Behind the complicated relationship between Washington and baseball The Nationals could win their first World Series, but would it be bittersweet?

D.C. baseball fans were ecstatic last week when the Washington Nationals captured their first National League pennant, high-fiving, screaming and hugging each other all around town. Three local TV affiliates stayed with crowds outside the ballpark and on nearby streets long after their normal broadcast lengths, including one that didn’t join its regularly scheduled programming until well past midnight. The following day, happy Washingtonians rocked Nats gear, recounted game highlights, and reached out to contacts about World Series tickets.

It was a moment many will cherish for the rest of their lives. But not for all Washington baseball fans.

Others reflected on the region’s complicated relationship with pro baseball, its racist past and its current dynamics.

Yes, the Nationals hosted their first World Series game on Friday night against the Houston Astros and hold a 2-1 series lead, but for a generation of locals there is still bitterness over previous teams leaving town. From 1972 to 2004, the nation’s capital was devoid of the national pastime on a professional level. Fans could experience every major sports league except baseball.

Washington had been branded as a place where baseball went to fail. For black sports fans, in particular, the city’s national reputation was especially troubling.


Why BASEBALL ABANDONED Washington

Washington had generally supported the game — in good times and the more frequent lean years — since the late 1800s. And in 1943, the Homestead Grays of the Negro National League began dividing time between Pittsburgh and Washington. Their Washington home was Griffith Stadium, owned by Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith.

Grays games were played in a predominantly black section of town called LeDroit Park, home to Howard University and the historic chitlin circuit entertainment venue, the Howard Theater. The team won pennants in 1943, 1944, 1945 and 1948, which happens to be the last time Washington hosted a baseball championship game. When the major leagues were integrated, and the Negro National League folded, the Grays disappeared after a couple of seasons as an independent team. The Senators were integrated in 1954 by signing Cuban outfielder Carlos Paula.

The Homestead Grays pose in 1943 for their team portrait. In the back row, Cool Papa Bell is second from left, and Buck Leonard, second from right. Ray Brown is in the front row, far right.

Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics, Getty Images

The 1960 Senators, who finished 73-81, drew more than 743,000 fans — a respectable number for the era (Griffith Stadium seated only 28,669 fans). But when the season ended, owner Calvin Griffith (the nephew of Clark Griffith, who died in 1955) agreed to sell the team to a Minnesota ownership group. Fans were upset that the improving ballclub was being relocated. And by 1965, Harmon Killebrew and Bob Allison led the Minnesota Twins to the World Series.

More damaging was the revelation that came years later, in September 1978, when Calvin Griffith explained the move at a Lions Club dinner in Waseca, Minnesota.

“I’ll tell you why we came to Minnesota,” Griffith said. “It was when we found out you only had 15,000 blacks here. Black people don’t go to ballgames, but they’ll fill up a rassling ring and put up such a chant it’ll scare you to death. We came here because you’ve got good, hardworking white people here.”

This confirmed what black Washingtonians and some sports media had suspected of Griffith all along, and it further branded the city as undesirable for his fellow MLB owners.

“The baseball owners and commissioner didn’t understand the historical bond between the black community and Griffith Stadium [which was open for many black community events], the legacy of the mighty Homestead Grays in the city,” said Washington native Brad Snyder, who has written books about the Senators and the integration of baseball.

The Senators were replaced in 1961 by an expansion team, also named the Senators, after the American League voted to add two new franchises.

During this time, Washington was a social tinderbox. Police brutality was rampant, and Marion Barry, first chairperson of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, made his name locally in 1965 and 1966 by calling attention to the issue.

In 1968, after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, things got worse. Washington saw a 67% increase in homicides between July 1967 and July 1968. During his 1968 presidential campaign, Richard Nixon pronounced the District as “one of the crime capitals of the nation.”

Labels such as “crime capital” are difficult to shed. In the first few years after the ’68 unrest, the city experienced white flight by families apprehensive about safety, and black households with similar concerns. Those who could afford to move — not to mention spend money on a baseball game — relocated to Maryland or Virginia.

In 1971, Washington Senators’ manager Ted Williams (center) gets together with two newly acquired ball players Curt Flood (left) and Denny McLain (right) at training camp in Florida.

Getty Images, Bettmann / Contributor

Although the Washington ballclub drew 918,000 fans in 1969, finished 86-76, and hosted the ’69 All-Star Game to help commemorate MLB’s 100th anniversary, the 1970 and 1971 teams did not play as well, and attendance fell off. Fan sentiment about seeing games in a mostly black part of Southeast Washington contributed as much to the decline as losing records. The 1970 trade for former Cy Young winner Denny McLain, whose career had come to be marked by a suspension for bookmaking, another for carrying a pistol on a team flight, weight gain, and a considerable decline in his pitching skills, symbolized the fall of the franchise.

The Senators’ final home game was against the New York Yankees in 1971. They were leading 7-5 in front of more than 14,000 fans, many of whom hoisted banners and signs criticizing owner Bob Short, who had put the team up for sale after the 1970 season. But with one out remaining in the ninth inning, fans began to pour onto the diamond, pull up the bases, tear the turf, and touch the home players. Washington lost the game by forfeit, and MLB for a generation.

Short sold the team to a Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas, group after the 1971 season.

“Losing the team was devastating,” said Washington native Brian Gilmore, now director of the Housing Clinic at the Michigan State University College of Law. “I played little league coming up every year, so when the team left I eventually drifted away from it — as did so many black kids.

“Nevertheless, ‘Chocolate City’ was magical back then for a young black kid like myself. There was a sense of pride and purpose.”


‘City Under Siege’

By the 1970s, Washington became so synonymous with blackness that Parliament released an album titled Chocolate City. For decades, its mayors, police chiefs, school board commissioners and city council chairs were black. Twenty years after Brown vs. Board of Education, most of its high schools were upward of 90% black. Socially, the largely white pockets of Washington west of Rock Creek Park and the predominantly black corridors east of the Anacostia River seldom coalesced.

Between 1972 and 2003, baseball owners who heard presentations about Washington, learned the city had a subway system with a stop at RFK Stadium, a vibrant sports talk radio landscape, avid rooters of the NFL franchise and Maryland and Georgetown college basketball, and baseball-loving transients from all over the U.S. But Washington suffered from its image as a crime capital. One local TV affiliate led its nightly newscast with the number of residents murdered to date, under the headline City Under Siege.

Between 1972 and 2004, Seattle Toronto, Denver, Miami, Tampa, and Phoenix all received major league baseball teams. Washington experienced only close calls (including from the 1974 San Diego Padres, 1987 San Francisco Giants, and the Houston Astros in 1995). The narrative about Washington in baseball media circles was that it was an unsafe, predominantly black city that had already lost two MLB franchises because white fans were afraid to go to the ballpark.

“Certainly the concept of Chocolate City was not a drawing card for the MLB owners when Washington nearly received another team before the 1974 season,” Snyder said. “The baseball owners of that era were a racist and fearful bunch, especially after the 1968 riots about Dr. King’s death, about putting a team in D.C.”

“Certainly the concept of Chocolate City was not a drawing card for the MLB owners.” — Brad Snyder

When Camden Yards opened in 1992, the Baltimore Orioles averaged more than 44,000 fans. A survey determined that 21.9% of fans at Camden Yards were from the Washington metropolitan area. Baltimore had a downtown ticket office in Washington, Orioles results were featured on Washington TV and radio sports reports and some fans rocked their gear, but the city was split on the long game. Some argued that their numbers at Baltimore games signaled a thirst for baseball. Others believed that giving money to Orioles owner Peter Angelos, who opposed a Washington franchise, worked at cross purposes. Fans under 30 could not remember the Senators, so many grew up backing the Orioles.

