TIFF 2019: ‘Clemency’ and ‘Just Mercy’ offer two differing perspectives on death row One asks us to put ourselves in the position of a warden. The other follows a lawyer seeking justice.

TORONTO — Two films at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival offer different perspectives of how death row affects those closest to it when people are wrongly sentenced to die.

Clemency is the sophomore feature effort from writer-director Chinonye Chukwu, who also directed the 2012 film alaskaLand. It stars Alfre Woodard as Bernadine, a prison warden who grows more and more conflicted over her role in the execution of prisoners. It’s bad enough when Bernadine witnesses an execution via lethal injection that turns into a moment of torture, first when the emergency medical technician administering the IV cannot find a vein, and then when the drugs take longer to work than they’re supposed to, leaving the prisoner in agony.

Alfre Woodard as Bernadine Williams in Clemency, is a prison warden who grows conflicted over her role in the execution of prisoners.

courtesy of TIFF

Then, Bernadine struggles to reconcile what it means to be good at her job with her own opinions, as she follows the case of another death row inmate, Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge). As it becomes clear to Bernadine that Anthony is probably innocent, she tries to maintain order and composure in her prison. But the energy it takes to maintain her professional demeanor at work means that something else must be sacrificed, and in Bernadine’s case, it’s her marriage. The more her husband (Wendell Pierce) attempts to get close to her, the more she pulls away. Bernadine must ask herself: Is it possible to be ethical, to be empowered, when being skilled at one’s job means ensuring that the state’s unjust decisions are completed with order and clockwork precision?

Then there’s Just Mercy from director Destin Daniel Cretton (I Am Not a Hipster, Short Term 12). Co-produced by star Michael B. Jordan and Macro, the company of former William Morris agent Charles D. King. If Clemency is an examination of the toll of complicity, Just Mercy is a journey into the psychic and spiritual rewards and pitfalls of fighting injustice. It tells the story of a real-life civil rights hero: Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. Stevenson is probably best known as the person behind the new lynching memorial and museum in Montgomery, Alabama, but he has spent decades working to free innocent men, most of them black, from death row.

While it’s rewarding work, it’s not easy, which Stevenson, played by Michael B. Jordan, learns firsthand when he moves to Monroe County, Alabama, after graduating from Harvard Law. Stevenson tries to get a stay of execution for Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan), a Vietnam veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. In the war, he was a hero, an expert at defusing bombs. But back home and neglected by the country he served, Herbert ends up listening to the voices in his head telling him to build an explosive. He kills a woman, and then the state of Alabama moves to kill him. The possibility of sending Herbert to a mental institution, which is where he truly belongs, never even materializes.

For Stevenson, witnessing Herbert’s execution crystallizes the urgency of his work, and he dives even more deeply into trying to save another man, Walter “Johnny D.” McMillan (Jamie Foxx). McMillan has been imprisoned for a murder he didn’t commit. It doesn’t matter how much evidence there is to support McMillan’s innocence because a white girl is dead, McMillan is black, and another prisoner, in exchange for prosecutorial leniency, has given a statement saying McMillan was responsible.

The real reason McMillan is in prison is because the white people of Monroe County were looking for an excuse to lock him up after a white man discovered McMillan having a consensual affair with the man’s wife. Just Mercy exposes how the cogs of the Alabama justice system line up to condemn McMillan to death — from prosecutors who disregard the truth to public defenders who barely do their jobs to sheriff’s officers who terrorize Monroe County’s black residents.

It’s a new twist on the old formula of Yankee lawyers who come to the South and find a wall of community resistance to racial equality and injustice, but it’s a powerful one. That’s especially true given how the film’s screenwriters (Cretton and Andrew Lanham) contrast the real-life Stevenson and Monroe County’s most famous legal hero, Atticus Finch, the fictional hero of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

Ultimately, both Clemency and Just Mercy continue the work of highlighting racial inequality in the justice system, leaving their viewers disturbed and impatient for change.

Friend or Foe: What’s behind Jay-Z’s surprising partnership with the NFL There are a million and one questions about the new alliance. The answers are a combination of money, power and the movement.

It could be just one. Or, more probably, it’s a combination of all four. Jay-Z’s history tells us that the reasons behind the partnership between the NFL and rap’s first billionaire likely revolve around money, power and the movement. And the potential to become the NFL’s first black owner.

For the past decade, the NFL has been at the epicenter of the definitive culture war in sports, from concussions and CTE research to domestic violence, as well as issues of social justice dramatized by exiled quarterback Colin Kaepernick. For the NFL, the cost-benefit analysis of this arrangement is clear. The league brings in one of the most famous celebrities of the past half-century who has donated time, money and attention to some of the very topics on which the NFL is accused of being tone-deaf. The league needs to recover its cultural cachet, and a big part of that means reaching out to black fans, at least some of whom swore off the game after Kaepernick’s exile.

Wednesday’s news conference at Roc Nation’s New York headquarters grew out of talks that began in January between Jay, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft. (Kaepernick and former San Francisco 49ers teammate Eric Reid reached a settlement with the NFL over their collusion grievances a month later for a reported $10 million.) Roc Nation’s partnership with the NFL is set to include entertainment consultation, which includes helping curate the Super Bowl’s halftime show. But, according to Jay, the kicker was the ability to bolster the league’s Inspire Change program through a variety of avenues, including “Songs of the Season” that will entail inspirational songs from a handful of artists played during television broadcasts and “Beyond the Field,” which will feature voices and perspectives of NFL players on a multitude of topics.

Responding to questions about whether this partnership negates his previous support for Kaepernick, who still doesn’t have a job in the NFL, Jay said that it was about figuring out the next step. “I think we’ve moved past kneeling, and I think it’s time to go into actionable items.”

He continued: “No, I don’t want people to stop protesting at all. Kneeling, I know we’re stuck on it because it’s a real thing, but kneeling is a form of protest. I support protest across the board. … I’m not minimizing that part of it because that has to happen, that’s a necessary part of the process. But now that we all know what’s going on, what are we going to do? How are we going to stop it? Because the kneeling was not about a job, it was about injustice.”

Colin Kaepernick onstage at the W.E.B. Du Bois Medal Award Ceremony at Harvard University on Oct. 11, 2018, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Photo by Paul Marotta/Getty Images

It’s impossible to say it’s not about money too. Jay’s career is a case study in the pursuit of wealth. Being broke is childish, he quipped on 1997’s “I Love The Dough” alongside The Notorious B.I.G., and I’m quite grown. On “Imaginary Player,” he raps, You beer money, I’m all year money. Two billionaire conglomerates don’t come together without a return on investment. Morally, sure. Hopefully. But financially, absolutely.

The deal gives Jay the power to program annually the most watched concert in the country and one of the last remaining mass-market entertainment experiences of any kind. Roc Nation will co-produce and consult on entertainment presentations, but it boils down to one real production: the Super Bowl halftime show. In a world where the internet has all but eliminated the concept of must-see viewing, the Super Bowl draws hundreds of millions of people to a live broadcast. But it’s also a moment that, especially for black artists, has become a picket line of sorts. A considerable amount of the backlash against Jay thus far has focused on the perceived hypocrisy over his criticism of Travis Scott’s decision to perform at Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta this year.

Jay said Wednesday that Kaepernick wasn’t the rationale for his criticism of Scott. “My problem is [Travis] had the biggest year to me last year and he’s playing on a stage that had a M on it,” Jay said, referring to Maroon 5, the headline performer. “I didn’t see any reason for him to play second fiddle to anyone that year, and that was my argument.”

