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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Daniel Boczarski/FilmMagic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Reg Innell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

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

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

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

And then the woman who created Sula died.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy birthday to Kurtis Blow, the original ‘King of Rap’ ‘The Breaks,’ ‘Christmas Rappin,’’ ‘If I Ruled the World’ made him rap’s first major solo star

As a genre, hip-hop hits the big 4-0 this September. That’s when the seminal 1979 single “Rapper’s Delight” celebrates its 40th anniversary. Widely lauded as the first hip-hop hit, “Rapper’s Delight” opened the floodgates for a host of rap records to gain mainstream appeal in the late 1970s and early 1980s, as artists like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, the Cold Crush Brothers, The Sequence, Busy Bee, The Funky 4 + 1 and The Treacherous Three took hip-hop from the South Bronx parks to the recording studio. But of all the early hip-hoppers who broke that ground, no one crashed the mainstream quite like Kurtis Blow.

Blow’s musical legacy is without question. Born Kurtis Walker in 1959, Blow, who turns 60 on Aug. 9, was the first rapper to sign with a major label and the first to become a mainstream star. Signing with Mercury Records in 1979, Blow was managed by an up-and-coming Russell Simmons and had instrumentalists Orange Krush playing on his tracks. His charisma made him hip-hop’s first major solo star, and his hooky songs got him airplay in places most of hip-hop hadn’t reached yet. Before forming Run-DMC, a teenage Run got his big start as Blow’s deejay, and Blow would collaborate with rhythm and blues stars René & Angela and produce tracks for the platinum-selling Fat Boys. Between 1979 and 1985, Blow delivered classic radio hits like “The Breaks,” “Christmas Rappin’,” “If I Ruled the World” and “Basketball” — songs that would be sampled and revisited by everyone from Nas to Next. With the possible exception of turntablist Grandmaster Flash, Blow is arguably the most famous of hip-hop’s pre-Run-DMC pioneers.

It may not be realistic to expect early rap acts to suddenly be thrust into the epicenter of contemporary pop culture. But it’s not a stretch to suggest we show these artists the kind of love we’ve shown to beloved rock and soul legends of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s.

Flash turned 60 back in January 2018, and there wasn’t much celebration for the hip-hop legend. But that’s not an anomaly. Forty years after “Rapper’s Delight,” early hip-hop tends to be celebrated for its historical importance but not as classic music. It doesn’t help that the music born of the Bronx and spread via boutique labels like Sugar Hill and Enjoy had a fairly limited audience. Artists who laid the foundations in the days before Yo! MTV Raps and multiplatinum albums weren’t always visible outside of the 1970s and ’80s New York City, so acts like the Cold Crush Brothers and The Treacherous Three didn’t have the reach that their funk and disco contemporaries enjoyed — and so many of those acts can still sell tickets and enjoy major streaming numbers today.

But that’s why Kurtis Blow matters so much: He had the most mainstream appeal. He broke through to pop and R&B audiences at a time when rap music was still seen as a novelty. His signing with Mercury gave him a platform most of his peers didn’t have. Dubbed “The King of Rap,” Blow gained a much higher profile. As hip-hop is lauded for its ability to affect contemporary trends and tastes, it should also be recognized as a genre and art form that has a long history. This is no longer a “young genre” per se; it’s been four decades since the Sugarhill Gang and more than 25 years since The Chronic. Part of recognizing the maturation of hip-hop would be to acknowledge how rich its legacy is. That means celebrating the greatness of its pioneers, not just for “paving the way” for what came after but also for the merits of their actual music.

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On April 30, Blow announced via Instagram his hospitalization for heart surgery. He explained that he would be undergoing surgery at UCLA Medical Center.

“I am preparing for an aortic artery repair procedure tomorrow morning,” read the post’s caption. “The procedure will stabilize the artery from further damage caused by the hematoma I contacted from my recent travels to China.”

And just three days later, Blow shared that he was on the road to recovery. “Hey everyone- I started physical therapy yesterday and occupational therapy today. I am on my way to a full recovery 100%. Thank you for all of your prayers and well wishes. I love you all and I will be back really soon!!God is most powerful in these times!!!! Please keep the prayers going up so the blessings will come down!!!To God be the glory Amen!!!”

But shortly thereafter, Simmons shared troubling news:

“F—, Captain Kurt damn!!! He just informed me that prayers are needed ..Please put @kurtisblow THE ORIGINAL ‘KING OF RAP’ back into your prayers. He has been called to second emergency open heart surgery. Kurtis Blow is a survivor, but this is not good. I say this to all who loved his music, his heart is bigger than his music. His family is a testimony to his goodness. His loving wife of at least 35 years and beautiful children are examples of his willingness to give. Let’s all give him the prayers and our blessings. Update from his wife Shirley ‘Kurtis’s heart is beating on its own. They are closing should finished closing in less than 2 hours. Glory to God Glory to God hallelujah hallelujah’ 🙏🏽❤ Shirley Let us continue to pray.”

Kurtis Blow performs during an old-school hip-hop show on Day 3 of the NAACP’s 108th Annual Convention at the Baltimore Convention Center in July 2017.

Cheriss May/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Blow recovered from the ordeal and shared that he was recuperating, but his health scare was a reminder that hip-hop’s earliest stars are truly elders now. Those names like Kurtis Blow, Grandmaster Flash, The Treacherous Three and Spoonie Gee, as well as even earlier pioneers like Kool Herc, Busy Bee and DJ Hollywood, deserve more than to be relegated to niche status.

It may not be realistic to expect early rap acts to suddenly be thrust into the epicenter of contemporary pop culture. But it’s not a stretch to suggest we show these artists the kind of love we’ve shown to beloved rock and soul legends of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. A Kurtis Blow tribute at a hip-hop awards show doesn’t sound all that impossible, does it? Couldn’t you see a cool little medley? With Nas flipping “If I Ruled the World” as a nod, Romeo milking the nostalgia with his cover of “Basketball” and maybe having Next remind everyone where “Too Close” originally comes from (that would be Blow’s “Christmas Rappin’”) — and close with the everybody-knows-this universality of “The Breaks.”

Maybe that’s wishful thinking. Or maybe it’s already on the radar — let’s be positive. But as hip-hop enters middle age, it’s past time we start treating it like a classic genre. And it’s time we treat its founding fathers like the music legends that they are. Give Kurtis Blow his flowers. The man who would rule the world.

The NCAA doesn’t have a Rich Paul problem. It has a problem with black men. The move to regulate agents looks like yet another effort to police black mobility and freedom

The NCAA doesn’t have a Rich Paul problem. The problem is that its structure is designed to regulate the freedom of athletes to turn pro in primarily black sports but not in white ones.

And an entity that now preaches the importance of college graduation for agents doesn’t have the same righteous energy for black athletes at its most lucrative institutions.

Earlier this week, the NCAA implemented what was immediately labeled the “Rich Paul Rule,” after the man who represents NBA players LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Draymond Green, John Wall, Ben Simmons and 2019 first-round draft picks Darius Garland and Darius Bazley. The new regulations require that agents interested in representing players who are considering declaring for the NBA draft now must have a bachelor’s degree, be certified with the National Basketball Players Association for at least three years and take a comprehensive in-person exam at NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis. Paul, who never attended college, is one of many agents affected by this rule — but unquestionably the most prominent.

The NCAA’s move was instantly lambasted as hypocritical and vindictive. “The world is so afraid of ground breakers.…This is beyond sad & major B.S.,” tweeted comedian Kevin Hart. James, Paul’s biggest client, longtime friend and confidant, could only laugh at the NCAA’s energy, saying, “Nothing will stop this movement and culture over here.”

