Earth, Wind & Fire among this year’s Kennedy Center honorees From ‘Sweet Sweetback’ to ‘September,’ they built a soundtrack for the black experience

The holiday season is five months away, but Earth, Wind & Fire received an early gift Thursday. The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., announced that the group will be one of the marquee recipients at the 42nd Annual Kennedy Center Honors later this year.

Standing alongside Earth, Wind & Fire on the prestigious night in the nation’s capital will be actress Sally Field; singer Linda Ronstadt; conductor, pianist and composer Michael Tilson Thomas; and the founders of the revolutionary children’s television show Sesame Street, the first TV program to receive the award.

The Honors recognize contributions to American culture through the performing arts. A gala performance toasting this year’s winners will be held at the Kennedy Center on Dec. 8 and aired on CBS a week later.

It’s EWF, though, that will give the night an unmistakable groove. The group, formed in Chicago in 1969, spanned genres from soul and Afropop to disco. Its lead singer, driving force and all-around musical savant, Maurice White, died in 2016. Surviving members Philip Bailey, Verdine White and Ralph Johnson will be on hand to accept the honor.

Earth, Wind & Fire’s earliest success can be traced back to the ’70s, when the group helped ignite the blaxploitation era by creating the soundtrack for Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. From there, the group, which included up to 10 different musicians during its prime and hoisted six Grammys, carved out its own musical lane and identity during a culturally rich decade that helped shape the sound of black music. Its biggest records include “Reasons,” “Sing A Song,” “Would You Mind,” “After the Love Has Gone,” “Shining Star,” “Boogie Wonderland,” their cover of the Beatles’ “Got to Get You Into My Life” and arguably its two biggest cultural touchstones in “Let’s Groove” and the 1978 dance classic “September.”

From left to right: Verdine White, Ralph Johnson and Philip Bailey of Earth, Wind & Fire attend the 37th Annual Kennedy Center Honors in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 7, 2014, to honor Al Green.

Photo by Kris Connor/Getty Images

“My principle for producing,” White told Billboard in 1979 after the runaway success of “September,” “is to pay attention to the roots of America, which is doo-wop music.”

Forty years later, Earth, Wind & Fire’s music is still at the root of love, peace and the black experience in America. They’ve performed for Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama and inspired Prince, Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder with their aesthetic execution. The band’s legacy continues to pump heartily through hip-hop, their music having been sampled by the likes of Drake, Kanye West, Timbaland & Magoo, Cam’ron, Yo-Yo and Ice Cube, Mac Miller, Missy Elliott, Jay-Z and countless others.

In his 2014 biography, Bailey reflected on the process of recording the group’s 1975 triple-platinum album That’s the Way of the World. He dubbed it “a spiritual experience” and said that “when Maurice [White] played us the finished mix … I thought we sounded like angels. … It was as if God had been guiding us.”

When the Kennedy Center commemorates the band later this year, it will be further proof that Earth, Wind & Fire’s journey isn’t done yet.

Grammys: From Cardi B to Drake, a night of come-ups, curves and side-eyes What’s next? That’s the real question

No. Question.

Best acceptance speech goes to Drake. In a surprise appearance, he picked up a trophy for best rap song (“God’s Plan”) in person. He also delivered some strong words to the Recording Academy (formerly the National Association of Recording Arts and Sciences, or NARAS) about past Grammy snubs.

“We play in an opinion-based sport, not a factual-based sport. It is not the NBA.” — Drake

“Know we play in an opinion-based sport, not a factual-based sport,” Drake said. “It is not the NBA. … This is a business where sometimes it is up to a bunch of people that might not understand what a mixed-race kid from Canada has to say … or a brother from Houston … my brother Travis. You’ve already won if you have people who are singing your songs word for word, if you are a hero in your hometown. If there’s people who have regular jobs who are coming out in the rain, in the snow, spending their hard-earned money to buy tickets to come to your shows, you don’t need this right here, I promise you. You already won.” Nice. He was, though, like so many, cut off before completing his remarks.

In the days before the beleaguered show, which inched up in ratings last night, there was a lot of social conversation about how the Grammys are not and have not historically been welcoming to black people and people of color.