When Washington investors appealed to MLB for a franchise during the 1990s, though, they cited their share of Baltimore attendance as a strong suit.

After the peak of the crack epidemic in the early ’90s, Washington saw an influx of young white professionals who sought to live closer to Metro transit system stations and their jobs, many of them singles who did not need a large yard or the highly ranked school systems of nearby Montgomery County, Maryland, or Fairfax County, Virginia, two of the wealthiest suburbs in the U.S. By 2009, the city was only 53% black, and violent crime decreased 50% from 1995 to 2010. Washington had become a more attractive destination to MLB brass.


Washington Nationals left fielder Bryce Harper makes the first out of the game as he catches a hit by Atlanta Braves right fielder Jason Heyward during the opening day game at Nationals Park between the Washington Nationals and the Atlanta Braves on April 4, 2014.

Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post via Getty Images

The arrival of the nationals

Some of Washington’s black and civic leadership opposed the return of big league baseball. Opponents voiced skepticism that a new team would bring revenue or employment to an economically challenged section of the city, especially for its poorest residents. But when the Montreal Expos became available, Washington’s Lerner family put in a bid. Most National League owners favored a sale, not wishing for the league to run the franchise. Twenty-nine of 30 owners voted in approval of the Lerners’ $450 million purchase.

Washington was awarded the franchise in 2004 under the condition they would build a new stadium, given that RFK Stadium was more than 40 years old. This city-funded initiative was resisted by some elected officials, especially City Council member Linda Cropp, who opposed public funding for a ballpark, arguing that schools and community services were bigger priorities. Fellow council member and former mayor Marion Barry, meanwhile, advocated that black and Latino contractors and vendors be considered in the enterprise.

Fan reaction to the return was mixed. There were those who echoed the skepticism of city officials. But fans favoring the return were excited because it meant no more trips up to Baltimore. One of the most popular fan choices for the new team’s name was “Grays” in tribute to the Homestead Grays, but team management chose to call them the Washington Nationals.

E. Ethelbert Miller, who has lived in Washington since 1968 and is a former Washington poet laureate, is glad to have the game back.

“When I decided to make this city my home following my graduation in 1972, I didn’t view this city as being a home for baseball,” Miller said. “D.C. and sports seem to always begin and end with the Washington Redskins.

“I was very happy when the game returned to D.C.”

But as the city celebrates the success of its third major league iteration, less apparent to the general public are mixed feelings about the organization’s treatment of manager Dusty Baker, who was fired in 2017 after back-to-back trips to the playoffs, and the entitlement of white fans commuting to the game by subway.

“If you want to know how black people view baseball in Washington, simply ride the Green Line after a game ends. Notice how black folks who get on the Metro at Anacostia view the white baseball fans when the train reaches the ballpark stop,” Miller said.

“This is not the Underground Railroad. It’s easy to monitor fear in the eyes of white folks and disgust in the eyes of blacks. It’s a combination of race and class. … Some of this is not going to change.”

No matter the outcome of the World Series, baseball in Washington either symbolizes triumph over recalcitrant owners, or the gentrification of the 2000s, depending on one’s lens.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, look who’s appropriating now.

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

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

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

Photo by Rodin Eckenroth/WireImage

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Photo by Mickey Bernal/Getty Images

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

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

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

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

Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images for BET

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

And can’t nobody tell them nothin’ …

HBO’s new ‘Black Lady Sketch Show’ is both funny and long overdue All you need to survive the apocalypse is a headscarf and a League of Extraordinarily Funny Black Women

If there’s a lesson to be gleaned from A Black Lady Sketch Show, it’s this: All you need to survive the apocalypse is a headscarf and a League of Extraordinarily Funny Black Women.

HBO’s newest late-night sketch show, created by Robin Thede, is an instant classic. It premieres at 11 p.m. ET on Friday.

The apocalypse provides a frame for the show’s sketches, which are built around a core cast of Thede, Quinta Brunson, Ashley Nicole Black, and Gabrielle Dennis. The women kiki it up in a well-appointed living room in between each sketch, but when one of them opens the front door, the world looks like a scene out of a Cormac McCarthy novel.

Among the topics explored: How ashiness feels like slavery, groupie culture in the era of the Negro Leagues, and the relative invisibility of plus-size black women and how it makes them excellent candidates for espionage. The last bit is adapted from a conceit made popular by Paul Feig and Melissa McCarthy in Spy, but Black and guest star Nicole Byer successfully push the idea further along. That energy propels the show from the start. Its title sequence is populated by Crank Yankers-style marauding puppet versions of the actresses and backed by a Megan Thee Stallion track.

The show, co-produced by Issa Rae, is a rarity in modern television. Its writers, Lauren Ashley Smith, Holly Walker, and Amber Ruffin, are all black women. The show is directed by Dime Davis, whose most recent credits include a directing stint on the television reboot of Boomerang.

Thede, at this point, has grown accustomed to pathbreaking. She made history in 2014 when she became the first black woman to serve as head writer on a late-night comedy show, The Nightly Show, hosted by longtime Daily Show correspondent Larry Wilmore. She then had a short-lived turn as host of her own show, The Rundown with Robin Thede.

While A Black Lady Sketch Show provides ample time for each of its cast members and guests (which include Angela Bassett, Laverne Cox, Aja Naomi King, Gina Torres, and Patti LaBelle) to shine, Thede is exceptionally malleable. One of the great blessings of A Black Lady Sketch Show is that she’s used it to showcase her acumen with accents, from a spot-on send-up of Jackée Harry’s perpetually lustful 227 character to a rarely heard Louisiana Creole drawl in a sketch about a “Bad Bitch Support Group.” Her best may be a character named Dr. Hadassah Olayinka Ali-Youngman, a “world-renowned philosophizer” who marries Iyanla Vanzant-style self-actualization woo-woo ideology with the hotep paranoia of Frances Cress Welsing.

Ali-Youngman is a “pre-Ph.D.” who sports platinum blond locs, African mud cloth, and calls herself a “hertep.” She’s got the sort of pop culture stickiness that’s bound to take on a life of its own, like the Key and Peele sketch that turned TV football player introductions into an extended mockery.

From left to right: Holly Walker, Robin Thede, Quinta Brunson, and Daniele Gaither send up 227 in A Black Lady Sketch Show.

Courtesy of HBO

A Black Lady Sketch Show is so funny, and so packed with fresh ideas that it’s bound to leave audiences wondering: What took so long for something like this to exist?

Well, because like so many other aspects of American life, white guys had a head start, one that began in 1876 with the founding of the Harvard Lampoon, the oldest college humor magazine in the country. The Lampoon has had an outsize influence on American comedy, one that’s arguably just as influential as the writing of Mark Twain. For decades, it’s served as a feeder pool for writers, comedians, and actors to break into television. But that pool has been overwhelmingly white and male.

