Reading Toni Morrison at 17, 25 and 35 It took nearly 20 years, but revisiting ‘Sula,’ I finally saw myself in her words, as only a grown woman can

In the documentary Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, the poet Sonia Sanchez offers a method for reading and understanding the work of her friend, the only black woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize for literature.

“In order to survive,” Sanchez says, “you should reread Toni Morrison every 10 years.”

After the news broke last week that Morrison had died, her death hit with the same intensity one associates with the passing of a beloved auntie. And yet I found comfort in three things. Unlike the beginning of her career as a novelist, when Morrison’s genius was up for debate and her choice to write free of concerns about the opinions of white people raised hackles, the entire world rose up to mourn her and celebrate her many contributions. Second, she graced the earth for 88 years. It didn’t feel as though someone had been prematurely stolen from us, like Lorraine Hansberry dying at age 34 or being forced to say goodbye to Jimmy Baldwin when he was 63. And third, I decided to follow Sanchez’s advice, starting with Sula.

Toni Morrison attends the Carl Sandburg Literary Awards Dinner at the University of Illinois at Chicago Forum on Oct. 20, 2010.

Photo by Daniel Boczarski/FilmMagic

For most of my childhood, Morrison’s works were beautifully crafted abstractions. The words were accessible, and yet admiring them was not the same as understanding them.

When I read Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye, as a high school senior, my approach was practically clinical. I absorbed the work the same way I pored over the words of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn — that is to say, in obsessive pursuit of an “A” — reading and regurgitating literary criticism and taking apart the book’s symbolism, context and ideas. But there was one moment when I connected to Morrison as a black girl.

During a class discussion, a white girl in the nearly all-white class asked the teacher what “high yellow” meant. I piped up because I actually knew the answer. “It’s a couple shades lighter than me,” I explained.

The girl turned and glared at me. “Well, thanks for that, Soraya,” she snarled, and then went on to admonish me for employing such a graphic example. I was confused and a little embarrassed. Why was she angry with me? Why had she reacted with such venom, as though I’d pointed out a deficiency that had embarrassed her? A wall grew between my blackness and that which Morrison had recorded for posterity, and I learned that it was offensive to connect the two. So Pecola Breedlove, the book’s main character, meant about as much to me as Ivan Denisovich. Two fascinating foreigners in two different gulags.

It wasn’t until my 20s — after having studied at Howard, the same university Morrison attended and taught at — that I picked up her work again, dared to see myself in it and read for my own pleasure and edification.

I chose Sula. Morrison’s second novel, published in 1973, is the story of friends Nel Wright and Sula Peace, who grow up in a small town and whose adult lives move in different directions. Probably about 10% of it stuck with me. I remember being enchanted by Sula’s clothing. Wrote Morrison:

She was dressed in a manner that was as close to a movie star as anyone would ever see. A black crepe dress splashed with pink and yellow zinnias, foxtails, a black felt hat with the veil of net lowered over one eye. In her right hand was a black purse with a beaded clasp and in her left a red leather traveling case, so small, so charming — no one had ever seen anything like it before, including the mayor’s wife and the music teacher, both of whom had been to Rome.

Sula had left her tiny community of Medallion, Ohio, for college in Nashville, Tennessee, and had returned worldly, glamorous and uncontainable. I grew up in a small North Carolina town I had no desire to revisit. After spending a summer working in Jackson, Mississippi, and another in Kansas City, Missouri, I realized I had something in common with Sula, which was that the provincial life was not for me. I yearned to be in a real city with black people and public transportation. And like Sula, I didn’t much see the point of marriage.

Those with husbands had folded themselves into starched coffins, their sides bursting with other people’s skinned dreams and bony regrets. Those without men were like sour-tipped needles featuring one constant empty eye. Those with men had had the sweetness sucked from their breath by ovens and steam kettles. Their children were like distant but exposed wounds whose aches were no less intimate because separate from their flesh. They had looked at the world and back at their children, back at the world and back again at their children, and Sula knew that one clear young eye was all that kept the knife away from the throat’s curve.

The married women of Medallion were cautionary tales, especially for a young adult woman with no children. Every time a relative or a stranger made a remark about my potential as a wife and mother, I wanted to scream, the same way I wanted to scream every Thanksgiving in my grandmother’s house when all the women were conscripted into domestic duties while the men got to sit and watch football.

