Big Boy is a connector. “You need to speak to Dogg?” That’s what the Los Angeles-based syndicated radio personality asks when the topic of 1993’s Doggystyle comes up. “I mean I can help you … I’m with him right now.”
Before you even get a chance to respond, he’s already calling Snoop, born Calvin Broadus Jr., to the phone. “Aight bet,” Snoop Dogg says in the background. “Gimme a second!” It’s the week before Snoop’s long deserved victory lap around the City of Angels. This conversation was a week before the Hollywood Walk of Fame honor — Snoop got his star — that featured a massive crowd of fans, family and friends such as Dr. Dre. Pharrell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jimmy Kimmel and more. A week before a weeklong celebration for the quarter-century anniversary of his first album that solidified Death Row as cultural tour de force.
“I want to thank me for believing in me,” he’ll say at his Walk of Fame ceremony. “I want to thank me for trying to do more right than wrong. I want to thank me for just being me at all times. Snoop Dogg, you a bad m—–f—–.” A unique kind of humility, indeed, but from a man who paid the cost to be his own boss — a well-deserved moment of indulgence.
Snoop carries himself like a man well aware of his resume, but he’s not vain about it. There are the 16 solo albums, five collaborative albums, four soundtracks, and singles that span five presidential administrations. There are the 53 million albums sold worldwide. Thanks to Tupac Shakur, who persuaded Snoop to pursue it, Snoop’s acting career includes more than 50 roles in movies and television.
As for his entrepreneurship career in the marijuana industry — appropriate doesn’t even begin to describe that venture. Snoop Dogg, for all intents and purposes, is the greatest success story in rap history. In a manner similar to Jay-Z, he is the American dream. Snoop survived rap’s bloodiest era, and now, approaching 50, he’s a living legend. A living legend who nearly lost it all before it truly began.
Doggystyle (Death Row/Interscope), is Snoop Dogg’s debut album — it turns 25 years old Friday. After a jaw-dropping appearance on the title single of the 1992 soundtrack to Deep Cover, Snoop’s avant-garde first album functions as a coming-of-age project that landed between the 1992 Los Angeles riots and the 1994-95 O.J. Simpson trial. Snoop’s first album also coincided with murder trial in which he was a defendant.
Broadus, at the age of 24, was acquitted in February 1996 (along with bodyguard McKinley “Malik” Lee), of first- and second-degree murder charges in the shooting death of a gang member Philip Woldemariam at a Los Angeles-area park. As the jury was deadlocked on remaining voluntary manslaughter charges, a mistrial was declared. MTV broadcast the reading of the verdict, after which Snoop Dogg rolled off in a Rolls-Royce with a driver. Snoop and Lee had maintained that the victim had been perceived as a mortal threat. The case nearly derailed one of the most unique and impactful careers in American music history.
At this point, Snoop Dogg, 47, has been famous longer than he hasn’t. The pop culture personality has done everything from smoke herb on White House grounds (according to Snoop), to becoming besties with Martha Stewart. Their Martha & Snoop’s Potluck Dinner Party was described in 2017 as “the cultural exchange America needs.” Over two seasons guests included Seth Rogen, RuPaul, Rick Ross, and Kelis, and more. And as the meme goes: One Of These Is a Convicted Felon. With each year, Snoop’s guardianship of hip-hop becomes more and more massive. And in a genre that has lost its brightest stars for heartbreaking and sometimes violent reasons, Snoop’s presence is a gift. And he’s quite cognizant of how differently his life could’ve gone.
Snoop’s standout feature on Anderson .Paak’s new “Anywhere” features Snoop reminiscing on the days before fame. I didn’t have a dollar, but a n—a had a dream / Whippin’ over the stove and a n—a gotta eat / Threw my raps in the garbage, f— being an emcee, he raps. Thank the Lord for Nate Dogg and thank God for Warren G / Funny how time flies when you’re high as me.
“I think about … the fun that I had. The age … I was at,” he says now. He was 22 when Doggystyle hit the streets. “Just being innocent, and honest. Not really hoping for success. I wasn’t even wishing for success.” He pauses. Almost as if the past 30 years of his life are playing in fast-forward. “I was just hoping to be on.”
In the fall and winter of 1993, Janet Jackson was the biggest pop star in the world. President Bill Clinton was nearing the end of his first year in office. Police began investigating Michael Jackson for child abuse. Allen Iverson was sentenced to five years in prison. Tupac Shakur was charged with shooting two off-duty police officers in Atlanta in October, and sexual assault a month later. Whitney Houston was on The Bodyguard World Tour. Jurassic Park was king of the box office while Menace II Society was film royalty of the ‘hood. Michael Jordan’s retirement coincided with the onset of the Shaq and Penny era in Orlando, Florida.
For Jemele Hill, then a freshman at Michigan State University, hip-hop was not only blowing up the Billboard charts but was the foundation of local party scenes. The impending arrival of Snoop Dogg’s debut was the axis around which hip-hop revolved. He was featured on the 1993 cover of VIBE’s first official issue, the look a culmination of a two-year meteoric rise. Snoop’s 1991 appearance on “Deep Cover” from the soundtrack of the same name, was a fire starter. His appearance a year later on Dr. Dre’s genre-shifting The Chronic caused some to dub Doggystyle, in the moment, “the most anticipated rap album of all time.”
“For months, that was the album — when everybody got together, in the dorm room or kicking it in somebody’s crib — that we were listening to. [It’s a reminder of] the lightness that hip-hop could bring into your life.”
The album sold more than 800,000 copies in its first week, making it, at the time, the fastest-selling rap debut. Black kids loved him. White kids wanted to be him. A heavy dose of Dr. Dre’s production and Snoop’s syrupy smooth flow proved, once again, to be an undeniable supernova — even as rap sheets ran concurrent with rap hits. This was gangsta rap, but with a new vibe. Snoop, long affiliated with the Crips, talked that street talk. He was authentic, yet relatable.
Los Angeles in particular, devoured the album. Compton, Inglewood, Watts, and of course Long Beach — where ’64 Impalas bounced, where people gathered, Snoop was the soundtrack. “The anticipation in L.A. ran high and it was real,” says Big Boy. “Everywhere you went, there was something coming out of somebody’s speakers from [that album]. When we just saw ‘What’s My Name’ and Dogg on top of the VIP in Long Beach — that was our moment.”
He brought listeners live and direct to his home ‘hoods of Long Beach that gave him the ammunition for songs like “Tha Shiznit” and “Serial Killa.” “What Snoop provides the rap world in that cadence, delivery and flow seems to have had a very lasting influence,” says University of Virginia professor of hip-hop A.D. Carson. “But because no one has been able to duplicate it, he still occupies that same space [to this day].” Chart-topping singles such as “Gin & Juice” and “What’s My Name” and the video were MTV darlings.
