Laverne Cox, Shaun Ross and Amber Riley speak their truth to N.C. A&T students ‘Love the Skin You’re In’ discussion touched hearts and minds

“Love yourself … embrace who you are … be true to yourself” are examples of clichés that are often heard. However, what do those statements really mean? And how can someone begin to love themselves if they struggle to receive love from others?

Some of those answers were unpacked this week as North Carolina A&T hosted Love the Skin You’re In, an event that was part of the chancellor’s speaker series. It was groundbreaking because of the diversity of the panelists, who included Shaun Ross, Amber Riley and Laverne Cox.

Cox is a transgender actress known for her role as Sophia Burset on Orange Is the New Black. Ross is the first male model to represent albinism, and Riley is a plus-size actress best known for her role as Mercedes Jones on the TV series Glee.

“I am very grateful that this event happened,” said Amara Johnson, a senior multimedia journalism student who is an active member of Prism, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender-plus organization on A&T’s campus.

“I believe many things were intentional when planning. One example would be students who are in Prism, the LGBTQ+ organization, had reserved seating in the front rows. This was such a big deal for us because normally we are an afterthought. Also, this particular event was historic because it was the first time a transperson has been invited to speak on campus.”

The panelists tackled topics centered on self-concept, self-acceptance, self-esteem, self-confidence and self-love.

They opened up talking about their differences and how they knew they were different.

Participants in the Love The Skin You’re In panel included (from left to right) Laverne Cox, Shaun Ross, Amber Riley and moderator Raushannah Johnson-Verwayne.

Jamar Plunkett

“I never truly knew I was different until I stepped out into the world,” said Ross as he discussed the challenges he faced having albinism while going to school with kids who were also African American, but had darker skin that his.

“I only knew I was different when I went to the beach and got sunburn,” he joked.

Dealing with their differences

Besides their differences, they discussed dealing with the shame of them.

“Shame is an intense feeling of unbelief. Shame is instead of thinking, ‘this is a mistake,’ you say to yourself, ‘I am a mistake,’ ” Cox explained.

They talked about not only acceptance of oneself but acceptance of one’s accomplishments.

Ross said that for a long time he was being humble to a fault. Whenever he would accomplish something, he would say to himself, “What is next?”

“Sometimes I don’t feel what I’ve done has been worth it because of my past,” Ross said. But now he’s in a place where he recites to himself, “remember where you were, not what you want.”

Not only can self-criticism be a heavy burden, but the criticism from others can be, too.

“It doesn’t go away once you get in the magazines,” Cox said. “It actually gets worse because you have more eyes on you. If you do not know who you are. If you do not have a sense of your inherent worthiness because you are a child of God, what other people say about you will destroy you.”

“I got to the point where I felt like I was drowning. I felt like I didn’t know myself. I felt like I wasn’t in my own body. Does anybody feel that way? … But eventually you will get to a point where survival mode kicks in. It is inside of us to survive.” — Amber Riley

The importance of self-confidence and how it is crucial to surviving in life was another topic.

“I got to the point where I felt like I was drowning,” Riley said. “I felt like I didn’t know myself. I felt like I wasn’t in my own body. Does anybody feel that way?”

Several people in the audience raised their hands, symbolizing they, too, could relate to her struggles with self-esteem.

“But eventually you will get to a point where survival mode kicks in,” Riley continued. “It is inside of us to survive.”

“Listening to them talk about their journeys to self-acceptance reminded me that I need to be patient with myself as I embark on my own journey,” Johnson said. “To paraphrase a quote that Amber Riley said that stuck with me: ‘Self-love is a journey, not a destination.’ ”

Moderator Dr. Raushannah Johnson-Verwayne asked the three to discuss some tangible things they had gained on their journey of self-acceptance.

“I think that one of the most tangible things that you could ever receive is the truth. The more I got older, the more I was able to live in my truth. So, living in your truth is one of the most tangible things you can ever have,” Johnson-Verwayne said.

The LGBTQ+ community on campus

The event shed light on the support and advocacy for the LGBTQ+ community at N.C. A&T.

“I feel like this event contributed to the growth of the LGBTQ+ community on campus by opening these conversations up and opening these dialogues up and letting people’s humanity be seen,” said Morgan Turner, a junior psychology student and member of Prism.

“Being able to have examples of people you see on social media who are famous and who are in all these different identities telling me their story goes a longer way than what Prism and other students can do at times that are just out of our hands,” Turner said.

Asia Hill is the president of Prism, whose purpose is to support members of the LGBTQ+ community on campus.

“The goal of Prism is not only to make LGBT+ students feel safe,” Hill said. “However, it is also to make LGBT students visible on campus and to make other people see how advocating for the LGBT community can look and how it can help not only yourself in your own community but also communities you don’t even know about and people you haven’t even reached.

“The stories that they told and the energy that they had helps with the advocacy piece,” Hill continued. “There are people who aren’t LGBT that still came just for the sake that it’s a chancellor’s event. They got a story that they wouldn’t hear before, and think that helps people understand the LGBT community and understand just the people around him.”

Conveying the importance of therapy was Johnson-Verwayne, who is a licensed clinical psychologist, saying, “Everyone should have a therapist.”

They stressed academics and relationships as well.

“It’s crazy that your own thoughts and your feelings come through somebody else’s experiences and I think that’s what this event captured tonight.” — Prism president Asia Hill

“Also be sure to watch the energy around you and watch the energy that you’re putting out to other people,” even in college. “The problem is people are so hung up on where people are right now than where they’re going,” said Ross.

Some students said the evening was valuable and they were grateful they were understood, walking away with valuable life tips.

“I think the program was absolutely amazing,” said Aaron Johnson, a senior liberal studies student. “Being a gay black male myself, it took me a while to find self-acceptance and what the panelists pretty much talked about, I could relate to. It felt like everything just resonated with me deep down in my spirit.”

“There was something Laverne said about when she’s feeling anxious she finds the space in her body where she feels the most anxiety and subsequently finds the space in her body where she feels the least anxious and it helps her get through the anxiety step by step,” Hill said. “That to me was groundbreaking because I never heard of anything like that and the physicality of it was really life-changing. It’s crazy that your own thoughts and your feelings come through somebody else’s experiences and I think that’s what this event captured tonight.”

Richard Wright discovers Joe Louis’ dynamite The author of ‘Native Son’ was strongly influenced by the boxer’s success

In 1941, three giants of African American culture came together to celebrate a king. The tribute, fittingly enough, was a song entitled “King Joe,” sung by Paul Robeson to music composed and performed by Count Basie and his Orchestra. Richard Wright had written the lyrics. Basie, Robeson, and Wright — their names conjure images of foxtrots at the Roseland Ballroom, triumphant performances of Showboat, and the explosive prose of Native Son. The king they lionized was Joe Louis, boxing’s heavyweight champion of the world.

On one verse, Wright clearly wrestles with Louis’ legendary silence:

They say Joe don’t talk much, but he talks all the time.

They say Joe don’t talk much, he talks all the time.

Now you can look at Joe, but sure can’t read his mind.

But the novelist had no doubts about the emotions Louis aroused in black communities across the country:

Been in Cleveland, St. Louis and Chicago, too.

Been in Cleveland, St. Louis and Chicago, too.

