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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Selah Marley, granddaughter of Bob Marley, is driven to succeed now The product of Lauryn Hill and Rohan Marley, Selah is charting her own path on her own time

Selah Marley doesn’t know where her inner drive comes from — not really, anyway. She hears the whispers — from friends, family and the media — about how much she’s accomplished in her 18 years. All she knows is something inside her fuels her to go harder, do more … go faster.

Her parents, Lauryn Hill and Rohan Marley, know where that drive comes from, no question about that. It was there since day one.

“I was driving through the tunnel,” Rohan Marley recalled of the day Hill was expected to deliver, “and I had to drive through the gate because I didn’t want to stop. I even went down a one-way road, and a policeman told me we should go to another hospital, and still went my way. I was determined to get us to a safe place — and her mother and I wanted to take her to a certain place, regardless of what was going on — so she’s truly a product of that kind of drive and determination.”

Indeed, Selah Marley has a lot going for her, and it doesn’t hurt that her mom is the infamous L. Boogie Hill and her grandfather, Bob Marley, is an icon in every nook and cranny of the world. And maybe that’s something else that’s making her go so hard.

Her modeling resume, thus far, warrants a raised eyebrow. She’s worked with Chanel, Calvin Klein, Kanye West’s Yeezy Season presentation and Beyonce’s Ivy Park, and she broke Twitter earlier this month when she landed the April cover of the U.K. Sunday Times style magazine.

“Honestly … I feel like I’ve done a lot, but I still feel like I have a long way to go,” said Marley, who grew up in Miami, Los Angeles and South Orange, New Jersey. “I don’t feel like I’ve done enough, honestly. Maybe I’m in a little bit of a rush, and not appreciating enough. But I still feel like I could be doing better. I feel like I need to go a bit more in-depth, showing who I am and stepping out on my own,” Marley continues, her Jersey twang coming through.

As a little girl, Marley wanted to be Lauryn Hill. Who wouldn’t? If your mom was the neo-soul legend who killed them softly with her melodic lead voice of The Fugees in the early ’90s, you’d want to be her too. But Marley said that yearning caused some strife, at least internally.

“When I was younger, my mom was a huge icon for me,” Marley said. “I was always, like, ‘Yo … if I could be like my mom, that’s lit.’ And it wasn’t necessarily in a music way — just like, her essence. My mom is like a powerful woman. But the thing is, I still had a lot of love for music, and I had a little self-doubt, like, ‘I don’t think I am as good as my mom.’

“I’m not trying to necessarily copy my mom; it’s in my DNA … it’s been passed down to me. I think she’s one of the greatest. But now, the funny thing is, I know who I am, but I was still like, ‘Yo – that’s Lauryn Hill; that’s my mom.’ ”

No doubt, Hill had made her mark. Following the release of her full-length debut, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, the baby-faced Jersey girl was one of 17 black figures on Time magazine’s cover throughout the 1990s (out of 525 covers). Only five — including Bill Cosby, Bill T. Jones, Toni Morrison and Oprah Winfrey — worked in arts and entertainment. Hill was the only musician. She was just 23.

“When I do things like model or sing, it’s always, ‘There’s Lauryn’s daughter,’ ” Marley said. “Yes, Lauryn Hill is my mom. When people say that, they’re thinking a certain way — and they’ve already put you in a box, and now I have to fit into your box. It creates a little friction, but I’ve gotten over that.

“It is what it is; I try to embrace it. I’m like, ‘Yo, these gifts have been passed down to me.’ Everyone has gifts — but I got some special gifts passed down to me, from both my parents. I now have a chance to show who I am. I’m totally here for it.”

Marley maintains that her mom is her No. 1 fan and partner-in-career. When the calls come in and the offers are made, it’s Hill whose brain gets picked first — usually via text. An admitted phone-aholic whose guilty pleasure is Instagram, Marley just completed her freshman year at New York University, where she is enrolled in the Gallatin School of Individualized Study. She enjoyed the freedom to create her own curriculum, where her studies focused on showing the link between science and spirituality and how all religions connect.

(L-R) Lauryn Hill and her daughter Selah Marley celebrate Lauryn Hill’s birthday at The Ballroom on May 26, 2015, in West Orange, New Jersey.

Johnny Nunez/Getty Images

But as her fledgling modeling career gained momentum, it became harder to manage school and career.

