The bitter harvest of Richard Bibb: A descendant of slavery confronts her inheritance The families of slave owners and the people they enslaved gather for a ‘reunion’ in Kentucky

RUSSELLVILLE, Ky. — That morning, I took my measure of the place. I toured the former Bibb plantation house turned museum and explored the nearby work cabins. I paid attention to the ways the ground shifted beneath my feet. By early afternoon, I’d settled in the community room to talk with the museum director who got the idea to bring together the descendants of the slave owners and the enslaved when some of the white families arrived for a tour. I heard their voices in distant parts of the house and sensed the anger rise in my throat. It was dark, sudden, impolite. I was not ready to meet these people. They had done nothing to me, yet I felt as if they had.

Do not come in here, I warned silently.

Their voices got closer and I grew more anxious, though you wouldn’t have known by looking at me. We wear the mask. But it felt like mine was about to slip.

The author, Lonnae O’Neal, watches from a window of the Bibb House as guests begin to arrive for the reunion.

Nate Packard for The Undefeated

I had joked with the only Bibb cousins I’d ever known that we were being lured into a trap. But now, the trap was real. It was all plantation houses and the ghosts of black people and white voices coming closer. I had stepped into a house of mirrors. I wanted to escape.

A couple of could-be-relatives reached out to shake my hand, and I extended mine to them as well.

Why had they come? I wondered.

Lord, why had I?


2.

The Bibb House was built around 1815 in this small Western Kentucky town about an hour north of Nashville, Tennessee. It was originally home to Maj. Richard Bibb, an officer in the Revolutionary War, his second wife and the scores of people they enslaved. In 1832, Bibb sent 31 of them to Liberia. When he died in 1839, his will freed 65 others, who were also given money and land. His white descendants included a U.S. senator and the originator of Bibb lettuce.

Granville Clark, a lawyer and president of Historic Russellville Inc., and genealogist and museum director Michael Morrow began restoring Bibb House nearly a decade ago. Along with four other historic buildings located in Russellville’s Black Bottom, an area settled by freed black people before the Civil War, it became part of the SEEK Museum (Struggles for Emancipation and Equality in Kentucky).

Clark once fought to the Kentucky Supreme Court for the Bibb House, which had changed hands several times, to be a public charitable trust and hoped it could serve as “a realistic memorial to the Old South.” But deciding what that means is a whole different fight. And not simply with white people.

I did not know if I had it in me.


3.

The invitation to come to Russellville had kicked around Facebook for months before I saw it. It was the first reunion of the descendants of Richard Bibb and the descendants of the people he enslaved and emancipated.

My first thoughts came out in a string of curse words. Miss me on those plantation happenings, I told my cousins, but part of me couldn’t let it go. My father’s mother was Susie Bibb, and this was the first time I’d heard a word about her people. The first time I’d ever heard tell of any such thing as white Bibbs. A couple of white descendants were working on a documentary and would be filming at the reunion. I felt the ground shifting beneath me as I considered my options.

A copy of a sign advertising the sale of two boys on display at the SEEK Museum in Russellville, Kentucky.

Nate Packard for The Undefeated

I have constructed a life with the resources and standing that allow me to encounter white people on my own terms — to decide for myself when and where I enter. But the Bibb reunion would be a departure from that. It represented something aching and unresolved that put me and mine on the shoulders falling down like teardrops side of a power dynamic. Something painful and frightening.

Clark emailed me a photo of Catherine Bibb — or Granny Kate, as she was known — taken around 1900, when she would have been in her early 60s, and said we might be related. Of all the money and land left to the enslaved people who Bibb freed when he died at 86, Catherine, who was 3 at the time, was given the most: 250 acres. That preferential treatment supports the family oral history that she was Richard Bibb’s daughter.

Granny Kate was fair-skinned, with straight dark hair. She founded a school and a church on the land given to the formerly enslaved on the outskirts of Russellville, in what became known as Bibbtown, where she acted as the unofficial mayor. Granny Kate looked like my grandmother, Momma Susie.

She stared out from the photo and I felt implicated in her gaze. Dead black people are always judging. Having put their own burdens down, they’re always asking the rest of us what we’re going to do.


4.

I can read stories of the white Bibbs in American history books. But my black grandmother isn’t in those books. Susie Bibb was an American original, and she demands to be accounted for and remembered.

Susie was one of nine siblings raised in the coal mining and railroad town of Centralia, Illinois. She was the smartest of them all in math, she used to say, but the family had no money for college. So she wept bitter tears and got married at 18.

My grandfather was a hotel chef who eventually opened a restaurant and tavern in the black part of town. My grandmother, who specialized in making pastries from scratch, worked there when she was younger. But I rarely remember her leaving the house as I got older, and rarely smiling. My grandparents’ front door was never locked, and a steady stream of people would walk in, morning to night, and stand before Momma Susie to ask for money to pay bills, to buy diapers, to tide them over until payday. If she liked the terms — high interest rates or food stamps, as I recall — she’d leave the room to reach under her mattress for money. If she didn’t like the terms, she’d tell them she didn’t have it.

A reunion guest looks at a display of photographs and drawings showing the enslaved people freed by Maj. Richard Bibb. On the mantel from left to right: Andrew Bibb, Catherine Bibb Arnold and Martha Bibb.

Nate Packard for The Undefeated

She never used any kind of muscle. She simply never lent again to anyone who didn’t repay her.

Momma Susie doted on the dogs, which she cooked breakfast for and might bite her grandkids if we got too close. So she’d yell at us, reasonably, to get our damned asses out of their way. She’d warn us, too, about men, husbands especially, or sometimes white people. But mostly she’d preach — often in loud, compound expletives — about the importance of college, about getting your education so you didn’t have to depend on anyone, and about having your own money. She was a bitter black woman, and she spoke bitter black words into three generations of college graduates and postgraduates.

Momma Susie’s black family is not to be mistaken for that of the white sons of Richard Bibb: pro-slavery U.S. Sen. George M. Bibb turned Treasury Secretary Bibb, or John Bigger Bibb, who developed Bibb lettuce.

Lord, don’t you get mad about it — there was a U.S. Coast Guard cutter Bibb, but Susie Bibb loan-sharked in her pajamas from an armchair in her living room for most of my childhood.

These facts are always in historical conversation. Seven generations from Maj. Richard Bibb, these facts remain grafted onto us. They were the fire last time. They are the fire this time. They explain almost everything.


5.

Richard Bibb fought with the Virginia militia in the Revolutionary War, after which he inherited land and enslaved people. He moved to Lexington, Kentucky, where he was a land speculator and acquired around 200,000 acres from Kentucky to Arkansas. He later moved to Logan County, where the former Episcopalian became a Methodist lay minister with anti-slavery leanings. He grew tobacco, had a whisky still, raced horses and became one of the richest men in Western Kentucky. When his first wife died, he and his second wife moved from the country into Russellville. He was heavily involved in the American Colonization Society, which sought to send black people “back” to Africa, where the people he’d enslaved had never been. (On the 1832 trip to Liberia, a number of children died of cholera before they got there.)

His will, which freed everyone he’d enslaved, also gave them tools, livestock, $5,000 and roughly 3,000 acres, which the executor, his son John Bigger Bibb, deeded to them 40 years later. John’s brother George wrote a legally famous letter advising him how to continue to control the money and the land.

An 1897 Louisville Courier-Journal article about Richard Bibb said:

“Since his youth he had cared for them, and before that they or their parents had belonged to his father. He believed slavery was wrong and was taking the initial step toward putting into execution a long cherished plan. He was about to send one-third of his slaves to Liberia; the others he intended to liberate at his death. He had read a chapter in the Bible and had given out a hymn, and when his prayer was finished, many a black face was bathed in tears, and the slaves gathered about and shook Old Master’s hand for the last time and heard the accent of his kindly voice.”

This idea of Bibb as an emancipator is a source of local and white Bibb family legend. It is noted on the plaque in front of Bibb House and was an animating fact of the reunion. To me, it was simply a reminder that a complex 250-year system of human trafficking and violent plunder could only be sustained by intersecting applications of pressure and release. It just meant that Richard Bibb was arguably better than some. The gauzy lore feels like the columns and porch added to the Bibb House decades after the Civil War to lend the whole enterprise an air of magnolia.

