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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pots & Pans: Ella Fitzgerald was the voice of all our mothers This year, we celebrate the centennial of her birth and music that helped us through some tough times

When my mother was a teenager, she’d lock arms with a group of other girls and head off to her Philadelphia high school. Often, as my mother so fondly remembered, the girls would break into an Ella Fitzgerald song: “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” a 19th-century nursery rhyme that Ella helped remake into a silly hit tune for serious times, the Great Depression:

“… A green and yellow basket

I send a letter to my mommy, On the way I dropped it,

I dropped it, I dropped it,

Yes, on the way I dropped it

A little girlie picked it up

And put it in her pocket …”

Unlike Billie Holiday, just two years older, Ella didn’t so much interpret song lyrics as toss them joyfully, yet precisely, into the air. To paraphrase a Duke Ellington tune, she let a song go out of her heart. Married at least twice, the men she loved got away, including bassist Ray Brown, a former husband with whom she adopted a son, Ray Brown Jr. Still, she sang love songs as if she were an ingenue recounting her first kiss. And her music was often most compelling and charming when she forgot the lyrics to the songs she sang (and improvised new ones), or when she substituted scat singing for lyrics.

Further, she sang for and to the unsung, especially the black women of my mother’s generation. They endured the long nights of dreams deferred and embraced the morning joy promised by their faith and Ella’s singing.

They cornrowed hair and cleared paths for the next generation in the classroom, on the factory floors and in the office suites. At home, they made nutritious meals from food scraped from cans and poured from boxes, meals seasoned with hope and thrift. They stood by their men and bent their knees to God.

For my mother’s generation and others that followed, Ella’s voice soared like a flock of doves released against a blue midmorning summer sky. Although my mother and her friends couldn’t sing like Ella, many had something in common with The First Lady of Song: They steeled themselves against hard lives and radiated a public optimism that sometimes masked private insecurity and pain. Ella once explained, “It isn’t where you came from, it’s where you’re going that counts.”

Ella was born on April 25, 1917, in Virginia; her voice took her from living on New York streets to living in her home in Beverly Hills. Along the way she sold 40 million albums, earned 13 Grammys and was honored with the National Medal of Arts. During a career in which she stamped her imprint on the Great American Songbook, she performed songs composed by everyone from Irving Berlin (“White Christmas”) to Stevie Wonder (“You Are the Sunshine of My Life”). She sang with everyone from Louis Armstrong to Frank Sinatra. A longtime sufferer of diabetes, she died in 1996 at 79.

Later this month, many will continue to mark the centennial of Ella’s birth. Notably, on April 26, Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York will hail Ella in an event that doubles as a fundraiser for the organization. Scheduled performers include the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis and singers Renée Fleming, Audra McDonald and Cécile McLorin Salvant.

Ella’s singing was a smile sent from the heavens, a work of art and a force of nature. Like jazz, Ella’s singing never grows old. It just flings its arms open wide and envelops a new generation with joy.

Pots & Pans: 70 years after Jackie Robinson’s breakthrough, stats are changing sports but not what makes a hero No. 42 put up great numbers, but they don’t capture his importance

Through the years, observers have called the baseball gloves worn by outfielders Tris Speaker and Willie Mays places where (would-be) triples went to die. For me, those comments illustrate the Hall of Famers’ fielding prowess better than their respective defensive runs saved (DRS) scores ever could. Thus, I’m unlikely to ever lead a baseball conversation rooted in the understanding of advanced defensive stats or any other advanced sports statistics.

But by the Major League Baseball All-Star break, I plan to know enough about advanced baseball statistics to nod at their disciples in an opaque way that masks my lack of knowledge, just as I do when the younger brothers in the barbershops start talking about today’s rap versus the vintage flow from Tupac and Biggie. After all, I believe having even a nodding acquaintance with new languages, interpretations and perspectives can promote understanding among disparate groups.

Besides, advanced and sophisticated statistical analysis looms large in sports. And it’s not just in conversations in barbershops, at workplace water coolers or on sports talk shows, especially those comparing players from different eras. Increasingly, advanced statistical analysis determines how today’s games are played.

In baseball, such analysis has reduced the importance of stolen bases, pitching complete games and making sacrifice bunts. Further, managers such as Dusty Baker, 67, are sometimes criticized for being out of touch with today’s baseball. With a half-century in baseball, Baker, a three-time Major League Baseball Manager of the Year, is more likely to refer to his gut than a spreadsheet when deciding what he and his Washington Nationals ballclub should do. He’s never managed a team to a World Series victory. Further, in a managing career that has lasted more than two decades, Baker has taken the Chicago Cubs, Cincinnati Reds, the San Francisco Giants and the Nationals to the playoffs without winning a World Series.

