Many believe Austin, Texas’ troubled racial history is behind deadly bombings Families of victims Draylen Mason and Anthony House are prominent in city’s African-American community

Three deadly bombings within 10 days in the Texas capital of Austin, victimizing three African-Americans and one Hispanic, have, shockingly and revealingly, peeled back the layers of a deep-rooted history of racial strife in a city considered, at least on the surface, among the most liberal and progressive in the state, if not the entire country.

“It’s almost like, ‘Do the bombings uncover another side of Austin?’ It’s that other side that people really don’t get that I think is a national story.”

The speaker is Joseph C. Parker, an attorney licensed to practice law in Texas and federal courts and senior pastor at David Chapel Missionary Baptist Church in East Austin. A longtime community activist whose father marched with Martin Luther King Jr., Parker drew parallels between the deadly bombings in Austin and the ones that terrorized his hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, five decades earlier.

“When the bombings were happening when I was growing up in Birmingham, it was a segregated city and a racist city. When you contrast the image of Birmingham, which we negatively referred to as ‘Bombingham,’ there were killings all across the South. But now you come to the 21st century, and to have bombings in Austin, Texas, raises a different contrast than bombings in the 1960s in Birmingham,” Parker said March 16 after it was revealed that Austin police received 236 suspicious package reports in 24 hours and a total of 735 as of Sunday since March 12, when two package bombs exploded — one killing Draylen Mason, 17, and critically injuring his mother. A second explosion killed 75-year-old Esperanza Herrera. Authorities connected those bombings to the first package bomb that killed Anthony Stephan House, 39, on March 2.

The families of Mason and House are prominent in the African-American community. House and Mason both attended Wesley United Methodist Church, where Mason’s stepfather, Freddie Dixon, was a minister for more than 20 years. Dixon is friendly with Mason’s grandfather, Norman Mason, who operates a dental practice in Austin. A high school senior, Mason was a talented bassist who had been accepted to the prestigious Baker School of Music at the University of Texas. Mason’s grandmother, LaVonne Mason, is a co-founder of the Austin Area Urban League.

On Monday, interim Police Chief Brian Manley said, “We are clearly dealing with what we expect to be a serial bomber at this point.”

Austin police have been joined by more than 500 federal agents from the FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and a reward of $115,000 has been offered for information leading to the arrest of the perpetrator. “It’s clear to everybody involved this is creating terror in our community, this is creating fear,” Manley said during a community forum on March 15.

After another explosion Sunday in a different part of Austin in which two men in their 20s were hospitalized but in good condition, officials didn’t know if the latest bombing was connected to the first three.

The race of the victims was not released. This time, a suspicious backpack was left near the scene of the explosion. In another incident during the weekend, police arrested a man early Sunday morning who they said emailed a bomb threat that forced the cancellation of a concert by The Roots at the city’s popular South by Southwest music festival.

Said Parker, who is among a group of attorneys who filed four landmark lawsuits last month challenging the winner-take-all method that states use to allocate their Electoral College votes:

“How does that happen here? I believe it’s race-based, but it may be disclosed later that’s not the real reason. People just don’t know. Who’s doing this? Why are they doing this? In my mind, my upbringing, coming up in Birmingham when bombings were taking place, this brings that back for me. When people speak of Austin, they speak of it being a progressive city, a Texas city different from any other place in the state. I love Austin. But there are still some race challenges here, and I believe it is because we have not dealt appropriately with the issue of race in this country.”

Austin acknowledged as much two years ago when Mayor Steve Adler formed a task force in response to racially motivated incidents involving African-Americans and police. One involved the fatal shooting of 17-year-old David Joseph that resulted in a $3.25 million settlement to the teenager’s family — the largest payout in the city’s history as a result of lethal police force. In another incident, Officer Bryan Richter’s forceful arrest of Breaion King led to an HBO documentary, Traffic Stop.

Headed by Huston-Tillotson University president Colette Pierce Burnette and Austin Independent School District superintendent Paul Cruz, the task force found in its initial report that Austin faces severe systematic and institutional racism as a result of racially motivated city policies and ordinances.

In 1928, Austin created a “Negro District,” which resulted in black residents being forced to move east of what is now Interstate 35. Whites took over property west of Interstate 35 once held by blacks. In later years, through gentrification, whites acquired desirable real estate held by blacks closer to downtown.

Much of the distrust and anger in the African-American community can be traced to that history.

Last September, statues of Confederate leaders were removed from the University of Texas campus near the state Capitol. Five months later, the Austin school board voted 7-2 to remove the names of men who served in either the Confederate military or government from five campuses. Trustee Ted Gordon, the only African-American on the school board, put forward the motion.

“Austin, Texas, is viewed nationally as a very prosperous city. But it’s also a white city, that’s very clear,” said Nelson Linder, president of the Austin region’s NAACP branch since 2000. “The policies here have never really treated black people right.”

“There’s an issue with the system continually justifying its behavior. The leadership is OK with always apologizing,” said Fatima Mann, executive director of the grass-roots organization Counter Balance: ATX, who attended the forum. “On top of that, how Anthony [House] was treated. Blacks never get to be the victim, even when we are victimized.”

Linder, who indicated the intended target was another person who might have been connected to House and Mason, said Austin’s poor race relations contributed to black skepticism about the police investigation into the bombings. It was days before police told the public that the explosion that killed House had been caused by a package, and more than a week before authorities warned the public to beware of suspicious packages.

“I’m asking people to keep an open mind. Let’s be willing to follow the facts and go where they lead us,” said Linder, who hired House to build and maintain the NAACP’s website a decade ago. “For me, being involved in the investigation, there’s a force out there targeting families who are connected, and they’re doing it in a very professional manner. We [can’t] be biased ourselves because the folks being killed are black. So while we have these issues of equity and racism, we have to have the ability to not let what we’ve experienced govern all of our ideas. Yet, knowing who we are and the history of what we’ve gone through, that’s a challenge.”

HBO to broadcast Anna Deavere Smith’s show on the school-to-prison pipeline Playwright reworked ‘Notes From the Field’ after the killings of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and Philando Castile

Actress and playwright Anna Deavere Smith is a master of verbatim theater, a marriage between documentary storytelling and the stage that involves the actor re-enacting the words of her subjects. Her latest work, which is debuting on HBO on Saturday at 8 p.m., is Notes From the Field, a one-woman show that delves into the school-to-prison pipeline.

If you’re not a theater nerd, you’re probably more familiar with Deavere Smith from her guest star turns as Rainbow’s mother on black-ish or as the lip-pursing-but-ultimately-loving hospital administrator Gloria Akalitus from Nurse Jackie.

For years, Deavere Smith, 67, who is also a professor at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, has used her one-woman shows to examine race relations and other complicated social problems. Her career has provided a blueprint on how to produce art with a conscience without making it dogmatic.

Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities (1992) looked at the Crown Heights riot of 1991 from the perspectives of both black and Jewish residents. Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 (1994) was about the Rodney King riots. Let Me Down Easy (2008) was about health care and the fragility of human life.

All were constructed from the same process: Deavere Smith traveled across the country to interview hundreds of people — for Notes From the Field, she interviewed 250 — and distilled them down to the 20 or so most effective and moving accounts. Then, Deavere Smith recreates these people on stage: their voices, their clothes, their mannerisms, their emotions, their words. She is a reporter in an actor’s body, and her expeditions in search of the truth earned her the George Polk Career Award in journalism from Long Island University last year.

“I had content that I felt that I needed to rush to get onstage and a brief window where Americans were thinking about race.”

“One of the deans of political journalism, David Broder, said to me The New York Times should change that little thing ‘All the news that’s fit to print’ to ‘All the news that’s fit to print — by deadline,’ ” Deavere Smith said during an interview at HBO’s offices in New York. “I have a much longer, fatter deadline. Yes, I’m told, ‘This is previews and this is opening night’ and I have to be ready. But … I’m lingering and lumbering around in a way that [reporters] can’t. I’m like a cow. I gather all this stuff, and then I just sit around and chew it.”

For Notes From the Field, Deavere Smith spoke with experts, teachers and lawmakers. But she also interviewed people whose voices often get lost in the debate over the brokenness of our criminal justice and public school systems: the students and inmates who pass through them.

One account from Denise Dodson, a prisoner at the Maryland Correctional Institution, is particularly wrenching. Dodson speaks about how getting an education while incarcerated has been pivotal in changing the way she sees herself. Still, she told Deavere Smith that she thinks it’s fair that she’s imprisoned on charges of conspiracy and attempted murder. Dodson’s boyfriend killed the man who was trying to rape her, mid-act. The overwhelming majority of women who are imprisoned are survivors of domestic or intimate partner abuse.

Deavere Smith originally staged a shorter version of Notes From the Field in 2014 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and brought it to New York in 2016. The New York Times called it “wonderfully energizing” and labeled Deavere Smith “the American theater’s most dynamic and sophisticated oral historian.”

She had written and researched it before Michael Brown, before Tamir Rice, before Philando Castile, before Walter Scott. Since then, she’s updated it. The HBO adaptation includes Deavere’s depictions of Bree Newsome, the activist and artist who was arrested in June 2015 after she scaled the flagpole of the South Carolina Statehouse to remove the Confederate flag that hung there, and Niya Kenny, the former student at Spring Valley High School in Richland County, South Carolina, who filmed her classmate being dragged from her desk and handcuffed by a school resource officer.

“I wasn’t planning to actually make a full-fledged play out of my project, but I did because I had content that I felt that I needed to rush to get onstage and a brief window where Americans were thinking about race,” Deavere Smith said, citing the cellphone videos of police killing unarmed black people. “These windows are always brief, and in fact, I think it is not a picture that is as strong right now as it was, say, in 2015, because other things are happening and some of those things are distractions.”

“I don’t need to know any more smart people. I’d like to meet more kind people.”

Deavere Smith was participating in a panel discussion with CNN commentator Van Jones and former Obama White House chief of staff Valerie Jarrett recently at New York’s 92nd Street Y recently when she reiterated that an actor’s greatest tool is empathy. That empathy, combined with curiosity, results in the most emotionally arresting performance of Notes From the Field, when Deavere Smith recreates the words of Allen Bullock, the protester who filmed the arrest of Freddie Gray.

Her performance, filmed in front of a live audience at Second Stage Theater in New York, is kinetic and engaging. Her face is superimposed on a huge screen behind her as she walks the stage, video camera in hand, sporting a Copwatch hoodie. She recreates Bullock’s anguish at witnessing Gray being thrown into a Baltimore police wagon, his anger as he saw officers restraining Gray with leg shackles and dragging him away, simply for the mistake of making eye contact with them. Deavere Smith challenges the audience to see Gray as both subject and object.

Despite a dramatic deep dive that complements the work of Michelle Alexander (The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness) and Ava DuVernay (13th), Deavere Smith isn’t ready to call herself a prison abolitionist, like those who want to raze the prison-industrial complex entirely. But she thinks efforts to ban The New Jim Crow from prisons, or shut down prison libraries altogether, are misguided.

“It’s terrible. Terrible,” Deavere Smith said. “They can try to ban it all they want, but you and I both know that the walls of prisons are very porous.”

Although she’s arguably more knowledgeable about schools and prisons than a majority of Americans at this point, Deavere Smith avoids being prescriptive. When it comes to prisons, she’s not Angela Davis, and she’s similarly agnostic about charter schools despite the fact that her reporting led her to conclude that American public schools are “a disaster.” They often fail poor students, students of color, disabled students and students for whom English is a second language, and they’re more segregated today than they were in the late 1960s.

“Most of the people I know who have charter schools want to be able to boast and brag about success and how many kids they send to college,” Deavere Smith said. “And even those things make me nervous when that’s the way they talk about the experience. ‘Well, we’re sending every single person or every single person in our class graduated with such and such SAT score. They’re all going to college.’

“And you go, ‘OK, great.’ But something about it bothers me, and I think what bothers me is that there’s only one measuring stick for success. I know a lot of smart people. I don’t need to know any more smart people. I’d like to meet more kind people. I’d like to meet more generous people. I’d like to meet more forgiving people. … I’d like to see them get commended. You know, smart’s just overrated, as far as I’m concerned.”

What if the Muhammad Ali we knew had never existed? From his brief kinship with Malcolm X to the ‘Thrilla In Manila,’ five alternative universes for Ali — and the world

From Michelle Obama, Dwyane Wade and Betty White to Steve Harvey, Jan. 17 offers an embarrassment of riches for celebrity birthday followers. One name in particular, however, towers above the others: Muhammad Ali. The self-proclaimed and globally anointed “Greatest” would have been 76 today. To say Muhammad Ali is an inspiration for Team Undefeated is an understatement.

