It could be just one. Or, more probably, it’s a combination of all four. Jay-Z’s history tells us that the reasons behind the partnership between the NFL and rap’s first billionaire likely revolve around money, power and the movement. And the potential to become the NFL’s first black owner.
For the past decade, the NFL has been at the epicenter of the definitive culture war in sports, from concussions and CTE research to domestic violence, as well as issues of social justice dramatized by exiled quarterback Colin Kaepernick. For the NFL, the cost-benefit analysis of this arrangement is clear. The league brings in one of the most famous celebrities of the past half-century who has donated time, money and attention to some of the very topics on which the NFL is accused of being tone-deaf. The league needs to recover its cultural cachet, and a big part of that means reaching out to black fans, at least some of whom swore off the game after Kaepernick’s exile.
Wednesday’s news conference at Roc Nation’s New York headquarters grew out of talks that began in January between Jay, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft. (Kaepernick and former San Francisco 49ers teammate Eric Reid reached a settlement with the NFL over their collusion grievances a month later for a reported $10 million.) Roc Nation’s partnership with the NFL is set to include entertainment consultation, which includes helping curate the Super Bowl’s halftime show. But, according to Jay, the kicker was the ability to bolster the league’s Inspire Change program through a variety of avenues, including “Songs of the Season” that will entail inspirational songs from a handful of artists played during television broadcasts and “Beyond the Field,” which will feature voices and perspectives of NFL players on a multitude of topics.
Responding to questions about whether this partnership negates his previous support for Kaepernick, who still doesn’t have a job in the NFL, Jay said that it was about figuring out the next step. “I think we’ve moved past kneeling, and I think it’s time to go into actionable items.”
He continued: “No, I don’t want people to stop protesting at all. Kneeling, I know we’re stuck on it because it’s a real thing, but kneeling is a form of protest. I support protest across the board. … I’m not minimizing that part of it because that has to happen, that’s a necessary part of the process. But now that we all know what’s going on, what are we going to do? How are we going to stop it? Because the kneeling was not about a job, it was about injustice.”
It’s impossible to say it’s not about money too. Jay’s career is a case study in the pursuit of wealth. Being broke is childish, he quipped on 1997’s “I Love The Dough” alongside The Notorious B.I.G., and I’m quite grown. On “Imaginary Player,” he raps, You beer money, I’m all year money. Two billionaire conglomerates don’t come together without a return on investment. Morally, sure. Hopefully. But financially, absolutely.
The deal gives Jay the power to program annually the most watched concert in the country and one of the last remaining mass-market entertainment experiences of any kind. Roc Nation will co-produce and consult on entertainment presentations, but it boils down to one real production: the Super Bowl halftime show. In a world where the internet has all but eliminated the concept of must-see viewing, the Super Bowl draws hundreds of millions of people to a live broadcast. But it’s also a moment that, especially for black artists, has become a picket line of sorts. A considerable amount of the backlash against Jay thus far has focused on the perceived hypocrisy over his criticism of Travis Scott’s decision to perform at Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta this year.
Jay said Wednesday that Kaepernick wasn’t the rationale for his criticism of Scott. “My problem is [Travis] had the biggest year to me last year and he’s playing on a stage that had a M on it,” Jay said, referring to Maroon 5, the headline performer. “I didn’t see any reason for him to play second fiddle to anyone that year, and that was my argument.”
And while some are uneasy seeing Jay pictured laughing with Goodell, it’s not exactly the first time Jay’s been before the court of public opinion’s firing squad.
From Roc-A-Fella Records’ demise and his split with its CEO, Damon Dash, to activist Harry Belafonte questioning Jay and Beyoncé’s commitment to social responsibility in 2013, Jay continuing his partnership with luxury retailer Barneys after its “shop-and-frisk” practice ignited debates about racial profiling, and criticism of streaming company Tidal — Jay’s longevity isn’t due as much to winning every round as it is to being able to take a punch.
Now, the haymakers are coming from Kaepernick’s supporters. And it seems from Kaepernick himself.
Kaepernick’s girlfriend, Nessa, and brother-in-protest Reid criticized the deal for helping the NFL clean up the mess while Kaepernick can’t get a job in the league, even as he said last week that he was still ready to return. This week, Kaepernick put up an Instagram post commemorating the third anniversary of the start of his fight against systemic oppression. He then took to Twitter on Thursday afternoon thanking Reid for his loyalty from day one as well as the fans who still see Kaepernick as the face of a movement. Life’s irony is oftentimes wickedly poetic. Their fidelity to Kaepernick and the cause he raged against the machine for call to mind one of Jay-Z’s hardest bars from 1996’s “Feelin’ It:” If every n—a in your clique is rich, your clique is rugged / Nobody will fall ’cause everyone will be each other’s crutches.
You never turned your back on me or the people, even when the nfl tried to silence your voice & the movement. You’ve never flinched or wavered. I love you Brother! Let’s get it! @E_Reid35
And to the people – I see you, I hear you and I love you! Thank you for having my back!!! pic.twitter.com/kBJ1SCBYIq
— Colin Kaepernick (@Kaepernick7) August 15, 2019
Jay-Z’s support and praise of Kaepernick is well-documented — he once wore his jersey during a Saturday Night Live performance and dubbed him an “iconic figure” who deserved to have his name mentioned along with Muhammad Ali. Now, Jay has aligned himself with the same institution that has kept the Super Bowl runner-up quarterback off the field since the 2016 season. And in pursuit of the next phase of equality, he’s seemingly alienated the one athlete who brought the conversation into the living rooms of every house in America.
But it pays to remember that discussions similar to the ones now surrounding Jay were held about Kaepernick months ago. Kaepernick, too, aligned himself with a billion-dollar corporation in Nike in a move that drew criticism from some who felt he corporatized his cause. Did Kap, too, sell his legacy for a check? Even Uncle Luke weighed in on the issue. The truth of the matter is that Jay-Z wasn’t required to obtain Kaepernick’s blessing. But for some, Kap’s lack of involvement is a near unforgivable sin because it may have the effect of making his NFL banishment a lifelong sentence.
What does success look like in this deal? Bringing more money and quantifiable action toward social justice and educational reform is one metric. A halftime show capable of tapping into the culture and being comfortable with that messaging is too.
But it feels like there’s something else underlying the rollout. Playlists, podcasts and access to players are all opportunities Jay could’ve captured on Tidal. At Wednesday’s announcement, Jay attempted to figure out who a reporter’s question was directed toward, himself or Goodell, by quipping, “I’m not the commissioner yet.” It was a way to lighten the mood while whimsically planting a seed. Connecting the dots, this feels like it could be a path to future ownership in the NFL.
It’s a long game. Attempting to fix the league’s image might be the most uphill battle of Jay-Z’s career — especially while he’s trying to use the platform to benefit his own business interests. It’s capitalistic. It’s selfish. But it’s also a business model that he’s repeatedly used over the last quarter century.
And if it does succeed, he’d become the first black power broker in a league that has acquired a reputation for silencing black voices, not privileging them. Debates will rage on over whether it’s a savvy or snake move by Jay. But any potential buyer of an NFL team has to be someone who at least 24 of the league’s 32 team owners want as a member of one of the most exclusive (yet anything but inclusive) clubs.
How Jay handles the NFL’s inevitable next controversy, whether it be another Stephen Ross public relations debacle or President Donald Trump weaving his way back into league storylines as the 2020 election year approaches, will be interesting to watch. N—as said Hova was over, such dummies / Even if I fail I’ll land on a bunch of money, he rhymed on 2007’s “Success.”
The boast is only partially true now. Jay-Z’s bank account is secure. But his future is now intertwined with a league he blasted just last summer — and seemingly on the opposite side of the aisle from the one player who made this newfound partnership possible. It’s not a stretch to say this could be the most important and daunting blueprint of Jay-Z’s career.
Spoilers ahead! This piece includes details on the seventh season.
If you want to understand the significance of Orange Is the New Black, look at its breakout star, Danielle Brooks, who played Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson.
On Friday, Netflix released the final 13 episodes of the show that has functioned as an exemplar of what the streaming era could and should be: addictive, unique and inclusive. It used actors who are often overlooked — black women, Latinas and older women — to focus our attention on women who are completely overlooked: female prisoners.
Orange Is the New Black debuted in 2013, a few months after House of Cards, Netflix’s first foray into original programming, and it’s still the network’s most watched program. The adaptation of Piper Kerman’s memoir of life in a women’s prison made celebrities of a number of cast members, among them Uzo Aduba, Laverne Cox, Samira Wiley and Dascha Polanco. It gave Kate Mulgrew a second iconic role, as Red, after years of being known as Star Trek: Voyager’s Kathryn Janeway. Cox, thanks to her role as Sophia Burset, became the first openly transgender actor to be nominated for a prime-time Emmy.
But even surrounded by an ensemble blistering with talent, Brooks was always one of the most exciting things about Orange Is the New Black. She was originally hired to play Tasha for two episodes before getting promoted to a recurring role, and by season two she had secured a position as a series regular.
Showrunner and creator Jenji Kohan has spoken repeatedly about using the character of Piper Chapman — a sheltered, thin, liberal blonde who came from a family of means — as a “Trojan horse.” She was a device that allowed Kohan to tell the stories of women who had been disenfranchised and forgotten — women like Tasha Jefferson.
Tasha is the first person the audience sees Piper interacting with at Litchfield Correctional, the prison in upstate New York where Orange is set. The series opens with Piper’s voice narrating her life, explaining how much being clean is her “happy place,” especially when she’s bathing or showering with a romantic partner.
