Why ‘Fresh Off the Boat’ was a game-changer The longest-running sitcom about an Asian American family is entering its last season

Progress can feel both glacially slow and lightning quick at the same time. In 2015, when ABC premiered Fresh Off the Boat, it was the first network show with an Asian American cast since Margaret Cho’s All-American Girl premiered in 1994. Now six seasons later, the longest running sitcom about an Asian American family in television history will come to an end in February after 116 episodes.

ABC Entertainment president Karey Burke said of the show: “We couldn’t be prouder of this game-changing show and the impact it has had on our cultural landscape.” It was an impact that deserves its due.

From left to right: ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat stars Forrest Wheeler as Emery Huang, Hudson Yang as Eddie Huang, Ian Chen as Evan Huang, Constance Wu as Jessica Huang, Randall Park as Louis Huang, Lucille Soong as Grandma Huang, Chelsey Crisp as Honey, and Ray Wise as Marvin.

ABC/Andrew Eccles

I grew up in Southern California, infatuated with Hollywood. That was fitting, considering my mom named me after actor Cary Grant. She and I bonded over movies and TV. For an immigrant who came to this country with little family and no friends, movies often provided a respite for my mom’s transition to a new world despite the language barrier. It was a joy she loved sharing with me. That’s the power of film. But for all the content we consumed, we rarely had the chance to watch vivid, complex characters who looked like us.

When I was in kindergarten, Top Gun came out and my friend and I were on the jungle gym pretending to be Maverick and Iceman. I distinctly remember not even considering being Maverick because I thought there was no way I could possibly be the most important person in a story. Even if it was my own. I didn’t look the part. People like me never looked the part. Maybe, just maybe, I could be the main character’s friend.

I remember acting out imaginary movies in my house, pretending to be the blond, white hero, because that seemed like a better reality. I didn’t see any American-born Asian man without a heavy accent living his best life on-screen. It’s so clichéd and I roll my eyes as I write this — but that’s why representation matters. It’s not an affront to the status quo, it’s just a minority voice that says, “I also exist.”

In Netflix’s new film, Dolemite is My Name, the Lady Reed character (played by Da’Vine Joy Randolph) says: “I’m so grateful for you putting me in this movie because I ain’t never seen nobody that looks like me up there on that big screen.” It’s a common sentiment among minorities. Randall Park, one of the stars of Fresh Off the Boat, posted on Instagram about the show’s cancellation: “When I first started in this business … I would’ve been completely happy to be a funny neighbor or snarky co-worker. At the time, those were the kinds of roles that were available for folks like me.”

From left to right: Ian Chen, Forrest Wheeler and Hudson Yang in Fresh Off the Boat’s Cousin Eddie episode on Dec. 14, 2018.

Byron Cohen via Getty Images

Actor Ken Jeong recently tweeted: “If it wasn’t for #FreshOffTheBoat there would be no #DrKen or #CrazyRichAsians.” Fresh Off the Boat set the course for what could be for Asian American representation, while Crazy Rich Asians, the highest grossing romcom in the last decade, sprinted away with the baton. Since Crazy Rich Asians, which stars Fresh Off the Boat’s Constance Wu, studios are suddenly interested in Asian American stories, including Netflix’s Always Be My Maybe with Randall Park and comedian Ali Wong, a former writer on Fresh Off the Boat.

By no means is Fresh Off the Boat a perfect show. Loosely based on chef/author/long-suffering Knicks fan Eddie Huang’s memoir, the show’s ratings have been in steady decline and even Wu voiced frustration when the show was last renewed. But I will always remember the first episode of its third season, which encapsulated the first-generation immigrant experience in a way I’d never seen before. In the Coming to America episode, the Huang family visits Taiwan, where they emigrated from. While there, they realize they’ve changed and Taiwan is no longer the comforting home it once was. But when they are in America, they have no family, stick out as the only Asian Americans in their white suburban neighborhood and never truly fit in because of their appearance and traditions. At this point, the father character (Park) says: “We are Patrick Swayze in Ghost — stuck between two worlds, part of both, belonging to neither.”

Fresh Off the Boat was the first network show with an Asian American cast since Margaret Cho’s All-American Girl premiered in 1994.

Photo Archives/Walt Disney Television via Getty Images

That episode explained and made relatable in one sentence a tough experience to describe: the in-betweenness of immigrant life. That’s not just applicable to Asians, but to everyone — Latino, African, European, etc. How do you connect to your root country if you’ve never been there? How do you wholly embrace America, when America doesn’t always embrace you back? Where do I belong if I’m always proving or defending my right to be here?

Like any content featuring minorities, Fresh Off the Boat doesn’t represent the entire Asian American diaspora, but I sure could relate to a helluva lot of it. It helped usher Asian American faces into the limelight, share some of our culture and dispel stereotypes. And it just might help some little Asian kids struggling with their identity to believe they don’t have to be Iceman in their own life story. They, too, can be Maverick.

‘The Princess and the Frog’ gave black girls their first taste of Disney royalty 10 years ago, the film starring Anika Noni Rose opened to praise and criticism

Elizabeth Dampier was living a fairy tale. It was Nov. 15, 2009, and the 10-year-old from Mississippi was walking the red carpet at the world premiere of Walt Disney’s animated musical The Princess and the Frog.

The fifth grader beat out hundreds of girls to land the gig voicing the young Tiana, Disney’s first animated African American princess. It’s a role that would become synonymous with Tony Award-winning actress and singer Anika Noni Rose, who played the older version of Tiana. Besides Aladdin (1992), Pocahontas (1995), and Mulan (1998), characters of color were nowhere to be found in the vanilla worlds of Snow White, Cinderella, Aurora, Ariel, and Belle. To mark the long overdue moment, the House the Mouse Built opened its Burbank, California, studios to the public for a special screening, the first time it had done so since the 1940 showing of the classic Fantasia.

A decade after that 2009 premiere, Dampier, now 20, is still marveling that she was a part of the game-changing moment.

Actresses Breanna Brooks (left) and Elizabeth Dampier (right) attend the world premiere of Disney’s The Princess and the Frog at Walt Disney Studios on Nov. 15, 2009, in Burbank, California.

Photo by David Livingston/Getty Images

“I couldn’t wait to go back home and tell everyone about the premiere,” recalls the former child actor, who is now a beauty and fashion blogger. “Everyone [was] standing up and cheering for the entire length of the credits. It was an amazing experience, but I did not realize that [we were] actually making history. I honestly didn’t realize it until the movie came out.”

Based on the Brothers Grimm story The Frog Prince, Walt Disney’s 49th animated film was released widely on Dec. 11, 2009, amid deafening buzz. Not only was The Princess and the Frog the studio’s first hand-drawn movie in five years after Disney laid off most of its traditional animators before switching to CGI, it was its first animated picture since 1946’s offensive Song of the South (the stereotypical Reconstruction-era Uncle Remus and the black help existed only to bring happiness to a white family living on a Georgia plantation) to feature an African American character.

Directed by Disney stalwarts Ron Clements and John Musker, The Princess and the Frog is set in a 1920s black community in New Orleans. Tiana, a poor yet determined young woman, dreams of opening her own restaurant and serving her late, beloved father’s signature gumbo. Soon the ambitious waitress meets a talking frog named Naveen (Bruno Campos), who claims to be a prince from the fictional country of Maldonia. He’s been cursed by the villainous voodoo witch doctor Dr. Facilier, played with velvety aplomb by veteran actor Keith David (Gargoyles, Todd Macfarlane’s Spawn, Ken Burns’ The War, Greenleaf), who could make a greasy fast food receipt sound like a Langston Hughes poem.

Along with its throwback Disney musical numbers, Anika Noni Rose (Princess Tiana) was a major reason for the film’s success. Tiana is seen here with Prince Naveen (voice: Bruno Campos).

Walt Disney Co./courtesy Everett Collection

“There is no way I would ever, ever, ever kiss a frog. Yuck,” bristles Tiana.

But of course she does. That’s when the old fairy tale trope is turned on its head as Tiana is transformed into a frog. Time is of the essence as the pair rushes to upend Dr. Facilier’s evil spell, get married and live happily ever after. With a Roaring ’20s jazz age soundtrack written by Grammy and Oscar winner Randy Newman, syrupy vocals from Dr. John, and a deep bench of A-list voice talent headed by Oprah Winfrey, John Goodman, Jenifer Lewis, and Terrence Howard, the movie would go on to earn $267 million globally at the box office and receive three Academy Award nominations, including two for Newman’s songs.

Along with its throwback Disney musical numbers, Rose was a major reason for the film’s success. The Bloomfield, Connecticut, native beat out the likes of Alicia Keys, Jennifer Hudson and Tyra Banks to score the groundbreaking part. For many, she proved to be a revelation.

“Anika has long carried big projects,” said Michael-Leon Wooley, the voice of fan favorite Louis the Alligator, speaking from his New York City apartment where he has a statue of the gregarious trumpet-blowing reptile on top of his grand piano.

“Anika has always been able to handle pressure. She was the lead in Caroline, or Change,” for which she won a Tony Award in 2004. “She brought a lot of grace, dignity, and humor to Princess Tiana, which has become such an iconic character.”

The film had an immense impact on children, especially black girls, who finally saw themselves as a Disney princess.

Walt Disney Co./courtesy Everett Collection

Wooley met Rose on the set of the 2006 Oscar-winning film Dreamgirls. Two years later, the pair would find themselves together again at Los Angeles’ Disney Studios recording Princess’ show-stopping number “When We’re Human.”

“That was a great day,” Wooley recalled.“I knew it was a great number because Randy Newman was writing the music. I remember me, Anika and Bruno [Campos] were in the studio together to record ‘When We’re Human.’ When you are working with that level of talent you have to bring your A game. I don’t think I talked the day before. That’s how much I rested my voice!”