“I enjoy learning,” she said. “It’s a gap year. I just needed to go through my freshman year to know that I needed a gap year.”

Her parents, who have five kids together (including Marley), have her back, providing support and love in their own respective ways. From dad, she said, she gets structure and foundation. From mom, she gets compassion and understanding.

“My dad is more direct, whereas my mom is a little more abstract,” Marley explained. “I think there’s always going to be one energy that’s a little bit more influential, but I definitely try to take from both of them because they bring so much to the table for me. But … my dad? My dad does not play.”

At the end of 2016, when she was invited to walk the Chanel pre-fall show in Paris, dad called to check in and heard his daughter complain about having to find her own way — and being alone. When dad asked her why she was alone, she admitted that she had missed a flight.

“I said, ‘There you go,’ ” said Rohan Marley, who made his mark as a football player at the University of Miami and is now an entrepreneur and founder of Marley Coffee. “I told her that things are going to be expected of you, no matter who you are or where you come from. There’s a timing to everything, so if you’re going to do this, you’re going to have to respect the work, the process and why you’re doing it. It’s the way you carry yourself. Some people carry their football everywhere they go; you have to carry this career with you and be humble about it.”

At 5 feet, 3 inches tall, Selah, whose name was given to her by her grandmother Rita Marley, worries little about fitting the mold — and is instead working to create her own lane.

“I’ve been lucky,” Marley said. “Fitting the mold wasn’t something that I was consumed with. That was all the more reason to expand on this other side of myself. If I’m using my platform to show more of myself, not just as a model, other opportunities are going to come, and I’m seeing that happen now.”

If you could be any athlete — past or present — who would you be?

I think I would be Serena Williams, because she’s done so much. She’s such a powerful woman. I love what she’s done as a black woman in America. I thank her; I appreciate her and I thank her. And she’s dope.

You come from a rich musical family. How do you find out about new music, and what do you like?

I find out about music from different people. I’ll hear a song, and it’ll catch my ear and I’ll be like, ‘Oooh! I need this song.’ When I heard ‘3005’ by Childish Gambino, I was like, ‘Oh my God! What song is this?’ I OD’d on it. I just fell in love with his music.

What’s your favorite Lauryn Hill song, and why?

I don’t know all of her Fugees stuff; I know her more as a solo artist. I would say her song ‘I Get Out’ — off her Unplugged album — is the one. Just because that song is so liberating and has such a deep message. It’s just all about freedom.

What about your grandfather — Bob Marley?

I would have to say ‘Natural Mystic,’ ‘Running Away’ and ‘Redemption Song.’

‘Natural Mystic’ — because it basically speaks of that unseen world.

I love ‘Running Away’ because the message is clear: ‘You can run, but you can’t run away from yourself. You can’t hide from yourself.’ And ‘Redemption Song’ just speaks to looking at yourself in the mirror, and forgiveness.

What does Undefeated mean to you?

Undefeated to me … it’s like chasing your dream and not taking no for an answer. People may pull you down, but you don’t let that take you over. It’s always being able to overcome.

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.

It’s crazy out here! 25 books to save your life, right now The Undefeated staff on books to comfort, inspire — and light a fire in your soul

The call was for “favorite” books, yes, but more specifically for books that resonate right now, In These Times. In these times when certainty and trust seems so rare, and books — highlightable and pixelated on a screen, or dusty and heavy from under the bed — can comfort and inspire and light a fire in one’s soul. The call was for treasured books, tomes that got you through something — and The Undefeated staff (and contributors) responded with faves that include fiction, short fiction, flash fiction, science fiction, nonfiction, satire, and young-adult literature. The list includes books published as far back as 1946 and as recently as last year. There’s a bunch of memoirs: Malcolm X is eternal, Nathan McCall is still making folks want to holler, and activist Anne Moody’s life story is still changing lives. There’s a handful of brilliant, restorative histories — hello, Paula Giddings and David Remnick and Howard Zinn. The newer storytellers are women: Desiree Cooper, and Yaa Gyasi. Toni Morrison is here for Paradise, and Jhumpa Lahiri’s shorts about the Bengali immigrant experience — both published awhile ago — seem particularly of the moment. And as is appropriate in a time when facts are dueling with “alternative facts,” there are two books here — one fiction, one nonfiction — with complex dual narratives. This list is meant to inspire more thinking, more learning, inclusivity, healing, some escape and joy, perhaps some organizing, and understanding. A tall order. And this is but a drop in the bucket. — Danyel Smith


