The untold story of wrestler Andrew Johnson’s dreadlocks How the high school athlete endured his infamous haircut

When Andrew Johnson walked into The Line Up barbershop last April, all eyes focused on him. Since that awful day in December when a referee had forced the 16-year-old Buena Regional High School wrestler to either cut his dreadlocks or forfeit his match, he felt as if the world was constantly watching him, especially in his small New Jersey town. Watching and whispering about things beyond his control.

Yo, that’s that kid who got his locs chopped by the white ref.

Andrew, who goes by Drew, sat down in Mikey Morales’ chair. Morales has tended Drew’s hair since middle school. After a video of Drew’s shearing attracted a massive social media audience last December, Morales had reshaped Drew’s hair into shorter dreadlocks that radiated from his head.

But now Drew had a new problem. The night before, he had grabbed a pair of scissors from the kitchen and hacked at what remained of his dreads, then asked his little sister to finish the job. Drew loved his hair but was tired of it causing so much trouble. Tired of being treated differently and made into something he was not. Tired of looking in the mirror and seeing the referee, Alan Maloney, looking back.

Since the incident last December, support for Andrew Johnson, seen here during a bout on Jan. 5, has poured in from celebrities, pro athletes and the governor of New Jersey. But others, including some of his schoolmates and other residents of his mostly white town, defended referee Alan Maloney as simply enforcing the rules.

ANDREW MILLS/NJ ADVANCE MEDIA/BARCROFT MEDIA

Maloney already had a racist incident in his past before telling Drew that his hair was “unnatural” and giving him 90 seconds to cut it. What resulted was far more than a humiliating haircut for one high school student. It became a shared and painful experience for many who see how issues of identity, subjugation, power and freedom are intertwined in African American hair.

Support for Drew poured in from celebrities, pro athletes and the governor of New Jersey. But others, including some of Drew’s schoolmates and other residents of his mostly white town, defended Maloney as simply enforcing the rules. Another local contingent believed that even if Maloney was wrong, Drew should have just shaken it off and moved on.

The shy, quiet teen was trapped in a suffocating bubble. Maybe those kitchen scissors were meant to let in some air.

The barber surveyed the damage and looked at Drew’s father, Charles Johnson III, who goes by his middle name of Sheridan. Sheridan and his three sons come to Morales once a week. Their hairstyles vary, but they always stay crisply edged and trimmed. The Johnsons are not a family who walks around looking jacked up.

The barbers and most of their clientele are Puerto Rican here at The Line Up, which is located in one of the strip malls dotting the South Jersey farmlands between Philadelphia and Atlantic City. Drew, too, is more Puerto Rican than anything else, despite being widely portrayed as strictly African American when his haircut entered the viral pantheon of American racial injustice.

During several trips to Buena Vista Township, and while attending several of the wrestling team’s home and away matches, I had in-depth conversations with Drew, his parents and siblings, close friends of the Johnson family and their attorney. I talked to Drew’s schoolmates, coaches, other members of the Buena community, and wrestlers and coaches from around South Jersey. The Johnsons declined to be interviewed on the record. Some of the descriptions of Drew’s emotions come from his attorney; others from people in Buena who interacted with him. Maloney declined an interview request, and his attorney didn’t respond to phone messages.

What I saw in Buena was a close-knit, mixed-race family crushed by our country’s tectonic conflict over racial justice and demographic change. This took place in a small town with a rich wrestling tradition where people say sports brings them together, even as they are further apart than most want to believe.

Watching the video of the match, I saw Maloney give Drew 90 seconds to shatter either a pillar of his identity or his bond with his teammates and his home. Sitting in the barber chair beneath Morales’ buzzing clippers 3½ months later, Drew was still trying to reassemble the pieces of who he used to be.


Hair is Africa’s most enduring marker in America, the phenotype most likely to persist through generations of interracial children. Hair is what black folks look at when trying to determine who is one of us. Many mixed-race people are not permitted to fully determine their own identity because of how the world insists on defining them. That’s when hair can represent a manifesto of self.

Sheridan Johnson is the son of a black father and a Puerto Rican mother. He looks black, grew up with his black grandparents and has always identified himself as black. His hair is cut close but dark on top, with a fade melting into his thick, impeccably groomed beard.

Wrestler Andrew Johnson forced to cut hair before match

Sheridan’s wife, Rosa, has a Puerto Rican father and an Irish mother. Rosa has straight, shoulder-length brown hair and fair skin. She values her Puerto Rican heritage and maiden name of Santiago, but much of the world sees her as a white lady with black kids.

The four Johnson children are Drew, who is now 17, 13-year-old Cami, 15-year-old Nate and 19-year-old Matt. Each of their complexions is a different shade of brown. Their hair, too, varies in texture and degree of curl. Drew has the lightest skin, and freckles. He cultivated his dreadlocks in early 2018 by rubbing his hair nightly with a towel. Cami is the darkest, with caramel-colored skin and hair that, when I saw her, fell past her shoulders in cascading coils. Cami is the only sibling who sort of considers herself black. Her brothers never defined themselves that way. If pressed, the Johnson boys will break themselves down mathematically: 50% Puerto Rican, 25% black and 25% white.

Last December, Drew’s calculated identity went up in smoke. That’s when the world decided he was black.


Long, straight roads slice through the farms and woods of Buena Vista Township, 45 minutes southeast of Philly. Tractors creep through fields of tomatoes, peppers and corn. Farmers from Italy arrived in the mid-1850s because the sandy soil was good for grapes. The area remains heavily working-class Italian: Buena is pronounced “BYOO-nuh” because of how it was said by those from the old country. The census says 75% of the township’s 7,299 residents are white, 13% are Hispanic and 7.5% are black.

On Dec. 19, furrowed empty earth ran right up to the parking lot of Buena Regional High School, where the Johnson family gathered to watch Drew wrestle. It was not a special occasion. Where you see one Johnson, you often see them all.

The meet took place in the Charles Johnson Memorial Gymnasium, which is named after Sheridan’s grandfather, who was a beloved custodian at the school. The opponent was rival Oakcrest High. Buena had beaten Oakcrest eight years in a row, but this meet was expected to be close. They were the top two teams in the Cape Atlantic League’s National Division, so the division title was likely on the line. Every match would be crucial.

Wrestling has been part of the fabric of Buena since the early 1970s, when Mickey Caprese, who owned a greeting card store across from Buena’s junior high school, got a bunch of neighborhood kids together and started a youth program. Buena and wrestling are a good match. They’re both tough but not loud, small but proud. There’s no room for pretty boys. Scarred hands or cauliflowered ears are a mark of pride.

New Jersey’s rules prohibit a wrestler’s hair from falling past his earlobes, shirt collar or eyebrows. But that was not Alan Maloney’s issue with Drew. He cited a rule saying hair must be in its natural state.

ELIZABETH ROBERTSON/PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER/NEWSCOM

“We’re just a small community with values and work ethic,” said Doug Castellari, one of Caprese’s first recruits. He became an All-American at Temple University in 1984, coached the Buena team for almost three decades and is one of five Buena alumni in the South Jersey Wrestling Hall of Fame.

“Wrestling’s not a sport you can just go out there and play,” said Castellari, who is still fit from daily workouts and tanned from running his family’s farm. “You have to put a lot into it just to win one match. You have to get a kid to buy in. You have to dedicate yourself and put in the time.”

Castellari’s son Eric wrestled for his dad and now volunteers with the Buena wrestling team. “Buena is not a participation trophy kind of place,” Eric said. “Other sports, there’s somebody next to you. This is one-on-one. If you mentally break, if you give up, you will be abused. Nobody can save you. There’s no safety over the top.

“Nobody realizes how hard those six minutes are.”


Five minutes and 30 seconds into the December match, blood dripped down Drew’s bottom lip. Cramps wracked both calves. He was losing 2-1 and trapped on his stomach underneath his opponent. The shock of having his dreadlocks cut before the match had given way to the desperation of trying to survive.

Drew is not the most talented wrestler in his family. That would be his younger brother, Nate, who started varsity as a freshman at 113 pounds. Drew didn’t join the varsity until his sophomore year, when his record was 13-12 with six pins. In some of the losses, he hit a mental wall and couldn’t climb over, one of his coaches told me. Drew let himself think he could not win.

Drew had big goals last season, his junior year, in the 120-pound division. It was cool having his brother on the team. Nate wouldn’t have to learn by getting abused on the wrong side of the wall.

Referees are supposed to handle hair and other issues at the pre-meet weigh-ins, but on that day Maloney was late. He conducted the “skin check” about 6:45 p.m., 15 minutes before the 7 p.m. start, according to a statement submitted to the school district by Buena’s head wrestling coach, George Maxwell. Maloney told Drew he needed to shave. After Drew returned from the locker room with no stubble, Maloney said he had “concerns” about Drew’s and Nate’s hair, according to the statement and the Johnson family’s attorney, Dominic A. Speziali.

Drew returned to the locker room to get a cap. Maloney left because the meet was about to begin. In the first match, refereed by Maloney, Nate wrestled without a cap and lost. Drew’s match came second.

When Drew was on the mat about to shake hands with his opponent, Maloney stopped him and said his cap was illegal because it didn’t attach to his headgear. Drew and his team did not have an attachable cap because they didn’t think it was needed. Drew had wrestled earlier that season without one.

New Jersey’s rules prohibit a wrestler’s hair from falling past his earlobes, shirt collar or eyebrows. But that was not Maloney’s issue with Drew. He cited a rule saying hair must be in its natural state.

“It’s unnatural,” Maloney told Drew and his coaches, according to a letter sent by Speziali to the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights, which is investigating what happened.

Andrew Johnson (left) wrestles for Buena Regional High School against Cherokee High School’s Andrew Aromando (right) during a match in New Jersey on Jan. 11. Aromando won the match 4-2.

ELIZABETH ROBERTSON/PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER/NEWSCOM

Rosa and Sheridan sat in the bleachers, unable to hear what was going on.

Maxwell and his assistants argued Drew’s case. After less than two minutes of discussion, Maloney turned his back on them and twirled his finger to start the 90-second injury clock. When it ran out, Drew would forfeit.

It didn’t take Drew long to decide. Wrestlers make immense sacrifices — running in rubber suits to cut weight, starving themselves, vomit-inducing practices. The whole team had suffered to beat Oakcrest. If Drew didn’t wrestle, and win, they could lose the meet and the division title. He did what any Buena wrestler would have done. “I’m going to cry, but cut it,” he told his coach.