Critic Roger Ebert praised the film, marveling at lead animator Mark Henn’s “lovingly hand-drawn animation that proceeds at a human pace, instead of racing with odd smoothness. I’m just gonna stand here and let it pour over me.”

But the project was not without its detractors. For starters, Tiana spends much of the film as a frog. The racially ambiguous Prince Naveen sparked debate about whether Disney was ready for a black prince. Some writers took exception to the fact that the story takes place in the racially segregated Jim Crow era at a time when interracial marriage was outlawed.

In a 2010 essay published by the Journal of African American Studies, educator Sarita McCoy Gregory summed up the ambivalence of some observers: “Disney’s attempt to render blackness visible and human must be read against its objective of maintaining whiteness in the movie. Food and jazz share the burden of serving as metaphors for colorblindness and black humanity, leaving the audience with a feeling of accomplishment that they have moved beyond race in their acceptance of Tiana as a princess.”

From left to right: Peter Del Vecho, Marlon West, Bruce W. Smith, Quvenzhané Wallis, Jenifer Lewis, Anika Noni Rose, Michael-Leon Wooley, Randy Newman, Rob Edwards, Ron Clements and Keith David attend The Academy Celebrates The Princess and the Frog 10th Anniversary at Samuel Goldwyn Theater on Sept. 5 in Beverly Hills, California.

Photo by Timothy Norris/Getty Images

The criticism did not take away from the immense impact the film had on children, especially black girls who finally saw themselves as a Disney princess. “The fact that she was the first black princess meant to me that she was going to be, like, influence for other kids,” said one child during an opening night screening covered in a 2009 NPR segment. “I like that the princess was black,” exclaimed another.

Wooley can attest to the movie’s legacy. “I judge a big singing contest here in Los Angeles,” he said. “There were a few black girls ranging from 16 to 18 in the competition who were amazing. When I told them that I was Louis the Alligator, they all had the same reaction … They burst into tears. And I love that.”

During a 10th anniversary screening of The Princess and the Frog in September at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills, the film’s cast and crew reunited for a Q&A session. Hosted by self-described “superfan,” actress Quvenzhané Wallis (she was 6 when the movie dropped!), the event was a celebration of the film’s enduring reach.

Sitting onstage alongside the actors and directors were producer Peter Del Vecho, head of effects Marlon West, supervising animator Bruce W. Smith and screenwriter Rob Edwards. “You want to root for her,” said Edwards of the universal appeal of the strong-willed Tiana. Rose held back tears as she explained to the audience the responsibility she accepted in taking on such an important role.

“Never once did I feel, ‘Oh, my God I can’t believe I have to do all this,’ ” she said of the myriad auditions and early-morning plane flights she endured to get the part. “Never once did I feel I was not where I was supposed to be. Never once did I feel like this girl was not me.”

But The Princess and the Frog nearly got off to a disastrous start. When Disney leaked some concepts from the film in early 2007, there was immediate backlash. Among the grievances was the lead character’s original name, Maddy, which for many African Americans came too close to the offensive term “mammy.” Fans and media outlets also balked at Tiana’s original occupation as a maid to a rich white family.

Since the 2009 release of The Princess and the Frog, a lot has changed. More than ever, movie studios are recognizing the importance of empowering women and people of color to tell their stories.

Walt Disney Co./courtesy Everett Collection

The directing team of Clements and Musker had worked on huge titles such as The Little Mermaid (1989), Aladdin (1992), Hercules (1997), and, later, Moana (2016). The two white animation vets understood that The Princess and the Frog needed a shot of celebratory black culture and nuance. The pivotal casting of Winfrey as Tiana’s mother Eudora in September 2008 got the ball rolling.

The directors then brought in Smith, creator of the animated Disney Channel series The Proud Family, to assist with character animation and voice. Edwards, a veteran television and film writer whose credits include A Different World, In Living Color, Roc, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and the Disney feature Treasure Planet, was also instrumental in injecting much needed authenticity. Both played roles in establishing the unmistakable black hues, contours and vocal inflections of each character, from their dialogue to the bombastic Broadway-style performances.

Rose’s character struts infectiously on the high-kicking “Almost There.” David soaks up all the menacing fun on the bass-thumping “Friends on the Other Side.” A nearly unrecognizable Lewis delivers foot-stomping gospel-inflected joy on “Dig a Little Deeper.” And Wooley and company serve up sheer bliss on “When We’re Human,” which has become an indelible addition to the Disney songbook.

The end result was a commercial and artistic triumph despite its flaws. The Princess and the Frog is as entrenched in the pop culture landscape as Bambi, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Toy Story or Frozen. For example, Play Like Mum, a British website, looked at 20 years of records of babies’ names and found that Tiana was the second-most popular Disney-inspired name in the United Kingdom, just behind Elsa of Frozen.

In August, Disney announced that Princess Tiana and Prince Naveen are part of its new Midnight Masquerade princess and prince doll sets (with a price of $200), just one more addition to a long list of The Princess and the Frog merchandise. This Halloween there was no shortage of little girls wearing Princess Tiana’s green gown. And a Princess and the Frog-themed restaurant is set to open in a new hotel at Walt Disney World.

There’s such passion surrounding the film and its title character that Disney was forced to reanimate scenes from 2018’s Ralph Breaks the Internet that featured Tiana hanging out with a group of her fellow princesses, including Cinderella, Rapunzel and Jasmine, because she had been portrayed with lighter skin and more Eurocentric hair than in the original film.

“We were disturbed when she was changed so radically from the original movie,” said Brandi Collins-Dexter of the civil rights organization Color of Change, which led the charge to switch Tiana back to her prominent black features. “She’s incorporated into the Disney theme parks now. They have to hire black women to be Princess Tiana. So to whitewash that character was basically recasting Tiana.”

Rose released her own statement on the controversy, revealing that she met with the producers of the sequel, Wreck It Ralph 2. “They explained how CGI animation did different things to the characters’ color tones in different light compared to hand-drawn original characters,” she noted, “and I was able to express how important it is to the little girls [and let’s face it, grown women] who felt represented by her that her skin tone stay as rich as it had been, and that her nose continue to be the little round nose that Mark Henn so beautifully rendered in the movie; the same nose on my very own face and on many other little brown faces around the world, that we so rarely get to see represented in fantasy.”

Since the 2009 release of The Princess and the Frog, a lot has changed. More than ever, movie studios are recognizing the importance of empowering women and people of color to tell their stories. And there’s plenty of money to be made, too, as proven by the $1.3 billion box office earned by 2018 blockbuster Black Panther.

At New York Comic Con in October, Rose appeared on a panel with three other actresses who had portrayed Disney princesses and noted her character was the only one whose film had not been remade or had a sequel announced. She told fans to start petitions and write to Disney. “Send them a physical letter,” Rose said amid applause.

It is not unrealistic to believe that if The Princess and the Frog were released today, it would be bolstered by black directors, a black writer, a black composer or even a black lead animator. But its universal message of never giving up in the face of the obstacles would remain the same.

“It was very important to be from Mississippi, being that [The Princess and the Frog] was based in the South,” said Dampier, who will never forget her part in that watershed cinematic moment. “It helped to inspire other girls and show that [everyone can] make a mark, too.”

As for Wooley, he’s still boogying in the bayou.

“When I have the Disney radio station on and ‘When We’re Human’ comes on, it’s a whole thing,” he said. “I will stop the car in a parking lot just to sing it! As a voice actor, being an animated Disney character is like getting the ultimate brass ring. But more importantly, to star in the first Disney film featuring a predominantly black cast … it’s surreal.”

A revival of ‘for colored girls’ feels fit for 2019 Ntozake Shange’s groundbreaking choreopoem gets a new presentation in New York

About three-quarters of the way through for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf, the women of Ntozake Shange’s 1976 choreopoem recreate the oh-so-common laments of men who just can’t get it together:

lady in blue: that n—– will be back tomorrow, sayin’ ‘i’m sorry’

lady in yellow: get this, last week my ol man came in sayin, ‘i don’t know how she got yr number baby, i’m sorry’

lady in brown: no this one is it, ‘o baby, ya know i waz high, i’m sorry’

lady in purple: ‘i’m only human, and inadequacy is what makes us human, &

if we was perfect we wdnt have nothin to strive for, so you might as well go on and forgive me pretty baby, cause i’m sorry’

lady in green: ‘shut up b—-, i told you i waz sorry’

When actor Okwui Okpokwasili, who plays Lady in Green in the revival of for colored girls at New York’s Public Theater, spat out those last words from an abusive, ungrateful partner, they landed with a slap. She had to direct them at one of her sisters in color, and not some awful boyfriend, but she smiled and made eye contact with her scene partner. “I’m sorry,” she mouthed.

The show went on, and it was a moment, not even necessarily for the audience, that was easily overlooked. And yet it embodied the spirit of sisterhood that dances through this staging of for colored girls, directed by Leah C. Gardiner and choreographed by the Tony-nominated Camille A. Brown, whose work appeared last season in Choir Boy.

Okwui Okpokwasili (foreground) plays Lady in Green in the revival of for colored girls.

Jean Marcus

Shortly after Shange died at age 70 in October 2018, the Public Theater announced it would revive her most well-known work. for colored girls made its off-Broadway debut there in 1976, before moving uptown to Broadway’s Booth Theatre. With its questions and worries about sexuality, virginity, intimate partner abuse, police violence, cultural appropriation, abortion, trifling romantic partners, and sexual assault, for colored girls remains as relevant now as it was when Shange first began workshopping it in Berkeley, California, in 1974.

for colored girls came into being amid the experimental Black Arts Movement. Other luminaries of the movement, who seemed as though they would live forever, have also taken their leave in recent years — Maya Angelou and Amiri Baraka in 2014, and Toni Morrison earlier this year.

