In ‘A Wrinkle In Time,’ Oprah appears as the earthly deity she’s been for years Guru, self-help maven and fabulously kitted angel

It’s pretty amusing that a science fiction film based on a book published in 1962 is the one that delivered a role in which Oprah basically plays … herself.¹

How much was this a factor in drawing people to the cineplex? Unclear. A Wrinkle in Time took in $33.3 million at the box office this weekend. But the imagery itself, and the context behind it, is still worth examining.

The first time Oprah appears on screen in A Wrinkle in Time, it’s a breathtaking stunt. She materializes in the backyard of the Murry house as the shimmering, larger-than-life Mrs Which, rising to a height of 30 feet, with a crown of curly, platinum blond hair and fabulously bejeweled eyebrows. Her bottom half never quite fully materializes, giving her an ethereal quality. Mrs Which is the oldest and wisest of the Mrs W’s, which include Mrs Who (Mindy Kaling) and Mrs Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), by a billion or so years.

But upon meeting her, it’s impossible not to think, “Someone finally found a way to visually render Oprah’s role in our culture!”

Throughout her career as an actress, Oprah has brought empathy and dignity to the black women whom society actively overlooks, from Ms. Sofia in The Color Purple to Deborah Lacks in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks to Sethe in Beloved.

Mrs Which is a guardian seraph to Meg Murry (Storm Reid), the girl who must travel through space and time to find and rescue her lost father, a famous NASA physicist who’s been missing for four years. Mrs Which is patient and firm with Meg, who’s having trouble loving herself and having faith in her own abilities. Where Mrs Whatsit grows impatient with Meg’s typical teen-age sullenness and doubt, Mrs Which offers realism and gentle reassurance. She repeatedly urges Meg to “be a warrior.” IRL, Oprah may not have an army of warriors for peace, but she does have an Angel Network. The movie isn’t explicit in labeling the Mrs W’s as angels, although that happens in the book, which was heavily influenced by author Madeleine L’Engle’s many years in the Episcopal Church.

Oprah’s role as a quasi-religious figure in America is legendary. She was ahead of many Americans in publicly declaring herself as spiritual rather than an adherent of a specific religious dogma. In doing so, she broadened Americans’ tolerance for religious practice that doesn’t rely on organized religion, and she may even be something of a prophet herself.

“I know some people have called Billy Graham America’s pastor, but in many ways, in a more realistic sense, Oprah is America’s pastor,” said the Rev. Broderick Greer, an Episcopal theologian at St. John’s Cathedral in Denver.

In attempting to parse Oprah’s role as The Oprah Winfrey Show was drawing to a close, The New York Times’ Mark Oppenheimer once called her a “child of poverty” who became “the leader of a worldwide cult.”

Greer said he thinks of her as more of a “guru.” He noted that, like L’Engle, fundamentalist Christians have seen Oprah as a threat, and sometimes that threat was due to Oprah’s race and gender. She was used as a “bogeyman” in sermons, he said, and church leaders would caution their audiences against listening to her.

“I know some people have called Billy Graham America’s pastor, but in many ways, in a more realistic sense, Oprah is America’s pastor.”

“She was seen as being too powerful. She had too much influence,” Greer said.

“Throughout Christian history, women had been very specifically and methodically marginalized by the church. They’ve been called crazy,” he continued. “That has been the struggle of a hyper kind of masculinized, Western Christian church culture: ‘I just can’t believe that this kind of lesser being is saying something that’s profound and life-changing. I need to do everything within my power to make sure that the least amount of people possible hear her.’ ”

So it’s notable that Oprah created a flock of her own, espousing love, generosity and compassion through television without the fire and brimstone of Pat Robertson or Jim Bakker. Oprah exposed people to the teachings of Eckhart Tolle, Ed Bacon and Brené Brown. She’s helped remove the stigma associated with talk therapy.

“I do know how my mom and aunt and my deceased grandmother understood her, and it was a black woman with agency they could identify with,” Greer said. “Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, they watched Phil Donahue every day, and took his expertise and followed his taste. Sometime in the late ’80s, early ’90s, that shifted, and they were able to see someone who looked like them, who sounded like them, who came from a similar background, say, ‘I have agency. I’m the host. I’m not the sideshow or the sidekick. I am the host.’ ”

Those are good things, right? Well, yes. But with great power comes great responsibility, and when you consider Oprah’s grounding in journalism, maybe she let us down sometimes. Especially because as we’ve invested in her and her recommendations on our own roads to self-actualization, Oprah has led us down some dubious paths.

Remember The Secret?

The reason you don’t have the life you want is because you just haven’t visualized it hard enough!

Iyanla Vanzant?

Who needs to be licensed as a therapist when you can call yourself a “life coach” and do whatever you want?!

Dr. Phil?

He’s not even an MD, people!

OK, fine. Oprah’s track record as a spiritual leader is a mixed bag. But somehow, her ultimate message that it’s possible to transcend suffering, and even find beauty in that transcendence, that we’re all capable of doing good in the world and that spreading love and light is a worthwhile cause, has gotten through and made her a figure who inspires intense admiration.

And it’s because for decades, we sat in front of the television on weekday afternoons and took part in The Church of Oprah. She’s flawed, sure. But Mrs Which is a powerful visualization of the best Oprah has given us. I’m glad there’s an image that so fittingly captures her contributions with a swoosh of wind or a wrinkle of time.

Ava DuVernay on the importance of images, having a voice — and why she flipped the script in ‘A Wrinkle In Time’ ‘There was no black woman I could call to say, “How does this go?” Because she doesn’t exist.’

“I didn’t pick up a camera until I was 32,” says Ava DuVernay. “So you finally get to pick up a camera and do these things and it’s like, ‘Wow. I get to say something. I get to make something, and people will pay money to sit down and see and consume,’ and it becomes a part of the culture.”

DuVernay is making a statement — and if you’ve been paying attention for the past eight years or so, you’ll know that she has been making a statement. Film enthusiasts finally got put on to her brilliance in 2012 when her indie film Middle of Nowhere was a Sundance delight and captured the directing award for U.S. dramatic film at the 2012 festival. In that film, she took viewers on a journey of self-discovery, wrapped in a very important story about incarceration — and love. That film was a follow-up to her first indie classic, I Will Follow.

What would this indie-directing darling do next? Tell the story of tennis superstar Venus Williams and her fight for pay equity by way of 2013’s “rousingVenus Vs. (ESPN). DuVernay expertly guided viewers through Williams’ 2005-07 battle for gender-equal prize money at Wimbledon.

The documentary helped establish what DuVernay would give us moving forward. She wants to work on things that say something, and things that mean something. And she’s doing it again with A Wrinkle In Time, which opens in theaters on Friday.

“I’m happy to be in this place. Some people think it’s a risky endeavor, but I’m happy. [The films] go beyond box office, they go beyond reviews.”

“I put my blood into these films,” Duvernay says in a recent interview with The Undefeated. “This is what I do. I’m not a workaholic, I just love this. I think workaholics are like chain-smoking, chained to their death. Yes, I work all the time, but I love it … and I don’t want to be frivolous with that, and I don’t want it to lose meaning. I want it to be worth my time and my energy and my effort. My name is on this.”

And what a name. In a relatively short time, DuVernay has established herself as a visionary director, a big name in Hollywood who delivers nuanced projects that inspire academic conversations. She rightly earned an Oscar nomination in 2017 for her 13th documentary (Netflix), which examined America’s prison system and how it exposes our country’s history of racial inequality. The top prize ultimately went to Ezra Edelman for his “O.J.: Made in America.” But DuVernay was victorious in the best way possible.

That moment gave her a bigger voice in culture overall. Often, she sparks much-needed social media conversations, and the work that she creates is often central to those conversations. The global headlines she grabbed when the Los Angeles Times reported that her adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time would make her the first woman of color in history to direct a movie with a $100 million budget were massive. “When I was making this film,” says DuVernay, “as a black woman and I was handed this budget by Disney, there was no one that I could call. There was no black woman I could call to say, ‘How does this go?’ Because she doesn’t exist.”

And her poignant reply back to the news at the time was so Ava. “Not the first [black woman] capable of doing so,” she tweeted. “Not by a long shot.”

DuVernay just believes that it’s incredibly important that we’re having all kinds of people rendering images that focus and concern women and people of color. “You know, 92 percent of the directors that are making the top films people see in theaters … are Caucasian male directors,” she says. “Only 8 percent of the films that you consume are made by women or people of color, or women of color. And that is a percentage that is untenable as it is unacceptable, and yet it’s what we have accepted as an audience, as a culture and as a society for decades.”

She reminds us how powerful film is. “They were draining pools when kids with HIV got in pools,” she says. “It wasn’t CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] reports that changed that. It wasn’t politicians that changed that. It was a story that changed that — it was Philadelphia, that film. It was Angels in America. … It was film that started to help people. It was images [that] people watched … that made them think. These images mean something … and to be able to be a black woman director and be in charge of budgets of this size, render images … about a black girl?”

DuVernay pauses — because, whew. In A Wrinkle In Time, she changed the young protagonist from a young white teen to a young teen of color. In the film, Meg Murry, the main character in Madeleine L’Engle’s beloved 1962 fantasy novel, is the daughter of two scientists, a black mom played by British actor Gugu Mbatha-Raw and a white dad played by Star Trek’s Chris Pine.

DuVernay presented her vision to Disney, that her dream was that Meg was a young black girl, and they bought in. Asking for that change — a very big, important and remarkable change at that — was courageous. But DuVernay said she approached asking the studio about that as if she had nothing to lose.

“It’s kind of like living in the Hollywood Shuffle, where the mother always told him, ‘You can go out and audition, but you can also have a job at the post office. You can always fall back on the post office.’ Independent film is my post office.” She says she feels like she can walk into any meeting and ask for what she wants, because if they say no, she can go make something else. “I don’t feel like I live and breathe all of [this] … Academy Awards … studio approvals. None of that stuff is my heart’s desire.”