So Sula’s words to her grandmother, Eva, made perfect sense to me. “You need to have some babies. It’ll settle you,” Eva told Sula.

“I don’t want to make somebody else. I want to make myself.”

“Selfish. Ain’t no woman got no business floatin’ around without no man.”

Award-winning New York author Toni Morrison is seen here at the Harbourfront’s International Festival of Authors in Toronto in 1982.

Photo by Reg Innell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

I supposed I, like Sula, would simply be selfish. Sula made sense to me. I didn’t fully grasp why Sula kept bouncing from man to man — I suppose I thought of her as the Samantha Jones of her day — but I understood choosing yourself first.

Their evidence against Sula was contrived, but their conclusions about her were not. Sula was distinctly different. Eva’s arrogance and Hannah’s self-indulgence merged in her, and with a twist that was all her own imagination, she lived out her days exploring her own thoughts and emotions, giving them full reign, feeling no obligation to please anybody unless their pleasure pleased her.

So what if she died young? At least she had the sense to do a little living first. My admiration was superficial and grounded in my own stubborn, rather narrowly defined pursuit of the feminist cause. The darker details of Sula’s life slid by in my mind, and for the next 10 years, I walked around with an incomplete understanding of her.

And then the woman who created Sula died.

Recently, I’d been skipping around Morrison’s essays in The Source of Self-Regard, which, on some level, is a helpful guidebook for how to be a black woman in America without going mad. And I’d seen Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’ wonderful documentary about Morrison.

Her words were still important, but I was mostly obsessed with Morrison’s life and personality. She was a lioness of American literature, yes, but she was also charming, sensual and self-assured. Here was a woman with a Pulitzer and a Nobel Prize grinning as she talked about how good she was at making carrot cakes, how she indulged her sexual appetites as a Howard student without a lick of shame or regret. To Morrison, chasing ambition did not require abandoning pleasure.

Toni Morrison attends Art & Social Activism, a discussion on Broadway with TaNehisi Coates, Morrison and Sonia Sanchez, on June 15, 2016, in New York City.

Photo by Craig Barritt/Getty Images for The Stella Adler Studio of Acting

For some time now, my editor has sent me on assignments and reminded me to have fun. My responses are always halting and awkward because I’m going to work, and work requires focus, and fun just seemed inappropriate.

And yet here was the freest black woman in the world, and she lived her life in such a way that pleasure and style were not antithetical to intellectual rigor. If anything, they fed it. The fact that Morrison was a writer made this seem all the more superhuman. Writing is typically characterized by long bouts of misery rewarded with occasional pearls of short-lived but deeply intense satisfaction. Morrison seemed to have found a way to supply herself with a steady stream of joy.

Rather than living literary goddess, I began to think about Morrison as a fellow writer, a fellow Howard grad, a fellow woman. There were whole worlds in the lives of my mother, my aunts, my grandmothers and their grandmothers that I thought were none of my business because, well, they told me they were none of my business. What did a child need to know about the personal exploits of her ancestors? That was grown folks’ business. I realized that reading Morrison’s books feels like gaining entry into a club of black adulthood. They turn ancestors into contemporaries.

So I revisited Sula last week because Sula, like so much of Morrison’s writing, is a grown woman novel. The fact that Sula slept with her best friend’s husband is, frankly, the least interesting thing about her. I saw Sula through new eyes, as a woman who did a horrible thing as a 12-year-old (accidentally killing Chicken Little by throwing him in the river, where he drowned) and never fully got over it, no matter how hard she tried.

This time, I marveled at Morrison’s freedom. So much focus has been paid, and rightfully so, to how she didn’t seek white validation. But it’s more than that. Morrison possessed the moxie to create whatever world she pleased and follow whatever road beckoned in it. In doing so, she could create a heroine who slept with everyone’s husbands but genuinely didn’t mean anything by it. Who else breaks taboos with such gentle elegance, without the need to shout about it in the prose, but simply allows it to unfold?

Now I think the thing Sula actually spent most of her adult life chasing was joy, the love she felt she deserved, and she kept coming up short. She’d try on a man, then do away with him the moment she knew he didn’t have what she was looking for. And she kept doing it until she met Ajax.