The Black Arts Movement both documented and propelled social change, and something similar feels like it’s taking place in New York theater now. It is full of urgent, strange, nervy work that is interrogating whiteness and challenging who holds power in the theater and in society at large. Artists such as Michael R. Jackson, Donja R. Love, Jackie Sibblies Drury, Jeremy O. Harris, Aleshea Harris, Patricia Ione Lloyd, and Jordan E. Cooper have distilled the essence of the movement, leaving its less effective elements consigned to the 1970s, and built off what works.

Brown and Gardiner have brought forth a revival brimming with reverence and fearlessness. Their work isn’t intimidated by Shange’s position within the black canon. Instead, they embrace it, and her, as a sister and contemporary. The direction feels both new and simultaneously lived-in. Because social dance and natural movement play such a big role in Brown’s work, there’s an accessible grace and effortless modernity about this show.

The Public’s revival is staged in the round, in a space that surrounds the audience with hazy, homey mirrors. Lucite installations that resemble wind chimes, like something you might have pulled out of your grandmother’s attic, hang from the ceiling. The performers lounge among the audience when they’re not speaking or dancing.

“Just as Women’s Studies had rooted me to an articulated female heritage & imperative, so dance as explicated by Raymond Sawyer & Ed Mock insisted that everything African, everything halfway colloquial, a grimace, a strut, an arched back over a yawn, waz mine,” Shange wrote in her introduction to the published choreopoem. “I moved what waz my unconscious knowledge of being in a colored woman’s body to my known everydayness.”

In this new revival, men are present in the words, but not on the stage. The women recount their deeds, the fun they provide, the sorrow they inflict.

Jean Marcus

Screen adaptations of for colored girls have never quite captured the essence of the choreopoem — its downtown New York theater sensibility and its grungy simplicity, born of a hunger to make art even when one can barely afford the basics to stage it. Oz Scott directed a 1981 adaptation for the American Playhouse series that included Lynn Whitfield and Alfre Woodard and expanded the world of the choreopoem to include men in the production. Tyler Perry’s 2010 feature film, which starred Janet Jackson, Thandie Newton, Kimberly Elise, Anika Noni Rose, Loretta Devine, Tessa Thompson, Kerry Washington, and Whoopi Goldberg, added a similarly unwelcome high-production-value sheen. Even though the show moved to Broadway, Shange maintained that her tastes were simpler. “for colored girls . . . is either too big for my off-off Broadway tastes, or too little for my exaggerated sense of freedom, held over from seven years of improvised poetry readings,” she wrote.

In this new revival, men are present in the words, but not on the stage. The women recount their deeds, the fun they provide, the sorrow they inflict. In between, in the margins of the words and performances, is the love black women hold for each other. This for colored girls offers a metatextual take on how black female queerness often exists in the cracks between the floorboards of our worlds. It doesn’t necessarily show up on the page, but it’s in the dreamy, flirty, sassy dances recreated by the women as they recall vignettes from their lives. In those moments, Shange isn’t just a part of the Black Arts Movement, but incorporated into the literary sisterhood of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and Gloria Naylor’s The Women of Brewster Place.

In the mirrors of the for colored girls set (designed by Myung Hee Cho), light bounces around the room, but magic does, too. The room buzzes with the love black women offer each other, both romantic and not. If a black woman enters searching for God in herself, she need only look up and around.

 

Major Key: Keegan-Michael Key is busting out all over  From ‘Dolemite’ to ‘Lion King’ to this weekend’s ‘Playing with Fire,’ he’s everywhere

Keegan-Michael Key is laughing. Hard. The kind of laugh that makes you want to join in because whatever it is he finds so funny, surely you will, too.

Key says he dreamed his whole entire life of being Billy Sims or Lynn Swann, but never got a chance to play football. So the idea that he garners fanboy love from NFL stars — including Von Miller and Michael Bennett — well, it tickles him.

See, about seven years ago Key — along with his then-comedic partner Jordan Peele — created what’s become a timeless funny take on the sometimes Afrocentric and other times simply creative names that some black football players may have for their Key & Peele show on Comedy Central. That sketch has nearly 53 million views on YouTube alone and one of the characters, Hingle McCringleberry, had made numerous “live” appearances.

And years later, it sticks.

“It is surreal to have these young men know me … my work is the closest I can get to emulate being an athlete,” Key said. “So there’s this really wonderful kind of synergy, this imaginistic — Made up that word! — this imaginistic synergy that I get to have with the players. And they all have really wonderful, rich senses of huge potential. Yes, for lack of a better way of putting it, yes, they do. They fanboy.”

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell (left) and Keegan-Michael Key (right) pose for a picture at the opening of NFL Experience Times Square in New York on Nov. 30, 2017.

AP Photo/Seth Wenig

But perhaps — just perhaps — they’re also taken by the growth in Key’s visibility in Hollywood? Because four years after Key & Peele went off the air, he’s everywhere. Sometimes he’s the funny guy as in Playing With Fire, which stars former wrestler John Cena and opens on Friday. And sometimes he plays it straight, as he does as playwright Jerry Jones in Netflix’s much-lauded Dolemite Is My Name.

Or is it his voice work? This past summer he voiced one of those menacing hyenas in Disney’s $1.65 billion blockbuster The Lion King. He also voiced Ducky in Toy Story 4, which has topped $1 billion at the box office.

Point is, Key, 48, is killing it.

“I think the ship is starting to turn a little bit,” he said. “A career is not like a little tiny sailboat, it’s a big aircraft carrier, so it takes a while to kind of start moving in different directions. But I believe it. I believe that people are starting to view me that way.

“I think that a hundred percent people are starting to see it. I’m playing the emotional fulcrum and the kind of solid, strong, straight man role in this musical [The Prom] I’m about to shoot with Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman and James Cordon. That’s being directed by Ryan Murphy, which is going to be one of the biggest things I’ve ever done in my career.”

He takes a pause and lets it sink in. Because that’s major.

“I am overwhelmingly excited about it. And I’ve seen that there’s a little shift in the way I’ve been cast and that’s all very intentional,” he said. “When I first met my wife [actress, producer and director Elisa Pugliese] and before we were married, we worked together. Key & Peele was finishing. She said to me, ‘What is it that you’d like to do next? And if you had no barriers, if there’s no story about why you couldn’t do what you wanted to do, what would you want to do?’ ”

The answer was serious drama, maybe even Shakespeare, and action movies like the Jason Bourne series. “That’s what I want to do. There was a very precise direction that the team can focus on that. And we’ve been doing that for like the last two years.”

Key says he’s blessed that there’s been a steady stream of work. He’s juggling a lot.

He’s in postproduction for the films Jingle Jangle (which also stars Forest Whitaker and Phylicia Rashad), All The Bright Places (which stars Elle Fanning, Alexandra Shipp and Luke Wilson) and the highly anticipated stop-motion feature Wendell and Wild, which re-teams him with Peele, now an Oscar winner and one of the most talked about genre-shifting creatives in the industry. And if that’s not enough, Key also is working on a pair of TV hosting gigs. Up first is National Geographic’s Brain Games reboot, which premieres Dec. 1.

“It’s been a very focused thing that requires quite a lot of maintenance,” he said. “The biggest challenge is believing in yourself, because there are days when you have to go, ‘Oh, God, I could absolutely really slay this role. I feel like I could just kill this role!’ But it doesn’t serve my needs, it doesn’t serve my goals.

“So sometimes you get three or four projects come down the pipe and you go, ‘Ugh, it’s all broad, slapstick comedy.’ And you know that you could sit in your lane and be comfortable and really make people laugh really hard at that,” he said. “But you’re not stretching, you’re not moving, you’re not growing, not evolving. So sometimes there’s that sting when you say, ‘No, no, I’m going to better myself. … I’m going to say no to this project.’ You say no a few times … as you tried to disseminate the information about your wants and needs, people start to move in that direction with you. They kind of fall into the current, but that challenge is real and significant.”

Keegan-Michael Key attends the Los Angeles premiere of Netflix’s Dolemite Is My Name at Regency Village Theatre on Sept. 28 in Westwood, California.

Rachel Luna/FilmMagic via Getty Images

He knows that most people see him as a sketch comedian. But just as sure as he’s challenging himself to evolve, he wants to challenge his viewership to join in that transformation as well.

“You get nervous that the only offers that are going to come are going to be the same. If I don’t take them, everyone’s going to stop asking and no one’s going to come back and no one’s going to come calling. And you have to face those fears. You have to take a deep breath and say, ‘There’s something that I want. There’s a desire that I have. What are the steps I need to take to achieve that desire?’ ”

Key pauses again. He’s connecting the dots of his career trajectory.

“I think it’s very serendipitous to have been in a project like Dolemite, because Rudy Ray Moore, the whole movie is pretty much a treatise on perseverance and not giving up on your dream,” he said of the game-changing comedian and his life story. “I have to say frankly it’s inspired me.”

Nipsey Hussle is forever in Isaiah Thomas’ heart The first-year Washington Wizards point guard is still trying to come to grips with losing his close friend seven months later

Ermias “Nipsey Hussle” Asghedom collected a litany of titles during his short, yet prolific life. Grammy-nominated rapper. Rollin’ 60s Crip. Community activist. Philanthropist. Entrepreneur. Lauren London’s soulmate. Emani and Kross’ father.

And Isaiah Thomas’ favorite artist — though their marathon, a bond dating back more than a decade, is far deeper than rap. Tattooed on the Washington Wizards point guard’s left leg are two checkered flags and an all-caps mantra, “I been fighting battles up a steep hill.”