But the best is Harlem when a Joe Louis fight is through.

By then, Wright had witnessed the cleansing power of Joe Louis — the flood of joy on Chicago’s South Side after he defeated Max Baer in 1935, the electricity inside Yankee Stadium during his 1938 fight with Max Schmeling, the lovefest in Harlem after each important victory. Wright knew the importance of the reign of King Joe.

Richard Wright, circa 1950, sits in his hotel room during the Venice Film Festival. Wright had attended the screening of director Pierre Chenal’s film, Native Son, which was adapted from his novel and starred the author.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Wright wrote out of the pain of racism. Born in a Mississippi sharecropper’s shack in 1908, abandoned by his father, and circumscribed by the iron chains of Jim Crow, he had a blinding ambition to tell his story, the universal tale of the “color line” in America with all the anger, hatred, and ache that it encompassed. The publication of Native Son in 1940 made him instantly famous — and notorious. Published by Harper & Brothers and selected by the Book-of-the-Month Club as one of its two main selections, it sold 215,000 copies in two weeks.

Wright’s fame, however paled next to that of Louis. Six years younger than Wright, Louis was also part of the great migration of rural Southern black people to the urban north, in his case from Alabama to Detroit. Handicapped by poverty and a stutter, he was virtually uneducated and painfully shy. Yet in 1941 he was in the midst of a 12-year reign as the undisputed heavyweight champion, at a time when the title was, as Eldridge Cleaver once wrote, “the ultimate focus of masculinity in America.” Along with Joe DiMaggio, he was one of the two most celebrated athletes in the nation, and his fame extended across the oceans. Furthermore, Louis was an inspiration and source of pride for black Americans. Especially for Wright.

Wright embraced Louis as an athlete and a symbol early in the boxer’s career. In his 1940 essay, How ‘Bigger’ Was Born, Wright suggested that Bigger Thomas, his protagonist in Native Son, was a composite of a number of men he had known, frustrated men who confronted the racism in their daily life with violence. They were the only people, Wright wrote in his essay, who defied Jim Crow “and got away with it, at least for a sweet brief spell” before whites killed them or broke their spirits. But in Louis, Wright witnessed a black man who legally beat down white men in the ring without retribution. The novelist alluded to Louis in Native Son, along with boxers Jack Johnson and Henry Armstrong, suggesting that he was a role model for black men. Yet Wright understood that without boxing they may have suffered the same tragic fate as Bigger Thomas.


No one knows exactly when Wright first learned about Louis, but in the mid-1930s they both lived on the South Side of Chicago. The neighborhood’s numbers kingpin, nightclub operator, and sports enthusiast Julian Black was one of Louis’ co-managers, and he arranged for the boxer to move from Detroit to Chicago to train and fight. From the summer of 1934 to the spring of 1935, during Louis’ first year as a professional, he fought two-thirds of his matches in the city. During the same period, Wright became active in politics and began his writing career. He joined the Communist Party, published poetry in leftist journals, and attended various “progressive” writers conferences.

It is difficult to imagine that Wright wouldn’t have read about Louis’ first major bout in New York City, a contest against former heavyweight champion Primo Carnera that took place in June 1935 during the international crisis between Italy and Ethiopia. The 28-year-old Italian fighter was awesome to behold. Sportswriters dubbed him the “Ambling Alp.” In an age when heavyweights were small compared with today, Carnera stood 6-foot-6 and weighed 260 pounds. The 6-foot-2 Louis, only 21 at the time and 196 pounds, knocked him out in six rounds, but not before administering a frightful beating.

Joe Louis scored a decisive technical knockout over Primo Carnera in the sixth round of their bout at the Yankee Stadium in 1935. Here is Louis standing over the bleeding Carnera during one of the three knockdowns in the sixth round.

Getty Images

As he would later demonstrate in Native Son, Wright was keenly aware of how white journalists transformed a powerful black man like Louis into a beast. They transmuted the boxer into a dark, dangerous, primordial creature. Sportswriters compared him with a jungle animal, or, alternatively, a machine. He was a cobra, a panther, or more famously, a Brown Bomber raining death. “Something sly and sinister, and perhaps not quite human came out of the African jungle last night to strike down and utterly demolish a huge hulk that had been Primo Carnera, the giant,” wrote ringside reporter David J. Walsh in the St. Louis Star-Times. Grantland Rice, dean of America’s sportswriters, commented in his report of the match for the New York Sun that Louis moved toward Carnera “as a black panther of the jungle stalks his prey.” Rice especially was struck that Louis’ “expression never changed,” even when the referee raised his hand in victory. He “seems to be the type [of jungle animal] that accepts and inflicts pain without a change of expression,” he wrote.

Judging from his later writings, Wright must have sensed that Louis represented a significant new force. The fighter, Walsh had noted, challenged and defied “the white man’s innate sense of superiority.” The Pittsburgh Courier, one of the nation’s leading black newspapers, headlined “HARLEM GOES ‘MAD WITH JOY,’ ” and suggested Louis’ triumph was “its biggest moment since it became the capital of the Negro world.”

Searching the horizon for signs of revolutionary change, Wright latched on to the Louis phenomenon. After the Carnera bout, black Americans could not get enough news about Louis. Newspapers invented his past and speculated about his future. Musicians celebrated his victories in songs. By September 1935, two years before he became heavyweight champion, blues singers had begun to cut records recounting Louis’ fistic deeds. Joe Pullum’s “Joe Louis Is the Man” praised his ring talents as well as noting that he’s “doing things for his mother a young boy should.” Memphis Minnie counseled fans to bet all their money on the “two-fisted fighter” in her joyous paean, “He’s in the Ring (Doin’ the Same Old Thing!).” She sang:

I wouldn’t even pay my house rent.

I wouldn’t buy me nothin’ to eat.

Joe Louis says, ‘Take a chance at me

I’m goin’ to put you on your feet.’

He’s in the ring, doin’ the same old thing.

And in “Joe Louis Blues,” Carl Martin warns all prizefighters “who don’t want to meet defeat … stay off Joe Louis’ beat.”

The early Louis blues songs explode with pride and pleasure, rejoicing in the sheer delight of riding on the Brown Bomber’s bandwagon. As his career progressed, listening to radio broadcasts of his matches became communal experiences for black Americans. Maya Angelou, in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, recalled joining family and friends to listen to his fights in her grandfather’s store in Stamps, Arkansas. She wondered if the announcer knew that he was addressing “all the Negroes around the world who sat sweating and praying, glued to their ‘master’s voice.’ ”

That white voice became excited when Louis’ white opponent pushed him into the corner and whaled away at his body. “My race groaned,” remembered Angelou. “It was all our people falling. It was another lynching, yet another Black man hanging on a tree. One more woman ambushed and raped. A Black boy whipped and maimed.” It was one’s worst memory and consummate fear. “It might be the end of the world. If Joe lost we were back in slavery and beyond help.” If Louis fell, she thought, all the vile racist insults and cutting remarks would be true.

Yet, in almost every case, Louis came off the ropes, moved to the center of the ring, and began to punish his opponent. Once again, he assumed the role of a black Moses, delivering his race, at least for a moment, to the promised land. He was their champion. “A Black boy,” wrote Angelou. “Some Black mother’s son.”