And then in bounces Tasha, in a cornflower blue muumuu printed with white flowers, the sort of thing that would be at home on a Southern retiree shuffling to her front porch with an Arnold Palmer in hand. Except we’re in prison, and all is not so bucolic for Piper anymore. Brooks immediately steals the scene as she tells Piper to hurry up and finish showering while there’s still a bit of hot water left.
She peeks through a rip in the shower curtain, then proclaims: “Daaaaamn, you got some nice titties! You got them TV titties. They stand up on they own, all perky and everything!”
In a matter of seconds, you had to wonder: Who is this woman, and when do we get to see more of her?
“Unlike theater, you don’t have a long rehearsal period at all,” Brooks said in a 2016 interview with the Los Angeles Times. “You just do it. You have limited time to make choices. TV has taught me to make bold choices in the moment, the minute they come to you, and not to hold back.”
Her choices paid off. Tasha quickly became a source of levity within Litchfield, sharp-tongued and skeptical of both whiteness and authority in general. But she was a nurturer too. She looked after the naive, neurodivergent Suzanne, played by Aduba. She kept her best friend Poussey, played by Wiley, from succumbing to hopelessness and addiction.
And then she changed.
Over the course of its run, Orange Is the New Black became more ambitious while the conditions at Litchfield worsened, especially after the facility was taken over by a private prison corporation bent on maximizing profits, usually at the expense of basic human decency.
The guards grew tougher, more jaded and sadistic. The inmates grew meaner, more isolated and more indignant. Their interactions and allegiances became increasingly segregated by race. Tasha, motivated by the worsening conditions at Litchfield, shows up at the prison equivalent of the Yalta Conference to represent the black inmates and negotiate a coalition of resistance. Taystee has grown up.
And then everything goes south when Poussey gets suffocated by a guard in the cafeteria.
The women had been peacefully standing on cafeteria tables to protest overcrowding and a staff of inexperienced, undertrained guards. A corrections officer calls for backup, and the guards begin wrestling the women down from the tables. A peaceful protest devolves into mayhem. When the women realize that Poussey is on the floor, lifeless, the chaos subsides. Tasha breaks free from a guard and pushes her way to her best friend’s side. She collapses on the floor beside Poussey and curls into the fetal position, embracing Poussey’s head. Brooks said she drew on the emotions and experiences of real-life women such as Diamond Reynolds, who witnessed the police shooting death of her partner Philando Castile, for this scene. The camera, which is positioned directly above the two women, pans out. It’s the last scene of the episode. The entire dynamic of Litchfield changes permanently.
From then on, Brooks depicts a person who is wracked with grief, depression and fury. Her movements become more self-protective, but also more defiant. She begins to use her size to command fear and respect. Tasha leads a prison riot that lasts for an entire season and strategizes how to make demands that would lead to substantive changes within Litchfield. There’s a sense of control that comes through in Brooks’ work in the later seasons of the show as she extinguishes the light that used to dance in Tasha’s eyes.
And then, for her efforts, Tasha is falsely blamed for the death of corrections officer Desi Piscatella, who was actually killed by a SWAT officer sent in to subdue the prisoners. Tasha is tried for murder and sentenced to live the rest of her days in Litchfield’s maximum security unit. Brooks has to sink deeper into the ugliest parts of herself. In season seven, it’s clear that Tasha doesn’t see what she has to live for. She’s become just as jaded and cruel and resigned as the guards — she has nothing left to lose. Finally released from solitary confinement, Brooks uses her body like a battering ram when she steps onto the prison yard, body-checking anyone who doesn’t have the good sense to get out of her way. Her movements become slower, and slower, as though she’s malingering toward death. Tasha now towers menacingly over the newly installed warden, Tamika (Susan Heyward), whom Tasha knew from her childhood neighborhood. The two women used to have a positive rapport. Not anymore.
Tasha is focused on finding a way to kill herself. She enters into an arrangement with Daya (Polanco), who is now running the drug ring in max, to secure enough drugs for a fatal overdose. But the enterprise is an expensive one, and Tasha begins working in the warden’s office again to earn the money to pay Daya.
But each day becomes more difficult to bear, especially when Tasha’s lawyer informs her that she’ll likely be stuck in prison forever, regardless of her innocence. Afterward, Tasha neatly arranges the few belongings in her cell. She twists the fabric she uses to make a noose. She loops the fabric around her neck, then launches her body away from the bed, feet still on the ground. For several seconds, Tasha struggles against her own body’s instincts for self-preservation. She’s crying and quietly whimpering. Slowly, desperate frustration takes over her face. She’s so miserable, and she can’t even let herself die.
Together with her castmates, Brooks has won three Screen Actors Guild Awards for outstanding performance by an ensemble in a comedy series. Still, her work on Orange has never received an individual Emmy nod. The scene in which she nearly hangs herself ought to change that.
The way she continues through the rest of season seven is just as masterful. When she doesn’t succeed in hanging herself, Tasha has to figure out how to live again, how to make it through prison knowing she’ll never experience freedom again. The journey Brooks charts back to the land of the living, to some semblance of her former self, is just as considered as the moments that take place right before Tasha thinks she’s ending her life. It’s like watching Orpheus slowly try to navigate his way out of hell.
Orange Is the New Black was Brooks’ first job after she graduated from Juilliard. It allowed the South Carolina native to showcase a range that other roles — like, say, voicing Charica in an episode of Elena of Avalor or Olive Blue in The Angry Birds Movie — have not.
During the show’s run, Brooks has become a natural at advocating for herself in an industry that tends to pigeonhole black women, especially dark-skinned, plus-size black women. Her Instagram feed is populated by photographs captioned with the hashtag #voiceofthecurves, and she’s used it to showcase herself as an enthusiastic fashion chameleon.
In a recent post for the underwear and swimsuit brand Aerie, Brooks wrote, “Middle school and high school years were really hard for me. When it came to accepting my body it felt like a forever struggle that would never ease up. Now I know that my beauty is not determined by how skinny my waistline is or how perfect my skin is. The truth is I know I am beautiful, every day, outside and in. Every pimple, stretch mark, every roll and curve are real and unretouched. My beauty shines every day in every way. And yours does too.”
She made a splash in March 2016 when she appeared on the cover of Ebony magazine with plus-size fashionista Gabi Gregg and singers Jazmine Sullivan and Chrisette Michele. The magazine dubbed them “The Body Brigade.”
By far, her biggest fashion moments have come in frocks designed by Christian Siriano, who has made a name for himself dressing women whom Hollywood and the fashion industry have a tendency to ignore.
View this post on Instagram
A post shared by Danielle Brooks (@daniebb3) on Dec 28, 2016 at 10:55am PST
Now 29 and pregnant with her first child, Brooks is clearly thinking about what’s next. If there’s any justice in the world, it will be more than a series of roles as sassy, irritable government employees or obsequious caretakers to white leads who need assistance finding themselves. Although her other on-screen roles have been limited, she’s been able to soar onstage, securing a Tony nomination for her role as Sofia in a revival of The Color Purple.
This summer, Brooks turned down a movie role to play Beatrice in a Public Theater production of Much Ado About Nothing. The entire company, directed by Kenny Leon, was black. Thanks in part to her booming, soulful singing voice, she breathed life and wit and possibility into Beatrice. At one point, she scampered into the audience and settled into the lap of an audience member. There wasn’t a soul in the house who wasn’t completely charmed by her verve and confidence with Elizabethan English.
“I started thinking, What do I want? What would I be proud of on my résumé? and for me Beatrice was that,” Brooks told Vulture. “To me, getting to play this part is opening doors to young black women that look like me or even relate to me, so that was a no-brainer.
“I look forward to being the lead in a rom-com that has a fresh take. I look forward to being in an action film,” she continued. “I look forward to playing royalty.”
I want so much for Orange Is the New Black to be more than an anomaly in the history of television. And in a lot of ways, television is different from what it was in 2013. Its success contributed to an atmosphere in which Pose could be welcomed and given a real production budget and an opportunity to do well. The older women of Orange Is the New Black made it easier to see how a show such as Grace and Frankie could thrive. Even short-lived projects such as the reboot of One Day at a Time and The Get Down owe some part of their existence to the revolutionary shift that Orange Is the New Black propelled.
Still, a 2017 study found that only 4.8% of television writers were black. It also revealed that the streaming network Hulu went an entire season without a single black writer employed on any of its original series. Whatever advances Orange ushered in are tenuous at best.
Just as Orange Is the New Black has offered new visions for what television can accomplish, let’s hope the same is true for Brooks. She’s had a terrific six years, but that’s not enough. She deserves a career that’s just as broad and challenging as her overflowing talents.
Clyde Foster came of age in Alabama in the 1950s, a place and time so oppressive for African Americans that a former Nazi rocket scientist stood out as a figure of racial moderation.
Foster’s father worked at a Birmingham iron foundry, where the dirtiest, most backbreaking jobs were reserved for African Americans. Every day he would come home dog-tired, prompting his son to vow that he would earn a living using his mind, not his back. By itself, that was an audacious plan for a black man living in Alabama.
But Foster did much more than just find himself a desk job. He became a pioneering figure in the U.S. space program. Over nearly 30 years working for NASA, beginning in the agency’s earliest days, his mathematical calculations helped propel rockets into space. His focused determination helped establish a computer science program at what is now Alabama A&M University, making the historically black institution the first public college in Alabama to offer the major. And his quiet and relentless advocacy brought hundreds of African Americans into space industry jobs in the Deep South, helping to shift perceptions of black people in ways both subtle and profound.
Beyond all that, Foster also became a small-town political leader whose influence was felt throughout Alabama. He led the effort to restore the long-forgotten charter of Triana, a once-dying black enclave of fewer than 100 families outside Huntsville. Foster served as Triana’s mayor for two decades, and his work became a model for other tiny, mostly black towns in Alabama that took control of their political lives.