The Street by Ann Petry (1946)

This novel illuminates the structural and social manifestations of racism, sexism, and classism as vividly and viscerally as any work of fiction written since its publication 71 years ago. In the book, the protagonist, Lutie, hopes to save her young son from the trappings of poverty in World War II-era Harlem. Her love and respect for Benjamin Franklin and his bootstrapping philosophy of prosperity motivates her to work hard and save so she can move out of a tenement building haunted by the presence of a superintendent hoping to prey on her dire circumstances. Like other works of naturalism, it’s not the intention or good nature of the protagonist that dictates whether she will leave her hard life behind, it’s the political forces of the time that determine her fate. Ann Petry is not here for happy endings or conflict resolution. — Monis Khan


Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (1958)

Chinua Achebe’s masterpiece tells the story of Okonkwo, a leader in his Nigerian village whose incessant pursuit of honor is halted by abrupt change. When he sees colonial influence diluting his culture and threatening the values he’s anchored by, his life bursts into the “This Is Fine” meme. And if we flash-forward to the present, the outcome of the 2016 presidential election has left many (the historically marginalized, especially) feeling as though the world around them has been similarly set ablaze. Aggressive change steeped in ethnocentrism poses an imminent threat to the rights people died for so we could have, but also serves as a reminder that both good and bad come in waves. Okonkwo’s raison d’être — his pride — is also his Achilles’ heel. This chest-out hubris makes it even harder for him to process the changes he’s experiencing. In the time since I first read Things Fall Apart as an eighth-grader, the book has served as a cautionary tale: a reminder of how not to react when everything you know begins to collapse. And today, with the powers that be hell-bent on ruining the very country they claim to want to improve, it’s imperative to remember that sometimes things get worse before they get better. Whenever I revisit Things Fall Apart, similar to whenever I read depressing national news headlines, I’m reminded that life is a seesaw of highs and lows. We’ve risen from scorched earth before, we’ll do it again. — Julian Kimble


The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X with Alex Haley (1965)

This is the story of not just a man who came to power, notoriety and controversy during one of America’s most disputative period, but also of why America would never truly come to accept a voice like Malcolm X’s. The only way this book would cease to lose its importance is if this country magically woke up one morning and instantly reversed its ills. And since that’s not going to happen, Malcolm X’s autobiography will eternally rank as the blueprint of how to survive in America — and to hold America accountable for its shortcomings. Reread this memoir multiple times. I have, and it’s helped teach me the value of work ethic. It helped teach me about my status as a black man in America — and how humbling myself to its systemic racism should never be considered an option. This autobiography is responsible for strength when the coldest times of my life begged me to give up. Simply put, this the most important book ever written. Bar none. Yes, bar none. There’s so much game here that spans beyond the political. It’s a book about life — and about how it rarely goes our way. But the most important lesson is to simply keep living. Malcolm X did that until the day he died. He believed he could change the world — and you know what? He never lived to see it. But he did. Malcolm X’s fingerprints are all over 2017 and beyond. — Justin Tinsley


Coming of Age in Mississippi by Anne Moody (1968)

This memoir chronicles the horrors faced by the generation before mine. It’s about growing up in rural Mississippi under Jim Crow laws — and, sadly, much of the story still holds true in 2017. This is the book — written by a woman who in 1963 sat praying at a segregated Woolworth’s counter as condiments were poured over her before she was dragged 30 feet by her hair — made me want to be a writer. My mother gifted me this gem when I was a preteen and even then, I related to a young woman learning about her womanness and her blackness at a time when it was terrifying to be both. Much like Elie Wiesel’s horrifying Night, the account of his experience under Hitler’s regime, Coming of Age tells the gripping story of the American holocaust of black folks. And while Anne Moody never got her due (she died in 2015 after suffering from dementia), her book was wholly life-changing. And considering the headlines of 2017, her story — almost 50 years later — remains relevant and relatable. — Kelley L. Carter


Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson (1972)