So when it was reported by The New York Times just days before Sunday’s telecast of the Grammy Awards at Los Angeles’ Staples Center that three of hip-hop’s biggest superstars — Kendrick Lamar, Drake and Childish Gambino — had turned down the opportunity to perform at this year’s show (Ariana Grande and Taylor Swift chose not to attend as well), the message was quite conspicuous, especially on the heels of recent Super Bowl halftime performance anxieties.

Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for The Recording Academy

“When they don’t take home the big prize, the regard of the academy, and what the Grammys represent, continues to be less meaningful to the hip-hop community, which is sad,” Grammys producer Ken Ehrlich told the Times. Indeed, a hip-hop act has not won the much-coveted album of the year trophy since Outkast for their brilliant 2003 double album Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. In the 61-year run of the Recording Academy’s celebration of musical excellence, the prestigious album of the year has been won by black artists only 12 times, and, while he is no doubt a beloved genius, Stevie Wonder is single-handedly responsible for three of those wins: Innervisions (1974), Fulfillingness’ First Finale (1975) and Songs in the Key of Life (1977). So yes, there was much drama heading into the ceremony.

What we soon discovered, among other revelations, was that 15-time Grammy winner Alicia Keys should be given the perpetual reins to host the aging music awards show, much in the same way Billy Crystal did for the Oscars. She was that good, folks. Also: Chloe x Halle, the sister duo who gave a pitch-perfect tribute to Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack with “Where Is the Love,” have a transformative cover album within them. Beyoncé and Jay-Z were nowhere to be found at music’s biggest night to collect their award for best urban contemporary album for Everything Is Love. Yet, while there were some grand moments in black excellence, the Grammys still have serious work to do.


A moment of Michelle Obama magic

Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for The Recording Academy

“From the Motown records I wore out on the South Side …” That’s how she began. Forever first lady Michelle Obama’s surprise appearance at the Grammys was so surreal that even the other legendary women who stood alongside her — Lady Gaga, Jada Pinkett Smith, Keys and Jennifer Lopez — were overwhelmed.

But Obama was instantly drowned out by applause from the crowd. “All right, you all, all right, we got a show to do,” she said with a smile. And yet the statement of women’s strength was just the beginning. Viewers witnessed a record 31 wins by women recording artists and a sharp acceptance speech by best new artist Dua Lipa, who took a dig at outgoing academy president Neil Portnow, who once stated that female artists should “step up” during last year’s ceremony. Calling it an honor “to be nominated alongside so many incredible female artists this year,” she jabbed, “I guess this year we really stepped up.” Ouch.

It’s Cardi’s world

Cardi B continued her fairy-tale run, snatching up rap album of the year for her boss platinum debut Invasion of Privacy, thanking her daughter, Kulture, as well as her husband, Offset of the Migos. “I’m sorry,” the Bronx, New York, rap queen said, before joking, “I just, oh, the nerves are so bad. Maybe I need to start smoking weed.” Cardi B became the first solo woman to ever win the category and brought the house down with her piano-driven, chest-beating 808 anthem “Money.” Rocking immaculate black peacock feathers and surrounded by an army of flapper-era dancers, Cardi earned a well-deserved standing ovation for her 1920s-inspired nod to Josephine Baker.

But Cardi B’s big night was nearly overshadowed by a tweet from Ariana Grande, who posted the word “trash” along with some stinging expletives as the rapper beat out the singer’s ex-boyfriend, greatly missed late hip-hop star Mac Miller. Grande, who won her first Grammy for best pop vocal album, quickly deleted the tweet. Cardi B, however, responded on Instagram.

Lady Gaga turns it up to 11

The first award of the night went to an emotional Lady Gaga, whose “Shallow” duet with actor Bradley Cooper won best pop duo or group performance.

Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for The Recording Academy

And then music’s most earnest ham, clad in a glittery jumpsuit, transformed “Shallow” into a ’70s arena rock workout.

But can you play?

Photo by Lester Cohen/Getty Images for The Recording Academy

Janelle Monáe came out strapped … with a guitar. Within her lustful “Make Me Feel” were echoes of the Purple One, Prince. Yet Monáe was not alone in her throwback musician bliss. Singer-songwriter Shawn Mendes started out on piano and then switched to guitar. A confident Ne-Yo tickled the ivories as well during an otherwise train wreck of a Motown tribute (more on that later). Post Malone strummed an acoustic guitar on his somber “Stay” before joining the Red Hot Chili Peppers as if he’s already counting down to the moment he’s done playing on the hip-hop side of the tracks. But there was another artist who flexed the most impressive talent of the entire night.