She said she has this take on things because she started being a filmmaker when she was in her early 30s. “Ryan Coogler is 31, and he’s made three films. I look at that and I think I started late. My story’s not just race and gender. It’s age. … Beautiful women filmmakers have made films, but it’s been a challenge for them to have certain resources and support. So it just makes me feel like, ask for what you want. … They’re probably going to say no, but you can still ask and you can still push, and if their answer’s no, you say yes to yourself in a different way.”

It’s a good thing she asked.

There’s an important moment in A Wrinkle In Time where Calvin (Levi Miller) turns to Meg (Storm Reid) and tells her that he likes her hair, which at the time is in its natural, curly state.

“These images don’t exist. People told me early on, ‘This book is unadaptable, this is a very hard book, it’s unadaptable.’ I said, ‘You know what? [Let’s] make Storm Reid fly as a little girl, and boys can see that.’ [Real] Caucasian boys seeing a Caucasian boy on screen say [to a young black girl], ‘I like your hair. You are beautiful with that natural hair, and I will follow you.’ Those are the kinds of things that if some of these boys that I deal with out here in Hollywood, in these boardrooms and on these sets, had seen that when they were young, maybe I’d be treated differently when I walk in the door,” DuVernay says. “When I have the opportunity to do it, I say, ‘I’m going to take this big swing. This is important to me, to just … put this stuff out into the world, and I’m happy to be in this place. Some people think it’s a risky endeavor, but I’m happy. They go beyond box office. They go beyond reviews.”

And it goes beyond black and white — she makes sure of that. Originally from Compton, California, right on the edge of Lynwood, DuVernay talks about how culturally rich her neighborhood was: black, Latino and Filipino. “Me and my friends would put our hands next to each other, and we were all the same shade of brown,” she says. “There’s a lot of people who don’t see themselves.”

One of DuVernay’s stars is actor/creator Mindy Kaling, who first gained notoriety as Kelly Kapoor of NBC’s classic The Office. “Mindy said to me yesterday, and it really got me … ‘I was a chubby Indian girl with glasses who loved sci-fi, but sci-fi never loved me back. I could never, ever find myself on screen …’

“Girls will see this, [and] if I had seen a brown girl doing these things, I would say, ‘Oh, it loves me back!’ It’s an emotional thing. That’s why I did it, [and] that’s why I chose to do this.”

But here’s the good news — because there is good news. DuVernay is actively working to ensure that the headlines she’s grabbing now — especially the ones proclaiming her to be the first black woman this, or the first woman of color that — won’t be wasted.

DuVernay, after all, doesn’t just walk through a door — she holds it open. And she builds a new door — a new house, even — to make sure that other people can come in. In 2010 she founded ARRAY, a grass-roots film distribution collective that focuses on projects by people of color and women. And amid the promo tour for A Wrinkle In Time, she announced that she and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti are launching a diversity initiative that will fund internships in the entertainment industry for young people from underserved communities.

“I will be there for whoever’s next,” she says, “because they’re coming. They’re coming. I feel proud that I can call them and that they can call me. That I’ll be able to talk to them about everything I experienced. … We can’t be safe in our boxes. That’s how we don’t move. We have too many freedom fighters and too many sisters that have gotten out there and gone into the darkness. Harriet Tubman had it in her front yard, and she said, ‘There’s something else out there, right?’ Not to compare myself, but you know what I mean? Rosa Parks. Or Amelia Boynton. All of these women who said, you know, ‘I don’t know how this goes, but I’m going to walk over there and see how it is — over there.’ ”

She mentions Steven Spielberg, Mike Nichols, Michael Mann, Ridley Scott and Ron Howard. “These men … have been able to make film after film after film,” she says. “Some work, some don’t. They got another one, another one, another one. Women don’t get that. Black directors don’t get that. And black women directors surely don’t get it.

“So the idea that you can say, ‘I want to be Spielberg, I want to be able to move [between] genres,’ go from E.T. to Schindler’s List to The BFG to The Post … make intimate character dramas and historical dramas. But to also make fantasy? Is that possible for us? It remains to be seen, but we have to try. And so, I try.”

Oprah is talking about box braids and listening to Kendrick. Has she changed or have we? At her latest ‘SuperSoul Conversations,’ a more outspoken version of the world’s most powerful black woman

NEW YORK — A few weeks ago, after she’d delivered her news-cycle-dominating barn burner of a Golden Globes speech, Oprah Winfrey held court at the Apollo Theater in Harlem.

She’d booked the place for a marathon day of interviews with pop culture luminaries, which were being taped for the televised OWN series SuperSoul Conversations and the podcast of the same name. Part one, which features Jordan Peele, Salma Hayek Pinault and Trevor Noah, will air on Tuesday at 10 p.m. The interviews with Stephen Colbert, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Yara Shahidi will air in part two on March 6 at 10 p.m.

One moment was especially shocking: Oprah was speaking with Peele, the Oscar-nominated director of Get Out. “I won’t shame anybody, those who haven’t yet seen it. Most of them are up there — ” Oprah said, pointing toward the upper mezzanine, “— and there’s a reason for that.” The black women in the audience, especially those in the orchestra section, erupted with whoops and laughs.

“Those of you who are white, you should go and see it with a black friend,” Oprah continued. “Gayle [King] said she’d seen it at a screening or something and then she went as saw it with a black audience and it was completely different.”

Another round of laughs.

Kill the b—-!” Oprah jeered, referring to the character who lures unsuspecting black men to her family’s compound where she and her family auction them off to whites seeking younger, stronger bodies to inhabit.

This was followed by about 30 seconds of raucous applause, and more whooping.

Where in Sam Hill did this Oprah come from?

Oprah’s always been black and she’s always been forthright about her own experiences with racism. But many black people have had a complicated relationship with Oprah, with her wealth, with perceptions of her obligations to The Black Community. See: those who called on Oprah to rescue the television series Underground even after she explained it didn’t make good financial sense for the OWN network or those who resented her for building a school for poor girls in South Africa instead of stateside or those who resented The Color Purple and her role in it because they thought it unfairly maligned black men. For years, like much of middle America, she had a distant-to-lukewarm relationship with hip-hop.

As some black people saw it, Oprah had an unspoken covenant with the white people who delivered the bulk of her bonkers ratings and subsequent wealth: Sure, she’s allowed to periodically remind white people that she’s black, but she’s sure not going to turn into Assata Shakur.

Oprah is the preeminent white lady whisperer of the 20th century, an observation Saturday Night Live recently resurrected amid speculation of an Oprah 2020 run for president.

Leslie Jones-as-Oprah stopped by the Weekend Update desk to explain why she might turn to public service.

“I need to get white women back on track,” said Jones-as-Oprah. “Ever since I’ve been off the air, they’ve gotten out of control. They voted for Trump. They voted for Roy Moore. They kept 12 different shows about flipping houses on air. It’s a mess!”

In the past few years, though, something has shifted ever so slightly. It was evident from the reactions of black women in the Apollo audience, who murmured with gleeful astonishment to Oprah’s “kill the b—-” comment. I saw a few more eyebrows go up when Oprah suggested to Phoebe Robinson and Jessica Williams, the Two Dope Queens who opened the event for her, that the trio “go to a salon and get box braids.” There was a similar reaction when the bass line to Kendrick Lamar’s “Humble” thumped in during a video accompanying Peele’s introduction: OK, Oprah! We see you, girl.

Has black people’s relationship with Oprah changed or has she? Maybe it’s a bit of both.

Oprah’s role in the public imagination, and the attention and commerce it commands, has always been raced and gendered. I remember my college poetry professor dismissing her as a “mammy diva,” referring to Oprah’s penchant for making white people comfortable while also putting herself on the cover of her eponymous magazine every month.

I think she’s following the compass of her power as a public figure. For Oprah, magnetic north has been shifting back toward black women ever since she decided to endorse Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton in the 2008 presidential race. It’s a shift that’s been unfolding for years, as OWN, which launched in January 2011, found its ratings footing thanks to black women, rather than the Oprah show’s bread and butter demo of white mothers and housewives. Oprah has returned the love by investing in programming that caters directly to them, from Black Love to Queen Sugar to Greenleaf to the forthcoming Love Is ___, an hourlong drama from Salim and Mara Brock Akil, the couple behind Girlfriends, Being Mary Jane, and most recently, Black Lightning. (Tyler Perry, the much-maligned actor-director-producer who was responsible for the network’s early ratings success, is moving on to Viacom.)

Oprah is the most powerful black woman in the world, and through her programming choices, she’s redoubled her efforts to reach other black women, reaffirming that, yes, deep down, beneath all that money, she really is just like them. That’s precisely why, upon meeting her last June at a press junket for Queen Sugar, I asked Oprah if she’d ever consider hosting a presidential debate on OWN. It seemed like another way for the mogul to use her network to serve black women, especially considering how the Democratic Party has been criticized for overlooking the one demographic that’s continually bailing it out. If there’s anyone who could refocus the party’s attention on its most loyal constituency, it’s Oprah, right?

Oprah immediately shook her head. “No.”

She started to walk away, then turned back to me. Her eyes narrowed a bit, she pursed her lips, and you could see her considering the idea for another beat. “Wait. You mean in 2020?”


“Anything’s possible.”

In February, Oprah addressed the crowd before her at the Apollo. The audience was mostly women, mostly black, and filled with people turned out in the stylish, elaborate garb that makes for street-style photography gold. Everyone dresses right for Oprah.

Oprah is the most powerful black woman in the world, and through her programming choices, she’s redoubled her efforts to reach other black women, reaffirming that, yes, deep down, beneath all that money, she really is just like them.

