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

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

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

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

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

Photo by David Livingston/Getty Images

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

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

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

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

Walt Disney Co./courtesy Everett Collection

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walt Disney Co./courtesy Everett Collection

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Timothy Norris/Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walt Disney Co./courtesy Everett Collection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do not come in here, I warned silently.

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

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

Nate Packard for The Undefeated

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

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

Why had they come? I wondered.

Lord, why had I?


2.

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

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

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

I did not know if I had it in me.


3.

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

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

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

Nate Packard for The Undefeated

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

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

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

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


4.

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

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

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

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

Nate Packard for The Undefeated

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

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

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

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

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


5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nate Packard for The Undefeated

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

And neither did we.


6.

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

But that was about to change.

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

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

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

Nate Packard for The Undefeated

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nate Packard for The Undefeated

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

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

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

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

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

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


7.

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

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

Nate Packard for The Undefeated

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


8.

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

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

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

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

Nate Packard for The Undefeated

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nate Packard for The Undefeated

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

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

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

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

They went like this:

We are not like you.

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

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

That’s what I would have said later.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nate Packard for The Undefeated

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or maybe it was no such thing at all.

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

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

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.”

Harvard’s black students using game against Howard to celebrate culture First-time football meeting gives students opportunity to highlight diverse manifestations of blackness

The first football game between Harvard and Howard University has brought a new dimension to an age-old debate over “the real HU.” But for some black students at Harvard, the goal is bigger than bragging rights.

These students hope the game will help them build solidarity with Howard and strengthen the support network available to black students at Harvard.

When the leaders of Harvard’s Black Students Association heard about the game, they saw an opportunity for social engagement. Aba Sam and Kendall Laws, president and vice president of the association, respectively, started planning what is now being billed as the inaugural Black Ivy Homecoming.

This is a tip of the hat to the Black Ivy League, an informal reference to top-rated historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) such as Howard, Hampton and Spelman. It’s also an acknowledgment that Harvard and Howard are top-tier institutions among the Ivy League and HBCUs, respectively; Harvard’s Business School accepts more students from Howard than any other HBCU, and many black students at both schools are working to create and maintain communities that celebrate diverse manifestations of blackness.

“We wanted to make it about more than just the game,” said Sam, a junior neuroscience major from Southbury, Connecticut.

In conjunction with Harvard’s Black Graduate Student Alliance (HBGSA) and the Howard University Student Association (HUSA), Sam and Laws organized a day and a half of social and professional events. Although administrators at both schools had to approve the plan, all activities are being led and funded by student leaders.

“We sold out of tickets to the event in two hours,”said HUSA president Taylor Ellison. As a result, about 55 Howard students, grad and undergrad, will make the trip from Georgia Avenue to Cambridge, Massachusetts. They can participate in a career panel, a talent show pitting Howard against Harvard, a pregame breakfast and a tailgate. And, of course, parties.

“We’re definitely not a big, big football school, but we do come out for certain games, like our Harvard-Yale game. We have tailgate culture. For this game, we think people will fill up the stands,” said Laws, a junior economics major from Atlanta.

Perhaps even more impressive is the housing plan. Travelers from Howard will be hosted by Harvard students the day before the game. This custom is traditionally only bestowed upon Yale students when their school plays Harvard. (Yale’s rivalry with Harvard is as historic and fun as Hampton’s is with Howard.)

“This event is going to be legendary,” said Ellison. She, Laws and Sam hope Black Ivy Homecoming becomes an annual event between Harvard and Howard.

Harvard defensive back Bennett Bay in action against San Diego on Sept. 15, 2018, at Harvard Stadium in Boston. The Crimson take on Howard this weekend.

(Photo by M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

According to Harvard doctoral student Tauheedah Baker-Jones, 41, more tailgate tickets were sold for this game than for ones against Yale. This is a big deal because the rivalry between Yale and Harvard is as significant as the one between Howard and Hampton. Baker-Jones is part of HBGSA as well as a Howard alum. She was happy to promote the event to graduate students and alumni from both schools. She’s enjoyed her experiences at both institutions.

“I can’t put a price on Howard,” said Baker-Jones, who completed her undergraduate degree at UCLA. “It prepared me for UCLA, for the social challenges I would face there.”

When she decided to go to graduate school, part of what attracted her to Harvard was the number of black faculty members in the Graduate School of Education. When she enrolled, she said, seven black female deans had just been hired, and she recalls proudly tweeting, “#Mydeanisblack.”

Just over 9% of Harvard’s graduate student population is black, and the percentage of black undergrads is slightly less than that. More black students are admitted than enroll at the Ivy League school.

