In ‘A Wrinkle In Time,’ Oprah appears as the earthly deity she’s been for years Guru, self-help maven and fabulously kitted angel

It’s pretty amusing that a science fiction film based on a book published in 1962 is the one that delivered a role in which Oprah basically plays … herself.¹

How much was this a factor in drawing people to the cineplex? Unclear. A Wrinkle in Time took in $33.3 million at the box office this weekend. But the imagery itself, and the context behind it, is still worth examining.

The first time Oprah appears on screen in A Wrinkle in Time, it’s a breathtaking stunt. She materializes in the backyard of the Murry house as the shimmering, larger-than-life Mrs Which, rising to a height of 30 feet, with a crown of curly, platinum blond hair and fabulously bejeweled eyebrows. Her bottom half never quite fully materializes, giving her an ethereal quality. Mrs Which is the oldest and wisest of the Mrs W’s, which include Mrs Who (Mindy Kaling) and Mrs Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), by a billion or so years.

But upon meeting her, it’s impossible not to think, “Someone finally found a way to visually render Oprah’s role in our culture!”

Throughout her career as an actress, Oprah has brought empathy and dignity to the black women whom society actively overlooks, from Ms. Sofia in The Color Purple to Deborah Lacks in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks to Sethe in Beloved.

Mrs Which is a guardian seraph to Meg Murry (Storm Reid), the girl who must travel through space and time to find and rescue her lost father, a famous NASA physicist who’s been missing for four years. Mrs Which is patient and firm with Meg, who’s having trouble loving herself and having faith in her own abilities. Where Mrs Whatsit grows impatient with Meg’s typical teen-age sullenness and doubt, Mrs Which offers realism and gentle reassurance. She repeatedly urges Meg to “be a warrior.” IRL, Oprah may not have an army of warriors for peace, but she does have an Angel Network. The movie isn’t explicit in labeling the Mrs W’s as angels, although that happens in the book, which was heavily influenced by author Madeleine L’Engle’s many years in the Episcopal Church.

Oprah’s role as a quasi-religious figure in America is legendary. She was ahead of many Americans in publicly declaring herself as spiritual rather than an adherent of a specific religious dogma. In doing so, she broadened Americans’ tolerance for religious practice that doesn’t rely on organized religion, and she may even be something of a prophet herself.

“I know some people have called Billy Graham America’s pastor, but in many ways, in a more realistic sense, Oprah is America’s pastor,” said the Rev. Broderick Greer, an Episcopal theologian at St. John’s Cathedral in Denver.

In attempting to parse Oprah’s role as The Oprah Winfrey Show was drawing to a close, The New York Times’ Mark Oppenheimer once called her a “child of poverty” who became “the leader of a worldwide cult.”

Greer said he thinks of her as more of a “guru.” He noted that, like L’Engle, fundamentalist Christians have seen Oprah as a threat, and sometimes that threat was due to Oprah’s race and gender. She was used as a “bogeyman” in sermons, he said, and church leaders would caution their audiences against listening to her.

“I know some people have called Billy Graham America’s pastor, but in many ways, in a more realistic sense, Oprah is America’s pastor.”

“She was seen as being too powerful. She had too much influence,” Greer said.

“Throughout Christian history, women had been very specifically and methodically marginalized by the church. They’ve been called crazy,” he continued. “That has been the struggle of a hyper kind of masculinized, Western Christian church culture: ‘I just can’t believe that this kind of lesser being is saying something that’s profound and life-changing. I need to do everything within my power to make sure that the least amount of people possible hear her.’ ”

So it’s notable that Oprah created a flock of her own, espousing love, generosity and compassion through television without the fire and brimstone of Pat Robertson or Jim Bakker. Oprah exposed people to the teachings of Eckhart Tolle, Ed Bacon and Brené Brown. She’s helped remove the stigma associated with talk therapy.

“I do know how my mom and aunt and my deceased grandmother understood her, and it was a black woman with agency they could identify with,” Greer said. “Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, they watched Phil Donahue every day, and took his expertise and followed his taste. Sometime in the late ’80s, early ’90s, that shifted, and they were able to see someone who looked like them, who sounded like them, who came from a similar background, say, ‘I have agency. I’m the host. I’m not the sideshow or the sidekick. I am the host.’ ”

Those are good things, right? Well, yes. But with great power comes great responsibility, and when you consider Oprah’s grounding in journalism, maybe she let us down sometimes. Especially because as we’ve invested in her and her recommendations on our own roads to self-actualization, Oprah has led us down some dubious paths.