Chris Rock explained the context for the NCAA mandate years ago. “We’re only 10% of the population,” he said on 2004’s Never Scared. “We’re 90% of the Final Four!”

Only basketball must adhere to the new NCAA mandate. The actual text doesn’t mention race. Nevertheless, the writing is not just written on the wall, it’s been carved. It’s a “race-neutral” rule that isn’t race-neutral. This comes with historical precedence that the NCAA knows all too well.

One of the worst-kept secrets in sports is how top-tier college football and basketball programs directly benefited from desegregation. Before integration, the vast majority of top black athletes had no choice but to attend historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Once the larger and richer predominantly white schools began to integrate, HBCUs couldn’t compete. But there’s been a parallel development too: The graduation rates for black athletes at top sports programs remain consistently and embarrassingly low.

Agent Rich Paul (right), seen here with LeBron James (left), is a threat. To the status quo. To the hierarchy of power.

Photo by Jerritt Clark/Getty Images for Klutch Sports Group

Shaun R. Harper, executive director of the University of Southern California’s Race and Equity Center, found that, overall, black male athletes graduate at higher percentages than black males who are not involved in sports. But that’s not true for the NCAA’s wealthiest leagues: the Power 5 of the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC.

“The [NCAA] has claimed in television commercials that black male student-athletes at Division I institutions graduate rates are higher than black men in the general student body,” the report says. “This is true across the entire division, but not for the five conferences whose member institutions routinely win football and basketball championships, play in multimillion-dollar bowl games and the annual basketball championship tournament, and produce the largest share of Heisman Trophy winners.”

And an entity that now preaches the importance of college graduation for agents doesn’t have the same righteous energy for black athletes at its most lucrative institutions.

Black men made up 2.4% of the Power 5 student population but 55% and 56%, respectively, of its football and basketball teams. Of those numbers, 55% of black male athletes graduated in under six years, compared with 60% of black men in the overall undergraduate population and 76% of all college graduates.

“Over the past two years, 40% of these universities have actually had black male student-athlete graduation rates that have declined,” Harper said. “We’re supposed to be getting better, but actually 40% of these places have gotten worse.”

Meanwhile, the debate over paying college athletes is sharply divided by race. Most whites are against “pay to play,” while most blacks strongly support it because the current system exploits a largely black athletic base.

In the NBA, the sport is still primarily black. (The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport found that during the 2015-16 season, 81.7% of NBA players were people of color and 74.3% were black.) But black athletes have significant power and influence over everything from where they play to who coaches them to the structure of their contracts.

This shifting power dynamic is beginning earlier and earlier too. Bazley skipped college last year to become a million-dollar intern with New Balance. R.J. Hampton and LaMelo Ball, both touted as 2020 lottery picks, are taking their talents to Australia for a year before declaring for the NBA draft. Hampton has already inked a shoe deal with Li-Ning.

As Yahoo’s Dan Wetzel noted, the new rule’s standard doesn’t apply to college hockey players or baseball players, who can be drafted out of high school but can choose to attend college if their draft placement doesn’t appeal to them.

If this wasn’t about a young black man who achieved his success out of the mud and then empowered other black men to recognize their worth in spite of an organization that has for years manipulated their talents for the organization’s gain, if this wasn’t about yet another American institution attempting to police black mobility and freedom, then it’s difficult to see what the actual reasoning is.

This brings the discussion back to Paul and James. It’s often been said there is a Jay-Z lyric for any situation in life. Perhaps the most fitting here is a bar from Jay’s 2001 album The Blueprint, which entered the Library of Congress in March: All I need is the love of my crew / The whole industry can hate me, I thugged my way through, he pledged on “All I Need.” In essence, this has been the motto for Paul, James and the two other members of their inner circle, Maverick Carter and Randy Mims.

When James cut ties to agent Aaron Goodwin in 2005, eyebrows raised and many said that the young basketball phenom had risked his career before it truly tipped off. At the time, it was easy to understand why, given that Goodwin had helped the 2003 No. 1 overall draft pick obtain a bevy of endorsements, including Bubblicious chewing gum, Upper Deck trading cards, Sprite, Powerade and, most gaudy of them all, a seven-year, $90 million shoe deal with Nike. Few believed in James’ vision when he turned to three of his childhood friends to chart the course of his career on and off the court.

“James’ switcheroo a youthful mistake,” the Chicago Sun-Times wrote.

“I will promise you really ugly things will happen,” said former NFL player turned financial adviser Jim Corbett. “This is a big mistake, a bad decision that is going to cost LeBron.”

Which leads us to another Jay lyric, this one from 2009’s “Already Home”: And as for the critics, tell me I don’t get it / Everybody can tell you how to do it, they never did it. Thanks to the friends he entrusted with his career nearly 15 years ago, James is not only the most powerful player in basketball history but also a player in Hollywood, fashion, education and politics.

Money and power elicit respect, as elucidated by Kimberly Jones. But they also open the door for fear and angst. President Donald Trump took shots at LeBron on Twitter last August after the launch of his I Promise School in Akron, Ohio, saying it was hard to make “LeBron look smart” and weighed in on the NBA’s most contested debate, saying he preferred Michael Jordan over James — which Jordan quickly rebuffed. The two were labeled “mob bosses” by an unnamed Western Conference general manager last season after public attempts to move Anthony Davis to the Lakers (a move that eventually happened).

From left to right: Anthony Davis, LeBron James, Rich Paul, Ben Simmons and Miles Bridges attend the Klutch 2019 All Star Weekend Dinner Presented by Remy Martin and hosted by Klutch Sports Group at 5Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, on Feb. 16.

Photo by Dominique Oliveto/Getty Images for Klutch Sports Group 2019 All Star Weekend

Rich Paul is a threat. To the status quo. To the hierarchy of power. And to the image of an industry that is still dominated by white males and has long exercised fiscal and moral authority over black athletes.

Basketball altered its rules to make it harder for three players who made the game look too easy (i.e., they dominated the white players too much): Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Maybe the NCAA didn’t implement this rule with Paul as its sole motivation. Just like maybe the NCAA wouldn’t be so open to criticism if it made the education of players a higher priority.

Unfortunately, the NCAA addressed a perceived problem while never addressing its own. Sometimes sports really is a reflection of life.

Lil Nas X and Blanco Brown show that cultural appropriation ain’t nothin’ but a G thang In the debate over profiting from black creativity, these country singers prove that turnabout is fair play

Well, look who’s appropriating now.

Amid ongoing debates about cultural appropriation and the pain caused when corporations and white entertainers profit off the customs of black people and other minorities, along come Lil Nas X and Blanco Brown, two African American rappers whose tunes have penetrated the upper reaches of — get this — the country music charts.

Blanco Brown’s “The Git Up” made headlines recently after it topped Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart, having also charmed its way into the pop Top 20. Juxtaposing weepy pedal steel guitar against automated rap beats, the tune is a boot-scootin’ dance craze tune along the line of Billy Ray Cyrus’ 1990 breakthrough hit, “Achy Breaky Heart.”

“Old Town Road” is an international phenomenon for Lil Nas X (left) and Billy Ray Cyrus (right). It completed 17 weeks atop Billboard Magazine’s Hot 100 the week of July 30, making it the longest-running No. 1 tune in the chart’s 60-year history.

