On this MLK holiday, it’s important to know how Memphis Greenspace took down those Confederate statues The South’s historical parks for too long have held racist symbols and histories

When a group of African-American men hit upon a strategy to rip statues of Confederate leaders Nathan Bedford Forrest and Jefferson Davis from Memphis’ parks, they did more than remove images of racists from places of honor to places of obscurity.

They wrote the first chapter of a how-to manual on how black people can begin to liberate their leisure spaces from racist symbols and racist histories.

After Tennessee’s historical commission denied, once again, Memphis’ request to remove from two parks the statue of Forrest, the Confederate general who led a massacre of hundreds of surrendering black Union soldiers at Fort Pillow in 1864 and who was an early leader of the Ku Klux Klan, and Davis, who was president of the Confederacy, a group of black men formed Memphis Greenspace Inc.

Because the Tennessee Heritage Act doesn’t apply to private parks, they were able to persuade the city to sell the parks to them for $1,000 each. Then, in the dark of night on Dec. 21, cranes arrived, tore the statues of Forrest and Davis from their bases and hauled them away.

While Greenspace was formed to get rid of the Confederate statues, its actions should shine light on the fact that, like in Memphis, many parks and recreational spaces throughout the nation are fraught with racist symbols and racist histories that repel many African-Americans — and that it’s way past time to flip the script on that.

This predicament, in fact, was the subject of a 2016 study by KangJae Lee, an assistant professor at the University of Missouri whose research centers on parks and recreation. After examining findings that show most visitors to national and state parks are disproportionately white, he looked at why black residents who live near Cedar Hill State Park in Cedar Hill, Texas, rarely go there.

His work revealed a legacy of Jim Crow. For generations, their parents and grandparents were barred from the park, contributing to a cultural disposition that kept them away, not to mention the fact that Cedar Hill Park was once a large slave plantation — a fact that goes unmentioned at the park’s historical sites and feeds into black resentment.

Kind of like how Forrest’s history of being a Klansman and a slave trader were nowhere to be found on his statue.

Other ghosts of racism haunt city recreational spaces.

In Savannah, according to Donald Grant’s 1993 book The Way It Was in the South: The Black Experience in Georgia, an 1866 law barred black children from its parks unless they were accompanied by white children, and in 1890, when bicycling became popular, it forbade black people from using its bike paths.

In 1911, around the time Confederate statues began to be erected in many public spaces in the South, all of Atlanta’s parks were off-limits to black people, and by 1926, they could only use three of its parks. Many, in fact, were arrested for walking through the “white parks” on the way to work.

That scenario resonates with Van Turner Jr., director of Memphis Greenspace. He said one of the factors that drove him to take down the statues of Forrest and Davis was the fact that they were grim reminders of a time when his father and other black people weren’t allowed in those parks unless they were with a white person.

Confederate symbols in public spaces also conjure images of oppression in Jacksonville (Florida) Confederate Park, which sits north of downtown and has a monument to women of the Confederacy, stirring resentment in many of the African-Americans who live near the area.

A Confederate monument erected in 1898, at the beginning of the Jim Crow era, in downtown Jacksonville’s Hemming Plaza praises the Confederate soldier for “deeds immortal” and “heroism unsurpassed.”

Sixty-two years later, African-American civil rights demonstrators would be beaten bloody in that same place by racists wearing Confederate uniforms and wielding ax handles.

No mention of that in Hemming.

Yet, as Memphis Greenspace has shown, that past doesn’t have to be black people’s future when it comes to parks and recreational spaces.

Besides demonstrating and strategizing to expunge racist monuments from recreational spaces, a broader purpose exists here. That purpose is to persuade black people that they are entitled to enjoy recreational spaces that their tax dollars were supporting even during a time when they were either intimidated, or outright barred, from enjoying them.

Brothers like Turner have shown the way. And while the strategy that Memphis Greenspace used may not necessarily be fit for other places grappling with how to take down monuments honoring racists, their actions can be used to begin a blueprint to empower black people with the belief that they deserve to enjoy public spaces that white people have always enjoyed.

That’s because although those places may hold memories of past pain, they also hold potential for future health, for battling the obesity and inactivity that disproportionately plague African-Americans.

And now that we have a way to get rid of monuments to white supremacists who died to keep us out of those public spaces, it’s time for us to begin to claim them as our own.

Before you clap back at H&M ad boy’s mother, understand that context matters Her world is a little different from yours

As a kid growing up in Jamaica, the only sport I ever played — at recess, in the house, in the neighborhood — was futbol. You couldn’t tell me I wasn’t destined to be the next Pelé, the Brazilian star who brought the South American country its first World Cup title in 1958 when he was all of 17. Futbol, in my world, was really the only sport worth watching and playing, with all due respect to cricket.

But when a packed Eastern Airlines flight touched down at Washington National Airport on May 7, 1982, American football entered my world. I became a fast Redskins fan, growing to admire the quiet but effective leadership style of coach Joe Gibbs; the bruising running of John Riggins; even the team’s brash, single-bar-helmet-wearing quarterback Joe Theismann. So big a “Riggo” fan, I asked my middle school soccer coach to assign me his jersey number: 44.