Harvard’s name is impressive, but black students are also looking at other factors such as programs offered, financial aid packages, how comfortable they feel on campus, and location. As it competes with premier schools such as MIT, Stanford, Duke and Howard for high-performing black students, the school has also been working to make space for and embrace diverse expressions of black culture. There are several black organizations on campus, such as the Association of Black Harvard Women, the Caribbean Club, and the Black Community and Student Theater (BlackC.A.S.T.). Other groups embrace mixed-race students, black LGBTQ members and black engineers.

Technically, there are no sororities or fraternities on campus, but Baker said the members of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority and Omega Psi Phi Fraternity will be helping with the tailgate. In 2017, members of single-gender social clubs were banned from holding leadership positions in recognized student organizations, becoming varsity captains, or receiving College endorsement for prestigious fellowships. A plan to phase out such social clubs by 2022 was also implemented that year. However citywide chapters of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc and Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Inc currently accept members from Harvard, MIT and other Boston area schools.

“The black community is small, close and tight-knit across social and gender lines,” said government and economics major Meshaal Bannerman, vice president of Harvard Black Men’s Forum. He said the group is a preprofessional organization geared toward masculine-identifying black men. While it’s important to Bannerman that Harvard’s black community be supportive of each other, he added, “The academic rigor at Harvard can be challenging, so it’s important to have a space for people who support you, not just look like you.”

Part of what influenced Sergine Cindy Zeufack and Antonia Scott to commit to Harvard was the Kuumba Singers of Harvard College.

“We celebrate black excellence. We’ve created a space for black people at Harvard and the surrounding community to find a refuge in a world that can be hard to be in. It’s open to any black person looking for community, but anyone can join.” — Sergine Cindy Zeufack on Kuumba, Harvard’s oldest existing black organization on campus

“I wanted to join a singing group of some sort with a group of people. It [Kuumba] celebrates black art, creativity, spirituality. I enjoyed the people and community,” said Zeufack, a senior human developmental and regenerative biology major from Rockville, Maryland. She’s also first-generation Cameroonian American.

Scott added, “Kuumba supports blackness in all of its forms. And there are no auditions; anyone can join.” The Cranston, Rhode Island, native is a senior majoring in African American studies and minoring in molecular and cellular biology.

Kuumba is Harvard’s oldest existing black organization on campus. It’s celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Zeufack said it’s as close as Harvard gets to an HBCU.

“We celebrate black excellence,” she said. “We’ve created a space for black people at Harvard and the surrounding community to find a refuge in a world that can be hard to be in. It’s open to any black person looking for community, but anyone can join.”

“Creating safe spaces” is a phrase several black student leaders used to describe the mission of their organizations. In part, this is because in 2019, some people still question whether black students are smart enough to be there.

Zeufack said she’d had a few encounters with strangers who asked her where she went to school. When she replied that she’s at Harvard, they seemed to not believe her. One person even asked if she was on the track team.

“Nope,” she recalled. “I guess I’m just smart.”

She’s not knocking any athletes. Black students make up just under 9% of Harvard’s athletic population, while 16% are white and Hispanics and Asians each constitute 4%. Zeufack just wonders why her admittance is questioned.

“If there are so many people who question if you deserve to be there, you start to wonder about it too,” she said. And she’s not the only one.

Experiences like these led to the #ItooamHarvard photo campaign and play in 2014. Led by black and Japanese student Kimiko Matsuda-Lawrence, 40 black students, including those with multiracial backgrounds, shared their experiences with institutional racism and feelings of alienation on campus. Similar campaigns were launched at Georgetown, UCLA and the University of Michigan that year. The campaign at Harvard is officially over, but black students still talk about it and its impact.

“That campaign was about black students feeling unwanted and disrespected,” said Bannerman. “But it’s twofold. We black students are working to fix the community on the inside so the outside noise doesn’t hurt as much.”

For some black students, the work to make black students feel comfortable on Harvard’s campus is paying off.

Police were called on three black female students at Harvard; Baker-Jones was one of them. She said a woman in her off-campus apartment called the police on Sept. 8 because Baker-Jones’ music had too much bass and she couldn’t focus. The ordeal ended peacefully, and the two women ended up exchanging contact information. The neighbor felt bad and agreed to contact Baker-Jones if the situation happened again.

“I’ve never not felt welcome at Harvard,” said Baker-Jones. “Campus has done a lot to make us feel supported, but now we have to work on how we are treated outside the community.”

Since then, the black students association has established a black graduation ceremony that honors the accomplishments and culture of black graduates. Additionally, Harvard’s student newspaper, The Harvard Crimson, appointed its first black editor to lead the newspaper. Kristine Guillaume is Haitian and Chinese.