“I know so many people are feeling uneasy about the state of our world right now. It’s gon’ be aight,” Oprah said in the calm tones of a parent reassuring her children. “We. Have been. Through tougher times than these. It’s going to be OK. OK? Especially if you don’t buy into the hysteria. OK?”

When she was taping the Oprah show, Oprah always had a more irreverent side to her than the nation’s needy projections of comfortable matronliness would suggest. Our understanding of Oprah as a woman with youthful energy and a sex drive seems to fluctuate with her weight. She can be bashful and flirty — remember the time Jamie Foxx hit on her? She has admitted, on air, to not wearing underwear and she’s drunk tequila shots, too. After her 50th birthday, director Lee Daniels reminded us of Oprah’s sultry side in The Butler, where Oprah, as a drunken Gloria Gaines, took a long drag on a cigarette as she entertained the advances of Howard (Terrence Howard).

But she was also adept at knowing when to use her auntie affect as a way to get her celebrity guests on the Oprah show to divulge details about their lives that they didn’t necessarily wish to discuss. It’s on full display in a 2007 interview with Beyoncé, when the singer was still being cagey about her relationship with Jay-Z, and wasn’t even overtly confirming whether or not the two were married (they were).

Now, at 64, Oprah seems to be in the midst of a youthful renaissance, and not just because she embraces the awkward Gen Z humor of Twooooo Dooope Queeeeeeeeeee-eeeeeeeens, as she calls them. For the SuperSoul taping, Oprah was dressed in an outfit that wouldn’t have looked out-of-place on a woman 30 years younger: skinny black jeans, kicky black moto boots, and an ice-blue velvet blazer over a partially sheer white blouse. Her hair was pulled into a high, bouncy ponytail that gave her a girlish quality. She was sporting a pair of round glasses that featured leopard print detail on the bridge and temples. She looked, well, cool.

More than any other time during her life in the public eye, Oprah seems to be enjoying the freedom to do and say whatever she wants. This was hugely apparent when she told her audience at the Apollo that she had more power being Oprah than she could ever wield as president of the United States.

What does it look like to preserve your faith in humanity while shedding the last remnants of damns you have to give?

Keep your eye on Oprah. She’s showing us.

From ‘Dawson’s Creek’ to ‘Buffy’ to ‘Frasier’ to ‘Seinfeld’ — what happened to those lone, ‘token’ black actors? Eight talents tell stories of offensive scripts, stunt people in blackface and the heartbreak — and hope — of portraying Thug No. 2 and the dope dealer’s girlfriend

This is about television in the 1990s but let’s start with a quick, tragic and important trip to 1975.

Happy Days is about to deliver its infamous and most cringe-worthy episode. In “Fonzie’s New Friend,” the leather jacket-clad Fonz meets up with Sticks Downey, a new-to-town wisecracking drummer. The Fonz decides that Sticks, played with seemingly effortless timing by John Bailey, would make a great addition to Richie Cunningham’s band. When Richie asks a young woman on a date to a luau — with Fonzie’s new buddy as the perfect hookup for her friend, the punchline is of course that Sticks is black.

“Why do I get the feeling I was just humiliated?” Sticks deadpans as the studio audience roars with laughter. From there: one-liners about Downey’s lack of basketball prowess, about eating fried chicken and watermelon and yes, a low-key slavery joke. “Sticks was a very offensive character,” said artist Alida Bailey from her Palmdale, California, home. The easygoing stepdaughter of John Bailey wasn’t alive when the episode aired, but she’s seen it many times. “It was so over-the-top,” she said. “But to his credit, my father was still hilarious. He could shine in any role even if it was a token one.” He appeared in 1977’s The Kentucky Fried Movie, but by the ’80s, John Bailey bolted to the adult film industry, where he went by name Jack Baker. In 1994, he died of bladder cancer due to complications from AIDS.

“My dad got his foot in the door … despite race being an issue,” Alida Bailey said with pride. “But once the roles started to dry up, he could see that there was no equality in Hollywood … What you’re left with are token roles.” Downey was the 1970s. And while ’80s television — a groundbreaking era that launched The Cosby Show, the criminally underrated Frank’s Place, The Oprah Winfrey Show, and 227, the 1990s were actually awash in tokenism.

Yes, the adored 1990s. Even with the shows that are seared into our collective DNA: The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Roc, In Living Color, The Arsenio Hall Show, New York Undercover, and Martin — all of these were must-see TV. There was A Different World, Family Matters, Moesha, Sister, Sister, Living Single. Indeed, in the 1990s, the wealth of black representation on television could lull you into thinking — if you turned the channel from Rodney King taking more than 50 blows from Los Angeles Police Department batons — that black lives actually did matter. But almost all of these shows were in varying ways, an extension of segregated America. It’s there in the memories of the stars below: There were “black shows,” and there were “white shows.” If you were a black actor appearing on a white show, you were usually alone.

For some of the most visible black actors coming of age in the 1990s, it’s clear that along with the triumphs came isolation, blatant racial stereotyping and biased casting calls. As for “crossing over” to the mainstream, in the mostly segregated worlds of Seinfeld, Frasier, Melrose Place, Saved by the Bell: The New Class, Felicity, V.I.P., Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dawson’s Creek and more, blacks were usually relegated to bit parts or were there for a short time. The Undefeated sat down with eight of these talented women and men. These are their stories. This is history.


Brinson + Banks for The Undefeated

Born: Iowa City, Iowa

Throwback: Melrose Place, Seinfeld

Currently working on: CBS’ 9JKL

When you live in the same house as a father that created such an incredible legacy — not just for himself and his family, but for an entire race of people — it’s expected that you should do the same. Greg Morris broke down racial barriers on Mission: Impossible. Him, Bill Cosby, Diahann Carroll [Julia], Bernie Hamilton [Starsky & Hutch], Lloyd Haynes [Room 222] … they opened the door for all of us as black actors on television. I wanted to continue to break down those barriers.

My first acting job was on Star Trek, way back when I was … around 8. I’m talking about the original Star Trek with Captain Kirk and Dr. Spock. It was stunt-casting episode, so I was in it, my sister Iona was in it, William Shatner’s daughters were in it, and some of the directors’ kids were in it. We were kids who weren’t actors, but we knew when to shut up when the director called “Action!” [Laughs].

“To his credit my father was still hilarious. He could shine in any role, even if it was a token one.”

My earliest adult experiences in the acting world … I stunted my own authenticity because either I was trying to not be my father or trying to live up to his success. But the ’90s kind of opened things up for me. That era allowed for more black images to be seen as intelligent, authoritative, educated, stylish, and beautiful beyond The Cosby Show, which normalized how the world looked at African-American families. I appeared on black shows like 227, The Fresh Prince, and Martin. But I was also able to do series like WIOU [a short-lived CBS news drama], Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and other more mainstream, non-ethnic roles. Unfortunately, that wasn’t always the experience for black actors.

I remember [around ’95] going out for a role on Melrose Place — one of the hottest shows on television at that time. I had a long history with Aaron Spelling [Charlie’s Angels, Dynasty, and Beverly Hills 90210]. I’ve gone to dinner with Mr. Spelling and I’ve gone to dinner with Mr. Darren Star [co-creator of Beverly Hills 90210, Melrose Place and Sex In The City] and I’ve told them, “You need to have more black people on that show than just Vanessa A. Williams.” And they would tell me, “Oh, Phil … it’s all casting … we would bring you in, we would make a role for you in a heartbeat.” I took it as lip service.

A few weeks later, Melrose Place had another role. I told my people to submit me for it. My agents came back and said, “Nah, they’re not going to see you. They want the role to be a white role.” The next time I saw Aaron Spelling, I again told him that I knew I wasn’t going to get the role because I was black. And he said, “Well, I’m only so big. There’s only so much that I can do.” I finally got a role on Melrose Place because I happened to be the right dude.

SEINFELD — “The Finale: Part 1&2” Episode 23 & 24 — Pictured: (l-r) Jerry Seinfeld as Jerry Seinfeld, Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Elaine Benes, Jason Alexander as George Costanza, Michael Richards as Cosmo Kramer, Phil Morris as Jackie Chiles (Photo by )

Joseph Del Valle/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

The truth is, you ain’t never going to please everybody, anyway. When I went to audition for Jackie Chiles on Seinfeld, I never thought of it as a derogatory token role. They told me, straight up, “We want someone that would give us a rendition of Johnnie Cochran.” I remember seeing Michael Dorn [Worf, of the Star Trek franchise] and Ted Lange from The Love Boat and Michael Boatman. We all looked like the Motown Mafia at that audition with our dark suits [Laughs].

“My Melrose Place experience only strengthened me. I wasn’t going to let no one tell me my worth, or value.”

I’d known Johnnie Cochran most of my whole life. We went to the same barber … Terrell’s Barber Shop in Los Angeles. I’d see Johnnie there almost every Sunday, for years — so I knew this cat way before the O.J. Simpson trial. I had a sense of his rhythm and his thing … that “Uh, huh … You don’t say.” I ended up getting the Seinfeld job, but Johnnie had to sign off on his likeness, which he eventually did. Jackie Chiles was a relief valve for a lot of people who were so frustrated with the O.J. verdict. It gave them a chance to laugh at the proceedings that were sometimes just ridiculous. Personally, I didn’t agree with the O.J. verdict. That’s why Jackie Chiles was so over-the-top. I let them have it.

I saw Johnnie a couple of times after my Seinfeld episodes aired and it was just like an old western movie. I walked into the barbershop and he’s laid back in the chair getting a shave. Everyone was quiet and Johnnie looks at me, laughs and says, “Young man, you are hilarious.”

I don’t know why I don’t have my own show right now. It’s driving me crazy, because my ambition is very high … I’m developing my own show, centering around me as an ex-soap opera star. I’m just trying to control my journey.


