‘The Chi’ premieres and Lena Waite talks about what makes it different from every other show set in Chicago Television Critics Diary: An early victory lap for the Showtime drama set on the South Side

PASADENA, California — The Chi, the new Showtime drama set on the South Side of Chicago, finally makes its television debut tonight at 10.

It doesn’t really do it justice to call The Chi a crime drama, although that’s what it is. It’s a thoughtful story of interlocking family traumas that begins with the murder of one Chicago boy and quickly leads to another.

The pilot, which was shot by Dope director Rick Famuyiwa, has been available to stream for a couple of weeks now. On Saturday, executive producer Lena Waithe joined the cast and co-executive producer Common for a triumphant panel at the Television Critics Association press tour.

Waithe made history a few months ago when she became the first black woman to win an Emmy for comedy writing for a deeply personal coming-out story she penned as an episode of Master of None. Showtime president David Nevins, who spoke Saturday on a separate panel, made sure to mention that the network had seen promise in Waithe long before then. Showtime purchased Waithe’s script for The Chi in June 2015.

“She brought in a script that felt like a really interesting inverse to the crime shows that are set in Chicago where the characters that are generally the guest stars, the sort of objects of the investigation, were the subjects of this show,” Nevins said. “And she had really interesting things to say about them. And there were a lot of them, but they had distinctiveness. Each character, sort of, had their own moment.”

This was intentional on Waithe’s part, and she confirmed during the Chi panel that she starts by writing characters first because she wants to craft multifaceted human beings who inspire compassion and curiosity. And she’s especially interested in providing that sort of consideration for characters who are black.

“My whole house looked like True Detective when I was figuring out the pilot because I was like trying to figure out when this person would meet this person, when this person comes to this and all these things would happen,” Waithe said. “And then I began writing. So that way I had a road map of how to get to where I needed to go, and I think just based on the reactions I’ve gotten from the pilot, I’m really grateful because it means all the work was not in vain.”

The story of The Chi is set off by a magnetic cast, from The Wire’s Sonja Sohn to Mudbound star Jason Mitchell, to Sleight leading man Jacob Latimore, who’s finally in a role that takes full advantage of the playful, youthful moxie he brings to the screen. But I was most impressed by The Chi’s corps of child actors, led by Alex Hibbert, who played Little in Moonlight.

The Chi asks a lot of the children in it. These characters bear witness to horrific tragedies that they barely have the skills to process. Of course, it’s not just the child actors of The Chi who have taken on this task. I found myself astonished at the depth of what’s been asked of the cast of Stranger Things, another show that features kids giving complex emotional performances in service to stories that are really for adults.

“My whole house looked like True Detective when I was figuring out the pilot.”

But The Chi provides something special in its reflection of black childhood, i.e., how often it’s cut short and how children are expected to mature quickly for the sake of their own safety. When black children are allowed to be too innocent or naive about the realities of the world, it can cost them their lives, be it Tamir Rice or Emmett Till, the son of Chicago whose casket is on display in the Blacksonian.

Waithe manages to expertly balance the teeter-totter of black youth. She incorporates the horrors that children witness and also the wonderful ordinariness of age-appropriate problems, like deciding to try out for the school musical because a girl you like is doing it. She lets us see the innocence that’s only a part-time reality for the kids of The Chi, which makes the harsher realities of their lives that much more devastating.

“For me, growing up in Chicago, I talked a lot like these kids talk on the show. I was cursing like a sailor at 8 and 9, but it’s because I was ear hustling my family,” Waithe said. “I grew up in a house with a lot of women in the house who cursed like sailors, and I was trying to be like them. … You hear about things you shouldn’t hear about. My father, who is deceased now, he suffered from a lot of substance abuse and things like that that my family couldn’t necessarily keep me away from as much. So there were things that I knew about, that I heard, and I saw probably a little bit too young.

“­­But what it did was, it did grow me up a little bit. And I think what it does is it definitely impacts the way I write children, particularly black children, particularly children who are on the South Side of Chicago, because I just know that they’re these little adults. … That, to me, was really interesting to show, is that gut innocence, but also the maturity that kids have in inner cities that they sort of are forced to have.”

I asked if it was possible to protect young actors like Hibbert, who is 12, so as to maintain some level of innocence in real life separate from what they’re asked to recreate on screen. The answer was complicated.

“It’s not far from what I’ve seen,” Hibbert said. “To piggyback off what [Waithe] says, we hear from our family, and they curse. And a lot of the kids that we hear from, not just in our grade level but in higher grade levels, we hear off of them.”

There just wasn’t that much space between the screen and real life, not just for Hibbert but also for Mitchell, 31. It’s easy to think of actors as enjoying privileged lives. The cast of The Chi reminds us that’s not always the case, that there’s real pain that informs a show like The Chi, and that provides the essence of what makes it so compelling.

It’s also what makes it stand out from a sea of copy-and-paste broadcast dramas about Chicago.

“I grew up in a fairly violent environment,” Mitchell said. “I’m from New Orleans, Louisiana, and I went to the top four worst schools in the nation. … It was imperative to be able to be tough and still have to be happy. It’s hard to be a kid when you’re in this really grown-up environment, you know, when you are pressed to bring some sort of money home or, you know, you never really know these people’s story.

“So it’s good to see this TV show. It’s good to soak this in and see, you know, this sort of ecosystem and this domino effect that it has to open up a child’s eyes so early because, I mean, in Chicago if you make it to 21, they’re considered an OG, which is, like, an original gangster. And to think that you’re an original at 21? Like, you can’t even rent a car yet.”

A look back at Latrell Sprewell’s very angry ‘Sports Illustrated’ cover The image was after the P.J. Carlesimo incident and at the tightest possible intersection of sports and race — not in a good way

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the name Latrell Sprewell? His 35-point performance at Madison Square Garden with the New York Knicks facing elimination in the 1999 NBA Finals? Him dunking on Jaren Jackson in the third quarter of that game?

