Leslie Jones may be gone, but a change still needs to come to ‘SNL’ The show enters its 45th season still struggling to shake its white-bread image

Saturday Night Live is The House That Lorne Michaels Built. Perhaps it’s finally due for a teardown.

This time, it’s the departure of Leslie Jones that’s prompting a re-evaluation of the show, along with the hiring of the show’s first Asian cast member, Bowen Yang, and the hiring — and then firing — of comedian Shane Gillis. Gillis was let go just four days after the show announced that he would be joining its 45th season because of backlash over his history of using anti-gay jokes and racist slurs.

Gillis’ dismissal might indicate that the cultural shifts taking place in the country have at last announced themselves at SNL, the country’s premier sketch comedy show and one of the few non-sports shows that Americans still watch together live.

What does any of this have to do with Jones?

After five years and three Emmy nominations, Jones, 52, is leaving SNL to pursue other projects, including hosting the reboot of Supermarket Sweep, a role in the Coming to America sequel, a role opposite Kristen Bell in the dark comedy Queenpins and a Netflix comedy special.

Like the six black women who preceded her on SNL, Jones was saddled with an unfair challenge. These women could either find ways to be deferential to the structure that Michaels had built, even when it did not suit their talents, or they could leave. Even though Maya Rudolph found a way to flourish at Saturday Night Live, she also talked about how the show was inhospitable to black women. In Jones’ case, succeeding meant finding ways to break out, even as she was repeatedly portrayed as uncultured, ham-handed, undesirable and lacking self-awareness.

The decision to keep going to those wells was deliberate but not necessary. One of Jones’ best sketches is a send-up of House Hunters that she did with Liev Schrieber. And yet it’s a rare example of a sketch in which her perceived personal deficiencies as a black woman are not the butt of the joke.

“I still feel my blackness is objectified, as opposed to individualized, in the way white people are,” Ellen Cleghorne, the first black woman to last more than one season on SNL, told Slate in 2018. “There’s 10 white boys on that show. Each one of them are individuals, they bring something special … there’s always tokenism. It’s very dangerous.”

Black women were sprinkled through the show’s history like truffle shavings — in 44 years on the air, only seven (Yvonne Hudson, Danitra Vance, Cleghorne, Rudolph, Sasheer Zamata, Jones and Ego Nwodim) have ever been part of the cast. Yang will be the first Asian cast member in the show’s history. That rarity points to deeper problems within SNL, ones that were highlighted in a short-lived show called Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.


In 2006, the same year 30 Rock debuted, NBC aired another show that looked at the palace intrigue inside a popular weekly sketch comedy program. Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, created by Aaron Sorkin, lasted just 22 episodes. But it did bring out an issue endemic at SNL: The writing for black cast members frequently relied on stereotypes processed through the white gaze.

In one interaction in episode six, the show’s new black castmate, Simon Stiles (D.L. Hughley) pleads with head writer and executive producer Matt Albie (Matthew Perry) to hire black writers. Stiles confronts Albie at an episode wrap party. He wants Albie to accompany him to a comedy club to check out a set from a comic who is black.

“I’d like to see more black writers on your staff, or a black writer on your staff,” Stiles tells him.

Moments beforehand, Albie had been entertaining a trio of young women, trying to get them to understand what a big deal he is, when one of them spots Stiles and says, “OMG, it’s Simon Stiles! Do you know him?”

Frustrated that the women don’t recognize his authority over the show, Albie half shouts, half growls his answer: “He works for me!”

But minutes later, when Albie answers Stiles about hiring a black writer, his actions are frustratingly familiar. Suddenly, the man upset that three strangers don’t understand the importance of his job is powerless to change a situation created by his predecessors. He completely absolves himself of responsibility for the fact that the show’s writing staff is all white, even though he makes the hiring decisions. Then he gets defensive.

“I still feel my blackness is objectified, as opposed to individualized, in the way white people are,” Ellen Cleghorne, the first black woman to last more than one season on SNL, told Slate in 2018.

Photo by NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

“It’s not my staff,” Albie says. “I didn’t hire these guys. Ricky and Ron did. As the contracts run out, we’ll see what’s what. Is this a diversity issue? … Am I not writing well enough for you? You think I need to bring in help from the bullpen once in a while to write for a black guy?”

“I think there’s comedy to be found in experiences that are far removed from your own,” Stiles answers. “And I think there’s a dramatic and musical language in which you’re not fluent.”

“It’s insulting to me that there are no black writers in the room,” Stiles says.

“It’s insulting to me that you think I need help!” Albie shoots back.

Though it appears in a fictional drama, the confrontation between Stiles and Albie captures a dynamic that prevented SNL from consistently developing a smarter approach to using its minority castmates.


But Jones began as a writer. Shouldn’t she have had more power over the material she performed than most do? Maybe. And yet she still found herself pigeonholed as the butt of jokes that reinforced her perceived lack of desirability and painted her as a sexual predator.

Even last season, when Jones was passionately advocating for women to have a right to make their own reproductive choices, the bit ends with a dig about her lack of romantic graces. She can’t fit her 6-foot, 233-pound frame into a box, and she knows, she quips, because she tried to mail herself to a dude.

Historically, race and racism and earnest action around inclusion have been treated as an inconvenience or an afterthought at Saturday Night Live, not something that’s hindering the quality of the show or driving away potential talent.

Black women could not necessarily expect to find much solidarity from their white counterparts at SNL, or the sketch and improv comedy community that functions as a feeder system for the show. Amy Poehler, together with former SNL head writer Tina Fey, created some of the most memorable sketches in the show’s history. But in 2015, during an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Poehler was dismissive when her interlocutor asked whether criticism directed toward SNL for its lack of black women was warranted.

“Ugh,” Poehler answered. “I don’t want to talk about this. Pass.”

The same year, minority members of the Upright Citizens Brigade, the improv comedy troupe Poehler co-founded with Matt Besser, spoke openly of demeaning sketches that were hostile to people of color. What has persisted at Saturday Night Live and throughout the entertainment world at large is a deep resistance to self-examination and change. One need look no further than the most recent Primetime Emmys telecast in which multiple groups of all-white writers collected their trophies as if the competition on which those trophies are based is at all equitable or remotely reflective of the world at large.

In 2013, Erik Voss wrote a piece for New York magazine explaining why SNL’s diversity problems exist, and it all comes back to Michaels, who seems to view diversity as a distraction or a sideshow from comedy. Wrote Voss:

For him, SNL isn’t about diversity. It’s about comedy, pure and simple. He doesn’t care if his show accurately reflects the various racial groups in America, so long as it still gets laughs. And for the most part, Michaels has gotten away with this approach. All these years later, while its colorful competitors are long gone, eternally Wonder-Bread SNL is still bringing in big ratings, earning critical praise, churning out box office stars, writers, and directors that go on to dominate Hollywood, producing sketches that are among the most shared and talked about videos online, and remaining at the heart of American pop culture.

If diversity and comedy are seen as being embroiled in a zero-sum competition, not interdependent pieces of a whole package, that explains how minorities who challenge comedy that insults them are viewed as humor-killing agents of “cancel culture.” It also explains how Michaels made the decision to tap Fred Armisen, who is not black, to play President Barack Obama. Michaels thought Armisen was the best person for the role. Mind you, Jordan Peele auditioned for the part and Michaels still picked Armisen, while Peele went on to create the definitive impression of Obama in his own Comedy Central show with Keegan-Michael Key.

As long as the show is rewarded for its narrow definitions of what great sketch comedy can be, there’s no reason to expect it to do anything differently. The best we can do is hope — hope Jones kills it in future endeavors where she has more control over her own image, hope the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences recognizes the refreshing genius of A Black Lady Sketch Show, hope the powers that be can see that what they deride as “cancel culture” is not a crusade of elimination but expansion.

Because when we make room for the Leslie Joneses of the world to flourish, rather than attempting to make them fit into frameworks that weren’t built for them, TV gets more honest and more interesting. And if we’re in agreement that Jones is a national treasure, well then why wouldn’t we want that?

