Reading Toni Morrison at 17, 25 and 35 It took nearly 20 years, but revisiting ‘Sula,’ I finally saw myself in her words, as only a grown woman can

In the documentary Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, the poet Sonia Sanchez offers a method for reading and understanding the work of her friend, the only black woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize for literature.

“In order to survive,” Sanchez says, “you should reread Toni Morrison every 10 years.”

After the news broke last week that Morrison had died, her death hit with the same intensity one associates with the passing of a beloved auntie. And yet I found comfort in three things. Unlike the beginning of her career as a novelist, when Morrison’s genius was up for debate and her choice to write free of concerns about the opinions of white people raised hackles, the entire world rose up to mourn her and celebrate her many contributions. Second, she graced the earth for 88 years. It didn’t feel as though someone had been prematurely stolen from us, like Lorraine Hansberry dying at age 34 or being forced to say goodbye to Jimmy Baldwin when he was 63. And third, I decided to follow Sanchez’s advice, starting with Sula.

Toni Morrison attends the Carl Sandburg Literary Awards Dinner at the University of Illinois at Chicago Forum on Oct. 20, 2010.

Photo by Daniel Boczarski/FilmMagic

For most of my childhood, Morrison’s works were beautifully crafted abstractions. The words were accessible, and yet admiring them was not the same as understanding them.

When I read Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye, as a high school senior, my approach was practically clinical. I absorbed the work the same way I pored over the words of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn — that is to say, in obsessive pursuit of an “A” — reading and regurgitating literary criticism and taking apart the book’s symbolism, context and ideas. But there was one moment when I connected to Morrison as a black girl.

During a class discussion, a white girl in the nearly all-white class asked the teacher what “high yellow” meant. I piped up because I actually knew the answer. “It’s a couple shades lighter than me,” I explained.

The girl turned and glared at me. “Well, thanks for that, Soraya,” she snarled, and then went on to admonish me for employing such a graphic example. I was confused and a little embarrassed. Why was she angry with me? Why had she reacted with such venom, as though I’d pointed out a deficiency that had embarrassed her? A wall grew between my blackness and that which Morrison had recorded for posterity, and I learned that it was offensive to connect the two. So Pecola Breedlove, the book’s main character, meant about as much to me as Ivan Denisovich. Two fascinating foreigners in two different gulags.

It wasn’t until my 20s — after having studied at Howard, the same university Morrison attended and taught at — that I picked up her work again, dared to see myself in it and read for my own pleasure and edification.

I chose Sula. Morrison’s second novel, published in 1973, is the story of friends Nel Wright and Sula Peace, who grow up in a small town and whose adult lives move in different directions. Probably about 10% of it stuck with me. I remember being enchanted by Sula’s clothing. Wrote Morrison:

She was dressed in a manner that was as close to a movie star as anyone would ever see. A black crepe dress splashed with pink and yellow zinnias, foxtails, a black felt hat with the veil of net lowered over one eye. In her right hand was a black purse with a beaded clasp and in her left a red leather traveling case, so small, so charming — no one had ever seen anything like it before, including the mayor’s wife and the music teacher, both of whom had been to Rome.

Sula had left her tiny community of Medallion, Ohio, for college in Nashville, Tennessee, and had returned worldly, glamorous and uncontainable. I grew up in a small North Carolina town I had no desire to revisit. After spending a summer working in Jackson, Mississippi, and another in Kansas City, Missouri, I realized I had something in common with Sula, which was that the provincial life was not for me. I yearned to be in a real city with black people and public transportation. And like Sula, I didn’t much see the point of marriage.

Those with husbands had folded themselves into starched coffins, their sides bursting with other people’s skinned dreams and bony regrets. Those without men were like sour-tipped needles featuring one constant empty eye. Those with men had had the sweetness sucked from their breath by ovens and steam kettles. Their children were like distant but exposed wounds whose aches were no less intimate because separate from their flesh. They had looked at the world and back at their children, back at the world and back again at their children, and Sula knew that one clear young eye was all that kept the knife away from the throat’s curve.

The married women of Medallion were cautionary tales, especially for a young adult woman with no children. Every time a relative or a stranger made a remark about my potential as a wife and mother, I wanted to scream, the same way I wanted to scream every Thanksgiving in my grandmother’s house when all the women were conscripted into domestic duties while the men got to sit and watch football.

So Sula’s words to her grandmother, Eva, made perfect sense to me. “You need to have some babies. It’ll settle you,” Eva told Sula.

“I don’t want to make somebody else. I want to make myself.”

“Selfish. Ain’t no woman got no business floatin’ around without no man.”

Award-winning New York author Toni Morrison is seen here at the Harbourfront’s International Festival of Authors in Toronto in 1982.

Photo by Reg Innell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

I supposed I, like Sula, would simply be selfish. Sula made sense to me. I didn’t fully grasp why Sula kept bouncing from man to man — I suppose I thought of her as the Samantha Jones of her day — but I understood choosing yourself first.

Their evidence against Sula was contrived, but their conclusions about her were not. Sula was distinctly different. Eva’s arrogance and Hannah’s self-indulgence merged in her, and with a twist that was all her own imagination, she lived out her days exploring her own thoughts and emotions, giving them full reign, feeling no obligation to please anybody unless their pleasure pleased her.

So what if she died young? At least she had the sense to do a little living first. My admiration was superficial and grounded in my own stubborn, rather narrowly defined pursuit of the feminist cause. The darker details of Sula’s life slid by in my mind, and for the next 10 years, I walked around with an incomplete understanding of her.

And then the woman who created Sula died.

Recently, I’d been skipping around Morrison’s essays in The Source of Self-Regard, which, on some level, is a helpful guidebook for how to be a black woman in America without going mad. And I’d seen Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’ wonderful documentary about Morrison.

Her words were still important, but I was mostly obsessed with Morrison’s life and personality. She was a lioness of American literature, yes, but she was also charming, sensual and self-assured. Here was a woman with a Pulitzer and a Nobel Prize grinning as she talked about how good she was at making carrot cakes, how she indulged her sexual appetites as a Howard student without a lick of shame or regret. To Morrison, chasing ambition did not require abandoning pleasure.

Toni Morrison attends Art & Social Activism, a discussion on Broadway with TaNehisi Coates, Morrison and Sonia Sanchez, on June 15, 2016, in New York City.

Photo by Craig Barritt/Getty Images for The Stella Adler Studio of Acting

For some time now, my editor has sent me on assignments and reminded me to have fun. My responses are always halting and awkward because I’m going to work, and work requires focus, and fun just seemed inappropriate.

And yet here was the freest black woman in the world, and she lived her life in such a way that pleasure and style were not antithetical to intellectual rigor. If anything, they fed it. The fact that Morrison was a writer made this seem all the more superhuman. Writing is typically characterized by long bouts of misery rewarded with occasional pearls of short-lived but deeply intense satisfaction. Morrison seemed to have found a way to supply herself with a steady stream of joy.

Rather than living literary goddess, I began to think about Morrison as a fellow writer, a fellow Howard grad, a fellow woman. There were whole worlds in the lives of my mother, my aunts, my grandmothers and their grandmothers that I thought were none of my business because, well, they told me they were none of my business. What did a child need to know about the personal exploits of her ancestors? That was grown folks’ business. I realized that reading Morrison’s books feels like gaining entry into a club of black adulthood. They turn ancestors into contemporaries.

So I revisited Sula last week because Sula, like so much of Morrison’s writing, is a grown woman novel. The fact that Sula slept with her best friend’s husband is, frankly, the least interesting thing about her. I saw Sula through new eyes, as a woman who did a horrible thing as a 12-year-old (accidentally killing Chicken Little by throwing him in the river, where he drowned) and never fully got over it, no matter how hard she tried.

