Reading Toni Morrison at 17, 25 and 35 It took nearly 20 years, but revisiting ‘Sula,’ I finally saw myself in her words, as only a grown woman can

In the documentary Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, the poet Sonia Sanchez offers a method for reading and understanding the work of her friend, the only black woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize for literature.

“In order to survive,” Sanchez says, “you should reread Toni Morrison every 10 years.”

After the news broke last week that Morrison had died, her death hit with the same intensity one associates with the passing of a beloved auntie. And yet I found comfort in three things. Unlike the beginning of her career as a novelist, when Morrison’s genius was up for debate and her choice to write free of concerns about the opinions of white people raised hackles, the entire world rose up to mourn her and celebrate her many contributions. Second, she graced the earth for 88 years. It didn’t feel as though someone had been prematurely stolen from us, like Lorraine Hansberry dying at age 34 or being forced to say goodbye to Jimmy Baldwin when he was 63. And third, I decided to follow Sanchez’s advice, starting with Sula.

Toni Morrison attends the Carl Sandburg Literary Awards Dinner at the University of Illinois at Chicago Forum on Oct. 20, 2010.

Photo by Daniel Boczarski/FilmMagic

For most of my childhood, Morrison’s works were beautifully crafted abstractions. The words were accessible, and yet admiring them was not the same as understanding them.

When I read Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye, as a high school senior, my approach was practically clinical. I absorbed the work the same way I pored over the words of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn — that is to say, in obsessive pursuit of an “A” — reading and regurgitating literary criticism and taking apart the book’s symbolism, context and ideas. But there was one moment when I connected to Morrison as a black girl.

During a class discussion, a white girl in the nearly all-white class asked the teacher what “high yellow” meant. I piped up because I actually knew the answer. “It’s a couple shades lighter than me,” I explained.

The girl turned and glared at me. “Well, thanks for that, Soraya,” she snarled, and then went on to admonish me for employing such a graphic example. I was confused and a little embarrassed. Why was she angry with me? Why had she reacted with such venom, as though I’d pointed out a deficiency that had embarrassed her? A wall grew between my blackness and that which Morrison had recorded for posterity, and I learned that it was offensive to connect the two. So Pecola Breedlove, the book’s main character, meant about as much to me as Ivan Denisovich. Two fascinating foreigners in two different gulags.

It wasn’t until my 20s — after having studied at Howard, the same university Morrison attended and taught at — that I picked up her work again, dared to see myself in it and read for my own pleasure and edification.

I chose Sula. Morrison’s second novel, published in 1973, is the story of friends Nel Wright and Sula Peace, who grow up in a small town and whose adult lives move in different directions. Probably about 10% of it stuck with me. I remember being enchanted by Sula’s clothing. Wrote Morrison:

She was dressed in a manner that was as close to a movie star as anyone would ever see. A black crepe dress splashed with pink and yellow zinnias, foxtails, a black felt hat with the veil of net lowered over one eye. In her right hand was a black purse with a beaded clasp and in her left a red leather traveling case, so small, so charming — no one had ever seen anything like it before, including the mayor’s wife and the music teacher, both of whom had been to Rome.

Sula had left her tiny community of Medallion, Ohio, for college in Nashville, Tennessee, and had returned worldly, glamorous and uncontainable. I grew up in a small North Carolina town I had no desire to revisit. After spending a summer working in Jackson, Mississippi, and another in Kansas City, Missouri, I realized I had something in common with Sula, which was that the provincial life was not for me. I yearned to be in a real city with black people and public transportation. And like Sula, I didn’t much see the point of marriage.

Those with husbands had folded themselves into starched coffins, their sides bursting with other people’s skinned dreams and bony regrets. Those without men were like sour-tipped needles featuring one constant empty eye. Those with men had had the sweetness sucked from their breath by ovens and steam kettles. Their children were like distant but exposed wounds whose aches were no less intimate because separate from their flesh. They had looked at the world and back at their children, back at the world and back again at their children, and Sula knew that one clear young eye was all that kept the knife away from the throat’s curve.

The married women of Medallion were cautionary tales, especially for a young adult woman with no children. Every time a relative or a stranger made a remark about my potential as a wife and mother, I wanted to scream, the same way I wanted to scream every Thanksgiving in my grandmother’s house when all the women were conscripted into domestic duties while the men got to sit and watch football.

So Sula’s words to her grandmother, Eva, made perfect sense to me. “You need to have some babies. It’ll settle you,” Eva told Sula.

“I don’t want to make somebody else. I want to make myself.”

“Selfish. Ain’t no woman got no business floatin’ around without no man.”

Award-winning New York author Toni Morrison is seen here at the Harbourfront’s International Festival of Authors in Toronto in 1982.

Photo by Reg Innell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

I supposed I, like Sula, would simply be selfish. Sula made sense to me. I didn’t fully grasp why Sula kept bouncing from man to man — I suppose I thought of her as the Samantha Jones of her day — but I understood choosing yourself first.

Their evidence against Sula was contrived, but their conclusions about her were not. Sula was distinctly different. Eva’s arrogance and Hannah’s self-indulgence merged in her, and with a twist that was all her own imagination, she lived out her days exploring her own thoughts and emotions, giving them full reign, feeling no obligation to please anybody unless their pleasure pleased her.

So what if she died young? At least she had the sense to do a little living first. My admiration was superficial and grounded in my own stubborn, rather narrowly defined pursuit of the feminist cause. The darker details of Sula’s life slid by in my mind, and for the next 10 years, I walked around with an incomplete understanding of her.

And then the woman who created Sula died.

Recently, I’d been skipping around Morrison’s essays in The Source of Self-Regard, which, on some level, is a helpful guidebook for how to be a black woman in America without going mad. And I’d seen Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’ wonderful documentary about Morrison.

Her words were still important, but I was mostly obsessed with Morrison’s life and personality. She was a lioness of American literature, yes, but she was also charming, sensual and self-assured. Here was a woman with a Pulitzer and a Nobel Prize grinning as she talked about how good she was at making carrot cakes, how she indulged her sexual appetites as a Howard student without a lick of shame or regret. To Morrison, chasing ambition did not require abandoning pleasure.

Toni Morrison attends Art & Social Activism, a discussion on Broadway with TaNehisi Coates, Morrison and Sonia Sanchez, on June 15, 2016, in New York City.

Photo by Craig Barritt/Getty Images for The Stella Adler Studio of Acting

For some time now, my editor has sent me on assignments and reminded me to have fun. My responses are always halting and awkward because I’m going to work, and work requires focus, and fun just seemed inappropriate.

And yet here was the freest black woman in the world, and she lived her life in such a way that pleasure and style were not antithetical to intellectual rigor. If anything, they fed it. The fact that Morrison was a writer made this seem all the more superhuman. Writing is typically characterized by long bouts of misery rewarded with occasional pearls of short-lived but deeply intense satisfaction. Morrison seemed to have found a way to supply herself with a steady stream of joy.

Rather than living literary goddess, I began to think about Morrison as a fellow writer, a fellow Howard grad, a fellow woman. There were whole worlds in the lives of my mother, my aunts, my grandmothers and their grandmothers that I thought were none of my business because, well, they told me they were none of my business. What did a child need to know about the personal exploits of her ancestors? That was grown folks’ business. I realized that reading Morrison’s books feels like gaining entry into a club of black adulthood. They turn ancestors into contemporaries.