“There is no other African American NASA employee who did more to get jobs for black people, to get advancement for black people and to get young people working at NASA. No one did more than Clyde Foster,” said Richard Paul, co-author of We Could Not Fail, a book about the first African Americans who worked in the space program. “On top of that, you have his entire political career, which is also groundbreaking. The man’s accomplishments are absolutely heroic.”
Foster, who was 86 when he died in 2017, was no doubt a hero, but one who most people outside Alabama had never heard of. By all accounts, he never protested, picketed or sat in. Yet he improved many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of black lives in a state where the law sanctioned blatant and often violent efforts to discount them.
“He just loved people. He wanted people to have a chance,” his widow, Dorothy Foster, 84, said in an interview. “He just wanted to help everybody. He was not the kind of activist you read about. He felt he could help blacks more by getting them employment than by getting out there and marching in the street.”
Foster was born in Birmingham in 1931, the sixth of 12 children. He went to the city’s public schools, which were segregated, as was every other public institution and accommodation in town.
“There were two sets of everything, one for the colored and one for the white,” Foster said in a 2008 interview with Paul for a radio documentary called Race and the Space Race. “Signs were posted on water fountains, restrooms.” Police harassment was a constant threat. “Whenever they would see a group of black kids assembled together, there was always some reason to go after them.”
Foster thought the best way to insulate himself from the many perils of being black in Alabama was through education. He had always been a good student, and he ended up going to Alabama A&M in Huntsville, where he majored in chemistry and mathematics. At the time, he had his eye on a teaching career.
While still in college, Foster crossed paths with Wernher von Braun, the Nazi scientist behind the V-2 rocket. Built with concentration camp slave labor, the V-2 was the world’s first long-range guided ballistic missile, and the Nazis used it to rain death on the Allies during World War II. Von Braun later came to the United States with a group of about 125 German scientists, engineers and technicians who had been captured by American soldiers. Rather than prosecute them, U.S. authorities enlisted the German scientists to develop missiles, and later spacecraft, for America.
Much of that work, the backbone of the nation’s space program, was located in the Deep South, and it began at a time when harsh segregation reigned. NASA rockets were developed under von Braun in northern Alabama, tested in rural Mississippi, manufactured in Louisiana, launched from Cape Canaveral in central Florida and monitored from Houston.
With this new mission, von Braun was quickly transformed from a warrior for the supposed Aryan master race into an advocate for science education so he could build a skilled workforce to support the space program. Perhaps not fully understanding racial dynamics in his new home, he came to all-black Alabama A&M early on for help. Von Braun wrote a script about his plans for the space program in Alabama, including the then-fanciful dream of flying men to the moon, and he asked Foster and several of his classmates to read it during an assembly at an all-white high school. It was never clear why von Braun chose to have black A&M students deliver his message to white students, and Foster later told interviewers the assembly was a flop. But the unusual encounter introduced Foster to a wondrous new industry that would eventually change his life.
Foster graduated from A&M in 1954 and was drafted into the Army, where he spent two years. He and Dorothy had met and married while in college, and when Foster came back to Alabama after completing his military commitment, he got a job teaching high school science near Selma in the central part of the state. Dorothy had remained in her hometown of Triana, and she wanted him to move back. After a year, he did.
“I told Clyde that I was going to call the Army Ballistic Missile Agency and set up an appointment for a job interview, and ‘You’re going,’ ” Dorothy recalled with a laugh. “And he did.”
Foster landed a job as a mathematician technician with the Army Ballistic Missile Agency in 1957. The agency, headed by von Braun, was located at the Redstone Arsenal, a military installation in Huntsville that would later house NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.
Foster was hired as part of a large team of people who crunched the numbers generated by gauges inside missiles and rocket engines during test flights. Their analysis allowed engineers to calculate wind resistance, the thrust of a rocket and its proper trajectory. NASA was formed a year after Foster started, and in 1960 he went to work for the new space agency.
Foster saw a bright future for himself at NASA. Working for the federal government was about as good as it got for a black man in Alabama. The pay was decent, and racial discrimination was illegal on federal property. Also, with the Kennedy administration pressing NASA to integrate the thousands of new jobs created by the space race, von Braun emerged as an advocate for integration. The New York Times once called him “one of the most outspoken spokesmen for racial moderation in the South.” Von Braun himself said the space age would belong to “those who can shed the shackles of the past.”
Outside the gates of Marshall, however, Alabama was still Alabama.
George Wallace, who had lost the 1958 governor’s race in part because he was perceived as insufficiently harsh when it came to race, took office as governor in 1963. In his inaugural address, he famously vowed, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” The next year, Wallace tried to back up his words by standing in the doorway of an auditorium at the University of Alabama in what was ultimately a vain attempt to prevent two black students from enrolling.
Foster and the handful of other African Americans among the thousands of employees at Marshall were inevitably harmed by that racism. Employees looking to move up had to take training classes, but many of those classes were off-limits to blacks because they were held off base at hotels and other segregated public facilities. Foster once took a telemetry course in Atlanta, but he had to stay at what he called a “fly-by-night” hotel miles from the training center. Still, he told interviewers, he never missed a session.
A few years after he started at NASA, Foster was angered by a supervisor’s request to train a white co-worker to be his boss. He refused the request and then complained to higher-ranking NASA officials about the situation black workers faced. He demanded training programs that black workers could readily take advantage of. Soon a deal was struck: NASA would hold separate training sessions for black workers at Alabama A&M, often importing instructors from out of town. It was an odd compromise: segregated training classes when the country was moving to root out segregation. But it was the best Foster could do. More than 100 black employees eventually took advantage of the separate-but-equal NASA training, which would prove to be the foundation of Foster’s legacy at NASA.
“I would say his most significant contribution to NASA directly would be the training program,” said Steven Moss, the other co-author of We Could Not Fail. “He made it so black workers did not have to jump through all the hoops that others before them did. Then, later, he helped so many people get jobs. As I talked to people at other NASA facilities in the Deep South, you can kind of see the family tree. They would trace who they work for, or who helped them, and it always came back to Clyde Foster.”
Even though Foster did not work in personnel, NASA would tap him to travel to colleges around the country to recruit African Americans trained in science or engineering to come work at Marshall. It was not easy for NASA to attract skilled white employees to Alabama, given the state’s horrible reputation for racial violence. It was even harder for Foster to attract black workers.
“I would tell [recruits] Huntsville was really not as bad … as the image George Wallace was given,” Foster said in a 1990 interview for a NASA oral history. “I told them, ‘Now, if you really wanted the challenge, good discipline, the space program has it for you.’ ”
The black scientists, engineers and technicians who did join NASA found Foster to be a willing mentor, no matter whether he had recruited them.
James Jennings was a math major at A&M when he met Foster, who was a regular presence at his alma mater in the mid-1960s. At the time, Jennings was about 20, and he looked up to Foster, who was in his mid-30s. Jennings took some computer classes that ignited his interest in working in the space program, which in those days represented the pinnacle of technological innovation. Jennings began as a co-op student at NASA and ended up spending almost four decades at the agency. He said Foster was a mentor nearly every step of the way.
“When I went to NASA, that was my first introduction into a predominantly white organization,” Jennings recalled in an interview. “I was kind of excited and apprehensive at the same time. I really didn’t know how our education would hold up, but it did not take me very long to understand that my education was on par or better than many of the white students who worked there.”
One thing that helped, he said, was Foster’s constant support. “He took me under his wing. He used to call everybody ‘Horse.’ He told me, ‘Horse, if you keep your nose clean and do your job, you could go far in this organization.’ ”
Jennings proved Foster correct, as he ended up working at NASA’s Washington headquarters in the government’s highest civil service rank before his retirement in 2005.
“Clyde always was encouraging and looked to give me opportunities for visibility,” Jennings said. “If your work is not visible to others, it is easy for your supervisor not to promote you. Clyde knew that, and he was always encouraging us to volunteer for committees and special projects.”
In an effort to create a pipeline of black workers into NASA, Foster persuaded von Braun to allow him to set up a computer science program at A&M. NASA provided grants to help get the program going, although at first Foster struggled to persuade A&M officials that it was worthwhile.
Founded in the wake of the Civil War, A&M had always focused on training students for jobs that black people could get in Jim Crow Alabama: teaching, nursing, farming and certain kinds of engineering. When Foster talked about building a computer science program to train students to send rockets to the moon, the skepticism was palpable.
“Black administrators were not interested, and they did not pursue this money because the program was there for them to develop other kinds of programs,” Foster said in the 2008 interview. “The most that we had was electronic, or electrical and mechanical engineering. [We had] civil engineering — we had to build some damn roads — but we [were] talking about building a pathway to space.”
Eventually, Foster won over the A&M officials. NASA paid Foster’s salary for two years while he worked to establish the program, which went online in 1969.
“Everything he did, I think he realized he was making a difference,” Jennings said of Foster. “But he was not the kind of person looking to take credit for it.”
In the late 1970s, Foster took a job in NASA’s Equal Employment Opportunity Office, which got him away from the technical heart of the agency but gave him more leverage to help black people get a leg up.
“I thought I could make an even greater contribution to increase the workforce to a more integrated workforce,” Foster said in the 1990 interview. Foster was director of Marshall’s EEO office when he retired from NASA in 1987.
His advocacy did not stop at work. Foster served on Alabama’s Commission on Higher Education, to which he was first appointed by Wallace in 1974. That was besides his groundbreaking work as the mayor of Triana. His work to re-establish the town’s charter cleared the way for Triana to receive federal grants for a series of major upgrades, including building the town’s first water system, installing its first streetlights, paving its gravel streets and renovating the town hall, which previously had been a coal-heated shack.
