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

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

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

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

Photo by Bruce Glikas/WireImage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FICTION

The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo (YA)

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


Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi (YA)

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


My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

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


A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley

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


The Talented Ribkins by Ladee Hubbard

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


Dread Nation by Justina Ireland (YA)

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


An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

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


Wild Beauty by Ntozake Shange

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


Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires

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

NON-FICTION

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


The Revolt of the Black Athlete by Harry Edwards

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


Ali: A Life by Jonathan Eig

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


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

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


There Will Be No Miracles Here by Casey Gerald

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


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

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


Heavy by Kiese Laymon

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


Becoming by Michelle Obama

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

In its Season 3 premiere, ‘Queen Sugar’ delivers a kneeling episode after ABC balked with ‘black-ish’ This is why it’s important to have multiple creators of color across multiple networks

Who’s afraid of a little pregame kneeling?

Not Queen Sugar.

In its season three premiere, airing Tuesday at 10 p.m. EDT on OWN, Queen Sugar builds on its reputation for taking on challenging social issues. This time, that means using Micah West’s (Nicholas L. Ashe) violent season two encounter with a police officer and his awakening to issues of racial justice as a bridge to explore protest and what it means to find one’s voice.

Nova Bordelon, played by Rutina Wesley, has served as the moral center of the show through her work as a journalist uncovering an unjust legal system that throws black people into private prisons without due process. Nova’s nephew Micah begins to realize the significance of his aunt’s work when he’s assaulted by a Louisiana police officer after being pulled over on a remote highway for daring to be black behind the wheel of an expensive sports car, a gift from his father, a pro basketball player.

In the season three premiere, written by Kat Candler and directed by DeMane Davis, Micah attends a basketball game between the two rival public high schools in St. Josephine’s Parish. The event turns into more than just a game when students of the parish’s majority-black high school, dressed head to toe in black, walk onto the gym floor as a white student from the opposing team is singing the national anthem. They kneel quietly and a ruckus ensues, including the unfurling of a giant Confederate flag. Micah, who has a burgeoning interest in photography, documents the conflict. It’s clear that Micah is invested in this protest in a way that he wouldn’t have been when he and his mother first moved to Louisiana in season one. Now a high school junior, Micah is showing an awareness of how class and privilege have blinkered his worldview, and how little that helped him when he was a black boy driving an expensive car in the rural South.

I’ve seen only the first two episodes, but they portend what I expect to be Queen Sugar’s most consistent and thoughtful season yet, in part because the kneeling episode doesn’t feel shoehorned into the show as a way to make it current. Instead, it is a natural outgrowth of the show’s continued reflection on black American life in the South. Furthermore, it becomes apparent by episode two that the kneeling incident will likely color the whole season. It turns out that the officer who harassed Micah targets black people generally. And because St. Josephine’s is so small, he’s also the parent of an athlete on the rival basketball squad.

There is no running from white supremacy in St. Josephine’s. There are no timeouts.

Season three shows what it feels like to push back against racism in a town where everyone knows everyone and a veneer of Southern hospitality is expected as a means of papering over racial hostility and inequity. What’s more, the third season is weaving Micah’s evolution in his thinking on race with his development as a teenager, pushing boundaries and differentiating himself from his mother. It is one of the most seamless examples I’ve seen of the everyday ways in which race insinuates itself into American life.

There is no running from white supremacy in St. Josephine’s. There are no timeouts. It is the white noise that colors life, whether you want it to or not. In that way, Queen Sugar is pushing back against the way larger real-life cultural forces compartmentalize the discomfort that the sight of a black person kneeling during the national anthem seems to stir up.

After all, this premiere lands just as the NFL has announced penalties for teams whose players kneel during the national anthem. And it is creating a storyline centered around kneeling high school students in the same year that ABC pulled an episode of black-ish that included a discussion about the same subject.