Twenty-five years later, Doggystyle, to Snoop, remains defined by two records, “Lodi Dodi,” a homage to Slick Rick, and “Doggy Dogg World” featuring his favorite 1970s group, The Dramatics.
The blaxploitation era and the superheroes it birthed are a part of Snoop’s DNA. “To be able to have a session with The Dramatics,” he says, still in awe a quarter century later, “and then to be able to incorporate them into the movement [Death Row] was on — that, to me, is a look that says, OK. The visual for ‘Doggy Dogg World’ was a moment in time. A star-studded event dripping in black charisma.”
The video included features from Fred Williamson, Pam Grier, Antonio Fargas, and Rudy Ray Moore, Fred Berry, and Ron O’Neal. Snoop’s close friend and longtime collaborator Ricky Harris, who died in 2016, was also in the video. “This,” Snoop boasted last year, “was like my Harlem Nights.”
As for “Lodi Dodi”? Snoop idolizes Slick Rick. It’s an homage, and is quick to point out that the song is first example of a rapper remaking a song and not being labeled a “biter.” “[Rick] was somebody I really, really looked up to. It’s like Kobe [Bryant] and [Michael] Jordan,” he says. “When you’re able to play against him, and he gives you a few pointers, and you end up becoming just as good as him.”
“Ain’t nobody bigger than me but Michael Jackson,” Snoop said shortly after the album’s release. But criticism of gangsta rap, was prevalent, even before Snoop’s debut, rightfully centered on its depiction of women. And Doggystyle was features more than 60 references to “b—–s” and the cover drew the ire of critics nationwide. By the fall and winter of 1993, Snoop was accused of the “beastializing [of] women.”
“It’s sickening to see that any African-American, male or female, would hold the human dignity of African-American women in the form that is presented [in the album cover],” said C. Delores Tucker, a frequent opponent of hip-hop. “We are now looking to the distributors, financiers and producers of [Doggystyle] …We are going to use the powers we have to withhold our dollars where our dignity is not respected.”
Rap, Snoop in particular found, an ally in U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters. “While I find some of the language offensive and hard on the ears, I didn’t first hear the words whore and b—- from Snoop,” she said in 1994. “It’s part of the culture. These songs merely mimic and exaggerate what the artists have learned about who we are [as a society]. And while it is unacceptable to refer to any person in derogatory terms, I believe rappers are being used as scapegoats here.”
As critics sought to paint him as the new king of misogyny, Snoop went on the defense. “It’s not personal at all,” he lamented in ’93. “When women come up to me and they see me on the street and say, ‘How you doin’, Snoop Dogg? How you doin’, baby?’ I don’t say, ‘Hey, b—-. How you doing?’ I don’t come at them like that.”
Doggystyle is the linchpin for issues that still rage on. Misogyny is very real. For Hill, it’s a complex issue. “Most women have always had a love-hate relationship with hip-hop,” says Hill, who says that Dr. Dre’s 1992 “B—-es Ain’t S—” is among her favorite songs. “We’re not ignorant to what some of these lyrics have meant.” It’s a case by case basis for Hill, who remembers the very real discussions about Doggystyle that were happening while women and men were partying to it every day. “I don’t take it personally, though there is a part of me that does wish they could be better in this area. But I’ve also heard many [rappers] explain that they rap this because they are talking about personal experiences.”
Yet even more than the moral critique about the album, it was Snoop’s real life that drove the conversation. The first-degree murder charge was the case that they gave him. Woldemariam, a reputed gang member had reportedly threatened Snoop before at a video shoot and had also been in an argument with Snoop and Lee earlier on the day of the shooting. Gang ties were reported to be at the center of the dispute. With a warrant out for his arrest, Snoop still joined George Clinton and Dr. Dre in presenting the best R&B video award at the 1993 MTV VMAs.
He turned himself in shortly after. The case slowed Snoop’s victory lap, while it concurrently create mass hysteria for its release. Gangbanging was a way life in Southern California. Snoop was a child of this reality. Newsweek’s contentious cover, which featured Snoop tattooed with the question “When is rap 2 violent?” may have well been part of the project’s official rollout.
As Snoop’s celebrity transformed him from Dr. Dre’s understudy to bona fide megastar, he faced life in prison. Death Row Records was living up to its name. Those closest to Snoop even saw how the situation took its toll on him. “During that time, everybody was down with everything that was going on,” Warren G says via phone. “But we just stayed down with him. Ride or die.”
With rap’s crown came repeated attacks. “It’s truly a sad statement about our society that an alleged murderer can end up serving as a role model for our kids,” said Bob DeMoss, youth culture specialist for the Colorado Springs, Colorado-based Christian media watchdog group Focus on the Family.
Snoop was stressed. “Black people are sayin’, ‘F— it, you’ve got this much power. You could be tryin’ to say: ‘Don’t do drugs, and, hey, stop this,’ ” Snoop said in 1994. “But Martin Luther King tried that s—. It didn’t work.”
And as the trial came to an end, the prosecution tired of the defense painting the victim Woldemariam as a crazed gangbanger who was the aggressor in his own slaying. The defense claimed the prosecution used Snoop’s celebrity as its motivation more than his actual involvement. Details emerged supporting Snoop’s self-defense claim when one of victim’s friends admitted to hiding Woldemariam’s gun after the shooting. Even after he was acquitted, drama still followed him. He and newly signed Death Row labelmate Shakur’s “2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted” once again turned drama into unimaginable success. But by March 1996, Dr. Dre had left the label. Six months later Shakur was murdered in Las Vegas. And Knight, in less than a year, was back in prison on a probation violation for his role in a fight the night Shakur was shot.
What little room Snoop had to truly celebrate Doggystyle was depleted. Staying alive was more important for Snoop, who purchased a bulletproof van following the murder of Biggie Smalls. “The way that we can mythologize him — we can create this picture of him as always being Snoop the rapper without considering Calvin the person,” says Carson. “I can’t imagine that [part of his life] being anything other than a nightmare for him. It’s something … heavy to sort through.”
With Doggystyle in the rearview mirror, Death Row’s very public and tragic downfall and his own career at a professional crossroads, Snoop’s next moves set in motion a new arc. “He was a totally changed person,” says Warren G. “It was a reality check that this stuff can be taken away at any given moment, so you gotta get yourself together … That’s when he started to grow and morph into … a man. He realized none of this stuff is worth [losing] your family [over].”