I remember watching a Monday Night Football telecast on Sept. 5, 1983, where legendary sportscaster Howard Cosell said of Redskins wide receiver Alvin Garrett: “That little monkey gets loose, doesn’t he?”

The response to Cosell’s description of the 5-foot-7, 178-pound wide receiver was quick, even in our pre-social media world. The Rev. Joseph Lowery, then president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, denounced Cosell’s comment as racist and demanded a public apology.

But Cosell refused to do so, citing his past support for black athletes, Muhammad Ali being the biggest, and stated that “little monkey” was a term of endearment he had used in the past for not just black athletes but also for diminutive athletes of all shades, white included. (Cosell is on record having used the term 11 years before in describing Mike Adamle, a white journeyman running back who played for the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs, New York Jets and Chicago Bears.)

Cosell, then 64 years old, admitted to calling his own grandson a little monkey; he’d leave the Monday Night Football booth after that 1983 season, citing his waning interest in professional football.

This week I harkened back to that moment in time when the pictures of an African-American boy, Liam, in an H&M ad wearing a hoodie with the words “Coolest monkey in the jungle” inscribed on it broke Twitter.

The response on social was fast and furious. Manchester United and Belgian national soccer star Romelu Lukaku, LeBron James, Diddy, The Weeknd and many more were among the big names to slam H&M, calling for shoppers to boycott the Swedish clothing company.

When Cosell said, “That little monkey gets loose, doesn’t he?” my 13-year-old self missed it. Completely. I don’t remember my parents discussing it in the house in the days that followed. But this much I’m sure of: Even if my parents had heard the comment, I doubt there’d have been an outcry for Cosell’s dismissal from his job. Why? As West Indians, raised in the Caribbean and educated in the U.K., our sensibilities toward issues of race, racism and social activism were far different from 1983 America’s.

It matters not that Cosell used the term in reference to a white player. It doesn’t matter that he used it toward his own family. The bottom line is there are people who were offended when he used it in reference to an African-American player; therefore, he should have apologized for it and never done it again.

Why? Because he used the term out of context, and context matters.

So I understand that Liam’s mom didn’t grow up here and is Nigerian-Swedish and is not tuned in to the many nuances of being woke in America. So … she don’t get it, but it doesn’t matter — because there are people who were offended. In American context, the sweatshirt was out of context and that reference is offensive. So H&M should apologize, which it did, and never do it again. Ever.

Know this: What happened to that kid in the H&M ad could never have happened to my sons — not if I am breathing, anyway, and certainly not if I’d been on that photo shoot. No doubt, my reaction to the ad was no different from yours; I share the outrage, particularly at such a time in America where subtle and not-so-subtle racism in all its forms, from intentional and murderous to intentional and microaggressive, has dominated our lives, from the athletic field to the White House.

When the mother of 5-year-old Liam ranted on social that America’s reaction to the image was “unnecessary,” I suspected she might not be African-American. (Turns out, Terry Mango moved to Sweden from Nigeria.)

In a series of Facebook posts, Mango urged critics, including high-profile musicians and sports stars, to “get over it” and to “stop crying wolf.”

She wrote: “Am the mum and this is one of hundreds of outfits my son has modelled… stop crying wolf all the time, unnecessary issue here… get over it [sic]. … ‘Not coz am choosing not to but because it’s not my way of thinking sorry [sic].’ ” In a separate post, she added: “Everyone is entitled to their opinion.”

That last point is probably Mango’s best, and only, good one. Growing up in Jamaica, we all spoke different versions of the patois dialect — and that included Chinese-Jamaicans, white Jamaican and Indian-Jamaicans and various combinations thereof. Our issue in Jamaica is not one of race, it’s of class. We had, and still have, a class problem.

Mango’s reaction tells me that this simply wasn’t her reality growing up; the American reaction irked her, maybe even surprised her too.

I have two black sons, ages 16 and 13 (and a daughter too). The world they live in scares the bejesus out of me; I worry about them walking home from school or, God forbid, driving my car without fear of being randomly harassed by police, who are supposed to protect them. Those are the fears that sparked this “quick” reaction, and Mango, I suspect, doesn’t understand that because that is not her reality. For those reasons alone, the national reaction cannot be deemed a small deal.

As you’d imagine and may have seen, Mango has taken more than a few hits on social, and for her comments, perhaps it’s well-deserved. She won’t have to defend herself to me. But I do hope that when the dust settles, she will look at this episode as a teachable moment — for herself and for young Liam, because the world in her head is not the world little Liam will live in.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tracey Bonner as LaWanda and Cress Williams as Jefferson Pierce

Richard Ducree/The CW

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do you personally relate to these characters?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meet the cast of the CW’s Black Lightning

ABC has two more Shonda Rhimes shows coming despite her new deal with Netflix Television Critics Diary: Lionel Richie and Luke Bryan are pals on the new ‘American Idol’ and Roseanne Conner is a Trump voter

PASADENA, California — If you liked Regé-Jean Page’s performance as Chicken George in A&E’s 2015 update of Roots, I have good news for you. The British-Zimbabwean actor now plays a jerk of a federal prosecutor named Leonard Knox in the new Shondaland legal drama, For The People. And because it’s a Shonda Rhimes show, yes, you’ll see him shirtless.