Seeking to provide a solution to the racial disparities in comedy, Chris Rock attempted to start a humor magazine at Howard University in 1998. The Illtop Journal, its name a takeoff from the university’s student newspaper, The Hilltop, eventually fizzled, with Rock conceding in a 2014 piece for The Hollywood Reporter that a lack of resources contributed to its demise. The piece, was, among other things, a response to an earlier controversy, when Kenan Thompson said in an interview that the reason Saturday Night Live hadn’t hired a black woman since Maya Rudolph left in 2007 was because “in auditions, they just never find ones that are ready.”

Dennis was one of about a dozen black women called in for a showcase aimed at finding such women and the show eventually announced that it hired Sasheer Zamata as a featured player and Leslie Jones and LaKendra Tookes as writers.

Since Saturday Night Live’s premiere in October 1975, seven black women have been either part of the repertory or featured players on the show (Danitra Vance, Yvonne Hudson, Ellen Cleghorne, Rudolph, Zamata, Jones, and Ego Nwodim). Many of its cast and writers come from a farm team of improv troupes around the country: the Upright Citizens Brigade, the Groundlings, and Second City, as well as the Lampoon. Those haven’t necessarily been at the forefront of diversity and inclusion, either. Even though Jones, who was personally mentored by Rock, has carved a niche for herself on SNL, her role there is routinely oriented around the idea that she’s undesirable. See her running gag with Colin Jost, in which Jones is positioned as a hulking, predatory black woman unaware that she’s trying to punch above her perceived dating weight class. The roles for black women there have been stunted by the limited universe of possibilities SNL writers have imagined for them.

A Black Lady Sketch Show simply has a different starting point. In Black, Brunson, and Dennis, Thede has assembled an all-star team from all over television. Black came from Full Frontal with Samantha Bee. Brunson is perhaps best known for her work in Buzzfeed video’s humorous shorts, but blew up in 2014 with her The Girl Who Has Never Been on A Nice Date series. Dennis, who played Candice on Insecure, has worked on a number of shows.

Compared with its people of color-dominated predecessor, In Living Color, A Black Lady Sketch Show highlights the changes in social norms that have taken place since the Fox sketch show debuted in 1990. For one, it’s considerably more queer-friendly. Brunson is a surprisingly handsome stud in a sketch about about a butch lesbian who steals dance moves.

It’s also amazing what happens when a show simply features black women instead of centering men playing them in wigs. A sublime weirdness results, one that recalls the goofy, left-field wit of Key and Peele while incorporating a critique of modern expectations surrounding beauty and grooming.

Because black women have historically been so poorly represented in improv and sketch comedy, especially on the nation’s ultimate platform for it, it was easy to draw a faulty conclusion: Maybe this is just how sketch comedy works. Maybe it’s just an inhospitable form for black women.

That makes about as much sense as concluding that maybe black people just aren’t good at playing quarterback when a black quarterback is shunted into an offensive system constructed for a different set of talents from his own. A Black Lady Sketch Show is the long-overdue meeting of a highly skilled quarterback with an offensive system that works with, rather than against, the athlete’s talents.

Gentrification encroaches on Howard and Texas Southern campuses It’s a clash of cultures, aspirations, history and money

Washington, D.C., apparently is the capital of the Gentrification Nation too.

Want to see the effects? Just take a stroll through the environs near Howard University’s main campus these days and you reflexively say, “My, how times have changed.”

Gone are many of the decaying structures and dilapidated blotches of disrepair. And gone are some of the small black businesses and shops that were the lifeblood of a once-vibrant community.

Look up and you will see high-rise thickets of fancy apartment complexes dotting the landscape around Howard, which in recent years has sold some of its properties near campus to raise funds. Look down and you will see the new cafes and coffee shops.

Those are signs of gentrification, not only in Washington but also in cities such as Houston, home of Texas Southern University, another historically black institution.

To understand the change of scenery around Howard, you must study the metamorphosis of Washington as a whole.

Gentrification sweeps through D.C.

Check the city’s gentrification numbers. According to the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, which advocates economic support for economically distressed locales, Washington had the highest intensity of gentrifying neighborhoods in the United States between 2000 and 2013.

Furthermore, Washington’s population was 71.1% black in 1970; in 2015, that number had plummeted to 48.3% during this new age of gentrification and black displacement. Also, the white population in areas surrounding Howard’s main campus was about 4% in 2000; by 2015, it had increased more than sixfold.

Of the eligible tracts for gentrification, Washington leads the nation with a 40% intensity rate; second is San Diego, double digits behind at 29%; third is New York at 24%.

Gentrification can mean new residents. With different cultural likes, dislikes, habits. And behavior.

Such as dog walking.

Howard students know this firsthand. And they don’t like it.

Because their campus has been a dog park for some area residents — white pet owners.

Students say it’s their grass and their walkways, regardless of the gentrification projects that have altered the landscape surrounding the university.

“Seeing dogs on campus isn’t an uncommon thing. I have seen them relieve themselves and the owners don’t pick it up,” Kenneth Fling, a freshman psychology major from Buffalo, New York, told The Undefeated outside on a breezy, blue-sky day at the main campus. “Here, we take the culture of our campus and our community very seriously.”

The first part of Fling’s comment is a key point of contention among many Howard students: non-student pet owners allowing their dogs to defecate and urinate on campus apparently without taking any responsibility.

The Yard on Howard University is located at the center of main campus, surrounded by public spaces where fraternities and sororities emblazon trees with their insignia.

John X.Miller

On “The Yard” — that priceless, grassy commons — which students consider hallowed territory, the pulse of their universe.

Call this situation Howard’s get-off-my-lawn moment.

It would be foolhardy to believe that Howard was the nation’s only historically black college or university in a dense urban spot feeling the effects of a culture clash that’s exacerbated by gentrification. Travel about 1,500 miles southwest of Washington to Houston, the nation’s fourth-largest city.

There, Texas Southern University is in the throes of its own challenges that, in some respects, are more problematic than the dog issue at Howard.

Houston’s Third Ward, where Texas Southern is located, is in the midst of a multimillion-dollar renovation plan.

While the hot topic at Howard is about the pets, the concern at Texas Southern is about the pocketbooks.

According to the Houston Defender, a black-owned newspaper in the city, the number of black residents in the Third Ward, as of 2017, had decreased by at least 10% while the white population had doubled, as education and income levels have risen. Other effects of gentrification can include an increase in home and property values, an improvement in safety matters and a rise in credit ratings for residents.

However, on the other side of the ledger … well, let Sherridan Schwartz, a visiting professor in the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern, tell it:

“In recent years,” Schwartz told The Undefeated, “luxury development and gentrification have made the Third Ward mostly unaffordable to the faculty and staff of TSU [except for a few executive-level administrators with higher incomes]. Now those employed by TSU have to find more affordable housing farther away, primarily in Houston’s suburbs like Pearland and Missouri City.”

To compound the gentrified problems, public transportation, especially bus service, can be affected in a negative way. Food and utility prices can skyrocket.

Also, in some neighborhoods around Texas Southern, similar to incidents in Washington, new residents have vehemently complained about publicly played music, lingering crowds, noise and block parties — often staples of many predominantly black communities.

Darnell Latney knows all about those staples.

For 48 years, Latney has been a part of Georgia Avenue, a street that directly borders Howard’s main campus. He’s seen the full scope of changes on this thoroughfare, which stimulate much-heated debate in the neighborhood, Latney said. A barber for 22 years, he works at Joseph’s Barber Shop, mere steps away from the university. And he is adamant about what he calls a disservice to a longtime predominantly black community encompassing Howard.