And while some are uneasy seeing Jay pictured laughing with Goodell, it’s not exactly the first time Jay’s been before the court of public opinion’s firing squad.

Damon Dash (left) and Jay-Z (right) during Dash’s birthday party on May 4, 2004, at La Bodega in New York.

Photo by Johnny Nunez/WireImage

From Roc-A-Fella Records’ demise and his split with its CEO, Damon Dash, to activist Harry Belafonte questioning Jay and Beyoncé’s commitment to social responsibility in 2013, Jay continuing his partnership with luxury retailer Barneys after its “shop-and-frisk” practice ignited debates about racial profiling, and criticism of streaming company Tidal — Jay’s longevity isn’t due as much to winning every round as it is to being able to take a punch.

Now, the haymakers are coming from Kaepernick’s supporters. And it seems from Kaepernick himself.

Kaepernick’s girlfriend, Nessa, and brother-in-protest Reid criticized the deal for helping the NFL clean up the mess while Kaepernick can’t get a job in the league, even as he said last week that he was still ready to return. This week, Kaepernick put up an Instagram post commemorating the third anniversary of the start of his fight against systemic oppression. He then took to Twitter on Thursday afternoon thanking Reid for his loyalty from day one as well as the fans who still see Kaepernick as the face of a movement. Life’s irony is oftentimes wickedly poetic. Their fidelity to Kaepernick and the cause he raged against the machine for call to mind one of Jay-Z’s hardest bars from 1996’s “Feelin’ It:” If every n—a in your clique is rich, your clique is rugged / Nobody will fall ’cause everyone will be each other’s crutches.

Jay-Z’s support and praise of Kaepernick is well-documented — he once wore his jersey during a Saturday Night Live performance and dubbed him an “iconic figure” who deserved to have his name mentioned along with Muhammad Ali. Now, Jay has aligned himself with the same institution that has kept the Super Bowl runner-up quarterback off the field since the 2016 season. And in pursuit of the next phase of equality, he’s seemingly alienated the one athlete who brought the conversation into the living rooms of every house in America.

But it pays to remember that discussions similar to the ones now surrounding Jay were held about Kaepernick months ago. Kaepernick, too, aligned himself with a billion-dollar corporation in Nike in a move that drew criticism from some who felt he corporatized his cause. Did Kap, too, sell his legacy for a check? Even Uncle Luke weighed in on the issue. The truth of the matter is that Jay-Z wasn’t required to obtain Kaepernick’s blessing. But for some, Kap’s lack of involvement is a near unforgivable sin because it may have the effect of making his NFL banishment a lifelong sentence.

Jay-Z (left) and New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft (right) attend the launch of the Reform Alliance, a criminal justice reform organization, at Gerald W. Lynch Theater in New York City on Jan. 23.

Photo by Shareif Ziyadat/Getty Images

What does success look like in this deal? Bringing more money and quantifiable action toward social justice and educational reform is one metric. A halftime show capable of tapping into the culture and being comfortable with that messaging is too.

But it feels like there’s something else underlying the rollout. Playlists, podcasts and access to players are all opportunities Jay could’ve captured on Tidal. At Wednesday’s announcement, Jay attempted to figure out who a reporter’s question was directed toward, himself or Goodell, by quipping, “I’m not the commissioner yet.” It was a way to lighten the mood while whimsically planting a seed. Connecting the dots, this feels like it could be a path to future ownership in the NFL.

It’s a long game. Attempting to fix the league’s image might be the most uphill battle of Jay-Z’s career — especially while he’s trying to use the platform to benefit his own business interests. It’s capitalistic. It’s selfish. But it’s also a business model that he’s repeatedly used over the last quarter century.

And if it does succeed, he’d become the first black power broker in a league that has acquired a reputation for silencing black voices, not privileging them. Debates will rage on over whether it’s a savvy or snake move by Jay. But any potential buyer of an NFL team has to be someone who at least 24 of the league’s 32 team owners want as a member of one of the most exclusive (yet anything but inclusive) clubs.

How Jay handles the NFL’s inevitable next controversy, whether it be another Stephen Ross public relations debacle or President Donald Trump weaving his way back into league storylines as the 2020 election year approaches, will be interesting to watch. N—as said Hova was over, such dummies / Even if I fail I’ll land on a bunch of money, he rhymed on 2007’s “Success.”

The boast is only partially true now. Jay-Z’s bank account is secure. But his future is now intertwined with a league he blasted just last summer — and seemingly on the opposite side of the aisle from the one player who made this newfound partnership possible. It’s not a stretch to say this could be the most important and daunting blueprint of Jay-Z’s career.

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

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

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

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

Penguin Random House

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Courtesy Colson Whitehead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Timothy Smith for The Undefeated

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

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

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

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

John Urschel recounts his journey from the NFL to MIT The former Raven talks about his new memoir, ‘Mind and Matter,’ driving a Versa and why there are so few blacks in higher mathematics

As a young boy, John Urschel would amuse himself for hours solving puzzles and breezing through math workbooks. By the time he was 13, he had audited a college-level calculus class.

He was also no slouch on the football field. A two-star prospect out of high school in western New York state, Urschel was a low-priority recruit to Penn State. He worked his way into the starting lineup and later became a two-time All-Big Ten offensive lineman. He won the Sullivan Award, given to the most outstanding amateur athlete in the country, as well as the Campbell Trophy, recognizing college football’s top scholar-athlete.

Urschel completed his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mathematics while at Penn State. He even taught a couple of math classes while playing for the Nittany Lions. After college, he was drafted in the fifth round of the 2014 NFL draft and signed a four-year, $2.4 million contract with the Baltimore Ravens.

Urschel loves football — the fury, the camaraderie, the adrenaline rush — and he enjoyed knowing that he was playing at the highest level. But he loves math, too, and he wanted to pursue that passion as far as his ability would take him.

Urschel got a taste of how difficult it could be to do both when he suffered a concussion during his second NFL training camp. The brain injury kept him off the field for a couple of weeks. It took longer than that for him to regain the ability to do math again. Still, the following spring he passed the qualifying exam that allowed him to enroll in a full-time doctorate program in mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Penguin Press

It was a great achievement, but it also meant he had two demanding jobs. By his third year in the league, he was spending more time taking stock of his life. What did his future hold? How long would his body hold up to the brutality of football? How good a mathematician could he be if he devoted himself to it full time?

He was fine financially. He earned $1.6 million over his first three years in the league while driving a Nissan Versa and living with a roommate. His big expenses were math books and coffee. He estimates that he lived on less than $25,000 a year.

In the end, he retired from the NFL at age 26 to pursue becoming a mathematician. Urschel, now 27, has about one year left before he earns his doctorate at MIT. After that, he has his sights set on a career in academia.

Urschel chronicled his uncommon journey in a new memoir, Mind and Matter: A Life in Math and Football, co-written with his wife, Louisa Thomas. The Undefeated recently talked to the former lineman about his new book, his view of college sports, the safety of football and his twin careers.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Why did you write this book?

I really wanted to write something that conveyed mathematics in a very beautiful light. The publisher kept pushing me to put more of myself in it. At the end of the day, the final product is a memoir that also describes my relationship with both mathematics and football.

What do you hope people take away from it?

I hope they take away a number of things, not least of which is that it’s OK to have multiple interests, it’s OK to have multiple passions, that you don’t just have to be one thing. Also, I hope people take away a newfound appreciation of mathematics that might feel a little different than sort of what they experienced in school.

