Eagles’ Malcolm Jenkins supports ‘College Behind Bars,’ a prison documentary The four-part PBS series airs on Nov. 25 and 26 at 9 p.m.

NEW YORK — In between his busy football schedule, Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins sat in a room with alumni of the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI), a program that allows men and women to work toward college degrees while incarcerated. He listened to the stories of the initiative’s alumni who proved that they would not let the prison system define who they were as human beings.

They walked in as inmates and left prison as college graduates determined to become productive members of society. Their stories are documented in a PBS series, College Behind Bars, airing on Nov. 25 and Nov. 26 at 9 p.m. ET.

On Tuesday, Jenkins greeted a sold-out crowd at the Apollo Theater in New York City for a special screening of College Behind Bars. As a social justice advocate and co-founder of the Players Coalition, an organization composed of NFL players designed to build support, challenge policies and bring awareness to issues that matter most in black communities, Jenkins threw his support behind the film.

The documentary, directed and produced by Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein, follows more than a dozen incarcerated men and women over the course of four years and details the setbacks and triumphs faced on their journeys to become college graduates. Throughout the film, which bounces between six New York correctional facilities that support the BPI curriculum, men and women are shown studying subjects ranging from genetics to intermediate Chinese.

College Behind Bars

College Behind Bars airs on Nov. 25 and Nov. 26 on PBS at 9 p.m. ET.

Cody Slusher

“We’ve been conditioned to have an image of what inmates look like when in reality, they are citizens like all of us. We just paint them in this narrative in order to punish them,” Jenkins said before the screening. “But now, I think it is time for us to be more restorative in a way that we deal with incarceration knowing that inevitably, the majority of these people are going to come back in this society.”

There are 51,000 men and 2,400 women incarcerated in New York state, according to the documentary. More than 900 inmates are seeking an education, and 300 are actively enrolled in BPI at a cost of $8,000 per student per year. About 600 alumni have been released from prison and fewer than 4% have gone back, Jenkins told the packed audience.

Besides discussing the costs to taxpayers for education behind bars, the documentary revisits whether prisoners should receive Pell Grants again. Until 1993, incarcerated men and women were eligible for Pell Grants under the Higher Education Act of 1965. But a year later, after the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 passed under the Clinton administration, Pell Grant funding was stripped from prisoners hoping to receive a college education while incarcerated.

“I thought I knew a lot about American history, but I was surprised to learn that, for decades, college was commonplace in prisons across America. But with the 1994 crime bill, Congress and the Clinton administration banned Pell Grants for incarcerated people,” said Ken Burns, the film’s executive producer. “Both Republicans and Democrats were on board with this. The vote wasn’t really about saving taxpayer dollars. It was about punishment and denying opportunity. Eliminating Pell Grants for people in prison cut $35 million from the federal budget. That might sound like a lot, but if you consider at the same time, again as part of the 1994 Crime Bill, Congress committed $10 billion to build more prisons — enough money to fund college in prisons for 200 years.”

Now, supporters are pushing for a bipartisan bill known as the Restoring Education and Learning Act to reverse the ban.

“We’re encouraging people to write and hit up their Congress reps to make sure they do that so they can look at initiatives like BPI and see how much success they’re having and how little the cost is compared to their incarceration,” Jenkins said. “If we can keep people out of prison, we need to do whatever we can to make sure that it happens.”

Advocacy has always been a focal point for Jenkins, and besides supporting films such as College Behind Bars, Jenkins has been working on projects of his own through Listen Up Media, a company he founded in 2018. Much like the storytelling in College Behind Bars, Jenkins’ vision for his media company is to change the negative narratives often portrayed through television and film by giving marginalized groups the power to tell their own stories. Recently, Jenkins was the executive producer for the company’s first film, Black Boys, which will debut at the South by Southwest Festival next year.

Jenkins’ work continues on the football field as well, leading the Players Coalition and advocating for change within the NFL. In August, the NFL announced a new partnership with rapper and business mogul Jay-Z’s Roc Nation to help with the league’s live game entertainment, but also to boost social justice awareness.

“Everybody was kind of on alert when Roc Nation comes on board and obviously made news,” Jenkins said. “But one of the things [the Players Coalition] wanted to do was really sit back and see what their intentions were, what their plan was and how they wanted to fit into it. So far, they’ve come in and really want to be a support to and amplify the voices of players. They committed a ton of resources and dollars, not to Players Coalition but to the initiative and really drawing attention and awareness. They do that better than anybody. So, we’ll continue to try to work with them on furthering our initiatives, do some storytelling and really amplify this more than we have been able to already.”

Jenkins expressed his disappointment that former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick is still without a team, but also believes it is up to the players to continue to push the envelope when it comes to social justice issues and the NFL. With the help of Roc Nation and the continuation of serious conversations around the important issues, Jenkins is content with the direction in which things are heading and hopes that players continue to take advantage of letting their voices be heard.

“As long as we have the platform, we need to push it as far as we can. And adding people like Jay-Z and Roc Nation can help us do that,” Jenkins said. “I think the league, while it hasn’t been always smooth sailing, has put up funds, has given a platform and I think while it’s there, we’ll take advantage of it.”

‘Harriet’ falls prey to the dignity paradox The first major feature film about Harriet Tubman renders her as a symbol rather than a person

Enslaved is not a personality.

That’s the major stumbling block with Harriet, the new biopic about Harriet Tubman, in theaters Friday.

Directed by Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou, Talk To Me) and co-written by Lemmons and Gregory Allen Howard, Harriet, starring Cynthia Erivo, is so consumed with reverence for the patron saint of Black History Month that it neglects to make her, or any of the supporting characters around her, a real person.

Instead, Tubman falls prey to what I call The Dignity Paradox.

Harriet is the first feature film about Tubman, who died in 1913, but went unrecognized by Hollywood in the years since. Cicely Tyson starred as Tubman in the 1978 NBC miniseries A Woman Called Moses. Such circumstances create a tremendous amount of pressure on whomever is charged with telling Tubman’s story, especially someone aware of the ways that black women have historically been ignored or maligned in major studio projects. But it’s possible to overcorrect for the shameful sting associated with say, Hattie McDaniel in Gone With The Wind. The result is a portrayal that’s so safe, so unwilling to take risks, and so earnest in telling its audience that Tubman was an American hero that it forgets to give the woman a personality. In Harriet, Tubman gets to be determined, psychic, briefly heartbroken — and that’s about it. I daresay Tubman got better treatment in an episode of Drunk History.

