Lena Waithe: ‘Your art is stunted when you’re trying to pretend to be something you aren’t’ The actor/producer and Emmy-winning writer is in love, in ‘Ready Player One’ and in the business of kicking down doors

Before my conversation with Lena Waithe begins, I issue a warning. She is, after all, the creator of Showtime’s excellent The Chi, a fictional series about Chicago’s South Side.

“Nothing better ever happen to Papa! I mean it, Lena!”

Waithe laughs mightily at my plea to keep the innocent and charismatic Papa free of harm. Charmingly portrayed by Shamon Brown Jr., he’s one of the three preteen black boys through which we see the neighborhood.

“Look, man,” the Emmy winner says with a giggle, “no one stays safe in The Chi. Even the children.”

What Waithe has done is create characters so tangible they feel like family. She gives an episodic answer to the “What about Chicago?” crowd. In The Chi, Waithe gives us family that you want to protect, support, and keep safe and sound. Her series takes much of what we loved about HBO’s groundbreaking The Wire and shifts focus to spotlight the very real people behind the very real headlines that we see — or don’t see enough. The Chi just ended its inaugural season’s run, but it’ll be back for a second season soon. But Waithe? She’s just beginning. Like for real, for real.

Lena Waithe turns 34 soon. She’s been working steadily in Hollywood since graduating from Chicago’s Columbia College in 2006, and she’s worked for some of the most prominent black female directors in the business — Ava DuVernay and Gina Prince-Bythewood have both been bosses — and in 2011, the S— Black Girls Say video series went viral. The much-debated sensation was written by Waithe.

And by 2018? On the eve of the Oscars, Waithe was feted by Essence at its Black Women in Hollywood luncheon, where she was honored by Angela Bassett, Justin Simien and Steven Spielberg. “Here’s the thing,” she said. “I tend to be really rounded … and I think that’s because I’ve paid a lot of dues. I genuinely love this business, this industry. I love what I do. And also, my lady, my fiancée, keeps me really grounded.”

So much of Waithe’s story stems from her own personal life — on her willingness to live out loud and stand in her own truth as a black lesbian. Last year, she became the first black woman to win an Emmy for outstanding writing for a comedy series for her work on Master of None; the “Thanksgiving” episode of that series mirrored her own experience coming out to her mom.

And despite her rocketing fame — she was featured, solo, on the cover of Vanity Fair last week — she’s unbothered. “It’s commerce, it’s exchange,” she said. “It’s like you’re hot right now, someone else will be hot next year. What happens to some people — we’ve seen it, when they get all caught up — they start to think, ‘Oh, ain’t I grand?’ There are a lot of us who are talented and gifted and great … and I see this with Donald [Glover] too, where at the end of the day we’re like, ‘Look, man. We’re pretty good at what we do, but there’s always folks coming up after us.’ There’s always [people] nipping after you. People should never get comfortable … you just have to always be a student, you have to always be humble, and you’ve got to always know that the business loves a new, shiny toy.”

But Waithe is not just talent. She’s a creator, someone who is passionate about representation and progression. And she has heavy hitters in her corner, like Spielberg, the legendary director who hired her for her most recent role, as Aech/Helen in Ready Player One.

“I’m probably going to stumble, I’ll fall, I’ll mess up, and I think that’s when you get a real sense of where you stand.”

“I don’t know if he’s ever stood back to think about, ‘Oh, how are people receiving me?’ Or, ‘Where’s my legacy?’ He’s like, I just want to make things that I’m passionate about, and I think that’s my mission,” she said of Spielberg. And of herself she says, “I figure that as long as I do that, I’ll be on the right track. I’m probably going to stumble, I’ll fall, I’ll mess up, and I think that’s when you get a real sense of where you stand. But my hope is that folks will just rock with me and go on this journey with me.”

Much of her journey is about inclusion. In this season of The Chi, the series introduces us to one of the families on the South Side that is made up of two mothers, a teen daughter and a preteen son. It was subtle, and it quietly helped normalize a nuclear family that’s headed up by two lesbians in love; it wasn’t that episode’s central focus. It just was. And that’s important to Waithe.

“It’s the thing that’s on my heart,” she said. “Everybody has a cause, a thing that is … a thorn in their side, and that’s one for me.” Then she gets into the complex subject of being black and gay and out and verbal about it all — in Hollywood. “I’m so confused by it,” she said. “Maybe I shouldn’t be, because I can somewhat understand why some people want to keep their sexual orientation private — typically African-American people who are in the public eye. I guess to some extent, but I think that our children are literally killing themselves. Our queer children are thinking that they’re less than. Are thinking that they’ll never be loved. Are thinking that they’ll never have a normal, happy life. … No. Their lives are priceless.”

Waithe said something very similar and poignant to that room at the Essence luncheon earlier this month. It pierced the crowd and resounded loudly to a group of mostly black women, who were already emotionally laid out by the electrifying speech on beauty and acceptance that Black Panther’s Danai Gurira, who also was honored, had delivered earlier that day.

“The reason why people are closeted,” she continued, “is because they’re afraid, particularly in Hollywood. They’re afraid of losing a fan base. They’re afraid of losing people — lost endorsement deals and roles, things like that. [But] if they walk away from you once they figure out who you really are, like, why are we even dealing with that?”

“We keep hearing the story of the white girl and her mom. We keep seeing the story about this old white man on the mountain. There’s so many other narratives that we should be exploring.”

Waithe wants everyone to experience the authenticity she’s living right now. You can’t create a moment like the Thanksgiving coming-out episode inside of a black family unit, she says, without a willingness to be vulnerable.

“I think your art is stunted when you’re trying to pretend to be something you aren’t. You can’t be as happy,” she said. “If I was in the closet, I would not be a happy camper. I just wouldn’t be. I’m a real b—-. I’m a truth-teller. I can’t sit here and act like I don’t have a phenomenal woman at home, with an engagement ring on her finger that I bought as a token of my love.”

There’s of course a long history of gay people in Hollywood performing heterosexuality. Waithe takes a moment to remind. “[People] literally have partners and wives and husbands, and like — because of what? They want to protect the facade. It’s like you’re preventing your art from being as great as it can be, and that’s because you’re not being completely honest with the public. And I think it’s bulls—. If James Baldwin can be out and proud and effeminate … in Harlem and in Paris and walking around and all that kind of stuff, so can we.”

Waithe can’t say enough about this idea of unveiling and revealing. Because she doesn’t want to be out here alone. She doesn’t want to be the only revolutionary out here with a megaphone. It’s lonely.

“I see these cats all the time, out and about, they hug me and say, ‘I’m so proud of you. You’re out! You’re doing it!’ And I want to look at them and go, ‘Why aren’t you?’ Why do I have to be out here on the diving board by myself?’ ”

Lena Waithe as Helen in Warner Bros. Pictures’ Ready Player One.

Jaap Buitendijk

And now we have Lena Waithe the actor.

It’s not a space that she had designs on. But she’s being asked to come in and read for parts, as with Ready Player One, and being cast in shows like NBC’s emotionally gripping This Is Us. Casting directors are calling her people and asking for her as front-facing talent. She has, in fact, a seat at the table. All of the tables.

“That’s what I’ve always wanted to be, a television writer. When you have a presence in front of the camera, the business treats you differently. You get a little bit more of a red carpet rollout. If you send somebody an email, they respond right away. It’s just that weird caste that we have in this town.”

But she’s using her newfound power for good. And her mission is clear: help writers of color. She’s making sure a diverse group of writers has access to writing classes, and she’s all about making connections.

“People look at me and Donald and Issa [Rae] and Justin and Barry [Jenkins] and … I’m like, there’s so many phenomenal writers of color that are just dope. And not just black, but Native American, Latino and members of the queer community. People who live with disabilities. From the trans community. People who are nonbinary,” she said. “We keep hearing the story of the white girl and her mom. We keep seeing the story about this old white man on the mountain. There’s so many other narratives that we should be exploring that are interesting. We haven’t even scratched the surface.”

Waithe is already thinking ahead to the next season of The Chi. Common executive produces, and Ayanna Floyd Davis has signed on for season two as executive producer and showrunner. The show will go back into production later this year.

“We’re going to really step it up. It’s going to be blacker. The women are going to have a lot more to do. And I just have a lot more power this go-around,” Waithe said. “It’s only going to get better. For Atlanta season two, I feel like it’s a little more lived in, and Donald’s a little more confident in what he’s doing, and he’s taking a few more risks, which is really cool. And I want our season two to kind of feel like what season two of Atlanta feels like. Just a little more seasoned.”

And she has more on the way: a pilot order for TBS with Simien, with whom she last teamed up for Dear White People. “I get to be back in the saddle again,” Waithe said, “and to tell a story about a queer black girl and her two straight best friends. And them navigating life in Los Angeles, and what that looks like.”

Because telling stories, stories that don’t often get told, is what Waithe does best.

So long as Papa survives. Please?

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

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

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

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

Some of my clueless questions:

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

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

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

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

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

Read something. Yes, read something!

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

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

So please learn, grow — and enjoy.


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

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

New documentary shows us that Lorraine Hansberry of ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ was one tough-minded woman ‘Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart’ portrays a ‘left-wing radical’ who spoke truth to power

Here’s a phrase I bet you thought you’d never read: Be prepared to fangirl over Lorraine Hansberry.

Told ya.

Friday at 9 p.m., PBS is airing Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart, a documentary on Hansberry, whose life story has been collapsed into a criminally incomplete Black History Month tidbit. She wrote A Raisin in the Sun, and then Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee starred in the movie adaptation. At some point you watched it in middle school one February and didn’t pay much attention because it was in black and white. Or someone in your class cracked a joke about Poitier always being ashy.

But Hansberry was so much more. As Dee says in an interview in Sighted Eyes, “She seemed to know something about everything. She was a profound thinker.”

Thank goodness for director Tracy Heather Strain, who committed years to research and gathering the funds and archival footage necessary to make Sighted Eyes. The film transforms the memory of Hansberry from that polite woman who wrote one really important play to, as Hansberry’s friend Douglas Turner Ward deemed her, a “left-wing radical.”