Maybe it was his return to the Garden for the first time in more than a decade, last year, as a “friend” of Knicks owner James Dolan, not a foe. Perhaps it’s this recent Priceline commercial, supposedly a display of Sprewell’s sense of humor — at his own expense.

Or is it a moment obscured from the public’s eyes: Sprewell choking then-Golden State Warriors head coach P.J. Carlesimo during a December 1997 practice, leaving the gym and returning, apparently to attack Carlesimo again?


Or is what you recall the aftermath, when the 24th pick in the 1992 NBA draft became a pariah? His name and likeness became synonymous with violence. The Warriors voided the then-three-time All-Star’s contract, and the NBA, a season removed from celebrating its 50th birthday, suspended him for a year after the episode escalated into an avalanche of bad press that the league did not need one month into the pivotal 1997-98 season. Several stars — Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O’Neal and Scottie Pippen among them — were injured, Michael Jordan was all but certainly retiring, and a lockout was looming.

Then, in addition, the Milwaukee-born, Flint, Michigan-raised Sprewell, one of the NBA’s rising (albeit reluctant) stars, was labeled persona non grata. He’d admittedly committed an act of violence against his coach. It was an act that seemed to confirm every absurd fear about the rise of the overpaid, petulant, violent (and *gasp* black) athlete. It was the problem with sports, to let sportswriters and fans alike tell it. And although Sprewell acknowledged that his actions were inexcusable — “I don’t condone what I did,” he told The New York Times in 1998 — he took issue with how he was portrayed. This was epitomized by the cover of Sports Illustrated’s Dec. 15, 1997, issue.

“It’s always a picture of me looking mad or being aggressive,” he said during a news conference one week after the incident, for which he was initially suspended 10 games without pay. “I never saw pictures of myself where I had a smile on my face. It was always negative.”

The enigmatic Sprewell was easy to cast as the villain. The former University of Alabama and Three Rivers Community College standout was an aggressive slasher and defender. His appearance was menacing — to people who associated cornrows with criminal activity. And Spree had previously fought teammates. He absolutely considered himself a fighter, but only in self-defense.

“I don’t get upset unless somebody’s doing something to me or to my family, disrespecting me to where I just can’t tolerate it,” Sprewell told Time in 2000. That’s how he viewed the altercation with Carlesimo.

The choking itself, said to have happened in practice during an argument about Sprewell’s effort (“Put a little mustard on those passes,” Carlesimo reportedly told him), triggered revealing discourse, in the pre-social-media era, about the very often uncomfortable intersection of race and sports.


Sports Illustrated flew into the eye of the storm and made a valiant effort to unpack the situations. And while the story itself excellently contextualized the NBA’s head-on collision with race, the image — Sprewell, in mid-scream — chosen for the Dec. 15, 1997, issue’s cover was provocative for the wrong reasons. Sports Illustrated was the de facto bible of sports at the time, in an era before breaking news spread via Woj Bombs and trending topics. A time when writers discussed stories with editors via phone calls — not yet in Google Hangouts, or Slack.

Phil Taylor doesn’t remember exactly how he heard about what transpired between Sprewell and Carlesimo, but as a senior writer for Sports Illustrated at the time, he called his editors to discuss how they planned to cover it. “This was a huge story … right in my backyard, and as lead NBA writer, I knew I was going to be writing something lengthy,” said Taylor, now a contributing writer for The Athletic. “I’ve often thought that if it happened now, we would have obviously been able to put something out on Twitter and everyone would have just written stories immediately. But I remember thinking that [as a weekly publication] we were not going to be able to get an immediate story out there.”

“One of my first thoughts was, at least put P.J. on there looking angry too.”

The Sprewell-Carlesimo incident took place on a Monday — the worst-case scenario for the magazine, which was finalized for the mass printing on Sundays. Back then, hundreds of thousands of issues would be sent to subscribers and would be available on newsstands on the Wednesday/Thursday of the following week. Local outlets such as the San Francisco Chronicle were already on top of the story. That extra time, though, did allow Sports Illustrated to fine-tune its coverage, and Taylor ended up writing two of the three stories: a look at who Sprewell was and an essay about race and the NBA.

“We knew that by the time the story came out, the story might have advanced beyond what we knew at the time we were writing,” Taylor said. “So we wanted to come up with something to better put this into context, and that’s where we started talking about the issue of race in the NBA and what the Sprewell incident had to do with that.”

In a break from covers that featured full-bleed photography, a particularly incisive excerpt from Taylor’s essay was featured — white type on a black background:

“Latrell Sprewell has been publicly castigated and vilified, and any player who gets a similar urge to manually alter his coach’s windpipe will surely remember Sprewell’s experience before he acts on that impulse. Problem solved. But the Sprewell incident raises other issues that could pose threats to the NBA’s future, issues of power and money and — most dangerous of all — race … ”

Placing that much text on the cover of a magazine was rare for SI. “The editors liked what I wrote, and I think it was our managing editor Bill Colson … thought it was so strong that we should put those words on the cover.”

Part of Taylor’s satisfaction came from his belief that the cover would differ from what had quickly become a typical characterization of Sprewell as angry. Until he saw it, that is.

“My words … but they added that picture of Sprewell, and that was disappointing to me,” said Taylor, who didn’t see the cover until the issue came out. “One of my first thoughts was, at least put P.J. on there looking angry too. But maybe that would have been inflammatory as well, because then you would have had a black man screaming at a white man. That sort of anger could be interpreted as racial, but … would have at least been more fair.”

It was unfair to Sprewell because although what he did was undeniably wrong, Carlesimo was far from … docile. He was notoriously hard on his players, and notoriously unpopular for it. “We’ve been face-to-face on many occasions,” Rod Strickland, who played for Carlesimo while with the Portland Trail Blazers, told the Baltimore Sun.

“I’ve often thought, that if it happened now, we would have … put something out on Twitter, and everyone would have just written stories immediately.”