“In an old conventional view, Kentucky was supposed to be more benign in its slavery,” said Jack Glazier, author of Been Coming Through Some Hard Times: Race, History, and Memory in Western Kentucky and a retired Oberlin College anthropology professor. He calls it a self-justifying myth. “It was without question a brutal and depraved system. That’s very much the case in Western Kentucky,” where tobacco farming required large numbers of people.

The slave quarters in the attic of the Bibb House, which is now the SEEK Museum in Russellville, Kentucky.

Nate Packard for The Undefeated

After the Civil War, there was an out-migration to Illinois, said Glazier. “There’s a real story there.”

It’s the part of the story where I come in.

My cousin Marvin Vaughn, a financial analyst for an energy company in Houston, drove to the reunion with his mother, Sharon Bibb Vaughn. His grandfather, Morris, and Momma Susie were brother and sister.

As we sat in the car watching people go in and out of the Bibb House, Marvin told me a story that Morris had told him about Charlie Bibb, our great-grandfather, about whom the only thing I’d ever heard was that he was mean and yellow. “I guess he got tired of his kids talking about that they were hungry,” Marvin said. He went to the grocery store in the white part of Centralia, said his children were hungry and asked the owner if he could get some food and pay him back later. When the grocer said no, Charlie B. bagged the food anyway, and when the grocer tried to stop him, “Great-grandpa Charlie knocked him to the floor and told him, ‘Look here, I need to feed my kids. When I get the money I will repay you, and this is what I owe you.’ ”

I hadn’t known my grandmother had gone hungry. It explained some of the preoccupation with money that ran through our family. Explained other stuff as well.


Something else Uncle Morris told Marvin: His grandfather was the son of a slave owner in Kentucky. It was another story I’d never heard.

Marvin came to the reunion because something bothered him. If the white Bibbs were so wealthy, “Why did we get such s— portions?” If we had gotten a fair share, how might that have changed our lives? These are Bibb family questions, but they stretched out across America like the arms of Jesus. Marvin came to the reunion because he wanted to land on some truth and help put a face to it. “We could be a part of the family that they don’t even talk about,” he said.

And neither did we.


6.

Two months ago, the white ancestors who hovered over my features never crossed my mind. I couldn’t name one.

But that was about to change.

Suddenly, I wanted to hear the stories. I wanted to see the documents and learn what had happened to these people and what that said about me.

The morning before the reunion, I pulled up to Michael Morrow’s research office in the Black Bottom, three blocks from the Bibb House.

Maurice Hardy (left), his wife, Latisha (right), and their son, RayShawn Payton-Kilgore, explore the upper room of the SEEK Museum.

Nate Packard for The Undefeated

“I’m Lonnae O’Neal, my people are from Centralia, Illinois,” I said to Morrow by way of introduction. “My grandmother was Susie Bibb. Her father was Charlie Bibb.”

“Her father was Charles Smith Bibb,” Morrow said, correcting me. “And his mother was Pocahontas Wright.”

Morrow held the door open for me, but I needed a minute. I had never heard my great-grandfather’s full government name. Had never heard of my great-great-grandmother at all.

Morrow, 57, was raised on stories of Bibbtown. He had a speech impediment, so he hung around old people, who were less cruel and would let you listen as long as you sat still. He dropped out of college to care for his sick mother. He worked at a neighborhood food hall, did a little bootlegging and some such, but he remained fascinated by family histories and started keeping notes. People got word and started giving him their artifacts, and telling him their stories.

In a few keystrokes, he pulls up documents where my great-great-grandfather is listed as mulatto on the 1850 census in Russellville. In 1860, he’s listed as black. By 1870, John and Pocahontas lived in Centralia, where John and Pokey, as they called her, were listed as white, and they had a 6-year-old son who’d been born in Russellville, and a 2-year old daughter and an infant son who’d both been born in Illinois, as were the seven children who followed.

“Now let’s do one more thing. Let’s go to 1900,” Morrow said and showed me a census record for Charles Smith Bibb, 13, the first name where I know where I am. Then he shows me a later census with the names of my grandmother and her siblings as children. “The amazing thing is, we got the slave documents. We can prove this all the way back to slavery,” Morrow said. To a woman named Old Keziah. But the documents also leave some unanswered questions, including the identity of John Bibb’s father. Morrow has been putting the pieces together for decades, and he thinks there’s a good chance my great-great-grandfather John was the son of one of the white Bibbs.

It was too much life to hear about in one day. And we hadn’t even gotten to the reunion, which would start the following day. I closed my eyes and pictured Granny Kate, who I asked for strength.

“I think one of the reasons why African American people tend to stay away from this is because of the trauma,” Nicka Sewell-Smith, a genealogist and consultant for Ancestry.com, told me later. (Sewell-Smith also shared that her great-great-aunt Sarah was married to a different John Bibb.) People are getting killed because of race now, “and I’m going to introduce additional trauma, historical trauma, into my life?” she asked.

It’s a history that can’t be sanitized. “So we just move away from it because it’s painful and we don’t know what to expect, and we have to check our emotions,” she said. “You don’t want to lash out at someone who’s not involved just because you don’t know how to properly process, and a lot of our experience has been to just deal with it and push it down.”

Sewell-Smith reads part of Richard Bibb’s will, which frees those he’s enslaved on Jan. 1, 1840, nearly a year after he died. Some of those emancipated seemed to sell their land, but it’s hard to say since slavery was still law and some of those who’d been emancipated were re-enslaved. John Bigger Bibb moved to Frankfort, where he continued enslaving people as he perfected his lettuce. He had agents look after the land and the formerly enslaved, doling out piecemeal the $5,000 that Richard Bibb left them and not officially handing over the property until 1881.

“There was a monetary value placed on us, and because money was involved, people were going to document things,” she said. “There’s a tangibleness of slavery that you get when you can see the names of your people associated with these enslavers.” She was plainspoken, but I had a hard time following her. I think it was because I was unable to think of my ancestors as fungible. I kept attaching them to the names of my children, then viscerally resisting the thought. I eventually succumbed to the sadness of it all.

Clark, 64, who attended segregated schools until sixth grade, calls the SEEK Museum a chance to teach a history of both slavery and emancipation that he hadn’t learned growing up.

We’re “lucky to have a site that does deal with both edges of that story,” Clark says. “It wasn’t emancipation that was as pure and as perfect as you want it to be, but it lets us talk about these things.” He thinks America may finally be ready to have these conversations. But I have my doubts. I am reminded of recent stories of white anger over talk of slavery, also known as American history, during plantation tours. (This, by the way, is partially why black people prefer to sit with each other at lunch.)

From 1883 to 1908, 14 people were lynched in Logan County, the second most in Kentucky. In 2008, Morrow put up an exhibit about the 1908 lynching of four men in Russellville that led to a change in postal laws to prevent people from sending postcards of hanging, swinging, charred bodies through the mail. The men killed hadn’t been involved in the argument over wages that had left a white overseer dead; they simply passed a resolution at their local hall to help the accused raise money for a lawyer.

Morrow got a call when somebody finally cut down the “lynching tree” 20 years ago.

Descendants of Richard Bibb look at old photos and maps in the front room of the SEEK Museum.

Nate Packard for The Undefeated

The night before the reunion, as part of Western Kentucky’s annual 8th of August emancipation celebration, a statue of Alice Allison Dunnigan, the first black female journalist credentialed to cover the White House, was unveiled in Russellville’s Black Bottom neighborhood, which is on the National Register of Historic Places but had a tough time getting the city to pay for streetlights and sewers. Several of Russellville’s elected officials were there. None of them is black. Of the nearly 7,000 residents of Russellville, nearly 20% are black, and more than half of those residents live below the poverty line.

The Black Bottom sits on a flood plain and has a history of getting deluged. A half-mile away, the Confederate Monument, erected in 1910, which is also on the National Register, sits atop a pedestal.

Sometimes, white people tell themselves fictions, but they need us to play along. When we disbelieve them or don’t co-sign, they turn punitive or murderous. And that’s why we didn’t believe them in the first place.

“I don’t want everybody to come together and have a Kumbaya moment,” Morrow said of the reunion. “Our people have had so many Kumbaya moments. I want everybody to come together and be real about what has happened. If they are real, maybe people can go back and start changing things.”

They are asking for our truth, I told Morrow, but I don’t think they really want to hear it.