Following Foster’s example, about a dozen African American towns were able to reincorporate and, in some cases, make similarly dramatic improvements. The new political control also allowed a generation of black mayors, police chiefs, sheriffs and other local officials to gain experience in office.
Decades later, Foster led the legal fight against a chemical company that had poisoned the town’s waterways with DDT, resulting in a $24 million settlement for Triana residents.
Foster credited his experience at NASA for giving him the confidence and know-how to conquer the many challenges he confronted.
“If I hadn’t had these experiences early in life to cross over into these areas: political, education, business,” he said. “All of that was done because of the experience I had with NASA.”
This article is being published in collaboration with American Experience/WGBH as part of its series “Chasing the Moon,” which examines the scientific, political and personal dramas behind the space race on the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing. PBS will broadcast a film across three nights starting at 9 p.m. EDT/8 p.m. CDT on July 8. Short digital films, articles, timelines and comics, including pieces on the first African American to be trained as an astronaut, the desegregation of Huntsville, and the Poor People’s Campaign protest at the Kennedy Space Center, can be found here.
It is not uncommon to see Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers and owner Steve Ballmer talk hoops before a game. Ballmer typically peppers Rivers with questions about his beloved Clippers as if he is a member of the media. Rivers shares details and typically throws in a joke that makes the fun-loving Ballmer smile.
It is a way different dynamic from what Rivers had with the team’s previous owner, Donald Sterling. Rivers told The Undefeated he has not spoken to his old boss since TMZ released audio on April 26, 2014, of Sterling making racist comments to his then-girlfriend.
“There is no need to,” Rivers said. “I don’t know why or what he was thinking or whatever. … It doesn’t matter to me. It’s already been done and said. I haven’t heard from him. It’s not like I am mad. But why? We don’t need to talk.”
Five years ago, on April 29, 2014, the controversial owner was banned for life by the NBA for his comments in what was one of the strongest penalties in American sports history. He was later forced to sell the team.
At that time, the Clippers were also pursuing an NBA title. They were the No. 3 seed in the 2014 Western Conference playoffs facing an up-and-coming Golden State Warriors team in the first round. The Clippers took a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series with a 98-96 victory in Oakland on April 24. But two days later, their momentum came to a crashing halt after Sterling’s remarks became public.
News traveled fast within the organization. Game 4 was the following day. How would Rivers & Co. respond to their owner being involved in one of the biggest scandals in sports?
The Undefeated looks back at the franchise’s last days under Sterling, five years later, through the recollections of those who endured it.
‘THEY TOLD ME IT WASN’T A BIG DEAL’
Sterling has a long history of racist behavior and had been sued on two occasions for allegedly declining to rent apartments to African Americans and Hispanics. He was also sued in 2009 by former Clippers general manager Elgin Baylor, who accused him of age and racial discrimination. There is also a well-known story of the Clippers owner once going into his team’s locker room after a game while players were dressing and telling his friends, “Look at those beautiful black bodies.”
Rivers said he first caught wind on April 23, 2014, that Sterling had made some controversial comments but was told by a Clippers executive they “weren’t a big deal.” Rivers alerted his players during a team meeting at the Four Seasons Hotel in San Francisco that the story was expected to come out, but he didn’t have details to offer.
Blake Griffin: “We remember having a meeting and Doc was saying what was happening. When he explained it, I don’t think everyone understood the magnitude of what it was going to be.”
Doc Rivers: “I was misled in that whole thing, and that is a story for the book one day. But I was told there was a story coming out and it wasn’t a big deal beforehand. I had a chance two days before to look at it. But they told me it wasn’t a big deal.”
Ryan Hollins: “Doc said that Sterling said something stupid with racial undertones to a woman, but it was not expected to be that big of a deal as it ended up being.”
Rivers: “I took this job. I knew there was going to be risk. I clearly didn’t know there was going to be that type of risk.”
‘THOSE WORDS HURT, THOSE WORDS PIERCED’
At 10 p.m. PDT on April 24, 2014, TMZ released a recording in which a married Sterling made racial comments to his girlfriend V. Stiviano, criticizing her for putting pictures on social media with well-known African Americans, including former Los Angeles Lakers star Magic Johnson and then-Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Matt Kemp.
TMZ reported that the private taping of Sterling’s racist rant took place on April 9, 2014, after Stiviano posted a picture of her with Johnson on Instagram.
Some of Sterling’s racist audio excerpts released by TMZ included:
“It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people. Do you have to?”
“You can sleep with [black men]. You can bring them in, you can do whatever you want. The little I ask you is not to promote it on that … and not to bring them to my games.”
“I’m just saying, in your lousy f—— Instagrams, you don’t have to have yourself with, walking with black people.”
“… Don’t put him [Johnson] on an Instagram for the world to have to see so they have to call me. And don’t bring him to my games.”
A stunned Rivers finally listened to the audio just before it was released.
“One of our PR guys heard it an hour and a half before it came out and he said, ‘Doc, I think you need to see this video,’ ” Rivers said. “And I went to see it and I was incensed. I was pissed. I didn’t really know what to do.”
Rivers quickly called a late-night team meeting at the hotel to talk about the Sterling report. Wearing a Clippers T-shirt, Rivers entered the meeting room, where incensed players were waiting.
Griffin: “We pretty much found out exactly what it was with everyone else.”
Willie Green: “We all got the news at the same time as the reports were coming out. We were shocked to hear it, and we all heard rumors. To hear the actual words that he said were shocking.”
Hollins: “When it came out, I was blindsided. We didn’t know it was going to be like that. We were told that he made some comments that were racially charged, but we didn’t know what they were. I guess the one that struck us was the Magic Johnson stuff, the black guy in the building. When we heard those words, those words hurt. Those words pierced.”
Rivers: “I let them know I was black too. It was funny. They were pissed at everybody, including me. That is one of the things that broke the ice. I said, ‘By the way, guys, my name is Glenn Rivers. I’m from Maywood, Illinois, and I’m black.’
“The other thing I said is I need you to trust me. I will allow you guys to choose what you want me to say, but I need you to trust me and have one voice. If I have learned one thing about racism, and I’ve been through a lot of things with racism, they never want to go after the guy that says this stuff like Sterling. They want to go after the persecuted. Everyone wants to know how the persecuted will respond rather than focusing on the guy that did something.”
Matt Barnes: “What he said was more of a shake-my-head situation than being mad. I thought he finally got caught up with this bum-a– chick no one liked. As far as the racial comments, I’ve heard much worse and have had worse done to me, so it wasn’t that big of a deal. I thought he wasn’t the only owner that felt that way. He was just the only one dumb enough to get caught saying it.”
Chris Paul: “I remember meeting as a team and Doc asking us how we wanted to handle it. We agreed that we would have just one voice and let that voice with Doc. I absolutely agreed with that.”
Rivers: “I was so concerned that someone from our team would say something crazy and then they were the story. And that is what we talked about. From DJ [DeAndre Jordan] to Blake, they decided what they wanted to do. They let me be the voice, and that was huge for us because we got through that without any other controversy.”
After the Sterling news broke, Rivers said Sterling and then-Clippers president Andy Roeser were not available. Roeser later took a leave of absence on May 6, 2014, and never returned to the position.
Hollins: “I was in the elevator with the man [Sterling] right after it came out. It was awkward. I shook his hand like normal. To me, the news didn’t change anything for me. We knew. Everyone knew his mindset. Man, that elevator ride took a while. He was fighting someone on the elevator. He didn’t understand. He was like, ‘This is business as usual.’ He was saying he was going to be at [Game 4]. ‘See you tomorrow.’
“To this day, he might not see the severity. He doesn’t see it as racism. For Donald’s mindset, it was like, ‘This is for me and this is for you.’ This is not necessarily that I am better than you. It was like, ‘This is what you do and this is what I do.’ ”
Rivers: “I was by myself. … I had no one to run stuff by. And a lot of people don’t know that [NBA commissioner] Adam [Silver] texted me saying, ‘This is my private number. Text me every second that you need something.’ That was huge.”
‘PEOPLE WERE CALLING US TO BOYCOTT’
The Clippers practiced at the University of San Francisco’s War Memorial Gym on the eve of Game 4 on Saturday, April 26, 2014. The venue was the home of former Dons and NBA legend Bill Russell, who faced a lot of racial discrimination while playing for the Boston Celtics.
Rivers told a media horde that Sterling’s racist statements were not going to distract his team. Paul and Griffin also addressed the media. And while Rivers voiced that his players would not be distracted, it was quite the contrary. They were getting so many calls and texts from family and friends that it was impossible for them to block it out.
Paul: “There were a whole lot of people in our ears. Everybody’s phone was going crazy, saying this and saying that. They were telling what you should and shouldn’t do. For us, we were trying to stay together as much as possible. And whatever we did, we wanted to do it together as a team.”
Hollins: “It was so awkward, man. You are trying to focus on the job at hand. Then you have a game to play. There was a lot of energy in different places. It was kind of weird. And honestly, it divided our team. It divided a lot of stuff we were doing. A lot of people got too focused on it. Other people in their mind weren’t too focused on it. And then basketball was there. You’re getting torn in different places, and then your friends and family are saying certain things. But I don’t think we aired it all the right way.”
Griffin: “As far as distractions go, I don’t know if there could have been a bigger thing. Everybody was calling for us to do something. At one point I had to stop answering questions from people I was close to just because it was the playoffs. Doc was always talking to us about keeping your box. You got your family, but everything else goes outside the box. That was crazy because people were calling for us to boycott, and then we had to make a decision.”