Loved and feared, Ali was captivating and personable. Flawed and fearless. An unparalleled showman and a ruthless instigator. There are few stones left to turn over on Ali, a man whose life has been under the microscope since he burst onto the scene at the 1960 Olympics — the Summer Games that also introduced Oscar Robertson and Wilma Rudolph to the world. How Ali’s life played out is American scripture. But what if there’s an alternative universe in which certain things panned out differently? In some ways, thankfully, we’ll never know. But in others? Follow along …

What if young Cassius Clay’s bike had never been stolen?

If anyone represented the embodiment of the phrase “When life hands you lemons, make lemonade,” it’s Ali. This story has been told a million times, but it’s always fascinating because of the butterfly effect. A 12-year-old Cassius Clay sat on the steps of the Columbia Auditorium in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. He was angry and sobbing. Joe Martin approached young Clay. “If I find the guy who took my bike,” Clay told Martin, “I’m gonna whup him.” Martin ran a boxing gym and told the adolescent if he was going to fight, he’d better learn how to fight. Until that point, Clay had never given a thought to boxing.

The rest, as they say, is history. If his bike is never stolen, who’s to say he doesn’t go through life as a normal kid who doesn’t even care about boxing outside of the occasional fight? And what if that same kid one day gets drafted into the Vietnam War — a battle Cassius Clay from Kentucky would have had to fight because he wasn’t a heavyweight champion of the world with religious beliefs that forbade it? It’s wild how life can change in the blink of an eye. We’ll just leave it with this: Theft is a crime and should be treated as such. But bless the soul of the person who decided to steal this kid’s bike. That’s one time when doing bad actually did a world of good.

What if Malcolm X and Ali never had their falling-out?

In order to survive, as a great man once said, we all have to live with regrets. One regret for Ali was his all-too-brief bond with Malcolm X, a fellow product of the Muslim teachings of Elijah Muhammad. X fell out of favor with the teacher, and Ali chose to follow Muhammad’s lead. At the time of X’s assassination in February 1965, the two were not on speaking terms. Never apologizing to Malcolm haunted Ali for the rest of his life. “Turning my back on Malcolm was one of the mistakes that I regret most in my life,” he wrote in his 2004 autobiography The Soul of a Butterfly: Reflections on Life’s Journey. “I wish I’d been able to tell Malcolm I was sorry, that he was right about so many things. … I might never be a Muslim if it hadn’t been for Malcolm. If I could go back and do it over again, I would never have turned my back on him.” For a fascinating and detailed breakdown of their life and times, check out Johnny Smith and Randy Roberts’ Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X.

What if Ali didn’t sacrifice the prime of his career by protesting the Vietnam War?

The better question is, what if the U.S. never involved itself in Vietnam? Whatever the case, Ali’s exile turned him into a larger-than-life figure. At one point in American history, world heavyweight champion was the most coveted title in all of sports. Here was Ali: a young, handsome, outspoken black man who not only dismantled opponents in the ring but also took on America’s ugliest parts in a verbal fashion that has not been seen or heard from an athlete since. And he did all of this while looking the federal government square in the eye, essentially saying, “Come and get me.” Although legions of critics took a carousel-like approach to demeaning him, Ali’s popularity had skyrocketed by the end of 1967. His stated reason for objecting, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong,” is tattooed in the fabric of American race relations. Ali’s most controversial fight, for his beliefs and for our dignity, reverberated worldwide. It cost him the years of 1967-70, when he would’ve been between the ages of 25 and 28 — a fighter’s peak years. As transcendent as his career was, even four decades after his final fight, we’re left to wonder how great it could have been if Prime Ali hadn’t been entangled with the U.S. government at that same time. Which bleeds into the next alternative universe …

What if Ali called it quits after the third Frazier fight?

Maybe it was a subconscious thing, for Ali to make up for lost time in the ring as he continued to fight in his later years. Maybe it was financial. Maybe it was a combination of both. Whatever the reason, the cold reality is that his last iconic moment in the ring was 1975’s “Thrilla In Manila,” the end of the trilogy with Joe Frazier. The fights — Frazier handed Ali his first career loss shortly after he returned to boxing in 1971, and Ali won the 1974 rematch — define perhaps the greatest rivalry in sports history, with an extremely brutal and even more bitter feud spurred largely by Ali’s vicious and grossly disrespectful racial taunts toward Frazier. Their final clash proved a potluck of haymakers, blood and near-death premonitions. “It was next to death,” Ali said after the fight — a contest he actually won. “When a fight as hard as this one gets to the 14th round, you feel like dying. You feel like quitting. You want to throw up.” Frazier was never the same after that fight.

And it took decades for Ali and Frazier to quash their beef. By the time Ali called it quits in December 1981, Ali was a beaten and battered man and his Parkinson’s disease was imminent. Those closest to Ali’s former cornerman and doctor, Ferdie Pacheco ( who died in November 2017), say he lived with remorse for not having saved Ali from himself. He begged the boxer to quit after the third Frazier fight. Studies from Arizona State scientists discovered Ali’s speech slowed down 26 percent between the ages of 26 and 39 and he was visibly slurring his speech in 1978 — three years after the final battle with Frazier.

Would calling it a career after the Thrilla In Manila have saved Ali future medical concerns? Who knows. A trilogy with Ken Norton — one of the hardest punchers of all time, who broke Ali’s jaw in their first match and whom some feel Ali lost all three fights to — came with its own undeniable punishment. After his 1977 fight with power puncher Earnie Shavers, who landed a massive 266 punches, Ali’s speech reportedly slowed 16 percent from prefight calculations. “Ali did damage to himself, and he knew it and kept boxing too long,” says Jonathan Eig, author of last year’s Ali: Life, “but he didn’t have the information we now have about CTE [chronic traumatic encephalopathy].”

What if Parkinson’s had never robbed Ali of his most powerful punch — his voice?

America tried to emasculate the greats / Murder Malcolm, gave Cassius the shakes

— Jay-Z, “F.U.T.W.” (2013)

Ali’s decision to boycott the Vietnam War was supported by many black athletes and large pockets of the black community, but Ali was also media-blitzed from all corners. A May 2, 1967, New York Times editorial theorized that the support Ali was hoping to generate would never develop. The late political reporter and columnist Tom Wicker called Ali “… this strange, pathetic Negro boxer superbly gifted in body, painfully warped in spirit.” Less than a week later, the harsh attack on Ali’s character was rebuked by Boston University professor Theodore Brameld who said, “… because, with his warped spirit, he has the courage and integrity to refuse to participate in a war that millions of us with weaker courage and weaker integrity, and certainly far less to lose, continue to tolerate against our own consciences?”

Much like Martin Luther King, Ali’s legacy, in many ways, has been sanitized. Ali only became a truly lovable figure (to some) once he lost his ability to speak. When he no longer could use his actual voice to deliver knockouts, he was no longer a threat (again, to some) to the status quo. Ali’s political beliefs had always come under fire from both sides of the aisle. But the reality is that Americans 35 and under have no recollection of the charismatic ball of energy that earned him global acclaim and domestic scrutiny. Some prefer this image of the legendary boxer. Ali, the heavyweight champion who continued to vibrantly and verbally shake up the world into his latter decades on earth, is a bracing thought. Seeing Muhammad Ali minimized and marginalized by a handful of quotes and yearly tributes that fail to paint the full features of the man — that is beyond scary.

For Wynton Marsalis, forgetting the roots of jazz is forgetting the history of race in America The legend explains again why he dislikes hip-hop, and jazz’s identity problem

My former employer, Jazz at Lincoln Center (JALC), invited me to moderate a panel discussion on jazz and race at its first Jazz Congress conference in New York this week.

Wynton Marsalis is the artistic and managing director for JALC. I’ve known him for nearly 25 years and worked alongside him for six years. From time to time, we’ve been able to steal a moment here or there to chat about things, but it’s been a long time since we’ve had a chance to have an extended dialogue, so I used this opportunity to sit down with him and have an in-depth discussion about the topic at hand: jazz and race.


JALC is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, and Marsalis is showing no signs of slowing down. He has never been one to shy away from speaking his mind on the record as well as on issues of race. He won the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for his jazz oratorio Blood on the Fields, which deals with slavery, and the content from his 2007 album From the Plantation to the Penitentiary is self-explanatory.

When asked about the impetus for the panel discussion on jazz and race, he replied, “Because race, race relations, racial tensions, racial harmony and questions of freedom are all tied up with the identity of jazz from its birth.”

Jazz music and Marsalis were both born in New Orleans. Dolores Marsalis gave birth to Marsalis at Flint Goodridge Hospital, and the mythic birthplace of jazz was Congo Square, an open space in the Tremé neighborhood.

When he talks about the origin of jazz, Marsalis is quick to point out the dangers of falling prey to a false binary choice.

“First off, the amalgam of elements in Afro-American music and in jazz come from different forms of European music, like the march form and the combination of a fiddle style or a European parlor piano style, which, when combined with the arpeggiated sound of a banjo and syncopation, becomes ragtime.

“The fact that the slaves could play the drums in New Orleans at Congo Square when they weren’t permitted to in other parts of the South allowed the drums to become the centerpiece of the style. Now the drums, while rooted in Africa, is Afro-American, which is American. To be Afro-American is also to be part Anglo-American. That is at the root of many of the problems related to race in America. It’s hard for us to come to grips with that notion. We have been conditioned into making a false binary choice, an either/or, when life isn’t that cut and dried. Oftentimes it’s both/and. But it’s hard for us to reconcile that both/and when we are so used to having to choose sides.”

Marsalis considers jazz to be America’s gift to the rest of the world and a perfect metaphor for democracy. Which is ironic because it is an art form forged in a foundry by founders who were not free.

“Now in terms of freedom, I think the way that the original jazz musician viewed freedom was extremely acute. It’s like the way a person who hasn’t eaten for days views food as opposed to someone who has a refrigerator full of food, like the way that people who were denied the right to vote, the way that they went out and voted when they finally got the right to vote as opposed to people who already had the right to vote and took it for granted.”

From the early 1900s until the 1950s, there was a very strong dance element to jazz music that began to fade. Marsalis believes that this is one of the contributing factors to the eventual decline in the popularity of jazz, which is now very much a niche music. In 2014, jazz only accounted for 1.4 percent of U.S. music consumption.

“We don’t have a national dance tradition that is intergenerational. Many South American countries have a national dance like samba or tango that is intergenerational that everyone can do that has some type of sexual content that is not pornographic. In a culture, there has to be a way that dance can express a fertility in the intermingling of the sexes that is not pornography. The only dance that we can think of like that in America is the Electric Slide at weddings. We had to find something, because you know you can’t be grabbing on grandma.”

“We need something that is going to engender a mutual respect as opposed to the trash that we give our young people today.”

One of the most devastating impacts on our culture in general, and niche music genres like jazz in particular, is the commodification of music, Marsalis says.

“At some point, people were trying to figure out how to sell music. In music, like anything else, when your primary goal is to sell, then you are going to focus on and highlight aspects that are most marketable, and many of those have nothing to do with music, like someone’s looks, their charisma or some type of tribal association. For instance, country music now is being equated with the military and with being white. That has nothing to do with the birth and origins of that music. Hip-hop is equated with some of the most pathological aspects of being black, and from the music has blossomed a culture of materialism and barbershop-level political discourse. It has also been used to reconnect with the minstrel tradition, with the ’hood replacing the plantation.

“The originators of that form were just creating something with what they had. Their creation was co-opted to tell an old tale. ‘Black people ain’t s—, especially men.’ Then, resources and support came pouring in from all corners of the country because that’s a comfortable story. Black and white people playing together and coming up with something creative, virtuosic, socially aware and elevatory is considered subversive. That’s why it’s so rare to see in the actual public space like on television.”

All of this conspires to create those false binary choices that force us to choose sides. In discussing how polarized we’ve become as a country, we both harkened back to one of our favorite quotes about American and Afro-American identity from Harold Cruse in his 1967 book The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual: A Historical Analysis of the Failure of Black Leadership:

Said Marsalis: “… without a cultural identity that adequately defines himself, the Negro cannot even identify with the American nation as a whole. The fact of the matter is that American whites, as a whole, are just as much in doubt about their nationality, their cultural identity, as are Negroes. Thus the problem of the Negro cultural identity is an unsolved problem within the context of an American nation that is still in the process of formation.”