Cynthia Erivo (left) stars as Harriet Tubman and Aria Brooks as Anger in Harriet.

Glen Wilson / Focus Features

The film opens in 1849 with Tubman lying in a field on the plantation in Bucktown, Maryland, that was her home. She’s in the midst of one of her narcoleptic spells. (Tubman was famously hit in the head with a 2-pound iron at age 12. The result was her sleeping spells.) Lemmons revisits the mysticism that made Eve’s Bayou such a richly compelling tale in Harriet. She gives Tubman the gift of The Sight, and depicts her narcoleptic psychic visions with a blue filter not unlike the one Nate Parker used in The Birth of a Nation.

When Tubman learns that her owners refuse to grant her or her yet-to-be-born children their freedom, as a previous owner promised, Tubman decides to run. Her husband John (Zackary Momoh), is free, but is afraid to run with her. So Tubman sets out alone. She doesn’t have a plan other than following the North Star and a series of rivers until she reaches the free state of Pennsylvania. She cannot read nor write. Rather than demonstrating Tubman’s cunning intellect, Tubman’s many feats of daring bravery and by-the-skin-of-her-teeth escapes from slave catchers get explained by woo-woo spirituality. Whenever enemies begin to close in, Tubman magically falls asleep and gets a vision that tells her to take a different route.

Janelle Monáe (left) as Marie Buchanon and Cynthia Erivo (right) as Harriet Tubman in Harriet.

Glen Wilson / Focus Features

The dialogue in Harriet consists mostly of Important Speechifying, not only for Tubman, but also her free black Philadelphia accomplices William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.) and Marie Buchanon (Janelle Monáe). Both Still and Buchanon help the refugee Harriet get settled in Philadelphia before she begins making her famous costumed trips back to plantations and develops the nickname of “Moses the Slave-Stealer.”

At one point Odom launches into a speech about how Congress just passed The Fugitive Slave Act (here, Howard and Lemmons took some liberties with historical fact. In actuality, the act was passed in 1850. The film has it happening much later.) As Still, Odom doesn’t really sound like a person either, but a set piece in a fifth-grade textbook come to life. The same is true of Monáe and Bigger Long, the one-note slave tracker played by Omar J. Dorsey. Were it not for the fact that Erivo, Odom, Dorsey, and Monáe have demonstrated their substantial acting bona fides in other productions, one could not be blamed for assuming that the group might have a future in low-budget basic cable prime-time soaps. It’s little consolation that the film’s white characters come off as blandly evil and one-dimensional, too — is this what equality looks like?

Janelle Monáe stars as Marie Buchanon in Harriet.

Glen Wilson / Focus Features

Harriet’s faults are not unique. In fact, they’re rather common in the biopic genre, which is littered with films that feel obligated to touch base with every major point of a person’s Wikipedia entry rather than starting with an interesting story and building from there. Ava DuVernay’s Selma is a good example of a film that bucks biopic norms and is all the better for it. She runs headlong at the fact that Martin Luther King Jr. had affairs that had an effect on his marriage, and she focuses on the march from Selma to Montgomery and the passage of the Civil Rights Act instead of King’s entire life from birth to death.

Jennifer Nettles stars as Eliza Brodess in Harriet.

Glen Wilson / Focus Features

In a world that made sense, there would be multiple on-screen works about Tubman, which would allow for a deep dive into the logistics of the Combahee Ferry Raid or Tubman’s time as a Union spy, or a closer examination of the 100-mile route she repeatedly took guiding her enslaved brethren and sistren from Maryland to Philadelphia. In the most disappointing turn of the film, the Combahee Ferry Raid is treated as a coda rather than a major, awe-inspiring point in Tubman’s life. It’s on-screen for maybe two minutes.

Among the many questions Harriet leaves unanswered: What on earth were these poor souls eating as they were on the run from trackers and slave-catchers? Adrenaline is a powerful chemical, but no one is going 100 miles on foot without food. Freedom alone does not supply calories.

Omar J. Dorsey (left) stars as Bigger Long and Joe Alwyn (right) as Gideon Brodess in Harriet.

Glen Wilson / Focus Features

Warren Alan Young’s production design is rich with detail, and so is Paul Tazewell’s costume design, but they’re not enough to convey the horrors of America’s peculiar institution in this PG-13 story. There’s no doubt that Lemmons has experience telling beautiful tales about ugly subjects. Her debut feature, after all, was about incest and the crushing disappointment that comes when a child realizes that her biggest hero is a monster. The biggest challenge about rendering slavery on-screen is actually a challenge of world-building. Conveying how vile it was requires a commitment to sinking the viewer into its horrid banality and allowing it to steep, to feel how slowly time moves, how backbreaking the forced labor is without the aid of automation, and the never-ending weariness that is accompanied by the terror of rape and the threat of the lash. Instead, this is conveyed by yet another speech that Tubman gives to an abolitionist meeting in Philadelphia and a brief, darkened peek at Tubman’s whip-scarred back.

When a filmmaker attempts to protect his or her audience from the worst of slavery by simply gesturing at the possibility of violence or rendering it with dialogue alone — as Lemmons does with Tubman and her young owner Gideon Brodess (Joe Alwyn), the effect is too safe. Gideon likens Tubman to a favorite hog, but semantics rarely hold the same emotional weight as action.

Cynthia Erivo stars as Harriet Tubman in Harriet.

Glen Wilson / Focus Features

I realized, after watching Harriet and comparing it to 12 Years a Slave and Beloved, that films about slavery should disturb. They should give us nightmares. They should terrify us. Because they are the closest thing we have to understanding the shameful, disgusting depths to which people will stoop to enact and preserve white supremacy. What’s more, that disgusting behavior was not exceptional; it was the wallpaper of American life for hundreds of years. When we soft-pedal the everyday cruelty of slavery, it deadens our understanding of an institution built on exploiting and destroying an entire people’s humanity.

