‘Harriet’ falls prey to the dignity paradox The first major feature film about Harriet Tubman renders her as a symbol rather than a person

Enslaved is not a personality.

That’s the major stumbling block with Harriet, the new biopic about Harriet Tubman, in theaters Friday.

Directed by Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou, Talk To Me) and co-written by Lemmons and Gregory Allen Howard, Harriet, starring Cynthia Erivo, is so consumed with reverence for the patron saint of Black History Month that it neglects to make her, or any of the supporting characters around her, a real person.

Instead, Tubman falls prey to what I call The Dignity Paradox.

Harriet is the first feature film about Tubman, who died in 1913, but went unrecognized by Hollywood in the years since. Cicely Tyson starred as Tubman in the 1978 NBC miniseries A Woman Called Moses. Such circumstances create a tremendous amount of pressure on whomever is charged with telling Tubman’s story, especially someone aware of the ways that black women have historically been ignored or maligned in major studio projects. But it’s possible to overcorrect for the shameful sting associated with say, Hattie McDaniel in Gone With The Wind. The result is a portrayal that’s so safe, so unwilling to take risks, and so earnest in telling its audience that Tubman was an American hero that it forgets to give the woman a personality. In Harriet, Tubman gets to be determined, psychic, briefly heartbroken — and that’s about it. I daresay Tubman got better treatment in an episode of Drunk History.

Cynthia Erivo (left) stars as Harriet Tubman and Aria Brooks as Anger in Harriet.

Glen Wilson / Focus Features

The film opens in 1849 with Tubman lying in a field on the plantation in Bucktown, Maryland, that was her home. She’s in the midst of one of her narcoleptic spells. (Tubman was famously hit in the head with a 2-pound iron at age 12. The result was her sleeping spells.) Lemmons revisits the mysticism that made Eve’s Bayou such a richly compelling tale in Harriet. She gives Tubman the gift of The Sight, and depicts her narcoleptic psychic visions with a blue filter not unlike the one Nate Parker used in The Birth of a Nation.

When Tubman learns that her owners refuse to grant her or her yet-to-be-born children their freedom, as a previous owner promised, Tubman decides to run. Her husband John (Zackary Momoh), is free, but is afraid to run with her. So Tubman sets out alone. She doesn’t have a plan other than following the North Star and a series of rivers until she reaches the free state of Pennsylvania. She cannot read nor write. Rather than demonstrating Tubman’s cunning intellect, Tubman’s many feats of daring bravery and by-the-skin-of-her-teeth escapes from slave catchers get explained by woo-woo spirituality. Whenever enemies begin to close in, Tubman magically falls asleep and gets a vision that tells her to take a different route.

Janelle Monáe (left) as Marie Buchanon and Cynthia Erivo (right) as Harriet Tubman in Harriet.

Glen Wilson / Focus Features

The dialogue in Harriet consists mostly of Important Speechifying, not only for Tubman, but also her free black Philadelphia accomplices William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.) and Marie Buchanon (Janelle Monáe). Both Still and Buchanon help the refugee Harriet get settled in Philadelphia before she begins making her famous costumed trips back to plantations and develops the nickname of “Moses the Slave-Stealer.”

At one point Odom launches into a speech about how Congress just passed The Fugitive Slave Act (here, Howard and Lemmons took some liberties with historical fact. In actuality, the act was passed in 1850. The film has it happening much later.) As Still, Odom doesn’t really sound like a person either, but a set piece in a fifth-grade textbook come to life. The same is true of Monáe and Bigger Long, the one-note slave tracker played by Omar J. Dorsey. Were it not for the fact that Erivo, Odom, Dorsey, and Monáe have demonstrated their substantial acting bona fides in other productions, one could not be blamed for assuming that the group might have a future in low-budget basic cable prime-time soaps. It’s little consolation that the film’s white characters come off as blandly evil and one-dimensional, too — is this what equality looks like?

Janelle Monáe stars as Marie Buchanon in Harriet.

Glen Wilson / Focus Features

Harriet’s faults are not unique. In fact, they’re rather common in the biopic genre, which is littered with films that feel obligated to touch base with every major point of a person’s Wikipedia entry rather than starting with an interesting story and building from there. Ava DuVernay’s Selma is a good example of a film that bucks biopic norms and is all the better for it. She runs headlong at the fact that Martin Luther King Jr. had affairs that had an effect on his marriage, and she focuses on the march from Selma to Montgomery and the passage of the Civil Rights Act instead of King’s entire life from birth to death.

Jennifer Nettles stars as Eliza Brodess in Harriet.

Glen Wilson / Focus Features

In a world that made sense, there would be multiple on-screen works about Tubman, which would allow for a deep dive into the logistics of the Combahee Ferry Raid or Tubman’s time as a Union spy, or a closer examination of the 100-mile route she repeatedly took guiding her enslaved brethren and sistren from Maryland to Philadelphia. In the most disappointing turn of the film, the Combahee Ferry Raid is treated as a coda rather than a major, awe-inspiring point in Tubman’s life. It’s on-screen for maybe two minutes.

Among the many questions Harriet leaves unanswered: What on earth were these poor souls eating as they were on the run from trackers and slave-catchers? Adrenaline is a powerful chemical, but no one is going 100 miles on foot without food. Freedom alone does not supply calories.

Omar J. Dorsey (left) stars as Bigger Long and Joe Alwyn (right) as Gideon Brodess in Harriet.

Glen Wilson / Focus Features

Warren Alan Young’s production design is rich with detail, and so is Paul Tazewell’s costume design, but they’re not enough to convey the horrors of America’s peculiar institution in this PG-13 story. There’s no doubt that Lemmons has experience telling beautiful tales about ugly subjects. Her debut feature, after all, was about incest and the crushing disappointment that comes when a child realizes that her biggest hero is a monster. The biggest challenge about rendering slavery on-screen is actually a challenge of world-building. Conveying how vile it was requires a commitment to sinking the viewer into its horrid banality and allowing it to steep, to feel how slowly time moves, how backbreaking the forced labor is without the aid of automation, and the never-ending weariness that is accompanied by the terror of rape and the threat of the lash. Instead, this is conveyed by yet another speech that Tubman gives to an abolitionist meeting in Philadelphia and a brief, darkened peek at Tubman’s whip-scarred back.

When a filmmaker attempts to protect his or her audience from the worst of slavery by simply gesturing at the possibility of violence or rendering it with dialogue alone — as Lemmons does with Tubman and her young owner Gideon Brodess (Joe Alwyn), the effect is too safe. Gideon likens Tubman to a favorite hog, but semantics rarely hold the same emotional weight as action.

Cynthia Erivo stars as Harriet Tubman in Harriet.

Glen Wilson / Focus Features

I realized, after watching Harriet and comparing it to 12 Years a Slave and Beloved, that films about slavery should disturb. They should give us nightmares. They should terrify us. Because they are the closest thing we have to understanding the shameful, disgusting depths to which people will stoop to enact and preserve white supremacy. What’s more, that disgusting behavior was not exceptional; it was the wallpaper of American life for hundreds of years. When we soft-pedal the everyday cruelty of slavery, it deadens our understanding of an institution built on exploiting and destroying an entire people’s humanity.

It’s understandable to want to honor Harriet Tubman. She deserves it, regardless of the short-sighted decisions of the current Treasury secretary. But when we turn away from the truth of the worst circumstances of her life, we do the opposite. To value that for which she fought, it is paramount to understand exactly from what she was running.

Behind the complicated relationship between Washington and baseball The Nationals could win their first World Series, but would it be bittersweet?

D.C. baseball fans were ecstatic last week when the Washington Nationals captured their first National League pennant, high-fiving, screaming and hugging each other all around town. Three local TV affiliates stayed with crowds outside the ballpark and on nearby streets long after their normal broadcast lengths, including one that didn’t join its regularly scheduled programming until well past midnight. The following day, happy Washingtonians rocked Nats gear, recounted game highlights, and reached out to contacts about World Series tickets.

It was a moment many will cherish for the rest of their lives. But not for all Washington baseball fans.

Others reflected on the region’s complicated relationship with pro baseball, its racist past and its current dynamics.

Yes, the Nationals hosted their first World Series game on Friday night against the Houston Astros and hold a 2-1 series lead, but for a generation of locals there is still bitterness over previous teams leaving town. From 1972 to 2004, the nation’s capital was devoid of the national pastime on a professional level. Fans could experience every major sports league except baseball.