History is hard to know. This book is important at this moment because of the parallels between 1960s counterculture and the movements we’re currently experiencing in America’s polarized atmosphere. In it, Thompson (who committed suicide in 2005) addresses police brutality, hypocrisy, and destructive recreational drug use (“There is nothing worse than a man in the throes of an ether bender.”). Thompson’s gonzo style of immersing himself into his work and subjects inspired me to find a career where I could live out experiences, no matter how wild, and to open the minds of people across the world. — Morgan Moody


Discipline and Punish by Michel Foucault (1975)

Visibility is a trap. This book introduced me to the idea of the Panopticon (which allows a watchman to observe occupants without the occupants knowing whether they are being watched). In the age of digital surveillance this is relevant. Panopticon is a kind of space where separation and registration are implemented. Those who deviate are cast aside. When I first read Discipline, the obvious parallel was society at large. Then, jail and prison. Now it’s the state’s security apparatus — something that we make sacrifices for every day. The Panopticon is alive and well, and we all opt into it. Folks should read this book so they can better understand the goals behind the state’s continued efforts to divide us. — Osman Noor


A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn (1980)

“Alternate facts” are currently being touted as gospel truth. Howard Zinn’s powerful, paradigm-changing thesis — that alternative facts (sometimes referred to as “lies”) can become alternative American history — gave this classic best-seller its bite. If you were in middle or high school before 1980, your textbooks may have been a minefield of ill-adapted or half-truthful information. Sing along with us, kids! Christopher Columbus sailed the seven seas … and he quickly became besties with the native peoples because he was an OG who liked turkey. George Washington had a thing for cherry trees and wooden dentures. Thomas Jefferson didn’t have a thing for Sally Hemings. The Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras got about a week each, and Watergate was in no way, shape or form the gateway drug to the fall of American exceptionalism. OK, so that’s a bit of an exaggeration. But pre-internet historiography (which is the history of how history is interpreted) is a narrow corridor built by and for white male elites. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But A People’s History of the United States asks that we do a collective dig into uncomfortable places. With blunt, prehistoric tools. Then we get to the really fun stuff like Russians and Soviets, the historic election of Barack Obama and, because history always manages to swing back around, Donald J. Trump. Fun times! — Jill Hudson


Life & Times of Michael K by J.M. Coetzee (1983)

Set in apartheid era South Africa during a fictional civil war (fought “so that the minorities can have a say in their own destinies”), Michael K is a book of silent resistance. K is a wanderer and a gardener caught in the crosshairs of a war he has no say in. His cleft lip brands him as voiceless and unworthy of society’s consideration. He must assert his humanity and so seeks to carve out a space of the South African landscape for his own use, a space that cannot be infringed upon by the larger powers at play. As someone who isn’t necessarily a front-line activist but still holds near and dear my convictions, I love the book’s thesis: that the revolution can begin within, remain within, and still change the world around you. — Tierra R. Wilkins


When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America by Paula J. Giddings (1984)

I don’t remember every single story in Giddings’ novelistic masterwork of gender and black American history, but it’s enough to recall on any given and stressful weekday that the book exists on this earth as a brilliant testament to the work and activism and vibrant creativity of black womanhood in the United States. It’s like someone saw, and took the notes, and wrote it all down, and I say, Thank you. Whether it’s Phillis Wheatley, Mary McLeod Bethune, Ella Baker — everyone is blood-flesh-and-soul human, and black women’s lives and accomplishments are detailed toward the fine point of precisely how they impacted and influenced the heart and machine of this country. Who are we as ourselves? This is what Giddings asks toward the tail of her preface. What would we say to Anita Hill outside the earshot of whites or men or our mothers and fathers? What do we feel about a Million Man March …Who are we when no one yearns for us, or when we are in full possession of our sexuality? Who are we when we are not someone’s mother, or daughter, or sister, or aunt, or church elder, or first black woman to be this or that? The genius Paula Giddings answers with aplomb. — Danyel Smith


Lilith’s Brood by Octavia Butler (1987 – 1989)

If racism’s got you down, take a minute to contemplate the end of the human race as we know it. The brilliant, prolific and criminally underappreciated Octavia Butler constructs a chilling and all-too-possible future in which an alien species rescues humanity from self-destruction, but at an unimaginable price. As usual, Butler, a giant of science fiction who died in 2006, places a black woman at the center of her universe. The first book of the trilogy begins with protagonist Lilith fighting for life amid the wondrous, benevolent but inflexible invaders. Lilith’s offspring carry the story forward to a conclusion that renders childish our color-based classifications and proves there is only one race — the human one. — Jesse Washington