As a trainer began to hack off fistfuls of locs with a pair of tape scissors, a wave of anguished noise rolled down from the packed bleachers. Shouts of “Noooo!” can be heard on the video.

Rosa did not run down to the mat. Neither did Sheridan. Later, they would be flamed on social media for not stepping in. But the situation was out of their hands. Would it have been less humiliating for Drew if his parents made him forfeit the match? How much hair would Drew have had left by that point? What could Rosa and Sheridan have done as the clock ticked down to zero?

When about half of Drew’s dreadlocks were gone, Maloney deemed him acceptable. Drew walked onto the mat with tears in his eyes, his face a mask of hurt and anger, breathing so hard his cheeks puffed out from his face.

Oakcrest’s David Flippen bloodied Drew’s lip in the first period. Watching the video, there are moments where Flippen’s hair flops past his eyebrows, which is supposed to be illegal. Drew’s legs convulsed with cramps. With less than a minute to go in the match, Flippen was on top of Drew, leading 2-1. Drew escaped, earning one point to tie the match. He was poised on top of the wall. Sudden-death overtime: The first wrestler to score again would win.

Less than a minute into the overtime, Drew emerged from a tangle of limbs and took Flippen down. Maloney blew his whistle. Drew staggered upright, let Maloney briefly raise his right arm, then yanked it away and stumbled off the mat.

Buena won the meet and at the end of the season won the division with a 6-0 record. Oakcrest finished 5-1.

Forty-five minutes after the match, Drew sat in a hallway, tears streaming down his face. Rosa massaged his trembling legs. He had broken down the wall. But another was rising in its place.


In the days after the video detonated on social media, reporters circled the high school. TV trucks parked outside the Johnsons’ house, right up to Christmas Eve. Sheridan, a cable TV equipment installer, and Rosa, an elementary school teacher in the Buena district, were deluged with comments, ranging from well-intentioned to overbearing to hurtful.

Man, Drew is a trouper. Glad he’s done with all that stuff. … What’s the big deal? … It’s just hair, it’ll grow back. …

Drew sat in his classes in a daze. He walked the halls with his headphones clamped tight. With his new celebrity supporters and fame, he felt yanked from euphoria to anger to depression. One day he left the wrestling room and walked past a basketball game. He felt every eye in the gym on him as he left the building.

Buena’s next match was canceled, with no clear explanation given. The match after that, the referee called the school and said Drew’s hair was still illegal. That match was canceled too. Now the whole team was being penalized. Nobody wants to suffer through making weight for nothing. Drew struggled with whether the canceled matches were his fault, and whether he should quit the team.

He decided against it. He was a varsity starter. The team needed him. Who knows what foolishness Nate would get into in practice without Drew. And if you mess around in practice, the matches will be hell.

Buena’s Andrew Johnson (left) has his 195-pound teammate Sammy Drogo (right) in his ear as they prepare to wrestle against Clayton at the Williamstown Duals in New Jersey on Jan. 5.

ANDREW MILLS/NJ ADVANCE MEDIA/BARCROFT MEDIA

Most of all, Drew just wanted to wrestle.

He got pinned in the two matches after his hair was cut, then recovered to win eight in a row at the end of January. He did well enough at the district meet to qualify for regionals but lost in the first round and ended his season with a 19-10 record and eight pins. Nate finished 21-7 with 15 pins.

The Johnson family has made no public comment since a statement six days after the December match.

“Wrestling has taught Andrew to be resilient in the face of adversity,” Rosa and Sheridan said in the statement. “As we move forward, we are comforted by both the strength of Andrew’s character and the support he’s received from the community. We will do all that we can to make sure that no student-athlete is forced to endure what Andrew experienced.”


There is a long history of white people trying to legislate and regulate the gravity-defying, shape-shifting glory of black hair. White people may think their rules are neutral, but they come from a mindset that, consciously or not, defines white hair as normal and black hair as deviant. Black hair must be controlled, conform or cut down. Its mere existence is often seen as illegal, from a North Carolina pool banning swimmers with locs to a Texas junior high school coloring in a boy’s part with a Sharpie.

Maloney has a horseshoe of dark hair around the sides of a bald scalp. He is 63 years old, about 5 feet, 7 inches tall, with a paunch and an outsize reputation built on four decades of refereeing in South Jersey. He has held several offices in the New Jersey Wrestling Officials Association, or NJWOA.

Maloney is an extremely knowledgeable official but also abrasive, frequently late to matches and a showboat, according to three wrestling coaches I spoke with and other coaches interviewed by NJ Advance Media. What the coaches didn’t need to tell me, because it received statewide media coverage, is that Maloney once called a black referee the N-word. Maloney was briefly suspended, but his punishment was overturned by the NJWOA.

All this history set the context for Maloney calling Drew’s hair “unnatural.”

The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) follows the wrestling regulations of the National Federation of State High School Associations. The rulebook says that “the hair, in its natural state, shall not extend below the top of an ordinary shirt collar in the back; and on the sides, the hair shall not extend below earlobe level; in the front, the hair shall not extend below the eyebrows.” In a photo of Drew’s hair just before the match, he did not violate any of those restrictions.

The rulebook says that “the hair, in its natural state, shall not extend below the top of an ordinary shirt collar in the back; and on the sides, the hair shall not extend below earlobe level; in the front, the hair shall not extend below the eyebrows.” This is a photo of Drew Johnson’s hair just before the match.

SNJ Today via Johnson attorney’s Jan. 9 letter to the state Division on Civil Rights

Amid the postmatch outrage, the NJSIAA and NJWOA agreed not to assign Maloney to any more matches until an investigation was completed. Three weeks later, Roy Dragon, who holds offices with both organizations, sent an email to NJWOA chapters to clarify the hair rules.

Dragon’s email tried to outlaw the hair that Drew still had left. The email, which was obtained by NJ Advance Media, showed examples of what it called illegal hair that required a cap, including this photo.

But the hair in the photograph was actually legal, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. Asked by local media about that contradiction, NJSIAA executive director Larry White sent out another email, which included this guidance from the national rules federation:

“There is a wide spectrum of modern hair styles that might give the appearance that they are in violation of the hair rule, but in actuality they are just creative expressions of today’s youth,” the guidance said. It defined hair in its natural state as “how your hair appears when you wake up in the morning.”

But that still leaves room for judgment about what is “natural.” Can you wrestle with hair dyed orange? With gelled hair?

Can the people who run South Jersey wrestling recognize their assumption that everything white is normal and anything else needs to conform or get cut down?


It’s false to say that mixed-race people are caught between two worlds, but it’s a fact that the reaction to Drew’s haircut placed the Johnsons in a bind.

The support Drew received, locally and beyond, helped him and his family get through the experience. Filmmaker Ava DuVernay tweeted, “I don’t just wear locs. They are a part of me … So to watch this young man’s ordeal, wrecked me. The criminalization of what grows from him. The theft of what was his.” New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said he was “deeply disturbed.”

But many supporters focused their outrage on Drew’s coaches, teammates, trainer, school and neighbors. “Why didn’t people as a group walk out of that room? It speaks to the culture that this is acceptable,” Rachel Green, a member of the civil rights group Action Together New Jersey, said at a public meeting called by the school district. Action Together called for racial bias training for the entire Buena district.

In a passionate Twitter video, four-time world champion and Olympic gold medalist Jordan Burroughs, who grew up 15 minutes from Buena and attended the same high school as Maloney, told Drew: “The fact that the parents and the coaches in that gymnasium allowed for you to be put in that position and didn’t protect you is absolutely shameful.

“The bottom line is this young man, especially a young black man in a traditionally and predominantly Caucasian sport, out there defenseless, you guys gotta help this young man. You gotta protect him,” Burroughs said. He criticized Maloney — “You gotta pay the consequences of your actions” — and later FaceTimed with Drew to offer more support.

Drew’s coaches did argue on his behalf. The trainer reluctantly did what Drew asked her to do. Drew wasn’t thinking about systemic racism when Maloney started that 90-second clock. He was thinking about a division title.

And yet …

Buena can be uncomfortable for people of color. It’s one of 53 New Jersey towns that voted for Donald Trump in 2016 after choosing Barack Obama in 2012. There is prejudice against Mexicans who come for agricultural work. Since Trump was elected president, a few Confederate flags have been spotted flying from pickup trucks at Buena high school football games.

“Buena is no different than most of the communities around here,” said the Rev. David Mallory, the black pastor of First Baptist Church in adjacent Richland. “There are still racial tensions in a lot of areas, but I also see more interracial activity that is favorable.”

Since Drew’s hair was cut, much of Buena has assumed a defensive crouch. Many residents don’t want to acknowledge the role of race in what happened to Drew.

“Ambivalence toward racism is a form of racism in itself,” Speziali told me.

Rosa and Sheridan grew up in Buena and enjoy living there, have meaningful friendships among people of all races and never told me anything negative about their home. But it was clear to me that Buena could become an inhospitable place if they spoke publicly about the toll Drew’s humiliation took on their family.

The uproar over Drew’s hair “upset me because it became a racial issue. Buena is a melting pot,” said one resident who is close to the Johnson family. The woman, who is white, did not want to be named in order to avoid upsetting the Johnsons. “My boys were brought up not to judge people based on color. We have all types of kids staying over at our house. We’re just a little town, as far from racist as possible.”

Well, maybe not that far.

“There’s a few racists, like anywhere else,” she continued. “But we’re family.”


A three-minute drive from The Line Up, inside the Sports Cuts barbershop, owner Frank Baldissero rings up haircuts on a 1950s-era R.C. Allen cash register. A 1932 photograph of Rockefeller Center skyscraper workers eating lunch in midair hangs on the wall. A grease board has customer appointments written into 15-minute time slots. “That’s my computer,” said Baldissero, who has been here 31 years.

The Johnson family, pictured from left to right: Matt, Rosa, Drew, Nate, Cami and Sheridan.

Johnson Family

At Sports Cuts, Maloney is the hero and the Johnsons are villains. “The kid got away with it for some number of matches and finally got a ref who followed the rules,” said Baldissero, whose head matches his name. “They didn’t enforce the rules until that point in time, and that’s it.”