And then, of course, there’s Harvard’s football team. Bennett Bay is a junior government major from Atlanta. He’s a member of the black students association and a defensive back who plans to play in the game against Howard.

“The black community definitely makes an effort to make the freshmen feel welcome,” he said after practice. “The biggest shock for me was the weather. I was not used to six months of snow.”

Besides the black students association, Bay has found his community on the football team. At the end of the day, that’s the goal of each black student organization: to help black students find spaces and groups where they feel accepted and respected.

“I love the culture of the team. It’s bigger than me,” he said. He’s excited about the game and for the opportunity to be on the first Harvard football team to play against an HBCU.

With ‘Brian Banks’ and ‘Clemency,’ actor Aldis Hodge finds the humanity in men society wants to discard ‘Banks’ tells the story of a football star falsely accused of rape

Aldis Hodge has the kind of face that makes you squint and try to place where you’ve seen him before.

Because you’ve seen him before. A lot.

But now, you’re about to see him.

“He told me, ‘I don’t want to just act out this thing. I want to become you.’ And I really respect that.”— Brian Banks on actor Aldis Hodge

At 32, Hodge has a long list of acting credits under his belt. He started off as a kid, along with his brother, Edwin, playing small unnamed roles like “Masked teen” and “Basketball teen #2” and “Graduate #1.” He’s had brief roles on NYPD Blue, ER and Cold Case, and he’s also been in cult favorites like Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Things began to shift in 2006 when he earned a role in the critically acclaimed high school football drama Friday Night Lights. Portraying Ray “Voodoo” Tatum, the quarterback who was displaced by Hurricane Katrina, he got the chance to show the emotional complexity he could bring to a character on a large stage. That led to a role on TNT’s Leverage, which ran for five seasons and had him working alongside Timothy Hutton.

And now — finally! — he has a leading role in a film.

In the film, Aldis Hodge taps into the emotional roller coasters that make up Brian Banks’ life.

Everett Collection

Opening on Aug. 9 is Brian Banks, the true tale of a former high school football star whose dreams of playing in the NFL were derailed by a false rape accusation.

This role is yet another indication that Hodge is on the brink of being the next big thing. Just please don’t call him that. Not to his face, at least.

“People have been telling me for years the thing that I could not stand. They’re like, ‘Yo, man, you next!’ I’m like, ‘Y’all have been telling me that for 10 years!’ ” he says before breaking into a quick laugh. “They’re well-meaning, absolutely well-meaning, but they don’t understand. For an artist who continually sees next, next, next, but you see all these other people come up in that time that they tell you, ‘Next.’ There’s a whole wave of cats coming up, but you’re like, ‘How long am I going to be next?’ ”


Coming later this year is more excellent work from Hodge in Clemency, a film that is already making critics’ short lists for award competitions.

In Clemency, Hodge plays a black man on death row who is hoping that the governor — the exact state is unidentified — will grant him clemency. The story was inspired by the 2011 execution of Troy Davis, who was convicted of and executed for the Aug. 19, 1989, murder of police officer Mark MacPhail in Savannah, Georgia. The case attracted widespread attention, including pleas for clemency from former President Jimmy Carter, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former FBI director William Sessions.

In Clemency, Hodge plays a black man on death row who is hoping that the governor will grant him clemency.

Eric Branco

Although we’ve seen Hodge toiling on the small screen and in films for nearly 25 years, this moment and these two films mean Hodge is a name to be remembered.

In other words, Hodge acts his behind off. In Clemency, Hodge impresses alongside veteran Alfre Woodard, who plays the prison warden, and Juilliard-trained Danielle Brooks as the condemned man’s estranged partner — both of whom could hear their names nominated for top honors early next year.

Both Clemency and Brian Banks are films that you want to talk about and, in some cases, may make you want to get active after you see them. The real connective tissue, at least as of late, is stories where Hodge gets to find the humanity in characters who might normally be seen as inhumane.

“I’ve been doing this since I was 2 years old,” Hodge says. “Back when I was 14, I [said] that I want to stop taking particular types of roles. The stereotypical tropes or this or that didn’t represent the totality of black people, and I wanted it to show the other side of us because we grew up seeing a completely different side and wanted to represent that truth.”

“I want to stop taking particular types of roles, the stereotypical tropes or this or that didn’t represent the totality of black people by culture is, right? And I wanted it to show the other side of us because we grew up seeing a completely different side and wanted to represent that truth.” — Aldis Hodge

Hodge says he finally assembled the right team to help him find such stories. Not all of the roles he brings to life affect social change, but simply portraying a diverse representation of black men, he says, ultimately helps move the needle for how black men are treated in real life.

