The woman behind CoverGirl’s ‘I am what I make up’ marketing campaign Ukonwa Ojo added Ayesha Curry and Issa Rae as brand ambassadors

When Ukonwa Ojo left Nigeria for the United States to attend the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, she had no clue she’d eventually become global senior vice president for Coty Inc.’s CoverGirl brand, but she knew she had a dream.

“My parents were gutsy enough to let me move to America by myself to follow my dream,” said Ojo. “I always knew that I wanted to work in business, and America was like the nirvana of business.”

Fast-forward to the present day, where that same bravery kicked in when Ojo, who joined CoverGirl in the fall of 2016, gave the brand a makeover by changing its slogan, “Easy, Breezy, Beautiful CoverGirl,” to “I Am What I Make Up” after just a year at the company. Ojo and her team added more brand ambassadors to round out their roster. Along with singer Katy Perry, the new CoverGirl ambassadors included chef and author Ayesha Curry, who is half of a power couple with NBA All-Star Stephen Curry; Issa Rae, the creator of HBO’s Insecure; fitness guru Massy Arias; 69-year-old model Maye Musk; and professional motorcycle racer Shelina Moreda.

It wasn’t an easy decision, but the feedback has been incredible and allowed CoverGirl to bring a lot of innovation to market with bolder colors, deeper tones and glitter with a spring collection that will launch 114 new products.

Making tough decisions isn’t new for Ojo, who decided to change her career after working nearly six years in the finance department at paper company MeadWestvaco. A finance and accounting major in college, she was good at math but realized that she wasn’t in love with it and couldn’t see herself doing it for the rest of her life. Then she heard about brand management.

“I realized that what I didn’t like about finance was that I worked alone most of the time. But with brand management, I’m constantly collaborating and building together with so many departments,” said Ojo. “I’m a classic extrovert, so I get energy from other people.”

Ojo earned an MBA at Northwestern University and, while there, interned at General Mills, where she spent seven years. She handled marketing for brands such as Betty Crocker, Honey Nut Cheerios and Progresso from 2004-11. Later, she worked on branding for the French’s mustard portfolio, as well as Durex and K-Y in London for the British multinational consumer goods company Reckitt Benckiser until 2015. She stayed in London and joined Unilever as senior global director for Knorr, the food and beverage brand, before moving to New York as a CoverGirl senior vice president. With more than 20 years of marketing and brand management experience, she now oversees the cosmetic brand’s global strategy, advertising and communications.

The Undefeated visited Ojo at Coty’s offices in the Empire State Building to learn more about CoverGirl’s evolution, how she exemplifies why “you are what you make up” and why she lives by her Instagram bio, “working hard, playing harder and praying hardest.”

What is a typical day like for you?

There is no typical day, which is one of the things I love about this job and the beauty industry: It’s so fast-paced. I can be looking over the innovation within production operations, presenting to our board of directors or the executive committee, reviewing a pitch from our media partners who may have an amazing idea to meeting with our sales team on how we’re going to drive growth for that quarter. The scope of my role is so broad that it keeps things interesting and my brain challenged.

What’s the most rewarding and challenging part of your job?

The brand means so much because of the impact it has on culture, and that creates such a rewarding feeling for us. The challenge derives from that same responsibility of running such an iconic brand. Whatever you do, you know you’re standing on the shoulders of giants and that you’re pushing culture forward through the brand and the business.

What was behind the decision to change CoverGirl’s slogan from “Easy, Breezy, Beautiful CoverGirl” to “I Am What I Make Up”?

The decision came from really listening to people. I learned how makeup is so much more than cosmetic, and every day when they stand in front of the mirror with their makeup bag they are actually creating who they wanted to be that day. Women play so many different roles in society, and our makeup changes based on those roles because it’s a form of self-expression, and there’s a story behind each look. We realized that some of these looks weren’t so easy, breezy, and in some ways that was limiting us to go on that journey with her to create whoever she wanted to be that day.

How has CoverGirl evolved in how it chooses ambassadors?

It’s never easy picking a CoverGirl because of the legacy and history of what it stood for. It’s one of the hardest things we do as a team because it’s far more than just beauty that meets the eye. We’ve historically always stood for inclusiveness and diversity, but it was primarily limited to ethnicity. We wanted to continue to celebrate ethnic diversity but also the beauty that comes in all ages and vocations. A lot of our CoverGirls usually come from the entertainment industry as models and actresses, but we thought, ‘How awesome would it be to show women in various roles that are pushing society forward?’

Why did you choose Ayesha Curry, Issa Rae, Massy Arias, Maye Musk and Shelina Moreda?

We loved that Ayesha Curry was a chef, entrepreneur, a mom and a wife and was playing these roles in such an inspiring way. Massy Arias, a fitness sensation that could kick anyone’s butt at any time, is balancing that with brand-new motherhood and the ups and downs that come with that and was still thriving on that journey. And then we have Issa Rae, who we loved because she was really pushing the boundaries in Hollywood about what entertainment should look and feel like. She’s a director, producer, writer, actress and just a strong role model for women. [Model] Maye Musk exemplifies how even at 69 years old you can still do what you love and inspire at that same time. Shelina Moreda is the first woman to have raced at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and at the Zhuhai International Circuit in China.