The announcer lifts Joe Louis’ arm in token of his six-round technical knockout over Primo Carnera in their bout at the Yankee Stadium in New York City, June 25, 1935. Louis bears only a slight bruise under his left eye as evidence of the encounter.

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Wright’s feelings toward Louis came into sharper literary focus a few months after the boxer slaughtered Carnera. Hazel Rowley’s biography recounts how, after battling through a serious bout of pneumonia during the summer, on the night of Sept. 24, 1935, the struggling writer sat in a bar on the South Side, smoking a cigarette, his ear bent toward the radio. It was almost six years since the stock market crash signaled the coming of the Great Depression. It was a hard time to be black in America. Jobs were in short supply, but lynchings weren’t. The wrongly convicted Scottsboro Boys sat in prison in Alabama, sentenced to die in the electric chair. For Wright, their ordeal symbolized the plight of black men in the country. Don’t step outside of your narrowly proscribed path was the message transmitted from white America to millions of black “citizens.”

Yet, Wright knew, something remarkable was happening, and he wanted to understand what it meant. Louis, who would have had trouble reading Wright’s poetry, once more was making quite a stir. In a ring in the middle of Yankee Stadium, the boxer faced former world heavyweight champion Baer, a heavy-punching, wisecracking slugger. Baer was a talker, always ready to deliver a quip. Louis, said one reporter, “says less than any man in sports history, including Dummy Taylor, the Giant pitcher, who was mute.” Neither man, however, had come to Yankee Stadium to debate.

Joe Louis (left) looks to deliver a right jab on his opponent Max Baer (right) during their bout at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, New York, Sept. 24, 1935. Joe Louis would knock out Max Baer in the fourth round of 15.

The Stanley Weston Archive/Getty Images

Wright felt the earth crack that night. Something happened that transcended the punch that knocked out Baer. (After the match, Baer exclaimed he could have gotten up, “but when I get executed, people are going to have to pay more than twenty-five dollars a seat to watch.”) Some belt holding together Jim Crow laws seemed for a moment to break. Looking around the bar, then stepping out in the street, Wright witnessed it. “Something had popped loose, all right,” he wrote in Joe Louis Uncovers Dynamite. “And it had come from deep down. Out of the darkness it had leaped from its coil. And nobody wanted to say. Blacks and whites were afraid. But it was a sweet fear, at least for blacks. It was a mingling of fear and fulfillment. Something dreaded and yet wanted. A something had popped out of a dark hole, something with a hydra-like head, and it was darting forth its tongue.”

It was Wright’s first published piece of journalism and appeared in New Masses, a Marxist magazine affiliated with the Communist Party USA. Only incidentally was it a form of sports writing. Instead, it explores the revolutionary potential of black Americans. The central metaphor in the article is water. After Louis’ sensational knockout victory, blacks on Chicago’s South Side “poured out of beer taverns, pool rooms, barber shops, rooming houses and dingy flats and flooded the streets.” More than 25,000 “joy-mad” Louis fans “seeped out of doorways, oozed from alleys, trickled out of tenements, and flowed down the street; a fluid mass of joy.”

They formed a wild river of revolutionary potential, praising Louis at the same time as they expressed their resentment against the varied forms of racism that circumscribed and plagued their lives. Louis had unleashed it all. “Four centuries of repression,” Wright observed, “of frustrated hope, of black bitterness, felt even in the bones of the bewildered young, were rising to the surface. Yes, unconsciously they had imputed to the brawny image of Joe Louis all the balked dreams of revenge, all the secretly visualized moments of retaliation …” Without uttering a word or waving a red flag, Louis had become a revolutionary force. “You see, Joe was the consciously-felt symbol. Joe was the concentrated essence of black triumph over white … And what could be sweeter than long-nourished hate vicariously gratified? From the symbol of Joe’s strength they took strength, and in that moment all fear, all obstacles were wiped out, drowned. They stepped out of the mire of hesitation and irresolution and were free! Invincible!”

Joe Louis Discovers Dynamite concludes with the river receding, moving back into its channel, with the people in the streets “flowing back to the beer tavern, the poolroom, the café, the barbershop, the dingy flat.” Still, freedom imagined is freedom embraced. That evening Wright glimpsed the power of Louis, not only as a fighter but as a potential leveler of social norms, an inarticulate prophet to violent, revolutionary change.

The problem with weighing down Louis with the dreams of revenge and aspirations of the advancement of an entire race, of course, was the possibility that he might lose a fight. It happened on June 19, 1936, when the German Schmeling, another former champion, KO’ed him in 12 rounds. Louis’ physical pain that night was black America’s psychic agony. Singer Lena Horne was performing that evening in Cincinnati’s Moonlite Gardens with Noble Sissle’s band. Backstage, during breaks between sets, she listened to the fight. Schmeling had knocked down Louis in the fourth round, and continued to pummel him with right hands round after round. Men in the band were crying. Horne was nearly hysterical, she recalled in her autobiography. For her, Louis “carried so many of our hopes, maybe even dreams of vengeance.”

Horne’s performance suffered. Outraged, her mother said, “Why, you don’t even know the man.” “I don’t care, I don’t care,” Horne cried. “He belongs to all of us.”


Never did Louis belong to so many Americans, black and white, than on June 22, 1938, when he fought a rematch against Schmeling. By then, Hitler’s legions were jackbooting toward another war in Europe and Schmeling was the darling of the Nazi Party. Also that year, Harper & Brothers published Wright’s first book, Uncle Tom’s Children: Four Novellas. Like so many other Americans, the writer was pulled into the frenzy about the match. Dubbed “The Fight of the Century,” it was the major story from New York to Chicago to Los Angeles, and from London to Berlin to Tokyo.

Living in Brooklyn, New York, at the time, Wright agreed to cover the Yankee Stadium event for both the Daily Worker and New Masses. The writing assignment seemed natural. Not only had he published a superb piece on the Louis-Baer fight in New Masses and had worked for the Daily Worker, the Communist Party was actively promoting his career. “Our new comet,” the party hailed him. Uncle Tom’s Children was translated into Russian and praised in a review in Pravda. In England, a leftist publisher had asked Robeson to write the foreword for the British edition.

/> A general view of the fight between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, New York, on June 22, 1938. Louis won by a knockout in the first round.

The Ring Magazine/Getty Images

An overwhelming racial pride, rather than a class solidarity, distinguished Wright’s approach to the second Louis-Schmeling match. Many white reporters and columnists adopted the black boxer as a representative of American values — democracy, freedom, equality, fair play — doing battle against the racist ideology of Nazi Germany. Wright wanted none of it. Like Horne, he maintained that Louis belonged to the 12 million blacks in America.

Wright’s visit to Louis’ Pompton Lakes, New Jersey, training camp reinforced his feelings. There he discovered “throngs” of black fans “standing around for hours in a state of deep awe waiting for just one glimpse of the champion,” he reported in the Daily Worker. When Louis appeared, “a hush fell on them and they stared.” They knew, as Wright later noted in New Masses, that the Brown Bomber “symbolized the living refutation of the hatred spewed forth daily over the radios, in newspapers, in movies, and in books about their lives … [T]hey have watched a picture of themselves being painted as lazy, stupid, and diseased.” And how could they respond? “[S]o effectively and completely have they been isolated and restricted in vocation that they rarely have had the opportunity to participate in the meaningful processes of America’s national life. Jim Crowed in the army and navy, barred from many trades and professions, excluded from commerce and finance, relegated to menial positions in government, segregated residentially, denied the right of franchise for the most part; in short, forced to live a separate and impoverished life, they were glad for even the meager acceptance of their humanity implied in the championship of Joe Louis.”