There was an uncomfortable buzz in Oracle Arena on April 27, ahead of Game 4. There were rumors that Jordan and Barnes specifically, and perhaps the Clippers as a whole, would boycott the game. Warriors forward Draymond Green also told The Undefeated that he heard the Clippers players considered not playing. The Warriors were in the other locker room awaiting word on what the Clippers were going to do and planned to support them.
Barnes said Rivers left it up to the players to decide whether they wanted to boycott and just asked that they make a uniform decision. Ultimately, the Clippers players determined as a whole that their quest for a title was bigger than Sterling.
Draymond Green: “I remember the awkwardness of the whole time from when it was released to leading to the game. … Everyone seemed antsy. The most important thing was everyone was standing with them. Guys on our team were standing with them. It was a sad situation. Obviously, it didn’t just affect them, although they were playing on the team he owned. It was bigger than that. It was about our culture as a whole. It was crazy.”
Warriors guard Klay Thompson: “I felt bad for those guys. They were in a tough position. … It was definitely a possibility that they boycotted the game, and it would’ve been completely justified.”
Jordan: “I wasn’t going to play. I felt like that was a representation of us. And for me, obviously being a black player, I didn’t want to go out there and represent that. That isn’t what I am about. My teammates, I will keep their names to myself, but they agreed with me on that — and they weren’t all black.
“I wasn’t being negative or anything, but I was standing for something bigger than myself. But ultimately, when you’re a player coming up, you’re not like, ‘Oh, I want to compete for this.’ You want to do it for your teammates. So ultimately, that swayed me to go out there and fight for my guys.”
Griffin: “We never played for Sterling anyway. It wasn’t like we were going out representing Sterling. We were representing our families, the city of Los Angeles and our fans. It all took care of itself in the end. We took the appropriate stand.”
Willie Green: “The best thing for us to do was play. We had a meeting, we decided to come out, play and represent the city of Los Angeles and each other. We stayed together and tried to win.”
Barnes: “Not playing was briefly discussed, but I think we all came to the realization that we’re never playing for Donald in the first place. … Plus, we felt we had a championship-caliber team that year. … I have zero regrets.”
Hollins: “We could’ve not played. But I didn’t join the league for Donald Sterling. There are so many more racist people; he was just the one that got caught. I play for my family. I play for my city. It was weird. That is how I feed my kids, doing this. If you had a racist boss, you’re not going to participate [in your job]? It was just funny. People were telling me to give up on a couple million dollars, a couple hundred thousand, or whatever it might be, in my career for someone who is racist.”
Paul: “It was weird. It was kind of eerie. There is a part of you that is saying don’t play. Then there is a part that says if you don’t, you can be letting each other down. We are not playing for them. We’re playing for each other. It was different.”
The Clippers looked solemn as they ran out for warm-ups to a sold-out crowd before the game started. Yes, they were going to actually play in the nationally televised game on a Sunday despite the Sterling cloud hovering over the team. The Clippers made a statement when they took off their warm-up jackets with “Clippers” on them and tossed them at midcourt. The players then engaged in warm-ups donning long-sleeved red T-shirts turned inside out so the team nickname would not be seen.
The Clippers’ blue jerseys said “Los Angeles” on the front, and the players wore black socks and armbands. The Warriors routed the Clippers, 118-97, in Game 4 to even the series at 2-2.
Griffin: “I just remember the chaos, but with every situation I try to remember something positive. I just remember coming out here taking our warm-ups off and turning them inside out. I remember getting the cheers from the fans here, and at that time that didn’t [usually] happen. It was kind of in the middle of us clashing.”
Hollins: “I don’t know if throwing our shirts off did anything, honestly.”
Paul: “It was easy to say it was hard to play because we got smacked. But I don’t remember too much about that game.”
Hollins: “It was Game 4, and we were better than Golden State then. We were going to come in and take care of business and mess everything up. But they didn’t hold anything back. They let us have it. They had that energy.”
Jordan: “Do I regret playing? No, I don’t regret playing. We got our a– whooped up in Golden State anyway. I am glad I played because those group of guys, they will be connected for life.”
STERLING BANNED BY NBA
Rumors were circulating that Clippers players were considering sitting out of Game 5 on April 29, 2014, in Los Angeles. Players on other teams around the league were considering sitting out as well. NBA sponsors were threatening to leave their partnership with the league. Meanwhile, several current and former NBA players, including former NBA star and then-Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Steve Nash, Tyson Chandler, A.C. Green and Norm Nixon took part in a union rally in L.A., ready to respond to word of Sterling’s punishment expected that day.
The pressure was on Adam Silver, who had replaced longtime NBA commissioner David Stern on Feb. 1, 2014. Silver came down hard on Sterling, announcing the Clippers owner was banned for life from any association with the NBA and the Clippers and was fined an NBA maximum $2.5 million. NBA owners later gave the needed vote to force Sterling to sell the team.
Many of the Clippers players got the news at their practice facility.
Paul: “I remember all those guys going to City Hall and saying something. It was a weird space for us because we were not only the team involved, but we were playing. Doc was trying to not only lock us in on the series and the game but what we were trying to do, and not use that as an out. I remember the first game back. It was unreal. Everybody wore black.”
Griffin: “Adam Silver, through Doc, told us he was going to handle the situation, and he did. We did what we were supposed to do. We were playing for something much bigger than Sterling. It was never our intent.
“We got together and handled it the best way we could have. As a team, you start training camp and go through the pain of the regular season. And you play basketball to get to the playoffs. For us to boycott the playoffs and ultimately lose a playoff series, it wouldn’t have been fair to us. You have to think somewhat selfishly.”
Draymond Green: “I didn’t think anyone was going to play. But once Adam made his announcement, it was so strong that at that point there was no reason for anyone to say anything about the stance.”
Thompson: “Everyone was really happy with how quickly Adam Silver reacted. That was great standing up for all the players on racism, institutionalism and all of that crap. Adam had our back.”
Rivers: “He was the right guy at the right time. My mama always said, ‘You’re right where you are supposed to be.’ That was my mother’s favorite saying. Adam was at the right spot at the right time.”
Hollins: “For Adam Silver, that was his strongest, ‘I’m here.’ Instead of being in the background and shying away from difficult decisions, he made a big decision moving on from Donald.”
The Clippers went on to defeat the Warriors in Game 5 and won the series in seven games. However, their title hopes ended after they lost to the Oklahoma City Thunder in six games in the second round.
On May 29, 2014, former Microsoft chief executive Ballmer won a bidding war for ownership of the Clippers, purchasing the team for a then-NBA record $2 billion.
FIVE YEARS LATER
No current players are left from the 2013-14 Clippers team. Paul was granted a request to be traded to the Houston Rockets on June 29, 2017. Griffin was re-signed by the Clippers to a five-year, $173 million deal that same summer but was traded to the Detroit Pistons on Jan. 29, 2018. Jordan is two teams removed after playing for the Dallas Mavericks and New York Knicks this season. Willie Green is an assistant coach with the Warriors. Barnes is retired. And Hollins is a television sports analyst for the Clippers and NBA.
After losing to the Clippers in that first-round series in 2014, Golden State has been to the NBA Finals every year since and won three championships. Barnes, who was on the Warriors’ title team in 2017, said, “I knew then they were going to be a problem.”
Rivers, meanwhile, is the last man standing on the Clippers and enjoying perhaps his finest coaching performance this season. The Clippers hope to be a major player in free agency this summer with the ability to sign two major free agents.
On Wednesday night, the Clippers are back in Oracle Arena to play the Warriors during Game 5 of their first-round series.
Jordan: “We had our opportunities. We had six years to us three, J.J. [Redick] and Jamal [Crawford]. We had really good teams, but we just couldn’t get over the hump. That happens after a while. Either you keep it going and believe in it or revamp, which ultimately they decided to do.”
Hollins: “Ballmer has gone all in. Before, Blake, DJ and Chris would get the preferential treatment, the massages, whatever that may be. The 15th man gets that now. The 15th man gets a scouting report, access to training. It’s just on another level. He’s really invested into the squad. It’s not surprising the success that he is having. Even the young guys.”
Rivers: “When I came here, no free agent would say they want to play for the Clippers. Now, every free agent says they want to play in L.A. And they don’t mean the other team [the Lakers], they mean both. To me, that is a big measure of success of where the franchise has become. The next step is getting [free agents] and then winning.”
Nobody knows what to do with Bigger Thomas.
The lead character of Richard Wright’s seminal 1940 novel, Native Son, is one of the most frustrating in American literature. The latest evidence is a new film adaptation written by the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks and directed by visual artist Rashid Johnson in his feature film debut. It airs at 10 p.m. Saturday on HBO.
The Bigger Wright left us on the page is a 20-year-old black man who lives in a one-room Chicago tenement with his brother, sister and mother in 1939. In Wright’s opening scene, Bigger wakes up in the family’s freezing apartment and pounds a giant rat to death with an iron skillet. Bigger is bitterly aware of the limitations his race and class have predetermined for him, and so are his friends. They have nothing, and so they rob other black folks of their tiny bit of something. Bigger seems doomed to a small, miserable life until he gets a job across town as a chauffeur for a wealthy white family, the Daltons. The Daltons don’t consider themselves racists, but they benefit handsomely from the structural circumstances that have placed a boot upon Bigger’s neck.
What follows is tragic: A panicked Bigger accidentally kills the Dalton heiress, Mary, whose kindness and uninformed, if well-intentioned, habitual racial line-stepping do more to endanger Bigger than help him. After a night out with her boyfriend, Jan, Mary drunkenly invites Bigger, who’s driven her home, to her bedroom. Bigger assents, hoping to simply settle Mary in her room before stealing off to his own in the back of the house. Instead, he smothers her to death out of fear they’ll be discovered and he’ll be fired. Afterward, Bigger shoves Mary’s body into the mansion’s furnace.