Morrison was unafraid of letting everyone in Medallion regard Sula as a witch while daring to assert how Sula’s presence actually improved the lives of those in her community, whether they recognized it or not. When the people of Medallion don’t have Sula to kick around, they lose the vessel for all their displeasures and frustrations and insecurities and simply fall prey to them again.

This time, I paid closer attention to Nel, Sula’s best friend, and her realization that motherhood will be the most interesting thing about her life. I thought of my friends who are now mothers, and I felt grateful that I am able to make space for their children and their partners in my heart instead of walling myself off from the changes they welcomed in their lives. I got lost in Sula and Nel’s friendship in a way I never had before, and in this passage in particular, when Sula is alone on her deathbed:

While in this state of weary anticipation, she noticed that she was not breathing, that her heart had stopped completely. A crease of fear touched her breast, for any second there was sure to be a violent explosion in her brain, a gasping for breath. Then she realized, or rather, she sensed, that there was not going to be any pain. She was not breathing because she didn’t have to. Her body did not need oxygen. She was dead.

Sula felt her face smiling. “Well I’ll be damned,” she thought, “it didn’t even hurt. Wait’ll I tell Nel.”

It took nearly 20 years, but I finally did what Morrison had been inviting me to do, through decades of writing: to see myself in her words, as only a grown woman can.

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

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

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

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

Rod Millington/Warner Bros Entertainment

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

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

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

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

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

Rod Millington/Warner Bros Entertainment

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

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

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

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

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

Fashion designer Dapper Dan can thank boxers for his career – and some of his problems The Mike Tyson-Mitch Green fight in front of his Harlem boutique put him in an uncomfortable spotlight

High-end street fashion pioneer Dapper Dan is famous for dressing many early rap artists such as Eric B and Rakim and Salt-N-Pepa. He also works with famous athletes, including Zion Williamson, Cam Newton and Jalen Ramsey.

But the athletes who played the biggest role in his career were boxers. Indeed, Floyd Mayweather is his favorite athlete because he’s been a loyal customer for a long time.

The athletes who played the biggest role in fashion icon Dapper Dan’s career were boxers, including Floyd Mayweather.

Renell Medrano

“I’ve been making everything for Floyd Mayweather for the last 17 years,” Dan, whose real name is Daniel Day, told The Undefeated. “Everything you see him in the ring with, I made.”

Boxing played a huge, if inadvertent, part in getting Day started as a designer.

In 1974, he traveled to Kinshasa, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) as a fan to witness The Rumble in the Jungle between then-undefeated heavyweight champion George Foreman and former champ Muhummad Ali. Unfortunately, the fight was postponed for five weeks because Foreman was injured in a sparring session.

In the meantime, Day decided to do some traveling. He went to Lagos, Nigeria, where he traded his finest pastel suits for African paintings and wood carvings from an artist he found on the street. Day left Nigeria with few clothes to wear. At his next stop, in Monrovia, Liberia, he needed to do some shopping. A store clerk pointed him in the direction of a tailor named Ahmed, who assisted him in creating the first Dapper Dan designs. Day ended up not seeing the fight. He had to go home early because he ran out of money after making so many custom pieces.

“I missed out on witnessing what many consider the most strategically brilliant heavyweight boxing fight in history. I found something on that trip that changed my life forever: A love for custom tailoring and inspiration for a brand-new hustle,” Day writes in his recently-released book, Dapper Dan: Made in Harlem: A Memoir.

Floyd Mayweather, wearing Dapper Dan-designed trunks, celebrates his unanimous-decision victory over Robert Guerrero in their WBC welterweight title bout at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on May 4, 2013, in Las Vegas.

Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

Day opened Dapper Dan’s Boutique in 1982, catering to the drug kingpins and gangsters of Harlem, and a few big-name celebrities. His clothing featured the logos of brands such as Gucci, Fendi, MCM and Louis Vuitton, which at the time were primarily making leather goods. Day thought of his designs as “knockups” because he made expensive and luxurious custom pieces. To Day, the logos represented wealth, respect and prestige.

Day knew the risk he was taking in using the brands’ trademarked logos. And once again, two boxers would be at the center of his story.