“That’s my life story,” Thomas said shortly after the Wizards’ practice in early October. The two-time All-Star made his season debut Oct. 26 for Washington after recovering from offseason thumb surgery. He posted an impressive 16 points, three rebounds and five assists in 20 minutes in a 124-122 loss in San Antonio.

The lyrics inked on his skin derive from the now self-written eulogy “Racks In The Middle” from Thomas’ close friend turned guardian angel. Hussle was gunned down in front of his South Central Los Angeles-based Marathon clothing store on March 31. Eric Holder, 29, is facing trial in his murder. Thomas also cherishes another Hussle-inspired tat saying “TMC,” short for “The Marathon Continues” on his right shoulder. It’s an adage that defined their friendship, the similar trajectory of their careers and their ability to find strength after immeasurable grief in both of their lives. Thomas losing his sister and Hussle losing a close childhood friend within months of each other in 2017.

“That’s what it was. We had each other to lean on,” Thomas said. “We went through real-life situations that a lot of people can’t relate to.”

Hussle’s murder shook hip-hop to its core and sent emotional shock waves across the pop culture universe. His death particularly resonated in the NBA community, where he held close friendships with players James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James, DeMar DeRozan, Lou Williams, Stephen Curry, Wilson Chandler, Kyle Kuzma and several more.

“[Ballplayers] come from the same environment. They going through the same struggle. They’re just attacking it through their gifts on the court or on the field,” Hussle said in a 2018 interview. “Likewise, we’ll be in the studio and have the playoffs on mute and go back and watch classic performances. And just be like, ‘Look at the zone they was in.’ We both feed off each other.”

Hussle’s bond with Thomas was uniquely poignant. One built off similar self-made, get-it-out-the-mud, rags to riches orbits. Hussle was a child of South Central Los Angeles’ slums who had risen to the cusp of mainstream stardom at the time of his death. And Thomas from last pick in the 2011 NBA draft to undersized superstar point guard and now veteran aiming to prove that a string of injuries aren’t the final professional chapter of his marathon.

Thomas signed with the Wizards following one season with the Nuggets in July. He did so by paying homage to Hussle via Twitter through lyrics applicable to his journey’s newest chapter. As the Wizards start the season for the first time without John Wall in nearly a decade, Thomas will have an opportunity to play valuable minutes as a floor general. The eight-year veteran has coined this season his “victory lap” — an homage to Hussle’s Grammy-nominated final project. “When [Nipsey] came out with Victory Lap, I wasn’t able to play like I wanted to. I wanna show the world I can play at a high level like before I got injured.”

Hussle will be with Thomas for every game this season both in spirit and in playlist. But Thomas hasn’t yet given himself the emotional real estate to ponder how he’ll react not seeing Hussle courtside at his games for the first time since he entered the league with the Sacramento Kings. Thomas hasn’t let go of Hussle. Out of love and loyalty, he won’t. And out of confusion and pain, he refuses.

“I can’t even explain it. To this day it don’t seem real,” Thomas said, looking at the floor. “A person that positive and that genuine to everybody, anybody, it’s like that shouldn’t happen. They always say, ‘The good die young,’ and it’s really like that.”

Every marathon begins with a first step. In the University of Washington’s locker room in the fall of 2008, each member of the men’s basketball team had a chance to be team DJ. Freshman forward Darnell Gant, a Crenshaw High School graduate, used his opportunity to put on for his South Central brethren. One of Hussle’s earliest hits, the Kriss Kross “Jump”-inspired, but code of the street-driven “Hussle In The House” had recently become the MC’s first introduction to some of his earliest fans outside of Los Angeles.

“I was playing [Nipsey],” said Gant. “Then I remember Isaiah coming up to me in the locker room.”

“Who’s that?” Thomas asked.

“This Nipsey from Crenshaw.”

From there, Gant gladly offered his fellow freshman Thomas an immediate curriculum on Hussle. One of the hardest new acts to emerge out of California since The Game dropped The Documentary in 2005. An artist with a vision for his community wise beyond his years — and whose graphic street narratives of Los Angeles were scribed with John Singleton-like precision. Gant never knew Hussle personally, but his OG’s did. All Gant was doing was paying it forward by putting his teammate onto hometown game. He had no way of knowing an otherwise innocent locker room conversation would help inspire an unbreakable bond.

Isaiah Thomas (second from left) and Nipsey Hussle (center) attend the Nipsey Hussle album release party for Victory Lap at Medusa Lounge on Feb. 25, 2018, in Atlanta.

Photo by Prince Williams/Wireimage

Thomas took his education on Hussle far beyond UW’s training facilities. He devoured every piece of Hussle content he could find on the Internet. Thomas would tirelessly tweet Hussle’s lyrics, attaching the @NipseyHussle handle to make sure the rapper would notice the admiration. Hussle, an avid basketball fan with a respectable game himself, soon began following Thomas. The two swapped messages and months later met for the first time at a February 2009 show at Seattle’s Showbox SoDo while Hussle was on The Game’s “LAX” Tour.

“It was genuine love on both sides. He knew who I was, just from playing basketball. I knew who he was and he was up-and-coming [like me],” Thomas reflected. “He was a real genuine person and his energy just rubbed off on everybody in the room. It was dope from day one.”

Thomas and Hussle’s marathons ran at similar paces. Their progress was mutually inspirational. Thomas earning Pac-10 Freshman of the Year during the 2008-09 season. Hussle being featured on the 2010 XXL Freshmen cover alongside future stars J. Cole, Freddie Gibbs, Big Sean and Wiz Khalifa. Thomas firmly establishing himself as one of the country’s most prolific scorers and named Pac-10 Tournament Most Outstanding Player as a sophomore — and honorable mention All-American as a junior. And Hussle transitioning from his critically acclaimed Bullets Ain’t Got No Names mixtape series into The Marathon and The Marathon Continues.

By the summer of 2011, Thomas and Hussle had grown far beyond celebrity acquaintances. They were friends with a deep respect for the other’s craft and dedication. Days after being drafted by the Kings, Thomas took to Facebook expressing his desire to have Hussle perform at his draft party in his hometown of Tacoma, Washington. Thomas dreamed it, then Hussle real life’d it.

“[Nipsey] did the whole Marathon mixtape,” Thomas said still in awe. “Usually guys do a few songs, then get up out there. He did every song on there. He just showed real genuine love to my city. From that day forward, we would text, we would call. Every time I’m in L.A., I would go by the shop. He’d send me Marathon clothing. We’ve been really close since then.”

Their marathons would continue analogous paths. Hussle’s vision for music, but his growing business empire caused an entire industry to take notice despite the absence of Billboard chart-topping recognition. In 2013, Jay-Z made headlines when he purchased 100 copies of Hussle’s Crenshaw mixtape being sold at $100 per disc. The entire time, both celebrated the other’s win as their own. Thomas would bounce from Sacramento to Phoenix and to Boston — each stop establishing him as a bona fide scoring threat with unassailable heart.

“To see [Isaiah] make his moves in the NBA, go give n—-s hell last season and just run up his value. I look at his career a lot like I look at mine. His trajectory — he proved himself,” Hussle said, expressing his admiration for Thomas. “He made himself valuable. Against a lot of odds. And so I f— with I.T., heavy.”

All marathons present moments of self-doubt. And friendship has a profound way of evolving through tragedy. By 2017, Thomas was one of basketball’s most venomous scorers, averaging 28.9 points. Along the way, he earned the nickname “Mr. Fourth Quarter” for a string of heroic performances throughout the season leading the Celtics to 53 wins. The watershed campaign led to Thomas’ second consecutive All-Star berth. What had been a season-long coronation for Thomas as a true NBA superstar soon gave way to disaster. On April 15, 2017, Chyna Thomas, Thomas’ younger sister, died in a car accident in Washington state. Thomas, in a heroic performance for the ages, would drop 33 points in a Game 1 loss to the Chicago Bulls a day later. (Boston would win the series in six.) In Thomas’ corner the entire time was a familiar friend. Hussle’s texts messages about looking catastrophe in the face and continuing “run[ing] your race” provided invaluable moments of peace and motivation that Thomas needed.

“He sent a really long text to me just being inspiring to keep going, knowing that life is a marathon,” said Thomas. “He always been that type of friend. It’s always been real genuine love. A marathon is tough. Life is tough. That was probably the biggest thing that I would keep in my heart. Just keep running your race no matter what.”

Five months later, Hussle’s childhood friend and business partner Stephen “Fats” Donelson was murdered while standing outside a marijuana dispensary where he was employed. Donelson’s death hit Hussle extremely hard at a time in his life and career were trending upward toward the release his highly anticipated debut album in Victory Lap. Hussle would later commemorate Fats on the aforementioned “Racks In The Middle.” “Damn I wish my n—- Fats was here/ How you die at 30-something after banging all them years,” Hussle pleaded in 2019’s most chilling verse. “Grammy-nominated, in the sauna shedding tears/ All this money, power, fame and I can’t make you reappear.”

“When Fats died,” Thomas said, “I reached out to him and it was just like, ‘I’m here for you if you need me. I know you got a thousand people in your corner, but if you ever need to talk, you know I’m here.’ ”

Celebrate every victory during a marathon, because the last will never announce itself beforehand. Hussle and Thomas saw a reflection in themselves in the other. The “Blue Laces 2” MC was particularly prideful when his friend made his season debut with the Denver Nuggets on Feb. 13. Thomas smiled when seeing checkered flag emojis, symbolic for Hussle’s marathon edict, appear in his inbox.

“I know he was just about to send me some new music, actually the last time we had talked,” said Thomas.

