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

“Can’t nobody fly with all that shit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Jack Mitchell/Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Me? Me?”

HBO’s new ‘Black Lady Sketch Show’ is both funny and long overdue All you need to survive the apocalypse is a headscarf and a League of Extraordinarily Funny Black Women

If there’s a lesson to be gleaned from A Black Lady Sketch Show, it’s this: All you need to survive the apocalypse is a headscarf and a League of Extraordinarily Funny Black Women.

HBO’s newest late-night sketch show, created by Robin Thede, is an instant classic. It premieres at 11 p.m. ET on Friday.

The apocalypse provides a frame for the show’s sketches, which are built around a core cast of Thede, Quinta Brunson, Ashley Nicole Black, and Gabrielle Dennis. The women kiki it up in a well-appointed living room in between each sketch, but when one of them opens the front door, the world looks like a scene out of a Cormac McCarthy novel.

Among the topics explored: How ashiness feels like slavery, groupie culture in the era of the Negro Leagues, and the relative invisibility of plus-size black women and how it makes them excellent candidates for espionage. The last bit is adapted from a conceit made popular by Paul Feig and Melissa McCarthy in Spy, but Black and guest star Nicole Byer successfully push the idea further along. That energy propels the show from the start. Its title sequence is populated by Crank Yankers-style marauding puppet versions of the actresses and backed by a Megan Thee Stallion track.

The show, co-produced by Issa Rae, is a rarity in modern television. Its writers, Lauren Ashley Smith, Holly Walker, and Amber Ruffin, are all black women. The show is directed by Dime Davis, whose most recent credits include a directing stint on the television reboot of Boomerang.

Thede, at this point, has grown accustomed to pathbreaking. She made history in 2014 when she became the first black woman to serve as head writer on a late-night comedy show, The Nightly Show, hosted by longtime Daily Show correspondent Larry Wilmore. She then had a short-lived turn as host of her own show, The Rundown with Robin Thede.

While A Black Lady Sketch Show provides ample time for each of its cast members and guests (which include Angela Bassett, Laverne Cox, Aja Naomi King, Gina Torres, and Patti LaBelle) to shine, Thede is exceptionally malleable. One of the great blessings of A Black Lady Sketch Show is that she’s used it to showcase her acumen with accents, from a spot-on send-up of Jackée Harry’s perpetually lustful 227 character to a rarely heard Louisiana Creole drawl in a sketch about a “Bad Bitch Support Group.” Her best may be a character named Dr. Hadassah Olayinka Ali-Youngman, a “world-renowned philosophizer” who marries Iyanla Vanzant-style self-actualization woo-woo ideology with the hotep paranoia of Frances Cress Welsing.

Ali-Youngman is a “pre-Ph.D.” who sports platinum blond locs, African mud cloth, and calls herself a “hertep.” She’s got the sort of pop culture stickiness that’s bound to take on a life of its own, like the Key and Peele sketch that turned TV football player introductions into an extended mockery.

From left to right: Holly Walker, Robin Thede, Quinta Brunson, and Daniele Gaither send up 227 in A Black Lady Sketch Show.

Courtesy of HBO

A Black Lady Sketch Show is so funny, and so packed with fresh ideas that it’s bound to leave audiences wondering: What took so long for something like this to exist?

Well, because like so many other aspects of American life, white guys had a head start, one that began in 1876 with the founding of the Harvard Lampoon, the oldest college humor magazine in the country. The Lampoon has had an outsize influence on American comedy, one that’s arguably just as influential as the writing of Mark Twain. For decades, it’s served as a feeder pool for writers, comedians, and actors to break into television. But that pool has been overwhelmingly white and male.

Seeking to provide a solution to the racial disparities in comedy, Chris Rock attempted to start a humor magazine at Howard University in 1998. The Illtop Journal, its name a takeoff from the university’s student newspaper, The Hilltop, eventually fizzled, with Rock conceding in a 2014 piece for The Hollywood Reporter that a lack of resources contributed to its demise. The piece, was, among other things, a response to an earlier controversy, when Kenan Thompson said in an interview that the reason Saturday Night Live hadn’t hired a black woman since Maya Rudolph left in 2007 was because “in auditions, they just never find ones that are ready.”

Dennis was one of about a dozen black women called in for a showcase aimed at finding such women and the show eventually announced that it hired Sasheer Zamata as a featured player and Leslie Jones and LaKendra Tookes as writers.

Since Saturday Night Live’s premiere in October 1975, seven black women have been either part of the repertory or featured players on the show (Danitra Vance, Yvonne Hudson, Ellen Cleghorne, Rudolph, Zamata, Jones, and Ego Nwodim). Many of its cast and writers come from a farm team of improv troupes around the country: the Upright Citizens Brigade, the Groundlings, and Second City, as well as the Lampoon. Those haven’t necessarily been at the forefront of diversity and inclusion, either. Even though Jones, who was personally mentored by Rock, has carved a niche for herself on SNL, her role there is routinely oriented around the idea that she’s undesirable. See her running gag with Colin Jost, in which Jones is positioned as a hulking, predatory black woman unaware that she’s trying to punch above her perceived dating weight class. The roles for black women there have been stunted by the limited universe of possibilities SNL writers have imagined for them.

A Black Lady Sketch Show simply has a different starting point. In Black, Brunson, and Dennis, Thede has assembled an all-star team from all over television. Black came from Full Frontal with Samantha Bee. Brunson is perhaps best known for her work in Buzzfeed video’s humorous shorts, but blew up in 2014 with her The Girl Who Has Never Been on A Nice Date series. Dennis, who played Candice on Insecure, has worked on a number of shows.

Compared with its people of color-dominated predecessor, In Living Color, A Black Lady Sketch Show highlights the changes in social norms that have taken place since the Fox sketch show debuted in 1990. For one, it’s considerably more queer-friendly. Brunson is a surprisingly handsome stud in a sketch about about a butch lesbian who steals dance moves.