So I revisited Sula last week because Sula, like so much of Morrison’s writing, is a grown woman novel. The fact that Sula slept with her best friend’s husband is, frankly, the least interesting thing about her. I saw Sula through new eyes, as a woman who did a horrible thing as a 12-year-old (accidentally killing Chicken Little by throwing him in the river, where he drowned) and never fully got over it, no matter how hard she tried.

This time, I marveled at Morrison’s freedom. So much focus has been paid, and rightfully so, to how she didn’t seek white validation. But it’s more than that. Morrison possessed the moxie to create whatever world she pleased and follow whatever road beckoned in it. In doing so, she could create a heroine who slept with everyone’s husbands but genuinely didn’t mean anything by it. Who else breaks taboos with such gentle elegance, without the need to shout about it in the prose, but simply allows it to unfold?

Now I think the thing Sula actually spent most of her adult life chasing was joy, the love she felt she deserved, and she kept coming up short. She’d try on a man, then do away with him the moment she knew he didn’t have what she was looking for. And she kept doing it until she met Ajax.

Morrison was unafraid of letting everyone in Medallion regard Sula as a witch while daring to assert how Sula’s presence actually improved the lives of those in her community, whether they recognized it or not. When the people of Medallion don’t have Sula to kick around, they lose the vessel for all their displeasures and frustrations and insecurities and simply fall prey to them again.

This time, I paid closer attention to Nel, Sula’s best friend, and her realization that motherhood will be the most interesting thing about her life. I thought of my friends who are now mothers, and I felt grateful that I am able to make space for their children and their partners in my heart instead of walling myself off from the changes they welcomed in their lives. I got lost in Sula and Nel’s friendship in a way I never had before, and in this passage in particular, when Sula is alone on her deathbed:

While in this state of weary anticipation, she noticed that she was not breathing, that her heart had stopped completely. A crease of fear touched her breast, for any second there was sure to be a violent explosion in her brain, a gasping for breath. Then she realized, or rather, she sensed, that there was not going to be any pain. She was not breathing because she didn’t have to. Her body did not need oxygen. She was dead.

Sula felt her face smiling. “Well I’ll be damned,” she thought, “it didn’t even hurt. Wait’ll I tell Nel.”

It took nearly 20 years, but I finally did what Morrison had been inviting me to do, through decades of writing: to see myself in her words, as only a grown woman can.

Our superheroes get in the act at black comic-con expo Creativity of artists, writers and cosplay characters on display at Black Comix Expo in Brooklyn

It’s been a year since Marvel’s Black Panther was released in theaters. If we’ve learned anything from its Oscar nomination for best picture, the estimated $1.3 billion it grossed and the movements it inspired, it’s that there is an audience craving stories about people of color who are powerful, smart and superheroic.

For many, T’Challa, M’Baku and Shuri were an introduction into a world where black people were not only in the future, they were running it. But the people of color superhero community is vast and established itself well before Wakanda became a household name. You just have to know where to find it.

Attending local comic conventions (cons) that focus on diversity and inclusion, such as the Black Comix Expo in Brooklyn, New York, is one way to do it. On Feb. 10, an estimated 2,000 people filled the halls of the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) to attend the event. They were greeted with a range of activities, from a panel discussion about black women in sci-fi to a cosplay showcase. Patrons were also able to meet roughly 30 local comic illustrators and creators of color and creators and purchase their work.

Deirdre Hollman, 49, is founder of the Black Comics Collective, which co-presented the Expo with BAM. She said the event is important for people who independently publish comics and graphic novels.

“People can connect with community here,” said Hollman.

Hollman sought a racially diverse group of artists whose protagonists and storylines touch on a range of issues, including Afrofuturism (the belief that black people survive and thrive in the future), climate change and code-switching. The “x” in Comix is meant to embrace various types of art and artists, including graphic and literary novelists.

Jerry Craft, an author and illustrator from Harlem, New York, recently published New Kid. The story follows seventh-grader Jordan Banks as he adjusts to a new, prestigious school with very few students who look like him. He deals with colorism, code-switching and new sports such as soccer and squash.

“The story reflects my own upbringing and is meant to offer support to young adult readers in similar situations,” said Craft.

La Borinqueña is a superhero series from Nuyorican graphic novelist Edgardo Miranda-Rodriguez.

La Borinqueña is a superhero series from Edgardo Miranda-Rodriguez, a 48-year-old Puerto Rican activist and graphic novelist who lives and works in Brooklyn. His main character is Marisol Rios De La Luz, an Afro-Boricua woman who leads a double life. She’s a college student studying earth and environmental sciences and a super heroine who can fly and control storms. She lives in Brooklyn and has strong family and cultural ties in Puerto Rico. La Borinqueña, Marisol’s superhero name, is derived from Puerto Rico’s national anthem.

“The story,” said Miranda-Rodriguez, “highlights the impact of climate change and the humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico.”

Ashley Woods, 33, is an illustrator from Chicago. She participated in the Black Comix Expo’s panel discussion on black women in sci-fi. She’s the creator of the comic Millennia War and has worked with various houses to produce comics such as Tomb Raider: Survivor’s Crusade, Niobe and Ladycastle. She’s currently working on Heathen, a comic featuring the female protagonist Aydis. She’s a lesbian Viking warrior and self-proclaimed heathen.

“Now is a good time to be a black woman in comic illustration. People want stories from black creatives. Black Panther really broke a lot of barriers and proved that black creatives can bring in big-budget dollars,” said Woods.

All three artists agreed that there is value in attending cons such as the Black Comix Expo.

Minority creatives and up-and-coming artists are easier to overlook or be priced out of the larger cons. The most popular cons attract around 100,000 attendees or more, and patrons pay entrance fees. In 2018, New York’s Comic Con attracted a record-breaking 250,000 people.

“It’s more intimate,” said Woods. “The big ones are overstimulating. It’s also easier to make money because you are not competing with actors, wrestlers or celebrities. The people who attend are there to support actual artists and buy their work.”

Miranda-Rodriguez added that the expo helps artists connect with community. “These events really promote artists of color, artists who actually have a stake in their characters,” he said.

Craft is a cofounder of the Black Comic Book Festival, along with Hollman, John Jennings and Jonathan Gayles. BCBF takes place at The Schomberg Center in Harlem and has a similar mission to the Black Comix Expo. It just features more patrons, panel discussions, comic book creators and cosplay participants.

“There are a lot of black authors doing really important work, and I would like to add to their narrative by bringing my line of contemporary stories that use humor to tell a message and contemporary stories,” Craft said.

Samira Wiley misses ‘Orange Is the New Black‘ and loves ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ — but also wants to have fun The Maryland native has a penchant for characters who are right on time

Growing up in Samira Wiley’s home, you could tell which day of the week it was by which type of shows were on television.

If it was Tuesday, Thursday or Saturday — her days — the vibe was MTV, VH1 or BET. On Mondays and Fridays, when her younger brother Joshua ruled the remote control, it was all about ESPN. Home was Prince George’s County, Maryland (she grew up in Fort Washington), and it was there that her love of performance and all things entertainment, with a pinch of athleticism, was fostered. When she and Joshua weren’t duking it out over the television, they were changing in and out of sports uniforms, hitting their respective playing fields and tearing it up in the name of competitive sports.

Wiley ran track — cross country. And she played soccer. And basketball. And for just one day, she recalls, her index finger against the side of her face, she played lacrosse. “Me and my brother,” she said, laughing, “we used to play right forward and left forward for the soccer team we were on. … Those were the glory days of my athletic prowess.”