Who do you see as your primary audience for the book?

First of all, I would really like to reach middle school to high school kids who may be athletes but might have some interest in academics and STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] in some sense. Second, I would say anyone who simply enjoys football and math, because there’s a lot of both in this book.

Did you ever feel pigeonholed coming up?

Yes, I think I was, but I really didn’t pay too much attention to it. These things might bother some people, but I just usually viewed these things as an opportunity to change people’s mindsets.

Do you think there was some skepticism because you’re a football player, that this guy can’t be so good at math?

There initially was some skepticism, which I think was healthy. I completely understand why there was skepticism, and I think it was a reasonable thing.

Do you consider yourself a genius?

No.

What is a genius anyway?

I don’t know, and that’s why I don’t really consider myself one. Listen, I’m someone who is very good at math. I’ve been very good at math ever since I was little. A lot of hard work has gone into me being at the place where I am in mathematics today. With respect to football, I was a decent athlete. I don’t consider myself an extremely good athlete. I considered myself extremely hardworking.

Were you ever discouraged from pursuing high-level academics while playing football at Penn State?

I didn’t get any pushback from my teammates. I did get some pushback from Penn State football early on. But I do want to clarify the sense in which I got pushback, because I think I got pushback in a very good way. It wasn’t like they were saying, ‘Oh, John, this is going to take up way too much of your time.’ It was more of them saying, ‘John, let’s not take such a hard track so early on. Let’s move slow and steady, because college courses are a lot tougher than high school classes, and you think you are good at math from high school, but college is different.’ After my first fall semester, the academic advisers really picked up on the fact that, yeah, they don’t need to worry about me.

“There are brilliant, brilliant young minds being born into this country, but either they’re being born the ‘wrong’ gender or the ‘wrong’ color or into a household that doesn’t have the same opportunities as some other household.”

Do you think college athletes should be paid?

Of course they should be paid. That’s not an unbiased opinion. I’m extremely biased. Something is fundamentally wrong with the system. That’s obvious. But what’s the answer? I don’t know. Should all sorts of football players be paid? Certainly not. I don’t think the football players at, let’s say, the University of Buffalo are being exploited. Sorry. Does this football program make money? But we look at the Alabamas of the world and, well, clearly these football players are really contributing a lot and they’re the source of a great deal of revenue. How can we give them more? Because I do think they deserve more, but the right way to do it is sort of uncertain to me.

What do mathematicians do?

What a mathematician does is he uses the tools of mathematics to try to solve very complicated and important problems in this world. In some areas of mathematics, mathematicians try to solve fundamental ideas in physics. In some areas of mathematics, mathematicians are trying to understand and perfect those things in machine learning, which have great practical importance on our world. You have mathematicians who are working on Wall Street. The only thing they’re making is money, but they’re making quite a lot of it. Mathematicians work for Google. They work for Amazon. They’re the people who help come up with the technology and the algorithms in your iPhone.

How did the fear of concussions and the prospect of CTE [chronic traumatic encephalopathy] factor into your decision to retire from the NFL?

Very nominally. It is something you have to take into account, but the risks were something I had been aware of for a large part of my football career. But I also wanted to create more time for mathematics. I wanted to spend more time raising my daughter and I wanted to be in good overall physical health. You know, I want to be able to walk around when I am 60.

Did you really live on $25,000 a year while playing pro football?

Yeah, maybe even a little less than that.

You’re kidding me. How is that possible?

I’m still a very frugal person, and frugal might not even be the right word. Even people around me will tell you, it’s not like I’m attempting to save money. I don’t do things like budget. I do the things I enjoy and I buy things that bring me joy. The things that bring me joy are typically like math books, maybe coffee at a coffee shop. Yeah, I guess luckily for me, both of those things are incredibly cheap.

Baltimore Ravens offensive guard John Urschel blocks during a game against the New York Jets at Met Life Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, in October 2016.

Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire

So, no bling for you. No big Land Rover.

No, no. My car was a used Nissan Versa I bought in college. I kept it my whole career, although I’m not that sad to say I did let the Versa go because, well, I’m in Boston now. What do I need a car for?

In what ways do you miss football?

One of things I do miss about football is being on a team, being close with a bunch of guys, going through the whole deal of pursuing a common goal.

How do you replace the rush that you derive from football?

Yeah, that’s just something you can’t replace. You’re just not going to get that feeling from mathematics. As much as I love math — and there’s many amazing, beautiful things about math — you’re not getting that from mathematics. You’re getting a very different feeling, but it’s also quite amazing: this feeling of fighting against the unknown, this feeling of sort of trying to sort of go where no man has gone before, this idea of trying to solve problems that no one has solved before.

Why are there so few African Americans in math?

You look at, let’s say, all of the elite mathematicians at MIT, Stanford, Harvard, Cal Tech, Princeton, and maybe there’s like one or two African Americans. It’s not because these places have decided we just don’t like hiring African American mathematicians. The fact is that there’s just not many of us. And the sort of root of this, I believe, is not anything that happens in Ph.D. programs. The large part of the damage is done before a student even steps foot on a college campus. The large majority of American mathematicians in the United States, they are Caucasian, they are male and they generally come from pretty good backgrounds. And, I mean, it’s a sobering realization that there are brilliant, brilliant young minds being born into this country, but either they’re being born the ‘wrong’ gender or the ‘wrong’ color or being born into a household that doesn’t have the same opportunities as some other household. And these brilliant minds are being lost. I do believe a large contributing factor is sort of educational inequality.

One final thing: Would you allow a child of yours to play football?

I would, in high school. But not before then. There’s a big focus on college football players, NFL players and health in a number of ways. But the thing that people don’t talk about enough is young kids playing tackle football, contact football, before their bodies and brains are even developed. And that’s something that me, personally, I’m not a fan of. But in high school? Certainly. I think football is not for everyone, certainly not, but if it’s something that you think you’re interested in, I think it’s an amazing sport.

Dancer and choreographer Shamel Pitts returns home to Brooklyn with ‘Black Velvet’ Former member of Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company now performs his own work

Before Shamel Pitts began studying dance, first at LaGuardia High School for Music & Art and Performing Arts and The Ailey School, then as a bachelor of fine arts candidate at Juilliard, he was a little boy growing up in the Brooklyn, New York, neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant.

At 21, Pitts got one of his first glimpses into the world of international dance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. There, he was introduced to Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company, where Pitts would spend a significant chunk of his professional career.

From 2009 to 2016, Pitts lived in Tel Aviv, Israel, and danced for Batsheva, a company led for years by choreographer Ohad Naharin, who developed a movement language called Gaga. Gaga is a form of modern dance rooted in anti-classical Israeli tradition. It’s not folk dancing, and it’s not popular dance, but it is meant to be accessible to a wide range of bodies and abilities. To see Batsheva perform Gaga is a cultlike experience. It transfixes with its slow, undulating movements and seduces its audience with its mystery, beauty and just straight-up strangeness. You don’t really watch Gaga so much as you submit to being plunged into it for a time.

“It unlocked and unleashed and opened up things that I didn’t even know were closed, just the essence of why I dance and my passion for dance, and how would dance reconnect to our pleasure and our passion to move, and how we listen to our bodies before we tell it what to do,” Pitts, now 34, said of Gaga. “It’s something about those kind of teachings. While I was at school, it was transformative for me. Something about education environments, sometimes it becomes very practical and you kind of miss out on the essential.”

