The untold story of wrestler Andrew Johnson’s dreadlocks How the high school athlete endured his infamous haircut

When Andrew Johnson walked into The Line Up barbershop last April, all eyes focused on him. Since that awful day in December when a referee had forced the 16-year-old Buena Regional High School wrestler to either cut his dreadlocks or forfeit his match, he felt as if the world was constantly watching him, especially in his small New Jersey town. Watching and whispering about things beyond his control.

Yo, that’s that kid who got his locs chopped by the white ref.

Andrew, who goes by Drew, sat down in Mikey Morales’ chair. Morales has tended Drew’s hair since middle school. After a video of Drew’s shearing attracted a massive social media audience last December, Morales had reshaped Drew’s hair into shorter dreadlocks that radiated from his head.

But now Drew had a new problem. The night before, he had grabbed a pair of scissors from the kitchen and hacked at what remained of his dreads, then asked his little sister to finish the job. Drew loved his hair but was tired of it causing so much trouble. Tired of being treated differently and made into something he was not. Tired of looking in the mirror and seeing the referee, Alan Maloney, looking back.

Since the incident last December, support for Andrew Johnson, seen here during a bout on Jan. 5, has poured in from celebrities, pro athletes and the governor of New Jersey. But others, including some of his schoolmates and other residents of his mostly white town, defended referee Alan Maloney as simply enforcing the rules.

ANDREW MILLS/NJ ADVANCE MEDIA/BARCROFT MEDIA

Maloney already had a racist incident in his past before telling Drew that his hair was “unnatural” and giving him 90 seconds to cut it. What resulted was far more than a humiliating haircut for one high school student. It became a shared and painful experience for many who see how issues of identity, subjugation, power and freedom are intertwined in African American hair.

Support for Drew poured in from celebrities, pro athletes and the governor of New Jersey. But others, including some of Drew’s schoolmates and other residents of his mostly white town, defended Maloney as simply enforcing the rules. Another local contingent believed that even if Maloney was wrong, Drew should have just shaken it off and moved on.

The shy, quiet teen was trapped in a suffocating bubble. Maybe those kitchen scissors were meant to let in some air.

The barber surveyed the damage and looked at Drew’s father, Charles Johnson III, who goes by his middle name of Sheridan. Sheridan and his three sons come to Morales once a week. Their hairstyles vary, but they always stay crisply edged and trimmed. The Johnsons are not a family who walks around looking jacked up.

The barbers and most of their clientele are Puerto Rican here at The Line Up, which is located in one of the strip malls dotting the South Jersey farmlands between Philadelphia and Atlantic City. Drew, too, is more Puerto Rican than anything else, despite being widely portrayed as strictly African American when his haircut entered the viral pantheon of American racial injustice.

During several trips to Buena Vista Township, and while attending several of the wrestling team’s home and away matches, I had in-depth conversations with Drew, his parents and siblings, close friends of the Johnson family and their attorney. I talked to Drew’s schoolmates, coaches, other members of the Buena community, and wrestlers and coaches from around South Jersey. The Johnsons declined to be interviewed on the record. Some of the descriptions of Drew’s emotions come from his attorney; others from people in Buena who interacted with him. Maloney declined an interview request, and his attorney didn’t respond to phone messages.

What I saw in Buena was a close-knit, mixed-race family crushed by our country’s tectonic conflict over racial justice and demographic change. This took place in a small town with a rich wrestling tradition where people say sports brings them together, even as they are further apart than most want to believe.

Watching the video of the match, I saw Maloney give Drew 90 seconds to shatter either a pillar of his identity or his bond with his teammates and his home. Sitting in the barber chair beneath Morales’ buzzing clippers 3½ months later, Drew was still trying to reassemble the pieces of who he used to be.


Hair is Africa’s most enduring marker in America, the phenotype most likely to persist through generations of interracial children. Hair is what black folks look at when trying to determine who is one of us. Many mixed-race people are not permitted to fully determine their own identity because of how the world insists on defining them. That’s when hair can represent a manifesto of self.

Sheridan Johnson is the son of a black father and a Puerto Rican mother. He looks black, grew up with his black grandparents and has always identified himself as black. His hair is cut close but dark on top, with a fade melting into his thick, impeccably groomed beard.

Wrestler Andrew Johnson forced to cut hair before match

Sheridan’s wife, Rosa, has a Puerto Rican father and an Irish mother. Rosa has straight, shoulder-length brown hair and fair skin. She values her Puerto Rican heritage and maiden name of Santiago, but much of the world sees her as a white lady with black kids.

The four Johnson children are Drew, who is now 17, 13-year-old Cami, 15-year-old Nate and 19-year-old Matt. Each of their complexions is a different shade of brown. Their hair, too, varies in texture and degree of curl. Drew has the lightest skin, and freckles. He cultivated his dreadlocks in early 2018 by rubbing his hair nightly with a towel. Cami is the darkest, with caramel-colored skin and hair that, when I saw her, fell past her shoulders in cascading coils. Cami is the only sibling who sort of considers herself black. Her brothers never defined themselves that way. If pressed, the Johnson boys will break themselves down mathematically: 50% Puerto Rican, 25% black and 25% white.

Last December, Drew’s calculated identity went up in smoke. That’s when the world decided he was black.


Long, straight roads slice through the farms and woods of Buena Vista Township, 45 minutes southeast of Philly. Tractors creep through fields of tomatoes, peppers and corn. Farmers from Italy arrived in the mid-1850s because the sandy soil was good for grapes. The area remains heavily working-class Italian: Buena is pronounced “BYOO-nuh” because of how it was said by those from the old country. The census says 75% of the township’s 7,299 residents are white, 13% are Hispanic and 7.5% are black.

On Dec. 19, furrowed empty earth ran right up to the parking lot of Buena Regional High School, where the Johnson family gathered to watch Drew wrestle. It was not a special occasion. Where you see one Johnson, you often see them all.

The meet took place in the Charles Johnson Memorial Gymnasium, which is named after Sheridan’s grandfather, who was a beloved custodian at the school. The opponent was rival Oakcrest High. Buena had beaten Oakcrest eight years in a row, but this meet was expected to be close. They were the top two teams in the Cape Atlantic League’s National Division, so the division title was likely on the line. Every match would be crucial.

Wrestling has been part of the fabric of Buena since the early 1970s, when Mickey Caprese, who owned a greeting card store across from Buena’s junior high school, got a bunch of neighborhood kids together and started a youth program. Buena and wrestling are a good match. They’re both tough but not loud, small but proud. There’s no room for pretty boys. Scarred hands or cauliflowered ears are a mark of pride.

New Jersey’s rules prohibit a wrestler’s hair from falling past his earlobes, shirt collar or eyebrows. But that was not Alan Maloney’s issue with Drew. He cited a rule saying hair must be in its natural state.

ELIZABETH ROBERTSON/PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER/NEWSCOM

“We’re just a small community with values and work ethic,” said Doug Castellari, one of Caprese’s first recruits. He became an All-American at Temple University in 1984, coached the Buena team for almost three decades and is one of five Buena alumni in the South Jersey Wrestling Hall of Fame.

“Wrestling’s not a sport you can just go out there and play,” said Castellari, who is still fit from daily workouts and tanned from running his family’s farm. “You have to put a lot into it just to win one match. You have to get a kid to buy in. You have to dedicate yourself and put in the time.”

Castellari’s son Eric wrestled for his dad and now volunteers with the Buena wrestling team. “Buena is not a participation trophy kind of place,” Eric said. “Other sports, there’s somebody next to you. This is one-on-one. If you mentally break, if you give up, you will be abused. Nobody can save you. There’s no safety over the top.

“Nobody realizes how hard those six minutes are.”


Five minutes and 30 seconds into the December match, blood dripped down Drew’s bottom lip. Cramps wracked both calves. He was losing 2-1 and trapped on his stomach underneath his opponent. The shock of having his dreadlocks cut before the match had given way to the desperation of trying to survive.

Drew is not the most talented wrestler in his family. That would be his younger brother, Nate, who started varsity as a freshman at 113 pounds. Drew didn’t join the varsity until his sophomore year, when his record was 13-12 with six pins. In some of the losses, he hit a mental wall and couldn’t climb over, one of his coaches told me. Drew let himself think he could not win.

Drew had big goals last season, his junior year, in the 120-pound division. It was cool having his brother on the team. Nate wouldn’t have to learn by getting abused on the wrong side of the wall.

Referees are supposed to handle hair and other issues at the pre-meet weigh-ins, but on that day Maloney was late. He conducted the “skin check” about 6:45 p.m., 15 minutes before the 7 p.m. start, according to a statement submitted to the school district by Buena’s head wrestling coach, George Maxwell. Maloney told Drew he needed to shave. After Drew returned from the locker room with no stubble, Maloney said he had “concerns” about Drew’s and Nate’s hair, according to the statement and the Johnson family’s attorney, Dominic A. Speziali.

Drew returned to the locker room to get a cap. Maloney left because the meet was about to begin. In the first match, refereed by Maloney, Nate wrestled without a cap and lost. Drew’s match came second.

When Drew was on the mat about to shake hands with his opponent, Maloney stopped him and said his cap was illegal because it didn’t attach to his headgear. Drew and his team did not have an attachable cap because they didn’t think it was needed. Drew had wrestled earlier that season without one.

New Jersey’s rules prohibit a wrestler’s hair from falling past his earlobes, shirt collar or eyebrows. But that was not Maloney’s issue with Drew. He cited a rule saying hair must be in its natural state.

“It’s unnatural,” Maloney told Drew and his coaches, according to a letter sent by Speziali to the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights, which is investigating what happened.

Andrew Johnson (left) wrestles for Buena Regional High School against Cherokee High School’s Andrew Aromando (right) during a match in New Jersey on Jan. 11. Aromando won the match 4-2.

ELIZABETH ROBERTSON/PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER/NEWSCOM

Rosa and Sheridan sat in the bleachers, unable to hear what was going on.

Maxwell and his assistants argued Drew’s case. After less than two minutes of discussion, Maloney turned his back on them and twirled his finger to start the 90-second injury clock. When it ran out, Drew would forfeit.

It didn’t take Drew long to decide. Wrestlers make immense sacrifices — running in rubber suits to cut weight, starving themselves, vomit-inducing practices. The whole team had suffered to beat Oakcrest. If Drew didn’t wrestle, and win, they could lose the meet and the division title. He did what any Buena wrestler would have done. “I’m going to cry, but cut it,” he told his coach.

As a trainer began to hack off fistfuls of locs with a pair of tape scissors, a wave of anguished noise rolled down from the packed bleachers. Shouts of “Noooo!” can be heard on the video.

Rosa did not run down to the mat. Neither did Sheridan. Later, they would be flamed on social media for not stepping in. But the situation was out of their hands. Would it have been less humiliating for Drew if his parents made him forfeit the match? How much hair would Drew have had left by that point? What could Rosa and Sheridan have done as the clock ticked down to zero?

When about half of Drew’s dreadlocks were gone, Maloney deemed him acceptable. Drew walked onto the mat with tears in his eyes, his face a mask of hurt and anger, breathing so hard his cheeks puffed out from his face.

Oakcrest’s David Flippen bloodied Drew’s lip in the first period. Watching the video, there are moments where Flippen’s hair flops past his eyebrows, which is supposed to be illegal. Drew’s legs convulsed with cramps. With less than a minute to go in the match, Flippen was on top of Drew, leading 2-1. Drew escaped, earning one point to tie the match. He was poised on top of the wall. Sudden-death overtime: The first wrestler to score again would win.

Less than a minute into the overtime, Drew emerged from a tangle of limbs and took Flippen down. Maloney blew his whistle. Drew staggered upright, let Maloney briefly raise his right arm, then yanked it away and stumbled off the mat.