Washington had been branded as a place where baseball went to fail. For black sports fans, in particular, the city’s national reputation was especially troubling.


Why BASEBALL ABANDONED Washington

Washington had generally supported the game — in good times and the more frequent lean years — since the late 1800s. And in 1943, the Homestead Grays of the Negro National League began dividing time between Pittsburgh and Washington. Their Washington home was Griffith Stadium, owned by Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith.

Grays games were played in a predominantly black section of town called LeDroit Park, home to Howard University and the historic chitlin circuit entertainment venue, the Howard Theater. The team won pennants in 1943, 1944, 1945 and 1948, which happens to be the last time Washington hosted a baseball championship game. When the major leagues were integrated, and the Negro National League folded, the Grays disappeared after a couple of seasons as an independent team. The Senators were integrated in 1954 by signing Cuban outfielder Carlos Paula.

The Homestead Grays pose in 1943 for their team portrait. In the back row, Cool Papa Bell is second from left, and Buck Leonard, second from right. Ray Brown is in the front row, far right.

Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics, Getty Images

The 1960 Senators, who finished 73-81, drew more than 743,000 fans — a respectable number for the era (Griffith Stadium seated only 28,669 fans). But when the season ended, owner Calvin Griffith (the nephew of Clark Griffith, who died in 1955) agreed to sell the team to a Minnesota ownership group. Fans were upset that the improving ballclub was being relocated. And by 1965, Harmon Killebrew and Bob Allison led the Minnesota Twins to the World Series.

More damaging was the revelation that came years later, in September 1978, when Calvin Griffith explained the move at a Lions Club dinner in Waseca, Minnesota.

“I’ll tell you why we came to Minnesota,” Griffith said. “It was when we found out you only had 15,000 blacks here. Black people don’t go to ballgames, but they’ll fill up a rassling ring and put up such a chant it’ll scare you to death. We came here because you’ve got good, hardworking white people here.”

This confirmed what black Washingtonians and some sports media had suspected of Griffith all along, and it further branded the city as undesirable for his fellow MLB owners.

“The baseball owners and commissioner didn’t understand the historical bond between the black community and Griffith Stadium [which was open for many black community events], the legacy of the mighty Homestead Grays in the city,” said Washington native Brad Snyder, who has written books about the Senators and the integration of baseball.

The Senators were replaced in 1961 by an expansion team, also named the Senators, after the American League voted to add two new franchises.

During this time, Washington was a social tinderbox. Police brutality was rampant, and Marion Barry, first chairperson of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, made his name locally in 1965 and 1966 by calling attention to the issue.

In 1968, after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, things got worse. Washington saw a 67% increase in homicides between July 1967 and July 1968. During his 1968 presidential campaign, Richard Nixon pronounced the District as “one of the crime capitals of the nation.”

Labels such as “crime capital” are difficult to shed. In the first few years after the ’68 unrest, the city experienced white flight by families apprehensive about safety, and black households with similar concerns. Those who could afford to move — not to mention spend money on a baseball game — relocated to Maryland or Virginia.

In 1971, Washington Senators’ manager Ted Williams (center) gets together with two newly acquired ball players Curt Flood (left) and Denny McLain (right) at training camp in Florida.

Getty Images, Bettmann / Contributor

Although the Washington ballclub drew 918,000 fans in 1969, finished 86-76, and hosted the ’69 All-Star Game to help commemorate MLB’s 100th anniversary, the 1970 and 1971 teams did not play as well, and attendance fell off. Fan sentiment about seeing games in a mostly black part of Southeast Washington contributed as much to the decline as losing records. The 1970 trade for former Cy Young winner Denny McLain, whose career had come to be marked by a suspension for bookmaking, another for carrying a pistol on a team flight, weight gain, and a considerable decline in his pitching skills, symbolized the fall of the franchise.

The Senators’ final home game was against the New York Yankees in 1971. They were leading 7-5 in front of more than 14,000 fans, many of whom hoisted banners and signs criticizing owner Bob Short, who had put the team up for sale after the 1970 season. But with one out remaining in the ninth inning, fans began to pour onto the diamond, pull up the bases, tear the turf, and touch the home players. Washington lost the game by forfeit, and MLB for a generation.

Short sold the team to a Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas, group after the 1971 season.

“Losing the team was devastating,” said Washington native Brian Gilmore, now director of the Housing Clinic at the Michigan State University College of Law. “I played little league coming up every year, so when the team left I eventually drifted away from it — as did so many black kids.

“Nevertheless, ‘Chocolate City’ was magical back then for a young black kid like myself. There was a sense of pride and purpose.”


‘City Under Siege’

By the 1970s, Washington became so synonymous with blackness that Parliament released an album titled Chocolate City. For decades, its mayors, police chiefs, school board commissioners and city council chairs were black. Twenty years after Brown vs. Board of Education, most of its high schools were upward of 90% black. Socially, the largely white pockets of Washington west of Rock Creek Park and the predominantly black corridors east of the Anacostia River seldom coalesced.

Between 1972 and 2003, baseball owners who heard presentations about Washington, learned the city had a subway system with a stop at RFK Stadium, a vibrant sports talk radio landscape, avid rooters of the NFL franchise and Maryland and Georgetown college basketball, and baseball-loving transients from all over the U.S. But Washington suffered from its image as a crime capital. One local TV affiliate led its nightly newscast with the number of residents murdered to date, under the headline City Under Siege.

Between 1972 and 2004, Seattle Toronto, Denver, Miami, Tampa, and Phoenix all received major league baseball teams. Washington experienced only close calls (including from the 1974 San Diego Padres, 1987 San Francisco Giants, and the Houston Astros in 1995). The narrative about Washington in baseball media circles was that it was an unsafe, predominantly black city that had already lost two MLB franchises because white fans were afraid to go to the ballpark.

“Certainly the concept of Chocolate City was not a drawing card for the MLB owners when Washington nearly received another team before the 1974 season,” Snyder said. “The baseball owners of that era were a racist and fearful bunch, especially after the 1968 riots about Dr. King’s death, about putting a team in D.C.”

“Certainly the concept of Chocolate City was not a drawing card for the MLB owners.” — Brad Snyder

When Camden Yards opened in 1992, the Baltimore Orioles averaged more than 44,000 fans. A survey determined that 21.9% of fans at Camden Yards were from the Washington metropolitan area. Baltimore had a downtown ticket office in Washington, Orioles results were featured on Washington TV and radio sports reports and some fans rocked their gear, but the city was split on the long game. Some argued that their numbers at Baltimore games signaled a thirst for baseball. Others believed that giving money to Orioles owner Peter Angelos, who opposed a Washington franchise, worked at cross purposes. Fans under 30 could not remember the Senators, so many grew up backing the Orioles.

When Washington investors appealed to MLB for a franchise during the 1990s, though, they cited their share of Baltimore attendance as a strong suit.

After the peak of the crack epidemic in the early ’90s, Washington saw an influx of young white professionals who sought to live closer to Metro transit system stations and their jobs, many of them singles who did not need a large yard or the highly ranked school systems of nearby Montgomery County, Maryland, or Fairfax County, Virginia, two of the wealthiest suburbs in the U.S. By 2009, the city was only 53% black, and violent crime decreased 50% from 1995 to 2010. Washington had become a more attractive destination to MLB brass.


Washington Nationals left fielder Bryce Harper makes the first out of the game as he catches a hit by Atlanta Braves right fielder Jason Heyward during the opening day game at Nationals Park between the Washington Nationals and the Atlanta Braves on April 4, 2014.

Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post via Getty Images

The arrival of the nationals

Some of Washington’s black and civic leadership opposed the return of big league baseball. Opponents voiced skepticism that a new team would bring revenue or employment to an economically challenged section of the city, especially for its poorest residents. But when the Montreal Expos became available, Washington’s Lerner family put in a bid. Most National League owners favored a sale, not wishing for the league to run the franchise. Twenty-nine of 30 owners voted in approval of the Lerners’ $450 million purchase.

Washington was awarded the franchise in 2004 under the condition they would build a new stadium, given that RFK Stadium was more than 40 years old. This city-funded initiative was resisted by some elected officials, especially City Council member Linda Cropp, who opposed public funding for a ballpark, arguing that schools and community services were bigger priorities. Fellow council member and former mayor Marion Barry, meanwhile, advocated that black and Latino contractors and vendors be considered in the enterprise.