A star is born

Photo by Lester Cohen/Getty Images for The Recording Academy

Imagine Lalah Hathaway jamming with Prince Rogers Nelson while wearing cooler-than-cool shades. That’s the best way to describe the music of singer-songwriter-multi-instrumentalist and all-around badass H.E.R. The enigmatic newcomer not only won two awards, including best rhythm and blues album for her self-titled EP, she gave perhaps the night’s most dynamic show with the empowering “Hard Place.” Her seemingly effortless soulful vocals were backed by her cracking band — and violinists. And H.E.R. even shredded a translucent guitar, bringing the crowd to its feet.

Childish Gambino has the last laugh

Childish Gambino was a Grammys no-show. But that didn’t stop the renaissance man from taking home two of the biggest awards of the night for “This Is America,” his surreal and sneering indictment of gun violence and institutional racism. Childish Gambino, who ironically appeared in a Grammy ad for Google’s Playmoji, became the first hip-hop star to win record of the year and song of the year.

Dolly, Diana and Aretha

Three of music’s most revered figures received well-deserved tributes. For country music crossover goddess Dolly Parton, who was joined onstage by Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry, Little Big Town and the night’s other big winner, Kacey Musgraves, it was yet another reminder that beyond her bubbly, self-effacing image, Parton is a brilliant songwriting machine defying genres. Just check out her string of classics, including “Jolene,” “Here You Come Again,” “9 to 5” and her 1974 gem “I Will Always Love You,” which was given new life when Whitney Houston’s definitive cover became one of the best-selling singles of all time.

Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for The Recording Academy

An always regal Diana Ross, floating through in a flowing red dress while celebrating her 75th birthday, moved the audience after a too-cute introduction by her 9-year-old grandson, Raif-Henok Emmanuel Kendrick. “Young people like me can look up to her for her independence, confidence and willingness to be her unique self,” he said, beaming. “She has shown the world that nothing is beyond our reach. So, ladies and gentlemen, please welcome my grandmommy, Diana Ross.”

And that was an understatement. Ross launched into “The Best Years of My Life” and her solo signature classic “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand),” imploring the crowd to “don’t be lazy” and to stand up. With 70 hit singles and a string of leading feature film roles — including her haunting, Oscar-nominated 1972 portrayal of Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues — Ross is the template for Houston, Janet Jackson, Lil Kim, Rihanna, Nicki Minaj and Beyoncé.

Finally, the late, great Aretha Franklin was celebrated with a rousing tribute by powerhouses Yolanda Adams, Andra Day and Fantasia for a once-in-a-lifetime performance of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” Some viewers balked at the idea of Franklin receiving just one song as tribute. “I’m sorry,” said one poster. “Aretha Franklin is one of the most if NOT the most decorated, talented, influential artists in the history of music. The Grammys gave her a ONE song tribute. Trash #Grammys.” Mood.

Berry Gordy Weeps

When it was first announced that Lopez would be taking part in a Motown tribute, the news was met with bewilderment and jokes from the Black Twitter contingent. But to the astonishment of viewers, Jenny From the Block wasn’t merely a supporting player in an already questionable production, she was the star garnering more stage time than the aforementioned Ne-Yo and Smokey Robinson. JLo proved it is indeed possible to lip-sync off-key as she stumbled through such Motown hits as “Dancing in the Street,” “My Girl” and “Please Mr. Postman.”

Free 21 Savage!

Fifteen-time Grammy winner Alicia Keys should be given the perpetual reins to host the aging music award show. She was that good.

There were no loud shout-outs or words of encouragement for the British-born Atlanta native from his fellow rappers. 21 Savage is still being held by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials for failing to depart under the terms of his nonimmigrant visa. Travis Scott made no mention of his collaborator during his performance of “Stop Trying to Be God” and the riotous “No Bystanders.” Post Malone, who partly owes the immense success and the swagger of his career-making single “rockstar” to 21 Savage, apparently wore a 21 Savage T-shirt but was also silent. The first mention of 21 Savage was made by Swedish “This Is America” producer Ludwig Göransson, who warmly stated, “He should be here.”