Darnell Latney stands in front of a building on the 2800 block of Georgia Avenue across from Howard University where he and other barbers cut hair for years. The shop closed last year, according to Latney, at the same time the condos (on the right) were being built.

John X. Miller

“It’s all about economics and raising the tax base,” Latney passionately told The Undefeated. “They are just using gentrification to get rid of black people in this area. We are not being displaced but replaced.

“At one time, D.C. wasn’t like this at all, from about the 1990s on back. Now everything is so expensive that the average black person can’t afford it. Georgia Avenue is a long street. It used to be an 80% black neighborhood that catered to 80% black businesses. Not anymore. I’ve seen a lot of black businesses close down in the past six years on Georgia Avenue — all because of gentrification. And this dog stuff is another sign of what’s going on around here.”

The tension regarding Howard’s dog controversy ratcheted up even more when dog owner Sean Grubbs-Robishaw, a white man who lives nearby in the Bloomingdale neighborhood, announced it was time to relocate.

No, not him — the 152-year-old Howard campus should depart, he proclaimed.

In an interview with television station Fox 5 DC, Grubbs-Robishaw, who admitted to traversing Howard’s various open patches of grass with his dog to reach a nearby reservoir that’s a popular spot for pet owners, barked, “So, they’re in part of D.C., so they have to work within D.C. If they don’t want to be within D.C., then they can move the campus. I think we just need to work together, and I don’t think it should be a he or there or here . . . it’s our community, and that’s how it should be.”

Yes, he jolted us when he said “move the campus,” the higher-education domain of such illustrious Howard alumni as poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, singer Roberta Flack, former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy and California Sen. Kamala Harris. And note that Grubbs-Robishaw has since been derisively referred to by a hashtag on social media: #GentrifyingGeorge.

“They [dog owners] just don’t realize that this is sacred ground,” Hidaya, a Howard student who didn’t want her last name used, told The Undefeated.

The temperature of these dog days had gotten so hot that several media outlets, from Essence magazine to MTV News to The Guardian newspaper in England, have carved out space for coverage. And a petition has even been started to effect change regarding the dog debate.

Ironically, while students and dog owners on Howard’s main campus have been in the midst of a seemingly adversarial relationship, on the university’s so-called West Campus, located in a traditionally wealthier community that houses Howard’s law and divinity schools about 3 miles away, students and dog owners have maintained a symbiotic association.

“We do events each year when, during final exams, area dog owners bring their dogs over so we can pet them,” second-year law student James Walker III of Atlanta told The Undefeated.

For stress relief.

Does it work?

“I don’t partake in it myself, but I’m sure it helps, as the data has shown it works,” said Walker, whose parents both graduated from Howard’s School of Law.

Final exams are scheduled this week and next.

West campus students, neighbors get along better

Walker said it isn’t unusual to see dogs on the grounds of Howard’s West Campus, a predominantly white area off Connecticut Avenue, and added there’s a communal environment with the neighbors.

There doesn’t appear to be an antagonistic relationship with the surrounding West Campus community, he said.

There could be three reasons, besides the communal engagement:

  • The much smaller West Campus is a bit more isolated than the more open and sprawling main campus, which, of course, draws more foot traffic.
  • The dog owners on the west side appear to be very responsible in picking up waste material from their dogs.
  • The West Campus isn’t in the crosshairs of gentrification projects, unlike the main Howard campus.

The dog conundrum on the main campus became so polarizing that university president Wayne A.I. Frederick publicly announced that pet owners are prohibited from bringing their animals on the grounds.

He said: “We recognize that service animals are a necessary aspect of modern-day life and we will accommodate them as needed. We appreciate pet owners respecting our campus by not bringing pets on to the private areas. Howard is a private institution nestled in the heart of an urban city and we’ve shared a long-standing positive relationship with our evolving community for more than 150 years, which we look forward to continuing in the future.”

However, a few students indicated that they still have seen some non-student pet owners and dogs on the main site after the release of the president’s message, although freshman Fling observed, “I have seen a decline in dogs on campus.”

The animal regulations imposed by city’s Department of Health, in association with the mayor’s office, appear to be on Frederick’s side.

Alison Reeves, interim director and public information officer in the office of communications and community relations for DC Health, told The Undefeated, after consultation with the agency’s general counsel, that “the leash law applies to dogs off of their own fenced property. The pet waste laws apply to anyone off of their own property. Whether anyone is or is not allowed on Howard’s campus is a function of whatever rules Howard would have in place and provide notice of to the public. Any person on private property could be considered to be trespassing if not allowed on the property, but that would be up to Howard to enforce.”

Much of this issue between dog owners and students revolves around respect and reverence in the nation’s capital, which now doubles as the Gentrification Capital.

Howard freshman Ahzaria Garris, a criminology major from Norfolk, Virginia, told The Undefeated:

“It’s the principle behind the situation with the dog owners. They don’t interact with us; they don’t even look our way. They seem to keep tunnel vision, minding their business and just hurrying along. If they interacted with us and actually cared about the school, it would be different.”

Simply put, Howard students don’t want their main campus to go to the dogs.

A look back at ‘Above the Rim’ on its 25th anniversary Tupac in trouble, Georgetown hoops on the rise, a sports film rises to cult classic

Marlon Wayans can still smell the thick aroma of Tupac Shakur’s marathon marijuana sessions. Wayans and Shakur, both performing arts high school products, had become quick friends while Shakur was filming 1992’s Juice alongside Wayans’ friends Omar Epps and Mitch Marchand.

By 1993, it was Wayans working with Shakur on the street basketball coming-of-age film Above the Rim, which celebrates its 25th anniversary on Saturday. Shakur was the sinister and charming drug dealer Birdie, who was trying to monopolize a local streetball tournament. Wayans played Bugaloo, a round-the-way kid who was often the target of Birdie’s vicious verbal taunts.

“ ‘Above the Rim’ is the most true, ball-playing cinematic movie.” — Leon

Shakur and Wayans shared a two-bedroom trailer on set. They made each other laugh. They talked about themselves as young black creatives in a world that often sought their talents but not the soul behind them. And the two got high together — in a way.

“’Pac smoked a lot of weed,” said Wayans. “[He] would roll like nine blunts … he’d be listening to beats.” Wayans chuckles at the memory. “I’d catch the biggest contact.”

One day, Shakur refused to step out of his Rucker Park trailer. Director Jeff Pollack was confused. Everyone was ready, cameras in place. All they needed was the enigmatic Shakur. “Kick the doors off the Range Rover!” Shakur yelled as he emerged. “Real n—as don’t have doors on Range Rovers!” Shakur wanted the doors off so he could just jump out and directly into his lines.

“In my head, I’m thinking, ‘Yeah, ’Pac’s a little high,’ ’’ said Wayans, laughing. “I don’t think ’Pac knew how much that would cost production.” Shakur eventually came down off his high. And the doors stayed on the Range.




Above the Rim was part of a 1994 Hollywood basketball renaissance. A month before the film hit theaters, Nick Nolte, Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway starred in Blue Chips. Later that year came Hoop Dreams, the masterful Steve James documentary. Lodged midway was Above the Rim.

Each of the three films offers a perspective of basketball as more than a game. Blue Chips focuses on the lucrative and slimy underbelly of big-business college athletics (and art imitates life a quarter-century later). Hoop Dreams is an exposé of the beautiful yet heartbreaking physical and emotional investment of the sport. Above the Rim uses New York City basketball as the entry point into the deeper story of two brothers and their tie to a young hoops phenom attempting to leave the same Harlem streets that divided them.