It’s understandable to want to honor Harriet Tubman. She deserves it, regardless of the short-sighted decisions of the current Treasury secretary. But when we turn away from the truth of the worst circumstances of her life, we do the opposite. To value that for which she fought, it is paramount to understand exactly from what she was running.

When Ali met Marciano in a battle of undefeated heavyweights The two champs met for a ‘Super Fight’ put together by a DJ and a computer

On the morning of his 1967 fight against Ernie Terrell in the Houston Astrodome, Muhammad Ali sat in his hotel room watching a film of Rocky Marciano challenging Jersey Joe Walcott for the heavyweight title 15 years earlier. Ali leaned forward, his head cradled in his hands, watching intently until a bloodied and trailing Marciano knocked Walcott out in the 13th round with a short, emphatic right. Then Ali turned to his manager, Angelo Dundee.

“Angelo, the man’s tough,” said Ali, according to reporting by Sports Illustrated. “He’d be hell to fight. I’d wear him at the end of my glove for 10 rounds but he’d still be coming. Meanwhile, I’d be tired — maybe too tired to dance — and Rocky would be throwing punches … that wouldn’t be no fight — that would be a war.”

Marciano was already the heavyweight champ in 1954 when a 12-year-old Ali took up boxing after having his bicycle stolen. At night, the boy would listen to his transistor radio in Louisville, Kentucky, and hear Don Dunphy’s staticky voice from faraway Madison Square Garden, announcing Marciano as the heavyweight champ-eee-on of the world.

“The Super Fight” lobby card between Rocky Marciano (left) and Muhammad Ali (right) was shot in 1969 and released in 1970.

LMPC/Getty Images

In 1969, two years after Ali beat Terrell, the champ found himself in the ring with Marciano in one of the more bizarre fights in the annals of boxing. Ali was 27 years old and 29-0. Marciano was 45 years old and had retired 13 years earlier with a perfect 49-0 record, including 43 wins by knockout — history’s only unbeaten heavyweight champ.

The “Super Fight,” as it was billed, was fake, the concoction of a Miami promoter and disc jockey, Murray Woroner. If computers could help put a man on the moon, why couldn’t they predict the outcome of a match between two unbeaten champions from different eras? Woroner fed the fighters’ statistics into a computer, which spit out a script of different fight scenarios that Ali and Marciano were paid to reenact in a film studio in North Miami. The resulting film was edited and shown in movie theaters across the country and overseas, the outcome kept a closely guarded secret, even to the fighters.

Ali and Marciano seemed like polar opposites, the Great White Hope from the ’50s and the Angry Black Man from the ’60s.

Marciano had been a quiet conformist during his career, suppressing his anger toward a manager who stole from him and the Mafia that secretly controlled his career, along with most of professional boxing. He had served in the Army during World War II and became a symbol of American might during the Cold War, with a punch his manager compared to the atomic bomb.

Ali and Marciano seemed like polar opposites, the Great White Hope from the ’50s and the Angry Black Man from the ’60s.

At the time, Ali was one of the most hated men in America, not the folk hero he would later become. During his pummeling of Terrell in 1967, he had screamed at him, “What’s my name?” because Terrell had called him by his former “slave name” of Cassius Clay, as did most sportswriters. He hadn’t fought in more than two years and was locked in a battle with the federal government after refusing to fight in Vietnam, famously declaring, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.

If this fight film was made possible by the new age of technology, promoters played up racial and ethnic stereotypes that had always characterized boxing to hype the gate. Newspapers frequently carried stories that Marciano was considering coming out of retirement, including one report shortly after Ali took the title that a wealthy Texan had offered Marciano $4 million ($34 million today) to silence the loudmouthed young champ.

Shortly before Ali and Marciano met in Miami that summer, a federal judge had ordered Ali to serve five years in prison for refusing induction into the U.S. Army. He remained free on appeal, and in desperate need of funds. “I was in the deep freeze part of my exile, and there was no thaw in sight,” he wrote in his 1975 autobiography, The Greatest.

Marciano, who had let himself go in retirement, had gone back into training, lost 50 pounds and donned a toupee to mask his receding hairline. At 5 feet, 10 inches, he was dwarfed by the 6-foot-3 Ali, who was 20 pounds heavier. But Ali, who hadn’t fought in two years, looked flabbier. (I was able to recreate those sessions by interviewing two people who were there: Peter Marciano, Rocky’s brother, and Ali’s then-wife Belinda, now Khalilah Ali. I also found, in the archives of Sports Illustrated, a lengthy memo from a Time reporter who had interviewed other eyewitnesses at the time of the film’s release.)

A ticket for “The Super Fight” between Rocky Marciano and Muhammad Ali.

Archive PL/Alamy Stock Photo

Over the course of filming, the two champs sparred more than 70 one-minute rounds. They acknowledged that it was just playacting. They never clinched and seldom went for the head. But sometimes things got real. Ali would flick his lightning-quick jabs in Marciano’s face, prompting him to walk back to his corner muttering, “My God, the kid is so fast.” Ali delighted in flicking Marciano’s toupee off. An angry Marciano trapped Ali in a corner and pounded on his arms, then smashed a right to his solar plexus. “Ooof,” Ali exhaled, sinking to his stool. The taping stopped. Ali refused to continue until the promoter sent a driver to the bank to bring him another $2,000. One night they went out to dinner and ran into comedian Henny Youngman, who came over to their table and joked around. Ali’s arms were so sore that he had trouble lifting the saltshaker.

Staging knockdowns was tricky. Marciano had been knocked down only twice in his career, Ali not at all up to that point. Both had to be coaxed to take a dive for the cameras. During one take, Ali shouted, “Drop the Wop” and hit Marciano, who fell to the canvas, took out his mouthpiece and roared with laughter. When it was Marciano’s turn, he teased a reluctant Ali by parodying him: “The onliest way I can be beat by any man is to knock me out.”

During a break one day, the conversation turned to the country’s racial divide and the riots that had swept the country. They sat on the floor next to the ring, sharing a bag of grapefruit. Ali would tear off a section and pass it to Marciano.

“Wouldn’t it be great if there was something we could do, me and you together, a white guy and a black guy?” said Marciano.

