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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The new Thurgood ‘Marshall’ movie is a thrilling What-Had-Happened-Was Superstar Chadwick Boseman and director Reggie Hudlin talk colorism and the black film renaissance

Chadwick Boseman remembers the exact moment when he understood why the work he was doing — not just the grabbing of marquees, not just working alongside Hollywood’s top talent, not just surprising critics with how easily he melts into a role of some of the world’s most famous men — was cemented.

He was on the set of Draft Day, a 2014 sports drama about the Cleveland Browns and its general manager (Kevin Costner) who wants to turn around his consistently losing team with a hot draft pick. “When you’re doing a car shot,” Boseman says, leaning in and slightly pushing back the sleeves of his sharp, black bomber, “you’re following the lead car.” He said they stopped in front of the projects. “I get out of the car, and somebody says, ‘Yo, that’s that dude from that baseball movie outside, right?!’ Everybody in the projects came outside, and they were like, ‘Hey, hey, hey! I got your movie on DVD in the house!’ The DVD hadn’t come out yet. They were like, ‘It didn’t come out yet? Oh, no, no. We didn’t mean it that way. But look — I saw it.’ ” He says that’s what it’s all about. “You want people to appreciate what you’ve been doing.”

This week, Boseman’s latest film, Marshall, opens. Once again, the actor takes on a role of a historical, powerful-in-his-field man. He’s portrayed baseball and civil rights icon Jackie Robinson and the influential James Brown. Now he’s legendary lawyer and eventual Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall.

It’s an interesting casting, to be sure. Part of Marshall’s story is rooted in his light skin. It was a privilege. Marshall himself was the highest of yellows, and his skin color — on the verge of passable — was unmissable. Boseman, on the other hand is decidedly black, with striking chocolate skin — and that factor almost prevented him from even going after the role.

It’s an interesting casting, to be sure. Part of Marshall’s story is rooted in his light skin. It was a privilege.

Reginald Hudlin, the film’s director, said it’s been a hot topic, even among his close circle. “I’ve had friends who admitted to me, ‘I went in going I don’t know if this casting works.’ And they also have admitted, within 20 seconds, that concern was gone, it had never occurred to them. Because Chadwick’s performance is the exact spirit of Thurgood Marshall. He said that people who have clerked under Marshall, who knew him intimately, are more than satisfied. They’re like, ‘Oh, my God, how did you capture all those little nuances of his personality? You guys nailed it.’ To have that affirmed by people who have firsthand knowledge is a huge relief.”


But Marshall isn’t a biopic. It’s a dissection of one of the best legal minds in American history. And as he has done in his previous biographical work, you stop wondering about the actor at all, let alone the shade of his skin. “If this was a cradle-to-grave story about Marshall, obviously we would have to deal with his complexion,” said Boseman, who is also credited as a producer on the film. “Right now, we’re dealing with one case. He’s walking into this courtroom as a black man. He’s not a black man passing as a white man. He didn’t try to pass as a white man. He showed up as the black attorney, right? He showed up as a black man and got gagged for being black, right?”

“They didn’t say,” Boseman stops to laugh, “ ‘We’re going to gag you because you’re light-skinned-ded.’ ”

Marshall, at its best, is an examination of Marshall’s brilliance. It’s an up-close, deep dive into how Marshall changed the course of American history. “Everything is a risk,” Boseman said. “No matter what movie you do, it’s a risk. … It’s also a risk, if you look like the person, to play the role because then there’s the pressure of doing certain things a certain way.”

The court case used to examine Marshall’s legal savvy is relatively unknown — a black man in Connecticut (Sterling K. Brown) is accused of raping a white woman (Kate Hudson) — and Marshall is stripped of his voice. He’s told by a racist judge that he can’t speak in the courtroom. He couldn’t speak on behalf of his client at all. Instead, he had to employ Sam Friedman, an insurance lawyer who is a white Jewish man (Josh Gad), and teach him how to try this case. There’s a tone of Mighty Whitey here, to be sure, intermingled with a lesson on the importance of allies. Timely.

That said, it’s Boseman’s film. And not for nothing, he absolutely nails it. In four short years, the Howard University-educated Boseman has positioned himself as a force. He’s a box-office draw, and at the top of next year he leads the highly anticipated Black Panther, which surely will change the course of Hollywood, or at least continue to challenge the notion that films with predominantly black casts don’t travel internationally.

