‘Tell Them We Are Rising’ doesn’t tell the whole story of HBCUs, but it’s a start Documentary on PBS is the equivalent of an introductory survey course

A new PBS documentary about the nation’s historically black colleges and universities might just provide the best argument for a multihour, Ken Burns-type epic exploration of the subject.

Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities will air as part of PBS’s Independent Lens series on Feb. 19. Directed by Stanley Nelson (The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution), Tell Them We Are Rising goes broad but not particularly deep as it attempts to recount the history of black higher education from slavery to the present day in an hour and 25 minutes.

It’s a useful primer for those who might not be familiar with historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) or their purpose, but Tell Them leaves much on the table when it comes to specifics. The documentary arrives at a time when the future of many HBCUs is uncertain as schools face the compounding weight of decades of financial strain, growing competition for students and pressure to keep tuition costs down.

Tell Them is at its best when delving into the birth of the institutions, many of which were established with the help of government land grants after the Civil War. Nelson outlines the philosophical differences between W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington and briefly touches on the fact that in their infancies, many HBCUs were run by white presidents. While Nelson outlines the story of Fayette McKenzie, the Fisk University president who tried to ban any sort of social interaction between the sexes in 1924, he neglects to follow the legacy of McKenzie’s thinking, which shows up in the visitation policies on many a modern HBCU campus.

There are so many valuable, urgent story lines worth mining, and Tell Them simply doesn’t have the time to do them justice. The tradition of activism on HBCU campuses, which resulted in the creation of African-American studies programs and the de-Anglicization of many HCBU liberal arts programs also resulted in a deadly crackdown at Southern University. There’s the role fraternities and sororities such as Delta Sigma Theta, Alpha Kappa Alpha and Omega Psi Phi played in creating influential networks of black professionals. The legacy of protest hasn’t evaporated from modern HBCU campuses, but Tell Them falters in connecting past narratives to the present, whether it’s Howard University students protesting the George W. Bush administration or students nationwide criticizing their administrators for meeting with President Donald Trump. So much is curiously absent from the film, such as an exploration of the role Morehouse College played in shaping Martin Luther King Jr. and his contemporaries in the civil rights movement. Mary McCleod Bethune, the founder of what’s now Bethune-Cookman University and one of the chief architects of black higher education, is an afterthought.

It’s a useful primer for those who might not be familiar with HBCUs or their purpose, but Tell Them leaves much on the table when it comes to specifics.

Tell Them functions as an outline for what ought to be a deep-dive serialized documentary. Such a format would offer more opportunity to address questions such as what to make of the controversial legacy of the nation’s first black president when it comes to federal treatment of HBCUs. What challenges do they face from a current presidential administration that so far only seemed interested in convening the presidents of those institutions at the White House to use them as props? What are the modern issues students are facing at HBCUs, whether it’s the fight for queer visibility or addressing a national dilemma of campus sexual assault that presents unique challenges for HBCUs and their students?

Still, it’s understandable why we haven’t seen a splurge on such a subject. It’s expensive and time-consuming, and there are only a couple of networks (TV One and BET come to mind) that might be interested in the sort of exhaustive research I’m suggesting, and even then it’s a stretch. Maybe Netflix, with its seemingly endless pool of programming funds, would be willing. Maaaaaaybe.

Tell Them We Are Rising introduces the idea that HBCUs are under threat, and it certainly seems to support the idea of their continued existence. But aside from a broad history lesson, it stops short of offering much else.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback William Gay teams up with Joe Biden to end domestic violence ‘I’ve been through that struggle, still going through that struggle, and I know what it takes to try to rise’

William Gay lives and breathes football. Like most cornerbacks in the NFL, his energy goes into pouring everything onto the field — especially since he’s a part of a playoff-caliber team like the Pittsburgh Steelers. But when game day is over, Gay’s energy goes toward advocating against domestic violence, a subject matter that hits close to home.

The 33-year-old turned the pain he’s been carrying since 1992 into motivation, all in the name of his late mother, Carolyn Hall, who was killed by her boyfriend when he was just 8 years old.

He’s been vocal about his personal journey in the past few years. Now he is partnering with former vice president Joe Biden in an initiative that will address these issues.

Thursday, the Biden Foundation named Gay to its Advisory Council, which focuses on ending sexual assault and violence against women, among other causes.