They talked about doing a bus tour of inner-city neighborhoods. Ali got excited.

“Imagine, Muhammad Ali and Rocky Marciano, going into the worst areas,” he said. “We could shake up the world, you and me. Would you do it? Would you do it?”

Marciano said he would. He encouraged Ali to hang tough in his fight with the Army. Marciano had a secret about his own struggle with the Army that he never shared with Ali but which I unearthed from old Army records. His patriotic image as a soldier who served in World War II concealed the fact that he and another GI had been court-martialed for robbing and assaulting two British civilians shortly before D-Day. He never deployed to Normandy but instead served two years as a military prisoner.

Marciano had never been comfortable with authority, nor with the mantle of Great White Hope. He forged close relationships with black fighters, including his boyhood idol, Joe Louis. (He cried after knocking out Louis in Madison Square Garden to end Louis’ career and advance his own.) Marciano told Ali about his Italian-American family’s struggles after settling in the shoe factory town of Brockton, Massachusetts. Sacco and Vanzetti, Italian anarchists and laborers, had been arrested on the Brockton trolley and executed in 1927, when Rocky was 3 years old, for a robbery and murder they didn’t commit. Politicians called Italians “a race of pickpockets” and “unfit foreigners.” Congress banned immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe.

“People fear change,” Marciano told Ali.

The Ali-Marciano bus tour never happened. A few weeks after they parted, on Aug. 31, Marciano climbed into a Cessna in Chicago, bound for Des Moines, Iowa, and a party at a steakhouse owned by the nephew of a mob pal. The plane crashed in a cornfield in Iowa, killing everyone on board. Ali cried when he heard the news.

The following winter, The Super Fight aired in more than 600 theaters across America. Woroner had filmed seven different endings. In the first screening, a bloodied Marciano, trailing on points, knocked out Ali in the 13th round. Later, when the film was shown in Europe, Ali won. The fight looks phony. There are no spectators, just an eerie darkness surrounding the ring, with the sound of piped-in crowd noise. It’s as if the two men have been abducted by aliens and are fighting on a spaceship in outer space.

“He was the onliest one that would’ve given me some trouble,” Ali said shortly after attending Marciano’s wake. Later, Ali said that he felt closer to Marciano during their sparring sessions than he ever did to any other white fighter.

“Our work was phony,” he wrote in his autobiography. “But our friendship became real.”

Today in black history: Aretha Franklin records ‘Respect,’ Morehouse College established, and more The Undefeated edition’s black facts for Feb. 14

1760 — Richard Allen, founder of the first independent black denomination, is born into slavery in 1760, eventually buys his freedom and moves north. He converted to Methodism but grew tired of the mistreatment of black parishioners. He founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the first national African-American church, in 1816.

1867 — Augusta Institute, now known as Morehouse College, is founded in Augusta, Georgia, by William J. White and former slave Richard C. Coulter. In 1879, the school was moved to Atlanta and its name was changed to Morehouse College after Henry L. Morehouse, the corresponding secretary of the American Baptist Home Mission Society.

1936 — National Negro Congress is organized. The inaugural meeting was held in Chicago and attended by 817 delegates representing more than 500 organizations.

1946 — Happy birthday, Gregory Hines (1946-2003). The theater, film and television actor won a Tony Award as best actor in a musical in 1992 for his portrayal of Jelly Roll Morton, the pioneering jazz composer. Hines had roles in films such as Waiting to Exhale, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Cotton Club and White Nights, as well as his sitcom, The Gregory Hines Show, on CBS from 1997 to 1998. He was also a recurring character on NBC’s Will & Grace and ABC’s Lost at Home.

1966 — Wilt Chamberlain scores 41 points against the Detroit Pistons to break the NBA career scoring record, finishing the game with 20,884 career points.

1967 — Aretha Franklin records “Respect.” Fifty years ago today, Franklin, the “Queen of Soul,” recorded her iconic song in Atlantic Records’ New York studio. This Otis Redding cover became the influential soul singer’s first No. 1 hit, providing a soundtrack for the civil rights movement and proving to be an important piece of music for women who were seeking the same type of regard as men.

Denver, Thornton mayors join with other U.S. city leaders to call for federal marijuana policy reforms

The Denver and Thornton mayors have joined a new coalition of U.S. city leaders that will lobby Congress and the Trump administration to increase local control over marijuana policy.

The post Denver, Thornton mayors join with other U.S. city leaders to call for federal marijuana policy reforms appeared first on The Cannabist.

Cannabis Trade Federation forms in wake of Gardner-Trump marijuana deal

“We may have entered a historic moment where Congress and the president are poised to act to align our industry with our nation’s federalist ideals.”

The post Cannabis Trade Federation forms in wake of Gardner-Trump marijuana deal appeared first on The Cannabist.

On this day in black history: Ida B. Wells gets a stamp, MLK arrested in Selma, and more Black History Month: The Undefeated edition Feb. 1

Thursday marks the beginning of Black History Month. For the next 28 days (and beyond), we will provide a daily dose of inspirational stories and videos to help explain the complex history of the black experience and black identity in America.

Historian Carter G. Woodson and minister Jesse E. Moorland founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in 1915, and 11 years later the organization created Negro History Week, which originally occurred the second week in February. During the 1960s, it was expanded into a month on many college campuses, and in 1976, President Gerald R. Ford designated February as Black History Month.

Below are a few notable things that have taken place on Feb. 1.


1865 – First African-American admitted to the bar of the U.S. Supreme Court.

John Swett Rock was an American teacher, doctor, dentist, lawyer and abolitionist and one of the first African-American men to earn a medical degree. He was the first African-American to argue before the U.S. Supreme Court.

1865 – Ratification of the 13th Amendment

The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which abolished slavery, was adopted by the 38th Congress. Ratification was completed on Dec. 6, 1865.

1960 – Sit-in movement in Greensboro, North Carolina

Four students from North Carolina A&T College started a sit-in movement in Greensboro, North Carolina. By Feb. 10, the movement had spread to 15 cities in five Southern states.

1965 – Selma demonstration ends in 700 arrests

More than 700 demonstrators, including Martin Luther King Jr., are arrested in Selma, Alabama.