Set and filmed mostly in Harlem, the film was written by Barry Michael Cooper and directed by Pollack and also features Leon (Colors, The Five Heartbeats, Cool Runnings, Waiting to Exhale) as Tommy “Shep” Shepard, Shakur’s older brother and former basketball star. Martin (White Men Can’t Jump, Scream 2, Any Given Sunday) portrays Kyle Lee Watson, a high school basketball star hellbent on attending Georgetown.

Tonya Pinkins (Beat Street, All My Children) portrayed Kyle’s mother, Mailika. She hasn’t forgotten what the role meant for her career: “Probably the most I’ve ever been paid for a film,” she said. “The cast was phenomenal. It was really a party, and I was kind of the only … woman with lines in the movie.” And making his film debut was Wood Harris (Remember The Titans, The Wire, Paid In Full, Creed and Creed II) as Motaw — Wee-Bey to Birdie’s Avon Barksdale.

Bernie Mac (Def Comedy Jam, Mo’ Money) is Flip, a local junkie responsible for the movie’s most prophetic and eerie line, especially given how many key figures from the film have since died (Shakur, Mac, Pollack and David Bailey). “They can’t erase what we were, man,” Flip says to Shep toward the beginning of the film.

Marlon Wayans, who played Bugaloo in the movie, on Tupac: “Pac’s greatest attribute is he was supercourageous, but sometimes that can also become your Achilles’ heel.”

Courtesy of New Line Cinema

Above the Rim, too, entered the culture during that 1986-97 era when films such as House Party, New Jack City, Malcolm X, Boomerang, Juice, Menace II Society and others had already stitched themselves into the fabric of the ’90s black cultural explosion. Those movies did so with black directors calling the shots. Above the Rim was brought to life by Benny Medina and Pollack, who had already struck gold with The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, at the time roughly halfway through its iconic run.

Above the Rim was different, though. “It was … without a doubt a story of the inner city,” said Leon, who at the time was fresh off his powerhouse role as J.T. Matthews in The Five Heartbeats. In Above the Rim as Shep, he returns to Harlem after falling on hard times. Leon is biased about the film’s cult status, and proud of it. “[Above the Rim is the] most true ball-playing cinematic movie,” he said.

Leon is humbled and entertained by the internet’s reaction to Shep, in corduroy pants, dropping 40 second-half points in the movie’s championship climax. “There’s just been so many memes people send me … it’s hilarious,” he said, laughing. And the level of on-set hoops competition, as he remembers, was electric. Many of the film’s ballplayers were just that: ballplayers.

“It was strictly about hoops, wasn’t nothing about acting. When you get on the court, it’s like either you could go or you can’t.” — Leon

In real life, Martin starred as a guard on New York University’s Division III squad in the late ’80s. He was a first-team All-Association selection in 1988-89 and was the Howard Cann Award recipient that same season as MVP. Leon, who grew up hooping in the Bronx, New York, attended California’s Loyola Marymount University on a basketball scholarship (guard) before focusing on acting.

It was while playing professional basketball in Rome and filming 1993’s Cliffhanger with Sylvester Stallone and John Lithgow (in Rome as well) that Leon was approached about starring in Above the Rim. The role was first offered to Leon’s friend (and fellow heartthrob) Denzel Washington, who had just starred as Malcolm X in the iconic Spike Lee biopic. “Don’t know why it was,” Leon says when trying to recall why Washington decided against the role. “Don’t care.”

People in Hollywood knew Leon could hoop, but word-of-mouth was only a down payment on respect. “Everyone could really ball. … Everyone had all-everything in their city credentials,” Leon said. “We’d scrimmage at NYU. All the top players from the [Elite Basketball Circuit] and the Rucker, everybody was down there trying to get down. It was strictly about hoops, wasn’t nothing about acting. When you get on the court, it’s like either you could go or you can’t.”


Georgetown University doesn’t have any scenes in Above the Rim. Nor does the school make or break the plot. Yet the Washington, D.C., campus’s role in the movie is important, and seamless. Pollack (who died in 2013 at the age of 54) and Medina, as writers, had already managed to weave Georgetown into the narrative of a 1992 Fresh Prince episode. And it’s Georgetown’s role in the story of black America that gave the film authenticity.

Maybe it was because Georgetown had a successful black coach manning its sidelines in John Thompson. Maybe it was because Thompson did so during the decade in which hip-hop started to grow up, and crack cocaine was blowing up during and after the days of President Ronald Reagan. Or maybe it was the type of players Thompson recruited — and the fearlessness they played with.

Except for Michigan’s Fab Five, no team held the gritty cultural cool that Georgetown (seen here with Allen Iverson and coach John Thompson in 1994) did in the late ’80s and early ’90s.

Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

“We didn’t apologize for who we were. We didn’t ask permission to be who we were,” Thompson said earlier this month. “Then there was the rap explosion, and people started wearing Georgetown-style gear because they were so moved. Once we started seeing the Georgetown gear in TV and movies, there was definitely more of a sense that we had arrived.”

Except for Michigan’s Fab Five, no team held the gritty cultural cool that Georgetown did in the late ’80s and early ’90s. “Georgetown represented for us,” said Wayans. “It made college look cool to young black kids. That team … it made us go, ‘Yo, I wanna wear that blue and gray.’ … For kids that grew up … in the ’hood … it became cool to be smart and educated.”

Wayans, who attended Howard University from 1990-92, said, “It absolutely [made Georgetown feel like a historically black university].” And it was Allen Iverson’s impending arrival that thrilled all parties involved with the film.

Iverson’s role in basketball lore is one-of-one, and by 1994, his image was, in many ways, as controversial as Shakur’s. To one segment of America, Iverson was a goon, a two-sport local superstar who deserved to have his future stripped away after a 1993 bowling alley brawl. Iverson’s 1993 trial and eventual conviction remains a benchmark of racial divisiveness in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Yet, to a whole other segment, Iverson held superhuman characteristics. He was a larger-than-life counterculture rebel who remained true to himself at all costs — in tats, do-rags and baggy jeans. Iverson, a free man in March 1994 after being granted conditional clemency by Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, was an unspoken factor in Above the Rim’s authenticity. Iverson’s story is loosely tied to that of Kyle Lee Watson.

“[Iverson] was big,” Leon said. “Having a … prominent black coach who we know would take a chance on a player [like character Kyle Lee Watson] and give him a scholarship, much the way [Thompson] did with Allen Iverson, it just made sense.”

Wayans agrees. “Allen Iverson represents the concrete and the hardwood. [Even then], he made you believe that even though you was groomed and raised in the streets, you could still amount to something great, and not let go of your culture.”

But if Iverson’s legacy is in unanimous good standing with the Above the Rim community, the reviews of the film were anything but. While Above the Rim has risen to cult status in the quarter-century since its release, many at the time blasted the film for hackneyed dialogue and situations. The Washington Post dubbed it a “stultifying cliché of a movie” that “doesn’t get anywhere near the rim.” Variety said the movie was composed of enough clichés to fill an NBA stat sheet. Roger Ebert felt similarly but praised the film’s ingenuity in character development.

But if there was praise that was near universal, it was for Shakur. “As the strong-arm hustler who darts in and out of Above the Rim, Tupac Shakur proves, once again, that he may be the most dynamic young actor since Sean Penn,” an Entertainment Weekly critic wrote in 1994. “The jury is out on whether he’ll prove as self-destructive.”