It’s also amazing what happens when a show simply features black women instead of centering men playing them in wigs. A sublime weirdness results, one that recalls the goofy, left-field wit of Key and Peele while incorporating a critique of modern expectations surrounding beauty and grooming.

Because black women have historically been so poorly represented in improv and sketch comedy, especially on the nation’s ultimate platform for it, it was easy to draw a faulty conclusion: Maybe this is just how sketch comedy works. Maybe it’s just an inhospitable form for black women.

That makes about as much sense as concluding that maybe black people just aren’t good at playing quarterback when a black quarterback is shunted into an offensive system constructed for a different set of talents from his own. A Black Lady Sketch Show is the long-overdue meeting of a highly skilled quarterback with an offensive system that works with, rather than against, the athlete’s talents.

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

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

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

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

Penguin Random House

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Courtesy Colson Whitehead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Timothy Smith for The Undefeated

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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

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

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


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

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

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

Getty Images

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

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

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

I wouldn’t even pay my house rent.

I wouldn’t buy me nothin’ to eat.

Joe Louis says, ‘Take a chance at me

I’m goin’ to put you on your feet.’

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

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

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

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

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


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

Getty Images

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

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

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

The Stanley Weston Archive/Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

The Ring Magazine/Getty Images

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

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

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

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

AP Photo

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

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

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

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

NY Daily News Archive/Getty Images

Believe it or not: Two new plays feature modern characters volunteering to be slaves Forget plausible. Is it defensible?

It can’t be flippant. It can’t be casual, and it can’t be all about the white people.

Two of off-Broadway’s most unconventional playwrights opened shows this season that feature black characters voluntarily engaging in situations that require them to be enslaved: Jeremy O. Harris’ Slave Play and Suzan-Lori Parks’ White Noise.

If one were to compile a list of Things Black People Do Not Care to Resurrect, the institution of slavery would be at the top by unanimous decision. The instinct to reach for pitchforks is understandable, but hold off for a moment. If having modern black characters enter into slavery or recreations of it is going to be a thing, it might be best to establish some guidelines. Not rules, which only invite themselves to be broken, but some best practices.

Slave Play enjoyed a much buzzed-about run at New York Theatre Workshop (Madonna came!) before it closed in January. The plot revolves around three black characters, all in interracial relationships, who invite their white partners to a Virginia plantation for something called Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy. The couples have reached psychosexual impasses in their relationships, and they are all seeking a way back to having good, enjoyable sex. Harris, the creator of this scenario, is a 30-year-old graduate student at Yale School of Drama.

White Noise is the product of a 55-year-old Pulitzer Prize winner and is running at the Public Theater through May 5. In it, Leo (Daveed Diggs) is a black artist who asks his white friend, Ralph (Thomas Sadoski), to buy him for a period of 40 days and 40 nights for $89,000, the amount it will take to pay off his credit card and student loan debt. Each man is in a relationship: Leo is with a white woman named Dawn (Zoë Winters) and Ralph has a black girlfriend named Misha (Sheria Irving).

Both plays follow white characters as they submit to the seduction of white supremacy and finally admit that they’re not necessarily the Good White People they believe themselves to be.

The imagery required by such a thought experiment is deeply disturbing, of course. That’s the point.

Slave Play includes a scene in which a black woman named Kaneisha is ordered to eat fruit off the ground at the behest of her white overseer/boyfriend. In White Noise, Leo is placed upon a desk that functions as an auction block while wearing an iron collar designed to snag on trees and branches and break the wearer’s neck should he or she run away. Ralph forces him to wear a T-shirt that reads “SLAVE.”

The night I saw White Noise, there were audible gasps of horror when Diggs-as-Leo entered the stage with the collar around his neck. It wasn’t just the presence of an iron torture device that inspired such reaction. It was Leo’s body language. His shoulders slumped. The light had disappeared from his eyes. He was enveloped in a cloud of shame and resignation. In that moment, I could not see Leo. I could only see Daveed Diggs, and it was beyond awful.

I wanted to vomit.

Forget plausible. In what world, imagined or otherwise, was this level of degradation useful, much less defensible?

I couldn’t be fully present for the remainder of the show. Instead, I started wondering how Diggs was managing to play this role for eight performances a week. I checked my phone to see how much more of Leo’s enslavement we’d have to endure. I squirmed in my seat and I seethed, waiting for the play to end.


Daveed Diggs (left) as Leo is comforted by Zoë Winters (right) as his girlfriend Dawn in a scene from White Noise.

Joan Marcus

Is it even possible to suspend disbelief to accept “modern black person voluntarily enters slavery” as a plausible (if absurd) plot point? How do we determine where the proverbial line is?

Its location depends upon a number of factors. It’s helpful to think about the use of slavery in storytelling the way we do with other topics that audiences can find repellent, such as sexual violence.

In recent years, plenty of critics have written about the way sexual assault is deployed in film and television, especially because both mediums are dominated by male writers and directors and much of the sexual violence that happens to female characters happens without much thought, or as motivation for the vengeful actions of another male character. It’s gratuitous.

In 2016, there was a tense exchange between HBO’s head of programming and members of the Television Critics Association, who were challenging the network’s reliance on rape as a plot device in The Night Of and Westworld. In 2015, after a disturbing episode of Game of Thrones aired in which Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) was raped by her husband on their wedding night, Washington Post critic Alyssa Rosenberg offered some clarity on how to think about the way sexual violence is deployed in storytelling. “I think it’s important to preserve the distinction between saying that something simply isn’t for me and drawing a more definitive conclusion that something is a poor artistic choice,” she wrote. “You can assert the former, but you have to argue the latter, using the text and the language of the artistic form at hand.”

So when it comes to Slave Play and White Noise, which are both risky, wire-walking productions, how do we know when the choice to have black characters willingly enter enslavement is simply personally distasteful and when it’s a poor artistic choice?