ABC has found itself in the midst of controversy this spring. Not only did it pull the kneeling episode of black-ish, but it also brought back Roseanne with a version that is far afield from the show’s working-class, feminist and anti-racist roots. Its title character is now a Trump supporter who’s fearful of her Muslim next-door neighbors. Nothing summed up the ethos of the Roseanne reboot more than one joke taking a cheap shot at two other ABC shows: Fresh Off the Boat and black-ish. Not only did ABC’s standards and practices gatekeepers allow the joke, in which the humor hinged on being dismissive of efforts to make TV more inclusive, but ABC president Channing Dungey defended it.

Would that Dungey were as vociferous in defending black-ish showrunner Kenya Barris. These two programming decisions raised questions about to whom the network was catering and to whom it was capitulating. Perhaps it’s not surprising that Barris reportedly wants to decamp for Netflix.

Racism is a fact of American life, so of course it’s part of sports, the arena that occupies so many of our television-viewing hours. It’s only natural that it’s going to come up in shows about black life, the same way police violence is part of so many shows that are by or about black people. Dear White People, which has found its voice in an excellent second season, brought a deft touch to the story of a student experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder after a campus police officer held him at gunpoint. Atlanta tackled the trauma of witnessing police violence in its season one finale. Even Insecure took on the anxiety triggered by being black and pulled over by a cop.

The existence of Queen Sugar, Dear White People, Atlanta and Insecure right alongside black-ish is an excellent illustration of why it’s important to have multiple creators of color writing from multiple perspectives at multiple networks. Only a few years ago, neither Queen Sugar nor Dear White People existed. Go back a few more years, and neither did the networks that carry them. FX, under the guidance of John Landgraf, only recently began its expansion of high-quality, quirky programming beyond white creators by hosting Atlanta.

Imagine if ABC still drew the audience numbers that it did in the 1990s — the decision to pull the black-ish episode would have been even bigger, given the Big Three networks’ outsized role in shaping pop culture. Without minimizing the broadcast network’s decision, we can be grateful for the fragmented nature of our current television climate. If a subject is too radioactive for one network, that doesn’t mean the topic simply won’t appear on TV.

Certainly there’s always been more creative freedom in cable and streaming than broadcast television. But when can a programming decision be characterized as creative differences, and when is it censorship of ideas about race, policing and protest?

In telling the stories of all-too-common realities for black Americans, Queen Sugar shows us why it’s good to have choices.

Fifteen years ago, Reebok and Adidas wanted him badly — so how exactly did LeBron James end up with Nike? Seven-figure checks were flying and at 18 years old, a young king had to make a huge decision

It was a typical Saturday morning at Nike’s Beaverton, Oregon, global headquarters. A spring day in May 2003 so quiet on the billion-dollar brand’s campus that only mild rumblings hinted at the arrival of such an esteemed guest. Yet for months, a cohort of employees, designers and top-level executives had been making preparations fit for a king.

Who was so deserving of the royal treatment? An 18-year-old from Akron, Ohio, named LeBron James, whose skill in the game of basketball made his decision to skip college and jump straight to the NBA far too easy. He’d been dubbed “The Chosen One,” and folks were salivating at the best player to grace the hardwood since Michael Jordan.

His long-awaited visit to Nike took place in the lead-up to the 2003 NBA draft lottery. The Cleveland Cavaliers would win the top selection, and effectively earn the right to acquire the local phenom. To sign a young James to his first sneaker deal, Nike had to come correct.

“It was the single-greatest plan I’ve ever seen put together,” said E. Scott Morris, then a senior footwear designer for the Nike Basketball division. The night before James and his camp — including his mother, Gloria James, his best friend, Maverick Carter, and his agent, Aaron Goodwin — stepped foot onto Nike’s campus, Morris got a sneak peek. Countless hours of research went into the presentation. It took hundreds of people to bring it to life.

“It sucked, to sum it up. There’s no second place in this game. It’s either you win or you lose, and we lost.”

What sticks out in Morris’ mind is the setting. At the time, co-founder Phil Knight, then Nike’s CEO, was in process of moving his office from the John McEnroe building to a wing of his own tucked away in the Mia Hamm building. But before he’d even spent a single day behind a desk there, Knight allowed his new working quarters to be dedicated to another purpose: pitching James.