Samira Wiley, a Maryland native, has starred in two TV series that are part of the cultural zeitgeist: Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black and Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

André Chung for The Undefeated

She’s laughing because her days as a would-be superstar athlete are all behind her — unless someone comes a-calling with a sports role that needs to be brought to life. By now, everyone knows that she spent 50 episodes starring as the beloved Poussey on Netflix’s addictive and groundbreaking Orange Is the New Black. Her character’s demise struck a chord.

“For so long, I just wanted to be an actor,” said Wiley, sitting in a suite at the Four Seasons Hotel in Washington, D.C. “When I first got my job on Orange, I was bartending. It was still like a dream. I entered the public consciousness in this show. It … defined me. We talk about getting typecast in my industry, and I didn’t want that to happen after Poussey.”

“It’s just sort of a happy accident that the two shows I’ve been on have permeated our culture in this way.”

The character was killed by a prison guard, which sparked a protest at the fictional female detention facility. The fallout around the killing of Poussey came at a time when national headlines felt eerily familiar and #BlackLivesMatter had perhaps reached peak battle cry. “She was someone I fell in love with,” said Wiley, “and lot of people offered me roles on other things [that] felt [like] Poussey.” Poussey was a young gay woman who made some mistakes and landed in a federal prison. Post-Poussey, the Juilliard-trained Wiley wanted to flex her acting muscles in a way than the world had yet to see.

Wiley says landing her role as Poussey on Orange Is the New Black was like a dream. “When I first got my job on Orange, I was bartending. … I entered the public consciousness in this show. It … defined me.”

André Chung for The Undefeated

And now she’s entering season two of Hulu’s acclaimed The Handmaid’s Tale, a series that many critics say mirrors the Trump era. The show is set in a not-so-far-off future, after the U.S. government has been overthrown by a totalitarian, Christian theonomy. Pure coincidence, considering that the series is based on the 1985 Margaret Atwood novel and the series was filming before the 2016 presidential election. The women in Atwood’s fictional world are subjected to misogyny in a patriarchal society, but over the first season viewers watched them fight for individualism and independence. This all seems very in line with the current political climate and the brave outpouring of women fighting against sexual harassment and assault in the #MeToo era.

“To be honest, I didn’t want to do it,” said Wiley. “Because specifically … of my own journey with my queerness, and that also being a part of the typecast, I didn’t want to keep playing gay characters. I wanted people to see me as other things.” Last year Wiley married Lauren Morelli, whom she met while working on Orange. Morelli is a writer on the show. “I was unfamiliar with Margaret Atwood,” said Wiley, “but my wife wasn’t. [Atwood] is one of her favorite authors. [Lauren] was like, ‘If you’re gonna be gay for somebody, you need to be gay for this. I know you’re out here trying to do your thing and be all the colors of the rainbow, but if you’re gonna do it, this is the one.’ ”

Atwood’s world was white. The series creator, Bruce Miller, wanted to diversify near-future New England. “The decision to have people of color in this world stems … from him saying, ‘I don’t want to make a f—ing TV show with a bunch of white people.’ That’s literally where it stems from … like, ‘I don’t want to be a creator in this [kind of] world right now, even if this is the book.’ ” She says that was nice to hear.

“It’s just sort of a happy accident that the two shows I’ve been on have permeated our culture in this way,” said Wiley. “They’re relevant. They’re saying something that society needs to hear. I think [my future] is about … keeping that voice that’s relevant but also having a fun career.

“I’m very blessed, and I’m happy to be here. … I got into acting because I have a wonderful sense of play. … Sometimes I want to make sure that I remember for myself that, yeah, you also want to play and go put on a wig and be a character that you haven’t been before.”

And maybe one day she’ll wear a sports uniform again.

‘Dribble, fake, shoot, miss, dribble, fake, shoot, swish’ — the basketball poetry of Kwame Alexander  The Newbery Award-winning poet and author is back with a new book, ‘Rebound’

“Dribble, fake, shoot, miss, dribble, fake, shoot, miss, dribble, fake, shoot, miss, dribble, fake, shoot, swish,” said Newbery Medal-winning author, speaker and educator Kwame Alexander. “Eventually, you’re gonna make it. You just gotta keep shooting.”

It’s a metaphor he uses when he speaks to children, encouraging them to overcome their fears. “It’s … that fear of failure,” he said from London, a stop on his world tour. “Whether it be on a quiz, a test, whether it be getting cut from the team, whether it be just something in your life that changed.” Raised in Brooklyn, New York, and Chesapeake, Virginia, Alexander says his goal when writing his books is helping kids embrace the “yes” in life. “Not being afraid of the ‘no’ … letting the challenges come, and building your stamina and your persistence.”

These kinds of sentiments are evident in his 2014 novel The Crossover, which won Alexander the prestigious Newbery — it’s awarded annually by the American Library Association to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children — as well as in his new Rebound, the novel being published Monday.

Like The Crossover, the story is written in free verse with a kind of hip-hop rhythm. The main character is Chuck “Da Man” Bell, the father of twin basketball enthusiasts Josh and Jordan Bell. Rebound takes young readers way back in time to a pivotal summer when young Charlie is sent to stay with his grandparents, four to five hours from his home. There, he discovers basketball and learns more about his family’s past. Chuck Bell is center stage, and in beautiful verse it becomes clear how he became the jazz music-worshipping basketball star his sons look up to.

“To watch her leave this earth,” said the author, “while simultaneously writing about the experience of losing someone … that was hella hard.”

“It was the summer of 1988,” Alexander writes of Chuck, “when basketball gave me wings … I had to learn how to rebound on the court. And off.” The Bell family was introduced in The Crossover. That book followed Josh and Jordan and their hoop dreams. The brothers struggle through an assortment of obstacles that include growing apart during their junior high school years.

After receiving requests for a sequel from readers who wanted more of this authentic, if fictional, family, Alexander realized he wasn’t done with the story line. He wanted to get deep into the life of Charles, and share his backstory. “It felt like I’d sort of left Crossover on sort of a cliffhanger,” he said. “[People] wanted to know what happened to the main character. The only way for me to do that was to look at his life as a child.”

It took Alexander nearly two years to complete Rebound. The hardest part of writing the book was reaching the point of completion. “My mom passed away in the middle of writing it,” said Alexander. He was dealing with a kind of grief already, over some of the things that happen to his Chuck Bell character. “To watch her leave this earth,” said the author, “while simultaneously writing about the experience of losing someone … that was hella hard. But it was empowering for me, too, because I got to write about this experience that I was going through.”

“I wanted to write a book that I would’ve wanted to read when I was in middle school. One way to hook me at that age … is through sports.”

Alexander believes that poetry can change the world. He uses it to inspire and empower young people around the world. Sports, for Alexander is one way to gain their attention.

“I remember being 11, 12 years old and not really caring about the books that my teachers and my parents were making me read,” he said. “I wanted to write a book that I would’ve wanted to read when I was in middle school. One way to hook me at that age … is through sports. And sports are a great metaphor for our lives.”

Smokey Robinson’s music still stirs the soul His iconic songs such as ‘Quiet Storm,’ ‘Just to See Her’ and ‘Cruisin’ define love songs for generations

The man dressed in black stood on the New York stage, strong yet vulnerable. His green eyes sparkled like stained glass windows illuminated by a summer sun. He was singing a song he had to sing. And he’d been singing it as if he were standing in front of a closed door imploring the love of his life to unbolt the lock.

He was building to the song’s climax but not its end. Members of the audience perched on the edge of their seats and leaned in, as if they sought to hold the hand of the man in black: Could he still hit the notes he had in 1965, two decades before? Could he still make the audience feel what it had come to feel, young and in love?