Well, it can’t be flippant. And it can’t be casual.

Paul Alexander Nolan (left) as Jim and Teyonah Parris (right) as Kaneisha in Slave Play.

Joan Marcus

The first two points are easy enough to understand. The likelihood that a show will be terrible if it treats the choice to become a slave with the same consideration that one might give to forgoing flossing is 99.9 percent. It’s not an exact comparison, but see: the uproar when Russell Simmons released a “Harriet Tubman sex tape” under the auspices of parody. There are ways to make excellent jokes about the most repugnant of topics (hello, The Producers!), but it’s not easy.

In White Noise, Leo, an insomniac, has a contract drawn up that lays out the terms of the enslaved engagement after he’s attacked by police while walking in his neighborhood one night. Leo comes out of the incident with a badly bruised face, a broken tooth and a desire for one of his oldest friends to own him. As Leo puts it:

“Back in the day, a guy like me would be walking wherever and he’d get stopped by the Law, some law enforcement individual, and there would be a ‘Whose n—– are you, n—–?’ moment and the guy like me would be like, ‘I belong to Master So-And-So,’ and the Law would be like, ‘Oh, if you’re Master So-And-So’s property, then you’re cool with us, so go ahead on with your black self’ and a guy like me would go on,” Leo explains. “ ’Cause he was owned by somebody. ’Cause the brother was the property of the man. He was safe ’cause he was a slave.”

Both White Noise and Slave Play are deeply considered works, not intellectual clickbait. Slave Play especially understands the need for an off-ramp if audiences are to follow its characters to such a dark place. It even includes a safe word: “Starbucks!” Furthermore, Slave Play is based in a real kink that exists in the world of bondage, dominance, sadism and masochism. It’s strange, but it’s not unthinkable.

The journey to urban plantation life in White Noise feels a little more undercooked. Black men get harassed and beaten up by the police with such frequency in this country that black parents prepare their children for it. Using a violent encounter with police as Leo’s motivation does seem rather flippant or, at the very least, not all that well-considered. It certainly invites a question: Given how often these interactions take place, why aren’t other desperate black men offering themselves up for further abuse and unpaid labor? The answer is obvious, and the idea collapses in on itself before we’re halfway through the play.


Thomas Sadoski (left) as Ralph and Daveed Diggs (right) as Leo in a scene from White Noise.

Joan Marcus

The third guideline for putting voluntary slavery on stage — it can’t be all about the white people — is the trickiest.

Parks recently participated in a discussion about White Noise in New York with Oskar Eustis, the show’s director and the artistic director of the Public Theater, and philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah. Parks said she has a rule for her approach to writing characters: “Everyone gets to ride the bus. … No one gets thrown under the bus.”

Parks added: “I love each of these characters, and I understand each of their points of view.”

I wanted to scream. When the person on the bus is a rapist, or a slave owner, or a Nazi, and an enthusiastic one at that, it’s OK to throw them under the damn bus. It is possible to write a play about race and racism that manages to successfully keep all its characters aboard the bus without capitulating to whiteness (The Niceties is an example), but it’s not as straightforward as understanding the white ones.

If only White Noise reflected the love that Parks proclaims for each of her characters. Of the four main roles, Ralph, the sole white man, is the most clearly developed, to a stunning degree. His motivations are the most clearly articulated, and his grievances genuine. Parks sends him down a rabbit hole of white supremacy so deep that by Day 28 of his jaunt into slave ownership Ralph joins a “White Club” and then brags to his White Club friends that he has his own personal slave. Ralph’s storyline cuts off the development of all the other characters in White Noise.

I had a better understanding of the show’s weaknesses after I heard Eustis say he wanted to keep the audience on Ralph’s side for as long as possible. Again, I found myself stifling the urge to scream.

Why!?! Why is there a need to keep the audience on Ralph’s side at all? Everything, from the Constitution (as playwright and actress Heidi Schreck thoughtfully illustrates in What the Constitution Means to Me) to the Supreme Court to virtually every instrument of power in the history of this country is on Ralph’s side. To quote Peggy Olson in Mad Men: “You have everything, and so much of it.”

To conduct a successful thought experiment about a black person volunteering for slavery, it’s paramount to acknowledge this imbalance and to resist the deep gravitational pull of white narcissism, which devours injustice toward black people and spits out white injury. (Ralph finds that slaveholding soothes his wounded ego after he’s passed over for a tenured professorship in favor of a person of color.)

It’s a stage version of “All Lives Matter”: What starts out as a story about how white supremacy affects a black person (Leo) becomes subsumed by talk about how white people feel and how they’re being victimized. There’s no room to center the voice of the person who the terrible thing actually happened to. And that’s not enough to justify the humiliation of trotting out some lost brotha, who doesn’t feel remotely believable, in an iron collar.

Parks concludes White Noise with Leo the insomniac shouting, “I’m awake. I’m awake.” But she never establishes how he managed to be asleep for so long in the first place.

Lest you think this sort of well-intentioned clumsiness is unique to stories about American racism, I assure you it is not. In her 2018 film When Hands Touch, writer-director Amma Asante somehow managed to All Lives Matter the Holocaust with a story in which a black German girl falls in love with an actual Nazi.

By contrast, even though the white characters of Slave Play cannot get past their own solipsism, the play itself does. The black characters go on their own journeys and come to their own realizations independently. And there’s a deeper truth within Slave Play, which is that sometimes nothing, not even placing oneself in the role of a slave owner, will get white people to wake the hell up. Sometimes you just have to take the L and let them go.

By accident, ‘Space Jam’ is a nearly perfect stoner movie #MuteRKelly and ‘Space Jam’ becomes an ideal movie for 4/20

I found it.

I found a perfect movie for 4/20. Well, almost.

It’s Space Jam (minus the treacly R. Kelly theme that doesn’t even match the tone of the movie).