And album of the year goes to …

Country singer-songwriter Musgraves, whose Golden Hour picked up the top prize. No diss to Musgraves, a talented voice who will shine for years to come. But for the Grammys, it was yet another telling reminder that black art continues to be overlooked in the most coveted categories.

Tell the Grammys f— that 0 for 8 s—, Jay-Z rhymed on “Apes—” in response to the academy nominating his brilliant 4:44 for eight awards in 2018. He left with no statuettes.

The last black act to win album of the year was celebrated jazz pianist Herbie Hancock in 2008, and that was for the star-studded Joni Mitchell tribute album River. Since then, Swift has won the trophy twice, Adele beat out Beyoncé’s monumental 2016 Lemonade and Bruno Mars won in 2018 for 24K Magic, his love letter to Teddy Riley’s new jack swing. It’s a frustration that Prince knew all too well: His genre-busting 1987 double album Sign o’ the Times lost to U2’s The Joshua Tree.

“I don’t go to awards shows anymore,” Prince said in a 1990 Rolling Stone interview. “I’m not saying I’m better than anybody else. But you’ll be sitting there at the Grammys, and U2 will beat you. And you say to yourself, ‘Wait a minute. I can play that kind of music, too. … I know how to do that, you dig? But you will not do ‘Housequake.’ ”

Grammys … do better.

Our list of 24 can’t-miss books for holiday gifting From a photographic history of hip-hop to magical fantasy to sports activism, it’s all here

Searching for the perfect present for the reader in your family? Or maybe it’s time for some self-gifting (we won’t judge, we promise). From essays to young adult novels to photography and poetry, The Undefeated has you covered. Here’s a collection of some of the most intriguing, well-crafted and engaging books of 2018.

FICTION

The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo (YA)

Don’t believe anyone who tells you slam poetry is dead, because they clearly missed the memo about Elizabeth Acevedo, an award-winning, fire-spitting Afro-Latino poet who has penned an entire novel in verse. Acevedo won the National Book Award for young people’s literature with a coming of age story about Xiomara Batista. Xiomara lives in Harlem, and as she begins to form her own opinions — about religion, about street harassment, about what it means to become a woman — she collects her thoughts in verse and finds a home in her school’s slam poetry club.


Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi (YA)

If you find yourself hooked after reading Tomi Adeyemi’s debut fantasy novel, fear not. She’s got two more coming, all about strong-willed Zélie Adebola and her adventures as she tries to bring magic back to her fictive country of Orïsha, where power has been consolidated by an evil, magic-hating king. The stakes are high: If Zélie fails, Orïsha will lose its magic forever. There’s no shortage of black fantasy fans (remember when Buzzfeed imagined if Hogwarts were an HBCU?), and now young readers have another set of books to add to their collections, right alongside Harry Potter, Shadowshaper and the Bartimaeus trilogy. Adeyemi weaves a story that tackles colorism, class and racism with West African mythology and Yoruba traditions.


My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

Oyinkan Braithwaite’s debut novel crackles with dark humor as she traces the story of sibling rivalry between Nigerian good girl Korede and her maybe-sociopath murderer of a sister, Ayoola. Ayoola’s boyfriends keep turning up dead, and poor, put-upon Korede keeps finding ways to keep her sister free. That is, until Korede’s crush expresses an interest in her sister and Korede is faced with a choice.


A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley

Jamel Brinkley’s debut collection of nine short stories is a meditation on modern masculinity, told from the perspectives of various black men in New York, mostly in the Bronx and Brooklyn. The National Book Award finalist focuses on how ideas about what it means to be a man are passed down through generations, and what it takes to define oneself as notions about sex and gender continue to evolve.


The Talented Ribkins by Ladee Hubbard

Ladee Hubbard has introduced a new framework for thinking about W.E.B. Du Bois, the Talented Tenth and obligations to fellow black people in struggle against white supremacy: a fantastical crime novel about a black family with ridiculously random superpowers (one of the Ribkins can see colors that remain obscured to others, while another can scale walls like a spider). The protagonist is 72-year-old Johnny, who has gotten himself in way too deep with a mobster. The Talented Ribkins, which won the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for debut fiction, is an inventive layer cake of humor, intrigue and insights about race.