This time, I marveled at Morrison’s freedom. So much focus has been paid, and rightfully so, to how she didn’t seek white validation. But it’s more than that. Morrison possessed the moxie to create whatever world she pleased and follow whatever road beckoned in it. In doing so, she could create a heroine who slept with everyone’s husbands but genuinely didn’t mean anything by it. Who else breaks taboos with such gentle elegance, without the need to shout about it in the prose, but simply allows it to unfold?

Now I think the thing Sula actually spent most of her adult life chasing was joy, the love she felt she deserved, and she kept coming up short. She’d try on a man, then do away with him the moment she knew he didn’t have what she was looking for. And she kept doing it until she met Ajax.

Morrison was unafraid of letting everyone in Medallion regard Sula as a witch while daring to assert how Sula’s presence actually improved the lives of those in her community, whether they recognized it or not. When the people of Medallion don’t have Sula to kick around, they lose the vessel for all their displeasures and frustrations and insecurities and simply fall prey to them again.

This time, I paid closer attention to Nel, Sula’s best friend, and her realization that motherhood will be the most interesting thing about her life. I thought of my friends who are now mothers, and I felt grateful that I am able to make space for their children and their partners in my heart instead of walling myself off from the changes they welcomed in their lives. I got lost in Sula and Nel’s friendship in a way I never had before, and in this passage in particular, when Sula is alone on her deathbed:

While in this state of weary anticipation, she noticed that she was not breathing, that her heart had stopped completely. A crease of fear touched her breast, for any second there was sure to be a violent explosion in her brain, a gasping for breath. Then she realized, or rather, she sensed, that there was not going to be any pain. She was not breathing because she didn’t have to. Her body did not need oxygen. She was dead.

Sula felt her face smiling. “Well I’ll be damned,” she thought, “it didn’t even hurt. Wait’ll I tell Nel.”

It took nearly 20 years, but I finally did what Morrison had been inviting me to do, through decades of writing: to see myself in her words, as only a grown woman can.

Toni Morrison made me stop wanting to be white Slavery took our bodies. Cultural hegemony tries to take our minds — and destroy our hair. Morrison gave it all back to us.

“Can’t nobody fly with all that shit.

You wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down.” – Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon

I’m here to give thanks. Toni Morrison freed me. She freed me from the burden of wanting to be white. She taught how to put down blue eyes and use my brown ones.

I had promised myself that now that the day had come and Morrison has passed, I would not be afraid. But it is a promise I cannot keep.

Even now, I feel the keyboard rise unevenly against my fingers and my heart feels like a possum trapped in a box. What will people think? They’ll judge me. They’ll pity me. My race card will be snatched. I’ll get canceled. The whole world knows her résumé: Nobel Prize, Pulitzer Prize, Princeton professor, speaker of truth. No adjective is too big, and no verb can contain the glory of her oeuvre, the ripple of her effect.

I would no more appreciate Toni Morrison than Harriet Tubman could eulogize the North Star. She, as she says in Song of Solomon, is a woman who could fly. With her words, I can see the mountaintop. She taught me real freedom, freedom of the mind.

Slavery took our bodies. Cultural hegemony tries to take our minds — and destroy our hair. Morrison gave it all back to us — if we have the strength to take it. What did she say in Beloved? They do not love your body. So you have to love it and love it hard.

This is not about being seen — a watered-down approximation of affirmation if ever there was one. We are seen every day and seen wanting, thanks to the economic demands of a scientifically ignorant people who built a sweet land of “liberty” on the backs of other, darker humans. It’s not right to own people. But it seems almost worse to convince yourself and those you enslaved and their descendants that it has something to do with their own inferiority. That’s twisted. Morrison put it back straight.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Nobel laureate Toni Morrison photographed in New York City in 1979.

Photo by Jack Mitchell/Getty Images

It can be hard to remember to be free — to remember whose best thing I am.

My world sometimes looks like a series of planks I hammer together in front of me, stepping on the last to hammer the next. But it’s mine, free and clear. There can be long breaks between finishing one board and picking up the next, but Morrison understood that. Her books are full of magic, but there are no magical Negroes.

Examining her loss, I feel as if Morrison has always been with me. The Black Book haunted me with nightmares of what they would do to my brown body if they caught me, Song of Solomon strengthened my mind when I thought being brown was wrong, Beloved soothed my soul when being a brown girl felt worthless and then again when it felt like too much.

Her stories are mine, although the names and details were changed. Here is the spot under my chin where I burned my neck trying to look like Laura Ingalls. This is the elderly Italian woman who works at my local grocery — always eager to tell the white woman ahead of me how to braise her beef but anxious and silent when bagging my groceries. Here’s how I wear Hall & Oates T-shirts in order to short-circuit racial profiling.

Lately, I’d been dwelling on omens. Sullen, murderous days slinking one into another, casting shadows of old terrors. Nine in Charleston, 11 in Pittsburgh, 22 in El Paso, so many more in ones and twos. Earthquakes in pairs. Countless aftershocks.

But Morrison taught me to pity those empty bags of death who think automatic rifles can stop us. She showed me that first at Pilate’s stove and then in the clearing behind Sethe’s house.

My wings hold the shape of her words, and so they cannot fail. I know now that as the shadows gather shape in the wagon to take me back to Sweet Home that I will hold my chin high, pick up the hammer, laugh and say,

“Me? Me?”

The NCAA doesn’t have a Rich Paul problem. It has a problem with black men. The move to regulate agents looks like yet another effort to police black mobility and freedom

The NCAA doesn’t have a Rich Paul problem. The problem is that its structure is designed to regulate the freedom of athletes to turn pro in primarily black sports but not in white ones.

And an entity that now preaches the importance of college graduation for agents doesn’t have the same righteous energy for black athletes at its most lucrative institutions.

Earlier this week, the NCAA implemented what was immediately labeled the “Rich Paul Rule,” after the man who represents NBA players LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Draymond Green, John Wall, Ben Simmons and 2019 first-round draft picks Darius Garland and Darius Bazley. The new regulations require that agents interested in representing players who are considering declaring for the NBA draft now must have a bachelor’s degree, be certified with the National Basketball Players Association for at least three years and take a comprehensive in-person exam at NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis. Paul, who never attended college, is one of many agents affected by this rule — but unquestionably the most prominent.

The NCAA’s move was instantly lambasted as hypocritical and vindictive. “The world is so afraid of ground breakers.…This is beyond sad & major B.S.,” tweeted comedian Kevin Hart. James, Paul’s biggest client, longtime friend and confidant, could only laugh at the NCAA’s energy, saying, “Nothing will stop this movement and culture over here.”

Chris Rock explained the context for the NCAA mandate years ago. “We’re only 10% of the population,” he said on 2004’s Never Scared. “We’re 90% of the Final Four!”

Only basketball must adhere to the new NCAA mandate. The actual text doesn’t mention race. Nevertheless, the writing is not just written on the wall, it’s been carved. It’s a “race-neutral” rule that isn’t race-neutral. This comes with historical precedence that the NCAA knows all too well.

One of the worst-kept secrets in sports is how top-tier college football and basketball programs directly benefited from desegregation. Before integration, the vast majority of top black athletes had no choice but to attend historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Once the larger and richer predominantly white schools began to integrate, HBCUs couldn’t compete. But there’s been a parallel development too: The graduation rates for black athletes at top sports programs remain consistently and embarrassingly low.

Agent Rich Paul (right), seen here with LeBron James (left), is a threat. To the status quo. To the hierarchy of power.

Photo by Jerritt Clark/Getty Images for Klutch Sports Group

Shaun R. Harper, executive director of the University of Southern California’s Race and Equity Center, found that, overall, black male athletes graduate at higher percentages than black males who are not involved in sports. But that’s not true for the NCAA’s wealthiest leagues: the Power 5 of the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC.