And then he hit the notes ” … ’cause I-i feel-uh eel … one day, I’ll hold you near …” and the audience leapt to its feet with grateful and relieved applause. Smokey Robinson had hit the notes. On that night, as in so many nights before and since, he’d built bridges with his song, bridges that took his audience back to loves gained and lost, loves lost and regained.

Oooo, Baby, Baby.

Now on tour, Smokey continues to sing some of his greatest hits, the soundtrack of so many lives, especially American baby boomers. The great bard of romance, a Motown singer, producer, songwriter and vice president while in his early 20s, turns 78 today.

And from where I sit, if Smokey had only written “Ooo Baby Baby,” he’d merit his place in the Rock and Roll and the Songwriters Halls of Fame.

But the Detroit native has done so much more. The winner of multiple Grammys has written more than 4,000 songs, including hits for his Miracles (“Tracks of My Tears”), Marvin Gaye (“Ain’t that Peculiar”) and Mary Wells (“My Guy”).

During the 1960s, with compositions such as “Shop Around” for his group The Miracles, and “My Girl” for The Temptations, Smokey helped bridge the nation’s racial divide; he gave America a common vocabulary to talk about romantic longing and love. But for all his songs extolling romance and love, you could party with Smokey, too, especially in the ’60s. He encouraged people to do the jerk or the monkey. He sang that dancing was all right and medicinal, too: “I Gotta Dance to Keep from Crying.”

After leaving his Miracles to go solo in the early ’70s, in 1975 he released the album A Quiet Storm. It would later lend part of its name to a mellow radio format, born at Howard University’s WHUR before spreading across the nation. And in the late ’70s, and early ’80s, he introduced a new generation to his music with songs including “Cruisin’ ” and “Being with You,” music that was made for love.

More recently, Smokey released Timeless Love, a collection of songs from Cole Porter, the Gershwins and other authors of the Great American Songbook. Smokey has made his own soulful entries in that book, expanding its scope. Artists from the Beatles and the Rolling Stones to Aretha Franklin, Mobb Deep and the Zapp Band have recorded his songs. Rappers such as J Dilla, Kanye West and Wiz Khalifa have sampled Smokey’s “Much Better Off,” one of the all-time great blue lights in the basement, slow-drag songs.

And on recordings or in live performances, Smokey has sung with everyone from Sheryl Crow to former president Barack Obama, the latter a White House rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

Aided by his faith, Smokey has overcome a wrenching divorce from his first wife Claudette, a longtime member of the Miracles, and an addiction to drugs. The remarried father of three has reached back to help pull others from the clutches of drugs.

Smokey is a rich man who has helped make America so much richer. During the 1960s, he helped unite the nation through his songs. Today, he helps unite the generations.

Late last year, he released a Christmas recording: Christmas Everyday. His life and career have been gifts to us all. Monday is Smokey’s birthday. Let our rejoicing rise.

Ooo, Smokey, Smokey.

Grammy weekend is about fun, but also about music’s ability to change the world ‘I liken these days to the Harlem Renaissance — that sort of artistic revolution.’ – Black Thought

Black Thought, the legendary rapper and front man for the equally legendary Roots crew, takes a break from discussing his hometown Philadelphia Eagles. Like most people in a Gramercy Theater VIP section during the wee hours, the Super Bowl is a hot topic. But Black Thought soon starts talking about music’s Super Bowl — the Grammys, in particular, music’s role in a documenting this period of life. It’s a conversation that has been a constant theme of Grammy weekend — realizing the moment and embracing generational responsibility.

“Twenty years from now it would be dope to be able to say the arts, and not only music, but theater and visual art and literature had a renaissance,” Black Thought said as the final performances of The Roots Jam Sessions rage on a floor above. “I’d love to bring a new awareness to every medium. I liken these days to the Harlem Renaissance — that sort of artistic revolution.”

For fellow Roots brethren, multi-instrumentalist James Poyser, the magnitude of the moment for music, for him, has roots (pun intended) in the troubled yet transformative 1960s. That era turned Motown into a musical religion and made names such as James Brown, Otis Redding and Nina Simone synonymous and vital components of the black American experience. “The music that gave you hope. The music that inspired you to fight these battles. I’m hoping the same thing happens in this era,” Poyser said. “We know what’s going on with you-know-who and everything else that’s going on. We need music to feed our souls.”

Hours earlier, at the red carpet day party thrown by the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP), the songwriting organization made up of more than 650,000 writers, composers and music publishers, the conversation was much the same. Drinks flowed like the Nile at New York’s Standard High Line as DJ D-Nice soundtracked a breathtaking view of the Hudson. Selfies nearly outnumbered hugs and laughs. But tones shifted to a more prideful, even stern demeanor when people spoke individually.

“We’re soldiers. We’re pioneers. We made it through a crazy couple of [months, years] for the world. Yet and still, music is thriving. I feel better than ever,” said ASCAP senior vice president of membership Nicole George-Middleton. “Despite it all, we persevered. We made things happen.”

Representing the full palette of emotions is important as well — that’s the message from production team/Grammy nominees The Stereotypes. Jeremy Reeves and Ray Charles McCollough II, are half of the collective that co-produced Bruno Mars’ “That’s What I Like.” They stress that stepping back and finding peace amid the turmoil is a part of life. “It’s such a serious time in history … The music we made with Bruno is like a break from the seriousness. You need the breath,” said McCollough. Reeves followed up, “Not everyone is gonna watch a suspense movie. You gotta throw some comedy in there sometimes. Not that this music is funny, but it releases those endorphins that make you feel good.”

Shortly before returning to the stage (after Big K.R.I.T.’s performance) Black Thought was still optimistic. The world, at times, is difficult to stomach. The headlines that populate phones, websites and televisions is daunting. And also draining. But for Black Thought, it’s easier to make change to than complain about the symptoms. The time is now. “Sometimes we take the day — today — for granted. It’ll be dope to look back a quarter-century from now to look back and say this was when the tipping point of the greatness that’s about to come began.”

Drake’s strategic silence and the task of a triumphant return The Toronto superstar appears to have recused himself from Grammys — but he’s still at Grammys

A Toronto to New York flight usually takes less than an hour. But don’t expect Drake to stand in line at customs to be in New York this weekend as the Grammys return to Manhattan for the first time in 15 years. For the first time since 2008 — the year before his genre-bending third mixtape, So Far Gone, altered hip-hop’s sound, structure and release pattern — Drake will not be an official part of Grammy festivities. In recent times, music’s biggest night and one of music’s biggest names haven’t exactly seen eye to eye.

Drake’s 2017 More Life was not submitted for 2018 Grammy consideration. According to Billboard’s anonymous source “close to the nomination process,” the decision was Drake’s.

The 35-time nominee has won (only) three times. Drake captured the last two for the huge sales/radio/video/streaming smash “Hotline Bling” and later took to his OVO Sound show on Apple’s Beats 1 to voice frustration. “Even though ‘Hotline Bling’ is not a rap song, the only category they can manage to fit me in is a rap category. Maybe because I’ve rapped in the past, or because I’m black, I can’t figure out why,” he said. “I won two awards last night, but I don’t even want them. … It feels weird for some reason.”

There’s a possibility that he’s still in his feelings a year later. He kind of made his statement with the recent Scary Hours, a duo of songs. The bouncy, anthemic and A-side-ish “God’s Plan” is soon to be a No. 1 pop hit. It and “Diplomatic Immunity” — patented, introspective, sans hook — end Drake’s self-imposed musical sabbatical.