In 1988, Mike Tyson, then the undefeated heavyweight champ, was a regular customer and friend of Day’s. One day in August, he went to Day’s boutique at around 4 a.m. to pick up a custom piece. (Day’s boutique was open 24 hours a day, every day, for 10 years except the day he laid his father to rest.) Mitch “Blood” Green, who had lost to Tyson two years earlier and wanted a rematch, came into the store looking for Tyson. The two got into a brawl in front of the boutique and Tyson was photographed in one of Day’s “Fendi” jackets.

The altercation was big news and even got a mention on the broadcast of a Monday Night Football game. Day didn’t witness the incident, but a worker from his shop took pictures. News outlets were bidding up to $150,000 for the photos, but Day declined the offers out of loyalty to Tyson. He finally published the photos in his new memoir.

The spotlight on Dapper Dan’s Boutique alerted luxury design houses that Day was using their logos on his clothing without their consent. They started going to court to have the material seized.

Dapper Dan, whose real name is Daniel Day, recently released his memoir, Dapper Dan: Made in Harlem.

“The following Monday after that took place, the aerial view helicopter was flying over the city and there was a football game,” Day said. “They were discussing the fight during a timeout. And they said, ‘Somewhere down there is Dapper Dan’s 24-hour boutique where Mike Tyson had the fight at,’ and they laughed. But that was viral. As viral as it could be for that time, so that’s what gave me all the publicity that led to the brands being very knowledgeable in what I was doing uptown.”

Dapper Dan’s Boutique closed in 1992 following legal action by Fendi, which had been represented in part by a lawyer named Sonia Sotomayor (now a Supreme Court justice). He had to start over from scratch. In recent years, he has partnered with Gucci and opened a new boutique in Harlem last year.

“The way I was raised, it’s like you don’t ever give up,” Day said. “That never occurred to me at all. I was used to starting over and I was used to the fact that things like that happen. I was born and raised in Harlem. A black kid growing up in the poor section alone. So it was like I was not gonna be deterred. I was used to obstacles in life.”

Lil Nas X and Blanco Brown show that cultural appropriation ain’t nothin’ but a G thang In the debate over profiting from black creativity, these country singers prove that turnabout is fair play

Well, look who’s appropriating now.

Amid ongoing debates about cultural appropriation and the pain caused when corporations and white entertainers profit off the customs of black people and other minorities, along come Lil Nas X and Blanco Brown, two African American rappers whose tunes have penetrated the upper reaches of — get this — the country music charts.

Blanco Brown’s “The Git Up” made headlines recently after it topped Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart, having also charmed its way into the pop Top 20. Juxtaposing weepy pedal steel guitar against automated rap beats, the tune is a boot-scootin’ dance craze tune along the line of Billy Ray Cyrus’ 1990 breakthrough hit, “Achy Breaky Heart.”

“Old Town Road” is an international phenomenon for Lil Nas X (left) and Billy Ray Cyrus (right). It completed 17 weeks atop Billboard Magazine’s Hot 100 the week of July 30, making it the longest-running No. 1 tune in the chart’s 60-year history.

Photo by Rodin Eckenroth/WireImage

Cyrus, of course, makes a cameo appearance on the mega-popular remix of Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road,” a country-rap track that uses a Nine Inch Nails sample to celebrate rhinestone cowboy extravagance (“My life is a movie/ bull ridin’ and boobies/ cowboy hat from Gucci/ Wrangler on my booty”). As you’ve probably heard by now, “Old Town Road” is an international phenomenon, having topped charts throughout North America, Europe and Australia. The week of July 30, it completed 17 weeks atop Billboard Magazine’s Hot 100, making it the longest-running No. 1 tune in the chart’s 60-year history.

The timing of that achievement is eerily auspicious. Aug. 2 was the 40th anniversary of the recording of Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” the first hip-hop track of any consequence and the song that started a musical revolution. What better way to celebrate rap’s 40th birthday than with a country-rap single whose historic success underscores hip-hop’s border-bounding global appeal?

A track like “Old Town Road” doesn’t spend 17 weeks at No. 1 by appealing to black people alone. Indeed, we can assume that more than a few fans of “Old Town Road” are white Southerners. That raises interesting questions, because perhaps no other art form is more associated with white racism than country music, which flourished during a period when the South’s white ruling class viewed black music as a plot to “mongrelize” America. “The obscenity and the vulgarity of the rock ’n’ roll music is obviously a means by which the white man [and] his children can be driven to the level with the n—–,” said Asa “Ace” Carter, founder of the North Alabama White Citizens Council, in 1958.