Pitts first experienced Batsheva at BAM, then later danced there as a member of the company. This week, he returns for a series of performances with his creative collaborator, the Brazilian-born performance artist Mirelle Martins. They will dance BLACK VELVET: Architectures and Archetypes, the second in Pitts’ trilogy of non-narrative works (BLACK BOX: Little Black Book of RED, BLACK VELVET: Architectures and Archetypes, and BLACK HOLE: Trilogy and Triathlon). The language of Gaga is foundational to Pitts’ work, but, with Martins, he has built upon it to fashion his own dialect.

BLACK VELVET: Architectures and Archetypes Performance Trailer from Shamel on Vimeo.

Pitts describes BLACK VELVET as a theatrical meditation on transcending the boundaries of gender, race, love, friendship and identity. It’s performed in a space that’s lighted only with projections designed by graphic designer and video artist Lucca Del Carlo. He and Martins, who is also black, move as two sparsely clad, androgynous beings in light that turns them into a sinewy, rippling pair.

“Part of my idea and interest in using only projector in all of my works actually … is that there’s something about this object and the potential of this instrument, this lighting, to create something that is incredibly cinematic,” Pitts said. “You can feel almost like watching a hologram, but watching something that is really past and present and future change in the matter of moments, and seconds, in front of you.”

Perhaps what’s most astounding about BLACK VELVET is Martins, who began training to dance professionally with Pitts at age 28. They first met in 2013, and then Pitts moved to Brazil to teach Gaga in 2016. Martins and Pitts premiered BLACK VELVET in Brazil later that year and have been touring it internationally ever since. Pitts and Martins are the only two dancers in the 50-minute work. They move with such fluid intensity and purpose that witnessing BLACK VELVET almost feels like an intrusion, as if you are watching two people so connected to each other that they’ve managed to make the world around them cease to exist.

Shamel Pitts and Mirelle Martins dance Black Velvet: Architectures and Archetypes.

Rebecca Stella

“I really wanted to create a work with her that was about us meeting each other and taking care of each other and listening to each other and celebrating each other and empowering each other in a performance,” Pitts said. “We didn’t know what we were getting into, but we definitely, from the very beginning, felt a strong bond between us. We really listened to this pulling to this kind of connection. I don’t know if it’s ancestral or if it’s in the future, but we really felt there was some strong connection between us. We listened to it, and then we came together. … Since then, we’ve kept fueling the fire … so now, we’re very, very, very close. She’s like a soul mate.”

When I reached Pitts this week, he was sitting in the backyard of his family’s Bed-Stuy home, with birds chirping in the background, reflecting on the circular journey his career has taken. He’s moved back to Brooklyn and continues to teach Gaga, and he works as an instructor at Harvard and Juilliard too.

“To come to BAM and bring my own work, as a Brooklyn artist, it really feels like a homecoming to me, and I’m really sort of immensely excited,” Pitts said. “It just feels really like a dream realized, this moment. I remember, as I saw all of these performances that really inspired my past as an artist, I also realized that I haven’t seen Brooklyn artists at Brooklyn Academy of Music.”

‘Black Duke’ takes flight After decades of resistance, black America embraces Blue Devils basketball

Once upon a time in college basketball, black fans had a special sort of hate for Duke.

This season is different. The Blue Devils are so good in the ‘hood, Jay-Z came to watch them play … in Pittsburgh. LeBron James witnessed the Zion Williamson mixtape in Charlottesville, Virginia. After every game, the internet is flooded with highlights of Williamson and Duke’s three other one-and-about-to-be-dones. The program has come so far from its so-called “Uncle Tom” days, Sacramento Kings rookie and recent Duke star Marvin Bagley III just laced the newest J. Cole beat with raps such as way back I was hated but they love me now.

And all that’s not even counting when Ken Griffey Jr., Todd Gurley, Spike Lee and former President Barack Obama came to Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium for the rivalry game with North Carolina.

Black fans now root for Duke at higher rates than the general population, according to the ESPN Sports Poll. In 2017, 12 percent of black college basketball enthusiasts identified as Duke fans, compared with 8 percent of all college basketball fans. So far this season, 24 percent of the audience for Duke games on ESPN is black, compared with 21 percent for all games.


How did Duke go from ashy to classy? From supposedly privileged punks who vanquished iconic black teams to having a hairstyle named after the 2015 championship squad? From featuring white stars who fizzled in the pros to Zion running through competition like a midnight locomotive?

Like everything pertaining to Duke basketball, it starts with coach Mike Krzyzewski.

Coach K changed with the times, gradually embracing the concept of recruiting players who would be at Duke for only a few months before jumping to the NBA. His credibility grew when he started coaching Olympic teams and building relationships with legends such as James and Kobe Bryant. The turning point was Duke’s 2015 title team, featuring three one-and-dones and the “Duke Starting Five” haircut trend.

Now Duke is an apex competitor, ready for the next “Nike check coming out the projects.” The freshmen Williamson, R.J. Barrett, Cam Reddish and Tre Jones draw huge TV ratings. Duke has black fans like this dude, straight photobombing ESPN in Louisville’s arena after Duke came back from a 23-point deficit in the second half:

“I do think the success of the program, having a series of one-and-done players now, Coach K being fully embraced by the stars of the NBA with the Olympics, a confluence of things have contributed to changing that narrative,” said Grant Hill, the Hall of Famer and former Duke star who was unfairly saddled with much of the black community’s dislike of his team.

“It’s kind of funny why people didn’t like us back in the day. It’s even funnier now that people are big fans because of the haircut,” Hill continued.

“But the fact that Duke is now sort of embraced is interesting.”


Jay-Z laughs during the game between the Pittsburgh Panthers and the Duke Blue Devils at Petersen Events Center on January 22, 2019 in Pittsburgh.

Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Duke hired Krzyzewski from West Point in 1980, two years after losing the NCAA championship game to Kentucky. In 1982, Krzyzewski brought in Johnny Dawkins, Mark Alarie, Dave Henderson and Jay Bilas. In 1986, that group and freshman Danny Ferry went to the championship game, which they lost to Louisville.

In that era, black America’s team was Georgetown, led by pioneering coach John Thompson. He took the Hoyas to three Final Fours, winning the 1984 national championship and the hearts of black folks with an attitude of uncompromising blackness.

Like Georgetown, Duke was an expensive, academically elite private school. Unlike Georgetown, Duke featured a high proportion of white stars, including Alarie, Ferry and, in the 1988-89 season, a bratty freshman named Christian Laettner. In the 1989 NCAA tournament, with Ferry and Laettner leading the way, Duke beat a Georgetown team featuring a young Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo to secure a spot in the Final Four. Thompson never got that close to a championship again.

The next two seasons, two players arrived who would put Duke over the top and set the Duke image for years to come. Point guard Bobby Hurley fit one type of Duke stereotype: scrappy, not overly talented, and white. Hill fit another: He was the privileged son of a former NFL star and a corporate executive, and black.

“In the ’80s, it was almost the more struggle you came from, the blacker you were,” Hill said.

Another factor contributing to black fans’ past disdain for Duke was that the team’s best white players — Alarie, Ferry, Hurley, Mike Dunleavy Jr., Kyle Singler, the Plumlee brothers — often had mediocre NBA careers. Laettner, the best white Duke player, whose arrogance and frat-boy looks inspired hate in whites and blacks alike, made one All-Star appearance and averaged 12.8 points per game over his 13-year career. J.J. Redick, twice the National Player of the Year at Duke, has a career average of 12.8 points per game in his 13th NBA season.