“Even though ‘Hotline Bling’ is not a rap song, the only category they can manage to fit me in is a rap category. Maybe because I’ve rapped in the past, or because I’m black.”

In the nearly a year since “getting back to his regular life,” hip-hop continued to be music’s trendsetter. Kendrick Lamar and Jay-Z were the authors of the year’s most analyzed and celebrated projects — records that dealt with self-atonement and generational and emotional dispositions. Migos and Cardi B dominated airwaves with monster records. Tyler, the Creator dropped a career-defining number. Bruno Mars cemented himself as pop culture’s king. And Toronto’s newest wunderkind, Daniel Caesar, emancipated another layer of The 6’s musical identity with Freudian. The timing of Hours’ release, a week to the day that Grammys weekend kicked off, wasn’t random. Nothing Drake does ever is.

“I’m not sure he’s trying to shake anybody at the Grammys, but I do think what he’s saying is, ‘I’m recharged,’ ” said longtime New York Times pop music critic Jon Caramanica, “Like, ‘That’s cool. Have your party. But I’m coming.’ I assume what he’s saying is ‘The summer is mine.’ ”

In the coming months, rumors of a new Drake album will become reality. He’s been dealing with whether to stay in constant pursuit of immortality, or to fall back and let music figure out how to operate without him. The clues to this tug of war are in his own music, hidden in plain sight.


In his decade-long drive to reach rap’s Mount Olympus, Drake has become the most successful post-808s & Heartbreaks artist. He has best synthesized the DNA of hip-hop and R&B to embody an unfiltered sense of emotion. After So Far Gone’s runaway success, Drake’s mesh of singing and rapping was diagnosed in influential circles as a detriment to rap’s brashness, and/or as a flavor of the moment — nothing sustainable. This made Drake not only an eternal brooder but also (even with his relentless success) an underdog attempting to plant his OVO flag in the center of hip-hop. “[Drake was] driven by feelings,” said Caramanica, “pioneering or popularizing a musical approach that not everybody at that time was on board with.”

Underdog Drake, though, opens the doors for King Drake. From February 2015 to March 2017, Drake released four projects: If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, What A Time To Be Alive with Future, Views and More Life. He embarked on two marathon tours: Summer Sixteen, with Future, and his international leg, the Boy Meets World Tour. Drake was also involved in rap’s most publicized beef since the days of Jay-Z and Nas. Meek Mill vs. Drake was a battle the More Life rapper won, but its aftereffects haunt him.

Drake has been enjoying a tidal wave of success. His fingerprints are all over the musical spectrum, with a king’s ransom of hits: his first No. 1 as a lead artist in “One Dance”; its spiritual twin, “Controlla”; the Tyra Banks-assisted “Child’s Play”; DJ Khaled’s “For Free”; and Rihanna’s international smash “Work.” Statistically, Drake had no peers with his 2016 behemoth Views — he is the first to crack a billion streams on Apple Music.

By his own admission, life at the top of rap’s food chain is exhausting. Sorry if I’m way less friendly, he noted on “Work,” I got n—as trying to end me. “To be completely honest with you, I was having trouble figuring myself in rap at the time,” he said last year. “I was a very defensive individual just coming off the situations I’d come off of.”

I’m not a one-hit wonder, they know all my stuff/ You let me turn into the n—a that you almost was/ I done see a lot of s— and I done been in things/ And I never started nothin’, I just finish things — Drake on French Montana’s “No Shopping” (2016)

So, whether it’s due to Views’ lukewarm critical and social media reception, the anxieties of fame, the claims of his experimentation with ghostwriting or a potluck of the three, it can seem like Drake never had an opportunity to flourish in his global success — even as he’s all smiles courtside.

“Like, ‘That’s cool. Have your party. But I’m coming.’ I assume what he’s saying is, ‘The summer is mine.’ ”

This bellicose introspection has been noted by those closest to him. His producer/creative partner, Noah “40” Shebib, constantly reminded Drake of this moody, at times even messy persona during Views’ recording sessions. “[40] was like, ‘Man you really sound aggressive and defensive,’ ” Drake recalled. And Drake’s mother saw the change in her otherwise jovial only child. In her message at the end of 2017’s “Can’t Have Everything,” she wondered whether Drake’s new alienated attitude would “hold him back in life.”

Nowhere did his mental merry-go-round present itself in more contradictory terms than on More Life. With nearly 90 million global streams in its first 24 hours on Apple Music and 61.3 million global streams in the same time frame on Spotify, Life was more critically embraced than Views. Drake had seemingly entered a new chapter: applying pressure on rap’s jugular. N—-s see me in person/ First thing they say is, ‘I know you need a break,’ he rhymes on “Sacrifices.” Hell, nah, I feel great/ Ready now, why wait?

Between Jan. 21, 2017, when he recorded “Sacrifices,” and Life’s release on March 18, Drake’s mentality seemed to change. His breaking point arrived on Life’s melancholy “Do Not Disturb.” He reminisced on the Views era: Yeah, ducked a lot of spiteful moves/ I was an angry youth when I was writing Views, he confessed. Saw a side of myself that I just never knew/ I’ll probably self-destruct if I ever lose/ But I never do.

“Disturb” wasn’t just Life’s final song. It was the last song he recorded for the project — a bon voyage to rap, a la Jay-Z’s “Dear Summer.” More importantly, the curtain call held the album’s most important revelation. Take summer off, ’cause they tell me I need recovery/ Maybe gettin’ back to my regular life will humble me/ I’ll be back in 2018 to give you the summary … More Life.

“Everybody who has the throne loses the throne. That’s just the definition of the throne. It’s got nothing to do with Jay [Z], [Kanye West], Drake or any individual,” said Caramanica. “Rather than continue to pump out music and sort of be in perpetual competition, the healthiest thing to do was to step away.”

Drake, in essence, dropped More Life and went on about living his. There were no videos from the project, nor was there a need to rush out singles. As a result, Drake’s 430-week run of at least one song on the Billboard Hot 100 — a run, by context, that spanned all but 124 days of Barack Obama’s tenure as president — was snapped. He let go. Almost as if to say, “I’ve done this at such a high level for such a long time. I’m confident enough to walk away. I need to walk away.”

There was his short-lived fling with Jennifer Lopez, a romance Drake characteristically translated to his music. He paid homage to his Toronto superstar prophyte Vince Carter in a candid sit-down with basketball stars LeBron James and Chris Bosh. He further embedded himself with his hometown Toronto Raptors by co-designing the team’s City Edition jerseys. Drake donated $200,000 to Hurricane Harvey victims, and tragedy struck even closer to home as he served as pallbearer at the funeral of his friend Anthony “Fif” Soares.

Drake’s vow of a 2018 “summary” has interesting timing. He returns at a time when his two most high-profile associates-turned-competitors, Kendrick Lamar and Jay-Z, are celebrated for projects (both of which released after More Life) that largely helped shape the conversation in hip-hop last year. Both DAMN. and 4:44 are nominated for album of the year at the Grammys. “The type of record that Jay made can only be made by someone who is middle-aged and reflective,” Caramanica said, “[whereas] Kendrick’s [project] is political, socially aware, religiously invested. It’s a much more earthy, grounded endeavor. It’s just not what Drake does.”

Maybe. At 31, Drake’s portfolio continues to expand. The most successful rapper 35 and under/ I’m assuming everybody’s 35 and under, he waxed on 2016’s “Weston Road Flows.” That’s when I plan to retire, man, it’s already funded. Whether 35 is a hard date is a question better left for the year 2021. For now, as he said last year, leaving music is off in the distance. “But,” he told The Hollywood Reporter, “I do plan on expanding — to take six months or a year and do some great films.”