1978 – The first Black Heritage USA Series stamp is issued

The first stamp of the U.S. Postal Service’s Black Heritage USA series honors Harriet Tubman, famed abolitionist and “conductor” on the Underground Railroad.

1990 – U.S. Postal Service celebrated Ida B. Wells as part of the Black Heritage Series

The commemorative 25-cent stamp, the 13th entry in the series, was released at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.

1997 – First 24-hour black movie channel, BET/Starz, was launched

BET Holdings and Encore Media Corp. launched BET/Starz, the first 24-hour black movie channel.

What does it mean to be black and play sports? It’s a question that demands you consider athletes in full, starting with their intellect

Two years ago, I interviewed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the main stage at the National Book Festival before an appreciative crowd in the nation’s capital. We were backstage waiting to go on, and Kareem, an introspective man not known for small talk, -surprised me by asking where I was from.

Reflexively, thinking he meant my professional home, I began to tell him what I did at The Undefeated and before that at The Washington Post. He cut me off.

“No, where are you from? Where are your people from?”

I explained my Wichita, Kansas, roots and my dad’s decision to move the family to Washington, D.C., during the early 1960s to pursue a career in geology. This piqued Kareem’s curiosity, as he understood the barriers countless African-Americans have faced in so many professions and how often sports and entertainment have defined our achievement.

Kareem is well-read, the author of 14 books and numerous insightful columns, a Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient whose interests range from World War II to the Harlem Renaissance. He is an exemplar of the most unexplored and underreported dimension of black athletes: their intellect.

Interviewing Kareem on The Daily Show recently, Trevor Noah remarked: “It’s almost like NBA all-time leading scorer is No. 6 on your résumé. You have lived quite an accomplished life.”

We are proud at The Undefeated to collaborate with ESPN The Magazine on this special issue, State of the Black Athlete, a glimpse into the creativity, struggles and brilliance of African-Americans in sports. We understand these athletes’ quest to be seen and comprehended beyond high-flying dunks and celebratory end zone dances, to have their minds considered fully.

Consider John Urschel, with expertise in spectral graph theory and high dimensional data compression, deciding to retire from the Baltimore Ravens at age 26 to complete his doctorate in math at MIT. Or Jaylen Brown of the Boston Celtics, who taught himself to play piano, learned the Arabic alphabet and quotes parables from David Foster Wallace to reference Martin Luther King Jr., as he recently did in an interview with Donald McRae of The Guardian. Look at Venus Williams, who hasn’t just won 49 singles titles but fought for pay equity in her sport, including lobbying the British Parliament for equal prize money for male and female players at Wimbledon.

We are witnessing an extraordinary period of activism in sports, one driven by black athletes, but we also are watching some of the greatest sports stars on the planet show off their most undervalued asset: their minds. They’re tackling public policy issues, trekking to Capitol Hill, producing documentaries and books, and otherwise engaging in thoughtful contemplation about how best to use their influence.

Sometimes size or height, athleticism, poverty or just the limitations of your dreams propel you into a life of sports. The thrill of competition enlivens you, the cred you generate in your community empowers you. Athletic success opens doors that never seem to close—and you become defined by your physical skills. The world engages you through highlights and sound bites, and your Twitter feed. The rest of your genius—your tastes, passions, eclectic interests—the world sometimes misses. Or, sadly, just ignores.

I love the photos that French-born basketball veteran Boris Diaw posted on Instagram from the Grand Canyon, with his personal espresso machine resting on rock, the sun rising across the darkened sky. The lives of today’s black athletes are filled with experiences hard to imagine when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was coming of age, or when Paul Robeson was excelling as an actor/singer/scholar/athlete/20th-century Renaissance man while being hounded by racism.

One of the most unheralded tales of black athletic triumph is the story of the 18 black Americans who made the U.S. Olympic team in 1936, captured in Deborah Riley Draper’s brilliant documentary Olympic Pride, American Prejudice. Everyone has heard about Jesse Owens winning four gold medals in Berlin during the height of Nazism. But there were 17 others on that team, including Ralph Metcalfe, who later was elected to Congress, and two women, sprinters Tidye Pickett and Louise Stokes.

Both black women also had made the 1932 U.S. Olympic team but were treated harshly by American teammates and never competed in the Los Angeles Games. They were replaced by whites on a relay team that won the gold—a rebuke that devastated them. Pickett went on to become an elementary school principal, and Stokes founded the Colored Women’s Bowling League—both saddened but unbeaten by the prejudice they encountered.

But what more could they have become?

I couldn’t help but think, as I was interviewing Kareem, that black athletes are having a great moment—on the rise in power, influence and confidence.

Had he been a foot shorter, Kareem says, he might have been a history teacher trying to figure out life after retirement. Instead, he has spent the three decades since he stopped dropping skyhooks on centers who couldn’t guard him crafting a vital second career: as an intellectual, an activist and an inspiring role model to black athletes interested in exploiting their brilliance. We’re all better off that Kareem grew that extra foot.

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine’s Feb. 5 State of the Black Athlete Issue. Subscribe today!

For Wynton Marsalis, forgetting the roots of jazz is forgetting the history of race in America The legend explains again why he dislikes hip-hop, and jazz’s identity problem

My former employer, Jazz at Lincoln Center (JALC), invited me to moderate a panel discussion on jazz and race at its first Jazz Congress conference in New York this week.

Wynton Marsalis is the artistic and managing director for JALC. I’ve known him for nearly 25 years and worked alongside him for six years. From time to time, we’ve been able to steal a moment here or there to chat about things, but it’s been a long time since we’ve had a chance to have an extended dialogue, so I used this opportunity to sit down with him and have an in-depth discussion about the topic at hand: jazz and race.


JALC is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, and Marsalis is showing no signs of slowing down. He has never been one to shy away from speaking his mind on the record as well as on issues of race. He won the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for his jazz oratorio Blood on the Fields, which deals with slavery, and the content from his 2007 album From the Plantation to the Penitentiary is self-explanatory.

When asked about the impetus for the panel discussion on jazz and race, he replied, “Because race, race relations, racial tensions, racial harmony and questions of freedom are all tied up with the identity of jazz from its birth.”