I first saw Sighted Eyes at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, and about 20 minutes into it I scribbled in my notebook, “I think I love this woman.”

Hansberry had a wit that would have fit perfectly in today’s times, examining the traps of respectability politics and sending them up. Toward the end of her life, she bought a bucolic compound in a predominantly white area of upstate New York and winkingly named it Chitterling Heights. It was a nod, I think, to the efforts of her father to integrate Chicago’s then-white neighborhood of Woodlawn when she was 7. One of the formative experiences in Hansberry’s life was when a crowd gathered outside the Hansberry house in Woodlawn and someone threw a piece of mortar through their front window that just missed her head. What better way to throw a middle finger to white supremacy than to move into a neighborhood and give your house the blackest name you could think of?

Lorraine Hansberry surrounded by clapping African-American teens at Camp Minisink in upstate New York.

Courtesy of Gin Briggs/Lorraine Hansberry Properties Trust

Let’s not disregard the significance of A Raisin in the Sun. Hansberry crafted a play in 1959 about a family living on the South Side of Chicago that dared to show black people as, well, people and not buffoons, and she wrote it by drawing from her own experiences. But Hansberry was also a fearless agitator for civil rights, a feminist inspired by Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, which she said “might very well be the most important work of this century,” a nervy woman who had mapped out a plan for her life by the age of 23 and miraculously stuck to it. She was privately queer and unapologetically black, and undoubtedly someone who would have transformed American culture even more had she lived past the age of 34 (she died of pancreatic cancer). Hansberry married Robert Nemiroff, a producer and champion of her work, in 1953. He left his white wife to be with her, and he was so devoted to her and in awe of her that even though they divorced in 1962, Nemiroff publicly served as Hansberry’s beard for many years.

Hansberry began her writing career as a journalist for the black newspaper Freedom, which was founded by Paul Robeson. She began writing about racism, sexism, poverty and imperialism, which caught the negative attention of one J. Edgar Hoover. Even as civil rights agitators were being identified and surveilled by the FBI, they persisted in their work, and Hansberry was one of them.

She bought a bucolic compound in a predominantly white area of upstate New York and winkingly named it Chitterling Heights.

Lorraine Hansberry holds hands and sings with singer Nina Simone and other activists at a pre-benefit gathering for the Student NonViolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in June 1963 in the home of activist/singer/actor Theodore Bikel.

Courtesy of Lorraine Hansberry Properties Trust

A group of black activists and artists assembled by James Baldwin to meet with Attorney General Bobby Kennedy included Hansberry, Harry Belafonte and Lena Horne. The May 1963 meeting was meant to pressure the Kennedy administration on civil rights or, at the very least, gain its sympathy.

Baldwin wrote about how frustrating the meeting was because rather than listen to what black Americans were enduring, particularly in the South, Kennedy became defensive, insisting that the Justice Department supported the civil rights movement. There was an undercurrent to his words intimating that those gathered who did not agree with him were ungrateful for the administration’s (frankly, rather meager) efforts.

Jerome Smith, a CORE activist who had been attacked and thrown in jail for protesting in Mississippi, bitterly recounted his experiences and refused to dress them up for the attorney general. He decried the Justice Department’s lack of action as activists were being beaten, arrested or worse.

“Mr. Kennedy, I want you to understand I don’t care anything about you and your brother,” Smith said. “I don’t know what I’m doing here, listening to all this cocktail party patter.”

Hansberry also refused to cower before the face of the American government. She didn’t worry about alienating what the group hoped could be its most powerful ally. Instead, Sighted Eyes recounts, she, too, gave Kennedy a piece of her mind.

“You’ve got a great many very, very accomplished people in this room, Mr. Attorney General,” Hansberry told Kennedy. “But the only man who should be listened to is that man over there,” she said, referring to Smith.

“I don’t know what I’m doing here, listening to all this cocktail party patter.”

Sighted Eyes is part of a trifecta of recent documentaries that have given us colorful new insights into the lives of those we often see in black and white. With What Happened, Miss Simone? and I Am Not Your Negro, about Baldwin, directors Raoul Peck and Liz Garbus produced chapters of an anthology about black intellectuals and artists who were contemporaries and friends. These directors give us insight into how the lives of Hansberry, Baldwin and Simone bled into each other, how their friendships provided solace and comfort to each other, how they lived as members of a community and not just as singular figures. They come alive.

Hansberry’s experiences, often told in her own words, come to life in Sighted Eyes thanks to voiceover from actress Anika Noni Rose reading from Hansberry’s journals and other archival material.

Strain, an experienced documentary filmmaker (I’ll Make Me a World, Race: The Power of an Illusion) and professor at Northeastern University became interested in Hansberry after seeing a community theater production of Hansberry’s play To Be Young, Gifted and Black in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The play, assembled from Hansberry’s own words after her death, shares its name with the Nina Simone song, which Hansberry inspired Simone to write.

With Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart, Strain has created a portrait of Hansberry that’s as complete and well-rounded as the portrait of black family life that Hansberry captured in A Raisin in the Sun. In doing so, she’s transformed Hansberry from more than just a pretty young playwright who died tragically young. She’s rightfully preserved her place in American history.

This is what happens when a black cop calls out racism in her own department

Lt. Yulanda Williams The truth teller 27 years in uniform

“I’m black and I will never be blue enough. I will never be able to prove to some that I deserve to wear the same uniform as they do.”“I’m black and I will never be blue enough. I will never be able to prove to some that I deserve to wear the same uniform as they do.”

Black and Blue: Meet San Francisco PD’s Lt. Yulanda Williams

On her day of reckoning, Sgt. Yulanda Williams did not wear the blue. Stomach churning, too nervous to eat much breakfast, she drove across the Bay Bridge into the city. Her mother had pleaded with her to reconsider, but she had given her word: She was going to tell the world about the racism in the San Francisco Police Department.

Williams entered the massive white stone library on Larkin Street, within sight of City Hall. A blue-ribbon panel organized by the district attorney was investigating a shocking string of racist text messages exchanged by 14 officers. Williams would be the only black police officer to testify in public. Others were too afraid.

Waiting to speak, Williams, 61, thought about the years of struggle between black and blue in San Francisco. About promotions denied, slurs hurled, disparate discipline. About complaints filed by the black Officers for Justice organization, and warnings to keep quiet from the police officers union, which wielded considerable influence inside the department. About the text messages from fellow officers that called her a n—– b—-.

Then Williams told her truth: The police force suffered from systemic and institutionalized racism. Not all cops are racist, she said, but the culture of the department allowed racism to fester, to corrupt, and sometimes to explode.

“I’m black, and I will never be blue enough,” she testified. “I will never be able to prove to some that I deserve to wear the same uniform as they do.”

The date was Jan. 14, 2016. Within weeks, the president of the police union all but branded her a traitor in a public letter, making Williams fear for her safety on the job. Internal affairs investigators accused her of several questionable violations, including wearing her uniform while shopping off-duty in a Walmart. Someone broke into her house and stole her laptop, but ignored her jewelry and six guns.

As the problems mounted, Williams took the lieutenant’s exam in late 2016 and scored ninth out of 145 candidates. That should have made her a lock for advancement — but officers cannot be promoted with unresolved disciplinary actions.

“Blue is a profession and a career. Blue pays my bills. Blue is my retirement,” Williams said over the summer as she waited for a decision on her promotion. “However, when I sleep, I don’t sleep in blue, I sleep in black, with black, and I know I am black and I’m reminded of that when I’m not in blue.

“Blue is a color,” she said. “Black is my self, my skin. And that cannot change.”

No more than a toehold

San Francisco’s black neighborhoods are in the southeast corner of the city, against the shipyards and docks that in the 1940s and ‘50s attracted refugees from the Jim Crow South. But unlike other urban endpoints of the Great Migration, African-Americans never secured more than a toehold inside San Francisco’s city limits. In the 1960s, even as the city’s reputation for liberalism and tolerance grew, African-Americans were segregated into the Bayview, Hunters Point and Potrero Hill neighborhoods.

Conditions there were so oppressive that famed essayist and novelist James Baldwin said during a 1963 trip to the city that “there is no moral distance, which is to say no distance, between the facts of life in San Francisco and the facts of life in Birmingham.” In 1966, Hunters Point residents rioted for three days after a white cop shot an unarmed teen running from a stolen car. The city’s black population peaked at 13 percent in 1970, then steadily declined to its current 6 percent.

Williams grew up with three siblings in a two-story home in Potrero Hill that her father, a city plumber and assistant church pastor, built himself. Her mother, now 95, still lives there. Williams attended the University of California, Berkeley and worked her way up to a position as regional credit manager for Holiday Inn. In the late ’80s, divorced with two young daughters, she bought her first home, near the corner of Third Street and Newcomb Avenue in the Bayview.

This was the height of the crack epidemic. The drug traffic on her corner was crazy, and the police seemed ineffective. Williams sent her daughters to stay with her mother and helped organize a “take back our streets” march along Third Street that drew hundreds of citizens, clergy and politicians.

Williams speaks with a young man who approached her on the streets of San Francisco.

After the march, she began working with the local police and met several members of Officers for Justice, which had successfully sued the city in 1973 to increase diversity on the force. They urged Williams to sign up.

“I didn’t want to lose my feminine qualities by doing something I considered was primarily a man’s job,” she recalled during an interview at the OFJ headquarters while wearing large hoop earrings, a tiny diamond nose stud, eight rings, nine bracelets, and long, glittery nails with pointed white tips.

The pay was about the same as her hotel position, but the benefits were better. “I told [OFJ] I was not willing to cut my hair, I was not willing to not wear makeup, I wasn’t willing to give up my manicures and my pedicures.” She hit the Bayview streets on foot patrol in June 1990, with her hair pinned up in a bun beneath her cap.

Williams loved being able to help her people. The drug trade persisted, of course, and some nights she had to leave her house wearing a robe and carrying her gun to talk to the boys on Third Street. But everyone knew she cared, and she earned the street nickname “Auntie.”