“The media left out that no adults or coaches made him follow the rules,” chimed in Katrina D’Allessandro. Her son Will was getting his hair cut for the prom, a fade with bangs hanging down over the front.

“It was upsetting to a lot of people at school,” Will said. “Buena isn’t a racist school. We’re all diverse, we have different views. We’re all human. It’s just a matter of rules, I guess. The rules are that hair has to be a certain length. You can’t really have dreads.”

“The parents and the kid, they should step up and say this isn’t about race, it’s about rules. The kid didn’t follow the rules,” said Baldissero.

“The media is way out of whack,” the barber continued. “They turned it into a racial thing. It got to be a racial thing based on what the ref did years ago. People change. I’m sure he’s not the same person he was back then.”

What Maloney did “years ago” happened in 2016, during an informal gathering of referees after they worked a Jersey Shore tournament. During a disagreement about homemade wine, Maloney poked a black referee named Preston Hamilton in the chest and called him the N-word. Hamilton, a former wrestler, responded by body-slamming Maloney.

The NJWOA was asked to discipline Maloney, who was NJWOA membership chairman and training supervisor at the time. He apologized to Hamilton and volunteered to take alcohol awareness and sensitivity courses. The NJWOA ethics committee decided that Maloney should be suspended from refereeing for one year. The committee also suspended Hamilton for “assault.”

Both men appealed. Ethics appeals are handled by NJWOA officers, several of whom had been friends with Maloney for decades. They voted to rescind both suspensions, outraging a swath of the South Jersey wrestling community. Numerous schools told the NJWOA not to assign Maloney to their meets.

Maloney wasn’t interested in public contrition. “I really don’t think this should go any further than it’s gone anyhow. … It was two men, a group of guys, having fun and it was just a slip-up. If you can’t see past that, then I don’t know what to say. I made a mistake and I apologized for it,” he told the Courier-Post newspaper.

It was not his first mistake. In 2012, Maloney told a 6-year-old wrestler that he couldn’t compete with dreadlocks because “hair doesn’t naturally look like that,” according to a statement by a parent who came forward to state civil rights investigators after Drew’s haircut. Finally, “a younger referee, who was a person of color, told him that my son’s hair was natural and he was able to wrestle with it,” according to the statement, which was obtained by NJ Advance Media. Maloney also was accused of kicking an 11-year-old mixed-race wrestler after he wandered onto the mat during a match.

Maloney owns an auto repair garage in West Berlin, about 30 minutes north of Buena. I stopped by one afternoon in May and walked around the gray building with three car bays. A police car was up on one lift. I asked a mechanic if Maloney was around, and he went to get him.

I waited in the garage’s tiny office. Several NJWOA awards hung on the wall. “Presented in recognition for your outstanding achievements, leadership and contributions to New Jersey Scholastic Wrestling,” read one faded plaque. Nearby was a framed newspaper article from Maloney’s 1989 induction into the South Jersey Wrestling Hall of Fame. The pinnacle of his competitive career was finishing fourth in the state in 1974. He started reffing two years later.

A short white man with a cigar jammed into his mouth entered the office. He was not Maloney. “Who’s calling?” the man asked. I told him.

“You have to leave,” the man said, and pointed at the door.

Maloney has filed a legal notice preserving his right to sue the Buena school district and 11 other possible defendants, not including the Johnson family. He is claiming defamation of character and emotional distress.


Mikey Morales spun Drew around in his barber chair and went to work on what was left of Drew’s dreadlocks. Hair fell to the floor, just like on the mat four months earlier. Only this time, Drew was reclaiming his identity as a mixed-race, bighearted athlete in a small town that doesn’t fully understand what it means to be Drew Johnson.

Drew had played baseball as a sophomore but decided not to go out for the team this past spring. He did go to the prom. He got an after-school job busing tables. Last summer, he worked on a farm during tomato harvest and received an all-expenses-paid scholarship to attend Burroughs’ wrestling camp in Nebraska. Nate went to the camp too. Drew is looking forward to wrestling his senior year with Nate. Their bond is closer than ever.

The civil rights division of the state attorney general’s office is investigating the incident, along with the NJSIAA. Their findings will determine whether Maloney will referee again.

Thanks to the publicity over Drew’s hair, other dreadlocks will thrive. California just banned employers and schools from discriminating against people based on their hair. A similar bill is pending in New Jersey.

Maloney saw Drew as another black boy who should have followed the rules. Now rules are changing because of Drew.

Morales snapped off his clippers. Drew looked at himself in the mirror. The sides of his hair were faded close to his scalp. A low carpet of hair lay on top. From the crown grew one last dreadlock, uncut, in its natural state, with inseparable strands of Africa, Europe, the Caribbean, and the United States of America.

Exploring the intersection of sports and criminal justice reform Maya Moore, Michael Rubin discuss how athletes are effecting change

WASHINGTON — The time for national criminal justice reform is now and the opportunity for athletes to effect that change has never been greater.

That was the primary takeaway from a discussion Tuesday centered on criminal justice reform and sports, held in Washington, D.C. The conversation, hosted by The Undefeated and The Marshall Project, featured WNBA superstar Maya Moore, Philadelphia 76ers co-owner Michael Rubin and The Undefeated columnist Clinton Yates.

During a two-hour discussion, the group covered an array of topics ranging from prosecutorial misconduct to the impact of athlete platforms.

Rubin was propelled into criminal justice reform after being present in the courtroom where his close friend, rapper Meek Mill, was sentenced to two to four years in prison when a judge ruled he had violated his probation. Rubin said the moment changed his life.

“I watched a probation officer recommend a reduced sentence. I watched a district attorney recommend a reduced sentence. Then I watched a judge send him to jail for two to four years for not committing a crime. I was shook to my core,” Rubin said.

In January, Rubin and Mill launched the Reform Alliance along with New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, Brooklyn Nets co-owner Clara Wu Tsai and rapper/entrepreneur Jay-Z. The initiative was started with a mission to overhaul the probation and parole system. The group has a goal of freeing at least 1 million people caught up in the system within the next five years.

During the discussion, Rubin said he believes that Mill would still be in prison today if it weren’t for so many athletes who were front and center pushing for his release. He is channeling that approach for the Reform Alliance, which will aim to leverage the likeness and following of athletes and celebrities to tell the “crazy” stories of everyday citizens.“What we’re going to do with the Reform Alliance is we’re going to have big celebrities, athletes and influencers tell everyday stories,” Rubin said. “We’re trying to find the person you’ve never heard of, find a crazy story and then have people tell the story on social media.”

Philadelphia 76ers co-owner Michael G. Rubin sits on a panel discussing the intersection of criminal justice and sports on Sept. 17 at The Google Space in Washington D.C. Rubin was propelled into criminal justice reform after his close friend, rapper Meek Mill, was sentenced to two to four years in prison when a judge ruled he had violated his probation.

Jeff DiNicola

Rubin’s Alliance Reform partner Jay-Z made waves last month when he signed a multiyear partnership with the NFL to produce its Super Bowl halftime show and amplify the league’s social justice initiatives. Rubin strongly defended Jay-Z’s motives for partnering with the NFL, which have been criticized by some as monetizing a movement largely propelled by Colin Kaepernick’s protests.

“This is a guy who does not care about money, he cares about doing right,” Rubin said about Jay-Z. “The reason he got involved with the NFL is because he felt from the inside he could make a real difference. Anybody who is questioning Jay-Z, they don’t know what he’s about.”

Moore, an example of an athlete attempting to use her platform to enact change in the criminal justice system, shook up basketball when she announced in February that she would sit out the WNBA season. Moore has only spoken publicly on a handful of occasions since her announcement, focusing her year away from basketball on her family and her ministry work. She’s also dedicated much of her time to the criminal case of Jonathan Irons, who has been incarcerated since 1997 after being found guilty of burglary and assault with a deadly weapon and given a 50-year sentence. Moore, who met Irons through her family when she was 18, believes Irons was wrongly convicted.

Moore said the deeper she got into Irons’ case, the more she learned about the infrastructure of the criminal justice system and how it operates, giving her added motivation to educate communities about the problems pertaining to social justice occurring in their neighborhoods.

“Through getting to know Jonathan and his story, the world of criminal justice reform, mass incarceration and racial equality have become so real to me. Part of what I want to do when I tell people about Jonathan’s story is not just look at this story but look at the stories in your community.”

Four-time WNBA champion Maya Moore speaks on a panel discussing the intersection of criminal justice and sports on Sept. 17 at The Google Space in Washington D.C. Moore shook up the basketball world when she announced in February that she would sit out the 2019 WNBA season.

Jeff DiNicola

When asked by a member of the audience to detail why she didn’t play in the WNBA this year, Moore said a large part of her decision was to ensure that she would be available to see Irons’ legal proceedings through. Irons’ evidentiary hearing to potentially reopen his case — which Moore plans to attend, according to a report by The Associated Press — is on Oct. 9 in Missouri. For context, the WNBA playoffs, which began last week, could run as late as Oct. 10.

“It’s extremely hard to be engaged in these issues and be at the top of your craft,” Moore said. “I couldn’t imagine what this year would look like for me if I was fully invested in my team and trying to bring Jonathan home and raise awareness for some of these causes.”

Moore emphasized that Irons’ story is just one of many that require attention and education.

“This is a real-life story. There are more Jonathans out there.”

TIFF 2019: ‘Clemency’ and ‘Just Mercy’ offer two differing perspectives on death row One asks us to put ourselves in the position of a warden. The other follows a lawyer seeking justice.

TORONTO — Two films at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival offer different perspectives of how death row affects those closest to it when people are wrongly sentenced to die.

Clemency is the sophomore feature effort from writer-director Chinonye Chukwu, who also directed the 2012 film alaskaLand. It stars Alfre Woodard as Bernadine, a prison warden who grows more and more conflicted over her role in the execution of prisoners. It’s bad enough when Bernadine witnesses an execution via lethal injection that turns into a moment of torture, first when the emergency medical technician administering the IV cannot find a vein, and then when the drugs take longer to work than they’re supposed to, leaving the prisoner in agony.