Not that Boseman isn’t up for the challenge. He’s the black man — sometimes he’s by himself — gracing Vanity Fair-like magazine gatefold layouts representing the next biggest thing in Hollywood. His representation is undeniable. And he understands his worth.


This film feels very much like 2017. It takes place in December 1940, a time when the NAACP was concentrating on its litigation in the South, suing over voting rights and equal pay for black teachers and segregation in higher education. But in the North, issues abounded as well — in Bridgeport, Connecticut, for example, there was a 1933 law that banned racial discrimination in public places, and it went unenforced in 1940. Marshall was 32 years old at the time and just beginning the work that would change the lives of black Americans for generations to come.

That notion of public discrimination is tested constantly — turn to any current news headline or cable TV news lower third for quick proof. And Marshall the movie sometimes feels like a thrilling, current-day, true-life drama. Often, when we talk about the historic work the NAACP did with Marshall as its chief legal brain trust, we think about the work done south of the Mason-Dixon line. But this case is set in a conservative white Connecticut town — away from the hard-and-fast Jim Crow laws that crippled black folks who lived in American Southern states.

“That was very much our intent. ‘Why did you choose this case? Why didn’t you do him as a Supreme Court justice? How come you didn’t do Brown v. Board of Education? Those are all worthy stories, stories that the public thinks they know — ‘Oh, I learned about Brown in fifth grade. I got that.’ You don’t got this,” Hudlin said. “You don’t know this case, you don’t know the outcome of this case, which gives me the chance to be true to genre. Because I think genre is what saves these movies from being medicine movies, which I despise. You want to make a movie that works if it wasn’t Thurgood Marshall. If Joe Blow was against the odds in this legal case, does the movie still work?”

It does. “This crime has all these broader implications, economic implications, for black folk. And for the institution of the NAACP. The truth is messy. Everyone comes into the case with their own particular set of -isms,” Hudlin said. “The challenge is, do you respect the process of the legal system to get to uncomfortable truths? And do you have enough personal integrity to acknowledge uncomfortable truths as they emerge, that don’t fit your preconceived notions? That’s how America works, you know?”


This film premieres right at the start of Hollywood’s award season preseason. In the fourth quarter of each year, we’ve come to expect the year’s best to be presented, or some of the year’s most generously budgeted films to hit the big screen.

But Marshall, perhaps, carries a bigger weight. It feels like a tipoff of a major moment for black creatives both behind and in front of the camera. This is the first time we’ve seen so many black directors working on films of this magnitude and at this level. Coming soon after this film are projects by directors Ava DuVernay (A Wrinkle In Time) and Ryan Coogler (Black Panther), and Gina Prince-Bythewood is writing and directing Spider-Man spinoff Silver & Black. And the list goes on.

“He showed up as a black man and got gagged for being black. They didn’t say, ‘We’re going to gag you because you’re light-skinned-ded.’ ” — Chadwick Boseman

“I would say like three, maybe four years ago … in separate moments … we’ve talked about what’s been happening over the past few years. And I remember leaving several of those conversations, and we said, ‘Let’s not say it publicly, but we’re in the renaissance,’ ” Boseman says. “Let’s not say it publicly, because if we say it, then people will think we’re happy with it. That we’re satisfied with that. So let’s not ever actually say it. I think now we’re at a point where there’s no point in not saying it, because it’s obvious that this is a different moment.”

This is a huge moment, but it comes with questions — plenty of them.

“My bigger-picture analysis is that there are 20-year cycles,” said Hudlin. “You have this explosion in the 1970s with the blaxploitation movement, which created a set of stars and a set of icons so powerful they still resonate today. You can say Shaft, you can say Superfly, you can say Foxy Brown, and those things still mean things to people 40 years later.” He said that then there was a five- or 10-year period, a kind of collapsing, where basically in the ’80s you have Eddie Murphy and Prince. They don’t have folks really able to make movies. “Then, in the ’90s, there was that explosion of Spike Lee, and myself, and John Singleton. Those films were different from the movies of the ’70s. More personal, you know?”

He said blacks were telling their own stories, and there were greater production values. “And then like a 10-year period, a shutdown, and really you have Tyler Perry. And now this new wave, right? And when you look at all three of these periods, the thing is, the movies get bigger, they get more varied in their subject matter, and the production value keeps increasing. When you look at the bounty of black images, of black filmmakers working in film and television — no. We’ve never had it this good. We’ve never had material this rich, and to me, the outstanding question is, when does it no longer become a cycle and becomes a fixture and part of the entertainment landscape?”