The door of the space — so massive it could’ve been an entryway to Jotunheim — opened to a motion-activated video that flashed the Swoosh, and other personalized welcome messages. On either side of a long corridor stood cases of Nike sneakers made iconic by some of the NBA’s biggest stars — Air Jordans, Barkleys, Pippens, Pennys. “You see all these shoes leading down to one case, all the way at the end, in the center,” Morris remembered. “That case had a light over it, and there’s nothing in it. It’s empty, as if to say, ‘Your Superman costume is waiting for you … if you’re ready for it.’ ”

Walk left of the empty case, and there was a conference room, where any and everything that could imaginably be branded LeBron was on display. Towels, shorts, bathrobes, swimwear. “They made this guy underwear,” Morris said. “I didn’t even know we made that.” A reception area housed more custom swag, from basketballs to bags to sunglasses.

And if James needed a snack break, Nike had actual Fruity Pebbles waiting for him — because someone, somehow, found out that was his favorite cereal. “No detail was missed,” said Morris, via phone from Oregon. “Everything they thought he might think, somebody’s job was to make sure it was available for his use, or experience.”

There were two conditions: He had to sign with Reebok, and give his word that he wouldn’t engage in conversations with Adidas or Nike.

Walk right of the empty case, and you entered essentially a king’s treasure room. Its marvels included a mini model of James’ 2003 pewter-colored H2 Hummer, and the pelt of lion (think King Joffy Joffer’s shawl in Coming to America). There were also sketches of sneakers crafted by the brand’s top designers — Tinker Hatfield, Aaron Cooper and Eric Avar. It was here that Nike brass — most notably his future brand manager Lynn Merritt — and James’ team discussed product, and the potential of a partnership. “It’s definitely,” said Goodwin, “the greatest presentation I’ve ever seen.”

Weeks later — and 15 years ago this week — on the day of the lottery, Nike and James agreed to the richest initial shoe contract in the history of sports. “A landmark deal,” said Alexandria Boone, James’ former publicist, “one that people will remember.”

That original alliance has since transformed into a lifetime deal worth more than $1 billion. “It’s gotta be,” said Goodwin, “outside of Michael Jordan, the best signing that Nike has ever made.” But back in ‘03, Nike wasn’t the only company after the No. 1 pick.


Reebok, first. Adidas, second. And Nike, third. This is the tactical order in which Goodwin, then James’ agent, scheduled his client’s in-person meetings with the top three sneaker brands during that era of basketball. Before the first pingpong ball was drawn at the lottery, Goodwin wanted a deal finalized.

“We felt like LeBron’s market was not going to be predicated by where he played, but by how he played, and how his brand [would grow],” said Goodwin via mobile. “Whether he played for the Cleveland Cavaliers or the Sacramento Kings, he was going to make a huge difference for whatever [sneaker] company it was.”

LeBron had deep connections to all three of his suitors. On March 26, 2003, he was named the MVP of the annual McDonald’s All-American Game after a 27-point performance while rocking a custom pair of red-and-white “L23J” Reebok Questions, signature sneaker of Allen Iverson. James had worn Pro Models and T-Macs in games for his team at St. Vincent-St. Mary in Akron and for his AAU squad, the Oakland Soldiers (yes, for three summers, he traveled all the way to California to play ball). And it was no secret how much he idolized Jordan, the most important athlete in the history of Nike’s brand. “LeBron grew up loving everything Nike did,” said David Bond, then-vice president of U.S. sports for Adidas. “It was easy for them to sign him. It was their game to lose.”

On his first visit to Reebok’s Canton, Massachusetts, headquarters, James spent the first part of the day listening to a comprehensive pitch and marketing plan. The company’s top designers had been pulled from projects to focus on James, and James only. They cooked up more than 50 logos, and 10 sneaker designs, which Reebok executives presented in the meeting.

“We were trying to demonstrate that we were a brand that was going to pay attention to him,” said Todd Krinsky, then-president of the RBK division, which focused on fusing sports and music via footwear and apparel. “We didn’t have 1,000 NBA players, so it was a big opportunity for him to work with a brand that was really going to prioritize him.”

“It’s gotta be, outside of Michael Jordan, the best signing that Nike has ever made.”