Beyoncé’s ‘Homecoming’ Emmy snub is historic disrespect Let’s take a look into what made her Netflix concert film excellent

On Sunday, Fox will air the 71st Primetime Emmy Awards show at 8 p.m. EDT. But the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences’ credibility as an arbiter of excellence will face justified skepticism because Beyoncé went 0-for-6 at the Creative Arts Emmys last week.

She was nominated for her work on Homecoming, a documentary that captured her performance as the first black woman to headline the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. And just as it was with 2016’s Lemonade, her previous visual album, America’s greatest living pop performer was royally snubbed.

For insight on how that snub might have been received, we can look to the self-titled album released at the end of 2013, which was accompanied not just with music videos but also documentary snippets that explained her mindset. One was about losing, and why she chose footage from her first professional loss — her childhood group, Girls Tyme, losing Star Search — to precede the grimiest, most boastful song on the album, “***Flawless.”

“I was only 9 years old, so at that time, you don’t actually realize that you could work superhard, and give everything you have, and lose. It was the best message for me,” Beyoncé explained. “When I put Ed McMahon introducing us as the ‘hip-hop-rapping Girls Tyme,’ it clicked something in my mind. I feel like something about the aggression of ‘Bow Down’ and the attitude of ‘***Flawless,’ — the reality is, sometimes you lose. And you’re never too good to lose and you’re never too big to lose. You’re never too smart to lose. It happens. And it happens when it needs to happen.”

The pop star’s shutout at the 2019 Creative Arts Emmys didn’t need to happen, but it did. And it’s completely reasonable that her team is having trouble embracing the outcome.

Beyoncé’s Netflix concert film Homecoming was nominated for six Emmys: outstanding directing for a variety special; outstanding variety special (prerecorded); outstanding costumes for variety, nonfiction or reality programming; outstanding music direction; outstanding production design for a variety special; and outstanding writing for a variety special.

Here’s what won:

  • Directing — Springsteen on Broadway
  • Variety special (prerecorded) — Carpool Karaoke: When Corden Met McCartney Live From Liverpool
  • Costumes — RuPaul’s Drag Race
  • Music direction — Fosse/Verdon
  • Production design — Rent
  • Writing — Hannah Gadsby: Nanette

The television academy’s decisions for music direction and variety special strike me as, at best, misinformed and, at worst, insulting. To understand why, let’s take a deeper look into what made Homecoming excellent, first with musical direction and then the show.

In crafting the musical arrangements for Homecoming, Beyoncé and music director Derek Dixie did something incredibly ambitious, something that requires an encyclopedic knowledge of black music and a broad imagination and acuity for music theory.

Beyoncé Knowles performs onstage during the 2018 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival at the Empire Polo Field on April 21, 2018, in Indio, California.

Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Coachella

What dominates Homecoming is a sustained nod to New Orleans. It extends past the tracks that originated on Lemonade, an exploration of Beyoncé’s Creole heritage. Dixie and Beyoncé didn’t just adapt her music for a marching band; they conducted a sonic archaeological dig and placed her within a continuum of black music. The orchestrations are reminiscent of the approach to pop music at Motown. Queen Bey’s hits benefit from the use of modern technology, which allows artists to take advantage of infinite possibilities. But they’re also written in a way that comes alive with a live band, an indication of top-notch songwriting and inspired orchestration.

See: the Homecoming arrangement of “Deja Vu,” which, after the first few measures of its bassline, drives into the song with horns that take a little from the funk of B.T. Express’ “Do It (T’il You’re Satisfied),” which is sampled on “Deja Vu,” and mixes it with strings more associated with Philadelphia soul.

When Beyoncé offers an assessment of the students’ abilities during an interlude, she’s not being hyperbolic. “The amount of swag is just limitless,” she says.

Ambitious ideas are one thing. Execution is another. And there is evidence that Beyoncé’s famously high standards were present in the show. The horn runs on “Say My Name,” for example, are exquisite — a blizzard of notes, played not by one person but a group. The greater the number of musicians attempting to play the same run in unison, the greater the likelihood that the sound will become muddied, which is why a classic choice for trumpet section battles at football games is “Flight of the Bumblebee.”

On “Say My Name,” those runs are clean, tight and distinguishable. But they are part of a bigger sonic and visual machine. Besides the horn runs, there are the vocal harmonies from Beyoncé and her Destiny’s Child mates, Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams. Then add the percussive beats, separate from the drum line, that come from the steppers.

Everything has to happen in unison and is being performed in large part by college students. To attempt to do the whole thing not once but twice, and then stitch both performances together in postproduction, is, in a word, crazy.

When Beyoncé offers an assessment of the students’ abilities during an interlude, she’s not being hyperbolic. “The amount of swag is just limitless,” she says. “The things that these young people can do with their bodies and the music they can play and the drum rolls and haircuts and the bodies — it’s just not right. It’s just so much damn swag.”

Then there are the screaming trumpets that are integral to the sound of a historically black college or university (HBCU) band. If you’re listening to the Homecoming album, you can hear them in full force at about 1:37 into the first track, “Welcome,” and again in the last 40 or so seconds. Hitting those notes requires a skilled level of musicianship. Being able to hit them again and again over the course of a two-hour set, as Homecoming calls for, is harder because horn players have to retain their chops, or their embouchure, so that their facial muscles aren’t giving out before the performance is over.

These challenges are different from those faced by the music department of Fosse/Verdon, led by Alex Lacamoire, which won the Emmy for the first episode of the seven-part miniseries. Fosse/Verdon is about the personal and professional lives of dancer and actor Gwen Verdon and her creative and romantic partner director and choreographer Bob Fosse.

Lacamoire was charged with an assignment that was almost the reverse of what Dixie and Beyoncé were doing. He had to take highly recognizable songs across several different musicals, written by different composers, and aurally unify them, creating a soundtrack that feels like it’s a collection of songs from one musical called Fosse/Verdon.

Even though “Big Spender” is from Sweet Charity, and written by Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields, and “Mein Herr” is a number from Cabaret, written by John Kander and Fred Ebb, Lacamoire’s arrangements make them sound like they belong in the same television show. In Lacamoire’s case, the artists unifying the collection are a dancer and a director, not a leading vocalist. The Music of Fosse/Verdon is from a variety of artists, from The Fandango Girls to Alysha Umphress to Bianca Marroquín. Creating and shaping that thematic continuity is not an easy feat.

Still, the recording sessions for Fosse/Verdon didn’t have to take place during a live concert in which the musicians are also performing choreography for two hours — without sheet music. The songs of Fosse/Verdon, which included “Cabaret,” “All That Jazz” and “We Both Reached for the Gun,” were originally written for musical theater. That doesn’t mean they aren’t difficult to play, but they were composed with the intention that a live orchestra would do so for eight shows a week on Broadway.

Listen to the Fosse/Verdon version of “All That Jazz,” the opening number of Chicago and one of the most iconic songs in musical theater history:

Sometimes songwriters will torture Broadway musicians with arrangements that test the limits of human endurance, but it’s usually vocalists who suffer. That’s what happened to Audra McDonald when she did Porgy and Bess on Broadway. Her teacher’s assistant at Juilliard described the role as “difficult” and a “voice-killer” because of the range it demanded and the frequency of the performances. In a 2012 Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross, McDonald spoke about the arduous task of singing “What You Want With Bess” eight times a week.

When Beyoncé took the stage in April 2018 at Coachella, the festival livestreamed the performance. In real time, the singer’s contemporaries marveled at what she’d accomplished.

Ambitious ideas are one thing. Execution is another. And, there is evidence that Beyoncé’s famously high standards were present in the show.

“How. in. The. Fuh. Did. She. Pull. That. Shiii. OFF!!!!??? It’s like 170 musicians onstage,” tweeted Questlove. “I mean the stage plotting. The patch chords. How many monitor boards were used??! Bandleading that s— woulda gave me anxiety. Hats off man. Jesus H Christ.”