Buena won the meet and at the end of the season won the division with a 6-0 record. Oakcrest finished 5-1.

Forty-five minutes after the match, Drew sat in a hallway, tears streaming down his face. Rosa massaged his trembling legs. He had broken down the wall. But another was rising in its place.


In the days after the video detonated on social media, reporters circled the high school. TV trucks parked outside the Johnsons’ house, right up to Christmas Eve. Sheridan, a cable TV equipment installer, and Rosa, an elementary school teacher in the Buena district, were deluged with comments, ranging from well-intentioned to overbearing to hurtful.

Man, Drew is a trouper. Glad he’s done with all that stuff. … What’s the big deal? … It’s just hair, it’ll grow back. …

Drew sat in his classes in a daze. He walked the halls with his headphones clamped tight. With his new celebrity supporters and fame, he felt yanked from euphoria to anger to depression. One day he left the wrestling room and walked past a basketball game. He felt every eye in the gym on him as he left the building.

Buena’s next match was canceled, with no clear explanation given. The match after that, the referee called the school and said Drew’s hair was still illegal. That match was canceled too. Now the whole team was being penalized. Nobody wants to suffer through making weight for nothing. Drew struggled with whether the canceled matches were his fault, and whether he should quit the team.

He decided against it. He was a varsity starter. The team needed him. Who knows what foolishness Nate would get into in practice without Drew. And if you mess around in practice, the matches will be hell.

Buena’s Andrew Johnson (left) has his 195-pound teammate Sammy Drogo (right) in his ear as they prepare to wrestle against Clayton at the Williamstown Duals in New Jersey on Jan. 5.

ANDREW MILLS/NJ ADVANCE MEDIA/BARCROFT MEDIA

Most of all, Drew just wanted to wrestle.

He got pinned in the two matches after his hair was cut, then recovered to win eight in a row at the end of January. He did well enough at the district meet to qualify for regionals but lost in the first round and ended his season with a 19-10 record and eight pins. Nate finished 21-7 with 15 pins.

The Johnson family has made no public comment since a statement six days after the December match.

“Wrestling has taught Andrew to be resilient in the face of adversity,” Rosa and Sheridan said in the statement. “As we move forward, we are comforted by both the strength of Andrew’s character and the support he’s received from the community. We will do all that we can to make sure that no student-athlete is forced to endure what Andrew experienced.”


There is a long history of white people trying to legislate and regulate the gravity-defying, shape-shifting glory of black hair. White people may think their rules are neutral, but they come from a mindset that, consciously or not, defines white hair as normal and black hair as deviant. Black hair must be controlled, conform or cut down. Its mere existence is often seen as illegal, from a North Carolina pool banning swimmers with locs to a Texas junior high school coloring in a boy’s part with a Sharpie.

Maloney has a horseshoe of dark hair around the sides of a bald scalp. He is 63 years old, about 5 feet, 7 inches tall, with a paunch and an outsize reputation built on four decades of refereeing in South Jersey. He has held several offices in the New Jersey Wrestling Officials Association, or NJWOA.

Maloney is an extremely knowledgeable official but also abrasive, frequently late to matches and a showboat, according to three wrestling coaches I spoke with and other coaches interviewed by NJ Advance Media. What the coaches didn’t need to tell me, because it received statewide media coverage, is that Maloney once called a black referee the N-word. Maloney was briefly suspended, but his punishment was overturned by the NJWOA.

All this history set the context for Maloney calling Drew’s hair “unnatural.”

The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) follows the wrestling regulations of the National Federation of State High School Associations. The rulebook says that “the hair, in its natural state, shall not extend below the top of an ordinary shirt collar in the back; and on the sides, the hair shall not extend below earlobe level; in the front, the hair shall not extend below the eyebrows.” In a photo of Drew’s hair just before the match, he did not violate any of those restrictions.

The rulebook says that “the hair, in its natural state, shall not extend below the top of an ordinary shirt collar in the back; and on the sides, the hair shall not extend below earlobe level; in the front, the hair shall not extend below the eyebrows.” This is a photo of Drew Johnson’s hair just before the match.

SNJ Today via Johnson attorney’s Jan. 9 letter to the state Division on Civil Rights

Amid the postmatch outrage, the NJSIAA and NJWOA agreed not to assign Maloney to any more matches until an investigation was completed. Three weeks later, Roy Dragon, who holds offices with both organizations, sent an email to NJWOA chapters to clarify the hair rules.

Dragon’s email tried to outlaw the hair that Drew still had left. The email, which was obtained by NJ Advance Media, showed examples of what it called illegal hair that required a cap, including this photo.

But the hair in the photograph was actually legal, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. Asked by local media about that contradiction, NJSIAA executive director Larry White sent out another email, which included this guidance from the national rules federation:

“There is a wide spectrum of modern hair styles that might give the appearance that they are in violation of the hair rule, but in actuality they are just creative expressions of today’s youth,” the guidance said. It defined hair in its natural state as “how your hair appears when you wake up in the morning.”

But that still leaves room for judgment about what is “natural.” Can you wrestle with hair dyed orange? With gelled hair?

Can the people who run South Jersey wrestling recognize their assumption that everything white is normal and anything else needs to conform or get cut down?


It’s false to say that mixed-race people are caught between two worlds, but it’s a fact that the reaction to Drew’s haircut placed the Johnsons in a bind.

The support Drew received, locally and beyond, helped him and his family get through the experience. Filmmaker Ava DuVernay tweeted, “I don’t just wear locs. They are a part of me … So to watch this young man’s ordeal, wrecked me. The criminalization of what grows from him. The theft of what was his.” New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said he was “deeply disturbed.”

But many supporters focused their outrage on Drew’s coaches, teammates, trainer, school and neighbors. “Why didn’t people as a group walk out of that room? It speaks to the culture that this is acceptable,” Rachel Green, a member of the civil rights group Action Together New Jersey, said at a public meeting called by the school district. Action Together called for racial bias training for the entire Buena district.

In a passionate Twitter video, four-time world champion and Olympic gold medalist Jordan Burroughs, who grew up 15 minutes from Buena and attended the same high school as Maloney, told Drew: “The fact that the parents and the coaches in that gymnasium allowed for you to be put in that position and didn’t protect you is absolutely shameful.

“The bottom line is this young man, especially a young black man in a traditionally and predominantly Caucasian sport, out there defenseless, you guys gotta help this young man. You gotta protect him,” Burroughs said. He criticized Maloney — “You gotta pay the consequences of your actions” — and later FaceTimed with Drew to offer more support.

Drew’s coaches did argue on his behalf. The trainer reluctantly did what Drew asked her to do. Drew wasn’t thinking about systemic racism when Maloney started that 90-second clock. He was thinking about a division title.

And yet …

Buena can be uncomfortable for people of color. It’s one of 53 New Jersey towns that voted for Donald Trump in 2016 after choosing Barack Obama in 2012. There is prejudice against Mexicans who come for agricultural work. Since Trump was elected president, a few Confederate flags have been spotted flying from pickup trucks at Buena high school football games.

“Buena is no different than most of the communities around here,” said the Rev. David Mallory, the black pastor of First Baptist Church in adjacent Richland. “There are still racial tensions in a lot of areas, but I also see more interracial activity that is favorable.”

Since Drew’s hair was cut, much of Buena has assumed a defensive crouch. Many residents don’t want to acknowledge the role of race in what happened to Drew.

“Ambivalence toward racism is a form of racism in itself,” Speziali told me.

Rosa and Sheridan grew up in Buena and enjoy living there, have meaningful friendships among people of all races and never told me anything negative about their home. But it was clear to me that Buena could become an inhospitable place if they spoke publicly about the toll Drew’s humiliation took on their family.

The uproar over Drew’s hair “upset me because it became a racial issue. Buena is a melting pot,” said one resident who is close to the Johnson family. The woman, who is white, did not want to be named in order to avoid upsetting the Johnsons. “My boys were brought up not to judge people based on color. We have all types of kids staying over at our house. We’re just a little town, as far from racist as possible.”

Well, maybe not that far.

“There’s a few racists, like anywhere else,” she continued. “But we’re family.”


A three-minute drive from The Line Up, inside the Sports Cuts barbershop, owner Frank Baldissero rings up haircuts on a 1950s-era R.C. Allen cash register. A 1932 photograph of Rockefeller Center skyscraper workers eating lunch in midair hangs on the wall. A grease board has customer appointments written into 15-minute time slots. “That’s my computer,” said Baldissero, who has been here 31 years.

The Johnson family, pictured from left to right: Matt, Rosa, Drew, Nate, Cami and Sheridan.

Johnson Family

At Sports Cuts, Maloney is the hero and the Johnsons are villains. “The kid got away with it for some number of matches and finally got a ref who followed the rules,” said Baldissero, whose head matches his name. “They didn’t enforce the rules until that point in time, and that’s it.”

“The media left out that no adults or coaches made him follow the rules,” chimed in Katrina D’Allessandro. Her son Will was getting his hair cut for the prom, a fade with bangs hanging down over the front.

“It was upsetting to a lot of people at school,” Will said. “Buena isn’t a racist school. We’re all diverse, we have different views. We’re all human. It’s just a matter of rules, I guess. The rules are that hair has to be a certain length. You can’t really have dreads.”

“The parents and the kid, they should step up and say this isn’t about race, it’s about rules. The kid didn’t follow the rules,” said Baldissero.

“The media is way out of whack,” the barber continued. “They turned it into a racial thing. It got to be a racial thing based on what the ref did years ago. People change. I’m sure he’s not the same person he was back then.”

What Maloney did “years ago” happened in 2016, during an informal gathering of referees after they worked a Jersey Shore tournament. During a disagreement about homemade wine, Maloney poked a black referee named Preston Hamilton in the chest and called him the N-word. Hamilton, a former wrestler, responded by body-slamming Maloney.

The NJWOA was asked to discipline Maloney, who was NJWOA membership chairman and training supervisor at the time. He apologized to Hamilton and volunteered to take alcohol awareness and sensitivity courses. The NJWOA ethics committee decided that Maloney should be suspended from refereeing for one year. The committee also suspended Hamilton for “assault.”

Both men appealed. Ethics appeals are handled by NJWOA officers, several of whom had been friends with Maloney for decades. They voted to rescind both suspensions, outraging a swath of the South Jersey wrestling community. Numerous schools told the NJWOA not to assign Maloney to their meets.

Maloney wasn’t interested in public contrition. “I really don’t think this should go any further than it’s gone anyhow. … It was two men, a group of guys, having fun and it was just a slip-up. If you can’t see past that, then I don’t know what to say. I made a mistake and I apologized for it,” he told the Courier-Post newspaper.

It was not his first mistake. In 2012, Maloney told a 6-year-old wrestler that he couldn’t compete with dreadlocks because “hair doesn’t naturally look like that,” according to a statement by a parent who came forward to state civil rights investigators after Drew’s haircut. Finally, “a younger referee, who was a person of color, told him that my son’s hair was natural and he was able to wrestle with it,” according to the statement, which was obtained by NJ Advance Media. Maloney also was accused of kicking an 11-year-old mixed-race wrestler after he wandered onto the mat during a match.

Maloney owns an auto repair garage in West Berlin, about 30 minutes north of Buena. I stopped by one afternoon in May and walked around the gray building with three car bays. A police car was up on one lift. I asked a mechanic if Maloney was around, and he went to get him.

I waited in the garage’s tiny office. Several NJWOA awards hung on the wall. “Presented in recognition for your outstanding achievements, leadership and contributions to New Jersey Scholastic Wrestling,” read one faded plaque. Nearby was a framed newspaper article from Maloney’s 1989 induction into the South Jersey Wrestling Hall of Fame. The pinnacle of his competitive career was finishing fourth in the state in 1974. He started reffing two years later.