“I don’t think it makes any difference whether they want to hear it or not,” he replied.


7.

Rachel Knight and her brother, Jonathan, are descendants of Richard Bibb’s daughter, Lucy Slaughter, and grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Their grandmother chronicled their family history in the 1960s with a lengthy entry on the major. After the 2017 white supremacy rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that left a young woman dead, Rachel, a doctoral student at Teachers College, Columbia University, wanted to learn more about their family history. Jonathan, a filmmaker, was looking to make his first documentary. A woman they’d known growing up happened to be a professor of African American studies at the University of Kentucky and connected them with a black doctoral student and journalist to help produce it.

Traci Ellis delivers a speech at the Bibb House near the end of the day’s events.

Nate Packard for The Undefeated

“Our country hasn’t dealt with issues of our country being founded on slavery,” Rachel Knight said. And neither had their family. “Our family had a history of enslaving people,” but growing up in the North, “we don’t talk about that history that much.” When she found her grandmother’s entry about Richard Bibb, “I was like, well, why isn’t that a story that we talked about?” When she learned the Bibb House was still standing, she and her brother brainstormed about adding something meaningful.

Morrow and others questioned the siblings about the proposed documentary before agreeing to cooperate. “I trusted them to do what’s right,” Morrow said. I had no such trust. As a journalist, I’m always on the lookout for the ways whiteness, power and self-interest align.

I told Jonathan Knight I’d only learned there were white Bibbs a few weeks before and he seemed surprised. “I don’t mean this to sound harsh,” I told him, “but you all aren’t centered in our lives.”

He and his sister worried a film could seem exploitative, so they were trying to listen to criticism and challenge their own privilege. “Of course it’s hard,” he said. “But I really want to be up for doing it.”

“In my experience, white people don’t have the muscle for this conversation,” I said. Jonathan assured me that they did. I decided to take him at his word.

I noted that they’d asked my cousin, attorney and author Traci Ellis, to facilitate a discussion about race, and that white people were good for asking black people to do work — physical, emotional, spiritual — for free. “Black people are always you all’s raw material,” I said. The “you all” wasn’t specifically Jonathan and Rachel. It was a collective, a cohort of whiteness, organized in a system of racialized privilege. The royal you all.

Rachel owned her house in Brooklyn, New York, and I pointed out that my daughter lived in a Brooklyn townhouse split into three apartments where she splits her rent with two roommates. I felt angry, though she had done nothing to me. So few white people show up for these conversations that the ones who do come in for a lot of the work of the race. I wondered aloud if we were going to talk reparations.

After hours of talking, Rachel, who hadn’t been feeling well all day, looked peaked, and I felt for her. “It’s a lot, I know,” I said. “It’s a lot for us too.”

Speaking our racial truth can feel physically, socially or financially unsafe. There’s a wide berth we often give white people so as not to make them uncomfortable or angry. But in the shadow of the Bibb House, I couldn’t do it. The black ghosts of Russellville weren’t having it.

I don’t know if she got it. But I finally understood why I’d come to the reunion: to give the white Bibbs, as stand-ins for the people who baked inequality into America, their bags to carry. And all their crosses to bear. The ones that have been forced on black people that rightfully belong to the whole nation.


8.

The morning of the Bibb reunion, I wore a green dress to remind me of the green chair my grandmother sat in as she received borrowers. I lingered in the hotel parking lot praying to Momma Susie that I might represent her at this gathering.

Chairs and tables covered the front lawn and dozens of people, black and white, from 28 states, were milling about, with more steadily arriving. The center hall of the Palladian-style Bibb House museum features two pairs of iron shackles under glass that were found in the dirt on the grounds. In an adjacent room, a copy of an enlarged notice hangs on the wall: “One or two likely Negro boys, about 10 years old” for sale.

I forced myself to approach a middle-aged white woman in one of the upstairs rooms.

Old shackles found on the grounds of the Bibb plantation house on display at the SEEK Museum.

Nate Packard for The Undefeated

Michelle Anderson, a schoolteacher from Redlands, California, was a descendant of Lucy Booker Bibb and Thomas Slaughter. She was there with her son and daughter-in-law, both professors at Knox College in Illinois.

Her cousin took a DNA test, which is how she found out about the reunion, the documentary and Richard Bibb. The stories are powerful, “but you know it’s historically what it is, and we just embrace it to understand and, you know, make at least sense of it today.”

It all sounded perfectly reasonable, but I wanted to get away. The shackles. The 10-year-old boys for sale. The picture of Granny Kate staring at me. Minute by minute, this place felt oppressive, frightening and surreal.

I excused myself to talk to Latisha Hardy, from Louisville, Kentucky. She was there with her husband, Maurice, and their son. Until a few months ago, she hadn’t known there were white Bibbs either.

Maurice had white people in his Georgia family tree and understood the push-pull of wanting, but not wanting to be there. “It gives you feelings you don’t want to feel,” he said. “Because you know their money is built off your work.”

I sought out my cousins Ellis, from Oak Park, Illinois, and her sister, Amber Johnston, from outside Atlanta. Their late father and my late father were brothers. “This is opening up some stuff I didn’t even know I felt,” said Ellis. “I’m trying to hold that in.” To not come unglued thinking about “the wealth and the atrocities that happened in this house.”

White people kept coming up to her, “and they’re being appropriate, and wanting to talk and wanting to engage, but I feel like I need a minute,” said Ellis. “I might need forever.”

Ellis said she thought of Charlie Bibb, who had been an abusive man, and how abuse ran through the Bibb family, “and I never interrogated that further.” But now, she was thinking of “post-traumatic slave syndrome” and generational trauma. Her son, Jalen, 25, had visited the lynching exhibit the night before, and this morning he decided to stay at the hotel instead of attending the reunion.

Several Bibb descendants gather in front of Arnold’s Chapel Church, which was founded by Catherine (Granny Kate) Bibb in Bibbtown.

Nate Packard for The Undefeated

Her sister, Johnston, said they left Atlanta three hours late because she obsessed about retwisting her nearly waist-length hair. It’s similar to how black people dressed up for demonstrations and marches. It’s part of the armor we don.

When the formal program began, Morrow talked about discovering Maj. Bibb’s will and how he’d made finding the Bibb descendants his life’s work. “The Bibb family and these Bibb slaves have went all over America and done all kinds of things,” he said. The Bibb story is “a story about race. It’s a story about family. It’s a story about slavery. It’s a story about wealth. It’s a story about abuse. It’s a story about neglect.”

Ellis stepped to the lectern on the Bibb House lawn and told the hushed crowd, “When I pulled up, voices started in my head. Normally, I don’t hear voices.” She sat alone in the house’s 110-degree attic, the sleeping and work quarters for the enslaved, and she held a quilt. Spending time in the building and on the grounds, she said, “one of the strong feelings I had was rage.” She urged us to honor our feelings and have a “courageous conversation” about race.

My cousin asked the descendants of the enslaved what they would want to say to the descendants of the slave owners. And much later, when the moment was far behind us, I thought of plenty of words.

They went like this:

We are not like you.

We are not going to do to you what you did to us.

We are not going to burn your teenagers alive or put your grandmothers to work scrubbing our floors. We won’t break every bond of fellowship or citizenship to gain advantage, and then lie to ourselves and others about how precisely we’ve hoarded privilege in every institution of American society. We won’t call the police every time we feel uncomfortable or are made to share space. You are so afraid of us, of our anger and emotion, only because you know what you would do. It’s everything you’ve already done. This is why you’re always marveling at our power to forgive, because you, yourselves, do not.

That’s what I would have said later.

But in that moment I had just two bitter words. I said them out loud. And I meant every bit of them.

My cousin Sharon whipped her head around and tried to shush me, but I just faced forward steadily. I didn’t apologize. I said what I said.

I believe it was the ghost of Susie Bibb, answering my prayers.

Ellis had us break into groups and gave us a series of questions about race. My table included Michelle Anderson’s son, Jon, a scholar of African languages and linguistics at Knox College, and his wife, Nathalie Haurberg, an astronomy and physics professor at the college.

Toward the end of the program, I asked our table if white people talked to each other about race and what they said. Anderson stood up to tell the full group his answer: “No, I don’t think those conversations really happen. I think they happen in small circles, but in general, they are missing and I think a lot of people wish it would all go away. Each of us, as the white cousins here, as I will refer to them, are only where we are in life because of our black cousins, and we need to face those privileges that we have lived with for 200 years as the result of this house and the house across the street.”