“I played under him, so it doesn’t surprise me,” Tracy Murray, who began his career with Portland, added.

After the Warriors hired Carlesimo in 1997, he was the focal point of their “No More Mr. Nice Guy” campaign, appearing on billboards with his coaching staff dressed like a team of FBI agents. Carlesimo was depicted as an enforcer; he was celebrated for an approach that alienated players and, more importantly, never translated into success in the NBA.

“P.J. was a guy who stirred it up, and was as bellicose and belligerent as Sprewell was,” Taylor said. But Carlesimo had a vastly different relationship with the media, Taylor added. He was very cooperative and affable and would ask about the reporters’ well-being. He’d remember their first names. That charm likely played a factor in Carlesimo receiving more favorable coverage than Sprewell, who was tight-lipped with the press.

Imagery is as important to a story’s narrative as reporting or analysis. A March 2002 issue of Sports Illustrated featured Charles Barkley in shackles. It drew criticism from Sports Illustrated staffers, readers and Barkley’s friend and colleague Kenny Smith alike. Golfweek’s infamous Tiger Woods “noose” cover, from January 2008, got its editor and vice president fired. LeBron James’ historic moment as the first black man to grace the cover of Vogue that spring was sullied by the black man-as-savage beast stereotype it projected. According to Taylor, the media routinely overlooks the reverberations of such editorial decisions.

“The media in general has always, and definitely at that time, underestimated the power of the images of black athletes,” said Taylor. “I don’t think the implications of putting an angry Sprewell out there occurred to them. I’m not even sure the implications of putting Barkley in chains occurred to them — until the backlash came.”

Taylor noted that no black editors were involved with the Sprewell story. “I might have been the only black writer or editor at that time,” he added. The magazine could have placed an expressionless Sprewell on the cover, and it would’ve been just as captivating. That’s how great the treatment is, and how powerful Taylor’s words are. But the cover — and all of the more incendiary examples that preceded it, and will surely continue to follow — represent a more hazardous issue: a failure on the part of many media professionals to grasp the complexity of stereotypes and the way they’re bound to black identity, and how all of that affects the way black people are viewed and treated.

Still, though, Taylor gives Sports Illustrated’s editors credit for deciding to explore the NBA’s racial undercurrent. After discussing the atmosphere with them, he said, Colson asked if the magazine should write about it. Taylor was stunned, as that was “edgy” for Sports Illustrated — and really for any mainstream sports publication of that era.

“They were willing to take on a controversial issue, although they kind of regressed on it … by choosing the picture they chose,” he said. “I wish they hadn’t done that.”

Sprewell survived his figurative public stoning and continued his career with the Knicks and then Minnesota Timberwolves. The clothing and footwear company AND1 even branded him “The American Dream” upon his return to the NBA in 1999 — the last time the Knicks made the Finals. The events of December 1997 never impeded Sprewell’s career, but it ended abruptly in 2005 after he claimed he couldn’t feed his family on the three-year, $21 million deal the Timberwolves offered him. That Priceline commercial, where he pokes fun at his mistakes, is poignant considering the headlines that have emerged since his retirement.

Despite Sprewell’s success after the incident, he remains symbolic of poor decisions and explosive anger. Regardless of Sports Illustrated’s intentions, that’s all their cover screams about him too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Freeform

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

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

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

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

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

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

Freeform/Eric Liebowitz

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

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

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

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

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

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

Freeform/Eric Liebowitz

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

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

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

 

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

It’s cruelty befitting a Greek tragedy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Home is where the Holy Land is: Book documents African-American players leaving the U.S. for Israel ‘Alley-Oop to Aliyah’ explores the lives of ballers staying overseas

It’s not unusual for American basketball players to spend part of their careers playing overseas, and Israel has successfully attracted many of these players.

What is it about the Holy Land that makes some African-Americans who play there want to stay? It’s a question that author and sports executive David Goldstein decided to investigate in his latest book, Alley-Oop to Aliyah: African-American Hoopsters in the Holy Land. It’s a labor of love that took a decade for Goldstein to piece together.

Many players are happy to spend a few months learning about new customs and cultures before returning to their friends and families in the United States. Some fall in love with their temporary homes overseas and decide to stay permanently. That’s the case for several African-American players, some of whom were reluctant to move to Israel at first but ended up never returning to America.

The book details the stories of players like Aulcie Perry, a New Jersey native who played college ball at Bethune-Cookman University before he became a standout in Israel. Perry was a bit hesitant when he received an offer in the 1970s to take on a new challenge in a foreign land. But after some consideration, Perry decided to pursue his career and what would ultimately become his new life.

“I felt completely at home as soon as I landed in Israel,” Perry told Goldstein. (After he ended his career in Israel, Perry was convicted on heroin distribution charges in the U.S. in 1987 and sentenced to prison.) Now 67, Perry converted to Judaism and has made Israel his home.

Another story that stuck out to Goldstein was that of Fred Campbell, a former basketball player at Fort Hays State University in Kansas who played in several different countries before landing in Israel in 1992.

“The one player story that I found most emblematic of the whole phenomenon was Fred’s, and I like it for a number of reasons,” Goldstein said. “One, he’s not particularly well-known. He never played for Maccabi Tel Aviv [one of the larger, more popular basketball clubs] or one of these huge teams. He wanted to use basketball to see the world, and he never thought he’d play anywhere twice.

“For literally four years, his agent was trying to get him to play in Israel and he said he had an opportunity for him, and for four years Fred said no because he only knew Israel from violence and conflict and negative things in the news. He didn’t want to go. The agent told him to try it for four days and if you don’t like it, he would fly him back. That was in 1992. He remains in Israel and has lived there for 25 years. He converted to Judaism and got citizenship. He served in the Israel Defense Forces, he got married and raised a son who’s going to serve soon. He’s as passionate of an advocate for Israel as anyone I’ve met and someone who has completely embraced the country. As he says, he doesn’t live in Israel — he lives Israel. To go from not wanting to show up in the first place to making your life there and staying there 25 years later, to me, that’s a perfect example of what I wrote about, and there are tons of stories like these.”