The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho (1988)

The Alchemistwhich has sold more than 65 million copies — takes readers on the journey of a shepherd boy named Santiago who has recurring dreams about traveling to find hidden treasures. Santiago meets many people along the way who both help and distract him, and (spoiler alert) in the end, Santiago learns that he’s the only person who can complete his journey. He also realizes the most important treasures of life were right in front of him the entire time. The Alchemist is so important at this moment because these days so many feel alone in their struggle. The Alchemist remains a go-to when I’m feeling lost, or dejected. The beauty of the book is no matter how many times you read it, it’s guaranteed you’ll find something you may have overlooked. — Maya Jones


Although this book is introduced to most in their youth, the moral of The Alchemist is only truly revealed to those who read (or reread) it as an adult. This perspective–changing and deeply human story is even more well received in today’s pretty trying times. Young Santiago’s odyssey leads him to surmise: “When a person really desires something, all the universe conspires to help that person to realize his dream.” What seems like trivial notions are actually fondly illuminated in The Alchemist. People should feel as though they can follow their dreams, no matter their age, or lot in life. We could all use a Santiago walkabout to reveal what truly means the most to us — whether that’s overcoming fear or embracing the present. Go ahead, give it another read. — Ashley Melfi


Makes Me Wanna Holler: A Young Black Man in America by Nathan McCall (1994)

Love was understood rather than expressed, and values were transmitted by example, not word of mouth. This autobiography is superimportant at this moment in history because the struggle continues. At the time of its publication, the book was called “gripping and candid,” and it is. Nathan McCall went from from thug-hustler in working-class Portsmouth, Virginia, to doing three years for armed robbery to becoming a journalist and working at The Washington Post. This book continues to save my life, because black men in this country have so many similar experiences even now — it explains so much about the frustration bruhs experience daily. McCall is underrated because he speaks the real truth. — Jason Reid


Paradise by Toni Morrison (1997)

They shoot the white girl first. This novel, to some reminiscent of Toni Morrison’s 1974 Sula, is superimportant at this moment in history because it makes you uneasy. It’s a difficult read, in all of the best ways. It speaks to so many things — race, culture, patriarchy, class, death, black girl magic, history — and the narrative makes you earn it all. Love is divine only and difficult always — and then it ends with an unanswered question which is fitting in today’s world: Isn’t every day uncertain and a little bit scary? — Breana Jones


King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero by David Remnick (1999)

This book came out three years after Muhammad Ali raised the torch at the 1996 Atlanta Games, when much of America worried about the legendary boxer’s health and wondered whether he still had the same influence worldwide. With the lighting of the torch (and this book), it became clear that Ali’s messages of sacrifice and conviction remain as contemporary today as they were in the late 1960s. It’s a reminder that a life lived only for material goods and fame is not a life well-lived. The beauty of Ali is his conviction to principle despite the world telling him to leave his religion — who he really was — behind. He became the Greatest not because of athletic prowess and showmanship in the ring; he became the Greatest because he used those gifts as a tool for greater good and not merely as a means to an end. David Remnick’s book brilliantly chronicles how Ali became Ali. — Mike Wise


The Land by Mildred D. Taylor (2001)

In this middle-school novel, a prequel to the classic, award-winning 1977 Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, Paul-Edward is born to a slave mother and a white father and so learns to navigate being a part of both worlds. Taylor’s “depiction of the 19th-century South is anything but pretty, [but] her tone is more uplifting than bitter.” She covers colorism, sexism, racism and religion as she tells the story of Paul-Edward’s journey from being owned, to ownership. But “after arriving in Mississippi and setting his sights on the acreage he wants to buy, he soon discovers that becoming a landowner of color is more complicated and dangerous than he expected.” — Rhiannon Walker


Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell (2008)

Malcolm Gladwell says that “what we do as a community, as a society, for each other, matters as much as what we do for ourselves.” That statement holds so true today — with where we are as a country. Togetherness matters more now than ever before. I identify with Gladwell — he opened up about his Jamaican roots: his mother, Joyce, a descendant of African slaves. And his ability to write very simply gets me every time. We’re all “outliers” – all exceptional in our own unique way. We first have to believe that and act on that — statistics be damned. — Mark Wright


Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri (2008)

As the daughter of immigrants, this collection of short stories means so much to me. Especially as the dialogue around the immigrant experience in America can be aggravatingly simplistic. Today’s stereotypes are either malicious (those dangerous “illegal” Latinos here to steal your jobs, and those even more dangerous Muslims here to cause terror) or naive (the hardworking Asian with impeccable character who goes against the odds to achieve the American dream). The experience of the majority of Asian immigrants is not that elementary, and Jhumpa Lahiri’s characters are fully human. She reveals their pain, their desires, their flaws, and their dreams — even those that may never go fulfilled. And on a personal level, this collection taught me that it’s OK, normal even, to have a flawed family history, one that contains disappointments and shame. You don’t have to try to configure your family story to (the myth of) the American Dream. To step out and take a risk by bringing your fragile hopes to a new land, to unaccustomed earth, even if you meet disappointment, is beautiful nonetheless. — Lois Nam


The Known World by Edward P. Jones (2009)

This novel is vital at this moment because it forces black folks to confront preconceived notions about ourselves. Few of us want to grapple with the complexity and complicity of the black experience, even though true understanding of ourselves is the way forward. Jones’ masterpiece, in which “characters survive by negotiating mazes of moral contradiction, but … speak with a raw and lyrical bluntness,” will make you think differently — plus it’s simply a gripping tale. — Jessie Washington


The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore (2011)

Destiny is determined by big and small moments in everyone’s life. This book demonstrates how two boys — both named Wes Moore, and born blocks apart — turn out to have seemingly polar opposite lives: one ends up in prison, and the other becomes a Rhodes scholar. Set in the Bronx, and in Baltimore, fathers are absent, and while Moore creates “touching portraits of both mothers” who want good things for their sons, “those dreams don’t necessarily matter in the face of the life of the streets.” This is a story of a generation of boys trying to find their way in a hostile world. — John X. Miller


Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness?: What It Means to be Black Now by Touré (2011)

Growing up in the shadow of Chris Rock’s infamous 1996 “Black people vs. Niggaz” stand-up routine, this book introduced to me to the idea, at the age of 22, that there are millions of ways to be black in this world. Who’s Afraid illustrates the many ways one can navigate society in one’s black skin. As Touré’s text states, to be “post-Black” — which is not to be confused with postracial — is to be “rooted in but not restricted by” one’s race. I can be me and be black at the same time. There are no limitations. In the current political climate, we can lose track of who we are and how far we’ve come. We can “fight” like our ancestors did for centuries but also build our own paths toward freedom in America. “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it,” for sure, but postblackness also gives blacks the latitude to take that historical context and apply it in an ever-changing world — however they see fit. The Black Lives Matter movement, for example, can take cues from the civil rights movement, but it’s on this generation of activists to chart their own way. — Martenzie Johnson


Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo (2012)

In a complicated world that many of us make sense of by clinging to rigid narratives, this carefully reported and beautifully written book offers a vivid reminder that nuance is everything. Set in the unspeakable squalor of a marshy slum in the shadows of Mumbai’s gleaming Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport, Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers offers an intimate view of the lives of the people who live there. Children are bitten by rats and balded by worms. Others forage through garbage for scrap metal, or study desperately for a shot at university. None of this feels voyeuristic as this unforgettable book uses real lives, not government statistics or think tank generalizations, to raise big questions about the perils of extreme inequality, globalization and human nature itself. Boo is a celebrated journalist known for her on-the-ground reporting about the most unfortunate among us. She could never receive enough credit for that. — Michael A. Fletcher


Earl the Pearl: My Story by Earl Monroe with Quincy Troupe (2013)

Sometimes the best plan is no plan at all. It’s all about letting it all just flow. This is true whether you’re playing the game of basketball or looking forward to the next chapter of your life. Sometimes you have to take a play from the legend Earl Monroe — and improvise. And while what Monroe did on the court was dazzling, his perspective on life is even more so, and My Story features life advice from the timeless basketball legend. Monroe once said, “I don’t know what I’m going to do with the ball, and if I don’t know, I’m quite sure the guy guarding me doesn’t know either.” The same is true for life. During these times when it’s difficult to know your next move, the key is exactly that: to move. Monroe’s life, from growing up in a tough South Philadelphia neighborhood, to his career at Winston-Salem State, all the way through his days as a key player of the legendary 1972-73 New York Knicks championship team, Monroe’s life is nothing but inspiration. His advice and perspective transcends the game — a perfect book for right now. — Trudy Joseph