Fan reaction to the return was mixed. There were those who echoed the skepticism of city officials. But fans favoring the return were excited because it meant no more trips up to Baltimore. One of the most popular fan choices for the new team’s name was “Grays” in tribute to the Homestead Grays, but team management chose to call them the Washington Nationals.

E. Ethelbert Miller, who has lived in Washington since 1968 and is a former Washington poet laureate, is glad to have the game back.

“When I decided to make this city my home following my graduation in 1972, I didn’t view this city as being a home for baseball,” Miller said. “D.C. and sports seem to always begin and end with the Washington Redskins.

“I was very happy when the game returned to D.C.”

But as the city celebrates the success of its third major league iteration, less apparent to the general public are mixed feelings about the organization’s treatment of manager Dusty Baker, who was fired in 2017 after back-to-back trips to the playoffs, and the entitlement of white fans commuting to the game by subway.

“If you want to know how black people view baseball in Washington, simply ride the Green Line after a game ends. Notice how black folks who get on the Metro at Anacostia view the white baseball fans when the train reaches the ballpark stop,” Miller said.

“This is not the Underground Railroad. It’s easy to monitor fear in the eyes of white folks and disgust in the eyes of blacks. It’s a combination of race and class. … Some of this is not going to change.”

No matter the outcome of the World Series, baseball in Washington either symbolizes triumph over recalcitrant owners, or the gentrification of the 2000s, depending on one’s lens.

Harvard’s black students using game against Howard to celebrate culture First-time football meeting gives students opportunity to highlight diverse manifestations of blackness

The first football game between Harvard and Howard University has brought a new dimension to an age-old debate over “the real HU.” But for some black students at Harvard, the goal is bigger than bragging rights.

These students hope the game will help them build solidarity with Howard and strengthen the support network available to black students at Harvard.

When the leaders of Harvard’s Black Students Association heard about the game, they saw an opportunity for social engagement. Aba Sam and Kendall Laws, president and vice president of the association, respectively, started planning what is now being billed as the inaugural Black Ivy Homecoming.

This is a tip of the hat to the Black Ivy League, an informal reference to top-rated historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) such as Howard, Hampton and Spelman. It’s also an acknowledgment that Harvard and Howard are top-tier institutions among the Ivy League and HBCUs, respectively; Harvard’s Business School accepts more students from Howard than any other HBCU, and many black students at both schools are working to create and maintain communities that celebrate diverse manifestations of blackness.

“We wanted to make it about more than just the game,” said Sam, a junior neuroscience major from Southbury, Connecticut.

In conjunction with Harvard’s Black Graduate Student Alliance (HBGSA) and the Howard University Student Association (HUSA), Sam and Laws organized a day and a half of social and professional events. Although administrators at both schools had to approve the plan, all activities are being led and funded by student leaders.

“We sold out of tickets to the event in two hours,”said HUSA president Taylor Ellison. As a result, about 55 Howard students, grad and undergrad, will make the trip from Georgia Avenue to Cambridge, Massachusetts. They can participate in a career panel, a talent show pitting Howard against Harvard, a pregame breakfast and a tailgate. And, of course, parties.

“We’re definitely not a big, big football school, but we do come out for certain games, like our Harvard-Yale game. We have tailgate culture. For this game, we think people will fill up the stands,” said Laws, a junior economics major from Atlanta.

Perhaps even more impressive is the housing plan. Travelers from Howard will be hosted by Harvard students the day before the game. This custom is traditionally only bestowed upon Yale students when their school plays Harvard. (Yale’s rivalry with Harvard is as historic and fun as Hampton’s is with Howard.)

“This event is going to be legendary,” said Ellison. She, Laws and Sam hope Black Ivy Homecoming becomes an annual event between Harvard and Howard.

Harvard defensive back Bennett Bay in action against San Diego on Sept. 15, 2018, at Harvard Stadium in Boston. The Crimson take on Howard this weekend.

(Photo by M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

According to Harvard doctoral student Tauheedah Baker-Jones, 41, more tailgate tickets were sold for this game than for ones against Yale. This is a big deal because the rivalry between Yale and Harvard is as significant as the one between Howard and Hampton. Baker-Jones is part of HBGSA as well as a Howard alum. She was happy to promote the event to graduate students and alumni from both schools. She’s enjoyed her experiences at both institutions.

“I can’t put a price on Howard,” said Baker-Jones, who completed her undergraduate degree at UCLA. “It prepared me for UCLA, for the social challenges I would face there.”

When she decided to go to graduate school, part of what attracted her to Harvard was the number of black faculty members in the Graduate School of Education. When she enrolled, she said, seven black female deans had just been hired, and she recalls proudly tweeting, “#Mydeanisblack.”

Just over 9% of Harvard’s graduate student population is black, and the percentage of black undergrads is slightly less than that. More black students are admitted than enroll at the Ivy League school.

Harvard’s name is impressive, but black students are also looking at other factors such as programs offered, financial aid packages, how comfortable they feel on campus, and location. As it competes with premier schools such as MIT, Stanford, Duke and Howard for high-performing black students, the school has also been working to make space for and embrace diverse expressions of black culture. There are several black organizations on campus, such as the Association of Black Harvard Women, the Caribbean Club, and the Black Community and Student Theater (BlackC.A.S.T.). Other groups embrace mixed-race students, black LGBTQ members and black engineers.

Technically, there are no sororities or fraternities on campus, but Baker said the members of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority and Omega Psi Phi Fraternity will be helping with the tailgate. In 2017, members of single-gender social clubs were banned from holding leadership positions in recognized student organizations, becoming varsity captains, or receiving College endorsement for prestigious fellowships. A plan to phase out such social clubs by 2022 was also implemented that year. However citywide chapters of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc and Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Inc currently accept members from Harvard, MIT and other Boston area schools.

“The black community is small, close and tight-knit across social and gender lines,” said government and economics major Meshaal Bannerman, vice president of Harvard Black Men’s Forum. He said the group is a preprofessional organization geared toward masculine-identifying black men. While it’s important to Bannerman that Harvard’s black community be supportive of each other, he added, “The academic rigor at Harvard can be challenging, so it’s important to have a space for people who support you, not just look like you.”

Part of what influenced Sergine Cindy Zeufack and Antonia Scott to commit to Harvard was the Kuumba Singers of Harvard College.

“We celebrate black excellence. We’ve created a space for black people at Harvard and the surrounding community to find a refuge in a world that can be hard to be in. It’s open to any black person looking for community, but anyone can join.” — Sergine Cindy Zeufack on Kuumba, Harvard’s oldest existing black organization on campus

“I wanted to join a singing group of some sort with a group of people. It [Kuumba] celebrates black art, creativity, spirituality. I enjoyed the people and community,” said Zeufack, a senior human developmental and regenerative biology major from Rockville, Maryland. She’s also first-generation Cameroonian American.

Scott added, “Kuumba supports blackness in all of its forms. And there are no auditions; anyone can join.” The Cranston, Rhode Island, native is a senior majoring in African American studies and minoring in molecular and cellular biology.

Kuumba is Harvard’s oldest existing black organization on campus. It’s celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Zeufack said it’s as close as Harvard gets to an HBCU.

“We celebrate black excellence,” she said. “We’ve created a space for black people at Harvard and the surrounding community to find a refuge in a world that can be hard to be in. It’s open to any black person looking for community, but anyone can join.”

“Creating safe spaces” is a phrase several black student leaders used to describe the mission of their organizations. In part, this is because in 2019, some people still question whether black students are smart enough to be there.

Zeufack said she’d had a few encounters with strangers who asked her where she went to school. When she replied that she’s at Harvard, they seemed to not believe her. One person even asked if she was on the track team.

“Nope,” she recalled. “I guess I’m just smart.”

She’s not knocking any athletes. Black students make up just under 9% of Harvard’s athletic population, while 16% are white and Hispanics and Asians each constitute 4%. Zeufack just wonders why her admittance is questioned.

“If there are so many people who question if you deserve to be there, you start to wonder about it too,” she said. And she’s not the only one.