But Theo Epstein, the 43-year-old Yale grad-turned-Major League Baseball front-office rainmaker, has used analytics to put together teams that ended World Series victory droughts of over 80 years each for the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs. Who can argue with Epstein’s approach?

Furthermore, in the NFL, the new numbers game has led to the devaluing of running backs. Their careers in the NFL often go like this: Runners are devalued in a “passing league,” so they are picked in later rounds of the NFL draft and given less money to sign initial contracts. Nevertheless, the best runners run a lot, and just when they’d be rewarded with a big second contract for running a lot and producing a lot, a number cruncher says, “Not so fast.” The player has been running a lot; he’s approaching 30 and about to lose productivity and become more injury-prone. Consequently, the number cruncher recommends that the player — let’s call him John Henry — not be re-signed, or get cut or traded for draft picks.

In big-time college basketball and NBA basketball, the new numbers game has given rise to the 3-point shot. Despite the University of South Carolina women’s team winning the 2017 Division I Championship game while going 0-for-3 on 3-pointers, everyone from the University of Connecticut women’s teams to NBA stalwarts such as the Golden State Warriors have used the 3-point shot to contend for championships or to win them.

Indeed, guard Lonzo Ball, the UCLA freshman who has declared for the NBA draft, presents himself as the ultimate modern baller: He takes 3-point shots or he drives to the basket. He employs his midrange jumper about as often as his dad, LaVar Ball, reveals his humility.

Consequently, young Mr. Ball is already an avatar of contemporary style and practice on the basketball court. I can envision years from now the images of Ball and his younger basketball-playing brothers, dressed as a trio of Sportin’ Lifes from Porgy and Bess, adorning the cover of a video game called It Ain’t Necessarily So. The game will remind players that the well-lived life in sports can’t be captured or appreciated solely through game statistics.

Game players will earn points for the things their video avatars do, including playing with great panache, donating their money to worthy causes, and giving younger athletes sage private counsel rather than showering the younger players with public ridicule. Also, some game players will earn points when their video avatars stay out of trouble and save their money, making it possible for their children and their children’s children to enjoy great wealth and security.

Oh, sure, such a video game promoted by the Ball brothers or anyone else is not likely to happen. But the real winners in sports, such as Muhammad Ali, Roberto Clemente and LeBron James, have shown they understand Jackie Robinson’s telling words: “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.”

During his Brooklyn Dodgers career, Robinson compiled a .311 lifetime batting average. He won Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player honors. But his statistics and sports honors don’t begin to capture his enduring significance: Robinson’s breaking Major League Baseball’s color line in 1947 resounds in our country every time another noble warrior redefines what’s possible for future generations.

This week, as we mark the 70th anniversary of Robinson’s majestic triumph, let’s resolve to move our appreciation of Robinson beyond speeches and applause. Let’s honor Robinson, as the Hall of Famer honored his gifts and talents, as he honored the heroes who went before him: Let’s seek to improve the lives of others.

That’s what winners do.

Pots & pans: Disrespect of Maxine Waters will not be tolerated Neither will we stand for the dismissing of our heritage along with our hair, Bill O’Reilly

Maxine Waters has always seemed familiar to me. She reminds me of the black women I’ve seen take care of children when their parents couldn’t. She reminds me of the black women who have pulled wayward boys off street corners and given them a stern talking-to, something to eat and a new direction. She reminds me of black women I’ve seen take their faiths from their churches into their communities.

Perhaps that’s why I never thought about the 78-year-old Democratic representative from California’s looks. Rather, I’d always thought about the beauty of her decades-long advocacy for a federal government that helps people live better and more productive lives.

I never thought about Bill O’Reilly’s looks, either. Instead, since 1996 when he took up residence at Fox News, I’d always thought about the ugliness of his decades-long attacks on his foes. And I’ve thought of O’Reilly presiding over cable television’s most popular opinion show, The O’Reilly Factor, and him becoming a best-selling author, achievements that remind me of Oscar Wilde’s words in The Picture of Dorian Gray:

“You will always be fond of me. I represent to you all the sins you never had the courage to commit.”

Last month, Waters made stinging comments about President Donald Trump and his supporters. “When you fight against this president, and we point out how dangerous he is for society and this country, we’re fighting for democracy,” said Waters, who began serving in Congress in the early 1990s.

O’Reilly, 67, reacted as if he could laugh Waters’ remarks away, including saying that he got distracted by what he called her “James Brown wig.”