Black and Blue: San Francisco’s Bayview neighborhood

The OFJ headquarters was four blocks down Third from Williams’ home. When she first joined the force, she thought OFJ had already won the battle for equality. In 1965, only 55 of 1,726 officers were black, three were Asian-American, and almost every police chief since the start of the century had been a white, Catholic man. The OFJ’s lawsuit changed that. The 2,200-member department is now 50 percent white, 16 percent Hispanic, 10 percent black, 6 percent Filipino and 17 percent other Asian.

Williams figured everything was kumbaya. Soon, though, she started to notice things.

On patrol, she saw cops targeting African-Americans. White officers seemed to get lighter discipline — especially if they had gone to high school at Archbishop Riordan, Sacred Heart or St. Ignatius, the source of generations of the city’s cops. She heard of a lieutenant who told a black officer wearing gold chains, “What are you doing wearing that n—– jewelry?” When tests were administered for promotions, black officers rarely advanced. After taking the lieutenant’s exam, she wondered whether she would be another casualty of the system.

Williams put in 11 years on the street, then moved on to work as an academy instructor, field training officer, precinct captain’s assistant and school resource officer. She sold her house in the Bayview and moved to a four-bedroom home in a suburban East Bay neighborhood. She made sergeant in 2012 after placing 46th out of 382 officers who took the exam. She was elected vice president and then president of Officers for Justice and also served on the board of the police union.

Police in uber-expensive San Francisco are among the highest-paid in the country, and Williams’ annual base pay reached $144,000. She indulged her passion for Mercedes automobiles, eventually collecting five used but pristine Benzes. She remarried, enjoyed her six grandchildren, continued to advocate for officers of color and prepared to retire on a pension that will provide 95 percent of her salary for the rest of her life.

Then Sgt. Ian Furminger got arrested for robbing drug dealers.

A horrifying exchange

“My [wife’s] friend is over with their kids and her husband is black!” Furminger texted another cop. “[He is] an Attorney but should I be worried?”

“Get ur pocket gun. Keep it available in case the monkey returns to his roots … not against the law to put an animal down,” was the response.

“Well said!” Furminger texted back.

“You may have to kill the half-breeds too. Don’t worry. Their (sic) an abomination of nature anyway,” his fellow officer responded.

Those were some of the milder bigoted messages exchanged by 14 San Francisco Police Department officers on their personal phones over nine months in 2011 and 2012. Equally horrifying was that so many references to N-words, savages and cross-burnings remained under wraps for years, only coming to light in 2015 because of an appeals court filing in Furminger’s conviction.

The case scandalized famously diverse and progressive San Francisco. How could the police department’s culture allow such virulent racism to persist?

To find out, District Attorney George Gascon, who had briefly been chief of the Police Department, formed the Blue Ribbon Panel on Transparency, Accountability, and Fairness in Law Enforcement. Denied city funding for an exhaustive investigation, Gascon secured the pro bono services of judges, law firms and law schools and started gathering evidence.

His every step was resisted by the San Francisco Police Officers Association.

“I feel pride right now in knowing that I gave it my all and when I needed to be tested, instead of just whimpering down and going off and huddle away from everyone, I instead just decided to stand my ground.”“I feel pride right now in knowing that I gave it my all and when I needed to be tested, instead of just whimpering down and going off and huddle away from everyone, I instead just decided to stand my ground.”

Blurred lines

When Williams testified about institutional racism, she fired a direct shot at a historic foe.

The officers’ union fought the 1973 lawsuit to end discriminatory hiring practices. As far as the union was concerned, any lack of minority representation was the result of a lack of ability among the minorities themselves. “Our attornies (sic) are confident they can refute all charges,” soon-to-be union president Bob Barry wrote in the June 1978 issue of the union newspaper.

Police unions across the country serve as a combination guard dog, priest and defense attorney for cops. Circling the wagons is the default. In San Francisco, the union fought case after case in which African-Americans were slain by police under questionable circumstances, from George Baskett in 1968 to Aaron Williams in 1997 to Mario Woods in 2016. Recently, the union beat back reforms such as more access to police disciplinary records, stricter use-of-force guidelines, and rules to prevent officers from watching body camera footage before writing arrest reports.

In 2016, union consultant and former president Gary Delagnes complained on Facebook about officers reporting another cop’s offensive racial remarks: “Officers are now being encouraged to be trained snitches. … This officer did nothing wrong other than making an ill-advised statement and now they want to hang him and then brag about it to the media. Disgusting!”

The San Francisco Police Department is run by the police chief, who is chosen by the mayor. But the union represents officers up to the rank of captain, giving it a huge amount of influence over promotions, work assignments and the culture of the department.

“The lines were blurred between the department itself and the union,” said Gascon, the district attorney and former chief. “They became so blurred, they were basically working in concert.”

The San Francisco police union does many good deeds, including giving money to officers in need, donating to organizations in minority communities, paying the expenses of tourists struck by tragedy in the city and sponsoring a trip to Africa for black youths.

But its primary function is to defend cops.

From the start of the Blue Ribbon Panel’s work, the association told its members not to talk without a union lawyer present — even though they were not under criminal investigation, according to the panel’s executive director, Anand Subramanian. Except for Williams, he said, no officers of color would testify on the record: “They felt like their career advancement and day-to-day interaction was threatened and jeopardized by public participation in this process.”

“I have never seen so much resistance to reform in a police department as I’ve seen in San Francisco,” said LaDoris H. Cordell, a retired California Superior Court judge who has worked on police oversight cases nationwide and served on the Blue Ribbon Panel.

Union president Martin Halloran did not respond to phone calls and emails for this story. Last year, he told the San Francisco Chronicle that the union isn’t opposed to reform: “Any time there is a little bit of pushback from the POA … the perception according to certain politicians is that we’re the elephant in the room, that we’re the obstructionists. We’re not. We just want to make sure this is done right.”

But his combative views are clear in acidic union newspaper editorials and frequent public letters — such as his response to Colin Kaepernick’s protest.

In August 2016, the then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback cited police killings and cops “getting paid leave and getting away with murder” as a reason he would not stand for the national anthem. Halloran’s response sent to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell accused Kaepernick of pushing “a false narrative and misinformation that lacks any factual basis.”

“Perhaps he could lend his commentary to the over 8,000 murders that African Americans inflicted on one another in 2015,” Halloran wrote.

Williams doesn’t follow sports, but she noticed Kaepernick’s protest and the movement that now engulfs the NFL. She didn’t take Kaepernick’s protest personally: “I know he’s not talking about me.” She saw his stance as speaking up for the voiceless in the black community, and she was delighted when NFL players responded to President Donald Trump’s profane insult by increasing their protests.

The parallels to her own faceoff with the union were inescapable.

“I felt a kinship with Kaepernick because of the fact that, here’s a man who had the conviction to stand for something he believed in. Whether it was right or wrong, it was his belief, and it was his feelings and he expressed them, and he explained why. I did the same thing, and then look what happens to us,” Williams said.

“I felt like he was a whistleblower for what he was talking about, and I was a whistleblower. And the whistleblowers unfortunately seem to never win. They seem to be ostracized, and people try and fight against them and shut them down.”

Worried about her safety

The worst part of her ordeal, Williams said, came from the letter Halloran published in the union newspaper about her testimony, characterizing her statements as “uninformed, inflammatory and disparaging” and insisting there was no evidence of widespread racism in the department.

“Yolanda,” Halloran wrote, not only addressing the 61-year-old officer by her first name but misspelling it, “the references to you in the text messages were disgusting. However, I find your testimony to the Panel to be largely self-centered and grossly unfair.”

She resigned from the union, and her decision was plastered on precinct fliers. She had to explain to her subordinates that she hadn’t called them racists. She feared that if she needed backup, other officers would not respond.

“When you work with someone in this type of environment, your life’s on the line every day,” she said. “You expect people to come for backup. … You trust them with your life. You depend on them for your life.”

As the Blue Ribbon Panel investigation proceeded, cellphone footage of the shooting of Mario Woods fueled national outrage. Three months later, another batch of racist texts was discovered, from a separate set of officers.

In February 2016, the Department of Justice announced a review of the department. On May 19, police killed an unarmed black woman in a stolen car in the Bayview. Hours after that shooting, Police Chief Greg Suhr lost his job — despite strong support from the union.

In July 2016, the Blue Ribbon Panel released its final report. It concluded that the Police Department lacked transparency and oversight, needed to rebuild community trust and should pay greater attention to the potential for racial bias. The report noted that black and Hispanic people were more likely to be searched without consent but were less likely to be found with contraband than other ethnic and racial groups.

“Blue pays my bills. Blue is my retirement. However, when I sleep, I don’t sleep in blue, I sleep in black, with black, and I know I am black and I’m reminded of that when I’m not in blue.”“Blue pays my bills. Blue is my retirement. However, when I sleep, I don’t sleep in blue, I sleep in black, with black, and I know I am black and I’m reminded of that when I’m not in blue.”

In October 2016, the Justice Department released its report, recommending 272 changes designed to correct “deficiencies in every operational area assessed: use of force; bias; community policing practices; accountability measures; and recruitment, hiring, and promotion practices.” The report also identified “numerous indicators of implicit and institutionalized bias against minority groups” — exactly what Williams had testified about seven months earlier.

But vindication in the Justice Department’s 414-page document was cold comfort. A decision on Williams’ promotion was still pending.

After Suhr’s departure, the union urged Mayor Ed Lee to replace him with interim chief Toney Chaplin, a black career San Francisco officer. Instead, Lee chose an outsider: William Scott, the highest-ranking African-American in the Los Angeles Police Department. Scott pledged to fulfill the recommendations of the Justice Department report. In an email to union members, Halloran said the mayor had “turned his back on the rank and file police officers.”

On Sept. 25, Williams learned that Scott would promote her to lieutenant.

Williams’ work in the community ranges from meeting residents to mentoring youths to trying to open a dialogue between the police force and residents.