Days after that conversation, the Nuggets were preparing, coincidentally, to host the Washington Wizards. Thomas was going through pregame routines, taking him away from his phone. By the time he returned, the news had already spread. Nipsey Hussle dead at 33. Thomas sat in a daze. The last thing on his mind was basketball. He didn’t play that night. Almost two years after the worst news of his life following losing his sister, now Thomas had another soul-piercing loss to manage. Nothing felt real.

“I just feel like coming home,” Thomas remembered telling his wife, Kayla, after receiving the news.

Around the same time, Thomas’ former college teammate Gant was getting off work in Los Angeles. The city was already paralyzed with a wicked elixir of fear, anger and depression. The two former teammates swapped messages, Gant more so checking on his friend whom he had introduced to Hussle’s music a decade earlier. He admired from afar how Hussle attended Thomas’ games, often donning Thomas’ jerseys. But now he was concerned about Thomas’ well-being.

“Losing [his sister] Chyna, I knew if he took that hard, he was gonna do the same thing with Nip,” said Gant. “I took it as he lost a family member.”

“That was a really good friend of mine,” Thomas said. “He meant a lot to me. [Nipsey] was like a brother, for sure.”

View this post on Instagram

Nip Hussle the GREAT! RIP family @nipseyhussle 🏁

A post shared by Isaiah Thomas (@isaiahthomas) on Apr 2, 2019 at 12:39pm PDT

With a new season underway, Thomas is excited for the opportunity in front of him in the nation’s capital. But make no mistake, Thomas is still very much grieving. He will be for quite some time, if not the rest of his life. Thomas’ eyes become glossy at the mention of Hussle’s name. He laughs at the funny memories — he refuses to say what his favorite memory of Hussle courtside is, choosing to keep that between him and his friend. But the weight of the loss visibly sits on his shoulders. How Thomas stares off to a different part of the room. How he fidgets with his hands when speaking. How he remains silent when trying to gather the correct words. Just the thought of Hussle oftentimes dictates his body language.

A natural human reaction to any uncomfortable or painful event in life is to develop tangible steps on how to resolve it. Grief, says Washington-based clinical psychologist Justin S. Hopkins, doesn’t work that way. It ebbs and flows, and trigger points such as birthdays or anniversaries are always looming. “I think it’s hard for people to understand that grief continues in many different forms long after a person is lost,” Hopkins said. “It’s one of those things that you have to continue to manage, process and make meaning of losing someone and how you remember them. And how you continue to love them long after they’re gone.”

Loss has a way of clarifying the magnitude of life. Death, in particular the passing of a close loved one, is incredibly difficult to compartmentalize and move on as if it didn’t happen.

“Disbelief is a really common aspect of grieving,” Hopkins said. “It’s hard to accept that someone you love will continue to have a relationship through your memories, but is no longer here physically. That’s really, really hard to take in. It’s one of those things that takes a lot of time and a lot of processing.”

Thomas continues his marathon with a lifetime of Hussle-curated memories. He’s only gotten emotional once over the past seven months. That was April 11, the day he saw Hussle laid to rest. Being in the Staples Center that day was an emotional juxtaposition for Thomas. Less than a year had passed since he was with Hussle at the same arena as he performed at the 2018 BET Awards. Part of Thomas refuses to accept what he knows is the reality. He snickers at Hussle becoming a meme during last season’s Los Angeles Lakers and Houston Rockets fight that involved Chris Paul and Rajon Rondo — Courtside, goin viral when them punches thrown, Hussle rapped posthumously on Rick Ross’ “Rich N—a Lifestyle.”

“It was funny to see that picture,” Thomas said, chuckling, “because that’s what most dudes in those types of situations has been in [do] … you’re going to pull up your pants and be ready.”

For Thomas, it all goes back to the intersection of Slauson Avenue and Crenshaw Boulevard in South Central. His whole life story was on that block, on that corner, Thomas says. Every time he’d touch down in L.A., Hussle would meet Thomas at his Marathon store. Occasionally, he’d take his sons, James and Jaiden. Thomas says every time, without fail, Hussle and friends would walk him back to his car. Hussle’s message was simple, yet poignant. Be safe out here.

“That’s why I haven’t been there [since], because it’s just like I keep saying. It just doesn’t seem real for him to be taken in front of what he built,” Thomas said. “It would probably be hard for me to go back over that way because that was a real special person to me.”

Thomas hasn’t given much thought to how he’ll react not seeing his friend courtside in Los Angeles, Houston or even welcoming him to Washington this season. Hussle’s absence won’t change the way he plays, but similar to his sister’s death, he finds peace “staying on [my] marathon.” He knows that would be Hussle’s only wish for him. The marathon was the root of their conversations, their friendship and their brotherhood. Staying 10 toes down and never letting a hard time humble them doesn’t stop just because one isn’t physically here anymore. Until they meet again in the next lifetime, Nipsey Hussle is forever in Isaiah Thomas’ heart and on his skin.

“[Nipsey was] probably the realest person I ever met. [He’s] somebody that I would want my kids to be like. Nothing about him was fake.”

‘Dolemite’s’ Da’Vine Joy Randolph gets a role that reflects her truth The Tony-nominated actress stars with Eddie Murphy in new Netflix film

There’s a moment near the end of Netflix’s Dolemite Is My Name — a biopic of the late comedian Rudy Ray Moore (portrayed by Eddie Murphy) — when Hollywood newcomer Da’Vine Joy Randolph grabs Murphy, looks him in the eyes and delivers this line:

“I’m so grateful for what you did for me,” Randolph says in character as Dolemite’s Lady Reed. “Cuz I ain’t never seen nobody who looks like me up there on that big screen.”

She and Murphy did three takes to nail the scene. Randolph, a full-figured, chocolate-skinned black woman, cried every time she had to deliver that line, and Murphy held her hand while she got through them.

“She wasn’t just saying lines from the script,” said Larry Karaszewski, one of the writers of Dolemite. “She was literally saying what was in her heart to Eddie Murphy. It was totally sincere.”

Craig Robinson, Mike Epps, Tituss Burgess, Eddie Murphy, Da’Vine Joy Randolph on the set of the Netflix film Dolemite Is My Name .

Courtesy Everett Collection

However you see Dolemite Is My Name (it had a limited release in theaters on Oct. 4 and begins streaming on Netflix on Friday), here’s why that moment is important: that line is an exclamation point for Randolph’s existence in Hollywood — her representation and visibility on stage, on TV and now, in film.

“That’s my truth. When I saw that in the script, I was like, that’s it right there in a nutshell. You know what I mean? The choices. The clothing choices. The scripts I picked. It’s all in there,” Randolph said.

Her journey goes back to the beginning of the decade. In 2011, she was an aspiring actress in New York looking for a gig. To pay the bills, she worked as a nanny for two boys in Harlem. The next year, she was acting on Broadway — theater devotees know her best as the Tony-nominated actor of the Broadway production of Ghost the Musical, where she portrayed Oda Mae Brown. She also played Poundcake alongside Taraji P. Henson’s Cookie on Fox’s hit series Empire.

“In my career now, I wanna transcend color, and I wanna transcend size. Even gender. I just wanna play and tell real stories.” — Da’Vine Joy Randolph

Randolph was recently cast in Lee Daniel’s forthcoming The United States vs. Billie Holiday. Filming begins next month in Montreal. (The role hasn’t been specified yet, but if it has anything to do with singing, she’s got that on lock, too, considering she’s also a classical singer.)

“In my career now, I wanna transcend color, and I wanna transcend size,” she said. “Even gender. I just wanna play and tell real stories.”

She’s purposeful, yes. But nothing is predetermined. An example of what catches her eye? An out-of-the-box character description like the one written for Dolemite.

“The breakdown of the character was if a man was writing a love letter to a woman. It wasn’t like, oh, fat black woman. Wild, fat black girl. Heavy-set, morbidly obese. I’ve seen everything in those breakdowns,” she said. “The amount of care and consideration in just the breakdown, I was like, ‘Oh, I’m about it. If they did that for the breakdown, what’s the script like?!’ ”

Building Lady Reed’s character was a challenge for the screenwriting team of Scott Alexander and Karaszewski.

“I sat at the back of the theater and watched. It’s ridiculous to say that I tear up every single time. She’s so good!” — Larry Karaszewski

“Everything we knew about her biographically we put in the movie! We knew she’d sang back up in New Orleans and we knew she had a son, and that was about it. So, we just took a step back and said, ‘Well, Rudy really seemed to believe in her.’ It’s like he was trying to groom her as his new star and he then kept putting her into the movie. So we just ran with that, and it gave the relationship a sweetness to the movie,” Alexander said.

“Even though we wrote the script, we attended a screening of the film and arrived 10 minutes before the movie ended. I peeked my head in and said, ‘We’re near that scene where she comes out of the house.’ I sat at the back of the theater and watched,” Karaszewski said. “It’s ridiculous to say that I tear up every single time. She’s so good!”

Ruth E. Carter, Luenell, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Mike Epps, Keegan-Michael Key, Craig Robinson, Eddie Murphy, and Tituss Burgess attend LA Premiere Of Netflix’s “Dolemite Is My Name” at Regency Village Theatre on Sept. 28 in Westwood, California.

Dolemite has something we rarely see explored in film the insecurity of a man and his body. That’s normally reserved for female characters, and the idea that a man was questioning his desirability appealed to Randolph.

“You don’t see me sitting in the corner crying like, ‘Nobody loves me. I can’t get a man.’ No, no, no, no. No! You see a man go through identity and the fear of having a sex scene and not feeling confident. You don’t usually see that. And then to have that man come to a black woman to seek counsel and solace,” she said. “And allow a black woman to do what she does best? It’s special. I felt like they were really onto something that I think, in all the laughs, if you really look at it, you see the deeper meaning. Eddie allowed himself to be vulnerable. It just shows that a guy has humanity.”