Goldstein’s book had its start in a conversation with a group of elderly women describing their love for some of Israel’s African-American players.

Goldstein, whose mother is Israeli, has visited the country frequently as both a child and an adult. In 2007, during one of his annual summer visits, Goldstein hung out with a few of his grandparents’ friends. The conversation turned to Toronto — where Goldstein is chief operating officer of U Sports, the governing body of university sports in Canada — and the women couldn’t contain their excitement. They associated Canada with one of their sports heroes in Israel: former Toronto Raptors guard Anthony Parker.

“I knew as a basketball fan there was an Israeli pro league in basketball, I knew that it was pretty high-level and that Maccabi Tel Aviv did very well in Europe, but I really didn’t know much beyond that,” Goldstein said. “I said something about being from Toronto, and they just started raving about Anthony Parker, who played for the Raptors at the time but who had played at Maccabi. And they were talking about him in terms of endearment in Yiddish and Hebrew — way more than a fan talking about a player. They loved him. I thought that was the most interesting thing and what got me Googling, and I started unraveling what became a much bigger phenomenon than I ever could’ve imagined.”

Even after the book’s November release, Goldstein is still learning more about his subjects and basketball culture in Israel.

“As I’ve been promoting [the book], I’ve been finding out really interesting things and learning about some of the guys that I didn’t know from all the research,” Goldstein said. “It was a couple of years of researching, and that was both reading what had been written but also doing a ton of interviews. Writing was probably the quickest process. In doing the interviews, you could see some scenes and sort of the structure and chapter breakdown seemed to flow pretty naturally from what players were consistently saying. And then a few months, close to a year, writing a draft. Then there was a long stretch of trying to find a literary agent for a couple years. While I was doing all of that, I was continuing to interview players and continuing to get to know them better. And one of the benefits of that stretch of time was that I got to meet more players and get to know them better than I would’ve had I just got this whole thing done in 24 months.”

This season, there are more than 50 African-American players competing in the first division and about 15 in the second division, and about 10 have retired and stayed in Israel, according to Goldstein. Some of those players have Israeli citizenship, and a small number of current Israeli players are sons of African-American fathers who came to play in Israel and stayed.

The one thing Goldstein hopes resonates with readers is the contributions of African-American players who stay in the country.

“One of the things I really wanted to stress was the contributions these players are making to the country. I’ve mentioned players who have served in the Israel Defense Forces or enlisted in the military, but when these African-American players are there, even in the events of conflict or violence, they tend to stay and not leave the country — even though they are literally a phone call away from being on a plane to anywhere. They’re not obligated to be there. For me, I saw that kinship being pretty extraordinary. They’re staying in there as Israelis and really representing the country. It’s such a huge sign of respect. … I don’t throw around the term ‘hero’ very lightly, but I think that this group of African-American basketball players — by going to Israel, by staying in Israel, by advocating for the country — I think they are very much heroes of the country. Even if it’s not a particularly known player or a former NBA player, they’re heroes of Israel. One of the main things I want to do with this book is make sure that this group of individuals gets the credit they deserve for that.”

Neither Cornel West nor Ta-Nehisi Coates is giving us his best Black intellectual debate should be about more than name-calling

For the two of you not in the know, Cornel West scribed a scathing indictment of Ta-Nehisi Coates, blasting him for his supposed failures as a prominent black intellectual. Coates’ initial defiant response on Twitter gave way to him leaving the social media platform altogether, deleting his account.

Should older thinkers like West cede the black public intellectual landscape to younger cohorts like Coates? I’ve heard this question posed in personal interactions and have spotted people answering yes on social media.

The idea, to be honest, repulses me — telling a brilliant person like West to shut up and let others take the mic smacks me as downright odd. I believe this idea flows from the fraudulent and destructive notion that we black folk need representatives to stand on the mountaintop and air our grievances to white America. West, so this argument goes, prosecutes the wrong case, and thus he must be locked in a closet while others, who sing songs resonating better with our hearts, occupy center stage.

I could see if West engaged in racial betrayal, was a duplicitous Negro who could never be trusted to serve as an honest participant in our national race conversation. But that’s not the argument I’m wrestling with here. So, no, I can’t co-sign telling West to shut up, and neither should anyone else.

We should deal with West’s arguments as warranted. If his arguments hit with a whimper, as many claim, then defeating them should be easy, no?

Concentrate on that.


While seeing how black writers have responded to West’s piece, I have focused on one of the various tantalizing threads regarding this ordeal. I want to pull on it here.

Some maligned West for supposedly being fueled by petty jealousies and charged to Coates’ rescue like an overprotective parent. Since I have little way of determining what spurred him to compose his screed and don’t think his motives matter much, I will ignore this issue. If jealousy inspired his critiques, they could still be right. People fall victim to a basic logical fallacy, argumentum ad hominem: seeking to discredit an argument by discrediting the person making it.

I think many attacked West personally, in part, based on a belief that many black folk endorse: that we should eschew arguing in public, fearing how ill-intentioned white folk might employ secrets learned from internal debates to harm our interests. I’ve written about this at length before, so I feel free not to belabor the point. But, simply put, black folk must cease acting like we need to agree in public or reserve some conversations for times when nonblacks cannot hear us. This distorts intraracial dialogue, inhibiting our ability to debate strategies for full emancipation.

One issue I have noticed about black thinkers living today, as opposed to black thinkers who have long since died, is the unwillingness to critique black people in public. To read many black writers today is to get the sense they have nothing of note to utter to other black people beyond white supremacy debilitates us in this or that way.

I want to yell, “Do you have anything critical to say of your people? Do you think we are getting everything right? Can we improve our situation with any changes? Have you even contemplated these questions? If not, why are you even here?” A race writer whose every piece fits the black-folk-as-victim narrative needs to search for other stories reflecting the full complexion of our people.