Traci Ellis’ grandson, Christian, who is almost 2, takes a nap during the family reunion at the SEEK Museum.

Nate Packard for The Undefeated

Ellis ended the program by facing the house to tell the ghosts of those enslaved by Richard Bibb that we had returned. That we were their wildest dreams.

I was spent, more invested than I’d wanted to be in desiring something meaningful to come from this gathering. I hugged those who’d sat at my table. A few white people came up to talk to me about their family, to share their opinions on race relations, what they’d done in the civil rights movement, and about the president. I could hear them better this time.

Rachel looked stronger, I thought. She was glad they had helped convene the reunion.

The next day, eight carloads of black Bibbs, the extended Knight family and a couple of others toured Bibbtown. I sat with Amber’s children on the steps of Arnold’s Chapel Church, founded by Granny Kate. The last resident of Bibbtown, Marilyn Gill, had died a few years earlier in a fire so hot it melted coins. Her nephew died of a heart attack a few weeks after that.

“Some of you all might still own property here,” Morrow told us. “More brains are better than one, and I’m hoping you all can start to sort this out.” He hoped we would help find out about every acre Maj. Bibb gave the black Bibbs and who was heir to what in 2019. That we would join the struggle for truth, and the land beneath our feet. We are each other’s harvest.

I followed Jonathan back to Russellville until it was time to turn down a different road. I pulled up alongside him. Hard to know what to say through open car windows to a man whose ancestors had enslaved yours. So we just said goodbye. I was glad to have met him. It was a start, I thought.

Or maybe it was no such thing at all.

At some point, my cousins will likely do a more sophisticated DNA test to figure out more precisely if and how we might be related to Maj. Richard Bibb, and perhaps we’ll figure out if we have a claim to some of that Bibbtown land.

But it felt like such an old fight. And at that moment I was ready to get back home to my carefully curated black life, where the ground was steady beneath my feet and the old ghosts were much more quiet.

HBO’s new ‘Native Son’ still can’t figure out Bigger Thomas Latest adaptation of Richard Wright’s novel excises some of the crucial violence against a black woman

Nobody knows what to do with Bigger Thomas.

The lead character of Richard Wright’s seminal 1940 novel, Native Son, is one of the most frustrating in American literature. The latest evidence is a new film adaptation written by the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks and directed by visual artist Rashid Johnson in his feature film debut. It airs at 10 p.m. Saturday on HBO.

The Bigger Wright left us on the page is a 20-year-old black man who lives in a one-room Chicago tenement with his brother, sister and mother in 1939. In Wright’s opening scene, Bigger wakes up in the family’s freezing apartment and pounds a giant rat to death with an iron skillet. Bigger is bitterly aware of the limitations his race and class have predetermined for him, and so are his friends. They have nothing, and so they rob other black folks of their tiny bit of something. Bigger seems doomed to a small, miserable life until he gets a job across town as a chauffeur for a wealthy white family, the Daltons. The Daltons don’t consider themselves racists, but they benefit handsomely from the structural circumstances that have placed a boot upon Bigger’s neck.

What follows is tragic: A panicked Bigger accidentally kills the Dalton heiress, Mary, whose kindness and uninformed, if well-intentioned, habitual racial line-stepping do more to endanger Bigger than help him. After a night out with her boyfriend, Jan, Mary drunkenly invites Bigger, who’s driven her home, to her bedroom. Bigger assents, hoping to simply settle Mary in her room before stealing off to his own in the back of the house. Instead, he smothers her to death out of fear they’ll be discovered and he’ll be fired. Afterward, Bigger shoves Mary’s body into the mansion’s furnace.

When reporters discover bones and jewelry among the furnace’s ashes, Bigger flees. He explains to his girlfriend, Bessie, how he ended up killing Mary, then rapes and kills Bessie too, disposing of her body down an air shaft. When he’s finally caught, Bigger is bound for the executioner’s chair.

Needless to say, this is not a character who inspires sympathy. The HBO movie is the third attempt to bring Bigger to life on film. (In 1941, Orson Welles produced and directed the story as a play.) Wright actually starred as Bigger in a 1951 version of Native Son filmed in Argentina by the Belgian director Pierre Chenal. A 1986 version, with Victor Love as Bigger, had a big-name Hollywood cast, including Matt Dillon, Elizabeth McGovern, Geraldine Page and Oprah Winfrey.

Each of them has had to struggle with hard questions about Wright’s central character: How much of Bigger’s awfulness can be attributed to a country that twisted him into a murderer and how much of his evil is individual? Is cruelty from those denied dignity inevitable or a choice? Is Bigger a person or a literary device manufactured to inspire horror?

Nearly 80 years after Native Son was first published, we’re still searching for answers.


Ashton Sanders, as Bigger Thomas in HBO’s Native Son, stands in front of “The Bean,” a landmark public sculpture in downtown Chicago.

Chris Herr/HBO

This latest film adaptation, produced by A24 (the company behind Moonlight, Lady Bird and First Reformed) has the distinction of being the brainchild of a student of James Baldwin — Parks studied creative writing under Baldwin at Mount Holyoke College.

Baldwin famously seethed at Wright’s interpretation of black life and dismissed Native Son as a “protest novel” full of one-dimensional stereotypes, and he likened Bigger to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom.

“Bigger is Uncle Tom’s descendant, flesh of his flesh, so exactly opposite a portrait that, when the books are placed together, it seems the contemporary Negro novelist and the dead New England woman are locked together in a deadly, timeless battle; the one uttering merciless exhortations, the other shouting curses,” Baldwin wrote in the essay Everybody’s Protest Novel. And yet Baldwin softened his stance toward Wright and Native Son after Wright’s death in 1960. Wrote Baldwin in Alas, Poor Richard:

Shortly after we learned of Richard Wright’s death, a Negro woman who was rereading Native Son told me that it meant more to her now than it had when she had first read it. This, she said, was because the specific social climate which had produced it, or with which it was identified, seemed archaic now, was fading from our memories. Now, there was only the book itself to deal with, for it could no longer be read, as it had been in 1940, as a militant racial manifesto. Today’s racial manifestoes were being written very differently, and in many languages; what mattered about the book now was how accurately or deeply the life of Chicago’s South Side had been conveyed.

The ambivalence Bigger inspires in Baldwin and others has come to be one of his defining characteristics. In 1986, Temple University professor David Bradley, writing an introduction for a new edition of the novel, shared his roller coaster of emotions about Native Son, which fluctuated with each new reading.

Is Bigger a person or a literary device manufactured to inspire horror? Nearly 80 years after Native Son was first published, we’re still searching for answers.

Both the 1986 film and the new one struggle with the monstrousness of Bigger’s actions — and both decided to dull them. Neither one includes Bigger’s rape and murder of Bessie. It’s the biggest omission from both versions, and especially notable in this latest adaptation, given how much Parks and Johnson elected to change.

They removed Bigger from the South Side of 1939 and dropped him into modern-day Chicago, simultaneously eradicating the bleakness of Bigger’s life as Wright fashioned it. Bigger no longer shares a one-room apartment with his mother, sister and brother but rather a multiroom unit with space for a dining table where the family gathers regularly. His mother, Trudy (Sanaa Lathan), is an ambitious paralegal eyeing law school, not a desperate washerwoman consigned to abject poverty. Trudy has a romantic partner, a do-gooder lawyer named Marty (David Alan Grier). The Thomas household is warm and structured, and there isn’t nearly as much pressure on Bigger to get a job to prevent his family from being turned out on the street.

Bigger, too, has undergone renovation. Played by Ashton Sanders (best known for portraying high school-age Chiron in Moonlight), this modern Bigger sports green hair, black fingernail polish, and an assortment of black coats and jackets customized with graffiti and patches. He’s an Afropunk and an anarchist who prefers the sounds of Bad Brains, Minor Threat and Death, as opposed to, say, Chief Keef. Sanders is tall and lanky, and he mostly plays Bigger as a quiet kid who folds into himself but who can be goaded into violent outbursts. His girlfriend, Bessie (KiKi Layne), has been transformed from a figure of pitiable, gin-soaked scorn into a sober and sensible hairdresser.