Starring next to one of the world’s most famous comedians in a film that will likely be her breakout moment is a lot to take in.

“You have to learn to feel comfortable in the uncomfortable ability and trust in your talent and your worth, and [know] that if you conduct yourself in a certain manner and live your life through kindness, respect, and authenticity, you will attract and be around things that are like-minded,” she said. “It may not even be something that you pray for. Like that saying, ‘God can build a dream bigger for you.’ ”

The character and that special line “was a generous gift to have in the script,” Randolph said.

“I [mean] this from the bottom of my heart, because, who knows, but this could possibly be the thing that changes the course of things in my career. I am extremely grateful and humbled by it.”

Once upon a dream Photos of superfans celebrating the world of Disney

D23 is the yearly expo for the official Disney Fan Club. Held near Disneyland in California, it’s a three-day convention filled with parades, panels, celebrities, Mickey Mouse and, of course, cosplay. Fans showed up dressed as their favorite characters from the world of Disney, including Marvel, Star Wars, iconic princesses and even Walt Disney himself. As Disney strives to be more inclusive to people and fans of color, we celebrate the creativity that was on full display in Anaheim this summer.

Naomi (left) and Kaliya Trias (right) as Valkyrie and Hela, characters from Thor: Ragnarok.

Aleu Moana dressed as Gamora from Guardians of the Galaxy.

Pernell Langhorne dressed as Captain America.

Tahirah Agbamuch dressed in a look inspired by Shuri, Princess of Wakanda, from Black Panther.

Phoenix Skye dressed as Disney’s Moana Waialiki.

Joel Alexander laughs as his Hulk head is removed.

Melanie Strickland as Disney Princess Ariel from The Little Mermaid.

Skyler Harper as Black Panther.

Nicole Shea dressed as Captain America.

A fan dressed as Queen Elsa of Arendelle.

Madison Rose shows her Disney pride, tooth gems and all.

Day Truong dressed as Aladdin.

Taylor Godfrey dressed as Tiana from The Princess and the Frog.

Amanda Temporal dressed as Esmeralda from The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Hyuma Atushi dressed as a well-known statue of Walt Disney holding the hand of Mickey Mouse.

The bitter harvest of Richard Bibb: A descendant of slavery confronts her inheritance The families of slave owners and the people they enslaved gather for a ‘reunion’ in Kentucky

RUSSELLVILLE, Ky. — That morning, I took my measure of the place. I toured the former Bibb plantation house turned museum and explored the nearby work cabins. I paid attention to the ways the ground shifted beneath my feet. By early afternoon, I’d settled in the community room to talk with the museum director who got the idea to bring together the descendants of the slave owners and the enslaved when some of the white families arrived for a tour. I heard their voices in distant parts of the house and sensed the anger rise in my throat. It was dark, sudden, impolite. I was not ready to meet these people. They had done nothing to me, yet I felt as if they had.

Do not come in here, I warned silently.

Their voices got closer and I grew more anxious, though you wouldn’t have known by looking at me. We wear the mask. But it felt like mine was about to slip.

The author, Lonnae O’Neal, watches from a window of the Bibb House as guests begin to arrive for the reunion.

Nate Packard for The Undefeated

I had joked with the only Bibb cousins I’d ever known that we were being lured into a trap. But now, the trap was real. It was all plantation houses and the ghosts of black people and white voices coming closer. I had stepped into a house of mirrors. I wanted to escape.

A couple of could-be-relatives reached out to shake my hand, and I extended mine to them as well.

Why had they come? I wondered.

Lord, why had I?


2.

The Bibb House was built around 1815 in this small Western Kentucky town about an hour north of Nashville, Tennessee. It was originally home to Maj. Richard Bibb, an officer in the Revolutionary War, his second wife and the scores of people they enslaved. In 1832, Bibb sent 31 of them to Liberia. When he died in 1839, his will freed 65 others, who were also given money and land. His white descendants included a U.S. senator and the originator of Bibb lettuce.

Granville Clark, a lawyer and president of Historic Russellville Inc., and genealogist and museum director Michael Morrow began restoring Bibb House nearly a decade ago. Along with four other historic buildings located in Russellville’s Black Bottom, an area settled by freed black people before the Civil War, it became part of the SEEK Museum (Struggles for Emancipation and Equality in Kentucky).

Clark once fought to the Kentucky Supreme Court for the Bibb House, which had changed hands several times, to be a public charitable trust and hoped it could serve as “a realistic memorial to the Old South.” But deciding what that means is a whole different fight. And not simply with white people.

I did not know if I had it in me.


3.

The invitation to come to Russellville had kicked around Facebook for months before I saw it. It was the first reunion of the descendants of Richard Bibb and the descendants of the people he enslaved and emancipated.

My first thoughts came out in a string of curse words. Miss me on those plantation happenings, I told my cousins, but part of me couldn’t let it go. My father’s mother was Susie Bibb, and this was the first time I’d heard a word about her people. The first time I’d ever heard tell of any such thing as white Bibbs. A couple of white descendants were working on a documentary and would be filming at the reunion. I felt the ground shifting beneath me as I considered my options.

A copy of a sign advertising the sale of two boys on display at the SEEK Museum in Russellville, Kentucky.

Nate Packard for The Undefeated

I have constructed a life with the resources and standing that allow me to encounter white people on my own terms — to decide for myself when and where I enter. But the Bibb reunion would be a departure from that. It represented something aching and unresolved that put me and mine on the shoulders falling down like teardrops side of a power dynamic. Something painful and frightening.

Clark emailed me a photo of Catherine Bibb — or Granny Kate, as she was known — taken around 1900, when she would have been in her early 60s, and said we might be related. Of all the money and land left to the enslaved people who Bibb freed when he died at 86, Catherine, who was 3 at the time, was given the most: 250 acres. That preferential treatment supports the family oral history that she was Richard Bibb’s daughter.

Granny Kate was fair-skinned, with straight dark hair. She founded a school and a church on the land given to the formerly enslaved on the outskirts of Russellville, in what became known as Bibbtown, where she acted as the unofficial mayor. Granny Kate looked like my grandmother, Momma Susie.

She stared out from the photo and I felt implicated in her gaze. Dead black people are always judging. Having put their own burdens down, they’re always asking the rest of us what we’re going to do.


4.

I can read stories of the white Bibbs in American history books. But my black grandmother isn’t in those books. Susie Bibb was an American original, and she demands to be accounted for and remembered.

Susie was one of nine siblings raised in the coal mining and railroad town of Centralia, Illinois. She was the smartest of them all in math, she used to say, but the family had no money for college. So she wept bitter tears and got married at 18.

My grandfather was a hotel chef who eventually opened a restaurant and tavern in the black part of town. My grandmother, who specialized in making pastries from scratch, worked there when she was younger. But I rarely remember her leaving the house as I got older, and rarely smiling. My grandparents’ front door was never locked, and a steady stream of people would walk in, morning to night, and stand before Momma Susie to ask for money to pay bills, to buy diapers, to tide them over until payday. If she liked the terms — high interest rates or food stamps, as I recall — she’d leave the room to reach under her mattress for money. If she didn’t like the terms, she’d tell them she didn’t have it.

A reunion guest looks at a display of photographs and drawings showing the enslaved people freed by Maj. Richard Bibb. On the mantel from left to right: Andrew Bibb, Catherine Bibb Arnold and Martha Bibb.

Nate Packard for The Undefeated

She never used any kind of muscle. She simply never lent again to anyone who didn’t repay her.

Momma Susie doted on the dogs, which she cooked breakfast for and might bite her grandkids if we got too close. So she’d yell at us, reasonably, to get our damned asses out of their way. She’d warn us, too, about men, husbands especially, or sometimes white people. But mostly she’d preach — often in loud, compound expletives — about the importance of college, about getting your education so you didn’t have to depend on anyone, and about having your own money. She was a bitter black woman, and she spoke bitter black words into three generations of college graduates and postgraduates.

Momma Susie’s black family is not to be mistaken for that of the white sons of Richard Bibb: pro-slavery U.S. Sen. George M. Bibb turned Treasury Secretary Bibb, or John Bigger Bibb, who developed Bibb lettuce.

Lord, don’t you get mad about it — there was a U.S. Coast Guard cutter Bibb, but Susie Bibb loan-sharked in her pajamas from an armchair in her living room for most of my childhood.

These facts are always in historical conversation. Seven generations from Maj. Richard Bibb, these facts remain grafted onto us. They were the fire last time. They are the fire this time. They explain almost everything.


5.

Richard Bibb fought with the Virginia militia in the Revolutionary War, after which he inherited land and enslaved people. He moved to Lexington, Kentucky, where he was a land speculator and acquired around 200,000 acres from Kentucky to Arkansas. He later moved to Logan County, where the former Episcopalian became a Methodist lay minister with anti-slavery leanings. He grew tobacco, had a whisky still, raced horses and became one of the richest men in Western Kentucky. When his first wife died, he and his second wife moved from the country into Russellville. He was heavily involved in the American Colonization Society, which sought to send black people “back” to Africa, where the people he’d enslaved had never been. (On the 1832 trip to Liberia, a number of children died of cholera before they got there.)

His will, which freed everyone he’d enslaved, also gave them tools, livestock, $5,000 and roughly 3,000 acres, which the executor, his son John Bigger Bibb, deeded to them 40 years later. John’s brother George wrote a legally famous letter advising him how to continue to control the money and the land.