But Space Jam is an accidental stoner classic. It’s a kids movie that just happens to be the perfect mix of hilarious, fantastical, riveting and disturbing when watched while one is stoned out of one’s gourd. The stakes revolve around slavery. Slavery! Imagine if its forthcoming sequel took that energy and made it intentional.

If Space Jam 2 possesses the hallmark phantasmagoria of its director, Terence Nance, it ought to leave sober viewers wondering if they’ve accidentally ingested shrooms. It will be smart. It will be subversive. It will be sublimely weird.

Which gives me great hope that besides being a multiple NBA-championship-winning philanthropist who builds schools and produces documentaries that shine a light on those least illuminated, LeBron James could end up producing and starring in the best stoner flick since The Big Lebowski. One without the asterisk that comes with incorporating a warbling paean to flight sung by the man who showed us just what a superhero Gayle King actually is.

LeBron has the range. And we deserve.

This week, I busied myself with a bit of public service journalism. I went on the hunt for the perfect black stoner flick and kept coming up disappointed. Friday’s casual violence doesn’t age so well. How High is similarly distasteful. Half Baked is innocuous silliness. Newlyweeds is a bit uneven. Where is The Dude who dropped out after three semesters at Howard? Where are the black analogues to Abbi and Ilana? Or Harold and Kumar? What’s the hip-hop album/film mashup that accomplishes the trippy satisfaction of Dark Side of Oz?

Maybe they don’t exist yet. They should.

But until that day comes, let’s revisit what makes Space Jam an excellent stoner film.


In Space Jam — which somehow required not one, not two, not three, but FOUR screenwriters — like an epic adaptation of Doctor Faustus, Michael Jordan has retired from basketball and has moved on to baseball. He has a bulldog named Charles. (As in Charles BARK-ley, get it?) At the same time Michael is making this career transition, a group of aliens from a place called Moron Mountain descends upon Cartoon World, which is the home of Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Tweety Bird, the Tasmanian Devil, the Road Runner, Lola Bunny, Elmer Fudd, Daffy Duck, Yosemite Sam, Marvin the Martian, the weird rooster with the Southern accent and one elderly white granny. (Among elements that go unexplained: why the male-to-female ratio in Cartoon Land is so screwy.)

The Alien Moron Imperialists look like what might result if a person used CRISPR to splice together the DNA of a cockroach, a toucan and a guinea pig. They’re not that bright, but they have guns. They say things like, “You. All of you are now our prisoners.”

“We’re taking you to our theme park in outer space.”

“No food.”

“Where you will be our slaves and placed on display for the amusement of our paying customers.”

The aliens basically declare that they’re establishing a triangular trade between Moron Mountain, Earth and Cartoon Land, which seems to be located somewhere between the Earth’s crust and mantle, given that Jordan ends up there after he’s shrunken and swallowed into a putting green hole.

The Looney Tunes, faced with an existential crisis and no means to defend themselves (except maybe Elmer’s shotgun, which no one bothers to try shooting), hatch a deal with the aliens.

“Give us a chance to defend ourselves,” they request. With a basketball game.

OK, there is actually some defensible logic here. The aliens are about the size of guinea pigs and the Looney Tunes are … taller. The odds should be in their favor. Still, the only thing lying between Porky, Tasmanian Devil, Lola, Tweety, etc., and ending up like Sarah Baartman is … basketball? That’s a bit of a head-scratcher.

Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls poses with a cutout of Bugs Bunny at a news conference in New York on June 20, 1995.

AP Photo/Marty Lederhandler

The aliens take the deal, then set about sucking the talent out of a bunch of NBA players for their own use, like hideous, squeaky-voiced precursors to the Armitages of Get Out. (Has Nance thought about casting Allison Williams in Space Jam 2? Because that could be a really nice way to complete this circle.)

So Muggsy Bogues, Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing discover that they’ve become instantly terrible at basketball, and they have no idea why. And because “alien body snatchers leeching off black people’s talent so they can win the rights to enslave some other people” doesn’t exactly present itself as an obvious explanation, the rest of the NBA is shook. The other players start wearing gas masks to avoid the mysterious bacterial contagion that’s going around rendering NBA players useless.

The Looney Tunes find themselves facing newly beefed-up Morons who look suspiciously like the sort of big, black, ’roided-up threats that are more a figment of the racist imagination than a real thing. None of the imaginary characters in this film seems to care much about bodily agency — not even their own. Again, we’ve arrived at this point because the only thing standing between the Looney Tunes and slavery is a basketball game. So the Looney Tunes shrink Jordan and suck him down the hole of a putting green when he’s out playing golf with Larry Bird, the publicist of his new baseball team, and Bill Murray.

Can we just take a minute to recognize that Jordan has terrible friends in this movie? Not a one of them tries to save him.

With Jordan firmly ensconced in Looney Tunes Land, Bugs Bunny explains why he and his friends have sucked the greatest basketball player of all time into middle-earth: “You see, these aliens come from outer space and they want to make us slaves in their theme park. Eh, what do we care. They’re little. So then we challenge them to a basketball game. But then they show up and they ain’t so little. They’re HUGE! We need to beat these guys! ’Cause they’re talkin’ slavery! They’re gonna make us do stand-up comedy. The same jokes, every night, for all eternity. We’re gonna be locked up like wild animals and trotted out to perform for a bunch of low-brow, bug-eyed, fat-headed, humor-challenged aliens. What I’m trying to say is, WE NEED YOUR HEEEEEEEEEEELP.”

This bit of exposition is accompanied by an image of Bugs Bunny attached to a ball and chain, shucking and jiving against his will across a stage. How did we miss all the racial subtext packed into this movie?

The ’roided-up body snatcher aliens, now known as the Monstars, are not so impressed by Jordan.

“You heard of the Dream Team?” one asks. “Well, we’re the Mean Team.”

And then they proceed to ball up Jordan like he doesn’t have bones, or ligaments, or a spinal cord, and dribble him around a two-dimensional basketball court.