Photo by Rodin Eckenroth/WireImage

Cyrus, of course, makes a cameo appearance on the mega-popular remix of Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road,” a country-rap track that uses a Nine Inch Nails sample to celebrate rhinestone cowboy extravagance (“My life is a movie/ bull ridin’ and boobies/ cowboy hat from Gucci/ Wrangler on my booty”). As you’ve probably heard by now, “Old Town Road” is an international phenomenon, having topped charts throughout North America, Europe and Australia. The week of July 30, it completed 17 weeks atop Billboard Magazine’s Hot 100, making it the longest-running No. 1 tune in the chart’s 60-year history.

The timing of that achievement is eerily auspicious. Aug. 2 was the 40th anniversary of the recording of Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” the first hip-hop track of any consequence and the song that started a musical revolution. What better way to celebrate rap’s 40th birthday than with a country-rap single whose historic success underscores hip-hop’s border-bounding global appeal?

A track like “Old Town Road” doesn’t spend 17 weeks at No. 1 by appealing to black people alone. Indeed, we can assume that more than a few fans of “Old Town Road” are white Southerners. That raises interesting questions, because perhaps no other art form is more associated with white racism than country music, which flourished during a period when the South’s white ruling class viewed black music as a plot to “mongrelize” America. “The obscenity and the vulgarity of the rock ’n’ roll music is obviously a means by which the white man [and] his children can be driven to the level with the n—–,” said Asa “Ace” Carter, founder of the North Alabama White Citizens Council, in 1958.

Lest the irony of black performers such as Lil Nas X and Blanco Brown appropriating white country music be lost, understand that in the minds of many black folks, cultural appropriation is something only other races do. For the past century right up to the present, white artists from Al Jolson, Elvis Presley and Benny Goodman to the Rolling Stones and Eminem have made a mint assimilating African American jazz, rhythm and blues, rock ’n’ roll, funk, rap and more. We’re so used to churning out new art forms that the idea of appropriating white artists seems almost unseemly, like the crassest of sellouts.

Perhaps that perception will change with the success of Lil Nas X and Blanco. The fact that these black iconoclasts are making inroads with country music fans in an era of resurgent white nationalism challenges much of what we think we know about cultural appropriation and race in America. Are Lil Nas X and Blanco Brown pirating white culture? Or is the controversy over their blackified country sounds just musical racial profiling? Let’s explore.


The Cambridge Dictionary describes cultural appropriation as “the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture.”

By this definition, Lil Nas X and Brown are tough nuts to crack, though the country music industry has weighed in officially on Lil Nas X. After reviewing “Old Town Road” in April, Billboard elected to remove the tune from its country chart, stating that for all its country/cowboy imagery, the song does not “embrace enough elements of today’s country music to chart in its current version.”

Blanco Brown performs during Day One of the 2019 CMA Music Festival at Ascend Amphitheater on June 6 in Nashville, Tennessee. Brown’s “The Git Up” made headlines recently after it topped Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart.

Photo by Mickey Bernal/Getty Images

While Billboard may be clear about the song’s lack of country authenticity, it’s harder for us laypeople. Do Lil Nas X and Brown “understand and respect” white country culture, at least judging by their hit debut recordings? It should be noted that there was little demand for black country-rap performers before these two guys showed up. So they recorded these twangy singles with little expectation that their songs would make them chart-toppers. Successful black singers such as Charley Pride and Darius Rucker notwithstanding, African American country stars are as rare as desert rain.

Moreover, as any aspiring country performer will attest, it’s danged hard to write and perform a hit. Yet Lil Nas X and Brown nailed it on their first attempts, which suggests they understand and respect country culture, big-time.

But for the sake of argument, let’s imagine that Lil Nas X and Brown really are culture vultures just looking to make a buck in country music. Isn’t it about time we black folks did more cultural borrowing? In the never-ending appropriation debate, we are often the most egregiously offended people, and understandably so. From redlining and voter suppression to racial profiling, we’re constantly reminded of the institutional disdain this country has for its African American citizens. Given this contempt, it’s maddening to witness the white ruling class appropriate our culture, imitating and commodifying everything from our music and fashion to our colloquialisms and mannerisms.

Billy Ray Cyrus (left) and Lil Nas X (right) perform at the 2019 BET Awards on June 23 in Los Angeles.

Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images for BET

Now, with Lil Nas X and Brown tearing up the charts, a turnabout-is-fair-play dynamic has been brought to the debate. For decades, some white people have brushed off black concerns about appropriation, an indifference that was dramatically illustrated when rock legend Paul Simon visited Howard University in 1987. The singer/songwriter hoped to explain how South African Zulu music inspired the songs on his acclaimed 1986 album Graceland. But instead of a warm welcome, Simon was treated to a healthy helping of student scorn —”For too long, artists have stolen African music,” asserted one Howard undergrad. “I tried to introduce this music to people who never heard it before,” a stunned Simon responded. “Sincerity doesn’t seem to be held in high regard.”

Now the cowboy boot is on the other foot. Billboard’s removal of “Old Town Road” from its country chart suggests that some proportion of white fans are sensitive to their music being hijacked. Curiously, the purists weren’t complaining a few years back when a growing gaggle of white country artists started appropriating black music, all to the profit-making benefit of the industry. “Old Town Road” could be considered the latest product of a trend that emerged roughly six years ago. Dubbed “Bro Country,” the subgenre came to life when acts including Luke Bryan, Blake Shelton and Cole Swindell began incorporating rap-style party rhymes and R&B- and blues-inflected rhythms into their songs. With its satiny melody and hip-grinding beat, Jason Aldean’s 2014 hit “Burnin’ It Down” is virtually a R&B makeout song, yet it reached No. 12 on Billboard’s Hot Country chart. Unlike its action on “Old Town Road,” Billboard never questioned the authenticity of Aldean’s tune.

Bro Country was so all-consuming that black performers such as Jason Derulo and Nelly started showing up in remixes, and hip-hop iconography started seeping into music videos. Florida Georgia Line’s 2014 clip for “This is How We Roll” features singers Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley swaggering and fist-bumping like boyz from the ’hood. The song’s opening verse drops iconic names designed to resonate with both white and black listeners. To wit: “The mixtape’s got a little Hank, a little Drake …”

The “Hank” referenced in that verse is Hank Williams, the pioneering singer/songwriter who wrote and performed some of the most popular songs in country history, including “Hey Good Lookin’,” “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” An acknowledged influence on superstars such as Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan, Williams is held in such high esteem that he is affectionately known as “The Hillbilly Shakespeare.”

And right here is where the whole Lil Nas X/Blanco/cultural appropriation thing gets really interesting. You see, Williams learned to play guitar from Rufus “Tee Tot” Payne, a black bluesman who performed in and around Lowndes County, Alabama. Having assimilated both African American blues and Scots-Irish folk, Williams’ original compositions played a major role in forging the white-meets-black sound we know today as country music. Williams was but one of many white musicians influenced by the African American string band music that proliferated around the South at the turn of the 20th century.

The implications of all this are mind-boggling. Instead of being appropriators of white folk music, Lil Nas X and Brown are actually taking up where their banjo-plucking ancestors left off. Swish!


From its modest 1979 origins up to now, hip-hop has thrived on masterly mooching. The genre’s aforementioned inaugural hit, “Rapper’s Delight,” quoted verbatim from Chic’s sophisto-funk classic “Good Times.” Perhaps more than any musical style in history, rap is defined by the shameless borrowing of other people’s music.

Having assimilated both African American blues and Scots-Irish folk, Hank Williams’ original compositions played a major role in forging the white-meets-black sound we know today as country music.