Remember The Secret?

The reason you don’t have the life you want is because you just haven’t visualized it hard enough!

Iyanla Vanzant?

Who needs to be licensed as a therapist when you can call yourself a “life coach” and do whatever you want?!

Dr. Phil?

He’s not even an MD, people!

OK, fine. Oprah’s track record as a spiritual leader is a mixed bag. But somehow, her ultimate message that it’s possible to transcend suffering, and even find beauty in that transcendence, that we’re all capable of doing good in the world and that spreading love and light is a worthwhile cause, has gotten through and made her a figure who inspires intense admiration.

And it’s because for decades, we sat in front of the television on weekday afternoons and took part in The Church of Oprah. She’s flawed, sure. But Mrs Which is a powerful visualization of the best Oprah has given us. I’m glad there’s an image that so fittingly captures her contributions with a swoosh of wind or a wrinkle of time.

Disney, Steve Harvey and ‘Essence’ magazine continue to help students achieve big dreams The Disney Dreamers Academy kicks off with a new class of 100

ORLANDO, Fla. — From “curing cancer” to “becoming a pilot” to “overcoming fears,” every child has dreams. And with the help of Walt Disney World Resort, Steve Harvey and Essence magazine, many of them also have a platform to help them achieve those dreams.

On Thursday, 100 high school students, ages 13 to 19, from all over the country found themselves experiencing a four-day, all-expenses-paid trip to Disney World for the 2018 Disney Dreamers Academy. Eleven years strong, the weekend is more than games and roller coasters, as Dreamers go through a series of power-packed workshops that give students the tools they need to reach their full potential.

Since 2008, 1,000 Dreamers have done this work. The students are selected from thousands of applicants who answer a series of essay questions about their personal stories and dreams for the future. Per tradition, the weekend kicked off with a parade at the Magic Kingdom, followed by welcoming remarks from Tracey D. Powell, Disney Dreamers Academy’s executive champion and Walt Disney World’s vice president of Deluxe Resorts; author and talk show host Steve Harvey; award-winning gospel artist Yolanda Adams; Mikki Taylor, editor-at-large for Essence magazine; and George Kalogridis, president of the Walt Disney World Resort; Mickey Mouse; and Disney Dreamers Academy alums. The experience ends Sunday with a commencement ceremony.

With a new #Be100 theme, Walt Disney World Resort is continuing its ongoing commitment to inspiring teens at a critical time in their development by providing a space to empower and encourage the Dreamers to relentlessly pursue their dreams.

(Top-bottom, left-right) Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Steve Harvey, Tracey D. Powell, executive champion for Disney Dreamers Academy, and Mikki Taylor, editor-at-large for Essence magazine, star in a special parade Thursday at Magic Kingdom in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. The parade signals the beginning of the 11th annual Disney Dreamers Academy with Steve Harvey and Essence magazine. The event, taking place March 8-11 at Walt Disney World Resort, is a career-inspiration program for distinguished high school students from across the United States.

Courtesy of Todd Anderson

“When I was a dreamer I had a couple of questions,” Disney Dreamers Academy alum Princeton Parker said Thursday evening as he addressed the 100 Dreamers, parents, chaperones and invited guests during the welcome ceremony. “A lot of those questions were centered around ‘what if?’ ”

Parker — a minister and University of Southern California graduate, among his many accomplishments — learned through the program how to overcome his fear. He also attributed his success to the academy, which he said changed his mindset.

“If you decide to Be100, your destiny will respond,” he said.

According to its website, Disney Dreamers Academy aims to “inspire students through immersive and inspirational guest speakers; introduce a world of possibilities in a variety of interactive career sessions, ranging from animation, journalism, entertainment and entrepreneurship to culinary arts, medicine and zoology; and prepare students for the future through developing skills such as networking and interviewing.”

Kalogridis voiced his thoughts about the academy and shared his favorite times at Disney.

“Long before there is a happily ever after, there has to be a once upon a time,” Kalogridis said as he welcomed the new Dreamers. “We at Disney are glad that you’re enjoying your time with us,” he said. “We are thrilled that Disney Academy is entering into its second decade.”