The Sellout by Paul Beatty (2016)

More people should read this satirical novel because it’s an unusual, adept, and comedic autopsy of an undead American fixture, Racism. Brimming with black colloquialisms, hip-hop allusions, and street-corner humor, this book was awarded the U.K.’s prestigious Man Booker Prize for Fiction — the first time ever for an American. The book begins with the protagonist, Bonbon, a black man, being admonished by a black Supreme Court Justice: “N—–, are you crazy?” On trial for reinstituting slavery and segregation, Bonbon pleas “human,” which to him means guilty and innocent — and neither. The book doesn’t attempt to make broad racial commentary, but instead presents elements of America’s racial history (and present) from a one-of-a-kind perspective. No matter where you reside on the spectrum of “wokeness” — from Stacey Dash to Solange, this book will make you see race from a new angle. — Domonique Foxworth


Know the Mother by Desiree Cooper (2016)

Desiree Cooper writes about the interior lives of mothers with knowingness, tenderness and power. The Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist, Detroit community activist, and former attorney, is a master of flash fiction. Each of the 33 short-short stories in her debut collection is a revelation across generations. She writes about black mothers in the fullness of who we are, how we live and grieve, our fears and our longings. We are widows with three young sons on a mule ride down a canyon wall. We are mothers caring for our mothers. We are raising children in the segregated South. This book is a welcome reprieve from the typical whitebread “momoir.” If those books are chardonnay, Know the Mother is bourbon. The collection fills voids by tallying the cost of motherhood, by counting the losses — of self, of adventure, of freedom — without tying on the obligatory ribbon of “ … but it’s all worth it!” For some mothers, that ribbon chokes. Instead, Cooper’s stories invite you to sit with these mothers and feel, as one character does, what it’s like “to be touched without desire or demand.” — Deesha Philyaw


Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (2016)

In this debut novel, Yaa Gyasi masterfully interlaces parallel histories. Homegoing follows the descendants of two half-sisters born to different Ghanaian tribes during the transatlantic slave trade. The estranged young women live very different lives — one sister marries a British governor of the Cape Coast Castle, and the other — captured by raiders and sold to the British — is locked in the dungeons below, soon boarding a ship to America and slavery. Each chapter tells the story of the next generation — and each story has its own heartbreaks and triumphs. From Ghanaian wars over the slave trade to the prison labor system in America, this book moves seamlessly from generation to generation. Homegoing is empowering, uplifting and inspiring, moving me to wonder: Where do I came from? Regardless of where my roots are, this book makes me feel I’m getting closer to home. — Brittany Grant

On this day in black history: Toni Morrison is born, first all-black Broadway musical debuts, Shani Davis wins gold and more Black History Month: The Undefeated edition Feb. 18

1688 — First formal protest against slavery by a religious group in the English colonies
Four Pennsylvania Quakers write and present their opposition to slavery and human trafficking. Their document read, in part, “we shall doe to all men licke as we will be done ourselves; macking no difference of what generation, descent or Colour they are.”

1896 — Razor-stropping device patented
Henry Grenon patents the razor-stropping device, a tool that was mainly used to sharpen blades for barbers.

1903 — First all-black musical on Broadway
In Dahomey, a musical comedy and the first full-length musical written, produced and performed by blacks, opened at the New York Theater and ran for 53 performances. It featured music by Will Marion Cook from the book by Jesse A. Shipp, and lyrics by Paul Laurence Dunbar.

1931 — Happy birthday, Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison is born in Lorain, Ohio. Morrison, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012 from then-President Barack Obama. The Bluest Eye, was published in 1970, and attracted immediate attention. Among her many other works are Sula, Song of Solomon and Tar Baby. Beloved, a Pulitzer Prize winner published in 1988, is regarded by many as Morrison’s most successful work.

2006 — Shani Davis becomes the first black to win an individual gold medal in Winter Olympic history
Shani Davis won the men’s 1,000-meter speed skating race in Turin, Italy.