“The [NCAA] has claimed in television commercials that black male student-athletes at Division I institutions graduate rates are higher than black men in the general student body,” the report says. “This is true across the entire division, but not for the five conferences whose member institutions routinely win football and basketball championships, play in multimillion-dollar bowl games and the annual basketball championship tournament, and produce the largest share of Heisman Trophy winners.”

And an entity that now preaches the importance of college graduation for agents doesn’t have the same righteous energy for black athletes at its most lucrative institutions.

Black men made up 2.4% of the Power 5 student population but 55% and 56%, respectively, of its football and basketball teams. Of those numbers, 55% of black male athletes graduated in under six years, compared with 60% of black men in the overall undergraduate population and 76% of all college graduates.

“Over the past two years, 40% of these universities have actually had black male student-athlete graduation rates that have declined,” Harper said. “We’re supposed to be getting better, but actually 40% of these places have gotten worse.”

Meanwhile, the debate over paying college athletes is sharply divided by race. Most whites are against “pay to play,” while most blacks strongly support it because the current system exploits a largely black athletic base.

In the NBA, the sport is still primarily black. (The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport found that during the 2015-16 season, 81.7% of NBA players were people of color and 74.3% were black.) But black athletes have significant power and influence over everything from where they play to who coaches them to the structure of their contracts.

This shifting power dynamic is beginning earlier and earlier too. Bazley skipped college last year to become a million-dollar intern with New Balance. R.J. Hampton and LaMelo Ball, both touted as 2020 lottery picks, are taking their talents to Australia for a year before declaring for the NBA draft. Hampton has already inked a shoe deal with Li-Ning.

As Yahoo’s Dan Wetzel noted, the new rule’s standard doesn’t apply to college hockey players or baseball players, who can be drafted out of high school but can choose to attend college if their draft placement doesn’t appeal to them.

If this wasn’t about a young black man who achieved his success out of the mud and then empowered other black men to recognize their worth in spite of an organization that has for years manipulated their talents for the organization’s gain, if this wasn’t about yet another American institution attempting to police black mobility and freedom, then it’s difficult to see what the actual reasoning is.

This brings the discussion back to Paul and James. It’s often been said there is a Jay-Z lyric for any situation in life. Perhaps the most fitting here is a bar from Jay’s 2001 album The Blueprint, which entered the Library of Congress in March: All I need is the love of my crew / The whole industry can hate me, I thugged my way through, he pledged on “All I Need.” In essence, this has been the motto for Paul, James and the two other members of their inner circle, Maverick Carter and Randy Mims.

When James cut ties to agent Aaron Goodwin in 2005, eyebrows raised and many said that the young basketball phenom had risked his career before it truly tipped off. At the time, it was easy to understand why, given that Goodwin had helped the 2003 No. 1 overall draft pick obtain a bevy of endorsements, including Bubblicious chewing gum, Upper Deck trading cards, Sprite, Powerade and, most gaudy of them all, a seven-year, $90 million shoe deal with Nike. Few believed in James’ vision when he turned to three of his childhood friends to chart the course of his career on and off the court.

“James’ switcheroo a youthful mistake,” the Chicago Sun-Times wrote.

“I will promise you really ugly things will happen,” said former NFL player turned financial adviser Jim Corbett. “This is a big mistake, a bad decision that is going to cost LeBron.”

Which leads us to another Jay lyric, this one from 2009’s “Already Home”: And as for the critics, tell me I don’t get it / Everybody can tell you how to do it, they never did it. Thanks to the friends he entrusted with his career nearly 15 years ago, James is not only the most powerful player in basketball history but also a player in Hollywood, fashion, education and politics.

Money and power elicit respect, as elucidated by Kimberly Jones. But they also open the door for fear and angst. President Donald Trump took shots at LeBron on Twitter last August after the launch of his I Promise School in Akron, Ohio, saying it was hard to make “LeBron look smart” and weighed in on the NBA’s most contested debate, saying he preferred Michael Jordan over James — which Jordan quickly rebuffed. The two were labeled “mob bosses” by an unnamed Western Conference general manager last season after public attempts to move Anthony Davis to the Lakers (a move that eventually happened).

From left to right: Anthony Davis, LeBron James, Rich Paul, Ben Simmons and Miles Bridges attend the Klutch 2019 All Star Weekend Dinner Presented by Remy Martin and hosted by Klutch Sports Group at 5Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, on Feb. 16.

Photo by Dominique Oliveto/Getty Images for Klutch Sports Group 2019 All Star Weekend

Rich Paul is a threat. To the status quo. To the hierarchy of power. And to the image of an industry that is still dominated by white males and has long exercised fiscal and moral authority over black athletes.

Basketball altered its rules to make it harder for three players who made the game look too easy (i.e., they dominated the white players too much): Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Maybe the NCAA didn’t implement this rule with Paul as its sole motivation. Just like maybe the NCAA wouldn’t be so open to criticism if it made the education of players a higher priority.

Unfortunately, the NCAA addressed a perceived problem while never addressing its own. Sometimes sports really is a reflection of life.

Lil Nas X and Blanco Brown show that cultural appropriation ain’t nothin’ but a G thang In the debate over profiting from black creativity, these country singers prove that turnabout is fair play

Well, look who’s appropriating now.

Amid ongoing debates about cultural appropriation and the pain caused when corporations and white entertainers profit off the customs of black people and other minorities, along come Lil Nas X and Blanco Brown, two African American rappers whose tunes have penetrated the upper reaches of — get this — the country music charts.

Blanco Brown’s “The Git Up” made headlines recently after it topped Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart, having also charmed its way into the pop Top 20. Juxtaposing weepy pedal steel guitar against automated rap beats, the tune is a boot-scootin’ dance craze tune along the line of Billy Ray Cyrus’ 1990 breakthrough hit, “Achy Breaky Heart.”

“Old Town Road” is an international phenomenon for Lil Nas X (left) and Billy Ray Cyrus (right). It completed 17 weeks atop Billboard Magazine’s Hot 100 the week of July 30, making it the longest-running No. 1 tune in the chart’s 60-year history.

Photo by Rodin Eckenroth/WireImage

Cyrus, of course, makes a cameo appearance on the mega-popular remix of Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road,” a country-rap track that uses a Nine Inch Nails sample to celebrate rhinestone cowboy extravagance (“My life is a movie/ bull ridin’ and boobies/ cowboy hat from Gucci/ Wrangler on my booty”). As you’ve probably heard by now, “Old Town Road” is an international phenomenon, having topped charts throughout North America, Europe and Australia. The week of July 30, it completed 17 weeks atop Billboard Magazine’s Hot 100, making it the longest-running No. 1 tune in the chart’s 60-year history.

The timing of that achievement is eerily auspicious. Aug. 2 was the 40th anniversary of the recording of Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” the first hip-hop track of any consequence and the song that started a musical revolution. What better way to celebrate rap’s 40th birthday than with a country-rap single whose historic success underscores hip-hop’s border-bounding global appeal?

A track like “Old Town Road” doesn’t spend 17 weeks at No. 1 by appealing to black people alone. Indeed, we can assume that more than a few fans of “Old Town Road” are white Southerners. That raises interesting questions, because perhaps no other art form is more associated with white racism than country music, which flourished during a period when the South’s white ruling class viewed black music as a plot to “mongrelize” America. “The obscenity and the vulgarity of the rock ’n’ roll music is obviously a means by which the white man [and] his children can be driven to the level with the n—–,” said Asa “Ace” Carter, founder of the North Alabama White Citizens Council, in 1958.

Lest the irony of black performers such as Lil Nas X and Blanco Brown appropriating white country music be lost, understand that in the minds of many black folks, cultural appropriation is something only other races do. For the past century right up to the present, white artists from Al Jolson, Elvis Presley and Benny Goodman to the Rolling Stones and Eminem have made a mint assimilating African American jazz, rhythm and blues, rock ’n’ roll, funk, rap and more. We’re so used to churning out new art forms that the idea of appropriating white artists seems almost unseemly, like the crassest of sellouts.