Lest the irony of black performers such as Lil Nas X and Blanco Brown appropriating white country music be lost, understand that in the minds of many black folks, cultural appropriation is something only other races do. For the past century right up to the present, white artists from Al Jolson, Elvis Presley and Benny Goodman to the Rolling Stones and Eminem have made a mint assimilating African American jazz, rhythm and blues, rock ’n’ roll, funk, rap and more. We’re so used to churning out new art forms that the idea of appropriating white artists seems almost unseemly, like the crassest of sellouts.

Perhaps that perception will change with the success of Lil Nas X and Blanco. The fact that these black iconoclasts are making inroads with country music fans in an era of resurgent white nationalism challenges much of what we think we know about cultural appropriation and race in America. Are Lil Nas X and Blanco Brown pirating white culture? Or is the controversy over their blackified country sounds just musical racial profiling? Let’s explore.


The Cambridge Dictionary describes cultural appropriation as “the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture.”

By this definition, Lil Nas X and Brown are tough nuts to crack, though the country music industry has weighed in officially on Lil Nas X. After reviewing “Old Town Road” in April, Billboard elected to remove the tune from its country chart, stating that for all its country/cowboy imagery, the song does not “embrace enough elements of today’s country music to chart in its current version.”

Blanco Brown performs during Day One of the 2019 CMA Music Festival at Ascend Amphitheater on June 6 in Nashville, Tennessee. Brown’s “The Git Up” made headlines recently after it topped Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart.

Photo by Mickey Bernal/Getty Images

While Billboard may be clear about the song’s lack of country authenticity, it’s harder for us laypeople. Do Lil Nas X and Brown “understand and respect” white country culture, at least judging by their hit debut recordings? It should be noted that there was little demand for black country-rap performers before these two guys showed up. So they recorded these twangy singles with little expectation that their songs would make them chart-toppers. Successful black singers such as Charley Pride and Darius Rucker notwithstanding, African American country stars are as rare as desert rain.

Moreover, as any aspiring country performer will attest, it’s danged hard to write and perform a hit. Yet Lil Nas X and Brown nailed it on their first attempts, which suggests they understand and respect country culture, big-time.

But for the sake of argument, let’s imagine that Lil Nas X and Brown really are culture vultures just looking to make a buck in country music. Isn’t it about time we black folks did more cultural borrowing? In the never-ending appropriation debate, we are often the most egregiously offended people, and understandably so. From redlining and voter suppression to racial profiling, we’re constantly reminded of the institutional disdain this country has for its African American citizens. Given this contempt, it’s maddening to witness the white ruling class appropriate our culture, imitating and commodifying everything from our music and fashion to our colloquialisms and mannerisms.

Billy Ray Cyrus (left) and Lil Nas X (right) perform at the 2019 BET Awards on June 23 in Los Angeles.

Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images for BET

Now, with Lil Nas X and Brown tearing up the charts, a turnabout-is-fair-play dynamic has been brought to the debate. For decades, some white people have brushed off black concerns about appropriation, an indifference that was dramatically illustrated when rock legend Paul Simon visited Howard University in 1987. The singer/songwriter hoped to explain how South African Zulu music inspired the songs on his acclaimed 1986 album Graceland. But instead of a warm welcome, Simon was treated to a healthy helping of student scorn —”For too long, artists have stolen African music,” asserted one Howard undergrad. “I tried to introduce this music to people who never heard it before,” a stunned Simon responded. “Sincerity doesn’t seem to be held in high regard.”

Now the cowboy boot is on the other foot. Billboard’s removal of “Old Town Road” from its country chart suggests that some proportion of white fans are sensitive to their music being hijacked. Curiously, the purists weren’t complaining a few years back when a growing gaggle of white country artists started appropriating black music, all to the profit-making benefit of the industry. “Old Town Road” could be considered the latest product of a trend that emerged roughly six years ago. Dubbed “Bro Country,” the subgenre came to life when acts including Luke Bryan, Blake Shelton and Cole Swindell began incorporating rap-style party rhymes and R&B- and blues-inflected rhythms into their songs. With its satiny melody and hip-grinding beat, Jason Aldean’s 2014 hit “Burnin’ It Down” is virtually a R&B makeout song, yet it reached No. 12 on Billboard’s Hot Country chart. Unlike its action on “Old Town Road,” Billboard never questioned the authenticity of Aldean’s tune.