“That’s the American dream …Well, ain’t it?” — “Bathtub”
There is no career like Snoop Dogg’s. American gangster to American icon, if you’re looking for a tagline. He’s been a Rastafarian, a pimp, the quarterback of his own stage play and chart-topping gospel artist. He’s Grandpa Snoop and Uncle Snoop to an entire generation who grew up on Uncle Phil. “There’s nothing everyman about the way he lived his life and the way he came up,” Hill says with a laugh, “but yet he is the dude in rap you wanna go get a beer with. But I guess in his case … get high with.”
It’s true. It’s not a stretch to say that Snoop has played a tangential role in America’s slow, but gradual acceptance of marijuana. On TV, he’s everything from dedicated youth football coach to LeBron James’ big homie. He’s persuaded an entire country to “Smile” on Lil Duval’s huge hit while directing his political aggression toward President Donald Trump via song and, in a patented Snoop way, “grassroots activism.”
Even “gangsta s—” evolves. Making music for Long Beach. Making music that reflected the lifestyles, good and bad, that he grew up in. Monday’s Hollywood Walk of Fame immortalized him in a long overdue ceremony. But for Snoop, a tour de force who has seemingly accomplished — and survived — everything, hip-hop has to offer, it’s not about what he missed. It’s about the celebration he never truly got to enjoy in his early 20s. Until now. “I was too busy trying to enjoy my life and trying to make sure I was going to be free [to enjoy Doggstyle],” Snoop says. You can almost hear the grin spread across his face. “So maybe I’ll enjoy it this year on its 25th.”
Searching for the perfect present for the reader in your family? Or maybe it’s time for some self-gifting (we won’t judge, we promise). From essays to young adult novels to photography and poetry, The Undefeated has you covered. Here’s a collection of some of the most intriguing, well-crafted and engaging books of 2018.
The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo (YA)
Don’t believe anyone who tells you slam poetry is dead, because they clearly missed the memo about Elizabeth Acevedo, an award-winning, fire-spitting Afro-Latino poet who has penned an entire novel in verse. Acevedo won the National Book Award for young people’s literature with a coming of age story about Xiomara Batista. Xiomara lives in Harlem, and as she begins to form her own opinions — about religion, about street harassment, about what it means to become a woman — she collects her thoughts in verse and finds a home in her school’s slam poetry club.
Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi (YA)
If you find yourself hooked after reading Tomi Adeyemi’s debut fantasy novel, fear not. She’s got two more coming, all about strong-willed Zélie Adebola and her adventures as she tries to bring magic back to her fictive country of Orïsha, where power has been consolidated by an evil, magic-hating king. The stakes are high: If Zélie fails, Orïsha will lose its magic forever. There’s no shortage of black fantasy fans (remember when Buzzfeed imagined if Hogwarts were an HBCU?), and now young readers have another set of books to add to their collections, right alongside Harry Potter, Shadowshaper and the Bartimaeus trilogy. Adeyemi weaves a story that tackles colorism, class and racism with West African mythology and Yoruba traditions.
My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
Oyinkan Braithwaite’s debut novel crackles with dark humor as she traces the story of sibling rivalry between Nigerian good girl Korede and her maybe-sociopath murderer of a sister, Ayoola. Ayoola’s boyfriends keep turning up dead, and poor, put-upon Korede keeps finding ways to keep her sister free. That is, until Korede’s crush expresses an interest in her sister and Korede is faced with a choice.
A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley
Jamel Brinkley’s debut collection of nine short stories is a meditation on modern masculinity, told from the perspectives of various black men in New York, mostly in the Bronx and Brooklyn. The National Book Award finalist focuses on how ideas about what it means to be a man are passed down through generations, and what it takes to define oneself as notions about sex and gender continue to evolve.
The Talented Ribkins by Ladee Hubbard
Ladee Hubbard has introduced a new framework for thinking about W.E.B. Du Bois, the Talented Tenth and obligations to fellow black people in struggle against white supremacy: a fantastical crime novel about a black family with ridiculously random superpowers (one of the Ribkins can see colors that remain obscured to others, while another can scale walls like a spider). The protagonist is 72-year-old Johnny, who has gotten himself in way too deep with a mobster. The Talented Ribkins, which won the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for debut fiction, is an inventive layer cake of humor, intrigue and insights about race.
Dread Nation by Justina Ireland (YA)
Remember the head-scratching reaction you had the first time you heard about Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter? Well, get over it, because literature about a Civil War-era America complicated by the existence of the undead is most definitely a thing. Enter Jane McKeene, the protagonist of Justina Ireland’s bone-chilling account of an America in which the many who died at Gettysburg became, well, not so dead. Jane has been sent to Miss Preston’s School of Combat in Baltimore, where she learns how to wield a scythe, which is definitely a subversive take on the real-life Miss Porter’s, where women like Jacqueline Kennedy-Onassis learned to be the sort of woman who knows when and how to use an asparagus server. In this America, black and Native people are still doing the bidding of power-wielding whites, except now that bidding includes slaying zombies. Just imagine the troubles that can arise when an entire underclass of people is armed with very sharp weapons.
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
Tayari Jones, whose novel made this year’s National Book Award long list, trains her lens on the very personal implications of unjust policing and mass incarceration. Her leading lady, Celestial, is married to a man who has been wrongfully imprisoned. While both Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing and American Marriage examine the implications of what it means to be a black woman with a partner imprisoned in the American South, the avenues they take vary wildly. Ward’s focus is on the poor, while Jones takes a look at what imprisonment means for a well-to-do middle-class couple who never envisioned this life for themselves, and the romantic compromise Celestial makes in order to cope.
Wild Beauty by Ntozake Shange
A collection of poems old and new, in English and Spanish, Wild Beauty is the last published work of the late poet, dancer and playwright. Ntozake Shange died in October at 70. She’d suffered a series of strokes in 2004, but as she recovered, she kept writing. Wild Beauty offers one last bittersweet opportunity to connect with an American treasure.
Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires
The theme that unites Nafissa Thompson-Spires’ debut short story collection is one with which many black Americans can identify: being The Only. As in, The Only Black Kid in Private School, or The Only Black Professor, or The Only Black Woman in Yoga Class. In this collection, which made this year’s National Book Award long list, Thompson-Spires conducts a narrative thought experiment, illustrating the world as it’s processed through a variety of Onlys who are carrying around the burden of being representatives for an entire race of people. Lest you think Thompson-Spires has gone too far, never forget the existence of an embarrassingly uncomfortable real-life account of a white woman who projected all of her insecurities onto the only black woman in her yoga class, and then wrote an essay about it. In the world of Thomson-Spires’ characters, readers are encouraged to think about the world from the perspective of The Only, and not the voyeur.