Martin Luther King Jr. once wrote: “We must frankly acknowledge that in the past years our creativity and imagination were not employed in learning how to develop power. We found a method in nonviolent protest that worked, and we employed it enthusiastically. We did not have leisure to probe for a deeper understanding of its laws and lines of development. Although our actions were bold and crowned with successes, they were substantially improvised and spontaneous. They attained the goals set for them but carried the blemishes of our inexperience.”

Here, King examines himself, the movement to which he belonged, and his people. He noticed some good, some bad and some areas of improvement. And he put pen to paper and shared his thoughts with the world. This sort of thinking, regrettably, is in shorter supply now, to our people’s detriment.

I think those who most stridently defended Coates did so, at least in part, because they fail to understand the full role of the black intellectual: One must train the microscope outward as well as inward.

Many black folk are catching hell right now, writhing in pain, searching for an avenue for an improved future. We will never help those of us struggling most if we fail to examine ourselves critically and be willing to chastise when necessary.


Now let’s examine West’s piece on the merits. On the whole, I found it to be sloppily written and sloppily argued. He makes two basic points. One undeniably fallacious. One undeniably correct.

First, he argues that Coates represents the “neoliberal wing” of the “black freedom struggle.” He fails to define what he means by neoliberal. I know the term as a purely economic one, but he’s using it in a newer sense as reflected in recent scholarship. According to Michael Harriot of The Root, West once defined neoliberal as such:

Well, “neoliberal” is somebody of any color who sees a social problem and does three things; privatize, financialize and militarize. You’ve got a problem in the schools, privatize the schools, push back public education. Bring in the financiers, the profiteers. Make money on the test, make money on the teachers while you push out the teachers unions, and then you militarize the schools. You bring in security. We’ve got precious young brothers and sisters in the ‘hoods going to schools like you and I going through the airport. That’s the militarization of the schools. Police, the same way. Outsource, militarize right across the board, so that a neoliberal is somebody who is obsessed with markets.

If that’s the definition, West must demonstrate how Coates meets it. He founders.

West writes that Coates remains silent on drone strikes, the assassinations of U.S. citizens with no trials, bombings in Muslim countries, further adding that in Coates’ writing, he sees “no serious attention to the plight of the most vulnerable in our community, the LGBT people who are disproportionately affected by violence, poverty, neglect and disrespect.”

Let’s just say for the sake of argument that West captures each characterization correctly, although he doesn’t. West still hasn’t proven Coates is a neoliberal. How does Coates support privatization, financialization and militarization? By West’s own admission, Coates is guilty of silence — that is, Coates does not write sufficiently about these topics. Coates can only be a neoliberal by articulating the neoliberal viewpoint, not by insufficiently critiquing it. West’s argument fails on basic logic grounds.

Second, West contends that Coates “fetishizes white supremacy.” He does, and this comes from someone who once, arguably, committed the same sin.

Merriam-Webster defines a fetish as “an object (such as a small stone carving of an animal) believed to have magical power to protect or aid its owner.” This line of thought hurtles through many of Coates’ pieces. He actually described white supremacy and whiteness as “eldritch energies,” a cartoonish way of describing anything that exists in the real world. By depicting white supremacy as some unearthly power, he glosses over the day-to-day processes by which white supremacy was created and is sustained. It is not of a celestial origin but distinctly human in inception and continuation. And that which humans create, humans can destroy.

Coates harbors pessimism regarding white supremacy, believing its life will continue unimpeded. Time may prove him right. But he commits a logical error of his own in believing that black life cannot improve if white supremacy holds steady. White supremacy does not determine the status of the race. To contend otherwise is to deny that black people are moral agents. Perhaps if Coates understood that white supremacy lacks the power he infuses it with, he would perceive this, and other things, too.

I hope, for the future, Coates and West can dedicate themselves to giving us their best, because we aren’t getting it right now from either.

This NFLPA exec’s passion is helping players prepare for life after the NFL Dior Ginyard is back in sports and motivated to pay it forward after surviving a brain injury

At the NFL Players Association office in Washington, D.C., Dior Ginyard spends his time helping players reach their full potential after they leave the game. Because the transition isn’t always smooth, the 29-year-old player development manager believes it’s his mission to help others develop the readiness skills for their second act.

Ginyard finds passion in this role because the young executive believes it is his fate. He’d had aspirations to play professional football, but that dream was stalled after a life-threatening brain injury.

It was on Dec. 3, 2006, that his life changed completely. The 18-year-old freshman at Frostburg State University in Maryland participated in a flag football game with some teammates the day the season was over. He hadn’t played all year. He was rehabbing from a thorny shoulder.

Then the unthinkable happened. Ginyard, admittedly playing too aggressively, viciously collided head-on with another player. The next thing he can remember was waking up in a helicopter not even knowing what day it was.

“I fractured my skull, and it’s like breaking glass. It breaks into pieces,” Ginyard said. “My skull pierced my brain and was causing my brain to swell up. That’s how you’re supposed to go brain-dead. I was flown to a hospital in Pennsylvania, where I had brain surgery.”

He suffered some memory loss, and it was hard to concentrate on things he was used to doing daily without a moment’s thought. During his rehabilitation process, which included physical therapy and counseling, he decided to transfer to Bowie State University, where he majored in communications.

“I was still dealing with the ramifications of my head injury, so I dealt with the depression, the anger, all the things that come with losing something that I thought was going to happen, big dreams,” he said. “So I spent a couple years figuring out what else I wanted to do.”

Ginyard said writing helped him cope with his transition and he figured out his passion. Eight filled journals later he knew he wanted to become a communicator and use his innate, previously undiscovered ability to help others in sports.

He graduated from Bowie State on Dec. 16, 2011, and landed an internship at Lockheed Martin in the communications department. After one year, Ginyard was hired full time and also pursued a master’s degree in marketing management from the University of Maryland University College.

