Believe the hype: Sun guard Courtney Williams feeds off dad’s energy Don Williams is a constant presence at WNBA games and in his daughter’s life

Maybe you’ve seen Don Williams at WNBA games.

He’s the man grooving to whatever music the DJ is playing and recruiting other WNBA parents to do the same. He’s the unofficial mascot hyping the crowd from his courtside seat and, at times, an impromptu coach when his team is in a rut.

Most importantly, he’s the proud father of Connecticut Sun guard Courtney Williams, who has averaged 18.5 points per game during this playoff run. Whenever she scores, he holds an oversize cutout bearing his daughter’s face high above his head for all the crowd to see.

Don Williams, the father of Connecticut Sun guard Courtney Williams, holds up an oversize cutout bearing his daughter’s likeness as he celebrates during Game 2 of the 2019 WNBA semifinals against the Los Angeles Sparks on Sept. 19 at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut.

“He has definitely been this way always at all my games, doing the same thing,” Courtney Williams said. “But I love it. I feed off his energy when he’s over there clowning and jumping around and having a good time, then just telling me what I need to do and how I need to do it. It definitely keeps me going while I’m playing.”

Even after the Sun lost 94-81 to the Washington Mystics in Game 3 of the WNBA Finals to go down 2-1 in the series, Don and Courtney’s mother Michele were both in attendance to let their daughter know to keep her head up. That there’s another game to focus on, and they’ll be at that one too.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

Kobe breaks down the play of Sun guard Williams

Kobe Bryant analyzes the performance of Connecticut Sun floor general, Courtney Williams, during Game 3 of the WNBA Finals. Watch the full episode of “Detail” on ESPN+.

For Williams, her father’s energetic spirit and extra antics on the sidelines are nothing new. In the Williams household, that was just Dad being Dad.

It was something that always kept Williams going as she developed her passion for basketball, which started at an early age while she played with other kids in her mother’s recreational league. When Courtney was around 7 years old, her father noticed that her skills were above average. Participating in a league where boys and girls played against each other, Courtney was already beating the boys.

“She’d just dribble that ball,” he said. “Nobody could stop her from scoring. I said, ‘Uh-oh! I got me one!’ ”

From there, Williams spent more time learning the game and falling deeper in love with the sport.

“[Basketball] was our recreational sport,” Don Williams said. “And we ran all the time. We’d run, run, run. I knew the skills were going to come because she had all the genes. Me and her mama had skills. I had no doubt about that. I just had to program her confidence.

“Early on I just thought, What am I going to put inside her head. [My kids] love and respect Daddy. Whatever Daddy says, it’s what it is. So I needed to put in her head that she’s the baddest, she’s the best. Can’t nobody beat her at nothing. Whatever it was, track or basketball, she always had it locked in her head that can’t nobody mess with her or beat her.”

That piece of advice stuck.

“When I was younger, he said, ‘Always be cocky, but be able to back it up,’ ” Williams said. “He told me that when I was little. ‘Don’t let people fool you and tell you that being cocky is a bad thing. Just as long as you back it up, you can do what you want to.’ ”

It was an attitude Williams would carry throughout her career at Charlton County High School in Georgia, where she once scored 42 points in a single game, breaking the school record her mother had set 22 years beforehand. The skills also transferred to her collegiate career at the University of South Florida, where Williams became the only player in USF’s history to compile 2,000 points (2,304), 900 rebounds (931) and 300 assists (318).

When Williams returned home during breaks and holidays, though, Don Williams continued to challenge his daughter. Only this time, Williams was better, faster, stronger.

“We had about a 4-mile run around the neighborhood and I would outrun everybody,” Don Williams said. “I told [Courtney], when she beat me in that run, then she’d be ready. The last time we did it, her second year of college, she made me look bad. That’s when I knew she was ready.”

In 2016, Williams was selected eighth overall in the WNBA draft by the Phoenix Mercury before being traded to the Sun two months later. She remains the highest WNBA draft pick in USF program history.

Williams has been making waves with her energy during her four seasons in the league. The 25-year-old was the second-leading scorer on the Sun this season, averaging 13.2 points per game. She also averaged 5.6 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game.

Connecticut Sun guard Courtney Williams (center) uses a towel from her father, Don (right), after being hit in the mouth during Game 2 of the 2019 WNBA semifinals against the Los Angeles Sparks. The Sun swept the Sparks to advance to the WNBA Finals against the Washington Mystics.

Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

On Tuesday night, the Sun will face the Mystics with their season on the line, but they can count on Don Williams grooving to some beats, waving a giant cutout high above his head and giving his daughter the confidence she needs.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

“I know there are a lot of people who don’t have their fathers in their lives,” Williams said, “but I’m blessed to have him and my mom both very present.”

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

Serena Williams has never been average.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Serena Williams in action on a tennis court in 1992.

Ken Levine/Getty Images

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

Ken Levine/Getty Images

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

Ken Levine/Getty Images

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

JOHN G. MABANGLO/AFP/Getty Images

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

Jon Buckle/EMPICS/Getty Images

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

Gary M Prior/Getty Images

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

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

James White for ESPN

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

AP Photo/Seth Wenig

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

TONY KARUMBA/AFP/Getty Images

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

AP Photo/David Goldman

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

AP Photo/Diego Corredor

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

Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images

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

Valery Sharifulin/TASS/Getty Images

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

AP Photo/Gareth Fuller

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

AP Photo/Chuck Burton

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

Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images

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

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

ANGELA WEISS/AFP/Getty Images

OWN’s ‘David Makes Man’ melds surrealism with the everyday oddities of Florida A new drama from ‘Moonlight’ scribe Tarell Alvin McCraney remixes poverty, danger and adolescence with a setting that seasons it all with a little strange

A new OWN drama from the playwright behind Moonlight and Choir Boy has the potential to grow into a compelling work of television — once it develops some consistency.

David Makes Man, which premieres Aug. 14 at 10 p.m. EDT on OWN, stars Akili McDowell as David, a 14-year-old middle schooler from the projects who plays guardian to his precocious 9-year-old brother when their mother, Gloria (Alana Arenas), is too weary to be roused. Every morning, David gets Jonathan Greg, or JG (Cayden Williams), out the door to school, then sprints to catch a bus to a predominantly white magnet school across town. He and his mother have high hopes that David can earn entrance into an exclusive prep school called Hurston.

Akili McDowell as David (left) meets with his teacher, Dr. Woods-Trap, played by Phylicia Rashad (right), in David Makes Man.