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

But rap also owes some of its survival and current mainstream popularity to outright cultural appropriation. In 1986, hip-hop pioneers Run-DMC teamed with white rockers Steven Tyler and Joe Perry to record a remake of Aerosmith’s 1975 shuffle, “Walk This Way.” At the time, Aerosmith was all but washed-up and struggling to remain relevant. The Run-DMC collaboration changed all that, rocketing to No. 4 on the pop charts. “Walk This Way” not only rescued Aerosmith, it thrust Run-DMC into the pop music major leagues and helped broaden hip-hop’s popularity among white people.

Just as Run-DMC helped salvage Aerosmith, so has Lil Nas X delivered Cyrus from cultural mothballs. And both these examples reveal how appropriation can work to the mutual benefit of artists from different backgrounds. The blues-influenced music of Elvis and other white rock musicians ultimately improved the fortunes of many African American performers. Asked in 1968 about the high esteem in which white rockers held black blues virtuosos, B.B. King said, “I’m grateful … the doors are open now … because of people like Elvis Presley [and] the Beatles.”

This cultural reciprocity is the promise of appropriation, and only time will tell if Lil Nas X and Brown can make cowboy culture more palatable to black people. But even if such a miracle never occurs, who cares? The ultimate message of “Old Town Road” is be yourself, even if that means emulating someone else’s culture. The song’s declarative chorus — “can’t nobody tell me nothin’ ” — appears to epitomize Lil Nas X’s defiant philosophy about his unhip country lifestyle, a notion underscored by the song’s surreal music video in which Lil Nas X stares down a hip-hop dancer. Lil Nas X is refusing to be lumped in with anyone simpleminded enough to only embrace the products of their own race and culture. In this sense, “Old Town Road” is as thematically beholden to Sammy Davis Jr.’s “I’ve Gotta Be Me” as to any rap or country song of yore.

This rebelliousness, along with the sincerity of their left-field hits, helps explain Lil Nas X’s and Brown’s startling success. They’re part of a growing class of black creators redefining what it means to be an African American artist in the 21st century. This new determinism is evident in the endeavors of the Black Rock Coalition and AfroPunk, two organizations that celebrate diversity in black music, offering a fellowship platform for wayward African American musos. Black folkies such as the Carolina Chocolate Drops, J.S. Ondara and Dom Flemons are at once contemporizing and preserving the seldom acknowledged legacy of African American country and bluegrass musicians.

Lil Nas X and Blanco Brown rank among this band of musical gypsies, and they can’t be easily dismissed as cultural poachers. Are they borrowing elements of white country culture? Absolutely. But they’re also combining that with rap and reclaimed bits of their own black folk heritage.

And can’t nobody tell them nothin’ …

LeBron James again shows us his greatness, this time as a father Sports fanaticism shouldn’t blind us to the essence of family, love and fun

There’s a school of thought — well, foolish thought — that black fathers don’t spend enough time with their children, nor do they even care to be involved in the lives of their kids. That way of thinking is, of course, patently false.

In the aftermath of LeBron James playfully throwing down a dunk in his son’s layup line, there’s a similarly silly commentary:

James — a black father — is TOO involved in his kids’ lives.

It’s the kind of senseless debate that happens in the dog days of summer, when folks are clamoring for anything to break up the monotony of daily baseball coverage.

It’s also the kind of debate that happens when people are unable to differentiate between incessant media coverage and father-son time. Ironically enough, it’s the polarizing backlash to stories such as these that will only fuel more of these stories in the future.

I watched James’ son, Bronny, compete at the Nike NYBL Peach Jam in North Augusta, South Carolina, earlier this month. The gym was packed, as expected, and, as the days progressed, became increasingly star-studded.

As impressed as I was with Bronny’s court vision — some things are hereditary, not taught — I was more impressed by the family atmosphere surrounding the team.

There’s the moment where Bronny’s kid brother, Bryce, joins the team in a pregame huddle. Later, there’s a moment where James’ wife, Savannah, and his daughter, Zhuri, practically look like twins as they enjoy the game. Toward the end of the game, Zhuri switches viewpoints — from mom’s lap to atop the shoulders of her grandmother, Gloria.

Zhuri James watches the game at the Nike Peach Jam in North Augusta, S.C., atop the shoulders of her grandmother, Gloria.

Ken Makin

When you think about the initial two players of this great American story — LeBron and Gloria — and all of the expectations placed specifically on James, it’s remarkable what this family has been able to build.

Beyond that, it’s amazing that James has stayed true to who he is — basically, a big kid. That’s not a slight — it’s the ultimate compliment.

With all of the talk about his business savvy and potential status as the greatest of all time on the basketball floor, James is still in touch with his silly side. That’s what makes his recent “Taco Tuesday” posts so genuine, if not refreshingly quirky.

That’s the attitude that led to James punching a few dunks in the layup line.

If anything, James’ pregame dunks actually take pressure off of Bronny and his teammates. James has a unique perspective on unfair expectations, and if a few pregame dunks put the onus on him and not whether Bronny can live up to the James name, that’s proverbial dirt easily brushed off of his shoulders.

And then, there’s the weight of that name — LeBron James — which James admitted last summer he regretted passing down to Bronny:

“I still regret giving [Bronny] my name because of [basketball expectations],” James said during an episode of The Shop.

“When I was younger, I didn’t have a dad. So my whole thing was like, whenever I have a kid, not only is he going to be a junior, I’m gonna do everything that this man didn’t do.”

Sometimes, we get so caught up in our views of the media and sports fanaticism that we lose the essence of humanity — family, love, fellowship. From November to June, James is a basketball player. He’s spending his offseason not only being a dad, but a father figure. He’s imparting ideals on a group of young men that will impact them whether they play basketball professionally or not. It’s a team-based, loyalty-infused culture that has defined James’ existence — basketball and otherwise.

If you can’t respect that, to quote Jay-Z, your whole perspective is wack.

A$AP Rocky case shows the discomfort of fighting for freedom Wanting black folks free means freeing even those we disagree with

Grammy-nominated Harlem rapper A$AP Rocky (real name Rakim Athelaston Mayers) has spent the past three weeks in a Swedish jail. He was arrested on July 3 after a now-viral video allegedly showed the MC and his entourage beating up two men. In the multiple videos of the incident to hit the internet — Rocky himself released two to tell his side of the story — the two alleged victims are seen following Rocky and his crew, refusing to leave them alone, before the attack transpired. But cooler heads did not prevail, and Rocky’s crew is seen punching and kicking the two men. Rocky himself tosses one man, sending him flying before he crashes down on the street.

Rapper A$AP Rocky speaks at the 2019 SXSW Festival Featured Session: Using Design “Differently” to Make a Difference on March 11 in Austin, Texas.

Photo by Diego Donamaria/Getty Images for SXSW

While Rocky’s video did garner him some sympathy — he is, after all, seen trying to defuse the situation before any blows land — it hasn’t gotten him out of jail. Now, Rocky’s arrest and impending July 30 trial have become the focal point of an international debate over prison reform, race and politics, a debate that has involved everyone from Rocky’s rap peers to fans bombarding trending Twitter hashtags with demands for his release to Kim Kardashian and even President Donald Trump. All of this is intersecting with Rocky’s past comments and the realization that freedom for all also means freedom for people we don’t always agree with or even like.

One reason so many rallied behind Rocky was that he was held in jail for weeks before even being charged with a crime. One of the touchstones of prison reform, in America especially, is that in America alone there are more than half a million people in jail, mostly minorities, who have yet to be charged. They’re in jail simply because they don’t have enough money to pay for bail. The most infamous example is Kalief Browder, the New York teenager who was jailed in Rikers Island for three years in a minor theft case because he couldn’t make bail. He was the victim of brutal violence and spent two years in solitary confinement. After being released, he committed suicide in 2015 and is the focus of a Jay-Z documentary.