A new lieutenant at last

On a brilliant Saturday in October, the soon-to-be Lt. Williams left her house for a community event in the Bayview, her old neighborhood. She chose her black 2006 Mercedes S430 sedan with YOOLOGY plates and the glass tinted dark. She calls the car Black Beauty.

Sipping a smoothie behind the wheel, nails cut short because of a new departmental directive requiring them to be no more than an eighth of an inch long — she refers to it as the “Yulanda Rule” — Williams reflected on her journey.

“It feels a little victorious. I don’t want to claim that there’s nothing else to be done,” she said. “I feel pride right now in knowing that I gave it my all and when I needed to be tested, instead of just whimpering down and going off and huddle away from everyone, I instead just decided to stand my ground.”

She parked outside the Bayview Opera House, where several dozen community organizations and a lively crowd had gathered for Neighborfest. Williams’ old house was across the street, within sight of the corner where drug drama pushed her into policing almost 30 years ago. She kept her gun in her purse.

People inquired about her mother and congratulated her on the promotion. She spoke briefly to the crowd, urging everyone to consider a career with the police department. The band played Sly and the Family Stone.

“Auntie!” cried Vincent Tally, known as Tally-Ho. He used to roam the corner drunk, loud and disorderly. Williams would send him home, but she never arrested him. Now he’s been sober for two years.

“She loves everybody. She treats everybody the same. She doesn’t discriminate,” Tally-Ho said. He kissed Williams’ hand. “One thing she will do, though. She see you out of pocket? You in trouble!”

Two weeks later, Williams and two other black sergeants were sworn in and received the gold collar bars of a lieutenant. Three black lieutenants were elevated to captain.

There are now 19 black officers in leadership positions — the most in the 168-year history of the San Francisco Police Department.

Author Jesmyn Ward talks about enduring hurricane season, the South, and what it means to be a MacArthur ‘genius’ She has a deep love for the South, but isn’t sure she wants to finish raising her children there

Winning a MacArthur “genius” grant can be a little bit like winning the nerd lottery.

Not only are you recognized for your intellectual prowess and contributions to society, but it’s publicly announced to every major media outlet in the country that your bank statements will be a bit bigger. MacArthur fellows get $625,000, with zero strings attached, spread over five years.

“It didn’t feel real until everyone knew, and then, of course, you speak to people that you haven’t spoken to in years, and everyone congratulates you,” said author Jesmyn Ward, one of 24 people honored by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation this month. “It’s a huge, huge honor, but it is overwhelming. It is overwhelming. Everyone immediately wants to borrow money.

“Everyone is already like, ‘Oh, so we’re rich now. We’re rich.’ ”

Ward, 40, was already a superstar. Her novel Salvage the Bones won the 2011 National Book Award, and this year her latest novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing, is short-listed for it. Inspired by James Baldwin, Ward also edited a 2016 essay collection, The Fire This Time, which assembled thoughts from luminaries such as Isabel Wilkerson, Kiese Laymon, Clint Smith, Edwidge Danticat and Emily Raboteau.

Ward, who teaches at Tulane University, grew up in Mississippi with modest means. After stints in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and New York, she elected to return, buying a home in DeLisle, Mississippi, a 57-mile drive to New Orleans and her university job. Salvage the Bones, which followed a poor black Mississippi family in the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina, was inspired by her own experiences living through the storm. Despite her deep love for her home state and its most vulnerable citizens, Ward is not sure how much longer she’ll remain there.

We talked about writing, the strangeness of becoming a public figure, making it through this year’s harrowing hurricane season, and the hyper-abbreviated nature of black childhood, which Ward explores in Sing, Unburied, Sing. Her latest novel follows a 13-year-old boy named Jojo, and his young mother, Leonie, who serve as alternating narrators. They’re poor and live in rural Mississippi with Leonie’s mother, who is dying of cancer, and Leonie’s father. Leonie decides to take a road trip with Jojo and her toddler daughter, Kayla, to pick up their white father, Michael, from prison. Every generation of the family is grappling with death and unresolved loss in some way, but Leonie is particularly striking because of her inability to reckon with the death of her brother, Given, who was murdered by a white schoolmate.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

What is the moment like when you find out that you’ve been awarded a MacArthur grant?

It’s totally surreal. When it’s happening, when they’re telling you that you’ve won a MacArthur grant, it just doesn’t feel real. It’s such a huge award and such a huge honor that it’s never the call that you expect to get. I don’t think it feels real until the announcement. When everyone else finds out, that’s when it feels real. [The MacArthur Foundation] prepares beforehand, because they send a video crew out to your house and you spend an entire day with them.

Most writers are not extroverts. Once you started accumulating this snowball of acclaim, what did that do to you?

It’s difficult, especially because I am naturally a shy person, or at least I was, in high school and afterwards for years. One of my friends … while I lived in New York, would introduce me, and he would jokingly say, ‘This is my mute friend,’ because I would never speak. It’s really odd for me to now have to develop and assume a public persona and to share. I have to figure out how much of my private self am I willing to reveal. How comfortable am I, will I attempt to be, when I’m sharing my life with other people? It’s something that I have to work at.

When did you first realize there’s Public Jesmyn and Private Jesmyn?

I didn’t really realize that I would have to develop a public persona until Salvage the Bones was nominated for the National Book Award. That’s when everything changed for me, because I wrote Where the Line Bleeds as my first novel, my baby novel. A fair amount of people read it, but it didn’t get a ton of serious reviews and I didn’t do a lot of interviews. And then Salvage the Bones came out, and the reception was better, but it was before it was nominated for a National Book Award. Then everything changed, and then of course once I won, everything really changed.

I devoted years of my life to becoming a better writer. I’ve learned how to read like a writer. I worked on my craft and just tried to improve with everything that I produced, with everything that I created, but I never really thought about what it would mean to actually get better and get good enough to the point where other people start recognizing it, and then you’re reaching more people, wider range of people, reaching lots of readers. Suddenly you have an audience.

“One of my friends … while I lived in New York, would introduce me, and he would jokingly say, ‘This is my mute friend,’ because I would never speak.”

Writing is such a solitary thing, so it was a total surprise for me when I realized that my life as a writer would not just consist of me sitting in a room typing or reading.

But you know what helps? Teaching, because I’m a professor, and that helps me a lot. I was put in plenty of situations where I had to think quickly, speak quickly, plenty of situations where I had to attempt to be eloquent and to learn how to talk about something that I was very passionate about, because that’s what teaching demanded.

Is it more difficult talking to a roomful of college students or talking to reporters?

It’s definitely talking to a roomful of college students! This has not happened to me at Tulane, but I’ve definitely taught at other schools where the college students I’m teaching do not think that I am the smartest person in the room, and in fact they think they are the smartest person in the room. That’s always a little difficult to navigate.

What did you mean by “learning to read like a writer”?

For me, that meant reading poetry to attempt to figure out how figurative language can create beauty, how figurative language can make a reader feel. I read poetry to also figure how sentences can create rhythm, how paragraphs can create rhythm.

I read literary fiction to attempt to figure out what was pleasing to me as far as a prose style. I also read literary fiction to figure out how to develop a character, how to make a character come alive on the page. I read literary fiction to figure out pacing and how to balance narration and scene, and what was pleasing to me as a writer, what kind of balance was pleasing to me, whether I liked lots of dialogue and a little narration or more narration and less dialogue.

And then I read other genres, like fantasy, like sci-fi, like children’s books, middle-grade books, YA books, even romance, because I feel like those genres taught me different things about — I feel like I wasn’t necessarily reading them to learn lessons about prose and about what I felt worked well and what didn’t. I think that those books taught me things about how to create suspense, about plot.

What are you excited to be reading right now?

I have a poetry anthology next to my bed. Czeslaw Milosz. A Book of Luminous Things. That’s nice, to have books that I can open up and read a short piece and get some satisfaction from knowing that I’ve read something.

I recently read a children’s book called The Girl Who Drank the Moon, which was amazing. In the last two chapters, I was tearing up the entire time. It was insane, but it was such a pleasure to read that because I could just enjoy it. I feel like it’s easiest to turn off my writerly brain when I’m reading children’s lit. It’s just a lovely, beautiful book.

You have spent a lot of time thinking about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. What was it like for you living through this hurricane season?

It’s been difficult, especially seeing the devastation in Houston, seeing the devastation in Puerto Rico, seeing the devastation in Florida, being witness to the current administration’s ambivalence towards that suffering, and sometimes outright hostility that echoes some of the ambivalence and hostility that at least New Orleans, and somewhat the Mississippi Gulf Coast, that we experienced during Katrina. It’s hard, and I didn’t realize how difficult until I saw Houston was flooding, and I thought, ‘I should write something about this,’ and I couldn’t write a thing. I couldn’t write anything, and then I realized how deeply affected I was and how haunted I was by Katrina and by what happened after Katrina.

And then I realized that again, when we were preparing for Hurricane Nate. Nate was a Category 2 storm, and we were losing our minds. I was trying to get a solar-powered generator. I was stocking up and preparing in a way that you would prepare for a Category 5, and yet so was everyone else. It wasn’t just me. It was everyone else here, on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, in New Orleans. That’s the long shadow of Katrina. I think that every time it happens, that we’ll react like that, because of Katrina, because we’re still struggling with it. I think there’s a lot of unresolved anxiety and terror that people carry from our experiences in Katrina.

In Sing, Unburied, Sing, you bounce back and forth between Jojo and Leonie, who are both young, as narrators. Jojo is forced to grow up faster than his years, and Leonie, his mother, doesn’t quite feel like a real grown-up yet.

I think that black childhood is not something that’s granted to black children in America, and so I think that my characters reflected that. Jojo, his experience reflects that in the present moment, as he’s going through it, but I feel that Leonie is the kind of character who comes to life when a black person has — when their childhood has been denied. When that childhood has been stolen, she’s the result, where she’s sort of stuck in this extended adolescence, especially with her selfishness and her inability to process hardship, to face hardship and to live with hardship and to thrive, really. That’s what happens.

“I feel like it’s easiest to turn off my writerly brain when I’m reading children’s lit.”