We just wanted to show all of the different ways that women really thrive in society and have that be an inspiration to us and other women out there.

How can we increase diversity in managing advertising and brand campaigns?

I believe it’s a combination of not knowing that this is a career path and how there’s still a long ways to go on representation on all levels in this field. That’s why I try to be visible in my role, whether that’s with mentoring, participating on panels and speaking engagements so African-Americans not only know but see that this is a path here for them too. Brands, especially those that impact culture, have to have diversity in front and behind the camera to authentically push diversity and inclusivity. I’m very intentional at building a strong and diverse team.

Is it better to be feared or loved as a leader?

I don’t subscribe to fear and would never want to generate that on my team. If I had to pick a word, it would be respect, and I would choose that over being loved. As a leader, you’re going to make decisions that people aren’t always going to love, but if they respect you and you’re transparent, then they’ll recognize that your intent is right.

What is your advice to young women who don’t feel beautiful because they compare themselves to what they see on social media and in Hollywood?

Beauty really does come in every shape, size, ethnicity and vocation. It’s so important that we champion that and show how beauty is confidence. People try to water it down to an idealized vision of beauty. But at the end of the day it is confidence, and when you learn to accept who you are, you will automatically perfect beauty into the world.

What would be your personal theme song and why?

“Live Your Life” by T.I. featuring Rihanna, because I believe in writing your own rules. People could have statistically said where I should end up or what a senior executive should look or lead like. I love challenging those notions. Like our slogan says, ‘you are what you make up,’ and you can become whoever you want to be.

The Stop: Racial profiling of drivers leaves legacy of anger and fear From ministers to pro athletes, they all get pulled over for “Driving While Black”

An idyllic afternoon of Little League baseball followed by pizza and Italian ice turned harrowing when two police officers in Bridgeport, Connecticut, stopped Woodrow Vereen Jr. for driving through a yellow light.

A music minister at his church, Vereen struggled to maintain eye contact with his young sons as one of the officers instructed Vereen, who is black, to get out of the car and lean over the trunk, and then patted him down. Vereen could see tears welling in the eyes of his 7- and 3-year-old sons as they peered through the rear window. He cringed as folks at a nearby bus stop watched one of the officers look through his car.

He never consented to the 2015 search, which turned up nothing illegal. The American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut sued on behalf of Vereen, alleging that police searched him without probable cause. Last year, two years after the incident, he received a settlement from the city. His tickets — for running a light and not carrying proof of insurance — were dismissed.

Yet the stop lives with him.

Traffic stops — the most common interaction between police and the public — have become a focal point in the debate about race, law enforcement, and equality in America. A disproportionate share of the estimated 20 million police traffic stops in the United States each year involve black drivers, even though they are no more likely to break traffic laws than whites. Black and Hispanic motorists are more likely than whites to be searched by police, although they are no more likely to be carrying contraband.

Across the country, law-abiding black and Hispanic drivers are left frightened and humiliated by the inordinate attention they receive from police, who too often see them as criminals. Such treatment leaves blacks and Hispanics feeling violated, angry, and wary of police and their motives.

“You’re pulled over simply for no other reason than you fit a description and the description is that you’re black.”

Activists have taken to the streets to protest police shootings of unarmed black people. Athletes, including NFL players, have knelt or raised clenched fists during the singing of the national anthem at sports events to try to shine a light on lingering inequality.

Vereen had always told his children that the police were real-life superheroes. Now that story had to change. “Everything I told them seems to be untrue,” said Vereen, 34. “Why is this superhero trying to hurt my dad? Why is this superhero doing this to us? He is supposed to be on our side.”

The first time my now-28-year-old son was stopped by police, he was a high school student in Baltimore. He was headed to a barbershop when he was startled by flashing lights and the sight of two police cars pulling up behind him. The stop lasted just a few minutes and resulted in no ticket. It seems the cops just wanted to check him out. My son’s fear morphed into indignation when an officer returned his license, saying, “A lot of vehicles like yours are stolen.” He was driving a Honda Civic, one of the most popular cars on the road.

“A very familiar feeling comes each time I’m stopped. And that’s the same feeling I got the first time I was stopped, when I was 17 years old.”

Shaken by cases in which seemingly routine traffic stops turn deadly, many black parents rehearse with their children what to do if they are pulled over: Lower your car window so officers have a clear line of sight, turn on the interior lights, keep your hands visible, have your license and registration accessible, and for God’s sake, let the officer know you are reaching for them so he doesn’t shoot you.

Drivers of all races worry about running afoul of the rules of the road. But blacks and Hispanics, in particular, also worry about being stopped if they are driving a nice car in a modest or upscale community, a raggedy car in a mostly white one, or any kind of car in a high-crime area. It affects everyone, from ministers and professional athletes to lawyers and the super-rich.