As they say on social media, that’s a question that needs an answer.

Prosecutors, not just police, can also play a part in the abuse of black lives The exclusion of black jurors changes the game

 

Various players, during last weekend’s slew of NFL games, reignited the protest efforts against racial injustice. Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett, for instance, sat on the bench during the national anthem and raised his black-gloved fist after sacking San Francisco 49ers quarterback Brian Hoyer. Before the game, his brother Reshaud led a Black Lives Matter rally through the streets of Seattle’s International District, chanting, “Black lives are under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back.”

Now close your eyes and imagine what they demonstrated against. What scenes invade your mind? Most will picture episodes like what Bennett described as happening to him in Las Vegas — an officer forcing him to the ground, his nose smelling pavement, his ears filled with threats and a handgun aimed at his head — a scared and innocent black man fearing death was looming.

We generally finger cops and incidents like Bennett’s as the reason many people of color distrust the criminal justice system while ignoring a potentially far guiltier culprit — the prosecutor. With considerable authority in the legal system, many prosecutors have the ability to trample upon the constitutional rights of black criminal defendants. This malfeasance can reveal itself in a variety of ways, but one is when prosecutors deliberately make juries as white as possible.

Just last July, Washington state’s Supreme Court overturned the conviction of a black criminal defendant after the prosecutor prevented the only potential black juror from serving on the jury. California’s Supreme Court in June overturned the convictions of three Latino criminal defendants, ruling that the prosecutor discriminated against prospective Latino jurors.

When players protest the national anthem, also envision this: Right now, at least one person of color, almost certainly many, in fact, is seated in the criminal defendant’s chair in a courtroom somewhere in America. That person will gaze over at the jury box and spot few if any nonwhite faces because the prosecutor wanted it that way.

Batson v. Kentucky

The prosecutor and defense attorney have “peremptory challenges,” the right to strike a potential juror from serving on a criminal jury without giving a reason. Each side winnows down the jury pool through these challenges until, in most jurisdictions, 12 jurors and four alternates are seated. Many prosecutors habitually exploit this tool by striking people of color based on race, resulting in disproportionately white juries.

This happened in the early 1980s, when James Kirkland Batson of Louisville, Kentucky, stood accused of second-degree burglary and receiving stolen goods. During jury selection, the prosecutor struck all four black potential jurors and all-white jury convicted Batson.

In 1986, the Supreme Court overturned his conviction. This decision barred prosecutors from considering race when striking jurors, declaring unconstitutional a practice that had lasted more than a century.

Defense attorneys can now initiate a “Batson challenge.” This process generally begins after a prosecutor strikes two or more nonwhite people, often raising the eyebrows of defense attorneys, who can then argue they notice a racial pattern and tender supporting reasons. The judge, if convinced the defense has advanced a substantive initial case, will ask the prosecutor for race-neutral reasons for each reason to strike. If the prosecutor fails to convince the judge that race played no role, the judge will find a Batson violation.

The viability for the Batson decision to curtail this scourge hinged on whether discriminating prosecutors would be impeded by the requirement to proffer race-neutral explanations. Justice Thurgood Marshall in the Batson decision argued they could easily concoct reasons that courts would be “ill-equipped to second-guess. …” The Batson challenge, to Marshall, would falter because it “cannot prevent clever lawyers from using peremptory challenges to strike potential jurors based upon impermissible rationales as long as they pretend to use other, permissible bases.” This would mean that only “flagrant” abuses would be punished. Marshall concluded that “only by banning preemptories entirely can such discrimination be ended.”

Three decades of evidence validate Marshall’s pessimism.

 

Widespread Prosecutorial Jury Discrimination

A report from the Equal Justice Initiative, a racial justice organization in Montgomery, Alabama, exposes how prosecutors freely articulate discriminatory statements in open court. In a Louisiana case, for example, a prosecutor disclosed that he struck a juror for being a “single black male with no children.” One Alabama prosecutor struck black prospective jurors “because he wanted to avoid an all-black jury and asserted in other cases that he struck African-Americans because he wanted to ensure other jurors, who happened to be white, served on the jury.” A Georgia prosecutor challenged a juror “because he was black and had a son in an interracial marriage.”