America is a very young country when we compare ourselves to other countries and cultures, and as such it would stand to reason that our cultural identity is in limbo and still in the process of formation.

Marsalis sees jazz as part of the solution for a shared cultural mythology between blacks and whites as Americans that could help move the needle on race relations. The problem is that both blacks and whites aren’t willing to allow jazz to be placed in its rightful place on the cultural landscape of American greatness.

Interestingly, that cultural mythology already exists in other parts of the world. Jazz has been and continues to be celebrated abroad as a uniquely American art form while at the same time being understood to be Afro-American.

Marsalis explained: “In the places abroad, mainly European countries, they have a tradition of listening, especially to long-form music. They have a concert tradition where music is removed from dance, which suited jazz once the communal dance element stopped being a part of the music like it was from the early 1900s to about 1950.

“They accepted it because it was Western art, they could accept an African-European combination, the Americanism, the optimism in the music. There was also a level of one-upmanship by the Europeans who were saying that America was supposed to be this bastion of freedom, but look how you dog these black musicians and we accept them over here. So in that way it was symbiotic, because the jazz musicians liked to say it and the people in those countries liked to say it.

“The population at that time [1940s-’60s] in those countries did not have the same type of pressure to denigrate people who were not like them, especially people with brown skin. There was less pressure to do that. Of course now there is much more pressure because their brown populations are larger. Also, it didn’t drive Europeans crazy that a black dude was with a white lady. Don’t get me wrong. They didn’t like it, but they didn’t go crazy over it, where in America you could get killed over it at that time. A false construct like race which has been used to lord power over the designated group must be protected with punishment and violence. Because if not, people will realize it’s all some bulls—.”

When asked what are the barriers to jazz becoming the catalyst for a shared cultural identity that could help advance the national conversation on race, Marsalis responded, “Jazz is not really in the contemporary conversation on race in any meaningful way because it is the one form of entertainment that was integrated first. So if you’re looking to sell something and you’re looking for the kind of titillating thing that’s on one side or the other, you need people cursing and acting a fool.

“Jazz is too rational. It has a history of maturity and of confronting different issues from different perspectives.”

Another reason is because jazz suffers from an identity problem of its own. Every musical genre is defined by a rhythm. There is no consensus among the jazz community as to what if any rhythm defines jazz.

Marsalis has been on a crusade for the past 30-plus years to promote swing as the foundational rhythm of jazz.

“Swing is the rhythmic identity of the music. Musical genres are defined by rhythm and the swing pattern is the foundational identity of jazz.

“Aside from the technical aspects of swing, there are elements to it that when done a certain way can bring about something that is fundamental to resolving differences.

“It’s about opposites coming together. The bass has to be at a certain volume, it has to be soft to make the drums play softer. The loudest instrument has to play with the softest instrument. Jazz is a music that depends on a balance and an intimacy because it is a music of conversation and dialogue.

“The mobility of the bass allows you to have conversations that are ongoing. Once the bass becomes immobile, meaning playing the same pattern over and over again, the music can still be great, but it regulates the way you are going to speak in that conversation.”

When asked why there is so much rancor over something seemingly so trivial, Marsalis said, “… because swing is equated with the American Negro, and nothing objective that comes from the American Negro is being studied with any level of seriousness by any significant numbers of whites or blacks in this country.”

Over the years, there have been some collateral damage in the black community over some of Marsalis’ musings about jazz and his promotion of swing.

I asked Marsalis questions that many black folks ask me when they find out that I worked with him.

Does Marsalis really think less of other forms of black music like rhythm and blues? Does he think there is some type of hierarchy?

Does Marsalis still hate hip-hop?

In response to the first question, Marsalis said:

“It is hierarchical. Let’s be clear, there are hierarchies in everything that exists. Like a family, like a classroom has a teacher, a basketball team has a point guard. Hierarchy doesn’t mean that one thing is necessarily better than another. It just means that there is a relationship of how things relate to one another.

“Those other forms of music came out of jazz. Any form of music with a bass and a drum can draw a line back to jazz. The difference is, like I said before, when the bass becomes immobile the conversation and dialogue become constrained.

“But where we find ourselves now, it really doesn’t even make sense to talk about hierarchies because we have slid so far from where we once were as a culture. It’s like food companies are trying to figure how much food can I take out of this food and still be able to sell it as food.”

In response to the hip-hop question, Marsalis smiled wryly and said, “The results of its 40-year reign are clear. You can draw your own conclusion.

“I’ve said to people over and over again that it is the minstrel show of our time, and nothing that I have seen in this time period has dissuaded me from that point of view — listening to it, having kids that like it, reading books about it, checking out the lyrics. Nothing has dissuaded me from that as a generalization.

“Are there people with a tremendous amount of creativity? Yes. Human beings are creative in whatever they do. If you read that manual that was published during slavery times about how they kept slaves in order, that was creative.”

(Something struck a chord, so he stood up and began to gesticulate as he continued.)

“Look at where we are. Look at how the language has changed. Look at male-female dance and relationships. Look at our young people. I’m not opposed to hip-hop. I just don’t think that it should be mainstream. When the default position is that a black person is a n—– and a woman is a b—–, then how can you side with that?”

He began to calm down, sat down next to me and said to me in a hushed, almost defeated tone.

“I don’t really argue about it anymore. I spent my 20s and 30s arguing about this, but then it dawned on me that people want this, and now 40 years later the results are clear.

“So the people have spoken.”

As we wrapped up, I referred Marsalis to the article that The Undefeated’s Marc J. Spears wrote about Oklahoma City Thunder head coach Billy Donovan being inspired by Marsalis’ book Moving to Higher Ground: How Jazz Can Change Your Life.

I asked him to explain how the fundamental aspects of jazz could be helpful to people in their everyday lives the same way that it was beneficial to Donovan.

“Jazz can help us all understand how to better manage our space in relation to other people’s space. The three fundamental aspects of jazz are:

“Improvisation: I am. Identifying who you are and bringing your unique self and personality to the table.

“Swing: It’s the opposite of that. Other people have personalities too. Other people need space too. With the same intensity of how you found yourself, find them. Find that common ground and nurture it. In jazz, it’s the opposites. The bass is way down at the bottom and the cymbals are way at the top, and they have to play on every beat together.

“The blues: Stuff doesn’t work out sometimes.”

At that I ended with my final question: “As you know, in the blues form, there’s a turnaround. It’s the place in the music for me when you can palpably feel the hope in the music. For many, Obama represented the ultimate turnaround for black people. It feels now like we’ve gone back to the top of the form.

“Where do you see the next turnaround coming?”

He smiled at me and said, “I don’t see it coming, but I believe in it. I believe in it because, because I believe that your belief creates it and if enough people believe, you all can create it together, and that’s the essence of democratic action. We’ve seen it time and time again in different ways.”

H&M’s ‘coolest monkey’ hoodie and how racism wastes our precious time As Toni Morrison taught us, the ongoing cycle of ignorance keeps us from our work

When I first saw the now-infamous H&M ad of a beautiful black child wearing a hoodie that reads “The Coolest Monkey in the Jungle,” my initial reaction was rage. Here we are, almost two full decades into the 21st century, and we are still seeing images that equate black people with monkeys, an ugly trope that has existed for hundreds of years. However, my rage was quickly followed by a deep weariness. I was reminded of the words of Toni Morrison when she addressed racism during a 1975 lecture on race and politics:

“[K]now the function, the very serious function of racism, which is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and so you spend 20 years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says that you have no art so you dredge that up. Somebody says that you have no kingdoms and so you dredge that up. None of that is necessary.”

Racism, and specifically anti-blackness, manifests itself in a myriad of ugly ways. We seem to be in an endless cycle of:

  • Person/company says/does something horribly offensive
  • Offers a half-baked apology
  • Waits for the outrage to die down
  • And then it starts up again.

H&M issued an apology today: “We sincerely apologize for this image. It has been now removed from all online channels and the product will not be for sale in the United States.” Sadly, it isn’t the first company to release images with racist connotations and it won’t be the last. Nivea recently published an ad stating, I kid you not, “White is purity” and pulled it after white supremacists started sharing the image as a rallying cry. Dove came under fire a few months ago for an ad that showed an image of a black woman taking off a brown shirt to reveal a white woman underneath, as if blackness is something dirty and needs to be scrubbed off. And who could forget the recent Pepsi gaffe that treated the last few years of protests against police brutality, led primarily by black women, like a carefree day at Coachella?

What makes all of this so insidious to me, as someone who analyzes images for a living, is knowing the lasting impact that images can have on the psyches of people who consume them. Despite the apologies offered and the insistence by these companies of how much they believe in diversity and inclusion, the images are out there and the damage is done. And what I am also intimately familiar with is the energy and time wasted in fighting against this kind of messaging. What is lost when, instead of focusing that energy on ourselves, on elevating and lifting each other up, we are instead mired in a fight against the kind of messaging that tells us we’re not human.

Do I think everyone at H&M is a racist? Well, that is hard to say. But what I can tell you, as someone who has often been the only black woman in a room full of decision-makers, is that there probably aren’t enough people of color in their chain of command. There aren’t enough people in the room who have been on the receiving end of callous and insensitive remarks about their race or ethnicity. There aren’t enough people in the room who have believed they had to constantly prove their humanity time and time again. There aren’t enough people in the room who don’t have the privilege to feign ignorance about racist tropes that have existed for generations.

‘The Rape of Recy Taylor’ explores the little-known terror campaign against black women Just as black men were lynched, black women faced systemic sexual violence under Jim Crow

For Southern black women, the era of separate but equal was also a decades-long reign of white sexual terror. If Southern trees bore strange fruit, the homes and streets they shaded contained secrets that until recently have largely been swept over and ignored.

The Rape of Recy Taylor, a documentary that opens in New York theaters Friday, concentrates some much-needed sunlight on this period of American history and the women who lived through it. Directed by Nancy Buirski, the woman behind both the narrative film Loving and the documentary The Loving Story, The Rape of Recy Taylor brings attention to a little-discussed but common reality for black women in the Jim Crow South: racially motivated rape by white men.

Taylor lived in the small town of Abbeville, Alabama. In 1944, when she was 24, Taylor was walking home from church when she was kidnapped, blindfolded and raped at gunpoint by six white men. Forced to beg for her life, Taylor promised to stay silent so she could go home to her husband and 9-month-old daughter.

But Taylor wasn’t silent. Left on the side of a dark country road, Taylor walked home and told her family about what happened. Rosa Parks, who began her career in civil rights as an anti-rape activist, came to Abbeville to agitate for the prosecution of Taylor’s attackers. For their troubles, Taylor’s home was firebombed, forcing her and her family to move in with relatives. When the family turned to the police, they found no refuge. Rather than pursuing justice, Abbeville’s sheriff circled the home of Taylor’s relatives, eventually stopping to drag Parks out and threaten her with jail if she did not leave town.

It’s a horrifying account, made worse by two startling facts:

1) Taylor’s rape was not an exceptional occurrence. It was part of a continuous campaign of terror that was just as much a threat to women as lynching was to black men.

2) The history of black women as victims of white terror has largely been ignored, silenced and minimized, even as their quest for safety fueled their pursuit of civil rights as far back as the 1890s.

What happened to Taylor and countless other black women and the obscurity of their story within the broader narrative of American history is emblematic of the way black women’s trauma is repeatedly given short shrift even today. The absence of black women from the spotlight of #MeToo has historical roots that predate Taylor’s rape. Taylor’s story isn’t just about her. It’s about thousands of women just like her whose stories we may never know, who were victimized and brutalized without recognition or recompense for their injuries.

A campaign of terror

Buirski’s documentary focuses on Taylor’s life and the devastation that followed her attack: Her marriage fell apart, she was unable to have more children and her only child died in her early 20s in a car crash. The book that inspired the film is far more expansive and devastating. Historian Danielle McGuire spent a decade researching At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance — a New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power. She writes of more than 40 separate cases but insists there are far more stories that went untold, calling her work “the tiniest tip of the iceberg.”

“Between 1940 and 1965,” McGuire wrote, “only 10 white men were convicted of raping black women or girls in Mississippi despite the fact that it happened regularly.” It was rare for white men to be arrested for attacking black women, and even less likely for all-white grand juries to indict them. Convictions were even rarer.

“These are not just bad apples,” McGuire told me during a recent interview. “This is part of a systemic approach to dehumanizing black women and girls.”

