t be defeated inside the ring, so they tried to defeat me on the outside, far as trying to discourage me. Do I think they want … for me to break Rocky Marciano’s record? Absolutely not. Do I think — do people want to see me fail? Absolutely. But I beat all odds.”

Finding themselves in this compromising position has deep roots for black women, and there are plenty of examples of black men who are celebrated despite accusations of abuse, among them O.J. Simpson, Miles Davis, R. Kelly, and Chris Brown.

“If we only frame race in terms of what is best for black men and that what is best for black men is in aggregate best for black people, then we’re always going to find assault and other forms of gender-based violence as second-tier, secondary issues,” said Treva Lindsey, an associate professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Ohio State University. “What allows this violence to continue is that we don’t believe black women, we don’t trust black women and girls.”

Even when photographic evidence exists and gets released to the public, it’s not necessarily enough.

“So when we get these videos … this objective lens of a camera is presenting us these things and we’re still trying to find ways to justify our interest in a player, celebrity, whoever who are committing these atrocities against black women,” Lindsey said. “It’s still saying even with that kind of truth, we’re willing to forgo the accountability. Even in the face of truth.”


When Cat Taylor isn’t working with her crew cleaning D.C. roadways, she’s attending fights as the Number One Boxing Fan, a title bestowed by the Boxing Along the Beltway blog. It’s a title she takes seriously. She works out to fit in flamboyant outfits, sits ringside and yells. “I travel all over the country in support of all the fighters,” she said.

Taylor originally planned to attend the Mayweather-McGregor fight, but she’s had a change of heart. “I support all fighters, but Mayweather is no longer fighting,” she said. “This is a one-time shot for Mayweather to come out of retirement” and make a lot of money.

Ask her about Mayweather and domestic violence and it’s complicated: “Well, a lot of times, you know, as the Number One Boxing Fan, I try not to get caught into their social lives. However, it is times like this when I’m faced with my opinion on it. In his case, my opinion of that is that Mayweather needs help. Domestic violence is an underlying issue that stems from childhood. That’s not something that was done overnight,” Taylor said. “And it’s sad because his wife or his significant other, she’s a victim, but he’s also a victim too.”

Taylor doesn’t believe court-ordered anger management counseling is sufficient to turn things around. “That’s not enough to get you through that pain and get you through that heartache. The same type of training that he is doing for boxing is basically the same type of training he has to endure to overcome that anger that was admitted into him with that domestic violence.”

Tyrieshia Douglas, a 28-year-old super flyweight from Baltimore and UBF world female flyweight champion, has strong opinions about domestic abuse. “I don’t support men putting their hands on women; I’m totally against that,” she said. “I believe he put his hands on you once, he gonna do it again. And again and again and again and after.”

And that’s why women should learn how to defend themselves, she says, although Douglas hesitates at what, if anything, the sanction should be for Mayweather. “It’s a good question,” she said, but she rejects the notion that, as a boxer, Mayweather might have a harder time turning off the aggression. “I don’t understand how it’s hard to turn it off. At the end of the day, you are a man, you are much stronger.”

Fight fans are fickle, Taylor contends. When the boxer is up they chant for him, but when he’s down, “they’re calling him dumb and saying he’s a nobody.” To her, a fan’s responsibility is to encourage fighters to make them better. Taylor respects the way other fighters admire Mayweather. They tout his craft and his philanthropy: supporting people around him and donating to charitable causes.

“As a fan, and hearing that about him, that means in my eyes, the good outweighs the bad,” she said. “OK, he has this negative thing that’s in the media, but that doesn’t outweigh what he do as a man. … Yes, he has his flaws, but he still is a great man overall, and that’s what I would tend to gravitate more to push him and uplift him.”

It’s that posture — that up-from-poverty, can’t-keep-a-black-man-down, bespoke suit-flaunting, look-at-my-damn-private-jet insistence on claiming his props — that Mayweather so expertly converts into benefit of the doubt and pay-per-view dividends. More than anything, that’s what “Money” is taking to the bank.

Daily Dose: 8/23/17 James Comey to speak at Howard convocation and teach there

Hey, all, sorry for the absence Tuesday. I was out sick after a long few weeks of travel, but I’m back now and I’ll also be hosting The Right Time on ESPN Radio on Friday if you’d like to tune in to that.

Welp, it looks like the president is ready for war. On multiple fronts. At what looked like a campaign rally in Arizona on Tuesday, President Donald Trump went full fire and brimstone, outlining how he plans to fight with the U.S. military in Afghanistan, in addition to how he wants to battle the media, a constant refrain of his. To call the speech over the top would be inaccurate, considering this is basically what we get all the time from Trump. But it’s worth noting that the world is watching and no one is particularly impressed. That includes Germany’s Angela Merkel, who said this America First stuff is really just not a smart global strategy when it comes to basically everything.