Becoming Kareem: Growing Up On and Off the Court by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Raymond Obstfeld
Anyone who’s enjoyed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s foray into cultural criticism as a contributor to The Hollywood Reporter knows that his brain is brimming with trenchant observations. Becoming Kareem offers much of the same, though instead of looking at the entertainment industry, Abdul-Jabbar turns inward to explain his evolution as an athlete, activist and thinker. It’s a worthy addition for anyone who wants an insider’s account of processing where you fit when you’re young, black and blazingly talented and your country is erupting with change.
American Prison: A Reporter’s Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment by Shane Bauer
Shane Bauer, a journalist for Mother Jones, famously spent four months working undercover as a guard in a private prison in Winnfield, Louisiana. Bauer elaborates on his experiences in Winnfield and shapes them with historical context to explain how we arrived at mass incarceration as we currently know it. Bauer shines much-needed sunlight on a crisis that readers of The New Jim Crow and watchers of 13th will find familiar: a system profiting off the warehousing and mistreatment of millions of Americans, a disproportionate number of whom are black and brown.
Things That Make White People Uncomfortable by Michael Bennett and Dave Zirin
If you’re an athlete writing about the intersection of sports, social issues and race, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more well-suited co-author than Dave Zirin, the sports columnist at The Nation. Here, the Philadelphia Eagles defensive lineman melds the personal with the political — one chapter is called “The NCAA Will Give You PTSD.” The through line is a commitment to standing up for the little guy, even when the little guy happens to be 250-plus pounds. It’s a stirring and smart trip through Michael Bennett’s musings on race and power.
White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism by Robin DiAngelo
There’s no time in American history when this book hasn’t been needed, but, boy, is it ever timely now. Robin DiAngelo’s explanations for why we’re so stymied when it comes to discussing race is refreshing, fact-based and patient. While it’s a book that contains helpful information for everyone, White Fragility is an ideal starting place for white people who want to be allies in anti-racism but feel intimidated about where to begin.
Well-Read Black Girl: Finding Our Stories, Discovering Ourselves edited by Glory Edim
The founder of the popular Brooklyn, New York-based book club (now in its third year of existence) has released a book of essays written by literary luminaries including Jesmyn Ward, Lynn Nottage, Jacqueline Woodson, Rebecca Walker and Barbara Smith. Every woman answers the question: When did you first see yourself in literature? Thanks to Glory Edim’s work, black women and girls have a reliable space online, and in print, where they know they’ll always be seen.
The Revolt of the Black Athlete by Harry Edwards
If there’s a book that synthesizes and gives historical context to the wave of social activism that’s swept through modern sports, it’s this one. First published in 1968, it has been resurrected, with a new introduction and afterword for a 50th anniversary edition. Harry Edwards traces the history of black athletes from Emancipation onward, explaining how race has always influenced how black athletes have been received and even used in the U.S. government’s efforts at soft power diplomacy overseas. Through Edwards’ eyes, we see the awakening of black athletes to their own power not as a surprise but as an inevitability.
Ali: A Life by Jonathan Eig
Jonathan Eig conducted more than 500 interviews to report this comprehensive tome on the life of The Champ, and he writes with as much style and verve as Muhammad Ali brought to the ring. Eig provides sweeping context for Ali’s participation in and significance to social movements, from the fight for civil rights to protests against the Vietnam War. Rather than shy away from Ali’s internal contradictions, Eig runs at them head-on, which makes Ali more compelling than any of the more hagiographic attempts to capture his life. Ali is the winner of the 2018 PEN/ESPN Award for Literary Sports Writing. (Disclosure: Eig has also contributed to The Undefeated.)
How to Be Less Stupid About Race: On Racism, White Supremacy, and the Racial Divide by Crystal M. Fleming
You may know sociologist Crystal Fleming from her flame-throwing Twitter feed. In her second book, the Stony Brook University professor tackles an obstacle that hampers a lot of writing about race in America: moving past Race 101. Because our country isn’t operating from an agreed-upon foundation of established historical facts — for instance, every discussion of Confederate monuments must include a basic explanation of the Lost Cause and why it’s bunk. Therefore, our national discussions don’t move forward so much as stall on a treadmill powered by history textbooks that label enslaved Africans as “immigrants.” Fleming offers readers an easily digestible, well-researched primer, as well as a useful series of steps for “becoming racially literate.” In the words of Biggie: “If you don’t know, now you know.” No excuses!
There Will Be No Miracles Here by Casey Gerald
Moving up the class ladder isn’t an impossible feat, but it’s certainly a difficult one. In this memoir, Casey Gerald writes of growing up in Dallas with his sister and learning to survive on their mother’s disability checks. Football provided opportunities for Gerald; he played at Yale while studying political science. The same sport left his grandfather’s body broken. With elegant, captivating prose, Gerald traces a multigenerational story of race, class and privilege and what it means to grasp at limited opportunities for all they are worth, with one’s faith guiding the way.
This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America by Morgan Jerkins
If Lena Dunham is any indication, it’s almost never a good idea to label one person as the voice of a generation. However, Morgan Jerkins is definitely a voice, and she’s one worth taking seriously. In her debut essay collection, Jerkins tackles what it means to be living as a black woman in America today with an authoritativeness that’s rare and impressive for a woman with years to go before her 30th birthday. In bringing a relatable voice to discussing the alienation many black women encounter, both within the feminist movement and in society at large, Jerkins has announced herself as a vital social critic with plenty to say.
Heavy by Kiese Laymon
For anyone who misses Gawker and Kiese Laymon’s presence there, Heavy is a long-awaited essay collection from one of the country’s most thoughtful and incisive writers on race. In Heavy, Laymon contemplates his upbringing in Mississippi and his relationships with the women in his life, especially his mother and grandmother. The #MeToo movement has brought new visibility to the ubiquity of sexual abuse in our culture for women, but many male victims still grapple with shame when it comes to publicly discussing their experiences. Here, Laymon writes with elegance and fearlessness about his own experiences with sexual abuse and, in doing so, helps lift its taboo.
Becoming by Michelle Obama
The former FLOTUS created a storm with the initial wave of revelations contained in her memoir. Michelle Obama discusses the loneliness she felt after a miscarriage and reveals that her children were conceived with the assistance of in vitro fertilization. In doing so, she helps remove the stigma from episodes that occur in many women’s lives but remain taboo. Obama gained the trust of a nation by being charming, down-to-earth and candid. In Becoming, Obama takes advantage of an opportunity to fill in the many blanks of her life and open herself to those who felt they already knew her while making the case for why the Obamas are the ultimate American family.
Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry by Imani Perry
How is it possible that someone with as much name recognition as Lorraine Hansberry could also be considered a hidden figure? Well, because most of us never learned much about her aside from the fact that she wrote A Raisin in the Sun. Imani Perry gives Hansberry her due in this deeply researched biography, fleshing out her life as a writer, thinker and activist whose contributions to American society go far beyond one play. In Perry’s hands, Hansberry comes alive as self-possessed, nervy and extremely witty — a woman whose personal heroes included Toussaint L’Ouverture, the leader of the Haitian Revolution, and Hannibal, the North African general.
Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop by Vikki Tobak
Contact High traces hip-hop’s evolution from 1979 to 2012 by giving readers a behind-the-scenes look at the industry through the contact sheets of the photographers documenting it. Not only does Vikki Tobak provide insight into what goes into a great image by providing the shots that normally remain unpublished, she’s also assembled compelling stories from some of hip-hop’s greatest voices, including RZA, Fab 5 Freddy, Questlove, Young Guru and DJ Premier. Contact High tells the stories of some of hip-hop’s most enduring images, from Jay-Z’s first photo shoot to the Stankonia album cover to XXL’s 1998 assemblage of talent for the photo A Great Day in Hip-Hop.
Not All Dead White Men: Classics and Misogyny in the Digital Age by Donna Zuckerberg
Why should we be paying attention to how the classics are being discussed online? Because a significant segment of the population is, and they’re using their interpretations of texts such as Ovid’s Ars Amatoria, Xenophon’s Oeconomicus and Herodotus’ The Histories as the intellectual underpinnings for arguments about the supposed superiority of Western civilization, of whiteness and of men. Donna Zuckerberg explains how the alt-right, incels and other online communities are forming their own theories based on ancient texts. It’s impossible to bust myths about the classics if you’re unfamiliar with them or the arguments their interpreters are using as weapons. For those who haven’t thought about the ancient philosophers since high school Latin, Zuckerberg makes everything clear.
The footage is simultaneously exhilarating and haunting.
In the rare recording we see a handsome, self-assured Muhammad Ali speaking to the Harvard University graduating class of 1975, where he had been invited to give the commencement address.
“I’m very flattered in coming here ‘cause you never could have made me believe years ago when I got out of high school with a D-minus average,” Ali said. “And they gave me the minus because I won the Olympics.”
Ali won the light heavyweight division gold medal in the 1960 Rome Games when he was still known as Cassius Clay.
When he addressed the Harvard graduates in ‘75, Ali was at the height of his popularity and was arguably one of most highly recognized faces in the world.
The Champ was 33 years old. Just eight months earlier, in October 1974, Ali had pulled off one of the greatest upsets in boxing history when he defeated the seemingly invincible 25-year-old champion George Foreman, in Zaire — the famous “Rumble in the Jungle.”
With the victory, Ali regained the world heavyweight boxing title that had been stripped from him in 1967. His title had been taken not by a boxer, but by boxing’s sanctioning commission in April 1967 after he refused to be inducted into the U.S. military.
In his 1975 talk at Harvard, Ali spoke about Uncle Toms and a condition of black brainwashing that he said kept blacks shackled.
“I don’t do no Uncle Tom-ing. I don’t do no shuffling,” he sad. “The Ali shuffle, but I don’t do the Tom shuffle.” The audience roared its approval as he then demonstrated the Ali shuffle.
Ali told the graduates he was baffled by the extent to which African-Americans in the civil rights movement went through such pains to desegregate, to push to go where they were unwanted. “Even before I was who I was,” he was baffled and angered as black demonstrators suffered physical abuse “marching, people pouring water on you, putting dogs on you. What in the hell is worth that? You got to be crazy, watching your sisters all beat up.”
He implored the black community to come back to itself, to embrace self-sufficiency. “We got the best food, the best music, everything else,” Ali said. There certainly were black Harvard graduates who appreciated the courage of those who risked life and limb to break down barriers to equal opportunity. But Ali’s underlying message of black brainwashing was on point.
He talked about the depiction of Jesus with blue eyes, of Tarzan as the white king of the jungle, beating up black Africans. He described white angels, white Miss America. “Everything good was white, the angel food cake was white, devil food cake was chocolate.”
As I watched the audience react to Ali, I wondered if the graduates, many of whom would become politicians, business magnates and leaders, heard what Ali was saying. I wonder how many today recognize how thoroughly that truth still resonates.
Ali won the world heavyweight title in 1964 when he knocked out the heavily favored Sonny Liston in the seventh round. Three years later, he was stripped of the crown after he refused on religious grounds to serve in the military, famously saying, “I ain’t got no quarrel with those Vietcong.”
This month marks the 51st anniversary of Ali’s conviction. He was sentenced to five years in prison (which he never served because his case was appealed). Ali received a fine of $10,000 and was also banned from boxing for three years.
Interestingly, two months before Ali’s address at Harvard, South Vietnam surrendered to North Vietnam. A month before the address, President Gerald Ford essentially declared an official end to the war.
Four months after the Harvard speech, Ali survived 14 punishing rounds of boxing to defeat Joe Frazier in Manila. Called the “Thrilla In Manila,” that fight arguably is one of the greatest in Ali’s career. There were more chapters to follow. Ali lost to Leon Spinks in 1978, and regained the title the same year by defeating Spinks.
Looking at the footage of Ali’s 1975 speech at Harvard now, we know his story would end with physical deterioration after years of absorbing punishment. Even in 1975, there were concerns about Ali’s health.
I interviewed Foreman at his Livermore, California, ranch a year after his 1974 fight with Ali and he expressed an awareness of, if not concern for, Ali’s long-term health. What struck me then and even now as I reflect on Foreman’s comments is how thoroughly Ali had gotten inside of Foreman’s head.
That defeat compelled Foreman to change his entire approach to boxing. Foreman realized that Ali had it right all along. The fight game, at its core, was entertainment. It was a game of charades. Years later, Foreman would reinvent himself as the lovable, cuddly, health-conscious Big George, inventor of the George Foreman grill.
When I look around my home and my office and see images of Ali, I realize I am as heavily invested in Ali as my father was in Joe Louis, the indomitable Brown Bomber.
And just like my father, I am just as unwilling to let emerging facts of Ali’s life diminish the impact he has had on my life, or on his heroism.
I have read multiple Ali biographies. My conclusion: Muhammad Ali was a human being, with all the flaws, frailties, contradictions and complexities that go along with being human.
He stood up to the U.S. government’s war machine and spoke for thousands in 1967 when he said, “Hell, no, I won’t go.” Many of those thousands were in the audience at Harvard. That’s why Ali was given a hero’s welcome, why he was celebrated in life and why he will be celebrated in death. He did not run and he did not hide.