And the roots of that dismissal were more telling than meets the eye. O’Reilly’s comments imply that women are as they look (to him). Further, his crack that Waters’ hair “distracted” him from hearing what she was saying echoes a stark reality for black women from office cubicles to TV anchor chairs: the style and texture of their hair can literally get in the way of white people hearing what they are saying, or seeing who they are.

Some people, especially those on Black Twitter, denounced O’Reilly and demanded an apology. It was if his detractors felt bringing O’Reilly to heel would make America suddenly acknowledge and make amends for its centuries of assaults against the humanity of black people.

So, after being rebuked and scorned, O’Reilly has apologized for saying something dumb. But his worldview doesn’t allow him to truly be sorry. For white people like O’Reilly, even acknowledging that someone could take umbrage at their comments or behavior is a threat to their social status and a tax upon their supposed goodwill.

Further, O’Reilly will not go beyond the mere words of his apology and seek to make amends: changing his combative TV behavior. That might cost money.

Waters understands all that. She dismissed O’Reilly, just as he sought to dismiss her. She does not need him or his tepid apology. She says she will not go on (his) show. She will not be prodded and mocked while his audience is deceived. More importantly, this self-described strong black woman vows to continue speaking out: “I cannot be intimidated.”

Like Sojourner Truth, the 19th century freedom fighter, Waters will not let her life’s light be framed and dimmed by the darkness around her.

That’s beautiful.

Pots & pans: It’s about time it was Oscars-so-black Hollywood finally might be understanding that anyone’s story can be an American story

Sunday’s Academy Awards show from Hollywood is likely to present zingers about President Donald Trump.

But if the 45th president is showered with ridicule at the Oscars, Hollywood artists and corporate bigwigs also must confront a truth they might find hard to handle. Since its birth, the nation’s film industry has sold the world pernicious notions and stereotypes about everyone from African-American maids to Asian-American houseboys. And, in our nation of strangers, those notions and stereotypes have made it easier for generations of American politicians, including Trump, to demonize, diminish and denounce people defined as the other, especially people of color.

But Hollywood can atone for its past and present sins by recognizing the normality of being something other than an ostensibly straight young white man. Hollywood can cast actors of color even when there isn’t anything about the role that dictates the part be played by someone who is African-American, Hispanic, Asian-American or Native American. Further, Hollywood can embrace the idea that many people’s lives, their aspirations for decency and goodness, are rooted in their faiths, including Islam. Hollywood can embrace that anyone’s story can be an American story and that all well-told stories are universal.

Let me be clear. I’m not advocating that agitprop replace artistry and profits as the movie industry’s primary motivations: that Hollywood start making movies where disabled, transgender, undocumented Islamic immigrants of color over 60 start saving the world from invading space aliens. Though such plots wouldn’t be any more preposterous than films that feature white children saving the world or white men over 60, what my son calls kick-ass geezers, saving the day and getting the girl (a woman half the geezer’s age), too.

What I do advocate is that Hollywood take advantage of the abundance of talent at its disposal. Mahershala Ali (supporting actor nomination for Moonlight) and Ruth Negga (best actress nomination for Loving) should be future stars. Viola Davis (supporting actress nomination for Fences), Naomie Harris (supporting actress nomination for Moonlight) and Octavia Spencer (supporting actress nomination for Hidden Figures) should be brighter Hollywood stars than they are. By the way, Dev Patel, 26 and leading-man handsome, is the seventh member of a Hollywood minority group (an Indian from England) to garner a 2017 Oscar nod in an acting category: best supporting actor for Lion.

Further, today’s young black male film actors shouldn’t have to compete to be the next Denzel Washington: Hollywood’s black leading man of his generation, a baton Washington (best actor nomination for Fences) grasped from Sidney Poitier, who turns 90 today.

Rather, actors from Idris Alba to Chadwick Boseman should be able to go as far as their varied talents can take them, just as white actors such as Chris Evans, Chris Pratt and Chris Pine will. And it’s about time that an actress of color becomes the enduring Hollywood leading lady that Lena Horne, Rita Moreno and France Nuyen couldn’t be, the enduring Hollywood leading lady Halle Berry, Joan Chen and Jennifer Lopez almost were.

With 2017 best picture nominees Moonlight, Hidden Figures and Fences featuring largely black casts, Hollywood sees new evidence that such films can excite and satisfy diverse audiences. More top quality films featuring people of color should follow.

But if Hollywood steps up its pace of integrating the world’s fantasy life through its films, American communities of color need to reward the effort by going to see the good movies activists say we crave. The black community and others did that with Academy Award-nominated Hidden Figures, which grossed more than $100 million. But we didn’t do that for Queen of Katwe, a taut and sweet little movie that featured dynamic and endearing performances by David Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong’o. It grossed a little over $10 million.

Sad. Let’s do better.