Perhaps that perception will change with the success of Lil Nas X and Blanco. The fact that these black iconoclasts are making inroads with country music fans in an era of resurgent white nationalism challenges much of what we think we know about cultural appropriation and race in America. Are Lil Nas X and Blanco Brown pirating white culture? Or is the controversy over their blackified country sounds just musical racial profiling? Let’s explore.


The Cambridge Dictionary describes cultural appropriation as “the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture.”

By this definition, Lil Nas X and Brown are tough nuts to crack, though the country music industry has weighed in officially on Lil Nas X. After reviewing “Old Town Road” in April, Billboard elected to remove the tune from its country chart, stating that for all its country/cowboy imagery, the song does not “embrace enough elements of today’s country music to chart in its current version.”

Blanco Brown performs during Day One of the 2019 CMA Music Festival at Ascend Amphitheater on June 6 in Nashville, Tennessee. Brown’s “The Git Up” made headlines recently after it topped Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart.

Photo by Mickey Bernal/Getty Images

While Billboard may be clear about the song’s lack of country authenticity, it’s harder for us laypeople. Do Lil Nas X and Brown “understand and respect” white country culture, at least judging by their hit debut recordings? It should be noted that there was little demand for black country-rap performers before these two guys showed up. So they recorded these twangy singles with little expectation that their songs would make them chart-toppers. Successful black singers such as Charley Pride and Darius Rucker notwithstanding, African American country stars are as rare as desert rain.

Moreover, as any aspiring country performer will attest, it’s danged hard to write and perform a hit. Yet Lil Nas X and Brown nailed it on their first attempts, which suggests they understand and respect country culture, big-time.

But for the sake of argument, let’s imagine that Lil Nas X and Brown really are culture vultures just looking to make a buck in country music. Isn’t it about time we black folks did more cultural borrowing? In the never-ending appropriation debate, we are often the most egregiously offended people, and understandably so. From redlining and voter suppression to racial profiling, we’re constantly reminded of the institutional disdain this country has for its African American citizens. Given this contempt, it’s maddening to witness the white ruling class appropriate our culture, imitating and commodifying everything from our music and fashion to our colloquialisms and mannerisms.

Billy Ray Cyrus (left) and Lil Nas X (right) perform at the 2019 BET Awards on June 23 in Los Angeles.

Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images for BET

Now, with Lil Nas X and Brown tearing up the charts, a turnabout-is-fair-play dynamic has been brought to the debate. For decades, some white people have brushed off black concerns about appropriation, an indifference that was dramatically illustrated when rock legend Paul Simon visited Howard University in 1987. The singer/songwriter hoped to explain how South African Zulu music inspired the songs on his acclaimed 1986 album Graceland. But instead of a warm welcome, Simon was treated to a healthy helping of student scorn —”For too long, artists have stolen African music,” asserted one Howard undergrad. “I tried to introduce this music to people who never heard it before,” a stunned Simon responded. “Sincerity doesn’t seem to be held in high regard.”

Now the cowboy boot is on the other foot. Billboard’s removal of “Old Town Road” from its country chart suggests that some proportion of white fans are sensitive to their music being hijacked. Curiously, the purists weren’t complaining a few years back when a growing gaggle of white country artists started appropriating black music, all to the profit-making benefit of the industry. “Old Town Road” could be considered the latest product of a trend that emerged roughly six years ago. Dubbed “Bro Country,” the subgenre came to life when acts including Luke Bryan, Blake Shelton and Cole Swindell began incorporating rap-style party rhymes and R&B- and blues-inflected rhythms into their songs. With its satiny melody and hip-grinding beat, Jason Aldean’s 2014 hit “Burnin’ It Down” is virtually a R&B makeout song, yet it reached No. 12 on Billboard’s Hot Country chart. Unlike its action on “Old Town Road,” Billboard never questioned the authenticity of Aldean’s tune.

Bro Country was so all-consuming that black performers such as Jason Derulo and Nelly started showing up in remixes, and hip-hop iconography started seeping into music videos. Florida Georgia Line’s 2014 clip for “This is How We Roll” features singers Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley swaggering and fist-bumping like boyz from the ’hood. The song’s opening verse drops iconic names designed to resonate with both white and black listeners. To wit: “The mixtape’s got a little Hank, a little Drake …”

The “Hank” referenced in that verse is Hank Williams, the pioneering singer/songwriter who wrote and performed some of the most popular songs in country history, including “Hey Good Lookin’,” “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” An acknowledged influence on superstars such as Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan, Williams is held in such high esteem that he is affectionately known as “The Hillbilly Shakespeare.”

And right here is where the whole Lil Nas X/Blanco/cultural appropriation thing gets really interesting. You see, Williams learned to play guitar from Rufus “Tee Tot” Payne, a black bluesman who performed in and around Lowndes County, Alabama. Having assimilated both African American blues and Scots-Irish folk, Williams’ original compositions played a major role in forging the white-meets-black sound we know today as country music. Williams was but one of many white musicians influenced by the African American string band music that proliferated around the South at the turn of the 20th century.

The implications of all this are mind-boggling. Instead of being appropriators of white folk music, Lil Nas X and Brown are actually taking up where their banjo-plucking ancestors left off. Swish!


From its modest 1979 origins up to now, hip-hop has thrived on masterly mooching. The genre’s aforementioned inaugural hit, “Rapper’s Delight,” quoted verbatim from Chic’s sophisto-funk classic “Good Times.” Perhaps more than any musical style in history, rap is defined by the shameless borrowing of other people’s music.

Having assimilated both African American blues and Scots-Irish folk, Hank Williams’ original compositions played a major role in forging the white-meets-black sound we know today as country music.

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

But rap also owes some of its survival and current mainstream popularity to outright cultural appropriation. In 1986, hip-hop pioneers Run-DMC teamed with white rockers Steven Tyler and Joe Perry to record a remake of Aerosmith’s 1975 shuffle, “Walk This Way.” At the time, Aerosmith was all but washed-up and struggling to remain relevant. The Run-DMC collaboration changed all that, rocketing to No. 4 on the pop charts. “Walk This Way” not only rescued Aerosmith, it thrust Run-DMC into the pop music major leagues and helped broaden hip-hop’s popularity among white people.

Just as Run-DMC helped salvage Aerosmith, so has Lil Nas X delivered Cyrus from cultural mothballs. And both these examples reveal how appropriation can work to the mutual benefit of artists from different backgrounds. The blues-influenced music of Elvis and other white rock musicians ultimately improved the fortunes of many African American performers. Asked in 1968 about the high esteem in which white rockers held black blues virtuosos, B.B. King said, “I’m grateful … the doors are open now … because of people like Elvis Presley [and] the Beatles.”

This cultural reciprocity is the promise of appropriation, and only time will tell if Lil Nas X and Brown can make cowboy culture more palatable to black people. But even if such a miracle never occurs, who cares? The ultimate message of “Old Town Road” is be yourself, even if that means emulating someone else’s culture. The song’s declarative chorus — “can’t nobody tell me nothin’ ” — appears to epitomize Lil Nas X’s defiant philosophy about his unhip country lifestyle, a notion underscored by the song’s surreal music video in which Lil Nas X stares down a hip-hop dancer. Lil Nas X is refusing to be lumped in with anyone simpleminded enough to only embrace the products of their own race and culture. In this sense, “Old Town Road” is as thematically beholden to Sammy Davis Jr.’s “I’ve Gotta Be Me” as to any rap or country song of yore.

This rebelliousness, along with the sincerity of their left-field hits, helps explain Lil Nas X’s and Brown’s startling success. They’re part of a growing class of black creators redefining what it means to be an African American artist in the 21st century. This new determinism is evident in the endeavors of the Black Rock Coalition and AfroPunk, two organizations that celebrate diversity in black music, offering a fellowship platform for wayward African American musos. Black folkies such as the Carolina Chocolate Drops, J.S. Ondara and Dom Flemons are at once contemporizing and preserving the seldom acknowledged legacy of African American country and bluegrass musicians.