Meanwhile, on the surface of Earth, a doctor is asking Ewing if he’s been experiencing impotence since he lost his talent. This movie is wild.

The 2-D stars of Space Jam.

Frank Trapper/Corbis via Getty Images

Anyway, once Jordan’s regained his natural, nonspherical shape, he sends Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck to search his house for his lucky Carolina shorts and his shoes, because you can’t play basketball against a team of body-snatching aliens in golf spikes. That would be preposterous.

It turns out there’s a comically evil, cigar-smoking alien fat cat (voiced by Danny DeVito) who is forcing the Morons to steal the essences of black people, play this game against the Looney Tunes and win. (Way to let the Alien Imperialist Morons off the hook, writers. Turns out they were only following orders!)

Even with Jordan on their side, the Tune Squad is awful. But at halftime, down 66-20, all of the Tune Squad gets a hit of a mysterious bottle labeled “Michael’s Secret Stuff.” They start scoring and playing incredible defense to close the gap to 68-66. Jordan informs his teammates his “secret stuff” is actually just water, leading them to believe in themselves.

The game ends with the Tune Squad winning, 78-77. Jordan not only saves the Looney Tunes from slavery, he manages to repossess the talent of Bogues, Ewing and Barkley and return it. The fat cat goes ricocheting into outer space, Jordan goes back to basketball, and then in pipes the comically incongruous “I Believe I Can Fly.”

That’s it. That’s the (nearly) perfect 4/20 movie.

Time to roll another spliff.

A visit to Louisiana State Penitentiary, and a lesson in forgiveness NFL wide receiver Torrey Smith shares his ministry experience at the prison

Editor’s note: Louisiana State Penitentiary is the largest maximum security prison in the United States. Also known as “Angola” because it was built on a former plantation that held many slaves from the African country, the prison has a long and notorious history, including convict leasing in the 1800s. It was also once dubbed “the bloodiest prison in America.”


A few months ago, I received a text from my former teammate Steve Smith Sr., a man who is like a brother to me:

“For the last few years I’ve been asked to do a prison visit by a friend named Lenny. He is the team chaplain for the Buffalo Bills. Last year, I finally went and it was a remarkable and unforgettable experience for me. I know everyone has their own things going on, but I told myself I wouldn’t be silent and keep it to myself. So I’m just doing what was placed on my heart. Pray about it. If what you read interests you hit me back. If it doesn’t I completely understand.”

After I read Steve’s text message, I thought about the many times I’ve visited prisons during my career, including San Quentin in California, so I knew what to expect. I responded and let Steve know that I was interested in joining the trip. I would later find out I was wrong. The visit to the Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola State Prison, turned out to be a transformative experience for me — an emotional journey that challenged my assumptions about rehabilitation and forgiveness.

Buffalo Bills Chaplain Len Vanden Bos leads a prayer on the field after a game against the Miami Dolphins at New Era Field. Buffalo beats Miami 24 to 16.

Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

Steve’s friend Lenny turned out to be Len Vanden Bos, my chaplain at Pro Athletes Outreach, an organization that builds community among pro athletes and couples to grow spiritually and have a positive impact around them. Through his Higher Ground Ministry, he takes current and former NFL players, along with Christian leaders, to prisons to spread the gospel and encourage people who are incarcerated.

I knew that Angola was a maximum security prison filled with people who were facing lengthy sentences, some convicted of violent crimes like murder or rape but others convicted under the state’s harsh habitual offender laws for which Louisiana is famous. I also assumed from everything I had heard that people would be locked in small cages with little interaction with each other outside of the prison yard. As we toured the former plantation, built on more than 18,000 acres, however, I was shocked to see men walking around, cleaning up and washing cars as if they weren’t incarcerated at all. Some were dressed in plainclothes; no one wore chains. The men slept in a big room with bunk beds, which reminded me of the 1999 movie Life, where Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence play two Harlem bootleggers sentenced to life in prison for a phony murder charge. The reality of what I saw was a lot to take in, and as we walked around, I wondered how could the most violent men in Louisiana live together in what appears to be a very peaceful environment.

I don’t mean to glorify this prison. It is a prison, after all, and people are held in cells and often forced to work in sweltering heat with little money. And as we continued to walk through the prison grounds, I saw men working, some for as little as 2 cents an hour, making T-shirts for the government and license plates for every driver in Louisiana, or raising cattle to be sold on the market.

A prisoner walks thru a fenced section toward a guard tower at Angola Prison in 2013.

Giles Clarke/Getty Images

Three things struck me as we toured the grounds.

First, I feel strongly that this was modern-day slavery, and it was wrong. Then I remembered slavery is still legal as defined by the 13th Amendment, which says, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, EXCEPT as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” Angola, like other prisons, benefits from this exemption. And I realized, yes, this is America.

Second, I witnessed how people accused of even the most serious crimes and living in extremely difficult conditions could work, live together peacefully and change. I wondered if those people working so well together were really still even a danger to anyone. This experience drove home the importance of second chances, because people change, even those who have caused terrible harm.

As we passed a church on the property that was built by the men, for example, I was struck by what they had accomplished — and what it demonstrated. I saw two incarcerated men working on a building with all of the tools they needed: hammers, nails, screwdrivers, screws, it was all there. It was a striking visual that remains stamped in my memory. Although I strongly believed that it was wrong that they were working for pennies on the dollar, their ability to do so conveyed a sense of collaboration and responsibility that led me to also believe they had hope.

The system is complicated.

The Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola, and nicknamed the “Alcatraz of the South” and “The Farm” is a maximum-security prison farm in Louisiana operated by the Louisiana Department of Public Safety & Corrections.

Giles Clarke/Getty Images

Throughout my visit at Angola, I saw men working and trying to better themselves through a variety of impactful programs offered there. Yes, some will, in fact, die in prison, while others will earn the second chance they deserve.