Experiences like these led to the #ItooamHarvard photo campaign and play in 2014. Led by black and Japanese student Kimiko Matsuda-Lawrence, 40 black students, including those with multiracial backgrounds, shared their experiences with institutional racism and feelings of alienation on campus. Similar campaigns were launched at Georgetown, UCLA and the University of Michigan that year. The campaign at Harvard is officially over, but black students still talk about it and its impact.

“That campaign was about black students feeling unwanted and disrespected,” said Bannerman. “But it’s twofold. We black students are working to fix the community on the inside so the outside noise doesn’t hurt as much.”

For some black students, the work to make black students feel comfortable on Harvard’s campus is paying off.

Police were called on three black female students at Harvard; Baker-Jones was one of them. She said a woman in her off-campus apartment called the police on Sept. 8 because Baker-Jones’ music had too much bass and she couldn’t focus. The ordeal ended peacefully, and the two women ended up exchanging contact information. The neighbor felt bad and agreed to contact Baker-Jones if the situation happened again.

“I’ve never not felt welcome at Harvard,” said Baker-Jones. “Campus has done a lot to make us feel supported, but now we have to work on how we are treated outside the community.”

Since then, the black students association has established a black graduation ceremony that honors the accomplishments and culture of black graduates. Additionally, Harvard’s student newspaper, The Harvard Crimson, appointed its first black editor to lead the newspaper. Kristine Guillaume is Haitian and Chinese.

And then, of course, there’s Harvard’s football team. Bennett Bay is a junior government major from Atlanta. He’s a member of the black students association and a defensive back who plans to play in the game against Howard.

“The black community definitely makes an effort to make the freshmen feel welcome,” he said after practice. “The biggest shock for me was the weather. I was not used to six months of snow.”

Besides the black students association, Bay has found his community on the football team. At the end of the day, that’s the goal of each black student organization: to help black students find spaces and groups where they feel accepted and respected.

“I love the culture of the team. It’s bigger than me,” he said. He’s excited about the game and for the opportunity to be on the first Harvard football team to play against an HBCU.

The black falconer: One man’s love for birds in pictures How Rodney Stotts’ passion transformed his life

Rodney Stotts is an unlikely figure standing before the room full of young campers. Tall and gaunt in a black T-shirt and shorts, in worn Timberlands, he stands with a large owl perched on his gauntleted hand. He explains that Mr. Hoots, a Eurasian eagle owl, is an unreleasable bird that he has owned and taken care of for more than 20 years. Stotts moves his arm and Mr. Hoots spreads his wings and flaps hard, creating a breeze over the grade-schoolers and eliciting gasps as the children laugh in nervous amazement. His demeanor is serious, but he softens his tone a little for the kids. Eventually, a few of the adventurous ones come up to touch Mr. Hoots, and Stotts melts just a little more as he explains his love for the birds.

Stotts’ journey to master falconer and his position as raptor program coordinator for Wings Over America, part of the nonprofit Earth Conservation Corps, started when he was a young man growing up in Southeast Washington during the height of the crack cocaine epidemic. That period saw the district dubbed the “murder capital” for several years running during the late 1980s and ’90s. Stotts, now 48, recalls the part he played during those years. “Actually, I’d been selling drugs for almost 14 years before I ever got locked up on a drug charge. I used to sell crack and pills and stuff.”

When mandatory minimum sentences for crack were instituted in the ’90s, Stotts switched to weed, he said. When he was arrested, he faced five years but ended up serving five months in jail with two years’ probation. He was 31 years old and had already run the raptor program at Earth Conservation Corps but had left after a falling-out with a supervisor. He had another job, but said the real money came from the drugs.

He eventually got out of the drug life because of his mother and his daughter. “My daughter was little, and she just looked at me one day and she said, ‘Dad, I love you.’ And I was just sitting there and I was saying to myself, I want to hear that for a long, long, long time, and what I was doing, I wouldn’t.” His mother, who was addicted to crack herself for a while, would always jump when she heard a police car or ambulance and would check to see if all her children were accounted for.

Stotts realized all he really needed was to see his mother happy. “So I stopped. I slowly [left] the drug life … left that alone and just worked. The animals helped change me, which in turn let my mom see something that I wanted to see before she left here. So when she died three years ago, I know she was proud of what I was doing. That’s the biggest thing that made [me] want to change.”

His birds were a crucial part of that change. “The first time a bird flew to me and landed on my glove … there’s no food, sex, drug, adrenaline rush … I don’t know what you want to call it, but there’s nothing that can compare to it,” Stotts said. He returned to work at Earth Conservation Corps, where he’s worked with injured birds and does raptor presentations and other conservation work. He’s especially proud of the work he and the nonprofit did to restore the bald eagles to the Anacostia River; from 1994 to 1997, they released 16 bald eagles. “So the nesting pair of eagles that people see along the Anacostia and out through the Chesapeake now started from the original 16 bald eagles that we originally released,” he said.

Stotts’ desire to learn more about the raptors is what pushed him to become a falconer. He didn’t want to work only with injured birds. “So when I first said I wanted to do it, everyone started looking at me like I was crazy.” He needed a sponsor to pursue his falconry license but was met with racist skepticism. “Yeah, this white guy told me that … black people don’t fly birds, y’all eat them. These [are] hawks. These ain’t chickens. I met him like two years later and he said, ‘You’re Rodney. That was me on the phone that day. You know, I was joking.’ I said, ‘That bird right there? That one is mine. So I wasn’t.’ ”

Stotts created his own nonprofit, Rodney’s Raptors, to address what he saw as a flaw in the work he did for Wings Over America: He could work with youths only after they had been adjudicated and had to turn away young people who showed interest but were never in trouble. He saw a parallel in the way he worked with injured birds, rehabbing and only sometimes releasing them. Most raptors perish in their first year. As a falconer, he could trap a wild bird, train it, help it get through the winter, then release it stronger and fitter. “I wanted to start getting birds before they got injured so that we can do the transformation of getting you before you got hurt, helping you to get yourself on track and then releasing you, because 85 to 90% of the birds die in their first year. Eighteen-year-olds to 21, before they become that age, usually have a criminal record, been shot, [are] in the system in some way, shape, form or fashion. So I wanted to be able to get to them the same way with the birds — before they got hurt, before they got locked up — and then release them and let them grow.”

Sometimes, Stotts will just take his birds out into the city. It’s meaningful to him when somebody looks out his window and sees a hawk land on a black guy’s arm. “Everybody’s not going to be 50 Cent, everybody is not going to be LeBron James, everybody is not going to be Colin Kaepernick or whoever in the NFL. Everybody’s not going to do that,” he said. He cautioned that he doesn’t view himself as a role model. “I’m not the first black falconer. I’m not the first black person to hold a bird. I’m not first any of that. So to me, I don’t look at it like that because then … you’re not humble anymore. The minute you become happy, and you this and that, you start to take it for granted and don’t understand that that was a blessing. To be able to do what I do is a blessing for me.”

Despite this work, Stotts prefers the company of animals to people. “It’s like I have Asperger’s when it comes to people because I just don’t want to talk to them. I don’t want to be around them. They just irritate me. If I had the option of being around all animals, all the time, and no people? Give me my animals. Because I know that this animal that’s snarling at the cage and doing all of that, I have to earn its trust, and when I earn its trust, it’ll never do that to me again. That person that I’ve earned their trust, which I thought I did, they’ll stab you in the back in a heartbeat, throw you under the bus in a minute. So no animal is going to say, ‘Hey, Rodney did it,’ and bring the police to you. They’re going to run with you.” Stotts knows where he is most comfortable. “Give me my animals. I love my animals.”

You can learn more about Rodney’s Raptors at https://rodneysraptors.webs.com.

Rodney Stotts speaks to visitors along with Mr. Hoots, his Eurasian eagle owl, during a raptor presentation at the Monique Johnson Anacostia River Center in Southeast Washington.

Rodney Stotts brings Mr. Hoots, his Eurasian eagle owl, and Petunia, a Harris’s hawk, to a demonstration for young children attending the Capitol Hill Day School Summer Camp.

Rodney Stotts watches a young camper pet Mr. Hoots, whom he has taken care of for more than 20 years.

Rodney Stotts has a tender moment with Mr. Hoots during a raptor presentation at Earth Conservation Corps. “If I had the option of being around all animals, all the time, and no people? Give me my animals,” Stotts said.