Brinson+Banks for The Undefeated

Born: Los Angeles

Throwback: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dawson’s Creek

Currently working on: Queen Sugar

When I turned 14, I started Saved By The Bell: The New Class [in 1993]. I’d been staying in New York with my dad, and I ended up coming back to L.A. I was in a store and some guy walked up to us and said, “My wife is a manager. Do you act?” And literally that week I got the role for Saved By The Bell. I wasn’t thinking about if I was the “token black girl” on the show. I was just happy to be working.

Bianca Lawson played Megan Jones in Saved By The Bell: The New Class.

Chris Haston/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

I had a recurring role on Sister, Sister and it was so much fun. The UPN writers from that show told me, “Bianca, we’re going to make another series and we are going to write a part just for you.” It was a black sitcom with the legendary Sherman Hemsley called Goode Behavior. I was offered a role on Buffy the Vampire Slayer as one of the leads, but I took Good Behavior because the producers had kept their word.

“Can you black it up? Can you make it blacker … more street? That was never me. Honestly, I had more issues with the black directors and producers than the white ones.”

After Goode ended, the Buffy people offered me another part. I thought I was going to be on Buffy longer, but it was only for four episodes. I loved playing Kendra. She was fierce and she was direct. She wasn’t about being liked. She had this mission to accomplish and it wasn’t connected to some guy or some romance.

Bianca Lawson and Alyson Hannigan from season 2 of “Buffy The Vampire Slayer.”

I can’t remember how many episodes I was supposed to do on Dawson’s Creek, but there was this thing where my character Nikki, who was a filmmaker, always had to be better than [her white peers]. She even had a discussion with Dawson about this. It was really surreal. The thought of becoming the first black actress on shows like Dawson’s Creek and Buffy the Vampire Slayer never really occurred to me back then.

Recently, I was on an airplane and someone left a beautiful note on my seat to say what I meant to them as a black actress on television. I didn’t really think about any of that when I was younger because you’re just doing the work. It was only years later as I got older that I realized seeing a young black woman on Buffy and Dawson’s Creek was empowering to a lot of people.

It’s a feeling that I’m experiencing on an even higher level with Queen Sugar. I feel like I’m part of a new black television era.


Born: Brooklyn, New York

Throwback: Melrose Place

Currently working on: Vengeance, Days of Our Lives, I Left My Girlfriend for Regina Jones

When I was 6, I wanted to literally know how people got into the TV set [Laughs]. My family is a performing family. My mother was a tap dancer and my grandmother was an accomplished pianist and organist and had played with W.C. Handy, and my auntie sung opera. I started to do singing roles as part of the New York City Opera, and there was a girl there who was also a professional actress. She had an actual manager, which really impressed me. We ended up becoming friends and I got that same manager.

My first big gig was a Bubble Yum commercial with Ralph Macchio [of The Karate Kid] We did a f—ing bubble gum rap [Laughs]. “Yum, so fine, the flavor lasts a long, long time!” It was hilarious … a bunch of white kids and a black girl rapping about gum!

There are two projects that I count as my big break into Hollywood — The Cosby Show and of course New Jack City. As a New York actor, you are trained in theater, and if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. So I wasn’t intimidated when I got the Melrose Place phone call. This was a big deal because we knew the show was an Aaron Spelling project coming on the heels of Beverly Hills, 90210. I heard that my role as Rhonda was going to be for a Jewish girl, but I won the role. I just thought, Wow, my dreams are coming true.

“I started out as a standup comedian. I wanted to be Carol Burnett, Lucille Ball and Whoopi Goldberg.”

When the L.A. riots happened, there was a story line on Melrose Place dealing with the aftermath. In the script, Rhonda was separating herself from her own community — the black community — and saying things like, “Those people … ” I had a serious talk with Darren, who was very amenable about changing that part of the script.

The cast of the TV series, ‘Melrose Place,’ posing on steps, circa 1993.

Fotos International/Getty Images)

It wasn’t until Melrose Place fired me after doing 33 episodes of season one that I felt the sting of Hollywood. There was positive fan feedback about my character, but I guess the Spelling people did some demographic research and decided that they were going to go into a more backbiting, soap opera direction. I thought the only strike against me was that I was a black actress. It had all to do with the fact that they were going to have people sleeping with each other in the cast — and how would that play for Middle America to see a black girl bed-hopping?

But my Melrose Place experience only strengthened me. I wasn’t going to let no one tell me my worth or value. I kept rolling with roles on such shows as Chicago Hope, Soul Food and [most recently] the Bella Thorne-vehicle Famous In Love on ABC’s Freeform network. One thing about the ’90s is there was a plethora of work for black actors even with all the ups and downs. This was the golden age of black television. We literally built Fox and UPN. That is a known fact.


Brinson + Banks for The Undefeated

Born: Philadelphia

Throwback: Doogie Howser, M.D.

Currently working on: Wine & Whimsy, The 6th Degree

I always knew I wanted to be a television actor. I was enamored by John Travolta as Vinnie Barbarino on Welcome Back Kotter. I thought he was the coolest dude in the history of the world, and my parents laughed at me. They were like, “You know acting is an actual job? Travolta is not just some cool guy … he’s acting.” I was like, “Well, I want that job!” It wasn’t until my family moved from North Philadelphia to Ventura County, about an hour north of Los Angeles, that I got into a high school drama class.

I started taking lessons from acting coach Cliff Osmond, rest in peace. After I’d been in the class long enough, he told me, “I think it’s time for you to meet my wife.” She became my first agent in 1989, and I ended up booking a play called Ten November. One of the casting directors from this new show, Doogie Howser, M.D., Beth Hymson, came to the play. She brought me in for an audition to play Friend No. 2.

So I go to the audition and Friend No. 2 is asking Doogie what it’s like being a doctor. Now I grew up in Ventura with a bunch of surfers, so to me it just seemed natural to be like, “Whoa, dude … You get to see blood and guts?!!! Gnarly, dude!” And I’m a big, black guy, so that didn’t make a whole lot of sense doing a white surfer voice, but Beth and the others got a kick out of it. They told me they’d keep me on their radar. And then the very next audition was for Raymond on Doogie Howser, M.D.

The cast of Doogie Howser, M.D.

ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images

Early on, I noticed the Doogie script was very surface. My character was written as this tough black guy who’s about to rob a 7-Eleven. Doogie talks him down, he realizes the error of his ways, and Doogie gets to feel good about himself. On the third or fourth day of production, there was a line where Doogie’s mom screams at a cop, “If that animal hurts my son!” She was talking about my character. This became hugely controversial because we had a good number of African-Americans that were extras on set.

The extra that played my mom, she especially took offense to it. I remember production stopped, and when we came back, that “animal” line had been taken out of the script. So there was this slow process of humanizing Raymond on the series.

“I don’t have my own show right now. It’s driving me crazy because my ambition is very high.”

I met a lot of black people while I was on Doogie. They’d be like, “So, wait, you’re on TV?” And I’d say, “I’m on Doogie Howser.” They’d usually respond, “Oh, I don’t watch that show because there ain’t no black people on it.” And that’s the thing. If you segregate yourself, the media will always give those stereotypes to you. If you keep telling the media, “Ghetto, street, rap … that’s all who I am,” the media will respond, just like the universe.

Neil Patrick Harris and Markus Remond on an episode of Doogie Howser, M.D.

ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images

When I’d go out for auditions, there was usually a prerequisite of, “Can you black it up? Can you make it blacker … more street?” And that was never me. Honestly, I had more issues with the black directors and producers than the white ones. I’m not a fan of hip-hop. Look at my Spotify and its mostly country. My favorite actors are William Powell, Humphrey Bogart, Jimmy Stewart. That’s where I get my juice.

After Doogie, I was able to book a series on UPN called Family Rules as the black next-door neighbor. Everybody knew what the UPN acronym really meant: The Underpaid Negro Network. I was the reverse token … the only black person on a mostly white show on UPN. It was canceled after [six] episodes. It had gotten to the point where none of this acting stuff was relevant to me. I was tired of playing Thug No. 4. Like I said, I grew up with surfers, listened to swing music and loved Woody Allen movies. I didn’t fit in.

I think that’s why I embraced writing. I’ve sold some scripts to studios and I did a film that went to Sundance back in ’07 that Whoopi Goldberg and Sharon Stone starred in along with me called If I Had Known I Was A Genius. I never limit myself. Fortunately, today we have great shows portraying black people in a broad light like How To Get Away With Murder and Scandal. Thank God for Shonda Rhimes for saying, “Let me just make great television shows and just put black people in the lead and surround them with everybody.”


Brinson+Banks for The Undefeated

Born: New York

Throwback: The Parent ‘Hood, Freaks and Geeks

Currently working on: Artificial intelligence software project

I loved being in front of the camera. I did Reading Rainbow twice, and one of the producers said to my parents, “He’s really good. This seems like something you guys might want to pursue.” I thank my mom, Lola, for my career, because she put in a lot of work.

The first national spot I booked was a commercial for Bubble Yum in 1990. I was around 12, and the role for that ad was originally not created for a black kid, but a white character named Milo, the Mathematical Genius. I guess white kids were only allowed to be intelligent, but the agent I had was incredible. She was like, “Oh, no. We’re going to send Kenn there because they don’t know what they want. And he can do it.” I nailed it.

I always played the smart kid in a lot of crossover roles. And then I hit this rut that was typical with being a black actor where the majority of the roles were the street kid, the drug dealer or the bad kid. All the auditions were the same, and I was bummed, so around 1992 I was an apprentice director on the film Boomerang, shadowing the Hudlin Brothers. I got the chance to watch Eddie Murphy work. I developed a bit of a rapport with him. Eddie noticed I was a little out of sorts.