In one chapter, McGuire detailed an attack against Melba Pattillo, a 12-year-old Arkansas girl. A white man chased her into the woods, tried to pull off her underwear and rape her, and yelled, “I’ll show you n—-s the Supreme Court can’t run my life.” The attack happened on May 17, 1954, the afternoon the Supreme Court announced its decision in Brown v. Board of Education.

In the same chapter, McGuire recounted the story of Annette Butler. On Mother’s Day 1956, four men in Tylertown, Mississippi — Ernest Dillon, Ollie Dillon (his brother) and their friends Olen Duncan and Durora Duncan (who were cousins) — went searching for a black woman to rape. Armed with a shotgun, they entered the house of Stennis Butler, a black sharecropper, and took his 16-year-old daughter, Annette, holding off her mother at gunpoint. The men drove her away deep into a swamp, raped her, then left her to find her own way home. They were charged with “forcible ravishment and kidnap.” Ernest Dillon pleaded guilty to assault and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. The other three men served no jail time for rape. One pleaded guilty to kidnapping, another was acquitted despite a confession and the third had his charges dismissed after his trial produced a hung jury.

At best, white law enforcement officials were lackadaisical about investigating sexual assaults on black women. At worst, they were perpetrating such assaults, not only on public streets but also in jails.

“These are not just bad apples. This is part of a systemic approach to dehumanizing black women and girls.”

In March 1949, Gertrude Perkins, 25, was assaulted by two Montgomery, Alabama, police officers. She was walking home in the dark when they stopped her, accused her of public drunkenness and forced her into their car. They drove, McGuire wrote, to the edge of a railroad embankment and raped her at gunpoint.

Even if men were convicted of rape, the political system found ways to excuse them. According to Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow, Cole Blease, the governor of South Carolina from 1910-14, made prolific use of his pardoning powers, issuing 1,700 during his tenure. Blease pardoned both black and white men who had been convicted of attacking black women and girls. In an official pardoning statement, Blease stated, “I am of the opinion, as I have always been, and have very serious doubt as to whether the crime of rape can be committed upon a negro.”

McGuire details how rape was used with lynching to terrorize and subjugate black people in the years leading up to and during the civil rights movement. Other historians, such as Darlene Clark Hine, have stated that the onslaught of interracial sexual violence visited upon Southern black women during Jim Crow was just as much a motivator for the Great Migration as lynching was.

“If you have a slave culture for hundreds of years, what happens when slavery ends?” McGuire said. “Does the culture change? That was part of my question doing this research, and the answer was of course it didn’t. White men were raised to believe that they could do whatever they wanted to do to black women and there would be no punishment, and when they did whatever they wanted to do, there usually wasn’t a punishment. These are lessons handed down from grandparents and fathers, uncles. They were encouraged to get a black woman for their first sex act so that they could practice … in the ’40s, they just picked them up on the side of the road just like Recy Taylor.

“It happened all the time.”

Disappearing history

If the violation of black women was so widespread that it contributed to one of the most monumental migration patterns in American history, why don’t more people know about it? How did our understanding of black women and interracial rape begin with slavery and end largely with the conclusion of the Civil War?

There are multiple reasons for this absence: Race men like Booker T. Washington didn’t think civil rights organizations had a role to play in protecting black women from rape. White women’s organizations were equally reluctant to acknowledge that their husbands and sons were attacking black women. White women like Rebecca Latimer Felton, America’s first female senator, not only ginned up fear that black men were raping white women en masse, they sucked away attention from the real epidemic of rape that was actually occurring.

Furthermore, the documentation of abuse was limited. Often, stories of abuse were passed down orally by grandmothers and mothers. Even now, it’s difficult for historians to find detailed, written accounts of these attacks. McGuire referred to it as “detective work.”

And these threats weren’t memorialized in song, as was lynching in Billie Holiday’s 1939 recording of “Strange Fruit.” If there were references, they were so oblique as to require their own decoder ring.

Even in places dedicated to telling the story of black American history such as the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., or the Great Blacks in Wax Museum in Baltimore, there is limited acknowledgment of interracial rape during Jim Crow, and certainly not as a reality endemic to black Southern life.

The Blacks in Wax Museum has an entire room dedicated to the horrors of lynching, which includes a re-creation of the murder of Mary Turner and her 8-month-old fetus in Brooks County, Georgia, but nothing specifically about the rape of black women during Jim Crow. The Blacksonian does include displays of news clippings about the assaults on Taylor in 1944 and Perkins in 1949. And it also produced videos that include quotes from Ida B. Wells and Dorothy Height about the threat black women faced.


While black women such as Wells, Mary Church Terrell, Nannie Helen Burroughs and Anna Julia Cooper were all devoted to mobilizing to secure black women’s safety from sexual violence in the 1890s, they’re remembered chiefly as anti-lynching activists or as buttoned-up practitioners of respectability politics. The same goes for their ideological sisters who came later, like Parks and Height.

In her speech as the first president of the National Association of Colored Women, Terrell addressed their estrangement from the rest of society.

“We wish to set in motion influences that shall stop the ravages made by practices that sap our strength, and preclude the possibility of advancement,” she said, referring to rape by white men.

Cooper bitterly implicated black men in black women’s victimization. “It is absurd,” she said in 1892 in A Voice From the South, “to quote statistics showing the Negro’s bank account and rent rolls, to point to the hundreds of newspapers edited by colored men, and lists of lawyers, doctors, professors, D.D.’s L.L.D.’s etc. etc. etc while the source from which the life-blood of the race is to flow is subject to the taint and corruption of the enemy’s camp.”

While the national office of the NAACP was working to dismantle separate-but-equal, the organization determined that any mention of interracial marriage or sex would derail its efforts. “Everything had to be as asexual as possible,” McGuire said. “Working on rape cases of black women who had been assaulted by white men would screw that up.”


There is so much photographic evidence of lynching, in part because it was a public spectacle, complete with photographers who profited from the murder of black people the way modern artists might sell concert posters. Genitals and other body parts of black men were preserved in jars and kept as mementos. Their charred bodies, hanging from trees, served as ominous warnings to other black people that they best remember their place.

But there is little visual record of the interracial rape of black women, save for photographs of them clutching their obviously biracial children. In The Rape of Recy Taylor, Buirski offers these images as a small record of an enormous epidemic.

We use art to document and memorialize the human condition. But the art that preserves the experience of black women during Jim Crow is limited and often deliberately opaque. The race films of the early 20th century are among the few remaining cultural artifacts that re-created black women’s experiences under threat from white men. Buirski employs their footage in her documentary.

But, by and large, the work of tracking and quantifying interracial sexual assault is difficult for historians. The language referring to such attacks in first-person accounts is often not explicit, although news clippings from the black press were clearer. Furthermore, there was a concerted effort to silence and discredit black female victims. That silencing was often twofold: first in the primary documents, such as white newspapers and police reports, and then again by white historians and archivists who may have deemed such accounts unworthy of preservation. In Taylor’s case, her attackers slandered and dismissed her as a prostitute whom they paid.

There is little visual record of the interracial rape of black women, save for photographs of them clutching their obviously biracial children.

“There wasn’t a good uniform record keeping of these kinds of assaults, largely because of racist police forces that didn’t take black women’s stories seriously, and also because a lot of these assailants were police officers,” McGuire said. “Sometimes within their own community there would be perhaps shame and silence in coming forward for a crime like this just because of the gender politics of the time, which were not limited to racial groups.”

When sexual violation was recorded, survivors often recounted their experiences through allusion. A woman might not say she was raped, but that a man “talked under my dress” or “played with my body.”

While “Strange Fruit,” the dirge made famous by Holiday, is the most recognizable protest song of the lynching era, there is no such work from the era that deals so explicitly with the threat of rape. Instead, in the same way historians must read between the lines of slave narratives, oral histories and other accounts of rape, so too must those examining art of the era. And so songs such as Nina Simone’s chilling rendition of “Pirate Jenny” and Aretha Franklin’s “At the Dark End of the Street” take on more sinister undertones when interpreted through this lens. They’re both songs appropriated by black women to tell different stories from the ones they were originally telling. The difference in tone, phrasing and the style in which these songs are sung is designed to evoke a dark, unsettling horror.

That sort of opaque doublespeak was another form of self-preservation. Anything other than silence could be punished with death. Remember, Taylor’s attackers firebombed her home because she told her husband what happened to her. Just as it was de rigueur to ignore that slaveholders owned fair-skinned children who bore their features and mannerisms, it became standard to look at black women during Jim Crow and ignore the obvious source of their lighter-skinned children.

Modern implications

There are through lines from the epidemic of sexual assault during Jim Crow to our modern era. The most obvious may be the case of Daniel Holtzclaw, the Oklahoma police officer who sexually preyed on poor women of color with criminal records. His predation was directly connected to the way law enforcement made black women’s lives worse. If black women weren’t directly victimized by police, their assaults weren’t taken seriously, which is why white men were so rarely prosecuted for them.

Even the current #MeToo moment is different for white and black women.

“I think the floodgates have opened for white women,” actress Gabrielle Union recently told The New York Times about #MeToo. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence whose pain has been taken seriously. Whose pain we have showed historically and continued to show. Whose pain is tolerable and whose pain is intolerable. And whose pain needs to be addressed now.”

The Equal Justice Initiative is behind the national lynching memorial that will open in 2018 in Montgomery. An official from EJI told me the organization has plans for “an entire section dedicated to the sexual exploitation of black women, including Ms. Recy Taylor” in its Legacy Museum, which will open on April 26. But it doesn’t appear that there are plans to include sexual violence against black women in the lynching memorial, which will exist alongside the museum.

“I don’t think they need to be separate because, again, it’s part of the same terror structure, systematic terror against black people,” McGuire said. “Part of the issue that I’ve always had with cold case civil rights investigations and even in some ways the Equal Justice Initiative’s focus on lynching is that it becomes heavily gendered and is another way of kind of disappearing black women’s experiences under a regime of white supremacy and American apartheid. By focusing on those kinds of cases only, we’re not getting a full picture of the reign of terror that existed and that was inflicted upon black communities and black bodies. It ends up focusing on what happened to black men.”

Even as she was decrying lynching, Wells made a similar point in 1900 to a crowd gathered in Chicago.

“The negro has been too long associated with the white man not to have copied his vices as well as his virtues,” Wells said. “But the negro resents and utterly repudiates the efforts to blacken his good name by asserting that assaults upon women are peculiar to his race. The negro has suffered far more from the commission of this crime against the women of his race by white men than the white race has ever suffered through his crimes. Very scant notice is taken of the matter when this is the condition of affairs. What becomes a crime deserving capital punishment when the tables are turned is a matter of small moment when the negro woman is the accusing party.”

The way these stories were silenced reinforces a social hierarchy that contends black women should be grateful for attention from white men, even if it’s unsolicited or unwanted. Worse, it tells the world that black women and the assaults on us simply don’t matter. Ignoring this area of history has enormously harmful consequences, feeding into how we process accusations of sexual assault from black women today.

The rape of Recy Taylor and so many other unnamed, unrecognized and unheard black women reminds me of Cooper’s words from 1892: “Only the black woman can say ‘when and where I enter, in the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing or special patronage, then and there the whole … race enters with me.’ ”

An unofficial ‘Queen Sugar’ reading list derived from each episode title The epic drama has a treasure trove of writing by black authors

From its all-female roster of directors to its richly saturated cinematography to its truthful, raw dialogue that will have you grabbing Kleenex after Kleenex, Queen Sugar has been one of the most wholly original television shows on the air since its debut in 2016.

So it makes perfect sense that embedded within all but one episode title of season two is an unofficial reading list. As the title flashes in before the episode’s start, it has been eye-catching to notice that each one is named after poems, novels and anthologies by black writers from the Harlem Renaissance era — in particular the poet Countee Cullen.

With director Ava DuVernay at the helm, Queen Sugar’s show execs have done a phenomenal job of paying homage to the past while lifting up contemporary artists of the present. On the cusp of the season two finale, here is a breakdown of how these poems, anthologies and novels relate to the themes of this roller coaster of a season.


Queen Sugar season two, episode one — After the Winter

After the Winter by Claude McKay

Some day, when trees have shed their leaves

And against the morning’s white

The shivering birds beneath the eaves

Have sheltered for the night,

We’ll turn our faces southward, love,

Toward the summer isle

Where bamboos spire the shafted grove

And wide-mouthed orchids smile.