“It’s been more times than I care to remember,” said Robert F. Smith, 55, a private equity titan and philanthropist, when asked how often he thinks he has been racially profiled. Smith, with a net worth of more than $3 billion, is listed by Forbes as the nation’s wealthiest African-American. Yet he still dreads being pulled over.

“A very familiar feeling comes each time I’m stopped,” he said. “And that’s the same feeling I got the first time I was stopped, when I was 17 years old.”

Rosie Villegas-Smith, a Mexican-born U.S. citizen who has lived in Phoenix for 28 years, has been stopped a couple of times by Maricopa County sheriff’s deputies, who are notorious for using allegations of minor traffic violations to check the immigration status of Hispanic drivers.

In 2011 federal investigators found that the department pulled over Hispanic drivers up to nine times more often than other motorists. The stops were part of a crackdown on undocumented immigrants ordered by Joe Arpaio, the Maricopa County sheriff from 1993 to 2016.

Courts ruled the stops illegal, but Arpaio pressed ahead and was found guilty of criminal contempt in July 2017. President Donald Trump — who has stoked racial tensions by bashing immigrants, protesting athletes, and others — pardoned Arpaio the following month. Arpaio recently announced plans to run for a seat in the U.S. Senate.

The statistics on traffic stops elsewhere are spotty — neither uniformly available nor comprehensive — but they show the same pattern of blacks and Hispanics being stopped and searched more frequently than others. The disparity spans the nation, affecting drivers in urban, suburban, and rural areas. Men are more at risk than women, and for black men, being disproportionately singled out is virtually a universal experience.

A 2017 study in Connecticut, one of the few states that collect and analyze comprehensive traffic-stop data, found that police disproportionately pull over black and Hispanic drivers during daylight hours, when officers can more easily see who is behind the wheel. Many police departments have policies and training to prevent racial profiling, but those rules can get lost in day-to-day police work.

“One reason minorities are stopped disproportionately is because police see violations where they are,” said Louis Dekmar, president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, who runs the Police Department in LaGrange, Georgia. “Crime is often significantly higher in minority neighborhoods than elsewhere. And that is where we allocate our resources. That is the paradox.”

Too often, officers treat minorities driving in mostly white areas as suspect, Dekmar said. “It’s wrong, and there is no excuse for that,” he said.

“I felt embarrassed. Emasculated. I felt absolutely like I had no rights.”

Robert L. Wilkins was a public defender in 1992 when he and several family members were stopped by a Maryland state trooper while returning to Washington, D.C., from his grandfather’s funeral in Chicago. The trooper accused them of speeding, then asked to search their rented Cadillac. “If you’ve got nothing to hide, then what’s your problem?” the trooper said when they objected to the search on principle.

The trooper made them wait for a drug-sniffing dog. As Wilkins and his family stood on the side of the highway, a German shepherd sniffed “seemingly every square inch of the car’s exterior,” Wilkins recalled. Before long, there were five or six police cars around them. At one point, Wilkins, now a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, noticed a white couple and their two children staring as they rode by. He imagined that they thought the worst: “They’re putting two and two together and getting five,” he said. “They see black people and they’re thinking, ‘These are bad people.’ ”

Wilkins filed a class-action suit alleging an illegal search and racial profiling, and the state of Maryland settled, largely because of an unearthed police document that had warned troopers to be on the lookout for black men in rental cars, who were suspected of ferrying crack cocaine. The settlement required state police to keep statistics on the race and ethnicity of drivers who were stopped. A second suit forced police to revamp their complaint system. Those changes brought some improvement, and racial disparities in traffic stops in Maryland were cut in half.

What lingers, though, is the indignity and anger that drivers feel over being singled out. “There’s a power that they want to exert, that you have to experience. And what do you do about it?” Smith said. “There’s an embedded terror in our community, and that’s just wrong.”

About this story: The Undefeated teamed up with National Geographic to ask people of color across the U.S. what it’s like to be racially profiled during a traffic stop, and the ripple effect such incidents can have on families and communities. This report also appears in the April issue of National Geographic Magazine and online at

CIAA celebrity game brought out celebs with skills, sort of Ayo & Teo, Fantasia and Tank showed up and tried to show out

If you are ever in need of a quick laugh, just go and watch any celebrity basketball game. Usually the game is filled with clumsy celebrities who are trying to prove that they were the best player on their middle school team.

And the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association’s Celebrity Charity Basketball Game was no different. Carolina Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis just threw his big body around on the court like a bowling ball. R&B star Tank was virtually ineffective all game, and Dan Rue, the social media star, showed flashes but ultimately proved he was not built to be a hooper.

But even with all of the turnovers and missed shots, the CIAA celebrity game did what it was supposed to do: promote and entertain.

The game was a fun-loving display that brought together celebrities from around the country at the Spectrum Center in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Recording artists Ayo & Teo, who produced the popular hit song “Rolex,” were even in the stands showing love after they performed during the CIAA Fan Fest at the Charlotte Convention Center.

And R&B superstar Fantasia was in the building watching her fellow celebrities battle it out on the court.