Muhammad Ali was and is a true American hero.
Jude Demorest, Ryan Destiny and Brittany O’Grady have been wooing viewers for two seasons now on Fox’s music-themed drama Star, created by film director and producer Lee Daniels.
The storyline follows the journey of a girl group named Take 3 as they navigate the cutthroat music industry with their manager and mother figure Carlotta (Queen Latifah).
In casting the girls in the group, Daniels wanted race to be in viewers’ faces without apology. Daniels, who is also behind films such as The Butler (2013) and Precious (2009) and TV hit Empire, cast Demorest (Star Davis), 26, as the white girl from the ’hood; O’Grady, 21, as Star’s half-black sister Simone; and Destiny, 23, as the rich black girl Alex.
“Star is an inspirational and cautionary tale about the dangers of ambition and not working on yourself before reaching for fame,” said Demorest. “You can get stuck in the darkness really quick.”
Demorest relates to her character and brings her true-life situations to the series. The Detroit native describes Star as driven, hurt and aggressive and relates to her character in the sense that both are “delusional.”
“What I mean by that is Star is able to imagine herself out of a situation and I’ve done that my whole life,” Demorest said.
Growing up in predominantly black neighborhoods as a foster care kid, she attended more than 10 schools. She fueled her faith at church, where she learned dance, drama and choir. At 16, she headed to Los Angeles with no car or place to live to pursue acting, but music got ahold of her first. She signed with Epic Records, where she co-wrote the hit “Work From Home” for Fifth Harmony. She later landed roles on television series such as Jonas and Dallas before Star.
“Alex is a realist but ambitious,” Destiny said of her character. “There’s passion behind what she does. She was born to be an entertainer and knows it, and I feel the same way.” Destiny is also from Detroit and the daughter of Deron Irons of ‘90s rhythm and blues group Guesss, which first hit the music scene as part of the group Love Dollhouse under Russell Simmons’ All Def Music label (the group parted ways in 2015).
Destiny’s backstory includes facing colorism in high school. Among her group of friends, she was the only one with dark skin and she’d receive backhanded compliments such as, “You’re pretty for a dark-skinned girl.” She’s even more comfortable in her skin now from working with model Naomi Campbell, who plays her mother in the series, and gives her a super-model on how to reflect strength, confidence and pride within your own hue.
Because of O’Grady’s last name, people assume that she will look like the typical Irish woman. When they meet her in person, they assume she is Latina and speaks Spanish. As a half-white, half-black girl from Northern Virginia, she takes pride that for the first time she gets to play her own race on television while acting in Star. Deep, sensitive and irritable are the three words O’Grady attributes to her character, Simone, who has a quieter demeanor than the other members of the group, along with a history of alcohol and substance abuse. O’Grady was on a theater scholarship at Pepperdine University when she got the call to audition for Star. Before Star, she had roles in Trophy Wife, The Night Shift and The Messengers, and as early as 4 years old she appeared in national ad campaigns in Washington, D.C.
The Undefeated linked up with the trio in New York City to talk about working with Queen Latifah, how they stay “woke” and being starstuck when meeting Isiah Thomas, Snoop Dogg and Misty Copeland.
How has it been working with Queen Latifah?
Demorest: For us, it has been watching and learning from the best.
Destiny: She is definitely one of the realest, for sure. She pulls us aside and gives her advice as a person, actress and musician.
O’Grady: We have so much respect for her and her process, and she gives it right back to us.
What’s your go-to karaoke song?
Demorest, Destiny (singing in unison): Turn around, every now and then I get a little bit lonely and you’re never coming around, turn around [Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart”].
O’Grady: “I Believe In A Thing Called Love” by The Darkness.
Have you ever been starstruck?
Demorest: It really took me off guard when I met [retired NBA player] Isiah Thomas at the Four Seasons in Atlanta because I was wearing him on my shirt that day. And also, Ms. Tina [Beyoncé and Solange’s mom] at the Essence Festival. She held my hand, and I’m still in awe of that moment!
Destiny: I’m a huge Snoop Dogg fan. We were at the same hotel, and I don’t know what happened, but all I got out of my mouth was, “You’re, you’re …” I couldn’t get any other words out.
O’Grady: I met Misty Copeland at the premiere of our second season. I was so excited because she’s superinspirational and has really paved the way for black ballerinas. I was like, “Are you Misty Copeland?” And then another time was when I first moved to L.A. I was 17 and behind Zac Efron in line for popcorn at the movie theater.
First concert you went to?
Demorest: The Hope Filled Tour with Donnie McClurkin, Yolanda Adams and Kirk Franklin. And Mary Mary performed that weekend too.
Destiny: A Destiny’s Child concert. I was just ‘destined’ for it, ha!
O’Grady: Harry Connick Jr., my parents were big fans. My second was American Idol during Fantasia’s season. I just love her!
Most frequently used emoji?
Demorest: Prayers hands, which is not a high-five or clap!
Destiny: The alien.
O’Grady: The heart.
Favorite throwback TV show?
Demorest, Destiny, O’Grady [in unison]: The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
Destiny: … but you can’t forget about The Proud Family!
If you could be any athlete, dead or alive, who would you be?
Demorest: Isiah Thomas.
Destiny: Allen Iverson.
O’Grady: One of the athletes from the first Jamaican bobsled team. I remember the [1993 Walt Disney] movie Cool Runnings that was based on their story. I’m not the biggest sports fan, but that story is remarkable.
How do you “stay woke”?
Demorest: Staying woke in this day in age is so much about being willing to learn and listen, and never closing your eyes and ears to what’s happening around you and strangers who have zero connection to you. Sometimes we’re so focused on being able to relate to a situation or a person that we forget that being woke is not about that. It’s about recognizing right versus wrong and constantly learning.
Destiny: It’s hard not to be woke with it constantly in your face on social media. It can be a little depressing with how much unfortunate and unfair realities are happening in the world. When you want to speak up on something, do it. But never feel pressured to, because that’s not good either.
O’Grady: Being woke is about being open to other people’s perspective. Not everyone is going to think the way you do, but you have to internalize what the person’s perspective and values are and where they are coming from. Staying woke is about making sure everyone feels loved and respected, and that’s something I value.
I owe my sister a lot because she’s supersmart and keeps me woke. I had a lot of privilege as a biracial girl. I didn’t experience racism like most of my peers. My sister and I have really acknowledged that as we got older and we take responsibility in educating people who are racially ignorant. We all have our own privilege, but we have to stand up for those who do not have that privilege and are still paving their own path.
