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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

R. Kelly story makes us realize that no one cares about black women The evidence is clear: In this country, some women don’t matter

For far too long, I’ve been arguing about the basic worth of black women and girls. It’s tiresome, and frankly, at this point my face should really look like I belong with these guys:

Members of the Blue Man Group.

AP Photo/Ariel Schalit

And as long as I’ve been arguing, both in my personal life and in my professional one, that black women and girls matter, Robert Kelly, better known as rhythm and blues singer R. Kelly, has been a central and contested point of that discussion.

Fifteen years ago, when I was a freshman at Howard University, I got into a heated argument with the boy I was seeing and his friends. The now-notorious video of Kelly urinating on a 14-year-old girl was available for consumption on the internet, to satisfy either a sick curiosity or darker urges. (It later became the central piece of evidence in his 2008 criminal trial for making child pornography in which he was acquitted of all charges.) It was widely referred to as the “R. Kelly sex tape.”

The boy, who was 19 at the time, and his friends argued that Kelly was not guilty of rape and certainly should not be held responsible for engaging in sex with an underage girl.

“Did you see what she was doing in that tape?” he asked. “She didn’t look 14.”

“It doesn’t matter!” I remember screaming, my words echoing through the halls of Howard’s architecture studio. “SHE’S STILL 14! SHE’S A CHILD!”

The boys’ opinion was so commonplace that it didn’t even register as scandal, let alone as the sort of sentiment you kept to yourself if you didn’t want to be seen as a rape apologist. This wasn’t an idea he was too ashamed to share. Quite the contrary.

I was furious and hurt. I was supposed to be at a place surrounded by men and boys who loved and respected black women. But we had differing opinions, not only about how respect was defined but also who was deserving of it. It was clear that they’d learned that some black women simply didn’t matter.

Rather than interrogating why a 14-year-old would have this sort of sexual knowledge (someone “older and wiser” must have taught her), and whether the sharing of such knowledge was remotely ethical, the boys had immediately identified the girl as a slut. This wasn’t just a moral judgment, it was one that absolved them, and other men, of any obligation to see this girl as just that — a girl, on the short end of a screwed-up power dynamic.

Her worth was tied to her morality, which was tied to her sexual experience. And since she appeared to be experienced, and inappropriately so, she was disposable. She certainly wasn’t worth bringing down the musical empire of someone as famous and important as Kelly, they thought.

This is a message women hear over and over again, from the trial of Stanford swimmer Brock Turner to the high-profile rape cases out of Steubenville, Ohio, and Maryville, Missouri.

And it’s one that carries a special resonance for black women and girls. We make conscious and unconscious decisions about who matters and who does not. As Zora Neale Hurston put it in Their Eyes Were Watching God: “De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see.”

In November 2013, Mikki Kendall created the hashtag #FastTailedGirls to discuss the premature sexualization of black girls and how we punish and blame them for it rather than hold black men and boys responsible for their actions.

Even when they realize something’s wrong, black women and girls are continually pressured to keep their mouths shut to protect black men who commit violence, sexual or otherwise, against them because of some warped definition of racial solidarity. Every once in a while, that pressure bubbles over and into the news, as it did in the 2016 Buzzfeed News story about the way accusations of rape are scuttled at Spelman, Morehouse and other historically black colleges and universities. It sprang up further when another anonymous Spelman freshman, driven to leave the school, started a Twitter feed, @RapedatSpelman.

“Spelman has taught me to be a free thinking woman and also to be a woman who has to keep her mouths closed to protect her ‘brothers,’ ” she tweeted.

In 2015, Jewel Allison, a writer and music educator who accused Bill Cosby of sexual assault, revealed that she’d kept the assault a secret “because [she] didn’t want to let black America down.”

And now we’re talking about R. Kelly again.

We were talking about Kelly in 1994 when he married Aaliyah when she was 15.

We were talking about Kelly in 2002 when a video appeared to show him sexually assaulting a 14-year-old girl.

We were talking about Kelly again in 2013 when The Village Voice revisited the accusations against Kelly.

And yet he’s still free, he’s still rich and, according to a new Buzzfeed News story from former Chicago Sun-Times reporter Jim DeRogatis, who broke the original stories, Kelly allegedly has been brainwashing young women and holding them inside a “cult.” Kelly issued a statement denying the new allegations.

Hats off to DeRogatis. But it only takes a cursory glance at the news and events of the past few years to see the fuller context of how black women and girls are dismissed in America:

  • Black girls are perceived as less innocent and less in need of protection than white girls, according to a new study from the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality. The study’s authors call this phenomenon “adultification.” Little wonder then that state legislatures across the country send the message that the bodily autonomy of young women and girls doesn’t matter, in the form of laws that still allow adult men to marry girls as young as 12.
  • Black women suffer from higher rates of death from domestic violence, and yet the Mississippi Legislature refuses to make domestic violence grounds for divorce, essentially throwing women away to be battered. “Mississippi Goddam,” indeed.
  • The then-president of the United States created a program called My Brother’s Keeper that targets boys of color. But girls of color, specifically black girls, are suspended from school at higher rates and endure systematic criminalization designed to push them out of school.
  • When black girls and women are fired from their jobs or suspended from school for having “inappropriate” or distracting hair.
  • When Marissa Alexander doesn’t enjoy the same protections offered by Florida’s Stand Your Ground law when attempting to protect herself from domestic violence as George Zimmerman was.
  • When the “Grim Sleeper” is able to kill at least 10 black women, and possibly as many as 25, over the course of two decades because no one bothered to engage in meaningful detective work when they went missing.

The parents of the women Kelly is allegedly holding will soon hold a news conference about their accusations, DeRogatis has said. It’s noteworthy that these parents refuse to be cowed by Kelly’s money and social standing.

But beyond that, a public event like this serves another purpose: It says that for once, when it comes to black women, someone gives a damn.

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.