Hours later, he asked me to see him on his bus. I was excited! I told him what I was experiencing in the television audition game and he gave me this pep talk, like, “Dude, I know. But you have to keep on trucking. Your excellence will shine no matter what you do.” I ended up getting an actual part in Boomerang.

But then you go from being on a big budget film that showed blacks in a nuanced, positive light, and back to the politics of TV. I remember a meeting I had with Darren Star, who was the head of Aaron Spelling’s development company. I walked into this huge office in Beverly Hills. They were interested in creating a show for me, so Darren walks in, puts his feet up on the table and he says, “You may know some of our series like Beverly Hills, 90210 and Melrose Place …” He had this very arrogant way about him. So I said, “Yeah, I’ve seen those shows, but I don’t really watch them because I don’t see anybody who looks like me.” [A] phrase you heard a lot back in those days [was] … “Oh, we don’t know how to write for black characters.”

Being on the show The Parent ’Hood was an interesting situation. I was on a black series with Robert Townsend, who was show’s creator and executive producer. There was diversity, and it was great at times, but then my character started to get painted in a corner. He was viewed as this superpositive black male character … smart and into music. I was written off the show. The character they replaced me with was this boy who was written as a troubled, streetwise kid. It wasn’t just the white shows that insisted I play the hoodlum. That was an eye-opener.

“I hit this rut that was typical with being a black actor where the majority of the roles were the street kid, the drug dealer or the bad kid.”

When I did Freaks and Geeks, nobody knew anything about it. Judd Apatow was not a huge name at that point, so for me it was just another audition. I was just happy to be on a show where the writing was really funny. We know that Apatow’s projects are mostly white. In hindsight, yeah, it would have been great … for them to have more characters of color.

I got tired of the politics of auditioning for roles. I’d always been directing my own short films before I got my first official directing gig. I was doing film festivals and some projects on the digital side of filmmaking before anybody was talking about it, because the picture quality wasn’t of quality back then. I was also doing a lot of voiceover work for video games and cartoons. I ended up directing BET’s Let’s Stay Together. That was my multicam, sitcom, directorial thing. It was a lot of fun. Doing voice work for video games has been a lot of fun because you get to play all these crazy characters. I do a really great German accent [Michael is an in-demand video game voice actor. He has appeared in the Saints Row series and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas].

I’ve started this next phase of my journey. I’ve been building a software project that is dealing with sound, healing, and sacred numbers and frequencies. My thing is bringing spirituality, technology, and science together. Artificial intelligence is upon us. We need to make sure that we are imbuing things into A.I. that we would want.


Born: Brooklyn, New York

Throwback: Living Single, Frasier

Currently working on: Stand-up comedy, speaking engagements (AARP, American Heart Association among others)

I started out as a stand-up comedian. I wanted to be Carol Burnett, Lucille Ball and Whoopi Goldberg. [In 1987], I auditioned for A Different World, for the role of Jaleesa … the role that Dawnn Lewis eventually got. Dawn and I had been friends since we were 11, so for her to get that was huge. I remember being at an event and meeting Keenan Ivory Wayans. Keenan tells me that he has a television show coming up and that he wanted me to audition. I found out that it was a multicultural sketch comedy show, which had never been done before.

We filmed the pilot for In Living Color in 1989, but somebody had already gotten a hold of the episode! There were bootlegged copies being sold on the streets. There were people who loved the show and others who thought we were too edgy, too black, and hated it. I was only on In Living Color for the first year … it was an incredible experience.

The cast of Living Single. Kim Coles is the to far right.

Deborah Feingold/Corbis via Getty Images

Landing the role of Synclaire on Living Single was massive. It was around 1992, and I’d just left In Living Color. The producers reached out to me and said, “We love you. We want to do a series about black women and their experiences and what they think about life and men.” Living Single was an iconic show with a lot of layers. It wasn’t a stereotypical black sitcom. But it wasn’t hard to notice that networks like Fox and UPN were using black shows just to establish their success. There were black series that were watched by millions on Fox, but apparently they weren’t a part of the network’s vision.

I booked The Geena Davis Show, but they kindly let me walk so I could do an episode of Frasier. Then I booked a second episode, and I have to tell you, the experience was amazing. Kelsey Grammer was beyond kind to me and he loved my Dr. Mary character. I knew that there were no [black people] on Frasier, but I saw that as a challenge.

“That just was the reality of the times … you usually were the only black person on a so-called ‘white’ show.”

The response to Dr. Mary was incredible, so we tried to get the Frasier people to do a spinoff. This was at the time Kelsey was about to do Girlfriends, so I knew he had to be open to black women being the lead [of a show]. The writer who wrote my two episodes on Frasier even won a diversity award because before that they didn’t have anyone like me on that show! But the spin-off never happened.

I do some stand-up and I have my own one-woman show. And I do a lot of speaking engagements for AARP and the American Heart Association. I tell my story and I try to inspire, motivate … and I get to be funny. I think there should be more black shows like black-ish. We have Shonda Rhimes, who is putting together these amazing series with these amazing black women at the helm. But I’m not waiting around for Hollywood to call me for jobs. Everything that I’m doing today keeps me fed until I’m able to get that free food. Because that’s the only reason to do a television show … it’s the free food [Laughs].


Brinson + Banks for The Undefeated

Born: Miami

Throwback: Michael Hayes, Felicity

Currently working on: Nwannem: Sisters

Acting seemed kind of far-fetched. It wasn’t practical. But there was a show called Michael Hayes, which starred David Caruso. It was a detective series, like Miami Vice, and I played a drug dealer’s girlfriend. I was more concerned about my hair than how my peers would perceive me as an actor [laughs].

Thank God I don’t have to worry about that now, because today they have a lot of black hair stylists, but back then that wasn’t the case. So I showed up on set with my hair clean and washed and no makeup. And they would look at me like, “What happened to you?” This one white girl came to me with a pressing comb and she tried to comb my hair in the opposite direction, and I’m like, “No, no, no … the comb goes the other way.”

Cast of the show Felicity.

Getty Images

I don’t think I ever felt like Elena was this lone, token black character when I got the role for Felicity. As a black actress, that just was the reality of the times … you usually were the only black person on a so-called “white” show. When I met J.J. Abrams and Matt Reeves, who created the show, I actually thought they were assistants because they were so short and cute [Laughs]. I was talking to them like they were my peers … but they were really cool about it.

“When I went to audition for Jackie Chiles on Seinfeld, I never thought of it as a derogatory, token role.”

What I was really concerned about was wanting Elena to come across as more than just Felicity’s black friend. It was important to me that you saw some of my character’s girlfriends from before she came to college. If you look back at some of the episodes of Felicity, you will see Elena’s backstory with her family and father. Whenever I made those suggestions, the producers actually followed through. I felt supported.

I didn’t realize how lucky we were until Felicity was over. It was an amazing, well-written show. J.J. is a genius. I wanted another meaty character that I could sink my teeth into … that I could be proud of, but I couldn’t find one. That’s one of the reasons why I started producing and making my own movies. Recently, I directed Diva Diaries. I’ve done Hurricane in the Rose Garden, My Girlfriend’s Back, Love … & Other 4 Letter Words. I’ve done like 10 or 12 films, mostly as a producer and actor. I love what I do.


Brinson + Banks for The Undefeated

Born: New York

Throwback: V.I.P.

Currently working on: Atone, The Zim

The first thing I did when I came out to Los Angeles was House Party, but the first television series I booked was a [1993] sitcom called Where I Live. It was a positive depiction of a young Caribbean family and young African-Americans from Harlem who were supportive of each other. It featured myself, Doug E. Doug and Flex Alexander. We were just starting our careers, and were so excited to be working as young actors. After the second season, when we didn’t get picked up, it was heartbreaking.

I was happy to be a part of Living Single. Kim Coles is incredibly gifted. Everybody from that show from [Queen] Latifah, T.C. Carson, and Kim Fields to Erika Alexander to John Henton were heavy hitters. The role I played, Russell, a West Indian music editor, was interesting, because my family is from Jamaica. I tapped into my own experiences. We were groundbreaking, positive, upwardly mobile, young African-Americans, men and women who were flawed individuals striving for friendship and love.

“The thought of becoming the first black actress on shows like Dawson’s Creek and Buffy the Vampire Slayer never really occurred to me back then.”

But after that success, all of sudden these popular black series like Roc, In Living Color, Martin, and Living Single were getting canceled. Then you would see all of these white shows like Party of Five and Melrose Place pop up. I don’t know if it was strategic, but it did make us raise an eyebrow and ask, “Well, what happened to all those black shows?”

After Living, I had a meeting with Pamela Anderson for an action comedy called V.I.P. and she was transparent … about a lot of things pertaining to a role she had in mind for me. She told me, “You know why you’re here? You have a following … you have an audience.” Living Single helped me get on V.I.P.

The cast of V.I.P.

V.I.P. [1998-2002] was a huge action comedy series. When you’re minority on such a big show, having a support system is very important. I was very mindful of how I was being portrayed as a black man on V.I.P. But there was a situation that I had to deal with. A lot of times in the stunt world if they don’t think an African-American stunt person is not capable, they will actually [blackface] a non-African American. This would usually be a white person.

We were doing an episode where we were supposed to be circus performers, and they told me they couldn’t find any black circus people, but I knew they just didn’t want to spend the money. So I told them to take me out of the scene if they were going to use a painted-on stunt person. I knew the history of blackface. I understood how serious that was. I went to Pam and the producers and I said, “Not only am I offended, but the NAACP will be in here marching.” They wrote me out of the scene.

But looking back, I still feel fortunate to be part of a special time on television. I’m thankful because just to get one acting role back then was like hitting the lottery. But I had several: Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, A Different World, Martin, Living Single, V.I.P. TV is powerful. A lot of times, black people are portrayed as savages. That’s why it’s important to see shows like Ava DuVernay’s Queen Sugar — that’s how we as artists make a difference.