In the season two opener, the Bordelons are facing their own unique and formidable challenges. Nova (Rutina Wesley) is reeling from the aftermath of her breakup with married cop Calvin by taking multiple lovers. Ralph Angel (Kofi Siriboe) is processing the news that their father left the land to him alone while reconciling his relationship with Darla (Bianca Lawson), the mother of his child. Charley (Dawn Lyen-Gardner) is still hurt divorcing her cheating baller husband, Davis (Timon Kyle Durrett). Their son, Micah (Nicholas L. Ashe), has a terrifying encounter with a police officer on his 16th birthday. McKay’s poem about finding solace after suffering through a proverbial winter is especially fitting for this episode. Where will the Bordelons find solace after their personal winters?

Queen Sugar season two, episode two — To Usward

To Usward by Gwendolyn B. Bennett

And let us be contained

By entities of Self. . . .

Not still with lethargy and sloth,

But quiet with the pushing of our growth.

Not self-contained with smug identity

But conscious of the strength in entity.

But let us break the seal of years

With pungent thrusts of song,

For there is joy in long-dried tears

For whetted passions of a throng!

To Usward definitely speaks to themes of the episode, as Micah processes his traumatic encounter with the police and Nova organizes a bail fund rally to raise money for people who can’t afford to bail themselves out. This episode represents the struggle that people of color often endure to retain humanity in the face of an unforgiving, institutionalized criminal justice system.

Queen Sugar season two, episode three — What Do I Care for Morning

What Do I Care for Morning by Helene Johnson

What do I care for morning,

For the glare of the rising sun,

For a sparrow’s noisy prating,

For another day begun?

Give me the beauty of evening,

The cool consummation of night,

And the moon like a love-sick lady,

Listless and wan and white.

Johnson declaring her love of night over day is an extended metaphor representing her love of people of color in a mostly white society that explains, in covert and overt ways, that loving blackness is a sin. In this episode the themes are seen in Nova’s sparring and later bonding with love interest Dr. DuBois (Alimi Ballard) over how best to uplift African-Americans in the face of institutional racism, and again with Ralph Angel and Micah as they share their traumatic experiences with each other, and Ralph Angel comforts his nephew Micah. The scenes show how the black family chooses to love each other over and over again, even when they don’t always agree.

Queen Sugar season two, episode four — My Soul’s High Song

My Soul’s High Song, anthology of poems by Countee Cullen

An anthology of poetry and prose from one of the most prominent voices of the Harlem Renaissance.

As usual, Charley and Ralph Angel argue over their methods of tending to the farm, revealing the ever-present distance between the siblings, including privilege, wealth, access and skin tone. One of the recurring themes in Cullen’s work is the emotional fallout of America’s continuous unfair treatment of black citizens. It is fitting that this anthology serves as the title of this episode.

Queen Sugar season two, episode five — Caroling Dusk

Caroling Dusk, a 1927 anthology of poems edited by Countee Cullen

Cullen’s purpose in creating this anthology was to highlight “lights and shades of difference” in poetry by black writers, as he wrote in the book’s introduction. The focal point of this episode presents Charley and Darla as a set of contrasts as they both try to rebuild their lives. Charley is strong-willed, determined, confident and outspoken, while Darla is more tentative and introspective. However, they have more in common than what seems to be on the surface, as Charley struggles with her grief for the dissolution of her marriage. Darla is much stronger than she seems, as she applies for jobs after getting fired and eventually becomes Charley’s personal assistant.

Queen Sugar season two, episode six — Line of Our Elders

Lines to Our Elders by Countee Cullen

Here’s the difference in our dying:

You go dawdling, we go flying.

Here’s a thought flung out to plague you:

Ours the pleasure if we’d liever

Burn completely with the fever

Than go ambling with the ague.

While the episode is titled Line of Our Elders, it is so similar to Cullen’s poem Lines to Our Elders that it must be another homage to this writer. Ralph Angel finally comes clean about who their farm truly belongs to. Charley nearly has a panic attack after a malfunction during the opening of her sugar processing mill. The grief she never expressed over her father’s death comes pouring out in front of the family and members of the press. Both Nova and Charley are hurt that Ralph Angel didn’t tell them about the land being left only to him and express their feelings about the fact that their father excluded them. That last couplet in Lines to Our Elders in particular relates because the episode shows the problems that occur when problems fester and individuals hold feelings within (go ambling with the ague) rather than face the truth head-on (burn completely with the fever).

Queen Sugar season two, episode seven — I Know My Soul

I Know My Soul by Claude McKay

And if the sign may not be fully read,

If I can comprehend but not control,

I need not gloom my days with futile dread,

Because I see a part and not the whole.

Contemplating the strange, I’m comforted

By this narcotic thought: I know my soul.

This episode shows how the characters view themselves by their late father after hearing the amended will that leaves the land solely to Ralph Angel, after they believed the land was left to all three of them. Viewers experience a rift form between the Bordelon siblings as Charley begins to question what she’s doing and where she is going after learning about what she believes are Ernest’s (Glynn Turman) true feelings about her. None of these characters are in control.

Queen Sugar season two, episode eight — Freedom’s Plow

Freedom’s Plow by Langston Hughes

If the house is not yet finished,

Don’t be discouraged, builder!

If the fight is not yet won,

Don’t be weary, soldier!

BETTER DIE FREE,

THAN TO LIVE SLAVES.

This poem certainly echoes themes of episode eight. Nova and Dr. DuBois constantly debate throughout their relationship. Viewers finally discover what happened to Micah the night he was arrested in a heartbreaking scene played beautifully by Ashe. In the scene, Micah describes how the arresting officer put his gun in his mouth and threatened to kill him. The episode shows how these questions manifest themselves in everyday encounters and how they affect the most vulnerable among us.

Queen Sugar season two, episode nine — Yet Do I Marvel

Yet Do I Marvel by Countee Cullen

Yet do I marvel at this curious thing:

To make a poet black, and bid him sing!

In this episode, Charley finally learns what happened to Micah when he was arrested, and she blames herself for not preparing him enough for how harsh the world is for young black men and women. The episode introduces Charley’s mother, Lorna, who is white. Suddenly we gain a better understanding of Charley — why she grew up apart from Nova and Ralph Angel, the distance between the three siblings, and why Charley has struggled to determine where she truly belongs.

Queen Sugar season two, episode 10 — Drums at Dusk

Drums At Dusk, a 1939 novel about the Haitian Revolution in 1791, by Arna Bontemps

It is fitting that Drums at Dusk — a novel that explores the connection between wealthy plantation owners, poor whites, free people of color and the slaves who staged the largest and most successful slave rebellion in the Western Hemisphere — is the title of this episode. We see these themes of land, money, blood and power in Charley’s ongoing conflict with the Landrys, who used to be the only family with power and land in the parish. And they are determined to take away what little of both the Bordelons have managed to attain. Charley is undermined by the Landrys in ways great and small, and it is a conflict that her mother, as much as she loves her, simply cannot understand because she has never experienced the racism and sexism Charley has come up against her entire life.

Queen Sugar season two, episode 11 — Fruit of the Flower

Fruit of the Flower by Countee Cullen

And yet my father’s eyes can boast

How full his life has been;

There haunts them yet the languid ghost

Of some still sacred sin.

Cullen’s poem about his ambivalence about the two sides of his heritage fits the theme of this episode, as this is when we learn about the true nature of the relationship between Charley’s mom, Lorna (played by Sharon Lawrence), and Nova and Ralph Angel’s mom and their father, Ernest.

Queen Sugar season two, episode 13 — Heritage

Heritage by Countee Cullen

What is Africa to me:

Copper sun or scarlet sea,

Jungle star or jungle track,

Strong bronzed men, or regal black

Women from whose loins I sprang

When the birds of Eden sang?

Cullen’s poem asks important questions: “Who am I?” “How do I hold on to my humanity in the face of chaos?” And in this episode of Queen Sugar, each character asks these questions in some form or another. Darla’s parents return after a years-long estrangement; Remy and Charley ponder what next steps they should take in their budding romantic relationship; and by the end, Darla’s father encourages her to reveal a painful secret that has devastating consequences: Ralph Angel might not be Blue’s father.

Queen Sugar season two, episode 14 — On These I Stand

On These I Stand, an anthology of poems self-selected by Countee Cullen, which was published a year after his death in 1946

Charley and Nova face professional challenges, while Ralph Angel slowly unravels in the wake of the news about Blue possibly not being his son.

Queen Sugar season two, episode 15 — Copper Sun

Copper Sun, a 1927 collection of poetry by Countee Cullen

Cullen’s third book of poetry, where he discusses love and race relations in more oblique terms, serves as the title of the penultimate episode of season two. Ralph Angel tells Charley, Nova, Aunt Vi and Hollywood about Blue, and the whole family feels the reverberations of Darla’s secret. And Darla, who has worked so hard to regain the Bordelons’ trust, appears to have lost it forever. Meanwhile, Micah faces suspension after he channels his Aunt Nova and protests the display of Confederate memorabilia at his posh private school. Each member of the Bordelon family faces the consequences of his actions — or inactions.

Are we entering the end times for the NFL? Professional basketball offers the NFL a blueprint for success: embrace the black culture of the majority of your players

The National Football League, the American sport that comes closest to resembling a religion, has its end times in sight: the year 2021. “The likelihood,” NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith said in August, “of either a strike, or a lockout is in ’21 a virtual certainty.”

Doomsdays. Humanity has always been obsessed with them.

Every religious text has mention of the end times. In just the past 30 years, we’ve survived Halley’s comet, Y2K, the end of the Mayan calendar and the rapture that was supposed to happen in September. But nothing lasts forever. The NFL has survived lockouts and strikes before and has seemed like Teflon for the past decade with sky-high broadcast ratings, massive revenues and an annual American holiday called Super Bowl Sunday. But the league has serious competition for American pastime status from the National Basketball Association.

This may seem far-fetched now, while the NFL’s television ratings lead the NBA’s by a wide margin (although numbers were down last season, and some wonder whether television ratings, in a streaming world, matter as much as they used to). And the NBA doesn’t have anything close to dominating a whole day in America like the Super Bowl. But the NBA, which is as popular as ever in this social media era, continues to embrace an important fact about American culture: Black culture and black people determine cool. Cool resists linear structures. If the NFL wants to maintain its dominance, it needs to embrace black culture or get left behind. Just like baseball.


Let’s be clear: The 2017 NBA Finals between the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers was the league’s most watched Finals since Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls played the Utah Jazz in 1998. But the average 20.4 million viewers who tuned into each game is equal to the average viewership for a single Sunday Night Football game in 2016. And the NFL is still an unmitigated cash cow, with a net worth of more than $13 billion, dwarfing the NBA’s $6 billion figure. The average NFL franchise is worth $2.5 billion. Worth of the average NBA franchise: $1.36 billion, a 3.5-fold increase over the past five years. Over at Major League Baseball, the average team is worth $1.54 billion, but 50 percent of viewers are 55 or older, up from 41 percent in 2010. And in its defense, the MLB can still captivate the country when it has historic World Series matchups like last year’s battle between Cinderellas in the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians. And they almost doubled back with a monster championship series between the Yankees and Dodgers if the former hadn’t lost to the Houston Astros. ESPN data shows the average age of baseball viewers at 53. The average age is 47 for the NFL, and it’s rising. The average age is 37 for the NBA, and it seems to be staying there. Baseball’s television ratings continue to trend downward.

Howard Bryant, ESPN senior writer and author of Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston, summarizes the NFL’s stance in relation to the NBA and MLB: “Post-ABA merger,” he says, “basketball has done by far the best job of adapting to the people who play the sport, baseball the worst. The NFL has been in between, leaning towards a bad job.”

Why might the NFL be on its way to becoming MLB? Because the NFL is looking at a 2021 season that may not even be played. Because the NFL’s ostensibly mainstream stars — Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Eli Manning — who have dominated the past decade, are getting old. And many kids are being steered away from playing the game in its tackle form. “Participation has dropped,” Mark Murphy said in January. He’s president and CEO of the Green Bay Packers and a board member at USA Football. “There’s concern among parents about when is the right age to start playing tackle, if at all.” In a recent (nonrandom) study of NFL players, 110 out of 111 brains examined showed signs of the degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

But the NFL could spiral mostly because, perhaps more than at any other time in pro football history, the league is at a crossroads when it comes to race. League news right now leads with racial conflict. Players are protesting. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and owners are somewhere between demanding and begging them not to. And in the middle, fans fight over whose boycott of the NFL is actually having an impact on the ratings, if any at all.