Additionally, sources told TMZ that Rocky was being held in abhorrent conditions in Sweden — unclean rooms with feces on the walls, he was eating only an apple a day and sleeping on a yoga mat — and we have the makings of a human rights story that shows how incarcerated people are treated across the world. The widespread support for Rocky, however, has waned in the past few days, as an old interview of his surfaced in which he disparaged the Black Lives Matter movement and said he’d rather talk about fashion than liberating black folks:

Demonstrators hold aloft a symbolic coffin bearing Kalief Browder’s name as they rally near the gate of City Hall in New York on Feb. 23, 2016. About a dozen prison reform activists demanded the closing of the long-controversial Rikers Island Corrections facility, where Browder was held.

Photo by Albin Lohr-Jones/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

“So every time something happens because I’m black I gotta stand up? What the f— am I? Al Sharpton? I’m A$AP Rocky. I did not sign up to be no political activist. I wanna talk about my … lean, my best friend dying, the girls that come in and out of my life, the jiggy fashion that I wear, my new inspirations in drugs! I don’t wanna talk about … Ferguson … because I don’t live over there! I live in f—ing SoHo and Beverly Hills. I can’t relate.”

For many, this was quite the karmic treat. A man who didn’t believe in the most prominent black liberation movement of his lifetime is suddenly in need of help from the activists he would have continued to ignore had he not been incarcerated. And while the schadenfreude is quite delicious to some, that shouldn’t mean that anyone should feel less obligated to find justice for the rapper if they believe he is truly being mistreated. Wanting black folks free means freeing even those black folks we disagree with — even black folks who don’t care about extending that freedom to the rest of us. A$AP Rocky deserves the same revolutionary acts of liberation and kindness we extend to any other incarcerated people, regardless of his stupid comments on activism.

Despite A$AP Rocky’s dispiriting comments and his strange bedfellows, he should be treated fairly and justice should be served.

Rocky’s situation has been further complicated in recent days by newly converted social justice activist Kardashian lobbying for Trump to get involved. Trump responded by tweeting out support for Rocky, directing aggressive tweets toward the Swedish prime minister and stating that “Sweden has let our African American Community down in the United States.”

So to recap, we have a man in jail who has expressed ambivalence about black liberation movements being supported by a woman who has made a career mining black culture for her own gain and who asked for help from a president who went on a racist outburst just last week demanding that four Democratic congresswomen go back to the countries they “came from.” The rest of us have been handed a cocktail of race, entertainment and politics in which we’re left wondering whether the enemies of our enemies are really our friends and which side is right here.

In the end, there should be only one winner: justice. Despite A$AP Rocky’s dispiriting comments and his strange bedfellows, he should be treated fairly and justice should be served. Because so often, our black and brown brothers and sisters are denied their rights. Of course, if we can extend the resources of Kardashian and the president to get one black man free, then it should be no problem to find the same justice for the Kalief Browders of the world. Then we can really talk about what liberation looks like.

Pulitzer-winning playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury wants her audience to feel awkward Her play ‘Fairview’ wrestles with white audiences judging work by people of color

Playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury is a veteran of occupying spaces, from the theater to Yale to America itself, that aren’t necessarily welcoming but still feel like home.

Her play Fairview, winner of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize, critiques the white gaze, particularly in theater, where it’s not uncommon to see shows starring, written and directed by black people that are performed for audiences that are older and whiter than the country at large.

Heather Alicia Simms (left) stars as Beverly and Roslyn Ruff (right) is Jasmine in Fairview, playing at Theatre for a New Audience in Brooklyn.

Gerry Goodstein

One of the most impressive things about Fairview is its creativity in addressing this strangeness. The first act is about a black family getting ready to fete the family’s matriarch for her birthday. But the show takes a left turn in the second act, when the actors repeat the same lines and scenes from the first act but they’re muted. Instead, the audience hears a running commentary from four white characters who have been watching the play and eventually begin talking about what race they would be if they could choose. In the third act, the white people are visible and insert themselves into the family drama. Havoc ensues, and the whole enterprise is wrapped up with a surprise shift in the power dynamics between the audience and the actors.

A first-generation American, Sibblies Drury, 37, grew up in Plainfield, New Jersey, the daughter of Jamaican parents. She studied playwriting at Yale School of Drama after years of traveling to New York with her mother to see plays and musicals as a child.

Her newest work, Marys Seacole, which ended its run at Lincoln Center in April, looked at the Jamaican nurse known as the black Florence Nightingale. But it’s more than a dramatized biography. Sibblies Drury uses the play to examine generations of care work by Jamaican women, how it is undervalued and how race colors that lack of appreciation.

A few days before the show’s opening at Theatre for a New Audience in Brooklyn, New York, where Fairview is running through July 28, Sibblies Drury and I spoke while having tacos and margaritas at a restaurant across the street.

The interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

The night that I saw Fairview, people were shell-shocked as they filed out. Is that always the reaction?

Charles Browning (right), who plays Dayton, joins Heather Alicia Simms (left) onstage in Fairview.

Henry Grossman

The audience changes every night. I know that actors have to alter their performances based on the energy that they’re getting from the audience. If a line that normally gets a laugh doesn’t get a laugh, you sort of pause and you feel a little bit like a schmuck for a second.

If people find the first act of the show really funny, generally in the second act of the show the audience is really quiet. And then if people are more quiet in the first act, and less sure of how to interact with that kind of humor, then sometimes they’re much more vocal in the second act. At the end of the show … it’s awkward. And it’s sort of by design.

Sarah Benson, who directed it, and Raja [Feather Kelly], who is the choreographer, talked a lot about whether or not to play music even as the audience is leaving the theater space and how it was really good to let people sit in their awkwardness. … Much of the show is so ugly that letting it be awkward at the end feels appropriate.

Tell me a little bit about watching people watch your work.

I feel like watching white audiences watch the work of people that I respect and admire who are people of color, and seeing how the audience changes the work, I feel is a big part. Just acknowledging the inherent power dynamic in that and how that feels connected to power dynamics in society.

My first play [We Are Proud to Present] was at Soho Rep seven or eight years ago. The director and I put the audience mostly around the sides of the room so that everyone would watch each other during the show. It was also a show about race in that it was about both white and black people imagining Africa and projecting themselves onto it. And then in trying to talk about Africa, they end up bringing up American racial trauma because it’s really hard to see black and white dynamics and not think about that. Theater people spend a lot of time watching audiences in all shows. But it was nice to let the audience know that that was a part of it just by the staging of it, and not an accident.

I am a little bit obsessed with watching whiteness and blackness. I do think that it was about going to see a lot of plays in my teens, 20s, 30s, and often being the only person of color in an audience and often feeling very visible in that way. And even welcomed in a very ‘So what brought you to the play? We’re so happy to have you,’ on the good end of the spectrum. And then if I ever did anything wrong, if I forgot to turn off my cellphone, I’m feeling very not welcome in that space.

So I feel like watching white audiences watch the work of people that I respect and admire who are people of color, and seeing how the audience changes the work, I feel is a big part. Just acknowledging the inherent power dynamic in that and how that feels connected to power dynamics in society. It just felt like this weird, dense metaphor.

Has this ever been performed in front of a completely POC [people of color] audience?

No.