Alfre Woodard as Bernadine Williams in Clemency, is a prison warden who grows conflicted over her role in the execution of prisoners.

courtesy of TIFF

Then, Bernadine struggles to reconcile what it means to be good at her job with her own opinions, as she follows the case of another death row inmate, Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge). As it becomes clear to Bernadine that Anthony is probably innocent, she tries to maintain order and composure in her prison. But the energy it takes to maintain her professional demeanor at work means that something else must be sacrificed, and in Bernadine’s case, it’s her marriage. The more her husband (Wendell Pierce) attempts to get close to her, the more she pulls away. Bernadine must ask herself: Is it possible to be ethical, to be empowered, when being skilled at one’s job means ensuring that the state’s unjust decisions are completed with order and clockwork precision?

Then there’s Just Mercy from director Destin Daniel Cretton (I Am Not a Hipster, Short Term 12). Co-produced by star Michael B. Jordan and Macro, the company of former William Morris agent Charles D. King. If Clemency is an examination of the toll of complicity, Just Mercy is a journey into the psychic and spiritual rewards and pitfalls of fighting injustice. It tells the story of a real-life civil rights hero: Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. Stevenson is probably best known as the person behind the new lynching memorial and museum in Montgomery, Alabama, but he has spent decades working to free innocent men, most of them black, from death row.

While it’s rewarding work, it’s not easy, which Stevenson, played by Michael B. Jordan, learns firsthand when he moves to Monroe County, Alabama, after graduating from Harvard Law. Stevenson tries to get a stay of execution for Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan), a Vietnam veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. In the war, he was a hero, an expert at defusing bombs. But back home and neglected by the country he served, Herbert ends up listening to the voices in his head telling him to build an explosive. He kills a woman, and then the state of Alabama moves to kill him. The possibility of sending Herbert to a mental institution, which is where he truly belongs, never even materializes.

For Stevenson, witnessing Herbert’s execution crystallizes the urgency of his work, and he dives even more deeply into trying to save another man, Walter “Johnny D.” McMillan (Jamie Foxx). McMillan has been imprisoned for a murder he didn’t commit. It doesn’t matter how much evidence there is to support McMillan’s innocence because a white girl is dead, McMillan is black, and another prisoner, in exchange for prosecutorial leniency, has given a statement saying McMillan was responsible.

The real reason McMillan is in prison is because the white people of Monroe County were looking for an excuse to lock him up after a white man discovered McMillan having a consensual affair with the man’s wife. Just Mercy exposes how the cogs of the Alabama justice system line up to condemn McMillan to death — from prosecutors who disregard the truth to public defenders who barely do their jobs to sheriff’s officers who terrorize Monroe County’s black residents.

It’s a new twist on the old formula of Yankee lawyers who come to the South and find a wall of community resistance to racial equality and injustice, but it’s a powerful one. That’s especially true given how the film’s screenwriters (Cretton and Andrew Lanham) contrast the real-life Stevenson and Monroe County’s most famous legal hero, Atticus Finch, the fictional hero of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

Ultimately, both Clemency and Just Mercy continue the work of highlighting racial inequality in the justice system, leaving their viewers disturbed and impatient for change.

Rapper 21 Savage is helping Atlanta youth learn financial literacy ‘I didn’t really learn about that type of stuff until I got older’

ATLANTA — In the midst of his annual back-to-school drive on Sunday, rapper 21 Savage was in awe at the 2,500 kids who showed up for free haircuts/hairstyles, shoes, school uniforms, backpacks and school supplies.

The turnout wasn’t a shock, as he’s experienced that same energy for the past four years in which he has hosted “Issa Back 2 School Drive” for the kids who live in the Glenwood Road neighborhood where he grew up in Atlanta.

“Doing this every year feels good,” 21 Savage told The Undefeated.

This year, in partnership with Amazon Music and Momma Flystyle, the outdoor event also offered free health screenings, mobile video game arcades, resources on mental health awareness and insurance, tips on eco-friendly sustainability efforts, local vendors, hot dogs, ice cream and fun park activities.

On Aug. 4, Rapper 21 Savage hosted his annual “Issa Back 2 School Drive” for the kids in the Glenwood Road neighborhood where he grew up in Atlanta, Georgia.

Prince Williams/Getty Images

But his giving spans far beyond his school drive.

21 Savage’s passion is in educating youth from underserved communities about the power of the dollar and the value of hard work. The throaty Grammy nominee’s nonprofit organization, Leading by Example Foundation, launched its Bank Account campaign, named after his double-platinum single, to teach young people about financial health and wellness.

“A lot of kids don’t know what to do when they get older,” 21 Savage said. “Financial literacy is an important tool they need to get through life successfully.”

A successful trap music artist known for his grim lyrics depicting poverty, street life and post-traumatic stress, 21 Savage said his efforts to promote youth and economic development are deeply rooted in his own lack of exposure and access to commerce as a kid.

“I didn’t really learn about that type of stuff until I got older and became an artist and entertainer,” he said.

The 26-year-old chart-topping performer, born Shéyaa Bin Abraham-Joseph, has a job program, and he offers monthly financial literacy webinars for youth.

He partnered with education-themed nonprofits JUMA Ventures and Get Schooled to offer summer employment to 60 Atlanta-area high school and college students. Their duties include light custodial and concessions jobs.

“We want to work with these young people particularly to give them opportunities,” said Robert Lewis Jr., JUMA’s Atlanta site manager. “You want to give these young folks help. They may have had issues with the law or go to a nontraditional school, and we want to give them a job. It gives them a sense of dignity when they’re working.”

“This is monumental,” said Courage Higdon, a 22-year-old Georgia Southern University student and program participant. “The program keeps us focused. It’s more than a job — it teaches us actual life skills that we can use in other places in our lives. They help us become more financially literate. As an African American community, we need to get better at it.”

The Savage Mode rapper presented JUMA with a $15,000 check to help 150 young people open their own bank accounts.

“21 Savage tries to tell us that he wants us to bring everybody around this neighborhood together to support black-owned businesses and black people in the community,” said participant Khaleege Watts, 20.

21 Savage is set to spend a day shadowing the student participants later this year.

The “No Heart” and “A Lot” rapper hosted his monthly webinars on Get Schooled’s website, where he concentrated on teaching money management habits, budgeting/saving, investments and distinguishing between credit and debit.

But his passion for giving to youth doesn’t stop there.

When he released his sophomore LP I Am > I Was in December 2018, he gifted $16,000 in Amazon gift cards to youngsters who attended the album’s companion interactive Motel 21 activation in Decatur, Georgia. He also visited several colleges and STEM schools in metro Atlanta, along with U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), to lead 21st Century Banking Workshops, cross-topic fireside chats featuring discussions on financial capabilities, career opportunities in the music business, gang violence and gun control.

“21 Savage is putting action behind his money,” Lewis said. “He actually tells people how to start their business and how to save money. He’s turned his life around and is a great spokesperson for young people. Young people were glad that JUMA partnered with 21 Savage because they said he speaks for them.”

21 Savage was arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement earlier this year on Super Bowl Sunday for overstaying in the United States on a visa that expired in 2006. The MTV Video Music Award winner, who was born in the U.K. and came to the U.S. with his mother at age 7, was detained for nine days and is still awaiting a deportation hearing. The former troubled teen and high school dropout donated $25,000 to the Southern Poverty Law Center, an advocacy group that assisted with his naturalization issues, in June.

“A lot of people need help that’s in bad situations,” 21 Savage said. “They don’t have the funds to get legal representation, so I just made the donation. The organization does the work for free anyway, so I just thought it was necessary to contribute.”

Alona Stays, 21, received a $1,000 mini-grant from 21 Savage to invest in production equipment for her home studio. The YouTuber and aspiring filmmaker echoes her peers, calling the rapper’s philanthropic gifts and outreach efforts “amazing.”

“Not a lot of artists like him are doing something,” Stays said. “It’s a blessing for him to do this for us, and I’m very grateful. This plays a big role in anybody’s life. People like 21 Savage [are] trying to make things better. It’s not all about guns and drugs; it’s about the community and these kids.”

Fashion designer Dapper Dan can thank boxers for his career – and some of his problems The Mike Tyson-Mitch Green fight in front of his Harlem boutique put him in an uncomfortable spotlight

High-end street fashion pioneer Dapper Dan is famous for dressing many early rap artists such as Eric B and Rakim and Salt-N-Pepa. He also works with famous athletes, including Zion Williamson, Cam Newton and Jalen Ramsey.

But the athletes who played the biggest role in his career were boxers. Indeed, Floyd Mayweather is his favorite athlete because he’s been a loyal customer for a long time.

The athletes who played the biggest role in fashion icon Dapper Dan’s career were boxers, including Floyd Mayweather.

Renell Medrano

“I’ve been making everything for Floyd Mayweather for the last 17 years,” Dan, whose real name is Daniel Day, told The Undefeated. “Everything you see him in the ring with, I made.”

Boxing played a huge, if inadvertent, part in getting Day started as a designer.

In 1974, he traveled to Kinshasa, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) as a fan to witness The Rumble in the Jungle between then-undefeated heavyweight champion George Foreman and former champ Muhummad Ali. Unfortunately, the fight was postponed for five weeks because Foreman was injured in a sparring session.

In the meantime, Day decided to do some traveling. He went to Lagos, Nigeria, where he traded his finest pastel suits for African paintings and wood carvings from an artist he found on the street. Day left Nigeria with few clothes to wear. At his next stop, in Monrovia, Liberia, he needed to do some shopping. A store clerk pointed him in the direction of a tailor named Ahmed, who assisted him in creating the first Dapper Dan designs. Day ended up not seeing the fight. He had to go home early because he ran out of money after making so many custom pieces.

“I missed out on witnessing what many consider the most strategically brilliant heavyweight boxing fight in history. I found something on that trip that changed my life forever: A love for custom tailoring and inspiration for a brand-new hustle,” Day writes in his recently-released book, Dapper Dan: Made in Harlem: A Memoir.

Floyd Mayweather, wearing Dapper Dan-designed trunks, celebrates his unanimous-decision victory over Robert Guerrero in their WBC welterweight title bout at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on May 4, 2013, in Las Vegas.

Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

Day opened Dapper Dan’s Boutique in 1982, catering to the drug kingpins and gangsters of Harlem, and a few big-name celebrities. His clothing featured the logos of brands such as Gucci, Fendi, MCM and Louis Vuitton, which at the time were primarily making leather goods. Day thought of his designs as “knockups” because he made expensive and luxurious custom pieces. To Day, the logos represented wealth, respect and prestige.