Laettner and Hurley got destroyed in the 1990 NCAA championship game, losing 103-73 to University of Nevada, Las Vegas, led by gold-toothed forward Larry Johnson. But in the 1991 Final Four, with Hill as a freshman, Duke took down undefeated UNLV, then went on to win Krzyzewski’s first title.

The following year, Laettner, Hill and Hurley smashed another set of black icons, Michigan’s legendary Fab Five freshmen, to capture a second straight championship.

“You had this idea about the kind of black players Coach K recruited,” said Duke professor Mark Anthony Neal, chair of the African and African-American studies department. “Kind of a cut-and-dried, clean-cut type of black player … a lot seemed to be mixed-race. When it came to color, they were often light-skinned. It seemed like he had a pattern.”

Neal hated Duke basketball for years, even after he became a professor there in 2004. “What framed my view of Duke was when they played UNLV and it was portrayed as these great student-athletes versus the thugs,” he said, then added: “Laettner didn’t help.”

The Fab Five, who injected hip-hop style and attitude into college basketball, were viewed as the antithesis of Duke. Michigan’s Jalen Rose crystallized those feelings in his Fab Five documentary, describing his feelings as a 17-year-old high schooler: “I hated everything I felt Duke stood for. Schools like Duke didn’t recruit players like me. I felt like they only recruited black players that were Uncle Toms.”

That was a false label — Rose’s teammate Chris Webber was a middle-class kid, for example, and Krzyzewski recruited Webber hard — but it resonated.

“I said what people had been thinking for 30 years,” Rose, now an ESPN analyst, said in an interview.

Kyrie Irving (left), during his one-and-done year at Duke, gets second-half instructions from coach Mike Krzyzewski (right) against Michigan State at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, North Carolina, on Dec. 1, 2010.

Chuck Liddy/Raleigh News & Observer/MCT/Getty Images

But with two championships, Duke could now recruit with anyone in the country. The Blue Devils won a third title in 2001 with Jay Williams, Carlos Boozer and Shane Battier. Their fourth title, in 2010, featured Nolan Smith and white players such as Singler, Miles and Mason Plumlee, and Jon Scheyer.

Black stars such as Hill, Williams and Boozer probably would have been one-and-done in today’s game. As the college basketball landscape shifted, Corey Maggette left Duke after one season. Elton Brand left after two and became an NBA All-Star.

Then came Kyrie Irving, whose spectacular 11-game Duke career in 2010-11 set the program on a new course. Irving went first in the NBA draft, won Rookie of the Year, is a perennial All-Star and became an NBA champion in 2016.

The next generation of young stars took notice.


From left to right: Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones, Quinn Cook, Amile Jefferson and Justise Winslow of the Duke Blue Devils wait for player introductions before their game against the Miami Hurricanes at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Jan. 13, 2015.

Lance King/Getty Images

The Black Duke turning point came in 2015: the championship team featuring freshmen Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow, and senior Quinn Cook.

“My freshman year, it was different,” Cook said. “Me and Amile Jefferson talk about it all the time. Warming up, it’d be like Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber playing in the arena. And by my senior year, they were playing like Lil Durk and Shy Glizzy and Chief Keef and Meek Mill.”

Meek Mill’s “Dreams and Nightmares” became the soundtrack to their championship run. The idea came from assistant coach Jeff Capel, the former Duke player whose jersey was spotted on Tupac Shakur back in the day.

“We play team basketball. Coach has a military background. We take charges. We get hype after little plays,” Cook said. “I think in the basketball community, it just looks like — I don’t want to say ‘corny,’ it’s just different. But coach lets you add your flair to it, add your little swagger, your team swagger.

“If we buy in and we’re doing what we’re supposed to do on the court and in the classroom, coach lets us be us.”

When Cook arrived on campus, he was surprised to find out that several teammates had tattoos. They wore sweatsuits on the road, not suits and ties. Krzyzewski was a Beyoncé fan and had a picture with Jay-Z on his phone. After a disappointing first-round loss in the 2014 tournament, Cook started growing his hair out to show his complete focus on basketball. Then the entire team said no clippers would touch their hair until they lost. That took 14 games. They left the tops of their ’dos long and shaped up the bottoms. By the time they won the 2015 tournament, the Duke haircut had trended nationally.

In 2016, Brandon Ingram wore that haircut in his one-and-done Duke season. Then came Jayson Tatum, Harry Giles, Gary Trent Jr., Wendell Carter Jr. and Bagley. Next up is Williamson, one of the most electrifying college athletes ever and the obvious first choice in the 2019 NBA draft. Barrett is projected to be picked second, Reddish fourth and Jones later in the first round.

Today, “I just think Duke has a look to it,” Cook said. “If you look at the guys in the NBA, I don’t want to say it’s never been cool to go to Duke, but Duke is everywhere now.”

Said Rose: “Now, Coach K is recruiting the player. Before, they were recruiting the program. Before, Coach K wouldn’t even necessarily want four of the top 10 players because he wanted guys who he could mold them and culture them and bring them into the system. Just because you’re a top-flight player, that doesn’t mean you fit into what we’re trying to do.”

“Now, he fits Duke to the top-flight player.”


The roots of Black Duke run much deeper than Zion, Kyrie or Coach K.

In 1892, Trinity College relocated to Durham, North Carolina, with the generous assistance of a local tobacco baron named Washington Duke. That same year, Duke’s barber in Durham, an enterprising black man named John Merrick, expressed an interest in learning about real estate. Duke helped Merrick buy the barbershop, which he expanded into a chain of barbershops. Under Washington Duke’s tutelage, Merrick made more real estate purchases, which became Durham’s “Black Wall Street” district of businesses and homes owned by African-Americans.

Washington Duke also advised Merrick as he co-founded two pioneering black businesses, the North Carolina Mutual Provident Life Insurance Co. and the Mechanics and Farmers Bank. After Duke’s death, his son James Duke gave millions to Trinity College, which was renamed after the Duke patriarch in 1924. Duke family money also endowed historically black universities such as North Carolina Central and Johnson C. Smith, plus what once was the black hospital in Durham.

“There’s a reason I like Duke that’s deeper than basketball,” said rap producer and longtime Duke fan 9th Wonder, who also is a professor at Duke, Harvard and his alma mater, North Carolina Central. “The Dukes went on record saying we cannot empower black people without teaching them economic empowerment.”

Duke went on a building spree with its new endowment. The architect for many of the campus buildings still in use today, including Cameron Indoor Stadium, was a black man named Julian Abele.

This history casts a different light on the perception of Duke as a “white” school — especially since we now know that Georgetown sold 272 slaves in 1838 to ensure its survival.

“When I talk to my friends and start pulling all this history up, it’s a hard reality for them to face,” 9th Wonder said. “They’re like, ‘The black person in me should have been rooting for Duke all along.’ ”

Outside Cameron Indoor Stadium on the campus of Duke University as snow falls from Winter Storm Diego on December 9, 2018 in Durham, North Carolina.

Lance King/Getty Images

Today in black history: W.E.B. Du Bois is born, a black woman is elected Manhattan borough president and Gen. Frank Petersen is put in charge The Undefeated edition’s black facts for Feb. 23

1868 — Happy birthday, W.E.B. Du Bois. William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, whom the world would come to know as W.E.B. Du Bois, was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, where he lived until heading off to attend college at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. Du Bois’ experiences in college opened his eyes to the severity of racial discrimination in the South. After graduating from Fisk, he returned north to attend Harvard University, where he earned a doctorate in 1895, becoming the first African-American to do so.