As an Advisory Council member, Gay joins a prominent group of leaders, experts and advocates who have been selected to serve as ambassadors for the Biden Foundation, guiding strategic partnerships to create societal change.

“I received a letter, and when I saw ‘Joe Biden’ on it, I’m like, ‘OK, this might be a false letter,’ ” Gay told The Undefeated. “But then my agent told me about it and then the NFL also told me about, so then I was like, ‘OK, it’s real.’ His ideas are similar to what I have going on, what my beliefs are, and trying to end domestic violence. I was glad he thought of me. I jumped at the opportunity — not as quick as I wanted to, because I got the invite during the season and I’m 100 percent about football. So I tried to focus in on the playoffs, but I was all excited for the opportunity to be invited on the advisory committee.”

A longtime champion for victims of domestic violence, Gay believes in the Biden Foundation’s commitment to bringing together diverse voices who can uniquely speak to groups that will change the culture.

On Friday, Gay and Biden will link up to discuss their commitment to empowering men and women alike to stop sexual assault on college campuses. The duo will speak at the Association of Fraternal Leadership & Values Central 2018 in Indianapolis.

“We have to start engaging in conversations where we hold each other, and ourselves, accountable,” Gay said. “We hope to spur some of those discussions today and keep them going as we work toward a safer tomorrow.”

The Biden Foundation is a 501(c)3 nonprofit corporation established to carry on the former vice president and his wife’s lifelong commitment to public service. Through educational programming and public policy analysis, the foundation works to build a world where all people are equal in dignity and opportunity.

“It’s on all of us to change the culture on our college campuses, in our locker rooms and in our frat houses so that sexual assault is never accepted. We all must stand up and stop inappropriate behavior,” Biden said. “Men must be part of this solution and conversation. William understands what is at stake when we remain silent on abuse. He gets it and is using his platform to work to end domestic and sexual violence. That’s why I am so proud to have him join my foundation’s Advisory Council and partner with us as we work to create a culture where all live free from violence.”

Gay says he is eager to join this platform with Biden.

“This is all I’ve been preaching, for everybody to just come together and realize that this is dangerous,” Gay said. “You can talk about it, you can do something about it. It’s not embarrassing to let someone know or to try to help someone. The more you talk about it, the more you get people comfortable, that’s the first ring of trying to eliminate these problems.”

Gay’s crusade for ending domestic violence has all been in the name of his late mother.

“What drives me is my mother’s story, and this is a way, one, to keep her voice alive; two, just to help someone who is either in their situation or as a child in the same situation, give that encouragement that there are better things out there in the world. As a kid, there’s no like, ‘Oh, my God, my life is over because I don’t have parents.’ And for anyone who is in that violent situation or the sexual assault situation, there are people out there who would help. I don’t think my mom knew people that would help, because this was back in 1992. This is my way of allowing her story to stay alive, her to be alive, and also her story helps someone else.”

After Hall was killed, her boyfriend shot himself. Gay and his three siblings were raised by his grandmother Corine Hall.

“From 8 to about 12-13, I just felt like I was alone, didn’t care,” Gay said. “Even though my grandmother took me and my two brothers in, I just felt like a loner, because when you go to school, you see kids’ parents picking them up, and I didn’t have that opportunity. So I was just against everything.”

Gay says the hardest part of his journey is not having his mother around for major accomplishments.

“I had a loving family. My grandma did what she could to make sure that we felt loved, but it’s just those milestones. The high school graduation, the picking my college, the graduating from college, to getting drafted, going to the Super Bowl and, you know, just all these accolades that I attained and, you know, she wasn’t present. And I know if she was here, she would be front row or even on the stage with me.”

Gay’s uncle was his role model growing up.

“He was just blunt,” Gay said. “He said, ‘If you keep on this path, or being mad at the world, or wanting to being a bad child or thug, or what have you, you’re going to end up dead or in jail. You’re also not going to be able to play football.’ I was 12 years old, but it stuck with me through every journey in my life.”

He said he had a “whole team” of people, including family, teachers and coaches, who took him in.

“[They] saw the potential in me and knew that I needed just a little help to get where I’m going,” Gay said.

Football helped Gay manage his feelings, and he found a safe haven in the sport. It’s been so much a part of his life he doesn’t remember the first time he picked up a football.