Courts, in these cases, sided with the defendant. These are the blatant occurrences that Marshall figured courts could prevent. When prosecutors behave more cleverly, judges, as Marshall predicted, poorly guard black rights.

Judges routinely allow prosecutors to strike black prospective jurors because they have “low intelligence,” a “lack of education,” children out of wedlock, live in a “high crime area,” are unemployed, or rely on government assistance programs such as food stamps. A South Carolina court allowed a prosecutor to strike a black man because he “shucked and jived” as he walked. One prosecutor struck a prospective juror for “look[ing] like a drug dealer.” A Louisiana court condoned the rationale. An Arkansas judge allowed a prosecutor to rely on a hunch that a black woman would be “unfavorable to the state” even without the prosecutor ever questioning her to find out.

Zooming out from these details reveals a dispiriting tableau — rampant prosecutorial jury discrimination.

Barbara O’Brien and Catherine M. Grosso, two Michigan State law professors, examined at least one jury trial for each inmate on North Carolina’s death row as of July 1, 2010. Their study examined “strike decisions” for more than 7,400 potential jurors in 173 proceedings to discover how prosecutors used peremptory challenges in capital cases. Their data was clear — prosecutors were far more likely to strike potential black jurors.

Across all the proceedings, “prosecutors struck 52.6 percent of eligible black venire members, compared to only 25.7 percent of all other eligible venire members.” These disparities worsened in cases with black defendants. There, prosecutors struck 60 percent of black potential jurors versus 23.1 percent for all other races. “In every analysis that we performed,” O’Brien and Grosso recapped, “race was a significant factor in prosecutorial decisions to exercise peremptory challenges in jury selection in these capital proceedings.”

When asked what their research reveals about America writ large, O’Brien and Grosso responded by email, “from all the evidence we have seen — both experimental work and analysis of strike decisions in real-life trials — there’s nothing unique about North Carolina: Race is a huge factor in the decision to exercise peremptory strikes everywhere.”

Take the Peremptory Challenge Away from Prosecutors

The true number of defendants who have languished in prisons or died there after being convicted by a discriminatorily composed jury would likely startle even the most well-informed, although the exact total will forever elude us.

Society can best address this by pursuing the prophetic wisdom of Marshall: Strip the peremptory challenge from prosecutors, a power they persistently mishandle.

Take the former Montgomery County, Alabama, district attorney, for example. Her office had at least 13 of its convictions reversed for Batson abuses. She, nonetheless, held her job 21 years before stepping down in 2014. She kept enjoying re-election, and voters likely did not know or care she was habitually violating the rights of black criminal defendants.

Her victims, like that of any prosecutor who denied defendants their constitutional right to an impartially selected jury, suffered no police abuse that an onlooker recorded and posted online for the world to witness. But when black athletes conduct their national anthem protests, we should also keep in mind the image of the purposefully constructed all-white jury that could determine their guilt or innocence.

Music might be a healant just like it was 50 years ago, in the summer of ’67 What we need now is love and a song like ‘All Around the World’

“People hand in hand

Have I lived to see the milk and honey land?

Where hate’s a dream and love forever stands

Or is this a vision in my mind?”

— Stevie Wonder, “Visions”


Some people remember 1967 as a very good year for pop music, from Aretha Franklin singing “Respect” to Frank and Nancy Sinatra singing “Something Stupid.” They remember a summer of love that gave way to a fall where the Beatles sang “All You Need is Love,” a simple declaration of interdependence and an enduring international anthem for complex and ever-changing times.

In 1967, in some important ways, things were getting better all the time. The Loving v. Virginia decision struck down bans against interracial marriage in the United States. Thurgood Marshall was named the nation’s first black Supreme Court justice, and Carl Stokes was elected the first black mayor from a major American city, Cleveland.

But 1967 was a year inflamed by strife, too; war raged in the Middle East and in Vietnam. Cities such as Detroit, Newark, New Jersey, and other places burned across America. Richard Nixon marshaled white resentment in his march toward the Republican nomination for president.

Which is to say, 1967 was a year of turmoil and triumph, just as every year is, including this one, a time when new walls of exclusion are championed and old monuments commemorating Confederate soldiers and officers come down.

From the mid-’60s through the mid-’70s, we were blessed with music that tended to heal and enlighten, inspire and challenge.

Today, when political lies threaten to trump moral truths and profits trump creativity, the music doesn’t salve society’s wounds as it once did or seemed to.