In the adjoining apartment, I could hear him beating her through the thin walls in the triplex apartment building I lived in a few years ago. I then dialed 911 for the first and only time in my life. The decision was easy; a real emergency transpired. That’s the threshold for when one should call the cops — an emergency.
But last month, a white woman called the cops on black people for barbecuing with a charcoal grill in Lake Merritt Park in Oakland, California. Although this happened in April, the ordeal went viral within the past week, another event in a distressing string of frivolous calls to the police that garnered national attention.
That incident, like the others, reveals how some white folk imagine the police as their protectors from the unwanted presence of black people, that the cops partially serve as guardians of their right to their white enclave. In that vein, the white woman from Oakland told her black victims that “she knows her rights, that the rights state if she tells the police if she has a problem with us, then we are going to go to jail.” This statement provides a window into the soul of many white folk, exposing a disturbing image that lays bare the idea that police should detain any black person whose mere existence causes them discomfort.
Cat Brooks, an Oakland mayoral candidate, spoke truth in saying, “When you engage law enforcement in these kinds of things, you are opening the door for things to go very wrong, the potential for arrests like in Philadelphia with those two black men or worse physical assault or death, and I don’t believe in this day and age that white folks don’t know that.” They do indeed know, and inviting the opportunity for a deadly encounter through the anonymity of a phone call harks back to the days of the white hoods, days uncomfortably recent, as Spike Lee’s upcoming film BlacKkKlansman recounts.
I’ve been reflecting on how society should respond to prevent these events from recurring, and I keep returning to the same word: shame.
White folk must fear that calling the police frivolously will result in their name being printed in the media and forever associated with the social stigma of calling the cops to harass black people.
I think this, using social stigma to stamp out unwanted behavior, affords us the best way to address their behavior. People will fret at the prospects of their names being connected with these tales.
For this reason, I believe the name of the Oakland white woman remains unknown even though she has had every opportunity to identify herself. She will never come forward and release her name because she understands she would be forced to shoulder unbearable social stigma. In a world where unlimited information sits one internet search away, people don’t want to be known as the bigot who called the cops on black people for having the nerve to barbecue in a public park.
At Yale, a white woman called the cops on a black classmate, Lolade Siyonbola, for sleeping in the common room of a graduate student dorm. Soon thereafter, the name of the white woman, Sarah Braasch, appeared in the student newspaper. National journalists then uncovered problematic writings of hers where she remarked that “I love hate speech” and that some “slaves didn’t want to stop being slaves.” Braasch, who is pursuing a doctorate in philosophy, will one day seek employment. This will follow her wherever she goes. I find this fitting, a punishment well-deserved.
Society can counteract this dilemma by strategically wielding social stigma as a weapon. I think one of the reasons white people call the police in these circumstances is that employing the police to harass black folk gives them some sense of pleasure. The white woman from Oakland called the police and proceeded to wait two hours until they showed up. One does not willingly wait for two hours without deriving some sort of emotional satisfaction. If that’s true, we need a counterbalance, something to offset that feeling of joy.
The social stigma of being deemed a bigot will be hefty enough to dissuade some from using the cops as agents of harassment.
Others might believe that “police callers” in these situations should face legal sanction. I’m wary of this idea. For one, I seriously doubt the law would be changed to punish white people for this iteration of racial abuse. In the unlikely event that some jurisdictions might prosecute these matters under existing law, wrongdoers would likely never face consequences. America can’t punish police officers for killing unarmed black people on camera. The idea that a white woman claiming to have been frightened by the presence of black people will suffer punishment for calling the cops seems laughable.
This situation, rather, calls for average Americans, especially white Americans, to heap scorn on transgressors with the message that this behavior is to never be repeated. We should want to empower our fellow Americans to address this problem through the communal tools of shame and stigma. I don’t think we can stop this from ever happening. But before people dial 911, if they worry that they might be the ones who suffer in the end, some will just hang up instead.
Here’s a question for this #MeToo moment: What exactly are we supposed to do with great female characters who sprang from the minds of awful men?
Specifically, what are we to do with Clair Huxtable?
But now it would appear we’re going to need a lot more shovels, because Clair Huxtable is only one of many female characters created in part by ostensibly progressive men who have serious Woman Problems. There’s Pamela, the mother of Louis C.K.’s children from Louie. There’s Jasmine, the interesting, irritating, tragic lead of Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine. There’s Beatrix Kiddo of Kill Bill and Viola de Lesseps of Shakespeare in Love, women we maybe wouldn’t have met were it not for Harvey Weinstein and Miramax.
Is it even possible to enjoy these women anymore without the nausea that comes from knowing that we’re contributing to a residual that’s getting direct-deposited into the bank accounts of their sleazy progenitors?
The #MeToo era has put everything up for the burdensome task of re-evaluation. It’s one thing to smugly say you always knew Junot Díaz had screwed-up attitudes toward women, because all you had to do was read his work. It’s another to say you divined the same from watching Clair.
After all, Clair used to occupy a different space entirely. When she first arrived in 1984, there was a limited spectrum of black on-screen mothers. Even now, she exists alongside Mary from Precious, Annie Johnson from Imitation of Life, Florida Evans from Good Times, Harriet Winslow from Family Matters, Dee Mitchell from Moesha, Nikki Parker from The Parkers, Rainbow Johnson from black-ish, Van from Atlanta, Cookie Lyon from Empire and many a black woman who wasn’t just mother to her own children but also Mammy to someone else’s white ones.
Next to them, she seemed suspended in untouchable perfection, a Damien Hirst installation of Ideal Black Motherhood.
Here was a woman with five children, a full-time job as a lawyer and an almost endless reserve of patience, kindness, wit and radiant energy, along with a healthy sex drive. And she was gorgeous and stylish too.
Part of what was special about Clair Huxtable was that she offered so singular and so rare a portrait of black women, and she was universally enjoyed and celebrated. For a generation of black people, she was The Prototype. Clair made it possible for our racially segregated country to see a black woman and not later be astounded that someone like Michelle Obama could exist.
But we also have to acknowledge that Clair benefited from a false sort of specialness. Scarcity is what makes these conversations of what to do with The Cosby Show and how to think about Clair after Cosby’s conviction so fraught.
The only way to ameliorate that anxiety is to keep pumping more interesting black women and mothers into the cultural atmosphere. It’s only in recent years that black on-screen mothers have occupied some middle area between the perfection of Clair and the monstrosity of Mary from Precious. That’s why images of Rainbow’s postpartum depression and Van harvesting her daughter’s urine to pass a drug test take on heightened value: They provide human, flawed contrasts to Clair’s effortless and perpetual role modeling.