Wright left no doubt that Nazi ideology was viler than the American reality, but he also insisted that “reactionary” elements in the United States and Great Britain preached the same racist creed as fascists in Germany, Italy, and Japan. Only among black people in America was the support for Louis universal. For them June 22, 1938, held a promise as sweet, in its own way, as emancipation. On that night, Louis promised to settle an old score and exact revenge for his 1936 loss to Schmeling. Wright knew that symbolically Louis’ revenge would be his race’s revenge.

World heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis (left) stands over challenger Max Schmeling, who is down for a count of three, as referee Arthur Donovan sends Louis to a neutral corner at Yankee Stadium in New York City on June 22, 1938. Louis retained his title in a technical knockout over Schmeling in 2:04 of the first round of their scheduled 15-round title bout.

AP Photo

The fight ended with explosive suddenness. Louis had predicted that he would finish Schmeling in two rounds. He did it in one. In a mid-round assault, he broke a vertebra in Schmeling’s back, pounded him with crushing rights, and left him looking, Wright wrote in the Daily Worker, like “a soft piece of molasses candy left out in the sun; he drooped over the ropes, his eyes glassy, his chin nestling in a strand of rope, his face blank and senseless and his widely-heralded powerful right arm hanging ironically useless.” As Wright observed, Louis’ “victory was complete, unquestionable, decisive; his blows must have jarred the marrow not only in [Schmeling’s] but in Hitler’s own bones.” Far from being a competitive contest, Louis’ triumph “was an act of revenge, of dominance, of complete mastery.”

The celebrations in Harlem, the communal finale to Louis victory, interested Wright as much as the actual contest. Using his familiar water metaphor, he wrote that the sight of 100,000 black people pouring into the streets was “like the Mississippi River overflowing at flood time.” Their happiness was inexpressible. “With their faces to the night sky, they filled their lungs with air and let out a scream of joy that seemed would never end, and a scream that came from untold reserves of strength.” Accompanying their primal shouts was a cacophony of beating on garbage pails, tin cans, pots, pans, washboards and wooden boxes. Torn scraps of newspapers snowed from upper story windows on long snake-lines of dancing Harlemites while horns blared, whistles shrieked, and sirens wailed.

The parties in Harlem and other black communities across America were political demonstrations. The racket they created was the sound of freedom long denied and deeply desired. The people in the streets “wanted to feel that their expanded feelings were not limited; that the earth was theirs as much as anyone else’s; that they did not have to live by proscription in one corner of it; that they could go where they wanted to and do what they wanted to, eat and live where they wanted to, like others.” That, Wright knew, was the true dynamite of Joe Louis.

Customers at a bar on 135th Street in Harlem raise a jubilant toast after world heavyweight champion Joe Louis’ first-round knockout of Max Schmeling in Yankee Stadium.

NY Daily News Archive/Getty Images

For Beyoncé’s Homecoming scholars, their scholarships were lifesavers Her commitment and love for HBCUs comes from growing up around top bands

Her honey blond hair was like a halo of gold under the stage lights.

An Egyptian cape wrapped around her body. She mesmerized the audience.

Once the whistle blew, Coachella’s music festival and the lives of eight students attending historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) changed forever.

Beyoncé’s groundbreaking performance at the 2018 desert concert paid homage to HBCUs by showcasing black culture and talent. “When I decided to do Coachella, instead of me pulling out my flower crown, it was more important that I brought our culture to Coachella,” Beyoncé said in her Netflix film Homecoming.

Beyoncé made history for being the first black woman to headline Coachella. During that performance, she announced the Homecoming Scholarship Awards Program under her BeyGood initiative. She offered $25,000 each to students at Xavier University in Louisiana, Grambling State University, Tuskegee University, Morehouse College, Wilberforce University, Texas Southern University, Fisk University and Bethune-Cookman University.

I attend Xavier and I was one of the recipients. And I’m graduating on May 11!

It felt like just yesterday I was dancing in the living room with my father as Beyoncé performed “Love On Top” at the 2011 MTV Video Music Awards. We both smiled at each other, in awe of Beyoncé’s talent as a visionary and entertainer. Every time we heard her voice over the radio or when we blasted her music in our house, it gave us goose bumps. My dad and I always connected through music. When he died my junior year in high school from cancer, I was in disbelief. But it was Beyoncé’s music and presence that taught me to stay strong and that no dream of mine was too big.

I decided to leave my hometown of Boston and attend Xavier University of Louisiana to reconnect with my dad’s roots and carry on his legacy in New Orleans, where he grew up. My dad taught me how to write and reminded me that everyone has a story to be told. When I stepped foot on my HBCU campus, I hit the ground running by getting involved in journalism.

Two years ago, I had the chance to meet Beyoncé at a party that her sister Solange was hosting for NBA All-Star Weekend in New Orleans. I thanked Beyoncé for her music and for getting me through losing my dad. She responded, “I’m so sorry for your loss, and thank you for being such a supportive fan.”

With each passing year, it became increasingly difficult for my newly single mom to cover the cost of my out-of-state tuition. But last summer, my worries faded away. I was interning in the sports department at the Tampa Bay Times and saw the news on Twitter. I saw a “Congratulations” tweet and realized I was one of the winners. I was speechless, and couldn’t believe the announcement was real.

The outpouring from the public was something I had never seen before on my social media. Other recipients said they felt that same love. The Tuskegee winner, Caleb Washington, screamed when she saw the news on Twitter. She was interning at Goldman Sachs.

Washington transferred from the University of West Alabama during her junior year. She played basketball and was on an athletic scholarship. But she gave it up, the sport and the scholarship, to focus on getting into law school.

“The Beyoncé scholarship was like a safe haven because it replaced the athletic scholarship,” she said. “Tuskegee has prepared me through the trials and triumphs of operating and managing your day-to-day. At an HBCU, it prepares you for corporate life.”

When Washington watched Beyoncé’s performance, she felt that it was an honor to be black. “I felt so proud. In a sense, I felt validated to be a soon-an-HBCU grad and be part of this culture,” Washington said.

If it wasn’t for Beyoncé’s scholarship, recipient Cletus Emokpae said, he would have not received his master’s degree in mass communication and would have been homeless. The Grambling State alumnus got into a car accident the day before he heard the scholarship news.

“I called my mom and broke down and cried because she understood, after a while you get tired of always having to struggle,” he said. “At what point does the grind start to really showcase the fruits of your labor?”

For Emokpae, this scholarship finally showed him that his hard work was paying off. When he first got to Grambling, he could not afford housing.

“One of my professors took me in just so I had a place to stay to get my work done,” he said.

“People can say a lot about Gram Fam, but when it comes down to it, when you need somebody, they will be there for you. No questions asked.”

By attending an HBCU, “it’s like a homecoming every day,” he said. Emokpae was proud to see how Beyoncé incorporated a band into her performance.