Bro Country was so all-consuming that black performers such as Jason Derulo and Nelly started showing up in remixes, and hip-hop iconography started seeping into music videos. Florida Georgia Line’s 2014 clip for “This is How We Roll” features singers Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley swaggering and fist-bumping like boyz from the ’hood. The song’s opening verse drops iconic names designed to resonate with both white and black listeners. To wit: “The mixtape’s got a little Hank, a little Drake …”

The “Hank” referenced in that verse is Hank Williams, the pioneering singer/songwriter who wrote and performed some of the most popular songs in country history, including “Hey Good Lookin’,” “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” An acknowledged influence on superstars such as Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan, Williams is held in such high esteem that he is affectionately known as “The Hillbilly Shakespeare.”

And right here is where the whole Lil Nas X/Blanco/cultural appropriation thing gets really interesting. You see, Williams learned to play guitar from Rufus “Tee Tot” Payne, a black bluesman who performed in and around Lowndes County, Alabama. Having assimilated both African American blues and Scots-Irish folk, Williams’ original compositions played a major role in forging the white-meets-black sound we know today as country music. Williams was but one of many white musicians influenced by the African American string band music that proliferated around the South at the turn of the 20th century.

The implications of all this are mind-boggling. Instead of being appropriators of white folk music, Lil Nas X and Brown are actually taking up where their banjo-plucking ancestors left off. Swish!


From its modest 1979 origins up to now, hip-hop has thrived on masterly mooching. The genre’s aforementioned inaugural hit, “Rapper’s Delight,” quoted verbatim from Chic’s sophisto-funk classic “Good Times.” Perhaps more than any musical style in history, rap is defined by the shameless borrowing of other people’s music.

Having assimilated both African American blues and Scots-Irish folk, Hank Williams’ original compositions played a major role in forging the white-meets-black sound we know today as country music.

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

But rap also owes some of its survival and current mainstream popularity to outright cultural appropriation. In 1986, hip-hop pioneers Run-DMC teamed with white rockers Steven Tyler and Joe Perry to record a remake of Aerosmith’s 1975 shuffle, “Walk This Way.” At the time, Aerosmith was all but washed-up and struggling to remain relevant. The Run-DMC collaboration changed all that, rocketing to No. 4 on the pop charts. “Walk This Way” not only rescued Aerosmith, it thrust Run-DMC into the pop music major leagues and helped broaden hip-hop’s popularity among white people.

Just as Run-DMC helped salvage Aerosmith, so has Lil Nas X delivered Cyrus from cultural mothballs. And both these examples reveal how appropriation can work to the mutual benefit of artists from different backgrounds. The blues-influenced music of Elvis and other white rock musicians ultimately improved the fortunes of many African American performers. Asked in 1968 about the high esteem in which white rockers held black blues virtuosos, B.B. King said, “I’m grateful … the doors are open now … because of people like Elvis Presley [and] the Beatles.”

This cultural reciprocity is the promise of appropriation, and only time will tell if Lil Nas X and Brown can make cowboy culture more palatable to black people. But even if such a miracle never occurs, who cares? The ultimate message of “Old Town Road” is be yourself, even if that means emulating someone else’s culture. The song’s declarative chorus — “can’t nobody tell me nothin’ ” — appears to epitomize Lil Nas X’s defiant philosophy about his unhip country lifestyle, a notion underscored by the song’s surreal music video in which Lil Nas X stares down a hip-hop dancer. Lil Nas X is refusing to be lumped in with anyone simpleminded enough to only embrace the products of their own race and culture. In this sense, “Old Town Road” is as thematically beholden to Sammy Davis Jr.’s “I’ve Gotta Be Me” as to any rap or country song of yore.

This rebelliousness, along with the sincerity of their left-field hits, helps explain Lil Nas X’s and Brown’s startling success. They’re part of a growing class of black creators redefining what it means to be an African American artist in the 21st century. This new determinism is evident in the endeavors of the Black Rock Coalition and AfroPunk, two organizations that celebrate diversity in black music, offering a fellowship platform for wayward African American musos. Black folkies such as the Carolina Chocolate Drops, J.S. Ondara and Dom Flemons are at once contemporizing and preserving the seldom acknowledged legacy of African American country and bluegrass musicians.