It’s funny, because then I think about Richie’s character, who is a ghost. He’s a ghost, and he should be nearly as old as Pop is, but yet he, too, is stuck in some sort of adolescence because his childhood was taken away from him, because he was robbed of his childhood.

I think about Mam and I think about Pop, and I wonder why they did not break, why they don’t seem broken in the way that Leonie’s broken, or that Richie is broken.

When I think about Kayla and Jojo, I don’t think that they will be broken people like Leonie or like Richie. I think that they’ll be like Mam and like Pop, and maybe the reason why I don’t think that they will be broken people, and maybe the reason why Pop and Mam aren’t broken, is because there was something there that sustained them. I think for Mam, it was the love of her family, and also these things like black spiritual traditions, voodoo and hoodoo and herbal medicine. I think that that sustained her. With Pop, I think it’s family. I think that that definitely sustained him, and maybe a sense of community that he has or a sense of responsibility that he had to that family and to that community.

You go so hard for the South. So often it’s discussed as a place where the best thing about it for black folks is that they can leave. What makes you want to stay there?

I am writing about the kind of people who I grew up with. I’m writing about people who are like my family members. I’m writing about people who are like people who live in my community. I think, because I’m writing from that place, that I can love them, but I can also be critical of them. And I think, too, that I’m very aware of how history bears on the present in the South, and of how it complicates people’s lives, and how it is this really underacknowledged force in the region. I want to acknowledge that, and I think that that’s also what is fueling some of that critical eye.

I wanted to come back for so long, and I am here now, but I have gotten to this point in my life where I can’t say that I will stay here forever.

Why not?

It’s just motivated by my kids, because I have a 5-year-old daughter and I have my son, who [is now] 1. I love my kids, and I want the best for them, and I don’t know. I feel like, in some respects, that I would be failing them if we stayed here through the years when they were teenagers, because this is not a kind place, in many ways, and I worry for them. I want them to live, and I want them to thrive, and I don’t know if this is the best place for that to happen.

Is there any place in America that’s safe for them, where they can be children?

I know that there’s nowhere in this country where they could be completely safe, but I do feel like there are places in this country that would be safer, and made safer, because of where I have worked, because of where I’ve gotten in my life. Classwise, I could afford them different opportunities that if I were poor, or if I lived in poverty, and if I were moving to the Northeast or Chicago or the West, they’d face more dangers. But there’s some opportunities that I can give them because of where I am right now.

I don’t know a single educated black person who has risen to a certain place in society who doesn’t have family members who aren’t as lucky.

It’s difficult. I do what I can, but I think that — how do I say this? I do what I can for my extended family, but I think that their ideas of what I have and the demand on what I have are different from my knowledge of what I have and what I have to give. It induces a lot of guilt, because you want to help. When you’re personally in that situation, you want to help your extended family. I feel guilty because I’m in this position, and they’re not, and then I also feel guilty that I can’t do more. But I can’t. I’m not a millionaire. I’m not a billionaire. I’m a thousandaire.

How much did the death of your brother figure into Leonie and the way she’s working through Given’s death?

I was worried about that when I discovered Given’s character, when it worked out that Leonie had a brother and that he died when they were teenagers. I was worried about writing him, because I know that readers know about my brother, and I didn’t want them to confuse me with Leonie. I didn’t want them to confuse my brother with Given, but I felt like Given was the key. Given was the key to understanding Leonie. His death was the key to understanding her — who she was, her trauma, and understanding why she does what she does. And so I felt like I had no choice, in some respects. I had to write him.

But then, those fears eased a little bit once I got further into the manuscript because their relationship took on a life of its own. It became real, and it was very different from my relationship with my brother. And so, once I got to the point where I felt like their relationship took on life, I was like, ‘Oh, we’re nothing like each other.’ But knowing that Leonie lost a sibling helped me to really understand her, understand that pain that she basically shies away from dealing with and living with.

You talk about the resilience of Mam and Pop, but I wonder if her cancer is basically her internal grief welling up inside her?

I read an article … that was about health and racism. The article was making the argument that racism is a stressor, and that that stressor affects black people’s health in many different ways, and that when you control for class, that still you see a big difference in the health outcomes for black people at a certain class and health outcomes for white people in a certain class.

That was really striking to me. They’re looking at things like heart disease, like diabetes, like maternal health. They’re looking at things like premature births, and then the health outcomes for the children. The article was really making the argument that racism has lasting effects, health effects on black people. I was thinking about that a lot while I was writing Sing, Unburied, Sing.

The NBA rookie style quiz Forget your jump shots, newbie. It’s time to get your design game on.

.cls-1fill:#231f20Undefeated_HorizLogo_LThe NBA rookie style quiz Forget your jump shots, newbie. It’s time to get your design game on.

Whether you’re a rookie or a vet, a day-one fan, or someone who watches whatever NBA game is on in the background, you’re living the dream — the new season of professional basketball is here. And so is that undeniable NBA swag: pro hoopsmen have turned the stroll from the parking lot to the locker room into a runway as influential as any in New York, Paris, or Milan. And postgame looks? Those outfits make more statements than perturbed power forwards. But don’t worry. Upping your own style is not nearly as hard as you might think. Just follow this chart before you shoot your shot.

Complex flowchart detailing the various paths one could take in the search for his NBA style muse

You are Studied Elegance

You are Mr. Classic

You are All-American

You are Rock’n Baller

You are Iconoclast

Style Icon
Future Candidate
Designer Soulmates

Share your result:

Do you need to look good?


Go on with your pleated khaki self

What’s your restaurant vibe?


Your bag is …



If you were rebuilding your personal brand, you’d prefer to be …


Last night was rough. You want to hide your face with …


This isn’t the WWE

Your dream pet would be …


Your ideal jeans are …



You posterized Westbrook, celebrate on …


Your worst nightmare has come true. You have this on your face …



Your favorite head accessory is …



Your bae?



What’s on your wrist?


Your vacation hot spot is …



Guilty pleasure on your playlist would be …



Your fave shirt pattern is …


You represent …



Zendaya is …


Stop. Really. We can’t help you.

Your shorts are …



Your fave footwear is …


Shoulder pads are back, and you are …



Rocking pads that would also work in the NFL.

Do you care what people say about your style?


On every playlist?


All-Star Break. Your drink of choice is …



Your favorite shirt is a …



Hi, Jaden Smith.

James … Bond or Baldwin?


You’re presenting an award; you choose a …



If we are picturing you rolling, you’re in a …


My leather is a …


When you stream, it’s …


Fave hue?


Your style is Studied Elegance

Style Icon
LeBron James, Dwayne Wade
Future Candidate
Dennis Smith Jr. (Dallas Mavericks)
Designer Soulmates
Balmain, Dolce & Gabbana, Tom Ford

NBA fashion royalty. Everything they wear, from red carpet to street style, is impeccable and often custom. No one just wakes up this level. It takes years of experimentation, confidence and a very good stylist to get here. The easiest way to start? Go bespoke.

Your style is Mr. Classic

Style Icon
Chris Bosh, Kevin Durant
Future Candidate
De’Aaron Fox (Sacramento Kings)
Designer Soulmates
Giorgio Armani, Hermes, Louis Vuitton

Classic styling doesn’t have to mean you’re a square. You can jazz it up without tiptoeing into edgy. Cuff links, a pocket square, a bold watch or a scarf can illustrate your personality.

Your style is All-American

Style Icon
Chris Paul, Stephen Curry
Future Candidate
Lonzo Ball (Los Angeles Lakers)
Designer Soulmates
Tommy Hilfiger, Dsquared2, Junya Watanabe

European styling (read: tight) is never going to be for everyone. If you want to look good and be comfortable, here’s the only thing you need to know. Your top or your bottom can be loose. NEVER. BOTH.

Your style is Rock’n Baller

Style Icon
Tyson Chandler, J.R. Smith
Future Candidate
Zach Collins (Portland Trail Blazers)
Designer Soulmates
Givenchy, Saint Laurent, Raf Simons

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Drake really wants Vince Carter to come home Day 4 at the Toronto International Film Festival

TORONTO — At this point, the most magical words Drake could hear come out of Vince Carter’s mouth might be, “Hold on, we’re going home.”

In July, Carter, 40, signed a one-year, $8 million contract with the Sacramento Kings. But at a Q-and-A after the premiere of The Carter Effect at the Toronto International Film Festival, Drake made his feelings plain: He wants the man who launched Vinsanity to come back to this city.

“It would be amazing, hopefully, for Vince to give us one last chance to not just give him a standing ovation for one night or two nights out of the year,” Drake said.

Saturday’s Carter lovefest (with the star basketball player nowhere in sight) was something to behold. The premiere was studded with sports and music notables: LeBron James, Cory Joseph, Akon, Director X (the guy who caused a sensation with the James Turrell-inspired visuals of “Hotline Bling”), sprinter Andre De Grasse, Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri, and former Raptors Chris Bosh and Patrick Patterson were among those in attendance. And since it was a bright, sunny afternoon, Drake fans were lined up everywhere for a glimpse of their hometown rapper.

Instagram Photo

Drake was an executive producer of The Carter Effect, along with James and his longtime business partner Maverick Carter.

“Me being from Ohio, when Vince signed with Nike, he actually made me believe that putting on those damn shoes would make me jump to the rim,” James joked after the screening.

Director X appears in the film and likened himself to John the Baptist and Drake to Jesus when it comes to Toronto and hip-hop. I asked him where Carter fits into that metaphor.

“He’s Moses,” X answered.

I also had a chance to talk to Mona Halem, a party host who had a front-row seat to the transformation Carter brought with him to Toronto, a city so unacquainted with basketball that its fans didn’t know they were supposed to be quiet when Raptors players were shooting free throws.

Halem, who also appears in the film, is a cross between an NBA doyenne, unofficial Toronto ambassador and social scene producer. She puts interesting people together with liquor and good music and has made it her personal art form here.

“Because basketball and entertainment around basketball was more popular in the U.S., [Carter] shone a light on Toronto,” Halem said. “It was like, ‘Oh, what’s this place Toronto?’ Everyone thinks we live in igloos and it’s so cold.”

Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart

Courtesy of TIFF

Director Tracy Heather Strain’s documentary on playwright Lorraine Hansberry, in a way, has been her life’s work.

Strain, who is a professor at Northeastern University (she canceled last week’s class to attend TIFF), has been working on Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart for 14 years. Most of that time has been spent raising more than $1.5 million to make the film. The rights for film clips, music and other properties cost about $300,000.

I spoke to Strain on Sunday morning before she departed for Boston so her students wouldn’t miss a second week of class. Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart will air in the future on PBS, and it’s a deep dive into the jam-packed 34 years of Hansberry’s life and the world that created the fictional Younger family of A Raisin in the Sun. Strain said she became taken with Hansberry when she was a 17-year-old in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Her grandmother took her to see a community theater production of the autobiographical To Be Young, Gifted, and Black.

“You know how you know something in your gut?” Strain asked. “[That’s] how I felt when I was exposed to Lorraine Hansberry’s words.”

In Sighted Eyes, Strain makes it clear that Hansberry is so much more than the one-paragraph biography schoolchildren get during Black History Month before they watch the film adaptation of her celebrated play. In fact, early in the movie, one of Hansberry’s contemporaries insists on making it clear that Hansberry was not a liberal but a “radical leftist.”

I was astonished to learn Hansberry began her career as a journalist before venturing into playwriting, and even more astonished to learn that she’d basically mapped out her life, and told her would-be husband what it was going to be like, when she was just 23 years old. This woman did not waste time. Strain fell in love with Hansberry’s sense of humor: It’s hard not to crack up upon learning Hansberry bought a house on 2 acres in New York and named the place “Chitterling Heights.” She sounds like someone I’d desperately want to be friends with if she were still alive.

Sighted Eyes also works as a bit of mythbusting. My eyes grew large when Strain informed me that I, like so many others, had been fooled by this photo, supposedly of Hansberry dancing with writer James Baldwin. It’s not her but rather a Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) worker from Louisiana. There are no photos, at least none that Strain could find, of Baldwin and Hansberry together despite their close friendship.

The Netherlands might be tolerant, but racism exists for people of color This group of archivists was in the U.S. to explain why

Santa Claus or Sinterklaas had an assistant, servant, sidekick or all of the such — “Black Pete.” Known to the Dutch as Zwarte Piet, the character and its origin have surfaced more and more in news segments around the world within the past decade, with claims of racism and insensitivity. It was 1850 when the character first appeared in a book by Amsterdam schoolteacher Jan Schenkman.

The problem with Black Pete, and the reason for the claims of racism, is that he is portrayed in blackface. Even in this day and age, the character, although frowned upon by many, is still celebrated in the Netherlands. And because it’s traditional, many Dutch citizens are part of a movement calling for the ban on Black Pete celebrations.

This is just one example of the hidden or closeted racism that, according to a delegate of archivists from the Netherlands, makes up part of the region’s black facts. These archivists have dedicated their time to form an organization that reveals and preserves the hidden history of Dutch slavery, black history, black literature and black culture in the Netherlands. The Amsterdam Black Archives is in the works, and along with the team members spreading the word about their culture and experiences, the website aims to shed light on the black radical movements in Amsterdam, Suriname and the Netherlands and uncover their history.

In August, Amsterdam Black Archives co-founders Jessica de Abreu and Mitchell Esajas and their colleagues Imara Limon and Samora Bergtop traveled from the Netherlands to Washington, D.C., where they presented their project and historical data in front of a room of more than 30 individuals at Sankofa bookstore in Northwest D.C.

The archive contains a unique collection of books and artifacts, which are the legacy of black writers and scientists from the Surinamese, Caribbean and African diaspora in the Netherlands. These cultures were connected to black liberation movements in the United States. While black radicals in Amsterdam were fighting for civil rights, they were in touch with U.S. thought-provokers such as W.E.B. DuBois, Langston Hughes and James Baldwin.

“The reason why I’m extremely passionate about this project is because so my mom is from Suriname, which is a colony of the Netherlands, and in the Netherlands we don’t speak about colonialism and the history of slavery and what the law was,” de Abreu said. “So for me to start the black archives is also educate our own communities and the larger society about the Dutch past and colonial past and why our realities look like this. For example, progression and discrimination. … It’s also about addressing the issues and community building and understand life in the Black Netherlands and what it looks like.”

According to the company’s website, “we aim to investigate, reveal and tell new stories so that we can contribute to a better understanding of the historical contributions of people of African origin to human civilization and to Dutch society in particular. These stories also provide insight and tools to combat contemporary social issues such as structural inequality, discrimination and racism of people of African origin and other populations.”

In the 1970s and ’80s there were already Surinamese emancipation movements in the Netherlands that committed themselves to the fight against racism and inequality. The Amsterdam Black Archives will detail the stories and histories.

The four archivists shared their goals with the crowd. They are in the process of digitizing the more than 4,000 special history books, documents, photographs, films and artifacts around black history in the Netherlands that have been collected and donated over the past few years. The nearly 100-year-old collection is housed in the premises of the Association of Suriname in eastside Amsterdam. In conjunction with the Amsterdam Museum, the Black Archives plans to create an exhibition to open on Nov. 25.

They also took time to explain that while the Netherlands is tolerant on issues such as prostitution, marijuana use in coffee shops and gay marriage, the country still has racial practices — some of which are the same as in the United States, including police brutality, wage gaps and educational inequality.

The team also offers workshops, lectures, consultancy and advice for these themes and more. The workshops also provide information on black and multicultural issues such as slavery, colonialism, black feminism, the civil rights movement, colonial imagery, social issues about equal opportunities in education, the labor market and diversity at the workplace.

The organization was founded after de Abreu and Esajas met in an anthropology class. Now a couple, the two co-founded the archives.

“The two of us coordinate it, and we work with a team of six to eight volunteers. We did digitize a few of the important projects. Not that many. About 100. So after we stop the crowdfunding campaign, we aim to structurally digitize all of the archives.”

Limon works at the Amsterdam Museum and met de Abreu and Esajas through her independent work and research.

They all said they enjoy addressing new crowds regarding their experiences of being black and Dutch.

When asked how blacks identify in the Netherlands, they all answered with opposing views; de Abreu said she identifies as a black Dutch woman.

“Not necessarily because I want to be Dutch, but to remember a history that you should not forget anymore,” de Abreu explained. “That’s particular localizing the races. Dealing with the question the same as to you, we were just speaking about it, and do we want to do a DNA heritage test? Because basically colonialism happened, so they took away our cultures, our religions, our whole identity. Our whole language. So I don’t even know where I’m from, so these are good questions. It’s a global conversation. How am I going to refer to myself? How are we going to refer to ourselves?”

“For me Caribbean Dutch, I’m Dutch and people better get used to what it looks like,” Limon replied. “What it can look like. How Dutchness is so connected to whiteness. There’s always this negotiation about what you are, but it’s a nationality in that sense. We should not be talking about why I am also Dutch, but why Dutchness is so connected to whiteness. It helps a lot for me to learn about it.”

For Bergtop, her identifying standards have changed over the years because she said she is “getting more consciousness.”

“If I’m doing an interview or something, I never call myself Dutch,” Bergtop said. “Even that I have a white Dutch mother and a Surinamese black father, he’s half maroon. Because people perceive me as how I look, and that’s not being seen as Dutch. The first question from Dutch white people would be, ‘Where are you coming from?’ or ‘Where are your parents coming from?’ They don’t consider me as Dutch, so I stopped calling myself in that way, Dutch, because it’s always a difficult conversation or an awkward conversation about it. That’s also part of denying that we have a migrant or colonial and slavery history. Even still, I’m a second generation. They don’t see me as Dutch, so I stopped that.”

On July 1, the team of archivists started a crowdfunding campaign to aid in archiving and expanding the collection, which is planned as a three-phase process.

“The hardest part is to get funded for something sustainable and contemporary social activities, but the most beautiful thing out of it is that we see that our own community can also raise money,” de Abreu said. “The worst thing about it is we don’t have financial support, but the beautiful thing is that the community can do it by itself.”

Documentary explores how a group of black intellectuals found solace in Paris ‘Paris Noir: African Americans in the City of Light’ screens at the March on Washington Film Festival

For nearly a century, many black Americans have traveled to Paris to find their identity away from the American racism that sought to erase it. Indeed, many decided to make it official and make the City of Light home.

Director Joanne Burke and executive producer Julia Browne explore this expatriation, while also detailing the day-to-day of being black in Paris, in their 2016 documentary Paris Noir: African Americans in the City of Light, which was screened July 18 at the National Museum of Women in the Arts as part of the March on Washington Film Festival.

In his 1951 essay I Choose Exile, author and poet Richard Wright asks, “Why have I decided to live beyond the shores of my native land?” The powerful writer declares defiantly, “It is because I love freedom and I tell you frankly that there is more freedom in one square block of Paris than there is in the entire United States!”

Living in Paris allowed Wright and others to distance themselves from the omnipresent racism they’d experienced in America with its anti-black rhetoric, institutional systems of oppression and physical violence. While living in Paris was not the post-racial Valhalla many dreamed it would be, French society did provide better social and financial opportunities for black artists to practice their art and, from there, change the world.

Besides Wright, cultural icons such as Angela Davis, James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Josephine Baker, Ada “Bricktop” Smith, Frederick Douglass, Countee Cullen, Louis Armstrong, James Emanuel and Ta-Nehisi Coates have all called Paris home at some time in their lives. And they had different perspectives in the aftermath. Some loved their experience, while others were not overly impressed.

To Burke, it is important to understand the legacy and tradition of black Americans going to Paris because “it has a worldwide influence … jazz changed the way the world looked at black culture. [The success black writers, artists and musicians found in Paris] differentiated black culture from American culture. … It is a question of taking pride of black achievement abroad … Black culture, in Europe and around the world, has a role in giving people a voice and a new way of expressing themselves,” she explained.