Rod Millington/Warner Bros Entertainment

There are plenty of unconventional supporting characters, from a drug dealer named Sky (Isaiah Johnson), who urges David to do right with a never-ending supply of riddles and poetry, to Mx. Elijah (Travis Coles), a kindly, shade-throwing drag queen who lives next door, to David’s best friend Seren (Nathaniel McIntyre), a mixed-race, middle-class kid who to David appears to have it made. David’s teacher (Phylicia Rashad) and counselor (Ruben Santiago-Hudson) provide a combination of tough love and constancy in his life.

The OWN drama faces a challenge in marrying the demands of serialized television with an impressionistic style more common in film.

This is the first time McCraney has brought his meditative style to television. He’s working with Dee Harris-Lawrence (Shots Fired, Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and The Notorious B.I.G.), who serves as showrunner. OWN labels David Makes Man, co-produced by Oprah Winfrey and Michael B. Jordan, a “lyrical drama,” but the results are mixed. Themes from McCraney’s previous work, such as poverty, adolescence and dubious mentors, show up in David Makes Man. A chorus of purples and blues punctuates the visual style of director Michael Francis Williams. But the South Florida setting is what keeps David Makes Man from turning into a collection of clichés about a poor black kid growing up in the projects with a single mom who’s a recovering addict.

Watching the characters of David Makes Man can sometimes feel like a visit to Bon Temps, the fictional setting for True Blood, minus the vampires and werewolves and with significantly more black people. The OWN drama faces a challenge in marrying the demands of serialized television with an impressionistic style more common in film. Its pilot is immersive, focused more on viewer experience than plot. For instance, a needed clarification about where the show and David’s life will go comes in the final minutes of the first episode.

Akili McDowell’s character, David, is a 14-year-old middle schooler from the projects who plays guardian to his precocious 9-year-old brother.

Rod Millington/Warner Bros Entertainment

The search for balance between styles is evident in subsequent episodes, as the surrealism of ghosts, internal voices and flashbacks creeps into the daily drama of David’s life in The Ville, a housing project officially known as Homestead Gardens. Not unlike the cheery purple of the motel in The Florida Project, the apartments of The Ville are coated in a candy cane pink stucco that’s frequently at odds with the realities of life for most of its residents. As if he doesn’t have enough to contend with, David is also trying to stay out of the clutches of Raynan (Ade Chike Torbert), a menacing teenage dealer who is bent on conscripting David into serving him and his boss, Raynan’s fearsome uncle.

A scene at the house of Seren’s white mother and black stepfather veers into soap opera territory, and so does a confrontation between David’s mother and father. That’s not unusual for OWN’s other prestige dramas, Greenleaf and Queen Sugar, but it feels out of place in a show that’s set its ambitions rather high. That’s especially true given the abuse that Seren appears to be enduring from both parents.

Still, David Makes Man grows more comfortable and confident in itself by episode five. With engaging performances from Arenas, Coles, Johnson and especially McDowell, who colors David with a potent mix of sweetness and anxiety, it’s ripe to blossom into something special. When Gloria joins Mx. Elijah to dress up as Janelle Monáe, she comes alive for a momentary spark of joy in a show that’s often characterized by the heaviness of lack — lack of food, lack of money, lack of safety — and the tension that comes with the possibility of violence.

It’s intriguing to see a variety of shows find different ways to wrestle with the strangeness that emanates from Florida. There’s Claws, starring Niecy Nash, which recently concluded its second season, and the upcoming On Becoming a God in Central Florida, a dark comedy premiering on Showtime later this month that follows a woman trying to exact revenge on the pyramid scheme that bankrupted her family. Claws and On Becoming a God offer more levity than David Makes Man, but they’re all panels of a patchwork quilt making sense of Florida. It’s the only thing, really, that can explain the presence of a group of tough but amiable trans sex workers who help David get home one night, like he’s Dorothy in a modern-day Oz.

That balance of earnestness and oddities could make for compelling television, so long as its makers keep tweaking.

Oprah and ‘Moonlight’s’ McCraney on the inspiration of Toni Morrison New OWN series ‘David Makes Man’ strives to carry on her legacy 

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — After the news spread Tuesday that famed author Toni Morrison had died, Oprah Winfrey and Oscar-winning writer Tarell Alvin McCraney were scheduled to meet with a small group of journalists to discuss their new series David Makes Man, which debuts on OWN next week.

Before they dived into the drama, which focuses on an academically gifted black boy who must balance a challenging home life with the world’s expectations, they reflected on the brilliance of Morrison.

“What she represented for me is this idea that where we’ve come from and everything that came before us lives in each of us in such a way that we have a responsibility to carry it forward,” said Winfrey, who starred in the 1998 film adaptation of Morrison’s Beloved.

“I remember one of my first conversations with her — and I don’t remember what the question was — but she said, ‘I’ve always known I was gallant.’ The word gallant. Her assuredness about the way she could tell stories, and her ability to use the language to affect us all, is what I loved about her.”

Oprah Winfrey (left) and Tarell Alvin McCraney (right) attend the after-party for OWN’s David Makes Man premiere at NeueHouse Hollywood in Los Angeles on Aug. 6.

Photo by Rachel Luna/Getty Images

McCraney, too, was powerfully influenced by Morrison’s language and stories.

“I was in grad school … and was the assistant of Mr. August Wilson. … The Bluest Eye production that we did in Chicago … toured around the country,” McCraney said, fighting back tears. “It was very difficult for me to think that my job was to follow in those folks’ footsteps. So rather, I sort of thought, I’m reaping the benefits. Does that make sense? Rather than trying to repeat or to try to forge anything like them, I would take what they gave and sort of try to expand it, or not even expand but just filter it through me.

“When I read Tar Baby, it was one of those moments where I was like, ‘I know this Southern boy. Ooh, I know him so bad.’ I know wanting after a person so wonderfully, and then to sort of turn around and see Florida life in that way that I hadn’t seen since Zora Neale Hurston … I thought to myself: Well, that’s what I’ll do. I will engage, I will reach into my pocket of my corner of the world and show it as best I can.

“And so I’m grateful for that legacy. I’m terrified of it in ways that you would of your grandparents, of your aunts, your uncles, your mother and your father. You want to be noble, you want to stand up in front of it. But you also know that in order to truly do it, you have to bare yourself, flaws and all. There is no way to really be a part of that legacy, to really add to it, unless you show your full self, and that means the warts and all. And that’s the terrifying part of it.”

David Makes Man is the first TV project from McCraney, who won the Academy Award for best adapted screenplay for 2016’s Moonlight. Winfrey said the pitch for the show was the strongest she’d ever heard. She said she was emotional hearing it and fought back tears because she feared it’d be unprofessional.

McCraney’s storytelling is reminiscent of Morrison’s work, she said. The series, which also is produced by Michael B. Jordan, tells a story of black boys that we rarely see.