Since the turn of the century, Pharrell, Kanye West and Drake represent the holy trinity of songcraft. While the (warranted) debate rages about whether, in fact, Drake has a classic album to his name, there is no debate about his ability to shift conversations and birth new dialogues. Drake’s credibility lives and dies on him being Drake: the emo, wickedly selfish yet fiercely loyal, boastful, successfully paranoid extroverted introvert and modern-day Billy Dee Williams who can’t seem to find love in any of the strip clubs he frequents.

“I think if you look at earlier artists who have some version of the throne, where they may have gone wrong is chasing a younger sound when they were trying to fit in a place where they didn’t naturally fit in,” said Caramanica. “My hope is that Drake will be astute enough to not do that.”

Meet motivator, author and life/relationship coach Stephan Labossiere ‘Women were digesting the information and wanted more of it’

Life coaches and motivational speakers have been around for centuries, inspiring by their work, expounding pearls of wisdom to the masses and helping heal communities. These coaches are similar to an athletic coach pushing his or her players in the last crucial moments of a championship game. In The Undefeated’s new The Motivational Speaker series, stories will spotlight several individuals who uplift others as either authors, trainers, social media vocalists or, most importantly, listeners.

A vast majority of us have been there.

The stunning reality of a failed relationship can cause us to become hurt and heartbroken, calloused and damaged. It’s something relationship and dating coach Stephan Labossiere has witnessed time and time again with clients, direct responses from fans and his own personal experiences. Instead of feeling helpless, Labossiere was determined to make a difference. In a career-changing decision, Labossiere became a popular relationship expert, amassing over 2 million followers across such social media platforms as @StephanSpeaks.

“One reason, of course, is God,” Labossiere said. “It’s just what God led me to do, and I never in a million years thought I would be doing this.”

Labossiere definitely was not into writing and hated it in high school and college. But he understood how real the struggle was for people hurting and how much toxic relationships affect society. In his words, “I’m just a guy trying to do what God wants me to do. My main message is: You need to heal. Everybody needs healing. It doesn’t matter what you’re dealing with, if you don’t let go of the past and negative energy, then you’re only going to hold yourself back.”

An author with an analytical mind …

Originally from Queens, New York, Labossiere was uprooted to Miami as the lone boy (also a twin) in a house with three sisters.

“My family is filled with women, so I’ve been around women all the time growing up,” the current Atlanta resident said.

Being surrounded by women during childhood proved to be advantageous, as most of Labossiere’s following is composed of women from across the world. Except for two books from his collection — How to Get a Woman to Have Sex with You If You’re a Husband (2011) and He Who Finds a Wife: A Man’s Guide to Finding the Woman & Love He Desires (2015) — Labossiere’s books are mostly consumed by a female audience.

“People assume, but I didn’t make my audience women,” Labossiere said. “It just worked out that way because that’s who kept coming back. Women were digesting the information and wanted more of it.”

As Labossiere’s career gained traction, the relationship coach decided to expand his reach by writing a book for single women. At the time, it would be called That’s the Problem with Single Women. Yet Labossiere, a techie with a degree in management information systems, had a difficult time trying to write about those perceived “problems.” Frustrated and in financial despair, he prayed and asked God for guidance. “What do you want me to do?” Upon receiving direction as to how his book should actually flow, Labossiere needed a refresher on the Book of Ruth, Boaz’s wife in the Bible, and finished writing God Where Is My Boaz? in two months. The 2013 publication is Labossiere’s most successful book.

“A lot of dating books are either very mainstream, very secular or so preachy that they are not really practical at all,” Labossiere said. “It’s just pray, pray, pray and some verses of Scripture and you’re good to go. But in this book, both sides are merged with a spiritual foundation and more practicality.”

“Fix your perception first.”

When Labossiere makes his points on social media, people listen and pay close attention to his online posts. His followers are either sharing, retweeting and/or liking quotes from one of his three relationship books. However, Labossiere is now eagerly looking forward to publishing a full-length version of a fourth book, 7 Things You Should Know for the Man God Has for You, which is currently available in short form as an e-book.

“This book is going to hit harder because God Where is My Boaz? was more of a foundational piece,” he said with passion. “7 Things You Should Know for the Man God Has for You will help break some things down as far as a lot of women getting caught up in the wrong situation and confusing things, such as ‘Is this guy from God?’ The first chapter, which I’m very passionate about, examines how people say there isn’t enough men in the world for every woman. I despise when any Christian or spiritual person says that, because you’re going to tell people God can give them whatever they want, but when it comes to relationships, he’s limited there? I wanted to address it once and for all. If you don’t believe it can happen, then it’s not going to happen. There are other subjects I touch on, but I feel really good about this book.”

Don’t expect Labossiere to sugarcoat the truth to make it easy for you to digest. He truly believes “it’s important for us to embrace taking action and knowing our part in producing the things we want in our lives.” But what is the identifying substance that sets his books aside from the countless other life-affirming, do this to fix that, ’cause I’m an expert cornucopia of relationship encyclopedias?

“I’m going to tell you what you need to do, but I’m telling you with love and a genuine desire for you to win. I think once you understand if your energy is in the right place and you’re talking to someone correctly and present yourself in a proper manner, then they’re going to be more receptive to it.”

When asked about a favorite quote, Labossiere reflected on a Milton Berle meme he recently read: If opportunity doesn’t knock, create a door.

“I think too many people, especially Christians, are sitting back waiting for stuff to come to them and not understanding you’re supposed to go to it but with God’s guidance,” Labossiere said. “I’m not a biblical scholar, but the few times I’ve read the Bible, any story about someone getting great things, there was a process and things that person had to do. It wasn’t like he told Moses, ‘Just chill right here, I’m going to bring the promised land to you.’ No, you have to walk through all this and deal with xyz — and this is how you get there.”

An unofficial ‘Queen Sugar’ reading list derived from each episode title The epic drama has a treasure trove of writing by black authors

From its all-female roster of directors to its richly saturated cinematography to its truthful, raw dialogue that will have you grabbing Kleenex after Kleenex, Queen Sugar has been one of the most wholly original television shows on the air since its debut in 2016.

So it makes perfect sense that embedded within all but one episode title of season two is an unofficial reading list. As the title flashes in before the episode’s start, it has been eye-catching to notice that each one is named after poems, novels and anthologies by black writers from the Harlem Renaissance era — in particular the poet Countee Cullen.

With director Ava DuVernay at the helm, Queen Sugar’s show execs have done a phenomenal job of paying homage to the past while lifting up contemporary artists of the present. On the cusp of the season two finale, here is a breakdown of how these poems, anthologies and novels relate to the themes of this roller coaster of a season.


Queen Sugar season two, episode one — After the Winter

After the Winter by Claude McKay

Some day, when trees have shed their leaves

And against the morning’s white

The shivering birds beneath the eaves

Have sheltered for the night,

We’ll turn our faces southward, love,

Toward the summer isle

Where bamboos spire the shafted grove

And wide-mouthed orchids smile.

In the season two opener, the Bordelons are facing their own unique and formidable challenges. Nova (Rutina Wesley) is reeling from the aftermath of her breakup with married cop Calvin by taking multiple lovers. Ralph Angel (Kofi Siriboe) is processing the news that their father left the land to him alone while reconciling his relationship with Darla (Bianca Lawson), the mother of his child. Charley (Dawn Lyen-Gardner) is still hurt divorcing her cheating baller husband, Davis (Timon Kyle Durrett). Their son, Micah (Nicholas L. Ashe), has a terrifying encounter with a police officer on his 16th birthday. McKay’s poem about finding solace after suffering through a proverbial winter is especially fitting for this episode. Where will the Bordelons find solace after their personal winters?