He then decided it was time to make his presence known in professional sports. The Prince George’s County, Maryland, native researched jobs in the D.C. area and noted the NFLPA as an option. Scouring the organization’s website for opportunities, he saw a lone position for a player development manager.

“The first sentence said, ‘This role helps players transition to life after football,’ ” Ginyard recalled.

He believed he’d found the perfect match.

“I’m like, Wow. Now I have a position that helps players transition, and I had to deal with a transition of hitting rock bottom, and then dealing with the aftereffects of depression and anger, the trials and tribulations in trying to get back on my feet. I thought, ‘I can help from an experience perspective.’ ”

Ginyard has been with the players association for three years, overseeing its externship program that provides players with internship opportunities.

“I’m helping guys go back to school to finish their degrees and pursue secondary education,” he said. “It’s helping guys develop off the field, professionally. I love it, just the relationships. I’ve been able to build with these guys. I’m not working with the Tom Bradys and the Odell Beckhams; I’m working with the guy that’s going to need a second career. I’m one person in their ecosystem of friends and managers and agents. I want to give them something.”

Ginyard said the hardest part of his journey has been overcoming some challenges he’s faced.

“I had to learn how to deal with those emotions, not growing up with having a father there, not really knowing what to do with my anger and depression. I’m still managing that, and finding out what was going to replace the passion I had of playing football,” Ginyard said.

After his father left, he grew up with his mother and two siblings. Football was his outlet.

“I would say the biggest challenge for me is like, [understanding] what is this stereotype about a black man that had a brain injury, that his father’s not in his life, that was raised by a single mom, that went to HBCU [historically black college or university]? What does the world say about a person like that?

“Instead of harping on it, I use it as a chip on my shoulder. I want to prove everybody wrong because I know what society says about somebody like me. I want to be that person that stands up for other young black kids in my community and says, ‘Hey, you can make it without playing in the NFL.’ ”

Ginyard was recently featured as part of this year’s Forbes 30 Under 30.

“I’m honored to be on that list for a role that’s nonrevenue-generating. I’m not in sales, I’m not in business development, I’m not an agent, I’m not an athlete. I work in professional development. I think I’m glad I can be a representation for what we’re doing for our players and our members.”

He’s also raising his 3-year-old son, Carter.

Former NFL linebacker Aaron Maybin’s new book, ‘Art Activism,’ is an ode to Baltimore and its challenges Former first-round pick includes his own paintings, photography and poetry

The words and images are searing. They speak to the destructive nature of poverty, miseducation and murder. But they also speak to the power of perseverance and the indomitable spirit that has always allowed African-Americans to find a way out of no way.

Those are but a few of the themes captured in the new book Art Activism, the product of the restless mind and talented hands of former NFL linebacker and Baltimore native Aaron Maybin. The work is both an ode to Maybin’s hometown and a lament of the city’s many challenges. He uses his paintings, photography, poetry and prose to convey both the pride and pain of Baltimore.

In a powerful open letter to his city, Maybin compares Baltimore to that girl from around the way: maybe a little ratchet with a little too much attitude, but with that mix of smarts, moxie and sexy that never allows her man to stray too far. “Sometimes you love her, sometimes you hate her, sometimes you want to light her on fire; but you always stay loyal to her,” Maybin writes.

More than a few people wanted to set Baltimore on fire in 2015 after the death of Freddie Gray while he was in police custody. During the uprising, Maybin grabbed his camera and went into the streets to document what he saw. Inspired, he also painted and wrote. It was only later that he decided to pull his photos, artwork and writing together into a book. The result is a collection that he hopes will add to the national conversation about what racial injustice looks like in the 21st century and how we should address it.

“I don’t profess to have all the answers. I don’t profess to know where to go,” Maybin said in an interview. “But I believe I raise a lot of questions.”

He also offers some suggestions, even if few would call them novel. He wants black churches to do more to lift up the city. He wants lawmakers to put more money into a public school system that does not have enough money to address the problems of its students. He would like to see more economic development in poor communities, and he wants employers to pay a living wage to workers.

He would like to see more drug treatment centers, and “more than anything else, we need to STOP KILLING EACH OTHER!!! How can we expect the outside world to value our lives when we don’t value them ourselves?” he writes. He also would like to see an end to the poverty, the blight, the drug addiction and the hopelessness that he sees as the root of Baltimore’s more than 300 murders a year.

Maybin, 29, was an All-American linebacker at Penn State and a 2009 first-round draft choice who made an estimated $15 million during a four-year NFL career that fell far short of lofty expectations.

But he was an artist and writer long before he played football. Maybin started studying art when he was still in elementary school, and he painted his first public mural when he was 11. Coming up, he also played the saxophone, acted in plays and sang in the choir. He was 6 years old when he read a poem he wrote for his mother’s funeral.

“Poetry for me was always a form of therapy,” Maybin said.

As Maybin started growing into a frame that eventually expanded to 6-foot-4 and nearly 240 pounds, he started playing football. By the time his family moved to a Baltimore suburb for his high school years, his goal was to play in the pros. But he also knew he would return to his art.

Some critics of his underwhelming professional football career have said that Maybin’s outside interests robbed him of the single-minded focus that transforms great athletes into great players. “Maybe there’s something to that,” he said. “[But] the game has always been a game to me. My family, my health, my mental stability have always been more important to me.” Not only that, but Maybin said he feels “more fulfilled in the aftermath of my career than I did as an actual athlete.”

Still, he has no regrets about his detour into football. “Without the platform that football created and the money I made, I would never be able to have the same impact that I am having now,” said Maybin, who heads a foundation that works to enhance art education to Baltimore schools. “Once people say ‘former first-round pick,’ then people start to listen.”

Maybin sees his new book, which is available on Amazon and at select Baltimore-area bookstores, as a weapon against injustice. “I try to use my platform as a basis for social critique,” he said. “I hope this book can start a dialogue, not just in my bubble, but with people across the aisle from me.”