About a month before sitting down with James, Reebok released Jay-Z’s first signature sneaker, the S. Carter. And by October 2003, the company had agreed to a licensing deal with Pharrell Williams, and would drop his signature line of shoes, Ice Creams. Iverson, still in his prime, was the face of Reebok basketball, and the brand was anxiously planning for James, the soon-to-be rookie, to be the face its future. “He was really engaged,” continued Krinsky, now the general manager of Reebok Performance. “We felt pretty good.”

What happened next has become the most lasting legend of James’ sneaker saga.

Reebok chairman and CEO Paul Fireman was a man of theatrics, with a win-at-any-cost mentality. In 1996, he signed Iverson, the top selection in the draft that year, though he’d played in Nike at Georgetown University, and his college coach, John Thompson, served on Nike’s board of directors. Fireman wanted secure another surefire No. 1 pick in James, and was willing to pay more than anyone to do so. He escorted James, his mother Gloria, and Goodwin into a private room, and whipped out a cashier’s check. LeBron could leave with it, Fireman informed said. But there were two conditions: He had to sign with Reebok, and give his word that he wouldn’t engage in conversations with Adidas or Nike.

“I was lost for words … looking at a $10 million check,” LeBron James said in 2017 during a conversation with Maverick Carter on UNINTERRUPTED’s Kneading Dough, an interview series focusing on athletes and business.

“I remember getting the check, then giving it to LeBron …,” said Goodwin. “He and his mom looking at it, and his mom’s eyes watering up … It was an emotional time … the reality of this thing that the two of them had lived their life and worked so hard for was actually happening.”

Krinsky can’t forget the contrasting reactions of James and his best friend. “I remember Mav unbuttoning his shirt and getting some air, and I remember LeBron just being stoic,” Krinsky said. “He wasn’t fazed … I looked at him, and thought, he’s a man already. He knows everything that’s about to come to him and he’s ready for it.”

The kid then indeed made a man’s decision. “LeBron understood that he had to give that check back to Paul Fireman,” said Goodwin. “Gloria did not. Gloria wanted to keep that check and walk out. But even with that being offered, we had to see what Adidas had to say, and then finally what Nike had to say.”

“I looked at him, and thought, he’s a man already. He knows everything that’s about to come to him and he’s ready for it.”

The next meeting took James to Malibu, California, where the brand he’d worn on the court for years had rented out a house in which to share its strategy. “I was hired by Adidas to sign LeBron,” said Bond, director of basketball at Nike for most of the 1990s. In 2001, he joined Adidas, and partnered with Sonny Vaccaro, a longtime (and controversial) marketing executive. Vaccaro, who was fired by Nike in 1991, is credited with being instrumental in signing Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady to their first sneaker deals.

Together, Bond and Vaccaro spent approximately a year and a half shadowing LBJ the high school star and brainstorming a radical approach to luring him. Bond suspected Nike would tell James he could be the next Michael Jordan. However, using Muhammad Ali as an archetype, Adidas pitched the idea of the young James emerging into more than an athlete (which he’s become), who could represent not just the sport of basketball, but also stand for important social issues. Bond even surmised that if presented comparable monetary offers, James would pick Adidas over Nike based upon the longstanding relationship they’d built.

But the day of — an hour before presentation — Adidas panicked. “We had agreed ahead of time, for the final contract, to offer him $100 million guaranteed, which is about what he ended up signing for,” Bond said. “At the last second, the CEO at the time [Herbert Hainer] got cold feet. He wasn’t a hundred percent certain LeBron would have $100 million worth of impact … We didn’t know what Nike’s final offer would be at that point, but as soon as we slid ours across the table and they saw the number, we knew right then it was over. It sucked, to sum it up. There’s no second place in this game. It’s either you win or you lose, and we lost.”

Following the final meeting in Oregon, negotiations concluded in Akron: all three companies on the eve of the lottery. Adidas was the first to be eliminated from contention, bringing James to the brink of a decision between Nike and Reebok. “Up until the end, I thought we were going with Reebok,” Goodwin said in 2003. According to the Associated Press, the company offered $75 million. But Goodwin says now that Reebok came in far higher (he won’t name precise terms), and in the end, James took less money to join Nike.