Lil Nas X and Blanco Brown rank among this band of musical gypsies, and they can’t be easily dismissed as cultural poachers. Are they borrowing elements of white country culture? Absolutely. But they’re also combining that with rap and reclaimed bits of their own black folk heritage.

And can’t nobody tell them nothin’ …

Janet Jackson trained like a sprinter for her new show Her personal trainer reveals how the 53-year-old star got herself into Vegas shape

LAS VEGAS — As a wall of digital screens flashes the initials of one of the most consistent pop superstars of the last three decades, a crowd of 5,200 Janet Jackson fans waits for the metamorphosis to begin.

Flanked across a stage inside of the Park MGM Theater, 14 backup dancers – ranging in age, size, gender and race — fall into formation as Jackson begins the first notes of her new track, “Empty.” They begin to deliver the precise, coordinated steps, high shoulder movement and head shakes that Jackson has been bringing to arenas since her first Rhythm Nation World Tour in 1990.

“I look at her as an athlete. I have got to make sure that she is fit to do the show.”— Paulette Sybliss, Janet Jackson’s personal trainer

But this one is different. This brief residency in Vegas — celebrating the 30th anniversary of her game-changing album, Rhythm Nation 1814 — began in May and will finish up in the next 10 days. Titled Metamorphosis, it takes place in the most intimate space she’s ever appeared in as a solo act. Over the course of 100 minutes, Jackson — at 53 — will run through a setlist of 37 hits from the entirety of her career.

And she does it without missing a beat.

Not one, single, solitary beat.

We’ve known Janet Jackson the Pop Superstar almost as long as we’ve known ourselves. But now we’re meeting Janet Jackson, the high-functioning athlete.

“I am from a sprinter’s background, so I train her at that level, and it’s intense,” said 49-year-old Paulette Sybliss, Jackson’s personal trainer who is a former amateur sprinter and long jumper who ran in primary and secondary school in London. “It is 45 minutes of intensity, doing some drills that I know from my athletics background. She — as a 53-year-old woman — will take on many who are half her age, and put them to shame, to be quite honest with you. She does that a lot of the times in sessions with the dancers. I look at them, and they look at me, and I am like, ‘Yeah …’ ”


On April 6, 2016, Jackson announced to her fans via video that she was unexpectedly ending her Unbreakable tour, because she and her then-husband, business tycoon Wissam Al Mana, wanted to start a family. The two had secretly married in 2012, didn’t confirm it until 2013 and at 49, Jackson wanted to become a first-time mom. (The couple divorced in 2017.)

She promised she’d hit the stage again as soon as she could, telling fans in a video she posted on Twitter: “My husband and I are planning our family, so I’m going to have to delay the tour. Please, if you could try and understand that it’s important that I do this now. I have to rest up, doctor’s orders. But I have not forgotten about you. I will continue the tour as soon as I possibly can.”

Jackson’s high-impact touring shows have come like clockwork for decades — Rhythm Nation World Tour 1990; 1993-1995’s Janet World Tour; 1998-1999’s The Velvet Rope Tour; 2001-2002’s All For You Tour; 2008’s Rock Witchu Tour, 2011’s Number Ones, Up Close and Personal World Tour; 2015-2016’s Unbreakable World Tour and her most recent State of the World Tour, 2017-2019. Emphasis on the high impact. Once she shifts into the first 8-count of a complicated choreography, it doesn’t end until the show’s conclusion.

According to her trainer Paulette Sybliss, Janet Jackson’s ability to endure her grueling schedule is due to intense weight training.

Photo by Farrenton Grigsby/Getty Images for JJ

Her ability to endure that schedule — especially now — is due to intense weight training, said Sybliss.

“Predominantly, all of her sessions are based around some kind of weight training, as well as interval training. Sprinters do a lot of interval training, where you’re working really hard for maybe 30-45 seconds. When I mean hard, I mean your heart rate is at the highest, and then she will maybe take a rest at that period of time,” said Sybliss, who claims that at 13 she was once clocked as the fastest girl in London. “If you ever see sprinters’ training sessions, that’s how they train. It’s full-on intensity, you take a bit of a recovery. And then you go again.”

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APPRECIATION -Pt2 I am a working class gal from South London who is travelling the world with #Icon @janetjackson . I wake up everyday grateful,humble and determined to work harder in all aspects of my life. We live in a world where so many are takers, leeches, and are just plain greedy for other people's money .. People ask me often, how did I start working with Janet -It's a simple answer, I was busy working hard on my own business to be the best I could be and was discovered, there was no referral other than my work with my clients and on myself Nothing beats hard work and integrity. Keep your head down, stay focused, don't cause drama, don't try to f*CK others over( you'll always get found out, God doesn't like ugly ) Remember you never know who's in the background watching you .. Thank you Janet for the continued faith and love you show me. Vegas we are #READY #metamorphosis

A post shared by Paulette Sybliss (@paulettesybliss) on May 2, 2019 at 11:01am PDT

Sybliss said she uses Jamaican sprinter Merlene Ottey, who ran at a world-class level into her 50s — as an inspiration for Jackson’s training. She first began working with Jackson when Jackson’s son Eissa was 6 weeks old. They’d work out four times a week for 45 minutes to an hour. Back in 2017, the goal was to trim the pounds Jackson gained from pregnancy — she eventually dropped 70 pounds — and to build lean muscle for her forthcoming State of the World Tour.

“Once she had the baby, we were doing a solid five times a week, because time was not on our side. With her hectic schedule now, it may be three to four times, sometimes five times a week. I never take her into an hour. She doesn’t need it,” Sybliss said. She stops to chuckle before adding: “She probably wants me to finish after 30 minutes, it’s so intense.”


Jackson doesn’t take her first significant pause until she’s 16 songs in, after she’s been going at it for about an hour. This is when she tells the crowd she wants to slow it down before going into her slow ballad, “Come Back To Me,” from the Rhythm Nation 1814 album. She chases that with three more soft ballads. As she works through the final notes of “China Love,” from her 2001 All For You album, she looks out at the audience and breaks into a smile. Satisfied with the eruption of cheers, Jackson then looks over her shoulders at everyone backing her up, nods her head and jumps into an uptempo track from 1997’s The Velvet Rope, “Together Again,” a house-music tune that pays homage to a friend she lost to AIDS.

“I am from a sprinter’s background, so I train her at that level, and it’s intense.” — Sybliss on Jackson

Jumping alongside her dancers — much like she did in the summer of 1998 as she performed “Together Again” at NBA arenas across North America — Jackson’s stamina is impressive for a performer of any age. But for one who in her fifth decade? It’s mind-blowing.

What we’re seeing on stage is a better version of Jackson, even better Sybliss thinks, than what she saw as a fan in her 20s, dancing to “Control” and “Nasty.” Those same movements that Jackson performed next to Tina Landon, the former Laker Girl who choreographed the tours in 1993 and 1998, sometimes look even better now than they did when she debuted them.

Throughout the entire show, Paulette Sybliss has Janet Jackson drinking water with electrolytes. After the show, it’s about muscle recovery.

Photo by Farrenton Grigsby/Getty Images for JJ

“She is probably a lot fitter now,” Sybliss said. “Sometimes [I] have to pull her back from maybe doing too much. As we get older, we get injuries, but it’s not necessarily getting the injury, sometimes it takes longer to recover from the injuries as we get older.

“For women as well, as we get close to our 50s, and then there are changes that are coming on as well. It’s accommodating things like that, and saying that we may need to tail back on something like this, or push harder in this section of the show. At the end of the day, she is doing a lot of shows, so we don’t want her to get burnt out during the first few shows. If Janet’s ill, there’s no show. My job is not just to train her, it’s to make sure she’s recovering, she’s getting the right fluids, the right liquids during the show, and also post-show as well.”