If Questlove, who is about as experienced and virtuosic a bandleader as a person can be, declares that the job would have given him anxiety, that’s a good indication that what’s taking place onstage is extraordinary.

So why didn’t the television academy see it that way?

“It’s got everything to do with the voting membership, which skews much older, whiter, and more male than the industry or audience,” tweeted actor Rebecca Metz, who plays Tressa on the FX show Better Things. “The awards reflect their taste and viewing habits. I’m on a mission to recruit young, diverse members for this very reason.”

Let’s turn to the broader picture: What makes Homecoming uniquely great television? What Beyoncé accomplished in two performances at Coachella and with the Homecoming documentary is like a Broadway show. There’s singing, there’s dancing and there’s a story. Remember, the Emmy is not for the live performance itself but for the documentary. We’re asking specific questions here: How do Homecoming and Carpool Karaoke, which won the Emmy, function as pieces of television? What do they offer visually? What role does the music play in the delivery of a larger narrative?

Again, Beyoncé is operating in a space that’s not dissimilar from her competition. Corden, before becoming a late-night host, was an actor. He sings and dances, as evidenced by his stints hosting the Tony Awards. Both Corden and Beyoncé are invested in a type of musical theatricality. Corden is just more self-effacing about it.

“Carpool Karaoke,” Corden’s running gag on The Late Late Show, is reliably great. Corden has a magical capacity for disarming his guests. He offers a fun, anodyne form of celebrity schmoozing that isn’t weighted with self-serious pretension. It’s viral internet gold: Corden drives around with popular musical artists, sings their songs with them, and the whole thing is recorded. Past participants include rappers Migos, singer Adele and even then-first lady Michelle Obama, who rode with artist Missy Elliott.

Look at the episode of Carpool Karaoke that won the Emmy for best variety special (prerecorded) over Homecoming, in which Corden sings with Paul McCartney while driving around the Beatles’ hometown of Liverpool, England.

There’s some editing that takes place when Corden and McCartney are singing the “beep beep beep beeps” of “Drive My Car.” Clearly the show was able to get McCartney to do the bit at least twice, once in the passenger seat and then once as the driver, with both edited together.

Beyoncé does something similar in Homecoming, but she takes it to the extremes we have come to expect but perhaps do not appreciate. Homecoming editors Alexander Hammer and Andrew Morrow are responsible for a great cut that takes place about 6 minutes and 15 seconds into Homecoming, when the band, dancers and steppers are transitioning from “Crazy in Love” to Juvenile’s “Back That Azz Up.” First, the band is facing the cameras dressed in yellow. When Juvenile says, “Drop it,” the band members turn. Their backs are to the crowd, and everyone is in candy pink — which was the color of the uniforms for the second Coachella performance. The two were cut together, and the effect is almost supernatural. For that tiny bit of visual trickery to work, all 151 performers had to hit their marks at the same time, in the exact spots, for both performances, doing JaQuel Knight’s choreography.

That’s not for the Coachella audience — that’s just for television.

By the way, that choreography is informed by the history of New Orleans. While it’s identified in modern parlance as twerking, the moves go back to the days of segregated New Orleans, when black dancers performed in the city’s nightclubs that lined Rampart Street, such as the Dew Drop Inn and the Tick Tock Tavern. They performed something called “shake dancing,” one of the many descendants of the mixed-race social dance that took place at events known as quadrilles, held in 19th-century New Orleans ballrooms.

Shake dancing, as LaKisha Simmons explains in Crescent City Girls: The Lives of Young Black Women in Segregated New Orleans, was not just an illicit thrill. It was a rejection of respectability politics and of arbitrary definitions of propriety. It represented creativity and sexual freedom, two of the themes that pervade Beyoncé’s oeuvre. But it wasn’t seen in such generous terms by white writers documenting the culture of Rampart Street, or well-to-do blacks who avoided it. So putting the dance moves of these women onstage at Coachella and setting them off with sequins, discipline and precision becomes a way of honoring them and their labor.

In executing her Coachella set, Beyoncé elevated to an enormous stage an aspect of American culture that tends to be overlooked and misunderstood: the role of HBCUs in shaping pop culture. She used the marching band in Homecoming as both a bridge and a framing device to show how her own sound fits into the broader narrative of the African diaspora. She repeatedly demonstrated how the mélange of cultures in Louisiana, from the French whites to Afro-Caribbean residents to enslaved and free African Americans, influenced American culture.

“At least two centuries had passed since those unnamed slaves Thomas Nicholls observed had helped their mistresses in and out of their shoes, so that the white ladies could learn routines increasingly redolent of Africa, perhaps while their servants snuck away to try out some French steps of their own,” NPR music critic Ann Powers wrote in her 2017 book Good Booty: Love and Sex, Black & White, Body and Soul in American Music, making the connection between New Orleans quadrille balls and Beyoncé’s decision to appear in the music video for “Formation” as both a quadroon and a bounce dancer. “In that long span, countless dances had been danced, many identities blended and forced apart. The taboo baby had grown up and become a matriarch.”

She used the marching band in Homecoming as both a bridge and a framing device to show how her own sound fits into the broader narrative of the African diaspora.

Beyoncé was able to seamlessly and coherently weave together the words and cultural contributions of Nina Simone, James Weldon Johnson, Toni Morrison and others with contemporary figures such as Lil Yachty, Fast Life Yungstaz, Sister Nancy and O.T. Genasis. She pulled from the go-go sounds of Washington, D.C., the horn-heavy jazz of New Orleans, J Balvin’s “Mi Gente,” OutKast’s “SpottieOttieDopaliscious” and the music of her own husband, just to name a few, within an epic recounting of her 25-year repertoire. It was all valid, all valuable, all part of a vast quilt of what it means to be black, to be a woman, what it means to be American, to be human. And she was the vessel embodying all of it, from the militant self-love of Malcolm X to the regality of Nefertiti.

In that way, the work is euphoric, forward-looking and optimistic, even as it’s held together by the glue of the past.

The shows in which Verdon danced and Fosse directed and choreographed are in no danger of being overlooked. Chicago is the longest-running American musical in Broadway history. Certainly the legacy of the Beatles has been well-appreciated. These artists have been beatified with awards and decades of recognition.

But the musical and dance tradition that informs so much of American pop music, beyond Beyoncé’s, isn’t regarded with the same reverence for its innovation, its influence, its history. Instead, it remains marginalized as part of the African American story rather than the American story.

What a shame that American institutions such as the television academy still bypass recognition of the epic historical record and scholarship embedded within Beyoncé’s music because it is easier to see it in work that’s long been regarded as classic. This time it is they who have lost, not she.

Hair care pioneer Joan Johnson made ‘Ultra Sheen, Afro Sheen and Ultra Sheen cosmetics’ a feature of black identity Her company sold an uplifting version of black hair care — by any product necessary

When I learned that Joan Johnson had died a few days ago at 89, I felt an instant pang.

Johnson was the co-founder of Johnson Products, which in 1971 became the first black-owned company listed on the American Stock Exchange. She was from the South Side of Chicago, where I spent half of my childhood. (She was married to my mother-in-law’s first cousin.) And it was her company that, among other staples of black grooming products, gave us Ultra Sheen.

I’m not sure anything gets blacker than this, and if I’m lyin’, I’m dyin’.

Johnson Products sponsored the syndicated dance program, Soul Train.

Recently, the news has been full of reports of white teachers, counselors and coaches aggressively policing black hair. My thinking is that if you don’t know that Ultra Sheen is still just $1.21 in grocery stores, then you have no business opening your mouth.

Truth be told, I’ve had a hard time finding those small jars of hair grease for several years. Consolidation in the industry and the move of white-owned firms into the black market led to Johnson Products being sold several times, starting in 1993. It was eventually acquired by Procter & Gamble and later sold to a group of black investment firms. When I’d luck out and spot it on the shelves of some beauty supply store, I’d hoard two or three jars out of both nostalgia and need.