Dread Nation by Justina Ireland (YA)

Remember the head-scratching reaction you had the first time you heard about Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter? Well, get over it, because literature about a Civil War-era America complicated by the existence of the undead is most definitely a thing. Enter Jane McKeene, the protagonist of Justina Ireland’s bone-chilling account of an America in which the many who died at Gettysburg became, well, not so dead. Jane has been sent to Miss Preston’s School of Combat in Baltimore, where she learns how to wield a scythe, which is definitely a subversive take on the real-life Miss Porter’s, where women like Jacqueline Kennedy-Onassis learned to be the sort of woman who knows when and how to use an asparagus server. In this America, black and Native people are still doing the bidding of power-wielding whites, except now that bidding includes slaying zombies. Just imagine the troubles that can arise when an entire underclass of people is armed with very sharp weapons.


An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

Tayari Jones, whose novel made this year’s National Book Award long list, trains her lens on the very personal implications of unjust policing and mass incarceration. Her leading lady, Celestial, is married to a man who has been wrongfully imprisoned. While both Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing and American Marriage examine the implications of what it means to be a black woman with a partner imprisoned in the American South, the avenues they take vary wildly. Ward’s focus is on the poor, while Jones takes a look at what imprisonment means for a well-to-do middle-class couple who never envisioned this life for themselves, and the romantic compromise Celestial makes in order to cope.


Wild Beauty by Ntozake Shange

A collection of poems old and new, in English and Spanish, Wild Beauty is the last published work of the late poet, dancer and playwright. Ntozake Shange died in October at 70. She’d suffered a series of strokes in 2004, but as she recovered, she kept writing. Wild Beauty offers one last bittersweet opportunity to connect with an American treasure.


Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires

The theme that unites Nafissa Thompson-Spires’ debut short story collection is one with which many black Americans can identify: being The Only. As in, The Only Black Kid in Private School, or The Only Black Professor, or The Only Black Woman in Yoga Class. In this collection, which made this year’s National Book Award long list, Thompson-Spires conducts a narrative thought experiment, illustrating the world as it’s processed through a variety of Onlys who are carrying around the burden of being representatives for an entire race of people. Lest you think Thompson-Spires has gone too far, never forget the existence of an embarrassingly uncomfortable real-life account of a white woman who projected all of her insecurities onto the only black woman in her yoga class, and then wrote an essay about it. In the world of Thomson-Spires’ characters, readers are encouraged to think about the world from the perspective of The Only, and not the voyeur.

NON-FICTION

Becoming Kareem: Growing Up On and Off the Court by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Raymond Obstfeld

Anyone who’s enjoyed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s foray into cultural criticism as a contributor to The Hollywood Reporter knows that his brain is brimming with trenchant observations. Becoming Kareem offers much of the same, though instead of looking at the entertainment industry, Abdul-Jabbar turns inward to explain his evolution as an athlete, activist and thinker. It’s a worthy addition for anyone who wants an insider’s account of processing where you fit when you’re young, black and blazingly talented and your country is erupting with change.


American Prison: A Reporter’s Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment by Shane Bauer

Shane Bauer, a journalist for Mother Jones, famously spent four months working undercover as a guard in a private prison in Winnfield, Louisiana. Bauer elaborates on his experiences in Winnfield and shapes them with historical context to explain how we arrived at mass incarceration as we currently know it. Bauer shines much-needed sunlight on a crisis that readers of The New Jim Crow and watchers of 13th will find familiar: a system profiting off the warehousing and mistreatment of millions of Americans, a disproportionate number of whom are black and brown.


Things That Make White People Uncomfortable by Michael Bennett and Dave Zirin

If you’re an athlete writing about the intersection of sports, social issues and race, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more well-suited co-author than Dave Zirin, the sports columnist at The Nation. Here, the Philadelphia Eagles defensive lineman melds the personal with the political — one chapter is called “The NCAA Will Give You PTSD.” The through line is a commitment to standing up for the little guy, even when the little guy happens to be 250-plus pounds. It’s a stirring and smart trip through Michael Bennett’s musings on race and power.


White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism by Robin DiAngelo

There’s no time in American history when this book hasn’t been needed, but, boy, is it ever timely now. Robin DiAngelo’s explanations for why we’re so stymied when it comes to discussing race is refreshing, fact-based and patient. While it’s a book that contains helpful information for everyone, White Fragility is an ideal starting place for white people who want to be allies in anti-racism but feel intimidated about where to begin.