Traveling to Paris has been a more or less refreshing experience for icons of black expression and culture. Baker, a singer, dancer and actress active from 1920-75, sang in “J’ai Deux Amours” (“I Have Two Loves”): I have two loves/ My country and Paris/ With them always/ My heart is overjoyed … What is the point of denying/What enchants me?/It’s Paris, Paris entirely.

Coates wrote in “Paris Disappointed Me — and I Am Glad For It,” a correspondence he published for The Atlantic, “I’m realizing Paris has always sort of been an impressionist painting for me — a big, colorful, beautiful blur without much detail. … I found that the dirty detail of the city isn’t as pretty as my faraway impressions. … I’m struck by how many sought an escape from American racism here yet ugly and other forms of racism were stewing here, too.”

In her 2013 autobiography, Davis wrote about the power of exploring different identities even at home: “We would pretend to be foreigners and [speak] French. … At the sight of two young black women speaking a foreign language, the clerks in the store raced to help us. Their delight with the exotic was enough to completely, if temporarily, dispel their normal disdain for black people. … All black people have to do is pretend they come from another country, and [white people] treat us like dignitaries.”

The common denominator for them all was Paris, good or bad. Paris specifically allowed black Americans to be perceived as Davis’ “exotic delight” while still maintaining their identity as individuals. However, there is a discrepancy among scholars over who went first and when it became a rite of passage. Ricki Stevenson, director of Black Paris Tours, said in a 2013 interview with NPR that the tradition began as early as the 19th century.

“Many people mistakenly believe that the first great mass migration of African-Americans to France came with the Harlem Renaissance,” Stevenson said. “It didn’t. The first great mass migration came following the Louisiana Purchase of 1803.”

William Wells Brown, who escaped enslavement, taught himself to read and write and became an American diplomat in the mid-1800s, is often seen as one of the great explorers for black people abroad. He published letters documenting his experience in Europe and tried to build support for the American abolitionist movement in Britain and France.

On the other hand, others, such as Burke and Browne, believe the movement truly began in 1917 with America’s involvement in World War I. At the time, black men were recruited not to fight for the cause but mostly to do manual labor. Burke and Browne’s documentary credits Lt. James Reese Europe as the pioneer of the black legacy in Paris. Europe fought in both World War I and World War II, led the Harlem Hellfighters in battle and later played in a notable jazz band in Paris.

After World War I, a cultural movement that author Petrine Archer-Straw refers to as “Negrophilia” became popular among rich white liberals in Paris. In her book Negrophilia: Avant-Garde Paris and Black Culture in the 1920s, she defines the term as a love of black culture, but a love as distancing as the hatred black folks experience in America. For Archer-Straw, rich white liberals saw black Americans as “dynamic, non-conformist, and subversive … blackness played a significant role in avant-garde definitions of [Parisian] modernity … it was the ‘idea’ of black culture and not black culture itself that informed this modernity (180-183).”

When rich white club owners began to see how their patrons preferred black performers, they would often book black jazz groups over white French musicians. It was also important that the music was played for the enjoyment of the rich white audience. As the Paris Noir documentary reveals, “You had to be African-American to play jazz. This meant that [certain] black people, who didn’t happen to be musicians at all — [who] basically had no talent — got jobs in jazz. It was the racial image of the music.”

So while rich white Parisians consumed and financed black culture, it was exclusively to serve their own ideological expectations. Archer-Straw also mentions in her book that black art and culture “was absorbed into a grander aesthetic that represented colonial triumph and French imperialism, while for the avant-garde it was a cruel tool used to ‘épater les bourgeois,’ or to shock middle class sensibilities.”

The Negrophilia fascination did allow black Americans to better fulfill their potential than if they had stayed in America. In Paris, black citizens were free from racial segregation. They were able to better express themselves, pursue more career opportunities and romantically intermingle with white people.

While Paris Noir depicts the romantic mingling as liberating, Archer-Straw finds the power dynamic problematic. White French people controlled economic and social power to the detriment of black Americans. She echoes the philosophy of Frantz Fanon, who in his 1952 book Black Skin, White Masks said he felt “an unfamiliar weight [that] burdened me” when he had to “meet the white man’s eyes.” To Archer-Straw and Fanon, since black individuals in a white space have to conform to the standards of acceptable behavior determined by white people, they assimilate and, in so doing, lose their identity set on their own terms. In these kinds of relationships, with unequal power dynamics, black people can never fully express themselves because it is the economic and social power in the majority-white French society that determines what kind of behavior is acceptable.

Archer-Straw describes the line that black folk had to be aware of as “a walking contradiction, combining the exoticism of Africa with the awareness of what it took to be accepted by whites.”

Regardless of the discrepancy in interpretation, scholars do mostly agree that World War I played a vital part in the black experience abroad. Instead of returning to the Jim Crow era, they preferred the narrow but freeing fascination of Parisian society.

A power ranking of Odell Beckham Jr.’s custom cleats from the 2016 NFL season The New York Giants wideout was determined to break out the heat on any given Sunday

Every NFL Sunday is a footwear fashion show for Odell Beckham Jr. Over the past few seasons, the New York Giants wide receiver has shown up and showed out on the field with the freshest cleats in all of football. His secret? Well, it’s not really a secret at all, because OBJ takes much pride in his custom-made creations, for which he entrusts the skill and creativity of Los Angeles-based sneaker artist Troy “Kickasso” Cole, who cranks out masterpieces inspired by every concept fathomable. From album covers to video games and movies to personal tributes, whatever Beckham Jr. dreams up in his imaginative mind, Kickasso can translate onto cleats.

Yet, as a result of the NFL’s enforcement of its strict in-game uniform and equipment policy, most of the kicks in OBJ’s one-of-a-kind collection are worn exclusively during pregame warm-ups before he changes to a more traditional pair for games. But every now and then, Beckham Jr. will risk a fine to ensure that his flashiest shoes find their way onto the field when the game clock starts rolling.

During the 2016 NFL season, the anthology of custom cleats that OBJ unveiled was second to no other player in the league. Throughout the regular season, playoffs and Pro Bowl, he truly became a titan in the sneaker world, which certainly contributed to Nike recently inking the 24-year-old to the biggest shoe deal in NFL history, estimated to be worth more than $29 million over five years.

Hopefully the huge new contract with Nike doesn’t prohibit Beckham Jr. from continuing his tradition come next season. As we anticipate what else OBJ and Kickasso have in store, let’s take a look at their creativity through this definitive, descending-order power ranking of 20 custom cleats they made pop last season.


20. WEEK 10 VS. CINCINNATI BENGALS — LSU

New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr.’s cleats before the NFL game between the New York Giants and Cincinnati Bengals on Nov. 14, 2016, at Met Life Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Every NFL player deserves to rep his alma mater however he sees fit, but, man, these cleats in the signature purple and gold of Louisiana State University — the school the Giants drafted Beckham Jr. out of in 2014 with the 12th overall pick — are quite hideous. A more appropriate salute to LSU would’ve been cleats featuring detailed illustrations of tigers, the mascot of OBJ’s former school. As for these plaid concoctions — in the words of the illustrious 21st century musical talent scout Randy Darius Jackson, “yeah … that’s gonna be a no for me, dog.”

19. Week 5 vs. green bay packers — Breast cancer awareness

Since 2009, the NFL has been committed to spreading breast cancer awareness. Every season in October, players take pride in wearing the color pink as a display of their dedication to finding a cure. Beckham Jr. didn’t disappoint last October. His breast cancer cleats were a simple but very classy tribute to every woman and family affected by the disease.

18 and 17. week 7 vs. Los angeles rams — Burberry and Rolling Stone

Instagram Photo

When the Giants traveled to London to face the Los Angeles Rams in October 2016, OBJ channeled his inner European designer by breaking out pregame cleats embossed with the beautiful pattern of British fashion house Burberry (the iconic brand of clothing that Jay Z rapped about swimming in on his 2002 track with his then-future wife Beyoncé, ” ’03 Bonnie & Clyde”). These cleats are uber-swaggy, but don’t hold a candle to when Beckham Jr. went full-on designer and commissioned a pair of Supreme x Louis Vuitton customs to be made after the season.

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OBJ changed his kicks before kickoff, but remained authentic to the game being played across the pond by switching to red, white and blue cleats, and matching gloves, featuring the legendary logo of the English rock band the Rolling Stones.

16. week 12 vs. cleveland browns — Paint splatter

New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. stands on the field during practice before a game against the Cleveland Browns on Nov. 27, 2016, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane)

AP Photo/Ron Schwane

These are just really fun. Camouflage is always a good look, and the extra splash of color with the rainbow flecks and green and yellow shoestrings set them over the top. Stay tuned for more camo cleats from OBJ.

15. week 1 vs. Dallas Cowboys — sept. 11 tribute

Odell Beckham Jr. of the New York Giants wears cleats as a tribute to the 15th anniversary of 9/11 before a game against the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium on Sept. 11, 2016, in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The Giants’ 2016 season opener against the Dallas Cowboys happened to fall on the 15th anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001 — one of the most infamous days in the history of the United States. Beckham Jr. illustrated his patriotism in the form of U.S. flag-themed cleats with bald eagles on the outer soles of each shoe. OBJ was certainly proud to be an American on the first night of football last season.

14. Week 6 vs. baltimore ravens — “Kirby”

New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr.’s Nike cleats during warm-ups before the game between the New York Giants and the Baltimore Ravens played at Met Life Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

HUGE shout-out to OBJ for throwing it back to our childhoods by paying homage to the one and only Nintendo character Kirby. He unveiled these in the middle of October 2016, taking the NFL’s tradition of wearing pink to advocate for breast cancer awareness and running with it. Beckham Jr. chose a pink character and crafted an entire cleat design around it with the utmost detail, from the warp stars to the Whispy Woods (Kirby’s recurring foe in the video game series). On this NFL Sunday, OBJ represented the video game nerd that resides in every one of us.