“Like my role on Leverage. It was a fun action show. It was cool, but I played a very intelligent hacker, and to me that spoke to truth because they saw the black man playing the hacker,” Hodge says. “My father used to take apart and build computers. That’s normal in the black community, but we don’t see it represented all the time. So for me, that was truth that hadn’t been exposed in that way.

“I’m an actor. I’m not a type of actor, not a dramatic actor, not a comedic actor. I can do whatever, whenever, however. … If we’re going to be funny, how can we make it better? How can we give the audience a better experience? If we’re going to do drama, how can I engage the idea of being with it all? Emotional impact in a completely new way that the audience hasn’t really seen yet?”


Hodge has been in films before: Hidden Figures (the husband of aerospace engineer Mary Jackson), Straight Outta Compton (as MC Ren) and most recently What Men Want (as the love interest to Taraji P. Henson’s sports agent). He laughs pretty hard when I remind him he once starred alongside LeBron James in a 2011 State Farm commercial. (“Back in the day!”)

But carrying the title character in Brian Banks? That’s major.

The real Brian Banks, who is now 34, knew he had found the man to play him in the movie almost immediately.

“Aldis was the first actor that was presented to me as one who would play me in this film. And I remember him most from Underground. And what he did with Underground was very powerful. I’ve seen him in Big Momma’s House, back when he was young, playing basketball, Straight Outta Compton and Leverage,” Banks said.

“And then, after meeting him, the first thing he told me was, ‘I don’t want to just act out this thing. I want to become you.’ And I really respect that. Hearing that from him, it really said a lot about him. It said a lot about his methods as far as how he was going to tap into the story.”

Banks’ story is well-known. He was wrongfully convicted of rape at age 16 and spent nearly six years imprisoned and five years on parole, during which he had to wear a GPS tracking device and register as a sex offender. His conviction was overturned in 2012 after the classmate who had accused him confessed that she made up the incident.

Before he was accused, Banks had verbally committed to USC during his junior year at Long Beach’s Polytechnic High School. His teammates there were future NFL players DeSean Jackson, Darnell Bing, Winston Justice and Marcedes Lewis.

Brian Banks attends a special screening of Bleecker Street’s Brian Banks on July 31 in Long Beach, California.

Photo by Phillip Faraone/Getty Images

After Banks was exonerated, he once again began to pursue the professional football career he’d dreamed of as a kid. After several tryouts with NFL teams, Banks began playing for the Las Vegas team in the UFL in 2012, but the league suspended the season because of “mounting debt” after he had played in only two games. The following year, Banks was signed by the Atlanta Falcons, for whom he played in four preseason games at linebacker before being released. In 2014, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell asked him to speak to league rookies, and he then joined the NFL as a manager in the Football Operations Department and assisted the Officiating Department on game days.

In the film, Hodge taps into the emotional roller coasters that make up Banks’ life.

“He’s phenomenal at giving you layers to a character and creating a three-dimensional character,” says Sherri Shepherd, who acts alongside Hodge as Banks’ mother. “There were scenes where every time you see him talk to his parole officer … and I just … I was in awe of the range that was displayed. It was this tenderness that he had … a searching, ‘Please help me, protect me,’ that he had.”

“Those stories gravitate towards me,” Hodge says. “I played basketball, terribly, on a league from 14 years old on up. But my real sport, growing up, was fighting.”

“I still train in martial arts to this day. But I used to compete with southern Shaolin kung fu, and then I moved up to wushu and jeet kune do, taking it to the traditionalist Chinese styles. I do a little bit of capoeira. And then … Philippine knife and stick fighting. And then also Muay Thai, which I love. … I absolutely love fighting. I love the physicality, the capability of what we can do with our bodies.”


Given the critical response to Ava DuVernay’s Netflix series When They See Us, Hodge’s two new films and an Emmett Till series coming to ABC, it feels like a moment.

“He’s phenomenal at giving you layers to a character and creating a three dimensional character. I was in awe of the range that was displayed. It was this tenderness that he had. … a searching, ‘please help me, protect me’ that he had.” — Sherri Shepard, who acts alongside Hodge as Banks’ mother

“I think that people are starting to finally understand just how serious this space of wrongful conviction really is,” Banks says. “We have a judicial system that ideally we like to protect the innocent and keep our citizens safe. But often, it happens where the wrong person is locked up, the wrong person is prosecuted. And to just imagine losing life, losing time that you will never get back for something that you didn’t do. Being placed in a cage like an animal for a crime you didn’t commit, watching the dismantling of your family and connection and bond that you have to friends and so forth, and your community. I think that people are starting to really see and understand that this is a very serious subject, just like any other serious subject that we give so much time, attention and money to.