At halftime, the energy in the arena heightened in anticipation of the celebrity dunk contest, and it actually didn’t disappoint. Fans were hyped after one of the celebrity game’s participants, who was obviously an ex-ballplayer at some level, threw down a windmill dunk after jumping over five different people, including Ayo, Teo and Rue.

With the first CIAA tournament celebrity game in the books, there’s now a fun event where fans, celebrities and athletes can watch some of their favorite stars. And in the process, the conference is broadening its reach across the country.

With one of the most distinctive tournaments in the country, the CIAA could significantly increase the recognition of the conference, and the recognition of historically black college and university hoops, through this goofy 60 minutes of basketball.

The higher the profile of the celebrity, the bigger the promotion. So you know what that means! It’s time for Barack Obama, Michael B. Jordan, Migos and other black celebrities to make a trip to Charlotte and lace up their sneakers for the CIAA — and the culture.

Experts dish moneymaking advice to future entrepreneurs This CIAA conversation was to help attendees build legacy businesses

CHARLOTTE, North Carolina — A power-packed panel of three African-American business titans served a heaping helping of wealth-building advice during the business luncheon portion of the NEXT Level: 2018 CIAA Minority Business & Leadership Symposium.

“For those people complaining about millennials, stop complaining about them and partner with them,” said Kimberly Blackwell, CEO of PMM Agency. “I surround myself with a team of millennials.”

PMM is the agency of record of some of the world’s most recognized brands and includes automotive, insurance and financial services.

The panel also included Tirrell Whittley, CEO of Liquid Soul, whose marketing portfolio includes the movies Black Panther, Guardians of the Galaxy, 42, Red Tails and others; and Joel Stone, vice president and wealth management adviser for Fifth Third Bank, which sponsored the event along with Black Enterprise.

The discussion was attended by about 200 people, most who indicated they were business owners and listened raptly as the best and the brightest spoke.

“If you leave this room and you have not found someone to collaborate with,” Whittley said, “you have failed. I come to events like this looking for partners.”

However, Whittley cautioned the audience to not look at building an empire but, instead, look to build a legacy.

Don’t try to wear every hat, create a fancy business card and have a long title; look to find partners who can help you grow to the next level.

Whittley also said that too many young filmmakers believe that “if I can just hook up with your company,” they will be successful.

That’s not the case, he said. “I say go out and make your own film.”

Stone said business owners should have a personal “board of advisers you can lean on and have a personal CFO.”

“Know what you want your business to do for your family, your community and your employees,” Stone said.

The business owners were also urged to demand the appropriate price points for their work and products.

“Come in the door, bring past performance and know your worth,” Blackwell said. “I don’t rest on laurels.

“I eat what I kill, and I’m on the hunt every day.”

The leadership symposium was part of CIAA 2018 and was an expansion of the 2017 entrepreneurs panel.

The event was restructured, according to CIAA commissioner Jacqie McWilliams, to “become a more inclusive and progressive business and education resource platform.”

The event kicked off in the morning with a fireside chat with Earl “Butch” Graves Jr., CEO of Black Enterprise, who was queried by Fifth Third Bank senior vice president Byna Elliott.

Graves discussed following in his father’s footsteps and ascending to his post, only to realize “most people aren’t reading magazines and newspapers anymore.”

The business had to adapt to the habits of the new consumer, particularly millennials.

“I have millennial children,” Graves said. “If I call them, they will text me back. … We had to evolve to what the marketplace is doing.”

He says he now refers to the company as Black Enterprise, leaving off the former “magazine” moniker.

Besides its digital media products, Black Enterprise includes events centered on professional development, entrepreneurship and women’s empowerment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s what’s on Ayesha Curry’s list of things she cares deeply about The mother, wife and self-made businesswoman is passionate about women’s empowerment and so much more

LOS ANGELES — Ayesha Curry loves bringing family together and creating memories. She’s a “family-first” woman who has created her own empire while balancing a family.

“I balance it all by realizing there is no such thing as balance,” Curry told The Undefeated.

But her passion often stretches far beyond her own household. She is passionate about sisterhood, forming lasting bonds and empowering women, families and children to live their best lives.

She recently shared her thoughts on encouraging women at the first National Basketball Wives Association (NBWA) Women’s Empowerment Summit as a panelist. The panel was moderated by CBS co-anchor Gayle King, and Curry joined Cookie Johnson, Jada Paul, Elaine Baylor, Tracy Mourning and Adrienne Bosh.

Born in Canada and raised in Charlotte, North Carolina, Curry maintains her own identity while setting an example for her two daughters, Riley and Ryan. She is an author, restaurant owner and Food Network personality. She’s also a CoverGirl with her own cookware collection.

Married to Golden State Warriors star and two-time NBA champion Stephen Curry, Ayesha wants her daughters and young girls to see themselves in her work. According to her website, the “Ayesha Curry Kitchenware Collection continues Curry’s commitment to infusing her passion for food and family with personality and ease,” which can translate into her life as a role model.

After her panel, Curry sat down with The Undefeated and discussed the NBWA, women’s empowerment and family.

To what do you attribute the resurgence of the National Basketball Wives Association?