Shakur entered a particular read-through of Above the Rim’s script in typical Tupac Shakur fashion. Loud. Bodacious. Arrogant. Leon appreciated the spectacle.

Every actor and actress has his or her own way of mentally preparing for a role. This was Tupac’s. He walked right up to Leon, his estranged brother in the film, and bowed his head. “You ain’t gonna have a problem with me because you in The Five Heartbeats,” Shakur said. “That’s my movie.”

Above the Rim marks a transitional period in Shakur’s life. His rising fame ran concurrent with controversy. Vice President Dan Quayle called for his 1991 debut, 2Pacalypse Now, to be removed from shelves, claiming its lyrics incited the murder of a Texas state trooper. And in 1993 alone, Shakur released Strictly 4 My N—A.Z., a profound sophomore effort headlined by the singles “Holler If Ya Hear Me,” “I Get Around” and “Keep Ya Head Up,” and starred with Janet Jackson, Regina King and Joe Torry in Poetic Justice.

Duane Martin and Leon Robinson were two of the stars in this film that was part of a 1994 Hollywood basketball renaissance.

Courtesy of New Line Cinema

But also in 1993, Shakur was charged with felonious assault at a concert at Michigan State University. He fought director Allen Hughes on the set of Spice 1’s “Trigga Gots No Heart” video and was later sentenced on battery charges.

By the time Above the Rim’s production was underway, Shakur’s legal dramas only intensified. In November 1993, he was charged with shooting two off-duty suburban Atlanta policemen. Those charges were eventually dropped. But shortly before Thanksgiving, Shakur, along with two associates, was charged with sexual assault of a woman in a New York City Parker Meridien hotel room. The case remains an indelible stain on his career, and Shakur, until the day he died less than three years later, maintained his innocence, even as he served much of 1995 in prison for the crime.

Shakur’s legal proceedings were a constant backdrop during the filming of Above the Rim, the stress of which took its toll on the cast. “It affected all of us, you know? We had to change the shooting schedule and delay production,” Leon said. “This stuff was all going on at the same time, and it could be a bit of a distraction.”

“He was great,” Martin said of working with Shakur, “when he wasn’t in trouble.”

“It must be hard for [Pollack] to have his main character in jail and you have to shoot tomorrow,” Shakur told MTV News. “But they never let me feel that.”

In a landmark 1995 VIBE prison interview, Tupac talked about hanging around with hardened street players who showed him the baller life that New York City had to offer. Two in particular were Jacques “Haitian Jack” Agnant and James “Jimmy Henchman” Rosemond — both of whom Shakur would later implicate, respectively, in the sexual assault case levied against him and the attempt on his life in 1994 at New York City’s Quad Studios.

“I would often have conversations with him about some elements around him, but I wasn’t abreast of it all because I wasn’t there every time he was getting in trouble,” said Wayans. “I’d just say, ‘Yo, you have the power to make different decisions, watch out for this, watch out for that … You have to dodge traps. You can’t run into them.’ ’Pac’s greatest attribute is he was supercourageous, but sometimes that can also become your Achilles’ heel. Sometimes the thing that is your superpower is also your flaw.”

“You ain’t gonna have a problem with me because you in The Five Heartbeats. That’s my movie.” — Tupac Shakur

Pinkins only had one day of working with Shakur, but his confidence impressed her. “We sat and talked [for a long while],” said Pinkins. “Everyone was so excited and hype, but he was just mellow … cool, and articulate. He was funny too. Someone who made you think he was already at that level of international phenomenon.”

Shakur rarely got much sleep while filming Above the Rim. He’d leave set once the day was over, go to the studio to record and come back to set the next morning primed and ready. “[Shakur] was as dedicated as I was. He was on point,” Leon said. “He had to be because so much of my acting was done silently with my eyes.”

Shakur was Above the Rim’s emotionally charged ultralight beam. His smile could light up a room, and his rage could clear one. Shakur, Rolling Stone lamented shortly after the film’s release, “steals the show.” His portrayal of Birdie was a “gleaming portrait of seductive evil.”

Shakur’s presence in the film is a beautiful reminder of what was. Wayans can still hear his own mother warning him. “ ‘Baby…’ ” Wayans re-enacts her, “I want you to be safe. [Shakur’s] a wonderful kid. I can see the talent in him. But you be careful of the elements around him.”

Above the Rim was filmed on a budget of approximately $3.5 million. In its opening weekend in March 1994, the film recouped that sum, amassing $3.7 million — and $16.1 million overall. It lives on in the conversation of best ’hood movies and one of the definitive sports movies of its era. Above the Rim lives on via streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime.

Today in black history: The Dominican Republic is free; happy birthday, Marian Anderson and James Worthy; and first black woman becomes lawyer The Undefeated edition’s black facts for Feb. 27

1844 — The Dominican Republic gains its independence from the border nation of Haiti. The countries share the island of Hispaniola, and both had been under Haitian rule for more than a couple of decades, first by the Spanish and then by the French.

1872 — Charlotte Ray, the first African-American female lawyer in the United States, graduates from Howard University School of Law. Ray was also the first woman admitted to the District of Columbia bar and the first woman admitted to practice before the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia. Sadly but predictably, her practice could not withstand discrimination and prejudice, so she packed up and moved to New York, where she became a teacher and got involved in the women’s suffrage movement.

1902 – Happy birthday, Marian Anderson (1897-1993). Born in Philadelphia, Anderson became a world-renowned opera singer and the first African-American soloist to perform at the White House and also performed at major music venues.

1961 – Happy birthday, James Worthy. Born in Gastonia, North Carolina, Worthy played 12 seasons for the Los Angeles Lakers and was a seven-time NBA All-Star, a three-time NBA champion and the 1988 NBA Finals MVP.

Becoming a father is Bishop Marvin Sapp’s ‘greatest accomplishment’ His faith in God, his belief and his victories keep him afloat

Bishop Marvin Sapp needed prayer. His congregation and fans immediately responded to his plea, joining him. His wife of 17 years was battling stage 4 colon cancer. MaLinda Sapp died on Sept. 9, 2010. Sapp raised their three children while preserving her legacy and continuing to maintain a life of victory, peace and healing. Facing the death of his beloved wife and relying on his faith to persevere, he continued maintaining victory in peace and healing.

On of his greatest accomplishments in life was becoming a father to his children, Marvin II, Mikaila and Madisson.

“I’ve been blessed to be nominated for every award known to man,” he said. “And that’s been rare in this field of gospel music. But being a dad, to me it’s the greatest reward ever. Honestly, that actually means more to me than anything else.”

Sapp’s father and mother divorced when he was 9 years old.

“It was a real challenge,” he said. “So I made a commitment when Marvin [II] was born that I was going to try to be the best father that I could possibly be, because I didn’t have a father. The challenge with it was that I was learning on the fly, because I didn’t have a real example where the father is supposed to be about, what a father is supposed to be like. So thanks be to God, I had people around me that mentored me from afar …”

Sapp’s children attend historically black universities. Marvin II attends Howard University in Washington, D.C., and Mikaila and Madisson attend Alabama A&M.

“My kids went to predominantly white schools,” he said. “So they made up their minds to go to universities where they could see young people that looked like them. They’re doing very well. Both of my daughters are on the dean’s list, and I don’t know if I get to necessarily take credit for that aspect. Their mother was a wiz when it came to school and stuff.”