1929 — Baseball catcher Elston Gene Howard is born in St. Louis. Howard led an active life as a child, but it wasn’t until his teenage years that he was taken seriously as an athlete. While playing baseball, Howard was approached by Frank Tetnus Edwards, a former Negro Leaguer and St. Louis Braves staff member. After persuading his mother, Howard played with the Braves over the summer. In 1965, Howard signed a $70,000 contract with the New York Yankees and became the highest-paid player in the history of baseball at the time.

1929 — Joe Louis knocks out Nathan Mann in three rounds to take the heavyweight boxing title.

1965 — Constance Baker Motley is elected Manhattan borough president. Motley was a civil rights lawyer who became involved with the movement after being discriminated against while attempting to enter a public beach. Motley began her studies at Fisk University, then went on to New York University before earning her law degree from Columbia Law School in 1946. In 1964, Motley became the first black woman elected to the New York Senate. Motley broke barriers once more when she was elected the first female president of Manhattan borough the following year.

1979 — Frank E. Petersen Jr. is named the first black general in the Marine Corps. Petersen was determined to serve his country despite racial discrimination. Petersen attended school in Topeka, Kansas, before attempting to join the U.S. Navy. In his first attempt, Petersen was asked to take the entrance exam over again because administrators believed he’d cheated. In 1950, two years after the desegregation of the armed forces, Petersen enlisted in the Navy. Two years later, Petersen, now a Marine, completed flight school and was commissioned as a second lieutenant. Petersen also became the Marines’ first black aviator. He served as commanding general for the Marine Corps Combat Development Command and in 1988 retired as the first black three-star lieutenant general. Petersen died on Aug. 25, 2015, of lung cancer. He was 83.

Phil Freelon, America’s most prominent black architect, designs for the culture The ‘Blacksonian,’ Atlanta’s civil rights center — and a Durham bus station — are all part of his legacy

It was a brisk early afternoon in January, and I was sitting in a van in Durham, North Carolina, with Phil Freelon, arguably the most prominent working African-American architect in the country. Freelon is best known for designing the National Museum of African American History and Culture and other major museum projects — among them Atlanta’s National Center for Civil Rights, San Francisco’s Museum of the African Diaspora, and Charlotte’s Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture. But on this day, we were admiring, of all things, a bus station.

“If you go around the country and visit bus stations, they’re usually seedy and dirty,” he said. “But they don’t have to be.”

And the Durham Station Transportation Center, which Freelon designed, wouldn’t be out of place on the gilded campuses of Apple or Google. The center, which opened in 2008, has a glass exterior topped by a sleek metal roof sloped like a beret, covering an airy, minimalist interior lounge and ticketing area.

“In my career, I’ve learned that if you build something beautiful, people will respect it,” he said. “You’ll notice there’s no graffiti. Now, I don’t think everyone going to catch a bus looks around and says, ‘Wow, this is a beautiful building.’ But I think they soak in the ambiance, and I’m happy about that.”

Durham Station Transportation Center

James West/J West Productions LLC

The paradox of architecture is that it’s all around us, and yet, for many people, the profession remains esoteric. “If you have a talented young African-American, their family will likely know a lawyer, doctor, teacher or a clergyman, but not an architect,” Freelon said. “My parents, who were both college-educated, didn’t know an architect of any color, and certainly not a black one.

“Diversity is a huge problem in our profession. The profession is small — there are only 110,000 licensed architects in the United States, compared to 1 million attorneys and 800,000 physicians. And only 2 percent of architects are African-Americans, a lower ratio than with lawyers and doctors.”

Freelon, 65, has attempted to change that on several fronts: through his hiring practices, visits to predominantly minority schools to speak about his work, and the establishment in 2016 of the Freelon Fellowship, which provides financial aid so a student from an underrepresented group can attend the Harvard Graduate School of Design. And since he founded his eponymous firm in 1990, much of his work has been focused on designing libraries and other academic buildings for historically black colleges and universities and cultural projects in traditionally black neighborhoods.

Currently he’s involved with a major expansion of the Motown Museum in Detroit, a mile-long open-air museum along Crenshaw Boulevard in Los Angeles and the North Carolina Freedom Park in downtown Raleigh. “He’s designed nearly every major museum or public space dedicated to black culture in the United States,” Fast Company magazine observed when it named Freelon its Architect of the Year in 2017.

“Of course, you don’t just wake up one morning and the Smithsonian wants you to build a museum,” Freelon said. “There’s 30 years of work that leads up to that.”


Before he had ever met an architect, Freelon had decided to become one. He grew up in Philadelphia, where his mother was a school administrator and his father was a salesperson for Cordis, a Miami-based medical device manufacturer. Freelon attended Central High School, an academically rigorous, predominantly white, all-boys magnet school, which also produced the famed architect Louis Kahn. Citing the influence of his grandfather, Allan Randall Freelon Sr., a Harlem Renaissance-era painter, Freelon said he was drawn to classes in the visual arts, as well as drafting and design. He also took inspiration from his strolls through the city, visiting the Franklin Institute and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “Only later,” Freelon said, “did I learn that a black architect, Julian Abele, helped design the museum,” including the iconic steps featured in Rocky.

Freelon had his mind set on attending a historically black college or university (HBCU) and enrolled at Hampton University in Virginia. “It was the height of the civil rights movement and Black Power, and I had an Afro and was very socially engaged,” he said.

Freelon plowed through the curriculum. “He was an excellent student, meticulous and curious,” said John Spencer, chairman of the architecture department, whom Freelon credits as his first mentor. Believing he would be more challenged at a larger university, Freelon transferred to North Carolina State, although he was anxious about moving deeper into the South. “When my father used to attend his company’s annual conference in Miami in the ’60s, he couldn’t stay in the downtown hotels and would stay in the black neighborhood of Overtown,” Freelon recalled. But a visit to Raleigh reassured him.

“At N.C. State, Phil and I were two of only a handful of black students at the College of Design, and there weren’t any black professors in our discipline,” recalled Percy Hooper, now an associate professor of industrial design at N.C. State. “We didn’t feel segregated from the white students, but we ended up spending a lot of time together, supporting one another.” The coursework was demanding, and there wasn’t a lot of downtime. To unwind, the friends would ride their bikes or, more ill-advisedly, toss around ninja stars.

During summers, Freelon worked for a professor at the Durham-based architectural firm of John D. Latimer and Associates and continued at the firm’s Taunton, Massachusetts, office while pursuing a master’s degree at MIT, which he completed in 1977. He worked briefly for a large firm, 3/D International in Houston, before returning to Durham to join O’Brien Atkins Associates, where he soon became the firm’s youngest partner.

“I’ve learned that if you build something beautiful, people will respect it.”

Freelon helped design schools, churches and other buildings around the state. “As a young architect, you’re not a specialist and you tackle a wide variety of projects.” A significant step in his career, he said, was being tapped as lead designer for Terminal 2 of the Raleigh-Durham International Airport. “Of course, it’s since been demolished and rebuilt,” he said, chuckling. “At this stage of my career, there are a few buildings that I’ve designed that have been torn down.” (He later designed an award-winning parking garage at the airport, as well as the airport’s general aviation building.)