Powell said the academy is challenging the planners on how to build success from the past 10 years.

“It’s our commitment to dream even bigger on how we can empower you,” she said to the Dreamers. “It’s a personal commitment to excellence.”

The impressive résumés of students landed them the opportunity of a lifetime. Dreamers and their parents and/or chaperones all have different itineraries throughout the weekend, which gives the students a sense of independence. Dreamers will engage in a wide variety of experiences while working alongside some of today’s top celebrities, community and industry leaders and dedicated Disney cast members. Celebrity panels include educator Steve Perry; motivational speaker Alex Ellis; retired NFL great Emmitt Smith; artist, producer and songwriter Ne-Yo; actor and singer Jussie Smollett; actress Ruth Carter; actors Miles Brown and Marsai Martin (black-ish); and sisters China, Sierra and Lauryn McClain of the girl group McClain.

Walt Disney World Resort hopes students “leave prepared to be a role model for others as they believe in the power of their dreams and make a positive difference in their communities and the world.”

Oscar-nominated film about Emmett Till contemplates how racial terror affects those left behind Kevin Wilson Jr., the director of ‘My Nephew Emmett,’ is still in film school

Kevin Wilson Jr. has spent more than half his life thinking about Emmett Till and the night he was murdered.

A few days from now, he might just win an Oscar for it.

Wilson, 28, is the director of My Nephew Emmett, which is nominated for an Academy Award for best live action short film. The film looks at the day Till was kidnapped from the viewpoint of his uncle, Mose Wright, the relative Till was visiting in Mississippi in the summer of 1955.

When Wilson was an undergraduate studying journalism and mass communication at North Carolina A&T University, he mounted a play about Till. That one adopted Till’s own perspective as an audacious 14-year-old boy from Chicago going South to visit relatives. Wilson had begun working on the play when he was a 15-year-old student at Hillside High School in Durham, North Carolina, which has one of the most respected theater programs in the state.

It’s terrifying, as a black person, to put yourself in the shoes of Till, an innocent snatched from his bed, kidnapped, tortured, murdered and thrown into the Tallahatchie River like so much garbage, all because he’d made the mistake of co-existing for a few moments with a white woman named Carolyn Bryant.

You know the story: Till was at a grocery store in Money, Mississippi. Bryant accused him of whistling at her and later lied to federal prosecutors, telling them that Till had touched her. Bryant’s husband, Roy, and his half-brother J.W. Milam rode to the Wright house the night of the alleged interaction and took Till at gunpoint. When his broken body was recovered from the Tallahatchie, his mother, Mamie Till, insisted that his casket remain open at his funeral for the world to see what had happened to him. Till’s body was eventually exhumed and reburied, and his original casket is now on display at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

Wilson learned that story when he was 5 years old. His mother, now 54, had not yet been born when Till was killed, but the story reverberated through her childhood just the same. In 1995, she told it to Wilson, her only child, whom she was raising alone. It was a way of protecting him. That’s the legacy of Jim Crow and the terrorism of the lynching era: Half a century after Till’s death, his killers are still robbing black children of the right to grow up peacefully naïve. Wilson has two children of his own, and he plans to educate them similarly.

“It’s still very much relevant because we have, still, people of color, even in present day, who are being killed and no one is being held accountable for it,” Wilson said by phone from Los Angeles a few days before the Academy Awards. “So I think until we get to the point where a life is taken and we can just automatically say, ‘OK, a life was taken. There’s no debate. Someone is being held accountable for it,’ we have to continue telling those stories.”

Half a century after Till’s death, his killers are still robbing black children of the right to grow up peacefully naïve.

Although Wilson speaks with the authority of a filmmaker many years his senior, he won’t finish film school at New York University until later this year. He’s one of two Spike Lee protégés contending for awards Sunday night. The other is Mudbound director Dee Rees, who, along with co-writer Virgil Williams, was nominated for best adapted screenplay.

Lee brought Rees to speak to his class last semester, Wilson said, and he also gave Wilson the funds to finish his film when he came up short in postproduction. Once Wilson decided as an undergraduate that he was more interested in directing than acting, he spent a summer immersing himself in Lee’s work. He watched Do the Right Thing every single day, and he read everything he could find that the famed director had published, including his journals.