Throughout the entire show, Sybliss has Jackson drinking water with electrolytes. “If you see Janet during a show, it’s so intense. We don’t just lose water, we lose salt as well. I need to make sure that during the show, that she’s getting hydrated and getting electrolytes, because the worst thing that can happen is that she cramps on stage.”


After the show, it’s all about muscle recovery. “I look at her as an athlete. I have got to make sure that she is fit to do the show. She might want to train with me the day after the show, I will say, ‘Well, you know, it’s a rest day tomorrow.’ ”

“Sometimes [I] have to pull her back from maybe doing too much. As we get older, we get injuries, but it’s not necessarily getting the injury, sometimes it takes longer to recover from the injuries as we get older.”

“She’s competitive,” Sybliss said. “She likes to push herself, and she knows that I will be able to push her. If it’s a new session, as challenging as it may be, I can see in her face the determination … ‘Well, OK, I’m going to show you I can do this.’”

Near the end of the show, Jackson tells the audience she first performed at an MGM casino in Vegas as a 7-year-old with her brother Michael and her sisters.

The show appears to end with the title track of Rhythm Nation 1814 — the album she’s celebrating the 30th anniversary of. But Jackson still has three more songs left in her: “Morning,” “Doesn’t Really Matter” and “Made For Now.” On that digital screen, she’s draped in a gold material, and you can hear her son Eissa off-screen.

“Now she’s a mother and she’s still working, and she’s in Vegas. She’s touring around the world,” Sybliss said. “It really is incredible.”

LeBron James again shows us his greatness, this time as a father Sports fanaticism shouldn’t blind us to the essence of family, love and fun

There’s a school of thought — well, foolish thought — that black fathers don’t spend enough time with their children, nor do they even care to be involved in the lives of their kids. That way of thinking is, of course, patently false.

In the aftermath of LeBron James playfully throwing down a dunk in his son’s layup line, there’s a similarly silly commentary:

James — a black father — is TOO involved in his kids’ lives.

It’s the kind of senseless debate that happens in the dog days of summer, when folks are clamoring for anything to break up the monotony of daily baseball coverage.

It’s also the kind of debate that happens when people are unable to differentiate between incessant media coverage and father-son time. Ironically enough, it’s the polarizing backlash to stories such as these that will only fuel more of these stories in the future.

I watched James’ son, Bronny, compete at the Nike NYBL Peach Jam in North Augusta, South Carolina, earlier this month. The gym was packed, as expected, and, as the days progressed, became increasingly star-studded.

As impressed as I was with Bronny’s court vision — some things are hereditary, not taught — I was more impressed by the family atmosphere surrounding the team.

There’s the moment where Bronny’s kid brother, Bryce, joins the team in a pregame huddle. Later, there’s a moment where James’ wife, Savannah, and his daughter, Zhuri, practically look like twins as they enjoy the game. Toward the end of the game, Zhuri switches viewpoints — from mom’s lap to atop the shoulders of her grandmother, Gloria.

Zhuri James watches the game at the Nike Peach Jam in North Augusta, S.C., atop the shoulders of her grandmother, Gloria.

Ken Makin

When you think about the initial two players of this great American story — LeBron and Gloria — and all of the expectations placed specifically on James, it’s remarkable what this family has been able to build.

Beyond that, it’s amazing that James has stayed true to who he is — basically, a big kid. That’s not a slight — it’s the ultimate compliment.

With all of the talk about his business savvy and potential status as the greatest of all time on the basketball floor, James is still in touch with his silly side. That’s what makes his recent “Taco Tuesday” posts so genuine, if not refreshingly quirky.

That’s the attitude that led to James punching a few dunks in the layup line.

If anything, James’ pregame dunks actually take pressure off of Bronny and his teammates. James has a unique perspective on unfair expectations, and if a few pregame dunks put the onus on him and not whether Bronny can live up to the James name, that’s proverbial dirt easily brushed off of his shoulders.

And then, there’s the weight of that name — LeBron James — which James admitted last summer he regretted passing down to Bronny:

“I still regret giving [Bronny] my name because of [basketball expectations],” James said during an episode of The Shop.

“When I was younger, I didn’t have a dad. So my whole thing was like, whenever I have a kid, not only is he going to be a junior, I’m gonna do everything that this man didn’t do.”

Sometimes, we get so caught up in our views of the media and sports fanaticism that we lose the essence of humanity — family, love, fellowship. From November to June, James is a basketball player. He’s spending his offseason not only being a dad, but a father figure. He’s imparting ideals on a group of young men that will impact them whether they play basketball professionally or not. It’s a team-based, loyalty-infused culture that has defined James’ existence — basketball and otherwise.

If you can’t respect that, to quote Jay-Z, your whole perspective is wack.

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

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

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

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

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

Alabama A&M

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Courtesy of Foster Family

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Courtesy of Foster Family

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NASA/MSFC

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Don Rutledge courtesy of Lucy Rutledge.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alabama A&M

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Richard Wright discovers Joe Louis’ dynamite The author of ‘Native Son’ was strongly influenced by the boxer’s success

In 1941, three giants of African American culture came together to celebrate a king. The tribute, fittingly enough, was a song entitled “King Joe,” sung by Paul Robeson to music composed and performed by Count Basie and his Orchestra. Richard Wright had written the lyrics. Basie, Robeson, and Wright — their names conjure images of foxtrots at the Roseland Ballroom, triumphant performances of Showboat, and the explosive prose of Native Son. The king they lionized was Joe Louis, boxing’s heavyweight champion of the world.

On one verse, Wright clearly wrestles with Louis’ legendary silence:

They say Joe don’t talk much, but he talks all the time.

They say Joe don’t talk much, he talks all the time.

Now you can look at Joe, but sure can’t read his mind.

But the novelist had no doubts about the emotions Louis aroused in black communities across the country:

Been in Cleveland, St. Louis and Chicago, too.

Been in Cleveland, St. Louis and Chicago, too.

But the best is Harlem when a Joe Louis fight is through.

By then, Wright had witnessed the cleansing power of Joe Louis — the flood of joy on Chicago’s South Side after he defeated Max Baer in 1935, the electricity inside Yankee Stadium during his 1938 fight with Max Schmeling, the lovefest in Harlem after each important victory. Wright knew the importance of the reign of King Joe.

Richard Wright, circa 1950, sits in his hotel room during the Venice Film Festival. Wright had attended the screening of director Pierre Chenal’s film, Native Son, which was adapted from his novel and starred the author.

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Wright wrote out of the pain of racism. Born in a Mississippi sharecropper’s shack in 1908, abandoned by his father, and circumscribed by the iron chains of Jim Crow, he had a blinding ambition to tell his story, the universal tale of the “color line” in America with all the anger, hatred, and ache that it encompassed. The publication of Native Son in 1940 made him instantly famous — and notorious. Published by Harper & Brothers and selected by the Book-of-the-Month Club as one of its two main selections, it sold 215,000 copies in two weeks.

Wright’s fame, however paled next to that of Louis. Six years younger than Wright, Louis was also part of the great migration of rural Southern black people to the urban north, in his case from Alabama to Detroit. Handicapped by poverty and a stutter, he was virtually uneducated and painfully shy. Yet in 1941 he was in the midst of a 12-year reign as the undisputed heavyweight champion, at a time when the title was, as Eldridge Cleaver once wrote, “the ultimate focus of masculinity in America.” Along with Joe DiMaggio, he was one of the two most celebrated athletes in the nation, and his fame extended across the oceans. Furthermore, Louis was an inspiration and source of pride for black Americans. Especially for Wright.