Day knew the risk he was taking in using the brands’ trademarked logos. And once again, two boxers would be at the center of his story.

In 1988, Mike Tyson, then the undefeated heavyweight champ, was a regular customer and friend of Day’s. One day in August, he went to Day’s boutique at around 4 a.m. to pick up a custom piece. (Day’s boutique was open 24 hours a day, every day, for 10 years except the day he laid his father to rest.) Mitch “Blood” Green, who had lost to Tyson two years earlier and wanted a rematch, came into the store looking for Tyson. The two got into a brawl in front of the boutique and Tyson was photographed in one of Day’s “Fendi” jackets.

The altercation was big news and even got a mention on the broadcast of a Monday Night Football game. Day didn’t witness the incident, but a worker from his shop took pictures. News outlets were bidding up to $150,000 for the photos, but Day declined the offers out of loyalty to Tyson. He finally published the photos in his new memoir.

The spotlight on Dapper Dan’s Boutique alerted luxury design houses that Day was using their logos on his clothing without their consent. They started going to court to have the material seized.

Dapper Dan, whose real name is Daniel Day, recently released his memoir, Dapper Dan: Made in Harlem.

“The following Monday after that took place, the aerial view helicopter was flying over the city and there was a football game,” Day said. “They were discussing the fight during a timeout. And they said, ‘Somewhere down there is Dapper Dan’s 24-hour boutique where Mike Tyson had the fight at,’ and they laughed. But that was viral. As viral as it could be for that time, so that’s what gave me all the publicity that led to the brands being very knowledgeable in what I was doing uptown.”

Dapper Dan’s Boutique closed in 1992 following legal action by Fendi, which had been represented in part by a lawyer named Sonia Sotomayor (now a Supreme Court justice). He had to start over from scratch. In recent years, he has partnered with Gucci and opened a new boutique in Harlem last year.

“The way I was raised, it’s like you don’t ever give up,” Day said. “That never occurred to me at all. I was used to starting over and I was used to the fact that things like that happen. I was born and raised in Harlem. A black kid growing up in the poor section alone. So it was like I was not gonna be deterred. I was used to obstacles in life.”

New documentary reminds us that even Toni Morrison had to fight off the haters After she won the Nobel Prize, there were still critics who said her focus on black women was too narrow

For years, one take has ruled the internet as the quintessential example of screwing up as utterly as a critic possibly can.

The headline “Beyoncé: She’s No Ashanti” graced The New York Times’ review of the singer’s debut solo album, Dangerously in Love. It persists in reminding us of the possibility of committing a boo-boo so grand it becomes synonymous with “strong and wrong.”

I was reminded of that headline after seeing the documentary Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, which premiered earlier this year at Sundance and is now playing in theaters. Directed by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders (The Black List, The Women’s List) for the PBS series American Masters (no airdate has been announced), the film reveals how a number of cultural institutions failed to recognize the genius of Morrison, even as she created a body of work that disrupted a largely white and male literary canon.

The new documentary Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am showed that Morrison was subjected to the sort of doubt that black women are all too familiar with.

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders/Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Reviewing Sula for The New York Times in 1973, one writer chided Morrison for her continued focus on black life: “… in spite of its richness and its thorough originality, one continually feels its narrowness. … Toni Morrison is far too talented to remain only a marvelous recorder of the black side of provincial American life.”

The film shows Morrison’s response to that kind of critique through archival footage from Charlie Rose’s talk show, pre-#MeToo revelations: “The assumption is that the reader is a white person,” Morrison tells Rose. “That troubled me.”

Similar worries persisted for years. In 1988, 48 black writers published an open letter in the Times protesting the fact that Morrison had not won a National Book Award or the Pulitzer Prize.

The critique of Morrison wasn’t only about race. Some African American men weren’t shy about their complaints when she was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature for Beloved in 1993. The novel was inspired by the real story of an enslaved Kentucky woman named Margaret Garner. Garner ran away, and when the man who owned her tracked her down, Garner killed her children, slitting one’s throat and drowning the other, offering mortal escape from lives of bondage and degradation.

“I hope this prize inspires her to write better books,” Stanley Crouch told The Washington Post. “She has a certain skill, but she has no serious artistic vision or real artistic integrity. ‘Beloved’ was a fraud. It gave a fake vision of the slave trade, it didn’t deal with the complicity of Africans, and it moved the males into the wings. ‘The Bluest Eye’ was her best. I thought something was going to happen after that. Nothing did.”

It’s frustrating to discover that Morrison, one of the greatest writers of her generation, spent years being dismissed.

Charles Johnson, who won the National Book Award in 1990 for Middle Passage, grumbled about Morrison’s commitment to writing through a lens of feminism and black cultural nationalism.

“When that particular brand of politics is filtered through her mytho-poetic writing, the result is often offensive, harsh,” Johnson said. “Whites are portrayed badly. Men are. Black men are.” The award, he added, “was a triumph of political correctness.”

It’s frustrating to discover that Morrison, one of the greatest writers of her generation, spent years being dismissed. For as long as I have known the name Toni Morrison, she has been synonymous with envy-inspiring genius. When I was a child, her 60 Minutes interviews were appointment television. Her books, dense with complex themes and rich with metaphor, were among those my parents would allow me to read before they were truly age-appropriate. Morrison was so exceptional that rules could bend to allow for the consumption of her words. (Meanwhile, Judy Blume and Terry McMillan had to be secreted away from the public library near our house and read under the covers.)

And yet she was subjected to the sort of doubt with which black women are all too familiar, because of her race and because of her gender. It’s the disrespect that propels so many black parents to forcefully instill in their children the directive that they must not hide their intellectual lights under bushels but instead sport them proudly. After all, the chances that someone else will care to illuminate such gifts are slim.

“I am very, very smart early in the day,” Morrison says to the camera in The Pieces I Am, purring with the swagger of a woman who knows she has the goods as she explains her writing process. She begins at 5 a.m. (a habit that began after she gave birth to two sons) and continues till noon. She doesn’t particularly care for afternoon or evening scribbling, and her preferred method of recording her thoughts is in neat cursive on yellow legal pads.

In one jaw-dropping moment, Paula Giddings, author of When and Where I Enter, a history of black women in America, shares that she worked as an assistant at Random House when Morrison was there as a full-time editor. Morrison asked Giddings to type up pages of her legal pad in exchange for a homemade carrot cake. Years later, Giddings realized that she’d been transcribing a draft of The Bluest Eye.

The critique of Morrison wasn’t only about race. Some African American men complained when she was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature for Beloved in 1993.

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders/Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Visually, The Pieces I Am is largely static, relying on still photographs, scenes from the deck of Morrison’s home in Lorain, Ohio, and the art of Jacob Lawrence, Mickalene Thomas, Kara Walker, and Kerry James Marshall spliced between footage of interviews with the author’s friends, colleagues and admirers, including Giddings, Sonia Sanchez, Walter Mosley, Fran Lebowitz, The New Yorker theater critic Hilton Als and Oprah Winfrey.

“She’s the architect, the midwife and the artist,” Als remarks.

Greenfield-Sanders has known Morrison since 1981, and their ease with each other is apparent in Morrison’s candor and body language. Even as she reveals that there’s a private part of herself that few will see, Morrison is witty, charming and a little mischievous. “The moment I got to Howard [University], I was loose,” she tells her interviewer, grinning. “It was lovely, I loved it … I don’t regret it.” Now 88, Morrison remains an inspiration for many reasons, but especially because she believed in her own talents long before the institutional arbiters of such things caught on to them.

“I was more interesting than they were,” Morrison says. “I knew more than they did.”

Another hidden figure: Clyde Foster brought color to NASA Over three decades, he recruited hundreds of African Americans into the space program

Clyde Foster came of age in Alabama in the 1950s, a place and time so oppressive for African Americans that a former Nazi rocket scientist stood out as a figure of racial moderation.

Foster’s father worked at a Birmingham iron foundry, where the dirtiest, most backbreaking jobs were reserved for African Americans. Every day he would come home dog-tired, prompting his son to vow that he would earn a living using his mind, not his back. By itself, that was an audacious plan for a black man living in Alabama.

But Foster did much more than just find himself a desk job. He became a pioneering figure in the U.S. space program. Over nearly 30 years working for NASA, beginning in the agency’s earliest days, his mathematical calculations helped propel rockets into space. His focused determination helped establish a computer science program at what is now Alabama A&M University, making the historically black institution the first public college in Alabama to offer the major. And his quiet and relentless advocacy brought hundreds of African Americans into space industry jobs in the Deep South, helping to shift perceptions of black people in ways both subtle and profound.

A page from a brochure for the Computer Science Center at Alabama A&M. Clyde Foster (on right) started the center.

Alabama A&M

Beyond all that, Foster also became a small-town political leader whose influence was felt throughout Alabama. He led the effort to restore the long-forgotten charter of Triana, a once-dying black enclave of fewer than 100 families outside Huntsville. Foster served as Triana’s mayor for two decades, and his work became a model for other tiny, mostly black towns in Alabama that took control of their political lives.

“There is no other African American NASA employee who did more to get jobs for black people, to get advancement for black people and to get young people working at NASA. No one did more than Clyde Foster,” said Richard Paul, co-author of We Could Not Fail, a book about the first African Americans who worked in the space program. “On top of that, you have his entire political career, which is also groundbreaking. The man’s accomplishments are absolutely heroic.”

Foster, who was 86 when he died in 2017, was no doubt a hero, but one who most people outside Alabama had never heard of. By all accounts, he never protested, picketed or sat in. Yet he improved many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of black lives in a state where the law sanctioned blatant and often violent efforts to discount them.

“He just loved people. He wanted people to have a chance,” his widow, Dorothy Foster, 84, said in an interview. “He just wanted to help everybody. He was not the kind of activist you read about. He felt he could help blacks more by getting them employment than by getting out there and marching in the street.”

Foster was born in Birmingham in 1931, the sixth of 12 children. He went to the city’s public schools, which were segregated, as was every other public institution and accommodation in town.

“There were two sets of everything, one for the colored and one for the white,” Foster said in a 2008 interview with Paul for a radio documentary called Race and the Space Race. “Signs were posted on water fountains, restrooms.” Police harassment was a constant threat. “Whenever they would see a group of black kids assembled together, there was always some reason to go after them.”