An 1897 Louisville Courier-Journal article about Richard Bibb said:

“Since his youth he had cared for them, and before that they or their parents had belonged to his father. He believed slavery was wrong and was taking the initial step toward putting into execution a long cherished plan. He was about to send one-third of his slaves to Liberia; the others he intended to liberate at his death. He had read a chapter in the Bible and had given out a hymn, and when his prayer was finished, many a black face was bathed in tears, and the slaves gathered about and shook Old Master’s hand for the last time and heard the accent of his kindly voice.”

This idea of Bibb as an emancipator is a source of local and white Bibb family legend. It is noted on the plaque in front of Bibb House and was an animating fact of the reunion. To me, it was simply a reminder that a complex 250-year system of human trafficking and violent plunder could only be sustained by intersecting applications of pressure and release. It just meant that Richard Bibb was arguably better than some. The gauzy lore feels like the columns and porch added to the Bibb House decades after the Civil War to lend the whole enterprise an air of magnolia.

“In an old conventional view, Kentucky was supposed to be more benign in its slavery,” said Jack Glazier, author of Been Coming Through Some Hard Times: Race, History, and Memory in Western Kentucky and a retired Oberlin College anthropology professor. He calls it a self-justifying myth. “It was without question a brutal and depraved system. That’s very much the case in Western Kentucky,” where tobacco farming required large numbers of people.

The slave quarters in the attic of the Bibb House, which is now the SEEK Museum in Russellville, Kentucky.

Nate Packard for The Undefeated

After the Civil War, there was an out-migration to Illinois, said Glazier. “There’s a real story there.”

It’s the part of the story where I come in.

My cousin Marvin Vaughn, a financial analyst for an energy company in Houston, drove to the reunion with his mother, Sharon Bibb Vaughn. His grandfather, Morris, and Momma Susie were brother and sister.

As we sat in the car watching people go in and out of the Bibb House, Marvin told me a story that Morris had told him about Charlie Bibb, our great-grandfather, about whom the only thing I’d ever heard was that he was mean and yellow. “I guess he got tired of his kids talking about that they were hungry,” Marvin said. He went to the grocery store in the white part of Centralia, said his children were hungry and asked the owner if he could get some food and pay him back later. When the grocer said no, Charlie B. bagged the food anyway, and when the grocer tried to stop him, “Great-grandpa Charlie knocked him to the floor and told him, ‘Look here, I need to feed my kids. When I get the money I will repay you, and this is what I owe you.’ ”

I hadn’t known my grandmother had gone hungry. It explained some of the preoccupation with money that ran through our family. Explained other stuff as well.


Something else Uncle Morris told Marvin: His grandfather was the son of a slave owner in Kentucky. It was another story I’d never heard.

Marvin came to the reunion because something bothered him. If the white Bibbs were so wealthy, “Why did we get such s— portions?” If we had gotten a fair share, how might that have changed our lives? These are Bibb family questions, but they stretched out across America like the arms of Jesus. Marvin came to the reunion because he wanted to land on some truth and help put a face to it. “We could be a part of the family that they don’t even talk about,” he said.

And neither did we.


6.

Two months ago, the white ancestors who hovered over my features never crossed my mind. I couldn’t name one.

But that was about to change.

Suddenly, I wanted to hear the stories. I wanted to see the documents and learn what had happened to these people and what that said about me.

The morning before the reunion, I pulled up to Michael Morrow’s research office in the Black Bottom, three blocks from the Bibb House.

Maurice Hardy (left), his wife, Latisha (right), and their son, RayShawn Payton-Kilgore, explore the upper room of the SEEK Museum.

Nate Packard for The Undefeated

“I’m Lonnae O’Neal, my people are from Centralia, Illinois,” I said to Morrow by way of introduction. “My grandmother was Susie Bibb. Her father was Charlie Bibb.”

“Her father was Charles Smith Bibb,” Morrow said, correcting me. “And his mother was Pocahontas Wright.”

Morrow held the door open for me, but I needed a minute. I had never heard my great-grandfather’s full government name. Had never heard of my great-great-grandmother at all.

Morrow, 57, was raised on stories of Bibbtown. He had a speech impediment, so he hung around old people, who were less cruel and would let you listen as long as you sat still. He dropped out of college to care for his sick mother. He worked at a neighborhood food hall, did a little bootlegging and some such, but he remained fascinated by family histories and started keeping notes. People got word and started giving him their artifacts, and telling him their stories.

In a few keystrokes, he pulls up documents where my great-great-grandfather is listed as mulatto on the 1850 census in Russellville. In 1860, he’s listed as black. By 1870, John and Pocahontas lived in Centralia, where John and Pokey, as they called her, were listed as white, and they had a 6-year-old son who’d been born in Russellville, and a 2-year old daughter and an infant son who’d both been born in Illinois, as were the seven children who followed.

“Now let’s do one more thing. Let’s go to 1900,” Morrow said and showed me a census record for Charles Smith Bibb, 13, the first name where I know where I am. Then he shows me a later census with the names of my grandmother and her siblings as children. “The amazing thing is, we got the slave documents. We can prove this all the way back to slavery,” Morrow said. To a woman named Old Keziah. But the documents also leave some unanswered questions, including the identity of John Bibb’s father. Morrow has been putting the pieces together for decades, and he thinks there’s a good chance my great-great-grandfather John was the son of one of the white Bibbs.

It was too much life to hear about in one day. And we hadn’t even gotten to the reunion, which would start the following day. I closed my eyes and pictured Granny Kate, who I asked for strength.

“I think one of the reasons why African American people tend to stay away from this is because of the trauma,” Nicka Sewell-Smith, a genealogist and consultant for Ancestry.com, told me later. (Sewell-Smith also shared that her great-great-aunt Sarah was married to a different John Bibb.) People are getting killed because of race now, “and I’m going to introduce additional trauma, historical trauma, into my life?” she asked.

It’s a history that can’t be sanitized. “So we just move away from it because it’s painful and we don’t know what to expect, and we have to check our emotions,” she said. “You don’t want to lash out at someone who’s not involved just because you don’t know how to properly process, and a lot of our experience has been to just deal with it and push it down.”

Sewell-Smith reads part of Richard Bibb’s will, which frees those he’s enslaved on Jan. 1, 1840, nearly a year after he died. Some of those emancipated seemed to sell their land, but it’s hard to say since slavery was still law and some of those who’d been emancipated were re-enslaved. John Bigger Bibb moved to Frankfort, where he continued enslaving people as he perfected his lettuce. He had agents look after the land and the formerly enslaved, doling out piecemeal the $5,000 that Richard Bibb left them and not officially handing over the property until 1881.

“There was a monetary value placed on us, and because money was involved, people were going to document things,” she said. “There’s a tangibleness of slavery that you get when you can see the names of your people associated with these enslavers.” She was plainspoken, but I had a hard time following her. I think it was because I was unable to think of my ancestors as fungible. I kept attaching them to the names of my children, then viscerally resisting the thought. I eventually succumbed to the sadness of it all.

Clark, 64, who attended segregated schools until sixth grade, calls the SEEK Museum a chance to teach a history of both slavery and emancipation that he hadn’t learned growing up.

We’re “lucky to have a site that does deal with both edges of that story,” Clark says. “It wasn’t emancipation that was as pure and as perfect as you want it to be, but it lets us talk about these things.” He thinks America may finally be ready to have these conversations. But I have my doubts. I am reminded of recent stories of white anger over talk of slavery, also known as American history, during plantation tours. (This, by the way, is partially why black people prefer to sit with each other at lunch.)

From 1883 to 1908, 14 people were lynched in Logan County, the second most in Kentucky. In 2008, Morrow put up an exhibit about the 1908 lynching of four men in Russellville that led to a change in postal laws to prevent people from sending postcards of hanging, swinging, charred bodies through the mail. The men killed hadn’t been involved in the argument over wages that had left a white overseer dead; they simply passed a resolution at their local hall to help the accused raise money for a lawyer.

Morrow got a call when somebody finally cut down the “lynching tree” 20 years ago.

Descendants of Richard Bibb look at old photos and maps in the front room of the SEEK Museum.

Nate Packard for The Undefeated

The night before the reunion, as part of Western Kentucky’s annual 8th of August emancipation celebration, a statue of Alice Allison Dunnigan, the first black female journalist credentialed to cover the White House, was unveiled in Russellville’s Black Bottom neighborhood, which is on the National Register of Historic Places but had a tough time getting the city to pay for streetlights and sewers. Several of Russellville’s elected officials were there. None of them is black. Of the nearly 7,000 residents of Russellville, nearly 20% are black, and more than half of those residents live below the poverty line.

The Black Bottom sits on a flood plain and has a history of getting deluged. A half-mile away, the Confederate Monument, erected in 1910, which is also on the National Register, sits atop a pedestal.

Sometimes, white people tell themselves fictions, but they need us to play along. When we disbelieve them or don’t co-sign, they turn punitive or murderous. And that’s why we didn’t believe them in the first place.

“I don’t want everybody to come together and have a Kumbaya moment,” Morrow said of the reunion. “Our people have had so many Kumbaya moments. I want everybody to come together and be real about what has happened. If they are real, maybe people can go back and start changing things.”

They are asking for our truth, I told Morrow, but I don’t think they really want to hear it.

“I don’t think it makes any difference whether they want to hear it or not,” he replied.


7.

Rachel Knight and her brother, Jonathan, are descendants of Richard Bibb’s daughter, Lucy Slaughter, and grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Their grandmother chronicled their family history in the 1960s with a lengthy entry on the major. After the 2017 white supremacy rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that left a young woman dead, Rachel, a doctoral student at Teachers College, Columbia University, wanted to learn more about their family history. Jonathan, a filmmaker, was looking to make his first documentary. A woman they’d known growing up happened to be a professor of African American studies at the University of Kentucky and connected them with a black doctoral student and journalist to help produce it.