Unfortunately for the men awaiting their second chance in America, their fate rests with the political, and not with what is right. In several states, freedom is not just determined by one’s actions while incarcerated or even by the parole or pardon board. In some cases, situations like pardons require the signature of the governor of that particular state, whose contact with the person who is incarcerated is limited to a manila file folder even if the state-approved board has deemed the person worthy of a second chance.

Legislators have the power to change that, and in some cases, states have created a “no action” law that allows for pardons to go through with the recommendation of the board if it is not signed before the governor has left his term. This takes the burden of a final decision off the back of the governor, who may or may not have political concerns, while offering the offender a second chance based on the approval of the experienced members of the pardon board.

Many men and women who deserve second chances remain in prison because of politics or because they are considered a high-profile case in their state. It’s not fair to the incarcerated men and women or the bodies that govern them.

And then a third thing occurred to me.

Overall, spending time with the people at Angola led me to question my own views of forgiveness. As a follower of Christ, I believe that we are forgiven. But I had to ask myself, “Am I really forgiving others? If my forgiveness is conditional, is it real?” I’ve spent many years holding grudges against people who’ve wronged me in some way, and I imagined the grace summoned by victims of crime when they forgive those who have harmed them. I seek the peace and freedom that the forgiven men feel.

Wide receiver Steve Smith #89 of the Baltimore Ravens prays with teammates and player from the Philadelphia Eagles after the Baltimore Ravens defeated the Philadelphia Eagles 27-26 at M&T Bank Stadium on December 18, 2016 in Baltimore, Maryland.

Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Many of the men at Angola had already found peace through Christ, which allowed them to feel forgiven. As I prayed with them at the end of our visit, worshipping alongside men who had committed violent crimes and were now paying their debt to society, I witnessed the power of real forgiveness. It was a lesson that I carried with me when I left, and it is a lesson that I will share with the hope that others can accept and give forgiveness too.

In ‘They Were Her Property,’ a historian shows that white women were deeply involved in the slave economy In contrast to the stereotypes of the ‘gentler sex,’ female slaveholders were just as vicious and calculating as men

White women of the pre-Civil War era were far more shrewd and sophisticated than stereotypes would have us believe. They were savvy economic actors, not airheads in crinolines and corsets.

A new book from University of California, Berkeley historian Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers ought to dispel the myth of the Southern belle for good. In They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South, Jones-Rogers looks at testimonials from formerly enslaved people, collected by Federal Writers’ Project as part of the 1930s Works Progress Administration. She then cross-referenced their accounts with bills of sale, census data and other legal documents to paint a new picture of what female slaveholders were like. By showing the enormous financial interests white women had in slavery and the steps they took to secure those interests, Jones-Rogers provides proof that these women often were no different from their male counterparts.

Yet, the image of the kind, nurturing white woman is deeply ingrained in our culture when it comes to race relations. Actor Allison Williams encountered this phenomenon after the release of Get Out in 2017. In an interview on Late Night with Seth Meyers, Williams revealed how white fans would question her about her character, Rose Armitage, who is at the center of a diabolical plot to entrap black men.

“They’d say, ‘She was hypnotized, right?’ And I’m like, ‘No! She’s just evil.’ How hard is that to accept? She’s bad!” Williams said.

“And they’re like, ‘But maybe she’s also a victim?’ ”

Those who found it difficult to believe in Rose’s unmitigated evil should read They Were Her Property, which suggests there were quite a few Rose Armitages in American history. The professor recently spoke about her research with The Undefeated.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

How does the way slave-owning women are depicted in pop culture affect our perception of them? And how is that different from the way they actually behaved?

We have Scarlett O’Hara in mind when we think about white women’s relationships to slavery. And there are a lot of reasons why that’s the case. In the era of slavery there was a very strategic attempt to craft a very positive perception of slavery as an institution, in a direct contrast to the characterization by abolitionists at the time.

One of the key elements of that narrative has to do with the depiction of white women’s role in the institution of slavery. One of the primary things abolitionists said was, ‘Look at what slavery does to white women. This is the fairer sex. This is the gentler sex. Slavery turns these white women into monsters. And if slavery can do that to the best of us, the better of humanity, then we need to get rid of it. We have to get rid of it because this is what it does to the individuals who care and nurture the most.’

Yale University Press

So pro-slavery apologists, who are refuting negative views of slavery, are saying, ‘Oh, no. Look at what white women do. White women are caring for these enslaved people like their children.’

That image has stuck. Except for one really important exception, and that’s the Jealous Mistress: the white woman who lives in the house and learns that her husband is having sex with an enslaved woman and she lashes out violently at that woman because she can’t lash out violently at her husband because of patriarchy.

So female slaveholders weren’t just lashing out because of frustration with their lack of power in their marriages?

When you look at what formerly enslaved people had to say about that, not only do they not let white women off the hook for simply turning a blind eye, they don’t see it as they had no choice. They see it as these acts of sexual assault were also economic calculations.

There’s one particular instance in which a woman said her mistress said basically, ‘So what?’ And she said, ‘Go on. Do what he asked you to do, because you’re his property and you belong to him.’ Essentially acknowledging that part of ownership, a key element of ownership, was being able to do what could be done to enslaved people. Not only were white women complicit in acts of sexual violence against enslaved people, enslaved people also said that there were white women who orchestrated acts of sexual violence against them.

A white woman who owned enslaved people in Louisiana would force enslaved men and enslaved women to have sex with each other. When those forced sexual relations produced children, she would keep the girls, sell the boys. And then once those girls came of age and became of age to the point where they could have sex, she would force them to do the same thing. It was a multigenerational cycle of sexual violence that this woman orchestrated. The formerly enslaved woman who gives this account, she doesn’t know this indirectly. She knows this personally because she was subjected to this, and she said that her mother was subjected to this. There’s no white male slave owner in her accounts. This is simply a white woman, who owned her and owned her mother, who is orchestrating acts of sexual violence so that she could then reap the economic benefits of their ability to produce children as a consequence of their sexual assault.