Do The Right Thing is the movie that made me fall in love with cinema,” Wilson said.

That love is evident in My Nephew Emmett. Wilson insisted on filming on location in Mississippi, although it upped the production costs, and he treats the story with the intellect and considered beauty that’s typical of the Disciples of Spike. Shot by cinematographer Laura Valladao, My Nephew Emmett forces its audience to think about space and proximity. When Bryant (Ethan Leaverton) and Milam (Dane Rhodes) ride on the Wright house and threaten Mose at gunpoint, they do so under the cover of night. There’s no physical distance in this crime — the men are close enough to wet Mose’s face with spittle. So often, the crimes that took place against black people during Jim Crow, whether it was lynching or sexual assault, happened in small towns where victims knew their assailants, a twisted flip side of the way small-town life is often celebrated as simple and bucolic. The Jim Crow era was marked by physical closeness and heavily enforced psychological distance, a theme Rees explores in Mudbound as well.

In My Nephew Emmett, Mose Wright is forced to decide whether to sacrifice Till to his attackers or subject the entire family to similar treatment by refusing to give up his nephew. The threat of sexual assault looms when one of the attackers grabs Mose’s wife, Elizabeth, played by Jasmine Guy.

“I’m a father, and I was curious about that feeling of having to decide between your son, or nephew in this case, and the rest of your family,” Wilson said. “It’s an impossible decision to make. And then what happens after that, after you make that decision. I think that Mose’s story is one of extreme courage; to be able to identify these men on camera, he was putting his life at risk. His entire family had to leave that home. They didn’t go back to that home after that night. They all moved back up to Chicago eventually.”

My Nephew Emmett is part of a wave of new projects about Till. Taraji P. Henson is producing and starring as Mamie Till in a film that John Singleton is directing. Steven Caple Jr., the director taking over the Creed sequel from Ryan Coogler, is writing an HBO miniseries about Till produced by Jay-Z and Will Smith.

“Mose’s story is one of extreme courage; to be able to identify these men on camera, he was putting his life at risk. His entire family had to leave that home.”

Wilson is a good example of why it’s worth paying attention to shorts, even if you’re a casual film buff. It’s not always easy to see all of the contenders in one place, and few movie theaters screen them (My Nephew Emmett is available on iTunes). But they can be a good predictor of future success and often offer glimpses of a director’s storytelling acumen because their brevity demands discipline. For example, Roger Ross Williams, the director who won the Oscar for best documentary short for Music by Prudence, went on to create the tender and inventive feature-length documentary Life, Animated. Damien Chazelle initially made Whiplash as a short before turning it into the feature-length project of the same name. It won three Oscars — for best supporting actor (J.K. Simmons), sound mixing, and film editing — and was nominated for best picture and best adapted screenplay.

Wilson is now trying to find funding for his next project, a feature-length thriller. Sunday, he’ll be in a room full of people with the deep pockets to help him.

“My goal is to be able to make a feature film every year and do television in between or commercials in between and plays in between,” Wilson said. “To be creating every day.”

Until I got to North Carolina A&T, I didn’t know enough black history By learning how powerful black people are, I learned just how powerful I am

For many African-Americans, February is a time of reflection and celebration. Many look back on the trials and tribulations that have oppressed our people and show their appreciation for the brave men and women who fought to make a better way of life for the next generation.

As an African-American kid who grew up attending public school in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, I was well-versed in African-American history. Figures such as Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman and others have been etched into my brain since third grade.

For many years, however, the struggle that these courageous pioneers went through was my only perspective on black history. While slavery and the civil rights movement are key components of our story, they are not our whole story. I believe growing up in a majority-white public school system blinded me to that fact.

It wasn’t until I stepped foot on the campus of a historically black college or university (HBCU), North Carolina A&T, did I realize everything that encompasses our rich history. The second semester of my freshman year, I took an African-American studies course that was taught by professor Joy Thompson.

In that class, I learned how my ancestors were far more than slaves and disenfranchised people. I learned that my ancestors were powerful African rulers and dignitaries such as Mansa Musa and Queen Tiye, who created some of the richest and most successful societies ever.

I learned that my ancestors created the University of Timbuktu, which was the first university on the planet.

I learned that my ancestors engineered their own versions of Wall Street that focused on black-owned businesses in both Durham, North Carolina, and Tulsa, Oklahoma.