But earlier this month, I heard two veteran bluesmen perform a song the nation badly needs: “All Around the World.” The song, co-written by blues master and Grammy winner Keb’ Mo’, is an upbeat call-and-response tune. Backed by a tight band, Mo’ and his touring partner, Grammy winner Taj Mahal, ripped through the song in New York’s Central Park.

Like Stevie Wonder’s “Visions” in the 1970s, “All Around the World” imagines a world spinning on an axis of love:

There’ll be love all around the world (All around the world)/ There’ll be peace and understanding (All around the world) …

Neither I nor the song advocates a fey and feckless love that merely prompts us to forgive our tormentors, again and again. The love we need and the love the song talks about gives society a powerful emotion, strong enough to stare down evil and douse the torches lit by bigotry, ignorance and injustice in Charlottesville, Virginia, and all around the world.

Keb’ Mo’ and Taj Mahal, who have a new CD out and are touring under the banner TajMo, performed their rousing song on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert to a rapturous response. It’s the kind of song I can imagine John Legend recording with a gospel choir and a rap break by somebody like Chance the Rapper. It’s the kind of song I could see everyone from Ariana Grande to Garth Brooks to Kirk Franklin adding to their live shows. It’s the kind of song I can imagine becoming a thumping recessional tune in various houses of worship or at rallies for an America that lives up to its majestic promise for all its people.

It’s the kind of song I can imagine being recorded by a cross-section of artists, a kind of “We Are the World” for the 21st century, in the name of social equality or world peace.

Like other masters of the form, Keb’ Mo’ and Taj Mahal play a blues that’s animated by joy. They sing and play the way Ella Fitzgerald sang her songs, the way Louis Armstrong blew his trumpet, the way Stephen Curry dribbles his basketball, with joy and love. And that’s what we’ll need to come together and make a better tomorrow.

All around the world.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Courtesy of Mike Yourishin

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How I learned to love myself as a black woman My Aunt Cornelia taught me to find my true self

Last week, my family gathered in tiny New Hill, North Carolina, for a memorial service to celebrate my aunt, Cornelia McDonald. She had died in January at 65 after living for five years with cancer that ultimately left her weak and in a morphine haze for much of her final days.

Especially when she was receiving chemotherapy, even the faintest scents could set off waves of nausea. So in her final months, her bedroom in the Chapel Hill apartment she shared with her youngest sister didn’t smell like much of anything. But the Aunt Cornelia I knew smelled like well-traveled sophistication: a mix of Thierry Mugler’s Angel perfume, the buttery softness of whatever fabulous leather handbag she happened to be carrying, and good lotion.

She didn’t always smell like that.

Aunt Cornelia grew up the daughter of sharecroppers in Wake County, North Carolina. Her father, an abusive man who died when Cornelia was 14, repeatedly moved his wife and 10 children from one backwoods locale to the next, none of which had indoor plumbing. In her memoir, I Wanna Tell You My Story, she wrote:

Each shack we lived in was even more dilapidated than the last. I was so ashamed of these shacks that whenever someone came to visit, I would run and hide ….

The shacks were unbearably hot in the summertime and extremely cold in the wintertime. I remember using my coat on top of the cover because the fire would go out. In the middle of the night I would shiver trying to get myself warm.

In the summertime, we fell asleep wherever we could because we were so tired from working hard in the tobacco fields. The gum from the tobacco would stick to our hands and our hair.

The old shacks were surrounded by a well and an outhouse. One of my chores was to take the slop jars from the house. I would gag all the way to empty them deep into the wooded area, far from the house.

Because she hated the slop jars, and the outhouse was not much better, Aunt Cornelia often wet herself as a child, a habit that was probably exacerbated by the fact that my grandfather used to beat her with a brush broom. When she went to school, she was ostracized because she often smelled.

I thought about that story as I sat in a chair in Chapel Hill after one particularly perilous night near the end, holding on to her hand. Her skin, as usual, was soft and incredibly smooth. Aunt Cornelia would always light up with pride when her doctors remarked about her skin and how well she took care of herself. It signified how far she had come and the example she set for me. While she was still alive and lucid, I began to thank her.

“Thank you for loving me even when I wasn’t easy to love,” I said.

“Thank you for seeing me.

“Thank you for teaching me about black people.

“Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”

Thank you for teaching me to love myself

One of my earliest memories of Aunt Cornelia occurred when I was about 5 or 6 years old and this unfamiliar woman showed up at our house. She was 6 feet tall, sporting a wide smile and a booming voice. She had dark brown skin like my father, and her natural hair was cropped close to her head.

She didn’t look like anyone I’d ever met before, certainly not in the small North Carolina Air Force town I called home, where my parents reacted with mortified laughter when I came home one day and told them I wanted to take clogging lessons.

I was in a community theater camp that summer. Small yet imperious, I informed Aunt Cornelia I was writing a play. Snow White, I said — an adaptation, clearly.

You can be a tree,” I told her.

I couldn’t know the memories that childish proclamation must have evoked. In I Wanna Tell You My Story, Aunt Cornelia wrote about how cruel her classmates could be:

I will never forget the days when I was on my way to class and the cool guys were standing on the school steps making fun of all the uncool people. I felt especially good about myself this one day. My sister Geneva had bought some deodorant, my mom had gotten a piece of green cloth and made me a shift dress. I had on green fishnet stockings. When I passed the guys walking into the building they said, “Ho ho ho! Green Giant!” Everybody laughed – including the teachers. I just wanted to disappear into the ground.

You can be a tree
Jesus.

Even when I could have been a giant trigger for her, even when I said hurtful things without knowing it, she didn’t retreat into herself (a favorite tactic of mine as I grew up). She loved me anyway. She had faith that I wasn’t just a tactless little brat. She spoiled the dickens out of me and, like all good aunts, took it upon herself to rescue me from bouts of parental insanity. She found humor in the phantom pain that echoed through her and helped me overcome my own awkwardness in the world.

My sister Carol, Aunt Cornelia holding me, and my Aunt Barbara, holding my cousin CJ.

She saw how we were the same.

Of all the lessons she gave me, learning to love myself and my body was the most difficult. It was much easier to find reasons to despise myself, and they occurred with such abundance: my hair is too short, my arms too long, my feet too big, my belly and thighs and face too round. My general nature is just all-around difficult. And I’m prone to cataloging and internalizing slights.

Aunt Cornelia grew up wishing she looked more like her sister Florene, who had lighter skin and longer, more loosely textured hair than she did. I wanted hair like my sister Carol, who is 11 years older than I am. She had long, loose, bouncy curls that grew more rapidly than my tightly coiled naps. Our mother, who is not African-American, is a petite, olive-skinned Dutch woman. My father used to recount his grandmother jokingly advising him to marry a light-skinned woman so his children wouldn’t be ugly.

Like Aunt Cornelia, I grew up longing for normal-sized feet, not the podiatric monstrosities that had me in a ladies size 10 shoe when I was 10 years old. She was “Green Giant.” By the time I was in fourth grade, to my classmates I was “Bigfoot.”

Like feet, outsize bosoms are common among the McDonald ladies, and they present similar challenges. It’s difficult and expensive to find bras that are pretty and feminine and also perform well as over-the-shoulder boulder-holders. My mother was responsible for buying my bras when I lived at home, and once I’d reached a C-cup by eighth grade, it didn’t take long for me to notice that the ones she bought for me didn’t correspond with my size. They were always too small, as if she was trying to will my body to stop growing in inappropriate directions.

The underlying message I took was that my body was unruly and made others uncomfortable. The worst was when adults would talk to my parents in front of me about the curves that had suddenly sprung from nowhere, as if I didn’t know what they meant.

Me, my sister Carol, and our mother Lilian. I was 14 here, and I’m looking down, mortified, because someone just said something about my bust.

Aunt Cornelia tried like hell to spare me the pain of bodily dissatisfaction. She’d tell me to look in the mirror and tell myself I was beautiful and capable and amazing, like the Soraya she saw. Most of the time I didn’t heed her instructions. They seemed cheesy, and frankly it felt like lying to myself.

But Aunt Cornelia kept delivering perfectly customized compliments as I grew into adulthood. “Who taught you how to beat your face like that?” she’d ask if I showed up with a fully made-up face — and she didn’t bull– me because she knew I’d spot it immediately.

At the beginning of January when I came to visit, I took a shower and came out to her bedroom wrapped in one of Aunt Cornelia’s big plush towels. “I’m gonna flash you,” I warned her. I opened the towel and did a little shimmy and she laughed.

“You’ve got some nice t—–s!” she exclaimed. “That’s how mine used to look.”