Sapp balances life through prioritizing.

“Before I’m anything else I’m a father. After being a father, I am a pastor [Lighthouse Full Life Center Church]. After being a pastor, I am a recording artist. After being a recording artist, I do all my other entrepreneurial responsibilities, from my day care to my full-service bar, be it a mani-pedi, a salon to a restaurant to all the real estate properties that we own, apartments and houses. What I’ve learned for me is that if I keep everything in proper order, it allows me to be able to be successful in each of those areas.”

A gospel music award-winning artist, Sapp transcends generations and first crossed over from gospel to secular in January 2007 when his hit song “Never Would’ve Made It” was released.

Bishop Marvin Sapp

Courtesy Worth Ink Public Relations

“I just think that my relevance is solely based upon me tapping into the culture as it pertains to where they were, and what they feel,” Sapp said. “When I wrote ‘Never Would’ve Made It’ … the reason why the song is timeless is because everybody has had a never-would’ve-made-it moment. And kids connect to it. Adults connect to it. Grandparents connect to it. So the message is universal … ”

The tune spent 46 weeks at the top of American gospel radio charts and became the longest-running No. 1 radio single of any format. The song topped The Associated Press list of Best Songs of 2008. The record-breaking tune was the first song by a gospel artist to sell more than 1 million ringtones.

He’s also a strong believer that “nobody can tell your story better than you.”

“If you get it out before other people, you’re going to win,” he said. “So, my goal has always been to just be as open and honest and transparent as I possibly can be. And it’s caused me to win, across musical genres as well as across age groups.”

Sapp is a testament to steadfastness in faith and remaining relevant in an ever-changing music landscape nearly three decades after he launched his career. In April, he won two Stellar Gospel Music Awards, bringing his total to 24. His latest CD, Close, has been atop the Billboard charts since it was released in September 2017. He is also featured on the Snoop Dogg Presents Bible of Love album.

One bit of important advice Sapp received was from Bishop T.D. Jakes.

“I did a concert at the Potter’s House [Jakes’ church in Dallas] maybe some eight years ago. And afterwards I had the opportunity to sit down and talk to Bishop Jakes. After the concert, we went downstairs and he said, ‘Marvin, in this season, you have to learn how to friend up. What you need to do is you need to start trying to hang around people that’s not at your level but who have accomplished what you desire to accomplish. Connect with them …’ ”

Sapp recently lost more than 50 pounds through changing his diet and beginning to exercise while reclaiming his health.

“I kind of lost myself over the last eight years. I stepped on the scale and I was like, ‘My God, 310 pounds.’ I never would have thought that I was that big. So I changed my diet, found this app that taught me how to count calories, and I started going to the gym every day.”

Sapp often uses sports as his way to connect to hope, faith and victory.

His favorite player, LeBron James, had left the Cleveland Cavaliers in that same year for the Miami Heat, seeking a victorious situation in his own life: an NBA championship.

“I don’t necessarily have a favorite team,” Sapp said. “I’m like, wherever LeBron is. I used to fly to Miami like four or five, six times a month just to go to the games. I would get up in the morning and tell the kids, ‘Hey, I’m going go to Miami and going to the game. I see y’all tomorrow.’ I take my kids to, like, all the Christmas games. I honestly did think that LeBron was going to L.A.”

That time for Sapp is one example of how religion and sports intersect. The two held an unlikely and possibly unnoticed bond: desire for victory.

With the victory Sapp has embodied, there is nothing in his life he would change.

“I think that the challenges of life, the hills and valleys, they are the things that make you who you are,” he said. “I look at my life and I’ve gone through some crazy stuff over the last eight years. I know what it’s done for me. It caused me to really have a more deeper relationship with God, and to trust him like never before.”

You could feel the love for Wakanda and Chadwick Boseman at Howard University’s graduation King T’Challa delivers a message that few will forget, ‘Howard Forever’

Everywhere you looked Saturday morning at Howard University’s 2018 graduation, you’d see Kente cloths of all styles and colors, even on graduates’ mortar boards, worn by students, family and others attending the ceremonies. Black pride was everywhere at the university’s 150th commencement.

And it was because King T’Challa from the movie Black Panther, actor Chadwick Boseman, was there to speak to his HU family.

The more than 2,000 graduates, parents and the entire HU family were treated to a ceremony and occasion like no other as Boseman, a 2000 graduate and star of the phenomenal hit movie, returned to share his message and his love.

He used his interpretation of “Wakanda Forever” — “Howard Forever” — to get the graduates, faculty and HU family hyped about what lies ahead.

He harped on the magic of Howard, noting the university’s physical and non-physical beauty, and how his HU education had prepared him for roles that included Jackie Robinson, Thurgood Marshall and T’Challa from Black Panther.

“Beyond the physical campus, the Hilltop [Howard University] represents the culmination of the intellectual and spiritual journey you’ve undergone while you’re here,” said Boseman to the graduates.

He urged the graduates to appreciate the moment and their accomplishments, as well as the obstacles they overcame to make it to this special day. Boseman referenced Howard by its nickname of the Hilltop, illustrating how appropriate the name was and students’ uphill battle to make it at Howard.

“Completing a long climb, one first experiences dizziness, disorientation and shortness of breath due to the high altitude but once you’ve become accustomed to the climb, your mind becomes open to the tranquility of the triumph,” said Boseman.

Finally, he encouraged the graduates to savor the moment and understand the significance of their accomplishments.

“Don’t just swallow the moment whole without digesting what has actually happened here. Look now over what you’ve conquered and appreciate what God has brought you through.”

Boseman said he’d help lead the reestablishment of the College of Fine Arts at the university, and referenced the student protests at Howard this year. For nine days, Howard students occupied the administration building on the campus with a list of demands and grievances. He said he’d taken part in student protests while at Howard, and praised the protesting students and the administration who listened to their concerns.

Then he concluded his address by crossing his arms across his chest and by saying “Howard Forever,” before being awarded an honorary doctorate degree in Humane Letters.

Nkechi Nnorom, a 2018 Howard University Broadcast Journalism graduate, contributed to this story.

From the Met Gala to ‘Insecure’ and ‘Atlanta,’ what happens when the nuances of black women’s hair care are celebrated? Women in nighttime bonnets and scarves and do-rags have been mostly invisible in pop culture — until now

Rainbow Johnson, portrayed by Tracee Ellis Ross on ABCs popular black-ish, frequently wears a head wrap to bed. So do Rainbow’s precocious daughter Diane, played by Marsai Martin; Rainbow’s meddling mother-in-law Ruby Johnson, played by Jenifer Lewis; and her older daughter Chloe Johnson, played by Yara Shahidi, who has gone off to grown-ish college and taken her head wrap with her. For context: Clair Huxtable didn’t wear a head wrap or bonnet to bed. In real life, Phylicia Rashad probably did. But when we saw Clair, the pristine mother Rashad played on The Cosby Show, in her pajamas or lying in bed, her bouncy hair was always out and perfectly coiffed.

Head wraps, bonnets and silk scarves have never been completely absent from popular culture, but the ones black women use to protect and preserve their hair at night haven’t been as public or as prevalent — until now. Solange just wore a do-rag to the Met Gala, and she was praised far and wide. For many black girls, tying your hair up at night with some sort of head covering is akin to brushing your teeth. There’s no formal ceremony or ritual behind the act, it’s just something you have to do to maintain whatever style you’re wearing at the moment.