“Probably 2, 3 …,” he said. “Football was always in our family. My older brother played, my uncles played. Just sports in general because where we were living, you weren’t staying in the house, you had to go outside. As long as it was hot in Florida, we played football. I officially started loving the game when I was 9 or 10. That was a safe place for me. That was my safe haven for me, even at a young age. I just knew when I went out there, I got away from problems. I didn’t have to think about I don’t have a mom. I’m out here having fun, and I’m competing.”

From this experience with Biden, Gay wants the public to focus on the outcomes and beating the odds of domestic violence than dismal statistics surrounding the subject.

“I always tell people I ain’t big on numbers. I love math, but when it comes down to statistics, I beat those odds, so I don’t even talk about statistics. What I talk about is real-life numbers, examples of people who’d been through it. That’s what I want people to get out. This is not coming from a book. This is coming from a written life, and I just want the realness of it, and that’s what people who are going through it want to see. They don’t want to see, ‘Oh, well, this doctor, he has five different degrees, or this person has eight different degrees and they’re telling me this and that, but they don’t really know what I’m going through.’

“I’ve been through that struggle, still going through that struggle, and I know what it takes to try to rise or take the right path.”

‘The Quad’ recap: Everyone has a price Noni Williams makes a deal with the devil, and did Eva Fletcher just have a heart attack?

Season 2, episode 3 — The Quad: My Bondage and My Freedom

The campus of Georgia A&M University has been transformed into a war zone. Well, at least in Eva Fletcher’s mind.

The battle is on to keep GAMU an independent school as debt continues to mount. In the first scene, which sets the tone for the episode, Fletcher is ready for war, geared up in camouflage. Her enemies? The system that would force a merger between GAMU and a predominantly white institution. Her weapons? Books.

The scene segues into a meeting between Fletcher and the student government association to discuss the possible sale of campus buildings. Her intentions were good, but students are still unhappy with the way things are being run at the university. Board members, especially Dean Carlton Pettiway, weren’t too happy when they found out Fletcher met with students. But they have to ask themselves whether their old approach has been working. Doesn’t hurt to try a new one.

In the dorms, Cedric Hobbs has been suspicious of his roommates. No, they don’t have the best relationship, but Bryce Richardson (Larry Rhem) is running around late at night with a bad attitude and bruises and welts covering his body. Hobbs confronts Richardson and is met with the typical mind-your-own-business defense mechanism. That wasn’t enough for Hobbs, who follows Richardson to a room and witnesses his roommate being paddled. Hobbs, who may be the last person to know what happens when pledging, is confronted by members of Sigma Mu Kappa for snooping.

Down the hall, Sydney Fletcher and Madison Kelly are still at odds. Kelly is hurt that Sydney Fletcher abandoned her during her time of need, and Sydney Fletcher’s overprotective nature since her sexual assault is causing an even larger rift between the best friends. After the two meet up at a party that night, it seems as if all has been forgiven — until Kelly stays behind at the party and doesn’t show up until the next morning. The best friendship has turned more into a mother-daughter rebellious phase.

Hanging out in the quad of rival university Southwestern Delta is Noni Williams, who always looks up to no good. And guess who strolls up to join her? Supersenior Danny Brown (Tallie L. Brinson) — back like he never left. After being set up by Williams and permanently booted from the Marching Mountain Cats band, this is the first time the two have come face to face since the incident. He knows she was behind the setup, but her bigger goal is helping Cecil Diamond to “make Clive Taylor pay” for his actions during the Battle of the Bands. Williams, being the smart and calculating woman she is, spent enough time with Taylor to lift personal information from his phone and deliver it to Diamond. Yet, Brown can see right through it all. Toward the end of the episode, he pays a visit to his old mentor and warns Diamond about Williams’ behavior. Whether Diamond will take heed remains unknown.

Back on campus, we have gangsters rolling up on coach Eugene Hardwick’s office. Who knew Hardwick was ’bout that life? GAMU can barely afford to stay open, so I guess it’s asking too much to have security patrolling after-hours. As always, money is the issue. Apparently, Hardwick owes the two burly men thousands of dollars that he doesn’t have. They threaten to pay a visit to his daughters, and that sets Hardwick off. He goes to see his ex-wife, who has weekend visitation, and picks up his kids. An argument ensues, which wasn’t smart for her in the first place. Her gambling problem is why big men are rolling up on Hardwick and threatening their children. Where is he going to find $20,000 in a month’s time?