“Nike is the right fit and has the right product for me at the right time,” James said in a statement released on May 22, 2003, the day he signed a letter intent. “They are a good company that is committed to supporting me throughout my professional career, on and off the court.” The deal with Nike was worth a reported $90 million — with a $10 million signing bonus. In 1984, Nike had signed Jordan for $2.5 million over five years. In 1992, Shaquille O’Neal signed with Reebok for $3 million. In 1996, Iverson signed for 10 years and $50 million with Reebok. In 1997. Adidas signed Bryant for $5 million, and secured a six-year commitment from McGrady for $12 million. Before playing a single second in the NBA, James landed a deal worth more than the initial contracts of five All-Stars, MVPs and league champions combined.

That night — moments after Cleveland was presented with the top pick, and team owner Gordon Gund with a No. 23 LeBron James Cavs jersey — the man of the hour appeared on ABC from a party in Akron. The interview was with in-studio reporter Mike Tirico. LeBron wasted no time repping his new brand, sitting in front of the camera in his outfit of choice: a black Nike Air sweat suit, and white Nike headband.

“He knew he was with Nike, so he just put it on,” Goodwin said. “That’s him. That’s LeBron.”


On July 14, 2003, 2½ weeks after Cleveland drafted him, James and his new team traveled to Boston for a slate of games during the Reebok Pro Summer League. Krinsky sat courtside at the Clark Athletic Center for a matchup between the Cavs and Boston Celtics. During pregame warmups, James broke his layup line routine and approached the brand executive he hadn’t seen in months.

“LeBron says, ‘Listen, man, I just want to tell you that you guys gave a great pitch. It’s nothing personal. In the end, I just went with my heart, and went with what I thought was right for me,’ ” Krinsky remembers the 1½-minute conversation clearly. “S—, this kid is 18 — and he didn’t need to do that. But I really do feel like that’s a reflection of who he is. That’s how he handles business. He’s honest. He’s personal. Outside of the depressing saga of building up, building up, and not getting him, I’ll always remember that story.”

On James’ feet in that moment — a black-and-white pair of Nike Zoom Flight 2K3s. By Oct. 29, 2003, the night of his NBA regular-season debut, he’d be wearing the Nike Air Zoom Generations — the first signature sneaker of his career. Nike had lived up to its promise to LeBron James. And James more than lived up to his implicit promise to Nike. That empty case — and so much more — has been filled.

Shooting Rockets at the throne: on the eve of Houston’s most important game of the season Does Houston want to have a problem — or do they want to be the problem?

There’s a Jay Z lyric for any and every situation in life. For the Houston Rockets, their current 2-1 Western Conference finals plight is no different. More on a that shortly. Following elimination by the Golden State Warriors in 2015 and 2016, Rockets general manager Daryl Morey all but confirmed the Bay Area fetish. “It’s the only thing we think about,” he told ESPN last December. “I think I’m not supposed to say that, but we’re obsessed with ‘How do we beat the Warriors?’”

He went on to say, “It’s like 90 percent … if we’re gonna win a title, we’ve obviously gotta beat the Warriors at some point. So we’re extremely focused on that. A lot of our signings and what we do during the year is based on that.”

This year’s Houston Rockets are an all-time great offensive juggernaut. The franchise broke its own record for three pointers made in a season this year. But here’s the thing—beating the defending champions in regular season matchups, as they did two out of three times, is a completely different animal than trying to beat them four times in less than two weeks.

Chris Paul waited his entire career for to advance to the NBA’s final four and it’ll likely end in five if the Rockets put on a repeat performance of their Game 3 curb-stomping.

The Warriors as presently constructed, represent the love child of the “Greatest Show on Turf” St. Louis Rams and 2001 Miami Hurricanes—only the child decided CTE, the lack of guaranteed contracts and football’s stance on social issues were too much to ignore. Golden State is most overwhelmingly dominant team ever assembled with four presumptive future Hall of Fame candidates all still very much in their physical apexs. And Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant could very well end up as Top 10 players of all time.