From the book to the screen, Wright’s white characters remain the most static. Mrs. Dalton is always blind, and Mr. Dalton is always the dutiful limousine liberal who sees himself as doing what he can to help the downtrodden Negroes on the other side of town. Mary Dalton (Margaret Qualley) and her boyfriend, Jan Erlone (Nick Robinson), remain a couple of rebellious anti-capitalists (here, they’re Occupy Wall Street sympathizers) thumbing their noses at Mr. Dalton’s money and privilege while simultaneously enjoying it.


Ashton Sanders and KiKi Layne in Native Son.

Thomas Hank Willis/HBO

The urge to use a new adaptation of Native Son as a corrective to the perceived faults of Wright’s original work is understandable, especially when its setting, Chicago, is repeatedly slandered as a cesspool of black cultural pathologies. Its murder rate trails that of several other cities, and yet it’s seen as an avatar for gun violence and a favorite example of those looking to deploy the whataboutism of “black-on-black” crime. Chicago is the home of Emmett Till and Laquan McDonald, and somehow also the place that produced Barack Obama and Harold Washington. Victims of white supremacy and heroes who manage to dodge it are much easier to hold in one’s head. But where do we place Bigger?

If we take him as Wright wrote him, perhaps the only appropriate place is exile. Maybe that’s why the resulting Bigger imagined by Parks and Johnson is far more sympathetic than Wright’s original rendering. For instance, Johnson neglects to show Bigger decapitating Mary once he realizes her body is too big to fully fit in the furnace. And in this modern version, Bigger never makes it to jail, much less a trial. He’s gunned down by Chicago police officers the moment they find him.

Parks and Johnson gesture at Bigger’s violence toward Bessie — he begins to strangle her but doesn’t go through with the deed. Bigger’s sexual violence, though, is completely eliminated. When I spoke to Johnson recently at HBO’s offices in New York, he told me that he thought of Bessie’s survival as the truest outcome for this retelling.

“We can’t murder and rape Bessie.”

“Between 1939 and today, stories around violence towards women and the way that we interpret them has changed dramatically,” Johnson said. “I was raised by a black woman who’s an academic and a feminist. I am not capable of telling stories where a woman is treated violently in the respect that Bigger treats Bessie in the book. That’s not something that I’m interested in.

“I think it neuters the other aspects of the story that are quite complicated around both race, class, etc. I think that it does a damage to the story and its contemporary telling, that story cannot survive. So we’d originally written it with the murder of Bessie and the rape of Bessie and the story, and I read that version in the script because we tried to keep as much in as possible in our early stages of interpreting it. And I called Suzan-Lori Parks very early in the morning and I said, ‘There’s something that is very challenging for me,’ and she said, ‘We can’t murder and rape Bessie.’ ”

Yet black and Native American women today experience the highest rates of death as a result of intimate partner violence, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Wright’s Native Son, in part, is a tale of black masculinity, disfigured by white supremacy and run amok. It is a horror story, in the way that Toni Morrison’s Beloved can be seen as horror too.

In 2015, when Straight Outta Compton was released, hip-hop journalist Dee Barnes wrote about the violence she experienced at the hands of Dr. Dre. “There is a direct connection between the oppression of black men and the violence perpetrated by black men against black women,” she wrote. “It is a cycle of victimization and reenactment of violence that is rooted in racism and perpetuated by patriarchy.”

It’s impossible to separate the murder and rape of Bessie from any discussion about how race and class have victimized Bigger. The same factors contribute to Bigger’s abuse of Bessie, although they do not excuse it. We can see a contemporary example of this dynamic in Erik Killmonger, the villain of Black Panther. Like Bigger, Killmonger is meant to engender sympathy, for the United States turned him into what he is: a psychopathic human instrument of death seeking revenge and power. And yet, for all his wokeness regarding imperialist theft, Killmonger has little regard for women. He does not hesitate to kill them, and he certainly doesn’t have any remorse about it.

When we turn away from black misogyny, as Parks and Johnson do, and as filmmaker F. Gary Gray did in Straight Outta Compton, we do a disservice to black women’s lived reality — the stories preserved on-screen tell an incomplete truth.

This new Native Son from Parks and Johnson doesn’t answer many of the questions Wright presents. Rather, it leaves us with even more questions: How can a film adaptation work if it excises one of the most horrifying scenes in its source material? And can Native Son truly capture the worst effects of America’s subjugation of black people if it turns away from the mortal injuries that befall black women as a result of it?

Damon Young of Very Smart Brothas worries about everything. A lot. His new book, ‘What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker,’ takes you into the brain of the most anxious black man in Pittsburgh

Damon Young is a Very Smart Brotha who is riddled with neuroses. And now, everyone who buys a copy of his first solo book will know all about them.

In What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker, Young offers, among other things, an accounting of the ways he has bumbled through life narrowly avoiding death by embarrassment. At a recent event in New York, Young found himself mortified anew when journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones asked him to read aloud the most cringe-inducing part of the whole book. It’s a paragraph in which Young shares the details of a hapless sexual encounter he describes as “an hour of attempting to re-enact the saddest Penthouse letter ever.”

Besides being the author of the new memoir and essay collection, Young is the co-founder of the popular site Very Smart Brothas. He’s one of the internet’s funniest social critics, offering opinions on everything from when black people are allowed to be ashy in public (during a polar vortex) to the correlation between being a black Republican and possessing a jacked-up hairline.

What Doesn’t Kill You tells the story of Young’s life in Pittsburgh as a kid who always felt slightly out of place. He grew up in the ’hood until his parents could afford to move to a quieter neighborhood in a better school district. He won a basketball scholarship to Canisius College in Buffalo, New York. He became a teacher and eventually a writer. But no matter where he went, Young insisted on overthinking everything and generally being as awkward as possible. His book tells us how he got through it, got married and started accepting the things that once made him insecure about himself, his masculinity and his blackness.

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

When the word “neurotic” comes up, a deep-voiced former college basketball player isn’t the first image that comes to mind. Did you ever take antianxiety meds as a kid?

My antianxiety medication is Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey and maybe The Godfather and maybe an hour or two of basketball. So I guess I self-medicate in a way. You think of neuroses in culture and you think of someone like David Sedaris or Woody Allen or even [Jerry] Seinfeld. It’s a white person that you’re thinking about. White, middle- to upper-middle-class sort of person. Very often a man. And basically the sort of person who can afford to be anxious, who can afford to have neuroses because they don’t necessarily have these deep traumas happening in their lives. They have space to overthink, and they create work in that space. People almost expect that of them. It’s a part of the spectrum. Everyone has this spectrum of behavior that you assign to them, and when you look at a person like Woody Allen, that fits the spectrum. If Woody Allen won the slam dunk contest in the McDonald’s All American contest, you’d be like, ‘Holy s—.’ That doesn’t fit.

I think, with this book, people might be surprised by how deep and how vulnerable and how much I talk about that anxiety and nervousness and self-cautiousness. I come in a different package. Those neuroses are not unique to white people or upper-middle-class people. If anything, we probably deal with it on an even greater level because we have all of these major stressors from existing while black in America.

You write a lot about expectations about how you should behave and how you should treat women, like needing to distance yourself from being seen as “soft.” When did you begin to realize that there was something wrong with the narrow spectrum of feelings men and boys are allowed to express?

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t think about that. It’s almost like asking me, ‘When did you first realize you were black?’ I think a lot of young kids recognize that it’s bulls—, but even with that recognition, it takes a lot to go against the status quo and to subvert whatever expectations there are of you. So even while recognizing that this is performative, you still take part in it. You still have investment in it. You still want the fruits of it. You still want to be the guy that all the girls want. You still want to be the guy that all the other guys want to be.

You see these guys who are just so cool. And not just ballplayers, but Billy Dee f—ing Williams and Blair Underwood and Denzel [Washington]. Denzel was cool as f— in Glory! He was the coolest slave. (Laughs.) Even when he’s getting whipped, he’s got that one tear!

So you have this narrative about how black boys are socialized to be violent or to look at rappers or drug dealers or anyone who has that aura of violence around that. What might be more prevalent and even more dangerous is not the violence but the cool and seeing that as the ideal. If you aren’t that, or if you struggle to meet that, then something’s wrong with you. And the thing is, we all struggle to meet that. A small percentage exists. I mean, there are Billy Dees in the world. I think the vast majority of us are either really good at performing or not as good at performing or are like, ‘F— the performance.’