When reporters discover bones and jewelry among the furnace’s ashes, Bigger flees. He explains to his girlfriend, Bessie, how he ended up killing Mary, then rapes and kills Bessie too, disposing of her body down an air shaft. When he’s finally caught, Bigger is bound for the executioner’s chair.
Needless to say, this is not a character who inspires sympathy. The HBO movie is the third attempt to bring Bigger to life on film. (In 1941, Orson Welles produced and directed the story as a play.) Wright actually starred as Bigger in a 1951 version of Native Son filmed in Argentina by the Belgian director Pierre Chenal. A 1986 version, with Victor Love as Bigger, had a big-name Hollywood cast, including Matt Dillon, Elizabeth McGovern, Geraldine Page and Oprah Winfrey.
Each of them has had to struggle with hard questions about Wright’s central character: How much of Bigger’s awfulness can be attributed to a country that twisted him into a murderer and how much of his evil is individual? Is cruelty from those denied dignity inevitable or a choice? Is Bigger a person or a literary device manufactured to inspire horror?
Nearly 80 years after Native Son was first published, we’re still searching for answers.
This latest film adaptation, produced by A24 (the company behind Moonlight, Lady Bird and First Reformed) has the distinction of being the brainchild of a student of James Baldwin — Parks studied creative writing under Baldwin at Mount Holyoke College.
Baldwin famously seethed at Wright’s interpretation of black life and dismissed Native Son as a “protest novel” full of one-dimensional stereotypes, and he likened Bigger to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom.
“Bigger is Uncle Tom’s descendant, flesh of his flesh, so exactly opposite a portrait that, when the books are placed together, it seems the contemporary Negro novelist and the dead New England woman are locked together in a deadly, timeless battle; the one uttering merciless exhortations, the other shouting curses,” Baldwin wrote in the essay Everybody’s Protest Novel. And yet Baldwin softened his stance toward Wright and Native Son after Wright’s death in 1960. Wrote Baldwin in Alas, Poor Richard:
Shortly after we learned of Richard Wright’s death, a Negro woman who was rereading Native Son told me that it meant more to her now than it had when she had first read it. This, she said, was because the specific social climate which had produced it, or with which it was identified, seemed archaic now, was fading from our memories. Now, there was only the book itself to deal with, for it could no longer be read, as it had been in 1940, as a militant racial manifesto. Today’s racial manifestoes were being written very differently, and in many languages; what mattered about the book now was how accurately or deeply the life of Chicago’s South Side had been conveyed.
The ambivalence Bigger inspires in Baldwin and others has come to be one of his defining characteristics. In 1986, Temple University professor David Bradley, writing an introduction for a new edition of the novel, shared his roller coaster of emotions about Native Son, which fluctuated with each new reading.
Both the 1986 film and the new one struggle with the monstrousness of Bigger’s actions — and both decided to dull them. Neither one includes Bigger’s rape and murder of Bessie. It’s the biggest omission from both versions, and especially notable in this latest adaptation, given how much Parks and Johnson elected to change.
They removed Bigger from the South Side of 1939 and dropped him into modern-day Chicago, simultaneously eradicating the bleakness of Bigger’s life as Wright fashioned it. Bigger no longer shares a one-room apartment with his mother, sister and brother but rather a multiroom unit with space for a dining table where the family gathers regularly. His mother, Trudy (Sanaa Lathan), is an ambitious paralegal eyeing law school, not a desperate washerwoman consigned to abject poverty. Trudy has a romantic partner, a do-gooder lawyer named Marty (David Alan Grier). The Thomas household is warm and structured, and there isn’t nearly as much pressure on Bigger to get a job to prevent his family from being turned out on the street.
Bigger, too, has undergone renovation. Played by Ashton Sanders (best known for portraying high school-age Chiron in Moonlight), this modern Bigger sports green hair, black fingernail polish, and an assortment of black coats and jackets customized with graffiti and patches. He’s an Afropunk and an anarchist who prefers the sounds of Bad Brains, Minor Threat and Death, as opposed to, say, Chief Keef. Sanders is tall and lanky, and he mostly plays Bigger as a quiet kid who folds into himself but who can be goaded into violent outbursts. His girlfriend, Bessie (KiKi Layne), has been transformed from a figure of pitiable, gin-soaked scorn into a sober and sensible hairdresser.
From the book to the screen, Wright’s white characters remain the most static. Mrs. Dalton is always blind, and Mr. Dalton is always the dutiful limousine liberal who sees himself as doing what he can to help the downtrodden Negroes on the other side of town. Mary Dalton (Margaret Qualley) and her boyfriend, Jan Erlone (Nick Robinson), remain a couple of rebellious anti-capitalists (here, they’re Occupy Wall Street sympathizers) thumbing their noses at Mr. Dalton’s money and privilege while simultaneously enjoying it.
The urge to use a new adaptation of Native Son as a corrective to the perceived faults of Wright’s original work is understandable, especially when its setting, Chicago, is repeatedly slandered as a cesspool of black cultural pathologies. Its murder rate trails that of several other cities, and yet it’s seen as an avatar for gun violence and a favorite example of those looking to deploy the whataboutism of “black-on-black” crime. Chicago is the home of Emmett Till and Laquan McDonald, and somehow also the place that produced Barack Obama and Harold Washington. Victims of white supremacy and heroes who manage to dodge it are much easier to hold in one’s head. But where do we place Bigger?
If we take him as Wright wrote him, perhaps the only appropriate place is exile. Maybe that’s why the resulting Bigger imagined by Parks and Johnson is far more sympathetic than Wright’s original rendering. For instance, Johnson neglects to show Bigger decapitating Mary once he realizes her body is too big to fully fit in the furnace. And in this modern version, Bigger never makes it to jail, much less a trial. He’s gunned down by Chicago police officers the moment they find him.
Parks and Johnson gesture at Bigger’s violence toward Bessie — he begins to strangle her but doesn’t go through with the deed. Bigger’s sexual violence, though, is completely eliminated. When I spoke to Johnson recently at HBO’s offices in New York, he told me that he thought of Bessie’s survival as the truest outcome for this retelling.
“Between 1939 and today, stories around violence towards women and the way that we interpret them has changed dramatically,” Johnson said. “I was raised by a black woman who’s an academic and a feminist. I am not capable of telling stories where a woman is treated violently in the respect that Bigger treats Bessie in the book. That’s not something that I’m interested in.
“I think it neuters the other aspects of the story that are quite complicated around both race, class, etc. I think that it does a damage to the story and its contemporary telling, that story cannot survive. So we’d originally written it with the murder of Bessie and the rape of Bessie and the story, and I read that version in the script because we tried to keep as much in as possible in our early stages of interpreting it. And I called Suzan-Lori Parks very early in the morning and I said, ‘There’s something that is very challenging for me,’ and she said, ‘We can’t murder and rape Bessie.’ ”
Yet black and Native American women today experience the highest rates of death as a result of intimate partner violence, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Wright’s Native Son, in part, is a tale of black masculinity, disfigured by white supremacy and run amok. It is a horror story, in the way that Toni Morrison’s Beloved can be seen as horror too.
In 2015, when Straight Outta Compton was released, hip-hop journalist Dee Barnes wrote about the violence she experienced at the hands of Dr. Dre. “There is a direct connection between the oppression of black men and the violence perpetrated by black men against black women,” she wrote. “It is a cycle of victimization and reenactment of violence that is rooted in racism and perpetuated by patriarchy.”
It’s impossible to separate the murder and rape of Bessie from any discussion about how race and class have victimized Bigger. The same factors contribute to Bigger’s abuse of Bessie, although they do not excuse it. We can see a contemporary example of this dynamic in Erik Killmonger, the villain of Black Panther. Like Bigger, Killmonger is meant to engender sympathy, for the United States turned him into what he is: a psychopathic human instrument of death seeking revenge and power. And yet, for all his wokeness regarding imperialist theft, Killmonger has little regard for women. He does not hesitate to kill them, and he certainly doesn’t have any remorse about it.
When we turn away from black misogyny, as Parks and Johnson do, and as filmmaker F. Gary Gray did in Straight Outta Compton, we do a disservice to black women’s lived reality — the stories preserved on-screen tell an incomplete truth.
This new Native Son from Parks and Johnson doesn’t answer many of the questions Wright presents. Rather, it leaves us with even more questions: How can a film adaptation work if it excises one of the most horrifying scenes in its source material? And can Native Son truly capture the worst effects of America’s subjugation of black people if it turns away from the mortal injuries that befall black women as a result of it?
1688 — First formal protest against slavery by a religious group in the English colonies is held. Four Pennsylvania Quakers write and present their opposition to slavery and human trafficking. Their document read, in part, “we shall doe to all men licke as we will be done ourselves; macking no difference of what generation, descent or Colour they are.”
1896 — Razor-stropping device is patented. Henry Grenon patents the razor-stropping device, a tool that was mainly used to sharpen blades for barbers.
1903 — First all-black musical opens on Broadway. In Dahomey, a musical comedy and the first full-length musical written, produced and performed by blacks, opened at the New York Theatre and ran for 53 performances. It featured music by Will Marion Cook from the book by Jesse A. Shipp, and lyrics by Paul Laurence Dunbar.
1931 — Happy birthday, Toni Morrison. Morrison is born in Lorain, Ohio. Morrison, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012 from then-President Barack Obama. The Bluest Eye, was published in 1970, and attracted immediate attention. Among her many other works are Sula, Song of Solomon and Tar Baby. Beloved, a Pulitzer Prize winner published in 1988, is regarded by many as Morrison’s most successful work.