I learned many accomplishments of black people. But most importantly, I learned that my ancestors were relevant. They were revolutionaries. They were innovators and they were influential without the presence of oppression.

As a young black boy in elementary school, I never had the same sense of pride in my people as I did sitting in Thompson’s class. I had to wait until I turned 19, until I attended an HBCU, to experience this.

“Going to an HBCU has shown me that black history is so diverse. When people think of HBCUs, people think of how they are predominantly black schools, which is true. But there is just so much diversity in the black community,” said Bradford Brooks, a junior multimedia journalism major from Charlotte, North Carolina. “Going to an HBCU has reassured me that our culture and history is so important, because without black history, there would be no history at all.”

I have always been proud to be black. But the inspiration and confidence that manifests in your spirit once you attend an HBCU is unmatched. Especially once you begin to learn about the true greatness of your people.

I guess that is what makes Black History Month at HBCUs so special. By learning how powerful black people are, I learned just how powerful I am.

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.

HBO to broadcast Anna Deavere Smith’s show on the school-to-prison pipeline Playwright reworked ‘Notes From the Field’ after the killings of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and Philando Castile

Actress and playwright Anna Deavere Smith is a master of verbatim theater, a marriage between documentary storytelling and the stage that involves the actor re-enacting the words of her subjects. Her latest work, which is debuting on HBO on Saturday at 8 p.m., is Notes From the Field, a one-woman show that delves into the school-to-prison pipeline.

If you’re not a theater nerd, you’re probably more familiar with Deavere Smith from her guest star turns as Rainbow’s mother on black-ish or as the lip-pursing-but-ultimately-loving hospital administrator Gloria Akalitus from Nurse Jackie.

For years, Deavere Smith, 67, who is also a professor at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, has used her one-woman shows to examine race relations and other complicated social problems. Her career has provided a blueprint on how to produce art with a conscience without making it dogmatic.

Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities (1992) looked at the Crown Heights riot of 1991 from the perspectives of both black and Jewish residents. Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 (1994) was about the Rodney King riots. Let Me Down Easy (2008) was about health care and the fragility of human life.

All were constructed from the same process: Deavere Smith traveled across the country to interview hundreds of people — for Notes From the Field, she interviewed 250 — and distilled them down to the 20 or so most effective and moving accounts. Then, Deavere Smith recreates these people on stage: their voices, their clothes, their mannerisms, their emotions, their words. She is a reporter in an actor’s body, and her expeditions in search of the truth earned her the George Polk Career Award in journalism from Long Island University last year.

“I had content that I felt that I needed to rush to get onstage and a brief window where Americans were thinking about race.”

“One of the deans of political journalism, David Broder, said to me The New York Times should change that little thing ‘All the news that’s fit to print’ to ‘All the news that’s fit to print — by deadline,’ ” Deavere Smith said during an interview at HBO’s offices in New York. “I have a much longer, fatter deadline. Yes, I’m told, ‘This is previews and this is opening night’ and I have to be ready. But … I’m lingering and lumbering around in a way that [reporters] can’t. I’m like a cow. I gather all this stuff, and then I just sit around and chew it.”

For Notes From the Field, Deavere Smith spoke with experts, teachers and lawmakers. But she also interviewed people whose voices often get lost in the debate over the brokenness of our criminal justice and public school systems: the students and inmates who pass through them.

One account from Denise Dodson, a prisoner at the Maryland Correctional Institution, is particularly wrenching. Dodson speaks about how getting an education while incarcerated has been pivotal in changing the way she sees herself. Still, she told Deavere Smith that she thinks it’s fair that she’s imprisoned on charges of conspiracy and attempted murder. Dodson’s boyfriend killed the man who was trying to rape her, mid-act. The overwhelming majority of women who are imprisoned are survivors of domestic or intimate partner abuse.

Deavere Smith originally staged a shorter version of Notes From the Field in 2014 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and brought it to New York in 2016. The New York Times called it “wonderfully energizing” and labeled Deavere Smith “the American theater’s most dynamic and sophisticated oral historian.”

She had written and researched it before Michael Brown, before Tamir Rice, before Philando Castile, before Walter Scott. Since then, she’s updated it. The HBO adaptation includes Deavere’s depictions of Bree Newsome, the activist and artist who was arrested in June 2015 after she scaled the flagpole of the South Carolina Statehouse to remove the Confederate flag that hung there, and Niya Kenny, the former student at Spring Valley High School in Richland County, South Carolina, who filmed her classmate being dragged from her desk and handcuffed by a school resource officer.