“The NBA has caught up or passed the NFL on the cool factor. Whether that translates on the revenue side, that’s hard to know.” — Andrew Brandt, director, Moorad Center for Sports Law at Villanova

Free agent Colin Kaepernick, to bring attention to systemic racism and police brutality, opted on Aug. 14, 2016, not to stand for the national anthem. This has placed the NFL at the center of a discussion about race and sports. Kaepernick’s protest has spread around the world, from European soccer games to Midwestern high school football games. By most accounts, the NFL has botched the handling of the protests. A year later, Kaepernick isn’t in the league despite evidence of him being good enough to start on some teams, and he could surely be a backup.

The reason the anti-protest backlash has become so impactful for the black community is because there’s an understanding of what the fervor about protests is really about—silence. There are contradictions in just about every sentiment of outrage about the protests. Just look at the viral image of an NFL fan wearing a “I stand for the National Anthem” shirt while sitting on a flag. And at the fact that the NFL didn’t even start requiring players to stand for the Anthem until 2009—after the Department of Defense paid the league $5.4 million for “paid patriotism.” And at the fact the NFL actually violates flag codes in some of their representations of patriotism. Jerry Jones himself sat during the anthem at his first Cowboys game, in 1989. And Donald Trump’s finger-pointing at players (and owners) doesn’t erase the fact he insulted John McCain for being a prisoner of war and has lied about calling Gold Star military families who lost soldiers in battle this year. The anger over protests isn’t about patriotism, it’s about silencing black athletes. Steps the NFL may or may not make to quell protests will be seen as an endorsement of that silence.

On Oct. 15, Kaepernick filed a formal grievance against the NFL alleging collusion by team owners. “I think he should be on a roster right now, the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers said in August. “I think because of his protests, he’s not.” Jay-Z rocks a custom Kaepernick jersey on Saturday Night Live, and his actual jersey leads the 49ers’ sales, even though he hasn’t taken a snap for them this season. Kaepernick’s likeness rules the streets. All the while, Kaep rarely speaks, instead continuing his push to donate a million dollars of his own money to various charities across the country, volunteering to donate backpacks to students and suits to parolees. Without so much as a news conference, Kaepernick is part of a daily news cycle, thanks to a massive social media following that watches his every move.

What Kaepernick is learning is something NBA players have known for years: Their social media channels are the best ways to get their points across. So when NBA commissioner Adam Silver sent out a memo reinforcing the rule that players had to stand for the anthem, NBA players (J.R. Smith notwithstanding) mostly took it in stride. That’s because they understand their social impact reaches further than the average NFL player’s. (Odell Beckham Jr., with 9 million Instagram followers, has the most by far of any NFL player.)

LeBron James, who has 39 million Twitter followers and 33 million Instagram followers, expressed that much in a news conference after he called Donald Trump a “bum” on Twitter: “My voice … is more important than my knee. What I say should hit home for a lot of people [to] know where I stand. I don’t believe I have to get on my knee to further what I’m talking about.”

The NBA, its individual players, and fan community have used social media to become a 12-month sport.

Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors goes to the basket against the Houston Rockets on October 17, 2017 at ORACLE Arena in Oakland, California.

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

And that’s where the NBA dominates the NFL: at social media, where everything is happening. On Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, NBA teams have an average of more than 7 million followers, while NFL franchises average 4.6 million. Even during the NFL’s last season, there were more hashtags on Twitter dedicated to the NBA. In 2016, Forbes ranked the top athletes on social media: Four of the top 10 players were from the NBA, and the rest were international soccer stars. NFL players didn’t crack the top 10. The NBA social media connection allows players to enter lives and households in new and intimate ways.

Another major reason for the NBA’s ability to lap the NFL in social media is the NFL’s draconian rules about sharing videos online. Last October, the league sent out a memo barring teams from posting clips or GIFs of games. Teams that did so would be fined up to $100,000. While teams such as the Atlanta Falcons use clips from Madden video games to “show” highlights every Sunday, the NFL’s hard line limits many teams’ ability to deeply connect with fans where they are — which is, so much of the time, on their phones.

“The NBA is the more progressive league when it comes to digital,” said Jaryd Wilson, digital content manager for the Atlanta Hawks. The Hawks have become an online darling thanks to creative Twitter posts and engagement with fans online. “In-game highlights are our highest digital performers and our most engaging types of content.”

The NFL’s limits on social media, and teams’ subsequent mockery of the decision, exposes a blind spot about American culture. African-Americans dominate what’s trendy on social media, and if “Black Twitter” determines that something is viral, it often becomes an American cultural phenomenon. Think of phrases such as “lit” and “on fleek” or crazes like the mannequin challenge — these began in blackness. On any given week, a new black-centered sensation, such as the NSFW #ForTheD challenge that dominated social media last month, takes over the country.

The NFL had that viral moment with Cam Newton doing his signature dabbing celebration in 2015, but he was as chastised for it as he was celebrated. Letters were written to newspapers about his “pelvic thrusts,” and Newton’s “arrogance” became the center of the story. And after a humbling Super Bowl loss to the Denver Broncos, Newton seemed put in his place. Instead of embracing him, the NFL demonstrated that it didn’t understand what moves the needle in American culture. It cut down one of its viral superstars — something the NBA just doesn’t do.

“The NBA has been significantly ahead of other leagues in diversity since the ’80s, and excitement has grown since.”

“Diversity is very important to us,” said the Hawks’ Wilson. “We know our demographic, and our audience, and it is about keeping up with those trends. We always think about how can we tap into diverse communities while trying to push ourselves forward.” It affects the Hawks’ bottom line significantly. The organization has taken things a step further by offering a full-on embrace of Atlanta music: acts such as T.I., Gucci Mane and Big Boi perform at halftimes throughout the season, which has resulted in increased ticket sales and price inflation every time a concert is announced. The Hawks’ Philips Arena is even now home to rapper Killer Mike’s Swag barbershop.

The NBA understands that rock is no longer the dominant genre of music. Last year’s Finals marketing soundtrack featured songs from Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. while the NFL featured the return of Hank Williams Jr. — who was dropped from ESPN’s Monday Night Football six years ago for likening President Barack Obama to Adolf Hitler. And while the NBA features a list of rap stars and rhythm and blues singers during All-Star Weekend festivities, this year the Super Bowl will feature Justin Timberlake, whose last, 2004 Super Bowl performance featured him pulling off a piece of Janet Jackson’s clothing, exposing her breast. Whether or not the move was planned, it went awry, and Jackson caught the backlash as Timberlake’s career flourished. These kinds of things resonate, and the NFL’s de facto pardoning of Timberlake is another reminder to the black consumer that the league doesn’t cherish their concerns the way the NBA so often does.

“The NBA has caught up or passed the NFL on the cool factor,” said Andrew Brandt, director of the Moorad Center for the Study of Sports Law at the Villanova University and host of The Business Of Sports podcast. “Whether that translates on the revenue side, that’s hard to know.”

Yet, even as black America is ravaged by socioeconomic disparities, a 2015 Nielsen study explains that we’ve reached a tipping point with regard to black economic influence. “Today’s American mainstream is rapidly changing, and that change can be attributed in part to the growth and activities of African-Americans in the marketplace. Social media and the internet have become go-to communications platforms for African-American stories and content.” The study goes on to state that black consumer power is growing at unprecedented levels, reaching $1.2 trillion in 2015, a 275 percent increase from 1990. So the appeal to the black consumer is about more than just what’s “cool.” It’s about a consumer base that is increasingly vital.


The NBA season kicked off last Tuesday with a display of the chokehold professional basketball has on compelling storylines. LeBron James faced off against his former teammate and passive-aggressive foe Kyrie Irving. The Warriors lost a buzzer-beater to the newly constructed Houston Rockets that now boast Chris Paul — all while a Klay Thompson doppelgänger was the social media joke of the night. But the NBA’s offseason was almost as entertaining, full of memed stories and social media buzz, from the petty feud between Irving and James to Thompson’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off-like adventures in China, Hoodie ’Melo and Kevin Durant’s bizarre Twitter dramas. The NBA, its individual players and fan community have used social media to become a 12-month sport.

Meanwhile, the NFL is years-deep into a seemingly never-ending barrage of Spygate, Bountygate and Deflategate. There was the Ray Rice domestic abuse case. Accusations about covering up CTE analysis. All of this, though, seemed only to slightly dent the NFL’s impenetrable shield: People seemed to have accepted the judge and jury status of Goodell, the misogyny and abusive history of too many players who continue to play despite domestic abuse cases, and folks kind of knew that playing football was damaging to athletes in the long term. But Kaepernick’s protest and its fallout illuminated a sharp and deep conflict within the NFL—and among its fans—that many weren’t expecting.

“Go back to Ken Griffey Jr. wearing his hat backwards in batting practice and they all lost their minds.” — Howard Bryant

An Oct. 11 study by The New York Times makes clear that the NFL is now one of the “most divisive” brands in America. The league doesn’t have to choose between its black players and white audience, but it does have to find a middle ground between black players and fans, and its white fans, a dilemma unique to the National Football League. The NFL is the only major male American sport that has mostly black players and a mostly white audience. The NFL is 67 percent black, but its audience is measured at 77 percent white. And although the league is two-thirds black, its top stars are white. In 2015, seven of the NFL’s nine top endorsement earners were white. Since then, black athletes such as Cam Newton and Odell Beckham Jr. have stormed the top ranks, but endorsements largely focus on quarterbacks. The New York Giants are the only team in the NFL that has never started a black quarterback. Of the 32 teams in the NFL, there were six black starting quarterbacks as of Week 7.

But by the time of the 2021 labor negotiations, the aforementioned Brady/Brees/Rodgers/Manning quadrumvirate will be out of the league. Andrew Luck, Derek Carr and Marcus Mariota are the quarterbacks most poised to be the league’s next torchbearers, and with them are Russell Wilson, Jameis Winston and Dak Prescott. So what happens when the faces of the league are as black as the rest of the players? How the NFL reacts will determine the future of the sport. Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association have both been at the same racial crossroads. One league offers the NFL a blueprint for success, and the other a cautionary tale.


The NBA has had multiple eras in which it has had to realign based on demographics and its top stars. In 1979, three years after the NBA merged with the ABA, the league had a nearly identical demographic makeup as the NFL. Seventy-five percent of the NBA’s players were black, up from 60 percent a decade before, and only two of the league’s top 20 scorers were white. At the same time, 75 percent of the audience was white. Attendance was down, as were ratings, to the tune of a 26 percent decrease against the previous season. A 1979 Sports Illustrated article titled There’s An Ill Wind Blowing For The NBA laid out the question plainly: Is the NBA too black?

The article examined the feeling among fans and some owners that black athletes were “undisciplined,” “overpaid” and played “playground basketball” — all dog whistles. An unnamed executive was quoted: “The question is, are they [the black players] promotable? People see them dissipating their money, playing without discipline. How can you sell a black sport to a white public?”

There was a time when it seemed impossible for major league baseball to fall out of favor as the leading American sport.

The NBA answered that question two ways. One, David Stern became commissioner in 1984. “Stern said, ‘I’m just going to put the best people on the floor,’ and he said the same thing for the front office,” said Richard Lapchick, founder/director of The Institute for Diversity and Ethics In Sports (TIDES). “The NBA has been significantly ahead of other leagues in diversity since the ’80s, and excitement has grown since.”

The league also lucked up by being able to lean into its racial divide with a ready-made rivalry between the bombastic and very black Los Angeles Lakers, led by Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics. Stern, to his credit, embraced the clash, marketing the rivalry and letting the racial subtext become one of the main storylines. The league rode that popularity through the ’80s and ’90s with respectable black stars like Michael Jordan who didn’t upset the American status quo. Jordan was, in many ways, the perfect black athlete for corporate America. He stayed out of politics, seemed nonthreatening, and was a money machine.

Then came the NBA’s next racial crossroads: Allen Iverson. AI, the anti-Jordan, had cornrows, tattoos, jewelry — and he just did it his way. Iverson tested the limits of Stern’s acceptance of black culture. Iverson was from the ’hood, had been embroiled in a nasty fight before going to college, and didn’t bother cleaning up his language. While the NBA struggled with Iverson’s imaging, Reebok embraced his persona, tying their AI shoe to urban culture. They called it The Answer, and it was a monumental success.

A generation of athletes looked up to Iverson. And as those players mimicked his style, the NBA cracked down. In 2005, Stern instituted a dress code for the NBA, making players drop the baggy clothes and dress business casual. LeBron James, just entering his third year, was amenable to the change: “No it’s not a big deal, not to me.” The usually reserved Tim Duncan had stronger thoughts: “I think it’s a load of crap.” Of course now NBA players are the most style-forward athletes in the world. Every night is a runway show.