I attribute that to new people coming in, kind of the new wave of women, and kind of revamping it a little … because it too had stigmas attached, and now one of my personal best friends, Mia [Wright], is the president and she’s completely revamped the NBWA and it’s backed by the NBA now, and it’s an official 501(c)(3). To have that charitable aspect behind all of this makes it so worthwhile. It really makes it a sisterhood, so it’s kinda cool.

What would you like to see more of within the organization?

I think I’d like to see us coming together more, and to really listen to the women that are involved, going through each person, seeing what it is that they hope to change within their communities and trying to come together and help everyone with each of their causes.

You all have really seemed to create a sisterhood within the organization. Do you communicate about it, or is it just something that comes naturally?

I think it just happens, and from the outside looking in it probably looks like there’s cliques, but there’s not. Everybody is kind of reliant and dependent upon one another, and I think it’s a beautiful thing. We’re all there for each other; we all kind of go through the same things. So it’s nice to have sort of an official community for that.

How did it feel being on the panel with Cookie Johnson, Elaine Baylor and Tracy Mourning?

It’s really cool. You know, it’s nice just to listen to the people who came before you and hear what they have to say so that you can take any life lessons that they have to give, learn from their faults and take what they did right and do it on your own terms, and so I think that was really special. And they’re always there. One thing that a lot of people don’t know is that they’re always there as a resource. Nobody’s stuffy or uptight. Everybody’s always there as a resource and is more than willing to talk to you and give you guidance if you want it, and so I think that’s really special.

What would you tell a new wife just coming into the organization?

I would tell her to do her own thing and not believe the hype. There’s a lot of stigma, and what I have to say is that everybody’s different. You can’t put these men in a category; I don’t think that’s right. Just the same way we don’t want to be put in a category, they don’t want to either, and so it’s just remembering that everybody within the organization and within our realm of things is an individual person. And so to take your relationship and make it your relationship, and nobody else’s, and focus on that.

What do you have coming up next for you?

Well, I’m pregnant, so that is my main focus right now, just trying not to be sick every single day. But I have my home collection out, that’s available at retailers nationwide, and so it’s just expanding that brand. And I think for me, personally, it’s been really cool. It was daunting when it was first brought to me. I wasn’t sure if it was something I wanted to do because it’s a big task; my name is on the box, it’s there. Walking down the aisles of these stores, you only see one type of person and one thing. And so I said, even for my daughters — they’re 5 and 2 — when they grow up I want them to be able to walk down the aisle and say, ‘Oh, that girl looks like me.’ And so it’s been cool to kind of take over the kitchen space and have my collection on shelves in stores. I feel it’s been a great experience.

Family Feud?

Family Feud! We had so much fun. I’m not allowed to talk about the outcome. But it was so much fun.

What will you tell your children about social consciousness and female empowerment?

It’s one of those things where right now is such a sucky time. But at the same time, it’s a great time because we’re the ones that are making the shift and making the change. But it’s really hard, and so I hope that when they get to my age, that they don’t have to worry about these things. But the sad truth of the matter is, in one way or another, they probably will. I just want to make sure that I’m instilling that woman empowerment in them and letting them know that they’re no less than anybody else, and that they can do whatever the heck it is that they want to do, and do it with dignity and honor, and to the best of their abilities, but to make sure that everything they’re doing, they’re passionate about.

I just think with the social climate now, God knows what the social climate is going to be like when they’re older. I think about when I was 12 years old, these social media sites and stuff didn’t exist. I mean, cellphones barely existed, and so to think when they get to my age, what’s going to be around and available and accessible to them? It’s kind of crazy. I can do the best I can do right now and then see what happens in the future.

‘Tell Them We Are Rising’: Q&A with filmmaker Stanley Nelson The documentary highlighting and celebrating the importance of HBCUs airs Monday night on PBS

Filmmaker Stanley Nelson was on a mission.

After more than 20 years of experience directing and producing, Nelson believed it was time to pay homage to historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) that have done so much to contribute to the world in which we live today. The 100-plus HBCUs still in existence were the first to extend a warm welcome to black students who sought higher education, and many of the black doctors, lawyers, inventors and civic figures heralded for their work to better mankind were the very students who were first turned away from predominantly white institutions.

Thinking of those who came before him, including his father, who graduated from Howard University, Nelson was prepared to celebrate the successes of HBCUs with compelling storytelling through the eyes of those who have experienced the power of education at black colleges and universities.

Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities begins with the enslavement of black people, when education was forbidden, and explores the arduous journey individuals took to fight for what others had. The documentary ties these connections to modern-day education and transforms into an explanation of why HBCUs still remain so important to our society. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of students enrolled at HBCUs rose by 32 percent between 1976 and 2015. Total enrollment in degree-granting institutions increased by 81 percent, from 11 million to 20 million, during that period.

Tell Them We Are Rising debuts Monday on PBS’ Independent Lens at 9 p.m. ET. Follow the conversation on social media through the hashtag #HBCURising.

The documentary airs tonight. How are you feeling about the nationwide debut of Tell Them We Are Rising?