Desperate times call for desperate measures, and no one knows that better than Eva Fletcher. The entire episode, Fletcher is trying to undo messes. And for the first time, it seems her focus is on GAMU and GAMU only. She enlists Hobbs, who sort of owes her a favor after acting a fool at her party last season. To buy time, Fletcher has been finding creative ways to work out a deal to save the land on campus. One is agreeing to role-play with a man who holds $5 million and the key to her salvation. Yes, we did witness a grown man in a onesie, holding a bottle and baby food and calling Fletcher “mama.” We’ll just leave you to process all of that.

After the meeting with Fletcher, Hobbs is confronted by his angry roommate. He learns that, because of his actions, Richardson was kicked off line. In Richardson’s own words, becoming a member of the fraternity is something he’d waited for his whole life. If there was something to salvage from their friendship, this may have been the moment that permanently ruins it.

Even after all of Fletcher’s hard work, it doesn’t seem like the board agreed. In the last scene, Fletcher opens a certified letter that informs her that Ella Grace Caldwell and Pettiway have filed a petition to designate Edward W. Smith Hall as a historic landmark — the very building Fletcher has just worked out a deal on. The news is too much to handle, and Fletcher has either suffered a terrible panic attack or a heart attack.

A dramatic beginning, a dramatic ending. We just hope the drama continues.

‘The Quad’ recap, season 2, episode 2: Has Eva Fletcher finally cracked under pressure? Half of GAMU is sick; the school is in debt and Eva Fletcher can’t escape her past demons

Season 2, episode 2: The Quad — The Interruption of Everything

We find Noni Williams outside of Cecil Diamond’s home, begging for him to let her back in the band the best way she knows how — through music. Williams is playing her heart out to attract her former mentor’s attention, but Diamond brushes right past her, gets in his car and blasts a tune of his own: Back Stabbers by The O’Jays. Touché, Cecil Diamond. Touché.

Back on campus, there’s a serious board meeting discussing the future of Georgia A&M University. Financial woes seem to increase for Eva Fletcher each week. Besides not being able to support the school, there’s the ghost of Terrence Berry quite literally haunting her. Fletcher finds herself with recurring nightmares of Berry following her around and demanding his family be paid settlement money owed from his death. Money is tight, and board members suggest asking Berry’s family for an extension while they sort through financial issues. It sets Fletcher off, and it’s the first time the audience (and board members) catch a glimpse of how deeply the Berry incident is affecting Fletcher.

Academically, the school seems to be on track with professors who actually care about their students — so much so that tough love is not being spared. Football player Junior (Miles Stroter) has learned the hard way after being kicked off of the team by head coach Eugene Hardwick due to poor grades. Feeling as if football is all he has, Junior looks to dean Carlton Pettiway (E. Roger Mitchell) for guidance, which eventually leads him back to the classroom of Ella Grace Caldwell (Jasmine Guy). After being asked if he could retake his final, Caldwell, in her caring yet no-nonsense fashion, delivers some sage advice to Junior that we should all be reminded of from time to time: “Start expecting a chance … Get ready, and stay ready.”

As Fletcher battles her personal demons, her daughter Sydney seems to be pushing past her own problems. During class, Sydney tells best friend Madison Kelly that she’s looking forward to hanging with Myles, her latest love interest. Kelly is happy that Sydney has moved on, but questions whether it’s too soon. Before their conversation could continue, class begins. Upon hearing there’s a quiz, Kelly tries to make a quick escape to the restroom after falling ill. Caldwell doesn’t buy that excuse, but quickly wishes she had as Kelly hurls into a wastebasket and onto Caldwell’s pumps.

Sydney helps her friend, but also questions what appears to be morning sickness. Possible pregnancy? Couldn’t be. Or could it?

Before viewers could finish pondering whether Kelly’s ex-boyfriend left her with a little more than heartbreak, the next scene takes us to the campus clinic filled with sick students. They can’t all be pregnant. We discover that it’s a norovirus, a severe (and contagious) stomach flu that causes vomiting, diarrhea and stomach pain. The virus seemingly swept the campus overnight, transforming healthy students into walking zombies. Flushed, dehydrated faces line the campus clinic and dorm halls. Fletcher, who sees Sydney at the clinic, requests that she go home until the bug is taken care of. The campus would need to be quarantined.