Rhyme by rhyme, a street cop slings his story

Patrol Officer Quincy Iverson The Man on the street 26 years in uniform (retired)

“I get that hate from both sides I can’t do no good. Too black for the badge, too blue for the hood.”“I get that hate from both sides, I can’t do no good. Too black for the badge, too blue for the hood.”

Black and Blue: A rap soundtrack for a young thug’s journey to the police force

When the lieutenant knocked on the door for the background check, Quincy Iverson was blasting N.W.A. through his stereo speakers and drinking his second 40-ounce of the day. He was four months out of the Army, a newlywed, working as a Sears carpet cleaner and in need of a better job. Iverson let the white cop in and turned down the music.

Three decades later, Iverson still isn’t sure how he got hired by the Akron Police Department. He had a juvenile record from teenage stunts like stealing from the mall. He flunked eighth grade after a house fire forced him to relocate to a hostile neighborhood and fight his way home most days. At 5-foot-5½, he worried about meeting the height requirement. He dreamed of becoming a famous rapper, not a cop. “But the grace of God, some way, somehow, they hired me,” Iverson said.

Before retiring in September, Iverson, 50, spent 26 years as a patrol officer on the same hardscrabble streets where he grew up, got married and raised his own three children. Akron’s population of 198,000 is 30 percent black and has been declining since tire manufacturers such as Goodyear and Firestone began moving factories elsewhere. The poverty rate (26 percent) and murders (30 in 2016) are rising. The police force of 450 officers is about 20 percent black. Despite Akron’s problems, Iverson reps his city as hard as native son LeBron James has. He can hardly walk a block without someone giving him some dap or a hug — and he’s not going anywhere.

Iverson spent his entire police career on the frontlines, riding in a patrol car, responding to trouble of all kinds. He’s grateful he never had to fire his weapon, although he was shot at several times. He’s arrested more young brothers than he can remember, including some who thanked him years later. Iverson often felt tugged in opposite directions by his loyalty to the black community and his responsibility to his job. It’s the same mix of emotions he felt over the police killing of Tamir Rice, 40 miles up the road in Cleveland. He was saddened by another black life snuffed out, and disagreed with how the white officer rushed up to 12-year-old Tamir in his patrol car, rather than checking out the situation more carefully. But Iverson also knew that if the only information he received on a call was black male with a handgun, and that suspect made one wrong move, “the kid probably would have got it. He reaches, I don’t have a split second to say, ‘Hopefully this gun ain’t real.’ How Scarface say, you only got a minute to pray and a second to die? It’s a bad get-down, bruh, either way.”

Rap has always been Iverson’s oxygen. He started performing in junior high school and was inspired by lyrical pioneers such as the Treacherous Three, Kool Moe Dee, Rakim, LL Cool J and Big Daddy Kane. His crew gained some local fame, but a rapper in Akron before the internet, and more than a decade before Cleveland’s Bone Thugs-N-Harmony put Ohio on the hip-hop map, had little chance of going national. And Iverson’s day job didn’t help matters, once N.W.A. F’d tha Police and rap became dominated by those who broke the law, not enforced it. Iverson concealed his identity behind a rap name, the Copley Road Bully, that combined his neighborhood and his childhood misbehavior, and he never stopped writing lyrics, making beats and recording songs.

The Undefeated asked Iverson to describe, through his music, his career on the police force. And we followed him with cameras through Akron’s streets, from his favorite breakfast diner to the family gathering spot of his sister’s house, to document Iverson’s story of being “too black for the badge, too blue for the ’hood.”

Pay-per-views, Reddit rabbit holes — and a semi-ridiculous new TBS show: battle rap is back — if it ever left The gloves-off battles are sweaty, verbal MMA fights, with rappers getting directly in each other’s faces

On Dec. 9, dozens of rap fans crowded into a tiny, undisclosed location to watch a night full of rap battles — including a battle between Rum Nitty and Iron Solomon, who stole the show in what may go down as the most exciting battle of the year — as MCs traded mostly pre-written bars, insulting each other for three timed rounds. The event, called Smack Vol. 1, was held by the top battle rap league in the country, URL — for Ultimate Rap League. The fact that there were only dozens of fans in attendance is a misleading representation of battle rap’s popularity.

The small venue for Vol. 1 was by design — an attempt by URL to take the event to its roots of intimate crowds. But in actuality, battle rap events draw hundreds of fans, while thousands stream them live on pay-per-view before watching the battles on YouTube by the millions. Battle rap is a simmering subculture. It dominates Reddit threads, message boards and YouTube — and it’s going mainstream.

Iron Solomon vs. Rum Nitty

For instance, Drop The Mic. The Tuesday night TBS show is a spinoff of the rap battle segments from James Corden’s Late Late Show in which he battled celebrities like Kevin Hart and Anne Hathaway. Celebrities like the stars of Big Bang Theory lob rhymed insults at each other. The Seattle Seahawks’ Michael Bennett recently battled Vanessa Hudgens — to the tune of almost 1.4 million views. Hosted by Hailey Baldwin and Wu Tang rap legend Method Man, the show employs artists from the battle scene to help contenders craft lyrics and presentation. Drop The Mic is a gentrified but entertaining look at a battle scene that has been bubbling under the surface of mainstream American pop culture for decades.


The godfather of the modern-day battle rap scene is Troy “Smack” Mitchell. He’s an enterprising Queens, New York, native who set out to document New York rap culture in the early 2000s by recording guerrilla-style interviews of rappers. “I had access to a lot of MCs … because I was in the streets and knew a lot of people,” says Mitchell. “I really grinded … waited for artists outside of clubs. It just blew up from there.” He released the interviews and exclusive freestyles on his Smack DVD series, which features early looks at rappers like Kanye West, Cam’ron and Beanie Sigel. The series was hugely popular in the pre-internet era. And at the end of each DVD was a rap battle.

Kevin Durant once stood on stage, right next to Smack himself, in breathing distance of the battlers.