I’m feeling great. It’s been a year since we premiered at Sundance, so it’s been a year of gearing up to get it seen by a wider audience on TV. It feels great.

How long had the documentary been in the making?

We were probably about three years in production, but probably about five years before that in terms of writing proposals, honing down the idea, and then raising money. And it’s been done for a year. So probably about nine years since the first time I said, hey, let’s do a film about HBCUs, until today. It’s been percolating for a long time.

How were the stories selected?

It was kind of a complicated process. One of the things about this film is that there’s hundreds of great stories of HBCUs, so there’s hundreds of different ways to go. We wanted to tell stories that were dramatic, that were entertaining, that gave an idea of the progression of HBCU history. And there are a couple of stories and ideas that we knew going in that we wanted to cover. So I knew, going in, that I wanted the film to start at the time of enslavement, when education was denied to African-Americans and to set up the idea of the importance of education as something that was denied to African-Americans that became much more important to have that thing that was denied. So there were certain stories like that we knew we wanted to cover. The Howard law school story, the amazing story of it bringing the Brown v. Board of Education suit to fruition. It was a matter of looking for other stories that would help us to tell this long, incredible story of black colleges and universities.

Were there any stories told in the documentary that you wish you could’ve spent more time on?

I think that it all worked out for us. We wanted to tell stories. We didn’t want this to just be a list of a bunch of schools. We went in knowing that what we were telling were short stories. We’re not telling the stories of the killings at Southern in an hourlong documentary. We’re not telling the DuBois-Booker T. story in an hourlong documentary. In some ways, going in, it was freeing to know that I could tell these as short stories.

Were there any stories that didn’t make the cut, but resonated with you?

One thing that happens for me, to be perfectly honest, is that when I finish the film, I kind of don’t think too much about what I didn’t use or couldn’t use or something that I wish I could use. I think, for me, it would just drive me insane to see the film and think about what I wish I could’ve done. So I kind of look at it as a whole. For however my mind works, it’s really good at that. Because I forget. I know stories that we cut, but I don’t feel bad that we cut them. If we had another five hours, we could give you another five hours of stories. I don’t think that you’d want to sit there and watch them, but we could give you those stories.

There are emotions that surface while watching certain scenes. As a producer, director, writer, how do you sort of control your own emotions when piecing these scenes together?

One of the things that happens is you go into producer-director mode and if you know you’re getting something that’s emotional, where the former governor of Louisiana [Edwin Edwards] even today blames the students for getting killed. We know that that was a great piece of film that was really going to help the film. You’re kind of in that other space. I’m a filmmaker, and I realized I was getting something that was going to really serve the production and the film. Inside, I’m not angry. Part of me is just saying, ‘Yes! I’m getting something good here.’ At that point, it’s not about me. It’s about being able to tell this story in a very powerful way to a great number of people.

Later on in the documentary, you have the quote from Richard Robert Wright to Oliver Otis Howard about the plight of former slaves. “Tell them we are rising,” is what Wright said. What about that response spoke so deeply that you wanted to name the documentary after it?

One of the things that happens so many times when you make a film is that sometimes, you have a name going in. You know what you want to call the film before you have the film. Sometimes, you’re in the final stages of editing and you’re still trying to figure out what the name of it is. When we heard that story, we just thought that it embodied so much of the history of black colleges and universities. When the young man told them,”Tell them we are rising,” we thought that was a great title and really kind of had the feeling that we wanted the film to have. The feeling of rising, of positivity, of moving forward.

There’s one point in the documentary where HBCU grads spoke about the type of care and concern teachers showed. It was almost like extended family. Do you think that still exists at HBCUs today?

I think one of the things that HBCUs have done and still do is that they provide a very nurturing environment for their students and that’s been one of the hallmarks for HBCUs since the beginning. That’s something that they still do today. They not only educate, but tell students they can do it. There’s a huge number of students on Pell grants. There’s a huge number of students who are the first generation in their families to attend college. Students are going to need that nurturing, support, that love that they’ll get at HBCUs. It helps them to go forward. In my own family, my father and his brother were the first people to graduate high school. My father went on to Howard and was nurtured there. He was told over and over again that he could do it, that college was for him and he could make it. He went on to the [Howard University College of Dentistry], became a dentist, and is one of the reasons why I’m sitting here talking to you today.

In the 1970s, there were protests at Southern University stemming from financial problems and resources being distributed unevenly. Today, it seems like some of our schools continue that uphill battle. What will it take to preserve these legacies? How can HBCUs survive and thrive?

What I’ve realized today is that we can philosophize about what they need, but really the answer to that is what we can do to support HBCUs. That’s either to support your school or the school of your choice. You can support the Thurgood Marshall College Fund or the United Negro College Fund, which together financially represents the vast majority of HBCUs. Naturally, the question is what can I do to support these HBCUs. And I think it is to give financially. I’m going to do that. I’m going to start tithing my little bit of money per month to HBCUs, and I’ll be glad to do it. I will feel better knowing me and my family give every month to support HBCUs. I think that’s really the answer. We can talk about what HBCUs can do better, but that real question is what we can do as individuals — and collectively?