Her company, Shondaland, has a giant new deal with Netflix. But it still has remaining shows at ABC, including For The People, scheduled to premiere in March, and an untitled Grey’s Anatomy spinoff set three blocks down from Seattle Grace in a firehouse.

Paris Barclay, the former Directors Guild of America president, is directing again on The Spinoff That ABC Refused to Name, after previous Shondaland stints on Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder.

Barclay is a groundbreaker in all sorts of ways, including as the first black and first openly gay president of the Directors Guild of America. So he knows how rare it is to be directing on a show executive produced by a black woman, for a network run by a black woman — ABC president Channing Dungey is the first black person to run a broadcast network.

“Shonda is a whole new world,” Barclay told me during the Television Critics Association press tour here. “It’s been one of the best experiences of my career. I love going into a room with executives at ABC and they’re mostly women and I think that’s great. And the shows that she creates, with Stacy [McKee], and with other people, put women in the forefront and I guess that’s what I’m going to have to do for the rest of my life because I enjoy it so much.”


The cast of the “American Idol” reboot.

ABC/Image Group LA

ABC is also reviving American Idol, with Lionel Richie, Katy Perry, and Luke Bryan as judges and Ryan Seacrest still hosting. There was a strict no-spoilers policy in place, so I can’t tell you if the show found any memorable singers this season. But the chemistry between the judges seems amicable and genuine. One of the fun things about press tour is reading the body language between co-stars to figure out which ones aren’t exactly fans of each other. But there’s clearly mutual respect between Richie and Bryan, and it started to make sense why Bryan was tapped to be part of the Kennedy Center Honors ceremony paying tribute to Richie.

“Shonda is a whole new world. It’s been one of the best experiences of my career.”

The tribute acts for the Kennedy Center show are closely held secrets because they’re supposed to be a surprise for the honorees. The Kennedy Center reached out to Bryan about honoring Richie while the two were working together on Idol, leaving Bryan to find a way to keep mum about the whole thing.

“I’m around this man seven or eight times, and I know I’m going to be a part of this secret,” Bryan said.

Bryan said that he really wanted to walk the red carpet at the Kennedy Center but couldn’t.

“You want to get out there and do the red carpet and tell everybody why you were so honored to honor Lionel and just be a part of it,” he said. “It is a beautiful, beautiful night, Kennedy Center Honors. So I get on the red carpet, and I’m, like, going to take my first picture, and they are, like, ‘Get off the carpet! He’s here! He’s here!’

“I guess … either I was running behind, or Lionel was running ahead. And so they run me around, and I’m literally standing outside of a bathroom for about 30 minutes because Lionel is out there hamming it up on the carpet talking to everybody. Then I’m like, ‘The heck with it. Let’s just sneak around the back.’ ”

Richie was none the wiser until Bryan appeared on stage that night.


The cast of “Roseanne.”

ABC/Image Group LA

Roseanne is being revived at ABC, but one of her best qualities has been complicated by recent events.

Shortly after the 2016 presidential election, I wrote in an essay for The Undefeated that many people of color were wondering about public and private truths in American society. Namely, who among us would wish us harm?

Monday, I had the chance to ask that question about a beloved character from the 1990s, Roseanne Conner, who famously and forcefully lectured her son DJ that there was no place for bigotry in their house after DJ refused to kiss a black girl in his school play. It was a striking scene in one of America’s most popular shows. Conner was a groundbreaking character and it was incredibly significant to see a white woman saying that just because their family was economically disadvantaged, that didn’t mean they would stand for looking down their noses at black people.

Well, the Roseanne Conner of 2017 is a Trump voter. And so I asked her creator Roseanne Barr, who was also a Trump voter, how that happened. How did Conner become a person who didn’t see Trump’s well-documented instances of xenophobic and racist statements as disqualifying?

“Well, he says a lot of crazy s—,” Barr said. “You know, I’m not a Trump apologist and there are a lot of things he has said and done that I don’t agree with, like there’s probably a lot of things Hillary Clinton has done and said that you don’t agree with. And so nobody is brainwashed into agreeing with a hundred percent of what anybody says, let alone a politician or a candidate. But one great thing that I read today is that this is the lowest black unemployment. This is the lowest level of that for many, many years. So I think that’s great, and I do support jobs for people. And I think that that’s a great way to fight racism, is for everybody to have a good job.”

Barr continued: “It’s always a lesser of two evils, and we all have to face our own conscience of how we do that. And speaking of racism, I mean, I’m just going to say it: I appreciate your concern, but I am going to say that a large part of why I could not vote for Hillary Clinton is because Haiti.” (In 2009, the State Department under Clinton sided with Haitian garment manufacturers in opposing an increase in the minimum wage because of concerns it would jeopardize efforts at labor reform.)

H&M’s ‘coolest monkey’ hoodie and how racism wastes our precious time As Toni Morrison taught us, the ongoing cycle of ignorance keeps us from our work

When I first saw the now-infamous H&M ad of a beautiful black child wearing a hoodie that reads “The Coolest Monkey in the Jungle,” my initial reaction was rage. Here we are, almost two full decades into the 21st century, and we are still seeing images that equate black people with monkeys, an ugly trope that has existed for hundreds of years. However, my rage was quickly followed by a deep weariness. I was reminded of the words of Toni Morrison when she addressed racism during a 1975 lecture on race and politics:

“[K]now the function, the very serious function of racism, which is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and so you spend 20 years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says that you have no art so you dredge that up. Somebody says that you have no kingdoms and so you dredge that up. None of that is necessary.”