It was the product itself, the not-too-heavy blue grease (or green if you needed the extra dry formula) that had one job — to manage (lay down, wave up, detangle and shine) black hair — it always did what it was supposed to do. It became baked into the daily grooming rituals of my childhood in a way that made it a totem for an era. A pre-gentrification, get-your-education, no-frills time when black people needed neatness, at a minimum, at an accessible price point. It was a tool, rather than a status product, which distinguished it from the fancier, more self-important black hair care lines that followed — especially when white companies moved into the lucrative black hair care market they’d long ignored.

In 1971, Joan Johnson’s Johnson Products became the first black-owned company listed on the American Stock Exchange.

Courtesy of the Johnson family

Long before hair tutorials on YouTube, I raised my daughters using Ultra Sheen and a spray bottle of water to provide the foundation for every hairstyle known to black girlhood. I once finished off my own $200 haircut and color with a palm full of Ultra Sheen my stylist jokingly called “European de frissant.”

George “Pete” Johnson II, my husband’s second cousin, grew up hearing the story of how his father, a production chemist for black-owned soap and cosmetics manufacturer Fuller Products, couldn’t get a business loan. But he got a $250 vacation loan that he and his wife, Joan, used to help start Johnson Products in 1954. They created, packaged and distributed hair care products from their basement before opening a production plant on the South Side in the mid-1960s that employed around 500 people at its height. According to Black Enterprise magazine, the company controlled roughly a third of the black hair care market by the late 1970s.

“My mom was the backbone in all of this,” Pete Johnson said. “She was the woman that, along with my father, envisioned the company.”

She was always good with money and initially did all the accounting and acted as the company’s de facto comptroller. She gave to local causes even before they had much to give. She later became a trustee at Spelman College. “My mom really felt the need to empower not only us as a culture, but black women,” Johnson says. We needed an identity “of us being just as elegant, just as gracious and beautiful as anybody else.”

It’s an ethos that showed up in the stylish clothes, hair and makeup she wore every time she walked out of her front door. When you left home, “you better be completely groomed, clean and smelling good,” said Pete Johnson. She always told us to strive for perfection “and it starts with how you look, how you present yourself.”

“My mom was the backbone in all of this. She was the woman that, along with my father, envisioned the company.” — Pete Johnson

It was a way she thought black people could change self-perceptions, and white perceptions of the race, that much of the culture has since moved past but was considered gospel in its day.

Johnson also believed that graciousness translated into how you treated people. “I saw that firsthand as a little boy,” said Pete Johnson. “We had a place in Endeavor, Wisconsin [a small town near the Wisconsin Dells] and we’d get some of the Native Americans coming to our house asking for food.” When his two older brothers ran around behind them making mock Indian noises, “My mom snatched them boys up so quick,” Pete Johnson recalled. “She didn’t play that. You had to respect everybody.”

The company’s product line also included other hair care and grooming products. Johnson Products sponsored the syndicated dance program, Soul Train, and a huge swath of black America will remember the line, “makers of Ultra Sheen, Afro Sheen and Ultra Sheen Cosmetics,” voiced by Soul Train host Don Cornelius, for the rest of our lives.

In a Facebook post, educator Cassandra Smith of Prince George’s County, Maryland, remembered how the yellow creme satin press specifically enabled her Sunday church press and curls. Karen Parker, a Washington event curator and producer, calls both the blue and green Ultra Sheen part of hair washing day in her Afro-Caribbean childhood, and the product of choice for greasing her grandmother’s scalp.

And of course Afro Sheen made Afros shine.

“I also remember the joy of putting the sheen on your Afro,” said Lonnie G. Bunch III, who is likely the first Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution to have ever voiced that particular recollection. He met Joan and George Johnson when he was president of the Chicago Historical Society, and they talked about the power of those weekly Soul Train plugs. “In a way, the Johnsons captured the tenor of the time and used that desire to express one’s blackness as a key to their marketing strategy,” he said. “Whenever I think about the commercials, I smile and recall a time when we were all discovering our blackness.”

Beginning in the late 1970s, the models on the boxes of Johnson Products’ Gentle Treatment relaxers became their own form of black celebrity. (I once worked with a reporter who’d won the vaunted Johnson Products Gentle Treatment model search.) Before the natural hair care revolution of the last decade helped us move beyond the white gaze, they represented an aspirational version of black respectability that saw black womanhood as beautiful and cultured in a way that corresponded with hair that should always be worn appropriately straight.

Joan Johnson wanted to “lift us up” as a people, Pete Johnson said. The message from white culture, “I believe, back then, was that we were less than, but we weren’t.”

Step one in proving that was looking good. It’s something Joan Johnson believed black people could accomplish, by any product necessary.

Venus showed Serena how to win Poet Nikki Giovanni meditates on Venus and Serena’s bond and reflects on her own relationship with her late sister, Gary Ann

Even at my age, understanding what love is, is difficult.

I’m a baby sister, too, and I remember watching my big sister be able to do everything. They used to tease me: “Nikki, can you read?” “No, but Gary Ann can.” “Nikki, can you play the piano?” “No, but Gary Ann can.” “Nikki, can you dance?” “No, but Gary Ann can.”

From left to right: The Giovanni family: Sister Gary Ann Giovanni, mother Yolande Watson Giovanni, father Gus Giovanni and poet Nikki Giovanni.

Courtsey of Nikki Giovanni

Gary Ann was a wonderful big sister with bangs, smooth skin and dimples. I had braids. And I was so proud that I had a big sister who could do all the important things. Similarly, Serena Williams was the little girl watching the rabbit run down the rabbit hole. There were other sisters whom she could have emulated, but she chose this one. And I have to think this one chose her. “Ms. Rabbit, Ms. Rabbit, where are you going?” “To wonderland to be the queen.” “Can I come too? I’ll carry your groceries or fetch your patches for quilts. I can help.”

And off Serena went where no one else had gone before. Years ago, I watched for the first time Serena and Venus Williams played each other in a tournament, and the reporter kept asking, “Who will win?” Venus calmly and coolly said, “A Williams.” Venus not only won but she showed her baby sister how to win.

I recently watched Venus play Coco Gauff and I said to myself: “Venus is teaching Coco how to win too.”

Not by the score but by how you carry yourself. Wheaties is wonderful to have Serena on the box cover. I purchased four boxes to be framed for my granddaughter and myself and two friends. I want that box cover hanging from every wall in the kitchen. But it is Venus who has really taught them all.

Sure, Serena has 23 major championships and we are all so proud of her. Serena has shown us you can be a woman with attitude and muscles. You can learn to speak two languages. You can take the body that used to stand on an auction block and put it on the cover of Vanity Fair naked, pregnant, proud. And you can put that same body on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar wrapped in gold. You can be Sports Illustrated’s best-dressed with your green high heels and a smirk and find someone you love to share making a baby with. Little Alexis Olympia is lucky, though, to have Aunt Venus to show her running down the rabbit hole to meet the Queen isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

We give what we can. The Hare gave her speed to help her friend the Turtle feel better about herself. The poets give us words to say what we admire.

Serena gives us a new woman to say we are not afraid of our bodies or our minds. She had a big sister to say, “Don’t be afraid of yourself.” Having a big sister who loves you enough to be your teacher is great. We are all lucky for big sisters. And baby sisters who listen.

I never learned to play the piano, but I did sing a song as my big sister passed. And when my time comes, I hope I can answer, “Yes, Gary Ann, now I can do this too.”

Toni Harris made history by getting a football scholarship. Now she needs to make tackles. Free safety has already overcome doubters, cancer and family trauma. Playing against men doesn’t faze her.

FAYETTE, Mo. — Perhaps you’ve heard of Antoinette “Toni” Harris. Earlier this year, the 23-year-old became what is believed to be the first woman to accept a scholarship to play football at a four-year college — not as a kicker, as other women have done — but as a position player.