A short white man with a cigar jammed into his mouth entered the office. He was not Maloney. “Who’s calling?” the man asked. I told him.

“You have to leave,” the man said, and pointed at the door.

Maloney has filed a legal notice preserving his right to sue the Buena school district and 11 other possible defendants, not including the Johnson family. He is claiming defamation of character and emotional distress.


Mikey Morales spun Drew around in his barber chair and went to work on what was left of Drew’s dreadlocks. Hair fell to the floor, just like on the mat four months earlier. Only this time, Drew was reclaiming his identity as a mixed-race, bighearted athlete in a small town that doesn’t fully understand what it means to be Drew Johnson.

Drew had played baseball as a sophomore but decided not to go out for the team this past spring. He did go to the prom. He got an after-school job busing tables. Last summer, he worked on a farm during tomato harvest and received an all-expenses-paid scholarship to attend Burroughs’ wrestling camp in Nebraska. Nate went to the camp too. Drew is looking forward to wrestling his senior year with Nate. Their bond is closer than ever.

The civil rights division of the state attorney general’s office is investigating the incident, along with the NJSIAA. Their findings will determine whether Maloney will referee again.

Thanks to the publicity over Drew’s hair, other dreadlocks will thrive. California just banned employers and schools from discriminating against people based on their hair. A similar bill is pending in New Jersey.

Maloney saw Drew as another black boy who should have followed the rules. Now rules are changing because of Drew.

Morales snapped off his clippers. Drew looked at himself in the mirror. The sides of his hair were faded close to his scalp. A low carpet of hair lay on top. From the crown grew one last dreadlock, uncut, in its natural state, with inseparable strands of Africa, Europe, the Caribbean, and the United States of America.

What made ‘Orange Is the New Black’ so fabulous? Her name is Danielle Brooks Now in its seventh and final season, “OITNB shows what the streaming era can and should be: addictive, unique and inclusive

Spoilers ahead! This piece includes details on the seventh season.

If you want to understand the significance of Orange Is the New Black, look at its breakout star, Danielle Brooks, who played Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson.

On Friday, Netflix released the final 13 episodes of the show that has functioned as an exemplar of what the streaming era could and should be: addictive, unique and inclusive. It used actors who are often overlooked — black women, Latinas and older women — to focus our attention on women who are completely overlooked: female prisoners.

Orange Is the New Black debuted in 2013, a few months after House of Cards, Netflix’s first foray into original programming, and it’s still the network’s most watched program. The adaptation of Piper Kerman’s memoir of life in a women’s prison made celebrities of a number of cast members, among them Uzo Aduba, Laverne Cox, Samira Wiley and Dascha Polanco. It gave Kate Mulgrew a second iconic role, as Red, after years of being known as Star Trek: Voyager’s Kathryn Janeway. Cox, thanks to her role as Sophia Burset, became the first openly transgender actor to be nominated for a prime-time Emmy.

But even surrounded by an ensemble blistering with talent, Brooks was always one of the most exciting things about Orange Is the New Black. She was originally hired to play Tasha for two episodes before getting promoted to a recurring role, and by season two she had secured a position as a series regular.

Showrunner and creator Jenji Kohan has spoken repeatedly about using the character of Piper Chapman — a sheltered, thin, liberal blonde who came from a family of means — as a “Trojan horse.” She was a device that allowed Kohan to tell the stories of women who had been disenfranchised and forgotten — women like Tasha Jefferson.

Tasha is the first person the audience sees Piper interacting with at Litchfield Correctional, the prison in upstate New York where Orange is set. The series opens with Piper’s voice narrating her life, explaining how much being clean is her “happy place,” especially when she’s bathing or showering with a romantic partner.

And then in bounces Tasha, in a cornflower blue muumuu printed with white flowers, the sort of thing that would be at home on a Southern retiree shuffling to her front porch with an Arnold Palmer in hand. Except we’re in prison, and all is not so bucolic for Piper anymore. Brooks immediately steals the scene as she tells Piper to hurry up and finish showering while there’s still a bit of hot water left.

She peeks through a rip in the shower curtain, then proclaims: “Daaaaamn, you got some nice titties! You got them TV titties. They stand up on they own, all perky and everything!”

In a matter of seconds, you had to wonder: Who is this woman, and when do we get to see more of her?

“Unlike theater, you don’t have a long rehearsal period at all,” Brooks said in a 2016 interview with the Los Angeles Times. “You just do it. You have limited time to make choices. TV has taught me to make bold choices in the moment, the minute they come to you, and not to hold back.”

Her choices paid off. Tasha quickly became a source of levity within Litchfield, sharp-tongued and skeptical of both whiteness and authority in general. But she was a nurturer too. She looked after the naive, neurodivergent Suzanne, played by Aduba. She kept her best friend Poussey, played by Wiley, from succumbing to hopelessness and addiction.

And then she changed.


Dascha Polanco (left) and Danielle Brooks (right) in a scene from the final season of Orange Is the New Black.

Cara Howe

Over the course of its run, Orange Is the New Black became more ambitious while the conditions at Litchfield worsened, especially after the facility was taken over by a private prison corporation bent on maximizing profits, usually at the expense of basic human decency.

The guards grew tougher, more jaded and sadistic. The inmates grew meaner, more isolated and more indignant. Their interactions and allegiances became increasingly segregated by race. Tasha, motivated by the worsening conditions at Litchfield, shows up at the prison equivalent of the Yalta Conference to represent the black inmates and negotiate a coalition of resistance. Taystee has grown up.

And then everything goes south when Poussey gets suffocated by a guard in the cafeteria.

The women had been peacefully standing on cafeteria tables to protest overcrowding and a staff of inexperienced, undertrained guards. A corrections officer calls for backup, and the guards begin wrestling the women down from the tables. A peaceful protest devolves into mayhem. When the women realize that Poussey is on the floor, lifeless, the chaos subsides. Tasha breaks free from a guard and pushes her way to her best friend’s side. She collapses on the floor beside Poussey and curls into the fetal position, embracing Poussey’s head. Brooks said she drew on the emotions and experiences of real-life women such as Diamond Reynolds, who witnessed the police shooting death of her partner Philando Castile, for this scene. The camera, which is positioned directly above the two women, pans out. It’s the last scene of the episode. The entire dynamic of Litchfield changes permanently.

From then on, Brooks depicts a person who is wracked with grief, depression and fury. Her movements become more self-protective, but also more defiant. She begins to use her size to command fear and respect. Tasha leads a prison riot that lasts for an entire season and strategizes how to make demands that would lead to substantive changes within Litchfield. There’s a sense of control that comes through in Brooks’ work in the later seasons of the show as she extinguishes the light that used to dance in Tasha’s eyes.

And then, for her efforts, Tasha is falsely blamed for the death of corrections officer Desi Piscatella, who was actually killed by a SWAT officer sent in to subdue the prisoners. Tasha is tried for murder and sentenced to live the rest of her days in Litchfield’s maximum security unit. Brooks has to sink deeper into the ugliest parts of herself. In season seven, it’s clear that Tasha doesn’t see what she has to live for. She’s become just as jaded and cruel and resigned as the guards — she has nothing left to lose. Finally released from solitary confinement, Brooks uses her body like a battering ram when she steps onto the prison yard, body-checking anyone who doesn’t have the good sense to get out of her way. Her movements become slower, and slower, as though she’s malingering toward death. Tasha now towers menacingly over the newly installed warden, Tamika (Susan Heyward), whom Tasha knew from her childhood neighborhood. The two women used to have a positive rapport. Not anymore.

Tasha is focused on finding a way to kill herself. She enters into an arrangement with Daya (Polanco), who is now running the drug ring in max, to secure enough drugs for a fatal overdose. But the enterprise is an expensive one, and Tasha begins working in the warden’s office again to earn the money to pay Daya.

But each day becomes more difficult to bear, especially when Tasha’s lawyer informs her that she’ll likely be stuck in prison forever, regardless of her innocence. Afterward, Tasha neatly arranges the few belongings in her cell. She twists the fabric she uses to make a noose. She loops the fabric around her neck, then launches her body away from the bed, feet still on the ground. For several seconds, Tasha struggles against her own body’s instincts for self-preservation. She’s crying and quietly whimpering. Slowly, desperate frustration takes over her face. She’s so miserable, and she can’t even let herself die.

Together with her castmates, Brooks has won three Screen Actors Guild Awards for outstanding performance by an ensemble in a comedy series. Still, her work on Orange has never received an individual Emmy nod. The scene in which she nearly hangs herself ought to change that.

The way she continues through the rest of season seven is just as masterful. When she doesn’t succeed in hanging herself, Tasha has to figure out how to live again, how to make it through prison knowing she’ll never experience freedom again. The journey Brooks charts back to the land of the living, to some semblance of her former self, is just as considered as the moments that take place right before Tasha thinks she’s ending her life. It’s like watching Orpheus slowly try to navigate his way out of hell.


Orange Is the New Black was Brooks’ first job after she graduated from Juilliard. It allowed the South Carolina native to showcase a range that other roles — like, say, voicing Charica in an episode of Elena of Avalor or Olive Blue in The Angry Birds Movie — have not.

During the show’s run, Brooks has become a natural at advocating for herself in an industry that tends to pigeonhole black women, especially dark-skinned, plus-size black women. Her Instagram feed is populated by photographs captioned with the hashtag #voiceofthecurves, and she’s used it to showcase herself as an enthusiastic fashion chameleon.

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Ever just wake up happy?

A post shared by Danielle Brooks (@daniebb3) on Sep 19, 2017 at 6:39am PDT

In a recent post for the underwear and swimsuit brand Aerie, Brooks wrote, “Middle school and high school years were really hard for me. When it came to accepting my body it felt like a forever struggle that would never ease up. Now I know that my beauty is not determined by how skinny my waistline is or how perfect my skin is. The truth is I know I am beautiful, every day, outside and in. Every pimple, stretch mark, every roll and curve are real and unretouched. My beauty shines every day in every way. And yours does too.”

She made a splash in March 2016 when she appeared on the cover of Ebony magazine with plus-size fashionista Gabi Gregg and singers Jazmine Sullivan and Chrisette Michele. The magazine dubbed them “The Body Brigade.”

By far, her biggest fashion moments have come in frocks designed by Christian Siriano, who has made a name for himself dressing women whom Hollywood and the fashion industry have a tendency to ignore.

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The realest. @csiriano 🖤

A post shared by Danielle Brooks (@daniebb3) on May 24, 2019 at 11:26am PDT

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Going into Monday like…💕 wearing @csiriano

A post shared by Danielle Brooks (@daniebb3) on Aug 20, 2018 at 6:04am PDT

Now 29 and pregnant with her first child, Brooks is clearly thinking about what’s next. If there’s any justice in the world, it will be more than a series of roles as sassy, irritable government employees or obsequious caretakers to white leads who need assistance finding themselves. Although her other on-screen roles have been limited, she’s been able to soar onstage, securing a Tony nomination for her role as Sofia in a revival of The Color Purple.

This summer, Brooks turned down a movie role to play Beatrice in a Public Theater production of Much Ado About Nothing. The entire company, directed by Kenny Leon, was black. Thanks in part to her booming, soulful singing voice, she breathed life and wit and possibility into Beatrice. At one point, she scampered into the audience and settled into the lap of an audience member. There wasn’t a soul in the house who wasn’t completely charmed by her verve and confidence with Elizabethan English.

“I started thinking, What do I want? What would I be proud of on my résumé? and for me Beatrice was that,” Brooks told Vulture. “To me, getting to play this part is opening doors to young black women that look like me or even relate to me, so that was a no-brainer.

“I look forward to being the lead in a rom-com that has a fresh take. I look forward to being in an action film,” she continued. “I look forward to playing royalty.”