A 1942 photograph of the Foster family: Back row, from left: Betty Foster (Berry), James Foster, James’s wife Elizabeth Foster, Clyde Foster, Dorothy Foster (Sweatt), Otis Foster, Ann Foster (Sweatt), Fred Foster. Front row, from left: David Foster, Katie Foster (Rodgers), Clyde’s father, James Foster, Clyde’s mother, Effie Foster, Geraldine Foster (Franklin), Eddie Foster.

Courtesy of Foster Family

Foster thought the best way to insulate himself from the many perils of being black in Alabama was through education. He had always been a good student, and he ended up going to Alabama A&M in Huntsville, where he majored in chemistry and mathematics. At the time, he had his eye on a teaching career.

While still in college, Foster crossed paths with Wernher von Braun, the Nazi scientist behind the V-2 rocket. Built with concentration camp slave labor, the V-2 was the world’s first long-range guided ballistic missile, and the Nazis used it to rain death on the Allies during World War II. Von Braun later came to the United States with a group of about 125 German scientists, engineers and technicians who had been captured by American soldiers. Rather than prosecute them, U.S. authorities enlisted the German scientists to develop missiles, and later spacecraft, for America.

Much of that work, the backbone of the nation’s space program, was located in the Deep South, and it began at a time when harsh segregation reigned. NASA rockets were developed under von Braun in northern Alabama, tested in rural Mississippi, manufactured in Louisiana, launched from Cape Canaveral in central Florida and monitored from Houston.

With this new mission, von Braun was quickly transformed from a warrior for the supposed Aryan master race into an advocate for science education so he could build a skilled workforce to support the space program. Perhaps not fully understanding racial dynamics in his new home, he came to all-black Alabama A&M early on for help. Von Braun wrote a script about his plans for the space program in Alabama, including the then-fanciful dream of flying men to the moon, and he asked Foster and several of his classmates to read it during an assembly at an all-white high school. It was never clear why von Braun chose to have black A&M students deliver his message to white students, and Foster later told interviewers the assembly was a flop. But the unusual encounter introduced Foster to a wondrous new industry that would eventually change his life.

Foster graduated from A&M in 1954 and was drafted into the Army, where he spent two years. He and Dorothy had met and married while in college, and when Foster came back to Alabama after completing his military commitment, he got a job teaching high school science near Selma in the central part of the state. Dorothy had remained in her hometown of Triana, and she wanted him to move back. After a year, he did.

“I told Clyde that I was going to call the Army Ballistic Missile Agency and set up an appointment for a job interview, and ‘You’re going,’ ” Dorothy recalled with a laugh. “And he did.”

Foster is seen here in the Army. He landed a job as a mathematician technician with the Army Ballistic Missile Agency in 1957.

Courtesy of Foster Family

Foster landed a job as a mathematician technician with the Army Ballistic Missile Agency in 1957. The agency, headed by von Braun, was located at the Redstone Arsenal, a military installation in Huntsville that would later house NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.

Foster was hired as part of a large team of people who crunched the numbers generated by gauges inside missiles and rocket engines during test flights. Their analysis allowed engineers to calculate wind resistance, the thrust of a rocket and its proper trajectory. NASA was formed a year after Foster started, and in 1960 he went to work for the new space agency.

Foster saw a bright future for himself at NASA. Working for the federal government was about as good as it got for a black man in Alabama. The pay was decent, and racial discrimination was illegal on federal property. Also, with the Kennedy administration pressing NASA to integrate the thousands of new jobs created by the space race, von Braun emerged as an advocate for integration. The New York Times once called him “one of the most outspoken spokesmen for racial moderation in the South.” Von Braun himself said the space age would belong to “those who can shed the shackles of the past.”

Outside the gates of Marshall, however, Alabama was still Alabama.

George Wallace, who had lost the 1958 governor’s race in part because he was perceived as insufficiently harsh when it came to race, took office as governor in 1963. In his inaugural address, he famously vowed, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” The next year, Wallace tried to back up his words by standing in the doorway of an auditorium at the University of Alabama in what was ultimately a vain attempt to prevent two black students from enrolling.

Foster and the handful of other African Americans among the thousands of employees at Marshall were inevitably harmed by that racism. Employees looking to move up had to take training classes, but many of those classes were off-limits to blacks because they were held off base at hotels and other segregated public facilities. Foster once took a telemetry course in Atlanta, but he had to stay at what he called a “fly-by-night” hotel miles from the training center. Still, he told interviewers, he never missed a session.

A few years after he started at NASA, Foster was angered by a supervisor’s request to train a white co-worker to be his boss. He refused the request and then complained to higher-ranking NASA officials about the situation black workers faced. He demanded training programs that black workers could readily take advantage of. Soon a deal was struck: NASA would hold separate training sessions for black workers at Alabama A&M, often importing instructors from out of town. It was an odd compromise: segregated training classes when the country was moving to root out segregation. But it was the best Foster could do. More than 100 black employees eventually took advantage of the separate-but-equal NASA training, which would prove to be the foundation of Foster’s legacy at NASA.

Born in Birmingham, Alabama on November 21, 1931, Foster graduated from Parker High School in Birmingham in 1950 and received a Bachelor of Science degree in Mathematics and Chemistry from Alabama A&M College in 1954.

NASA/MSFC

“I would say his most significant contribution to NASA directly would be the training program,” said Steven Moss, the other co-author of We Could Not Fail. “He made it so black workers did not have to jump through all the hoops that others before them did. Then, later, he helped so many people get jobs. As I talked to people at other NASA facilities in the Deep South, you can kind of see the family tree. They would trace who they work for, or who helped them, and it always came back to Clyde Foster.”

Even though Foster did not work in personnel, NASA would tap him to travel to colleges around the country to recruit African Americans trained in science or engineering to come work at Marshall. It was not easy for NASA to attract skilled white employees to Alabama, given the state’s horrible reputation for racial violence. It was even harder for Foster to attract black workers.

“I would tell [recruits] Huntsville was really not as bad … as the image George Wallace was given,” Foster said in a 1990 interview for a NASA oral history. “I told them, ‘Now, if you really wanted the challenge, good discipline, the space program has it for you.’ ”

The black scientists, engineers and technicians who did join NASA found Foster to be a willing mentor, no matter whether he had recruited them.

James Jennings was a math major at A&M when he met Foster, who was a regular presence at his alma mater in the mid-1960s. At the time, Jennings was about 20, and he looked up to Foster, who was in his mid-30s. Jennings took some computer classes that ignited his interest in working in the space program, which in those days represented the pinnacle of technological innovation. Jennings began as a co-op student at NASA and ended up spending almost four decades at the agency. He said Foster was a mentor nearly every step of the way.

Foster credited his experience at NASA for giving him the confidence and know-how to conquer the many challenges he confronted.

Photo by Don Rutledge courtesy of Lucy Rutledge.

“When I went to NASA, that was my first introduction into a predominantly white organization,” Jennings recalled in an interview. “I was kind of excited and apprehensive at the same time. I really didn’t know how our education would hold up, but it did not take me very long to understand that my education was on par or better than many of the white students who worked there.”

One thing that helped, he said, was Foster’s constant support. “He took me under his wing. He used to call everybody ‘Horse.’ He told me, ‘Horse, if you keep your nose clean and do your job, you could go far in this organization.’ ”

Jennings proved Foster correct, as he ended up working at NASA’s Washington headquarters in the government’s highest civil service rank before his retirement in 2005.

“Clyde always was encouraging and looked to give me opportunities for visibility,” Jennings said. “If your work is not visible to others, it is easy for your supervisor not to promote you. Clyde knew that, and he was always encouraging us to volunteer for committees and special projects.”

In an effort to create a pipeline of black workers into NASA, Foster persuaded von Braun to allow him to set up a computer science program at A&M. NASA provided grants to help get the program going, although at first Foster struggled to persuade A&M officials that it was worthwhile.

Founded in the wake of the Civil War, A&M had always focused on training students for jobs that black people could get in Jim Crow Alabama: teaching, nursing, farming and certain kinds of engineering. When Foster talked about building a computer science program to train students to send rockets to the moon, the skepticism was palpable.

“Black administrators were not interested, and they did not pursue this money because the program was there for them to develop other kinds of programs,” Foster said in the 2008 interview. “The most that we had was electronic, or electrical and mechanical engineering. [We had] civil engineering — we had to build some damn roads — but we [were] talking about building a pathway to space.”

Eventually, Foster won over the A&M officials. NASA paid Foster’s salary for two years while he worked to establish the program, which went online in 1969.

The cover of a brochure for the Computer Science Center at was then called Alabama A&M College. Foster started the bachelor’s degree program in computer science.

Alabama A&M

“Everything he did, I think he realized he was making a difference,” Jennings said of Foster. “But he was not the kind of person looking to take credit for it.”

In the late 1970s, Foster took a job in NASA’s Equal Employment Opportunity Office, which got him away from the technical heart of the agency but gave him more leverage to help black people get a leg up.

“I thought I could make an even greater contribution to increase the workforce to a more integrated workforce,” Foster said in the 1990 interview. Foster was director of Marshall’s EEO office when he retired from NASA in 1987.

His advocacy did not stop at work. Foster served on Alabama’s Commission on Higher Education, to which he was first appointed by Wallace in 1974. That was besides his groundbreaking work as the mayor of Triana. His work to re-establish the town’s charter cleared the way for Triana to receive federal grants for a series of major upgrades, including building the town’s first water system, installing its first streetlights, paving its gravel streets and renovating the town hall, which previously had been a coal-heated shack.

Following Foster’s example, about a dozen African American towns were able to reincorporate and, in some cases, make similarly dramatic improvements. The new political control also allowed a generation of black mayors, police chiefs, sheriffs and other local officials to gain experience in office.

Decades later, Foster led the legal fight against a chemical company that had poisoned the town’s waterways with DDT, resulting in a $24 million settlement for Triana residents.

Foster credited his experience at NASA for giving him the confidence and know-how to conquer the many challenges he confronted.

“If I hadn’t had these experiences early in life to cross over into these areas: political, education, business,” he said. “All of that was done because of the experience I had with NASA.”

This article is being published in collaboration with American Experience/WGBH as part of its series “Chasing the Moon,” which examines the scientific, political and personal dramas behind the space race on the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing. PBS will broadcast a film across three nights starting at 9 p.m. EDT/8 p.m. CDT on July 8. Short digital films, articles, timelines and comics, including pieces on the first African American to be trained as an astronaut, the desegregation of Huntsville, and the Poor People’s Campaign protest at the Kennedy Space Center, can be found here.