Harris, a free safety, signed with Central Methodist University, a school with 1,000 undergraduates that plays in Division I of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA). She’s arrived on campus three weeks ahead of camp to get extra time with the strength and conditioning coach. And, like everyone else on the team, she’s hoping to see some playing time when the season starts on Aug. 31.

Fayette is a dot on the map between St. Louis and Kansas City, a four-block town surrounded by cornfields and soybean farms. On a sweltering Sunday morning in July, the women at Savory Bakery are serving coffee and tea as the radio pipes in The Platters singing “The Magic Touch,” a song that hasn’t seen the Billboard charts since 1956.

We’re two blocks from town, in the center of Central Methodist’s campus, with Harris, head coach David Calloway and defensive backs coach LaQuentin “Q” Black in Calloway’s office on the second floor of Brannock Hall, one of the oldest buildings on campus. Harris’ hair is pulled back into a tight ponytail. She’s wearing a “Women are Dope” T-shirt and has a diamond stud in her left nostril. She stands only 5 feet, 7 inches tall, but her 165-pound frame is rock-solid.

Central Methodist head coach David Calloway, left, and defensive backs coach LaQuentin Black, right, both view Toni Harris as a budding talent who has the skills, aptitude and eagerness to develop.

Neeta Satam for The Undefeated

She didn’t play for her high school varsity team and only sparingly during two years of junior college. Her demeanor isn’t that of a sports star but of a wide-eyed college student. But Toni Harris is famous.

“There have been so many women — I can’t even count, like over probably 100 or 200 — that contact me every day, whether in middle school, high school or getting ready to go to college, that want to play [football] at the next level,” she says. “They say I’m an inspiration and ask if I have any tips on how they can become better football players. I tell them to just keep pushing and working hard, and just never give up believing in yourself.”

The world discovered Harris over the course of 60 seconds on Feb. 3. During Super Bowl LIII, Toyota debuted a commercial featuring her and her quest to play football. Tens of millions of viewers saw Harris running, training, lifting weights and driving a Toyota.

“They’ve said a lot of things about Toni Harris,” intones narrator Jim Nantz. “They said she was too small. They said she was too slow. Too weak. They said she’d never get to the next level. Never inspire a new generation. Never get a football scholarship. Yeah, people have made a lot of assumptions about Toni.”

Harris then looks into the camera and delivers the closing line, the one she proudly says she wrote herself, the one that sums up her remarkable journey.

“I’ve never been a big fan of assumptions.”


It would have been easy to write off the young Harris when she was growing up on the west side of Detroit. Placed in foster care at the age of 4, she ended up in three different homes by the age of 15.

“You don’t really see anything wrong with it until you’re older,” she says. “I wanted to see my mother and I wanted to know who my father was. But I was always one of those kids who was very optimistic. I had my faith and believed in a lot of things that were positive.”

Harris met her biological father, Sam Clora, four years ago. He is now a part of her life, as are her nine biological siblings (five sisters and four brothers). But her birth mother, Donyale Harris, with whom she always maintained a relationship, died in a car accident this past spring.

Facing obstacles is nothing new for Toni Harris. At 4 years old, she was placed in foster care. And in her freshman year in college at Toledo, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

Neeta Satam for The Undefeated

One of Harris’ obstacles was simply getting onto a football field. She became infatuated with the sport when was 5 years old, watching her older cousin Demetrius and the Westside Steelers win the national Police Athletic League (PAL) championship.

As Harris remembers it, what she saw on the field that day was a happy, teary-eyed family. “After that, I kind of fell in love with the game of football and never put the ball down.”

With no PAL team willing to accept her, she picked up the game on her own, watching others and playing in neighborhood pickup games. She finally talked her way onto the junior varsity squad at Redford Union High School in suburban Detroit. She was the only girl on the team and played wide receiver and cornerback. (She was also a cheerleader, which is, ironically, how she suffered her worst athletic injury, a bruised knee.) But in the midst of transitioning to senior varsity, she was booted from the team.

“The athletic director [Mike Humitz, who passed away in January] told me he didn’t want to let me play,” Harris recalled. “He said, basically, football was a man’s sport and I shouldn’t be out there. And he was being really sarcastic. He was like, ‘So what’s your next sport? Boys’ basketball? Men’s wrestling?’ ”

Actually, Harris did have a plan: playing in college. She enrolled at the University of Toledo intending to walk onto the team. But fate dealt her another blow. In her freshman year, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

“Because of the radiation I had lost the back of my hair and my body was very weak, and most of the time I wasn’t able to go to school. At first, I was gonna stop playing football, but then I was like, you know, if I can beat this, then what else can I overcome?” — Toni Harris, on dealing with cancer

“The chemo was really hard to handle because my body went from 170 pounds to 90 pounds,” she says. “The chemo was worse than the cancer was. Because of the radiation I had lost the back of my hair and my body was very weak, and most of the time I wasn’t able to go to school. At first, I was gonna stop playing football, but then I was like, you know, if I can beat this, then what else can I overcome? And so just after the chemotherapy, that’s when I decided to go back to football and try to gain back my weight.”

We can’t help but ask how she absorbs these gut punches. She’s taken so many.

“I think God gives his toughest battles to his strongest soldiers, and I feel as though I’m one of God’s stronger soldiers,” Harris says. “So I feel like I can overcome anything that’s thrown my way.”

Harris enrolled at Golden West College, a community college in Huntington Beach, California, south of Los Angeles. There, she was thwarted in her efforts to play football when head coach Nick Mitchell turned her down.

“She tried out for the team [as a wide receiver and defensive back], but didn’t make it,” Mitchell said in a phone call with The Undefeated. “I didn’t think she was ready for the collegiate level. It had nothing to do with her being female.”

Harris then tried women’s soccer, but it didn’t scratch her itch for football. So she signed up at East Los Angeles College (ELAC) while still enrolled at Golden West and pursued (and ultimately earned) two associate’s degrees simultaneously: one in social and behavioral sciences, the other in criminal justice. At ELAC, she badgered head football coach Bobby Godinez to put her on the team. And, eventually, he caved.

But Harris didn’t just want a uniform, she wanted to play. After everything she’d already been hit with, how much harder could she get slammed on the field?

“She wouldn’t accept no as an answer,” Godinez says on the phone with The Undefeated. “[But] my ‘no’ was out of fear. Having a daughter myself, I was nervous about what the repercussions could be. You have injuries at a high, high level in this sport. But I did tell her that if she sticks around and she proves that she belongs, things could change.”

Harris never missed practice, never missed a meeting, never missed the weight room.

“She was very, very persistent with her goals, and she wouldn’t give up,” Godinez says. “And when it came down to it, her teammates were the ones who said, ‘This girl belongs here.’ ”

That moment came in Week 2 of her first season. As Godinez recalls, “A defensive lineman approached me and said, ‘Coach, give her a jersey, she deserves it.’ ” Harris rarely got on the field that season but still got a scholarship offer from Bethany College, an NAIA school in Kansas. She elected to stay at ELAC, and as a sophomore she played in three games, in which she broke up a pass and made three tackles, including one for a 24-yard loss.

She put those highlights on video and sent them off to four-year programs in the hopes of catching a coach’s eye.

“I don’t even know how many schools [I sent to],” Harris says. “Probably over 200.”

The timing couldn’t have been better. Harris’ highlight video went out right before the Super Bowl and the Toyota commercial. Suddenly, the media was championing the young woman who was challenging stereotypes and defying assumptions. Radio hosts talked about her. Good Morning America and The Today Show featured her in prime guest spots.

The gamble to stay at ELAC had paid off. Now she had scholarship offers from five more colleges — one a Division II school in the NCAA, the others in NAIA.

But only one of those coaches impressed her: Calloway at Central Methodist. He’d been there before the hoopla, emailing her, phoning her, recruiting her. And he’d always been straight with her.