Now Houston has to beat that same team at home. That same team that hasn’t lost since in Oakland since LeBron’s block and Kyrie Irving’s shot punctuated the greatest Finals comeback in NBA history nearly two years ago. A loss that, by Golden State’s own admission, delivered them Durant. Oracle Arena hasn’t felt the agony of playoff defeat in 703 days and counting. That’s 16 games in a row—the longest such streak in league history. This is the task sitting on Houston’s shoulders ahead of tonight’s game.

Do not bark up that tree, Jay Z warned his foes on the seminal 2001 diss record “Takeover.” That tree will fall on you / I don’t know why your advisers ain’t forewarn you. The best record in the league, with a team specifically designed for this exact moment only to sit on the edge of their own self-destruction. That lyric will haunt the Rockets if they lose tonight.

If Harden wants to continue to live under the label of “superstar” without reproach, this is the type of game that notarizes the stamp.

Head coach Mike D’Antoni called his team soft following Sunday’s baptism. D’Antoni understands the magnitude—even if he is saying Golden State has “all the pressure” — of tonight’s game. D’Antoni is the forefather of the space-and-pace offense: his mid-2000s Phoenix Suns were the kings o fit. Now he’s a mad scientist watching his creation turn against him as the Warriors are a faster, better defensively, and just more crippling version of those Suns. Chris Paul waited his entire career to advance to the NBA’s final four and it’ll likely end in five if the Rockets put on a repeat performance of their Game 3 curb-stomping.

James Harden, the leading MVP candidate (though another James continues to make a case), has had his great season come down to one game. These moments define careers. Big-time players, as Santana Moss once poetically put it, make big-time plays in big-time games. And if Harden wants to continue live under the label of “superstar” without reproach, this is the type of game that notarizes the stamp. Game 4 on the road? In an all-time hostile environment? With a chance to completely rewrite the narrative of both the series and your postseason career? These are dreams that money—not even Harden’s mammoth contract—can’t buy.

Houston called out Golden State like Martin called out Tommy Hearns in the classic 1994 Martin episode “Guard Your Grill.” And, as it stands right now, the Rockets are a two piece and another Steph Curry biscuit away from looking like Martin after the fight. It’s the “s— or get off the pot” moment for these Houston Rockets. Go back to Houston tied 2-2 and it’s a best of three series with potentially two games at home—and the reality that they don’t have to win in Golden State again. Go back to Houston down 3-1 and not even the courtside five of Beyoncé, Bun B, Scarface, Travis Scott and Deshaun Watson would prevent the inevitable. Does Houston want to have a problem or does Houston want to be the problem? Do not bark up that tree. It won’t take long to find out either way.

Comedian W. Kamau Bell says we’re all just waiting for ‘the straw that breaks the racist camel’s back’ The ‘United Shades of America’ host has thoughts on Starbucks, Rage Against the Machine and comedic journalism

Comedian W. Kamau Bell’s Emmy-winning series, United Shades of America, recently returned to CNN. The show, which airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET, follows Bell around the country as he has conversations with all sorts of people, from doomsday preppers to residents on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border. Usually he’s in the role of curious everyperson, asking questions to get us better acquainted with all the folks who make up the country.

But recently, Bell found himself in the position of expert when it came to the matter of two men who were arrested and removed from a Philadelphia Starbucks for being black and not purchasing a drink. Bell was the target of a similar slight in 2015. He was at an outside table at the Elmwood Cafe in Berkeley, California, with his wife, who is white, and her friends. According to Bell, an employee saw him as an unwelcome interloper and told him to “scram.”

I spoke with Bell about the renewed relevance of that incident, along with the latest season of his show, which includes episodes about historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), Gullah Geechee culture and the border.

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

Do you think there is a heightened understanding of racism since the election? The Starbucks incident not only turned into a multiday news story, they’re shutting down 8,000 shops for racial sensitivity training.