HBO film ‘True Justice’ recounts Bryan Stevenson’s crusade for the poor, the incarcerated and the condemned The nation’s most important civil rights lawyer since Thurgood Marshall still believes in equal justice under law

Bryan Stevenson may well be the nation’s most consequential civil rights lawyer since Thurgood Marshall.

While Marshall stared down unrepentant racists in Southern courtrooms at a time when inequality was enforced by law, Stevenson’s work is being done decades after the most important legal battles over civil rights supposedly were won. If Marshall and his legal colleagues from the NAACP helped dismantle Jim Crow, the task Stevenson has carved out may be even more difficult: working to eliminate Jim Crow’s legacy.

“I believe we are all more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” — Bryan Stevenson

He is the subject of a new documentary, True Justice: Bryan Stevenson’s Fight for Equality, which premieres Wednesday at 8 p.m. EDT on HBO. Stevenson, 59, is the founder and executive director of the Montgomery, Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative, and he has dedicated his career to helping some of the most scorned people among us: the poor, the incarcerated, the condemned, and even the guilty.

“I believe we are all more than the worst thing we’ve ever done,” Stevenson says.

Since EJI was launched in 1989, Stevenson and his staff have won release, reversals or relief for more than 125 death row prisoners. Stevenson has prevailed in several cases he argued before the Supreme Court, including a victory in a case outlawing mandatory sentences of life without parole for children 17 or younger.

In the documentary, Bryan Stevenson makes clear that the problem with the criminal justice system starts at the top with the Supreme Court.

Courtesy of HBO

He has spearheaded the creation in Montgomery of The Legacy Museum and its National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which honors more than 4,000 lynching victims. He has earned dozens of honorary degrees and won numerous awards, including the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius” grant. By any measure, he has done outstanding work.

Yet, Stevenson’s achievements make up a relatively small part of the film. Instead of shouting out his many successes, directors Peter Kunhardt, George Kunhardt and Teddy Kunhardt home in on Stevenson’s ideas connecting the plight of his clients to the nation’s racial history.

Stevenson illuminates the line connecting the racial disparities evident in so many parts of our society to a criminal justice system that nurtured and rationalized white supremacy, making it both legal and acceptable. In the documentary, he makes clear that the problem starts at the top with the Supreme Court.

While the high court eventually became an ally of civil rights, for many years it was just the opposite. The 1857 Dred Scott decision called black people an inferior race who had no constitutional rights. The 1875 Cruikshank case reversed the convictions of members of a white mob whom federal prosecutors had tried for their part in killing 150 black people protesting for political representation in Colfax, Louisiana. The high court said the convictions impinged on states’ rights, helping to form the legal underpinning for legal segregation and Jim Crow.

Even in the years following the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, the seminal ruling striking down state-sanctioned segregation in public schools, the court sometimes looked the other way in the face of evidence of obvious racial disparities, Stevenson argues.

In the film, he talks about his advocacy for Warren McCleskey, a black man convicted of killing a white police officer in Georgia during a 1978 furniture store holdup. McCleskey was the only one of four defendants sentenced to death in the case, and by the time his case made its way to the Supreme Court, his defense team had produced a study showing that in Georgia, defendants who killed whites were more than four times as likely as those who killed blacks to be sentenced to death. The court shrugged off that study in its majority opinion, saying disparity does not prove deliberate bias. Moreover, the court ruled, such disparities are “an inevitable part of our criminal justice system.” McCleskey was put to death in Georgia’s electric chair in 1991.

The HBO documentary focuses on Bryan Stevenson’s ideas connecting the plight of his clients to the nation’s racial history.

Courtesy of HBO

The film makes clear that Stevenson loses in court regularly, and when he does the consequences are often fatal for his clients. Even when he represents clients who are innocent and he is able to win, the injustices wrought by the system cannot be fully rectified because of the trauma of being imprisoned. “For me, the innocence cases are the hardest cases,” Stevenson says in the film. “I think people think of that the other way. They think, ‘Oh, it must be great to work on a case where there is clear evidence of innocence.’ ”

Much of the documentary is narrated by Stevenson, who talks about the need to eradicate “the narrative of racial difference” that infects the country and runs through its history. That is why he has poured energy into creating memorials to help Americans confront this history of racial horrors that he says often manifests itself in the criminal justice system.

“You can’t disconnect the death penalty from the legacy of lynching, and you can’t disconnect the legacy of lynching from the era of enslavement,” he says in the film. “I think that this line is a very real one.”

Yet, Stevenson has an unshakable belief in the power of the law to help make things right. “I’ve argued a bunch of cases before the United States Supreme Court, and each time I go, I stand there in front of the court, I read what it says about equal justice under law,” Stevenson says in the film. “I have to believe that to make sense out of what I do.”

Jay-Z’s billionaire status adds up to a lot more than what’s in his bank account Like Madam C.J. Walker and John H. Johnson before him, Jay-Z’s rise to business mogul is testament to the power of the black dollar

Jay-Z gathered his thoughts as he sat behind a desk at Roc-A-Fella Records’ headquarters in New York. In a rarely seen 1997 interview, the Brooklyn MC gave a striking answer to a question about what percentage of rappers he believed would still be viable artists a decade later.

“A rapper’s life is like three albums … unless you gon’ endure during the times,” Jay-Z said. “That’s a special case. It’s like 3 to 5% of artists who have a successful career. Crazy, right?”

Jay-Z’s rise to become hip-hop’s first billionaire is important beyond the fact of it.

Jay-Z, at the time, was only a few years removed from drug-dealing as a self-described “Marcy Projects hallway loiterer.” A product of post-civil rights movement America (I arrived on the day Fred Hampton died, he’d later rhyme) who came of age during the war on drugs, Jay-Z by 1997 was an independent businessman with a critically acclaimed rap debut in 1996’s Reasonable Doubt. But it’s likely that not even the notoriously confident Jay-Z saw this coming: Two decades after that interview, Jay-Z is hip-hop’s first billionaire.

On Monday, Forbes released a review of the Brooklyn MC’s financial portfolio that concluded Jay-Z’s empire had surpassed the 10-figure plateau. His fortune is spread across a variety of endeavors, including real estate, liquor, music, the streaming platform TIDAL, entertainment company Roc Nation, his art collection and more. The confirmation is both unsurprising — along with Diddy and Dr. Dre, he has long been near the apex of hip-hop’s top earners — and awe-inspiring.

“Here we had this hip-hop industry that everybody sort of wanted to dismiss and thought that it would go away,” said Angel Rich, author of History of the Black Dollar. “It has now turned into the fabric of American society. It’s weaved into every portion of business. We have [another] symbol of that success and what it means in Jay-Z becoming a billionaire.”

At the start of the 20th century, Madam C.J. Walker made a fortune through black hair. In the middle of the century, John H. Johnson became a mogul with lifestyle publications such as Ebony and Jet. And at the end of the century came the start of Jay-Z’s financial success rooted in black music. All cultivated in America. All tapped into the core of America’s spine, black culture, which has alternately been ignored, chastised and co-opted. All understood the power of the black dollar. These foremothers and forefathers of black wealth in white America were prophytes in The Blueprint MC’s real-life blueprint.

John H. Johnson was the successful head of Johnson Publications Inc., a multimillion-dollar corporation, with publications that included Ebony and Jet.

Bettmann / Contributor

Jay-Z’s original (legal) revenue stream puts the moment in perspective. In a career notable for lyrics as literature and congressional honors, one of Jay-Z’s most recognizable lines is his declaration on Kanye West’s “Diamonds (Remix)”: I’m not a businessman/ I’m a business, man. The potency is rivaled only by its accuracy. The accumulation of wealth has been a constant narrative in his career. “You know n—as die for equal pay right? You know when I work I ain’t your slave right?he rhymed in 2015. “You know I ain’t shucking and jiving and high-fiving/ You know this ain’t back in the days right?”

On 2017’s stellar 4:44, he referenced the history of black wealth and abandonment in “The Story of O.J.” and concluded with the poignant “Legacy.” With daughter Blue Ivy’s innocent inquiry, “Daddy, what’s a will?” Shawn Carter, the patriarch, launches into his explanation while sampling Donny Hathaway’s “Someday We’ll All Be Free.”

Take those monies and spread ‘cross families/ My sisters, Hattie and Lou, the nephews, cousins and TT/ Eric, the rest to B for whatever she wants to do/ She might start an institute, she might put poor kids through school.

Jay-Z then turned to his oldest daughter’s future: My stake in Roc Nation should go to you/ Leave a piece for your siblings to give to their children too.

Success has led to both praise and criticism as well as detailed examinations of his practice of both capitalism and philanthropy. Jay-Z’s financial rise occurred as the income gap between the robustly rich and all other classes has steadily increased over the past 30 years. The word “billionaire” is increasingly viewed as a piece of derogatory lexicon in some circles — even by actual billionaires. But Jay-Z’s black path to entrepreneur and billionaire status distinguishes it from most of his fellow moguls and emphasizes his kinship with his predecessors Walker and Johnson.

Madam C.J. Walker (Sarah Breedlove) was the first female self-made millionaire in the world. She is shown here posing for a portrait, circa 1914.

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

For the better part of the decade, Jay-Z, now 49, has taken on the most socially conscious role of his career. And his monetary boasts have evolved. He’ll never apologize for how he amassed his fortune — he never entered the business to stay a starving artist. I ain’t got a billion streams, got a billion dollars, he said on Meek Mill’s “What’s Free. The 10-figure threshold is a topic of discussion in the Carter household too. We gon’ reach a billi first, he hypothesized on “Family Feud,” also found on 4:44. Generational wealth is a decades-long theme in Jay-Z’s arsenal, dating to 1996’s “Feelin’ It”: If every n—a in your clique is rich, you clique is rugged/ Nobody will fall ’cause everyone will be each other’s crutches.

This largesse has been displayed on a variety of fronts: Paying a considerable chunk of Meek Mill’s legal fees and Lil Wayne’s back taxes. Securing legal representation for 21 Savage’s deportation proceedings. Getting Jabari Talbot’s case dropped; the 11-year-old had refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance and was subsequently arrested. Covering the cost of college tuition, with Beyoncé, for 11 high school seniors through $100,000 scholarships during the domestic leg of their On The Run II Tour.