In 1989, Freelon received a fellowship to study independently for a year at Harvard. The next year, he left O’Brien Atkins to launch his own firm, the Freelon Group. It began as a one-man shop and grew to more than 50 employees, about 40 percent of whom are women and 30 percent people of color.

“When I decided to start my own practice, I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to do and not do,” Freelon said. “I wasn’t going to design prisons, strip malls or casinos. The work that excited me were schools, libraries and similar projects that positively impacted the community.” Freelon also said he had little interest in upscale residential projects, the multimillion-dollar homes that fill the pages of Dwell and Architectural Digest, the ubiquitous coffee table magazines of the aspiring bourgeoisie. “The only home I’ve ever built is my own,” he said.


Phil and Nnenna Freelon in 2015

Lissa Gotwals

One afternoon, I joined Freelon and his wife, Nnenna, at their suburban home, a 15-minute drive from downtown Durham. The modern, two-story structure with a matching separate studio space features a warm combination of concrete, steel, glass and laminate siding. The sloped lot abuts a pond and runs the length of a football field. There’s a long path from the house to a fire pit and a steel animal sculpture that the Freelons named Kareem Abdul-Giraffe.

Inside, the New Standard Quintet, a Chicago jazz group, played on the stereo while the couple’s dog, Count Basie, perched by the couch. Earlier, Freelon had told me how he met his wife. Nnenna, a Massachusetts native, was finishing her undergraduate degree at Simmons University in Boston. She was on a visit to the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, where she was considering pursuing a graduate degree in health care administration. A mutual friend introduced them. “We met on our friend’s front porch, and for me it really was love at first sight,” Phil Freelon said. It was a swift courtship. With only her undergraduate thesis to complete, Nnenna moved to North Carolina, they got married and she quickly became pregnant. She put graduate school on hold and eventually turned to her first love, jazz singing, and is now a six-time Grammy Award nominee.

“Phil is one of those lucky people who always knew what he wanted to do,” Nnenna Freelon said. “For most of us, it’s more circuitous. I was blessed to have a husband who was passionate about what he did and wanted me to find what I was passionate about.”

For a globe-trotting professional singer and star architect, Durham isn’t an obvious home base. Why not New York, Los Angeles or Chicago? “When you have kids, your life changes,” Phil Freelon said. “We figured we could live here and get in an airplane and go where we needed to go. I’m a huge family guy, and I love being a father. That was most important.” The Freelons have three children, who all live nearby. Deen Freelon, the oldest, is a tenured professor at the UNC School of Media and Journalism. Maya Freelon Asante is a visual artist. And Pierce Freelon, the youngest, is an activist and former Durham mayoral candidate who runs Blackspace, an after-school entrepreneurship and social media program for disadvantaged youths.

“I wasn’t going to design prisons, strip malls or casinos. The work that excited me were schools, libraries and similar projects that positively impacted the community.”

“It’s been impressive what Phil has done here,” said Kevin Montgomery, the African-American president of O’Brien Atkins whom Freelon recruited to that firm in 1988. “He was able to develop a firm in a midsize market that has global recognition and can compete with much larger firms in places like New York and Chicago.”

That proved to be the case with the Smithsonian museum, a project, Freelon said, that was more than a decade in the making. A couple of years after his Museum of the African Diaspora opened in 2005 in San Francisco, Freelon teamed up with New York’s Max Bond to win a contract from the Smithsonian to complete the planning and pre-design work for the African-American museum on the National Mall. A year later, the Smithsonian announced an international design competition, and Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye approached Freelon and Bond about joining forces.

“David is the highest-profile architect of African descent in the world, and we had our eyes out for what he was going to do for the competition,” Freelon said. “We met and determined we had similar approaches and values, so the team was expanded.” They also added another firm, Washington-based SmithGroup, which had previously done work for the Smithsonian. More than 60 groups, representing firms throughout the world, sought the commission. The Smithsonian eventually culled the field to six, provided them with stipends and asked them to produce designs within 60 days.

Team members from Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup, who designed the winning concept for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, meet with members of the Smithsonian Institution: (from left to right) Hall David, Peter Cook, director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture Lonnie Bunch, David Adjaye, Phil Freelon and Smithsonian secretary Wayne Clough in front of a model of the winning design in Washington, D.C., on April 14, 2009.

AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

“We were competing against all these starchitects,” Freelon said, including I.M. Pei, Norman Foster and Moshe Safdie. A committee composed of members of the Smithsonian, the architectural press and academics picked the Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup design.

When the National Museum of African American History and Culture opened in 2016, Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne hailed the building’s “powerful strangeness” that “embraces memory and aspiration, protest and reconciliation, pride and shame.” He continued, “The museum’s skin — has that typically benign architectural term ever been more charged? — allows it to stand apart from the Mall’s white-marble monuments like a rebuke.” The most recent accolade came in January, when the American Institute of Architects named the museum one of nine winners of its 2019 Honor Awards.

During the opening ceremonies, which included a Kennedy Center performance by Nnenna, Freelon was walking with a cane. He’d experienced leg troubles the previous year, although at first he didn’t think much of it. “I was run-down anyway, because 2015 was an intense year,” he said. Not only was he finishing the museum, he was also teaching at MIT. He had also just completed a merger of his firm with the global architecture powerhouse Perkins + Will, which had been courting Freelon for more than a decade. Freelon now oversaw the firm’s North Carolina operations from Durham.

“It wasn’t just that Phil was a superstar — and he really is the Michael Jordan of architecture,” said Perkins + Will CEO Phil Harrison. “We wanted Phil because of his design sensibility, which is modern but not cold. There’s a real humanism you can see in all his work. And with his staff you see a real diversity, not just in demographics but in thinking.”

When Freelon traveled to D.C., he would jog around the Mall to stay in shape. “I noticed I’d use the same effort, but it was taking me longer and longer to complete my course, and my right foot was dragging.”

After meeting with several doctors, Freelon was referred to Richard Bedlack, who heads Duke University’s Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis Clinic. Freelon was diagnosed with ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, which is progressive and incurable. It attacks the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord and in time results in total paralysis and, ultimately, death — typically within two to four years after the diagnosis.

Freelon was “shocked and disappointed,” he said, and there was a brief period of denial. But after a few months, Freelon told his staff and took a month off to ponder his future. “But I decided to go back and work full time,” he said. Now, he uses a heavy electric wheelchair and works less and mainly from home. He remains on the Perkins + Will board of directors and is closely involved in ongoing projects.

“I’m an optimist by nature, and I look at my prognosis as a glass half full,” Freelon said. “I’m relieved I was able to raise my children and have a career and family.”


Architect Phil Freelon at the offices of Perkins + Will in Durham, North Carolina.

Endia Beal for The Undefeated

One can drive a mile in almost any direction around Durham and come across a building Freelon designed. With his sister-in-law Debbie Pierce driving Freelon’s customized van, we visited the Durham Bulls’ Athletic Park, home to the country’s most famous minor league baseball team featured in the movie Bull Durham; the Durham County Human Services Building, an airy, glass structure with a huge courtyard that replaced a grim, Soviet-style bureaucratic bunker; and several science buildings on the campuses of North Carolina Central, an HBCU, and Duke University.

Few professions offer their practitioners a chance to leave a physical legacy, and I offered to Freelon that he must feel proud as we revisited his creations. He laughed and alluded to a famous Frank Lloyd Wright quote: “A doctor can bury his mistakes, but an architect can only advise his clients to plant vines.”