“He wasn’t one of those coaches who was promising you things,” Harris says. “I think what attracted me to this school, to this coach, was him telling me, ‘You’re gonna have to work for your spot.’ ”


Calloway was a four-year starter at Langston University in Oklahoma, graduating in 1997, and has spent 21 years coaching at the collegiate level. At Central Methodist, he faces an uphill battle. Since he took over as head coach in 2016, the Eagles have gone 8-24. But judging from all of the thank-you notes from former players and students pinned to his corkboard, Calloway is a patient and supportive coach who has generated a reservoir of goodwill.

Calloway leans back in his swivel chair and we ask the obvious question: How did it feel to make history? We’re surprised to hear Calloway say he figured some other female athlete had already done it.

“[Making history] never crossed my radar,” Calloway says. “I assumed somebody had already kicked or something.”

Central Methodist head coach David Calloway says Harris will be fighting for her position in the defensive backfield with a three-year starter and another junior college transfer.

Neeta Satam for The Undefeated

In fact, several women have kicked for four-year schools since Liz Heaston did so for Willamette University in 1997, becoming the first woman ever to score in a college football game. Others include Ashley Martin at Jacksonville State, Katie Hnida at Colorado and New Mexico, and April Goss at Kent State. But not one received a scholarship to a four-year school at the Division II level or higher until 2018, when Rebecca Longo signed to kick for Adams State in Colorado. (Shelby Osborne, a defensive back, signed with Campbellsville University in Kentucky in 2014, but she was not initially on scholarship.)

And now Harris is “the first female incoming student to receive a football scholarship as a position player,” says Jennifer Saab, director of communications at the NAIA.

So if Calloway didn’t intend to make history, why did he recruit Harris? He said he sees his role as giving young people opportunities, not just to play football but to graduate. He views Harris as a budding talent, one with skill, an aptitude for the game and an eagerness to develop.

Coach Q agrees. “Her feet are really good and she’s quick out of her breaks,” he says. “When you’re bringing someone on in the [defensive] back end, you want someone that you feel can lead and take charge, and I haven’t seen anything different from her. We’ll see if she’s coachable once we get her on the football field and in the meeting rooms, but so far, so good.”

If Harris takes the field this season, isn’t she bound to run into guys, big guys, who don’t think she belongs there?

Calloway doesn’t seem concerned.

“[Think about] what she’s been through in life,” he says. “Football’s probably not gonna be that tough when all is said and done. Having beat cancer at a young age, and then growing up in foster homes and then maintaining a great attitude through all of it, I think that’s gonna help. That’s what I [see] from a character standpoint. When she puts her mind to things, she can get stuff accomplished.”

Harris has what it takes to withstand any pushback on the playing field, Calloway says. “You read on social media, ‘I will run her over,’ ” he says. “She’s not gonna just sit there and let you run her over. She has more sense than that. She understands she’s on the field with 21 other guys. We’re putting her in position to make proper tackles.”

“[Think about] what she’s been through in life. Football’s probably not gonna be that tough when all is said and done. Having beat cancer at a young age, and then growing up in foster homes and then maintaining a great attitude through all of it, I think that’s gonna help.” — Central Methodist head coach David Calloway

When the hits come, Harris is convinced she’ll be ready. “I don’t feel like it’s out of the norm for me to be playing with men,” she says. “I mean, [former NFL wide receiver] Trindon Holliday was 135 pounds and 5-6, and I’m much bigger. … Football is about being mentally strong. Are you mentally ready when somebody catches a pass on you? Are you mentally ready to get over that and go to the next play?”

It remains to be seen whether Harris will be on the field against Clarke University on Aug. 31. Calloway makes it clear that she’ll be fighting for her position with a three-year starter and another junior college transfer.

But, as Harris has demonstrated before, competition only feeds her drive.

“I don’t expect anything to be easy,” she says. “It’s never going to get easier. If anything, it’s going to get harder every day.”

That’s probably true, especially if she follows her dream to play in the NFL. If she doesn’t make it to the pros, would she consider playing in one of the women’s semipro or amateur leagues around the country?

“If they made a women’s NFL, then yes,” she says. “I know people play recreationally, but I want to get paid to play just like anybody else. I want a career. So if they don’t plan on putting in a WNFL then I’ll be seeking other things and other ways to make money.”

After meeting Harris, we try not to assume she’ll do it all — take the field on opening day, intercept a pass. And we try not to fantasize that one day she’ll live her dream and put on an NFL uniform.

It’s not easy, because she’s so easy to root for.

Tracking Serena Williams’ journey through pictures 20 images of the tennis star that chronicle her personal achievements

Serena Williams has never been average.

While growing up, as friends spent time playing outside or lounging lazily during summers, she and sister Venus were focused. For as long as their father, Richard, had the ability to teach his daughters the art of tennis, there would be practice to perfect the craft. But it would be Williams whose passion for the sport would change how audiences watched tennis and how black women were seen in the sport.

At the age of 14, Serena turned professional and eventually began beating opponents one by one internationally. Williams’ status as a young tennis pro invited scrutiny from critics who refused to take her seriously, but she showed her strength using nothing but a ball and racket.

It wouldn’t take long for fans to see why and how she would dominate nearly every court she played on. And here we are, 820 career wins and 23 Grand Slam singles titles later.

Williams may be a tough competitor who wears her heart on her sleeve, but there’s an innate beauty about her grace and humility. Even during the pitfalls and losses in her career, she still finds a smile to congratulate competitors — most of whom have looked up to her in admiration their entire careers. It isn’t enough for most girls to want to play against their idol. They still wish to be their idol.

Off the court, Williams isn’t afraid to candidly talk about being a mom to her 1-year-old daughter, Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr., who seemed to give Williams’ life new meaning, a different set of expectations and unmatched motivation.

She exudes power and fearlessness and redefines the meaning of a true competitor.

She is Serena Williams, a woman who continually changes the game of tennis one serve at a time.

Serena Williams in action on a tennis court in 1992.

Ken Levine/Getty Images

Serena Williams (right) and her sister Venus (left) stand with former President Ronald Reagan (center) at a tennis camp in Florida in 1990.

Ken Levine/Getty Images

Serena and her sister Venus ride with their father Richard Williams at a tennis camp in Florida in 1992.

Ken Levine/Getty Images

Lindsay Davenport (R) gives a thumbs up as teammates, (L-R) Venus Williams, Monica Seles, and Serena Williams of the USA pose after receiving the Fed Cup trophy after defeating Russia in 1999.

JOHN G. MABANGLO/AFP/Getty Images

Serena Williams celebrates her victory against Rita Kuti Kis during the first round at Wimbledon in 2001.

Jon Buckle/EMPICS/Getty Images

Venus and Serena Williams of the celebrate gold after winning the Women’s Doubles Tennis Final during the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia.

Gary M Prior/Getty Images

Serena Williams on court versus Jennifer Capriati during the quarter finals of the 2004 US Open.

A. Messerschmidt/Getty Images

Serena poses in the first ever ESPN The Magazine Body Issue in 2009.

James White for ESPN

Serena Williams (left) and Vogue editor Anna Wintour (right) pose for a photo before the spring 2009 Zac Posen show during New York Fashion Week in September 2008.

AP Photo/Seth Wenig

Serena Williams reacts as she is attired in traditional regalia on February 23, 2010 in the village of Wee, Makueni district, southeast of Nairobi as she inaugurates a school she funded. The school was built in collaboration with the charity ‘Build African Schools’.

TONY KARUMBA/AFP/Getty Images

Serena Williams hugs the championship trophy after defeating Victoria Azarenka during the 2013 US Open.

AP Photo/David Goldman

Fans press up against a fence to watch Serena Williams take part in Nike’s NYC Street Tennis event in August 2015.

AP Photo/Diego Corredor

Serena Williams celebrates with the winner’s trophy, the Venus Rosewater Dish, on the centre court balcony after her women’s singles final victory over Spain’s Garbine Muguruza during the the 2015 Wimbledon Championships.

Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images

A patron takes a picture of a photograph of Serena Williams on display at the Multimedia Art Museum in Moscow. The photograph was part of an exhibition titled “The Cal: Pirelli Calendar 2016. Annie Leibovitz” as part of Photobiennale 2016 at the museum.