Jazz music and Marsalis were both born in New Orleans. Dolores Marsalis gave birth to Marsalis at Flint Goodridge Hospital, and the mythic birthplace of jazz was Congo Square, an open space in the Tremé neighborhood.

When he talks about the origin of jazz, Marsalis is quick to point out the dangers of falling prey to a false binary choice.

“First off, the amalgam of elements in Afro-American music and in jazz come from different forms of European music, like the march form and the combination of a fiddle style or a European parlor piano style, which, when combined with the arpeggiated sound of a banjo and syncopation, becomes ragtime.

“The fact that the slaves could play the drums in New Orleans at Congo Square when they weren’t permitted to in other parts of the South allowed the drums to become the centerpiece of the style. Now the drums, while rooted in Africa, is Afro-American, which is American. To be Afro-American is also to be part Anglo-American. That is at the root of many of the problems related to race in America. It’s hard for us to come to grips with that notion. We have been conditioned into making a false binary choice, an either/or, when life isn’t that cut and dried. Oftentimes it’s both/and. But it’s hard for us to reconcile that both/and when we are so used to having to choose sides.”

Marsalis considers jazz to be America’s gift to the rest of the world and a perfect metaphor for democracy. Which is ironic because it is an art form forged in a foundry by founders who were not free.

“Now in terms of freedom, I think the way that the original jazz musician viewed freedom was extremely acute. It’s like the way a person who hasn’t eaten for days views food as opposed to someone who has a refrigerator full of food, like the way that people who were denied the right to vote, the way that they went out and voted when they finally got the right to vote as opposed to people who already had the right to vote and took it for granted.”

From the early 1900s until the 1950s, there was a very strong dance element to jazz music that began to fade. Marsalis believes that this is one of the contributing factors to the eventual decline in the popularity of jazz, which is now very much a niche music. In 2014, jazz only accounted for 1.4 percent of U.S. music consumption.

“We don’t have a national dance tradition that is intergenerational. Many South American countries have a national dance like samba or tango that is intergenerational that everyone can do that has some type of sexual content that is not pornographic. In a culture, there has to be a way that dance can express a fertility in the intermingling of the sexes that is not pornography. The only dance that we can think of like that in America is the Electric Slide at weddings. We had to find something, because you know you can’t be grabbing on grandma.”

“We need something that is going to engender a mutual respect as opposed to the trash that we give our young people today.”

One of the most devastating impacts on our culture in general, and niche music genres like jazz in particular, is the commodification of music, Marsalis says.

“At some point, people were trying to figure out how to sell music. In music, like anything else, when your primary goal is to sell, then you are going to focus on and highlight aspects that are most marketable, and many of those have nothing to do with music, like someone’s looks, their charisma or some type of tribal association. For instance, country music now is being equated with the military and with being white. That has nothing to do with the birth and origins of that music. Hip-hop is equated with some of the most pathological aspects of being black, and from the music has blossomed a culture of materialism and barbershop-level political discourse. It has also been used to reconnect with the minstrel tradition, with the ’hood replacing the plantation.

“The originators of that form were just creating something with what they had. Their creation was co-opted to tell an old tale. ‘Black people ain’t s—, especially men.’ Then, resources and support came pouring in from all corners of the country because that’s a comfortable story. Black and white people playing together and coming up with something creative, virtuosic, socially aware and elevatory is considered subversive. That’s why it’s so rare to see in the actual public space like on television.”

All of this conspires to create those false binary choices that force us to choose sides. In discussing how polarized we’ve become as a country, we both harkened back to one of our favorite quotes about American and Afro-American identity from Harold Cruse in his 1967 book The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual: A Historical Analysis of the Failure of Black Leadership:

Said Marsalis: “… without a cultural identity that adequately defines himself, the Negro cannot even identify with the American nation as a whole. The fact of the matter is that American whites, as a whole, are just as much in doubt about their nationality, their cultural identity, as are Negroes. Thus the problem of the Negro cultural identity is an unsolved problem within the context of an American nation that is still in the process of formation.”

America is a very young country when we compare ourselves to other countries and cultures, and as such it would stand to reason that our cultural identity is in limbo and still in the process of formation.

Marsalis sees jazz as part of the solution for a shared cultural mythology between blacks and whites as Americans that could help move the needle on race relations. The problem is that both blacks and whites aren’t willing to allow jazz to be placed in its rightful place on the cultural landscape of American greatness.

Interestingly, that cultural mythology already exists in other parts of the world. Jazz has been and continues to be celebrated abroad as a uniquely American art form while at the same time being understood to be Afro-American.

Marsalis explained: “In the places abroad, mainly European countries, they have a tradition of listening, especially to long-form music. They have a concert tradition where music is removed from dance, which suited jazz once the communal dance element stopped being a part of the music like it was from the early 1900s to about 1950.

“They accepted it because it was Western art, they could accept an African-European combination, the Americanism, the optimism in the music. There was also a level of one-upmanship by the Europeans who were saying that America was supposed to be this bastion of freedom, but look how you dog these black musicians and we accept them over here. So in that way it was symbiotic, because the jazz musicians liked to say it and the people in those countries liked to say it.

“The population at that time [1940s-’60s] in those countries did not have the same type of pressure to denigrate people who were not like them, especially people with brown skin. There was less pressure to do that. Of course now there is much more pressure because their brown populations are larger. Also, it didn’t drive Europeans crazy that a black dude was with a white lady. Don’t get me wrong. They didn’t like it, but they didn’t go crazy over it, where in America you could get killed over it at that time. A false construct like race which has been used to lord power over the designated group must be protected with punishment and violence. Because if not, people will realize it’s all some bulls—.”

When asked what are the barriers to jazz becoming the catalyst for a shared cultural identity that could help advance the national conversation on race, Marsalis responded, “Jazz is not really in the contemporary conversation on race in any meaningful way because it is the one form of entertainment that was integrated first. So if you’re looking to sell something and you’re looking for the kind of titillating thing that’s on one side or the other, you need people cursing and acting a fool.

“Jazz is too rational. It has a history of maturity and of confronting different issues from different perspectives.”