You think about all the racist things that have happened to black people — and I’m just focusing on black people for the sake of this conversation — in the history of this country, we don’t know about, like what percentage do you think we know about? You have all of the racism from like, even this morning, I was walking out of my kids’ school and this white woman I don’t know goes, ‘Mr. Michael!’ Mr. Michael is a black man that plays guitar for kids at the library who is shorter than me, has a full beard, doesn’t wear glasses, there’s like all sorts of different ways I’m not Mr. Michael. And I go, ‘Nope.’ And she goes, ‘Oh, I thought …’ and I just kept walking.

I was like, ‘Should I tweet this?’ No, because I’m going to have Twitter all day going, ‘Everything that happens to black people is racism.’ We don’t tell our friends and family about it because then somebody will talk about it all day long. The thing that happens when someone looks at you weird on the subway instead of sitting down next to you. You don’t tell those stories to everybody.

Black people in this country have been waiting forever for the straw to break the racist camel’s back so that America can finally confront its legacy and present, future of racism. So every time that something like this happens, we get excited. Maybe this is it. Maybe it’s not Stephon Clark being shot in his backyard. Maybe it’s these two black men at Starbucks being kicked out.

You’ve said that you think comedy can fix creative issues but it can’t fix real-world issues. But your show spends quite bit of time in the real world.

Yeah, we do, but I think that what I’m doing in the real world is highlighting those issues, but I’m not fixing them. I’m just sort of going, ‘Hey, look at this thing.’ That is either something you should know more about or something that’s really bad that we’ve gotta fix. But I’m not, I can’t think of myself as, the actual fix of the issue. At the best, I’m like the doctor that diagnoses you and then walks out of the room and says, ‘I hope another doctor comes.’ I think that comedy is great with lubricating the conversation or getting people to pay attention. I think the arts are great for that in general.

One of my favorite bands is Rage Against The Machine. Now, you know, Rage Against The Machine has some great songs that are about political activism and about responding to oppression but they’re not actually political activism. They’re just songs.

I try to do things to help people out and highlight black voices and support causes, either through my privilege or through money. But I know that’s different than making a TV show. When people say the show’s either a tool of activism or education, then I feel like I’m doing a good job.

Do you feel like that’s enough?

No, it’s not.

Over the course of several years, I had to sort of convince people, producers on the show, that it’s not enough to just talk to somebody who’s an activist. We actually have to say what organization they work with and actually say in a way that people can hear it so they can Google it later. You know what I mean? Or be clear about where the agenda lies. And go, ‘Oh, and I went here where people are allowed to volunteer.’ You make sure that that is part and parcel of the thing, encouraging people to get involved.

I can’t waste time convincing people of how I want the show to be done at this point. It’s got to be done the way that I want it to be done, which is certainly pointed and clear. I want it to be relatively easy for teachers to use it as a tool for education and/or activists use it as a tool for activism. If it’s not entertaining and doing that, then it’s not the show I want.

Now that you’re in your third season, do you feel that you’ve worked out exactly the way you want it to be?

I’m never satisfied, so I still look at every episode like, ‘Why did we do this?’ ‘I should have done that better.’ ‘Who let me wear that shirt?’ The show is still a work in progress. I still watch [Anthony] Bourdain’s episodes and think, ‘Jesus, how did they do that?’ There’s still a goal, and I’m not trying to do Bourdain’s show, but it feels like that is a pure expression of him. And I feel like with my show I’m still working on getting it to be the pure expression of me.

That’s hard with television no matter what you’re doing.

That’s why I still do stand-up comedy, ’cause I can step up on stage, just sort of think of a thing, say the thing, see what people react and then say good night.

A bunch of comedians are doing some marriage of comedy and news, such as Wyatt Cenac and John Oliver and Samantha Bee. There’s this overlap with journalism because they’re both in the business of seeking truth. Or truth-telling.

I think they’re both in the business of trying to explain the world. And I think we certainly know journalists who explain the world in a way that is not truthful. And we know that there are comedians who explain the world in a way that is not truthful. So that’s the one thing I would say, we’re both trying to explain the world. But then it’s about what our agenda is in trying to explain the world.

Do you think comedians are more effective at delivering truth?