Queen Sugar season two, episode two — To Usward

To Usward by Gwendolyn B. Bennett

And let us be contained

By entities of Self. . . .

Not still with lethargy and sloth,

But quiet with the pushing of our growth.

Not self-contained with smug identity

But conscious of the strength in entity.

But let us break the seal of years

With pungent thrusts of song,

For there is joy in long-dried tears

For whetted passions of a throng!

To Usward definitely speaks to themes of the episode, as Micah processes his traumatic encounter with the police and Nova organizes a bail fund rally to raise money for people who can’t afford to bail themselves out. This episode represents the struggle that people of color often endure to retain humanity in the face of an unforgiving, institutionalized criminal justice system.

Queen Sugar season two, episode three — What Do I Care for Morning

What Do I Care for Morning by Helene Johnson

What do I care for morning,

For the glare of the rising sun,

For a sparrow’s noisy prating,

For another day begun?

Give me the beauty of evening,

The cool consummation of night,

And the moon like a love-sick lady,

Listless and wan and white.

Johnson declaring her love of night over day is an extended metaphor representing her love of people of color in a mostly white society that explains, in covert and overt ways, that loving blackness is a sin. In this episode the themes are seen in Nova’s sparring and later bonding with love interest Dr. DuBois (Alimi Ballard) over how best to uplift African-Americans in the face of institutional racism, and again with Ralph Angel and Micah as they share their traumatic experiences with each other, and Ralph Angel comforts his nephew Micah. The scenes show how the black family chooses to love each other over and over again, even when they don’t always agree.

Queen Sugar season two, episode four — My Soul’s High Song

My Soul’s High Song, anthology of poems by Countee Cullen

An anthology of poetry and prose from one of the most prominent voices of the Harlem Renaissance.

As usual, Charley and Ralph Angel argue over their methods of tending to the farm, revealing the ever-present distance between the siblings, including privilege, wealth, access and skin tone. One of the recurring themes in Cullen’s work is the emotional fallout of America’s continuous unfair treatment of black citizens. It is fitting that this anthology serves as the title of this episode.

Queen Sugar season two, episode five — Caroling Dusk

Caroling Dusk, a 1927 anthology of poems edited by Countee Cullen

Cullen’s purpose in creating this anthology was to highlight “lights and shades of difference” in poetry by black writers, as he wrote in the book’s introduction. The focal point of this episode presents Charley and Darla as a set of contrasts as they both try to rebuild their lives. Charley is strong-willed, determined, confident and outspoken, while Darla is more tentative and introspective. However, they have more in common than what seems to be on the surface, as Charley struggles with her grief for the dissolution of her marriage. Darla is much stronger than she seems, as she applies for jobs after getting fired and eventually becomes Charley’s personal assistant.

Queen Sugar season two, episode six — Line of Our Elders

Lines to Our Elders by Countee Cullen

Here’s the difference in our dying:

You go dawdling, we go flying.

Here’s a thought flung out to plague you:

Ours the pleasure if we’d liever

Burn completely with the fever

Than go ambling with the ague.

While the episode is titled Line of Our Elders, it is so similar to Cullen’s poem Lines to Our Elders that it must be another homage to this writer. Ralph Angel finally comes clean about who their farm truly belongs to. Charley nearly has a panic attack after a malfunction during the opening of her sugar processing mill. The grief she never expressed over her father’s death comes pouring out in front of the family and members of the press. Both Nova and Charley are hurt that Ralph Angel didn’t tell them about the land being left only to him and express their feelings about the fact that their father excluded them. That last couplet in Lines to Our Elders in particular relates because the episode shows the problems that occur when problems fester and individuals hold feelings within (go ambling with the ague) rather than face the truth head-on (burn completely with the fever).

Queen Sugar season two, episode seven — I Know My Soul

I Know My Soul by Claude McKay

And if the sign may not be fully read,

If I can comprehend but not control,

I need not gloom my days with futile dread,

Because I see a part and not the whole.

Contemplating the strange, I’m comforted

By this narcotic thought: I know my soul.

This episode shows how the characters view themselves by their late father after hearing the amended will that leaves the land solely to Ralph Angel, after they believed the land was left to all three of them. Viewers experience a rift form between the Bordelon siblings as Charley begins to question what she’s doing and where she is going after learning about what she believes are Ernest’s (Glynn Turman) true feelings about her. None of these characters are in control.

Queen Sugar season two, episode eight — Freedom’s Plow

Freedom’s Plow by Langston Hughes

If the house is not yet finished,

Don’t be discouraged, builder!

If the fight is not yet won,

Don’t be weary, soldier!

BETTER DIE FREE,

THAN TO LIVE SLAVES.

This poem certainly echoes themes of episode eight. Nova and Dr. DuBois constantly debate throughout their relationship. Viewers finally discover what happened to Micah the night he was arrested in a heartbreaking scene played beautifully by Ashe. In the scene, Micah describes how the arresting officer put his gun in his mouth and threatened to kill him. The episode shows how these questions manifest themselves in everyday encounters and how they affect the most vulnerable among us.

Queen Sugar season two, episode nine — Yet Do I Marvel

Yet Do I Marvel by Countee Cullen

Yet do I marvel at this curious thing:

To make a poet black, and bid him sing!

In this episode, Charley finally learns what happened to Micah when he was arrested, and she blames herself for not preparing him enough for how harsh the world is for young black men and women. The episode introduces Charley’s mother, Lorna, who is white. Suddenly we gain a better understanding of Charley — why she grew up apart from Nova and Ralph Angel, the distance between the three siblings, and why Charley has struggled to determine where she truly belongs.

Queen Sugar season two, episode 10 — Drums at Dusk

Drums At Dusk, a 1939 novel about the Haitian Revolution in 1791, by Arna Bontemps

It is fitting that Drums at Dusk — a novel that explores the connection between wealthy plantation owners, poor whites, free people of color and the slaves who staged the largest and most successful slave rebellion in the Western Hemisphere — is the title of this episode. We see these themes of land, money, blood and power in Charley’s ongoing conflict with the Landrys, who used to be the only family with power and land in the parish. And they are determined to take away what little of both the Bordelons have managed to attain. Charley is undermined by the Landrys in ways great and small, and it is a conflict that her mother, as much as she loves her, simply cannot understand because she has never experienced the racism and sexism Charley has come up against her entire life.

Queen Sugar season two, episode 11 — Fruit of the Flower

Fruit of the Flower by Countee Cullen

And yet my father’s eyes can boast

How full his life has been;

There haunts them yet the languid ghost

Of some still sacred sin.

Cullen’s poem about his ambivalence about the two sides of his heritage fits the theme of this episode, as this is when we learn about the true nature of the relationship between Charley’s mom, Lorna (played by Sharon Lawrence), and Nova and Ralph Angel’s mom and their father, Ernest.

Queen Sugar season two, episode 13 — Heritage

Heritage by Countee Cullen

What is Africa to me:

Copper sun or scarlet sea,

Jungle star or jungle track,

Strong bronzed men, or regal black

Women from whose loins I sprang

When the birds of Eden sang?

Cullen’s poem asks important questions: “Who am I?” “How do I hold on to my humanity in the face of chaos?” And in this episode of Queen Sugar, each character asks these questions in some form or another. Darla’s parents return after a years-long estrangement; Remy and Charley ponder what next steps they should take in their budding romantic relationship; and by the end, Darla’s father encourages her to reveal a painful secret that has devastating consequences: Ralph Angel might not be Blue’s father.