Did you give yourself a hard time for not being able to live up to these arbitrary standards?

Yeah, I definitely did. I felt like I was less than. I definitely felt that my wiring was misfiring, that something was just off if I couldn’t be the way I saw so many of my peers being. … I don’t anymore. It helps that I received validation. I’ve been able to build a career off of writing and writing about these sorts of things. I have great friendships. I have this great wife and children. I think once I started writing and having space to navigate what’s happening in my head and have other people on that ride with me and who are fans on that ride with me … they’re like, ‘Oh, I get why he acts that way.’ That’s been extremely helpful. If I didn’t have that, I don’t know. My answer to your question might be different.

You wrote something on Very Smart Brothas that generated more backlash than I expected when you said straight black men are the white people of black people. What happened after you published that?

Before I even answer, I have to say, I’m not the first person to say that. A Facebook friend said that. Other people used the exact same phrasing. Many feminist scholars have … made that point. I don’t want to take credit for being the first or the second or the third or the fourth.

The reaction was actually overwhelmingly positive. Most of the people who read that and sat with it and thought about it either agreed immediately or eventually. It’s just that the people who were offended by that were very loud. [Author] bell hooks invited me to meet with her at her institute at Berea College. We had a community talk with me, her and 30 other people in the room about intersectionality and privilege and power dynamics.

Do you think part of the reason this got so much attention is because you’re a guy?

Oh, definitely. And that actually just proves the point.

How does your thinking about gender and race influence how you raise your kids?

I’m not sure if I would have been a different parent if I had my daughter eight years ago or 10 years ago. I don’t know. I have money now. That definitely helps dictate what sort of parent I am. I can afford day care and preschool and anything that she needs, within reason. I’m not going to buy her a whale, or a literal baby shark. But anything she needs, I can do that now. Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to do that. Five years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to do that. I think having money and the flexibility that comes with it dictates decision-making more than anything else.

That’s what I do when I play basketball. I have to be literally on the brink of death to stop and get some water.

A lot of your writing revolves around racial essentialism. Let’s say your son came up to you and said, “Dad, I wanna be a professional rock climber.”

I would buy him some knee pads and some elbow pads. If that’s where your heart is, that’s where your heart is. I would take him to the indoor rock climbing spot. I wouldn’t do it with him, but I’d take him.

A lot of people talk about sports as a way to turn off the anxiety nozzle in their brain. Is that how basketball was for you?

It’s how basketball still is for me, where I can just lose myself in the game. There’s a thing I realized that I do that’s unique to me. I’ve been doing this my whole life: I do not get water between games. I just play. So if I’m at the court and I’m playing pickup and there’s a break and guys get their water or their Gatorade or whatever, I stay on the court. I’m still shooting, still just focused. I’m that annoying m—–f—– who’s like, ‘Aight, c’mon, let’s go! Who got next?’

Do you not get cramps? Are you part camel?

It’s almost like an addiction, where you’re just doing a thing and you’re not cognizant of time or space or anything else. You’re just really hyperfocused on this thing. Like you can be at a slot machine for four hours and not even get up to go to the bathroom. That’s what I do when I play basketball. I have to be literally on the brink of death to stop and get some water.

I’m not part camel. I’m not a minotaur. As soon as I leave the court, I go and I drink, like, 18 Gatorades. I’ll get something to eat, and then I’ll go home and I’ll eat again. So it’s obviously not healthy, me doing this, but I just need to stay on the court. Losing myself and submerging myself in that is a form of self-care.

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

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

FICTION

The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo (YA)

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


Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi (YA)

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


My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

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


A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley

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


The Talented Ribkins by Ladee Hubbard

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


Dread Nation by Justina Ireland (YA)

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


An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

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


Wild Beauty by Ntozake Shange

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


Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires

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

NON-FICTION

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


The Revolt of the Black Athlete by Harry Edwards

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


Ali: A Life by Jonathan Eig

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


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

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


There Will Be No Miracles Here by Casey Gerald

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


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

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


Heavy by Kiese Laymon

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


Becoming by Michelle Obama

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

In its Season 3 premiere, ‘Queen Sugar’ delivers a kneeling episode after ABC balked with ‘black-ish’ This is why it’s important to have multiple creators of color across multiple networks

Who’s afraid of a little pregame kneeling?

Not Queen Sugar.

In its season three premiere, airing Tuesday at 10 p.m. EDT on OWN, Queen Sugar builds on its reputation for taking on challenging social issues. This time, that means using Micah West’s (Nicholas L. Ashe) violent season two encounter with a police officer and his awakening to issues of racial justice as a bridge to explore protest and what it means to find one’s voice.

Nova Bordelon, played by Rutina Wesley, has served as the moral center of the show through her work as a journalist uncovering an unjust legal system that throws black people into private prisons without due process. Nova’s nephew Micah begins to realize the significance of his aunt’s work when he’s assaulted by a Louisiana police officer after being pulled over on a remote highway for daring to be black behind the wheel of an expensive sports car, a gift from his father, a pro basketball player.

In the season three premiere, written by Kat Candler and directed by DeMane Davis, Micah attends a basketball game between the two rival public high schools in St. Josephine’s Parish. The event turns into more than just a game when students of the parish’s majority-black high school, dressed head to toe in black, walk onto the gym floor as a white student from the opposing team is singing the national anthem. They kneel quietly and a ruckus ensues, including the unfurling of a giant Confederate flag. Micah, who has a burgeoning interest in photography, documents the conflict. It’s clear that Micah is invested in this protest in a way that he wouldn’t have been when he and his mother first moved to Louisiana in season one. Now a high school junior, Micah is showing an awareness of how class and privilege have blinkered his worldview, and how little that helped him when he was a black boy driving an expensive car in the rural South.

I’ve seen only the first two episodes, but they portend what I expect to be Queen Sugar’s most consistent and thoughtful season yet, in part because the kneeling episode doesn’t feel shoehorned into the show as a way to make it current. Instead, it is a natural outgrowth of the show’s continued reflection on black American life in the South. Furthermore, it becomes apparent by episode two that the kneeling incident will likely color the whole season. It turns out that the officer who harassed Micah targets black people generally. And because St. Josephine’s is so small, he’s also the parent of an athlete on the rival basketball squad.

There is no running from white supremacy in St. Josephine’s. There are no timeouts.

Season three shows what it feels like to push back against racism in a town where everyone knows everyone and a veneer of Southern hospitality is expected as a means of papering over racial hostility and inequity. What’s more, the third season is weaving Micah’s evolution in his thinking on race with his development as a teenager, pushing boundaries and differentiating himself from his mother. It is one of the most seamless examples I’ve seen of the everyday ways in which race insinuates itself into American life.

There is no running from white supremacy in St. Josephine’s. There are no timeouts. It is the white noise that colors life, whether you want it to or not. In that way, Queen Sugar is pushing back against the way larger real-life cultural forces compartmentalize the discomfort that the sight of a black person kneeling during the national anthem seems to stir up.

After all, this premiere lands just as the NFL has announced penalties for teams whose players kneel during the national anthem. And it is creating a storyline centered around kneeling high school students in the same year that ABC pulled an episode of black-ish that included a discussion about the same subject.

ABC has found itself in the midst of controversy this spring. Not only did it pull the kneeling episode of black-ish, but it also brought back Roseanne with a version that is far afield from the show’s working-class, feminist and anti-racist roots. Its title character is now a Trump supporter who’s fearful of her Muslim next-door neighbors. Nothing summed up the ethos of the Roseanne reboot more than one joke taking a cheap shot at two other ABC shows: Fresh Off the Boat and black-ish. Not only did ABC’s standards and practices gatekeepers allow the joke, in which the humor hinged on being dismissive of efforts to make TV more inclusive, but ABC president Channing Dungey defended it.

Would that Dungey were as vociferous in defending black-ish showrunner Kenya Barris. These two programming decisions raised questions about to whom the network was catering and to whom it was capitulating. Perhaps it’s not surprising that Barris reportedly wants to decamp for Netflix.

Racism is a fact of American life, so of course it’s part of sports, the arena that occupies so many of our television-viewing hours. It’s only natural that it’s going to come up in shows about black life, the same way police violence is part of so many shows that are by or about black people. Dear White People, which has found its voice in an excellent second season, brought a deft touch to the story of a student experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder after a campus police officer held him at gunpoint. Atlanta tackled the trauma of witnessing police violence in its season one finale. Even Insecure took on the anxiety triggered by being black and pulled over by a cop.