What made you decide to write this book?

In graduate school I specialized in African-American history, but I was also interested in women’s and gender history. What I noticed was much of the scholarship I was reading about the experiences of enslaved African-Americans was in some way contradicting what many historians of white Southern women were saying about these women’s roles in relationship to slavery.

I had a gut feeling that there was more. I went to one of the primary places where we try to document the economic dimensions of slavery and the slave trade, and that’s bills of sale.

There’s one particular instance in which a woman said her mistress said basically, “So what?” And she said, “Go on. Do what he asked you to do, because you’re his property and you belong to him.”

There were thousands and thousands and thousands of women who were either buyers or sellers listed on these bills of sales. Would I find references to these women in the records of slave traders, individuals who bought and sold slaves for a living? Would I find them in those documents as buyers and sellers?

Women were in those documents as buyers and sellers.

Would I find references to them in the slave market, so people who may have passed by the slave market, been in the slave market, would they mention seeing women at auctions?

They were there.

Every other place that I looked I was finding copious evidence to support what formerly enslaved and enslaved people were saying about white women’s economic relationships to the institution.

Who benefits when this information is obscured?

This is a very ugly feminist history. This is a story about a certain group of women finding their freedom, finding their liberty, finding their agency and their autonomy in the bondage, the oppression, the subjugation of another group of individuals. That’s not a pretty feminist story. That is not the kind of feminism that makes women’s history and feminism morally comfortable.

What happens when we realize and reckon with the fact that these individuals who we want to believe are maternal, we want to believe are more caring, are more nurturing, are in fact destroying families, severing connections between mothers and children, are selling human beings away from everything they know and love for the rest of their lives? What do we do when we realize that those individuals who we had hoped upon hope are our better angels are not our better angels? That they’re equally as dark, equally as vicious and brutal and calculating, you know? The jig would be up.

You write that it was common practice to regard people who were formerly enslaved and spoke to the Federal Writers’ Project as unreliable narrators of their own lives. Why?

I think it has to do with things that historians have said about why we should approach these narratives with caution. It has to do with the fact that many of these formerly enslaved people were children when they were enslaved. They were children, so how much could they really remember about enslaved people or slavery when they’re, like, 7 years old? They’re in their 80s and 90s and some of them are even 100 when they’re giving interviews.

Others say maybe these stories have been passed to them and then all the stories that they’ve heard form this kind of conglomerate, this kind of mosh of other people’s accounts, that they can’t really deem them credible because they don’t know that these stories don’t belong to them. The other thing that they say is that many of the interviewers who conducted the interviews, the Federal Writers themselves, were white Southerners, were also descendants of slave owners, so these formerly enslaved people were highly intimidated. They would not reveal the truth of slavery to these individuals for fear of insulting them or also for fear of violent retaliation.

From my own research, I find that we’ve been overly cautious about these accounts. We have infantilized formerly enslaved people by saying that we cannot trust what they say. These are the things that we say about children. These are not the things that we say about an individual who stood in the crowds at a public slave auction and watched their mothers be sold to Tennessee. We are infantilizing formerly enslaved people who could never forget something like that. They can never forget being themselves on auction blocks and being sold away from their mothers and their families and never seeing them again.

What do we do when we realize that those individuals who we had hoped upon hope are our better angels are not our better angels?

There is evidence, there are documents, that suggest that we are being overly cautious. Accounts that were taken immediately after slavery was over, not 30, 40, 50 years later, but immediately after slavery was over, substantiate much of what formerly enslaved people were saying much later to WPA Federal Writers. I think it’s time for us to just get over it and to trust that the individuals who experienced slavery and oppression on a daily basis would be the experts to tell us about those experiences.

You provide receipts on top of receipts on top of receipts, in terms of primary source documents.

It was easy to do that in many cases. There are instances in some of the documents, some of the testimony of formerly enslaved people, where they give first names, middle names and last names. And they say what her maiden name was. When you have those details, it is not hard.

They could tell me who she married, who she was married to before she married the person who they later referred to as their master. They were giving genealogies that were connected to their continued and perpetual enslavement. They were essentially telling these life stories through who had owned them and then also creating family trees for their owners that allowed for me to go to other sources — the census, for example — and trace these women for decades through the census data to be able to identify and to corroborate what they were saying about who these women were married to, when they became widows, if they remarried, who they remarried.

I was able to go through the documents that historians and others beyond the academy deem as ‘legitimate’ and find that the details could be corroborated through those legitimated sources.

So for me it was really important to do that because, again, I think we infantilize these formerly enslaved people when they tell us these stories and we say, ‘Well, we don’t know how we can tell …’ There are instances in which we can now for sure, without a doubt, without a question.

It just simply took me saying, ‘I need to do this because I know that people are gonna question what these people have to say. And here are the documents. Here are their receipts.’

You illustrate that white women developed workarounds for relinquishing their assets to their husbands upon marriage. I thought about the way marriage is often prescribed to poor black people as a mechanism for closing the racial wealth gap, as if the reason there are so many poor black children is because their parents aren’t married.

These women know what’s going to happen to them when they get married. They understand that if they own anything, it becomes their husband’s. Not only do they know those things beforehand, but they know that the law will eventually cripple them in really important ways that would allow for them to be financially stable and autonomous, would allow for them to have a legal identity separate from their husband.

Parents know this. The girls know this. The women know this. And they work around the law. They figure out how they can preserve some measure of financial security, in this particular case through the ownership of human beings, the ownership of enslaved African-Americans.

It’s really laughable that people would argue that for a black woman marrying someone would actually be a economic benefit for that. It’s laughable because you can actually see white women fighting very hard to avoid the financial disability that comes with marriage, that are built into the institution of marriage.