Lil Nas X and Blanco Brown rank among this band of musical gypsies, and they can’t be easily dismissed as cultural poachers. Are they borrowing elements of white country culture? Absolutely. But they’re also combining that with rap and reclaimed bits of their own black folk heritage.

And can’t nobody tell them nothin’ …

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.”

In theater, the white gaze takes center stage Three plays — ‘Fairview,’ ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ and ‘Toni Stone’ — highlight how black theater-makers approach audiences who do not look like them

Right before the end of Act I of Toni Stone, a new play about the first woman to play in baseball’s Negro Leagues, its company engages in an extended shuck-and-jive routine.

The nine actors, all wearing the uniform of the Indianapolis Clowns, sport wide, ersatz grins as they leap across the stage, each performing some grotesque trick. One juggles, another high-kicks. The team of court jesters does its best to amuse an imaginary crowd of white baseball spectators, most of whom showed up to see the team’s feigned merrymaking and Bojangling in the outfield.

There was some laughter from the mostly white and mostly older audience at the performance I attended at Roundabout Theatre Company. It simmered into nervous titters as it became clear that the routine the Clowns were performing was demeaning, soul-deadening work. An uncomfortable silence fell over the audience. The stadium lights of the set flashed bright for an instant, then went black.

The show actively talks to an audience it correctly assumes will be majority white, and so it is written in a way to explain elements of black culture that may seem foreign.

Joan Marcus

Stone, played by April Matthis, delivered the last word: “Our people always did have a way of turning what matters into something beautiful that touches the soul. We call that laughter and they call that clowning. But you know they know. They know it’s powerful so’s they come back for more of it. But they also know they can’t do it … never mind catch a pop an’ flip back an’ throw it in for the double play. White people think if it’s fun an’ have a certain elegance, it ain’t serious. But they know. Everyone knows they can’t turn what’s practical into something more, the Charleston Slide, the Mississippi slow grind, or the art of making a skill pretty. So they laugh and give us a little bit of money so they keep laughing, but they know it’s powerful and they know that we know what they doin’ to us while we still steady makin’ em laugh.”

When the play resumed after intermission, one of the Clowns, known as King Tut (Phillip James Brannon), broke the fourth wall to address the audience. King Tut tried to smooth over any tension from the show’s unexpected turn toward the team’s resentment of racist fans by addressing it head-on. “Oh, good,” he said. “Thoughta mighta scared you at the bottom of the first.”

In another instance, Stone turns to reassure the audience before lighting into another teammate, Jimmy, while they are all on the bus together. Here’s how it appears in the script:

TONI

No … I just called him over here to ask him ’bout his mama.

(to audience) I don’t know Jimmy’s mama. We about to play the dozens. (beat) It’s just a game.

The play is a biographical sketch of Stone, focusing mostly on the ways that she’s an outsider within a group of outsiders. Her male teammates in the Negro Leagues, shut out from the opportunity in the majors, have conversations about what makes a black man like Jackie Robinson suitable to break baseball’s color barrier. Meanwhile, Stone is constantly wrestling with the way her gender impacts how she’s received as a ballplayer, along with expectations about her behavior, hair and style of dress and the roles she and her husband (also the Clowns’ manager) occupy once they’re married.

Stone often faces the audience to explain who she is, what she wants and what she loves to set up scenes from her life. There’s a recurring joke to break up these bits: Stone faces the audience and deadpans, “I’m a little girl” during flashbacks when she is, in fact, a little girl.

But what I kept noticing was how much playwright Lydia R. Diamond had fashioned her play with the white gaze in mind. The show actively talks to an audience it correctly assumes will be majority white, and so it is written in a way to explain elements of black culture that may seem foreign.

Once I realized this was a pattern and not just a one-off, the tic became increasingly grating for a couple of reasons:

1) This sort of narrative hand-holding coddles and enables cultural ignorance on the part of the audience.

2) It tells black audience members that even though they’re watching a show that’s about black people, played entirely by black actors and written by a black playwright, the show isn’t interested in acknowledging its black audience or the knowledge of ourselves that we bring to our own stories.


Considerations about the overrepresentation of whiteness in theater audiences are almost unavoidable because it’s built into the experience of consuming theater in a way that, say, it’s not with television. You can see strangers watching alongside you and their reactions.