Wright embraced Louis as an athlete and a symbol early in the boxer’s career. In his 1940 essay, How ‘Bigger’ Was Born, Wright suggested that Bigger Thomas, his protagonist in Native Son, was a composite of a number of men he had known, frustrated men who confronted the racism in their daily life with violence. They were the only people, Wright wrote in his essay, who defied Jim Crow “and got away with it, at least for a sweet brief spell” before whites killed them or broke their spirits. But in Louis, Wright witnessed a black man who legally beat down white men in the ring without retribution. The novelist alluded to Louis in Native Son, along with boxers Jack Johnson and Henry Armstrong, suggesting that he was a role model for black men. Yet Wright understood that without boxing they may have suffered the same tragic fate as Bigger Thomas.


No one knows exactly when Wright first learned about Louis, but in the mid-1930s they both lived on the South Side of Chicago. The neighborhood’s numbers kingpin, nightclub operator, and sports enthusiast Julian Black was one of Louis’ co-managers, and he arranged for the boxer to move from Detroit to Chicago to train and fight. From the summer of 1934 to the spring of 1935, during Louis’ first year as a professional, he fought two-thirds of his matches in the city. During the same period, Wright became active in politics and began his writing career. He joined the Communist Party, published poetry in leftist journals, and attended various “progressive” writers conferences.

It is difficult to imagine that Wright wouldn’t have read about Louis’ first major bout in New York City, a contest against former heavyweight champion Primo Carnera that took place in June 1935 during the international crisis between Italy and Ethiopia. The 28-year-old Italian fighter was awesome to behold. Sportswriters dubbed him the “Ambling Alp.” In an age when heavyweights were small compared with today, Carnera stood 6-foot-6 and weighed 260 pounds. The 6-foot-2 Louis, only 21 at the time and 196 pounds, knocked him out in six rounds, but not before administering a frightful beating.

Joe Louis scored a decisive technical knockout over Primo Carnera in the sixth round of their bout at the Yankee Stadium in 1935. Here is Louis standing over the bleeding Carnera during one of the three knockdowns in the sixth round.

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As he would later demonstrate in Native Son, Wright was keenly aware of how white journalists transformed a powerful black man like Louis into a beast. They transmuted the boxer into a dark, dangerous, primordial creature. Sportswriters compared him with a jungle animal, or, alternatively, a machine. He was a cobra, a panther, or more famously, a Brown Bomber raining death. “Something sly and sinister, and perhaps not quite human came out of the African jungle last night to strike down and utterly demolish a huge hulk that had been Primo Carnera, the giant,” wrote ringside reporter David J. Walsh in the St. Louis Star-Times. Grantland Rice, dean of America’s sportswriters, commented in his report of the match for the New York Sun that Louis moved toward Carnera “as a black panther of the jungle stalks his prey.” Rice especially was struck that Louis’ “expression never changed,” even when the referee raised his hand in victory. He “seems to be the type [of jungle animal] that accepts and inflicts pain without a change of expression,” he wrote.

Judging from his later writings, Wright must have sensed that Louis represented a significant new force. The fighter, Walsh had noted, challenged and defied “the white man’s innate sense of superiority.” The Pittsburgh Courier, one of the nation’s leading black newspapers, headlined “HARLEM GOES ‘MAD WITH JOY,’ ” and suggested Louis’ triumph was “its biggest moment since it became the capital of the Negro world.”

Searching the horizon for signs of revolutionary change, Wright latched on to the Louis phenomenon. After the Carnera bout, black Americans could not get enough news about Louis. Newspapers invented his past and speculated about his future. Musicians celebrated his victories in songs. By September 1935, two years before he became heavyweight champion, blues singers had begun to cut records recounting Louis’ fistic deeds. Joe Pullum’s “Joe Louis Is the Man” praised his ring talents as well as noting that he’s “doing things for his mother a young boy should.” Memphis Minnie counseled fans to bet all their money on the “two-fisted fighter” in her joyous paean, “He’s in the Ring (Doin’ the Same Old Thing!).” She sang:

I wouldn’t even pay my house rent.

I wouldn’t buy me nothin’ to eat.

Joe Louis says, ‘Take a chance at me

I’m goin’ to put you on your feet.’

He’s in the ring, doin’ the same old thing.

And in “Joe Louis Blues,” Carl Martin warns all prizefighters “who don’t want to meet defeat … stay off Joe Louis’ beat.”

The early Louis blues songs explode with pride and pleasure, rejoicing in the sheer delight of riding on the Brown Bomber’s bandwagon. As his career progressed, listening to radio broadcasts of his matches became communal experiences for black Americans. Maya Angelou, in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, recalled joining family and friends to listen to his fights in her grandfather’s store in Stamps, Arkansas. She wondered if the announcer knew that he was addressing “all the Negroes around the world who sat sweating and praying, glued to their ‘master’s voice.’ ”

That white voice became excited when Louis’ white opponent pushed him into the corner and whaled away at his body. “My race groaned,” remembered Angelou. “It was all our people falling. It was another lynching, yet another Black man hanging on a tree. One more woman ambushed and raped. A Black boy whipped and maimed.” It was one’s worst memory and consummate fear. “It might be the end of the world. If Joe lost we were back in slavery and beyond help.” If Louis fell, she thought, all the vile racist insults and cutting remarks would be true.

Yet, in almost every case, Louis came off the ropes, moved to the center of the ring, and began to punish his opponent. Once again, he assumed the role of a black Moses, delivering his race, at least for a moment, to the promised land. He was their champion. “A Black boy,” wrote Angelou. “Some Black mother’s son.”


The announcer lifts Joe Louis’ arm in token of his six-round technical knockout over Primo Carnera in their bout at the Yankee Stadium in New York City, June 25, 1935. Louis bears only a slight bruise under his left eye as evidence of the encounter.

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Wright’s feelings toward Louis came into sharper literary focus a few months after the boxer slaughtered Carnera. Hazel Rowley’s biography recounts how, after battling through a serious bout of pneumonia during the summer, on the night of Sept. 24, 1935, the struggling writer sat in a bar on the South Side, smoking a cigarette, his ear bent toward the radio. It was almost six years since the stock market crash signaled the coming of the Great Depression. It was a hard time to be black in America. Jobs were in short supply, but lynchings weren’t. The wrongly convicted Scottsboro Boys sat in prison in Alabama, sentenced to die in the electric chair. For Wright, their ordeal symbolized the plight of black men in the country. Don’t step outside of your narrowly proscribed path was the message transmitted from white America to millions of black “citizens.”

Yet, Wright knew, something remarkable was happening, and he wanted to understand what it meant. Louis, who would have had trouble reading Wright’s poetry, once more was making quite a stir. In a ring in the middle of Yankee Stadium, the boxer faced former world heavyweight champion Baer, a heavy-punching, wisecracking slugger. Baer was a talker, always ready to deliver a quip. Louis, said one reporter, “says less than any man in sports history, including Dummy Taylor, the Giant pitcher, who was mute.” Neither man, however, had come to Yankee Stadium to debate.

Joe Louis (left) looks to deliver a right jab on his opponent Max Baer (right) during their bout at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, New York, Sept. 24, 1935. Joe Louis would knock out Max Baer in the fourth round of 15.

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Wright felt the earth crack that night. Something happened that transcended the punch that knocked out Baer. (After the match, Baer exclaimed he could have gotten up, “but when I get executed, people are going to have to pay more than twenty-five dollars a seat to watch.”) Some belt holding together Jim Crow laws seemed for a moment to break. Looking around the bar, then stepping out in the street, Wright witnessed it. “Something had popped loose, all right,” he wrote in Joe Louis Uncovers Dynamite. “And it had come from deep down. Out of the darkness it had leaped from its coil. And nobody wanted to say. Blacks and whites were afraid. But it was a sweet fear, at least for blacks. It was a mingling of fear and fulfillment. Something dreaded and yet wanted. A something had popped out of a dark hole, something with a hydra-like head, and it was darting forth its tongue.”