While working with Gloria, one of his Harris’s hawks, Stotts gently pulls her down to avoid getting her tangled in the lines that run to the house after she flew onto the roof.

Gloria, a Harris’s hawk, eats a bit of mouse meat.

At the Wings Over America site in Laurel, Maryland, Rodney Stotts sets up an enclosure for some of the birds he has there.

Rodney Stotts prepares to move one of his Harris’s hawks to another enclosure at the Wings Over America site in Laurel.

Rodney Stotts, 48, trains a lot of Harris’s hawks because they are social and will live and hunt together. Here, Agnes and Joey are about to be moved to another enclosure.

Rodney Stotts cuts up some mouse meat to feed his birds.

Rodney Stotts coaxes Gloria, one of his Harris’s hawks, to his glove with a mouse.

Rodney Stotts feeds Gloria a bit of mouse meat after she flies to him.

 

Hair care pioneer Joan Johnson made ‘Ultra Sheen, Afro Sheen and Ultra Sheen cosmetics’ a feature of black identity Her company sold an uplifting version of black hair care — by any product necessary

When I learned that Joan Johnson had died a few days ago at 89, I felt an instant pang.

Johnson was the co-founder of Johnson Products, which in 1971 became the first black-owned company listed on the American Stock Exchange. She was from the South Side of Chicago, where I spent half of my childhood. (She was married to my mother-in-law’s first cousin.) And it was her company that, among other staples of black grooming products, gave us Ultra Sheen.

I’m not sure anything gets blacker than this, and if I’m lyin’, I’m dyin’.

Johnson Products sponsored the syndicated dance program, Soul Train.

Recently, the news has been full of reports of white teachers, counselors and coaches aggressively policing black hair. My thinking is that if you don’t know that Ultra Sheen is still just $1.21 in grocery stores, then you have no business opening your mouth.

Truth be told, I’ve had a hard time finding those small jars of hair grease for several years. Consolidation in the industry and the move of white-owned firms into the black market led to Johnson Products being sold several times, starting in 1993. It was eventually acquired by Procter & Gamble and later sold to a group of black investment firms. When I’d luck out and spot it on the shelves of some beauty supply store, I’d hoard two or three jars out of both nostalgia and need.

It was the product itself, the not-too-heavy blue grease (or green if you needed the extra dry formula) that had one job — to manage (lay down, wave up, detangle and shine) black hair — it always did what it was supposed to do. It became baked into the daily grooming rituals of my childhood in a way that made it a totem for an era. A pre-gentrification, get-your-education, no-frills time when black people needed neatness, at a minimum, at an accessible price point. It was a tool, rather than a status product, which distinguished it from the fancier, more self-important black hair care lines that followed — especially when white companies moved into the lucrative black hair care market they’d long ignored.

In 1971, Joan Johnson’s Johnson Products became the first black-owned company listed on the American Stock Exchange.

Courtesy of the Johnson family

Long before hair tutorials on YouTube, I raised my daughters using Ultra Sheen and a spray bottle of water to provide the foundation for every hairstyle known to black girlhood. I once finished off my own $200 haircut and color with a palm full of Ultra Sheen my stylist jokingly called “European de frissant.”

George “Pete” Johnson II, my husband’s second cousin, grew up hearing the story of how his father, a production chemist for black-owned soap and cosmetics manufacturer Fuller Products, couldn’t get a business loan. But he got a $250 vacation loan that he and his wife, Joan, used to help start Johnson Products in 1954. They created, packaged and distributed hair care products from their basement before opening a production plant on the South Side in the mid-1960s that employed around 500 people at its height. According to Black Enterprise magazine, the company controlled roughly a third of the black hair care market by the late 1970s.

“My mom was the backbone in all of this,” Pete Johnson said. “She was the woman that, along with my father, envisioned the company.”

She was always good with money and initially did all the accounting and acted as the company’s de facto comptroller. She gave to local causes even before they had much to give. She later became a trustee at Spelman College. “My mom really felt the need to empower not only us as a culture, but black women,” Johnson says. We needed an identity “of us being just as elegant, just as gracious and beautiful as anybody else.”

It’s an ethos that showed up in the stylish clothes, hair and makeup she wore every time she walked out of her front door. When you left home, “you better be completely groomed, clean and smelling good,” said Pete Johnson. She always told us to strive for perfection “and it starts with how you look, how you present yourself.”

“My mom was the backbone in all of this. She was the woman that, along with my father, envisioned the company.” — Pete Johnson

It was a way she thought black people could change self-perceptions, and white perceptions of the race, that much of the culture has since moved past but was considered gospel in its day.

Johnson also believed that graciousness translated into how you treated people. “I saw that firsthand as a little boy,” said Pete Johnson. “We had a place in Endeavor, Wisconsin [a small town near the Wisconsin Dells] and we’d get some of the Native Americans coming to our house asking for food.” When his two older brothers ran around behind them making mock Indian noises, “My mom snatched them boys up so quick,” Pete Johnson recalled. “She didn’t play that. You had to respect everybody.”

The company’s product line also included other hair care and grooming products. Johnson Products sponsored the syndicated dance program, Soul Train, and a huge swath of black America will remember the line, “makers of Ultra Sheen, Afro Sheen and Ultra Sheen Cosmetics,” voiced by Soul Train host Don Cornelius, for the rest of our lives.

In a Facebook post, educator Cassandra Smith of Prince George’s County, Maryland, remembered how the yellow creme satin press specifically enabled her Sunday church press and curls. Karen Parker, a Washington event curator and producer, calls both the blue and green Ultra Sheen part of hair washing day in her Afro-Caribbean childhood, and the product of choice for greasing her grandmother’s scalp.

And of course Afro Sheen made Afros shine.

“I also remember the joy of putting the sheen on your Afro,” said Lonnie G. Bunch III, who is likely the first Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution to have ever voiced that particular recollection. He met Joan and George Johnson when he was president of the Chicago Historical Society, and they talked about the power of those weekly Soul Train plugs. “In a way, the Johnsons captured the tenor of the time and used that desire to express one’s blackness as a key to their marketing strategy,” he said. “Whenever I think about the commercials, I smile and recall a time when we were all discovering our blackness.”

Beginning in the late 1970s, the models on the boxes of Johnson Products’ Gentle Treatment relaxers became their own form of black celebrity. (I once worked with a reporter who’d won the vaunted Johnson Products Gentle Treatment model search.) Before the natural hair care revolution of the last decade helped us move beyond the white gaze, they represented an aspirational version of black respectability that saw black womanhood as beautiful and cultured in a way that corresponded with hair that should always be worn appropriately straight.

Joan Johnson wanted to “lift us up” as a people, Pete Johnson said. The message from white culture, “I believe, back then, was that we were less than, but we weren’t.”

Step one in proving that was looking good. It’s something Joan Johnson believed black people could accomplish, by any product necessary.

Steelers’ Mike Tomlin teaches faith along with football Coaches were ‘the guys that told me right from wrong’ as he grew up without his father

Millions of fans see the cross hanging from Mike Tomlin’s neck on Sundays as he commands the sidelines for the Pittsburgh Steelers. But when he steps in front of the microphones, the questions are never about faith — they’re always football.

What does that cross mean to Tomlin? What guides the man behind the mirrored sunglasses and guarded coachspeak?

Ahead of his 13th season as the Steelers’ head coach, I spoke with Tomlin about his spiritual life and then followed him to the annual Christian men’s conference ManUp, which supports young people in the Pittsburgh area whose fathers aren’t involved in their lives.

Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin speaks to a group of men during a ManUp conference breakout session. Tomlin’s coaching method involves encouraging his players to grow personally and spiritually.

Justin Merriman The Undefeated

Football is full of overt appeals to God: Touchdown Jesus, postgame prayer circles, players in the end zone pointing to the heavens. After winning the Super Bowl in 2018, Philadelphia Eagles coach Doug Pederson credited “my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” Tomlin’s mentor, Tony Dungy, has an open Bible in his commemorative locker at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

None of that is Tomlin’s style. During our interview, and listening to him speak at ManUp, he rarely used the words “God” or “Christ.” He declined to discuss his churchgoing activities. Instead, Tomlin emphasized pragmatic virtues and actions that are needed on the playing field of life.

“We’ve got to find artful ways to instill that moral fiber and that decision-making we’re all talking about,” Tomlin said during a session at ManUp entitled “Coaching to Transform Lives.”