You’ve visited various HBCU campuses to promote Tell Them We Are Rising. What was that like?

It was crazy. It was great. People came in their school colors and we had standing ovations. What was interesting was that people came from the different cities and towns we were in and also in other school colors, because not everybody in that town went to the same school. People would cheer when their schools came on. The reaction was just wonderful.

These are the schools that I’ve gone to with the film: Howard, Dillard, Jackson State, Virginia State, Fisk, Claflin, Florida A&M, Tennessee State, Texas Southern, Southern, Shaw, Benedict, Morgan State, South Carolina State, Morehouse, Clark Atlanta, Spelman, North Carolina Central and Allen. Those are the schools that I went to. The film also went to many other schools that I didn’t visit myself. It’s been incredible to be on these campuses, to be with the students and faculty, and see the energy and the love the people have for their HBCUs.

I would be exhausted if I were you.

I am! But it’s been great and fun.

What’s next for you?

[Tell Them We Are Rising] is part of a trilogy we’re doing for PBS. The first film was The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution. The third is called The Slave Trade: Creating a New World, which is about the Atlantic slave trade and the business of slavery. We’ll be taking a new look at all the incredible new research that’s been done on the slave trade and try to look at it as this business that existed and set so many things that we know today.

How do you balance promotion of this film, and production on the next?

I don’t know how to answer that question. We have a great producer working on the slave trade project. The producer is researching and getting the project off the ground. We’re still raising money for that project and we’re going to go into full production mode pretty soon. We did the same thing with Tell Them We Are Rising. I was running around with the Black Panthers, and we had a great co-producer and co-director named Marco Williams who really worked to do research, get the project off the ground and do a lot of the interviews with this film. As a filmmaker who wants to eat and support a family, it’s not like I can make a film and then stop, wait another year and go on to the next film. I have to figure out how to keep working.

What do you hope the audience takes away from this documentary? Is there one thing you hope resonates more than others?

I hope that the audience is entertained. It’s one of the things we try to do while making these films. Sometimes, they can have a very important and lasting point, but it doesn’t do anything if you’re not entertained by the film. We want them to be entertained and be told something new and have them learn from these great stories that we tell. But the bottom line is that, hopefully at the end, they understand the importance and the pivotal role that black colleges have played not only in the lives of African-Americans, but in all Americans in the world. At certain changing points in our history, it’s been black colleges and black college students who have led the way.


Choreographer Camille A. Brown is free to nae nae and bop and juba around the country Her new work ‘ink’ explores the grace and democracy of African-American social dance

Alvin Ailey used to say that “dance is for everybody.”

Camille A. Brown, the tiny choreographer with big ideas, may be the living embodiment of that legacy. She’s the latest choreographer to marry social dance with concert dance, creating something that’s both sophisticated and familiar, evocative and unmistakably black.

You may know Brown’s work from a video that went viral and was turned into a TED explainer:

She’s an accomplished storyteller who began her career with Ronald K. Brown’s EVIDENCE company and danced for two years with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. She did the choreography for the Broadway revival of Once on the Island. And she’s something of a dance evangelist, not just choreographing and performing but often staying for audience Q&A’s postperformance. She wants to make dance accessible.

Brown is now touring her newest work, ink, which she debuted in December at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. It’s the final chapter of a trilogy that began with Mr. TOL E. RAncE (2012), followed by Black Girl: Linguistic Play (2015). All three examine black identity, stereotypes and authenticity. Her company performed ink at the University of Iowa last week, moved to Alexander Kasser Theater in Montclair, New Jersey, this weekend and will take the work to St. Paul, Minnesota, in late March.

Brown, 38, grew up dancing in Queens, New York. From the time she was 3, she’d watch Michael Jackson and Janet Jackson videos. Her mother noticed that she was preternaturally good at recreating the Jacksons’ complex choreography and enrolled her in dance classes. Brown loved it. She had a knack for learning dances quickly under Carolyn DeVore. And then puberty — or, rather, the way the adults around her reacted to the changes in her body — momentarily wrecked everything.

“When I got to high school and college, all of the sudden I became aware of what the ideal body was, and I quickly learned that I was not the ideal person,” Brown said during an interview in Washington. “I had a butt. … When you think of a dancer, you think of someone that’s petite, and I just wasn’t that … so people would say, ‘Oh, you’re not going to fit the costume. Oh, you need to lose weight.’ ”

Brown began dieting when she was 16, and by the time she started studying dance in college at North Carolina School for the Arts, she’d become accustomed to getting sent to the school nutritionist. It was like being called to the principal’s office, but for food. She’s since shed 15-20 pounds, but that time and the way she felt about her body had a lasting impact.

“I had teachers that really saw my ability and really helped nurture that, and then I had teachers that just didn’t look at me, or just was like, ‘Oh, she’s not going to be a dancer.’ I just really had a struggle with that,” Brown said. “Me being a dancer, it was something that I wanted to achieve, but I didn’t necessarily think that I would be able to achieve it based on the things that I had been hearing about who I was.”