I had put on a black and pink balconette number, and my aunts cooed in awe. “That’s a pretty bra,” Aunt Gail said through the iPad. “Where’d you get that?!”

I walked them through the glories of Figleaves and HerRoom, not unlike how Aunt Cornelia introduced me to mail-order catalogs full of specialty sizes of ladies shoes.

After years of unsolicited jeers, come-ons and street harassment, I put on weight after college and part of me was happy with the sexual invisibility that came with it. But that didn’t last long, and I grew frustrated and unhappy with myself again.

I learned to embrace my body and its imperfections when I stopped obsessing so much about what size and weight it was and focused more on what feats it could accomplish.

When I triumphantly called Aunt Cornelia to inform her I was training for my first triathlon and relay the sense of satisfaction I felt when I completed my first 30-mile bike ride, giant thighs and all, she told me about experiencing similar revelations after running the Bay to Breakers race in San Francisco. Now, my sister and I are training for a triathlon this fall, which we’re doing together in honor of Aunt Cornelia.

Thank you for seeing me

Aunt Cornelia showered me with all sorts of fabulous stuff my parents would not buy, as aunts do. But more importantly, she let me pick out clothes and accessories that corresponded with my personality and not someone’s idea of what a “good girl” should look like.

When I was in high school, she took me shopping at a Loehmann’s in Los Angeles and bought me a pair of $200 Via Spiga boots that had a 4-inch stiletto heel. Aunt Cornelia was well-acquainted with the melange of horror and dread that accompanied the prospect of having to wear men’s tennis shoes or hideous granny clodhoppers as a result of being the owner of a pair of enormous, narrow feet that looked like boats protruding from too-skinny legs.

I didn’t have to say it out loud. She’d been there, too.

Aunt Cornelia and me in front of her apartment in Santa Monica, California, during a visit when I was in high school.

Aunt Cornelia didn’t just let me be myself, she encouraged it, and when she noticed me shrinking into some preconceived notion of what someone else said was cool or appropriate, she’d remind me it was OK to be me.

“I love that word: agency,” she said to me once.

I was 20 when I exhibited some agency of my own.

I’d finished an internship at a paper in Mississippi, and my father had come to help drive the Mazda he’d bought for me back to North Carolina, with a pit stop at my sister’s house in Atlanta. In the course of casual conversation, my editor told him that I’d recently taken a weekend trip to Florida to visit my boyfriend, and this clearly bothered my father.

I remember him bellowing through most of Mississippi, and probably Alabama too, about not wanting a daughter with “hoochie mama tendencies.” (This was before “slut shaming” became a common part of the lexicon, but that’s exactly what it was.) Mostly I remember cringing into the passenger side door, trying desperately to will myself to disappear into it.

By the time we reached Atlanta, I’d had enough. When it was time to leave my sister’s house and continue to North Carolina, I’d decided to stay. I handed my father the keys to the Mazda and took out all my belongings.

“How are you going to get back to school?” he asked me.

“I’ll figure it it out,” I said.

I was so scared. I didn’t know much of anything, but I did know I never wanted to feel again the way I’d felt in that car.

My aunt believed in having control over every aspect of her life. Aunt Cornelia was the first adult I ever heard say the word “p—y,” as in “No, I don’t owe you any p—y just ’cause you took me to dinner and you drive a Mercedes” — a line from a story she told me about a onetime suitor. He did not make it to a second date.

She went through a phase of sexual conservatism, which she ditched for a more sex-positive approach after having a growth removed from her uterus. This was also after she’d directed and starred in a production of The Vagina Monologues.

That was when Aunt Cornelia began to dispense unsolicited advice concerning the quality and frequency of orgasms: “Girl, you better get you a B-O-B.”

“B-O-B?” I asked quizzically.

“Yeah! A Battery Operated Boyfriend!”

Thank you for teaching me about black people

Aunt Cornelia taught me to trust my own judgment about how I should run my life. And she taught me about black people and how wonderful we are.

She used to work as a pediatric nurse for UCLA’s hospital, until the 1994 Northridge earthquake prompted her to skedaddle back to my grandmother’s house in Holly Springs, North Carolina. She brought back all sorts of treasures with her, among them an embroidered settee, masks, sculptures, vases and mud cloth from Africa, and an Ernie Barnes print of two men playing basketball and another of four men running track. It was such a contrast with my parents’ house, which my aunt described as “nice, but Waspy.”