A man who doesn’t take care of his family can’t be rich, Jay-Z lamented on “Feud,” paraphrasing The Godfather. That notion gets reinforced in “Legacy.” Generational wealth, that’s the key, he noted. My parents ain’t have s—, so that shift started with me. Given where he started, reaching a billion dollars is an objectively resounding accomplishment and testament to his business acumen. But “Legacy” hits differently given who is touched by Jay-Z’s message and the fruits of his labor. TIDAL, the champagne, D’USSE, I’d like to see/ A nice peace-fund ideas from people who look like we/ We gon’ start a society within a society/ That’s major, just like the Negro League.

Jay-Z (left) and Nipsey Hussle (right) are shown here at the PUMA x Nipsey Hussle 2019 Grammy Nomination Party at the Peppermint Club in Los Angeles on Jan. 16.

Photo by Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for PUMA

Jay-Z’s rise to become hip-hop’s first billionaire is important beyond the fact of it. His story is also the story of the black dollar in America. How it was used to build this country, and how it was manipulated — and worse, destroyed — because of the power and independence it carries.

Looking at Jay-Z today, it’s hard not to think about the young MC who sat in Roc-A-Fella’s offices discussing his plans in an industry often described as cutthroat and soul-draining. A billion dollars isn’t immune to lost friendships along the way — or evidence that he made the right decision every time.

“The genius thing that we did was we didn’t give up,” Jay-Z said years ago.

Some of hip-hop’s most promising thought leaders were murdered on the cusp of their fiscal, creative and business primes. The deaths of B.I.G., Tupac Shakur (his frequent yet spiritual partners in rap’s mythical “greatest of all time” debate) and just recently Nipsey Hussle, with whom Jay-Z shared a particularly close brotherhood that expanded far beyond music, is hauntingly painful.

He is the destiny their fate denied them. That’s why the moment matters far more than the actual figure in Jay-Z’s checking account. A billion-dollar industry that began in the boroughs of New York has been monetized, criticized and immortalized the world over. And now that industry has a billionaire of its own.

As 2019’s new fall TV shows come into focus, more black antihero stories need to be told In putting black characters who dwelled in darkness on screen, ABC and others expanded the meaning of mainstream blackness

TV’s major networks made their upfront announcements recently, and there are some interesting shows coming to screens this fall.

Saturday Night Live vet Kenan Thompson finally lands a starring vehicle with NBC’s The Kenan Show, a family sitcom about a single dad. ABC’s black-ish spinoff mixed-ish stars Tika Sumpter and centers on an interracial hippie family in the 1980s. Megalyn Echikunwoke is one of the leads on Not Just Me from Fox. It’s about a woman coming to grips with discovering her father sired multiple children. Sunnyside is a Kal Penn-driven NBC sitcom with a multiethnic cast about a former New York City councilman who helps immigrants living in Queens, New York. Folake Olowofoyeku stars with Billy Gardell in Bob Hearts Abishola, a CBS sitcom about a middle-aged white guy who has a heart attack and falls for his Nigerian cardiac nurse. “Hardy har har.”

“Safe” depictions of black experiences are no longer a prerequisite for high visibility, and darker depictions don’t have to be filtered through white creatives’ lenses.

Considering returning shows such as The Last O.G. and the ever-popular black-ish on traditional networks, there seems to be a resurgence in sitcoms as it pertains to black programming. That isn’t incidental; networks have only recently been embracing of dramas driven by black leads. And that aversion spoke to how those networks saw black imagery and how it is received by white audiences. We had to fight to get black antiheroes on the small screen.

So often in American pop culture, dysfunction in characters has been used as a parallel for the wider human experience — and that dysfunction is regularly white and male. No matter how many snitching wiseguys or horse-killing compadres Tony Soprano strangled, bludgeoned or shot, no matter how many rivals, partners and associates Walter White murdered or manipulated, it was all supposed to show us something about the human condition.

As is the function of privilege, white storytellers not only have the benefit of larger, wider platforms but also of not having to navigate racism’s dizzying maze of double standards and slanted expectations. White criminality on screen could say something about humanity; black criminality on screen was expected to say something about black people. From the ‘hood movies of the early 1990s to that other beloved HBO drama The Wire, if bad black people were at the center of the story, there would be a lot of hand-wringing about what the portrayal was going to yield in a culture that undoubtedly relishes demonizing black folks.

That burden of portrayal and mainstream platforms’ indifference toward black creators and audiences meant that, at least on the small screen, dark or dramatic black content was suddenly in short supply. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, as dysfunctional white people became the centerpiece of American television, black shows nearly disappeared from the popular landscape. Even during the beloved “heyday” of black TV shows in the ’80s and ’90s, scripted black TV tended to be predominantly family sitcoms. The few shows that were still prominent in the 2000s remained PG-friendly half-hour comedies — until Scandal.

The hit show Scandal, created by Shonda Rhimes (left) and starring Kerry Washington (right), debuted in 2012 and announced the arrival of a new era in black television.

Photo by David Livingston/Getty Images

Debuting to strong ratings back in 2012 and becoming the No. 1 show in its time slot, Shonda Rhimes’ hit announced the arrival of a new era in black television. The show was the first major contemporary drama with a black female lead. In centering on a complex black woman who was both obviously brilliant at what she did but who was wrestling with personal demons and character dysfunctions that would threaten all that she’d built, that prime-time hit changed what popular black television in the “prestige TV”-driven age could look like. Characters such as Olivia Pope of Scandal, Paper Boi of Atlanta, Ghost St. Patrick of Power, Taystee of Orange is the New Black and Cookie Lyon of Empire would be driven by drama, heightened spectacle, suspense, surrealism and provocative storytelling. They showcased intriguing characters of questionable morals but undeniable charisma and riveting conflict. Of course, these were all very different kinds of shows, but they all highlighted the development of a new wave.

The black TV experience of the 2010s has not been defined by sitcoms or reality shows, although both have remained consistently popular. No, much like the wider culture, so much of our television experience has been driven by melodramas, crime shows and nighttime soaps. And in putting black characters on screen who dared to dwell in darkness, it’s helped expand the scope of mainstream black content. “Safe” depictions of black experiences are no longer a prerequisite for high visibility, and darker depictions don’t have to be filtered through white creatives’ lenses.

But that doesn’t mean disparities have disappeared.

The Starz series Power became a surprise hit in 2014 when it debuted. A glitzy urban series about a drug kingpin attempting to climb the social ladder of Manhattan’s elite, the show is the biggest on the network, but the writing and acting aren’t quite at the level of top-tier television dramas, and the tone keeps its storytelling just shy of grim, forgoing (or negating) suspense for shock and salaciousness. And while a character such as Lucious Lyon was always portrayed as the devil in a suede jacket — and there is no denying Cookie Lyon is no angel either — Fox’s Empire relies more on pomp and melodrama than actual suspense, casting the show’s darkness against a blinged-out haze of camp and histrionics. There still seems to be a dearth of black-themed shows on television willing to fully commit to taking their protagonists to an unsettling place, one that, while compelling, also doesn’t assuage the audience’s discomfort.

Taraji P. Henson (left) and Terrence Howard (right) star in the Fox hit Empire as Cookie and Lucious Lyon.

Photo by FOX via Getty Images

And Netflix’s ever-popular ensemble prison drama Orange Is the New Black has showcased a diverse set of black female characters: inmates of varying backgrounds thrust together in a minimum security prison. The show highlights personalities that can be as sympathetic and relatable as some are manipulative and murderous. But the acclaimed series was initially marketed as the story of an upper-crust white woman plucked out of her pampered world and now doing time — something it eventually subverted, to be sure. But did being pushed as such help ensure that it wouldn’t be received as a niche “black show” by audiences and critics?

The May 19 series finale of Game of Thrones was the talk of pop culture, as HBO’s gargantuan hit wrapped eight seasons of ice zombies, dragons, brothels, torture and incest with a controversial last episode that underwhelmed many and confounded others. But the better finale that night was from the cable network’s half-hour thriller-comedy Barry, a stunning little show that ended its second season in emotionally gripping (and shockingly violent) fashion. While obviously not the grand blockbuster that HBO has had in Thrones, Barry has proved to be another major critical success for the network, with star Bill Hader earning the outstanding lead actor in a comedy series Emmy last year for his work on the show, which he executive produces with Alec Berg.

Here’s hoping we remain committed to telling our darker tales with as much gusto as the uplifting and/or lighthearted ones. And here’s hoping those tales don’t always have to add a wink to soften the sting.

On the show, Saturday Night Live alum Hader gets to indulge his serious side and delivers some stellar performances. As hitman turned aspiring actor Barry Berkman, Hader’s everyman persona and comedic talents are still evident, but it’s secondary to a starkly stellar dramatic performance as the emotionally fraught, reluctant killer. The show deftly balances the more screwball moments with searing tension that has all the suspense of a David Fincher thriller. When the violence happens, it’s often swift and brutal — and without a wink or nod. Barry’s genuine desire to change his life sits parallel with his more rage-filled tendencies, and that inner conflict often leads to someone catching a bullet.

Popular shows Orange Is the New Black, Empire and Power will all be concluding soon. The final season of Orange Is the New Black hits Netflix in July, with Fox’s hip-hop soap opera and Starz’s 50 Cent-produced hit ending their runs with their upcoming respective sixth seasons. As such, we will be saying goodbye to some beloved on-screen bad people in the next several months. Hopefully, when we look back at these characters and shows, we’ll see what was only the beginning of a more diverse era in black programming. With upcoming shows such as For Life (described by ABC as “a fictional serialized legal and family drama about a prisoner who becomes a lawyer, litigating cases for other inmates while fighting to overturn his own life sentence for a crime he didn’t commit”) and returning series such as Snowfall and How to Get Away With Murder, black antiheroes are still on our screens — but networks shouldn’t let such shows fall to the periphery.

Here’s hoping we remain committed to telling our darker tales with as much gusto as the uplifting and/or lighthearted ones. And here’s hoping those tales don’t always have to add a wink to soften the sting. Our deepest dysfunctions can make for compelling truths on screen. Our dark tales are as affirming as any, and they only added to the broadening of our on-screen identity. If these wildly different shows have one common legacy, that is certainly it. And that’s not a bad thing to be remembered for.