13 and 12. week 13 vs. pittsburgh steelers — Make-a-wisH (Dora The EXplorer and The Simpsons)

New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. wears cleats supporting the Make-A-Wish Foundation during warm-ups before a game against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Dec. 4, 2016. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar

Instagram Photo

For one week during the season, the NFL, aka the “No Fun League,” allowed players to wear their in-game cleats however they wanted, outrageous customization and all, without receiving fines in violation of the league’s uniform policy. The #MyCauseMyCleats initiative, which required players to commit to supporting a charitable cause, saw approximately a third of the league (around 500 players) participate. Beckham Jr. chose to represent the Make-A-Wish Foundation, which, according to its website, has a “vision to grant the wish of every child diagnosed with a life-threatening medical condition.” And true to his cause, OBJ depicted the child within himself on two pairs of cleats he had designed. One pair was inspired by Homer and Bart Simpson, two of the main characters of the popular animated sitcom, The Simpsons. The other pair, which he wore during the Week 13 matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers, featured characters from the educational children’s series Dora the Explorer. Not the league, nor Swiper, could steal these cleats from Beckham Jr.’s feet on #MyCauseMyCleats Sunday. OBJ did it for the kids.

11. WEEK 2 VS. NEW ORLEANS SAINTS — “NOLA BOY”

New Orleans Native New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. wears Nike cleats with Nola Boy on them before the game between the New York Giants and the New Orleans Saints played at Met Life Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey.

Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire

“Know from whence you came. If you know whence you came, there are absolutely no limitations to where you can go.” Beckham Jr. has surely come across this legendary James Baldwin quote at least once in his life — or heard a variation of it from his grandma, aunties and uncles, or parents — while on his journey from growing up in Louisiana to becoming an NFL wide receiver in New York. Baton Rouge, Louisiana, is OBJ’s hometown, but he also claims New Orleans. So when the Giants faced the Saints early in the 2016 season, Beckham Jr. made his allegiance to the city known with “NOLA BOY” custom cleats in Mardi Gras colors. These are pretty special.

10. week 9 vs. philadelphia eagles — “Salute to service”

New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. wears cleats with a camouflage pattern while warming up before a game against the Philadelphia Eagles on Nov. 6, 2016, in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

AP Photo/Frank Franklin II

On the Sunday before Veteran’s Day, Beckham Jr. honored the nation’s armed forces with camouflage cleats reminiscent of the Japanese clothing brand A Bathing Ape’s fresh camo print. These are pretty sweet.

9. Week 14 vs. dallas cowboys — 300

Division matchups in the NFL are always battles. And no one went to war like the Spartans, whose combat skills were epically portrayed in the 2006 film 300. So when the Giants went up against their NFC East rival Dallas Cowboys in Week 14, OBJ imagined he was taking the battlefield for Leonidas I, unleashing these SUPER dope 300-inspired red, black and gold cleats.

8. wild-card playoff vs. green bay packers — “grab the cheese”

Instagram Photo

In January, the Giants journeyed to the land of cheese for a wild-card matchup with the Green Bay Packers. Before the playoff game, Beckham Jr. countered Green Bay’s cheesehead fans with cheese feet. He donned a pair of yellow cleats that resembled blocks of cheese, with carefully drawn holes and images of Disney’s Mickey Mouse and Itchy the Mouse from The Simpsons. Like these two mice, OBJ was after the cheese. Too bad the Giants took that smooth L.

7. week 15 vs. detroit lions — craig sager tribute

New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr.’s Craig Sager tribute cleats during the third quarter of the National Football League game between the New York Giants and the Detroit Lions on Dec. 18, 2016, at Met Life Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Beckham Jr. was fined only once last season for violating the NFL’s uniform and equipment policy with his flashy cleats. The penalty was issued following Week 15, when OBJ played against the Detroit Lions in a pair of multicolored, and multipatterned, cleats honoring longtime NBA broadcaster Craig Sager, who died at age 65 three days before the game. Known for his bright and brazen sideline outfits, Sager would’ve loved OBJ’s cleats, which he auctioned off following the game to benefit the Sager Strong Foundation for cancer research. Yet despite Beckham Jr.’s heartfelt gesture, the NFL still slapped him with an $18,000 fine, which didn’t sit too well with the superstar wide receiver.

Yet if you asked Beckham Jr., he’d probably tell you that, for Sager, the fine was worth every single penny.

6. WEEK 17 VS. WASHINGTON REDSKINS — KANYE WEST “GRADUATION”

Instagram Photo

Kanye West dropped out of college and became a 21-time Grammy Award-winning musician. Beckham Jr. never graduated from college, either, deciding to forgo his senior year at LSU and enter the NFL, where he is now an All-Pro wide receiver. So the only commencement the two have in common is OBJ’s cleats he had designed after the cover of West’s 2007 album Graduation. On these kicks, the colors morph from an orangish-pink to a drank purple, and illustrations of Kanye’s signature bears are beautifully done. Hot take: Graduation is one of the best, if not the best album of West’s career. Obviously, it’s up there in the ranks for OBJ, too.

5. week 4 vs. Minnesota vikings — OVO

New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr.’s OVO custom-made cleats are seen on the field during the first half of a game against the Minnesota Vikings on Oct. 3, 2016, in Minneapolis.

AP Photo/Andy Clayton-King

If you didn’t know that Beckham Jr. and Drake are BFFs, you must have been living under a rock like Patrick from SpongeBob SquarePants for the past year. Last NFL offseason, Beckham Jr. house-sat the hit-making musical artist’s Calabasas, California, mansion, known as the “YOLO (You Only Live Once) estate,” while he was on tour. Drake later shouted out his bro OBJ on his October 2016 track “Fake Love” with the seminal line, Just when s— look out of reach / I reach back like one, three / Like one, three, yeah — a reference to the most revered play of the NFL wide receiver’s young career, which also happens to be arguably the best catch in league history. And even this year, Drake stopped one of his shows to get Beckham Jr., who was in the audience, to sign a fan’s jersey. Yet, before all of these epic chapters of their friendship, OBJ paid tribute to his big homie during the 2016 NFL season with these simply gorgeous October’s Very Own (OVO)-themed cleats. The sky blue base of the shoes, with softly drawn white clouds, is a subtle nod to the cover of Drake’s 2013 album Nothing Was the Same, and the perfect complement to the metallic gold illustrations of Drake’s trademark owl on the outer soles of each shoe. Man, these cleats are a truly a work of art.

4. 2017 Pro Bowl — Toy Story

OBJ definitely “gotta friend” in Troy Cole, because the artist appropriately known as Kickasso absolutely did his thing with these Toy Story-themed cleats that the wide receiver sported in January’s Pro Bowl. What a beautiful touch to dedicate one shoe solely to Sheriff Woody Pride, and the other to space ranger Buzz Lightyear. Beckham Jr. is surely ready for 2019’s Toy Story 4, and so are we.

3. WEEK 16 VS. PHILADELPHIA EAGLES — GRINCH

Odell Beckham Jr. of the New York Giants warms up wearing Christmas cleats featuring the Grinch before a game against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field on Dec. 22, 2016, in Philadelphia. (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)

Rich Schultz/Getty Images

There’s only one way to celebrate Christmas on your feet, and that’s with the Grinch. Basketball great Kobe Bryant did it with his signature Nikes in 2010, and Beckham Jr. continued the tradition in custom fashion last holiday season. The vibrant colors and details on these cleats are amazing. We wouldn’t be mad if Beckham Jr. rocked them all season long — they’re that nice to look at. Yo, OBJ, if you’re reading this, next Christmas you gotta go full Home Alone with your kicks. It’d be the perfect way to tell every D-back in the league, “Merry Christmas, ya filthy animal! … and a Happy New Year.”

2. WEEK 11 VS. CHICAGO BEARS — “BACK TO THE FUTURE”

New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr.’s Nike Cleats with “Mattel Hover Board” and “Back to the Future” on them before a game between the New York Giants and Chicago Bears on Nov. 20, 2016, at Met Life Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

All three films of the Back to the Future trilogy were released before Beckham Jr. was born in 1992. But as we saw last season, OBJ is a young Marty McFly at heart. He and Kickasso put their creative minds together to give the people not one, but two pairs of Back to the Future-inspired cleats, incorporating multiple elements and moments from Back to the Future Part II, in which Marty and Doc Brown travel 30 years into the future from 1985 to 2015. Beckham Jr. wore the first pair during warm-ups before a Week 11 matchup with the Chicago Bears, which included illustrations of the Mattel hoverboard, Marty’s metallic hat and the DeLorean time machine, all featured in the film. These cleats are glorious, but Kickasso saved his best work for what OBJ wore during the game. The wide receiver took the field in a pair of remarkable silver-and-electric blue creations, designed after the self-lacing Nike Mags that debuted in the 1989 film. Nike released the shoes for the first time nearly three decades later, and again in 2016, making OBJ’s Back to the Future cleat idea timely and relevant in the world of sneakers.

1. WEEK 3 VS. WASHINGTON REDSKINS — THE Joker

OBJ has a unique obsession with The Joker, which we’ve seen translated through his on-field apparel in the past few seasons. The wide receiver first made his infatuation known during a December 2015 Monday Night Football game, when he wore cleats and gloves illustrating the comic book supervillain’s chilling face. Last season, however, he took the obsession a huge step further. Everyone knows OBJ and Washington Redskins cornerback Josh Norman aren’t too fond of each other. And, coincidentally, Norman’s favorite superhero is Batman, The Joker’s archnemesis. So, in all his pettiness, Beckham Jr. had two more pairs of Joker cleats made for a 2016 Week 3 matchup with Norman and the Redskins. The pregame pair featured graphic details in bold colors, from The Joker’s eyes on the tongue of each shoe and his stained teeth on each toe, to his tattoos and catchphrases such as Why So Serious?, on the inner and outer soles. The pair he wore during the game were more subtle — mostly white with speckles of lime green around the laces, and red ink circling each shoe to represent The Joker’s blood-stained smile. With 11 catches for 121 yards against Norman and the Redskins, Beckham Jr. became the fastest wide receiver in NFL history to reach 200 career receptions and 3,000 receiving yards. So, now, his in-game Joker cleats are displayed at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. You know what that means, right? OBJ has a Hall of Fame cleat game.