It’s crazy out here! 25 books to save your life, right now The Undefeated staff on books to comfort, inspire — and light a fire in your soul

The call was for “favorite” books, yes, but more specifically for books that resonate right now, In These Times. In these times when certainty and trust seems so rare, and books — highlightable and pixelated on a screen, or dusty and heavy from under the bed — can comfort and inspire and light a fire in one’s soul. The call was for treasured books, tomes that got you through something — and The Undefeated staff (and contributors) responded with faves that include fiction, short fiction, flash fiction, science fiction, nonfiction, satire, and young-adult literature. The list includes books published as far back as 1946 and as recently as last year. There’s a bunch of memoirs: Malcolm X is eternal, Nathan McCall is still making folks want to holler, and activist Anne Moody’s life story is still changing lives. There’s a handful of brilliant, restorative histories — hello, Paula Giddings and David Remnick and Howard Zinn. The newer storytellers are women: Desiree Cooper, and Yaa Gyasi. Toni Morrison is here for Paradise, and Jhumpa Lahiri’s shorts about the Bengali immigrant experience — both published awhile ago — seem particularly of the moment. And as is appropriate in a time when facts are dueling with “alternative facts,” there are two books here — one fiction, one nonfiction — with complex dual narratives. This list is meant to inspire more thinking, more learning, inclusivity, healing, some escape and joy, perhaps some organizing, and understanding. A tall order. And this is but a drop in the bucket. — Danyel Smith


The Street by Ann Petry (1946)

This novel illuminates the structural and social manifestations of racism, sexism, and classism as vividly and viscerally as any work of fiction written since its publication 71 years ago. In the book, the protagonist, Lutie, hopes to save her young son from the trappings of poverty in World War II-era Harlem. Her love and respect for Benjamin Franklin and his bootstrapping philosophy of prosperity motivates her to work hard and save so she can move out of a tenement building haunted by the presence of a superintendent hoping to prey on her dire circumstances. Like other works of naturalism, it’s not the intention or good nature of the protagonist that dictates whether she will leave her hard life behind, it’s the political forces of the time that determine her fate. Ann Petry is not here for happy endings or conflict resolution. — Monis Khan


Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (1958)

Chinua Achebe’s masterpiece tells the story of Okonkwo, a leader in his Nigerian village whose incessant pursuit of honor is halted by abrupt change. When he sees colonial influence diluting his culture and threatening the values he’s anchored by, his life bursts into the “This Is Fine” meme. And if we flash-forward to the present, the outcome of the 2016 presidential election has left many (the historically marginalized, especially) feeling as though the world around them has been similarly set ablaze. Aggressive change steeped in ethnocentrism poses an imminent threat to the rights people died for so we could have, but also serves as a reminder that both good and bad come in waves. Okonkwo’s raison d’être — his pride — is also his Achilles’ heel. This chest-out hubris makes it even harder for him to process the changes he’s experiencing. In the time since I first read Things Fall Apart as an eighth-grader, the book has served as a cautionary tale: a reminder of how not to react when everything you know begins to collapse. And today, with the powers that be hell-bent on ruining the very country they claim to want to improve, it’s imperative to remember that sometimes things get worse before they get better. Whenever I revisit Things Fall Apart, similar to whenever I read depressing national news headlines, I’m reminded that life is a seesaw of highs and lows. We’ve risen from scorched earth before, we’ll do it again. — Julian Kimble


The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X with Alex Haley (1965)

This is the story of not just a man who came to power, notoriety and controversy during one of America’s most disputative period, but also of why America would never truly come to accept a voice like Malcolm X’s. The only way this book would cease to lose its importance is if this country magically woke up one morning and instantly reversed its ills. And since that’s not going to happen, Malcolm X’s autobiography will eternally rank as the blueprint of how to survive in America — and to hold America accountable for its shortcomings. Reread this memoir multiple times. I have, and it’s helped teach me the value of work ethic. It helped teach me about my status as a black man in America — and how humbling myself to its systemic racism should never be considered an option. This autobiography is responsible for strength when the coldest times of my life begged me to give up. Simply put, this the most important book ever written. Bar none. Yes, bar none. There’s so much game here that spans beyond the political. It’s a book about life — and about how it rarely goes our way. But the most important lesson is to simply keep living. Malcolm X did that until the day he died. He believed he could change the world — and you know what? He never lived to see it. But he did. Malcolm X’s fingerprints are all over 2017 and beyond. — Justin Tinsley


Coming of Age in Mississippi by Anne Moody (1968)

This memoir chronicles the horrors faced by the generation before mine. It’s about growing up in rural Mississippi under Jim Crow laws — and, sadly, much of the story still holds true in 2017. This is the book — written by a woman who in 1963 sat praying at a segregated Woolworth’s counter as condiments were poured over her before she was dragged 30 feet by her hair — made me want to be a writer. My mother gifted me this gem when I was a preteen and even then, I related to a young woman learning about her womanness and her blackness at a time when it was terrifying to be both. Much like Elie Wiesel’s horrifying Night, the account of his experience under Hitler’s regime, Coming of Age tells the gripping story of the American holocaust of black folks. And while Anne Moody never got her due (she died in 2015 after suffering from dementia), her book was wholly life-changing. And considering the headlines of 2017, her story — almost 50 years later — remains relevant and relatable. — Kelley L. Carter


Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson (1972)

History is hard to know. This book is important at this moment because of the parallels between 1960s counterculture and the movements we’re currently experiencing in America’s polarized atmosphere. In it, Thompson (who committed suicide in 2005) addresses police brutality, hypocrisy, and destructive recreational drug use (“There is nothing worse than a man in the throes of an ether bender.”). Thompson’s gonzo style of immersing himself into his work and subjects inspired me to find a career where I could live out experiences, no matter how wild, and to open the minds of people across the world. — Morgan Moody


Discipline and Punish by Michel Foucault (1975)

Visibility is a trap. This book introduced me to the idea of the Panopticon (which allows a watchman to observe occupants without the occupants knowing whether they are being watched). In the age of digital surveillance this is relevant. Panopticon is a kind of space where separation and registration are implemented. Those who deviate are cast aside. When I first read Discipline, the obvious parallel was society at large. Then, jail and prison. Now it’s the state’s security apparatus — something that we make sacrifices for every day. The Panopticon is alive and well, and we all opt into it. Folks should read this book so they can better understand the goals behind the state’s continued efforts to divide us. — Osman Noor


A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn (1980)

“Alternate facts” are currently being touted as gospel truth. Howard Zinn’s powerful, paradigm-changing thesis — that alternative facts (sometimes referred to as “lies”) can become alternative American history — gave this classic best-seller its bite. If you were in middle or high school before 1980, your textbooks may have been a minefield of ill-adapted or half-truthful information. Sing along with us, kids! Christopher Columbus sailed the seven seas … and he quickly became besties with the native peoples because he was an OG who liked turkey. George Washington had a thing for cherry trees and wooden dentures. Thomas Jefferson didn’t have a thing for Sally Hemings. The Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras got about a week each, and Watergate was in no way, shape or form the gateway drug to the fall of American exceptionalism. OK, so that’s a bit of an exaggeration. But pre-internet historiography (which is the history of how history is interpreted) is a narrow corridor built by and for white male elites. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But A People’s History of the United States asks that we do a collective dig into uncomfortable places. With blunt, prehistoric tools. Then we get to the really fun stuff like Russians and Soviets, the historic election of Barack Obama and, because history always manages to swing back around, Donald J. Trump. Fun times! — Jill Hudson


Life & Times of Michael K by J.M. Coetzee (1983)

Set in apartheid era South Africa during a fictional civil war (fought “so that the minorities can have a say in their own destinies”), Michael K is a book of silent resistance. K is a wanderer and a gardener caught in the crosshairs of a war he has no say in. His cleft lip brands him as voiceless and unworthy of society’s consideration. He must assert his humanity and so seeks to carve out a space of the South African landscape for his own use, a space that cannot be infringed upon by the larger powers at play. As someone who isn’t necessarily a front-line activist but still holds near and dear my convictions, I love the book’s thesis: that the revolution can begin within, remain within, and still change the world around you. — Tierra R. Wilkins


When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America by Paula J. Giddings (1984)

I don’t remember every single story in Giddings’ novelistic masterwork of gender and black American history, but it’s enough to recall on any given and stressful weekday that the book exists on this earth as a brilliant testament to the work and activism and vibrant creativity of black womanhood in the United States. It’s like someone saw, and took the notes, and wrote it all down, and I say, Thank you. Whether it’s Phillis Wheatley, Mary McLeod Bethune, Ella Baker — everyone is blood-flesh-and-soul human, and black women’s lives and accomplishments are detailed toward the fine point of precisely how they impacted and influenced the heart and machine of this country. Who are we as ourselves? This is what Giddings asks toward the tail of her preface. What would we say to Anita Hill outside the earshot of whites or men or our mothers and fathers? What do we feel about a Million Man March …Who are we when no one yearns for us, or when we are in full possession of our sexuality? Who are we when we are not someone’s mother, or daughter, or sister, or aunt, or church elder, or first black woman to be this or that? The genius Paula Giddings answers with aplomb. — Danyel Smith


Lilith’s Brood by Octavia Butler (1987 – 1989)

If racism’s got you down, take a minute to contemplate the end of the human race as we know it. The brilliant, prolific and criminally underappreciated Octavia Butler constructs a chilling and all-too-possible future in which an alien species rescues humanity from self-destruction, but at an unimaginable price. As usual, Butler, a giant of science fiction who died in 2006, places a black woman at the center of her universe. The first book of the trilogy begins with protagonist Lilith fighting for life amid the wondrous, benevolent but inflexible invaders. Lilith’s offspring carry the story forward to a conclusion that renders childish our color-based classifications and proves there is only one race — the human one. — Jesse Washington


The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho (1988)

The Alchemistwhich has sold more than 65 million copies — takes readers on the journey of a shepherd boy named Santiago who has recurring dreams about traveling to find hidden treasures. Santiago meets many people along the way who both help and distract him, and (spoiler alert) in the end, Santiago learns that he’s the only person who can complete his journey. He also realizes the most important treasures of life were right in front of him the entire time. The Alchemist is so important at this moment because these days so many feel alone in their struggle. The Alchemist remains a go-to when I’m feeling lost, or dejected. The beauty of the book is no matter how many times you read it, it’s guaranteed you’ll find something you may have overlooked. — Maya Jones


Although this book is introduced to most in their youth, the moral of The Alchemist is only truly revealed to those who read (or reread) it as an adult. This perspective–changing and deeply human story is even more well received in today’s pretty trying times. Young Santiago’s odyssey leads him to surmise: “When a person really desires something, all the universe conspires to help that person to realize his dream.” What seems like trivial notions are actually fondly illuminated in The Alchemist. People should feel as though they can follow their dreams, no matter their age, or lot in life. We could all use a Santiago walkabout to reveal what truly means the most to us — whether that’s overcoming fear or embracing the present. Go ahead, give it another read. — Ashley Melfi


Makes Me Wanna Holler: A Young Black Man in America by Nathan McCall (1994)

Love was understood rather than expressed, and values were transmitted by example, not word of mouth. This autobiography is superimportant at this moment in history because the struggle continues. At the time of its publication, the book was called “gripping and candid,” and it is. Nathan McCall went from from thug-hustler in working-class Portsmouth, Virginia, to doing three years for armed robbery to becoming a journalist and working at The Washington Post. This book continues to save my life, because black men in this country have so many similar experiences even now — it explains so much about the frustration bruhs experience daily. McCall is underrated because he speaks the real truth. — Jason Reid


Paradise by Toni Morrison (1997)

They shoot the white girl first. This novel, to some reminiscent of Toni Morrison’s 1974 Sula, is superimportant at this moment in history because it makes you uneasy. It’s a difficult read, in all of the best ways. It speaks to so many things — race, culture, patriarchy, class, death, black girl magic, history — and the narrative makes you earn it all. Love is divine only and difficult always — and then it ends with an unanswered question which is fitting in today’s world: Isn’t every day uncertain and a little bit scary? — Breana Jones


King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero by David Remnick (1999)

This book came out three years after Muhammad Ali raised the torch at the 1996 Atlanta Games, when much of America worried about the legendary boxer’s health and wondered whether he still had the same influence worldwide. With the lighting of the torch (and this book), it became clear that Ali’s messages of sacrifice and conviction remain as contemporary today as they were in the late 1960s. It’s a reminder that a life lived only for material goods and fame is not a life well-lived. The beauty of Ali is his conviction to principle despite the world telling him to leave his religion — who he really was — behind. He became the Greatest not because of athletic prowess and showmanship in the ring; he became the Greatest because he used those gifts as a tool for greater good and not merely as a means to an end. David Remnick’s book brilliantly chronicles how Ali became Ali. — Mike Wise


The Land by Mildred D. Taylor (2001)

In this middle-school novel, a prequel to the classic, award-winning 1977 Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, Paul-Edward is born to a slave mother and a white father and so learns to navigate being a part of both worlds. Taylor’s “depiction of the 19th-century South is anything but pretty, [but] her tone is more uplifting than bitter.” She covers colorism, sexism, racism and religion as she tells the story of Paul-Edward’s journey from being owned, to ownership. But “after arriving in Mississippi and setting his sights on the acreage he wants to buy, he soon discovers that becoming a landowner of color is more complicated and dangerous than he expected.” — Rhiannon Walker


Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell (2008)

Malcolm Gladwell says that “what we do as a community, as a society, for each other, matters as much as what we do for ourselves.” That statement holds so true today — with where we are as a country. Togetherness matters more now than ever before. I identify with Gladwell — he opened up about his Jamaican roots: his mother, Joyce, a descendant of African slaves. And his ability to write very simply gets me every time. We’re all “outliers” – all exceptional in our own unique way. We first have to believe that and act on that — statistics be damned. — Mark Wright


Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri (2008)

As the daughter of immigrants, this collection of short stories means so much to me. Especially as the dialogue around the immigrant experience in America can be aggravatingly simplistic. Today’s stereotypes are either malicious (those dangerous “illegal” Latinos here to steal your jobs, and those even more dangerous Muslims here to cause terror) or naive (the hardworking Asian with impeccable character who goes against the odds to achieve the American dream). The experience of the majority of Asian immigrants is not that elementary, and Jhumpa Lahiri’s characters are fully human. She reveals their pain, their desires, their flaws, and their dreams — even those that may never go fulfilled. And on a personal level, this collection taught me that it’s OK, normal even, to have a flawed family history, one that contains disappointments and shame. You don’t have to try to configure your family story to (the myth of) the American Dream. To step out and take a risk by bringing your fragile hopes to a new land, to unaccustomed earth, even if you meet disappointment, is beautiful nonetheless. — Lois Nam


The Known World by Edward P. Jones (2009)

This novel is vital at this moment because it forces black folks to confront preconceived notions about ourselves. Few of us want to grapple with the complexity and complicity of the black experience, even though true understanding of ourselves is the way forward. Jones’ masterpiece, in which “characters survive by negotiating mazes of moral contradiction, but … speak with a raw and lyrical bluntness,” will make you think differently — plus it’s simply a gripping tale. — Jessie Washington


The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore (2011)

Destiny is determined by big and small moments in everyone’s life. This book demonstrates how two boys — both named Wes Moore, and born blocks apart — turn out to have seemingly polar opposite lives: one ends up in prison, and the other becomes a Rhodes scholar. Set in the Bronx, and in Baltimore, fathers are absent, and while Moore creates “touching portraits of both mothers” who want good things for their sons, “those dreams don’t necessarily matter in the face of the life of the streets.” This is a story of a generation of boys trying to find their way in a hostile world. — John X. Miller


Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness?: What It Means to be Black Now by Touré (2011)

Growing up in the shadow of Chris Rock’s infamous 1996 “Black people vs. Niggaz” stand-up routine, this book introduced to me to the idea, at the age of 22, that there are millions of ways to be black in this world. Who’s Afraid illustrates the many ways one can navigate society in one’s black skin. As Touré’s text states, to be “post-Black” — which is not to be confused with postracial — is to be “rooted in but not restricted by” one’s race. I can be me and be black at the same time. There are no limitations. In the current political climate, we can lose track of who we are and how far we’ve come. We can “fight” like our ancestors did for centuries but also build our own paths toward freedom in America. “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it,” for sure, but postblackness also gives blacks the latitude to take that historical context and apply it in an ever-changing world — however they see fit. The Black Lives Matter movement, for example, can take cues from the civil rights movement, but it’s on this generation of activists to chart their own way. — Martenzie Johnson


Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo (2012)

In a complicated world that many of us make sense of by clinging to rigid narratives, this carefully reported and beautifully written book offers a vivid reminder that nuance is everything. Set in the unspeakable squalor of a marshy slum in the shadows of Mumbai’s gleaming Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport, Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers offers an intimate view of the lives of the people who live there. Children are bitten by rats and balded by worms. Others forage through garbage for scrap metal, or study desperately for a shot at university. None of this feels voyeuristic as this unforgettable book uses real lives, not government statistics or think tank generalizations, to raise big questions about the perils of extreme inequality, globalization and human nature itself. Boo is a celebrated journalist known for her on-the-ground reporting about the most unfortunate among us. She could never receive enough credit for that. — Michael A. Fletcher


Earl the Pearl: My Story by Earl Monroe with Quincy Troupe (2013)

Sometimes the best plan is no plan at all. It’s all about letting it all just flow. This is true whether you’re playing the game of basketball or looking forward to the next chapter of your life. Sometimes you have to take a play from the legend Earl Monroe — and improvise. And while what Monroe did on the court was dazzling, his perspective on life is even more so, and My Story features life advice from the timeless basketball legend. Monroe once said, “I don’t know what I’m going to do with the ball, and if I don’t know, I’m quite sure the guy guarding me doesn’t know either.” The same is true for life. During these times when it’s difficult to know your next move, the key is exactly that: to move. Monroe’s life, from growing up in a tough South Philadelphia neighborhood, to his career at Winston-Salem State, all the way through his days as a key player of the legendary 1972-73 New York Knicks championship team, Monroe’s life is nothing but inspiration. His advice and perspective transcends the game — a perfect book for right now. — Trudy Joseph


The Sellout by Paul Beatty (2016)

More people should read this satirical novel because it’s an unusual, adept, and comedic autopsy of an undead American fixture, Racism. Brimming with black colloquialisms, hip-hop allusions, and street-corner humor, this book was awarded the U.K.’s prestigious Man Booker Prize for Fiction — the first time ever for an American. The book begins with the protagonist, Bonbon, a black man, being admonished by a black Supreme Court Justice: “N—–, are you crazy?” On trial for reinstituting slavery and segregation, Bonbon pleas “human,” which to him means guilty and innocent — and neither. The book doesn’t attempt to make broad racial commentary, but instead presents elements of America’s racial history (and present) from a one-of-a-kind perspective. No matter where you reside on the spectrum of “wokeness” — from Stacey Dash to Solange, this book will make you see race from a new angle. — Domonique Foxworth


Know the Mother by Desiree Cooper (2016)

Desiree Cooper writes about the interior lives of mothers with knowingness, tenderness and power. The Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist, Detroit community activist, and former attorney, is a master of flash fiction. Each of the 33 short-short stories in her debut collection is a revelation across generations. She writes about black mothers in the fullness of who we are, how we live and grieve, our fears and our longings. We are widows with three young sons on a mule ride down a canyon wall. We are mothers caring for our mothers. We are raising children in the segregated South. This book is a welcome reprieve from the typical whitebread “momoir.” If those books are chardonnay, Know the Mother is bourbon. The collection fills voids by tallying the cost of motherhood, by counting the losses — of self, of adventure, of freedom — without tying on the obligatory ribbon of “ … but it’s all worth it!” For some mothers, that ribbon chokes. Instead, Cooper’s stories invite you to sit with these mothers and feel, as one character does, what it’s like “to be touched without desire or demand.” — Deesha Philyaw


Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (2016)

In this debut novel, Yaa Gyasi masterfully interlaces parallel histories. Homegoing follows the descendants of two half-sisters born to different Ghanaian tribes during the transatlantic slave trade. The estranged young women live very different lives — one sister marries a British governor of the Cape Coast Castle, and the other — captured by raiders and sold to the British — is locked in the dungeons below, soon boarding a ship to America and slavery. Each chapter tells the story of the next generation — and each story has its own heartbreaks and triumphs. From Ghanaian wars over the slave trade to the prison labor system in America, this book moves seamlessly from generation to generation. Homegoing is empowering, uplifting and inspiring, moving me to wonder: Where do I came from? Regardless of where my roots are, this book makes me feel I’m getting closer to home. — Brittany Grant

This Emile Griffith jazz opera strives to understand boxing and masculinity Terence Blanchard asks, ‘What makes a man, a man?’ in ‘Champion’

The use of massive projection screens is one of the most remarkable things about Champion composer Terence Blanchard‘s opera about the life of boxer Emile Griffith, which debuted recently at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

The screens, which flank either side of the stage, do more than provide a bridge into the world of film, where Blanchard has found a home crafting the sonic atmospheres of many of Spike Lee’s movies. And they don’t just help to establish Champion, with its heavy jazz influences, as a contemporary opera — a rarity when traditional operagoing audiences want and expect Verdi and Puccini and Mozart. No, the screens in Champion are central because they help the audience, who may not be familiar with Griffith’s story, understand how media not only shaped Griffith’s own story, but our understanding of it.


The opera tells the story of Griffith, a former welterweight and middleweight world champion from the U.S. Virgin Islands who gained notoriety in 1962 after his blows put an opponent, Benny Paret, in a coma. Paret died in the hospital 10 days later from his injuries. Underscoring the tragedy was the fact that Paret had taunted Griffith, who was gay, with anti-gay slurs. “Hey, maricón,” Paret apparently said it in a “cooing lisp” at a weigh-in before the two met in their third fight. “I’m gonna get you and your husband.” Maricón translates roughly to an anti-gay slur.

And because this took place in the days when boxing was still broadcast on network television in prime time, Paret’s fatal fall, after a savage round, was broadcast live into living rooms across the country. The fight, and Paret’s subsequent death, haunted Griffith for the remainder of his life.

The production originated with the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis in 2013, which commissioned it from Blanchard, a three-time Grammy Award-winning jazz trumpeter. With his first opera in the can, Blanchard is now working on his second, an adaptation of Charles Blow’s memoir Fire Shut Up In My Bones, which will likely debut in 2019.

Victor Ryan Robertson as Benny Paret and Aubrey Allicock as young Emile Griffith in ‘Champion.’ In front of the bed: Arthur Woodley as the elderly Griffith.

Scott Suchman for Washington National Opera

The violence of Griffith’s story — “Paret’s head rocked on a neck that looked like a broken plinth” — presented a question: How would it be depicted onstage, in a way that would give audiences an understanding of Griffith’s complex talents as a boxer, with his incredible left jab and quick-moving hands? Griffith was said to have landed 17 punches in seven seconds in his fight with Paret.

The screens in Champion help the audience understand how media not only shaped Griffith’s story, but our understanding of it.

Choreographer Seán Curran (Stomp, L’Etoile, Alcina) chose to slow things down in the pivotal fight of Griffith’s life. Onstage, the two men playing Griffith (Aubrey Allicock) and Paret (Victor Ryan Robinson) are isolated in spotlights, surrounded by a sea of red. The punches are drawn out so that the fight looks more like a dance, with the actors bending their bodies, Matrix-style, in response to each blow. The flashes of white light that capture the blows echo the flashes of photographers who documented the fight. You needn’t see the literal depiction of the violence in the ring, because, on either side of them, the screens flanking the stage show the real-life grisly imagery of Paret sliding down the ropes and out of consciousness.

By incorporating the actual footage of Paret, Champion underscores the role television and newspapers had in framing our understanding of what happened. The knockout Paret experienced on live television was responsible for boxing’s subsequent disappearance from TV and as a gathering place in popular culture. That even now fight night is still so often relegated to pay-per-view and premium cable is part of the legacy of the Paret-Griffith fight.

Andre McLaughlin and Aubrey Allicock in an encounter in ‘Champion.’

Scott Suchman for Washington National Opera

But the discrepancy between the fight occurring onstage and the imagery framing it serves another purpose as well: depicting the art and the beauty so many boxing fans see in the sport, even as the fatal violence of the fight became a political football in the aftermath. “I’ve been such a big fan of boxing and, to me, it’s one of the most misunderstood sports on the planet,” Blanchard said. “We try to have some elements [showing] the rigorous workout that goes into it, the science behind it. It’s not just guys up there whaling on each other and throwing their hands around and beating on each other. It’s not that. It’s really a scientific dance.”


Media didn’t just influence how Americans saw the Paret-Griffith fight. It determined how they perceived Griffith’s masculinity, and Paret’s taunting, as well. At the time, homosexuality was still so taboo that The New York Times dared not speak its name. In the 2005 documentary, Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story, journalist Pete Hamill described his colleague Howard M. Tuckner as “furious” when The New York Times copy desk changed the word “homosexual” to “unman” in Tuckner’s story about the weigh-in standoff.

Griffith is played by three actors. (That fact, along with Champion’s themes of homosexuality and black masculinity, are certain to attract rudimentary comparisons to recent Academy Award best picture winner Moonlight.) Arthur Woodcock portrays a hobbled, hunched-over, elderly Griffith, near the end of his life, whose brain is so addled by dementia that he doesn’t remember putting one of his shoes in the refrigerator. The story unfolds as a series of flashbacks from Griffith’s life, with Allicock playing Griffith as a young man and Samuel Grace playing Griffith as a boy growing up in the Virgin Islands. With his bell-like vocals, Grace exhibits a stunning vulnerability in his turn as Little Emile. It becomes clear that the adults around him realize Griffith is “different” when his surrogate mother, Cousin Blanche (Leah Hawkins), forces him to hold a cinder block above his head for hours because, Little Emile sings, “She say I have the devil deep inside of me.”

The knockout Paret experienced on live television was responsible for boxing’s subsequent disappearance from TV and as a gathering place in popular culture.

Through Curran’s choreography, Champion portrays Griffith as a figure who was repeatedly goaded into displays of aggression, which at the time were conflated with masculinity. When he first meets his manager, Howie Albert (Wayne Tigges), Griffith is a fairly subdued man, new to New York City, who wants to make hats. But Albert pushes Griffith’s buttons, hoping to unleash his “killer instinct” lurking within, and Griffith sends Albert careening to the floor.

“Throughout all of Emile’s journey — of course he got a lot of accolades and all of the great things that he deserved — he’s kind of just the pawn in the bigger structure of what this field was, or continues to be,” said Champion fight master Joe Isenberg. “And, he’s pushed to kill this guy. Of course, not intentionally, but it’s a part of this journey that he didn’t really intend to fall into, and then he continues a whole life of regret … dealing with that situation.”

Further complicating Griffith’s inner conflict is his tortured relationship with his birth mother, Emelda (Denyce Graves), who left him and his six brothers and sisters sprinkled among various caretakers in the Virgin Islands. When Griffith journeys to New York as an adult, his mother Emelda mistakes him for his brother, Frankie. While Griffith’s story is portrayed as an epic tragedy, Emelda is a tragic figure in her own right and in Champion, her relationship with Griffith is forever tainted by the fact that she left him.

“I know I’m not the mommy you want, but I’m all the mommy you got,” Emelda tells her son, who is still trying to outrun the specter of Paret’s death even after his success in the boxing ring climbs to greater and greater heights.

“You’re nobody’s mommy,” Griffith tells her, practically spitting the words in contempt. “You’re just a money-loving whore with a s–tload of children.”

Denyce Graves as Emelda Griffith in ‘Champion.’

Scott Suchman for Washington National Opera

Blanchard fills in Emelda’s story with two arias that provide some explanation for Emelda’s decision to leave her children, and the complicated feelings she has about it. And while Verdi and Puccini seemed to take an almost sadistic pleasure in pushing singers to the brink of their capabilities with vertiginous, superhuman upper-register runs, Blanchard brings forth revelations in plumbing the low end of the scale in Emelda’s second aria, allowing Graves to show off her range.

“She’s like Muhammad Ali,” Blanchard said of Graves. “You don’t want to teach your kid to box by watching Muhammad Ali, ’cause he always kept his hands down. She’s like that. She breaks all the rules. Her low register is impeccable. It’s amazing to listen to her sing.” There’s also a moment in Champion after Griffith defeats Paret and he’s standing over his opponent, both arms raised, seemingly not unlike the famed photograph of Ali standing in victory over Joe Frazier.

But alone, the triumphant pose belies what’s really taking place. In that moment, Griffith isn’t just a winner. He’s the little boy who grew up in the Virgin Islands, holding a cinder block over his head at the behest of Cousin Blanche. He’s the man Blanche and Albert goaded him into being, and what of it? His rival is conquered, defeated, dead. But so is part of Griffith. And the devil he’s been trying to shake still clings.

“What makes a man a man?” a forlorn Griffith asks of himself. “Who is this man who calls himself me?” Even by the end of the opera, it’s not clear that Griffith really knows.

Daily Dose: 3/6/17 Floyd Mayweather Jr. has enemies across the pond

The radio keeps calling, so we keep answering. On Sunday, The Morning Roast got off as usual, and this morning, we filled in for The Dan Le Batard Show. Here’s Sunday. Here’s today. People hated us, which is a good thing.

This travel ban refuses to go away. The White House has retooled this effort as a way to tear apart families under the guise of keeping people safe. Still not sure I understand that logic considering that most of the threats to the people of this nation very much come from inside our own borders, but whatever. In the new deal, Iraq is cut out from the other nations that will trigger scrutiny from TSA, but fundamentally, the idea is still there. Meanwhile, immigrants are being shot left and right for reasons we don’t know.

So, recently we found some new planets. Like, for real, they located a bunch of new places that might actually be habitable to humans, some 40 light years away. If I’m being honest, I don’t really understand space. I don’t particularly get how we can legitimately send people to other planets, like, say, Mars. And once I start contemplating what the concept of it is, I get really nervous thinking about the gravity of what is the great beyond. Check out this creepy story about what will happen to us if we actually get to Mars.

Finally, we’re coming to an end. The season finale of The Bachelor is tonight, and it couldn’t be coming a minute sooner. Nick Viall got rid of Corinne, which means she got as far as she needed to in order to get famous, but also didn’t have to deal with the awkwardness of the fantasy suite. Now, we’re looking at either Raven or Vanessa, since, although she’s still on the show, we know that Rachel is The Bachelorette. There’s also that small matter of Raven’s sex life. Should be fun, plus the women tell all.

There are some easy ways to know when someone doesn’t like you. No. 1 on the list is when the person says, ‘I don’t like you.’ No. 2 is when the person does something wildly disrespectful to you, and shows little to no remorse even after he or she knows your feelings have been hurt. Then, there’s the third level, which involves going to lengths to destroy one’s personal items as a way to send a message, a la Angela Bassett in Waiting To Exhale. Someone set Floyd Mayweather Jr.’s car on fire in England, which is pretty dang terrifying.

Free Food

Coffee Break: Banksy is known for his elaborate pranks and political demonstrations in the form of art, but this latest one on the West Bank in Bethlehem, Palestine, is really something. It’s a hotel that boasts the worst view in the world, which is really quite depressing on multiple levels.

Snack Time: We literally have zero idea of what Michael Jordan is talking about here, but anytime you say something this ridiculous, we’re going to laugh. Sorry, MJ.

Dessert: If you still haven’t seen Get Out, go do it. Hopefully your experience won’t be as bad as this one.

Artist Shanequa Gay brings inspiring black experiences to canvas in new exhibition ‘Fair Is Foul and Foul Ain’t Fair’ opens at Wofford College in honor of Women’s History Month

The plight of black women and black men in society has again been captured on canvas in a new, slick and inspiring way. Inspired by tragedy but translated into color art form, Atlanta-based artist Shanequa Gay’s latest work, Fair Is Foul and Foul Ain’t Fair, is on display at Wofford College in celebration of Women’s History Month and Black History Month.

It was the death of Trayvon Martin and other black men and the violence in Chicago lit a flame in Gay. Her work sparks conversation about healing from issues affecting communities of color including police brutality, gang and prison culture, lack of educational opportunity, and feelings of self-hatred that have arisen in the black community.

According to a news release, the exhibition speaks to the contemporary social and racial climate. It was inspired by a novel by Bill Harris as well as Greek and African mythologies.

“I wanted to dig deep into the feelings of despair and despondency that some within the black community have concerning their plight of poverty and ethnicity,” Gay said.

According to Gay’s website, she “has drawn praise and critical acclaim for her depictions of southern life and black women.” Her work was featured in the 2014 Lions Gate film Addicted, the television series Being Mary Jane, the BET series Zoe and the OWN series Greenleaf. She was chosen by The Congressional Club to be the illustrator for the 2013 First Lady’s Luncheon hostess gift. First lady Michelle Obama and more than 1,800 attendees received the gift.

Gay’s exhibit will be on display through April 7 in the Martha Cloud Chapman Gallery in the Campus Life Building on Wofford College’s campus. Viewing is free and open to the public.

“The work is pulled from news clippings, media and developed from my own macrocosms,” Gay said, according to Wofford College, which is located in South Carolina. “My focus as of late has been to tell street mythologies in order to speak of the issues happening in the black community as if it were a tale of folklore.”

Gay’s pieces are clean and meant to be similar to sales advertisements. She uses “wood panels, acrylic, Flashe vinyl paints and oil paints,” to create the crisp look. She said her goal is to show “the plight of the black community and issues that often are ignored by the rest of society.”

“I am speaking to a global public, as these systemic issues do not just plague America. It is an epidemic around the world wherever low-income people reside,” Gay said. “I want to draw in the viewer with the familiar, to shock and cause them to come to a moral agreement that these issues affect us all.”

Gay is a graduate of the Savannah College of Art and Design and currently is a graduate student at Georgia State University. Her current work, The Fair Game Project, is art as advocacy that challenges the unyielding violence and injustices committed in America and across the globe against the black body.

OITNB’s Lorraine Toussaint likes vampires, cricket and following the magic The actress talks about what makes her tick — and what ticks her off

Lorraine Toussaint’s laugh is a hearty, island-inflected, melodious sound that fills a room out. Her laugh is distinct — and so is her voice. Especially when she gets serious. And when she’s talking about politics — today’s American politics — she’s nothing if not serious.

Since the early ’80s, Toussaint continues to not-so-quietly rule the screens. Her ruthless 2014 portrayal of Vee in Netflix’s hit Orange Is the New Black still haunts us. And she’s currently playing the mother of Morris Chestnut’s character on Fox’s Rosewood. Here, Toussaint talks about trashy novels, her love of Twitter and much more.

What is your social media tribe? Are you on Twitter? Facebook/Instagram?

I’m on Twitter. I’m not on Facebook … yes [both laugh] I have some Facebook pages, but I don’t actually control them. I do have control over my Twitter feed.

What is it about Twitter?

I’m new to Twitter. There’s just something extraordinary about the immediacy of it. And, um, the discipline of it that I rather like. I do need more characters. I don’t actually have enough time to actually spend to write anything too long.

We really are being forced to reach across the aisle. That’s going to be really exciting. I think Donald’s going to bring out the best in us.

What are you reading right now?

I have it on my phone! I’m reading The Black Dagger Brotherhood. It’s so trashy, I’m almost embarrassed to say. It’s total escapism, and it’s my favorite genre, which is fantasy. I’m a sci-fi, fantasy, horror girl. But this particular series is total escapism. Oh, God, it’s vampires.

Where do you get your news?

I do MSNBC, I do CNN, I do some New York Times, Los Angeles Times. But, you know, if I’m looking for something specifically, I’ll do HuffPost. I still like hard copies of things. I actually like to turn pages occasionally.

What are you looking forward to in 2017?

I’m looking forward to waking up from the nightmare of this administration, and you know, that maybe it’s just a bad dream? And we are not where we are? But I don’t think that’s going to happen. I am actually looking forward to the way this country’s coming together. As difficult as this administration is to accept, and the day-to-day challenges of wondering where we’re going, and how we’re going to get there, I think that at the end of the day, Mr. Trump may … force us out of the kind of national apathy that we have had the luxury of snoozing in. Because we can’t do this anymore. It will force us to rise to our greatest potential as a nation, and as a people. We’re going to start to see people coming together in ways that will exponentially begin to address issues that have been unaddressed thus far. We really have to get together or die. And I think it’s probably going to take that threat to get us off our asses.

Along those same lines, who or what is inspiring you right now?

The ordinary man, the ordinary woman is inspiring me. I felt encouragement when [former President Barack] Obama came into our space because I watched how ordinary people — normal people, with $5, $10 — started coming together, because we cared. I think women are inspiring me. There’s a new women’s movement on the rise, that I think may be a game changer, because if and when women can really come together, we have the ability to bring about change in a way no one else can. The division of left and right, and red and blue — those extremes — I’m watching politics change. I’m watching the ways in which we interpret the Constitution, the way in which we behave … we really are being forced to reach across the aisle. That’s going to be really exciting. I think Donald [Trump] is going to bring out the best in us.

Where does your courage come from?

I’m very comfortable in my own skin. I am not afraid anymore, of making mistakes. And I think that life is very short, so I might as well get on with it. That’s my definition of courage: Not being afraid, but doing it afraid. Brave usually just means stepping out from the crowd, and maybe going the opposite way, and maybe standing alone in opinion, or making a stand for something, or voicing their opinion about something.

I like cricket, but who’s got time for cricket!? A cricket match will last you six days. Those cricket folks down in the islands — you want to talk about fanatical?

What was the last TV show that you binge-watched?

I have been known to save up Scandal so that I can just binge-watch them. I want to binge-watch Luke Cage, I just haven’t found the free day or two. Because, Lord have mercy, I have heard that once I start it, I won’t be able to stop.

What is your favorite throwback TV show?

I love I Love Lucy. I started watching that again with my daughter. She is amazing. And, you know, I have a 12-year-old. She thinks she’s just discovered I Love Lucy.

You’re Trinidadian; I want to talk about cricket!

I like cricket, but who’s got time for cricket!? A cricket match will last you six days. Those cricket folks down in the islands — you want to talk about fanatical? Oh, my God. The whole country shuts down.

What’s the best piece of advice that you’ve ever received? And what’s the best piece of advice that you’ve ever given?

There are two actually. One was from an acting teacher when I was in high school. Back then, at a high school for performing arts, the policy was that if you left school to do a show, you couldn’t come back to the program. You couldn’t finish out. And in my third year, I got this fabulous Broadway show, and I was so torn because I wanted to do it. And my acting teacher at the time, the head of the program, said to me, ‘Lorraine, if they want you now, they’ll want you more later. Finish your training.’ And as hard as it was, I gave up that Broadway show and I finished my training. It was the best piece of advice he gave me. And my grandmother, she had a saying, ‘What is for you, cannot be un-for you.’ I have that in my head often. ‘What is for you, cannot be un-for you.’ And the best advice I’ve ever given is, I have a phrase that I created, which is, ‘Forget the logic, follow the magic.’

Democratic education activist Shavar Jeffries is pushing for people of color to take leadership roles He was shaped by family tragedy and a grandmother who valued school

After an unsuccessful run for mayor of Newark, New Jersey, in 2014, 42-year-old civil rights attorney-turned-community activist Shavar Jeffries decided to shift his focus to areas dear to his heart — education and community activism.

Motivated by personal tragedy and his own climb up the educational ladder, Jeffries is now president of Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), where he’s been since September 2015. He spends his time working for the rights of school-age children and those in politics willing to advocate for them.

Jeffries’ mission has its origins in the murder of his mother when he was 10 years old. Donna Johnson was killed in Los Angeles by her husband. Jeffries was raised in the home of his grandmother, a public school teacher, in Newark’s South Ward. While in her care, Jeffries developed a deep respect for the value of education.

He earned scholarships to Seton Hall Preparatory School, Duke University, and Columbia Law School. Following his graduation from law school, he moved back to Newark with the firm belief that “his path to success — through high-quality education — should not be the outlier for students in Newark, but rather the rule.”

According to its website, DFER’s mission is to make the Democratic Party the champion of high-quality public education. The group has started two new initiatives to help address educational disparities: the Leaders of Color Initiative and the Next Generation of Leaders.

“We want to develop, cultivate, sponsor the next generation of leaders of color to run for office,” Jeffries said. “We realize we need many more leaders of color, many more women of color, many more men of color involved in political and policy-making leadership. And we’re not going to see people of color involved at the level we would like to see if we don’t bring the resource and support to them.”

Jeffries’ mayoral campaign attracted national attention. He made improving Newark’s schools a cornerstone of his campaign and got more than 46 percent of the vote, a historic number for a first-time Newark municipal candidate.

Jeffries talked recently with The Undefeated about his childhood struggles, domestic violence, his inspiration, what’s needed in the world of education reform, sports and his future.

Why did you go to law school?

My mother was a teenager when she gave birth to me and she really wasn’t ready to raise me. I lived with different relatives until I was about 8. I went to go live with her and we had a broken lock and it’s amazing how fate can affect the whole course of your life. She found a locksmith in the Yellow Pages. The locksmith and my mom entered into a relationship. And a few months after that, it became an abusive relationship. It got so bad that we had to flee and we stayed in the shelter for a while. But he still knew where my mom worked and on Nov. 25, 1985, this locksmith showed up where my mom worked and he shot and killed my mom in the workplace.

That experience really shaped me on a lot of different levels. What really was problematic for me was my mom would go to the cops repeatedly, she would get multiple restraining orders against him. He’d get bailed out; he’d come back out. We got to the point where we just had no help. The law wasn’t helping us, the police weren’t helping us, we were on the run trying to get away from this person, and it just became clear to me that the law ought to be able to do better than that.

After her death, I came back to Newark. When I came back home, I saw great disparities in terms of a whole variety of different things. So between what I saw with my mom and then the kind of great disparity, it was an opportunity when I got the scholarship to go to this suburban high school, to me I was really inspired to become a civil rights attorney to try to bring equity to my community.

Why did you make the transition from being a civil rights attorney into education reform?

I received a civil rights fellowship to work at a law firm in New Jersey where I would do civil rights and public interest work. And when I was coming back, a lot of the cases were education cases. I always felt that educational opportunity was the foundation for everything. My life was turned around by that and I knew if it could happen for me, and I’m just some little kid from the ‘hood, that it could happen for everybody. I got involved in this work through my experience in Newark, where too much of the politics oftentimes got in the way of what was right for kids. I really wanted to get involved more in the policy-making world.

What problems need to be solved right now in education?

One, throughout the country, we have to make sure that school districts have the resources that are necessary to educate kids at a high level. We have some states and we have some individual school districts, particularly districts serving low-income kids and kids of color and kids who speak English as a second language, that oftentimes are underfunded.

Then we’ve gotta make sure we have globally aligned standards of accountability. We’ve got to make sure kids graduate who are actually ready to go in terms of colleges and careers that will be available for them in the 21st century economy.

And finally, we have too many colleges and university that just aren’t accepting adequate numbers of low-income kids, adequate numbers of children of color. And then aren’t providing the support that student needs in order to be able to graduate on time.

Which aspects of education are the hardest to reform?

I would say, particularly for our low-income children who are not only our kids of color but also some of these white kids in some of these rural poor neighborhoods, I think the hardest piece are the whole range of issues that impact each individual child’s availability for learning when they walk into the classroom.

So for example: When I was a kid, I told you, I lost my mom. Then after that, after I lost my mom I came back to Newark and my father popped up. He hadn’t been around much before then. I was with him maybe six months and came home one day and he literally was just gone and I would never see him again. At that time, I was 11. My father left around March/April of 1986. We have young people in cities and in rural areas dealing with all types of variations of those types of challenges and I was probably a zombie for a while just going into classrooms. But making sure that kids are living in strong families, communities. That all deals with some of these social safety net issues, these issues around the labor market, these issues around health care and decent housing and public health as well. So I think those are the harder parts, because within the school building you can control a whole lot more than the families and communities these kids are released into. I think those areas are much more challenging.

What’s been the hardest part of your journey?

Losing my mom. No question about that, that was definitely the hardest part. Losing my mom, not having my mom. I was very blessed to have a grandmother and a grandfather who were heroes of mine and who really stepped in and they took care of me, they took care of my little sister, and I can’t imagine where I’d be without them. But at the same time, there’s nothing like your mom, there’s nothing like your dad and not having him was a problem, too. So definitely losing my mom is something that was absolutely the hardest thing. It’s something that even at 42 years old, this was over 30 years ago, that you still wrestle with.

Is that why you’re so passionate about advocating for children and education reform?

I think so. My mom was very much about serving other people. Part of my passion there is absolutely connected to that and trying to embody her spirit of leaving the world better than you found it. And my mom was very bullish on me. She would say to me all the time, ‘You’re going to change the world. The world has never seen what you’re about to bring.’ So even as a kid … I was like, ‘What are you talking about, I’m just trying to watch Bubble Tron right now’ or Bugs Bunny or whatever I was watching.

What would be your dream job outside of law, politics, and education reform?

If I didn’t have these bad knees, maybe to be an All-Star NBA player.

Did you play in high school?

I did, I played in high school. I played baseball primarily because my grandma at the time wanted me to pick a sport. I played both baseball and basketball and she wanted me to pick one. So I picked the baseball, even though in retrospect I wish I’d have picked basketball ’cause I really love the game and my jumper still remains nice. Better not leave me open right now, I’ll still knock ’em down.

NBA teams? Who do you root for?

Unfortunately, I’m a big Knicks fan and to me it’s just an embarrassment what’s going on with my, with our team right now but I’ve been a Knicks fan for 35 years and … It’s just a life of consistent disappointment.

Who’s your favorite hip-hop artist? Dead, alive, old, new.

Nas, he’s actually my favorite of all time. I don’t know how far you go back, but his verse on the “verbal intercourse” track on the Raekwon Cuban Linx album from 1994. I think that’s one of the great pieces of literature of modern times.

Where do you see yourself in the next five years?

I know I see myself serving our community in an impactful way. But five years ago I would have never said I would be president of Democrats for Education Reform at all. I would have never thought about that. And five years ago, I was just finishing working as a counselor to the attorney general for [former New Jersey] Gov. [Jon] Corzine and five years before that I would have never thought I would have done that, so I don’t know. But I know I’ll be serving our community in some way that hopefully has a significant impact.

Elise Neal dreams of being Liam Neeson — and loves the Grizzlies Plus she’s into Lena Horne and has a passion for fitness

Just one year ago, actress and dancer Elise Neal reached a milestone. She turned 50 — and took the internet by storm by posting bikini photos to her Instagram page. She attributes her toned body to a relentless fitness routine, and this year she’s sharing her secrets via her Elite Body Boot Camp that kicked off in Houston over the Super Bowl weekend.

A Memphis, Tennessee, native, Neal has a catalog of work that includes 2005’s Hustle & Flow, as well as TV One’s reality show Hollywood Divas. She recently starred in No Regrets, which premiered on Urban Movie Channel in February. Now she’s playing the role of Kathryn Munson in the latest Marvel movie, Logan — featuring, of course, Hugh Jackman as Wolverine.

Her favorite throwback show is A Different World and her go-to things to read are scripts — something she’s written or something she’s studying.

What are you reading?

I’m so not a reader. I do not read anything other than a whole lot of scripts. In terms of my career, I’m writing now, so I’m rewriting and writing and reading a lot of my own projects. I am 100 percent clear and focused that I will create and produce something that everyone will see by the end of this year.

What are the go-to inspirational songs on your playlist?

I like a lot of hip-hop. I need a lot of beats and energy. Turn the music up. I do that to get ready. I like that energy. I need it to be loud. If it’s a lot of music and beats, honey, it’s going to push me out the door. It’s going to really give me the energy I need for the day.

My mission is to make sure that women of all ages feel better and look better, and be their best selves.

Is there something in your acting career that you haven’t done that you’d like to do?

Everything I see Liam Neeson do, anything in those Taken movies, if I could do the female version of that for myself, I would love that. That would be fun.

If you could play a famous person in a movie, dead or alive, who would that person be?

That’s a great question. Lena Horne. Someone who was glamorous and really made a change and really had to struggle.

What are you looking forward to most this year?

I’m excited about Logan and getting everyone to see that project. That’s going to be fun. Almost every day someone is asking me about fitness. I think a lot of women don’t understand that [fitness] is not simple but it is something that you can add into your life. My mission is to make sure that women of all ages feel better and look better, and be their best selves.

Where does your courage come from?

I think it comes from my mom and I think it comes from my older sister. My mom was a nurse and then decided to go back to school so that she could teach nursing. So I [grew] up seeing all that. My older sister decided to move away from Memphis and went [into] finance and I was able to see all that growth. I feel like we’re all strong women in my family and it got passed on to me.

What will you always be a champion of?

I’m always a champion of being yourself. I’m a champion of definitely being who you want to be.

What is your favorite social media hangout spot?

My Instagram page. I like it because I can give all the things I want to share. If I want to do workout videos, if I want to do any type of silly posts, if I want to show people what’s going on, I feel like I can give them all of that on my Instagram.

What’s your favorite throwback TV show?

I used to love A Different World. And I used to watch the show, because I was in musical theater and dancing, [and] I remember Debbie Allen used to be on there a lot. I liked to check her out. But I also liked the fact that it was just a little different, and it was about a college experience. A Different World was very cool.

How does it feel to be a triple threat in the industry?

It keeps me sane. It keeps me from being stagnant. I don’t like being put in a box. So it allows all of my creative juices to flow. I’m dancing, I’m singing, I’m acting, I’m silly. I like all of those things.

Anybody from the Memphis Grizzlies team, I’m down with.

Who is your favorite athlete?

Anybody from the Memphis Grizzlies team, I’m down with. I love them. They’re doing really good this season.

Which do you enjoy more: reality TV or scripted television?

I like both. I was just talking to somebody about this. My favorite reality show is The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. It’s just inspirational, let’s just keep it real. Those women are balling out. They have amazing homes, they have amazing careers, and they’re really kind of untouchable.

What can you tell me about your role in Logan?

I enjoyed it so much. When you’re doing something of this scale, just to be a part of it, is — when I got the call that I got the job. I mean I literally did cry. I’m from Memphis, my journey started as a musical theater girl and being a dancer. And to be able to go to set and work with Hugh Jackman, who is huge in the musical theater community, I literally tap-danced over to him when I met him for the first time. He got a chuckle out of that.

How Jay Z and an ‘Orange Is The New Black’ actor brought Kalief Browder’s story to the screen A new documentary series reveals the rot and ruin running through NYC’s Rikers Island jail

If you’re familiar with Nick Sandow’s work, you probably know him as Joe Caputo, the bumbling, put-upon, overworked and oft-reviled prison warden of Orange is the New Black’s Litchfield prison. Inspired in part by his work on OITNB, Sandow is an executive producer of Time: The Kalief Browder Story, Spike’s new six-part documentary series from director Jenner Furst, which also boasts Jay Z as a producer.

Writer Jennifer Gonnerman first revealed the horrors of the last years of Kalief Browder’s life in an October 2014 New Yorker article Before the Law. Browder, an impoverished teenager living in the Bronx, was held for three years in jail at Rikers Island, much of it in solitary confinement, awaiting trial after he was accused of robbery. When he wasn’t in solitary, Browder was subjected to continuous and horrific physical violence in Rikers’ adolescent wing, where guards referred to the juveniles as “animalescents.” That violence, much of it stomach-churning, was captured on the jail’s closed-circuit camera system and is revealed in the Spike series. Time is not just an examination of the circumstances that led to Browder’s three-year imprisonment, but his death by suicide in 2015 at age 22. At the time, Browder was attempting to restart his life as a student at Bronx Community College — while battling depression.

Actor Nick Sandow poses for a portrait to promote the series, "TIME: The Kalief Browder Story", at the Music Lodge during the Sundance Film Festival on Monday, Jan. 23, 2017, in Park City, Utah.

Actor Nick Sandow poses for a portrait to promote the series, “TIME: The Kalief Browder Story”, at the Music Lodge during the Sundance Film Festival on Monday, Jan. 23, 2017, in Park City, Utah.

Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP

Viewers of Ava DuVernay’s 13th documentary will find themselves encountering familiar faces. CNN political commentator Van Jones and The New Jim Crow author Michelle Alexander offer their expertise about the inner workings of the criminal justice system in both. While 13th made a clear argument for how slavery never really went away, one of the most haunting takeaways from Time is the sheer number of impoverished adolescents still languishing on Rikers who never really had a chance.

“If I learned anything making this doc, I learned that we have to realize, which I did not, that we are not working with a broken system,” Sandow said. “We are working with a system that is working superbly, it is doing exactly what it’s designed to do and that is to put poor people, and people of color behind bars. Put them away. And also people who are mentally ill. We have to begin again.

What did you want to accomplish or explore in this series that was absent from Jennifer Gonnerman’s article?

Gonnerman’s article opened up everybody’s eyes to Kalief’s story. I read that article and was devastated, and of course I’m working on this show [Orange is the New Black] that deals with the criminal justice system. So I’m going to work every day thinking about that. I’m from the Bronx, a neighborhood right next to Kalief’s. So when I heard about it, when I heard about his passing, I just was floored. I said, ‘What can we do? How can I do something? How can I help?’ Gonnerman’s story was the beginning of it all. And then we said, ‘OK, how much deeper can we get? How much can we tell? How many hours can we get?’

What about the difference in challenges in working on Orange is the New Black versus working on this documentary?

I wasn’t prepared, or knew anything about the prison system when I first began. The biggest thing about playing Caputo for me, by the end of the season, I’m ready to be done. I love working on the show, and I think it’s incredibly important, and I love who I work with. But by the end — I’m playing someone who’s tragically flawed, and the man can’t get out of his own way. Who, in his heart wants to help people, really does want to help people, but he’s stuck in the middle, and he’s working for people who could care less about the people he’s trying to help. When I heard of Kalief’s passing, I truly was broken down and was like, I am not [Caputo], and I have to do something. Of course it led me to the story. I knew I could make that. I knew how to make that.

I really do believe [OITNB creator Jenji Kohan] and Orange opened people’s eyes to the system. The New Yorker article was amazing, but the New Yorker is also a little bit … preaching to the choir. How many people read the New Yorker? It’s a certain type of person that’s gonna read that article. And I said, ‘Can more people know and hear about Kalief? And how can we do that?’

We have to keep shining the light, keep showing what this system is really doing.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently rescinded an Obama-era policy concerning the federal use of private prisons.

A huge step back. The privatization, to fall back on that. I mean listen, there’s 65, 68, 70 percent recidivism. That’s a good business to get into. Prison stocks went out of the roof. It’s scary, it’s scary. Listen, the climate we’re in now … Guys like Jeff Sessions, they’ve been running the country for a long time, and that’s what got us here. I think that we have to keep shining the light, keep showing what this system is really doing, not doing. We have a president right now who in 1989 took out a full-page ad in the Daily News calling for the execution of five 16-year-old boys, the Central Park Five, and was calling for their execution, and still stands by it today.

One commonality I’ve seen from those who cover criminal justice and the prison system is that prisons are basically just a black hole for information.

Here in New York we have a new administration, and I think they have designs on changing the nature of Rikers Island. They talked to us, and were willing to talk to us about what was the path and what they’re trying to do. We tried to talk to Norm Seabrook, the head of the corrections union. I set up an interview with him in the Bronx. He actually lives not far from where I grew up, and I set up a meeting with him. We were gonna sit down and talk to him, and he walked out. He asked for the questions, we showed him the questions, and he walked out. He said, ‘I’m not gonna answer that stuff.’ It didn’t matter to us. Norman Seabrook has a big mouth and he talked to every form of press he possibly could, so we had plenty of stuff, on how Norman dealt with reforms — or didn’t deal with reforms.

The interviews with the correctional officers juxtaposed with footage from inside Rikers is striking. Did you get the impression that they’re aware that this isn’t working?

I think they’re stuck in a job. You’re talking about people who are not making a lot of money, and they’re ill-equipped for their job and they’re asked to do things that are absolutely impossible to do. Most of them are looking to feed their families, make a living, and have health insurance, and squeak by, and they’re spending 12 hours a day locked in a prison. It’s not an easy task. So, I was surprised too about how much they did want to talk, and how much they did open up. There are some of them who wouldn’t, and I think there is sort of a, with police, there is a wall of silence. But there are also some guys who are defiant and say, ‘Listen, I want to tell my story. I was stuck in this nightmare too.’

It’s just absurd, the bail system, we gotta get rid of that.

One of the arenas that failed Kalief and other minors like him, is a failure to uphold their constitutional rights in terms of due process.

Yes. And the bail system doesn’t work. It just doesn’t work, and it’s absurd to think that one person can get out because he has money, and fight his sentence. It’s just absurd, the bail system, we gotta get rid of that.

Have there been any reforms?

I do think [current New York mayor Bill] de Blasio has been trying to change the nature of Rikers Island. President Obama talked about Kalief in an op-ed, getting rid of solitary confinement for minors. So that’s a big move. You talk to COs about getting rid of solitary confinement and they’re like, ‘Well then, what do we do? There’s no talk of like, OK, let’s back all the way up. Let’s back all the way up and see these boys. They’re boys. We’re talking about kids. Let’s get in people who understand how to work with children. Let’s educate people. Let’s educate guards to teach them how to work with adolescents. How to deal with the adolescent mind, and how can we activate that mind. Realize we’re dealing with human beings.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. Spike’s six-part series, Time: The Kalief Browder Story, premiered March 1 at 10 pm.

The first Black Enterprise BE Smart HBCU Summit’s major themes were tough love, preparation and optimism ‘If you don’t know your history, you don’t know your possibilities’

The old saying goes: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

But according to Ronald C. Parker, president and CEO of the Executive Leadership Council, the opposite is true in the private sector. If something ain’t broke, managers, leaders and bosses are going out of their way to not only break it, but also to turn it on its head, if need be.

While that may seem counterintuitive, Parker explained that if you and your company are not reinventing itself every so often to meet changes in the needs of consumers, then your company will be left behind and leave openings for your competitors.

Parker expressed these sentiments as one of three panelists speaking on the Partners in Driving Student Success panel to open up the inaugural Black Enterprise BE Smart HBCU Summit. His hope is that if he and the other panelists tell the students and audience what really goes on in business, they will know what to expect.

He was joined by Danette Howard, chief strategy officer and senior vice president of the Lumina Foundation, and Jesse J. Tyson, president and CEO of the National Black MBA Association, who doubled down by describing some of the inner workings of the field so they’d have an inside track.

“What are you willing to do to challenge an existing model and have the courage to change and transport it?” Parker asked. “There’s nothing wrong with having so-and-so’s father of so-and-so’s father on your board, but can they bring you financial stability? Can they bring you research dollars? Can they bring you access to corporations that will invest if they see a very sustainable business model? Oh, by the way, since 2008, they are asking for models. If these HBCUs do not have a strategic plan … there are major corporations that are redirecting their funds to other sources, because they don’t see a construct or a disciplined process or even the courage to disrupt this.”

The summit, hosted by Morgan State’s Earl G. Graves School of Business & Management with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, dedicated its first day to speaking broadly, and at times concisely, about historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), business, how to improve the diversity in the private sectors, and more.

Twenty-five percent of African-Americans who graduate from college earn their degrees at an HBCU. Yet there still remains this idea that the work that students at HBCUs are doing isn’t as rigorous, challenging or equal to those students outside of HBCUs.

That perception only changes by speaking to people in positions of power, working with them and bringing them to the schools to see firsthand how good the students are.

Morgan State president David Wilson discussed this before the first session Tuesday, saying his university is the No. 1 school in the nation and state in producing African-American electrical, industrial and civil engineers, and the No. 4 school in the nation in producing African-American engineers overall. North Carolina A&T State University is recognized as the school that produces the most engineers.

Wilson was at the White House on Monday afternoon, along with several other HBCU presidents, as they spoke with President Donald Trump about the future of HBCUs, before Trump issued his executive order on Tuesday afternoon. Earl “Butch” Graves Jr., who kicked things off both days with opening remarks, said it was not a coincidence that the summit closed out Black History Month and coincided with the executive order.

Tyson, who worked as a sharecropper in his youth, began his career after attending Lane College in Jackson, Tennessee, and emphasized the need for folks to use the teachers, leaders and mentors around them to find and take advantage of opportunities. He used an analogy, saying an opportunity doesn’t have to come from the biggest company, either.

He put it this way: “Being the manager at Pepsi Co. means that every decision you make has to be signed off on by the higher-ups before it can be executed … the company is too big. … But if you’re the general manager of Funyuns, then you’re the one making those decisions and gaining that managerial experience.”

Currently, four Fortune 500 CEOs are black. At their peak, 15 African-Americans led Fortune 500 companies. The question became: How do students even get to the point where they’re in positions for those managerial jobs and on track to be a CEO?

Howard discussed how it all starts in school. Having worked as the secretary of higher education under former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, she was a part of the team that analyzed the average number of credits students in Maryland colleges and universities had when graduating with bachelor’s degrees.

Across the board, the number was close to 125, but at Morgan State the average student had 138 credits. What does this mean? Howard asked. Well, it meant that students were taking classes they didn’t necessarily need or held in classes for too long, prolonging their time in school and the amount of money they spent.

On one hand, the students were taking too many credits overall, but on the other hand students were taking an average of 12 credits a semester, which exacerbated the issue, because at the end of four years students were coming up almost 30 credits short of what they possibly needed.

This was something Howard has worked with Morgan State to amend over the years. Another change she wanted to see is HBCUs reaching out and taking the initiative. She described how schools are constantly asking her organization to come to their university and work with their students, but she has had to reach out on several occasions to HBCUs to gauge their interest.

“We have to be careful what we ask for,” Howard said. “With the greater attention I believe will come a great expectation of increased accountability. … In order to move forward, to remain competitive, to remain relevant, we have to do things in a more integrated way.

“Something that surprised me my first year at the institution was that I heard from a lot of institutions who wanted to understand how they could get support from the Lumina Foundation. I did not hear from a single HBCU. I have to proactively go out to HBCUs and say, ‘Are you interested in having conversations about how Lumina might be able to partner?’ We often hear from all sorts of institutions that are thinking about collaboratives and collective innovative ways to meet the talent needs of the nation, so I would invite HBCUs to think about that.”

Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh, a two-time Morgan State graduate, attended the opening remarks of the event before she had to leave for Annapolis. Pugh, the 50th mayor of the city, who was elected to the post almost a year ago, spoke glowingly about how attending an HBCU prepared her for her mayoral run.

 

Historically black colleges and universities, she said, ask a lot of their students and push them to their limits, and when a task presented to an HBCU appears daunting, there are no students better suited to tackle these hurdles.

“What college does, what universities do, is prepare you,” Pugh said. “It’s very apropos that this particular seminar is being held not just here but in Black History Month. I always remind young people, especially today, that we must understand our history and that we must share it with others, because if you don’t know your history, you don’t know your possibilities. I remind us that many of us are descendants from Africa and that we come from queens and kings.

“They didn’t want us in their schools, so we built our own colleges and universities, and so we must uphold the tradition of black colleges and universities in terms of what they meant in our history.”

The event concluded Tuesday with events such as Harvesting Talent for Corporate America’s Future; The HBCU Experience: Millennial Minds Matter; Presidentially Speaking: Strategies for Sustaining Your Institution; Financing Your Education: What HBCU Families Need to Know; and One-on-One: A Conversation with John B. King Jr.

Daily Dose: 3/1/17 President Oprah? It’s not out of the question

The podcast was a fun one Tuesday, with Kelley L. Carter joining us to talk about her time in Hollywood last weekend. We also talked about the Nicki Minaj and Remy Ma beef. You can listen here.

So, President Donald Trump spoke to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night. To be honest, I didn’t watch. But I did watch this morning and the man’s tone was a tad different than usual. Fair enough, but his pleas urging unity were pretty hollow, considering he spent the entirety of his campaign insulting nearly every person in that room. I can’t even imagine what the career politicians must have thought sitting in that room. Anyway, it wasn’t officially a State of the Union address, but it might as well have been. Let’s see what he got right and what wasn’t true.

Speaking of the Oval Office, let’s think about who might be considering a run. Seriously, now that Trump is there, you’ve got to presume that basically any celebrity who has a modicum of political opinion might give it a shot. So, let’s just pick a name out of a hat. Oprah Winfrey? Hmm … that’s actually not a terrible idea. And she recently did an interview with Bloomberg and didn’t exactly rule it out. I can’t even explain how much I want this to happen. Oprah vs. Trump in a presidential campaign? Sign me up.

It’s 80 degrees where I live today. Which means, it feels like summer. You know what’s open during the summer? Swimming pools. You know what kids do at the pool? They run on the deck, they toss each other in the water, they learn to socialize and, occasionally, they actually swim. You know what else they do? Relieve themselves in the pool. Like, a lot. Personally, this doesn’t bother me, because it’s not like you’re in a bathtub, but a new study says there is actually a WHOLE lot more urine in pools than you might think.

Amar’e Stoudemire needs to check himself. In a recent interview with an Israeli website, he made some completely outrageous comments about what he would do if he found out a teammate was gay. He’s been playing in Israel recently, but there was a time when I thought that he was a relatively woke dude. Making homophobic comments about potential teammates is so 1985, never mind patently offensive. Not cool, dude. Not cool at all.

Free Food

Coffee Break: You know what’s not a good idea? Taking safety out of the hands of doctors, when it comes to children playing football. But, in North Carolina, lawmakers were considering a bill that would let parents, not medical officials, decide if they could play following a concussion. Thankfully, it was killed, but what on earth?

Snack Time: Uber can’t seem to get out of its own way. Every week, there’s another scandalous headline. This time, the CEO was actually caught on tape arguing with a driver about fares. Yikes.

Dessert: Moonlight‘s got a mixtape, which means you’ll be listening to it.