Of course, both Van and Rainbow were created by men as well. If anything, what happened with Cosby has taught us to embrace our skepticism, to be leery of heralding any one artist as some sort of racial savior.
All of this is one massive, foggy, uncomfortable gray area. Actors have a significant hand in shaping their characters and making them memorable. At least part of the mental calculus that allows us to still enjoy these characters is that we could see the actresses behind them as victims of a sort. (Both Gwyneth Paltrow, who portrayed de Lesseps in Shakespeare in Love, and Uma Thurman, the martial arts assassin behind Kill Bill’s Kiddo, came forward with allegations against Weinstein.)
But even that doesn’t work with Clair. After all, no matter how much Phylicia Rashad poured into Clair, she’s also the person who dismissed Cosby’s victims as pawns in a game of tearing down an important black cultural legacy.
Rather than remaining quiet, Rashad went the Cate Blanchett route, defending Clair’s creator when the tide had turned against him. “Forget these women,” Rashad told Showbiz 411’s Roger Friedman about Cosby’s accusers in 2015. “What you’re seeing is the destruction of a legacy. And I think it’s orchestrated. I don’t know why or who’s doing it, but it’s the legacy. And it’s a legacy that is so important to the culture.”
Hell, maybe we don’t want to give Rashad that residuals direct deposit either.
But there were so many things to admire about Clair. We’d like to think that if she lived in the real world and knew what Bill Cosby was doing, she’d condemn him too. After all, one of the most popular clips of her on the internet is one that’s remembered as “Clair’s feminist rant.”
Before we had the black women writers of Feministing and the Crunk Feminist Collective, we had Clair. Before we had Beyoncé standing on a stage at the MTV Awards with the word “FEMINIST” behind her, before we had Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Melissa Harris-Perry, we had Clair. Before we had Michelle Obama telling a convention full of women that fathers don’t babysit their own children, we had Clair. She was a rare pop culture representation of a black feminist, someone who brought gender theory out of the ivory tower and into everyday life, with everyday words.
Clair was the woman who kindly but firmly informed her daughter’s boyfriend that she does not exist to “serve” Dr. Huxtable. Clair was the woman who said, “That … is what marriage is made of. It is give and take, 50-50. And if you don’t get it together and drop these macho attitudes, you are never gonna have anybody bringing you anything anywhere anyplace anytime EV-AH.”
And then there’s Rashad, the person who said “forget those women.” Rashad later said she was “misquoted.” But even when she clarified her comments, Rashad did something that was extremely common before the #MeToo movement gained steam last year. She weighed the cultural impact of one man and made it more important than the harm he’d done to any one woman. And for most of human history, that’s been the status quo.
We’re finally acknowledging how screwed up it is to make one man too big to fail. When women come forward, we’re starting to see them as human beings just as deserving of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as the talented men who harmed them. Finally, maybe just a little bit, women are becoming people.
And perhaps we can appreciate Clair Huxtable for helping us get there, even as we turn our attention to new battles we can only hope she’d support.
I was taught to respect my elders, and I abide by that teaching. I was an erstwhile Cosby kid, and I saw myself in A Different World. I respect the legacy of Camille Cosby, who carved herself out of whole cloth as a philanthropist, a curator, a convener of black spaces and a representation of black womanhood. For all that she has done and all that she’s been through — she’s lost two of her five children: a son to gun violence in 1997 and a daughter to renal failure in February — she’s worthy of the respect we have afforded her.
That said, she has opened up another space around her, and around her predatory husband, which now requires a different conversation. One steeped in pain.
Thursday, a week after Bill Cosby was convicted of three counts of felony sexual assault, Camille Cosby took to social media to defend her husband, decry the verdict and declaim the racist history and “lynch mobs” she holds responsible for the undoing of this man and all they stood for.
“Are the media now the people’s judges and juries?” she wrote on Facebook. “Since when are all accusers truthful? History disproves that … for example, Emmett Till’s accuser immediately comes to mind. … This is mob justice, not real justice. This tragedy must be undone not just for Bill Cosby, but for the country.”
My Lord, where to begin? Maybe we should see past Camille Cosby’s words and look to her frame. For much of American history, the stakes for black people have been life and death and the battle lines were clear: It was us, black people, trying to survive, grow, ascend, have dignity, citizenship and rights, versus them, the white people who were trying to deny us all of that. It was a time that required loyalty, that demanded silence by black women in the face of abuse by black men as if the race depended on it because it did. And the silence of these black women helped buy future generations the ability, the purchase and platform, to speak.
It was a coping mechanism for its time, but that time, and some of that pull-you-out-of-bed-and-hang-you-from-a-tree peril, has passed. Not totally, and not for everyone, but significantly enough for Camille Cosby’s invocation of Emmett Till to be a blasphemy. To be a sin and a foolishness. To contribute to the real and perhaps permanent undoing of Camille Cosby herself.
I mourned Bill Cosby as he fell. I came to terms with his con, felt acutely by those of us who remember what the cultural landscape was like before the Cosbys. But we needed to evolve past him and his hectoring, rapey ways.
When I brought Camille Cosby up in an interview about the generational divide in the #MeToo movement earlier this year, before the second Cosby trial, Tricia Rose, author and director of the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America at Brown University, told me, “I want to respect Camille Cosby but I also want to challenge her. She had some other options at some point.”
Perhaps she saw her options as either to defend her husband or leave the perch they had staked their lives on. She’d said little as the sexual abuse allegations unfolded and was not at her husband’s side during the second trial. Perhaps she could have made a solo life for herself, or simply continued going out without him, supporting her own causes. Surely she could have defended her husband without invoking Emmett Till.
Brittney Cooper, a professor of women’s and gender studies at Rutgers University and author of Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower, said a generational shift is underway with regard to black women and abuse. In a general, unrelated conversation that also predated the second trial, she pointed out a larger dynamic. “Very often, what we do is indict folks that came before us for their silence, not understanding what the costs of speaking were, and not understanding that what they are doing in that silence is building the infrastructure, the visibility, the universal representation that makes it possible for a new generation to speak.”
Those new voices have now rushed in with calls for greater accountability, more truth-telling, better support for victims of assault, and all of that is as it should be. At 74, Camille Cosby has been called to a reckoning, a greater complexity with regard to race, abuse and justice, as are we all. Her answer is wrong, an outgrowth of a different time, and indefensible in this moment.
She blames everyone else for her husband’s criminal conviction and ended her Facebook statement with this: “Someday the truth will prevail, it always does.”
But here’s the truth that needs to be said: It is not white people who most feel Bill Cosby’s betrayal, who believe he betrayed you, who understand he must, finally, be held accountable. It’s me. It’s us. It’s victims too long silenced. It’s black women.