Tomlin’s high school coach burned life lessons into young Mike’s memory as the team sweated through leg lifts in practice. “Maybe your style and delivery is different,” Tomlin said, “but you better find a way to consistently deliver messaging that’s going to push them to be better people. And you got an awesome vehicle in which to do it through your coaching.”

Mike Tomlin (left) is joined onstage by pastor Tunch Ilkin (right), a former Steelers player, as he speaks at the ManUp conference in Pittsburgh.

Justin Merriman for The Undefeated

Steelers tight end Vance McDonald said a subtle undercurrent of faith runs through Tomlin’s interactions with his team.

“He does a great job of his approach as coach, and as leader of the Steelers, of applying biblical and Christian truths but doing it in a way that’s not right in your face,” McDonald told me. “And it’s superdelicate: You’re going to overstep or you’re not going to present it as much as you should. It’s delicate, but he does a great job. He does it humbly, and he does it well, because guys respond to things that he says. And when you are a Christian in the audience, you’re like, ‘Hey, I know exactly what he’s talking about.’ ”

Tomlin, 47, told me his method is to encourage his players to grow personally and spiritually, “but they’re not tangible goals. I want to see continual growth as players and as men, and I think we all should aspire to live our lives in that way. This journey of life that we’re on, or this journey that is a professional football career, you’d like to think that you’re learning from the experiences that you go through. You’d like to think that you’re getting better through the process, and that’s my hope for them.”

Tomlin (center) poses for a photo with a group of men during a VIP meet-and-greet at the ManUp Pittsburgh conference, which drew about 2,000 people.

Justin Merriman The Undefeated

At the ManUp conference, which drew about 2,000 people to a huge church in suburban Pittsburgh earlier this summer, Tomlin showed another side of his coiled-steel work demeanor. He smiled and joked. He wore no hat or sunglasses. He spoke often about the challenges he and his wife face raising their daughter and two sons, including the eldest, Michael Tomlin Jr., nicknamed “Dino,” an incoming freshman wide receiver at the University of Maryland.

Tomlin got one of his biggest laughs at the conference after revealing that his kids accuse him of enjoying their “short-term misery” because it provides teachable moments. Dino finished second in the state of Pennsylvania in the 100-meter dash his junior year, then missed the 2019 championship with a hamstring injury. “Man, I kind of enjoyed it,” Tomlin said, then corrected himself. “I’m just gonna tell you straight up: I enjoyed it.

“It was an opportunity for me, one last opportunity for me, to have my hands on him and be around him as he endures adversity,” Tomlin said. “Injury is a part of sport an any level, particularly once you get beyond high school. So, man, it’s a great opportunity for me to watch him deal with injury in a professional life manner and do the things that you’re required to do.”

Tomlin has a career regular-season record of 125-66-1 with the Steelers and is one of only two African American head coaches in the NFL.

Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

He spoke about growing up without his father in the football hotbed of Hampton Roads, Virginia. Until age 5, Tomlin lived with his mother and older brother at his grandparents’ home. His mother then got her own apartment and later remarried. Tomlin credits his grandfather, stepfather and youth coaches with serving as his father figures.

“I didn’t get into this to be the head football coach of the Steelers, to be quite honest with you,” Tomlin said during his keynote address at ManUp. “When you come from a less-than-advantageous background, socioeconomic issues and things of that nature, fatherlessness is very prevalent in those communities. And so those young men, they look around and they’re looking for truth. Forget what people say, they look at how [other people] live, how they conduct themselves, what the day-to-day looks like, and the most stand-up guys in my community were coaches. Those are not only the guys that told me right from wrong, but when I watched them, they were living it out.

“I just had so much respect for the living witnesses and for the lives of those men, and wanted to be like them. I wanted to impact kids that were like me.”

Tomlin on his coaching style: “I try to display legitimate humility. There’s not enough of it. And boy, there’s plenty of opportunities to learn it.”

Justin Merriman for The Undefeated

Tomlin is now a living witness for the grown men who play for the Steelers. He was 34 when he was named head coach in 2007. In 2009, he became the youngest head coach to win a Super Bowl. He reached another Super Bowl in 2011 but lost to Green Bay. Now with a career regular-season record of 125-66-1, and one of the best winning percentages in football, Tomlin is one of only two African American head coaches in the NFL. He should soon surpass Dungy as the most successful black coach in league history.

Asked by a ManUp audience member what role faith plays in his coaching, he cited the Christian maxim that “humility is confidence properly placed in God.”

“That is my coaching style … I try to display legitimate humility,” Tomlin said. “There’s not enough of it. And boy, there’s plenty of opportunities to learn it. I just try to live that out in every way that I can, to show legitimate humility, and that I got my confidence properly placed.”

Ronnell Heard, head football coach at Imani Christian Academy in Pittsburgh, and his twin brother, Rodney, an assistant coach at Imani, said Tomlin’s remarks helped them keep faith central to their coaching. “Coach Tomlin spoke about the elephant in the room,” Ronnell said.

“Faith is the biggest aspect of how we coach,” Rodney said. “Everything we do, we put God first. Our performance on the field is in honor of God. The way we conduct ourselves is in honor of God.”

When I asked Tomlin what role prayer plays in his coaching, he said he never prays for victory. “Just leadership, good decisions, but not necessarily anything specific relative to the outcome of games. We’ve all been blessed in all the appropriate ways. I just ask for the wisdom and discernment that comes with the decision-making and leading these guys.”

He became most animated when I asked if there is any conflict between the qualities associated with great football players — ferocious, violent, merciless — and the kindness and mercy encouraged by New Testament scriptures such as “the meek shall inherit the earth” or the Gospel of John’s “God is love.”

Clinton Bridges, 49, of East Liberty, Pennsylvania, asks Tomlin a question during a breakout session at ManUp Pittsburgh. Bridges coaches basketball and expressed his concern about young men swearing.

Justin Merriman for The Undefeated

“I don’t think there’s a conflict at all,” Tomlin said with a smile. “If Jesus was a football player, I think he would go extremely hard and extremely fair. I think he would finish. I think he would embody all the tough elements of the game that we embrace. Notice I don’t talk about being dirty. I talk about just playing hard and fair, within the rules of the game and the ways that endear you to your teammates. Being selfless in your efforts.”

What position would Jesus play, coach?

“Good question. Let me think about that for a second.

“He’d be a quarterback and a middle linebacker — because you would want to put the game in His hands.”

On this football team, keep your eye out for the trash-talking mom Former Ohio State player leads his family to a flag football championship

Lamaar Thomas has been a football star since he first put on pads as a little boy. Even then, the 65-pound running back dreamed of making it to the NFL. By high school, his star was blazing.

He was the Maryland state champion in the 55- and 100-meter dashes, was an All-American wide receiver and got 31 Division I scholarship offers.

After two years at Ohio State, he transferred to the University of New Mexico, where a coach promised more playing time. While there, he set a school record in the 60 meters and won a conference championship in the 100.

Elwanda Thomas (right), Lamaar Thomas’ mother, looks for the end zone as she tries to get around a Wakanda Forever defender.

André Chung for The Undefeated

But in his next football season, he broke a bone in his back and then his foot and played in only four games. In his final season, the coach who’d recruited him was fired, the offense changed and his college career, which once held so much promise, came to an anticlimactic close. After a tryout with the Denver Broncos, he wound up on the practice squad (and activated for two games) with the Jacksonville Jaguars. He worked out with other teams and considered Arena football before returning to the Washington area and becoming a personal trainer.

At 23, one football door had closed for him. But there was another one, and it had been open his whole life. He grabbed a flag and met his family on the field. “Getting into flag football was just like I was kind of born into it,” Thomas, now 29, said.

He and his brother, Desmond, 27, grew up in Fort Washington, Maryland, watching his parents play the game. His dad, Sean Thomas, who’d played baseball and football in high school and basketball for Shaw University, started an all-women’s team with his mom, Elwanda, two decades ago. Football, especially flag football, was a family affair.

“I’m 51 years old and I’m still running. … Not all people can say they’ve physically gotten on the football field and played with their kids.” — Elwanda Thomas

After college, Thomas helped his dad coach his mom’s team. Other men’s and coed flag football teams knew who he was, knew he’d played pro, and begged Thomas to play for them. But he wanted to play the game he loved with the people he loved most.