It would be a really different experience if it was for all POC because the space would have been granted. For a little while, I thought that it would be impossible to do it without having any white people in the audience. I feel like the whole play would be more joyful maybe? And less uncomfortable. But maybe that’s not true.

What was your experience like at Yale?

Weird. Deeply, like, deeply odd.

Tell us more.

Jackie Sibblies Drury says Roslyn Ruff (pictured) and all the actors have to alter their performances based on the energy that they’re getting from the audience.

Gerry Goodstein

I went to a private school in New Jersey. And I knew what rich people were, so I was, like, there are people at my [high] school that are members of the country club, and that is wealth. And then I got to Yale, and I was like, whoa, whoa. And I thought, I just hadn’t experienced people that had access to literally everything their entire lives.

I remember going to the freshman quad thing and having someone close the door behind them and not let me in because they thought that I was from New Haven and not from Yale, and I was like, what? Why? I just had no understanding of any of that. But I had it a lot easier than a lot of people because I was also a weird theater kid, so I fell in with the weird theater kids, which was helpful.

Seeing people that were actually entitled, like very, very, very entitled, expected everything from the world and expected the world would greet them with open arms and give them whatever they wanted, was helpful. I don’t think that I would be thinking that I could write things that other people would find interesting if I hadn’t been completely drowned in that kind of psychotic self-interest, and so I’m really grateful for that.

Your mom introduced you to theater?

She worked for a supermarket company. When I was in middle school, high school, she was in charge of the frozen food department for this New York-, New Jersey-, Connecticut-based supermarket company, Pathmark. One of the perks was that people that were coming out with a new ice cream brand would be like, ‘Let’s wine and dine you. And we’ll send you to a Broadway show.’ Because she was divorced, she would take me. So I would get to go see Cats and Les Mis and stuff.

It was so awesome. And you get free dinner at some place in Times Square that was fancy. I was really into lobster tails at the time. I was like, ‘What’s the fanciest, most expensive thing I can get on this menu?’ I was like, ‘I don’t even know if I like them, but you get butter. And they’re expensive. So I’ll have three!’

My mom was always an incredibly avid reader and consumer of culture. It’s funny, in the last 10 years, I’ve dragged her to see all this superweird s— downtown. And I’m like, ‘It’s going to be great, mom. Someone is going to get naked and they’re going to throw their own feces at the back wall of the stage.’ But now she’ll go and see a show on Broadway and she’ll be like, ‘I don’t know, I found it derivative.’ And I’m like, ‘Yes. I’ve made you a theater snob!’

Soho Rep, where Fairview premiered, is so intimate, with just 65 seats, and I imagine that ratchets up the level of discomfort. How do you preserve that in moving to the 299-seat Theatre for a New Audience?

Part of the reason that we wanted to be in this space is that even though it’s bigger, it’s not a 500-seat theater or a 1,000-seat theater. And there is something about the balconies and the acoustics that no one is so far away from the stage or from someone else in the audience. And you can see other audience members from everywhere. I feel like there are some theaters that roll out and it gets very dark in the house, and you feel like the people onstage can’t even hear you if you said anything. We were all interested in still having people feel like they could participate in the events and in the experience of the play, and that they could hear other people in the audience as it was happening.

What’s it like, having a Pulitzer? Have you thought about it much?

No. I mean, only when I’ve changed lines in a rehearsal room. And the actors have been like, ‘You really want to change the lines of the Pulitzer-winning play?!’ And I’m like, ‘Well, yeah. Now you need a longer exit line, so we’re going to change.’

I realize I do have a little bit of a chip on my shoulder in a lot of different ways. And anything that can be seen as validating can also be explained away. As many people as there are like, ‘Wow. The Pulitzers really got it right, so great for you, hurray,’ there are equally as many people that I have, thankfully, not talked to that much that are like, ‘What an off year. The Pulitzers are trying to follow a trend. This is such bulls—, and this is devaluing the Pulitzer.’

And so it’s like, yay? I don’t know. I should be happier about it. I should just be purely happy.

Does your husband ever remind you that you’re great?

He’s actually really good about that. … And then also, ‘I know you won an award and everything, but do you want to do a dish once in a while?’ But I say that with love. He’s incredibly supportive in a lot of ways. Emotional, physical, mental, he’s great. I’m very lucky. Not to be a sap.

Did you talk with your grandmother and mother much about race?

I think that my mom had a very particular experience. She’s Jamaican, but my grandmother is white and eventually married my mother’s father, who was a black man, but they were both Jamaican. So my mom grew up with a very different conception about an interracial relationship, or interracial wasn’t a word that she heard until she came to America. She has never referred to herself as biracial. She’s just a black Jamaican person in her mind. And I think moving near Newark in the early ’70s, when there were race riots happening, it was like America is racist and terrifying. But I think that she didn’t think about race that much before coming to America.

There’s definitely an immigrant filter that you see race through.

For West Indian people, generally, historically, colorism is a huge issue. I feel like my mom was more sensitive to that than she was to race in some ways, and thinking about what it meant to be treated differently from a cousin because she had lighter skin than them or darker skin than them. A lot of her sense of fairness and equality is shade-oriented rather than race-oriented. And in some ways that was really helpful for me growing up in terms of feeling kinship with lots of different minorities.

I feel like my mom was like, ‘Americans were racist. You have to be careful.’ And she’d be like, ‘Jamaicans are sexist. So you have to be careful.’ Not wrong. I just think it’s more complicated.

Second-generation pro athletes are becoming a thing It’s not just Steph and Klay, it’s happening in so many sports

Last year, Justify won horse racing’s Triple Crown and retired undefeated. He is a descendant of previous Triple Crown winners, including Seattle Slew, Secretariat and War Admiral. And he is a four-legged reminder of a trend that’s racing through elite pro sports: Justify, like his two-legged counterparts, is a descendant of former stars in his sport.

More and more athletes are entering the family business: sports. If current trends continue, we may see favorite son or daughter categories in The ESPYS or publications that look back on the year in sports.

In April’s NFL draft, Nick Bosa joined his brother, Joey, and father, John, as football players who were first-round draft picks. Earlier this month, Bobby Witt Sr. and Jr. became the first father-and-son duo to be picked among the first three selections in the Major League Baseball draft when Bobby Jr. was selected second overall by the Kansas City Royals. Meanwhile, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson of the Golden State Warriors have led their team to its fifth consecutive NBA Finals. Both men’s fathers enjoyed long NBA careers.

Now it could be that sports scientists will discover a jump shot gene or pass rushing in the DNA of second-generation athletes. Perhaps the ability to hit major league pitching can be passed down too. Maybe there is something innate and inheritable that has led to multiple generations of Boones in baseball, the Mannings in football and the Unsers in auto racing.

But we know that Nick Bosa, Curry, baseball’s Vlad Guerrero Jr. (son of Hall of Famer Vlad Sr.) and other second-generation athletes had fathers who could show them the ropes in their chosen profession, which is to say that big-time sports, like other endeavors in our country, favor young people whose families can help them succeed and show them how.

At the same time, we see fathers — and it is mainly fathers — who seek to groom their sons or daughters for sports stardom: the Williams sisters in tennis or the Ball brothers in basketball, for example.

During the various pro drafts, we see such fathers give a special look to their drafted children, a look that should be familiar to parents who have attended their kids’ college graduations. It’s a look that says, “This is the end.” It’s a look that says, “This is the beginning.” It’s a look that says, “We did it.”