Valery Sharifulin/TASS/Getty Images

Serena Williams and her husband Alexis Ohanian arrive for the wedding ceremony of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle at St. George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle in Windsor, near London, England, Saturday, May 19, 2018.

AP Photo/Gareth Fuller

Serena Williams takes a selfie with husband Alexis Ohanian and their baby, Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr., before a match in the first round of Fed Cup in Asheville, N.C., on Feb. 10, 2018.

AP Photo/Chuck Burton

At the 2018 French Open, Serena Williams wore a black catsuit that she said served a medical purpose. French Open officials have since implemented a stricter dress code that bans similar suits.

Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images

Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams during the trophy ceremony after the 2018 US Open Final. Naomi Osaka won the US Open after Serena Williams accused the umpire of being a ‘thief’ in some of the most dramatic scenes at a Grand Slam final. Williams was given a game penalty for her outburst, which followed racquet smashing and another code violation as Osaka won 6-2 6-4.

Serena Williams arrives for the 2019 Met Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 6, 2019. Williams was a host for the 2019 Gala, which theme was Camp: Notes on Fashion” inspired by Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay “Notes on Camp”.

ANGELA WEISS/AFP/Getty Images

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.

Toni Morrison made me stop wanting to be white Slavery took our bodies. Cultural hegemony tries to take our minds — and destroy our hair. Morrison gave it all back to us.

“Can’t nobody fly with all that shit.

You wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down.” – Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon

I’m here to give thanks. Toni Morrison freed me. She freed me from the burden of wanting to be white. She taught how to put down blue eyes and use my brown ones.

I had promised myself that now that the day had come and Morrison has passed, I would not be afraid. But it is a promise I cannot keep.

Even now, I feel the keyboard rise unevenly against my fingers and my heart feels like a possum trapped in a box. What will people think? They’ll judge me. They’ll pity me. My race card will be snatched. I’ll get canceled. The whole world knows her résumé: Nobel Prize, Pulitzer Prize, Princeton professor, speaker of truth. No adjective is too big, and no verb can contain the glory of her oeuvre, the ripple of her effect.

I would no more appreciate Toni Morrison than Harriet Tubman could eulogize the North Star. She, as she says in Song of Solomon, is a woman who could fly. With her words, I can see the mountaintop. She taught me real freedom, freedom of the mind.

Slavery took our bodies. Cultural hegemony tries to take our minds — and destroy our hair. Morrison gave it all back to us — if we have the strength to take it. What did she say in Beloved? They do not love your body. So you have to love it and love it hard.

This is not about being seen — a watered-down approximation of affirmation if ever there was one. We are seen every day and seen wanting, thanks to the economic demands of a scientifically ignorant people who built a sweet land of “liberty” on the backs of other, darker humans. It’s not right to own people. But it seems almost worse to convince yourself and those you enslaved and their descendants that it has something to do with their own inferiority. That’s twisted. Morrison put it back straight.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Nobel laureate Toni Morrison photographed in New York City in 1979.

Photo by Jack Mitchell/Getty Images

It can be hard to remember to be free — to remember whose best thing I am.

My world sometimes looks like a series of planks I hammer together in front of me, stepping on the last to hammer the next. But it’s mine, free and clear. There can be long breaks between finishing one board and picking up the next, but Morrison understood that. Her books are full of magic, but there are no magical Negroes.

Examining her loss, I feel as if Morrison has always been with me. The Black Book haunted me with nightmares of what they would do to my brown body if they caught me, Song of Solomon strengthened my mind when I thought being brown was wrong, Beloved soothed my soul when being a brown girl felt worthless and then again when it felt like too much.

Her stories are mine, although the names and details were changed. Here is the spot under my chin where I burned my neck trying to look like Laura Ingalls. This is the elderly Italian woman who works at my local grocery — always eager to tell the white woman ahead of me how to braise her beef but anxious and silent when bagging my groceries. Here’s how I wear Hall & Oates T-shirts in order to short-circuit racial profiling.

Lately, I’d been dwelling on omens. Sullen, murderous days slinking one into another, casting shadows of old terrors. Nine in Charleston, 11 in Pittsburgh, 22 in El Paso, so many more in ones and twos. Earthquakes in pairs. Countless aftershocks.

But Morrison taught me to pity those empty bags of death who think automatic rifles can stop us. She showed me that first at Pilate’s stove and then in the clearing behind Sethe’s house.

My wings hold the shape of her words, and so they cannot fail. I know now that as the shadows gather shape in the wagon to take me back to Sweet Home that I will hold my chin high, pick up the hammer, laugh and say,

“Me? Me?”

HBO’s new ‘Black Lady Sketch Show’ is both funny and long overdue All you need to survive the apocalypse is a headscarf and a League of Extraordinarily Funny Black Women

If there’s a lesson to be gleaned from A Black Lady Sketch Show, it’s this: All you need to survive the apocalypse is a headscarf and a League of Extraordinarily Funny Black Women.

HBO’s newest late-night sketch show, created by Robin Thede, is an instant classic. It premieres at 11 p.m. ET on Friday.

The apocalypse provides a frame for the show’s sketches, which are built around a core cast of Thede, Quinta Brunson, Ashley Nicole Black, and Gabrielle Dennis. The women kiki it up in a well-appointed living room in between each sketch, but when one of them opens the front door, the world looks like a scene out of a Cormac McCarthy novel.

Among the topics explored: How ashiness feels like slavery, groupie culture in the era of the Negro Leagues, and the relative invisibility of plus-size black women and how it makes them excellent candidates for espionage. The last bit is adapted from a conceit made popular by Paul Feig and Melissa McCarthy in Spy, but Black and guest star Nicole Byer successfully push the idea further along. That energy propels the show from the start. Its title sequence is populated by Crank Yankers-style marauding puppet versions of the actresses and backed by a Megan Thee Stallion track.

The show, co-produced by Issa Rae, is a rarity in modern television. Its writers, Lauren Ashley Smith, Holly Walker, and Amber Ruffin, are all black women. The show is directed by Dime Davis, whose most recent credits include a directing stint on the television reboot of Boomerang.

Thede, at this point, has grown accustomed to pathbreaking. She made history in 2014 when she became the first black woman to serve as head writer on a late-night comedy show, The Nightly Show, hosted by longtime Daily Show correspondent Larry Wilmore. She then had a short-lived turn as host of her own show, The Rundown with Robin Thede.

While A Black Lady Sketch Show provides ample time for each of its cast members and guests (which include Angela Bassett, Laverne Cox, Aja Naomi King, Gina Torres, and Patti LaBelle) to shine, Thede is exceptionally malleable. One of the great blessings of A Black Lady Sketch Show is that she’s used it to showcase her acumen with accents, from a spot-on send-up of Jackée Harry’s perpetually lustful 227 character to a rarely heard Louisiana Creole drawl in a sketch about a “Bad Bitch Support Group.” Her best may be a character named Dr. Hadassah Olayinka Ali-Youngman, a “world-renowned philosophizer” who marries Iyanla Vanzant-style self-actualization woo-woo ideology with the hotep paranoia of Frances Cress Welsing.

Ali-Youngman is a “pre-Ph.D.” who sports platinum blond locs, African mud cloth, and calls herself a “hertep.” She’s got the sort of pop culture stickiness that’s bound to take on a life of its own, like the Key and Peele sketch that turned TV football player introductions into an extended mockery.

From left to right: Holly Walker, Robin Thede, Quinta Brunson, and Daniele Gaither send up 227 in A Black Lady Sketch Show.

Courtesy of HBO

A Black Lady Sketch Show is so funny, and so packed with fresh ideas that it’s bound to leave audiences wondering: What took so long for something like this to exist?

Well, because like so many other aspects of American life, white guys had a head start, one that began in 1876 with the founding of the Harvard Lampoon, the oldest college humor magazine in the country. The Lampoon has had an outsize influence on American comedy, one that’s arguably just as influential as the writing of Mark Twain. For decades, it’s served as a feeder pool for writers, comedians, and actors to break into television. But that pool has been overwhelmingly white and male.