“I knew that if he was able to do just a portion of what the pitch represented that we would have something that would be in its own way a phenomenon,” Winfrey said. “Most of the stories I’ve read growing up were always about black girls, beginning with [Maya Angelou’s] Caged Bird. I’m always looking at coming-of-age black girl stories.

“So sitting in the room with Tarell was the first time I thought, Wow, I really don’t know very much about black boys, nor have I ever actually thought very much about black boys. … So I thought that the series in the way that he pitched and presented it would offer the rest of the world an opportunity to see inside a world that we rarely get to see.”

“I remember one of my first conversations with her — and I don’t remember what the question was — but she said, ‘I’ve always known I was gallant.’ ” – Oprah Winfrey

This new series is in the line of projects that Winfrey is most interested in bringing to her network, she said. Like Ava DuVernay’s Queen Sugar, this is yet another layered, rich story about black life.

“I’m looking for people to see themselves, because I think that’s where the ultimate validation comes from. One of the lessons that The Oprah Show taught me, one of actually the greatest lessons that The Oprah Show taught me, is that everybody has a story, and that everyone in every experience of their life is just looking to be heard, and that what they really want to know is, do you see me? Do you hear me? And does what I say mean anything to you?

“And so, having this audience of predominantly African American women who supported me and came to the network in droves, I just want to offer stories that allow them to see themselves and every facet of their lives. I want to continue to do more of that with artists and creators who inspire me, and thereby inspiring the rest of our community to see themselves in a way that lifts them up and that is meaningful.

“I don’t want to create anything that wastes people’s time. I’m not looking for Pollyanna stories. I’m looking for stories that say, ‘This is what life is, and this is how it is, and this is how you get through it.’ “

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

Well, look who’s appropriating now.

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

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

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

Photo by Rodin Eckenroth/WireImage

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Photo by Mickey Bernal/Getty Images

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

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

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

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

Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images for BET

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

And can’t nobody tell them nothin’ …

Colson Whitehead’s ‘Underground Railroad’ led him to Jim Crow Florida His new novel, ‘The Nickel Boys,’ is based on a real reform school notorious for its brutality

Elwood and Turner, the adolescent protagonists of Colson Whitehead’s new novel, The Nickel Boys, become fast friends at a brutal, segregated reform school in Jim Crow-era Florida, but they are opposites. Elwood is bookish, optimistic and gullible. While working in a hotel kitchen before being sent to the Nickel Academy, Elwood gets duped into dishwashing “competitions,” ending up doing the work of his older, wised-up peers. At home, he listens again and again to a Martin Luther King Jr. oration — “containing all that the Negro had been and all that he would be” — and after the Brown v. Board of Education decision he waits expectantly, and in vain, for a black man to enter the hotel’s whites-only dining room and sit down for a meal.

Turner is already at Nickel when Elwood arrives, so he knows how the world works. Turner, Whitehead writes, “was always simultaneously at home in whatever scene he found himself and also seemed like he shouldn’t have been there; inside and above at the same time; a part and apart. Like a tree trunk that falls upon a creek — it doesn’t belong and then it’s never not been there, generating its own ripples in the larger current.”

Colson Whitehead says he sees himself in the two protagonists, Elwood and Turner, in his book “The Nickel Boys.”

Penguin Random House

Whitehead, who is 49, says he sees himself in both boys. We were having lunch at a diner on New York’s Upper West Side, where the author spent his high school years. He recently moved back to the neighborhood after 18 years in Brooklyn. “It’s really boring and the food’s terrible, but we don’t go out much and my wife’s parents live here,” he said.

The idea for the novel came in 2014, after Whitehead came across news reports about the discovery of numerous unmarked graves at Florida’s Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, which serves as the model for the Nickel Academy. Throughout its 111-year history, Dozier, which shut down in 2011, was known for brutality: beatings, rapes and, yes, murder. Dozier was segregated, but there was one building, “The White House,” where both black boys and white boys would be taken for beatings and worse.

When he first read these accounts, Whitehead was writing The Underground Railroad, which was published in 2016 to wide acclaim. It has since won both the Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award, and it is being adapted into an Amazon series by Barry Jenkins. The novel follows an enslaved woman’s escape from antebellum Georgia. It’s a haunting, brutal, hallucinatory journey set against the backdrop of several fantastical conceits, including the central one: What if the Underground Railroad were, in fact, a real subterranean railroad?

“Usually I do a serious book and a more jokey book,” Whitehead told me. “The Nickel Boys was a departure because I had just finished Underground.” He was planning to write a detective novel, but current events intervened.

“It was the spring of 2017 and Trump was trying to get his Muslim ban, and I was angry and discouraged by the rhetoric you’d see at his rallies,” Whitehead said. “I hadn’t written anything for a year and a half, and it was time to get back to work. I could do the detective novel or The Nickel Boys. I thought that with the optimistic figure of Elwood and the more cynical character of Turner I could draw on my own confusion about where we were going as a country.”

Unlike with The Underground Railroad, for which Whitehead drew upon stories from former slaves collected by the New Deal-funded Federal Writers’ Project and other historical accounts, there are living survivors of Dozier.

“It was a horrible place,” said Jerry Cooper, president of The Official White House Boys Association, an alumni group of sorts for the abused. Cooper, who is white, said, “We didn’t have interaction with the black boys, aside from maybe when we saw them bringing produce to the cafeteria. They were in one area of the campus, and the whites were another. And if the guards caught you interacting, you’d be sent to the White House — no matter your color.”

Cooper, who was at Dozer in 1961, told me African Americans may have had it worse overall because their work detail involved toiling in fields under the burning Florida sun. “But there wasn’t any difference in the beatings,” he said.

Cooper recalled a 2 a.m. trip to the White House, where he was placed facedown on a mattress and given 135 lashes with a 3-foot leather strap. “I passed out at around 70, but a boy waiting outside for his punishment kept count,” he said. “I still have the scars. That night I realized what it must have been like to have been a slave.”


But neither Cooper nor his ancestors were slaves. Many of Whitehead’s ancestors were.

His mother’s side of the family hailed from Virginia. Her father was named Colson, as was another enslaved forebear, “who bought himself out of slavery,” Whitehead said. His father’s side of the family was rooted in Georgia and Florida — “there’s an ancestor on that side from whom I got the name Turner” — while his paternal grandmother emigrated from Barbados through Ellis Island in the 1920s.