“People don’t even go to the football games for the football games anymore. They really go to see the bands,” he said. “And the bands at HBCUs are really like the pulse for a lot of these campuses. It runs deep.”

Beyoncé explains in her documentary that she handpicked her band members and dancers to make sure it felt like a homecoming, her HBCU.

“I wanted all of these different characters, and I wanted it to feel the way I felt when I went to Battle of the Bands, because I grew up seeing those shows, and that being the highlight of my year,” Beyoncé said. Her father attended Fisk University, and as a young artist she mentioned that she grew up rehearsing at Texas Southern and Prairie View.

Beyoncé has touched so many lives through her music, projects and philanthropy and as a businesswoman altogether. From this scholarship alone, one woman impacted eight different lives. As a result, we will always be connected and grateful for her support.

Homecoming has only increased my respect for Beyoncé. I continue to sing her songs that I used to belt out with my dad as a little girl. The only difference is, he’s looking over me as my guardian angel.

By accident, ‘Space Jam’ is a nearly perfect stoner movie #MuteRKelly and ‘Space Jam’ becomes an ideal movie for 4/20

I found it.

I found a perfect movie for 4/20. Well, almost.

It’s Space Jam (minus the treacly R. Kelly theme that doesn’t even match the tone of the movie).

But Space Jam is an accidental stoner classic. It’s a kids movie that just happens to be the perfect mix of hilarious, fantastical, riveting and disturbing when watched while one is stoned out of one’s gourd. The stakes revolve around slavery. Slavery! Imagine if its forthcoming sequel took that energy and made it intentional.

If Space Jam 2 possesses the hallmark phantasmagoria of its director, Terence Nance, it ought to leave sober viewers wondering if they’ve accidentally ingested shrooms. It will be smart. It will be subversive. It will be sublimely weird.

Which gives me great hope that besides being a multiple NBA-championship-winning philanthropist who builds schools and produces documentaries that shine a light on those least illuminated, LeBron James could end up producing and starring in the best stoner flick since The Big Lebowski. One without the asterisk that comes with incorporating a warbling paean to flight sung by the man who showed us just what a superhero Gayle King actually is.

LeBron has the range. And we deserve.

This week, I busied myself with a bit of public service journalism. I went on the hunt for the perfect black stoner flick and kept coming up disappointed. Friday’s casual violence doesn’t age so well. How High is similarly distasteful. Half Baked is innocuous silliness. Newlyweeds is a bit uneven. Where is The Dude who dropped out after three semesters at Howard? Where are the black analogues to Abbi and Ilana? Or Harold and Kumar? What’s the hip-hop album/film mashup that accomplishes the trippy satisfaction of Dark Side of Oz?

Maybe they don’t exist yet. They should.

But until that day comes, let’s revisit what makes Space Jam an excellent stoner film.


In Space Jam — which somehow required not one, not two, not three, but FOUR screenwriters — like an epic adaptation of Doctor Faustus, Michael Jordan has retired from basketball and has moved on to baseball. He has a bulldog named Charles. (As in Charles BARK-ley, get it?) At the same time Michael is making this career transition, a group of aliens from a place called Moron Mountain descends upon Cartoon World, which is the home of Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Tweety Bird, the Tasmanian Devil, the Road Runner, Lola Bunny, Elmer Fudd, Daffy Duck, Yosemite Sam, Marvin the Martian, the weird rooster with the Southern accent and one elderly white granny. (Among elements that go unexplained: why the male-to-female ratio in Cartoon Land is so screwy.)

The Alien Moron Imperialists look like what might result if a person used CRISPR to splice together the DNA of a cockroach, a toucan and a guinea pig. They’re not that bright, but they have guns. They say things like, “You. All of you are now our prisoners.”

“We’re taking you to our theme park in outer space.”

“No food.”

“Where you will be our slaves and placed on display for the amusement of our paying customers.”

The aliens basically declare that they’re establishing a triangular trade between Moron Mountain, Earth and Cartoon Land, which seems to be located somewhere between the Earth’s crust and mantle, given that Jordan ends up there after he’s shrunken and swallowed into a putting green hole.

The Looney Tunes, faced with an existential crisis and no means to defend themselves (except maybe Elmer’s shotgun, which no one bothers to try shooting), hatch a deal with the aliens.

“Give us a chance to defend ourselves,” they request. With a basketball game.

OK, there is actually some defensible logic here. The aliens are about the size of guinea pigs and the Looney Tunes are … taller. The odds should be in their favor. Still, the only thing lying between Porky, Tasmanian Devil, Lola, Tweety, etc., and ending up like Sarah Baartman is … basketball? That’s a bit of a head-scratcher.

Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls poses with a cutout of Bugs Bunny at a news conference in New York on June 20, 1995.

AP Photo/Marty Lederhandler

The aliens take the deal, then set about sucking the talent out of a bunch of NBA players for their own use, like hideous, squeaky-voiced precursors to the Armitages of Get Out. (Has Nance thought about casting Allison Williams in Space Jam 2? Because that could be a really nice way to complete this circle.)

So Muggsy Bogues, Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing discover that they’ve become instantly terrible at basketball, and they have no idea why. And because “alien body snatchers leeching off black people’s talent so they can win the rights to enslave some other people” doesn’t exactly present itself as an obvious explanation, the rest of the NBA is shook. The other players start wearing gas masks to avoid the mysterious bacterial contagion that’s going around rendering NBA players useless.

The Looney Tunes find themselves facing newly beefed-up Morons who look suspiciously like the sort of big, black, ’roided-up threats that are more a figment of the racist imagination than a real thing. None of the imaginary characters in this film seems to care much about bodily agency — not even their own. Again, we’ve arrived at this point because the only thing standing between the Looney Tunes and slavery is a basketball game. So the Looney Tunes shrink Jordan and suck him down the hole of a putting green when he’s out playing golf with Larry Bird, the publicist of his new baseball team, and Bill Murray.

Can we just take a minute to recognize that Jordan has terrible friends in this movie? Not a one of them tries to save him.

With Jordan firmly ensconced in Looney Tunes Land, Bugs Bunny explains why he and his friends have sucked the greatest basketball player of all time into middle-earth: “You see, these aliens come from outer space and they want to make us slaves in their theme park. Eh, what do we care. They’re little. So then we challenge them to a basketball game. But then they show up and they ain’t so little. They’re HUGE! We need to beat these guys! ’Cause they’re talkin’ slavery! They’re gonna make us do stand-up comedy. The same jokes, every night, for all eternity. We’re gonna be locked up like wild animals and trotted out to perform for a bunch of low-brow, bug-eyed, fat-headed, humor-challenged aliens. What I’m trying to say is, WE NEED YOUR HEEEEEEEEEEELP.”

This bit of exposition is accompanied by an image of Bugs Bunny attached to a ball and chain, shucking and jiving against his will across a stage. How did we miss all the racial subtext packed into this movie?

The ’roided-up body snatcher aliens, now known as the Monstars, are not so impressed by Jordan.

“You heard of the Dream Team?” one asks. “Well, we’re the Mean Team.”

And then they proceed to ball up Jordan like he doesn’t have bones, or ligaments, or a spinal cord, and dribble him around a two-dimensional basketball court.

Meanwhile, on the surface of Earth, a doctor is asking Ewing if he’s been experiencing impotence since he lost his talent. This movie is wild.