Of course, as society changes, so do our families: Would-be male sports stars such as Kevin Durant and Draymond Green are just two of many men inside and outside of sports who have been nurtured by strong, resourceful and resilient women, especially black women. And the NBA’s LeBron James continues to invent himself as a man, a father and a businessperson while withstanding the scrutiny and sometimes the scorn of the media. And, like legions of others outside of sports, he has done so without his biological father showing the way, a feat comparable to anything the Los Angeles Lakers forward pulls off on the basketball court.

The world of big-time sports appears so seductive and compelling that it is understandable when some fathers want a chance to see if they can endure the spotlight and not melt under its heat.

But fathers and others don’t have to resort to stunts such as catching a baseball in major league stands while holding a child (the stupid guy trick of sports fans) to get our attention. They can use sports and their ups and downs to give our children “the talk.” I’m talking about the one best delivered in a whispered but confident voice after our children lose a game. It is the one where the elders tell the children they can come back from defeat, they can withstand the end of the world and try again and again, that there can be triumph beyond numbers on the scoreboard.

Becoming good at delivering that talk might not land the elders on the sports highlight shows. But it could earn them a vote for most valuable dad, parent or guardian, at least in their households.

Happy Father’s Day.

As 2019’s new fall TV shows come into focus, more black antihero stories need to be told In putting black characters who dwelled in darkness on screen, ABC and others expanded the meaning of mainstream blackness

TV’s major networks made their upfront announcements recently, and there are some interesting shows coming to screens this fall.

Saturday Night Live vet Kenan Thompson finally lands a starring vehicle with NBC’s The Kenan Show, a family sitcom about a single dad. ABC’s black-ish spinoff mixed-ish stars Tika Sumpter and centers on an interracial hippie family in the 1980s. Megalyn Echikunwoke is one of the leads on Not Just Me from Fox. It’s about a woman coming to grips with discovering her father sired multiple children. Sunnyside is a Kal Penn-driven NBC sitcom with a multiethnic cast about a former New York City councilman who helps immigrants living in Queens, New York. Folake Olowofoyeku stars with Billy Gardell in Bob Hearts Abishola, a CBS sitcom about a middle-aged white guy who has a heart attack and falls for his Nigerian cardiac nurse. “Hardy har har.”

“Safe” depictions of black experiences are no longer a prerequisite for high visibility, and darker depictions don’t have to be filtered through white creatives’ lenses.

Considering returning shows such as The Last O.G. and the ever-popular black-ish on traditional networks, there seems to be a resurgence in sitcoms as it pertains to black programming. That isn’t incidental; networks have only recently been embracing of dramas driven by black leads. And that aversion spoke to how those networks saw black imagery and how it is received by white audiences. We had to fight to get black antiheroes on the small screen.

So often in American pop culture, dysfunction in characters has been used as a parallel for the wider human experience — and that dysfunction is regularly white and male. No matter how many snitching wiseguys or horse-killing compadres Tony Soprano strangled, bludgeoned or shot, no matter how many rivals, partners and associates Walter White murdered or manipulated, it was all supposed to show us something about the human condition.

As is the function of privilege, white storytellers not only have the benefit of larger, wider platforms but also of not having to navigate racism’s dizzying maze of double standards and slanted expectations. White criminality on screen could say something about humanity; black criminality on screen was expected to say something about black people. From the ‘hood movies of the early 1990s to that other beloved HBO drama The Wire, if bad black people were at the center of the story, there would be a lot of hand-wringing about what the portrayal was going to yield in a culture that undoubtedly relishes demonizing black folks.

That burden of portrayal and mainstream platforms’ indifference toward black creators and audiences meant that, at least on the small screen, dark or dramatic black content was suddenly in short supply. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, as dysfunctional white people became the centerpiece of American television, black shows nearly disappeared from the popular landscape. Even during the beloved “heyday” of black TV shows in the ’80s and ’90s, scripted black TV tended to be predominantly family sitcoms. The few shows that were still prominent in the 2000s remained PG-friendly half-hour comedies — until Scandal.

The hit show Scandal, created by Shonda Rhimes (left) and starring Kerry Washington (right), debuted in 2012 and announced the arrival of a new era in black television.

Photo by David Livingston/Getty Images

Debuting to strong ratings back in 2012 and becoming the No. 1 show in its time slot, Shonda Rhimes’ hit announced the arrival of a new era in black television. The show was the first major contemporary drama with a black female lead. In centering on a complex black woman who was both obviously brilliant at what she did but who was wrestling with personal demons and character dysfunctions that would threaten all that she’d built, that prime-time hit changed what popular black television in the “prestige TV”-driven age could look like. Characters such as Olivia Pope of Scandal, Paper Boi of Atlanta, Ghost St. Patrick of Power, Taystee of Orange is the New Black and Cookie Lyon of Empire would be driven by drama, heightened spectacle, suspense, surrealism and provocative storytelling. They showcased intriguing characters of questionable morals but undeniable charisma and riveting conflict. Of course, these were all very different kinds of shows, but they all highlighted the development of a new wave.

The black TV experience of the 2010s has not been defined by sitcoms or reality shows, although both have remained consistently popular. No, much like the wider culture, so much of our television experience has been driven by melodramas, crime shows and nighttime soaps. And in putting black characters on screen who dared to dwell in darkness, it’s helped expand the scope of mainstream black content. “Safe” depictions of black experiences are no longer a prerequisite for high visibility, and darker depictions don’t have to be filtered through white creatives’ lenses.

But that doesn’t mean disparities have disappeared.

The Starz series Power became a surprise hit in 2014 when it debuted. A glitzy urban series about a drug kingpin attempting to climb the social ladder of Manhattan’s elite, the show is the biggest on the network, but the writing and acting aren’t quite at the level of top-tier television dramas, and the tone keeps its storytelling just shy of grim, forgoing (or negating) suspense for shock and salaciousness. And while a character such as Lucious Lyon was always portrayed as the devil in a suede jacket — and there is no denying Cookie Lyon is no angel either — Fox’s Empire relies more on pomp and melodrama than actual suspense, casting the show’s darkness against a blinged-out haze of camp and histrionics. There still seems to be a dearth of black-themed shows on television willing to fully commit to taking their protagonists to an unsettling place, one that, while compelling, also doesn’t assuage the audience’s discomfort.

Taraji P. Henson (left) and Terrence Howard (right) star in the Fox hit Empire as Cookie and Lucious Lyon.

Photo by FOX via Getty Images

And Netflix’s ever-popular ensemble prison drama Orange Is the New Black has showcased a diverse set of black female characters: inmates of varying backgrounds thrust together in a minimum security prison. The show highlights personalities that can be as sympathetic and relatable as some are manipulative and murderous. But the acclaimed series was initially marketed as the story of an upper-crust white woman plucked out of her pampered world and now doing time — something it eventually subverted, to be sure. But did being pushed as such help ensure that it wouldn’t be received as a niche “black show” by audiences and critics?

The May 19 series finale of Game of Thrones was the talk of pop culture, as HBO’s gargantuan hit wrapped eight seasons of ice zombies, dragons, brothels, torture and incest with a controversial last episode that underwhelmed many and confounded others. But the better finale that night was from the cable network’s half-hour thriller-comedy Barry, a stunning little show that ended its second season in emotionally gripping (and shockingly violent) fashion. While obviously not the grand blockbuster that HBO has had in Thrones, Barry has proved to be another major critical success for the network, with star Bill Hader earning the outstanding lead actor in a comedy series Emmy last year for his work on the show, which he executive produces with Alec Berg.

Here’s hoping we remain committed to telling our darker tales with as much gusto as the uplifting and/or lighthearted ones. And here’s hoping those tales don’t always have to add a wink to soften the sting.