Racism, and specifically anti-blackness, manifests itself in a myriad of ugly ways. We seem to be in an endless cycle of:

  • Person/company says/does something horribly offensive
  • Offers a half-baked apology
  • Waits for the outrage to die down
  • And then it starts up again.

H&M issued an apology today: “We sincerely apologize for this image. It has been now removed from all online channels and the product will not be for sale in the United States.” Sadly, it isn’t the first company to release images with racist connotations and it won’t be the last. Nivea recently published an ad stating, I kid you not, “White is purity” and pulled it after white supremacists started sharing the image as a rallying cry. Dove came under fire a few months ago for an ad that showed an image of a black woman taking off a brown shirt to reveal a white woman underneath, as if blackness is something dirty and needs to be scrubbed off. And who could forget the recent Pepsi gaffe that treated the last few years of protests against police brutality, led primarily by black women, like a carefree day at Coachella?

What makes all of this so insidious to me, as someone who analyzes images for a living, is knowing the lasting impact that images can have on the psyches of people who consume them. Despite the apologies offered and the insistence by these companies of how much they believe in diversity and inclusion, the images are out there and the damage is done. And what I am also intimately familiar with is the energy and time wasted in fighting against this kind of messaging. What is lost when, instead of focusing that energy on ourselves, on elevating and lifting each other up, we are instead mired in a fight against the kind of messaging that tells us we’re not human.

Do I think everyone at H&M is a racist? Well, that is hard to say. But what I can tell you, as someone who has often been the only black woman in a room full of decision-makers, is that there probably aren’t enough people of color in their chain of command. There aren’t enough people in the room who have been on the receiving end of callous and insensitive remarks about their race or ethnicity. There aren’t enough people in the room who have believed they had to constantly prove their humanity time and time again. There aren’t enough people in the room who don’t have the privilege to feign ignorance about racist tropes that have existed for generations.

Oprah struck the perfect tone at the Golden Globes, on a night when almost no one else could Her speech remembered the women our society too often forgets

I don’t know what we’d do without the first black woman to be awarded the Cecil B. DeMille award by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. But, by God, what I know for sure is this: We don’t deserve Oprah Winfrey.

Sunday night, Oprah pretty much rendered the rest of the Golden Globes irrelevant, glib and forgettable. The night was supposed to be serious and glamorous but not frivolous, and somehow also funny.

Mostly, it was just weird.

There was a distance and an awkwardness to the show, which is usually a rollicking good time because its guests are spit-shined and boozed up. Sunday’s event had to adjust for the sobering revelations driven by months of #MeToo, days of #TimesUp and an endless parade of expensive black protest dresses. The pendulum indicating the tone of the evening kept swinging wildly and not quite stopping anywhere that felt right, save for host Seth Meyers’ pull-no-punches opening monologue.

Even though #MeToo was the central focus of the evening, even though the movement’s creator, Tarana Burke, was in the room, there was an inescapable whiteness to the celebration. There were the multiple wins for Big Little Lies, which took on the well-heeled lives of quiet desperation led by rich white women in Monterey, California, and barely bothered to consider the details of its one black character, played by Zoë Kravitz. It was also a predictably big night for the adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, which made women of color and the racism they face an afterthought. There were the multiple wins for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, a film whose worst problem may be that it advances the idea that being an incompetent buffoon of a policeman is somehow a worse character flaw than being a violent, power-abusing racist so long as he tries his best to capture somebody’s rapist.

And then Oprah, in a black velvet gown and hair that recalled the glory of her 1998 Vogue cover shot by Steven Meisel, swooped to the stage of the Beverly Hilton like a patronus, not just for Hollywood but for the nation, and delivered the speech we desperately needed to hear.

In 10 minutes, she told us a story that began with Sidney Poitier and the importance of feeling seen, crested with the recognition of invisible women and ended hopeful, joyous and inspiring. She remembered the oft-forgotten women who, she said, “have endured years of abuse and assault because they, like my mother, had children to feed and bills to pay and dreams to pursue. They’re the women whose names we’ll never know. They are domestic workers and farmworkers. They are working in factories and they work in restaurants and they’re in academia, engineering, medicine and science. They’re part of the world of tech and politics and business. They’re our athletes in the Olympics and they’re our soldiers in the military.”

Oprah brought us back to earth and out of whatever alternate dimension the rest of the room seemed to be swimming through, and then lifted us up as though she’d been giving Barack Obama speech lessons. When she said, “Their time is up!” she spoke with the authority of a sexual assault survivor who believed what she was saying and made us believe it too.

She humbled us with her invocation of Recy Taylor, the woman who died recently at 97, never having experienced justice after she was brutally raped by six white men one night in 1944 and threatened with death if she spoke one word about what had happened. Oprah made sure the country knew that there are women who had not just their livelihoods but their very ability to live and breathe threatened by men more powerful than them. She recognized Rosa Parks as more than just a sweet lady who refused to give up her seat on a bus but rather as a woman who kicked off a movement for civil rights because she was tired of black women being violated freely and without consequence.