“There are so many people in this world that are uninformed about these types of traumatic experiences and things that go on. So I think that we have to be creative and innovative in a way to where we turn these real-life stories into works of art and some pieces of film so that people that are uninformed, that choose not to be informed, they will be informed by way of being entertained, going to see a movie and then learning something about their city, their community, their society, and hopefully be provoked to want to see change.”

And that’s the work that inspires an actor like Hodge.

“When it comes to digging into these roles, the harder it gets for the characters, and the more honest we get about the situations, the more excited I get,” Hodge says. “I get excited about those because people can see the truth. And what excites me most about these is that we are dignifying and honoring the characters that we play from a point of respect and deference.”

“And then, when I see people are affected, the thing that triggers in my mind is, ‘Oh, now we’ve hit them in the heart space!’ And, hopefully, in the mental space. Hopefully, these people can go out and leave here affected enough to help improve the situation that they just came from watching. Right?”

Rapper 21 Savage is helping Atlanta youth learn financial literacy ‘I didn’t really learn about that type of stuff until I got older’

ATLANTA — In the midst of his annual back-to-school drive on Sunday, rapper 21 Savage was in awe at the 2,500 kids who showed up for free haircuts/hairstyles, shoes, school uniforms, backpacks and school supplies.

The turnout wasn’t a shock, as he’s experienced that same energy for the past four years in which he has hosted “Issa Back 2 School Drive” for the kids who live in the Glenwood Road neighborhood where he grew up in Atlanta.

“Doing this every year feels good,” 21 Savage told The Undefeated.

This year, in partnership with Amazon Music and Momma Flystyle, the outdoor event also offered free health screenings, mobile video game arcades, resources on mental health awareness and insurance, tips on eco-friendly sustainability efforts, local vendors, hot dogs, ice cream and fun park activities.

On Aug. 4, Rapper 21 Savage hosted his annual “Issa Back 2 School Drive” for the kids in the Glenwood Road neighborhood where he grew up in Atlanta, Georgia.

Prince Williams/Getty Images

But his giving spans far beyond his school drive.

21 Savage’s passion is in educating youth from underserved communities about the power of the dollar and the value of hard work. The throaty Grammy nominee’s nonprofit organization, Leading by Example Foundation, launched its Bank Account campaign, named after his double-platinum single, to teach young people about financial health and wellness.

“A lot of kids don’t know what to do when they get older,” 21 Savage said. “Financial literacy is an important tool they need to get through life successfully.”

A successful trap music artist known for his grim lyrics depicting poverty, street life and post-traumatic stress, 21 Savage said his efforts to promote youth and economic development are deeply rooted in his own lack of exposure and access to commerce as a kid.

“I didn’t really learn about that type of stuff until I got older and became an artist and entertainer,” he said.

The 26-year-old chart-topping performer, born Shéyaa Bin Abraham-Joseph, has a job program, and he offers monthly financial literacy webinars for youth.

He partnered with education-themed nonprofits JUMA Ventures and Get Schooled to offer summer employment to 60 Atlanta-area high school and college students. Their duties include light custodial and concessions jobs.

“We want to work with these young people particularly to give them opportunities,” said Robert Lewis Jr., JUMA’s Atlanta site manager. “You want to give these young folks help. They may have had issues with the law or go to a nontraditional school, and we want to give them a job. It gives them a sense of dignity when they’re working.”

“This is monumental,” said Courage Higdon, a 22-year-old Georgia Southern University student and program participant. “The program keeps us focused. It’s more than a job — it teaches us actual life skills that we can use in other places in our lives. They help us become more financially literate. As an African American community, we need to get better at it.”

The Savage Mode rapper presented JUMA with a $15,000 check to help 150 young people open their own bank accounts.

“21 Savage tries to tell us that he wants us to bring everybody around this neighborhood together to support black-owned businesses and black people in the community,” said participant Khaleege Watts, 20.

21 Savage is set to spend a day shadowing the student participants later this year.

The “No Heart” and “A Lot” rapper hosted his monthly webinars on Get Schooled’s website, where he concentrated on teaching money management habits, budgeting/saving, investments and distinguishing between credit and debit.

But his passion for giving to youth doesn’t stop there.

When he released his sophomore LP I Am > I Was in December 2018, he gifted $16,000 in Amazon gift cards to youngsters who attended the album’s companion interactive Motel 21 activation in Decatur, Georgia. He also visited several colleges and STEM schools in metro Atlanta, along with U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), to lead 21st Century Banking Workshops, cross-topic fireside chats featuring discussions on financial capabilities, career opportunities in the music business, gang violence and gun control.