Danielle Brooks on life after OITNB: “I look forward to being the lead in a rom-com that has a fresh take. I look forward to being in an action film. I look forward to playing royalty.”

JoJo Whilden

I want so much for Orange Is the New Black to be more than an anomaly in the history of television. And in a lot of ways, television is different from what it was in 2013. Its success contributed to an atmosphere in which Pose could be welcomed and given a real production budget and an opportunity to do well. The older women of Orange Is the New Black made it easier to see how a show such as Grace and Frankie could thrive. Even short-lived projects such as the reboot of One Day at a Time and The Get Down owe some part of their existence to the revolutionary shift that Orange Is the New Black propelled.

Still, a 2017 study found that only 4.8% of television writers were black. It also revealed that the streaming network Hulu went an entire season without a single black writer employed on any of its original series. Whatever advances Orange ushered in are tenuous at best.

Just as Orange Is the New Black has offered new visions for what television can accomplish, let’s hope the same is true for Brooks. She’s had a terrific six years, but that’s not enough. She deserves a career that’s just as broad and challenging as her overflowing talents.

Richard Wright discovers Joe Louis’ dynamite The author of ‘Native Son’ was strongly influenced by the boxer’s success

In 1941, three giants of African American culture came together to celebrate a king. The tribute, fittingly enough, was a song entitled “King Joe,” sung by Paul Robeson to music composed and performed by Count Basie and his Orchestra. Richard Wright had written the lyrics. Basie, Robeson, and Wright — their names conjure images of foxtrots at the Roseland Ballroom, triumphant performances of Showboat, and the explosive prose of Native Son. The king they lionized was Joe Louis, boxing’s heavyweight champion of the world.

On one verse, Wright clearly wrestles with Louis’ legendary silence:

They say Joe don’t talk much, but he talks all the time.

They say Joe don’t talk much, he talks all the time.

Now you can look at Joe, but sure can’t read his mind.

But the novelist had no doubts about the emotions Louis aroused in black communities across the country:

Been in Cleveland, St. Louis and Chicago, too.

Been in Cleveland, St. Louis and Chicago, too.

But the best is Harlem when a Joe Louis fight is through.

By then, Wright had witnessed the cleansing power of Joe Louis — the flood of joy on Chicago’s South Side after he defeated Max Baer in 1935, the electricity inside Yankee Stadium during his 1938 fight with Max Schmeling, the lovefest in Harlem after each important victory. Wright knew the importance of the reign of King Joe.

Richard Wright, circa 1950, sits in his hotel room during the Venice Film Festival. Wright had attended the screening of director Pierre Chenal’s film, Native Son, which was adapted from his novel and starred the author.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Wright wrote out of the pain of racism. Born in a Mississippi sharecropper’s shack in 1908, abandoned by his father, and circumscribed by the iron chains of Jim Crow, he had a blinding ambition to tell his story, the universal tale of the “color line” in America with all the anger, hatred, and ache that it encompassed. The publication of Native Son in 1940 made him instantly famous — and notorious. Published by Harper & Brothers and selected by the Book-of-the-Month Club as one of its two main selections, it sold 215,000 copies in two weeks.

Wright’s fame, however paled next to that of Louis. Six years younger than Wright, Louis was also part of the great migration of rural Southern black people to the urban north, in his case from Alabama to Detroit. Handicapped by poverty and a stutter, he was virtually uneducated and painfully shy. Yet in 1941 he was in the midst of a 12-year reign as the undisputed heavyweight champion, at a time when the title was, as Eldridge Cleaver once wrote, “the ultimate focus of masculinity in America.” Along with Joe DiMaggio, he was one of the two most celebrated athletes in the nation, and his fame extended across the oceans. Furthermore, Louis was an inspiration and source of pride for black Americans. Especially for Wright.

Wright embraced Louis as an athlete and a symbol early in the boxer’s career. In his 1940 essay, How ‘Bigger’ Was Born, Wright suggested that Bigger Thomas, his protagonist in Native Son, was a composite of a number of men he had known, frustrated men who confronted the racism in their daily life with violence. They were the only people, Wright wrote in his essay, who defied Jim Crow “and got away with it, at least for a sweet brief spell” before whites killed them or broke their spirits. But in Louis, Wright witnessed a black man who legally beat down white men in the ring without retribution. The novelist alluded to Louis in Native Son, along with boxers Jack Johnson and Henry Armstrong, suggesting that he was a role model for black men. Yet Wright understood that without boxing they may have suffered the same tragic fate as Bigger Thomas.


No one knows exactly when Wright first learned about Louis, but in the mid-1930s they both lived on the South Side of Chicago. The neighborhood’s numbers kingpin, nightclub operator, and sports enthusiast Julian Black was one of Louis’ co-managers, and he arranged for the boxer to move from Detroit to Chicago to train and fight. From the summer of 1934 to the spring of 1935, during Louis’ first year as a professional, he fought two-thirds of his matches in the city. During the same period, Wright became active in politics and began his writing career. He joined the Communist Party, published poetry in leftist journals, and attended various “progressive” writers conferences.

It is difficult to imagine that Wright wouldn’t have read about Louis’ first major bout in New York City, a contest against former heavyweight champion Primo Carnera that took place in June 1935 during the international crisis between Italy and Ethiopia. The 28-year-old Italian fighter was awesome to behold. Sportswriters dubbed him the “Ambling Alp.” In an age when heavyweights were small compared with today, Carnera stood 6-foot-6 and weighed 260 pounds. The 6-foot-2 Louis, only 21 at the time and 196 pounds, knocked him out in six rounds, but not before administering a frightful beating.

Joe Louis scored a decisive technical knockout over Primo Carnera in the sixth round of their bout at the Yankee Stadium in 1935. Here is Louis standing over the bleeding Carnera during one of the three knockdowns in the sixth round.

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As he would later demonstrate in Native Son, Wright was keenly aware of how white journalists transformed a powerful black man like Louis into a beast. They transmuted the boxer into a dark, dangerous, primordial creature. Sportswriters compared him with a jungle animal, or, alternatively, a machine. He was a cobra, a panther, or more famously, a Brown Bomber raining death. “Something sly and sinister, and perhaps not quite human came out of the African jungle last night to strike down and utterly demolish a huge hulk that had been Primo Carnera, the giant,” wrote ringside reporter David J. Walsh in the St. Louis Star-Times. Grantland Rice, dean of America’s sportswriters, commented in his report of the match for the New York Sun that Louis moved toward Carnera “as a black panther of the jungle stalks his prey.” Rice especially was struck that Louis’ “expression never changed,” even when the referee raised his hand in victory. He “seems to be the type [of jungle animal] that accepts and inflicts pain without a change of expression,” he wrote.

Judging from his later writings, Wright must have sensed that Louis represented a significant new force. The fighter, Walsh had noted, challenged and defied “the white man’s innate sense of superiority.” The Pittsburgh Courier, one of the nation’s leading black newspapers, headlined “HARLEM GOES ‘MAD WITH JOY,’ ” and suggested Louis’ triumph was “its biggest moment since it became the capital of the Negro world.”

Searching the horizon for signs of revolutionary change, Wright latched on to the Louis phenomenon. After the Carnera bout, black Americans could not get enough news about Louis. Newspapers invented his past and speculated about his future. Musicians celebrated his victories in songs. By September 1935, two years before he became heavyweight champion, blues singers had begun to cut records recounting Louis’ fistic deeds. Joe Pullum’s “Joe Louis Is the Man” praised his ring talents as well as noting that he’s “doing things for his mother a young boy should.” Memphis Minnie counseled fans to bet all their money on the “two-fisted fighter” in her joyous paean, “He’s in the Ring (Doin’ the Same Old Thing!).” She sang:

I wouldn’t even pay my house rent.

I wouldn’t buy me nothin’ to eat.

Joe Louis says, ‘Take a chance at me

I’m goin’ to put you on your feet.’

He’s in the ring, doin’ the same old thing.

And in “Joe Louis Blues,” Carl Martin warns all prizefighters “who don’t want to meet defeat … stay off Joe Louis’ beat.”

The early Louis blues songs explode with pride and pleasure, rejoicing in the sheer delight of riding on the Brown Bomber’s bandwagon. As his career progressed, listening to radio broadcasts of his matches became communal experiences for black Americans. Maya Angelou, in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, recalled joining family and friends to listen to his fights in her grandfather’s store in Stamps, Arkansas. She wondered if the announcer knew that he was addressing “all the Negroes around the world who sat sweating and praying, glued to their ‘master’s voice.’ ”

That white voice became excited when Louis’ white opponent pushed him into the corner and whaled away at his body. “My race groaned,” remembered Angelou. “It was all our people falling. It was another lynching, yet another Black man hanging on a tree. One more woman ambushed and raped. A Black boy whipped and maimed.” It was one’s worst memory and consummate fear. “It might be the end of the world. If Joe lost we were back in slavery and beyond help.” If Louis fell, she thought, all the vile racist insults and cutting remarks would be true.

Yet, in almost every case, Louis came off the ropes, moved to the center of the ring, and began to punish his opponent. Once again, he assumed the role of a black Moses, delivering his race, at least for a moment, to the promised land. He was their champion. “A Black boy,” wrote Angelou. “Some Black mother’s son.”


The announcer lifts Joe Louis’ arm in token of his six-round technical knockout over Primo Carnera in their bout at the Yankee Stadium in New York City, June 25, 1935. Louis bears only a slight bruise under his left eye as evidence of the encounter.

Getty Images

Wright’s feelings toward Louis came into sharper literary focus a few months after the boxer slaughtered Carnera. Hazel Rowley’s biography recounts how, after battling through a serious bout of pneumonia during the summer, on the night of Sept. 24, 1935, the struggling writer sat in a bar on the South Side, smoking a cigarette, his ear bent toward the radio. It was almost six years since the stock market crash signaled the coming of the Great Depression. It was a hard time to be black in America. Jobs were in short supply, but lynchings weren’t. The wrongly convicted Scottsboro Boys sat in prison in Alabama, sentenced to die in the electric chair. For Wright, their ordeal symbolized the plight of black men in the country. Don’t step outside of your narrowly proscribed path was the message transmitted from white America to millions of black “citizens.”

Yet, Wright knew, something remarkable was happening, and he wanted to understand what it meant. Louis, who would have had trouble reading Wright’s poetry, once more was making quite a stir. In a ring in the middle of Yankee Stadium, the boxer faced former world heavyweight champion Baer, a heavy-punching, wisecracking slugger. Baer was a talker, always ready to deliver a quip. Louis, said one reporter, “says less than any man in sports history, including Dummy Taylor, the Giant pitcher, who was mute.” Neither man, however, had come to Yankee Stadium to debate.

Joe Louis (left) looks to deliver a right jab on his opponent Max Baer (right) during their bout at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, New York, Sept. 24, 1935. Joe Louis would knock out Max Baer in the fourth round of 15.

The Stanley Weston Archive/Getty Images

Wright felt the earth crack that night. Something happened that transcended the punch that knocked out Baer. (After the match, Baer exclaimed he could have gotten up, “but when I get executed, people are going to have to pay more than twenty-five dollars a seat to watch.”) Some belt holding together Jim Crow laws seemed for a moment to break. Looking around the bar, then stepping out in the street, Wright witnessed it. “Something had popped loose, all right,” he wrote in Joe Louis Uncovers Dynamite. “And it had come from deep down. Out of the darkness it had leaped from its coil. And nobody wanted to say. Blacks and whites were afraid. But it was a sweet fear, at least for blacks. It was a mingling of fear and fulfillment. Something dreaded and yet wanted. A something had popped out of a dark hole, something with a hydra-like head, and it was darting forth its tongue.”