Oprah took all the rage and confusion and hurt and shame and frustration of the past few months and somehow, in her magical singularity, transformed it into not just a light but a beacon.

In Memphis, the changing legacies of Elvis and Martin Luther King Jr. The city loved the singer but struggled for years to honor the man who was killed at the Lorraine Motel

I didn’t know the two white men. And if they knew of me, it was only because I was the newest black reporter at the morning newspaper in Memphis, Tennessee, the city where Elvis Presley grew up and Martin Luther King Jr. died.

“Well,” one of the men said as I entered the men’s room, “if they are going to have a national holiday for him [Martin Luther King Jr.], they should have one for Elvis too.” The men looked stricken when I entered the room, as if hearing their conversation would cause me to judge them, the newspaper, the South …

I looked away.

I didn’t want to seem to judge or scorn them with my eyes. Besides, even as a struggling young reporter, I’d learned to look for meaning in people’s speech that went beyond the words they spoke. And in the man’s tone, I’d heard a reverence for the supposed “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll” and not disdain for the slain civil rights leader who’d been assassinated in Memphis in 1968.

For many outside of Memphis, Elvis was the ultimate appropriator of black culture: a continuation of the white King of Jazz (Paul Whiteman) and the white King of Swing (Benny Goodman), a forerunner of the supposed white kings of rap (Eminem and Vanilla Ice), pretenders whose claims to their respective thrones melted into pools of absurdity.

But during his rise to stardom in the 1950s, Elvis had been a majestic talent: an electrifying singer and performer. In his 1960s movies, which were usually formulaic showcases for his talents, Elvis exemplified a boy’s idea of a cool man. He drove fast cars, he chased pretty women and he knocked bad guys out with deft blows. And he was beautiful, just as Sam Cooke and Ray Charles were. Like them, Elvis’ voice and life straddled Saturday night and Sunday morning, the secular and divine.

More important to many in Memphis, Elvis, a native of Mississippi, was a Southern man who’d come home again and stayed there. His generosity among the locals was legendary. People proudly wore the jewelry he’d given them. They drove the Cadillacs he’d given them too.

On Sundays, Memphis radio stations played Elvis’ gospel music, for which he won his only three Grammys. He’d died in 1977. He was just 42, and in the early 1980s in Memphis, many were still trying to come to grips with his death.

Meanwhile, in the early 1980s, Memphis had come to grips with Martin’s death in one place in a disdainful way: at the Lorraine Motel, where the civil rights leader had stayed before his assassination. Martin’s room was marked by a few pastel ribbons and little else. I continue to be haunted by the mournful breeze I saw stirring the fraying ribbons.

I’d gone to the sagging motel to interview Margaret Walker, who regaled me with stories about the racism and the sexism she’d had to overcome to produce poems such as For My People.

Walker was staying in a room just a few doors down from where Martin had stayed in the hours before an assassin’s bullet claimed his life on April 4, 1968. When I walked by Martin’s last room, I saw a black woman sitting on the bed in another motel room a few feet away. A white man was putting on his suit or taking it off. This was in the middle of the day.

A lot has changed since then. Since 1991, the former Lorraine Motel is a part of the National Civil Rights Museum. In the early 1980s, Memphis largely neglected Beale Street and its blues heritage. Today, Memphis and a revitalized Beale Street celebrate the blues.

Furthermore, Memphis has had black mayors. Birmingham and Selma, Alabama, have too, circumstances that would not have been possible without the crusade that Martin led.

Indeed, the powerhouse football programs at Alabama and Georgia, which will be on display in the national championship game Monday night in Atlanta, wouldn’t be possible without the modern civil rights movement either. So many of the teams’ key players are black. Neither football program was integrated before 1971.

Today, people all around the world will mark what would have been Elvis’ 83rd birthday. They will sing his greatest hits. They will watch his movies. And those who knew him will tell stories about what made the man special.

Next Monday, Martin will be remembered too. He led a movement for equality, justice and peace that didn’t start with him and won’t end with us. In the darkest hour, Martin said, light a candle. When what he called the mountain of despair loomed highest, he said, pluck a stone of hope from that mountain.

In 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed a measure making the third Monday in the year a federal holiday. The holiday began to be observed three years later. And this year, the national King observance falls on what would have been Martin’s 89th birthday.

In some ways, the ritualized ways we remember Martin, including the replays of his most famous speeches and sermons, his greatest hits, have become a kind of forgetting, not of Martin but of our shared responsibility to help make America a better country and the world a better place.

So it won’t be what any one of us does next Monday, but it will be what we can come together to do next Tuesday and beyond that will honor Martin. During his life, he was an American and world leader. He challenged his country to live up to its highest ideals.

And his words, deeds and example challenge each of us, now and always, to find ways to further that noble cause.

Can ‘grown-ish’ avoid the chaste, safe reality of ‘A Different World’? ‘black-ish’ spinoff a fresh start for actress Yara Shahidi, and a world of uncertainty for her character, Zoey

For better or worse, A Different World, the Cosby Show spinoff that began airing in 1987, following Denise Huxtable (Lisa Bonet) to Hillman College, has provided the blueprint for sitcom depictions of black middle-class college existence.