The existence of Queen Sugar, Dear White People, Atlanta and Insecure right alongside black-ish is an excellent illustration of why it’s important to have multiple creators of color writing from multiple perspectives at multiple networks. Only a few years ago, neither Queen Sugar nor Dear White People existed. Go back a few more years, and neither did the networks that carry them. FX, under the guidance of John Landgraf, only recently began its expansion of high-quality, quirky programming beyond white creators by hosting Atlanta.

Imagine if ABC still drew the audience numbers that it did in the 1990s — the decision to pull the black-ish episode would have been even bigger, given the Big Three networks’ outsized role in shaping pop culture. Without minimizing the broadcast network’s decision, we can be grateful for the fragmented nature of our current television climate. If a subject is too radioactive for one network, that doesn’t mean the topic simply won’t appear on TV.

Certainly there’s always been more creative freedom in cable and streaming than broadcast television. But when can a programming decision be characterized as creative differences, and when is it censorship of ideas about race, policing and protest?

In telling the stories of all-too-common realities for black Americans, Queen Sugar shows us why it’s good to have choices.

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.”

New Montgomery, Alabama, memorial recognizes black victims of lynchings It also highlights the trauma and toll that white supremacy has taken on America

Decades after black people were subjected to enslavement, lynchings and beatings by white mobs, a memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, is recognizing the victims and forcing America to acknowledge its ugly past.

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, opening today, is the nation’s first memorial dedicated to enslaved black people, victims of lynchings, and those who endured police brutality and injustice. The memorial is, in part, a display of the trauma that white supremacy has caused in America.

The memorial sits on 6 acres near the Alabama State Capitol. Within the bright greenery of trees and shrubs surrounding the site lie sculptures, art and various designs to drive the messages home. A memorial square in the inner yard contains 800 6-foot monuments; inscribed on the long corten steel columns are the names of those who suffered a grim fate, followed by a death date. Although many names line the columns, just as many are simply listed as “unknown.” The design was inspired by the Memorial to Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin and the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg.

Between 1877 and 1950, more than 4,400 black men, women and children were lynched, shot and beaten to death, according to the website. While many families were left to grieve over unrecognizable bodies, some loved ones remained missing and unable to receive a proper burial. The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) took an interest in these findings eight years ago and began extensive research on the history of lynchings in America. In their findings, the crew gained a better understanding of the true nature of the crimes that had taken place. Because of the terrorization and trauma being endured in the South, 6 million black people fled the area in search of refuge elsewhere.

Having gathered enough information, the crew created a report, Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror, that documented lynchings in 12 states.

“I’m not interested in talking about America’s history because I want to punish America,” EJI founder Bryan Stevenson told The New York Times. “I want to liberate America. And I think it’s important for us to do this as an organization that has created an identity that is as disassociated from punishment as possible.”

The memorial’s grand opening week will host several events. After the opening ceremony, which will feature civil rights activist John Lewis, other national leaders and a performance by BeBe Winans, there will be “justice summits” and guest speakers including journalist Jelani Cobb, writer and activist Gloria Steinem, and film director and producer Ava DuVernay. Topic discussions include race and implicit bias in education, climate change and environmental justice, reforming criminal justice and activism.

A full schedule of opening week events can be found here.

Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer Prize just shows how far hip-hop has taken us Jazz, rock and R&B all help us define who we are and show that ‘times are a-changin’

When Kendrick Lamar, a 30-year-old rapper, won the Pulitzer Prize for music, it was as if the millennials had followed the baby boomers in having one of their defining philosophers venerated in an unexpected way. In 2016, Bob Dylan, a bard for baby boomers — and, we like to think, for the ages — won the Nobel Prize in literature “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” He was the first songwriter to win the Nobel Prize in the literature category.

And earlier this month, Lamar won a Pulitzer Prize for his DAMN. recording, the first hip-hop artist to win in the music category.

Dylan’s surprising Nobel Prize win changed the conversation and the definitions of what could be considered literature, just as hip-hop and rap have challenged many notions about music and art.

Still, when I think of it, I heard a vague inkling of rap’s rise to primacy, if not Lamar’s Pulitzer Prize, in a Hartford, Connecticut, barbershop, although I didn’t know what I was hearing. Here is what happened.

Years ago, a man I think of as “Conscious Bob” led a conversation about music at a Hartford barbershop where he worked. I think of the man as “Conscious Bob” because Bob was his name and he once told anyone and everyone in the shop that he didn’t watch BET because there was nothing on the cable channel for a “conscious brother.”

As Bob talked, the 30-something government worker and barber brushed his shoulder-length locs from his shoulders. He was tall and thin, tightly coiled like one of those skinny cigars that cowboys smoked in 1960s Italian westerns.

Bob acted as the music conversation’s conductor, pointing his clippers at the participants when it was their turn to talk, even me.

I don’t usually talk in black barbershops; through the years, I’ve learned so much by listening. Black barbershops span the generations and our economic and color spectrums. Barbers, patrons and folks, just passing time, drop knowledge on everything from surviving bad bosses to surviving too much of a good time.

Consequently, when that barbershop conversation turned to music, I perked up. I like to think I know a little about music. Besides being a great fan of pop, rhythm and blues and the Great American Songbook, I’ve also written about jazz and classical music as a newspaper journalist.

But this conversation, though erudite, passionate and quick-moving, never landed on anything I knew much about. A baby boomer, I was about 10 to 15 years older than the other guys in the barbershop.

So nobody said a word about Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. Nobody said anything about Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions or Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. And not a word was spoken about Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys, the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band or Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, all celebrated masterworks, especially by baby boomers.

According to the consensus in the barbershop, the greatest albums (showing my age with that term) were all produced by rap artists, especially Nas, especially illimatic. I was out of it.

Damn.

In those days, I did little more than sample rap and its scandals and feuds, just enough to be current in a very surface way. But the barbershop conversation long ago announced to me that my generation’s grip on what was hip was loosening with time; the hip-hop generation was replacing the rock and soul generation’s bards, philosophers and gods. Nas and those who followed him would be venerated the way my cohorts had celebrated, even worshipped, Bob Dylan, the Beatles and Marvin Gaye.

Indeed, since my Hartford barbershop revelation, hip-hop and R&B have replaced rock as America’s favorite genre of music. The Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Hamilton has used rap to cast a multiracial and multicultural gaze upon the nation’s founding and its founders. And Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president, a baby boomer with millennial tastes in technology and music, has put rap on his playlist and the nation’s, including “Humble” from Lamar’s DAMN. recording.

Some lament the change that the rise of hip-hop and rap represent. They look backward to a time when America and the world danced to an American Motown beat or sound or a British Merseybeat or sound.

But no generation, no race, no single worldview can be the sole arbiter of what is hip, what music is serious and whose artists are important, at least not forever. The world makes no apology for that.

Damn.

A young Bob Dylan once told all who knew how to listen in the ’60s, the times are changing. It’s time to celebrate change.

DAMN. winning the Pulitzer prize signals a change that has been happening all around us for decades.

Today, hip-hop and rap, rippling crosscurrents, are broadening and deepening the mainstream in the arts and beyond, just as rock and jazz did before it.

Kendrick Lamar wins the Pulitzer Prize, and it is just the latest and most salient evidence of the change Dylan, now 76, once heralded: the change that always comes before most people know they need it.

Wyatt Cenac can’t fix the world, but he’s sure going to try The comedian’s new HBO show, ‘Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas’ isn’t about identifying everything wrong with the world. It’s about finding solutions.

The most unusual thing about Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas, the comedian and Daily Show alum’s new late-night show for HBO, is its startling focus on finding solutions to complex, scary, seemingly impossible problems.

This approach to late night, to comedy and to, well, life on earth is, frankly, surprising. After all, Cenac, 41, is a self-proclaimed nihilist. And his show, which premieres Friday night, joins a field of late-night comedy shows that, to one degree or another, are about all the ways our hair should be on fire because of nutjobs with too much power. They’re all influenced by the OG of this model, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, which called out hypocrisy and incompetence. Now we have:

  • Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: calls out corruption and incompetence
  • Full Frontal with Samantha Bee: calls out sexism and incompetence
  • The Rundown with Robin Thede: calls out racism and incompetence

The Late Show with Stephen Colbert: offers a nightly summation of all these things while making us laugh before we’re all vaporized in a nuclear Holocaust.