“I had a butt. … When you think of a dancer, you think of someone that’s petite, and I just wasn’t that.”

So after receiving her bachelor of fine arts degree from NCSA, Brown joined a dance company where it didn’t matter that she had a butt, or a chest size larger than an A cup: Ronald K. Brown’s Brooklyn-based EVIDENCE.

“Body image was one of the reasons why I got into choreography, because I don’t know if I was always considered the best or had the perfect body image,” Brown said. “Would I be a choreographer now? I don’t know. I just know how I got here.”

Ink incorporates dancers of various shapes and sizes, using African, modern, hip-hop and social dance to explore black identity and day-to-day life. Brown’s movements explode from her petite, muscled frame (she’s maybe 5 feet tall) to fill the stage. Another dancer in the company, Kendra Dennard, holds your attention as a long, lithe, seductive flirt. There are bald heads and locs, juicy booties and small ones. Brown’s dancers run the gamut.

Brown takes movements that are familiar — the way a black woman might pat her hair as if to say, “I’m feeling myself,” or the act of scrubbing a floor — and folds them into stories about romance and friendship. In ink, Brown is a consummate observer of male body language. Her dancers capture the hesitation that comes with meeting someone for the first time, the way men can outwardly show off and exaggerate themselves while concealing vulnerability and sensitivity. And Brown reveals what it’s like in the intimate, comfortable moments when that mask is dropped.

In a section of the performance called Balance, about the courtship between a man and a woman, Brown said she wanted to use the scene to “debunk patriarchy.” And so the audience sees the male partner following a woman’s lead. The relationship moves at her speed, not his.

“It’s not the romance that we might see in the movies, but it’s romance in the sense that I know what romance is,” Brown said. “I mean, it’s coming from what I see or what I’ve experienced, so in that way it’s what I know love to be.”

What comes through in Brown’s work is a philosophy that social dance is just as significant as its classical cousin, ballet, and that incorporating it on stages like those of the Kennedy Center doesn’t cheapen the work of George Balanchine, whose outsize influence on what’s considered the “ideal” dancer body type continues to loom large. It’s simply a different form of communicating, drawing on another set of traditions and skills, the same way choreographers like Ailey or Twyla Tharp or Katherine Dunham created their own styles too. What’s more, using a variety of bodies to communicate those traditions doesn’t cheapen anything either.

“If you go all the way back to when I was a kid, I’m [told], ‘You’re not the ideal dancer.’ To go from that to actually being at the Kennedy Center under my own name? It’s something that I would have never dreamed of, ever,” Brown said. “It’s really a powerful time, and especially because we’re doing work that is not, by some people, seen as valuable. We live in a very Eurocentric dance world, where ballet or contemporary is seen as the elite movement, and so I’m not doing that. I’m doing modern, and hip-hop, and tap, and African, and social dance. To have this kind of platform, knowing that other people, whoever those other people are, don’t view this as real dance, is tremendous.”

For Brown, a Kennedy Center debut wasn’t just a platform; it was a springboard. She is now free to nae nae and bop and juba around the country, and even the globe.

On this day in black history: Ida B. Wells gets a stamp, MLK arrested in Selma, and more Black History Month: The Undefeated edition Feb. 1

Thursday marks the beginning of Black History Month. For the next 28 days (and beyond), we will provide a daily dose of inspirational stories and videos to help explain the complex history of the black experience and black identity in America.

Historian Carter G. Woodson and minister Jesse E. Moorland founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in 1915, and 11 years later the organization created Negro History Week, which originally occurred the second week in February. During the 1960s, it was expanded into a month on many college campuses, and in 1976, President Gerald R. Ford designated February as Black History Month.

Below are a few notable things that have taken place on Feb. 1.

1865 – First African-American admitted to the bar of the U.S. Supreme Court.

John Swett Rock was an American teacher, doctor, dentist, lawyer and abolitionist and one of the first African-American men to earn a medical degree. He was the first African-American to argue before the U.S. Supreme Court.

1865 – Ratification of the 13th Amendment

The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which abolished slavery, was adopted by the 38th Congress. Ratification was completed on Dec. 6, 1865.

1960 – Sit-in movement in Greensboro, North Carolina

Four students from North Carolina A&T College started a sit-in movement in Greensboro, North Carolina. By Feb. 10, the movement had spread to 15 cities in five Southern states.

1965 – Selma demonstration ends in 700 arrests

More than 700 demonstrators, including Martin Luther King Jr., are arrested in Selma, Alabama.

1978 – The first Black Heritage USA Series stamp is issued

The first stamp of the U.S. Postal Service’s Black Heritage USA series honors Harriet Tubman, famed abolitionist and “conductor” on the Underground Railroad.

1990 – U.S. Postal Service celebrated Ida B. Wells as part of the Black Heritage Series

The commemorative 25-cent stamp, the 13th entry in the series, was released at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.

1997 – First 24-hour black movie channel, BET/Starz, was launched

BET Holdings and Encore Media Corp. launched BET/Starz, the first 24-hour black movie channel.