“We came up doing the battles as kids,” says Smack. The rap battles on the Smack DVDs took place on street corners, barbershops and clothing stores. MCs surrounded by dozens of spectators. The rappers had prepared “rounds” of timed raps directed at their opponents. No beats played, and if there was a stumble, slip-up or stutter, the rapper’s round was over.

Shells and Jae Millz

Mychal Watts/WireImage for KSA Publicity

The competitions were intense and legendary, and they helped rappers like Murda Mook and Jae Millz get signed to Ruff Ryders and Young Money. Smack brought battles to living rooms, even though the competitions have been part of hip-hop lore since the genre’s inception.

Here’s your history lesson: Rappers have always tested their mettle against one another. Big Daddy Kane used to roam the Big Apple streets challenging the best rappers. Jay-Z and Busta Rhymes infamously rapped against each other in high school. And a young rapper named Biggie Smalls made his name taking on all comers in freestyle competitions.

Eminem in 8 Mile which was one of the first time mainstream America got a glimpse into battle raps.

Universal Pictures

But it was Eminem’s 2002 8 Mile, in which he battled to famous rap beats like Mobb Deep’s “Shook Ones,” that introduced battle rap to the mainstream. The battles in 8 Mile were fictionalized takes on the real-life Scribble Jam battles that Eminem participated in during the late ’90s — and which got him noticed by Dr. Dre in the first place. By 2003, rappers E. Ness and Jae Millz were battling on MTV’s Making The Band. MTV also had a show called “Fight Klub,” and BET’s 106 & Park had a popular Freestyle Friday segment from 2001 to 2013.

Rappers have exposed opponents for cheating on their fiancées and poked fun at dead relatives or whether rappers’ dads turned state’s witness.

Battle rap found a new level of popularity via YouTube, and it shed light on leagues that had formed around the world. The two front-runners were Grind Time — the popular, now-defunct league that started in Florida and expanded to Los Angeles — and Smack’s own Ultimate Rap League that sprouted from his DVD series. Today, Smack battles sell out venues like New York’s Irving Plaza and the Highline Ballroom, and fans pay upward of $100 to attend.

The leagues book the battles. The rappers spend weeks preparing rhymes catered specifically to their opponents. The rappers take the stage, flanked by entourages, and perform alternating timed rounds anywhere from two to five minutes. The battles are verbal MMA fights, with rappers getting directly in each other’s faces.

While most of the rounds are pre-written, some rappers open their rounds with freestyled rebuttals to what their opponent just rapped, flipping insults in their own favor. Battlers never know what’s coming, or how personal an insult can get. When it’s a rapper’s turn to listen to his or her opponent, “defense” is employed, which is essentially how someone reacts to the person rapping — standing stone-faced, shaking a head to show disapproval or mumbling sarcastic reactions. It’s a human chess match — mentally taxing. Competitors physically train for battles and usually end up sweaty and dehydrated by the end of each contest.

“You know who your opponent is ahead of time so you can do research,” Smack said. “Did they get played? Did they get beat up? You can expose them.” Battles have gotten personal and tense, but it’s accepted, especially since the rappers are celebrities within the culture. They are revered within the battle scene but largely lead regular lives. While the most famous battlers like Loaded Lux and Murda Mook can live off of battles, making music and bookings, most battlers have day jobs. And, yes, the day jobs are function as ammo for insults. Nothing is off-limits.

Really. Dumbfoundead and Conceited once spent their whole battle exchanging short jokes and racist Asian stereotypes. Rone went viral for a whole round about Big T’s obesity. Rappers have exposed opponents for cheating on their fiancées and poked fun at dead relatives or whether rappers’ dads turned state’s witness. Despite that, you could count on one hand how many battles have turned physical.

Courtesy of Underground Rap League

“It’s very much like a boxing match,” says Kyle “Avocado” Gray, who has filmed and directed battles for Grind Time and URL, adding a cinematic touch to battles broadcast live on pay-per-view. “These two people get into a ring. They have to have a thick skin. They have to be ready for people to say anything, and not be fazed by it. It almost brings them closer in the end, for having been through that battle together.”

Because fans are so invested in the battles — they reach such a fever pitch — battle rap culture has become a community of message board commenters and YouTubers. Battles often refer to earlier battles and online happenings online that may sound like a totally foreign language to the novice. However, catching the references is part of what makes fans feel rewarded for their dedication.

Competitors physically train for battles and usually end up sweaty and dehydrated by the end of each contest.

“The culture is super incestual,” Gray remarked. “The art in general isn’t that welcoming to an untrained ear.” But that’s what YouTube rabbit holes are for. And celebrities are happy to join in on the fun, even if that means getting called out midround. James Harden has attended — and Kevin Durant once stood on stage, right next to Smack himself, in breathing distance of the battlers. Drake and Diddy have co-hosted, with Diddy famously putting up $10,000 of his own money midbattle to see who would win between T-Rex and Aye Verb.

There are now leagues in every corner of the globe. In addition to URL, there’s King Of The Dot (KOTD) out of Canada, England’s Don’t Flop, Atlanta’s Bullpen Battle League and all-woman Queen Of The Ring in New York. Battle rap is as popular as ever, with landmark moments happening at a breakneck pace. This year alone saw KOTD bring in Russian battle rapper Oxxxymiron, whose massive following garners tens of millions of YouTube views per battle, to Los Angeles for the most viewed battle in North American history — and counting.

And Drop The Mic does utilize writing talent of competitors from the scene like Rone and Hollow Da Don. And the satire Bodied, about battle rap, is making a splash in independent movie festivals and should see wide release in 2018. There’s also the permanent roles of rappers like Charlie Clips and Hitman Holla on Nick Cannon’s improv show Wild N’ Out.

The rapid expansion of battle rap culture is what made Smack want to take things back to the basics with Dec. 9th’s Vol. 1 event. “I didn’t want the battle culture to lose its identity,” he says. “We wanted to take it back to the essence.”