Perhaps sensing that there’s only so much ha-ha-hair-on-fire programming an audience can take, Cenac has steered Problem Areas in the other direction. While billionaires such as Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson may be looking for ways to bail on Earth, the vast majority of humans can’t afford to do that. The pragmatic approach, Cenac suggests, would be to make Earth work — you know, while it’s still here. This is particularly amusing given that Cenac’s last show, People of Earth, was a fictional comedy for TBS about a journalist investigating an alien invasion. Apparently the aliens aren’t going to save us.

And so, through 10 episodes, Cenac is taking a look at police violence and what can be done to curb it. His studio audience is composed not of other humans but of Siri and Alexa, and Cenac takes his television audience through his “problem areas” in the comfort of a ’70s news set appointed with lots of wood and earth tones. The show re-examines the death of Philando Castile with expert interviews, including of police officers.

The result is a show unlike anything else on late night, a mix of mirth, seriousness and palpable sensitivity. Problem Areas, whose executive producers include Oliver, Cenac and Oscar-winning documentary director Ezra Edelman, feels like a cross between 60 Minutes and Last Week Tonight, but hosted by a guy whose affect suggests he’s just taken couple of hits off a really good vape pen.

Perhaps most importantly, it’s interested in answering questions that too often are ignored. After showing a clip of the daughter of Castile’s girlfriend attempting to comfort her mother, Diamond Reynolds, while she’s handcuffed in the back of a police car, Cenac asks, “For the people of Philando Castile’s community around St. Paul, what needs to happen for them to feel safer? How do they get a different outcome?”

Can another late-night comedy news show change the world? Probably not. But maybe it can inspire us to think differently. And that’s a start.

Martin Luther King Jr’s funeral, a photographer and a photo that still makes us cry The story behind Moneta Sleet’s Pulitzer Prize winning photo

The proverb says that April showers bring May flowers. T.S. Eliot preferred the darker side, proclaiming April the “cruelest month.” For journalists, April showers can also mean Pulitzer Prizes.

This April also marks 50 years since the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968, and thus 50 years since the publication of a famous photograph showing the grieving widow of the fallen martyr. Coretta Scott King mourns at the funeral of her husband, her little daughter Bernice resting her head upon her mother’s lap.

Moneta Sleet, Jr.

Getty Images

That iconic black-and-white image of the veiled widow was taken by a man named Moneta Sleet Jr. (For the record, he used a Nikon camera with a 35 mm lens, with Kodak Tri-x film.) The following year, 1969, Sleet received news that he had been awarded a Pulitzer Prize. At that moment, Sleet became the first black man to win a Pulitzer and the first African-American journalist to win one as an individual rather than as part of a journalism team.

(The poet Gwendolyn Brooks won the prize for literature in 1950.)

It was in 1947, remember, that Jackie Robinson (whom Sleet also photographed) broke the color line in baseball. It took another 22 years before a black man crossed that line in the Pulitzer competition.

From 1955 until his death in 1996, Sleet worked for the Johnson Publishing Co. His images, especially in Jet and Ebony magazines, documented every step of the civil rights movement. Beyond that, he captured the work and achievements of black celebrities, performers and politicians in every corner of the country — but also in Africa and around the globe.

Sleet’s eyes were not on a Pulitzer Prize but on a higher calling: to document the life and times of a marginalized and persecuted people in all aspects of their lives, through triumphs, troubles and tragedies.

The historical collection Capture the Moment: The Pulitzer Prize Photographs describes Sleet’s most famous image and how it came to be captured on April 9, 1968:

“It has been just five days since a sniper’s bullet killed the civil rights leader. Coretta Scott King has discovered that the pool of journalists covering her husband’s funeral does not include a black photographer. She sends word: If Moneta Sleet is not allowed into the church, there will be no photographers.”

Mrs. Martin Luther King, Jr., comforts her youngest daughter Bernice, 5, during services in the Ebenezer Baptist Church, 4/9.

In a Johnson Publishing collection of Sleet’s work titled Special Moments in African-American History, 1955-1996: The Photographs of Moneta Sleet, Jr., Ebony Magazine’s Pulitzer Prize Winner, Sleet offers his own, more modest version of events:

“There was complete pandemonium. Nothing was yet organized because the people from SCLC [Southern Christian Leadership Conference] were still in a state of shock. We had the world press descending upon Atlanta, plus the FBI, who were investigating the assassination.

“We were trying to get an arrangement to shoot in the church. They were going to pool it. Normally, the pool meant news services: Life, Time and Newsweek. When the pool was selected, there were no black photographers from the black media on it. Lerone Bennett and I got in touch with Mrs. King through Andy Young. She said if somebody from Johnson Publishing is not on the pool, there will be no pool.

“We … made arrangements with AP that they would process the black and white film immediately after the service and put it on the wire. Later, I found out which shot they sent out. … The day of the funeral, Bob Johnson, the executive editor of Jet, had gotten to the church and he beckoned for me and said, ‘There’s a spot right here.’ It was a wonderful spot.

“What I noticed … this was prior to the funeral — was the little girl fidgeting there on her mother’s lap. I could relate to that, being a father and having a child close to the same age. Mrs. King was sitting there, stoic and stately, but it was specifically the child who I was thinking about at the time.”

In a profession whose practitioners are expected to bring a certain detachment to their work, Sleet saw no reason to apologize for his commitment to the cause of racial equality or for his emotional involvement with those he photographed.

“I wasn’t there as an objective reporter,” he once said. “I had something to say and was trying to show one side of it. We didn’t have any problems finding the other side.” The side of racism and intolerance.

At the same time, his professional standards gave him the foundation to create his best work. He said of covering the King funeral: “Professionally, I was doing what I had been trained to do, and I was glad of that because I was very involved emotionally. If I hadn’t been there working, I would have been off crying like everybody else.”

In the Johnson collection of his work, there is a beautiful photo of Sleet and his family. They are beaming. His daughter sits on the floor holding telegrams of congratulations. Sleet is holding his Pulitzer Prize. This is from the May 22, 1969, edition of Jet magazine:

“You must be joking” were the words Moneta Sleet uttered when informed that he had won the 1969 Pulitzer Prize in news feature photography. “I knew that it was a good photograph, but I knew there were lots of good photographs in the running. So, there’s no need of my lying, I was quite happy to win the award. And my wife, Juanita, and the kids, Michael, Gregory and Lisa, were thrilled.”

At the time, magazine features were not eligible for Pulitzer Prizes. Sleet’s image became eligible because of its distribution by The Associated Press.

The Rev. Kenny Irby, a veteran photojournalism leader and a former faculty member at the Poynter Institute, knew Sleet and looked up to him as a role model and mentor. Via email, he responded to questions about Sleet and his legacy:

As an African-American, a photojournalist, a pastor, and a father, what do you see when you look at the famous photo taken by Moneta Sleet?

I see great pain and promise in this photograph. Moneta gave me a copy in 1996 after the Olympic Games, which was his last major assignment. For me, it’s the obvious pain for the murdered martyr for justice and peace. I see the promise in his daughter Bernice, who would pick up the baton of her father’s work. And I see the promise affirmed by Moneta’s Pulitzer Prize, an honor which paved a path for me and generations of other photojournalists.

This is a black-and-white photograph. What do you see technically that interests you?

The elegance of the black-and-white composition has long transfixed me. I love the stark white dress of Bernice, juxtaposed against the black dress and glove. Then there are shimmering shades of gray that flow from the veil throughout the photograph. Yet, the sadness of the eyes in the photograph says all that needs to be said.

Access is so important to any successful photojournalist. What did it take for a black photographer in the 1960s to get access to important social and political events?

That’s a really great question. It took courage and connections. It was actually Coretta who took the bold stand and insisted that Moneta would be the pool photographer while there was one other photographer inside. Flip Schulke, who was white, also had a relationship with Dr. King.

For Jet and Ebony magazines, Sleet covered the civil rights movement, issues related to Africa, the black social and celebrity scene. How would you summarize his contribution to journalism?

Simply put, he was one of the trailblazers — a tremendously kind human being, a great journalist and nurturing mentor to many.