In the dorms, a familiar face is back! Ebonie Weaver (Erica Michelle) and best friend Cedric Hobbs are reunited and doing what they do best — rapping. Meanwhile, on the other side of campus, Fletcher is in over her head. The virus was possibly caused by malfunctioning freezers, which caused temperatures to drop and thaw the food. The old freezers would need to be replaced, but Fletcher knows the school can’t afford the $100,000 for new ones. The situation became so dire, a student was hospitalized after fainting. Not wanting to risk more bad publicity, Fletcher plans to ask Berry’s family for an extension.

And of course, that went about as great as, well, not great at all.

Berry’s mother still believes her son’s suicide is Sydney’s fault. Fletcher explodes and rips the bandages off of healing wounds by saying Berry raped Sydney. He should be the one apologizing from a jail cell. Fletcher’s emotions are raw, the nightmares continue, and it looks like she has finally reached her breaking point.

Off campus, Sydney is finally getting her groove back, and is excited about meeting up with love interest, Myles. As they Netflix and chilled, things began to heat up pretty quickly. But Sydney soon learns that she’s not as over her sexual assault as she previously thought. The closer Myles got, the more her suppressed memories of the assault began to resurface. She ended the night by asking Myles to take her home.

As the episode neared its close, Williams is back at Diamond’s house with the same approach, but a different tune. This time, Diamond opens his door to address the former band member. Williams explains why she turned the original music over to rival band director Clive Taylor, and — once again — apologizes for her actions. Stern, yet a bit more forgiving, Diamond informs Williams that he’ll think about letting her back in. After all, Diamond just found out that his cancer is in remission. If he can get a second chance at life, then maybe he can give Williams a second chance in the band.

A good guess is that Diamond may use Williams to turn the tables on Taylor. Something tells me this won’t be the last we see of this dangerous yet dynamic duo.

Cam Newton confounds both his fans and his haters — but he’s not so different from the rest of us Award-winning essayist and poet Claudia Rankine explores the Panthers quarterback his brilliance, sullenness, fragility and resilience

Cam Newton is an incredibly talented human being who has a job white Americans see as a white man’s job, and apparently this is vexing to America. Cam Newton is sometimes reduced to his athleticism, as in “an athletic quarterback,” aka black, which is predictably comforting to America. Cam Newton wears a Superman T-shirt under his jersey, which is a wink to America. Cam Newton likes flashy clothes like NFL legend Joe Namath, which is scandalous to America. Cam Newton is arrogant, and that is outrageous and an oxymoron to America. Cam Newton has a shoe contract with Under Armour, whose CEO, Kevin Plank, once supported racist Donald Trump, and this is commonplace in America. Cam Newton has a son named Chosen and a daughter named Sovereign-Dior, which seems like freedom to America. Cam Newton is a typical male human holding misogynistic beliefs who says sexist things like “It’s funny to hear a female talk about routes,” and this reveals something about him but not something about America? Cam Newton believes winning is everything, and that is reassuring to America. Cam Newton celebrates winning by dancing on the field, and that is distasteful to America. But mostly, Cam Newton is a young man growing up in the American public while being extraordinary and ordinary and disappointing and magnificent and resilient all at once. Cam Newton is no Colin Kaepernick, which means he still has a job, America.


The genius of Cam Newton’s father was not to shut down his son’s need for expression and attention but to compartmentalize it. When Cam wanted to be noticed, his father told him to dress up on Fridays. The message communicated was to play the game so you can do what you want one day a week. After his rise to quarterback fame for the Carolina Panthers, people took offense to his celebratory dances; Newton was advised to instead give the ball to a child when he was done. The implication was that he should play on American sentimentality around childhood innocence and all would be fine. Share the moment with the children and you will be able to have your moment, because the win, Cam Newton, was never about you. You are a means to an end that does not include you. Newton incorporated the advice into his celebratory routine.