Another reason is because jazz suffers from an identity problem of its own. Every musical genre is defined by a rhythm. There is no consensus among the jazz community as to what if any rhythm defines jazz.

Marsalis has been on a crusade for the past 30-plus years to promote swing as the foundational rhythm of jazz.

“Swing is the rhythmic identity of the music. Musical genres are defined by rhythm and the swing pattern is the foundational identity of jazz.

“Aside from the technical aspects of swing, there are elements to it that when done a certain way can bring about something that is fundamental to resolving differences.

“It’s about opposites coming together. The bass has to be at a certain volume, it has to be soft to make the drums play softer. The loudest instrument has to play with the softest instrument. Jazz is a music that depends on a balance and an intimacy because it is a music of conversation and dialogue.

“The mobility of the bass allows you to have conversations that are ongoing. Once the bass becomes immobile, meaning playing the same pattern over and over again, the music can still be great, but it regulates the way you are going to speak in that conversation.”

When asked why there is so much rancor over something seemingly so trivial, Marsalis said, “… because swing is equated with the American Negro, and nothing objective that comes from the American Negro is being studied with any level of seriousness by any significant numbers of whites or blacks in this country.”

Over the years, there have been some collateral damage in the black community over some of Marsalis’ musings about jazz and his promotion of swing.

I asked Marsalis questions that many black folks ask me when they find out that I worked with him.

Does Marsalis really think less of other forms of black music like rhythm and blues? Does he think there is some type of hierarchy?

Does Marsalis still hate hip-hop?

In response to the first question, Marsalis said:

“It is hierarchical. Let’s be clear, there are hierarchies in everything that exists. Like a family, like a classroom has a teacher, a basketball team has a point guard. Hierarchy doesn’t mean that one thing is necessarily better than another. It just means that there is a relationship of how things relate to one another.

“Those other forms of music came out of jazz. Any form of music with a bass and a drum can draw a line back to jazz. The difference is, like I said before, when the bass becomes immobile the conversation and dialogue become constrained.

“But where we find ourselves now, it really doesn’t even make sense to talk about hierarchies because we have slid so far from where we once were as a culture. It’s like food companies are trying to figure how much food can I take out of this food and still be able to sell it as food.”

In response to the hip-hop question, Marsalis smiled wryly and said, “The results of its 40-year reign are clear. You can draw your own conclusion.

“I’ve said to people over and over again that it is the minstrel show of our time, and nothing that I have seen in this time period has dissuaded me from that point of view — listening to it, having kids that like it, reading books about it, checking out the lyrics. Nothing has dissuaded me from that as a generalization.

“Are there people with a tremendous amount of creativity? Yes. Human beings are creative in whatever they do. If you read that manual that was published during slavery times about how they kept slaves in order, that was creative.”

(Something struck a chord, so he stood up and began to gesticulate as he continued.)

“Look at where we are. Look at how the language has changed. Look at male-female dance and relationships. Look at our young people. I’m not opposed to hip-hop. I just don’t think that it should be mainstream. When the default position is that a black person is a n—– and a woman is a b—–, then how can you side with that?”

He began to calm down, sat down next to me and said to me in a hushed, almost defeated tone.

“I don’t really argue about it anymore. I spent my 20s and 30s arguing about this, but then it dawned on me that people want this, and now 40 years later the results are clear.

“So the people have spoken.”

As we wrapped up, I referred Marsalis to the article that The Undefeated’s Marc J. Spears wrote about Oklahoma City Thunder head coach Billy Donovan being inspired by Marsalis’ book Moving to Higher Ground: How Jazz Can Change Your Life.

I asked him to explain how the fundamental aspects of jazz could be helpful to people in their everyday lives the same way that it was beneficial to Donovan.

“Jazz can help us all understand how to better manage our space in relation to other people’s space. The three fundamental aspects of jazz are:

“Improvisation: I am. Identifying who you are and bringing your unique self and personality to the table.

“Swing: It’s the opposite of that. Other people have personalities too. Other people need space too. With the same intensity of how you found yourself, find them. Find that common ground and nurture it. In jazz, it’s the opposites. The bass is way down at the bottom and the cymbals are way at the top, and they have to play on every beat together.

“The blues: Stuff doesn’t work out sometimes.”

At that I ended with my final question: “As you know, in the blues form, there’s a turnaround. It’s the place in the music for me when you can palpably feel the hope in the music. For many, Obama represented the ultimate turnaround for black people. It feels now like we’ve gone back to the top of the form.

“Where do you see the next turnaround coming?”

He smiled at me and said, “I don’t see it coming, but I believe in it. I believe in it because, because I believe that your belief creates it and if enough people believe, you all can create it together, and that’s the essence of democratic action. We’ve seen it time and time again in different ways.”

Kendrick Lamar’s ‘DAMN.’ good run places him face to face with the president Kendrick Lamar’s ascension coincides with college football’s big moment and President Donald Trump

Fifteen-year-old Kendrick Lamar likely never thought he’d be performing at halftime of one of the biggest sporting events of 2018. Certainly not when he, as a teenager, was getting stomped at Compton, California’s, Avalon Swap Meet. But a decade and a half after the fight he references on “ELEMENT.,” from 2017’s Grammy-nominated album DAMN., here he is: headline performer at halftime of the college football national championship — the NCAA’s Super Bowl. The all-Southeastern Conference main event is Monday night in Atlanta.

College halftime shows traditionally feature marching bands. But in an effort to mirror February’s actual Super Bowl, the College Football Playoff and ESPN announced last spring that an artist would perform. Lamar’s résumé of course warrants his booking.

Forbes placed Lamar on its December 2017 cover, lauding the “antisocial extrovert” for his business decisions such as ending his long relationship with Reebok and launching a new collaboration with Nike. Lamar’s tour dates routinely gross more than $1 million per night. And in 2017, not only did he surpass even Beyoncé and Bruno Mars with more than 2 billion radio spins, but Lamar also had five of the most streamed songs of 2017. And while his 2012 “m.A.A.d city” (featuring MC Eiht) is featured in the next week’s Den of Thieves, Lamar recently confirmed that he and his Top Dawg Entertainment are producing the soundtrack for Black Panther, led by a collaboration with SZA titled “All The Stars.”