“They want me but they don’t want to play with my brother, or maybe they don’t want my mom, or they don’t want my girlfriend, or they don’t want my friend,” Thomas said. And where’s the joy in that? “I’m mostly out here playing because I’m just having fun with them. I’m not playing because I want to score a bunch of touchdowns. I’ve already done that stuff.”

In 2015, he started his own coed flag football team, Ballers Gon’ Ball. The BGB Family team featured his mother; his girlfriend, Asherah; his brother; and a cousin, Darren Cutchin, who everybody calls Cuz. It includes his best friends and their close friends. There are nearly two dozen people on the roster, about half of whom show up for any given game, and the team plays on Saturdays and Tuesdays, January through October. In the past four years, they’ve won some prize money and, in January, the Flag Football World Championship Tour’s national championship in Orlando, Florida. But everybody in BGB Family will say, for real, they’re just looking for a way to stay in the game. Together.

“I’m 51 years old and I’m still running,” Elwanda Thomas said. “There have been times where all of us have been on the field together: mom, dad and the two boys. I’m like, it’s a family thing out here. Not all people can say they’ve physically gotten on the football field and played with their kids.”

Elwanda, a technician for Verizon, said her husband, a carrier for FedEx, talked her into playing 30 years ago. She’s a small woman, barely 5 feet, 4 inches, and a size 2 back then. The first time she played, she got elbowed by defenders and bruised. “I can’t get hit anymore, I’m going to have to figure this blocking thing out,” she told herself. Her husband began teaching her the nuances of the game: how to rush, how to pull the flags and not be fooled by fakes. “I’m a very competitive person. Very, very competitive. So it was like, ‘No, I can’t let you beat me at this. I have to figure out my game plan.’ ”

Between games, the team relaxes. Elwanda Thomas (foreground) holds 1-year-old Quinn Dimes, whose mother plays on the team. Lamaar Thomas (left) sits next to his dog, Bentley, with Keena Brooks (center) and Frank Milien (right).

André Chung for The Undefeated

She had Lamaar young, and when other parents were in the stands watching their kids at football practice, she and Sean Thomas would run steps, or the track, or play catch. “I actually could beat Lamaar in track until he was probably about 12,” Elwanda brags. She stopped racing him after that because she didn’t want him to have an edge in their trash-talk game.

In 8-on-8 coed flag football, the rules require teams to have at least three women on the field. If a woman scores, it counts for 9 points as opposed to only 6 with men. On a field in Burtonsville, Maryland, in mid-May, BGB was leading a team called Wakanda Forever and looking for a chance to run their signature play — Hide the Mom.

After Thomas completed a long pass, he immediately ran his team downfield.

“HTM! HTM!” he called out, and players raced into position. With one exception, the women lined up in the middle, near the ball. The men spread out, and Elwanda Thomas lingered near the sideline chatting with a ref. A defender demanded to know whether she was in bounds.

“It’s not my job to count for you, boo,” Elwanda Thomas told her.

Thomas ended up going to another receiver, and his momma got vocal. “I still got the HTM in me!” she yelled. You gotta believe in your teammate!”

When Elwanda Thomas dropped a low pass several plays later, Thomas yelled, “I can’t catch it for you!”

“Glad I wasn’t in the middle of that,” said Sean Thomas, watching from the sidelines. “They are the most competitive against each other.”

Lamaar and Elwanda Thomas trash-talk a few more minutes, just a mother and son trying to work out the kinks in their marquee move.

With Hide The Mom, the idea is to draw attention to the middle of the field, where almost all the women line up. “And meanwhile, my mom will be standing on the sideline because she’s the least likely person for guys my age to be trying to check,” Thomas said. These guys are watching the younger women who used to play basketball or run track. “My mom, nobody pays attention to her because she’s my mom, and she’s 51,” he said. He tosses the ball to her, “she’ll catch it, and normally it’s an easy run for her into the end zone for a touchdown.”

The team introduced the play last year as a novelty when shoulder, knee and Achilles injuries kept Elwanda Thomas near the sidelines. But it yields points — 56 in 14 games since April. After they get over the sting of being beaten by a middle-aged, trash-talking suburban mom, opposing defenses usually appreciate the play and Elwanda Thomas has gotten into her role, say teammates. She’ll make conversation with the ref or spectators on the sideline before suddenly turning to catch the ball.

Thomas’ girlfriend, Asherah El, 33, was a high school hurdler who now works in human resources for a government contractor. She cited their team chemistry as the best part of playing. “We hang out after the game, we hang out before the game,” El said.

She loves playing with instead of just cheering on her boyfriend. And she loves that Elwanda is still out there doing her thing. When Elwanda Thomas scores, the other team is like, “What the heck just happened? Everybody is in always in confusion. How did we let that person go, or how did she catch the ball? People always underestimate her.”

Darren Cutchin (“Cuz”) is a real estate agent and youth basketball coach. For Lamaar Thomas to play with his mom is special, Cuz says. “You won a national championship with your mom. And your girlfriend. You got your dad on the sidelines coaching you up.”

During the second half of the Wakanda Forever game, a player BGB is calling Spider-Man — he’s really rocking a great deal of red and blue — is bugging them.

“I got the lady,” Spider-Man called out, signaling he was covering Elwanda Thomas.

“He keeps calling me the lady, ‘I got the lady,’ and I’m about to get mad,” she says.

Lamaar Thomas and his mother have matching half-heart tattoos. “I love you,” her half-heart says. “I know,” reads his half-heart.

André Chung for The Undefeated

With less than a minute left in the game, Spider-Man and a BGB player exchange words, and Elwanda Thomas interjects.

“I’m a mom!” she taunts him. “I know why you talking that way. Just let your game talk for you, baby,” she tells him. BGB scores, and she brags that her head game is prime.

With the game over, Lamaar Thomas reminds everyone to get their jerseys and talks logistics for their next game. He and his mother resume their sparring about that incomplete pass.

“That would have been perfect if you would have caught it,” Thomas tells his mother.

“If it would have been thrown correctly, I would have caught it!” she insists.

The two put their wrists together to show off matching half-heart tattoos. “I love you,” her half-heart says. “I know,” reads his half-heart. Arguing about sports always brought them closer. Playing together keeps them closer still. Thomas, Elwanda, Sean and the rest of the team part ways but make plans to meet up again Tuesday, as friends and family, football players, balling out together.

A black neighborhood’s complicated relationship with the home of Preakness Baltimore’s storied horse race faces an uncertain future in the city

In Northwest Baltimore’s Park Heights neighborhood, more than 100,000 people are expected to gather Saturday to watch the 144th Preakness Stakes at the rundown Pimlico Race Course.

However, few residents of this depressed, low-income and largely black community will be attending the second leg of thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown. But for generations, they have made extra cash allowing race fans to park on their front lawns and selling cooked food or trinkets from their stoops. Corner stores and carryout spots have charged fans anywhere from $5 to $20 just to use the bathroom. Even the drug dealers clean up on Preakness Day.

“The white folks come up here once a year to gamble and get drunk. Some of them come across the street and buy a little weed or some crack. The police just sit there and don’t do nothin’ because they get paid off by the corner boys to look the other way,” said 51-year-old Ray Johnson, who grew up in the neighborhood. “When the race is over, they get outta here before it gets dark. They don’t give a f— about this neighborhood until the next year.”

Park Heights is one of several Baltimore neighborhoods where gun violence is endemic. But residents here also have concerns about whether the city will continue with its revitalization plan demolishing unsightly and deteriorating buildings – or even the racetrack. And they are not alone in pondering the possibility of this home to horse racing being torn down, and its signature event – the Preakness – being moved to Laurel Park racetrack midway between Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

Eight miles away from Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, where businesses have struggled to attract tourists since the city’s Freddie Gray uprising in 2015, bright yellow hydraulic excavators rest their arms and dirt-caked bucket lips on vacant lots along Park Heights Avenue. They’ve ripped through arched windows, gnawed out rotted beams, and scooped up brick foundations from boarded vintage row homes and dilapidated businesses built many decades ago.

Melvin Ward, the 58-year-old owner of Kaylah’s Soul Food restaurant, came to Park Heights with his family when he was 5. “I saw this neighborhood when there were no black people here. My family was one of two black families in this neighborhood. It’s gone far down since then. I don’t think the neighborhood will get worse if they move the Preakness to Laurel,” Ward said.