Traci Ellis delivers a speech at the Bibb House near the end of the day’s events.

Nate Packard for The Undefeated

“Our country hasn’t dealt with issues of our country being founded on slavery,” Rachel Knight said. And neither had their family. “Our family had a history of enslaving people,” but growing up in the North, “we don’t talk about that history that much.” When she found her grandmother’s entry about Richard Bibb, “I was like, well, why isn’t that a story that we talked about?” When she learned the Bibb House was still standing, she and her brother brainstormed about adding something meaningful.

Morrow and others questioned the siblings about the proposed documentary before agreeing to cooperate. “I trusted them to do what’s right,” Morrow said. I had no such trust. As a journalist, I’m always on the lookout for the ways whiteness, power and self-interest align.

I told Jonathan Knight I’d only learned there were white Bibbs a few weeks before and he seemed surprised. “I don’t mean this to sound harsh,” I told him, “but you all aren’t centered in our lives.”

He and his sister worried a film could seem exploitative, so they were trying to listen to criticism and challenge their own privilege. “Of course it’s hard,” he said. “But I really want to be up for doing it.”

“In my experience, white people don’t have the muscle for this conversation,” I said. Jonathan assured me that they did. I decided to take him at his word.

I noted that they’d asked my cousin, attorney and author Traci Ellis, to facilitate a discussion about race, and that white people were good for asking black people to do work — physical, emotional, spiritual — for free. “Black people are always you all’s raw material,” I said. The “you all” wasn’t specifically Jonathan and Rachel. It was a collective, a cohort of whiteness, organized in a system of racialized privilege. The royal you all.

Rachel owned her house in Brooklyn, New York, and I pointed out that my daughter lived in a Brooklyn townhouse split into three apartments where she splits her rent with two roommates. I felt angry, though she had done nothing to me. So few white people show up for these conversations that the ones who do come in for a lot of the work of the race. I wondered aloud if we were going to talk reparations.

After hours of talking, Rachel, who hadn’t been feeling well all day, looked peaked, and I felt for her. “It’s a lot, I know,” I said. “It’s a lot for us too.”

Speaking our racial truth can feel physically, socially or financially unsafe. There’s a wide berth we often give white people so as not to make them uncomfortable or angry. But in the shadow of the Bibb House, I couldn’t do it. The black ghosts of Russellville weren’t having it.

I don’t know if she got it. But I finally understood why I’d come to the reunion: to give the white Bibbs, as stand-ins for the people who baked inequality into America, their bags to carry. And all their crosses to bear. The ones that have been forced on black people that rightfully belong to the whole nation.


8.

The morning of the Bibb reunion, I wore a green dress to remind me of the green chair my grandmother sat in as she received borrowers. I lingered in the hotel parking lot praying to Momma Susie that I might represent her at this gathering.

Chairs and tables covered the front lawn and dozens of people, black and white, from 28 states, were milling about, with more steadily arriving. The center hall of the Palladian-style Bibb House museum features two pairs of iron shackles under glass that were found in the dirt on the grounds. In an adjacent room, a copy of an enlarged notice hangs on the wall: “One or two likely Negro boys, about 10 years old” for sale.

I forced myself to approach a middle-aged white woman in one of the upstairs rooms.

Old shackles found on the grounds of the Bibb plantation house on display at the SEEK Museum.

Nate Packard for The Undefeated

Michelle Anderson, a schoolteacher from Redlands, California, was a descendant of Lucy Booker Bibb and Thomas Slaughter. She was there with her son and daughter-in-law, both professors at Knox College in Illinois.

Her cousin took a DNA test, which is how she found out about the reunion, the documentary and Richard Bibb. The stories are powerful, “but you know it’s historically what it is, and we just embrace it to understand and, you know, make at least sense of it today.”

It all sounded perfectly reasonable, but I wanted to get away. The shackles. The 10-year-old boys for sale. The picture of Granny Kate staring at me. Minute by minute, this place felt oppressive, frightening and surreal.

I excused myself to talk to Latisha Hardy, from Louisville, Kentucky. She was there with her husband, Maurice, and their son. Until a few months ago, she hadn’t known there were white Bibbs either.

Maurice had white people in his Georgia family tree and understood the push-pull of wanting, but not wanting to be there. “It gives you feelings you don’t want to feel,” he said. “Because you know their money is built off your work.”

I sought out my cousins Ellis, from Oak Park, Illinois, and her sister, Amber Johnston, from outside Atlanta. Their late father and my late father were brothers. “This is opening up some stuff I didn’t even know I felt,” said Ellis. “I’m trying to hold that in.” To not come unglued thinking about “the wealth and the atrocities that happened in this house.”

White people kept coming up to her, “and they’re being appropriate, and wanting to talk and wanting to engage, but I feel like I need a minute,” said Ellis. “I might need forever.”

Ellis said she thought of Charlie Bibb, who had been an abusive man, and how abuse ran through the Bibb family, “and I never interrogated that further.” But now, she was thinking of “post-traumatic slave syndrome” and generational trauma. Her son, Jalen, 25, had visited the lynching exhibit the night before, and this morning he decided to stay at the hotel instead of attending the reunion.

Several Bibb descendants gather in front of Arnold’s Chapel Church, which was founded by Catherine (Granny Kate) Bibb in Bibbtown.

Nate Packard for The Undefeated

Her sister, Johnston, said they left Atlanta three hours late because she obsessed about retwisting her nearly waist-length hair. It’s similar to how black people dressed up for demonstrations and marches. It’s part of the armor we don.

When the formal program began, Morrow talked about discovering Maj. Bibb’s will and how he’d made finding the Bibb descendants his life’s work. “The Bibb family and these Bibb slaves have went all over America and done all kinds of things,” he said. The Bibb story is “a story about race. It’s a story about family. It’s a story about slavery. It’s a story about wealth. It’s a story about abuse. It’s a story about neglect.”

Ellis stepped to the lectern on the Bibb House lawn and told the hushed crowd, “When I pulled up, voices started in my head. Normally, I don’t hear voices.” She sat alone in the house’s 110-degree attic, the sleeping and work quarters for the enslaved, and she held a quilt. Spending time in the building and on the grounds, she said, “one of the strong feelings I had was rage.” She urged us to honor our feelings and have a “courageous conversation” about race.

My cousin asked the descendants of the enslaved what they would want to say to the descendants of the slave owners. And much later, when the moment was far behind us, I thought of plenty of words.

They went like this:

We are not like you.

We are not going to do to you what you did to us.

We are not going to burn your teenagers alive or put your grandmothers to work scrubbing our floors. We won’t break every bond of fellowship or citizenship to gain advantage, and then lie to ourselves and others about how precisely we’ve hoarded privilege in every institution of American society. We won’t call the police every time we feel uncomfortable or are made to share space. You are so afraid of us, of our anger and emotion, only because you know what you would do. It’s everything you’ve already done. This is why you’re always marveling at our power to forgive, because you, yourselves, do not.

That’s what I would have said later.

But in that moment I had just two bitter words. I said them out loud. And I meant every bit of them.

My cousin Sharon whipped her head around and tried to shush me, but I just faced forward steadily. I didn’t apologize. I said what I said.

I believe it was the ghost of Susie Bibb, answering my prayers.

Ellis had us break into groups and gave us a series of questions about race. My table included Michelle Anderson’s son, Jon, a scholar of African languages and linguistics at Knox College, and his wife, Nathalie Haurberg, an astronomy and physics professor at the college.

Toward the end of the program, I asked our table if white people talked to each other about race and what they said. Anderson stood up to tell the full group his answer: “No, I don’t think those conversations really happen. I think they happen in small circles, but in general, they are missing and I think a lot of people wish it would all go away. Each of us, as the white cousins here, as I will refer to them, are only where we are in life because of our black cousins, and we need to face those privileges that we have lived with for 200 years as the result of this house and the house across the street.”

Traci Ellis’ grandson, Christian, who is almost 2, takes a nap during the family reunion at the SEEK Museum.

Nate Packard for The Undefeated

Ellis ended the program by facing the house to tell the ghosts of those enslaved by Richard Bibb that we had returned. That we were their wildest dreams.

I was spent, more invested than I’d wanted to be in desiring something meaningful to come from this gathering. I hugged those who’d sat at my table. A few white people came up to talk to me about their family, to share their opinions on race relations, what they’d done in the civil rights movement, and about the president. I could hear them better this time.

Rachel looked stronger, I thought. She was glad they had helped convene the reunion.

The next day, eight carloads of black Bibbs, the extended Knight family and a couple of others toured Bibbtown. I sat with Amber’s children on the steps of Arnold’s Chapel Church, founded by Granny Kate. The last resident of Bibbtown, Marilyn Gill, had died a few years earlier in a fire so hot it melted coins. Her nephew died of a heart attack a few weeks after that.

“Some of you all might still own property here,” Morrow told us. “More brains are better than one, and I’m hoping you all can start to sort this out.” He hoped we would help find out about every acre Maj. Bibb gave the black Bibbs and who was heir to what in 2019. That we would join the struggle for truth, and the land beneath our feet. We are each other’s harvest.

I followed Jonathan back to Russellville until it was time to turn down a different road. I pulled up alongside him. Hard to know what to say through open car windows to a man whose ancestors had enslaved yours. So we just said goodbye. I was glad to have met him. It was a start, I thought.

Or maybe it was no such thing at all.

At some point, my cousins will likely do a more sophisticated DNA test to figure out more precisely if and how we might be related to Maj. Richard Bibb, and perhaps we’ll figure out if we have a claim to some of that Bibbtown land.

But it felt like such an old fight. And at that moment I was ready to get back home to my carefully curated black life, where the ground was steady beneath my feet and the old ghosts were much more quiet.

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.