It was Wright’s first published piece of journalism and appeared in New Masses, a Marxist magazine affiliated with the Communist Party USA. Only incidentally was it a form of sports writing. Instead, it explores the revolutionary potential of black Americans. The central metaphor in the article is water. After Louis’ sensational knockout victory, blacks on Chicago’s South Side “poured out of beer taverns, pool rooms, barber shops, rooming houses and dingy flats and flooded the streets.” More than 25,000 “joy-mad” Louis fans “seeped out of doorways, oozed from alleys, trickled out of tenements, and flowed down the street; a fluid mass of joy.”

They formed a wild river of revolutionary potential, praising Louis at the same time as they expressed their resentment against the varied forms of racism that circumscribed and plagued their lives. Louis had unleashed it all. “Four centuries of repression,” Wright observed, “of frustrated hope, of black bitterness, felt even in the bones of the bewildered young, were rising to the surface. Yes, unconsciously they had imputed to the brawny image of Joe Louis all the balked dreams of revenge, all the secretly visualized moments of retaliation …” Without uttering a word or waving a red flag, Louis had become a revolutionary force. “You see, Joe was the consciously-felt symbol. Joe was the concentrated essence of black triumph over white … And what could be sweeter than long-nourished hate vicariously gratified? From the symbol of Joe’s strength they took strength, and in that moment all fear, all obstacles were wiped out, drowned. They stepped out of the mire of hesitation and irresolution and were free! Invincible!”

Joe Louis Discovers Dynamite concludes with the river receding, moving back into its channel, with the people in the streets “flowing back to the beer tavern, the poolroom, the café, the barbershop, the dingy flat.” Still, freedom imagined is freedom embraced. That evening Wright glimpsed the power of Louis, not only as a fighter but as a potential leveler of social norms, an inarticulate prophet to violent, revolutionary change.

The problem with weighing down Louis with the dreams of revenge and aspirations of the advancement of an entire race, of course, was the possibility that he might lose a fight. It happened on June 19, 1936, when the German Schmeling, another former champion, KO’ed him in 12 rounds. Louis’ physical pain that night was black America’s psychic agony. Singer Lena Horne was performing that evening in Cincinnati’s Moonlite Gardens with Noble Sissle’s band. Backstage, during breaks between sets, she listened to the fight. Schmeling had knocked down Louis in the fourth round, and continued to pummel him with right hands round after round. Men in the band were crying. Horne was nearly hysterical, she recalled in her autobiography. For her, Louis “carried so many of our hopes, maybe even dreams of vengeance.”

Horne’s performance suffered. Outraged, her mother said, “Why, you don’t even know the man.” “I don’t care, I don’t care,” Horne cried. “He belongs to all of us.”


Never did Louis belong to so many Americans, black and white, than on June 22, 1938, when he fought a rematch against Schmeling. By then, Hitler’s legions were jackbooting toward another war in Europe and Schmeling was the darling of the Nazi Party. Also that year, Harper & Brothers published Wright’s first book, Uncle Tom’s Children: Four Novellas. Like so many other Americans, the writer was pulled into the frenzy about the match. Dubbed “The Fight of the Century,” it was the major story from New York to Chicago to Los Angeles, and from London to Berlin to Tokyo.

Living in Brooklyn, New York, at the time, Wright agreed to cover the Yankee Stadium event for both the Daily Worker and New Masses. The writing assignment seemed natural. Not only had he published a superb piece on the Louis-Baer fight in New Masses and had worked for the Daily Worker, the Communist Party was actively promoting his career. “Our new comet,” the party hailed him. Uncle Tom’s Children was translated into Russian and praised in a review in Pravda. In England, a leftist publisher had asked Robeson to write the foreword for the British edition.

/> A general view of the fight between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, New York, on June 22, 1938. Louis won by a knockout in the first round.

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An overwhelming racial pride, rather than a class solidarity, distinguished Wright’s approach to the second Louis-Schmeling match. Many white reporters and columnists adopted the black boxer as a representative of American values — democracy, freedom, equality, fair play — doing battle against the racist ideology of Nazi Germany. Wright wanted none of it. Like Horne, he maintained that Louis belonged to the 12 million blacks in America.

Wright’s visit to Louis’ Pompton Lakes, New Jersey, training camp reinforced his feelings. There he discovered “throngs” of black fans “standing around for hours in a state of deep awe waiting for just one glimpse of the champion,” he reported in the Daily Worker. When Louis appeared, “a hush fell on them and they stared.” They knew, as Wright later noted in New Masses, that the Brown Bomber “symbolized the living refutation of the hatred spewed forth daily over the radios, in newspapers, in movies, and in books about their lives … [T]hey have watched a picture of themselves being painted as lazy, stupid, and diseased.” And how could they respond? “[S]o effectively and completely have they been isolated and restricted in vocation that they rarely have had the opportunity to participate in the meaningful processes of America’s national life. Jim Crowed in the army and navy, barred from many trades and professions, excluded from commerce and finance, relegated to menial positions in government, segregated residentially, denied the right of franchise for the most part; in short, forced to live a separate and impoverished life, they were glad for even the meager acceptance of their humanity implied in the championship of Joe Louis.”

Wright left no doubt that Nazi ideology was viler than the American reality, but he also insisted that “reactionary” elements in the United States and Great Britain preached the same racist creed as fascists in Germany, Italy, and Japan. Only among black people in America was the support for Louis universal. For them June 22, 1938, held a promise as sweet, in its own way, as emancipation. On that night, Louis promised to settle an old score and exact revenge for his 1936 loss to Schmeling. Wright knew that symbolically Louis’ revenge would be his race’s revenge.

World heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis (left) stands over challenger Max Schmeling, who is down for a count of three, as referee Arthur Donovan sends Louis to a neutral corner at Yankee Stadium in New York City on June 22, 1938. Louis retained his title in a technical knockout over Schmeling in 2:04 of the first round of their scheduled 15-round title bout.

AP Photo

The fight ended with explosive suddenness. Louis had predicted that he would finish Schmeling in two rounds. He did it in one. In a mid-round assault, he broke a vertebra in Schmeling’s back, pounded him with crushing rights, and left him looking, Wright wrote in the Daily Worker, like “a soft piece of molasses candy left out in the sun; he drooped over the ropes, his eyes glassy, his chin nestling in a strand of rope, his face blank and senseless and his widely-heralded powerful right arm hanging ironically useless.” As Wright observed, Louis’ “victory was complete, unquestionable, decisive; his blows must have jarred the marrow not only in [Schmeling’s] but in Hitler’s own bones.” Far from being a competitive contest, Louis’ triumph “was an act of revenge, of dominance, of complete mastery.”

The celebrations in Harlem, the communal finale to Louis victory, interested Wright as much as the actual contest. Using his familiar water metaphor, he wrote that the sight of 100,000 black people pouring into the streets was “like the Mississippi River overflowing at flood time.” Their happiness was inexpressible. “With their faces to the night sky, they filled their lungs with air and let out a scream of joy that seemed would never end, and a scream that came from untold reserves of strength.” Accompanying their primal shouts was a cacophony of beating on garbage pails, tin cans, pots, pans, washboards and wooden boxes. Torn scraps of newspapers snowed from upper story windows on long snake-lines of dancing Harlemites while horns blared, whistles shrieked, and sirens wailed.

The parties in Harlem and other black communities across America were political demonstrations. The racket they created was the sound of freedom long denied and deeply desired. The people in the streets “wanted to feel that their expanded feelings were not limited; that the earth was theirs as much as anyone else’s; that they did not have to live by proscription in one corner of it; that they could go where they wanted to and do what they wanted to, eat and live where they wanted to, like others.” That, Wright knew, was the true dynamite of Joe Louis.

Customers at a bar on 135th Street in Harlem raise a jubilant toast after world heavyweight champion Joe Louis’ first-round knockout of Max Schmeling in Yankee Stadium.

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