2006 — Shani Davis becomes the first black person to win an individual gold medal in Winter Olympics history. Davis won the men’s 1,000-meter speed skating race in Turin, Italy.
NBA legend Dell Curry didn’t see professional basketball as a career choice growing up. Instead, it was another field that captured his attention.
“I wanted to go into law enforcement,” Curry said. “I had no idea I’d be an NBA player. Basketball helped me bridge that gap. I wasn’t the best student in high school, but once I realized what I wanted to do, I had to have good grades to help get me focused, disciplined and dedicated to my craft.”
Curry was drafted by the Charlotte Hornets in 1986, where he retired in 2002 as the team’s all-time leader in points. But the father of Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry and Portland Trail Blazers guard Seth Curry still had thoughts of becoming involved in law enforcement.
More than three decades later, Dell Curry and the Curry Family Foundation are part of the seventh installment of Building Bridges Through Basketball, an NBA program designed to forge a relationship between police and youths in communities.
On Saturday, the program was launched at the Naomi Drenan Recreation Center in Charlotte, North Carolina, the same location where brothers Stephen and Seth Curry spent countless hours practicing. It’s one of the centers in the local area where the siblings started playing basketball. Children participated in skills drills and interacted with members of law enforcement.
Weekly sessions will begin at the center March 9, with 2.5-hour classes featuring basketball training and hands-on leadership activities developed by the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality (RISE), to focus on identity, diversity and conflict resolution.
Two newly renovated outdoor basketball courts were also revealed on Saturday, courtesy of the Curry Family Foundation and Under Armour in partnership with Nancy Lieberman Charities.
Seth Curry, NBA Cares ambassadors Bob Lanier and Felipe Lopez, Lieberman, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper and RISE CEO Diahann Billings-Burford all attended.
“We have to build relationships and it’s not just the relationships with our children,” Billings-Burford said. “Law enforcement officers have to see and understand our children just like our children have to see and understand law enforcement officers. We’re bridging that divide to make a difference every day like in the streets. Even as we protest and we fight injustice, we also just have to improve conditions everywhere we can.”
Cooper hosted a similar program in 2009 when he was North Carolina’s attorney general. Badges for Baseball in North Carolina served more than 1,500 youths in 17 communities across the state. Cooper used sports as a catalyst to enhance communication between police and the community.
“I think that many communities yearn for a voice and yearn for respect and I think there are a lot of law enforcement officers that really want to bridge that gap … ,” Cooper said. “Sports is an amazing way to do this.”
Building Bridges took off nearly a year after LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony used their platform to spread awareness on social injustice at The ESPYS in 2016. Their speech was delivered in the wake of fatal shootings by police and it soon began to take on a broader awareness.
The NBA launched the 10-week Building Bridges program to help build trust and bridge divides in the community. They partnered with Under Armour, then with RISE to facilitate the curriculum. According to the NBA, more than 11,500 youths and members of law enforcement since 2016 have come together in the initial six Building Bridges Through Basketball programs. With New Orleans as the inaugural site in 2016, other cities involved are Chicago (2), Detroit (2), Los Angeles and Charlotte.
Rashawn Ray, associate professor of sociology and director of the Lab for Applied Social Science Research at the University of Maryland, said the program is a start in the right direction.
“I tend to think that the NBA is definitely doing something that’s proactive,” Ray said. “Obviously these cities have troubled histories, as well as troubled things that have happened in the present. … Particularly to have police departments at the table, when they’re not telling someone what to do on the street, but instead are simply having a conversation to see, particularly black and brown youth in cities, as simply another human being. I think part of what 10 weeks can do is it can start to form a new baseline. It is not the ending, instead it’s a big beginning.”
Dell Curry said he can see the benefit of 10 weeks of interaction.
“You can get a lot done in 10 weeks,” he said. “If everybody involved has the same focus, the same dedication, the same goal, definitely so.”
Jacoby Jackson, 14, is a member of the program in Charlotte. He says 10 weeks is enough but it could be more if you don’t have a fully formed relationship.
“It’s good to build relationships and communicate with them,” he said.
His mother, Tabitha, has been a social worker in Charlotte since before Jacoby was born and raised her children in the area. Like Ray, she believes 10 weeks is a start.
“You have to start somewhere,” she said. “It is an awesome experience. This is a great opportunity.”
For the mother of two honor students, law enforcement lacked cultural competency. Her eldest son, Cameron, is a sophomore at Saint Augustine’s University in Raleigh, North Carolina.
“I think that both students and adults can improve in that area and this program gives them opportunity to do that.”
It was a brisk early afternoon in January, and I was sitting in a van in Durham, North Carolina, with Phil Freelon, arguably the most prominent working African-American architect in the country. Freelon is best known for designing the National Museum of African American History and Culture and other major museum projects — among them Atlanta’s National Center for Civil Rights, San Francisco’s Museum of the African Diaspora, and Charlotte’s Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture. But on this day, we were admiring, of all things, a bus station.
“If you go around the country and visit bus stations, they’re usually seedy and dirty,” he said. “But they don’t have to be.”
And the Durham Station Transportation Center, which Freelon designed, wouldn’t be out of place on the gilded campuses of Apple or Google. The center, which opened in 2008, has a glass exterior topped by a sleek metal roof sloped like a beret, covering an airy, minimalist interior lounge and ticketing area.
“In my career, I’ve learned that if you build something beautiful, people will respect it,” he said. “You’ll notice there’s no graffiti. Now, I don’t think everyone going to catch a bus looks around and says, ‘Wow, this is a beautiful building.’ But I think they soak in the ambiance, and I’m happy about that.”
The paradox of architecture is that it’s all around us, and yet, for many people, the profession remains esoteric. “If you have a talented young African-American, their family will likely know a lawyer, doctor, teacher or a clergyman, but not an architect,” Freelon said. “My parents, who were both college-educated, didn’t know an architect of any color, and certainly not a black one.
“Diversity is a huge problem in our profession. The profession is small — there are only 110,000 licensed architects in the United States, compared to 1 million attorneys and 800,000 physicians. And only 2 percent of architects are African-Americans, a lower ratio than with lawyers and doctors.”
Freelon, 65, has attempted to change that on several fronts: through his hiring practices, visits to predominantly minority schools to speak about his work, and the establishment in 2016 of the Freelon Fellowship, which provides financial aid so a student from an underrepresented group can attend the Harvard Graduate School of Design. And since he founded his eponymous firm in 1990, much of his work has been focused on designing libraries and other academic buildings for historically black colleges and universities and cultural projects in traditionally black neighborhoods.
Currently he’s involved with a major expansion of the Motown Museum in Detroit, a mile-long open-air museum along Crenshaw Boulevard in Los Angeles and the North Carolina Freedom Park in downtown Raleigh. “He’s designed nearly every major museum or public space dedicated to black culture in the United States,” Fast Company magazine observed when it named Freelon its Architect of the Year in 2017.
“Of course, you don’t just wake up one morning and the Smithsonian wants you to build a museum,” Freelon said. “There’s 30 years of work that leads up to that.”
Before he had ever met an architect, Freelon had decided to become one. He grew up in Philadelphia, where his mother was a school administrator and his father was a salesperson for Cordis, a Miami-based medical device manufacturer. Freelon attended Central High School, an academically rigorous, predominantly white, all-boys magnet school, which also produced the famed architect Louis Kahn. Citing the influence of his grandfather, Allan Randall Freelon Sr., a Harlem Renaissance-era painter, Freelon said he was drawn to classes in the visual arts, as well as drafting and design. He also took inspiration from his strolls through the city, visiting the Franklin Institute and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “Only later,” Freelon said, “did I learn that a black architect, Julian Abele, helped design the museum,” including the iconic steps featured in Rocky.
Freelon had his mind set on attending a historically black college or university (HBCU) and enrolled at Hampton University in Virginia. “It was the height of the civil rights movement and Black Power, and I had an Afro and was very socially engaged,” he said.
Freelon plowed through the curriculum. “He was an excellent student, meticulous and curious,” said John Spencer, chairman of the architecture department, whom Freelon credits as his first mentor. Believing he would be more challenged at a larger university, Freelon transferred to North Carolina State, although he was anxious about moving deeper into the South. “When my father used to attend his company’s annual conference in Miami in the ’60s, he couldn’t stay in the downtown hotels and would stay in the black neighborhood of Overtown,” Freelon recalled. But a visit to Raleigh reassured him.
“At N.C. State, Phil and I were two of only a handful of black students at the College of Design, and there weren’t any black professors in our discipline,” recalled Percy Hooper, now an associate professor of industrial design at N.C. State. “We didn’t feel segregated from the white students, but we ended up spending a lot of time together, supporting one another.” The coursework was demanding, and there wasn’t a lot of downtime. To unwind, the friends would ride their bikes or, more ill-advisedly, toss around ninja stars.
During summers, Freelon worked for a professor at the Durham-based architectural firm of John D. Latimer and Associates and continued at the firm’s Taunton, Massachusetts, office while pursuing a master’s degree at MIT, which he completed in 1977. He worked briefly for a large firm, 3/D International in Houston, before returning to Durham to join O’Brien Atkins Associates, where he soon became the firm’s youngest partner.
Freelon helped design schools, churches and other buildings around the state. “As a young architect, you’re not a specialist and you tackle a wide variety of projects.” A significant step in his career, he said, was being tapped as lead designer for Terminal 2 of the Raleigh-Durham International Airport. “Of course, it’s since been demolished and rebuilt,” he said, chuckling. “At this stage of my career, there are a few buildings that I’ve designed that have been torn down.” (He later designed an award-winning parking garage at the airport, as well as the airport’s general aviation building.)