That blueprint now extends to grown-ish, the offshoot of black-ish starring Yara Shahidi as college freshman Zoey Johnson, which premieres at 8 p.m. Wednesday on Freeform. It’s one in which an attractive, personable, well-behaved girl learns the basics of adulthood, such as the perils of taking classes that start at midnight and the importance of sticking by your friends, even when the cost may be broader social suicide.

Girls modeled on Denise are smart, but their intellect isn’t necessarily reflected in their grades. They’re sheltered, and they move through college under ideal, manageable circumstances. And they’re presented as typical, pleasant girls who should be completely relatable for white America.

There are some key differences between Zoey and Denise. Zoey is a student at the fictional, predominantly white Southern California University. Setting A Different World at a historically black college or university (HBCU) allowed the show to elide a backdrop of subterranean racism that comes as part of the package of being a person of color attending a predominantly white institution (PWI). And grown-ish exists in an America 30 years older (though arguably not much wiser) than the idyllic cocoon of Hillman, one squarely in the age of the internet and social media. What does it mean to be transitioning into adulthood in a country that’s using these new tools to reveal all its identity-based hostilities?

It’s worth asking how grown-ish, created by Kenya Barris and Larry Wilmore, the two men behind black-ish, will address that question, given that black-ish has made a place for itself by addressing race and identity head-on. The show’s hallmark is Andre Johnson (Anthony Anderson) narrating his life as an upper-middle-class family man in Southern California. Andre navigates the audience through conversations about race as he and his wife, Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross), grapple with what it means to be black, well-off and existing in a world where they’re largely surrounded by white people. One answer? Their high-school-age son Junior (Marcus Scribner) quotes Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Zoey’s interactions with sticky topics such as systemic racism have been less overt. In one episode of black-ish that addressed police shootings of unarmed black people and the civil unrest that followed, Zoey had to assure Rainbow that just because she wasn’t saying much didn’t mean she wasn’t taking it all in. She just processes things differently.

With grown-ish, Zoey joins a cross-network sorority of sitcom upper-middle-class black co-eds: Whitley Gilbert (A Different World), Denise Huxtable (A Different World), Samantha White (Dear White People), Moesha (Moesha), and even Tia Landry and Tamera Campbell (Sister, Sister). All these shows gave us a safe environment for black people dwelling in the world of higher education — perhaps so safe that they ignored the harsher realities, especially for those who are the first in their families to attend college. No one had to worry that Denise, Moesha, Tia or Tamera might drop out because their parents couldn’t afford tuition, or that their optimism might be tainted by sexual assault.

Which prompts another question facing this new show: Is it possible for grown-ish to exist without becoming too Denise-ish?

Freeform

A Different World began as a show primarily about the sweet-natured, poofy-haired bohemian of the Huxtable clan, but she quickly was upstaged by the tart-mouthed Whitley (Jasmine Guy). Once Debbie Allen, a Howard alumnus, stepped in after a lackluster first season to make Hillman actually feel like an HBCU, A Different World became far more interesting. That difference was reflected in just about every aspect of A Different World, including the second season title sequence, which featured vignettes of the multiple facets of HBCU life, from ROTC to black sororities and fraternities to marching band to sports. Season two introduced the naive Freddie (Cree Summer) and the pragmatic, focused Kim (Charnele Brown) and dispatched Denise and Marisa Tomei’s character, Maggie. Whitley, who was always the most magnetic character, became more of a centerpiece.

No one had to worry that Denise, Moesha, Tia or Tamera might drop out because their parents couldn’t afford tuition, or that their optimism might be tainted by sexual assault.

But one thing remained the same: the largely chaste atmosphere. A Different World avoided sex and gender politics in a way that’s not especially realistic now. And it made a conscious decision to do so, which is part of the reason that Bonet didn’t return after its first season. She was basically banished to A Different World from The Cosby Show because of rifts with creator Bill Cosby. Bonet and Cosby disagreed about her decision to do the film Angel Heart, in which Bonet appeared nude and covered in blood. She appeared topless in an April 1987 issue of Interview magazine. Bonet married Lenny Kravitz in 1987 and gave birth to their daughter, Zoë, in 1988. In her real life, Bonet was pushing back against Cosby’s prescribed vision of respectable, good-girl wholesomeness.

I hope grown-ish will offer a corrective to this and delve headlong into all the things that come with being a female college student in 2018. It should include not just the usual coming-of-age topics, such as learning to do laundry, but also an awareness of campus sexual assault, racism and the Trump administration. Such awareness means dealing with mental illness, pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, discovering and questioning your sexuality, having fair-to-middling to just plain bad sex as you awkwardly figure what you’re into, grappling with internet porn and the way it warps boys’ expectations surrounding sex, and finding out exactly what it means to chart your independence before you finally cut the tether to the mothership and get your own cellphone plan.