It was Wright’s first published piece of journalism and appeared in New Masses, a Marxist magazine affiliated with the Communist Party USA. Only incidentally was it a form of sports writing. Instead, it explores the revolutionary potential of black Americans. The central metaphor in the article is water. After Louis’ sensational knockout victory, blacks on Chicago’s South Side “poured out of beer taverns, pool rooms, barber shops, rooming houses and dingy flats and flooded the streets.” More than 25,000 “joy-mad” Louis fans “seeped out of doorways, oozed from alleys, trickled out of tenements, and flowed down the street; a fluid mass of joy.”

They formed a wild river of revolutionary potential, praising Louis at the same time as they expressed their resentment against the varied forms of racism that circumscribed and plagued their lives. Louis had unleashed it all. “Four centuries of repression,” Wright observed, “of frustrated hope, of black bitterness, felt even in the bones of the bewildered young, were rising to the surface. Yes, unconsciously they had imputed to the brawny image of Joe Louis all the balked dreams of revenge, all the secretly visualized moments of retaliation …” Without uttering a word or waving a red flag, Louis had become a revolutionary force. “You see, Joe was the consciously-felt symbol. Joe was the concentrated essence of black triumph over white … And what could be sweeter than long-nourished hate vicariously gratified? From the symbol of Joe’s strength they took strength, and in that moment all fear, all obstacles were wiped out, drowned. They stepped out of the mire of hesitation and irresolution and were free! Invincible!”

Joe Louis Discovers Dynamite concludes with the river receding, moving back into its channel, with the people in the streets “flowing back to the beer tavern, the poolroom, the café, the barbershop, the dingy flat.” Still, freedom imagined is freedom embraced. That evening Wright glimpsed the power of Louis, not only as a fighter but as a potential leveler of social norms, an inarticulate prophet to violent, revolutionary change.

The problem with weighing down Louis with the dreams of revenge and aspirations of the advancement of an entire race, of course, was the possibility that he might lose a fight. It happened on June 19, 1936, when the German Schmeling, another former champion, KO’ed him in 12 rounds. Louis’ physical pain that night was black America’s psychic agony. Singer Lena Horne was performing that evening in Cincinnati’s Moonlite Gardens with Noble Sissle’s band. Backstage, during breaks between sets, she listened to the fight. Schmeling had knocked down Louis in the fourth round, and continued to pummel him with right hands round after round. Men in the band were crying. Horne was nearly hysterical, she recalled in her autobiography. For her, Louis “carried so many of our hopes, maybe even dreams of vengeance.”

Horne’s performance suffered. Outraged, her mother said, “Why, you don’t even know the man.” “I don’t care, I don’t care,” Horne cried. “He belongs to all of us.”


Never did Louis belong to so many Americans, black and white, than on June 22, 1938, when he fought a rematch against Schmeling. By then, Hitler’s legions were jackbooting toward another war in Europe and Schmeling was the darling of the Nazi Party. Also that year, Harper & Brothers published Wright’s first book, Uncle Tom’s Children: Four Novellas. Like so many other Americans, the writer was pulled into the frenzy about the match. Dubbed “The Fight of the Century,” it was the major story from New York to Chicago to Los Angeles, and from London to Berlin to Tokyo.

Living in Brooklyn, New York, at the time, Wright agreed to cover the Yankee Stadium event for both the Daily Worker and New Masses. The writing assignment seemed natural. Not only had he published a superb piece on the Louis-Baer fight in New Masses and had worked for the Daily Worker, the Communist Party was actively promoting his career. “Our new comet,” the party hailed him. Uncle Tom’s Children was translated into Russian and praised in a review in Pravda. In England, a leftist publisher had asked Robeson to write the foreword for the British edition.

/> A general view of the fight between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, New York, on June 22, 1938. Louis won by a knockout in the first round.

The Ring Magazine/Getty Images

An overwhelming racial pride, rather than a class solidarity, distinguished Wright’s approach to the second Louis-Schmeling match. Many white reporters and columnists adopted the black boxer as a representative of American values — democracy, freedom, equality, fair play — doing battle against the racist ideology of Nazi Germany. Wright wanted none of it. Like Horne, he maintained that Louis belonged to the 12 million blacks in America.

Wright’s visit to Louis’ Pompton Lakes, New Jersey, training camp reinforced his feelings. There he discovered “throngs” of black fans “standing around for hours in a state of deep awe waiting for just one glimpse of the champion,” he reported in the Daily Worker. When Louis appeared, “a hush fell on them and they stared.” They knew, as Wright later noted in New Masses, that the Brown Bomber “symbolized the living refutation of the hatred spewed forth daily over the radios, in newspapers, in movies, and in books about their lives … [T]hey have watched a picture of themselves being painted as lazy, stupid, and diseased.” And how could they respond? “[S]o effectively and completely have they been isolated and restricted in vocation that they rarely have had the opportunity to participate in the meaningful processes of America’s national life. Jim Crowed in the army and navy, barred from many trades and professions, excluded from commerce and finance, relegated to menial positions in government, segregated residentially, denied the right of franchise for the most part; in short, forced to live a separate and impoverished life, they were glad for even the meager acceptance of their humanity implied in the championship of Joe Louis.”

Wright left no doubt that Nazi ideology was viler than the American reality, but he also insisted that “reactionary” elements in the United States and Great Britain preached the same racist creed as fascists in Germany, Italy, and Japan. Only among black people in America was the support for Louis universal. For them June 22, 1938, held a promise as sweet, in its own way, as emancipation. On that night, Louis promised to settle an old score and exact revenge for his 1936 loss to Schmeling. Wright knew that symbolically Louis’ revenge would be his race’s revenge.

World heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis (left) stands over challenger Max Schmeling, who is down for a count of three, as referee Arthur Donovan sends Louis to a neutral corner at Yankee Stadium in New York City on June 22, 1938. Louis retained his title in a technical knockout over Schmeling in 2:04 of the first round of their scheduled 15-round title bout.

AP Photo

The fight ended with explosive suddenness. Louis had predicted that he would finish Schmeling in two rounds. He did it in one. In a mid-round assault, he broke a vertebra in Schmeling’s back, pounded him with crushing rights, and left him looking, Wright wrote in the Daily Worker, like “a soft piece of molasses candy left out in the sun; he drooped over the ropes, his eyes glassy, his chin nestling in a strand of rope, his face blank and senseless and his widely-heralded powerful right arm hanging ironically useless.” As Wright observed, Louis’ “victory was complete, unquestionable, decisive; his blows must have jarred the marrow not only in [Schmeling’s] but in Hitler’s own bones.” Far from being a competitive contest, Louis’ triumph “was an act of revenge, of dominance, of complete mastery.”

The celebrations in Harlem, the communal finale to Louis victory, interested Wright as much as the actual contest. Using his familiar water metaphor, he wrote that the sight of 100,000 black people pouring into the streets was “like the Mississippi River overflowing at flood time.” Their happiness was inexpressible. “With their faces to the night sky, they filled their lungs with air and let out a scream of joy that seemed would never end, and a scream that came from untold reserves of strength.” Accompanying their primal shouts was a cacophony of beating on garbage pails, tin cans, pots, pans, washboards and wooden boxes. Torn scraps of newspapers snowed from upper story windows on long snake-lines of dancing Harlemites while horns blared, whistles shrieked, and sirens wailed.

The parties in Harlem and other black communities across America were political demonstrations. The racket they created was the sound of freedom long denied and deeply desired. The people in the streets “wanted to feel that their expanded feelings were not limited; that the earth was theirs as much as anyone else’s; that they did not have to live by proscription in one corner of it; that they could go where they wanted to and do what they wanted to, eat and live where they wanted to, like others.” That, Wright knew, was the true dynamite of Joe Louis.

Customers at a bar on 135th Street in Harlem raise a jubilant toast after world heavyweight champion Joe Louis’ first-round knockout of Max Schmeling in Yankee Stadium.

NY Daily News Archive/Getty Images

Former Georgetown basketball player turns passion into acclaimed documentary RaMell Ross takes unique look at black life in Oscar-nominated ‘Hale County This Morning, This Evening’

If you are inclined to put people in boxes, you should probably stop reading now.

Because RaMell Ross likely won’t fit in any of them.

Such is life for a Division I athlete turned professional European hooper, turned photography student and professor, turned Oscar-nominated filmmaker for his 2018 documentary Hale County This Morning, This Evening — the 36-year-old’s first movie, no less.

Ask Ross about inspiration and he’ll offer Allen Iverson “a guy I bowed down to, with deceptive speed and fluidity, like a bird flying amongst trees when he scores in the paint” alongside Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr and Tarr’s obscure, visually evocative 2011 film The Turin Horse.

If you watched Georgetown in the early 2000s — the golden days of Mike Sweetney, Jeff Green and Ruben Boumtje-Boumtje, and coaches Craig Esherick and John Thompson III — you could’ve caught a glimpse of Ross’ 6-foot-6-inch frame on the Hoyas’ bench, or scoring a garbage bucket against Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

A scene from ‘Hale County This Morning, This Evening’ which is set in Greensboro, Alabama.

RaMell Ross

Or perhaps you saw him ahead of the 2019 Academy Awards on The Daily Show promoting Hale County, with host Trevor Noah calling the film “truly beautiful” and “difficult to capture” while suggesting viewers might be asking, “Do I need to be high?” after watching a clip.

Drugs or not, you likely haven’t seen the film yet a current box-office total of roughly $100,000 suggests fewer than 10,000 folks have.

In a way, Hale County is a simple film: It primarily follows two protagonists, Daniel Collins (who played basketball for Selma University) and Quincy Bryant, and their respective lives and families; IMDB sums it up as “a kaleidoscopic and humanistic view of the Black community in Hale County, Alabama.”

The film is named Hale County because that is where both were raised. Greensboro, Alabama, the county seat of Hale County, is where they both lived during most of the filming.

Ross’ documentary is a 76-minute distillation of more than 1,300 hours of film, and seemingly about everything (from the humanist perspective) and nothing (from a traditional Hollywood vantage point).

It is a deeply visual, abstract and immersive experience, a collection of images, moments and life shot over five years in Alabama’s portion of the Black Belt, a fertile region in the South that was historically developed for cotton plantations.

Years into Ross’ journey making Hale County, Danny Glover and Joslyn Barnes, herself an institution in the socially conscious documentary and film world, came on board as producers.

But long before that, it was another “producer” that had an instructive role in the production and preproduction process both for the film, and in Ross’ life that shaped Hale County into what it would eventually become.

That would be the game of basketball.

“I can’t imagine I would have been able to do the film without my sports background,” Ross said.

Act I: A basketball dream

Ross was a late bloomer who only started playing hoops seriously at age 13. His career began to bloom his junior year at Lake Braddock Secondary School in Burke, Virginia. A scholarship offer came that same year, and a journey to play in A.I.’s wake at Georgetown followed.

So did Ross’ primal artistic instincts once he got to college, for better or worse.

“Coaches would always tell me to stop dribbling so much,” Ross said of his career. “To me, it wasn’t being fancy. It was like a bird fluttering in the wind, enjoying the free fall before grabbing the food, something more instinctually grace-oriented.

“One of my problems at Georgetown was that I was as much, if not more, interested in doing AND1 moves than I was in scoring. I realized later on I was more interested in the art of the sport, and less of the rest.

“But I also wanted to go to the NBA. It was the only career, the only dream that I had.”

Ross’ life as a Hoya got off to a rocky start after he broke his foot in the summer before his sophomore season — and broke the same foot yet again as the season was about to tip off, essentially dashing those NBA dreams entirely.

“I was ready to start, and it was a devastating realization that led to a deep depression,” he said. “I stayed in my room for two weeks and didn’t do anything. Because, what am I without basketball? What am I without the dream to go to the league?

“If I was on this Earth to go to the NBA, and it didn’t happen, what else am I missing about the world? And what else am I taking for granted about the natural order of things?”

The wheels of change started to turn, pushing him toward the arts but basketball wasn’t done with him yet, or vice versa.

Act II: A filmmaker’s beginnings

Two years after Georgetown, Ross found himself playing for Belfast Star of the Sea, eventually leading the Irish League in scoring.

His bonkers ESPN TrueHoop blog post from 2007 offers a “story from Mars” and a glimpse of the country’s chaos, which Ross experienced in full working as a regional photographer for PeacePlayers International, a community-building nongovernmental organization that brings basketball to war-torn regions, from Gaza to South Africa to Cyprus.

In 2007, one of Ross’ PeacePlayers co-workers, David Cullen, was awarded with the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at The ESPYS for using basketball to promote peace and understanding between Protestant and Catholic children amid Northern Ireland’s violent decades-long conflict.

ESPN sent a photographer to Belfast to take pictures of Cullen, and the photog happened to cross paths with Ross — a random moment that sparked something greater.

“He told me you have a really, really good eye,” Ross said. “It was the first time anyone complimented my work. And when I went back to D.C., I started freelancing right away.”

With that, Ross’ second off-the-court act began in concert. Days, weeks and months of shooting soon followed.

In 2009, he moved to Hale County to work at Selma University’s YouthBuild program as a career counselor and high school basketball coach. There, Ross’ NBA dream was seemingly nothing more than a memory. But the game remained, his basketball eye now focused behind a lens.

“This idea of being the point guard, surveying the floor and trying to make all of these decisions, in the context of all these different usages of times and bodies, it’s very much like using the camera,” Ross said. “I was using it as a tool, very much the way you’d use the basketball.

“You’re not thinking about the shot, you’re just looking. And it’s all tied to extreme patience.”

Act III: The imagery of ‘Hale County’

Patience, in some ways, is also required when viewing Hale County itself.

All of which makes the thought-provoking sportscentric imagery Ross weaved into the film more of a revelation.

The film loosely centers on Daniel and Quincy. Along the way, there are still shots, and tracking shots, and time-lapses, with every angle, perspective and point of view mixed in for good measure.

“That’s why there are so many different styles of shot: Every shot is literally responding to the moment,” Ross said. “Filmmakers often preconceive what they need to get: ‘I need a wide, I need a close, cut between these things.’ ”

Indeed, each moment of Hale County offers something unique from a stylistic, storytelling and sporting perspective.

There are shots that last only a few seconds, such as the breathtaking image of a decaying hoop against a starry night. Or the juxtaposition of water dripping on concrete, first falling off Daniel while dribbling a basketball, followed by raindrops hitting the ground from a storm in the same fashion.

There are shots that capture moments rich with subtext that last more than a few minutes too. Such as watching Quincy’s toddler son, Kyrie, running back and forth (and back and forth again) in their living room for what feels like an eternity.

Or Kyrie eventually getting his hair stuck on a little kid’s hoop in the same living room. Is there something Ross is suggesting, given that the viewer watches Kyrie struggle to get unstuck but doesn’t untangle his hair from the hoop, only for the film to move on to its next shot?

“Hell, yeah,” Ross said.

Or perhaps the film’s tensest and most memorable scene: a three-minute, wide-angle still shot of Selma University’s locker room, an entire team gathered around a couch, waiting to take the court and offering up possibly every emotion on the human spectrum.

“To me in that moment, it just required that,” Ross said. “ ‘Whoa, look at this. This is wide frame.’ And I just left it. But footage from other locker room scenes, it’s nothing like that.

“You’re meta in the moment. You’re not worried about certain things, because intuition says you’ve done it so many times. You’re functioning on a different level.”

Indeed, Hale County operates on its own level, especially as a sports documentary. Latent meaning or direct explanations behind Ross’ message are always many counties away.

“It’s complicated,” Ross coyly offered when discussion turned to the film’s portrayal of sports. See the film for yourself and draw your own conclusions.

Prologue: 1,000 shots, from beginning to end

Long before a random ESPN photographer unwittingly set off his artistic fuse, Ross credits his early days of practice — yes, we talkin’ bout practice — that cultivated an intensive filming process, something shooters of both types can learn from.

“Working out and thinking, all right, in one year, I’ll be able to do this,” Ross said of the basketball and filmmaking parallels. “The payoff is something that comes far down the line for individual discipline in the moment.

“That’s kind of how I saw the film: ‘I’m going to shoot for a week. Hopefully after the week, I’ll have one or two good shots. But I know that after a month, I’ll have six or seven, and then the next month, 14.’ It all adds up to something later down the line. It’s not about the moment; it’s just about discipline with the idea. This is what I’m doing.”

As a result, Ross’ future is full: He’s still living in Hale County when he’s not teaching photography at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. And he’ll also be traveling back to Durham, North Carolina, soon — this time trading out the early 2000’s Cameron Crazies for curating the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, which takes place there April 4-7.

But perhaps none of that would be possible without his first basketball blueprint, one Ross can trace all the way back to Lake Braddock and his freshman coach, Robert Barrow, a high school teammate of Grant Hill’s.

“He told me, ‘You’re going to work on your ballhandling for an hour a day with no rim in sight and do these extremely repetitive drills, building up your muscles,’ ” Ross said. “And you’re going to do this exactly, not deviating at all. Just doing this.

“In college, it was making 1,000 shots a day with my father. Then bring them all together. Devoting yourself. Practicing actual devotion and belief, that what you’re doing now is perhaps painful, and still finding the joy in it.”

In the wake of Ross’ devotion, joy and insistence on following his instincts across the country and world, Hale County, a film you most certainly cannot put into a box, was eventually born.

And thank God, we all have the game of basketball to thank for that.

HBO’s ‘Leaving Neverland’ never lets Michael Jackson steal the spotlight Two men who say Jackson molested them reveal how a star weaponized his own magnetism

Leaving Neverland knows you love Michael Jackson.

It lets you love him until, finally, it’s impossible.

HBO’s two-part, four-hour documentary, which first airs March 3 and 4, intentionally mimics the contours of the sexually exploitative relationships Jackson allegedly had with two of his victims, Jimmy Safechuck and Wade Robson.

It’s that ability — that compassion, and that patience — that ultimately makes Leaving Neverland so devastating. Its beginning lulls and seduces you. You’re humming along to the melodies of “Smooth Criminal,” smiling with Jackson as Safechuck is photographed jumping beside him after doing a Pepsi commercial with the King of Pop. You’re marveling along with Robson when he meets his idol at age 5 after winning a dance contest in Australia. You’re thrilled, thrilled, just like young Jimmy and young Wade, when they’re first invited to Neverland Ranch and stay up past their bedtimes to eat junk food and watch movies that aren’t even in theaters yet. How glorious it is to feel liked, to feel special, because one of the most liked, special people in the world sees something in you.

Leaving Neverland is not a character assassination of Jackson. It gives you permission to like him, to like his music, even to love him, because Robson and Safechuck did, and so did their families. It does not demand your immediate sympathy for Robson and Safechuck, nor does it demand immediate condemnation of Jackson.

It only trusts that you will listen.

“He was one of the kindest, loving, gentle, most caring people I knew,” Robson says, “… and he also sexually abused me.”

Jackson’s estate filed a lawsuit against HBO in hopes of stopping the network from airing Leaving Neverland. The suit claims that the cable network violated a non-disparagement clause in a contract it entered to air Jackson’s Dangerous concert in 1992.

Leaving Neverland, directed by Dan Reed, shows how to make a documentary about sexual abuse without allowing the star power of the celebrity in question to upstage his victims. Lesser directors would be tempted to home in on the lurid details of Jackson’s alleged sexual predation and repeat them for shock value. It is the sledgehammer approach to storytelling: Start with the most horrifying, salacious parts, insist repeatedly that the subject was unfathomably monstrous, and then roll credits.

Reed, on the other hand, places his viewers squarely in the mindset of both Safechuck and Robson. He demonstrates how they could be persuaded to lie repeatedly to their parents, to law enforcement officials, and even on the witness stand, to protect Jackson. Yes, Jackson manipulated his young victims by telling them that he and they would go to jail if anyone found out about their assignations. But Jackson didn’t need to resort to violent threats to get what he wanted. He simply withdrew his love, knowing that his young friends would continue to seek it and do whatever was necessary to remain in his good graces, because that is what children do.

Michael Jackson and Jimmy Safechuck (front).

HBO

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of the story is that, from a distance, it’s so easy to judge the mothers of Safechuck and Robson as fame-seeking fools who were blinded by celebrity. But Leaving Neverland illustrates how Jackson also endeared himself to the families of his victims. His ingratiating neediness convinced them that they, in some small way, had power over him because he loved them so much. Robson’s mother, Joy, explained that when Jackson died in 2009, she felt as though she’d lost a son.

“Everybody knows he didn’t have a childhood,” she says.

“It was like hanging out with someone your age,” Safechuck explains.

The big reveal of Leaving Neverland is not that Jackson allegedly molested children, or the details of the acts Safechuck and Robson accuse him of committing. It is the emotional time bombs that continued to detonate long after his relationships with Robson and Safechuck ended.

Robson and Safechuck, who did not know each other as children, experienced mirror images of each other’s traumas later in life, from problems with depression to waves of crushing anxiety that developed after their own children were born and they began to imagine their sons experiencing what they did with Jackson. It’s the rifts within the Safechuck and Robson families that distanced both Wade and Jimmy from their own mothers. The actions of one man had consequences that rippled through multiple generations of these two families. Leaving Neverland briefly asks us to consider the same for other victims who did come forward as children, only to be smeared as liars and money-grubbers.

Jackson didn’t need to resort to violent threats to get what he wanted. He simply withdrew his love.

Jackson’s response to being investigated for sexual abuse feels all too familiar. Just as he manipulated the Safechucks and the Robsons into seeing him as a victim in need of love and protection, Jackson did something similar with black people as a whole. Viewers will recognize a commonality with other famous black men accused of sexual assault, such as Bill Cosby and R. Kelly, who publicly fashion themselves as victims of their own success in a racist country seeking to take them down a peg. Jackson made his appeal in a speech at the 1994 NAACP Image Awards, where he equated his legal battles against accusations of child molestation with the organization’s fight for civil rights.

“For decades, the NAACP has stood at the forefront for equal justice under the law for all people in our land,” Jackson said before an enthusiastic crowd brought to their feet by his mere presence. “They have fought in the lunchrooms of the South, in the hallowed halls of the Supreme Court, and in the boardrooms of corporate America for justice, equality and the very dignity of all mankind. Members of the NAACP have been jailed and even killed in the noble pursuit of those ideals upon which our country was founded.

“None of these goals is more meaningful for me at this time in my life than the notion that everyone is presumed to be innocent. Everyone is presumed to be innocent and totally innocent until they are charged with a crime and then convicted by a jury of their peers. I never really took the time to understand the importance of that ideal until now. Until I became the victim of false allegations and the willingness of others to believe and exploit the worst before they have had the chance to hear the truth. Because not only am I presumed to be innocent, I am innocent. And I know that the truth will be my salvation.”

Jackson is magnetic. He is radiant. He is a consummate performer, and he revels in his command of the crowd.

“We love you, Michael!” an audience member shouts.

“I love you more,” he responds, beaming.

Leaving Neverland does not blame Jackson’s fans for the love and faith they poured into him for decades. It simply exposes that as much as Jackson might have needed it, that love was never going to be reciprocated. Perhaps it couldn’t be.

“People think his music’s great, so he’s great,” Safechuck said.

Leaving Neverland doesn’t explain or excuse how Jackson became the man he did. There are interviews with Oprah Winfrey and Ed Bradley and Martin Bashir and plenty of others that attempt to do that. Instead, Leaving Neverland redirects the spotlight in the hope that its audience, like Safechuck and Robson, will finally see the truth.