24 books for white people to read beyond Black History Month These great reads will help any reader discover the rich range of the African-American experience

For many years I was a clueless white guy. I suffered from one-ness. What I really needed was two-ness, and maybe three-ness and four-ness. I came to see my whiteness not as privilege but as insufficiency, thanks to W. E. B. Du Bois and his 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk.

In a remarkable passage, the great scholar, author and activist described the Negro as “a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world, — a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eye of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideas in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

Here is the good news. I am not there yet, but I am gaining on two-ness. My white skin is no longer a prison of cluelessness. With the help of African-American friends and colleagues, I am beginning to see America through the eyes of not the Other but others. Through their generosity, I have been invited to ask questions. I heard or saw things I didn’t understand. I did not yet know how to learn, nor did I have the courage to ask a question that might come off as racist. My fear was met by encouragement from the likes of Rev. Kenny Irby, DeWayne Wickham, Dr. Karen Dunlap, Keith Woods, Dr. Lillian Dunlap. “Don’t worry,” they indicated by one means or another. “Ask away. No one is going to leave the room or show you the door.”

Some of my clueless questions:

“When I see a police car, unless I am speeding, I think protection. Tell me why when you see a cop car you may think oppression?”

“I don’t get the absence of so many black fathers in the lives of their children. What is up with that?”

“I have learned to hate the N-word. When I hear it from black rappers, should I be offended?”

“I keep running into this idea of ‘good hair’ vs. ‘bad hair.’ As someone with very bad hair, I think that anyone with any kind of hair has good hair. What am I missing?”

There came a time during these interrogations when I felt a little fatigue setting in from my colleagues. And then Karen Dunlap, my boss and president of the Poynter Institute, made it explicit. It gets tiring, she explained, bearing the burden of white people’s ignorance about black people and African-American culture. “You know,” she gave me a Sunday school teacher look, “you could read something.”

Read something. Yes, read something!

And so I have. Over the past two decades I have developed quite a nice collection of what I might generally describe as African-American literature, some of it written by white journalists or scholars but most of it created by black poets, playwrights, scholars, novelists, essayists and critics. My collection is now large enough to be displayed, and I recently did just that in the library of the Poynter Institute.

I am not claiming this to be an expert collection of works, and certainly not a model one. But it is my collection, and I believe it has made me a better friend, colleague, parent, citizen and human being. I offer this list, with brief annotations, at the END of Black History Month to encourage readers not to limit their learning to the shortest month of the year.

So please learn, grow — and enjoy.

  • My Soul Is Rested: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement in the Deep South, by Howell Raines. A superb oral history of the key moments and key figures of the struggle.
  • The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother, by James McBride. “What color is God?” a dark-skinned boy asks his light-skinned mother. “God is the color of water.”
  • Reporting Civil Rights (Parts One and Two) Library of America edition of great American journalism on race and social justice, 1941-1973.
  • The Authentic Voice: The Best Reporting on Race and Ethnicity, edited by Arlene Morgan, Alice Pifer and Keith Woods. Rich examples reveal the power of inclusiveness in all the stories we tell.
  • The Sound of Freedom: Marian Anderson, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Concert That Awakened America, by Raymond Arsenault. A great biography of a great American artist by the historian who also gave us Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice.
  • Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice, by Phillip Hoose. Before Rosa Parks became an American icon, a young teenage girl, Claudette Colvin, refused to give up her seat on a bus. Written for young readers, but important for all.
  • The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander. First came slavery, then came segregation, then came mass incarceration.
  • Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Framed as a letter to his adolescent son, the author digs down to consequences of the continuing exploitation of black people in America. By the author who has made the most eloquent case in favor of reparations for continuing effects of slavery.
  • Beloved, by Toni Morrison, winner of the Nobel Prize for literature. “Stares unflinchingly into the abyss of slavery.” Another must-read is The Bluest Eye, a terrifying novel about cultural definitions of beauty and the tragedy of self-hatred.
  • Fences, by August Wilson. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for drama, this play depicts what it means for a father to love his son — even at times when he doesn’t like him.
  • Woodholme: A Black Man’s Story of Growing Up Alone, by DeWayne Wickham. An orphan, black and poor, grows up to be one of America’s most prominent newspaper columnists.
  • Crossing the Danger Water: Three Hundred Years of African-American Writing, edited by Deirdre Mullane. If I had to recommend a single volume, this anthology would be it: more than 700 pages of history, literature and insight.
  • In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, by Alice Walker. Glowing essays expressed in what the author of The Color Purple calls “Womanist Prose.”
  • March (Books One, Two and Three), a trilogy, graphic-novel style, on the life and times of congressman John Lewis, with Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell. A work for adults and young readers.
  • Extraordinary, Ordinary People: A Memoir of Family, by Condoleezza Rice. This family memoir by the former U.S. secretary of state carries us back to when she was 8 years old and her young friends were murdered in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.
  • Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63, by Taylor Branch. Widely hailed by critics of all races as “a vivid tapestry of America.”
  • Race Matters, by Cornel West. From W. E. B. Du Bois to Cornel West, African-American intellectuals have helped Americans of all colors understand the sources of racism and the need for change.
  • The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, James Weldon Johnson. The 1912 short novel narrates what it means for a person of mixed race to “pass for white” within the system of American apartheid.
  • The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation, by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff. Winner of a Pulitzer Prize. The stories behind the stories of civil rights, including the inspirational courage and leadership of African-American journalists and publishers.
  • On the Bus with Rosa Parks, by Rita Dove. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, her poetry captures a unique vision of the love and spirit of those who struggled against segregation.
  • Soul on Ice, by Eldridge Cleaver. Bought this as a college student in 1968 along with Look Out, Whitey! Black Power’s Gon’ Get Your Mama! by Julius Lester. Written from a California state prison by a key figure in the Black Panther movement.
  • Black and White Styles in Conflict, by Thomas Kochman. Are black people and white people the same — or different? Turns out, the answer is “both,” according to the white sociologist who drills down into American culture to reveal the sources of our misunderstanding.
  • The Fire Next Time, by James Baldwin. Framed as a letter to his young nephew on the 100th anniversary of emancipation. A searing call for justice.
  • The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. The poet was black a black man in a white world, a gay man in a straight world. His experience of two-ness created, I would argue, one of the most impressive bodies of poetry in American history. Were there not an unofficial color line in the Pulitzer Prize judging, he would have won — and more than once.

In building this list, I emphasize again that it is only special in that it is mine, and in that it has led me to a place I wanted and needed to be. There are countless worthy works not on my list, and countless more that are soon to be written. If I may borrow a phrase from the late Julius Lester: Look out, Whitey! Read some of these books and, who knows, you may get a clue. May there be two-ness in your future — and more.

The top 24 sneaker sightings of 2018 NBA All-Star Weekend Style, swag, originality, and strong statements — who’s the All-Star sneaker MVP?

LOS ANGELES — The hottest stars on the planet, from the worlds of basketball, entertainment and fashion, descended upon the City of Angels for the 2018 NBA All-Star Weekend. And they brought the hottest shoes they could get on their feet. The festivities of the weekend — from pop-ups from the biggest brands in the sneaker industry to spontaneous concerts to the celebrity all-star games, the actual NBA All-Star Game, and even the lead-up practices — was a cultural explosion when it came to sneakers. These are the top 24 (shout-out to the greatest No. 24 in L.A. history, Kobe Bryant) pairs we saw at All-Star Weekend, along with the stars who made them shine.

LeBron James

LeBron James was named the MVP of the All-Star Game, and we’re also declaring him sneaker MVP of the weekend. Heading into practice before the game, he debuted a low-top version of his Nike LeBron 15, as well as a red, white and blue player exclusive (PE) edition of his first signature sneaker, the Nike Air Zoom Generation. On Instagram he broke out another Air Zoom Generation PE — this one designed with black pony hair and a glow-in-the-dark sole. His pregame All-Star shoes were a custom pair of “More Than An Athlete” Air Force 1s — a nod to the recent critical comments about the world’s greatest basketball player from Fox News’ Laura Ingraham. And last but not least, on the court at Staples Center during the All-Star Game, he rocked a regal pair of Nike x KITH LeBron 15 PEs, featuring rose and vine stitching and gold embellishment fit for a king. God bless Nike, KITH and James for delivering all this heat.

Migos’ Quavo

Quavo took home the trophy as MVP of the NBA’s Celebrity All-Star Game after balling out in not one, but two pairs of custom kicks. With the help of Finish Line, and famed sneaker artist Dan “Mache” Gamache, the rapper a part of the hip-hop trio Migos wore Nike LeBron 15s and Under Armour Curry 4s, both of which were inspired by the supergroup’s No. 1 album Culture II. We caught up with Mache, who discussed his process of bringing the specially designed “Culture Brons” and “Huncho Currys” to life.

Justin Bieber

Instagram Photo

From afar, it looked like pop star Justin Bieber was wearing a pair of Off-White Air Jordan 1s while running up and down the court in the Celebrity All-Star Game. But actually, he donned the Fear of God All-Star Pack, crafted by L.A.-based designer Jerry Lorenzo (the son of former Major League Baseball player and coach Jerry Manuel).

Odell Beckham Jr.

Instagram Photo

Instagram Photo

Customization was a theme of the weekend, especially for Nike. And one of the brand’s biggest athletes, New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., couldn’t leave L.A. without getting in the lab and getting his custom on. The end product? A red pair of OBJ Air Force 1s, which he swagged with a red and white Supreme x Louis Vuitton shoulder bag on the sidelines during the All-Star Game.