Both Barris and Wilmore have established themselves as skilled writers in crafting black male characters who break the fourth wall to tell us about their lives, from Andre Johnson to Bernie Mac. I don’t doubt that this is possible with grown-ish — one of my favorite episodes of The Nightly Show included a boisterous discussion of menstruation. And Wilmore was instrumental in the creation of Insecure, which is about as genuine a depiction of young, black, middle-class adulthood as one could ask for. Barris’ writing has only gotten more ambitious on black-ish. Its fourth season saw Rainbow suffer through postpartum depression before seeking professional help, without any stigma for doing so. Still, the audience experienced Rainbow’s depression through Andre’s perspective. He narrated her trauma, because he narrates every episode of the show.

Grown-ish is built on the same model of storytelling via voiceover narration, but the voice we hear is Zoey’s, not her father’s. For the show to succeed, especially with Freeform’s young, female audience, Zoey has to sound and feel like an 18-year-old girl. It needs to be timely like black-ish, but with less of black-ish’s didacticism and ornery middle-aged-black-man speechifying.

Freeform/Eric Liebowitz

Thanks to the bounty of Peak TV, there are now multiple shows centered on black college life: The Quad on BET answers the question “What if Scandal took place at an HBCU?”; Netflix’s Dear White People captures the slow-boiling rage (and absurdity) of becoming woke at a PWI; and now grown-ish.

All of these shows are serving two audiences. If you’re an adult, the appeal is in watching stories about people who are unformed, who are making decisions about which way their lives are going to go, and then reflecting on the same period in your own life. If you’re in high school or younger, they provide a way to imagine how your future life might play out, similar to the way tweens of an earlier era used to leaf through YM or Seventeen or even the dELiA’s catalog. These were the media that gave you an idea of what it was like to be, well, grown-ish. Nowadays, it’s Teen Vogue.

Shahidi is basically the Teen Vogue It Girl as conceived by its editor-in-chief, Elaine Welteroth. She’s energetic, engaged with the world around her and unabashedly woke. She wears her natural curls and embraces her multiethnic background. She feels like a real person, not a celebrity cipher. Capitalizing on the relationship, black-ish featured Welteroth in a storyline in which Zoey did an internship at the magazine.

grown-ish needs to be timely like black-ish, but with less of black-ish’s didacticism and ornery middle-aged-black-man speechifying.

Shahidi is a charming, sparkly joy to watch, and grown-ish feels like a reset button for Zoey. As the senior sibling of black-ish, Zoey radiated confidence, coolness and, when necessary, withering retorts. She inherited her father’s up-to-the-minute fashion sense, which she set off with poppin’ lip gloss and an array of funky-fresh hairstyles. College Zoey is just as stylish, but she’s unsure of herself and her surroundings. She gets into scrapes such as beginning (and then quickly ending) an Adderall habit. She parties too much and falls behind on her class assignments. She falls into a humiliating texting shame spiral with an oh-so-dreamy rattail-sporting crush played by Trevor Jackson.

Zoey represents the new reality for younger millennials and Generation Z. It’s one where adolescence ends somewhere around 26, when you finally have to get your own health insurance.

Freeform/Eric Liebowitz

Grown-ish isn’t dependent upon black-ish, which airs on ABC, as a lead-in. Freeform, the channel formerly known as ABC Family, has fashioned itself into a purveyor of shows tailor-made for Teen Vogue’s readership. Pretty Little Liars, The Fosters and The Bold Type are notable for their refusal to condescend to the young women who make up large portions of their viewership. Grown-ish isn’t gunning so much for black-ish viewers as it is other Freeform ones, and it’s worth considering how that will affect its focus.

Shahidi has everything she needs to carry a show that could see Zoey inheriting her father’s penchant for addressing challenging social issues with aplomb. What ultimately doomed the first season of A Different World was that it was too polite. On television, there’s still an instinct to be protective of the image of black middle-class girls, one that stems from Denise and the worries of her creator. The result is a string of mostly perfect young women who rarely get the chance to screw up in the way that all girls screw up, to be just as irreverent, mistake-prone and horny as, say, the teens of Gossip Girl.

Here’s hoping that with grown-ish, Zoey gets to be a little bit of everything, a trait that would make her blessedly real, and completely appropriate for our modern age.

 

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

It’s cruelty befitting a Greek tragedy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These black women owned 2017 Meet the women who shook up sports, culture and more

Yes, 2017 was a rough one. But it was also a year of black women fully stepping into their power. From athletes to activists to writers to filmmakers to curators, these black women are truly Undefeated.

 

Serena Williams

Serena Williams waves to the crowd as she leaves the court with the Daphne Akhurst Trophy on Jan. 28 after winning the women’s singles final of the 2017 Australian Open against her sister Venus Williams at Melbourne Park in Australia.

Scott Barbour/Getty Images

What a year it was for Serena Williams, arguably the greatest athlete ever. She won the Australian Open, her 23rd Grand Slam singles title, while eight weeks pregnant. She gave birth to her daughter, Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr., in September and married longtime beau and Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian in a dream wedding in November — and Nike just named a building after her. She’s already making plans to defend her Australian Open title in 2018.

 

Dee rees

Dee Rees poses for a portrait in New York City on Oct. 11.

Kholood Eid for The Undefeated

Dee Rees, who made the critically acclaimed Pariah and the Emmy Award-winning Bessie, has directed a new American classic with Mudbound, a sprawling post-World War II epic that follows the lives of a sharecropping family and the family that owns the land. Although the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been resistant to movies distributed by Netflix, if there’s any kind of justice in the world, Rees, a product of historically black Florida A&M university, will be nominated for an Academy Award for best director.