“Usually I do a serious book and a more jokey book. ‘The Nickel Boys’ was a departure because I had just finished ‘Underground.’” — Colson Whitehead

“A lot of my family history is lost to slavery,” Whitehead said. “And some that’s out there, I didn’t know at the time of writing Underground.” After it was published, some of his cousins reached out to chide him. “They’d say, ‘Didn’t you know about this, and this and this, about our history?’ ”

Whitehead grew up in Manhattan to upper-middle-class parents and spent his summers at the family vacation home in an African American enclave of Sag Harbor, New York. “The first generation came from Harlem, Brownstone Brooklyn, inland Jersey islands of the black community,” writes Whitehead in his fourth book, Sag Harbor (2009), a semiautobiographical novel that captures a nerdy, carefree adolescence. “They were doctors, lawyers, city workers, teachers by the dozen. Undertakers. Respectable professions of need, after Jim Crow’s logic: White doctors won’t lay a hand on us, we have to heal ourselves; white people won’t throw dirt in our graves, we must bury ourselves.”

Whitehead’s mother’s family owned three funeral homes in New Jersey, and his parents owned an executive recruiting firm. His mother and father became the parents of two daughters, then Colson and a younger brother. On paper, it was a Cosby Show existence. But as Whitehead recently told Time: “My dad was a bit of a drinker, had a temper. His personality was sort of the weather in the house.” (There are two sad examples of such temper in Sag Harbor, including one in which the father repeatedly punches young Benji, the protagonist, in the face as an ill-conceived demonstration of standing up to racial taunting.)

Colson (right) grew up in Manhattan in the 1970s with his brother Clarke Whitehead (left) and their two sisters.

Courtesy Colson Whitehead

After attending private schools in New York City, Whitehead went to Harvard. Growing up, he had immersed himself in comic books and horror films. “I wanted to write horror, science fiction and comic books,” he said. “A lot of writers my age had similar influences,” he added, citing Michael Chabon, Junot Diaz and Jonathan Lethem. “Then, in late high school and college, I started to think, Maybe I don’t have to write about werewolves.”

He was approached by another young African American writer at Harvard, Kevin Young, who is now an accomplished poet, the poetry editor at The New Yorker and director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. “I was working with a friend on reviving a black magazine from the 1970s, Diaspora, and she had met Cole and said he could be our new fiction editor,” Young said. “We hit it off instantly, and I published his first story.”

After college, Whitehead worked for five years at The Village Voice, eventually becoming the television critic. It was there he met writer-photographer Natasha Stovall, whom he married in 2000. (They later divorced.) He wrote a novel, but it was turned down by publishers and his agent dropped him.

“I was depressed,” Whitehead said. “But I wasn’t going to get a real job, and no one was going to write my books for me, so I understood I needed to get going. That’s really when I became a writer.”

His second effort, The Intuitionist, was published in 1999 and is set in a simulacrum of fedora-era New York, where there’s a war brewing within the city’s powerful Department of Elevator Inspectors. The protagonist, Lila Mae Watson, the first black female inspector in the department, is tasked with investigating a mysterious elevator crash. The book was well-received, including comparisons to debut efforts by Joseph Heller and Toni Morrison.

In 2001, Whitehead published John Henry Days, a multilayered, encyclopedic narrative thematically tied to the legend of John Henry, the railroad laborer who is said to have bested a steam-powered drilling machine. The following year he won the MacArthur Foundation “genius” award. Other novels (Apex Hides the Hurt, Sag Harbor, Zone One), a historical exploration of his city (The Colossus of New York) and even a poker memoir (The Noble Hustle, spun off from a Grantland article), followed. But it was The Underground Railroad (with a boost from Oprah’s Book Club) that launched Whitehead into literary stardom.

“It’s been remarkable to see Cole’s journey both in terms of his writing and as a person,” said writer and publisher Richard Nash, whom Whitehead met at Harvard and to whom The Nickel Boys is dedicated. “I remember going to one of his readings for his first book, The Intuitionist, at a bookstore in Soho. His hands were shaking, he was so nervous. And now I fully expect in a few years you’ll see his name crop up on the betting lists for the Nobel Prize.

“Especially with the last two books, it’s clear that’s where he’s headed.”

Whitehead has his critics. In a stinging review of John Henry Days, The New Republic’s James Wood (now at The New Yorker) pointed out instances of sloppy writing, such as using “deviant” for “divergent” and “discreet” when the intended meaning was “discrete.” Wood went on to note that Whitehead “tends to excessively anthropomorphize his inanimate objects” to “squeeze as much metaphor from them as he can.” Whitehead returned the favor a few years later when he satirized Wood in a Harper’s Magazine essay.

But Whitehead’s style has evolved, and his writing has become more precise. In The Nickel Boys, the anthropomorphization is sparing and powerful, as when he describes the shackles employed on defenseless boys who were beaten to death: “Most of those who know the stories of the rings in the trees are dead by now. The iron is still there. Rusty. Deep in the heartwood. Testifying to anyone who cares to listen.”


After our lunch, Whitehead said he was considering making chili for his family — his wife, literary agent Julie Barer, 13-year-old daughter, Madeline, and 5-year-old son, Beckett. “It’s hot, but there’s something about chili, it’s so hearty and satisfying,” he said. Cooking is a passion, and he’s been perfecting his meat smoking skills at his new vacation home in East Hampton.

Colson Whitehead’s book, “The Underground Railroad,” launched him into literary stardom when it was published in 2016.

Timothy Smith for The Undefeated

When he was writing The Nickel Boys, Whitehead said, he was struck by the parallels between the 1960s and today in terms of race relations. As a father myself, I was curious about how he broached the subject of race with his own children.

“It comes up more when we talk about police,” he said. “[My son is] really into cops and robbers. So when we’re walking around and he sees a police car with its sirens blaring, he’ll say, ‘They’re going to catch a robber.’ And I’ll say, ‘Maybe it’s an innocent man. Maybe it’s just a dark-skinned guy driving a nice car.’ ”

Whitehead couldn’t remember when his daughter first became aware of race — when she discovered that, to borrow a phrase from one Nobel Prize-winning writer, the world is what it is.

“That was a long time ago, and I can’t recall a particular moment,” Whitehead said. “But the thing is, everyone figures it out sometime.”

Food for thought: Chef Todd Richards says soul food is the equal of haute cuisine He’s working with Ludacris and just won a major Cookbook of the Year award

Chef Todd Richards is on a mission, both inside and outside the kitchen, to ensure that soul food is appreciated as exquisite cuisine.

“Soul food will always be the greatest part of American cuisine,” Richards said. “But we’ll go to someone else’s culture, eat their food and make no complaints. Culturally, we can no longer do that. Our food is the most vibrant part of what we have to do. It’s up to us to command respect for our food.”

The self-taught chef’s debut cookbook/memoir, Soul: A Chef’s Culinary Evolution in 150 Recipes, was recently named American Cookbook of the Year by the International Association of Culinary Professionals.

Richards is the culinary director of Jackmont Hospitality, the company that oversees two restaurants at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport: Chicken + Beer, owned by Grammy-winning rapper Ludacris and named after his 2003 album, and One Flew South, which bills itself as the first “upscale” establishment at the world’s busiest airport.

Eric Vitale

“I wanted to make sure our stories are being told to inspire different generations coming forward,” said Richards, 47. “You have a cuisine that is the backbone to American culture, but you don’t find it in every single neighborhood in every part of the country.”

Richards is the culinary director of Jackmont Hospitality, the company that oversees two restaurants at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport: Chicken+Beer, owned by Grammy-winning rapper Ludacris and named after his 2003 album, and One Flew South, which bills itself as the first “upscale” establishment at the world’s busiest airport.

“To have an album like Chicken-n-Beer that’s inspirational, generational, and also represents Atlanta gives me great inspiration to go in there and cook the best food because I’m not only representing myself,” Richards said. “I’m representing one of the most successful artists in the world while representing a city that is the mecca of culture. Everyone comes here to understand black culture.”

The two-time James Beard Award semifinalist for best chef: Southeast also oversees Richards’ Southern Fried, a restaurant located east of downtown in Krog Street Market. There, he fuses soul food with other global cuisines via items such as collard green pho, hot chicken macaroni and cheese, and a chicken sandwich topped with pimento cheese and chow chow.

“I talk to us, black people, first because if we’re not proud of our food, then none of this makes any sense. I can’t expect someone to be proud of our food if we’re not proud of it ourselves.” — Todd Richards

The Atlanta-Journal Constitution’s reviewer praised Richards’ Southern Fried as “very delicious, beautifully brined, crispy-skinned and obsession worthy.” Garden & Gun said Richards’ staple offering is “the best hot chicken in Atlanta.”

Richards sees no difference between preparing soul food and fine dining. He prefers to marinate his meats over a span of days. Time and patience, he says, are essential for preparing quality dishes and matching them with comparable price points. Black-owned restaurants, he adds, should never be frugal when selecting food items.

“It changes the narrative of what black food is,” he said. “It’s a technical-driven food that should not be considered as cheap. Why shouldn’t it have the same ransom as duck confit? If you think about technique, they’re absolutely the same.”

Richards moved to Atlanta from Chicago in 1993 and landed a job as a butcher at a Kroger grocery store. He later became a line cook at Blue Ribbon Grill, where he was introduced to his mentor, Four Seasons Hotel executive chef Darryl Evans. Richards did stints at The Ritz-Carlton hotel chain and helped the Oakroom at the Seelbach Hilton restaurant in Louisville, Kentucky, earn a AAA Five Diamond Award.

Richards then worked at a number of restaurants in the Atlanta area. A contestant on Food Network’s fifth season of Iron Chef America, he says that each job in a restaurant contributes to its long-term success.

“People think being a dishwasher is the worst job in the restaurant,” Richards said. “It’s actually the most important job. They’re in charge of cleanliness and sanitation. If I don’t have a clean pot to cook in or plate to put it on, then the restaurant doesn’t function. What they do is not menial labor.”

Cedric McCroery, the chef de cuisine at One Flew South, said Richards inspired him to look at cooking as a form of storytelling. “Sometimes the story is obvious,” McCroery said via Facebook. “Sometimes it’s meant to be realized in combination of flavor, taste and presentation. That lesson inspired me to refocus.”

Richards’ cookbook/memoir, “Soul: A Chef’s Culinary Evolution in 150 Recipes,” was recently named American Cookbook of the Year by the International Association of Culinary Professionals.

Richards’ next project is to revamp Anderson’s Old Fashion Bar-B-Q in southwest Atlanta’s Florida Heights community. The effort is rooted in his relationship with his deceased father, who taught him how to prepare barbecue. He is also aiming to reinvigorate black food culture in a community with limited meal options beyond fast food.

“Fine dining is in my brain, but barbecue is in my soul,” he said. “Legacy is probably one of the most important things. Everybody wants it. Every culture has something in every single neighborhood except for us.

“I talk to us, black people, first because if we’re not proud of our food, then none of this makes any sense. I can’t expect someone to be proud of our food if we’re not proud of it ourselves. We cannot make our food cheap. We are people that have had the harshest conditions to grow some things, but it’s the most delicious food.”

Richards refers to his work inside and outside the kitchen as “black excellence” and believes it’s his duty at this stage of his career to empower the next generation of culinary professionals from marginalized communities.

Joshua Lee, Chicken+Beer’s executive chef, attests to Richards’ mentorship. “I really admire his work ethic and his drive to push others,” he said via Facebook. “He’s very dedicated to bringing light to soul food cuisine, very hands-on, and clear-cut when it comes to assuring that everyone understands his vision.”

“Who’s coming after me?” Richards said. “It’s easy for me to show up, but the Joshua Lees and Cedric McCroerys of the world are working with me and following me. I get to affect the minds of a lot more people, take young people and find out what’s really great about them.

“They got it after this. They have to go out and make their own legacies so that the traditions that we forged in this country can continue.”

Another hidden figure: Clyde Foster brought color to NASA Over three decades, he recruited hundreds of African Americans into the space program

Clyde Foster came of age in Alabama in the 1950s, a place and time so oppressive for African Americans that a former Nazi rocket scientist stood out as a figure of racial moderation.

Foster’s father worked at a Birmingham iron foundry, where the dirtiest, most backbreaking jobs were reserved for African Americans. Every day he would come home dog-tired, prompting his son to vow that he would earn a living using his mind, not his back. By itself, that was an audacious plan for a black man living in Alabama.

But Foster did much more than just find himself a desk job. He became a pioneering figure in the U.S. space program. Over nearly 30 years working for NASA, beginning in the agency’s earliest days, his mathematical calculations helped propel rockets into space. His focused determination helped establish a computer science program at what is now Alabama A&M University, making the historically black institution the first public college in Alabama to offer the major. And his quiet and relentless advocacy brought hundreds of African Americans into space industry jobs in the Deep South, helping to shift perceptions of black people in ways both subtle and profound.

A page from a brochure for the Computer Science Center at Alabama A&M. Clyde Foster (on right) started the center.

Alabama A&M

Beyond all that, Foster also became a small-town political leader whose influence was felt throughout Alabama. He led the effort to restore the long-forgotten charter of Triana, a once-dying black enclave of fewer than 100 families outside Huntsville. Foster served as Triana’s mayor for two decades, and his work became a model for other tiny, mostly black towns in Alabama that took control of their political lives.

“There is no other African American NASA employee who did more to get jobs for black people, to get advancement for black people and to get young people working at NASA. No one did more than Clyde Foster,” said Richard Paul, co-author of We Could Not Fail, a book about the first African Americans who worked in the space program. “On top of that, you have his entire political career, which is also groundbreaking. The man’s accomplishments are absolutely heroic.”

Foster, who was 86 when he died in 2017, was no doubt a hero, but one who most people outside Alabama had never heard of. By all accounts, he never protested, picketed or sat in. Yet he improved many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of black lives in a state where the law sanctioned blatant and often violent efforts to discount them.

“He just loved people. He wanted people to have a chance,” his widow, Dorothy Foster, 84, said in an interview. “He just wanted to help everybody. He was not the kind of activist you read about. He felt he could help blacks more by getting them employment than by getting out there and marching in the street.”

Foster was born in Birmingham in 1931, the sixth of 12 children. He went to the city’s public schools, which were segregated, as was every other public institution and accommodation in town.

“There were two sets of everything, one for the colored and one for the white,” Foster said in a 2008 interview with Paul for a radio documentary called Race and the Space Race. “Signs were posted on water fountains, restrooms.” Police harassment was a constant threat. “Whenever they would see a group of black kids assembled together, there was always some reason to go after them.”

A 1942 photograph of the Foster family: Back row, from left: Betty Foster (Berry), James Foster, James’s wife Elizabeth Foster, Clyde Foster, Dorothy Foster (Sweatt), Otis Foster, Ann Foster (Sweatt), Fred Foster. Front row, from left: David Foster, Katie Foster (Rodgers), Clyde’s father, James Foster, Clyde’s mother, Effie Foster, Geraldine Foster (Franklin), Eddie Foster.

Courtesy of Foster Family

Foster thought the best way to insulate himself from the many perils of being black in Alabama was through education. He had always been a good student, and he ended up going to Alabama A&M in Huntsville, where he majored in chemistry and mathematics. At the time, he had his eye on a teaching career.

While still in college, Foster crossed paths with Wernher von Braun, the Nazi scientist behind the V-2 rocket. Built with concentration camp slave labor, the V-2 was the world’s first long-range guided ballistic missile, and the Nazis used it to rain death on the Allies during World War II. Von Braun later came to the United States with a group of about 125 German scientists, engineers and technicians who had been captured by American soldiers. Rather than prosecute them, U.S. authorities enlisted the German scientists to develop missiles, and later spacecraft, for America.

Much of that work, the backbone of the nation’s space program, was located in the Deep South, and it began at a time when harsh segregation reigned. NASA rockets were developed under von Braun in northern Alabama, tested in rural Mississippi, manufactured in Louisiana, launched from Cape Canaveral in central Florida and monitored from Houston.

With this new mission, von Braun was quickly transformed from a warrior for the supposed Aryan master race into an advocate for science education so he could build a skilled workforce to support the space program. Perhaps not fully understanding racial dynamics in his new home, he came to all-black Alabama A&M early on for help. Von Braun wrote a script about his plans for the space program in Alabama, including the then-fanciful dream of flying men to the moon, and he asked Foster and several of his classmates to read it during an assembly at an all-white high school. It was never clear why von Braun chose to have black A&M students deliver his message to white students, and Foster later told interviewers the assembly was a flop. But the unusual encounter introduced Foster to a wondrous new industry that would eventually change his life.

Foster graduated from A&M in 1954 and was drafted into the Army, where he spent two years. He and Dorothy had met and married while in college, and when Foster came back to Alabama after completing his military commitment, he got a job teaching high school science near Selma in the central part of the state. Dorothy had remained in her hometown of Triana, and she wanted him to move back. After a year, he did.

“I told Clyde that I was going to call the Army Ballistic Missile Agency and set up an appointment for a job interview, and ‘You’re going,’ ” Dorothy recalled with a laugh. “And he did.”

Foster is seen here in the Army. He landed a job as a mathematician technician with the Army Ballistic Missile Agency in 1957.

Courtesy of Foster Family

Foster landed a job as a mathematician technician with the Army Ballistic Missile Agency in 1957. The agency, headed by von Braun, was located at the Redstone Arsenal, a military installation in Huntsville that would later house NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.

Foster was hired as part of a large team of people who crunched the numbers generated by gauges inside missiles and rocket engines during test flights. Their analysis allowed engineers to calculate wind resistance, the thrust of a rocket and its proper trajectory. NASA was formed a year after Foster started, and in 1960 he went to work for the new space agency.

Foster saw a bright future for himself at NASA. Working for the federal government was about as good as it got for a black man in Alabama. The pay was decent, and racial discrimination was illegal on federal property. Also, with the Kennedy administration pressing NASA to integrate the thousands of new jobs created by the space race, von Braun emerged as an advocate for integration. The New York Times once called him “one of the most outspoken spokesmen for racial moderation in the South.” Von Braun himself said the space age would belong to “those who can shed the shackles of the past.”

Outside the gates of Marshall, however, Alabama was still Alabama.

George Wallace, who had lost the 1958 governor’s race in part because he was perceived as insufficiently harsh when it came to race, took office as governor in 1963. In his inaugural address, he famously vowed, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” The next year, Wallace tried to back up his words by standing in the doorway of an auditorium at the University of Alabama in what was ultimately a vain attempt to prevent two black students from enrolling.

Foster and the handful of other African Americans among the thousands of employees at Marshall were inevitably harmed by that racism. Employees looking to move up had to take training classes, but many of those classes were off-limits to blacks because they were held off base at hotels and other segregated public facilities. Foster once took a telemetry course in Atlanta, but he had to stay at what he called a “fly-by-night” hotel miles from the training center. Still, he told interviewers, he never missed a session.

A few years after he started at NASA, Foster was angered by a supervisor’s request to train a white co-worker to be his boss. He refused the request and then complained to higher-ranking NASA officials about the situation black workers faced. He demanded training programs that black workers could readily take advantage of. Soon a deal was struck: NASA would hold separate training sessions for black workers at Alabama A&M, often importing instructors from out of town. It was an odd compromise: segregated training classes when the country was moving to root out segregation. But it was the best Foster could do. More than 100 black employees eventually took advantage of the separate-but-equal NASA training, which would prove to be the foundation of Foster’s legacy at NASA.

Born in Birmingham, Alabama on November 21, 1931, Foster graduated from Parker High School in Birmingham in 1950 and received a Bachelor of Science degree in Mathematics and Chemistry from Alabama A&M College in 1954.

NASA/MSFC

“I would say his most significant contribution to NASA directly would be the training program,” said Steven Moss, the other co-author of We Could Not Fail. “He made it so black workers did not have to jump through all the hoops that others before them did. Then, later, he helped so many people get jobs. As I talked to people at other NASA facilities in the Deep South, you can kind of see the family tree. They would trace who they work for, or who helped them, and it always came back to Clyde Foster.”

Even though Foster did not work in personnel, NASA would tap him to travel to colleges around the country to recruit African Americans trained in science or engineering to come work at Marshall. It was not easy for NASA to attract skilled white employees to Alabama, given the state’s horrible reputation for racial violence. It was even harder for Foster to attract black workers.

“I would tell [recruits] Huntsville was really not as bad … as the image George Wallace was given,” Foster said in a 1990 interview for a NASA oral history. “I told them, ‘Now, if you really wanted the challenge, good discipline, the space program has it for you.’ ”

The black scientists, engineers and technicians who did join NASA found Foster to be a willing mentor, no matter whether he had recruited them.

James Jennings was a math major at A&M when he met Foster, who was a regular presence at his alma mater in the mid-1960s. At the time, Jennings was about 20, and he looked up to Foster, who was in his mid-30s. Jennings took some computer classes that ignited his interest in working in the space program, which in those days represented the pinnacle of technological innovation. Jennings began as a co-op student at NASA and ended up spending almost four decades at the agency. He said Foster was a mentor nearly every step of the way.

Foster credited his experience at NASA for giving him the confidence and know-how to conquer the many challenges he confronted.

Photo by Don Rutledge courtesy of Lucy Rutledge.

“When I went to NASA, that was my first introduction into a predominantly white organization,” Jennings recalled in an interview. “I was kind of excited and apprehensive at the same time. I really didn’t know how our education would hold up, but it did not take me very long to understand that my education was on par or better than many of the white students who worked there.”

One thing that helped, he said, was Foster’s constant support. “He took me under his wing. He used to call everybody ‘Horse.’ He told me, ‘Horse, if you keep your nose clean and do your job, you could go far in this organization.’ ”

Jennings proved Foster correct, as he ended up working at NASA’s Washington headquarters in the government’s highest civil service rank before his retirement in 2005.

“Clyde always was encouraging and looked to give me opportunities for visibility,” Jennings said. “If your work is not visible to others, it is easy for your supervisor not to promote you. Clyde knew that, and he was always encouraging us to volunteer for committees and special projects.”

In an effort to create a pipeline of black workers into NASA, Foster persuaded von Braun to allow him to set up a computer science program at A&M. NASA provided grants to help get the program going, although at first Foster struggled to persuade A&M officials that it was worthwhile.

Founded in the wake of the Civil War, A&M had always focused on training students for jobs that black people could get in Jim Crow Alabama: teaching, nursing, farming and certain kinds of engineering. When Foster talked about building a computer science program to train students to send rockets to the moon, the skepticism was palpable.

“Black administrators were not interested, and they did not pursue this money because the program was there for them to develop other kinds of programs,” Foster said in the 2008 interview. “The most that we had was electronic, or electrical and mechanical engineering. [We had] civil engineering — we had to build some damn roads — but we [were] talking about building a pathway to space.”

Eventually, Foster won over the A&M officials. NASA paid Foster’s salary for two years while he worked to establish the program, which went online in 1969.

The cover of a brochure for the Computer Science Center at was then called Alabama A&M College. Foster started the bachelor’s degree program in computer science.

Alabama A&M

“Everything he did, I think he realized he was making a difference,” Jennings said of Foster. “But he was not the kind of person looking to take credit for it.”

In the late 1970s, Foster took a job in NASA’s Equal Employment Opportunity Office, which got him away from the technical heart of the agency but gave him more leverage to help black people get a leg up.

“I thought I could make an even greater contribution to increase the workforce to a more integrated workforce,” Foster said in the 1990 interview. Foster was director of Marshall’s EEO office when he retired from NASA in 1987.

His advocacy did not stop at work. Foster served on Alabama’s Commission on Higher Education, to which he was first appointed by Wallace in 1974. That was besides his groundbreaking work as the mayor of Triana. His work to re-establish the town’s charter cleared the way for Triana to receive federal grants for a series of major upgrades, including building the town’s first water system, installing its first streetlights, paving its gravel streets and renovating the town hall, which previously had been a coal-heated shack.

Following Foster’s example, about a dozen African American towns were able to reincorporate and, in some cases, make similarly dramatic improvements. The new political control also allowed a generation of black mayors, police chiefs, sheriffs and other local officials to gain experience in office.

Decades later, Foster led the legal fight against a chemical company that had poisoned the town’s waterways with DDT, resulting in a $24 million settlement for Triana residents.

Foster credited his experience at NASA for giving him the confidence and know-how to conquer the many challenges he confronted.

“If I hadn’t had these experiences early in life to cross over into these areas: political, education, business,” he said. “All of that was done because of the experience I had with NASA.”

This article is being published in collaboration with American Experience/WGBH as part of its series “Chasing the Moon,” which examines the scientific, political and personal dramas behind the space race on the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing. PBS will broadcast a film across three nights starting at 9 p.m. EDT/8 p.m. CDT on July 8. Short digital films, articles, timelines and comics, including pieces on the first African American to be trained as an astronaut, the desegregation of Huntsville, and the Poor People’s Campaign protest at the Kennedy Space Center, can be found here.

The ESPYS Collection Portraits of past and present stars set the stage for this year’s awards show, July 10 at 9 p.m. ET


On this football team, keep your eye out for the trash-talking mom Former Ohio State player leads his family to a flag football championship

Lamaar Thomas has been a football star since he first put on pads as a little boy. Even then, the 65-pound running back dreamed of making it to the NFL. By high school, his star was blazing.

He was the Maryland state champion in the 55- and 100-meter dashes, was an All-American wide receiver and got 31 Division I scholarship offers.

After two years at Ohio State, he transferred to the University of New Mexico, where a coach promised more playing time. While there, he set a school record in the 60 meters and won a conference championship in the 100.

Elwanda Thomas (right), Lamaar Thomas’ mother, looks for the end zone as she tries to get around a Wakanda Forever defender.

André Chung for The Undefeated

But in his next football season, he broke a bone in his back and then his foot and played in only four games. In his final season, the coach who’d recruited him was fired, the offense changed and his college career, which once held so much promise, came to an anticlimactic close. After a tryout with the Denver Broncos, he wound up on the practice squad (and activated for two games) with the Jacksonville Jaguars. He worked out with other teams and considered Arena football before returning to the Washington area and becoming a personal trainer.

At 23, one football door had closed for him. But there was another one, and it had been open his whole life. He grabbed a flag and met his family on the field. “Getting into flag football was just like I was kind of born into it,” Thomas, now 29, said.

He and his brother, Desmond, 27, grew up in Fort Washington, Maryland, watching his parents play the game. His dad, Sean Thomas, who’d played baseball and football in high school and basketball for Shaw University, started an all-women’s team with his mom, Elwanda, two decades ago. Football, especially flag football, was a family affair.