Instagram Photo

In grade school, that might be cornrows or individual braids, adorned with a cacophony of plastic beads or barrettes, that require a cotton, silk or satin piece of fabric to keep your edges neat and to ward off the inevitable frizziness. If it’s relaxed hair, then a thin cotton scarf, stocking cap or do-rag likely holds your wrap or doobie in place and keeps your hair straight. For weaves, and for natural hair, satin bonnets usually do the trick, protecting your mane (or bundles) from cotton pillowcases or sheets that can dry out hair and cause breakage. And while satin bonnets and do-rags are plentiful at beauty shops in black neighborhoods, most of my headscarves were sourced from my mother’s dresser.

“The headscarf is a rite of passage for black girls that starts you on your own hair journey,” said Kairo Courts, who was costume designer for the first season of FX’s Atlanta. “I remember asking Zazie [Beetz] early on if she was a bonnet girl or a head wrap girl. She likes head wraps, and we started to talking about having to re-tie them at night because they come off. Everyone has a different recipe for their hair.”


The inclusion of head wraps in the show Dear White People immediately conveys that this show is content made for us, by us.

Netflix

I started to notice head wraps and bonnets on Instagram via Snoop Dogg selfies that turn into single mother memes. There are also the raw yet endearing Cardi B dispatches. And then these artifacts of black culture began to make deliberate appearances on a handful of black, millennial-leaning shows, including HBO’s Insecure, Atlanta and Fox’s Empire. Until I watched Issa wake up next to Lawrence with a scarf tied around her head, or Diane protect her pigtails with a printed scarf at night, I hadn’t even realized that such a foundational part of my black girl existence was missing from the television shows — Sister, Sister; Moesha; The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air — that taught me about myself and my identity.

“Black women have begun to embrace their natural hair,” said Tia Tyree, a communications professor at Howard University. “In the past, the Afro or the scarf in media meant a woman was pro-black or militant. She wasn’t an everyday black woman. She has to be resistant, even if she is just wearing it to bed. I think we’ve reclaimed that representation and we aren’t going to be ashamed about tying a scarf around our heads to maintain our hair. It’s a reality, and if you want me to tell my real story, it means I have a headscarf on.”

The sea change became even more apparent in the promotional images for season two of Dear White People, which debuted on Netflix on May 4. To mark the show’s return, Dear White People creator Justin Simien, his showrunner Yvette Lee Bowser and their team sent out press materials that included an image of three black girls sitting on a bed wearing some type of head covering. The character of Coco Conners is in a leopard print bonnet, and the character Joelle Brooks is in a printed silk headscarf. This picture currently sits atop stories in Vanity Fair, Newsweek and Thrillist, and while the image might appear inconsequential, the inclusion of the head wraps immediately conveys that this show is content made for us, by us.

Instagram Photo

But, as illustrated by ’90s favorites such as The Cosby Show, Martin and Living Single, having black executive producers, showrunners and writers on staff hasn’t always meant the authentic portrayal of the facets of our lives. Michelle Cole, the costume designer for grown-ish and black-ish whose oeuvre includes Martin and In Living Color, couldn’t recall if either Tichina Arnold or Tisha Campbell-Martin wore a headscarf on Martin. I recall many “horse hair” and “beady beads” jokes lodged at Pam from Martin, but no head wraps on screen.

Cole does remember receiving a call from executives when she was working on The Bernie Mac Show, which debuted in 2001 and was created by Larry Wilmore (who executive produces black-ish), informing her that there should be no “scarves on the head” for the show. Cole says that now, almost 20 years later, things are different, and the actors on black-ish and grown-ish usually request headscarves to wear in particular scenes.

Often, taking something off means freedom, but for black women, putting on a bonnet or head wrap means you are in a safe space and able to exist as you are.

“It wasn’t like we sat down and had this big discussion about head wraps,” said Cole. “It’s just that we are black women and this is what we do. We go to bed with our head wrap. I don’t think the decision to not allow headscarves on Bernie had to do with race. I just don’t think [the executives] were aware of how much it’s a staple in black women’s lives.”


Issa Rae as Issa in Insecure. These days, head wraps are subtle signifiers of black womanhood and its multiplicities.

HBO

The head wrap has usually been associated with black mammy stereotypes such as the Mammy character Hattie McDaniel depicted in Gone with the Wind, or with characters like the waitress Queen Latifah played in Jungle Fever, who didn’t want to serve Wesley Snipes’ character and his white date (Annabella Sciorra). Debbie Allen addressed some mammy connotations and attempted to reclaim them in A Different World’s 1987 “Mammy Dearest” episode. Costume designer Ceci (who goes by one name) began her career as a costume designer on A Different World and currently works on Dear White People. It was she who was tasked with dressing Charnele Brown, who played Kimberly Reese, in a black mammy head wrap similar to the ones worn by Aunt Jemima on boxes of pancake mix.

Ceci remembers a contentious atmosphere leading up to the filming of the “Mammy” episode and an emotional Brown, who didn’t want to wear the head wrap because of its associations, and especially the associations with her darker skin tone. Jasmine Guy’s Whitley Gilbert did wear a bonnet — or as she called it “a polytechnic moisture control cap” — in season four episode eight of A Different World, one of the show’s most pivotal episodes when she and Dwayne Wayne finally confess their love for each other. Ceci says that now, actors don’t blink twice when asked to wear one.

“People say ‘black girl magic,’ and seeing the scarf is like a magician showing you her secrets.”

“There were lots of tears,” said Ceci. “It brought up a lot of emotions. But that conversation is nonexistent on Dear White People. … It is what it is, and if you don’t understand it, it’s not for you.”

These days, head wraps are subtle signifiers of black womanhood and its multiplicities, and this imagery rarely comes with any sort of translation for nonblack audiences. Issa ties a small scarf around the sides of her teeny-weeny Afro. Rainbow protects her curly tresses with a printed silk scarf tied haphazardly to almost resemble a turban. And Cookie has worn a Chanel silk scarf that she ties at the nape of the neck with the ends cascading down her robe. Often, taking something off means freedom, but for black women, putting on a bonnet or head wrap means you are in a safe space and able to exist as you are. “There has always been a certain mystique associated with black women,” said Courts. “People say ‘black girl magic,’ and seeing the scarf is like a magician showing you her secrets. A lot of people aren’t privy to this ritual, and it’s intriguing to someone who can’t relate.”

Ayanna James, costume designer on Insecure, believes there’s a level of normalization that comes with showing a head wrap on-screen. She compares black women wearing a head wrap each night on Insecure to the women of Sex and the City going to Starbucks every morning. But despite this movement toward showcasing black-girl head wrap society on mainstream platforms, wearing one out of doors still has consequences. According to Dress Coded, a report put together by the National Women’s Law Center that details how dress codes influence the education of black girls, 68 percent of Washington, D.C., public high schools ban head wraps or headscarves.

“There is a negative connotation when you see a young lady on the street with a bonnet or a headscarf that you wear to bed,” said James. “People see her as less valuable, [as] more uncouth and wild. … But the more we see the Olivia Popes and the Annalise Keatings in their natural state, the more it helps the rest of the world understand our journey. Representation matters, and for the younger black girl who may have issues with her hair, it shows that she is not alone. The subtle nuance of wrapping our hair at night is what collectively brings women of color together.”