In 2014, when a tape of the Clippers’ then-owner Donald Sterling uttering racial slurs leaked online, new commissioner Silver was quick and decisive, issuing a lifetime ban. It was the only viable option. The fans were ready for Sterling (who had a long history of animus toward African-Americans) to go, and the Warriors’ Stephen Curry had planned on walking out during a game if Sterling kept his status. There could be no wiggle room. In fairness, the NBA had to work out many of its racial battles before the era of social media. So while the league’s virtual expulsion of Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf in the mid-’90s was just as despicable as what’s happening to Kaepernick, the league didn’t have to fight those issues in real time on social media, like the NFL does now.

“There’s a cottage industry in predicting and hoping for some sort of downfall in the NFL due to concussions, or domestic violence or whatever the latest crisis people seem to make of it,” said Brandt. “I kind of smile when I hear that, because we’ve been talking about that for a long time and NFL continues to grow financially.”

But it’s important to remember that there was a time when it seemed impossible for major league baseball to fall out of favor as the leading American sport. There are numerous reasons for baseball’s dwindling cultural impact: steroid scandals, strikes and shrinking attention spans. However, it’s undeniable that baseball’s lack of connection with America as a whole is directly tied to its refusal to embrace black culture.

“You go back to Ken Griffey Jr. wearing his hat backwards in batting practice and they all lost their minds,” said ESPN’s Bryant. “It was the greatest threat to the integrity of the game because the best player in the game, who all the young people loved and wanted to emulate, was doing something cool, and they shot it down. That was baseball’s last opportunity to catch people and be hip to Madison Avenue, because drugs ruined the game for the next 25 years.”

Baseball’s tacit insistence upon “tradition” and unspoken rules are all too often coded language for a refusal to accept cultural norms that aren’t firmly white American. Bat flips and celebrations are seen as being anti-baseball when they’re really bits of culture inserted by nonwhite athletes. In 2015, Chris Rock landed a scalding indictment of baseball’s popularity during a video for HBO’s Real Sports.

Calling himself an “endangered species, a black baseball fan,” Rock insists that baseball’s focus on its history, a history that excluded African-Americans for the first half of the 20th century, is a turnoff for black fans who aren’t into a time when only white players were allowed to play. And Rock suggests that baseball will fall further away from mainstream popularity as long as it continues to ignore the black fan and players. “Maybe if baseball can get a little hipper, a little cooler and just a little more black, the future can change,” he said in the monologue. “But until then, blacks and baseball just ain’t a good match anymore. Blacks don’t seem to care, but baseball should be terrified.”

The NFL may be gaining an understanding of its need to let black players express themselves to their fans. The league has loosened up the penalties for touchdown celebrations, which has so often been a vibrant space for black player expression and trash talk on the field. Now, players can celebrate while using the football as a prop, celebrate as a team and celebrate on the ground, which were previously 15-yard penalties. And the ESPN Twitter account promoted a Week 5 Packers vs. Cowboys game with a video of battle rappers DNA and K-Shine rhyming about their favorite teams at a barbershop. It’s a start, and a sign that the NFL is inching toward some of the cool points that the NBA snatched. But with Kaepernick still unemployed, the league, stuck in its ways, continues to scramble without a sophisticated strategy or uniform approach in place.

Doomsdays. Humanity has always been obsessed with them. But the NFL is at a crossroads at a time when black culture is simultaneously as powerful, relevant and under attack as at any point in American history. What side of that history is the NFL going to stand — or kneel — on? The almighty National Football League has decisions to make, and so do its players and fans.

At American Legion Hall, patriotism is complicated by the persistent realities of being black Discomfort with national anthem protests coupled with disgust over Trump’s denunciation of players

Old Glory flapped in the breeze outside American Legion Hall 263 near Baltimore Sunday as a group of black veterans and their relatives gathered inside to enjoy America’s game.

The Baltimore Ravens were getting roasted by the Jacksonville Jaguars on television, but much of the talk was about the groundswell of national anthem protests triggered by President Donald Trump’s angry outburst denouncing them. Dozens of Ravens and Jaguar players took a knee in defiance of Trump, and many others stood on the sidelines locking arms in a show of support.

“This much is for sure, Trump only fueled the fire,” said Richard Smith, 71, who served with the 82nd Airborne during the Vietnam War before going on to a career as a butcher. “It is amazing that he had more to say about this than he did about those racists marching in Charlottesville.”

Smith is proud of his military service and proud of his imperfect country. Truth be told, he was ambivalent about the NFL players who took a knee or raised a fist during the national anthem. But once Trump weighed in — calling on NFL owners who see players “disrespecting the flag” to “get that son of a b—- off the field right now” — Smith felt disgust, not solidarity, with the commander in chief.

“I don’t agree with taking a knee when the Star-Spangled Banner is played,” Smith said. “I thought it was not the right way to protest real problems. But, that said, I know Trump never served in the military. Now, he is cursing and disrespecting these guys. It only makes their point.”

Many of the Legionnaires and their family members voiced similar sentiments as they came to the hall for an afternoon of football as they do every Sunday during the NFL season. On one hand, they know better than most the sacrifice of military service. They also believe deeply in the promise of America. They spoke proudly of leading happy, productive lives and having children and grandchildren living the American Dream, with good jobs, nice homes, and successful families.

Ronald E. Randall Sr., outside of Jackson and Johnson Memorial Post 263 during the Ravens game.

Reginald Thomas II for The Undefeated

But their sense of patriotism and reverence for the nation’s symbols are complicated by the persistent realities of being black. They salute the American flag that flies in front of their stucco-faced hall. They rise for the national anthem. But they also know firsthand that their allegiance to the flag has not always protected their rights. For them, the national anthem can come across as both a song of soaring inspiration and a hollow tune.

Ronald E. Randall Sr., 69, a retired school custodian whose father and brother served in the Navy, grew up not far from the legion hall in an enclave that has been all black since just after Emancipation. As a kid, he was barred from the white-only swimming pools during Baltimore’s sweltering summers. His mother could not shop along the local commercial strip. That was for whites only, too. He was in junior high when the public schools were integrated, and he remembers he and his black friends having to brawl with insult-hurling white students before they were left alone.

Legal segregation was struck from the books more than six decades ago, but the stretch of wood-frame homes in the neighborhood, now known as the Winters Lane Historic District, remains overwhelmingly black. Economics, it turns out, is as effective as the law when it comes to limiting mobility. Homes just a few blocks away in mostly white Catonsville sell for at least double the cost of those on Winters Lane.

“That’s the kind of thing that makes people say really nothing has changed,” Randall said. “The players see that and that is what they are protesting. I don’t carry hate in my heart, but I know a lot of white folks have no respect for us.”

They rise for the national anthem. But they also know firsthand that their allegiance to the flag has not always protected their rights.

Smith remembers family members telling stories from when housing segregation in Baltimore was enforced not just by compliant real estate agents, but also by the fists and bricks of whites who could not countenance black neighbors.

“People used to attack you if you went into certain neighborhoods, just for being black,” he said. “We’ve come a long way, but racism is going to be with us for a long time.”

Consuella Rheubottom, 77, who has two sons who served in the Army, tends bar at the hall. Fewer than a dozen people are in the dimly lit bar, a couple are playing on slot machines and others sit on their stools, watching the game on two flat screens.

Rheubottom said she felt some discomfort with the anthem protests. Yet, she felt repulsed — and scrambled to turn her television off — when she heard Trump insulting the players who chose to demonstrate.

“I was not sure what I thought about the protests. I can’t say that I firmly support them. I did not oppose them either,” she said, looking up as she mixed whiskey sours. “But I do know that what the president said is ignorant.”

Edward Neal, 85, a retired laboratory technician wearing a Ravens cap, slowly settled into a corner stool in the hall’s bar as conversation about the protests wore on. It was not long before he joined in.

Consuella Rheubottom makes whiskey sours at Jackson and Johnson Memorial Post 263 during the Ravens game.

Reginald Thomas II for The Undefeated

He has mixed feelings about it all, he said. Neal agreed that the protesters have a point. While race relations have improved during his lifetime, he said, there is still is a long way to go to achieve equality. At the same time, he has deep respect for those who choose to serve in the military, because has seen the physical costs of war up close. Serving as a medical corpsman during the Korean War, he helped treat troops with severed limbs and horrific burns. That kind of sacrifice, he said, should always be respected. The anthem protests can lead people to think that the sacrifice is not being honored, he said.

He added that teams should stand together. Unity is tested when some kneel and others stand for the anthem. And issues of social justice, he argued, are best debated in the halls of government and the courts.

Despite that, Neal took no comfort from Trump’s words. “What the president said was out of order,” he said. “If that is all he had to contribute, he should have said nothing.”

Whitley’s World: A brief history of Bad and Boujee Black Girl Style Jasmine Guy’s Gilbert is the blueprint for ‘Insecure’s’ Molly, ‘Dear White People’s’ Coco, and ‘Living Single’s’ Regine

No other show explored the life of coeds from a historically black college as thoroughly as NBC’s A Different World. The show’s colorful characters gave us everything we didn’t know we needed, from a young black man who made solving for x extremely sexy to a free-spirited redhead who would certainly be on the frontlines of any and every Black Lives Matter protest today.

But if “bad and boujee” was trademarked last year by Migos, it originated on the fictional Hillman College campus and was created by the grande dame of the dorm known as Gilbert Hall: Whitley Marion Gilbert. The Louis Vuitton luggage-toting, siditty Southern belle, as portrayed by Jasmine Guy, had a legacy at the prestigious university that went back generations. At 5-foot-2, her frame was petite, but her style was colossal. The Whitley character not only reflected the most fashionable trends of the ’80s and ’90s, but she also influences contemporary style and serves as an inspiration for many young black women and black creatives today.

As one of the first examples of young, black affluence on television, Whitley paved the way for a long list of pivotal TV personalities. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’s Hilary Banks, Saved by the Bell’s Lisa Turtle, Living Single’s Regine Hunter, CluelessDionne Davenport, GirlfriendsToni Childs, Dear White People’s Colandrea “Coco” Conners and even Insecure’s Molly Carter all seem to draw inspiration from the Richmond, Virginia-born beauty queen who, now via streaming apps, continues to personify the style and essence of bad and boujee black girls everywhere.

“She’s not about trying to be white, or anything else — she’s being very black, and this is a very black situation.”

Her impact also went beyond the small screen. In 2015, when the show became available to stream on Netflix — its license agreement expired in 2017, and it is now available on Amazon Prime — Pinterest boards, Instagram handles and Halloween costumes (including one from yours truly) dedicated to mimicking Whitley’s style became a dime a dozen. But imitation certainly is the highest form of flattery, and nobody knows that better than Whitley Gilbert.


The Devil is in the Details

Thirty years ago this week, we got a first-class ticket to a historically black college in Virginia. A group of students evolved from inexperienced adolescents to dynamic adults. From 1987 to 1992 we came to know and love Dwayne Wayne’s nerdy swag, Whitley Gilbert’s siditty style, Freddie Brooks’ free-spirited eccentricity, Kimberly Reese’s steadfast levelheadedness and Ron Johnson’s zany antics. And although the show initially aimed to follow the coed life of Cosby kid Denise Huxtable (Lisa Bonet), it shifted its focus in the second season to the whole crew’s college experience and to Whitley and Dwayne’s love story.

A Different World touched on relevant social themes such as workplace sexual harassment and racial injustice, and it celebrated black heritage. It also featured iconic dayplayers such as Patti LaBelle, Diahann Carroll, Whoopi Goldberg, Jada Pinkett and even Tupac Shakur, ushering in a wave of classic black television shows. “It deepened,” said Jasmine Guy, “the tone of black sitcoms.” Guy is currently filming Mario Van Peebles’ new SyFy series Superstition, as well as season two of BET’s The Quad, which is set at a historically black college not named Hillman.

The cast of A Different World

NBCU Photo Bank

To authentically portray her, Guy says, she created a backstory for Whitley that helped bring her to life. She decided Whitley had attended a primarily white, private school — so for her, Hillman’s campus truly was a different world. “She thought she was black, and she is. But there are all different kinds of ways to be black,” Guy said. “And … the Hillman College experience gave her a new sense of who she was and the community she belonged to. I noticed in the writing how she grew. Over the arc of a season you could see that that character had a lot to learn.”

The show was mostly written by Susan Fales-Hill and Yvette Lee Bowser. Creating a character with as much style development as Whitley, and the whole A Different World crew, started with the script, says Ceci, who worked as costume designer on the show for five seasons (1989-92).