“I’m 51 years old and I’m still running. … Not all people can say they’ve physically gotten on the football field and played with their kids.” — Elwanda Thomas

After college, Thomas helped his dad coach his mom’s team. Other men’s and coed flag football teams knew who he was, knew he’d played pro, and begged Thomas to play for them. But he wanted to play the game he loved with the people he loved most.

“They want me but they don’t want to play with my brother, or maybe they don’t want my mom, or they don’t want my girlfriend, or they don’t want my friend,” Thomas said. And where’s the joy in that? “I’m mostly out here playing because I’m just having fun with them. I’m not playing because I want to score a bunch of touchdowns. I’ve already done that stuff.”

In 2015, he started his own coed flag football team, Ballers Gon’ Ball. The BGB Family team featured his mother; his girlfriend, Asherah; his brother; and a cousin, Darren Cutchin, who everybody calls Cuz. It includes his best friends and their close friends. There are nearly two dozen people on the roster, about half of whom show up for any given game, and the team plays on Saturdays and Tuesdays, January through October. In the past four years, they’ve won some prize money and, in January, the Flag Football World Championship Tour’s national championship in Orlando, Florida. But everybody in BGB Family will say, for real, they’re just looking for a way to stay in the game. Together.

“I’m 51 years old and I’m still running,” Elwanda Thomas said. “There have been times where all of us have been on the field together: mom, dad and the two boys. I’m like, it’s a family thing out here. Not all people can say they’ve physically gotten on the football field and played with their kids.”

Elwanda, a technician for Verizon, said her husband, a carrier for FedEx, talked her into playing 30 years ago. She’s a small woman, barely 5 feet, 4 inches, and a size 2 back then. The first time she played, she got elbowed by defenders and bruised. “I can’t get hit anymore, I’m going to have to figure this blocking thing out,” she told herself. Her husband began teaching her the nuances of the game: how to rush, how to pull the flags and not be fooled by fakes. “I’m a very competitive person. Very, very competitive. So it was like, ‘No, I can’t let you beat me at this. I have to figure out my game plan.’ ”

Between games, the team relaxes. Elwanda Thomas (foreground) holds 1-year-old Quinn Dimes, whose mother plays on the team. Lamaar Thomas (left) sits next to his dog, Bentley, with Keena Brooks (center) and Frank Milien (right).

André Chung for The Undefeated

She had Lamaar young, and when other parents were in the stands watching their kids at football practice, she and Sean Thomas would run steps, or the track, or play catch. “I actually could beat Lamaar in track until he was probably about 12,” Elwanda brags. She stopped racing him after that because she didn’t want him to have an edge in their trash-talk game.

In 8-on-8 coed flag football, the rules require teams to have at least three women on the field. If a woman scores, it counts for 9 points as opposed to only 6 with men. On a field in Burtonsville, Maryland, in mid-May, BGB was leading a team called Wakanda Forever and looking for a chance to run their signature play — Hide the Mom.

After Thomas completed a long pass, he immediately ran his team downfield.

“HTM! HTM!” he called out, and players raced into position. With one exception, the women lined up in the middle, near the ball. The men spread out, and Elwanda Thomas lingered near the sideline chatting with a ref. A defender demanded to know whether she was in bounds.

“It’s not my job to count for you, boo,” Elwanda Thomas told her.

Thomas ended up going to another receiver, and his momma got vocal. “I still got the HTM in me!” she yelled. You gotta believe in your teammate!”

When Elwanda Thomas dropped a low pass several plays later, Thomas yelled, “I can’t catch it for you!”

“Glad I wasn’t in the middle of that,” said Sean Thomas, watching from the sidelines. “They are the most competitive against each other.”

Lamaar and Elwanda Thomas trash-talk a few more minutes, just a mother and son trying to work out the kinks in their marquee move.

With Hide The Mom, the idea is to draw attention to the middle of the field, where almost all the women line up. “And meanwhile, my mom will be standing on the sideline because she’s the least likely person for guys my age to be trying to check,” Thomas said. These guys are watching the younger women who used to play basketball or run track. “My mom, nobody pays attention to her because she’s my mom, and she’s 51,” he said. He tosses the ball to her, “she’ll catch it, and normally it’s an easy run for her into the end zone for a touchdown.”

The team introduced the play last year as a novelty when shoulder, knee and Achilles injuries kept Elwanda Thomas near the sidelines. But it yields points — 56 in 14 games since April. After they get over the sting of being beaten by a middle-aged, trash-talking suburban mom, opposing defenses usually appreciate the play and Elwanda Thomas has gotten into her role, say teammates. She’ll make conversation with the ref or spectators on the sideline before suddenly turning to catch the ball.

Thomas’ girlfriend, Asherah El, 33, was a high school hurdler who now works in human resources for a government contractor. She cited their team chemistry as the best part of playing. “We hang out after the game, we hang out before the game,” El said.

She loves playing with instead of just cheering on her boyfriend. And she loves that Elwanda is still out there doing her thing. When Elwanda Thomas scores, the other team is like, “What the heck just happened? Everybody is in always in confusion. How did we let that person go, or how did she catch the ball? People always underestimate her.”

Darren Cutchin (“Cuz”) is a real estate agent and youth basketball coach. For Lamaar Thomas to play with his mom is special, Cuz says. “You won a national championship with your mom. And your girlfriend. You got your dad on the sidelines coaching you up.”

During the second half of the Wakanda Forever game, a player BGB is calling Spider-Man — he’s really rocking a great deal of red and blue — is bugging them.

“I got the lady,” Spider-Man called out, signaling he was covering Elwanda Thomas.

“He keeps calling me the lady, ‘I got the lady,’ and I’m about to get mad,” she says.

Lamaar Thomas and his mother have matching half-heart tattoos. “I love you,” her half-heart says. “I know,” reads his half-heart.

André Chung for The Undefeated

With less than a minute left in the game, Spider-Man and a BGB player exchange words, and Elwanda Thomas interjects.

“I’m a mom!” she taunts him. “I know why you talking that way. Just let your game talk for you, baby,” she tells him. BGB scores, and she brags that her head game is prime.

With the game over, Lamaar Thomas reminds everyone to get their jerseys and talks logistics for their next game. He and his mother resume their sparring about that incomplete pass.

“That would have been perfect if you would have caught it,” Thomas tells his mother.

“If it would have been thrown correctly, I would have caught it!” she insists.

The two put their wrists together to show off matching half-heart tattoos. “I love you,” her half-heart says. “I know,” reads his half-heart. Arguing about sports always brought them closer. Playing together keeps them closer still. Thomas, Elwanda, Sean and the rest of the team part ways but make plans to meet up again Tuesday, as friends and family, football players, balling out together.