“21 Savage is putting action behind his money,” Lewis said. “He actually tells people how to start their business and how to save money. He’s turned his life around and is a great spokesperson for young people. Young people were glad that JUMA partnered with 21 Savage because they said he speaks for them.”

21 Savage was arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement earlier this year on Super Bowl Sunday for overstaying in the United States on a visa that expired in 2006. The MTV Video Music Award winner, who was born in the U.K. and came to the U.S. with his mother at age 7, was detained for nine days and is still awaiting a deportation hearing. The former troubled teen and high school dropout donated $25,000 to the Southern Poverty Law Center, an advocacy group that assisted with his naturalization issues, in June.

“A lot of people need help that’s in bad situations,” 21 Savage said. “They don’t have the funds to get legal representation, so I just made the donation. The organization does the work for free anyway, so I just thought it was necessary to contribute.”

Alona Stays, 21, received a $1,000 mini-grant from 21 Savage to invest in production equipment for her home studio. The YouTuber and aspiring filmmaker echoes her peers, calling the rapper’s philanthropic gifts and outreach efforts “amazing.”

“Not a lot of artists like him are doing something,” Stays said. “It’s a blessing for him to do this for us, and I’m very grateful. This plays a big role in anybody’s life. People like 21 Savage [are] trying to make things better. It’s not all about guns and drugs; it’s about the community and these kids.”

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.”

World Cup champion Megan Rapinoe helps continue Nipsey Hussle’s marathon Charismatic, defiant and independent, the U.S. women’s team is hip-hop

Just hours after the U.S. national team captured its second consecutive Women’s World Cup with a 2-0 victory over the Netherlands, forward Megan Rapinoe, winner of the Golden Ball for best player in the tournament, took to Instagram quoting Nipsey Hussle’s rallying cry:

“Ain’t really trip on the credit, I just paid all of my dues I just respected the game, now my name all in the news,” Rapinoe wrote. “Trippin’ on all of my moves, quote me on this, got a lot more to prove.”

The caption, from the Victory Lap standout “Hussle & Motivate,” eloquently summarized both the late rapper’s untapped future and the upward battle Rapinoe and her teammates continue to face as female athletes in a society that requires them to play for less than their worth.

The truth of the matter is the U.S. women’s national team is hip-hop. Their swagger? One-of-one. In a matter of weeks, Rapinoe, Alex Morgan & Co. became the international version of the 1980s Miami Hurricanes. They were bullies, lovable antagonists who walked with a bop and played with a peerless cockiness. They ran the score up and bathed in the tears of thin-skinned critics. They toasted their 2-1 victory over England in the semifinals to Crime Mob’s “Rock Yo Hips.” Rapinoe defiantly refused to visit the White House — even before winning the tournament.

Most importantly, though, the U.S. women did so without sacrificing what made them the most dominant soccer team in the world. And they did it understanding the battles for fair treatment that they face at home, which often are relegated to back-page news.

It’s why the lyrics Rapinoe quoted matter. And why it mattered that she was the one quoting them. Rapinoe is a face of social justice in sports, a hero to the LGBTQ community and one-half of sports’ most accomplished power couple, along with WNBA player Sue Bird (who came to her defense after President Donald Trump’s response to Rapinoe’s White House comment).

The World Cup champions are suing the U.S. Soccer Federation for appropriate compensation. The crowd in France was chanting, “Equal pay!” on Sunday after the team’s victory — a reminder of the reality that lay just beyond the euphoric accomplishment. Last week, FIFA president Gianni Infantino announced that the 2023 Women’s World Cup prize money would double from $30 million to $60 million. In comparison, the men’s prize pool sits at a gaudy $440 million for the Qatar World Cup in 2022. Rapinoe scoffed at the financial insult.

“It’s certainly not fair,” she said during a news conference on July 6. “I think everyone is ready for this conversation to move to the next step. I think we’re done with the ‘Are we worth it? Should we have equal pay?’ … Everyone is done with that. … Let’s get to the next point of what’s next, how do we support women’s federation and women’s programs around the world.”

Megan Rapinoe (right) kneels during the national anthem before a match between the United States and the Netherlands at the Georgia Dome on Sept. 18, 2016, in Atlanta. Rapinoe was the first white athlete and first woman to follow the lead of former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick by kneeling during the anthem.

Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Rapinoe, too, will always be linked to exiled NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick. As the former Super Bowl signal-caller protested systemic oppression against black and brown men and women in America by kneeling for the national anthem in 2016, it was Rapinoe who became both the first white athlete and the first woman to follow his lead.