The 2-D stars of Space Jam.

Frank Trapper/Corbis via Getty Images

Anyway, once Jordan’s regained his natural, nonspherical shape, he sends Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck to search his house for his lucky Carolina shorts and his shoes, because you can’t play basketball against a team of body-snatching aliens in golf spikes. That would be preposterous.

It turns out there’s a comically evil, cigar-smoking alien fat cat (voiced by Danny DeVito) who is forcing the Morons to steal the essences of black people, play this game against the Looney Tunes and win. (Way to let the Alien Imperialist Morons off the hook, writers. Turns out they were only following orders!)

Even with Jordan on their side, the Tune Squad is awful. But at halftime, down 66-20, all of the Tune Squad gets a hit of a mysterious bottle labeled “Michael’s Secret Stuff.” They start scoring and playing incredible defense to close the gap to 68-66. Jordan informs his teammates his “secret stuff” is actually just water, leading them to believe in themselves.

The game ends with the Tune Squad winning, 78-77. Jordan not only saves the Looney Tunes from slavery, he manages to repossess the talent of Bogues, Ewing and Barkley and return it. The fat cat goes ricocheting into outer space, Jordan goes back to basketball, and then in pipes the comically incongruous “I Believe I Can Fly.”

That’s it. That’s the (nearly) perfect 4/20 movie.

Time to roll another spliff.

Lorraine Branham showed me that a black woman could succeed in journalism A friend and mentor, the longtime newspaper editor and educator died this week at 66

The last time I saw my friend and former newspaper colleague Lorraine Branham was in August 2014 in Boston. We both were attending a reception hosted by the National Association of Black Journalists at Fenway Park. She reintroduced me to her granddaughter Jasmine, 14. Lorraine loved to talk about her granddaughter. But, “I won’t let her call me ‘grandmother,’ ” Lorraine declared. She said it made her feel old. Jasmine shyly returned my hello, and Lorraine directed her to the reception line to find something to eat.

And then we sat and talked.

I thought of Lorraine on the way home from work on Tuesday. I wondered if I would see her at this year’s NABJ Convention in Miami and decided I should thank her for her friendship and mentoring over the years. Later that evening, a co-worker emailed me. “How are you? I’m hearing about Lorraine … I hope you are okay.” It was only then I learned that Branham, 66, dean of the Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University for more than a decade, had died of cancer that morning.

I am devastated.

I didn’t talk to Lorraine regularly. But it was OK. We usually saw each other at the annual NABJ Convention, a huge family reunion for black journalists, and would resume chatting as if we’d just gotten off the phone the night before: “How are you? … What are you doing now? … Whatever happened to? …”

I first met her when I started a copy editing job with The Evening Sun of Baltimore in 1982 and she was a reporter for the morning paper, The Baltimore Sun. There were 15 or 20 black journalists working for the two papers then, and most of us were still unmarried and childless, with the time to bond as colleagues and friends after work. Several friendships formed then last to this day. Lorraine threw some fun parties at her house — I remember taking my then-boyfriend to her New Year’s Eve bash and one spectacular Halloween party.

S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications dean Lorraine Branham attends the 2016 Mirror Awards at Cipriani 42nd Street in New York City on June 9, 2016.

Cindy Ord/Getty Images

Lorraine left for The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1983, but it didn’t end our friendship or her support. She delivered a lot of career advice — mostly unsolicited, always on point. Finally, she declared I had to get out of Baltimore. “They’ll never promote you.” She was right. And, eventually, I left.

Before I was hired by The Evening Sun, I’d worked at a newspaper in Georgia that had such a racist atmosphere that several of my co-workers had planted a KKK newsletter on my computer terminal. I was encouraged to witness her advance in an industry that makes it difficult for black people to be hired and promotes few black women to management. Branham left a high-level position at the Inquirer to become the first female and first African-American executive editor of the Tallahassee Democrat. If she could be promoted, I could. Lorraine was one of the few black journalists who had longevity in the business and made a successful transition to academia, becoming dean of the journalism school at the University of Texas, Austin before moving on to Syracuse.

It’s too late to tell my friend how grateful I am to her. But it’s not too late to salute her legacy: the hundreds of students she inspired at Syracuse and elsewhere; the many, like me, whom she mentored; and the family, friends and colleagues who loved her.

Thank you, Lorraine.

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

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

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

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

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

Durham Station Transportation Center

James West/J West Productions LLC

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Phil and Nnenna Freelon in 2015

Lissa Gotwals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Endia Beal for The Undefeated

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Check out our remix of ‘Undefeated,’ an anthem for black female athletes Diamond Kuts remixes Rayana Jay song that celebrates the resilience of women who face opponents on the court and in society

The Undefeated and Disney Music Group have released a remix by DJ Diamond Kuts of “Undefeated,” an anthem celebrating the resilience of black female athletes who face opponents on the courts, the playing fields and the track as they battle stereotypes and the weight of racial history.

Published by Hollywood Records, “Undefeated” features an all-female writing and production crew, including singer Rayana Jay, songwriter Blush and producer Trak Girl. The original single was recorded at the San Francisco-based Women’s Audio Mission, the only professional recording studio in the world built and run entirely by women.

You can download the remix here.

“Undefeated” is an extension of a joint project between The Undefeated and the Morgan State University School of Global Journalism and Communication. Morgan State produced an academic study entitled “Beating Opponents, Battling Belittlement: How African-American Female Athletes Use Community to Navigate Negative Images” that examined the historical portrayal and imagery of black female athletes across sports from 1900 to the present.

Besides the song and the academic study, the project includes conversations with black women about their daily lives in athletics, work from visual artists looking at their struggles and triumphs, a timeline of black women in sports, and “letters” from Olympic athletes Claressa Shields, Simone Manuel and Tori Bowie. For a complete menu, click here.

Pam Oliver of Fox Sports has been holding it down for 30 years The veteran sportscaster was honored at the ’18 Gracie Awards recognizing women in media and entertainment

LOS ANGELES — Two tables filled with family, friends and colleagues cheered at the mention of Fox Sports reporter Pam Oliver’s name during the 2018 Gracie Awards. She hadn’t taken the stage, but her father-in-law, phone in hand, began taking photos.

“She is the best ever at her job,” said Kevin Burkhardt, a play-by-play announcer for the NFL on Fox, during his introduction of Oliver. “She’s a trailblazer and an icon, and I’m lucky to call her my friend.”

Oliver, in a sequined pantsuit, was camera-ready as people pulled out their cellphones when she accepted the 2018 Gracie Award for on-air talent-entertainment and sports at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. The awards, sponsored by the Alliance for Women in Media, recognizes “exemplary programming created by women, for women and about women in all facets of media and entertainment,” according to its website.

“When I first heard [I was a recipient of the award], I was very excited because I knew about the Gracies,” Oliver said. “I went and looked at the previous roster from 2017, and then I saw some of the women that have been honored with me and I was floored. To somehow stand out and be amongst that group of women, I was somewhat thinking, gosh, I’m a little starstruck. Then you are like, ‘How did I get into this?’ Then I’m like, ‘You know what? I earned it,’ so I’m really honored. It’s really a career highlight.”