Alice Marie Johnson’s family appreciates Kim Kardashian’s efforts to bring her home Her son and daughter-in-law share her compelling story of mercy and hope

Alice Marie Johnson was sentenced to life in prison in 1997 after a conviction on eight criminal counts for a first-time, non-violent drug offense. Her son, Charles Johnson, remembers that time like it was yesterday.

“I was coming home from college and the court date was postponed to the next day,” Charles Johnson said. “On that day, they didn’t want the family to go, so she and her boyfriend at the time just went. A couple of hours passed and he just came home and told us that they kept her. And they found her guilty, and it was the day before my birthday, my 20th birthday.”

The guilty verdict from a jury trial changed the course of life for Johnson, the mother of four, grandmother and great-grandmother. She has spent more than two decades in prison, with several failed attempts to be granted clemency.

In December 2016, President Barack Obama granted clemency to 231 prisoners, but Johnson was not on the list.

“I think that was more of an up-and-down,” Charles Johnson said. “Every time you’d see another list come out, you’d look at it just to see if her name’s on it, and it’s not. To me, I think I was more worried about her, because it was such an up-and-down thing for her to get really happy and really depressed every time a list came out.”

Johnson’s story caught the attention of Kim Kardashian West, who went to the White House on Wednesday, Johnson’s 63rd birthday, to meet with President Donald Trump about prison reform and a pardon for the minister, writer and mentor.

Kardashian West reportedly heard of the story when a video of Johnson was posted on Mic’s Twitter account. “Life offered me no opportunity for parole because there is not parole in the prison system,” Johnson said in the video.

In a letter obtained by TMZ, Johnson thanked Kardashian West for her support.

“There are no words strong enough to express my deep and heartfelt gratitude,” Johnson wrote. “Ms. Kardashian, you are quite literally helping to save my life and restore me to my family. I was drowning and you have thrown me a life jacket, and given me hope that this life jacket I’m serving may one day be taken off.”

“It’s amazing that Kim Kardashian even looked at this and decided that this is something that she wanted to take hold of. It’s crazy,” said Shontoria Johnson, Charles Johnson’ wife. “This is all a part, I guess, of the war on drugs, epidemics that have hurt our communities for a while.”

For Charles and Shontoria Johnson, memories aren’t enough. The newlyweds, who’d known each other for a little more than 18 years, are waiting for the day when Johnson can come home to her family and pursue her dream of helping others in her shoes.

“I think it’s so scary to think that she might die in jail and never be able to really be with her grandkids,” Charles Johnson said. “They’d never get to see how super or great she is in person, just over Skype or over a phone call. When she left, Justin was maybe a year-and-a-half. She really loved having Justin around and keeping him. I may have changed his diaper twice when he was a little kid. She wouldn’t ever let me. She was like, ‘You don’t know what you’re doing.’ She’s very giving, so she’s always been a very giving person. Always was the life-of-the-party kind of thing, dancing and embarrassing me in front of everybody. She didn’t care. She just liked having fun.”

According to Shontoria Johnson, Johnson is anxious, nervous and hopeful.

“She feels like this the furthest that we’ve ever got, and she’s just very excited at this point. We’ve gone through a lot of this together, this family, and it was very difficult going through the ups and downs and highs and lows of hoping for the best and being let down at some points, but we’re very hopeful at this point.”

Johnson’s daughter Tretessa Johnson started a petition for clemency on Change.org that has more than 260,000 signatures to date.

“My family’s life changed forever when my she was sentenced to life in federal prison,” Tretessa Johnson wrote. “She was one of thousands of first time, nonviolent offenders who were given long mandatory prison terms. She had lost her job and became a telephone mule passing messages between her coconspirators.”

In December 2016, Johnson explained how she got involved with a Memphis, Tennessee-based cocaine trafficking operation in a piece for CNN.com. She said she needed a way to make ends meet during a difficult time in her life. According to Mic, she couldn’t secure employment after losing her job at FedEx, where she had worked for 10 years, due to a gambling addiction; she got divorced, and had just recently lost her youngest son to a motorcycle accident.

“No mother should have to bury her child,” Johnson wrote. “This weight was unbelievable, and it was a burden I couldn’t sustain. I made some very poor decisions out of desperation … I acknowledge that I have done wrong. I made the biggest mistake of my life to make ends meet and got involved with people selling drugs. This was a road I never dreamed of venturing down. I became what is called a telephone mule, passing messages between the distributors and sellers. I participated in a drug conspiracy, and I was wrong.”

Charles Johnson wasn’t aware of any of his mother’s illegal activity.

“I had no idea at all, to be honest,” he said. “Even after the court stuff, I don’t even think I even learned exactly what she was convicted of for a few years, because I just didn’t want to know. It didn’t matter if she wasn’t around. I think most of the time when we even talk, we don’t even talk about the court case. We talk about other stuff, family or kids or whatever.

“When she was arrested, I just figured she’ll get an appeal and be out in a week. I just keep thinking that over and over until we lost the house. Then it was OK a year. OK next year. Then I thought, ‘Why isn’t she out yet?’ I was in shock and didn’t want to face it. Then when they moved her to California, it was real. She isn’t coming back. Anger and depression is probably the best way to say it. She was so hopeful that I had to be as well.”

The hardest part for Charles Johnson is not being able to see his mother interact with her grandchildren.

“Even my youngest son, Chris, I think he’s anxious to see her,” he said. “He’s done the Skyping, so he really wants to meet her. Just having her around, being a grandmother to everybody. I think that’s the biggest thing. Also just catching up and taking her out and actually being able to do something for her birthday for a change except just singing ‘Happy Birthday.’ ”

“We’re a blended family,” Shontoria Johnson said. “We need the opportunity to be able to connect with her. He’s met her via Skype and talked to her about school and things of that nature. She’s definitely welcomed him, and he’s taken to her too. She’s a person that you fall in love with immediately.

“I watched Charles go through all those emotions, and I had to support Charles through those emotions and also with speaking with Mama Alice on Skype, I could see her emotions as well, and at some point, it seemed like she had pushed back from everything. It was an interesting time. It was disheartening,” she said.

“I think right now, I guess I can say I’m more ‘I’ll believe it when I see it’ kind of thing,” Charles Johnson said. “It’s like I’m hopeful, but until she’s actually in the car driving here, I don’t know how I really feel. At this point, at least we know the president actually knows who she is and what’s going on with her, so this is the closest I can say she’s ever really came to it.”

While in prison, Johnson has been writing and performing plays on most of the holidays. She’s also a minister.

“She’s really trying to help and mentor a lot of people in there be better when they come out, if they get out, or just while they’re in there, just become better people as a whole,” Charles Johnson said.

“I think she uses that as an outlet to connect with people that she wouldn’t normally connect with, to help them be a better person, to mentor them, and to be, like I said, the great personal mother that she is,” Shontoria Johnson said.

Thunder’s Josh Huestis knew when it was time to talk ‘It’s OK to not be OK. Talk to somebody.’

On Feb. 1, 2017, Oklahoma City Thunder forward Josh Huestis began sharing his innermost thoughts with the world. He started his blog, Through the Lens and began writing about an array of topics – life, growing up in Montana, the last game of his college career, marriage and depression. Inspired by Kevin Durant and DeMar DeRozan, who recently revealed their struggles with anxiety and depression, the 26-year-old decided to share his story. A solid basketball career at Stanford University led him to the spotlight. He was drafted 29th in the first round of the 2014 NBA draft by the Oklahoma City Thunder. Out of the 69 games Huestis played this season, he started in 10.

Huestis talked to The Undefeated about his balancing act, marriage, basketball and his own mental wellness.


My mom is a psychotherapist, so I always was pretty well-educated and understood mental health and its impact on people. Then I studied psychology in college because of the fact that I wanted to follow in her footsteps. Mental health – one of the things I dealt with in my life, I wanted to learn more about that.

Over the last few months, mental illness has become less stigmatized with Kevin Love and DeMar [DeRozan] coming out and talking about their struggles. I just thought it was important to add to that. It is changing into a positive direction – the exposure is.

For most of my life I’ve had certain issues. The earliest memories I have when it became more of an issue for me was probably like my freshman or my sophomore year in high school. I just remember I became obsessed with trying to understand what the point and what the meaning of life was, like an existential search. I remember multiple times a week going to bookstores, trying to find books that could help me understand what the point of life was. I just felt kind of lost and empty, like everything I was doing didn’t have a whole lot of meaning. So I was trying to find answers from 15 years old.

My bouts with depression used to be heavy. As I’ve gotten older and I’ve talked to people, they’ve gotten more mild.

My first couple of years in the NBA as well as my years in college, they got very heavy and took me to some low lows. It became really tough. There were many times where I questioned myself. Many times I can remember when I really didn’t want to continue and the idea of giving up crossed my mind on definitely more than one occasion.

I think a major issue that I have and a lot of professional athletes and a lot of people have is that my whole life I have been categorized as basketball player and that has been how I identified my self-worth. My self-worth has been wrapped up in my existence as an athlete, as a basketball player. There have been so many times that my struggles on the basketball court caused it be a lot harder. I’m sure a lot of players can agree that after a bad game you walk off the court and your self-worth just drops dramatically and it’s not a healthy thing because everybody has bad games. I was kind of on this wild up-and-down thing where I played well and I loved myself and I felt great and when I played badly I hated myself and I felt worthless and I wanted to give up.

For the past few years I was bad at combating those feelings. I would internalize. I wouldn’t talk to anybody. I’m not naturally someone who is good at talking about my feelings and my struggles because I didn’t want pity and I didn’t want to be judged by people or people to feel sorry for me. That’s the last thing that I wanted. But as I got older and I’ve seen more people dealing with it, I recognize that a lot of people do deal with it and it’s OK to talk about it.

I got married in August and having my wife [Haley] to talk to every day and someone who is with me every day, someone who loves me regardless if I never play another game in the NBA. I work with a psychologist, someone who I can talk to about basketball and about life and helps me deal with the perspectives and helps me deal with the ups and downs that go with this depression.

I think in communities of color there is this idea that you handle things in-house. Whatever you deal with, you deal with yourself. You just get it done – the independence. You don’t ask for help with things like that. You handle them within yourself. You don’t bother others with it. You just put your nose to the grindstone mentality and you just get it figured out on your own. I think that’s a major problem. I think everybody needs help. And I think with myself and high-profile guys talking about it helps. On the outside looking in, you see these guys having everything they could ever want. They have money in excess and they still struggle. You see someone like that ask for help, then it’s OK for the rest of us to ask for help too. I think it goes even to another level when you talk about men. For instance, there is this whole thing about “be a man” or “man up” mentality. I think men are just taught to internalize and don’t ask for help and to always be tough and always be OK. That needs to be changed. That needs to be fixed.

I want to become more familiar because it could be beneficial to myself and beneficial to others. I think that’s a huge thing. Within the Thunder organization, they make sure we have what we need as far as mental support.

The hardest part is job security. Now that I’ve gotten married, I’ve got family that I want to support. A goal of mine is to always be able to provide for them and give to them and give them everything they need, so that adds an extra layer of stress because I don’t want to lose the ability to do that and having basketball as a method to make money is great and the best job in the world. It’s the stress of the chance of losing that. That stress has been tough and if we work our whole lives to get to this level and the idea of it coming to end or if we feel we’re losing a grip on things can feel like failure or you’re letting your family or your hometown people down. For me that’s been the hardest thing. Carrying the weights of expectations from others and the weights of being able to provide for my family.

I started my blog because I just got to the point where I wanted to open up and be real about my life – not only the good in it, but the struggles. I recognize that there’s a lot of people out there struggling with stuff and there are a lot of people going through things where they feel like it’s not OK and you can’t talk to anybody about it. I wanted to show that someone in my position, a lot of people may look at me and think I’m enjoying my life, I’m making a lot of money and I’m living my dream in what millions and millions people want to be a part of, but I still have that struggle. I wanted to shed light to show everyone has struggles and you’re not alone.