Until the Martin Luther King Jr. riots of 1968 combined with a mass exodus of whites and professional blacks to the suburbs, this was a largely close-knit Jewish neighborhood with thriving specialty shops, synagogues and Hebrew schools, and homeowners who swept the alleys. The entire stretch of Park Heights, from Park Circle to Pimlico, quickly transformed racially from almost entirely white to largely African American.

In 1947, Life magazine declared that horse racing was “the most gigantic racket since Prohibition.” An estimated 26 million people went to the tracks at that time. Big races attracted all kinds, from nuns to black numbers runners to then-FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who traveled from Washington, D.C., to Pimlico on Saturdays in a bulletproof limousine.

Along Park Heights Avenue, decades of divestment and a grim litany of urban problems are evident. But the sites won’t be captured for television audiences on Preakness Day. Viewers won’t see the dumped mattresses, tires and garbage on desolate blocks, the high concentration of liquor stores and convenience shops. Nor will they see the hollowed-eyed, gaunt drug addicts lurking along the sidewalks or nodding off at bus stops.

The 5100 block of Park Heights Ave is the closest thoroughfare to the race track. The area is in need of investment and redevelopment, and many shops are vacant or boarded up. The Preakness has not brought any significant opportunity to the area over the years.

André Chung for The Undefeated

Residents here joke that most viewers outside Baltimore probably have no clue that the Preakness happens “in the middle of the ‘hood” instead of beautiful horse country.

If you stand at the corner of Park Heights and West Belvedere avenues, you can see there’s a commercial district neighboring the track where the Preakness has been held since 1873. There’s detritus and despair, thick veils of cigarette smoke, the smell of liquor and urine heavy in the air.

Over the past few months, the Canadian-based Stronach Group, which owns and operates Pimlico, has been locked in a feud with city officials over Pimlico’s future. It has become increasingly clear that Stronach wants to move the Preakness from Baltimore and tap $80 million in state funds to build an upscale “supertrack” in Laurel Park, where it has invested a significant amount of money.

City officials want to revitalize Pimlico and keep the Preakness, but a study conducted by the Maryland Stadium Authority estimated that it would cost more than $400 million to rebuild the racetrack.

Tim Ritvo, Stronach’s COO, indicated that Pimlico is “at the end of its useful life” and is no longer a safe and viable site for the Preakness. Baltimore filed a lawsuit alleging that Stronach “systematically under-invested in Pimlico” while pouring most of the state funds it receives into improving the Laurel Park facility. Former Mayor Catherine Pugh, who recently resigned over financial improprieties, argued a rotting, unsafe race complex helps the company justify moving the Preakness from Baltimore.

Track workers prepare the track for the two weeks of racing to come as Preakness nears on the calendar. Pimlico race track is falling apart and the owners would rather take the historic race out of Baltimore than repair it. But who is left behind? The black community that surrounds Pimlico.

André Chung for The Undefeated

In mid-April, proposals to finance improvements at Laurel Park were debated and failed in the Maryland General Assembly. Stuck in an unfortunate status quo with no real agreement on how to move forward, Baltimore’s new mayor, Bernard C. “Jack” Young, is expected to continue Pugh’s efforts to fix Pimlico and build a new hotel and grocery store for the community.

Local media coverage has indicated that popular bars and restaurants in areas such as Federal Hill, Towson and Fells Point would feel the pain if the Preakness leaves. They’ve raised bigger questions: Does the wider racing world care if the race is moved out of Baltimore? Does the Preakness have to stay in the city for it to retain its cachet? In all this debate, missing from the conversation are black voices, which reveal a deeper story about the social costs of sports as America’s inner cities are struggling to reimagine themselves by using sports stadiums to spur economic growth and demographic change.

The fate of Pimlico as home to the Preakness and as a racetrack is also balanced against the views of its African American neighbors, who have seen their communities deteriorate even more over the past half-century from absentee owners, intentional neglect, the war on drugs, and other failed local and national American policies.

Do the people of Park Heights really care about keeping the track — perhaps the area’s only surviving historic landmark and focal point? Would Pimlico’s Canadian owners be so willing to leave if the surrounding neighborhood were white and middle class? Stronach Group did not respond to requests for an interview for this story.

Melvin Ward, who grew up in the Park Heights neighborhood near Pimlico, is the owner of Kaylah’s Soul Food near the race track.

André Chung for The Undefeated

A number of residents like to put on their conspiratorial hat when they talk about what’s happened to the racetrack. Many residents believe that the owners let the track rot to justify a move to Laurel Park. The conditions at Pimlico symbolize how the city has neglected black communities for decades, and they see letting Pimlico and the rest of the neighborhood die as the start of gentrification.

Most people here halfway accept that the Preakness might leave Park Heights. “They’re moving it to Laurel. Period!” declared Roderick Barnette, a 56-year-old resident of Park Heights.

The question is: What then? How will the site be used? Would Sinai Hospital on one side of Pimlico obtain some of the land if it becomes available? If any of the land is redeveloped for housing, would it be affordable, market rate or a combination?

“Pimlico is not a sign of life for this neighborhood,” Ward said. “Horse racing is dead. The Preakness does nothing for the community. If it leaves, things will be the same as they always are here.”

Andrae Scott, 37, whose father owns Judy’s Caribbean Restaurant, on Park Heights Avenue across from the track, said white people come through not to buy food but to use the bathroom, which they are charged for, since many come in drunk and vomit. “They’re already pushing black folks out of the area. You can already see them knocking down houses and tearing up streets,” Scott said.

Fears of gentrification and displacement are legitimate. Baltimore ranks fifth among cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Washington, San Diego and Chicago for the highest rate of gentrification and displacement of people from 2000 to 2013, according to a recent study by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition.

Some residents want the Preakness to stay. Prince Jeffrey, 28, is a Nigerian immigrant working at the EZ Shop directly across from the racetrack. On Preakness Day, his store can make upward of $2,000, versus his daily average of $600, with sales of junk food, chips, water and crates of juices. “I think they should leave it. Development would make the whole area better. If they move the track, this place will go down,” Jeffrey said.

LaDonna Jones, 53, believes that Pimlico’s owners have sabotaged it to have an excuse to leave. “Some other tracks across the country have live racing from now until late fall. This track runs races for two weeks for the Preakness. They don’t try to get any additional business.”

Jones noted that there have been efforts to arrange concerts there, but the number of outside events has declined — Pimlico is not seen as a welcoming place.

LaDonna Jones owns property near the track. Her cousin, Roderick Barnette helps her take care of it. Their views differ on whether or not the track should close. Jones wants it to stay but wants to see reinvestment into the community and Barnette would rather see it go because it’s never benefitted the community.

André Chung for The Undefeated

Her friend Roderick Barnette, who is convinced that the track will be closed, said, “There’s no money here. This is a drug haven. White people come here once a year, they gamble, make their money and get the hell out. In Laurel, they can make more money because there’s more white people. I’m just keeping it real.”

When Jones suggests that “they can revitalize here,” Barnett interrupts. “This is Park Heights! This is a black neighborhood! They’re gonna get rid of all these black people around here just like Johns Hopkins did downtown.”

Jones concedes while noting that “this racetrack matters to black folks here. It’s part of their life and the way they’ve always lived. They look forward to the races. They make a little quick money. If it shuts down, Pimlico will be just another vacant building and another eyesore for Baltimore City.”

Overall, Park Heights residents seem less concerned about losing the Preakness than addressing more immediate problems of crime, poverty, broken schools, lack of retail and jobs, food deserts, poor housing, shabby services, disinvestment and endless failed urban renewal plans over the past 30 years.

Beyond the once-yearly activity and attention that come with the Preakness, Park Heights still creates a sense of possibility in the face of its challenges. Some Caribbean groceries sell fresh foods. The recent election of Baltimore City Council president Brandon Scott, who grew up in Park Heights, is seen as a sign of hope. While Park Heights is generally a hard place to live, it is a community where some decent people find joy in the face of uncertainty and believe in the spirit of the place they call home. The fate of the Preakness will have an impact, but it will not define them.

Meanwhile, the latest news is that the Preakness will stay in Baltimore another year. But beyond 2020, the future of the race remains unclear.