And yet the one place Newton appears to be the least edited is in his body. Among his gifts is the ability to inhabit his emotions fully. Whether walking out of a news conference to sulk privately after a major loss or when celebrating exuberantly, Cam Newton is simply being himself. And that self is not defined by the scripts that are created in a country governed by anti-black racism: He is not a criminal, though he did steal a laptop in college; nor is he overtly political, though he did once raise his fist in the symbol of black power; nor is he an Uncle Tom, though he does understand how easily he could lose what he has earned, and he recently went on the record defending Panthers owner Jerry Richardson after racism and sexual assault allegations: “When you hear a report about Mr. Richardson, a person that we all, as an organization, have so much respect for and the people who did come out saying certain things about racial slurs, sexual assault … it’s still allegations.”

We Americans have difficulty facing our realities, and when confronted with someone who understands the precariousness of his status due to his identity as a black man, Americans interpret their difficulty with him to be solely his failure. Newton’s latest failure is his continued support of Richardson, which makes me wonder whether he understands that his talent is separate from Richardson.

Newton belongs to a league in which one owner, Houston’s Robert McNair, said, “We can’t have the inmates running the prison.” If Newton understands he is being objectified, he has his own agenda within that understanding. Like Michael Jordan, Newton is a company man. He has come to work and to be paid. But Newton’s stance is messier and more flamboyant than Jordan’s. I can’t remember Jordan making untoward statements or dressing that differently from those we might encounter in corporate America.

Though Newton doesn’t overtly protest against company rules, he also refuses to conform entirely to the unspoken rules for the black professional in his dress and occasionally in his actions. In the run of protests that began with Kaepernick taking the knee and then grew into an NFL-wide confusion over whether the protests were against Trump, white supremacy, police violence against blacks, or the owners’ racist statements, Newton raised a fist in honor of black pride but in protest of nothing apparently. He told reporters: “I did it to show black pride because I am an African-American. But more or less, I want all people just to see when I play, I want them to see the joy that I go out there and play with.”

Cam Newton is a human being, and apparently this is troubling to America.

If the silent and beloved GOAT, Jordan, is on one end of the protest spectrum and the outspoken and beloved LeBron James, Serena Williams and Kaepernick are on the other end, then Newton lives between these legends with an eye on his owners: “For the two hours, three hours, whatever a time that a sporting event is on or your team is playing … people from different shapes, colors, creeds, ethnicities and cultures come together. At that moment, they’re rooting for the same thing. I feel as if we all stick together, if we all come together and listen, hear, speak, we can better help the situation,” Newton once said. “We get nowhere divided.” Despite all that has transpired in the U.S. since President Obama’s statement “There are no red states or blue states, just the United States,” Newton still lives by Obama’s edict.

In fact, all of us who are not on the streets protesting but doing our jobs and collecting our pay and health insurance and retirement are in Newton’s lane. The political and corporate structures that govern our lives know how to punish protesters, with “free agent” status, but this other way of being, this pragmatic if flamboyant way of being, where one tries not to bite the hand that feeds, this lane that Newton exemplifies, confounds owners, players and fans alike—even as we remain complicit with his positioning. Most of us sit behind our desks, doing what we do, trying to get paid, while all manner of shit goes down around us. Every single day, with troubling tweets coming out of the Oval Office, should be the day we as Americans risk something for the greater good of our democracy, but the traffic of our lives continues uninterrupted by those taking to the streets in protest of this administration. We didn’t sign up to be activists. And neither did some of the athletes who get paid millions to entertain us.

It is difficult to fault Newton for wanting to hold on to who he is, which includes what he has. Newton’s swagger suggests an independence and freedom we see unleashed on the field, but only on the field. All his millions come at the expense of not pointing out the racism and misogyny that exist inside the culture of his sport and the structure of our country. That’s the price of the ticket. Cam Newton can be Cam Newton as long as he throws touchdowns and keeps winning.

Last year’s encounter with sports writer Jourdan Rodrigue made all the headlines. Newton seemed genuinely surprised that Rodrigue came to a news conference prepared with the correct football terminology: “It’s funny to hear a female talk about routes. Like, it’s funny.” His sexism was apparent. It lives alongside Rodrigue’s own blatant racism (see the reports about her Twitter account). In listening to Newton’s subsequent apology, the part that stands out is the one that points to the lesson he has learned:

“The fact that during this whole process I’ve already lost sponsors and countless fans,” Newton said, “I realize that the joke is really on me.” If we imagine that the security of black stars’ economic status means they can risk disrupting or displeasing the American public, think again. Though he ends his apology with the statement “Don’t be like me. Be better than me,” which is in direct conversation with Jordan’s Gatorade ad “Be Like Mike,” Cam Newton is basically just like us, America.