Well-Read Black Girl: Finding Our Stories, Discovering Ourselves edited by Glory Edim

The founder of the popular Brooklyn, New York-based book club (now in its third year of existence) has released a book of essays written by literary luminaries including Jesmyn Ward, Lynn Nottage, Jacqueline Woodson, Rebecca Walker and Barbara Smith. Every woman answers the question: When did you first see yourself in literature? Thanks to Glory Edim’s work, black women and girls have a reliable space online, and in print, where they know they’ll always be seen.


The Revolt of the Black Athlete by Harry Edwards

If there’s a book that synthesizes and gives historical context to the wave of social activism that’s swept through modern sports, it’s this one. First published in 1968, it has been resurrected, with a new introduction and afterword for a 50th anniversary edition. Harry Edwards traces the history of black athletes from Emancipation onward, explaining how race has always influenced how black athletes have been received and even used in the U.S. government’s efforts at soft power diplomacy overseas. Through Edwards’ eyes, we see the awakening of black athletes to their own power not as a surprise but as an inevitability.


Ali: A Life by Jonathan Eig

Jonathan Eig conducted more than 500 interviews to report this comprehensive tome on the life of The Champ, and he writes with as much style and verve as Muhammad Ali brought to the ring. Eig provides sweeping context for Ali’s participation in and significance to social movements, from the fight for civil rights to protests against the Vietnam War. Rather than shy away from Ali’s internal contradictions, Eig runs at them head-on, which makes Ali more compelling than any of the more hagiographic attempts to capture his life. Ali is the winner of the 2018 PEN/ESPN Award for Literary Sports Writing. (Disclosure: Eig has also contributed to The Undefeated.)


How to Be Less Stupid About Race: On Racism, White Supremacy, and the Racial Divide by Crystal M. Fleming

You may know sociologist Crystal Fleming from her flame-throwing Twitter feed. In her second book, the Stony Brook University professor tackles an obstacle that hampers a lot of writing about race in America: moving past Race 101. Because our country isn’t operating from an agreed-upon foundation of established historical facts — for instance, every discussion of Confederate monuments must include a basic explanation of the Lost Cause and why it’s bunk. Therefore, our national discussions don’t move forward so much as stall on a treadmill powered by history textbooks that label enslaved Africans as “immigrants.” Fleming offers readers an easily digestible, well-researched primer, as well as a useful series of steps for “becoming racially literate.” In the words of Biggie: “If you don’t know, now you know.” No excuses!


There Will Be No Miracles Here by Casey Gerald

Moving up the class ladder isn’t an impossible feat, but it’s certainly a difficult one. In this memoir, Casey Gerald writes of growing up in Dallas with his sister and learning to survive on their mother’s disability checks. Football provided opportunities for Gerald; he played at Yale while studying political science. The same sport left his grandfather’s body broken. With elegant, captivating prose, Gerald traces a multigenerational story of race, class and privilege and what it means to grasp at limited opportunities for all they are worth, with one’s faith guiding the way.


This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America by Morgan Jerkins

If Lena Dunham is any indication, it’s almost never a good idea to label one person as the voice of a generation. However, Morgan Jerkins is definitely a voice, and she’s one worth taking seriously. In her debut essay collection, Jerkins tackles what it means to be living as a black woman in America today with an authoritativeness that’s rare and impressive for a woman with years to go before her 30th birthday. In bringing a relatable voice to discussing the alienation many black women encounter, both within the feminist movement and in society at large, Jerkins has announced herself as a vital social critic with plenty to say.


Heavy by Kiese Laymon

For anyone who misses Gawker and Kiese Laymon’s presence there, Heavy is a long-awaited essay collection from one of the country’s most thoughtful and incisive writers on race. In Heavy, Laymon contemplates his upbringing in Mississippi and his relationships with the women in his life, especially his mother and grandmother. The #MeToo movement has brought new visibility to the ubiquity of sexual abuse in our culture for women, but many male victims still grapple with shame when it comes to publicly discussing their experiences. Here, Laymon writes with elegance and fearlessness about his own experiences with sexual abuse and, in doing so, helps lift its taboo.