In 1989, Freelon received a fellowship to study independently for a year at Harvard. The next year, he left O’Brien Atkins to launch his own firm, the Freelon Group. It began as a one-man shop and grew to more than 50 employees, about 40 percent of whom are women and 30 percent people of color.
“When I decided to start my own practice, I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to do and not do,” Freelon said. “I wasn’t going to design prisons, strip malls or casinos. The work that excited me were schools, libraries and similar projects that positively impacted the community.” Freelon also said he had little interest in upscale residential projects, the multimillion-dollar homes that fill the pages of Dwell and Architectural Digest, the ubiquitous coffee table magazines of the aspiring bourgeoisie. “The only home I’ve ever built is my own,” he said.
One afternoon, I joined Freelon and his wife, Nnenna, at their suburban home, a 15-minute drive from downtown Durham. The modern, two-story structure with a matching separate studio space features a warm combination of concrete, steel, glass and laminate siding. The sloped lot abuts a pond and runs the length of a football field. There’s a long path from the house to a fire pit and a steel animal sculpture that the Freelons named Kareem Abdul-Giraffe.
Inside, the New Standard Quintet, a Chicago jazz group, played on the stereo while the couple’s dog, Count Basie, perched by the couch. Earlier, Freelon had told me how he met his wife. Nnenna, a Massachusetts native, was finishing her undergraduate degree at Simmons University in Boston. She was on a visit to the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, where she was considering pursuing a graduate degree in health care administration. A mutual friend introduced them. “We met on our friend’s front porch, and for me it really was love at first sight,” Phil Freelon said. It was a swift courtship. With only her undergraduate thesis to complete, Nnenna moved to North Carolina, they got married and she quickly became pregnant. She put graduate school on hold and eventually turned to her first love, jazz singing, and is now a six-time Grammy Award nominee.
“Phil is one of those lucky people who always knew what he wanted to do,” Nnenna Freelon said. “For most of us, it’s more circuitous. I was blessed to have a husband who was passionate about what he did and wanted me to find what I was passionate about.”
For a globe-trotting professional singer and star architect, Durham isn’t an obvious home base. Why not New York, Los Angeles or Chicago? “When you have kids, your life changes,” Phil Freelon said. “We figured we could live here and get in an airplane and go where we needed to go. I’m a huge family guy, and I love being a father. That was most important.” The Freelons have three children, who all live nearby. Deen Freelon, the oldest, is a tenured professor at the UNC School of Media and Journalism. Maya Freelon Asante is a visual artist. And Pierce Freelon, the youngest, is an activist and former Durham mayoral candidate who runs Blackspace, an after-school entrepreneurship and social media program for disadvantaged youths.
“It’s been impressive what Phil has done here,” said Kevin Montgomery, the African-American president of O’Brien Atkins whom Freelon recruited to that firm in 1988. “He was able to develop a firm in a midsize market that has global recognition and can compete with much larger firms in places like New York and Chicago.”
That proved to be the case with the Smithsonian museum, a project, Freelon said, that was more than a decade in the making. A couple of years after his Museum of the African Diaspora opened in 2005 in San Francisco, Freelon teamed up with New York’s Max Bond to win a contract from the Smithsonian to complete the planning and pre-design work for the African-American museum on the National Mall. A year later, the Smithsonian announced an international design competition, and Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye approached Freelon and Bond about joining forces.
“David is the highest-profile architect of African descent in the world, and we had our eyes out for what he was going to do for the competition,” Freelon said. “We met and determined we had similar approaches and values, so the team was expanded.” They also added another firm, Washington-based SmithGroup, which had previously done work for the Smithsonian. More than 60 groups, representing firms throughout the world, sought the commission. The Smithsonian eventually culled the field to six, provided them with stipends and asked them to produce designs within 60 days.
“We were competing against all these starchitects,” Freelon said, including I.M. Pei, Norman Foster and Moshe Safdie. A committee composed of members of the Smithsonian, the architectural press and academics picked the Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup design.
When the National Museum of African American History and Culture opened in 2016, Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne hailed the building’s “powerful strangeness” that “embraces memory and aspiration, protest and reconciliation, pride and shame.” He continued, “The museum’s skin — has that typically benign architectural term ever been more charged? — allows it to stand apart from the Mall’s white-marble monuments like a rebuke.” The most recent accolade came in January, when the American Institute of Architects named the museum one of nine winners of its 2019 Honor Awards.
During the opening ceremonies, which included a Kennedy Center performance by Nnenna, Freelon was walking with a cane. He’d experienced leg troubles the previous year, although at first he didn’t think much of it. “I was run-down anyway, because 2015 was an intense year,” he said. Not only was he finishing the museum, he was also teaching at MIT. He had also just completed a merger of his firm with the global architecture powerhouse Perkins + Will, which had been courting Freelon for more than a decade. Freelon now oversaw the firm’s North Carolina operations from Durham.
“It wasn’t just that Phil was a superstar — and he really is the Michael Jordan of architecture,” said Perkins + Will CEO Phil Harrison. “We wanted Phil because of his design sensibility, which is modern but not cold. There’s a real humanism you can see in all his work. And with his staff you see a real diversity, not just in demographics but in thinking.”
When Freelon traveled to D.C., he would jog around the Mall to stay in shape. “I noticed I’d use the same effort, but it was taking me longer and longer to complete my course, and my right foot was dragging.”
After meeting with several doctors, Freelon was referred to Richard Bedlack, who heads Duke University’s Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis Clinic. Freelon was diagnosed with ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, which is progressive and incurable. It attacks the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord and in time results in total paralysis and, ultimately, death — typically within two to four years after the diagnosis.
Freelon was “shocked and disappointed,” he said, and there was a brief period of denial. But after a few months, Freelon told his staff and took a month off to ponder his future. “But I decided to go back and work full time,” he said. Now, he uses a heavy electric wheelchair and works less and mainly from home. He remains on the Perkins + Will board of directors and is closely involved in ongoing projects.
“I’m an optimist by nature, and I look at my prognosis as a glass half full,” Freelon said. “I’m relieved I was able to raise my children and have a career and family.”
One can drive a mile in almost any direction around Durham and come across a building Freelon designed. With his sister-in-law Debbie Pierce driving Freelon’s customized van, we visited the Durham Bulls’ Athletic Park, home to the country’s most famous minor league baseball team featured in the movie Bull Durham; the Durham County Human Services Building, an airy, glass structure with a huge courtyard that replaced a grim, Soviet-style bureaucratic bunker; and several science buildings on the campuses of North Carolina Central, an HBCU, and Duke University.
Few professions offer their practitioners a chance to leave a physical legacy, and I offered to Freelon that he must feel proud as we revisited his creations. He laughed and alluded to a famous Frank Lloyd Wright quote: “A doctor can bury his mistakes, but an architect can only advise his clients to plant vines.”
Of course, Freelon didn’t view his works as mistakes. He was being self-deprecating. But it was also significant that on our tour he insisted I visit a few buildings he didn’t design.
We parked in front of Duke University Chapel, a majestic Gothic structure with a 210-foot-tall bell tower. The chapel, along with other significant structures on Duke’s campus, including Cameron Stadium, was designed by Julian Abele, an African-American architect who was the chief designer for the Philadelphia firm of Horace Trumbauer. “The story goes that when Abele came down here to do site work he had to dress up in overalls and pretend he was a common laborer or he wouldn’t have been allowed on campus,” Freelon said. It wasn’t until the 1980s that the university formally acknowledged Abele’s contributions, placing a portrait of the architect in the lobby of the main administration building and naming the main campus quad Abele Quad.
Later, we pulled in front of a small church in a historically African-American neighborhood. Opened in 1931, it was originally a church for the deaf, who were recruited to work in Durham’s noisy cigarette manufacturing plants. More recently, it had been rented to various congregations. Eventually, it was put up for sale and Phil and Nnenna Freelon purchased it. We went inside, where workers were renovating the space. Freelon had hired a friend who had more experience with such work to be the architect.
The Freelons created a nonprofit, North Star Church of the Arts, to operate the building as a community space. (An inaugural service will be held Feb. 17.) “We’ll have spoken-word nights, after-school programs, maybe some weddings and other ceremonies,” Freelon said. “We just want to give back to the community.”
We were in the back of the church. The pews had been pulled out and stacked to the side, and we looked toward an imaginary dais.
Freelon has been involved in building celebrated structures that will last for many years. The Smithsonian museum likely will survive as long as our republic. But here he was inside a humble church that he didn’t even design, smiling. “Nnenna and I wanted this to be our legacy project,” he said.
1945 – Robert Nesta “Bob” Marley is born in St. Ann parish, Jamaica. With two friends, he formed Bob Marley and the Wailers. Marley died of cancer in 1981 at age 36. The reggae artist’s music continues to shine long after his death. Over the past two decades, Marley has sold more than 75 million albums.
1950 – Natalie Cole is born. The award-winning singer was the daughter of crooner Nat King Cole.
1967 – Muhammad Ali defeats Ernie Terrell in 15 rounds for the heavyweight boxing title.
1993 – The world mourns tennis player, civil rights activist and humanitarian Arthur Ashe, who dies of AIDS-related pneumonia in a New York hospital at 49. He contracted the disease from a blood transfusion. Off the court, Ashe advocated for equality, spoke out against South African apartheid and was arrested during a protest against U.S. policy toward Haitian refugees. After being diagnosed with the disease, Ashe pushed for more funds to be allocated to research on AIDS and created the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS shortly before his death.
1993 – Riddick Bowe defeats Michael Dokes by TKO in the first round to remain world heavyweight boxing champion.