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

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.

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.

 

Russell Simmons revolutionized the culture, but now it doesn’t matter Recent sexual assault charges reveal the damage that can be done to women under the cover of fame

To date, more than 10 women have accused Russell Simmons of sexual misconduct. The accusations range from harassment to rape. Simmons says, “I vehemently deny all these allegations.

The accusers include model Keri Claussen Khalighi. She says she begged for help as Simmons coerced her to have oral sex. Musician Sherri Hines accuses the author and Def Jam Recordings founder of throwing her on a couch and raping her. Tina Baker, a lawyer, says that Simmons, who managed her career at the time, invited her to his apartment, where he held her down and raped her. Screenwriter Jenny Lumet says that Simmons coerced her into sex after having his driver take them to Simmons’ place without her consent. Drew Dixon, a former Def Jam A&R executive and daughter of former D.C. Mayor Sharon Pratt Dixon, accused Simmons of sexual abuse and also says former Epic Records chairman L.A. Reid sexually harassed her. (Reid stepped down from his position at Epic in May amid sexual misconduct allegations.)

The allegations against Simmons span from 1983 to 2016. “These horrific accusations have shocked me to my core,” he wrote to The New York Times, “and all of my relations have been consensual.”

Since the initial allegations were made public at the end of November, Simmons has stepped down from all of his companies. HBO comedy series has removed him from All Def Comedy. The New York Police Department is now opening an investigation, as seven of the alleged incidents occurred in New York City.

The question shouldn’t be what would the world look like without the art these men provide.

Any stories about Simmons up to two weeks ago would have had a totally different first paragraph. Before the allegations of sexual misconduct and assault, Simmons’ story would have started with his immeasurable contributions to black culture and, by proxy, American culture. With Def Jam, Simmons helped take hip-hop from street corners to Wall Street. His visionary approach to the music business is largely responsible for making rap music the pop culture juggernaut it is today.

Beyond that, his Def Comedy Jam launched the careers of comedians such as Martin Lawrence, Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle, who are of course now household names. The debacle of his RushCard debit card, in which thousands of customers were locked out of their accounts over a weekend and unable to access funds, was a stain on his otherwise good reputation. All of these accomplishments, and more, used to be Simmons’ resounding legacy.

Used to be, because none of that matters anymore. While the fruits of Simmons’ cultural labor are spread across global pop culture to this day and beyond, none of those contributions would be equal to the cost from the painful toll he’s accused of inflicting on women over the course of the past three decades. The road to greatness isn’t worth a damn if that road is paved with pain and violence toward women.

So we’re left with the idea that one of the main architects of the current musical landscape — in September, Nielsen reported that the combined genre of hip-hop and rhythm and blues is No. 1, for the first time, in overall consumption — has allegedly victimized women along the way. These women were managers, artists, journalists, all who — who knows, but — could perhaps have made even larger impact on the culture.

Simmons has always been a role model for what creativity, business acumen and hard work can do, how one person’s brilliance can transform the world. Now, he may be another example of the damage that can be done to women under the cover of fame.

There will be a push — as always, and especially when black female victims are involved — to litigate just how much sexual assault is acceptable in relation to a particular artist’s contribution to popular culture. R. Kelly defenders love bringing up that his music is just too iconic to discard. Bill Cosby defenders protest that their love for The Cosby Show is just too much to sacrifice, no matter his charges. The same goes for less-discussed accused transgressors: We revere Martin despite the allegations that the titular star sexually harassed Tisha Campbell. What about Dr. Dre? Floyd Mayweather? Mike Tyson?

Where is the line, and what will be left if every man who abuses a woman is exiled from his respective level of achievement? The fact is, art will survive. Brilliance is an infinitely replenishable resource that women who are free from the anxiety and trauma of violence are more than capable of providing. The question shouldn’t be what would the world look like without the art these men provide. The question should be how much better would the world be if everyone were free to create in a world where sexual assault and violence didn’t exist. Isn’t that more valuable than a few great albums and TV shows?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A campaign of terror

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It happened all the time.”

Disappearing history

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Modern implications

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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