“What’s Waspy?” I remember asking her.

My parents had a classical, jazz and NPR household, which made my Another Bad Creation cassette tape, a present from my sister, practically contraband. But in Aunt Cornelia’s car the radio was tuned to hip-hop and R&B, and when she started going through menopause, we’d cruise up Durham’s Highway 55 with the windows down in the middle of winter, blasting Lauryn Hill.

One summer, my aunt was an artist-in-residence teaching drama to children in a Durham housing project called Few Gardens. The same summer, I was a day camper at Duke Young Writers’ Camp. Aunt Cornelia used to roll up to Duke’s campus in a big, un-air-conditioned eyesore of a van, usually with her charges, and pick me up.

She didn’t say anything to me, but I saw the way she treated the kids and took heed. My aunt wasn’t condescending, and she wasn’t overly prescriptive. She taught me there’s no shame in being poor, that it’s not a moral failing. Watching her work, I learned important lessons about respectability politics and not looking down your nose at other black people.

Aunt Cornelia, chilling in a hammock at my grandmother’s house in Holly Springs, North Carolina.

In her book, she reminded her readers not to judge people — not if they were poor, not if they smelled. “You never know what someone’s going through,” she wrote.

My parents didn’t want me to go Howard University, but it’s one of the best decisions I ever made. And I probably wouldn’t have made it without Aunt Cornelia.

My father, who’d attended North Carolina Central because educational segregation and economic circumstances demanded it, didn’t think I should go to a historically black university. He thought I could do better. I proudly told my parents Howard was the school of Toni Morrison and Thurgood Marshall and Zora Neale Hurston. It was more than good enough.

When I was at Howard, I started to believe that the lessons Aunt Cornelia had been trying to teach me began to take root.

I was at this place with all sorts of black people, from all sorts of backgrounds, and plenty of them were smarter than I was. The girls, in their impossibly high heels and their perfectly coiffed hair, seemed like they were from a different planet. My freshman year, I was perfectly happy to walk around with a bright pink L.L. Bean backpack, wearing hippie skirts and Jesus sandals and drinking from a Nalgene bottle. I went to Amnesty International meetings and anti-Iraq War protests.

That summer, my parents wanted me to come back to North Carolina. But I had other designs, ones that set me on the path to where I am now, here at The Undefeated. I shared a rented rowhouse on Florida Avenue for a summer, working an unpaid internship with BET.com during the day and a paid job at the downtown Barnes & Noble at night. When my earnings fell short, Aunt Cornelia helped cover my rent, subsidizing the work I needed to do to become a professional writer.

She was a fantastic live storyteller, a woman who created The Moth for herself before The Moth was a thing. She would sweep into a room or onto a stage with perfect posture and a brightly patterned scarf wrapped intricately around her head. She had a way of relaying painful incidents that would cause audiences to erupt into peals of laughter, the kind that made tears spring from enjoying yourself so much. Aunt Cornelia remains the writer who was my biggest inspiration, champion, and the most trusted judge of my work.

Having an aunt who was a poet and playwright who performed pieces about poverty and abuse and being the descendant of slaves was like having your own personal Maya Angelou, except much cooler. She used to randomly break into Nina Simone or Tracy Chapman. Now, I sing Erykah Badu lyrics aloud to myself.

Four years at Howard taught me I could wear my hair natural and paint my face as I pleased. I could develop whatever sense of style I desired, sport a giant Afro or a sleek blowout. More than anything, it taught me that I could be whoever I wanted to be, and be black doing it, and that was enough. Howard taught me that I was enough, providing the most powerful bulwark of all against a world that still insists in myriad ways that I am not, and that black women just like me (Hello, Rep. Maxine Waters and White House correspondent April Ryan) are not enough, either.

I arrived at Howard a feminist, but my experience there showed me what was possible in a world where blackness was valued and celebrated. It made me impatient with racism and white supremacy. It changed me from a person who looked at such ills and thought they were bad to one who finds them unacceptable.

And when I returned home after four years there, I didn’t have to say any of that out loud. It was in my body, in the way I carried myself, in everything about me. Aunt Cornelia took one look, and she just knew.

“I don’t know what they teach y’all at Howard. But thank the LORD,” she said, drawing the word out into multiple syllables, “you didn’t stay here.”

I knew exactly what she meant.