I think comedy is always the most effective way to deliver truth, not just through comedians but comedy in general. Every public speaker in the world is trying to open on a joke. It’s the first thing they tell you in public speaking. Everybody who is a good public speaker is using humor. Martin Luther King Jr. used humor. Malcolm X used humor. Maya Angelou could be funny. It doesn’t mean they’re cracking jokes, but they’re using humor to sort of get the message across. I think comedy is the most effective way to communicate anything because if somebody laughs at what you say, you know they were paying attention. It doesn’t mean they agree with you. It just means you know they were paying attention.

It makes sense that the comedians that America always elevates to be the best examples of the art form are the so-called ‘truth-tellers,’ people who are politically minded, whether it’s Richard Pryor or George Carlin or Lenny Bruce, Chris Rock. Those are the people we put as the best versions of the art form. Margaret Cho, Joan Rivers. There’s a lot of comedians who are funny, that make a lot of money, but we don’t at the end of the day put them on that Mount Rushmore of America’s stand-up comedy heroes.

‘Why didn’t you punch him in the face?’ First of all, I wouldn’t have, because that’s not how I do it.

I see you’ve got an episode on Gullah Geechee culture, and you’ve got an HBCU episode. Are you planning to sue Beyoncé for stealing all your ideas?

[Laughs.] We do mention Beyoncé in the Gullah Geechee episode. Lemonade certainly came out before we did that, but she did the Coachella thing, and we can’t re-edit that episode. Beyoncé, give me a heads-up next time! You’re making me look bad, Beyoncé! I thought we had something. No, I didn’t. She doesn’t know who I am.

The thing that’s possibly good is that it helps people come to those episodes with a little more knowledge. Maybe they’ll be more excited about our episode. I can’t promise that our HBCU episode is going to be as good as Beyoncé’s Coachella performance. I’m not prepared to say that as much as CNN might want me to say that for headlines: ‘Kamau Bell says his HBCU episode is better than Beyoncé’s Coachella performance! But I do think it’s a good companion piece.

Is there anything you regret about sitting down with white supremacist Richard Spencer?

That it didn’t happen closer to the time it aired. That’s the only thing I regret. People were asking me questions about things that hadn’t happened yet. ‘Why didn’t you punch him in the face? First of all, I wouldn’t have, because that’s not how I do it. Second of all, he hadn’t been punched in the face at the time I sat down with him. I would have asked him about it. I regret that we didn’t tape the episode and air it a week later. But that’s not how our show works.

The thing we didn’t do this season is we didn’t interview any sort of quote-unquote obvious TV villains like Richard Spencer or the Ku Klux Klan because I was tired of it and I didn’t want people to think it was my go-to move. I don’t want people to predict what I’m gonna do based on, ‘Oh, he’s gonna find some white supremacist somewhere and sit down across from him.’ I feel like I got the white supremacists’ voice in the show and also America runs on white supremacy, so we don’t have to go find a person. It’s there; it’s always running on America’s computer. That did maybe hurt CNN’s ability to put out a clip of me sitting across from someone who wants to kill me and certainly that gets us good headlines and things. But I feel like I’m tired of it and I think America’s probably tired of it, too, because we are always sort of talking about the divide. We’re going to talk about the divide but we’re just going to focus on the part of the divide that I think needs to be focused on.

I don’t need to do an episode about HBCUs and go across from somebody who’s like, ‘I don’t think there should be HBCUs.’ We hear that every day.

You have an episode in Alabama this season. How did spending time in Alabama when you were a kid influence your adult life?

Every year of my life I would spend nine months with my mom in, like, Boston, and then I would go to Alabama for three months for every summer. And the worlds couldn’t have been more different. And then eventually I traveled back and forth so much that people in the North would go, ‘You sound like you’re from the South’ and people from the South would say, ‘You sound like you’re from the North.’ And so I was always like an outsider wherever I went. It taught me how to travel. It taught me how to go anywhere and be portable, how to talk to people wherever you go, and that’s what I do now. I travel all over the place. I’m portable and pretty good at talking to people no matter where I go. It also proved to me at a very early age that there wasn’t one version of America. I knew there was two: The North’s version of America and the South’s version of America, and then when I got older I found that there was even more than that.

It taught me from a very young age that a lot of people thought they knew what America was. But no, there’s a lot of different Americas out here.