Among the women honored at this year’s Gracies were Rita Moreno, April Ryan, Issa Rae, Hoda Kotb and Niecy Nash.

“I had an opportunity to talk to a lot of media leading up to tonight about what it is I do and how much I love it,” she told the hundreds of women there. “There are two common denominators related to how I was raised, and my passion. One is sports and the other was journalism. One of my favorite questions is, ‘What can you teach young girls that want to do what you do?’ My thing first and foremost is you have to protect your dream. … I’d like to dedicate this to my family and parents who are up in heaven, Jeff and Mary, probably talking about how proud they are of their daughter, and that’s given me wings for so many years.”

A day before the awards ceremony, Oliver sat in the lobby of the same hotel for an interview. Her infectious smile caught the attention of other guests.

Oliver, the youngest of three girls doted on by her parents, talked about being raised in a military household and shared stories about how her parents always knew she would succeed. Jeff and Mary Oliver set the tone for her journey, one that was centered on faith and religion.

More than 20 years ago, memories of that upbringing welled up during an interview she’s never forgotten. It was with Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon, who is a devout Muslim.

“All of a sudden, we’re talking about Islam,” Oliver said. “I got so lost in the conversation and so mesmerized. [Spirituality] — that’s my foundation. That’s who I am. I remember, just one of those times where I could have talked to him for two hours and forgotten about lights and the camera, and the producer who’s over there looking at his watch. He was such a gentle giant who is so powerful, and his beliefs, that’s what gave him his fuel. I was really, really interested in that. When people ask me one of my favorites, he’s one of my favorite interviews.

“I was raised like that,” Oliver said. “I feel so much better when I start my day with prayer and meditation. Or if I just need a lift at some point in my day, I’ll just sit. Be still. But I can’t say that every Sunday I’m in church, because every Sunday I’m pretty much around a football game. I do need that spiritual energy. It helps sustain me; it just helps me be calmer.”

Oliver does not take the title of trailblazer lightly, although she doesn’t look at herself as a larger-than-life personality.

“I like to think of myself as humble and down to earth, but I get it,” Oliver said. “I’ve been on the scene for a very long time. Young women reach out to me, and they express how they admire me and all that, and I take it very, very seriously, and I’m honored to be called that, but I feel like the trail had been blazed. Robin Roberts had already been on the scene. Cheryl Miller had already been on the sideline scene, but I understand. Different generations have come along and looked up to me. I’m 30 years in now. I honestly never take that for granted. I think it’s important to understand and embrace that people look up to you in that way.”

Oliver started at Fox Sports in 1995, and for the past 23 seasons she’s been reporting from the NFL sidelines. She’s worked eight Super Bowls. Oliver earned a bachelor’s degree in broadcast journalism from Florida A&M University, where she was an NCAA and Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women track and field All-American in both the 400-meter and the 4×400 relay. She was inducted into the university’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1996.

The historically black college experience was important for Oliver.

“My dad was in the military, so I’d grown primarily on all-white bases in my classrooms,” Oliver said. “I was like one of a couple of black people, so I wanted the opposite experience. I chose Florida A&M. I just wanted that experience, and when I got there it was a bit of shock the other way because I had not been in that environment completely with people that looked like me. I was like, ‘This is what I needed at that time.’ ”

“This was all I ever wanted to do,” she said. “To be living this dream, it was important to me that I dedicated myself to it 110 percent.

FAMU is where Oliver first stepped into a men’s locker room as a reporter.

“These guys scattered, and I’m not all that comfortable either. So that was my first real experience, and I just decided at some point that it’s business,” Oliver said. “I’m going to go in. I’m going to carry myself accordingly and get what I need and get out. … They do deserve some privacy in that regard, so I always just try to be mindful with that. It’s their locker room, that’s their space.”

When Oliver graduated, she was hoping her career would lead to sports.

“There was so much resistance early on, and I said, ‘Well, since that’s not happening, I’ll just put all my energy and focus and commitment to news.’ But there was a time I was definitely discouraged. I didn’t think it was going to happen. I gained so much experience in news covering all different sorts of situations. Gubernatorial campaigns, murder trials, did a Trump rally for Pete’s sake. All of that is experience that helped you when you got to sports, where things happen fast and furious as well.”

The hardest part of Oliver’s journey was knowing the importance of balance.

“This was all I ever wanted to do,” she said. “To be living this dream, it was important to me that I dedicated myself to it 110 percent. What I found as I went along was friendships were falling apart because I wasn’t nurturing them. I’d go too long without seeing my family. They were proud of me. They understood. It also impacted me because I didn’t have that kind of outlet. I was just all about work. It was just hectic. It was just what was required, I think at the time, to sort of rise in what you do. I looked at it as I just want to be better and better and better and I needed to dedicate myself to this completely. There are enough hours in the day to be able to say, ‘OK. I’ve done enough for today. Let me stop. Let me call my sister. Let me call my mom. Let me check on this friend. It’s been a while.’ That was probably the hardest thing.”

To help her through the daily grind, Oliver looks for inspiration wherever she can spot it. Whether it’s from a Maya Angelou book or speech, something Oprah Winfrey said or anything from Deepak Chopra.

She says she’s learned to let things unfold.

“I was so particular coming up in the business. I said, ‘I’ll be here for two years, and then I should probably go here in these increments.’ The minute I just let go, things just took off. Sometimes there’s a bigger plan for you than you could ever imagine. I think if I had just been a little bit more relaxed and more flexible and not so rigid.”

As NFL players changed the history by kneeling during the national anthem, Oliver had a firsthand view.

“I love it,” she said. “I feel like it’s about time, and those who do, I just give them crazy love because they are risking a lot of things and they are losing money and a couple of guys can’t get jobs, and I understand that it’s a tough decision. But we all at some point feel like, ‘There has got to be more I can do.’ I’m watching the news and you’re constantly seeing a black man shot in the back and pulled over or all of these incidents, and you just feel like, ‘What can I do?’

“I think when Colin Kaepernick decided to kneel that was powerful, and I’m glad that a couple of guys decided to embrace that and turn it into other things. Trying to get positive results, trying to get action as opposed to just kneeling, and I wish people would take five minutes to try to understand why. Why is this guy kneeling, why is he taking this chance? I think they may surprise themselves. You have to educate. You have to be informed to understand why these players are doing what they are doing, and I applaud them 100 percent. I think it’s awesome, and it makes me proud.“

Serving as a mentor to a couple of students in her life, she likes to remain connected.

“I’m very reachable and approachable,” Oliver said. “I’m just grateful to have sustained a career over this amount of time. You can’t take this stuff with you. Share it. Help somebody who just needs a little bit of guidance.”

‘Selena’ producer Moctesuma Esparza opens fifth movie theater for underserved Latino communities ‘That Magic Johnson had done this was an inspiration to me,’ says Esparza, who also produced ‘Introducing Dorothy Dandridge’

Growing up in the Laurel Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, award-winning Mexican-American filmmaker, producer, entrepreneur and activist Moctesuma Esparza could walk to three movie theaters.

“Every neighborhood in the country had a great theater. … All died in the ’90s and closed,” he said. “It left many communities without any nearby entertainment venues at all, because the multiplexes went to the suburbs and then the megaplexes went to power centers and huge power malls, and the inner cities and the working-class communities and rural communities were left pretty much without any first-class entertainment.”