If you look at these [white] women and the gymnastics that they engage in in order to circumvent these disabilities that come with marriage, when it comes to their economic well-being, you realize that if it doesn’t work for them, it sure as hell ain’t gonna for the black woman.

You don’t provide concrete numbers regarding the number or percentage of white women who owned enslaved people. Why not?

Because the number of women who owned enslaved people in the 19th century alone is so extraordinarily large that I could not collect and analyze that data in the time that it took me to write this book by myself. This is something that is something that I’m doing now. I’ve begun a project that is looking at selected cities and rural areas in the South, both in 1850 and 1860, in order to try to get a kind of just a slight, a basic understanding of slaveholding patterns amongst white women throughout the South during these two decades to try to understand the broader phenomenon.

South Carolina has bills of sale for property transactions from the 1700s to pretty recently. I looked at a sample of 3,000 bills of sale involving enslaved people being purchased or sold. Close to 40 percent of the bills of sale included either a female buyer or a female seller.

The documents are there to collect this data. I believe that if these other data sets are suggestive of anything, it would suggest that the number is far greater than we have imagined that they were before. The numbers, although they aren’t in the book, they are forthcoming. But they suggest exactly what I show, that white women were deeply invested economically in the institution of slavery and in the bondage and oppression of enslaved African-Americans.

Today in black history: Michael Jackson takes home 8 Grammys, ‘Porgy and Bess’ opens on Broadway, and more The Undefeated edition’s black facts for Feb. 28

1704 — Elias Neau, a Frenchman, opens a school for black students in New York. Neau, who worked as a cabin boy and a sailor in his early life, was always willing to lend a helping hand. But Neau was especially inspired to help enslaved communities after being captured by a French privateer near Jamaica in 1692 while out to sea. After being transferred to Marseille, France, for not renouncing his faith — he wrote letters to his wife, prayers, poems and hymns to pass time — Neau landed himself in solitary confinement, where he remained for six months. He was released from prison six years later.

1879 — Blacks flee political and economic exploitation in the South. Kansas became the land of promise for African-Americans, both free and enslaved, who sought educational, political and economic opportunities in the 1860s and 1870s. Although slavery still existed in surrounding areas, Kansas seemed to be a much better option than the tumultuous climate for African-Americans in the South.

Benjamin “Pap” Singleton, a runaway slave from Tennessee who sheltered escaped slaves once he was free, noted the conditions African-Americans were subjected to in the South and eyed Kansas. Singleton enlisted the help of Columbus Johnson, who helped Singleton circulate posters across the South that explained their plans. The withdrawal of federal troops from the South in 1877, marking the end of the Reconstruction era, caused the “Great Exodus” to peak in 1879. By then, at least 50,000 blacks, known as Exodusters, sought freedom in Kansas, Missouri, Indiana and Illinois with the help of Singleton, who became known as the father of the Black Exodus.

1932 — Richard Spikes, an auto enthusiast and industry innovator, receives a patent for the automatic gear shift for cars. In 1962, while losing his vision, Spikes continued to work on creating the automatic safety brake for cars. All of Spikes’ creations are still essential components of cars today.

1943 — Porgy and Bess opens on Broadway with Anne Brown and Todd Duncan in starring roles.

1948 — Sgt. Cornelius Frederick Adjetey, a member of the 81st and 82nd divisions of the Royal West African Frontier Force, became the first martyr for national independence of Ghana while on a peaceful march. Adjetey, along with unarmed ex-servicemen, began their journey from Accra, Ghana’s capital, to meet with the governor of the Gold Coast, Sir Gerald Creasy, to air their grievances and present a petition in regard to ending service entitlements that had not been received. Creasy dismissed the men, ordering them to leave. After the ex-servicemen refused to leave without a resolution, Creasy ordered police to open fire, instantly killing Adjetey and his cohorts. The killings were investigated, but not before causing general disorder and disturbances in Accra.

1984 — Michael Jackson wins eight Grammys. It was a night to remember for musician and entertainer Jackson, who took home eight Grammy Awards, including seven for his best-selling album Thriller. The album, which produced seven Top 10 singles after its November 1982 release, swept several categories, including best male R&B vocal performance and best R&B song for “Billie Jean,” best male rock vocal performance and record of the year for “Beat It,” best male pop vocal performance for “Thriller” and album of the year. Thriller broke all sales records to date and remains one of the top-grossing albums of all time.

1990 — Philip Emeagwali, known as the “Bill Gates of Africa,” receives the Gordon Bell Prize, considered the Nobel Prize of computing, for solving one of the 20 most difficult problems in the computing field.

Today in black history: Toni Morrison is born, first all-black Broadway musical debuts, Shani Davis wins gold, and more The Undefeated edition’s black facts for Feb. 18

1688 — First formal protest against slavery by a religious group in the English colonies is held. Four Pennsylvania Quakers write and present their opposition to slavery and human trafficking. Their document read, in part, “we shall doe to all men licke as we will be done ourselves; macking no difference of what generation, descent or Colour they are.”

1896 — Razor-stropping device is patented. Henry Grenon patents the razor-stropping device, a tool that was mainly used to sharpen blades for barbers.

1903 — First all-black musical opens on Broadway. In Dahomey, a musical comedy and the first full-length musical written, produced and performed by blacks, opened at the New York Theatre and ran for 53 performances. It featured music by Will Marion Cook from the book by Jesse A. Shipp, and lyrics by Paul Laurence Dunbar.

1931 — Happy birthday, Toni Morrison. Morrison is born in Lorain, Ohio. Morrison, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012 from then-President Barack Obama. The Bluest Eye, was published in 1970, and attracted immediate attention. Among her many other works are Sula, Song of Solomon and Tar Baby. Beloved, a Pulitzer Prize winner published in 1988, is regarded by many as Morrison’s most successful work.

2006 — Shani Davis becomes the first black person to win an individual gold medal in Winter Olympics history. Davis won the men’s 1,000-meter speed skating race in Turin, Italy.