Seeking to provide a solution to the racial disparities in comedy, Chris Rock attempted to start a humor magazine at Howard University in 1998. The Illtop Journal, its name a takeoff from the university’s student newspaper, The Hilltop, eventually fizzled, with Rock conceding in a 2014 piece for The Hollywood Reporter that a lack of resources contributed to its demise. The piece, was, among other things, a response to an earlier controversy, when Kenan Thompson said in an interview that the reason Saturday Night Live hadn’t hired a black woman since Maya Rudolph left in 2007 was because “in auditions, they just never find ones that are ready.”

Dennis was one of about a dozen black women called in for a showcase aimed at finding such women and the show eventually announced that it hired Sasheer Zamata as a featured player and Leslie Jones and LaKendra Tookes as writers.

Since Saturday Night Live’s premiere in October 1975, seven black women have been either part of the repertory or featured players on the show (Danitra Vance, Yvonne Hudson, Ellen Cleghorne, Rudolph, Zamata, Jones, and Ego Nwodim). Many of its cast and writers come from a farm team of improv troupes around the country: the Upright Citizens Brigade, the Groundlings, and Second City, as well as the Lampoon. Those haven’t necessarily been at the forefront of diversity and inclusion, either. Even though Jones, who was personally mentored by Rock, has carved a niche for herself on SNL, her role there is routinely oriented around the idea that she’s undesirable. See her running gag with Colin Jost, in which Jones is positioned as a hulking, predatory black woman unaware that she’s trying to punch above her perceived dating weight class. The roles for black women there have been stunted by the limited universe of possibilities SNL writers have imagined for them.

A Black Lady Sketch Show simply has a different starting point. In Black, Brunson, and Dennis, Thede has assembled an all-star team from all over television. Black came from Full Frontal with Samantha Bee. Brunson is perhaps best known for her work in Buzzfeed video’s humorous shorts, but blew up in 2014 with her The Girl Who Has Never Been on A Nice Date series. Dennis, who played Candice on Insecure, has worked on a number of shows.

Compared with its people of color-dominated predecessor, In Living Color, A Black Lady Sketch Show highlights the changes in social norms that have taken place since the Fox sketch show debuted in 1990. For one, it’s considerably more queer-friendly. Brunson is a surprisingly handsome stud in a sketch about about a butch lesbian who steals dance moves.

It’s also amazing what happens when a show simply features black women instead of centering men playing them in wigs. A sublime weirdness results, one that recalls the goofy, left-field wit of Key and Peele while incorporating a critique of modern expectations surrounding beauty and grooming.

Because black women have historically been so poorly represented in improv and sketch comedy, especially on the nation’s ultimate platform for it, it was easy to draw a faulty conclusion: Maybe this is just how sketch comedy works. Maybe it’s just an inhospitable form for black women.

That makes about as much sense as concluding that maybe black people just aren’t good at playing quarterback when a black quarterback is shunted into an offensive system constructed for a different set of talents from his own. A Black Lady Sketch Show is the long-overdue meeting of a highly skilled quarterback with an offensive system that works with, rather than against, the athlete’s talents.

‘Testify!’ by Ernest Shaw Baltimore artist and educator explores the black experience and notions of blackness through his work

Ernest Shaw is the senior artist in residence at the Motor House, an arts space in Baltimore funded in part by the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation. He is an artist and educator in the Baltimore City Public Schools and is a native Baltimorean. His new exhibition, Testify!, explores themes of black masculinity, violence against women and young black men.

Below is the artist’s statement from the Testify! exhibition.

St. James on the Cross by Ernest Shaw. A portrait of James Baldwin, depicted as an ancestor with an African mask.

Courtesy Ernest Shaw

“Art has to be a kind of confession.”James Baldwin

“Testify” is my confession. I am testifying to fifty years of study that has given birth to a culmination of work that illustrates aspects of the Black experience from a historical, social and cultural perspective. By “Black” I am not referring to the popular notion of Blackness as the antithesis to Whiteness, which was established in the mid-late seventeenth century U.S. I am referencing a Black/Blackness that’s existed for thousands of years emanating from the continent of Africa and throughout the Diaspora.

Straight No Chaser by Ernest Shaw. (Thelonious Monk) Mixed Media, 2017.

Courtesy Ernest Shaw

Blackness exists and is illustrated through cultural strains that can be witnessed everywhere Black folk/Africans reside. I’m referring to notions of Blackness as observed by the works of artists such as James Baldwin, John Coltrane, Charles White, Nina Simone, John Biggers, Elizabeth Catlett, Sun Ra and Romare Bearden, all whose work has had an impact on my process. Blackness is the roux in the gumbo and the syncopation and improvisation of America’s classical music, also known as Jazz. Blackness is the wail of a mother after losing her child and a parishioner’s shout once struck during church. It’s Dogon astrology and Nile Valley cosmology. Blackness predates the Birth of the Cool, Sundiata’s Epic and The Infinite Wisdom of Ptah Hotep. It exists in all things but cannot be encompassed by any one thing.

This exhibition is a coalition of work created for three major projects: The Blackness, Manhood and Masculinity Initiative, Sorry I Didn’t Know and Too Cool for School. A number of the pieces were created during my sabbatical from Baltimore City Public Schools. These works combined serve as my testimony to Black portraiture and Black figurative artists current and past.

A work titled George Stinney Jr. Stinney, the youngest person executed in the United States, was accused of killing two white girls in South Carolina and was convicted and executed in 1944 when he was only 14 years old. The conviction was vacated posthumously.

Courtesy Ernest Shaw

The Blackness, Manhood and Masculinity Initiative is a project originally created by slam poet and writer Kenneth Morrison and me. Two-dimensional portraits and poems were inspired by interviews of approximately one hundred Black men and boys ranging in age from fourteen to seventy-five. The interviews covered topics such as death, religion, sexuality, politics, rites of passage, creativity and relationships. Part of our mission was, and is, to re-humanize the Black male image. The work created was not only inspired by the data collected from the interviews, but the experience of collecting the data itself. It was, and is, an enlightening experience to connect with so many young and older brothers. Thank you to everyone that participated thus far. The project is ongoing and is funded by The Rubys Grant sponsored by the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation.


Well into adulthood I was suddenly made aware of the historic and systemic assault on Black women and Black womanhood. I am ashamed that through the majority of adulthood that I was oblivious to the epidemic of sexual assault, abuse and molestation experienced by so many Black women and girls by known perpetrators. It was then revealed that many victims were/are coaxed to remain silent and immediately return to a facade of normalcy. The Sorry I Didn’t Know body of images is dedicated to the layers of trauma experienced by many Black women and girls. In the series I often use traditional African masks to accompany the figure. My use of the masks is dedicated to the historic abuse of the Black woman’s body physically and psychologically. The masks represent the request of Black/African women to hide their trauma and/or attempt to become something they could never be without the use of outside assistance. The aesthetic assault on Black women’s consciousness is arguably as devastating to their self-esteem/self-worth as any physical assault.

Too Cool for School is a series of works informed by my practice as an educator of mostly Black children in Baltimore City. It focuses on the intellectual assault on Black boys who are the lowest performing demographic of students nationwide. I wish to project images of Black boys in an authentic and human light, a light that allows them to maintain the dignity and freedom allotted to boys of other racial groups. My work with Black boys also inspires me to draft images of Black boys who historically never were allowed to reach manhood, if in fact it is at all possible for a Black boy to reach/attain manhood in the context of this society.

There are ties that bind the entirety of imagery of this exhibition. My concern for authentic depictions of the Black body and imagery are at the forefront of any project, mural or lesson with which I am affiliated.

This exhibition is made possible by the financial support of the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation.

Ernest Shaw poses with his work at the Motor House, an arts space in Baltimore.

André Chung for The Undefeated