So it’s no surprise that was the motivation behind Esparza opening his fifth theater in Delano, California, as part of his Maya Cinemas chain. Now having produced some of the most prolific Latino and black films of society’s culture, he’s preserving a home for those moments. Maya Cinemas was chartered in 2000 to develop, build, own and operate modern, first-run megaplex movie theaters in underserved, family-oriented, Latino-dominant communities.

“Seeing that Magic Johnson had done this was an inspiration to me. The fact that he did it also encouraged me that I could do it,” Esparza said. “I’m honored that I’m able to bring a quality, beautiful, state-of-the-art cinema to a working-class family community like Delano, California. We’ve got theaters in Bakersfield, Fresno, Salinas, Pittsburg, now Delano. We have another theater under construction in north Las Vegas, Nevada, and we’ll soon be in Texas and Arizona. Our goal is to be everywhere that’s underserved.”

The grand opening event included more than 500 attendees, activists Dolores Huerta and Paul Chavez, United Farm Worker leaders and community leaders. It’s been 10 years since Delano residents have seen a theater in the area. The new development provides a $20 million real estate investment, as well as jobs for the community and, of course, first-run, quality movies for the whole family, a mission that’s dear to Esparza.

Esparza is revered for his contributions to the movie industry and his commitment to uplifting and preserving Latino communities. He has been nominated for an Academy Award, Golden Globe Award and Emmy Award and has received more than 200 honors and awards, including a Clio, the John F. Kennedy Journalism Award, the Ohio State Award and a Cine Golden Eagle.

He was one of the 13 indicted students who organized the successful 1968 student walkout in East Los Angeles aimed at improving substandard public education for Latinos that focused on training them to be manual workers, not professionals — the premise for the 2006 HBO movie Walkout.

Before producing iconic films such as Selena starring Jennifer Lopez, HBO’s Introducing Dorothy Dandridge starring Halle Berry, The Milagro Beanfield War, Gettysburg and The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez, he was a community organizer and a student at UCLA in the 1960s. Deeply engaged in civil rights, he helped found a campus organization called M.E.Ch.A. (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicanx de Aztlán) while focusing on establishing diversity in the university’s education, history, Spanish and social work departments.

“Somebody in the group [M.E.Ch.A.] said, ‘Why don’t you go look at the film school [in the] theater arts department?’ There was an African-American professor there who recruited me onto a campuswide research study on the images of minorities in media back then, and of course, the report came back that there were very few images and the few that existed were all negative.”

Unimpressed by the numbers, he wrote a proposal to create a program called Ethno-communications and submitted it to the film department. He recruited a diverse array of students (four African-Americans, four Asian-Americans, four Native Americans and four Latinos) and staged a sit-in in the dean’s office until it was approved.

“Happily, we didn’t have to sit in too long,” Esparaza said. “The dean was very progressive, and we created this program Ethno-communications.”

Esparza spoke to The Undefeated about his iconic career, his role in civil rights, his Maya Cinemas and the lack of minority, especially Latino, representation in the film industry.


What inspired you to open your very first cinema?

About back in 1987, I was doing a premiere for my movie, The Milagro Beanfield War, that Bob Redford directed, and we did premieres in 20 cities across the United States, and I had convinced Universal that we should do benefit premieres that would be for education for scholarships in the Latino community. I went all over the country and I discovered that there were no quality, first-run venues in any Latino community of the United States, which was really amazing. Ten years later when I did the same thing with Selena, we did 50 premieres, and this is now in 1997. I saw that even the second-run theaters had closed. I saw that there was an opportunity to bring back entertainment to these communities that love movies.

What was behind your decision to bring the story of Selena to the world?

When she, tragically, was killed, I was thinking about, should this be a movie? For a while, I didn’t see it. I didn’t see how to tell the story in a constructive way, and I was afraid that Hollywood would want to get into the tragic gore, the crime. I shied away from it, but it was my daughter, who was a big fan of Selena, who insisted that I needed to go after this story and produce the movie. She kept giving me the music and gave me a documentary about her and gave me a couple books that were written about her, and I finally had an inspiration. But I must credit my daughter, which is that I saw that a movie could be made about the struggle for the American dream of a family. The Selena story was a family story, and when I saw that, then I saw, ‘Oh, this is how we can tell the story. This is how we can make it inspirational and turn this tragedy into something that can inspire people.’ My UCLA classmate, Gregory Nava, saw it as well, and so his script and directing completed the mission.

How did you ignite the idea for Introducing Dorothy Dandridge?

I had focused on doing important documentaries, historical pieces, on people of color, and there was a period there where it was, frankly, easier for me to get a movie about African-Americans made than about Latinos.

I had already done a movie called Selma, Lord, Selma and I did another movie called The Sweetest Gift with Diahann Carroll, and I’d done another movie called Butter, and so when the opportunity came up to do a movie about Dorothy Dandridge — who I had loved as a teenager, she had just such an incredible presence, and her film career had been so inspiring for everybody who was a person of color — I jumped on it. My partner and I went after putting the project together and happily, we were able to get HBO to step up and finance it with Halle Berry, and Halle was very, very important. Her saying yes made the project go.

How was it to executive produce a movie that you were actually a part of history for?

I had worked on it [Walkout] for 20 years, and it was one of my early goals with the document the Chicano civil rights movement, which is very little known yet profoundly impactful to all of the 60 million Latinos in the United States because that one moment back in March of ’68, when 20,000 high school kids went out on strike, really did transform the possibility for education for Latinos. We had tremendous support from all the folks that were engaged in a struggle for civil rights. I got arrested, I faced my jail, indicted by the grand jury, and I remember being in the jail at downtown Los Angeles, Parker Center, and hearing all the people marching around Parker Center at City Hall, chanting.

It was inspiring to us because we knew that we were sacrificing and fighting for something that was worthwhile. Later, I saw news footage and photographs and I saw all the folks that we had historically been working with had come out and were supporting us. Black Panthers were there in force, and people from all the various civil rights organizations were there supporting us, the ACLU, and so it was inspiring. There was a moment where we all came together to support each other.

What message would you like to send to young Latino Americans?

We all have a common struggle for human dignity and human rights and we’ll succeed together, not separately, so we all need to work together and recognize that it’s a human struggle, and that’s what I’m committed to.

What inspires you now, and how has that changed from what inspired you 20 years ago?

It’s the same thing. I made a commitment when I chose this as a career that my goal was to transform the image of Latinos and to explore what it is to be human, and so I’m still doing that. In doing that, I’m also looking to inspire and support the next generation of filmmakers. We’re launching a program at our movie theaters that independent filmmakers who haven’t been able to get a theatrical distribution, as long as they have a film that’s watchable, we’re going to play it.

We’re going to support them, and we’re starting that program because it’s very difficult for people of color, Latinos in particular, to make a movie. And if they do make one, because I see about a dozen independent movies a year, it’s very difficult for them to get distribution.

When will you launch this program?

We already have. We have a little comedy called Taco Shop that we just played in our theaters, and it’s available at home video, so if you’re audience out there, it’s an urban comedy. If you love Cheech & Chong, you’ll love this. It’s got a multicultural cast, and it’s a lot of fun. It’s the story of a taco truck and a taco restaurant who are having their little war.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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