“I wasn’t planning to actually make a full-fledged play out of my project, but I did because I had content that I felt that I needed to rush to get onstage and a brief window where Americans were thinking about race,” Deavere Smith said, citing the cellphone videos of police killing unarmed black people. “These windows are always brief, and in fact, I think it is not a picture that is as strong right now as it was, say, in 2015, because other things are happening and some of those things are distractions.”

“I don’t need to know any more smart people. I’d like to meet more kind people.”

Deavere Smith was participating in a panel discussion with CNN commentator Van Jones and former Obama White House chief of staff Valerie Jarrett recently at New York’s 92nd Street Y recently when she reiterated that an actor’s greatest tool is empathy. That empathy, combined with curiosity, results in the most emotionally arresting performance of Notes From the Field, when Deavere Smith recreates the words of Allen Bullock, the protester who filmed the arrest of Freddie Gray.

Her performance, filmed in front of a live audience at Second Stage Theater in New York, is kinetic and engaging. Her face is superimposed on a huge screen behind her as she walks the stage, video camera in hand, sporting a Copwatch hoodie. She recreates Bullock’s anguish at witnessing Gray being thrown into a Baltimore police wagon, his anger as he saw officers restraining Gray with leg shackles and dragging him away, simply for the mistake of making eye contact with them. Deavere Smith challenges the audience to see Gray as both subject and object.

Despite a dramatic deep dive that complements the work of Michelle Alexander (The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness) and Ava DuVernay (13th), Deavere Smith isn’t ready to call herself a prison abolitionist, like those who want to raze the prison-industrial complex entirely. But she thinks efforts to ban The New Jim Crow from prisons, or shut down prison libraries altogether, are misguided.

“It’s terrible. Terrible,” Deavere Smith said. “They can try to ban it all they want, but you and I both know that the walls of prisons are very porous.”

Although she’s arguably more knowledgeable about schools and prisons than a majority of Americans at this point, Deavere Smith avoids being prescriptive. When it comes to prisons, she’s not Angela Davis, and she’s similarly agnostic about charter schools despite the fact that her reporting led her to conclude that American public schools are “a disaster.” They often fail poor students, students of color, disabled students and students for whom English is a second language, and they’re more segregated today than they were in the late 1960s.

“Most of the people I know who have charter schools want to be able to boast and brag about success and how many kids they send to college,” Deavere Smith said. “And even those things make me nervous when that’s the way they talk about the experience. ‘Well, we’re sending every single person or every single person in our class graduated with such and such SAT score. They’re all going to college.’

“And you go, ‘OK, great.’ But something about it bothers me, and I think what bothers me is that there’s only one measuring stick for success. I know a lot of smart people. I don’t need to know any more smart people. I’d like to meet more kind people. I’d like to meet more generous people. I’d like to meet more forgiving people. … I’d like to see them get commended. You know, smart’s just overrated, as far as I’m concerned.”

National Association of Black Journalists receives huge grant for jobs, mission EBay founder Pierre Omidyar’s bipartisan Democracy Fund donates $200,000

On the day Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said, “We cannot allow this regimen of fake news, and alternative facts … to diminish our commitment to the basic constitutional protection of freedom of the press … it is essential to the future of our democracy,” the Democracy Fund awarded $200,000 to the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ). The two-year restricted grant is to be utilized for staffing, and it allows NABJ to continue the execution of its mission to support journalists of color. The association’s priorities include jobs for journalists of color, professional development, social justice and advocacy. NABJ’s current strategic plan can be seen here.

“It’s a true honor to be partnering with the Democracy Fund,” NABJ president Sarah Glover said Wednesday. “The media industry faces threats, [and] organizations like NABJ are needed to give a voice to black journalists and minority communities too often overlooked. This … grant … helps NABJ meet challenges head-on, empowers our work, and strengthens our organizational capacity and trajectory for growth.”

The Democracy Fund is a bipartisan foundation created by eBay founder and philanthropist Pierre Omidyar. It exists to “invest in organizations working to ensure that our political system is able to withstand new challenges and deliver on its promise to the American people.”