It’s about to be lit at Howard University’s opening convocation. The historically black institution in Washington, D.C., dealt with a very weird circumstance on campus Aug. 19 when two Trump supporters showed up claiming they were just there for a meal, and now the controversy is likely to continue. The school has secured James Comey — yes, THAT James Comey — to speak next month to kick off the school year, which promises to be a very eye-opening event. He’s the former FBI head, and you might recall that his testimony had the nation at a standstill when he spoke about his relationship with the president. For all the stuff that Howard is criticized for, one thing the school does well is land good speakers and performers, no doubt. Comey will also hold an endowed chair in public policy at the university, engaging in a lecture series to foster discussion and spur interaction on campus and beyond.

Scheduled for Sept. 22, opening convocation officially signals the beginning of the academic year. Comey will formally welcome the class of 2021 to the 2017-18 school year and recognize the university for its accomplishments and its commitment to excellence in truth and service. As the holder of the King Endowed Chair in Public Policy, Comey will lead and conduct five lectures featuring speakers who will touch on several topics.

Powerball is at an insane number right now. The $700M jackpot is the kind of money that brings everyone out of the woodwork to play, including office pools and family groups of all sorts. It’s also the kind of money that, if you win, not only changes your life but also sets things up for generations to come. In short, considering how large that jackpot is, you’d be borderline stupid not to at least give it a shot with a dollar or 20. Me? I’d probably buy a sports franchise with all that cash after taxes, a minor league baseball team or something — of course after buying my family everything they ever wanted. But what are the actual odds of taking home all that cash? Let’s take a look.

While the San Francisco 49ers might not be so progressive on one front, they are on another. You might recall that general manager John Lynch, while discussing the Colin Kaepernick situation, said he didn’t think that protesting the national anthem was an effective thing to do. It’s also important to know he stepped straight into an NFL front office with zero experience, from the broadcast booth. But now the San Francisco NFL franchise has hired the league’s first openly gay coach, who is also a woman. This is a huge step forward for a league that’s been known to be rather conservative on basically all social issues. Good for them.

Free Food

Coffee Break: We talk a decent amount about the White House around here, but what we don’t do is make fun of kids and what they wear. So why anyone would feel the need to take a shot at Barron Trump for not dressing like a grown-up is beyond us. I’m a grown man and still dress like a kid, so this is particularly irksome. Barron, do you until you can’t.

Snack Time: When I was a child, I loved Knight Rider. The show with the talking car felt like the most technologically advanced thing ever at the time. Now, David Hasselhoff wants to remake it as a movie, with a dark twist. I could be into that.

Dessert: Action Bronson’s cooking show has been renewed, but it also might get a daily late-night show. One of those things is a good idea.

Daily Dose: 8/21/17 Dick Gregory’s legacy is more than just as a comedian

It was quite a D.C. weekend for your boy, y’all. I spoke at the memorial celebration for a hero of mine, Cool “Disco” Dan, which was a thrill, an honor and really quite the all-encompassing experience. He got a proper send-off.

At around 2 p.m. Monday, I’m going to turn on my television. I’m going to watch a bunch of idiots with boxes on their heads and goofy glasses staring at the sun. In all honesty, eclipses are cool but way low on the list of natural phenomena that catch my eye, pun intended. Aurora borealis? Dope. Double rainbows? Very cool. Looking into the biggest star in our world to see if a satellite will block it? No thank you. Not trying to burn my retinas for that cheap thrill. But here’s all you need to know about the fun!

Dick Gregory died last weekend. He was not only a comedian but also a civil rights activist and a food pioneer, as far as I’m concerned. He was big on healthy eating as a lifestyle, and his business ventures on that front were how I was first introduced to him. As a kid, it was fun to learn that his history with America was wildly different from just pitching veggie smoothies. Nonetheless, he died at the age of 84. The following tweet sums up pretty much everything he was about.

If you show up on a historically black college campus wearing a Make America Great Again hat, you’re looking for trouble. Not because historically black schools are intolerant, but with all that’s been happening in America, people are understandably upset. So if two high school girls show up at Howard University claiming they were just looking for lunch and then start posting on social media about how they believed they were mistreated, I ain’t buying it. Obviously, that was going to happen, and quite frankly, now they know how a lot of black folks feel on predominantly white campuses.

Magic Johnson might have a serious issue on his hands. He recently took over as president of basketball operations for the Los Angeles Lakers, and everything seemed to fall into place. They landed Lonzo Ball without much headache, considering, and from the rumor mill, it appears that all sorts of players want to join after this season. LeBron James’ name has been on that list, but Paul George is the one who most actively seems likely. One problem: You can let him say it, but the team can’t pursue him. Magic and the Lakers are being accused of such.

Free Food

Coffee Break: No good deed goes unpunished. When San Jose, California, tried to erect some tiny houses for the city’s homeless population to have somewhere to live, the residents at the original site raised complaints, saying they basically didn’t want them. It’s unbelievable how heartless people can be.

Snack Time: I have no idea why people insist on challenging real-life NBA players to one-on-one battles. You are going to get embarrassed, period. The latest victim found himself done at the hands of Dennis Smith Jr.

Dessert: If you haven’t listened to A$AP Ferg’s Still Striving, you need to. Joint knocks.

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.”