On the show, Saturday Night Live alum Hader gets to indulge his serious side and delivers some stellar performances. As hitman turned aspiring actor Barry Berkman, Hader’s everyman persona and comedic talents are still evident, but it’s secondary to a starkly stellar dramatic performance as the emotionally fraught, reluctant killer. The show deftly balances the more screwball moments with searing tension that has all the suspense of a David Fincher thriller. When the violence happens, it’s often swift and brutal — and without a wink or nod. Barry’s genuine desire to change his life sits parallel with his more rage-filled tendencies, and that inner conflict often leads to someone catching a bullet.

Popular shows Orange Is the New Black, Empire and Power will all be concluding soon. The final season of Orange Is the New Black hits Netflix in July, with Fox’s hip-hop soap opera and Starz’s 50 Cent-produced hit ending their runs with their upcoming respective sixth seasons. As such, we will be saying goodbye to some beloved on-screen bad people in the next several months. Hopefully, when we look back at these characters and shows, we’ll see what was only the beginning of a more diverse era in black programming. With upcoming shows such as For Life (described by ABC as “a fictional serialized legal and family drama about a prisoner who becomes a lawyer, litigating cases for other inmates while fighting to overturn his own life sentence for a crime he didn’t commit”) and returning series such as Snowfall and How to Get Away With Murder, black antiheroes are still on our screens — but networks shouldn’t let such shows fall to the periphery.

Here’s hoping we remain committed to telling our darker tales with as much gusto as the uplifting and/or lighthearted ones. And here’s hoping those tales don’t always have to add a wink to soften the sting. Our deepest dysfunctions can make for compelling truths on screen. Our dark tales are as affirming as any, and they only added to the broadening of our on-screen identity. If these wildly different shows have one common legacy, that is certainly it. And that’s not a bad thing to be remembered for.

Boxer Anthony Joshua is one giant thirst trap Now that Idris Elba is married, there’s an opening for America’s Next Top British Heartthrob

This is not a report on Anthony Joshua’s prowess as a boxer. This is an unabashed declaration of thirst.

Joshua is, of course, a renowned pugilist. The Watford, England, native holds the WBA, IBF and WBO heavyweight title belts. He’s 22-0, and 21 of those victories were knockouts. On Saturday he’ll make his American debut at Madison Square Garden, where he’s fighting Andy Ruiz Jr. (32-1). The fight was originally supposed to be against Jarrell “Big Baby” Miller, but Miller tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs and was disqualified.

The bout isn’t expected to be that competitive. What interests me more is that Joshua possesses a set of quads that would make Michelangelo’s David weep with envy.

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High intensity week. Low impact day 🔋🔌

A post shared by Anthony Joshua (@anthony_joshua) on May 19, 2019 at 11:40am PDT

Boxing is full of men who, if I’m being charitable, look a little like Game of Thrones’ Gregor Clegane, the Mountain of King’s Landing, whose job was ending the lives of those who posed a threat to Cersei Lannister.

That is not the case with Joshua. He’s extraordinarily pretty — the prettiest heavyweight titleholder since Muhammad Ali. This is a moment that calls for some gender-flipped Chi-Lites. As in, Have you seen him? TELL ME. HAVE YOU SEEN HIM?!?!

Joshua, 29, is 6 feet, 6 inches tall and weighs 250 pounds. There does not appear to be a speck of him that is lacking in muscles, and he’s a spokesmodel for Hugo Boss. Fashion rules dictate that a man as broad as Joshua should avoid double-breasted suiting because it tends to turn all but the slenderest of men into fabric-covered refrigerators. And yet here he is on BBC’s The Graham Norton Show, looking very much like a snack after defeating Wladimir Klitschko for the world heavyweight title in 2017:

Halp.

I have some experience with professional pretty people and am generally inured to their powers. I’ve watched audiences fawn over Michael B. Jordan at premieres for Creed II and Fahrenheit 451 and witnessed whoops of desire directed at Winston Duke at promotional events for Us. I’ve interviewed Mike Colter, the star of Luke Cage. Last week I had the pleasure of interviewing Joshua Jackson (#TheAffairBae), Christopher Jackson (#HamiltonBae) and Blair Underwood (#JuanitaBae) about Ava DuVernay’s newest project, When They See Us.

They were all lovely.

Then I saw Joshua at a public workout this week at Manhattan’s Brookfield Place mall and tried to keep myself from giggling like a hormonal schoolgirl.

Joshua strolled over to the ring outside the Ferragamo and Burberry stores with his game face on: serious, focused, intense. He ascended the steps and climbed through the ropes, and there was an instant roar. He turned to face his public and gave them a wave and a smile. More roars, which of course prompted casual shoppers strolling through the mall — New Yorkers are more impressed by in-unit washers and dryers than they are by celebrity — to look up, pause and actually take stock. Every time he smiled, or flexed a muscle, or winked, or took a selfie with the crowd: more roars.

Joshua’s workout was quick. Then he did something none of the previous fighters had done that day: He pushed down the top rope of the ring so photographers could get an unobscured shot of his chest and face.

This suggested two things:
1. This is clearly not Anthony Joshua’s first rodeo.
2. He knows exactly what he’s working with.

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I don’t own too much bling.. I ain’t flashy.. 🤣

A post shared by Anthony Joshua (@anthony_joshua) on Dec 13, 2018 at 11:33am PST

(Yeah, he definitely knows.)

Like Ali, Joshua possesses a magnetism that attracts people regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation. Even male members of the media could not restrain themselves from gushing over his physique. I overheard one radio reporter, for instance, marveling over Joshua’s commitment to leg day.

Joshua has plenty of famous male admirers, judging by his Instagram, including Dave Chappelle, Meek Mill, Drake, Odell Beckham Jr. and Tracy Morgan. But black male sex symbols are a bit like Democratic candidates for president: Once they’ve got black women on their side, they’re golden. Given his comfort with crowds and cameras, his smile and his tree trunk thighs, Joshua seems like a shoo-in to be America’s Next Top British Heartthrob now that Idris Elba is married.

The raw material is there; whatever magic Joshua radiates in person is evident in his television interviews too. It’s just that they’ve taken place in England, where Joshua is basically a modern-day Hercules — his matches sell out Wembley Stadium (capacity: 90,000). I first saw him on The Graham Norton Show, where, even next to Tom Hanks and Maisie Williams, he still managed to be the most interesting person in the room:

Fighters are fixtures on late-night shows, especially if they want to expand their repertoires beyond the sport that brought them fame in the first place. Claressa Shields was a guest on The Colbert Report. Many a great moment was recorded between Dick Cavett and Ali. Mike Tyson used to do Arsenio Hall at the height of his career in the ’90s. (While I’m focusing on boxers, The Rock, Ronda Rousey and John Cena also have had great success broadening their images as charming, funny people who can crush your skull when the occasion necessitates it.) Joshua has spoken about his desire to attain success in America and become the next David Beckham. He’s got a good start on the Beckham front in that he’s already friends with Prince Harry. And he did an appearance on Conan a while back, but that’s not enough to break through in America.

My advice? Well, first, he has to whup Ruiz. Maybe come to Brooklyn or Harlem afterward to celebrate. Then find a way to flirt with Oprah or Michelle Obama, book a cameo in the Black Panther sequel, do pushups for Lupita Nyong’o. A shoutout from Queen Serena wouldn’t hurt, either. And then?

Well then, my dear Anthony, you just might be able to credibly quote Nas: “Whose world is this?/It’s mine. It’s mine. It’s mine.