So when she decided to quote Hussle on Instagram, it felt authentic. Rapinoe saw portions of her marathon in Hussle’s.

Sports were an integral part of Nipsey’s life. He was a regular fixture courtside at Lakers games. (“Courtside Chamberlain throwback match my Rolex,” he flexed on “Blue Laces 2.”) During the final hours of his life, Nipsey was in Anaheim, California, celebrating Texas Tech’s Final Four berth with a family friend. The outpouring of support from athletes such as LeBron James, DeMarcus Cousins, James Harden and others after his death was massive, including Russell Westbrook’s exultant 20-20-20 triple-double, a nod to Hussle’s Rollin 60’s Neighborhood Crips.

Like luminaries such as Ice Cube and the late John Singleton, the businessman, philanthropist, activist and rapper affectionately dubbed “Neighborhood Nip,” brought South Central to the world’s doorstep. Hussle preached the value of integrity, and why maintaining it was vital for the upkeep of a (wo)man’s soul.

Rapper Nipsey Hussle attends the first annual YG and Friends Daytime Boogie Basketball Tournament at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles on Feb. 17, 2018.

Photo by Scott Dudelson/Getty Images

“It’s crazy to see the shift that’s happening just to raise good people that have a foundation of principle,” he said on Stephen Curry’s 5 Minutes From Home series. “You know, when I drop my daughter off every day, I drill her when I take her to school. … Like, what is integrity? Integrity is doing the right thing when nobody’s looking. … It seems basic, but I want her to get older and look back on the things I thought were important.”

Rapinoe is just the latest to invoke Hussle’s memory — and the raw emotional wounds of his slaying on March 31. Recently released court documents revealed 515 pages of grand jury testimony, a considerable chunk of which dealt with Hussle’s final moments after he was allegedly ambushed and shot by Eric Holder. His daughter, Emani, recently graduated from elementary school. And BET posthumously honored Hussle with its Humanitarian Award last month.

On Sunday afternoon, YG, one of Hussle’s closest collaborators and friends, posted a picture on Instagram with 2017 NBA MVP Westbrook and a framed image of Hussle’s 2013 project Crenshaw. The caption was as heartbreaking as it was cryptic. “Where you at,” YG pleaded, “I need to talk 2 you foo.”

Another recent reminder of the man is “Perfect Ten,” the title track from DJ and producer Mustard’s new compilation album. It’s Hussle’s second record post-obit, following DJ Khaled’s “Higher,” and a glimpse into the state of mind Hussle was evolving toward. “Stacked every chip on myself, time to collect,” Nipsey boasted. Betting on himself wasn’t just financial literacy. Rather, it’s the spiritual currency Hussle applied to his everyday life. “All money in, just imagine what I gross back.”

The questions he strings together on “Ten” are more internal reflection than external validation. “Where your backbone, n—a, where your code at? / Where your down since day one real bros at? / Where them stories that you tellin’ unfold at? Where your heart, n—a? Where your soul at?”

Hussle knew the location of his soul. There’s honor in loyalty. In the company one keeps, and the morals one lives by. The graphic stories Hussle narrated were born and bred in South Central. They were for his people. But they were meant to be heard, embraced, and they were calls to action for neighborhoods far beyond Slauson and Crenshaw. Clearly, that resonated with Rapinoe.

Megan Rapinoe (second from right) and her U.S. teammates celebrate their 2-0 victory over the Netherlands in the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup final in France on July 7. Rapinoe won the Golden Ball award given to the best player in the tournament and the Golden Boot as top scorer.

Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images

“For us, it’s not only leaving our sport in a better place [or] leaving it better for the young girls that will come after, but just in general,” Rapinoe said on Good Morning America in April. “But just inspiring women around the world to stand up for what they believe in.”

Rapinoe’s sentiment sounds familiar because it is. “That’s the only distinguishing quality from me and probably whoever else is going through this, went through this or is gonna go through this,” Hussle lamented in a widely circulated interview with radio personality Big Boy in January 2018. “[It’s] that I ain’t quit … I went through every emotion with trying to pursue what I’m doing. And I think that’s what gon’ separate whoever’s gonna try to go for something is that — you ain’t gonna quit. … You really gonna take the stance of ‘I’m gonna die behind what I’m getting at right here.’ ”

Perhaps that’s what Rapinoe saw in Hussle and what inspired her to bring him along during one of her proudest professional moments. For all of us, the marathon continues.