Queen Sugar season two, episode 14 — On These I Stand

On These I Stand, an anthology of poems self-selected by Countee Cullen, which was published a year after his death in 1946

Charley and Nova face professional challenges, while Ralph Angel slowly unravels in the wake of the news about Blue possibly not being his son.

Queen Sugar season two, episode 15 — Copper Sun

Copper Sun, a 1927 collection of poetry by Countee Cullen

Cullen’s third book of poetry, where he discusses love and race relations in more oblique terms, serves as the title of the penultimate episode of season two. Ralph Angel tells Charley, Nova, Aunt Vi and Hollywood about Blue, and the whole family feels the reverberations of Darla’s secret. And Darla, who has worked so hard to regain the Bordelons’ trust, appears to have lost it forever. Meanwhile, Micah faces suspension after he channels his Aunt Nova and protests the display of Confederate memorabilia at his posh private school. Each member of the Bordelon family faces the consequences of his actions — or inactions.

Five breast cancer organizations that help communities of color Black women are 40 percent more likely to die from the disease — and these places are trying to change that

Black is the new pink. This is a strong statement that could ring true when attributed to the alarming rising death rates among black women with breast cancer.

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and each year, millions come together for a variety of events to show their solidarity and support. While breast cancer affects women of all ethnicities, it is unfortunately now more fatal for black women.

Breast cancer is the most common cancer among black women, and they are 40 percent more likely than any other group to die from the disease. The newest study from the American Cancer Society published in October shows that lack of insurance is linked to higher breast cancer rates in black women.

According to a 2015 report from the American Cancer Society, studies show “breast cancer rates among African-American women in the United States are continuing to increase. For decades, African-American women had been getting breast cancer at a slower rate than white women, but that gap is now closing.”

The findings in CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians and in Breast Cancer Facts & Figures 2015-2016, two reports that are published every two years, reveal that “from 2008 to 2012, breast cancer incidence rates increased 0.4% per year in black women and 1.5% per year among Asian/Pacific Islanders and remained stable among whites, Hispanics, and American Indian/Alaska Natives. In fact, the black-white disparity in breast cancer death rates has increased over time; by 2012, death rates were 42% higher in black women than white women.” The authors of the report say that trend is expected to continue. “Black women are more likely than other racial/ethnic groups to be diagnosed at later stages and have the lowest survival at each state of diagnosis. They are also more likely to be diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer, an aggressive subtype that is linked to poorer survival.”

Although organizations such as Susan G. Komen have gained great popularity in awareness efforts over the years, there is work still to be done to reach the communities most at risk. Additionally, many well-known organizations, including Komen, have been linked to reports that reveal breast cancer donations are not being put to good use.

According to USA Today in a report from The New York Times, “the organization’s reputation was damaged slightly after a decision in 2012 to cut its grants that funded breast cancer screening and outreach programs at Planned Parenthood erupted into controversy. The group quickly reversed its decision.”

From partnering with companies that produce cancer-causing products to giving little money to actual breast cancer research, some of the bigger breast cancer organizations have actually contributed to the chasm between breast cancer awareness and breast cancer action.

Luckily, some have acknowledged this void and have created organizations that decrease the impact of breast cancer while prioritizing the black woman’s experience in the process.

If you’re looking for an organization to support in the fight against breast cancer, with an emphasis on those who are affected the most, we’ve compiled a list of groups that are punching well above their weight.


1) Sisters Network Inc., founded by breast cancer survivor Karen E. Jackson, is an organization centered on sisterhood and camaraderie for African-American women battling breast cancer. When Jackson learned of her own diagnosis in 1994, she didn’t have a representative support system to help her through the difficult time, so she created one. Jackson recognized how important it is that women have other women who they can relate to and share commonalities with other than this disease, without the divisiveness of race and socioeconomic factors getting in the way. Sister Network’s mission is to help bring awareness to the impact that breast cancer has on the African-American community. The hope is that this specialized awareness will influence early detection and help save more lives. Donations to the organization can be made with confidence, as programs such as the Sister House display just how appropriately their funding is spent. Sister Network’s Sister House is the nation’s first temporary home for African-American breast cancer survivors to meet, bond and receive supportive services while undergoing treatment at the Texas Medical Center.

2) The African American Breast Cancer Alliance is committed to spreading awareness and providing resources and support to black women and families who are affected by breast cancer. Survivor Reona Berry, along with a team of dedicated women, recognized that black women tend to have more aggressive and deadly breast cancers and can benefit the most from more frequent screenings. Together, they founded the African American Breast Cancer Alliance to promote awareness, early detection and prevention. Realizing that representation matters, this alliance provides emotional and social support to black women patients and survivors, with programs and information designed with a culturally specific emphasis on women of color. Donations to this organization go directly to rehabilitation programs, health fairs, support groups and annual celebrations.

3) Black Women’s Health Imperative, founded in 1983, is still the nation’s only health organization dedicated solely to improving the overall wellness of African-American women and girls. Through programs, policy and advocacy, and research translation, this organization seeks to help black women live longer, healthier lives. Its #WeRefuse initiative focuses on breast cancer, and through it the organization provides resources and information to ensure that fewer black women die from the disease. With a goal of increasing the number of healthy black women from 9.5 million to 12.5 million by 2020, each donation will go toward services, resources and research to make this goal a reality. From college chapters of young black women spreading health information to a full index of black women’s health data, this organization is putting its resources to good use.

4) Sisters by Choice (SBC), founded in 1989 by the prominent Atlanta-based breast surgeon Dr. Rogsbert Zell Phillips, exists to provide support services, education and early detection to women fighting breast cancer. Unfortunately, a key cause of the high mortality rate for women of color is the lack of resources and access to quality health care. Sisters by Choice aims to eliminate the access barrier and bring quality care to those who may have difficulty receiving it and has created the Sisters By Choice Mobile Clinic that comes right to communities in need. SBC aims to increase the survival rate of breast cancer patients by offering free mammograms and breast exams to uninsured and underserved women in Georgia. With a breast specialist doctor on site, the SBC Mobile Clinic offers full-service health care, which, besides breast exams, also includes “remote radiology support, comprehensive diagnostic testing, i.e., ultrasound, needle biopsy, stereotactic biopsy, minor surgery, breast MRI, patient navigation and prevention education, treatment referral and access to clinical trials,” according to its site. The SBC Mobile Clinic aims to reach 3,000 women each year, and donations can help make this possible. Donors can be sure that their offerings to SBC will go toward providing breast cancer prevention and early detection services to women who may otherwise go without.

5) Smith Center for Healing and the Arts, founded in 1996, is a Washington, D.C.-based organization that focuses on nonprofit health, education and arts. For years, the Smith Center has operated a creative breast cancer awareness program specifically designed for low-income black women in D.C. Its Patient Provider Education Project connects health providers to African-American breast cancer survivors in an effort to collectively develop broad avenues to healing. At the Smith Center, a distinction is drawn between curing, which is medically induced, and healing, which is believed to be a deeper, more experiential process, and the center is fully committed to both. The Smith Center is another surefire donation choice, as it was recognized by the Catalogue for Philanthropy as one of the best small charities in the Northeast region for the 2016-17 year.

There are many breast cancer organizations to support as breast cancer research continues. However, with breast cancer being the second-leading cause of death for African-American women, it would not hurt to lend support to a few lesser-known organizations that are providing special attention to the ones who are affected the most.