“You can’t unsee A Different World. You’ve seen it, it’s kind of engraved in your psyche.”

“The inspiration comes first from the writing,” she said. “[It] shaped who these characters are, absolutely and situationally. … Whitley is waking up in the morning, but what is she waking up to do? You should be able to turn your TV on mute … and kinda know what’s going on when you see the character. I’m supporting the dialogue and the intentions that the writer and director are trying to convey. I’m doing that visually, through the wardrobe.”

Ceci’s resume includes work on iconic shows such as Living Single and Sister, Sister (both of which are apparently being rebooted) and now she is drawing on that experience: She’s costume designer on Netflix’s Dear White People. Each of these shows features personalities communicated via style, a characteristic she says was used deeply on A Different World. “You’d never see Freddie Brooks wearing anything the Whitley character would wear,” she said. “Jaleesa wouldn’t wear anything Whitley would wear. Each of those characters are … being true to who they are.”

Whitley Gilbert is certainly in a world of her own. There aren’t many episodes in which the girl with the sass and twang isn’t draped in Chanel suits and/or silk scarves. Unlike so many college students who roll out of bed in sweats, Whitley spends her days in heels, fur coats and pearls. “She’s a society girl,” says Mel Grayson, a designer who worked on the show’s early seasons before Ceci took over as costume designer. “She was highfalutin.’ ”

Grayson, a Dallas native, drew his inspiration for Whitley from his own upbringing — and shows that featured affluent characters like the women of CBS’ Dallas (1978-91). “I kept it sexy and hip, taking elements of French couture … elements of Southern church ladies who sat in the front row,” he said. “I’d take a bit of that kind of styling and move it down a few levels. Cut off the shoulder pads, kill the big heels and the big ruffles but still make her regal, and still make her stand out as somebody that had class.”

Whitley’s wardrobe wasn’t cheap. Both Ceci and Grayson say they shopped at high-end stores such as the Dallas-based Neiman Marcus but also had to get creative to stretch what was a meager budget. They augmented new purchases with consignment shop pieces. Tailoring was important: It was hard to come by clothes that fit Guy’s petite frame. “There were clothes that you’d know [were] quality just by the way they fit the body,” Grayson said.

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“Everything had to be altered to fit her perfectly,” said Ceci. “Thought was given to each decision — is this fitting too close, or too tight? No, she’d wear silk, she wouldn’t wear cotton. She’d wear probably pink, not black. Black is too harsh. Every time you look at Whitley, she’s not out-of-place. Everything about her is supporting this one style aesthetic.”

Ceci would often swap basic original buttons for gold ones, or choose a classic pump over a slouched boot. The key was to capture an authentically upscale young black woman who consistently remained true to herself. Would Whitley wear an unbuttoned blazer? Would she ever have a pimple? If so, how many? That pimple question alone sparked a production meeting debate that lasted at least 30 minutes.

“Those are the details,” said Ceci, “that help subconsciously round out a character.”


Boujee — and black

The first season of A Different World received scathing reviews and is often ranked last on lists of fans’ favorite seasons. Season four — it begins with Whitley’s epic shade toward Dwayne’s new girlfriend, Kinu, and ends with Dwayne asking Whitley to marry him — is the best season, by far. And while season two was a goodbye to Bonet’s Denise Huxtable storyline and a largely white production staff, it was a hello for legendary director and producer Debbie Allen, who ensured the show was both authentic and unapologetic.

During Allen’s tenure, the show created endless opportunities for black Hollywood professionals and designers. The Howard alum even took the writing staff on “annual field trips” to the Clark Atlanta, Spelman and Morehouse campuses for inspiration. What emerged was a show that was very black. “When Debbie Allen came on the show in the second season, she made it more specific, and more clear who all these people were — including Whitley,” Guy said. “Because she did know people like that. She brought little things like, ‘How can y’all have a cafeteria with no hot sauce on the table?’ ”

Despite Whitley’s often insufferable entitlement and occasional disregard for peers outside of her tax bracket — in one episode she defends Kimberly’s scholarship from a company that hasn’t divested from South Africa and separates herself from the anti-apartheid struggle with a flippant “I don’t know those people” — Whitley maintains a shatterproof pride in her blackness.

“When Debbie Allen came on the show in the second season, she made it more specific, and more clear who all these people were — including Whitley.”

“Yes, she’s a socialite, she’s got her nose in the air, she’s got great hair — and it’s straight,” said Grayson. “She’s got a light complexion; she could pass the paper bag test. But she’s a girl that wants to be a black girl. She’s not about trying to be white, or anything else. She’s being very black, and this is a very black situation.”

“There’s a distinction,” Guy said. “And I guess that’s why they call it ‘bad and boujee,’ because there are bougie black people that are not trying to be white. I think that is a misnomer that Whitley was WHITEly. I was determined not to go into that direction because this kind of character does exist in the black community and has the same issues as her friends.”

For Ceci, communicating that black self-confidence through Whitley’s clothing meant altering the styles that luxury brands were creating, particularly as those styles weren’t often intended for black girls.

“A lot of times when you go to high-end stores, that classic look is a color palette that is better for blond hair and blue eyes,” said Ceci. “We can wear those colors, [and] we can be more bold. I tried to let Whitley … not try to emulate what an affluent white person would look like but what an affluent African-American young woman in college would look like. But that really didn’t exist [on television]. It was up to me to imagine what that looked like. The trick with her was trying to make her look affluent but still approachable.”

Throughout the show, Whitley comes to life draped in jeweled tones rather than monochromatic. She’ll wear cream pants with an emerald blouse, or pair a black pencil skirt with a golden peplum blazer. A delicately placed broach here. A chain-linked belt there. Classic, polished styles mixed with elements of youth. “The trick with her was color,” said Ceci. “If I couldn’t find something colorful, I would often dye things. If she wore all taupes and beiges it would be like, ‘OK, who are you?’ ”

Maintaining that authenticity was particularly important when it came to portraying Whitley’s wedding day. This was long before wildly popular black wedding sites and Instagram handles like Munaluchi Bride existed. Seeing a black woman in a bridal gown was rare. “Bride’s magazine would never, ever have anybody of color in their magazine,” said Bethann Hardison, a pioneering African-American runway model and advocate for runway diversity whose son, Kadeem, portrayed Dwayne Wayne. “If they thought to do it, it was maybe a bridesmaid — but that came a lot later. We never saw anyone in a bridal gown that was of color.”

NBCU Photo Bank

A Different World’s pivotal 1992 wedding episode gave viewers something they couldn’t get anywhere else. It not only featured iconic guests — including Joe Morton, Diahann Carroll and Orlando Jones, among others — but it also served up the proverbial peak of Dwayne and Whitley’s relationship. Whitley had been dating future senator Byron Douglas III (portrayed by Morton) and was at the altar when Dwayne interrupted, asking her to reconsider.

According to Guy, the whole scene was done in one take, and Dwayne’s epic “Baby, please!” followed by Carroll’s “Die, just die!” weren’t actually written into the script. The episode — in which Guy wore a delicately embroidered fit-and-flare gown with puffed, capped sleeves reminiscent of Princess Diana’s and a dramatic train with bow detail — put black and bridal in the same sentence long before anyone else would. And if anyone knows how to dress for a momentous occasion, it’s Whitley Gilbert. So the pressure was on.

“We were trying to go with something that was sophisticated but still Southern,” said Ceci. “Something that had some sweetness … not over the top but still a little sexy. It had to have a little bit of everything … this one dress, striking the balance of demure but still sophisticated — and not too mature or revealing.” Unlike other episodes where she had the chance to communicate who Whitley was in multiple outfits, Ceci had to sum up all the character’s elements in one ensemble. “Wedding dresses are a challenge,” she said. “I’ve got one shot.”

The pressure was also on for Guy, who knew seeing a black bride on television was particularly significant for young black women. “Little girls dream of those things, and they don’t necessarily know it’s possible for them,” she said. “All the little girls are looking at Whitley being bougie, getting knocked down, getting up and then realizing, ‘Look at what she had to learn before she got married.’ That’s what I’m hoping young people will see: Look what it took to get to this point, and look how it’s worth it.”

The gown, which was made in-house rather than purchased, not only matched Whitley’s boujee bridal needs but also echoed Bethann Hardison’s words to magazine editors: “Black people get married too.”


Whitley’s World

The impact of A Different World goes far beyond the small screen. Its storylines tackled topics such as HIV/AIDS, interracial dating and apartheid — and enrollment at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) drastically increased while the show was on in prime time. “The show was so contemporary at that moment,” said Bethann Hardison. “A Different World was the first show that ever tackled all the issues, from date rape to race relations. It’s a show that stands the test of time.”

Networks also started making room for more black TV shows. “We were a part of a wave,” said Guy. “I didn’t realize that we were the end of the wave. I thought the business had changed. And then it went back to very few black people. It wasn’t until cable, and the birth of all these other outlets, that the networks couldn’t afford to be so cocky about what they put on and don’t put on.”

As for Whitley, her style and boldness showed up in other shows. In the 1990s, the presence of affluent young black women became less rare with the creation of characters such as Lark Voorhies’ Lisa Turtle, Karyn Parsons’ Hilary Banks, or even Stacy Dash’s Dionne Davenport. There was also another strain of young female TV personalities who weren’t born with money but via hard work became accustomed to the finer things in life, such as Kim Fields’ Regine Hunter, Jill Marie Jones’ Toni Childs and Antoinette Robertson’s Coco Conners. That sensibility is also evident in Insecure’s Molly on HBO, as portrayed by Yvonne Orji, whose power suits and fashion sense are a contemporary remix on Whitley’s wardrobe. There’s also, of course, Olivia Pope of Scandal, who stakes a claim to bad and boujee herself.

“I think that is a misnomer that Whitley was WHITEly. I was determined not to go into that direction.”

The HBO show’s costume designer, Ayanna James, recently talked to Fashionista about the inspirations for Molly’s character. “As far as examples we’ve had on television, we have Kerry Washington on Scandal … who is a very popular character for her fashion, but that’s somebody that is a bit more confident than Molly. The inspiration behind Molly was, ‘What would a lawyer look like if she was really, really into fashion? If she was the person who might take a weekend off to go to New York Fashion Week?’ She lives in L.A., she makes money, she works in an office … run by the old boys’ club, so how do we balance that to make it fashionable and make it relevant?”

“I saw a lot of Whitley-esque influence in a lot of characters,” said Grayson. “In Living Single and Girlfriends. They were a bit more risqué, but they had that same sensibility.”

Ceci said she wasn’t as aware of the influence in real time. But looking back, she sees correlations. However, she said the clothes she chose for characters such as Regine and Coco signify more aspirational efforts than did Hillman’s own pride and joy. “The Regine character, she is like a Whitley character. She wasn’t born with money. She has … humble beginnings and is a little more sassy and expressive,” said Ceci. “Coco didn’t have the affluence that the Whitley character has. So while there might be some parallels in terms of trying to be pulled together … those two characters are never gonna be able to hit the mark in terms of the polish and the etiquette of the Whitley character.”

Guy said she was more aware of women who paved the way for her as Carroll did in Dynasty (1981-89). While she agrees that both Hilary Banks and Regine Hunter fall into the same category as Whitley, she said they each had unique characteristics. “We were all a part of that theme, we were just different in our bougieness,” she said.

Both Grayson and Ceci acknowledge that although Whitley can be antagonistic, even when you hate her, you still want to dress like her. “Now when kids look at Whitley,” said Ceci, “they feel like she’s like a baby baller. They’re like, ‘I wanna look like her when I grow up.’ ”

“It just made young girls realize that you don’t have to be that … dowdy girl and just wear … jeans and your old flannel shirt,” said Grayson. “You can pull yourself together and go to school … and look a little more elegant, and not care what other people have to say about that — because you wanna be dressed.”

And Ceci is proud and humble at the same time. “You can’t unsee A Different World,” she said. “You’ve seen it. It’s kind of engraved in your psyche. And perhaps subliminally that’s a reference point, or even consciously. … I don’t know if I defined what African-American female affluence was at that time, but … I’m just coming to embrace the impact the show had, and my part in it … I feel proud and privileged and honored to have … been a part of that.”

As a fan of fashionable jewels and a curator of fine art, Whitley knows that reprints are acceptable. But there’s nothing like the original. Although her character set a part of #blackgirlmagic in motion, no one has matched her level of polished sophistication, and perhaps no one ever will. Ms. Gilbert would have it no other way.