Becoming by Michelle Obama

The former FLOTUS created a storm with the initial wave of revelations contained in her memoir. Michelle Obama discusses the loneliness she felt after a miscarriage and reveals that her children were conceived with the assistance of in vitro fertilization. In doing so, she helps remove the stigma from episodes that occur in many women’s lives but remain taboo. Obama gained the trust of a nation by being charming, down-to-earth and candid. In Becoming, Obama takes advantage of an opportunity to fill in the many blanks of her life and open herself to those who felt they already knew her while making the case for why the Obamas are the ultimate American family.


Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry by Imani Perry

How is it possible that someone with as much name recognition as Lorraine Hansberry could also be considered a hidden figure? Well, because most of us never learned much about her aside from the fact that she wrote A Raisin in the Sun. Imani Perry gives Hansberry her due in this deeply researched biography, fleshing out her life as a writer, thinker and activist whose contributions to American society go far beyond one play. In Perry’s hands, Hansberry comes alive as self-possessed, nervy and extremely witty — a woman whose personal heroes included Toussaint L’Ouverture, the leader of the Haitian Revolution, and Hannibal, the North African general.


Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop by Vikki Tobak

Contact High traces hip-hop’s evolution from 1979 to 2012 by giving readers a behind-the-scenes look at the industry through the contact sheets of the photographers documenting it. Not only does Vikki Tobak provide insight into what goes into a great image by providing the shots that normally remain unpublished, she’s also assembled compelling stories from some of hip-hop’s greatest voices, including RZA, Fab 5 Freddy, Questlove, Young Guru and DJ Premier. Contact High tells the stories of some of hip-hop’s most enduring images, from Jay-Z’s first photo shoot to the Stankonia album cover to XXL’s 1998 assemblage of talent for the photo A Great Day in Hip-Hop.


Not All Dead White Men: Classics and Misogyny in the Digital Age by Donna Zuckerberg

Why should we be paying attention to how the classics are being discussed online? Because a significant segment of the population is, and they’re using their interpretations of texts such as Ovid’s Ars Amatoria, Xenophon’s Oeconomicus and Herodotus’ The Histories as the intellectual underpinnings for arguments about the supposed superiority of Western civilization, of whiteness and of men. Donna Zuckerberg explains how the alt-right, incels and other online communities are forming their own theories based on ancient texts. It’s impossible to bust myths about the classics if you’re unfamiliar with them or the arguments their interpreters are using as weapons. For those who haven’t thought about the ancient philosophers since high school Latin, Zuckerberg makes everything clear.

We honor heroes of all sorts on this Memorial Day Celebrate and commemorate the things that bring us together

As we approach the end of the Memorial Day holiday, words from Louise Erdrich’s Future Home of the Living God do a mad dance in my head: “This is how the world ends, I think, everything crazy yet people [are] doing normal things.”

And so the routines and rituals of late spring in America unfold as the garment of a civil and functional society unravels and our naked differences and grievances are exposed.

Today, as always, we honor our war dead and then divert our attention to our sports heroes, their slap shots, dunks and high-speed turns. Against the backdrop of mounting income inequality, we rush to the malls to take advantage of holiday bargains. Against the backdrop of a volcano erupting in Hawaii and molten rhetoric being spewed by tweets from Washington, we turn our eyes to the blockbuster movies from Hollywood. With their superheroes and their bombs bursting in air, the movies announce the approach of summer in America just as much as Memorial Day’s trumpets playing taps at military cemeteries, the line dances at street block parties and beach parties do.

Normal things in a crazy world.

Indeed, for much of this year, America has been reviewing and revisiting 1968, a wrenching and crazy year in America and around the world: a time of war, riots, and political upheaval and assassinations.

It was a time for doing normal and sometimes frivolous things too, including watching Batman on TV, dancing to Sly Stone’s music and cheering the World Series-winning Detroit Tigers, an integrated team in a racially torn city.

Fifty years ago, our society and its most essential institutions were gravely threatened. But the world did not come to an end. People, some with black-gloved clenched fists at the Summer Olympics, held up the sky with their hands.

We didn’t know it then, but there were heroes everywhere.

And it was doing the normal things in a time of boundless craziness that kept the people sane, gave them strength, crazy and silly as it sometimes seemed. Remember that today.

We honor our war dead. We sip chilly brews. We watch superhero movies. We dance to Imagine Dragons, whatever it takes to fortify us for the long fight ahead: lifting our corners of the sky.

Happy Memorial Day.