Kanye West

Instagram Photo

Kanye West made a surprise appearance at Adidas’ #747WarehouseSt in his “Blush” Yeezy Desert Rat 500s. The shoes were also available at the event to the public in limited quantities through a raffle. Shout-out to everyone who got a pair.


It’s been the year of the Air Jordan 3, and Xbox is riding the wave. On Feb. 16, the video gaming brand announced that three limited-edition consoles — inspired by the “Black Cement,” “Free Throw Line,” and “Tinker Hatfield” 3s — will be given away to three fans through a Twitter sweepstakes taking place from Feb. 16 to Feb. 21.

Kendrick Lamar

Grammy Award-winning rapper Kendrick Lamar took the stage at Nike’s Makers Headquarters on Feb. 17 in his newly dropped Cortez Kenny IIs. An iconic L.A. shoe for an iconic L.A. native.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Devin Booker, DeMar DeRozan

Nike x UNDEFEATED have the collaboration of the year so far, with the Zoom Kobe 1 Protros that were released to the public in a camouflage colorway at an exclusive pop-up in L.A. during the weekend. Toronto Raptors star, and Compton, California, native DeMar DeRozan wore a mismatched pair of the Protros — one green camo shoe and one PE red camo shoe — during the All-Star Game. We also saw pairs of PEs from Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks during the Celebrity All-Star Game, and Devin Booker of the Phoenix Suns during the 3-point shootout.


Yes, that is Usher wearing a pair of Air Jordan 5s, signed by Tinker Hatfield, the greatest designer in the history of sneakers.

Damian Lillard

Portland Trailblazers All-Star point guard Damian Lillard is endorsed by Adidas and is a huge fan of the Japanese streetwear brand BAPE. So this weekend, he brought us the BAPE-inspired Adidas Dame 4 in camo, red and black. Simply beautiful.

Kyrie Irving

There have been reports for quite some time that Nike and Kyrie Irving would be coming out with a new and affordable basketball shoe separate from his signature line. It appears to have arrived. On the practice court before the All-Star Game, Irving broke out the unnamed sneakers, which honor the Boston Celtics with the words “Boston” and “Pride” featured on the outsoles, as well as the years of Boston’s championships on the laces. Look for this shoe to eventually drop at rumored retail price of about $80.

Dwyane Wade

Dwyane Wade poses with the raffle winner of the new limited-edition All-Star Way of Wade 6 shoe, Moments during a private NBA All-Stars event Feb. 17.

Courtesy of Li-Ning

One pair of Dwyane Wade’s Li-Ning All-Star Way of Wade 6s, which were unveiled and presented to fans in limited-edition fashion through a raffle on Feb. 17, went to this little girl. What a moment.

Kehinde Wiley, Amy Sherald are the first black artists to paint first black presidential portraits Black-on-black art: Former first couple humbled by their stunning new portraits

As if Barack and Michelle Obama weren’t already immortal in so many ways, the world’s most famous couple is now forever embedded within the fabric of the nation’s capital with the unveiling of their official portraits. The special unveiling was held at the National Portrait Gallery on Monday morning.

Distinguished guests — Steven Spielberg, former vice president Joe Biden, Gayle King, former attorney general Eric Holder and Michelle Obama’s brother, Craig Robinson, to name a few — and media packed the gallery for the event. The Obamas are obviously the first black presidential couple to have their portraits painted. But the moment was also special because of the minds behind the brushes. Amy Sherald and Kehinde Wiley painted Michelle Obama’s and Barack Obama’s portraits, respectively. The duo became the first black artists to paint official presidential portraits. That moment wasn’t lost on anyone in attendance.

Former U.S. president Barack Obama looks at former first lady Michelle Obama’s newly unveiled portrait during a ceremony at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery on Feb. 12 in Washington, D.C. The portraits were commissioned by the gallery for Kehinde Wiley to create President Obama’s portrait and Amy Sherald that of Michelle Obama.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Both Obamas talked about the process of deciding on Sherald and Wiley. The final step involved face-to-face meetings with both artists at the Oval Office. After the decision, Michelle Obama and Sherald established what the first lady described as a “sista-girl” bond. Sherald echoed Michelle Obama’s sentiments, saying, “The experience of painting Michelle will stay with me forever. … The portrait is a … defining milestone in my life’s work.” Ever the comedian, Barack Obama joked that the only portrait he’s had done before this one was for his high school yearbook. He and Wiley bonded over his suggestions — less gray hair, smaller ears — that Wiley ultimately ignored.

“What Barack Obama wanted was [to be portrayed as] a man of the people, that sense of access,” Wiley told reporters after the ceremony. “The unbuttoned collar. The relaxed pose. In the end, what I think we got was a grand sense of celebration.”

Perhaps the morning’s most cruel yet comforting moment came when Barack Obama approached the podium. “We miss you guys,” he said. The crowd moaned. A collective sigh swept through the makeshift auditorium. Faint cries of “We miss you too” and “Please come back” fluttered.

For a faint moment, for many in attendance, having Barack and Michelle Obama back in the capital was a needed flashback. The only solace: Now, regardless of circumstance, everyone can always see them in Washington, D.C.

Wake up! It’s the 30th anniversary of Spike Lee’s ‘School Daze’ In this #BlackLivesMatter era, the ’80s film is still very relevant

It was late summer of 1986. Jasmine Guy was standing on the streets of New York City, fresh out of a dance class at the Alvin Ailey School, when she heard a word unfamiliar to her: Wannabe.

She’d just run into director and eventual cultural purveyor Spike Lee. She first met him back in 1979, when she was a high school senior and he was a senior at Morehouse College who was directing the coronation at the school where she danced. Back then, he was telling folks that he planned to go to film school and had aspirations of being a director — although, at the time, Guy wasn’t entirely sure what that meant.

Spike had some news for her. “I just finished my first movie, you’ve got to see it,” she remembers Lee telling her. He was talking about 1986’s She’s Gotta Have It, which is now of course a lauded Netflix series of the same name. She saw the movie and was mesmerized by the very contemporary piece that was in black and white and dealt with sex, relationships and intimacy. She’s never seen anything like it before. With black people. And she was impressed.

She ran into him again on those New York streets, and this was the time that he added a new word to her lexicon. “I’m doing another movie, and you’re going to be in it, so send me your headshot. You’re going to be a wannabe.” She was confused. “You know how you all are,” she remembers Lee saying. She had no idea what he was talking about. Wannabe.

But she soon learned. As did everyone else who would consume Lee’s epic portrayal of a fictional historically black college in School Daze, a movie that altered how we publicly talked about blackness and historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). For the uninitiated, the idea of a “wannabe” was a caricature of (for the most part) a high-yellow, lighter-skinned woman with long hair whose physical attributes look more European than African. “Wannabe” was also an attitude: Wannabe better than me.

School Daze. It’s been three decades to the day since theaters were lit up with a historically black campus waking up — this was when Nelson Mandela was still locked up, and students called for divestment from South Africa. Three decades since Spike Lee brought us a story of conflict, of when students pledging fictional Greek fraternities were pitted against those who desired global and local social change. The Gamma dogs. The Gamma Rays. The Fellas. The Wannabes. The Jiggaboos — oh yes, the Jiggaboos. School Daze was about the tensions between light-skinned black folks and dark-skinned black folks.

Everything was right there on a 50-foot screen. No escaping it. We had to consume it. And address it. “It was like, Wow, this guy’s really going to go there,” says renowned director Kasi Lemmons, whose first film role was in School Daze. “He’s really going to explore these issues. It occurred to me, when I saw it, how important it was because it explored so many things that you just hadn’t seen.”

In so many ways, School Daze was an extension of what was happening on campuses. It tapped into activations that were happening in the mid-1980s, and after it was released, it inspired and engaged other students, amplifying the work that was already taking place.

Darryl Bell — who was one of the “big brothers” in School Daze, his first role — was quite active as a real-life student at Syracuse University. He attended rallies where black and Latino students were mobilizing, much in the same way that Laurence Fishburne’s Dap did on Lee’s fictional campus of Mission College. In real life, Bell pledged Alpha Phi Alpha.

“I wanted to know more about these Alpha fellas,” says Bell. He remembers seeing them at rallies. “The idea that Alpha men were involved in, and on the forefront of talking about, issues that mattered — the divesting of South Africa — it encouraged me to be part of student government. All of these things … my experience at Syracuse, you saw in the film. … We were engaged in voter registration. We put on a fashion show to raise money to give scholarships to high school students. … That was the life I was living. That’s why I was so desperate to be in the movie. … This is all about me and what I’m living everyday. It was an extraordinary example of art imitating life.”

The film was more than entertainment; even before A Different World, it really illuminated HBCU campus life. It shed a light on colorism, one of the most uncomfortable and unspoken issues among black folks — something we’d been battling for generations and, in a lot of ways, still are.

“There was … division between the men and women,” says Joie Lee, who portrayed Lizzie Life in the film, “in terms of what constitutes beauty. I wasn’t ‘fine.’ I wasn’t considered that. I did not fit that standard of beauty, perhaps because I was brown-skinned. Perhaps because my hair was nappy, and natural. The women that are considered fine … were light-skinned or had ‘good hair’ — I’m using that term loosely. Those were some of the issues that [we were] grappling with.”

Thirty years later, the film still holds up. Replace School Daze’s international concerns with the Black Lives Matter movement and the activism, especially in this current political climate, most certainly feels familiar. “It does have a relevance to what’s going on today,” says Kirk Taylor, who portrayed one of the Gammas. “In terms of the look, in terms of the content, in terms of the final message about waking up … we need to wake up as much now as we did then — and stay awake. It’s easy to be lulled into a false sense of security, or false peace, and not be aware that things still need to be addressed. Things still need to be changed.”

Stay woke, indeed.

Philly’s post-Super Bowl ‘celebration’ was really a riot If the crowd were majority black, the world would’ve responded very differently

The United States of America’s attitude toward black people is best described with one word: violence. The coded language used in most public settings about African-Americans is typically slanted so heavily toward describing our basic human nature as aggressive and problematic that many people don’t even realize how ingrained this concept is in society.

It’s why police officers shoot our children when unarmed. It’s why much of America is trained to believe that when it comes to dealing with law enforcement, complete compliance is a reasonable rule of engagement in a so-called civilized society. But the truth is that those tacit regulations really only apply to us.

People carry a broken pole while celebrating the Philadelphia Eagles victory in Super Bowl LII game against the New England Patriots on Feb. 5 in Philadelphia.

Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images

Nowhere was this more evident than in Philadelphia this week, when after the Eagles won Super Bowl LII, fans of the team rioted and destroyed a decent amount of property, an ugly tradition that quite a few fan bases have taken to participating in over the years. It’s stupid. It’s scary and it’s destructive, but for some reason, that word “riot” rarely makes its way into headlines. Why? Because for white people in America, property damage is considered a reasonable rite of celebration.

“Trayvon Martin had his life taken because a self-appointed mall cop effectively viewed his blackness as a threat. Meanwhile, white boys are turning over cars because the team they root for finally won a Super Bowl.”

Think about how police mobilized in Ferguson, Missouri, when communities marched peacefully to protest their treatment by law enforcement. Authorities showed up with military-grade equipment and ammunition to deal with the problem. The images of tanks rolling through St. Louis County are now forever burned in our brains, a non-subtle reminder that we could pay the ultimate price, at any moment, for insubordination.

“Philadelphia is cleaning up after its late-night street celebrations, where some overzealous fans smashed windows, climbed traffic lights and trashed some convenience stores,” one tweet from the Associated Press read. As if the situation that unfolded in the streets was just a pillow fight gone awry. In reality, large groups of thugs actively destroyed anything they could get their hands on. Department store windows were smashed. An awning of a hotel was destroyed when people decided to climb on top of it. In short, it was chaos. All over a football team.

Why does this matter? Because the language we use to describe our actions as humans is important. Framing is important, and if we’re to consider ourselves to be living in a fair world, you can’t just stand by when things go foul and no one is accountable. And it extends beyond just rowdy postgame antics — it colors almost everything about how we view athletes as well.

When Tom Brady exits a game without the customary postgame handshakes for opponents, the spin is that he’s a dogged competitor who just hates losing. If Cam Newton did that? There’d be no shortage of people lined up to castigate him for being disrespectful.

All these extensions of the “stay in your place” mentality are exactly why people like Colin Kaepernick and Chris Long are doing so much to help better their communities in a public way. It reminds people that, ultimately, none of this is really fair because it was never designed to be. The original sin of this nation is rooted in violence. Even when we aren’t trafficking in that behavior, we’re looked at as though we might.

Seriously, look at this.

Trayvon Martin had his life taken because a self-appointed mall cop effectively viewed his blackness as a threat. He would have been 23 years old this week. Meanwhile, white boys are turning over cars because the team they root for finally won a Super Bowl.

As a black person in the U.S., this is a reality you’re forced to deal with. Everything about your corporeal existence is weaponized. Your voice, your hair, your skin color, the clothes you wear, right on down to the way you walk. The default is violence. It’s an obvious double standard that if you’re not black, you simply cannot understand.

To be fair, this isn’t about painting every fan of the Eagles with a broad brush. Lord knows that the actions of a few idiots do not represent the entirety of a fan base, never mind a city. But at some point, we have to be real with ourselves. Throwing bags of unpaid food products around a convenience store would land most of us in jail, period.

One day, the inherent fear of a black planet that controls our society will fade away. You and I probably won’t be alive to see it, but when it happens, we’ll all be better for it. We don’t want revenge. What we’re looking for is equality. But if our basic behaviors as members of a civilized world are constantly vilified and characterized as harmful and evil, the likelihood of gaining ground in that realm is low.

What we saw in Philadelphia on Sunday night was a riot. This is obvious to everyone who can see. But to protect the double standards that we’ve created for different people based on the color of their skin, we won’t officially call it how it is.

So much for brotherly love, I guess.

Choreographer Camille A. Brown is free to nae nae and bop and juba around the country Her new work ‘ink’ explores the grace and democracy of African-American social dance

Alvin Ailey used to say that “dance is for everybody.”

Camille A. Brown, the tiny choreographer with big ideas, may be the living embodiment of that legacy. She’s the latest choreographer to marry social dance with concert dance, creating something that’s both sophisticated and familiar, evocative and unmistakably black.

You may know Brown’s work from a video that went viral and was turned into a TED explainer:

She’s an accomplished storyteller who began her career with Ronald K. Brown’s EVIDENCE company and danced for two years with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. She did the choreography for the Broadway revival of Once on the Island. And she’s something of a dance evangelist, not just choreographing and performing but often staying for audience Q&A’s postperformance. She wants to make dance accessible.

Brown is now touring her newest work, ink, which she debuted in December at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. It’s the final chapter of a trilogy that began with Mr. TOL E. RAncE (2012), followed by Black Girl: Linguistic Play (2015). All three examine black identity, stereotypes and authenticity. Her company performed ink at the University of Iowa last week, moved to Alexander Kasser Theater in Montclair, New Jersey, this weekend and will take the work to St. Paul, Minnesota, in late March.

Brown, 38, grew up dancing in Queens, New York. From the time she was 3, she’d watch Michael Jackson and Janet Jackson videos. Her mother noticed that she was preternaturally good at recreating the Jacksons’ complex choreography and enrolled her in dance classes. Brown loved it. She had a knack for learning dances quickly under Carolyn DeVore. And then puberty — or, rather, the way the adults around her reacted to the changes in her body — momentarily wrecked everything.

“When I got to high school and college, all of the sudden I became aware of what the ideal body was, and I quickly learned that I was not the ideal person,” Brown said during an interview in Washington. “I had a butt. … When you think of a dancer, you think of someone that’s petite, and I just wasn’t that … so people would say, ‘Oh, you’re not going to fit the costume. Oh, you need to lose weight.’ ”

Brown began dieting when she was 16, and by the time she started studying dance in college at North Carolina School for the Arts, she’d become accustomed to getting sent to the school nutritionist. It was like being called to the principal’s office, but for food. She’s since shed 15-20 pounds, but that time and the way she felt about her body had a lasting impact.

“I had teachers that really saw my ability and really helped nurture that, and then I had teachers that just didn’t look at me, or just was like, ‘Oh, she’s not going to be a dancer.’ I just really had a struggle with that,” Brown said. “Me being a dancer, it was something that I wanted to achieve, but I didn’t necessarily think that I would be able to achieve it based on the things that I had been hearing about who I was.”

“I had a butt. … When you think of a dancer, you think of someone that’s petite, and I just wasn’t that.”

So after receiving her bachelor of fine arts degree from NCSA, Brown joined a dance company where it didn’t matter that she had a butt, or a chest size larger than an A cup: Ronald K. Brown’s Brooklyn-based EVIDENCE.

“Body image was one of the reasons why I got into choreography, because I don’t know if I was always considered the best or had the perfect body image,” Brown said. “Would I be a choreographer now? I don’t know. I just know how I got here.”

Ink incorporates dancers of various shapes and sizes, using African, modern, hip-hop and social dance to explore black identity and day-to-day life. Brown’s movements explode from her petite, muscled frame (she’s maybe 5 feet tall) to fill the stage. Another dancer in the company, Kendra Dennard, holds your attention as a long, lithe, seductive flirt. There are bald heads and locs, juicy booties and small ones. Brown’s dancers run the gamut.

Brown takes movements that are familiar — the way a black woman might pat her hair as if to say, “I’m feeling myself,” or the act of scrubbing a floor — and folds them into stories about romance and friendship. In ink, Brown is a consummate observer of male body language. Her dancers capture the hesitation that comes with meeting someone for the first time, the way men can outwardly show off and exaggerate themselves while concealing vulnerability and sensitivity. And Brown reveals what it’s like in the intimate, comfortable moments when that mask is dropped.

In a section of the performance called Balance, about the courtship between a man and a woman, Brown said she wanted to use the scene to “debunk patriarchy.” And so the audience sees the male partner following a woman’s lead. The relationship moves at her speed, not his.

“It’s not the romance that we might see in the movies, but it’s romance in the sense that I know what romance is,” Brown said. “I mean, it’s coming from what I see or what I’ve experienced, so in that way it’s what I know love to be.”

What comes through in Brown’s work is a philosophy that social dance is just as significant as its classical cousin, ballet, and that incorporating it on stages like those of the Kennedy Center doesn’t cheapen the work of George Balanchine, whose outsize influence on what’s considered the “ideal” dancer body type continues to loom large. It’s simply a different form of communicating, drawing on another set of traditions and skills, the same way choreographers like Ailey or Twyla Tharp or Katherine Dunham created their own styles too. What’s more, using a variety of bodies to communicate those traditions doesn’t cheapen anything either.

“If you go all the way back to when I was a kid, I’m [told], ‘You’re not the ideal dancer.’ To go from that to actually being at the Kennedy Center under my own name? It’s something that I would have never dreamed of, ever,” Brown said. “It’s really a powerful time, and especially because we’re doing work that is not, by some people, seen as valuable. We live in a very Eurocentric dance world, where ballet or contemporary is seen as the elite movement, and so I’m not doing that. I’m doing modern, and hip-hop, and tap, and African, and social dance. To have this kind of platform, knowing that other people, whoever those other people are, don’t view this as real dance, is tremendous.”

For Brown, a Kennedy Center debut wasn’t just a platform; it was a springboard. She is now free to nae nae and bop and juba around the country, and even the globe.