Exposure and just removing the stigma of mental illness is a huge step that needs to be taken and I think once we do that, it’s going to help so many people.

The first thing I would say to others if they ever seek my advice is there is nothing wrong with you. There is nothing wrong you. It’s OK to not be OK. Talk to somebody. Open up. Find someone you trust that you can talk to. Just verbalizing what’s on your mind can help so much. Don’t try internalize it, because that makes it worse.

How to think about Clair Huxtable after Bill Cosby’s conviction On Mother’s Day, re-examining a character who once personified Ideal Black Motherhood

Here’s a question for this #MeToo moment: What exactly are we supposed to do with great female characters who sprang from the minds of awful men?

Specifically, what are we to do with Clair Huxtable?

Some feminist writers once argued to let her die. Hold a funeral, say, “Happy Mother’s Day” one last time, bury her and move on.

But now it would appear we’re going to need a lot more shovels, because Clair Huxtable is only one of many female characters created in part by ostensibly progressive men who have serious Woman Problems. There’s Pamela, the mother of Louis C.K.’s children from Louie. There’s Jasmine, the interesting, irritating, tragic lead of Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine. There’s Beatrix Kiddo of Kill Bill and Viola de Lesseps of Shakespeare in Love, women we maybe wouldn’t have met were it not for Harvey Weinstein and Miramax.

Is it even possible to enjoy these women anymore without the nausea that comes from knowing that we’re contributing to a residual that’s getting direct-deposited into the bank accounts of their sleazy progenitors?

The #MeToo era has put everything up for the burdensome task of re-evaluation. It’s one thing to smugly say you always knew Junot Díaz had screwed-up attitudes toward women, because all you had to do was read his work. It’s another to say you divined the same from watching Clair.

After all, Clair used to occupy a different space entirely. When she first arrived in 1984, there was a limited spectrum of black on-screen mothers. Even now, she exists alongside Mary from Precious, Annie Johnson from Imitation of Life, Florida Evans from Good Times, Harriet Winslow from Family Matters, Dee Mitchell from Moesha, Nikki Parker from The Parkers, Rainbow Johnson from black-ish, Van from Atlanta, Cookie Lyon from Empire and many a black woman who wasn’t just mother to her own children but also Mammy to someone else’s white ones.

All of this is one massive, foggy, uncomfortable gray area.

Next to them, she seemed suspended in untouchable perfection, a Damien Hirst installation of Ideal Black Motherhood.

Here was a woman with five children, a full-time job as a lawyer and an almost endless reserve of patience, kindness, wit and radiant energy, along with a healthy sex drive. And she was gorgeous and stylish too.


Part of what was special about Clair Huxtable was that she offered so singular and so rare a portrait of black women, and she was universally enjoyed and celebrated. For a generation of black people, she was The Prototype. Clair made it possible for our racially segregated country to see a black woman and not later be astounded that someone like Michelle Obama could exist.

But we also have to acknowledge that Clair benefited from a false sort of specialness. Scarcity is what makes these conversations of what to do with The Cosby Show and how to think about Clair after Cosby’s conviction so fraught.

The only way to ameliorate that anxiety is to keep pumping more interesting black women and mothers into the cultural atmosphere. It’s only in recent years that black on-screen mothers have occupied some middle area between the perfection of Clair and the monstrosity of Mary from Precious. That’s why images of Rainbow’s postpartum depression and Van harvesting her daughter’s urine to pass a drug test take on heightened value: They provide human, flawed contrasts to Clair’s effortless and perpetual role modeling.

Of course, both Van and Rainbow were created by men as well. If anything, what happened with Cosby has taught us to embrace our skepticism, to be leery of heralding any one artist as some sort of racial savior.


All of this is one massive, foggy, uncomfortable gray area. Actors have a significant hand in shaping their characters and making them memorable. At least part of the mental calculus that allows us to still enjoy these characters is that we could see the actresses behind them as victims of a sort. (Both Gwyneth Paltrow, who portrayed de Lesseps in Shakespeare in Love, and Uma Thurman, the martial arts assassin behind Kill Bill’s Kiddo, came forward with allegations against Weinstein.)

But even that doesn’t work with Clair. After all, no matter how much Phylicia Rashad poured into Clair, she’s also the person who dismissed Cosby’s victims as pawns in a game of tearing down an important black cultural legacy.

Rather than remaining quiet, Rashad went the Cate Blanchett route, defending Clair’s creator when the tide had turned against him. “Forget these women,” Rashad told Showbiz 411’s Roger Friedman about Cosby’s accusers in 2015. “What you’re seeing is the destruction of a legacy. And I think it’s orchestrated. I don’t know why or who’s doing it, but it’s the legacy. And it’s a legacy that is so important to the culture.”

Hell, maybe we don’t want to give Rashad that residuals direct deposit either.

But there were so many things to admire about Clair. We’d like to think that if she lived in the real world and knew what Bill Cosby was doing, she’d condemn him too. After all, one of the most popular clips of her on the internet is one that’s remembered as “Clair’s feminist rant.”

Before we had the black women writers of Feministing and the Crunk Feminist Collective, we had Clair. Before we had Beyoncé standing on a stage at the MTV Awards with the word “FEMINIST” behind her, before we had Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Melissa Harris-Perry, we had Clair. Before we had Michelle Obama telling a convention full of women that fathers don’t babysit their own children, we had Clair. She was a rare pop culture representation of a black feminist, someone who brought gender theory out of the ivory tower and into everyday life, with everyday words.

Clair was the woman who kindly but firmly informed her daughter’s boyfriend that she does not exist to “serve” Dr. Huxtable. Clair was the woman who said, “That … is what marriage is made of. It is give and take, 50-50. And if you don’t get it together and drop these macho attitudes, you are never gonna have anybody bringing you anything anywhere anyplace anytime EV-AH.”

And then there’s Rashad, the person who said “forget those women.” Rashad later said she was “misquoted.” But even when she clarified her comments, Rashad did something that was extremely common before the #MeToo movement gained steam last year. She weighed the cultural impact of one man and made it more important than the harm he’d done to any one woman. And for most of human history, that’s been the status quo.

We’re finally acknowledging how screwed up it is to make one man too big to fail. When women come forward, we’re starting to see them as human beings just as deserving of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as the talented men who harmed them. Finally, maybe just a little bit, women are becoming people.

And perhaps we can appreciate Clair Huxtable for helping us get there, even as we turn our attention to new battles we can only hope she’d support.

‘Next Man or Woman Up’ syndrome puts too much pressure on some athletes DeMar DeRozan, Brandon Marshall and Chamique Holdsclaw have talked about mental health issues affecting their lives

We’re in a big moment for sports fanatics. Last week, the NFL hosted its annual draft, where teams were on the hunt for the next Russell Wilson or Ezekiel Elliott.

Everyone wants to win. As coach Herm Edwards famously said, “You play to win the game.” Winning games brings success. And success brings money. But in a culture where winning comes before everything else, how much does it cost black players to lose?

Almost every competitor in professional sports is familiar with the concept of the “Next Man Up.” The idea is that a player must always be ready to play his best because when he can’t play his best, the next man is up. And the “next man” knows that if he performs at a high level, he could secure his position long term.

For example, Dak Prescott took over for injured quarterback Tony Romo in 2016 and has remained the Dallas Cowboys’ starting quarterback ever since.

As a licensed couples and family therapist who specializes in working with relationship issues, men and professional athletes, I’ve worked with clients of all backgrounds. At the same time, my work with black athletes has allowed me to hear their struggles of balancing playing at a high level to keep their career going while maintaining their mental health.

One of my clients, a former player, shared, “I got injured, lost my spot, and even after rehab, I wasn’t as fast as I used to be. They cut me, and eventually I felt my only option was to retire.”

This led him to struggle with life after football, difficulties in his relationship and disconnection from his children. According to the Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, African-Americans are 20 percent more likely than the general population to experience serious mental health problems, including depression and anxiety.

The message the industry sends black athletes is clear: “Don’t lose a step, don’t get injured, don’t admit weakness (physical or mental) because if you do, someone is waiting to take your spot.” As stated above, many athletes experience constant worry about maintaining their starting position. This is the embodiment of anxiety, which is defined by “feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes.”

“There are at least two to three other guys on the team that play my position,” one of my clients said. “After I got injured, I was benched and my name came up frequently in trade rumors.”

He was depressed and needed help but couldn’t allow himself to trust me until almost a year of therapy. About 25 percent of African-Americans seek mental health care, compared with 40 percent of whites, mainly due to stigma, shame, distrust, misdiagnosis and socioeconomic concerns.

The pressure to remain a starter has many implications, including loss of the position, career, money, family and more. The impact of such significant losses can create depression for many players, and they have for clients in my field for decades.

In the sporting world, unreported depression and anxiety are rampant. And “Next Man Up” syndrome feeds into the issue. Don’t be misled to think this is just for male sports leagues — this issue carries across all sports for all genders. Chamique Holdsclaw, a former WNBA All-Star and Olympic gold medalist, shared her personal experience and family history of mental illness with ESPN. “I wasn’t honest about needing help. I was just going through the motions, trying to keep stuff together. … The mental health component of sports is missing.”

Next Man or Woman Up syndrome benefits one player while potentially prompting a mental health crisis for another. The importance of mental health and how it impacts everyday life has been undervalued for far too long.

In the past few years, black athletes have fought through the stigma to share their stories, struggles and successes with their mental health. In one tweet, DeMar DeRozan of the Toronto Raptors declared to the world, “This depression get the best of me …” DeRozan went on to say in an interview that his anxiety and depression, “it gets the best of you, where times everything in the whole world’s on top of you.”

Brandon Marshall, a wide receiver who was recently released from the New York Giants, has shared numerous times about his experience with borderline personality disorder. “Man, if you would have asked me eight years ago what does mental health mean to me, I would have said mental toughness,” he told USA Today.

“As football players, we are taught to never show weakness, to never give an opponent an edge. To open up when something hurts, in our culture, is deviant. But when you really sit down and think about it, connecting with those emotions is the real strength.”

Not every athlete hoping to maintain a roster spot struggles with a mental illness. But if we don’t work harder to remove the stigma of talking about and treating mental illness, it will continue to be difficult to discern which athletes need treatment to continue playing at a high level.

The time has come to stop devaluing the importance and necessity of mental health education and treatment in the professional sports world and beyond, because what we see in the public from celebrities, athletes and entertainers highlights what many others are experiencing daily.

DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Love appear in PSA encouraging people to seek help for mental health issues Both players have been public about their struggles

When DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Love let the world know about their mental health struggles earlier this year, they sparked a national conversation.

On the eve of Mental Health Awareness Month, the NBA released a public service announcement featuring Love and DeRozan encouraging people to ask for help. It also launched a website where fans can learn about mental health and resiliency and access a variety of resources.

“Everyone walks around with something that you can’t see. The best thing that I did was to come out and say, ‘Hey, look, I need some help,’ ” Love said.

“Never be ashamed of wanting to be a better you, period,” said DeRozan.

The PSA debuts Tuesday night on TNT and will run on ABC, ESPN and NBA TV throughout the playoffs. It is part of a leaguewide effort to offer free training for league and team employees and new mental wellness programming for thousands of youths through Jr. NBA and NBA FIT. The NBA will also host events to help communities view emotional well-being as equally important as physical wellness.

DeRozan revealed during this year’s All-Star Weekend that he’s had bouts of depression. He also posted this tweet with lyrics from the song “Tomorrow” by Kevin Gates:

Love opened up about the panic attack he suffered during a Nov. 5 game in an article in The Players’ Tribune in March.