Of course, Freelon didn’t view his works as mistakes. He was being self-deprecating. But it was also significant that on our tour he insisted I visit a few buildings he didn’t design.

We parked in front of Duke University Chapel, a majestic Gothic structure with a 210-foot-tall bell tower. The chapel, along with other significant structures on Duke’s campus, including Cameron Stadium, was designed by Julian Abele, an African-American architect who was the chief designer for the Philadelphia firm of Horace Trumbauer. “The story goes that when Abele came down here to do site work he had to dress up in overalls and pretend he was a common laborer or he wouldn’t have been allowed on campus,” Freelon said. It wasn’t until the 1980s that the university formally acknowledged Abele’s contributions, placing a portrait of the architect in the lobby of the main administration building and naming the main campus quad Abele Quad.

Later, we pulled in front of a small church in a historically African-American neighborhood. Opened in 1931, it was originally a church for the deaf, who were recruited to work in Durham’s noisy cigarette manufacturing plants. More recently, it had been rented to various congregations. Eventually, it was put up for sale and Phil and Nnenna Freelon purchased it. We went inside, where workers were renovating the space. Freelon had hired a friend who had more experience with such work to be the architect.

The Freelons created a nonprofit, North Star Church of the Arts, to operate the building as a community space. (An inaugural service will be held Feb. 17.) “We’ll have spoken-word nights, after-school programs, maybe some weddings and other ceremonies,” Freelon said. “We just want to give back to the community.”

We were in the back of the church. The pews had been pulled out and stacked to the side, and we looked toward an imaginary dais.

Freelon has been involved in building celebrated structures that will last for many years. The Smithsonian museum likely will survive as long as our republic. But here he was inside a humble church that he didn’t even design, smiling. “Nnenna and I wanted this to be our legacy project,” he said.

Revisiting Muhammad Ali’s historic 1975 graduation speech at Harvard The Undefeated goes back in time to report on Ali’s address

On June 4, 1975, Muhammad Ali addressed the graduating class of Harvard University. Less than a year removed from his “Rumble in the Jungle” with George Foreman in Zaire, Ali was once again Champ and at the height of his popularity when more than 1,000 people crowded inside Burden Auditorium that day to hear his speech. The Undefeated has obtained the rarely seen footage of Ali’s remarkable speech.

It’s been two years since The Champ died. The Undefeated traveled to Harvard to re-create the breaking news moment when Ali spoke to the graduating class of 1975. SportsCenter anchor Stan Verrett and correspondent William Rhoden go all in to show how The Undefeated would have covered the historic event.

In 1975, Harvard got a glimpse of Muhammad Ali’s true greatness The Champ spoke truth to power in a way no one did then or has done since

The footage is simultaneously exhilarating and haunting.

In the rare recording we see a handsome, self-assured Muhammad Ali speaking to the Harvard University graduating class of 1975, where he had been invited to give the commencement address.

“I’m very flattered in coming here ‘cause you never could have made me believe years ago when I got out of high school with a D-minus average,” Ali said. “And they gave me the minus because I won the Olympics.”

Ali won the light heavyweight division gold medal in the 1960 Rome Games when he was still known as Cassius Clay.

When he addressed the Harvard graduates in ‘75, Ali was at the height of his popularity and was arguably one of most highly recognized faces in the world.

The Champ was 33 years old. Just eight months earlier, in October 1974, Ali had pulled off one of the greatest upsets in boxing history when he defeated the seemingly invincible 25-year-old champion George Foreman, in Zaire — the famous “Rumble in the Jungle.

With the victory, Ali regained the world heavyweight boxing title that had been stripped from him in 1967. His title had been taken not by a boxer, but by boxing’s sanctioning commission in April 1967 after he refused to be inducted into the U.S. military.

In his 1975 talk at Harvard, Ali spoke about Uncle Toms and a condition of black brainwashing that he said kept blacks shackled.

“I don’t do no Uncle Tom-ing. I don’t do no shuffling,” he sad. “The Ali shuffle, but I don’t do the Tom shuffle.” The audience roared its approval as he then demonstrated the Ali shuffle.

Ali told the graduates he was baffled by the extent to which African-Americans in the civil rights movement went through such pains to desegregate, to push to go where they were unwanted. “Even before I was who I was,” he was baffled and angered as black demonstrators suffered physical abuse “marching, people pouring water on you, putting dogs on you. What in the hell is worth that? You got to be crazy, watching your sisters all beat up.”

He implored the black community to come back to itself, to embrace self-sufficiency. “We got the best food, the best music, everything else,” Ali said. There certainly were black Harvard graduates who appreciated the courage of those who risked life and limb to break down barriers to equal opportunity. But Ali’s underlying message of black brainwashing was on point.

He talked about the depiction of Jesus with blue eyes, of Tarzan as the white king of the jungle, beating up black Africans. He described white angels, white Miss America. “Everything good was white, the angel food cake was white, devil food cake was chocolate.”

As I watched the audience react to Ali, I wondered if the graduates, many of whom would become politicians, business magnates and leaders, heard what Ali was saying. I wonder how many today recognize how thoroughly that truth still resonates.

Ali won the world heavyweight title in 1964 when he knocked out the heavily favored Sonny Liston in the seventh round. Three years later, he was stripped of the crown after he refused on religious grounds to serve in the military, famously saying, “I ain’t got no quarrel with those Vietcong.”

This month marks the 51st anniversary of Ali’s conviction. He was sentenced to five years in prison (which he never served because his case was appealed). Ali received a fine of $10,000 and was also banned from boxing for three years.

Interestingly, two months before Ali’s address at Harvard, South Vietnam surrendered to North Vietnam. A month before the address, President Gerald Ford essentially declared an official end to the war.

Four months after the Harvard speech, Ali survived 14 punishing rounds of boxing to defeat Joe Frazier in Manila. Called the “Thrilla In Manila,” that fight arguably is one of the greatest in Ali’s career. There were more chapters to follow. Ali lost to Leon Spinks in 1978, and regained the title the same year by defeating Spinks.

Looking at the footage of Ali’s 1975 speech at Harvard now, we know his story would end with physical deterioration after years of absorbing punishment. Even in 1975, there were concerns about Ali’s health.

I interviewed Foreman at his Livermore, California, ranch a year after his 1974 fight with Ali and he expressed an awareness of, if not concern for, Ali’s long-term health. What struck me then and even now as I reflect on Foreman’s comments is how thoroughly Ali had gotten inside of Foreman’s head.

That defeat compelled Foreman to change his entire approach to boxing. Foreman realized that Ali had it right all along. The fight game, at its core, was entertainment. It was a game of charades. Years later, Foreman would reinvent himself as the lovable, cuddly, health-conscious Big George, inventor of the George Foreman grill.

When I look around my home and my office and see images of Ali, I realize I am as heavily invested in Ali as my father was in Joe Louis, the indomitable Brown Bomber.

And just like my father, I am just as unwilling to let emerging facts of Ali’s life diminish the impact he has had on my life, or on his heroism.

I have read multiple Ali biographies. My conclusion: Muhammad Ali was a human being, with all the flaws, frailties, contradictions and complexities that go along with being human.

He stood up to the U.S. government’s war machine and spoke for thousands in 1967 when he said, “Hell, no, I won’t go.” Many of those thousands were in the audience at Harvard. That’s why Ali was given a hero’s welcome, why he was celebrated in life and why he will be celebrated in death. He did not run and he did not hide.

Muhammad Ali was and is a true American hero.