 

the nigerian women’s bobsled team

From left: Brakewoman Akuoma Omeoga, driver Seun Adigun and brakewoman Ngozi Onwumere.

Courtesy the Bobsled and Skeleton Sports Federation of Nigeria

You’ll do well to remember the names: Akuoma Omeoga, Seun Adigun and Ngozi Onwumere. They have made history as the first African team to qualify for the Winter Olympics in the bobsled category. And this will be the first time Nigeria has been represented in the Winter Olympics. All three women are sprinters, and Adigun, who founded the bobsled team in 2016, competed in the 2012 Summer Olympics. The team will head to Pyeongchang, South Korea, in February to compete for a medal.

 

tiffany haddish

Tiffany Haddish was the breakout star of the most successful comedy of the year, Girls Trip. She became the first black woman stand-up comic to host Saturday Night Live. In addition to a Showtime comedy special, she appeared in Jay-Z’s video for “Moonlight,” which satirized Friends; published a book; starred in The New York Times‘ annual “Greatest Performers” portfolio; and next year, she’ll be producing and starring in a satirical thriller with John Cho. The question for the last black unicorn isn’t “What will she do next?” but “What can’t she do?”

 

munroe bergdorf

Munroe Bergdorf is a British social activist, DJ and model who in August 2017 became the first transgender model to appear in a L’Oréal campaign. She was fired after the Daily Mail surfaced Facebook posts where she spoke out against racism and white supremacy and called for better understanding of systemic injustice. The 30-year-old hasn’t let any of that stop her, though. She signed a new contract with the U.K. beauty brand Illamasqua, is working with The Huffington Post on a new docuseries and continues to speak out against racial and social injustice.

 

sloane stephens

Sloane Stephens of the United States reacts after receiving her check for her victory against compatriot Madison Keys in the women’s singles final at the US Open tennis tournament on Sept. 9 in Flushing, Queens, New York City.

Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images

Sloane Stephens made history in September when she won the US Open vs. Madison Keys. She also became only the fourth black woman to win a Grand Slam singles title, after Althea Gibson, Venus Williams and Serena Williams. What makes Stephens’ success all the more remarkable is the foot injury and subsequent low ranking she overcame to get back to the top. Another victory Stephens completed this year? Graduating from Indiana University East with a degree in communication studies.

Jesmyn Ward

Author Jesmyn Ward hit the “nerd lottery” this year when she was awarded a MacArthur “genius” grant. She was one of 24 people honored by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation with a $625,000 prize. Ward, who wrote the award-winning novels Salvage the Bones and Sing, Unburied, Sing as well as the James Baldwin-inspired essay collection The Fire This Time, teaches at Tulane University in New Orleans and lives in her home state of Mississippi.

rujeko Hockley

Curator Rujeko Hockley has been shaking up the art world with her focus on exhibiting works by black women artists. Hockley, who was the assistant curator of contemporary art at the Brooklyn Museum before heading to the Whitney Museum of American Art, organized the traveling exhibit We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965-85, which is now on display at the California African American Museum. She was also recently tapped to co-curate the 2019 Whitney Biennial, an exhibit of contemporary American art, typically by young and lesser-known artists.

Wnba teams

Top: The Indiana Fever kneel during the national anthem before the game against the Phoenix Mercury on Sept. 21, 2016, in Indianapolis. Bottom: The Phoenix Mercury stand and kneel during the national anthem before the game against the Minnesota Lynx on Sept. 30, 2016, in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images; David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images;

While NFL players have been garnering attention this year for kneeling to protest police brutality, WNBA players have been consistent in their social activism, and it started before 2017. In addition to kneeling, players from multiple teams have been catching fines for wearing T-shirts in support of #BlackLivesMatter and have held news conferences to speak out against police brutality.

lena Waithe

Lena Waithe

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Lena Waithe, who penned the instant classic “Thanksgiving” episode of the second season of Master of None, made history this year as the first black woman to win an Emmy for comedy writing. Waithe also wrote and produced The Chi, a TV series for Showtime based on her experience growing up on Chicago’s South Side. It premieres in January, and if she isn’t nominated for multiple awards, we will eat our hats.

ava duvernay

It’s Ava DuVernay’s world, and we’re just living in it. In this year alone, DuVernay earned a Peabody, a BAFTA and four Emmys for 13th, her documentary about mass incarceration in the United States. She also produced season two of the critically acclaimed OWN drama Queen Sugar and hired all-women directing teams for each episode. DuVernay also landed on the cover of Time as part of their “First” series and will be releasing her adaptation of the classic fantasy novel A Wrinkle in Time in March 2018.

maame biney

Maame Biney takes the corner on her way to victory in the women’s 500-meter A final for a spot on the Olympic team during the 2018 U.S. Speedskating Short Track Olympic Team Trials at the Utah Olympic Oval on Dec. 16 in Salt Lake City.

Harry How/Getty Images

Maame Biney, a 17-year-old from Washington, D.C., who was born in Ghana, just qualified for the Winter Olympics in speedskating, making her the first black girl to do so.
This tweet really says it all: