OWN’s ‘David Makes Man’ melds surrealism with the everyday oddities of Florida A new drama from ‘Moonlight’ scribe Tarell Alvin McCraney remixes poverty, danger and adolescence with a setting that seasons it all with a little strange

A new OWN drama from the playwright behind Moonlight and Choir Boy has the potential to grow into a compelling work of television — once it develops some consistency.

David Makes Man, which premieres Aug. 14 at 10 p.m. EDT on OWN, stars Akili McDowell as David, a 14-year-old middle schooler from the projects who plays guardian to his precocious 9-year-old brother when their mother, Gloria (Alana Arenas), is too weary to be roused. Every morning, David gets Jonathan Greg, or JG (Cayden Williams), out the door to school, then sprints to catch a bus to a predominantly white magnet school across town. He and his mother have high hopes that David can earn entrance into an exclusive prep school called Hurston.

Akili McDowell as David (left) meets with his teacher, Dr. Woods-Trap, played by Phylicia Rashad (right), in David Makes Man.

Rod Millington/Warner Bros Entertainment

There are plenty of unconventional supporting characters, from a drug dealer named Sky (Isaiah Johnson), who urges David to do right with a never-ending supply of riddles and poetry, to Mx. Elijah (Travis Coles), a kindly, shade-throwing drag queen who lives next door, to David’s best friend Seren (Nathaniel McIntyre), a mixed-race, middle-class kid who to David appears to have it made. David’s teacher (Phylicia Rashad) and counselor (Ruben Santiago-Hudson) provide a combination of tough love and constancy in his life.

The OWN drama faces a challenge in marrying the demands of serialized television with an impressionistic style more common in film.

This is the first time McCraney has brought his meditative style to television. He’s working with Dee Harris-Lawrence (Shots Fired, Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and The Notorious B.I.G.), who serves as showrunner. OWN labels David Makes Man, co-produced by Oprah Winfrey and Michael B. Jordan, a “lyrical drama,” but the results are mixed. Themes from McCraney’s previous work, such as poverty, adolescence and dubious mentors, show up in David Makes Man. A chorus of purples and blues punctuates the visual style of director Michael Francis Williams. But the South Florida setting is what keeps David Makes Man from turning into a collection of clichés about a poor black kid growing up in the projects with a single mom who’s a recovering addict.

Watching the characters of David Makes Man can sometimes feel like a visit to Bon Temps, the fictional setting for True Blood, minus the vampires and werewolves and with significantly more black people. The OWN drama faces a challenge in marrying the demands of serialized television with an impressionistic style more common in film. Its pilot is immersive, focused more on viewer experience than plot. For instance, a needed clarification about where the show and David’s life will go comes in the final minutes of the first episode.

Akili McDowell’s character, David, is a 14-year-old middle schooler from the projects who plays guardian to his precocious 9-year-old brother.

Rod Millington/Warner Bros Entertainment

The search for balance between styles is evident in subsequent episodes, as the surrealism of ghosts, internal voices and flashbacks creeps into the daily drama of David’s life in The Ville, a housing project officially known as Homestead Gardens. Not unlike the cheery purple of the motel in The Florida Project, the apartments of The Ville are coated in a candy cane pink stucco that’s frequently at odds with the realities of life for most of its residents. As if he doesn’t have enough to contend with, David is also trying to stay out of the clutches of Raynan (Ade Chike Torbert), a menacing teenage dealer who is bent on conscripting David into serving him and his boss, Raynan’s fearsome uncle.

A scene at the house of Seren’s white mother and black stepfather veers into soap opera territory, and so does a confrontation between David’s mother and father. That’s not unusual for OWN’s other prestige dramas, Greenleaf and Queen Sugar, but it feels out of place in a show that’s set its ambitions rather high. That’s especially true given the abuse that Seren appears to be enduring from both parents.

Still, David Makes Man grows more comfortable and confident in itself by episode five. With engaging performances from Arenas, Coles, Johnson and especially McDowell, who colors David with a potent mix of sweetness and anxiety, it’s ripe to blossom into something special. When Gloria joins Mx. Elijah to dress up as Janelle Monáe, she comes alive for a momentary spark of joy in a show that’s often characterized by the heaviness of lack — lack of food, lack of money, lack of safety — and the tension that comes with the possibility of violence.

It’s intriguing to see a variety of shows find different ways to wrestle with the strangeness that emanates from Florida. There’s Claws, starring Niecy Nash, which recently concluded its second season, and the upcoming On Becoming a God in Central Florida, a dark comedy premiering on Showtime later this month that follows a woman trying to exact revenge on the pyramid scheme that bankrupted her family. Claws and On Becoming a God offer more levity than David Makes Man, but they’re all panels of a patchwork quilt making sense of Florida. It’s the only thing, really, that can explain the presence of a group of tough but amiable trans sex workers who help David get home one night, like he’s Dorothy in a modern-day Oz.

That balance of earnestness and oddities could make for compelling television, so long as its makers keep tweaking.

Colson Whitehead’s ‘Underground Railroad’ led him to Jim Crow Florida His new novel, ‘The Nickel Boys,’ is based on a real reform school notorious for its brutality

Elwood and Turner, the adolescent protagonists of Colson Whitehead’s new novel, The Nickel Boys, become fast friends at a brutal, segregated reform school in Jim Crow-era Florida, but they are opposites. Elwood is bookish, optimistic and gullible. While working in a hotel kitchen before being sent to the Nickel Academy, Elwood gets duped into dishwashing “competitions,” ending up doing the work of his older, wised-up peers. At home, he listens again and again to a Martin Luther King Jr. oration — “containing all that the Negro had been and all that he would be” — and after the Brown v. Board of Education decision he waits expectantly, and in vain, for a black man to enter the hotel’s whites-only dining room and sit down for a meal.

Turner is already at Nickel when Elwood arrives, so he knows how the world works. Turner, Whitehead writes, “was always simultaneously at home in whatever scene he found himself and also seemed like he shouldn’t have been there; inside and above at the same time; a part and apart. Like a tree trunk that falls upon a creek — it doesn’t belong and then it’s never not been there, generating its own ripples in the larger current.”

Colson Whitehead says he sees himself in the two protagonists, Elwood and Turner, in his book “The Nickel Boys.”

Penguin Random House

Whitehead, who is 49, says he sees himself in both boys. We were having lunch at a diner on New York’s Upper West Side, where the author spent his high school years. He recently moved back to the neighborhood after 18 years in Brooklyn. “It’s really boring and the food’s terrible, but we don’t go out much and my wife’s parents live here,” he said.

The idea for the novel came in 2014, after Whitehead came across news reports about the discovery of numerous unmarked graves at Florida’s Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, which serves as the model for the Nickel Academy. Throughout its 111-year history, Dozier, which shut down in 2011, was known for brutality: beatings, rapes and, yes, murder. Dozier was segregated, but there was one building, “The White House,” where both black boys and white boys would be taken for beatings and worse.

When he first read these accounts, Whitehead was writing The Underground Railroad, which was published in 2016 to wide acclaim. It has since won both the Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award, and it is being adapted into an Amazon series by Barry Jenkins. The novel follows an enslaved woman’s escape from antebellum Georgia. It’s a haunting, brutal, hallucinatory journey set against the backdrop of several fantastical conceits, including the central one: What if the Underground Railroad were, in fact, a real subterranean railroad?

“Usually I do a serious book and a more jokey book,” Whitehead told me. “The Nickel Boys was a departure because I had just finished Underground.” He was planning to write a detective novel, but current events intervened.

“It was the spring of 2017 and Trump was trying to get his Muslim ban, and I was angry and discouraged by the rhetoric you’d see at his rallies,” Whitehead said. “I hadn’t written anything for a year and a half, and it was time to get back to work. I could do the detective novel or The Nickel Boys. I thought that with the optimistic figure of Elwood and the more cynical character of Turner I could draw on my own confusion about where we were going as a country.”

Unlike with The Underground Railroad, for which Whitehead drew upon stories from former slaves collected by the New Deal-funded Federal Writers’ Project and other historical accounts, there are living survivors of Dozier.

“It was a horrible place,” said Jerry Cooper, president of The Official White House Boys Association, an alumni group of sorts for the abused. Cooper, who is white, said, “We didn’t have interaction with the black boys, aside from maybe when we saw them bringing produce to the cafeteria. They were in one area of the campus, and the whites were another. And if the guards caught you interacting, you’d be sent to the White House — no matter your color.”

Cooper, who was at Dozer in 1961, told me African Americans may have had it worse overall because their work detail involved toiling in fields under the burning Florida sun. “But there wasn’t any difference in the beatings,” he said.

Cooper recalled a 2 a.m. trip to the White House, where he was placed facedown on a mattress and given 135 lashes with a 3-foot leather strap. “I passed out at around 70, but a boy waiting outside for his punishment kept count,” he said. “I still have the scars. That night I realized what it must have been like to have been a slave.”


But neither Cooper nor his ancestors were slaves. Many of Whitehead’s ancestors were.

His mother’s side of the family hailed from Virginia. Her father was named Colson, as was another enslaved forebear, “who bought himself out of slavery,” Whitehead said. His father’s side of the family was rooted in Georgia and Florida — “there’s an ancestor on that side from whom I got the name Turner” — while his paternal grandmother emigrated from Barbados through Ellis Island in the 1920s.

“Usually I do a serious book and a more jokey book. ‘The Nickel Boys’ was a departure because I had just finished ‘Underground.’” — Colson Whitehead

“A lot of my family history is lost to slavery,” Whitehead said. “And some that’s out there, I didn’t know at the time of writing Underground.” After it was published, some of his cousins reached out to chide him. “They’d say, ‘Didn’t you know about this, and this and this, about our history?’ ”

Whitehead grew up in Manhattan to upper-middle-class parents and spent his summers at the family vacation home in an African American enclave of Sag Harbor, New York. “The first generation came from Harlem, Brownstone Brooklyn, inland Jersey islands of the black community,” writes Whitehead in his fourth book, Sag Harbor (2009), a semiautobiographical novel that captures a nerdy, carefree adolescence. “They were doctors, lawyers, city workers, teachers by the dozen. Undertakers. Respectable professions of need, after Jim Crow’s logic: White doctors won’t lay a hand on us, we have to heal ourselves; white people won’t throw dirt in our graves, we must bury ourselves.”

Whitehead’s mother’s family owned three funeral homes in New Jersey, and his parents owned an executive recruiting firm. His mother and father became the parents of two daughters, then Colson and a younger brother. On paper, it was a Cosby Show existence. But as Whitehead recently told Time: “My dad was a bit of a drinker, had a temper. His personality was sort of the weather in the house.” (There are two sad examples of such temper in Sag Harbor, including one in which the father repeatedly punches young Benji, the protagonist, in the face as an ill-conceived demonstration of standing up to racial taunting.)

Colson (right) grew up in Manhattan in the 1970s with his brother Clarke Whitehead (left) and their two sisters.

Courtesy Colson Whitehead

After attending private schools in New York City, Whitehead went to Harvard. Growing up, he had immersed himself in comic books and horror films. “I wanted to write horror, science fiction and comic books,” he said. “A lot of writers my age had similar influences,” he added, citing Michael Chabon, Junot Diaz and Jonathan Lethem. “Then, in late high school and college, I started to think, Maybe I don’t have to write about werewolves.”

He was approached by another young African American writer at Harvard, Kevin Young, who is now an accomplished poet, the poetry editor at The New Yorker and director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. “I was working with a friend on reviving a black magazine from the 1970s, Diaspora, and she had met Cole and said he could be our new fiction editor,” Young said. “We hit it off instantly, and I published his first story.”

After college, Whitehead worked for five years at The Village Voice, eventually becoming the television critic. It was there he met writer-photographer Natasha Stovall, whom he married in 2000. (They later divorced.) He wrote a novel, but it was turned down by publishers and his agent dropped him.

“I was depressed,” Whitehead said. “But I wasn’t going to get a real job, and no one was going to write my books for me, so I understood I needed to get going. That’s really when I became a writer.”

His second effort, The Intuitionist, was published in 1999 and is set in a simulacrum of fedora-era New York, where there’s a war brewing within the city’s powerful Department of Elevator Inspectors. The protagonist, Lila Mae Watson, the first black female inspector in the department, is tasked with investigating a mysterious elevator crash. The book was well-received, including comparisons to debut efforts by Joseph Heller and Toni Morrison.

In 2001, Whitehead published John Henry Days, a multilayered, encyclopedic narrative thematically tied to the legend of John Henry, the railroad laborer who is said to have bested a steam-powered drilling machine. The following year he won the MacArthur Foundation “genius” award. Other novels (Apex Hides the Hurt, Sag Harbor, Zone One), a historical exploration of his city (The Colossus of New York) and even a poker memoir (The Noble Hustle, spun off from a Grantland article), followed. But it was The Underground Railroad (with a boost from Oprah’s Book Club) that launched Whitehead into literary stardom.

“It’s been remarkable to see Cole’s journey both in terms of his writing and as a person,” said writer and publisher Richard Nash, whom Whitehead met at Harvard and to whom The Nickel Boys is dedicated. “I remember going to one of his readings for his first book, The Intuitionist, at a bookstore in Soho. His hands were shaking, he was so nervous. And now I fully expect in a few years you’ll see his name crop up on the betting lists for the Nobel Prize.

“Especially with the last two books, it’s clear that’s where he’s headed.”

Whitehead has his critics. In a stinging review of John Henry Days, The New Republic’s James Wood (now at The New Yorker) pointed out instances of sloppy writing, such as using “deviant” for “divergent” and “discreet” when the intended meaning was “discrete.” Wood went on to note that Whitehead “tends to excessively anthropomorphize his inanimate objects” to “squeeze as much metaphor from them as he can.” Whitehead returned the favor a few years later when he satirized Wood in a Harper’s Magazine essay.

But Whitehead’s style has evolved, and his writing has become more precise. In The Nickel Boys, the anthropomorphization is sparing and powerful, as when he describes the shackles employed on defenseless boys who were beaten to death: “Most of those who know the stories of the rings in the trees are dead by now. The iron is still there. Rusty. Deep in the heartwood. Testifying to anyone who cares to listen.”


After our lunch, Whitehead said he was considering making chili for his family — his wife, literary agent Julie Barer, 13-year-old daughter, Madeline, and 5-year-old son, Beckett. “It’s hot, but there’s something about chili, it’s so hearty and satisfying,” he said. Cooking is a passion, and he’s been perfecting his meat smoking skills at his new vacation home in East Hampton.

Colson Whitehead’s book, “The Underground Railroad,” launched him into literary stardom when it was published in 2016.

Timothy Smith for The Undefeated

When he was writing The Nickel Boys, Whitehead said, he was struck by the parallels between the 1960s and today in terms of race relations. As a father myself, I was curious about how he broached the subject of race with his own children.

“It comes up more when we talk about police,” he said. “[My son is] really into cops and robbers. So when we’re walking around and he sees a police car with its sirens blaring, he’ll say, ‘They’re going to catch a robber.’ And I’ll say, ‘Maybe it’s an innocent man. Maybe it’s just a dark-skinned guy driving a nice car.’ ”

Whitehead couldn’t remember when his daughter first became aware of race — when she discovered that, to borrow a phrase from one Nobel Prize-winning writer, the world is what it is.

“That was a long time ago, and I can’t recall a particular moment,” Whitehead said. “But the thing is, everyone figures it out sometime.”

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.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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.

Getty Images

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.

Getty Images

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.

The Stanley Weston Archive/Getty Images

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.

The Ring Magazine/Getty Images

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.

NY Daily News Archive/Getty Images

Tony-nominated playwright Dominique Morisseau wants to make American theater better for black people She’s nominated for her work on the hit Broadway musical ‘Ain’t Too Proud’

Dominique Morisseau wants to make American theater better for black people, and she’s doing it by paying homage to her hometown of Detroit.

The 41-year-old playwright has been having a banner year. In October, she was one of 25 fellows to win grants from the MacArthur Foundation. Morisseau wrote the book for one of Broadway’s hottest shows this season, Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations. Now, it’s nominated for 12 Tonys, including best musical. There’s a possibility Morisseau could be taking home a statue for herself on Sunday night, as the show is nominated for best book (for spoken dialogue and storyline).

Oprah Winfrey (standing, center) poses with the cast and creative team backstage at the hit musical Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations on May 17 at the Imperial Theatre in New York City.

Photo by Bruce Glikas/WireImage

The jukebox musical tells the story of one of Motown’s most beloved groups as it soars to worldwide fame while balancing the needs and egos of a rotating array of singers. Founding member Otis Williams, played by Derrick Baskin, narrates the timeline from his beginnings as a teenage singer straight up to the modern day. At 77, the real Williams is still very much alive, and Ain’t Too Proud is based on his memoir. The musical briefly touches on issues that affected the group’s many singers, including being an absentee father, drug abuse and the pressure to avoid commenting on the Vietnam War, segregation or anything else that might pierce the melodic escapism they came to represent. But those issues are never allowed to overtake the tone of the show.

A big Broadway musical is a departure for Morisseau, and as her profile continues to grow, it’s something she’ll likely have to navigate more in the future.

“There are some things about writing a musical that are different than writing a play,” Morisseau told me. “The scarcity of language, how fast I have to convey an idea because we don’t have a lot of time between songs. The songs are really the story.”

Morisseau is married to musician James Keys, and music factors heavily in her plays. She figures they’ll likely write a musical together.

Before Ain’t Too Proud, Morisseau was a queen of off-Broadway, which is typically less commercial, racking up plaudits including a 2015 Steinberg Playwright Award and an Obie for her play Pipeline in 2018. Her work challenges audiences with complicated, interweaving social issues, especially when it comes to race. Pipeline, for instance, is about a black mother and public schoolteacher confronting her feelings of powerlessness in trying to prevent her son from getting sucked into the school-to-prison pipeline.

Morisseau is a passionate advocate for her fellow black playwrights and actors, and for ways to improve the faults she sees in contemporary American theater, whether or not there’s a proscenium involved.

“Across the theater board, they seem to think that money only exists in old white communities, which means that they don’t understand the buying power of any other people.” — Dominique Morisseau

“I will say no to very shiny productions of my play if it does not feel like everything around it has the kind of artistic integrity that I want,” Morisseau said. “I’ve had to stand up to theaters several times around the curation of my work or my relationship with them. … I have a really great relationship with a lot of theaters in the city, but it comes from push and pull and us developing mutual respect, because I’m just not going to be the kind of artist that you can tell what to do.

“When it comes to making decisions about who’s going to be in my plays, who’s going to direct my plays, I take a strong stance. I collaborate with a theater. Sometimes they want to push a director on me. I have worked with directors that the theater has brought to the table, but those directors that they brought to the table have been African American women directors or African American directors. Then I’ll go, ‘Oh, OK, well let me meet that person.’ ”

She’s also vocal about calling for more black artistic directors, the people in charge of programming theater seasons who are responsible for maintaining an existing donor base of largely white patrons while courting new, younger and browner audiences. When Hana Sharif was named artistic director of St. Louis Repertory, Morisseau shared her huzzahs on Facebook.

“You don’t see artistic directors of color, period,” Morisseau explained. “And you don’t see women artistic directors very often. There’s a few white women artistic directors of a few regional theaters, significant regional theaters, but not enough. St. Louis Rep, that is a huge regional theater, so for Hana to run that regional theater, it’s a big seismic shift in our industry.”

Actress Simone Missick, who is best known for playing Misty Knight in Luke Cage, told me she considers Morisseau “one of the pre-eminent writers of our time in the theater world and in television.” Although Morisseau’s chief focus is theater, she was also a co-producer on the Showtime series Shameless, and she is currently developing projects for FX and HBO.

Missick starred in Paradise Blue, the middle play of Morisseau’s Detroit Project trilogy. Set in 1949, Paradise Blue follows a talented trumpeter named Blue, who is trying to decide what to do about the jazz club he owns in Detroit’s Black Bottom neighborhood. It’s not bringing in much money, and Blue wants to move on. At the same time, white speculators are buying up property in the neighborhood intending to gentrify it and pushing out the black residents. Oh — Blue also has a serious mental illness, and he’s troubled by the fact that his girlfriend, Pumpkin, wants to stay in Detroit even though he wants to leave. A mysterious woman from out of town, a literal black widow known as Silver, raises everyone’s hackles. Morisseau, who played Silver in the play’s original staging, describes the character as “Spicy. Gritty and raw in a way that men find irresistible. Has a meeeeeaaaannnn walk.”

“Dominique has a mastery which I wish more writers had,” Missick said. “When you read it, it reads the way that people talk.

“You could drop a microphone in Detroit or in Alabama, where some of these characters are from, or Louisiana, where my character was from. You could drop a microphone and those people would sound exactly the way that Dominique has written. And that is a beautiful thing because so often when I read work as an actor, you read things and you think, people don’t talk like that. … But she also gives her writing a musicality, and if the rhythm of it does not sync with her spirit, then she changes it.”

Within Morisseau’s story of gentrification and the upheaval it brings is another story about Pumpkin and the fights black women face battling racism and sexism. Morisseau chuckled when I referred to her in conversation as a feminist August Wilson. It turned out that I’d tripped over one of the things she hopes will change about theater, which is that the press compares every black playwright to Wilson, no matter how incongruous their styles may be.

“I laugh when people liken me to August Wilson in any way or shape or form,” she said. “They do that for so many of us young black playwrights. It’s like any of us that have poetry in our language and kind of capture this unapologetic rhythm of black dialect, we all are writing in the fashion of August.

“Some of us actually really are, and would own that. And I don’t think others are doing that at all or intending to do that. I think that they’re getting called that because that’s the easiest go-to reference for a lot of people.

“I can’t ever deny August’s influence on my work,” Morisseau said. “I started writing the Detroit [Project] because I was reading August Wilson’s work. I read his work back to back, and I read Pearl Cleage, who was from Detroit, I read her writing back to back. I was just so inspired by their canon of work. … I just thought, Wow, what his work is doing for the people of Pittsburgh, how they must feel so loved, so immortalized in his writing, I want to do that for Detroit.”

“All of these layers, details that Dominique weaves into her characters, gives every single person a motivation that is not perfect.” — actress Simone Missick

Like Wilson, Morisseau focuses on working-class black people, and her Detroit trilogy (Paradise Blue, Detroit ’67 and Skeleton Crew) shares some broad ideas with Wilson’s famous Pittsburgh Cycle.

Furthermore, Morisseau writes fully realized black characters who exist in a racist society without being polemical. The contours of white supremacy are very much part of the worlds she creates, but her plays are about people, not arguments. Detroit ’67 is set during the infamous riot that took place in 1967, and Skeleton Crew, set in 2008, examines the difficult decisions autoworkers face as their industry weathers storm after storm. All of them seek to portray a Detroit that’s more than a collection of pathologies, as evidenced in Morisseau’s dedication for Skeleton Crew, which is pointed and personal:

“This is for my Auntie Francine, my grandfather Pike, my cousins Michael Abney and Patti Poindexter, my Uncle Sandy, my friend David Livingston, my relative Willie Felder, and all of the UAW members and autoworkers whose passion for their work inspires me. And this is for the working-class warriors who keep this country driving forward.

“This is also for the politicians, financial analysts, and everyday citizens who echoed the negating sentiments, ‘Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.’ Yep, this is for you, too, dammit.”

In some ways, Morisseau plays a role in theater similar to the one Ava DuVernay occupies in film. Both women are vocal about inequities in their fields and the way they affect whose stories get told and the budgets allotted to tell them. Just as DuVernay has been committed to creating a pipeline of female directors with her OWN drama Queen Sugar, Morisseau has pushed to work with black directors in theater.

Like DuVernay, Morisseau’s writing is ambitious, deeply researched work that focuses on characters surmounting challenges large and small stemming from racial inequality.

“All of these layers, details that Dominique weaves into her characters gives every single person a motivation that is not perfect,” Missick said. “It’s not trivial. It’s not trite. There is no character that is used to push the story along. I very rarely see that onstage or on screen, that every single person has something that they’re fighting for. … It’s something that I think makes her writing something that actors for generations will want to perform.”

Morisseau wants to keep challenging audiences. And she wants artistic directors to internalize that approach. She told me that artistic directors too often underestimate how much white audiences are willing to be pushed. And their conception of potential audience members remains blinkered.

“Across the theater board, they seem to think that money only exists in old white communities, which means that they don’t understand the buying power of any other people,” Morisseau said.

‘The Sun Is Also a Star’ can’t figure out which world to represent Yara Shahidi and Charles Melton are beautiful together, but the plot isn’t so pretty

After seeing film adaptations of two Nicola Yoon novels, first Everything, Everything and now The Sun Is Also a Star, I’m beginning to wonder if it’s Yoon or the writers adapting her novels who think teenagers are idiots.

Both films rely on obvious, contrived obstacles to give their teen protagonists something to overcome. In 2017’s Everything, Everything, an overprotective mother invents an illness to keep her daughter, played by Amandla Stenberg, confined to the walls of their home, lest she step outside and die. In The Sun Is Also a Star, which opens Friday, a deportation order threatens to separate Natasha Kingsley (Yara Shahidi) and Daniel Bae (Charles Melton), but not before they spend a day gallivanting around New York and falling in love.

Yara Shahidi (left) and Charles Melton (right) have chemistry on screen, but it’s difficult for the audience to invest in their characters’ story.

Atsushi Nishijima

In The Sun Is Also a Star, the president is the unnamed villain whose immigration policy is behind the deportation order that puts a deadline on Natasha and Daniel’s new relationship. When Natasha meets Daniel, she’s in pursuit of a miracle (or at least a court order) that will postpone or cancel the deportation order for her family.

Jamaican-born Natasha is a science-worshipping high school junior and love skeptic who quotes Carl Sagan. But she speaks with an American accent, and like many children of immigrant parents, she handles her family’s interactions with the government. What’s odd is that her parents speak perfect English, which means the language barrier that often forces immigrant kids to become translators simply doesn’t exist. But somehow Natasha is best equipped to handle the maze of legal documents and strange, seemingly illogical requests that make navigating the U.S. immigration, citizenship and naturalization process a nightmare for many. This would maybe make more sense if Natasha were, say, a legal savant, but she’s into astronomy.

Then there’s Daniel, the dutiful younger son who is determined to attend Dartmouth, become a doctor and not disappoint his Korean immigrant parents the way his less ambitious, tattooed older brother already has. Daniel’s a romantic who loves writing poetry, and after saving Natasha from getting hit by a car, he’s convinced he’s found the perfect girl to proselytize about the magic of love.

There are two problems:
1. Natasha’s family is being deported in 24 hours.
2. Natasha is, for most of the movie, stubbornly resistant to revealing this piece of information to Daniel.

The second problem is especially frustrating, given that so much of the does-she-like-me-or-not angst that Daniel experiences could be alleviated with … a conversation.

After their car crash meet-cute and a few lucky coincidences, Natasha and Daniel spend the day together, hopping from Caffe Reggio in Greenwich Village to Daniel’s parents’ beauty supply store in Harlem, to a planetarium, to a karaoke bar, before falling asleep in a park overnight and then dashing back to the attorney whom Natasha has persuaded to take on her family’s case.

Director Ry Russo-Young gives the story of two children of immigrants falling in love a gorgeous look, with hopeful sweeps across the New York skyline. Her flashbacks to the story of how Natasha’s parents met, or a brief explainer of how Koreans came to dominate the black hair care and wig market, provide delicious visual treats that segue away from the main story. Shahidi and Melton are charming and utterly watchable together. They’re both absurdly attractive and skilled actors, but whatever magic exists between them is limited by Tracy Oliver’s script.

Complete investment in Natasha and Daniel is hampered by a cheesiness that prompted repeated laughs from the audience at my screening during moments that were supposed to be solemn or romantic. Daniel’s sexy rendition of “Crimson and Clover” by Tommy James and the Shondells netted nervous titters alongside full-on guffaws. So did another moment, when Daniel exclaims to Natasha, “The universe wants us to be together!”

With so much cruelty directly impacting the Kingsley family, the naivete of both characters, but especially Daniel, comes across as tone-deaf. These kids were raised in New York in the wake of 9/11, in an America that can’t seem to do anything to stem school shootings. It doesn’t hurt the story to acknowledge how that influences the way Natasha and Daniel experience the world. Instead, The Sun Is Also a Star goes back and forth between using the cruelty of modern America as a backdrop and then expecting its audience to pivot to forgetting about it entirely, which makes it impossible to fully invest in either aspect of the story. Instead of recalling the psychedelic longing of first love, The Sun Is Also a Star inflicts something more like whiplash.

New book looks at the beef between Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes, two of literature’s brightest stars Just like Shaq and Kobe or Tupac and Biggie, beef crops up across the culture

Few stars shined brighter in the Harlem Renaissance firmament than Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes. On the surface they seemed to have little in common: She was the folksy anthropologist, novelist and playwright with a down-home style reflecting her Southern roots. He was an urbane poet. But they shared the same literary mission: to capture the black vernacular on page as a means of reflecting the complexity of the black experience. They were fast friends.

Until their beef, which proved unsquashable. Their bond and its fracture is the subject of Yuval Taylor’s new book Zora and Langston: A Story of Friendship and Betrayal. Taylor sticks to this particular schism, but it’s hard to read about Hurston and Hughes’ conflict without thinking about other examples of cultural beef, from hip-hop to sports.

The break between Hurston and Hughes is an age-old story, defined by driving ambition, hunger for credit and jealousy. Other parties were very much involved, from Charlotte Osgood Mason, the elderly white New York doyenne who opened her checkbook for and lavished praise upon writers who fed her infatuation with black primitivism (more on this shortly) to Louise Thompson, a typist who grew close to Hughes, much to Hurston’s chagrin. Hurston and Hughes were never romantically involved, but they shared a powerful emotional bond that Hurston guarded fiercely.

“Zora and Langston” book cover.

WW Norton

More important was what Thompson was typing. Hughes and Hurston had long dreamed of collaborating on a folk play, Mule Bone, which, as Taylor writes, “seemed to draw on all of Zora’s strengths and few of Langston’s.” They worked on the play together and apart and with Thompson. She came to think of it as her play. He came to think of it as his. They each had versions copyrighted. They both sought legal recourse. It was a messy dispute that led to both a creative rupture and a death blow to their friendship. The play itself wasn’t staged until 1991, long after both principals had passed away.

What’s beef? The Notorious B.I.G. answered the question from a hip-hop perspective: “Beef is when you need 2 gats to go to sleep/Beef is when your moms ain’t safe up in the streets/Beef is when I see you/Guaranteed to be in ICU, one more time.

Notorious B.I.G., of course, knew about beef. His disputes lived on vinyl, where rappers had made sport of dissing each other for years. LL Cool J made his name largely by taking on other rappers: Kool Moe Dee, Ice-T and too many others to count. There may have been genuine animosity in some beefs, but for the most part they were artistic jousts, provoked when someone said something on some stuff, or when one artist committed the sin of biting another’s style.

(L) Tupac Shakur. November 10, 1994.
(R) Rapper Notorious B.I.G., aka Biggie Smalls, aka Chris Wallace rolls a cigar outside his mother’s house in Brooklyn January 18, 1995.

Getty Images

But by the time Notorious B.I.G. hit his peak, a larger and more serious beef had taken hold. His beloved East Coast hip-hop scene — or at least his label, Bad Boy — was engaged in a protracted verbal war with the West Coast and Tupac Shakur. Tupac and Biggie, like Zora and Langston, had been friends. But this falling-out was different from that bitter literary feud, and even from previous hip-hop beefs. It involved bullets, first when Shakur was shot in New York and blamed Biggie’s crew, then when Tupac was shot and killed in Las Vegas, and finally when Biggie met the same fate the following year in Los Angeles. This was no mere creative dispute. It was a lethal feud that exploded into murder before anyone could really register what was happening.

Beefs may take different shapes and result in different degrees of consequence. But they usually have things in common, including peripheral figures fanning the flames. Think Suge Knight, in Tupac’s corner, and Sean Combs, representing Biggie, and the myriad voices throwing in behind each party. As it turned out, Hurston and Hughes had the same flame-fanner, the meddlesome Mason, whose mission was to cultivate black artists and provide them with money and resources — but only if they did as she wished. That meant conforming to Mason’s view of blacks as gloriously primitive, closer to nature than anyone else and therefore more pure. “Mason’s fondest hope,” Taylor writes, “was to make a difference to the world through a mystical connection to the primitive, which would overwhelm the malign forces of civilization.”

Her nickname was Godmother. “If one split that word into its constituent parts,” Taylor writes, “and joined them with an ampersand, it would describe well how her acolytes regarded her.” Hurston referred to her as “My Mother-God and her “true conceptual mother — not a biological accident.” Accustomed to such devotion, Godmother was also used to getting what she wanted. What she didn’t want was her two star scholars writing a play together. She opened her checkbook for Hughes to write novels and poetry and for Hurston to collect folklore. She saw the playwriting business as an unnecessary distraction from her mission.

Unfortunately for Godmother, Hughes and Hurston really wanted to write their play, and the more Mason objected, the more determined the two writers became. Godmother also sowed competition between the two by signing them to different contracts, allowing Hughes to keep the rights to his work while Hurston had to sign over her folklore to Mason. Godmother even prevented Hurston from showing her research to anyone else without Godmother’s permission.

On the one hand, as Taylor writes, “While Langston was being paid to create, Zora was being paid to collect.” To make matters worse, Hurston wasn’t allowed to keep what she collected. Is there any wonder Hurston envied Hughes’ deal, or that tensions between the two simmered, or that both sought to assert authorship over what was planned as a joint effort?

Third parties aren’t always the prime culprits behind beef. Hughes and Hurston had plenty of ego and hunger for the credit they thought they were due. These are qualities they shared with many of the beefing athletes of today, especially in a sport such as basketball that requires sharing the ball. Not even a team like the Golden State Warriors is immune, although they’re good at publicly patching up conflicts. (Of course they are. They’re good at everything.)

NBA beef tends to be very public, largely because of the league’s popularity and also because the star players are rarely shy. When Kyrie Irving demands a trade because he doesn’t like his role on LeBron James’ team, the world is going to find out.

Kobe Bryant #8 and Shaquille O’Neal #34 of the Los Angeles Lakers look on during an NBA in 2001.

Sam Forencich/NBAE/Getty Images

The defining NBA beef remains the one between Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, which effectively broke up the dynastic Los Angeles Lakers of the early ’00s. O’Neal, the big dog, insisted on regular feeding down low. Bryant, the rising star, was a lot more interested in shooting than feeding. You had two superstars with vastly different styles, each convinced that his style was the best way forward. Their hunger for credit was as powerful as any felt by Hurston and Hughes.

They won three straight NBA championships together, sniping much of the way. Eventually O’Neal was traded to Miami, where he won another championship alongside Dwyane Wade. Bryant won two more with the Lakers. After the trade, O’Neal referred to Bryant as a Corvette and to himself as a brick wall. O’Neal at one point tried to cast Lakers coach Phil Jackson in the Godmother role, blaming him for mismanaging the team and the beef.

Unlike Hughes and Hurston, who lawyered up over the fate of their aborted collaboration, or Tupac and Biggie, who ended up dead, Shaq and Kobe, like most sports beefers, played out their battle on the court and in the media. They also de-escalated their feud in subsequent years, with each player taking turns playing the other.

Sports can be an oasis of civilization compared with so many other fields of battle. It’s where beef, for all its sound and fury, can be just another part of the game.

Mahershala Ali: Baller or nah? We checked out whether the Oscar nominee could really ball back in the day

From Gabrielle Union, Queen Latifah, 2 Chainz, and Dwayne “The Rock’”Johnson — singers, actors and rappers have often bragged about their athletic accomplishments. #ShowMeTheReceipts, a recurring feature at The Undefeated, will authenticate those declarations. In this installment, we verify actor Mahershala Ali’s receipts.


As the player development manager for the Washington Wizards, Kamran Sufi doesn’t have a lot of time to watch much television. But he’ll try to make an exception on Sunday night about the time the Academy Award for best supporting actor category is announced.

“’I’ll be interested,” Sufi said. “I want to see what happens with Hershal.”

“Hershal” is Mahershala Ali, the Academy Award-winning actor who is favored to win his second Oscar on Sunday for his portrayal of Dr. Don Shirley in the movie Green Book. But before Ali played Shirley, or Cottonmouth (Luke Cage), Remy (House of Cards) and Juan (Moonlight) he was known as Mahershala Gilmore, a Division I basketball player at Saint Mary’s College of California, just outside of Oakland.

Before he won an Oscar, Mahershala Ali played college hoops at Saint Mary’s College

Ali played four years at Saint Mary’s, with his best season coming as a senior when he averaged seven points and 1.8 rebounds in 27 games as a starter. His college career ran parallel to Steve Nash at Santa Clara, which means the two-time NBA MVP faced off against the 2017 Academy Award winner for best supporting actor in the movie Moonlight at least twice a year for four years.

That 2017 Oscar earned Ali, a 6-foot-3-inch guard known for his slashing ability on offense and his tenacity on defense, the privilege of being the first Division I basketball player to win an Academy Award.

“If there’s a player I would compare him to it, would be Marcus Smart,” said Sufi, who was a year behind Ali at Saint Mary’s. “Wasn’t a great 3-point shooter, but did just enough to keep you honest. A solid defender who was physical. Hershal was competitive, and he always played hard.”

Remember how LeBron James entered the NBA with a man’s body? That was Ali when he entered Saint Mary’s, a solidly built guard who was a standout player at Mt. Eden High School in Hayward, a city just under 20 miles south of Oakland.

“In terms of the look of a ball player, he had ‘it,’ ” said Ernie Kent, the head basketball coach at Washington State who was about to enter his second year as the head coach at Saint Mary’s when he recruited Ali. “His body was very developed, and once he got into the weight room with us, he got stronger and stronger. We tried to turn him into a point guard, but it would have been a lot better had we just left him in the off-guard position.”

That’s the position Ali played in high school, where he was a key player on the Mt. Eden High School team that played for a state championship during his sophomore season (losing to Servite High School from Anaheim in the 1990 CIF Division III state title game played at the Oakland Coliseum).

Ali was part of the Mt. Eden team that was stacked the next year, rising to No. 1 in the state Division III rankings going into its February 1991 game against Hayward, the No. 1 ranked Division IV team.

That game is always a huge crosstown rivalry. But in 1991 there was added drama as Ali had emerged as a key player for Mt. Eden after leaving Hayward, where he played on the junior varsity team as a freshman and was expected to be a key contributor once he made the varsity.

Mahershala Ali in his high school uniform for Mt. Eden.

Courtesy of Mt. Eden HS

“He really should have stayed with us, but he went to Mt. Eden because his stepdad wanted him to become the focal point of the team,” said Gerald “Juma” Walker, who ended his career as the No. 2 all-time prep scorer in California. “We played a more free style of basketball, while at Mt. Eden they had a Bobby Knight-style coach that had them playing like robots.”

That robotic team went on to beat Hayward rather easily, 78-56, that night before an overflow crowd. Walker, a Bay Area legend who played for four years at San Francisco, led all scorers with 25 points that day, Ali scored 14, leading five Mt. Eden players in double figures.

“They were restricted,” Ali told the San Francisco Chronicle after that game. “I don’t think anyone’s played that kind of defense against them.”

That’s a comment that Walker said held true when it came to Ali. “Hersh was like a Trevor Ariza-type player: athletic, strong defender who would hit the open shot. And he would dunk on somebody from time to time.”

To be an effective player in the Bay Area during that era of the late ’80s and early ’90s — which featured Jason Kidd, Lamond Murray and Drew Berry — you had to be tough. In a 1991 sectional semifinal, Ali and his teammates helped hold Murray — who played 12 years in the NBA — to 19 points (which was 10 points below his scoring average) in a Mt. Eden win.

In 1992 Ali, a co-captain at Mt. Eden, was named the prep player of the week by The Daily Review newspaper in Hayward. The newspaper credited Ali with “being the defensive leader”on a team that was limiting opponents to just 46.5 points a game.

“Every region has players that play different ways, and [Ali] wasn’t your typical Bay Area player,” said Hashim Ali Alauddeen, co-founder of the Oakland Soldiers youth basketball organization. “He played a game like he was playing football: nonstop aggression. Determined. Never passive.”

It wasn’t just Ali’s aggressive play that allowed him to fit right in at Saint Mary’s. He connected immediately with his teammates because of his hair-cutting ability. “He’d come to our room — or we’d go to his — and would charge us $5 for a haircut,” said Troy McCoy, a forward at Saint Mary’s for two years. “I’m a picky guy, but he had skills. I let him cut my hair.”

Ali was also considered the best dressed player on the team. “I’d get up at 8 in the morning and throw on some slip-ons and sweats for class, and [Ali] was putting on a nice outfit to look presentable,” Sufi said. “He always had interests that were outside of basketball. Not only was he into fashion, he also wrote poetry. He just had a different energy about him.”

Which made it easy for Ali to detach himself from the game as playing time, early in his career, was scarce due to more refined players occupying most of the playing time in front of him. As he reflected on his time at Saint Mary’s in an essay he wrote for the school’s website in 2011, Ali said that by the time he graduated, “I no longer thought of myself as an athlete.”

He elaborated on that during a 2017 interview with NPR, as he explained his shift toward acting. “At a certain point, basketball became the thing I was doing the most, but it was really in my periphery. It was really a focus on how to, in some ways, keep moving in this direction towards something that allowed me to express myself in a way that sports didn’t.”

That direction was leading him to acting, which Ali put his energies into at Saint Mary’s. After graduating from Saint Mary’s, Ali left for the opposite coast to attend New York University, where he eventually earned his master’s degree in fine arts.

His first noticeable role came in 2001, when he appeared on the television series Crossing Jordan.

“Someone called me at home and told me to turn on NBC, and I see him on Crossing Jordan,” McCoy said. “If he’s on something, I watch it. I really liked him in Benjamin Button, and he was outstanding in Green Book. I stopped watching Luke Cage after they killed him off.”

Over time, the roles became more significant to the point where Ali is today: one of the top actors in the business.

Mahershala Ali poses with his Oscar for best supporting actor.

EPA/NINA PROMMER

“I give him credit because here was someone who had a vision, and he pursued it at an early age,” Kent said. “He just blossomed to the point where he’s one of the best actors out there.”

Ali was able to connect those acting skills with basketball in 2017 when he narrated the CBS opening for the NCAA national championship game.

While he says he no longer plays, Ali stays connected with this college teammates regularly via group chats.

“All of us who played at Saint Mary’s are close,” said McCoy, who hosted Ali on his recruiting trip to the school. “We know what everyone’s doing, and we support one another.”

Which is why many of Ali’s college teammates — even if they’re not television or movie fans — will likely tune into the Academy Awards to catch the best supporting actor category.

“I remember when he became involved in theater, and you could see the rush he got from doing that replaced his rush of playing basketball,” McCoy said. “It’s amazing to see him in the acting game as one of the best.

“I don’t care about award shows,” McCoy added. “But I’ll be watching.”

Our list of 24 can’t-miss books for holiday gifting From a photographic history of hip-hop to magical fantasy to sports activism, it’s all here

Searching for the perfect present for the reader in your family? Or maybe it’s time for some self-gifting (we won’t judge, we promise). From essays to young adult novels to photography and poetry, The Undefeated has you covered. Here’s a collection of some of the most intriguing, well-crafted and engaging books of 2018.

FICTION

The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo (YA)

Don’t believe anyone who tells you slam poetry is dead, because they clearly missed the memo about Elizabeth Acevedo, an award-winning, fire-spitting Afro-Latino poet who has penned an entire novel in verse. Acevedo won the National Book Award for young people’s literature with a coming of age story about Xiomara Batista. Xiomara lives in Harlem, and as she begins to form her own opinions — about religion, about street harassment, about what it means to become a woman — she collects her thoughts in verse and finds a home in her school’s slam poetry club.


Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi (YA)

If you find yourself hooked after reading Tomi Adeyemi’s debut fantasy novel, fear not. She’s got two more coming, all about strong-willed Zélie Adebola and her adventures as she tries to bring magic back to her fictive country of Orïsha, where power has been consolidated by an evil, magic-hating king. The stakes are high: If Zélie fails, Orïsha will lose its magic forever. There’s no shortage of black fantasy fans (remember when Buzzfeed imagined if Hogwarts were an HBCU?), and now young readers have another set of books to add to their collections, right alongside Harry Potter, Shadowshaper and the Bartimaeus trilogy. Adeyemi weaves a story that tackles colorism, class and racism with West African mythology and Yoruba traditions.


My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

Oyinkan Braithwaite’s debut novel crackles with dark humor as she traces the story of sibling rivalry between Nigerian good girl Korede and her maybe-sociopath murderer of a sister, Ayoola. Ayoola’s boyfriends keep turning up dead, and poor, put-upon Korede keeps finding ways to keep her sister free. That is, until Korede’s crush expresses an interest in her sister and Korede is faced with a choice.


A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley

Jamel Brinkley’s debut collection of nine short stories is a meditation on modern masculinity, told from the perspectives of various black men in New York, mostly in the Bronx and Brooklyn. The National Book Award finalist focuses on how ideas about what it means to be a man are passed down through generations, and what it takes to define oneself as notions about sex and gender continue to evolve.


The Talented Ribkins by Ladee Hubbard

Ladee Hubbard has introduced a new framework for thinking about W.E.B. Du Bois, the Talented Tenth and obligations to fellow black people in struggle against white supremacy: a fantastical crime novel about a black family with ridiculously random superpowers (one of the Ribkins can see colors that remain obscured to others, while another can scale walls like a spider). The protagonist is 72-year-old Johnny, who has gotten himself in way too deep with a mobster. The Talented Ribkins, which won the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for debut fiction, is an inventive layer cake of humor, intrigue and insights about race.


Dread Nation by Justina Ireland (YA)

Remember the head-scratching reaction you had the first time you heard about Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter? Well, get over it, because literature about a Civil War-era America complicated by the existence of the undead is most definitely a thing. Enter Jane McKeene, the protagonist of Justina Ireland’s bone-chilling account of an America in which the many who died at Gettysburg became, well, not so dead. Jane has been sent to Miss Preston’s School of Combat in Baltimore, where she learns how to wield a scythe, which is definitely a subversive take on the real-life Miss Porter’s, where women like Jacqueline Kennedy-Onassis learned to be the sort of woman who knows when and how to use an asparagus server. In this America, black and Native people are still doing the bidding of power-wielding whites, except now that bidding includes slaying zombies. Just imagine the troubles that can arise when an entire underclass of people is armed with very sharp weapons.


An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

Tayari Jones, whose novel made this year’s National Book Award long list, trains her lens on the very personal implications of unjust policing and mass incarceration. Her leading lady, Celestial, is married to a man who has been wrongfully imprisoned. While both Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing and American Marriage examine the implications of what it means to be a black woman with a partner imprisoned in the American South, the avenues they take vary wildly. Ward’s focus is on the poor, while Jones takes a look at what imprisonment means for a well-to-do middle-class couple who never envisioned this life for themselves, and the romantic compromise Celestial makes in order to cope.


Wild Beauty by Ntozake Shange

A collection of poems old and new, in English and Spanish, Wild Beauty is the last published work of the late poet, dancer and playwright. Ntozake Shange died in October at 70. She’d suffered a series of strokes in 2004, but as she recovered, she kept writing. Wild Beauty offers one last bittersweet opportunity to connect with an American treasure.


Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires

The theme that unites Nafissa Thompson-Spires’ debut short story collection is one with which many black Americans can identify: being The Only. As in, The Only Black Kid in Private School, or The Only Black Professor, or The Only Black Woman in Yoga Class. In this collection, which made this year’s National Book Award long list, Thompson-Spires conducts a narrative thought experiment, illustrating the world as it’s processed through a variety of Onlys who are carrying around the burden of being representatives for an entire race of people. Lest you think Thompson-Spires has gone too far, never forget the existence of an embarrassingly uncomfortable real-life account of a white woman who projected all of her insecurities onto the only black woman in her yoga class, and then wrote an essay about it. In the world of Thomson-Spires’ characters, readers are encouraged to think about the world from the perspective of The Only, and not the voyeur.

NON-FICTION

Becoming Kareem: Growing Up On and Off the Court by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Raymond Obstfeld

Anyone who’s enjoyed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s foray into cultural criticism as a contributor to The Hollywood Reporter knows that his brain is brimming with trenchant observations. Becoming Kareem offers much of the same, though instead of looking at the entertainment industry, Abdul-Jabbar turns inward to explain his evolution as an athlete, activist and thinker. It’s a worthy addition for anyone who wants an insider’s account of processing where you fit when you’re young, black and blazingly talented and your country is erupting with change.


American Prison: A Reporter’s Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment by Shane Bauer

Shane Bauer, a journalist for Mother Jones, famously spent four months working undercover as a guard in a private prison in Winnfield, Louisiana. Bauer elaborates on his experiences in Winnfield and shapes them with historical context to explain how we arrived at mass incarceration as we currently know it. Bauer shines much-needed sunlight on a crisis that readers of The New Jim Crow and watchers of 13th will find familiar: a system profiting off the warehousing and mistreatment of millions of Americans, a disproportionate number of whom are black and brown.


Things That Make White People Uncomfortable by Michael Bennett and Dave Zirin

If you’re an athlete writing about the intersection of sports, social issues and race, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more well-suited co-author than Dave Zirin, the sports columnist at The Nation. Here, the Philadelphia Eagles defensive lineman melds the personal with the political — one chapter is called “The NCAA Will Give You PTSD.” The through line is a commitment to standing up for the little guy, even when the little guy happens to be 250-plus pounds. It’s a stirring and smart trip through Michael Bennett’s musings on race and power.


White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism by Robin DiAngelo

There’s no time in American history when this book hasn’t been needed, but, boy, is it ever timely now. Robin DiAngelo’s explanations for why we’re so stymied when it comes to discussing race is refreshing, fact-based and patient. While it’s a book that contains helpful information for everyone, White Fragility is an ideal starting place for white people who want to be allies in anti-racism but feel intimidated about where to begin.


Well-Read Black Girl: Finding Our Stories, Discovering Ourselves edited by Glory Edim

The founder of the popular Brooklyn, New York-based book club (now in its third year of existence) has released a book of essays written by literary luminaries including Jesmyn Ward, Lynn Nottage, Jacqueline Woodson, Rebecca Walker and Barbara Smith. Every woman answers the question: When did you first see yourself in literature? Thanks to Glory Edim’s work, black women and girls have a reliable space online, and in print, where they know they’ll always be seen.


The Revolt of the Black Athlete by Harry Edwards

If there’s a book that synthesizes and gives historical context to the wave of social activism that’s swept through modern sports, it’s this one. First published in 1968, it has been resurrected, with a new introduction and afterword for a 50th anniversary edition. Harry Edwards traces the history of black athletes from Emancipation onward, explaining how race has always influenced how black athletes have been received and even used in the U.S. government’s efforts at soft power diplomacy overseas. Through Edwards’ eyes, we see the awakening of black athletes to their own power not as a surprise but as an inevitability.


Ali: A Life by Jonathan Eig

Jonathan Eig conducted more than 500 interviews to report this comprehensive tome on the life of The Champ, and he writes with as much style and verve as Muhammad Ali brought to the ring. Eig provides sweeping context for Ali’s participation in and significance to social movements, from the fight for civil rights to protests against the Vietnam War. Rather than shy away from Ali’s internal contradictions, Eig runs at them head-on, which makes Ali more compelling than any of the more hagiographic attempts to capture his life. Ali is the winner of the 2018 PEN/ESPN Award for Literary Sports Writing. (Disclosure: Eig has also contributed to The Undefeated.)


How to Be Less Stupid About Race: On Racism, White Supremacy, and the Racial Divide by Crystal M. Fleming

You may know sociologist Crystal Fleming from her flame-throwing Twitter feed. In her second book, the Stony Brook University professor tackles an obstacle that hampers a lot of writing about race in America: moving past Race 101. Because our country isn’t operating from an agreed-upon foundation of established historical facts — for instance, every discussion of Confederate monuments must include a basic explanation of the Lost Cause and why it’s bunk. Therefore, our national discussions don’t move forward so much as stall on a treadmill powered by history textbooks that label enslaved Africans as “immigrants.” Fleming offers readers an easily digestible, well-researched primer, as well as a useful series of steps for “becoming racially literate.” In the words of Biggie: “If you don’t know, now you know.” No excuses!


There Will Be No Miracles Here by Casey Gerald

Moving up the class ladder isn’t an impossible feat, but it’s certainly a difficult one. In this memoir, Casey Gerald writes of growing up in Dallas with his sister and learning to survive on their mother’s disability checks. Football provided opportunities for Gerald; he played at Yale while studying political science. The same sport left his grandfather’s body broken. With elegant, captivating prose, Gerald traces a multigenerational story of race, class and privilege and what it means to grasp at limited opportunities for all they are worth, with one’s faith guiding the way.


This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America by Morgan Jerkins

If Lena Dunham is any indication, it’s almost never a good idea to label one person as the voice of a generation. However, Morgan Jerkins is definitely a voice, and she’s one worth taking seriously. In her debut essay collection, Jerkins tackles what it means to be living as a black woman in America today with an authoritativeness that’s rare and impressive for a woman with years to go before her 30th birthday. In bringing a relatable voice to discussing the alienation many black women encounter, both within the feminist movement and in society at large, Jerkins has announced herself as a vital social critic with plenty to say.


Heavy by Kiese Laymon

For anyone who misses Gawker and Kiese Laymon’s presence there, Heavy is a long-awaited essay collection from one of the country’s most thoughtful and incisive writers on race. In Heavy, Laymon contemplates his upbringing in Mississippi and his relationships with the women in his life, especially his mother and grandmother. The #MeToo movement has brought new visibility to the ubiquity of sexual abuse in our culture for women, but many male victims still grapple with shame when it comes to publicly discussing their experiences. Here, Laymon writes with elegance and fearlessness about his own experiences with sexual abuse and, in doing so, helps lift its taboo.


Becoming by Michelle Obama

The former FLOTUS created a storm with the initial wave of revelations contained in her memoir. Michelle Obama discusses the loneliness she felt after a miscarriage and reveals that her children were conceived with the assistance of in vitro fertilization. In doing so, she helps remove the stigma from episodes that occur in many women’s lives but remain taboo. Obama gained the trust of a nation by being charming, down-to-earth and candid. In Becoming, Obama takes advantage of an opportunity to fill in the many blanks of her life and open herself to those who felt they already knew her while making the case for why the Obamas are the ultimate American family.


Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry by Imani Perry

How is it possible that someone with as much name recognition as Lorraine Hansberry could also be considered a hidden figure? Well, because most of us never learned much about her aside from the fact that she wrote A Raisin in the Sun. Imani Perry gives Hansberry her due in this deeply researched biography, fleshing out her life as a writer, thinker and activist whose contributions to American society go far beyond one play. In Perry’s hands, Hansberry comes alive as self-possessed, nervy and extremely witty — a woman whose personal heroes included Toussaint L’Ouverture, the leader of the Haitian Revolution, and Hannibal, the North African general.


Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop by Vikki Tobak

Contact High traces hip-hop’s evolution from 1979 to 2012 by giving readers a behind-the-scenes look at the industry through the contact sheets of the photographers documenting it. Not only does Vikki Tobak provide insight into what goes into a great image by providing the shots that normally remain unpublished, she’s also assembled compelling stories from some of hip-hop’s greatest voices, including RZA, Fab 5 Freddy, Questlove, Young Guru and DJ Premier. Contact High tells the stories of some of hip-hop’s most enduring images, from Jay-Z’s first photo shoot to the Stankonia album cover to XXL’s 1998 assemblage of talent for the photo A Great Day in Hip-Hop.


Not All Dead White Men: Classics and Misogyny in the Digital Age by Donna Zuckerberg

Why should we be paying attention to how the classics are being discussed online? Because a significant segment of the population is, and they’re using their interpretations of texts such as Ovid’s Ars Amatoria, Xenophon’s Oeconomicus and Herodotus’ The Histories as the intellectual underpinnings for arguments about the supposed superiority of Western civilization, of whiteness and of men. Donna Zuckerberg explains how the alt-right, incels and other online communities are forming their own theories based on ancient texts. It’s impossible to bust myths about the classics if you’re unfamiliar with them or the arguments their interpreters are using as weapons. For those who haven’t thought about the ancient philosophers since high school Latin, Zuckerberg makes everything clear.

Can the Philadelphia 76ers really get to the Finals, though? Shaq and Penny say yes The Magic did it in ‘95, and the Penny/Shaq era has a lot in common with Philly in 2018

The Philadelphia 76ers, after “trusting” the “process,” have completed their first playoff series victory since 2012. It happened in five games over the Miami Heat, and sharpshooter J.J. Redick led the charge with 27 points. But Tuesday night in Philly was far more than a series victory. It was a moment.

The presence of Meek Mill at courtside (he arrived via helicopter), in his first public appearance since being released from prison hours earlier, added to an already momentous occasion for a franchise on the way up. The rapper’s much-debated sentence stemmed from a probation violation in November of 2017 and made him the newest face of criminal justice reform.

The calls for his freedom rivaled those for Lil’ Boosie and for Gucci Mane in years past. And Meek (Robert Rihmeek Williams) graduated to something of a Philly sports yoda during his time in the belly of the beast. His 2012 “Dreams and Nightmares (Intro)” ignited the Philadelphia Eagles on the way to their first Super Bowl. And the 76ers have long been Meek’s loudest supporters — from Julius “Dr. J” Erving to current players raising awareness to his friendship with Sixers minority owner Michael Rubin.

Kellerman compares Simmons-Embiid to Penny-Shaq

Max Kellerman has not seen a young duo like Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid since Penny Hardaway and Shaquille O’Neal.


Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal and Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway (the new head coach at the University of Memphis) fail miserably at containing the pride in their voices. Both recognize Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons as the most dynamic young point guard and center combo since the mid-1990s, when they turned Orlando into the cultural capital of the brief post-Jordan basketball world.

Both sets of teammates are first and third overall picks — O’Neal and Simmons being the top picks in 1992 and 2016, respectively; Hardaway and Embiid were No. 3 in 1993 and 2014. Penny was originally drafted by the Golden State Warriors and then immediately traded to Orlando for Chris Webber.

“Joel makes Ben’s game easier and Ben makes Joel’s game easier. Just like Shaq and I. It was poetry in motion.” — Penny Hardaway

“When I demanded they bring in Penny,” says Shaq, “I was thinking we were gonna be the new Magic Johnson and Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar]. I already knew what I wanted because I had a good point guard [Scott Skiles], but he was older. … We’d have to build defensive schemes around him — like when guards posted him up, we had to double. I just got tired of doing all that. I was like, we need to get somebody who can play everybody straight up.”

“It’s great having a star opposite your position because it makes [the game] easier,” says Hardaway. “Joel makes Ben’s game easier and Ben makes Joel’s game easier. Just like Shaq and I. It was poetry in motion.” Through nostalgia-tinted glasses the working relationship seems much longer, but O’Neal and Penny played together for only three seasons in Orlando.

O’Neal sees parts of himself in Embiid, 24, and confidence is near the top of that list. Stylistically, Embiid has drawn comparisons to Hakeem Olajuwon. But it’s the intangibles that place a smile on Shaq’s face when discussing Embiid. “The way he dominates the game, the way he’s very outspoken,” O’Neal says. “He’s very loved in the community [that drafted him] too.”

Hardaway stops short of saying he sees himself in Simmons, but he does, however, impart some advice to the floor general whose athleticism and floor vision get co-signs from some of the game’s legends. “[To Ben, I’d say] don’t get too ahead of yourself. Always keep that chip on your shoulder. Don’t ever think that you’ve arrived.”

Simmons, 21, follows in the line of big, pass-first point guards like Hardaway and the prototype Magic Johnson (LeBron James, too, if you’re considering him a point guard). Simmons, through five games this postseason, has exhibited poise and fearlessness beyond his years, and the fluidity in his game is very reminiscent of Hardaway. The clearest difference between Simmons and his basketball prophyte is Hardaway’s superior shooting — a skill that this year’s presumptive at least co-Rookie of the Year will attack this offseason.

“The [biggest] lesson I learned was don’t celebrate until the job is done.” — Shaq

Much like the Golden State Warriors and the Kevin Durant-, Russell Westbrook- and James Harden-led Oklahoma City Thunder, this current 76er iteration is the 2010s’ newest “young team.” They’re the new cool kids everyone wants to be around. They’re embedded in the cultural discourse, much like Shaq and Penny before them.

Shaq dropped platinum rap albums, kicked it with Biggie Smalls and entered Hollywood while Penny became a marketing deity in part because of his shoes and the immortal “Lil’ Penny” character voiced by Chris Rock. Both Embiid and Simmons have forged a kinship with Meek Mill. Embiid has been knighted basketball’s premier and peerless trash-talker and has the most notable crush on Rihanna since … Drake? And Simmons is dating R&B starlet Tinashe.

With each completed step of the process, Philly’s “Neon Boudeaux” and “Butch McRae” — Shaq and Penny’s characters in 1994’s Blue Chips — continue to add to the cultural kismet Sixer basketball has accumulated since the days of Allen Iverson. O’Neal has been behind that same wheel. In 1995, when they got to the Finals, the Magic were still a very young team, having only been in the league since 1989. Philly, by virtue of several unwatchable, “embarrassing” seasons, played like one. From 2013-16, the Sixers won a total of 47 regular-season games. They won 50 this year alone.

Carrying the weight of an entire organization when you’re technically not old enough to legally rent a car comes with its own war stories. And many are picking Philly to advance to the Eastern Conference finals. TNT analyst and Hall of Famer Charles Barkley said Tuesday night that the Sixers “have everything” needed to beat any team in their path. Many peg them as the first Eastern Conference team in nearly 3,000 days that will defeat LeBron James in the postseason — provided The King and his ragtag collection of merry men advance that far. Some are bold enough to predict a 76ers championship parade this summer. James told Simmons four years ago that he could be better than him — if Simmons “[did] the work.”

“The word potential,” Hardaway says, “can be dangerous because it’s saying you have the ability to be something.” The ability to be something and actually becoming the superhero of your wildest dreams are different realities. Shaq and Penny realized their joint potential, even if they didn’t punctuate it completely with a championship that seemed inevitable at their partnership’s peak. Both carry those battle wounds.

“The [biggest] lesson I learned was don’t celebrate until the job is done,” O’Neal says with a faint sigh. O’Neal, Hardaway and the 1995 Orlando Magic hold the distinction of being the last team to defeat a Michael Jordan-led team in the postseason. “I go back to what happened after we beat Mike and [the Chicago Bulls] … we already thought we had won the championship. But Houston, who had won the year before, knew what it took to win, and we didn’t. … As a young guy, you really don’t know what it takes to win a championship.”

Shaq and Penny were swept by the Houston Rockets in the 1995 Finals. A year later, they were swept by Jordan’s Bulls in the Eastern Conference finals. And later in the summer of 1996, O’Neal migrated west to begin the next chapter of his career with the Los Angeles Lakers and an uber-confident 18-year-old rookie named Kobe Bryant. Just like that, Orlando dreams turned into nightmares.

But Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons can still put a championship crack in the Liberty Bell. It’s all about moments. Embiid starting in his first All-Star Game is one. Simmons potentially winning Rookie of the Year is another. Tuesday night was big too. But if “trusting the process” is to be taken at face value, then it shouldn’t be about late May or potentially early June. It should just be about the next moment — Game 1 against either the Boston Celtics or Milwaukee Bucks. The advice for them from their predecessors is as simple as it is complex.

“The only thing I can say to [Ben and Joel] is don’t take this time for granted, like it’s going to happen next year because you’re a young team,” Hardaway says. “Right now, with the run they’re on, they have to be careful of saying, ‘If we don’t win the next round, we’re gonna have next year.’ You gotta do it now.” Through basketball osmosis, that advice has already permeated into Philly’s locker room. Embiid told reporters prior to Game 5 that he believed Philly’s “time is now.”

Shaq and Penny are more personally invested in Simmons and Embiid’s success — they want Philly’s dynamic duo to surpass them. “Hopefully they can stick together and not have any petty problems,” Shaq says. “You know, not worry about who’s getting paid the most.” He pauses. “I think if they stay together…they’re gonna be very hard to beat.”

Meek Mill sat courtside as guest of honor beside fellow Philly native Kevin Hart. The moment was one of the wildest “fresh outta jail” fables since Tupac was released from prison in October 1995, caught a cross-country flight from New York to Los Angeles and began recording his behemoth album All Eyez On Me the same night. The day began with Meek in a cell and ended with his first live look at the city’s two newest basketball demigods.

Embiid and Simmons combined for 33 points, 22 rebounds, 7 assists, 4 steals and 2 blocks. Both, like Meek, continue to etch their names in the city’s cultural history.

‘Dribble, fake, shoot, miss, dribble, fake, shoot, swish’ — the basketball poetry of Kwame Alexander  The Newbery Award-winning poet and author is back with a new book, ‘Rebound’

“Dribble, fake, shoot, miss, dribble, fake, shoot, miss, dribble, fake, shoot, miss, dribble, fake, shoot, swish,” said Newbery Medal-winning author, speaker and educator Kwame Alexander. “Eventually, you’re gonna make it. You just gotta keep shooting.”

It’s a metaphor he uses when he speaks to children, encouraging them to overcome their fears. “It’s … that fear of failure,” he said from London, a stop on his world tour. “Whether it be on a quiz, a test, whether it be getting cut from the team, whether it be just something in your life that changed.” Raised in Brooklyn, New York, and Chesapeake, Virginia, Alexander says his goal when writing his books is helping kids embrace the “yes” in life. “Not being afraid of the ‘no’ … letting the challenges come, and building your stamina and your persistence.”

These kinds of sentiments are evident in his 2014 novel The Crossover, which won Alexander the prestigious Newbery — it’s awarded annually by the American Library Association to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children — as well as in his new Rebound, the novel being published Monday.

Like The Crossover, the story is written in free verse with a kind of hip-hop rhythm. The main character is Chuck “Da Man” Bell, the father of twin basketball enthusiasts Josh and Jordan Bell. Rebound takes young readers way back in time to a pivotal summer when young Charlie is sent to stay with his grandparents, four to five hours from his home. There, he discovers basketball and learns more about his family’s past. Chuck Bell is center stage, and in beautiful verse it becomes clear how he became the jazz music-worshipping basketball star his sons look up to.

“To watch her leave this earth,” said the author, “while simultaneously writing about the experience of losing someone … that was hella hard.”

“It was the summer of 1988,” Alexander writes of Chuck, “when basketball gave me wings … I had to learn how to rebound on the court. And off.” The Bell family was introduced in The Crossover. That book followed Josh and Jordan and their hoop dreams. The brothers struggle through an assortment of obstacles that include growing apart during their junior high school years.

After receiving requests for a sequel from readers who wanted more of this authentic, if fictional, family, Alexander realized he wasn’t done with the story line. He wanted to get deep into the life of Charles, and share his backstory. “It felt like I’d sort of left Crossover on sort of a cliffhanger,” he said. “[People] wanted to know what happened to the main character. The only way for me to do that was to look at his life as a child.”

It took Alexander nearly two years to complete Rebound. The hardest part of writing the book was reaching the point of completion. “My mom passed away in the middle of writing it,” said Alexander. He was dealing with a kind of grief already, over some of the things that happen to his Chuck Bell character. “To watch her leave this earth,” said the author, “while simultaneously writing about the experience of losing someone … that was hella hard. But it was empowering for me, too, because I got to write about this experience that I was going through.”

“I wanted to write a book that I would’ve wanted to read when I was in middle school. One way to hook me at that age … is through sports.”

Alexander believes that poetry can change the world. He uses it to inspire and empower young people around the world. Sports, for Alexander is one way to gain their attention.

“I remember being 11, 12 years old and not really caring about the books that my teachers and my parents were making me read,” he said. “I wanted to write a book that I would’ve wanted to read when I was in middle school. One way to hook me at that age … is through sports. And sports are a great metaphor for our lives.”