All the stars are expected to flood box suites to watch the Quavo-endorsed University of Georgia versus the crème de la crème University of Alabama. This VIP list reportedly includes President Donald Trump. From self-doubt to self-proclaimed greatness, Lamar’s ascension coincides and often collides with the United States’ 45th president.

Trump, a frequent sporting provocateur, has been an occasional target of Lamar’s lyrics dating to 2015. So speculation is swirling: What will this moment mean between the lyrically sharp MC and verbal live-wire commander-in-chief? Lamar’s fellow Comptonite, and perhaps hip-hop’s most famous Trump antagonist, YG, has at least one suggestion for Lamar.

There is drama leading up to the moment. What statement will Lamar make? Will outside forces — the NCAA, sponsors or even Disney — attempt to define the parameters of his performance? Will he even make one at all?


 

Tell me what you gon’ do to me / Confrontation ain’t nothin’ new to me/ You can bring a bullet, bring a sword / Bring a morgue / But you can’t bring the truth to me.

— “All The Stars” with SZA (2018)

Lest time forget, Lamar’s 2015 To Pimp A Butterfly is a fingerprint for an era defined by Black Lives Matter, police brutality and the final months of the country’s first black president’s administration. The record features a handful of Lamar’s most complex and analytical cuts: “i,” “Hood Politics,” “Mortal Man” and President Barack Obama’s favorite “How Much A Dollar Cost.” But undoubtedly, Butterfly’s star is “Alright.” It’s the generational equivalent to James Brown’s “I’m Black and I’m Proud.”

Presidential critiques aren’t foreign to Lamar’s catalog. Seven years ago, Lamar painted a picture of gangland Compton (decades before gentrification arrived) on “Ronald Reagan Era (His Evils).” 1987, the children of Ronald Reagan raked the leaves, he said of the generation directly affected by the legacy of the 40th president’s Reaganomics, Your front porch with a machine blowtorch.

The Obama era, for Lamar, brought reverence and clarity. The reality of a black president inspired pride and accomplishment. But he wasn’t blind to current and past issues: Streets don’t fail me now, they tell me it’s a new gang in town /From Compton to Congress, set trippin’ all around/ Ain’t nothin’ new, but a flu of new Demo-Crips and Re-Blood-licans, he opined on 2015’s “Hood Politics.” Lamar understood Obama’s power as president was in constant opposition with forces that sought to derail, override and neuter. Red state versus a blue state, which one you governin’? / They give us guns and drugs, call us thugs / Make it they promise to f— with you / No condom, they f— with you / Obama say, ‘What it do?’

Later that same year, while then-candidate Trump was still seen by some as a political punchline, Lamar addresses growing right-wing hysteria on “Black Friday,” saying, I’m the son of the pioneer that near the sun /Play with him / B—- you better off voting for Donald Trump.

A year later, in 2016, as Trump-mania gained indestructible steam, Lamar again directed his attention to the candidate nearly two months to the date of the presidential election. Might stay in the Trump Tower for one week, he rapped on “What’s Wrong.” Spray paint all the walls and smoke weed / F— them and f— y’all and f— me. In 2017, as the reality of a Trump presidency set in, Lamar observed.

Donald Trump is a chump / Know how we feel, punk? Tell ’em God comin’ / And Russia need a replay button, y’all up to somethin’, Lamar rapped on “The Heart Pt. 4,” a month before Robert Mueller was named special counsel for the ongoing Russia investigation. But for “XXX.,” on DAMN., the reality set in for Lamar. Donald Trump’s in office / We lost Barack and promised to never doubt him again / But is America honest, or do we bask in sin?

Lamar is an atypical selection for such a widely viewed event. He’s not “safe,” nor is he “routine.”

In the coming weeks we can anticipate an impending marketing avalanche for Panther, perhaps “the biggest and blackest blockbuster of all time,” with Lamar a critical component. Later this month, the seven-time Grammy winner looks to add more with seven new nominations, including going head-to-head with Jay-Z for the evening’s most coveted award, album of the year. I said it’s like that/ Dropped one classic, came right back/ ‘Nother classic, right back/ My next album, the whole industry on a ice pack, he vowed a week before DAMN.’s arrival. The promise has him on the doorstep of Grammy history on Jan 28.

Trump, in Lamar’s eyes, is the complete antithesis of what his much-loved music is about, but in many ways he is a source of inspired frustration. And the nature of Monday night’s halftime performance, even with Friday’s free-to-all dress rehearsal, is difficult to predict. Despite his undeniable star power, Lamar is an atypical selection for such a widely viewed event. He’s not “safe,” nor is he “routine.” It easy to imagine part of Lamar’s performance being veiled shots: I know how you work, I know just who you are/ See, you’s a, you’s a, you’s a— / B—- ...

So, does Lamar feel the pressure to symbolically take a knee Monday night? I, for one, don’t think it’s wise to believe anxiety will play a part in Lamar avoiding The Elephant In The A. He and TDE are from Compton, a cultural ground zero where wearing the wrong hat, or walking down the wrong block with the wrong shoelaces, sometimes came with fatal consequences. A halftime show, by comparison, is a field trip to Calabasas, California.

Illuminating truth to power is daunting. Kanye West knew what would come of his comments about President George W. Bush, but he became a larger-than-life figure afterward. Colin Kaepernick understood that taking a knee would all but involuntarily retire him, but he is now the millennial Muhammad Ali. Lamar’s life has been one risk after another — a butterfly effect set in motion as documented in the mind-numbing odyssey “DUCKWORTH.,” DAMN.’s closing number.

Trump vs. Lamar is quite the undercard for Monday night’s main event. It could very well be a culture-shifting moment spearheaded by the man who has been bestowed with the heavy title of “voice of a generation.” Lamar is well-aware of the moment he occupies and times he’s become a voice for. His message to Trump could very well come in words, via actions or even purely via symbol. Does this mean halftime will be his Kanye West 2009 MTV Video Music Awards moment? Who knows.

Whether he decides to stir the pot, whether he fulfills YG’s wish, there is a reality evident about Lamar. Nothing looks to stop the momentum he’s built over the past year. Not even the president of the United States.