HBO film ‘True Justice’ recounts Bryan Stevenson’s crusade for the poor, the incarcerated and the condemned The nation’s most important civil rights lawyer since Thurgood Marshall still believes in equal justice under law

Bryan Stevenson may well be the nation’s most consequential civil rights lawyer since Thurgood Marshall.

While Marshall stared down unrepentant racists in Southern courtrooms at a time when inequality was enforced by law, Stevenson’s work is being done decades after the most important legal battles over civil rights supposedly were won. If Marshall and his legal colleagues from the NAACP helped dismantle Jim Crow, the task Stevenson has carved out may be even more difficult: working to eliminate Jim Crow’s legacy.

“I believe we are all more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” — Bryan Stevenson

He is the subject of a new documentary, True Justice: Bryan Stevenson’s Fight for Equality, which premieres Wednesday at 8 p.m. EDT on HBO. Stevenson, 59, is the founder and executive director of the Montgomery, Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative, and he has dedicated his career to helping some of the most scorned people among us: the poor, the incarcerated, the condemned, and even the guilty.

“I believe we are all more than the worst thing we’ve ever done,” Stevenson says.

Since EJI was launched in 1989, Stevenson and his staff have won release, reversals or relief for more than 125 death row prisoners. Stevenson has prevailed in several cases he argued before the Supreme Court, including a victory in a case outlawing mandatory sentences of life without parole for children 17 or younger.

In the documentary, Bryan Stevenson makes clear that the problem with the criminal justice system starts at the top with the Supreme Court.

Courtesy of HBO

He has spearheaded the creation in Montgomery of The Legacy Museum and its National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which honors more than 4,000 lynching victims. He has earned dozens of honorary degrees and won numerous awards, including the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius” grant. By any measure, he has done outstanding work.

Yet, Stevenson’s achievements make up a relatively small part of the film. Instead of shouting out his many successes, directors Peter Kunhardt, George Kunhardt and Teddy Kunhardt home in on Stevenson’s ideas connecting the plight of his clients to the nation’s racial history.

Stevenson illuminates the line connecting the racial disparities evident in so many parts of our society to a criminal justice system that nurtured and rationalized white supremacy, making it both legal and acceptable. In the documentary, he makes clear that the problem starts at the top with the Supreme Court.

While the high court eventually became an ally of civil rights, for many years it was just the opposite. The 1857 Dred Scott decision called black people an inferior race who had no constitutional rights. The 1875 Cruikshank case reversed the convictions of members of a white mob whom federal prosecutors had tried for their part in killing 150 black people protesting for political representation in Colfax, Louisiana. The high court said the convictions impinged on states’ rights, helping to form the legal underpinning for legal segregation and Jim Crow.

Even in the years following the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, the seminal ruling striking down state-sanctioned segregation in public schools, the court sometimes looked the other way in the face of evidence of obvious racial disparities, Stevenson argues.

In the film, he talks about his advocacy for Warren McCleskey, a black man convicted of killing a white police officer in Georgia during a 1978 furniture store holdup. McCleskey was the only one of four defendants sentenced to death in the case, and by the time his case made its way to the Supreme Court, his defense team had produced a study showing that in Georgia, defendants who killed whites were more than four times as likely as those who killed blacks to be sentenced to death. The court shrugged off that study in its majority opinion, saying disparity does not prove deliberate bias. Moreover, the court ruled, such disparities are “an inevitable part of our criminal justice system.” McCleskey was put to death in Georgia’s electric chair in 1991.

The HBO documentary focuses on Bryan Stevenson’s ideas connecting the plight of his clients to the nation’s racial history.

Courtesy of HBO

The film makes clear that Stevenson loses in court regularly, and when he does the consequences are often fatal for his clients. Even when he represents clients who are innocent and he is able to win, the injustices wrought by the system cannot be fully rectified because of the trauma of being imprisoned. “For me, the innocence cases are the hardest cases,” Stevenson says in the film. “I think people think of that the other way. They think, ‘Oh, it must be great to work on a case where there is clear evidence of innocence.’ ”

Much of the documentary is narrated by Stevenson, who talks about the need to eradicate “the narrative of racial difference” that infects the country and runs through its history. That is why he has poured energy into creating memorials to help Americans confront this history of racial horrors that he says often manifests itself in the criminal justice system.

“You can’t disconnect the death penalty from the legacy of lynching, and you can’t disconnect the legacy of lynching from the era of enslavement,” he says in the film. “I think that this line is a very real one.”

Yet, Stevenson has an unshakable belief in the power of the law to help make things right. “I’ve argued a bunch of cases before the United States Supreme Court, and each time I go, I stand there in front of the court, I read what it says about equal justice under law,” Stevenson says in the film. “I have to believe that to make sense out of what I do.”