So, should playwrights and directors acknowledge this in the work? And if so, how? Three plays running in New York this summer — Toni Stone, Much Ado About Nothing and Fairview — help us focus on those questions.

Toni Stone often faces the audience to explain who she is, what she wants and what she loves to set up scenes from her life.

Toni Stone accommodates its white audience unfamiliar with black traditions. Public Theater’s all-black production of Much Ado About Nothing, directed by Kenny Leon, was utterly unconcerned with explaining Leon’s vision for Beatrice and Benedick. Either you understood the references or you didn’t. Then there’s Fairview, the play that netted Jackie Sibblies Drury the Pulitzer Prize by not just acknowledging the white gaze but also actively challenging it.

I became exasperated with the racial exposition of Toni Stone, but that’s not to say clever ways of acknowledging the whiteness of theater audiences don’t exist. Take, for instance, Jordan E. Cooper’s Ain’t No Mo’, which closed this spring after a run at The Public.

Ain’t No Mo’ starts with a very black funeral taking place in a very black church. It’s Nov. 4, 2008, and within the casket sitting onstage rests not a person but a thing: black people’s right to complain. Or, as the pastor refers to it, “Brother Righttocomplain.”

At one point during an extremely spirited eulogy, Pastor Freeman (Marchánt Davis) begins to lead his congregation in a rather unconventional church shout:

I guess y’all done went to sleep on Pastor Freeman, I-I-I-I-I must be preaching to mySELF this evening cause I ain’t heard a SHOUT yet. I said there ain’t no more tears to be shed because the President is WHAT? Ain’t no more marching in the streets to be heard, because the President is WHAT? Come on and say it, somebody, I can see the spirit doing the Cupid Shuffle in yo chest right now, waiting to rise up and reveal itself as yo true voice. … I want every colored person in this room to turn to yo neighbor and say neighbor … the President is my n—- …… Louder … SAY THE PRESIDENT IS MY N—-.

Pastor Freeman would improvise as he bounced from aisle to aisle, among the theater audience turned congregants. “THE PRESIDENT IS MY N—-,” the good pastor would holler, raising his arms and making eye contact with the black folks in the audience, encouraging them to join in the shouting. Then a white face would appear in his line of sight. “Not you!”

I practically bellowed with laughter.

Considerations about the overrepresentation of whiteness in theater audiences are almost unavoidable because it’s built into the experience of consuming theater in a way that, say, it’s not with television. You can see strangers watching alongside you and their reactions.

Admittedly, my gauge for this sort of thing is heavily influenced by my job, my upbringing and my education. I grew up with a black parent and graduated from a historically black university. I write about culture and race for a site that is mostly trafficked by white readers, but they are not the primary audience I’m addressing. There’s a reason for that distinction. Part of it is simply that not everything is about white people. Even the stuff they can see! But the other part is that getting trapped in a perpetual introductory class of Race Theory 101 becomes rather dull rather quickly. Having to repeatedly pause to explain basic concepts about black culture or about racism eats up time and energy I’d prefer to expend elsewhere. The white gaze doesn’t just assume whiteness is the default. It reorients everything to force that fallacy to be true. It’s indicative of a power imbalance that even in art about black folks, accommodating white ignorance is expected. The fact that Hamilton largely refused to do this was one of the things that made it such a revelation.

These pauses that exist solely to enlighten white people who lead racially blinkered lives have been named “explanatory commas” by Gene Demby and Shereen Marisol Meraji, the hosts of NPR’s Code Switch podcast. One of the problems with Toni Stone is that its explanatory commas feel retrograde. Frankly, after a season that included work such as BLKS, Ain’t No Mo’, Choir Boy and Leon’s Much Ado About Nothing, all of which are steeped in black culture and not particularly interested in justifying or explaining it, I began to take for granted that black artists could make theater about themselves without having to include a pause for white people to catch up.

Leon’s Much Ado, produced for the Free Shakespeare in the Park series, is hammy and energetic and encourages audience interaction and scene-stealing. It’s a rendering of Shakespeare that pays homage to traveling black stage plays.

Everything about its design, from the giant “STACEY ABRAMS 2020” banners that flank the set to the Morehouse maroon of the actors’ costumes to Camille A. Brown’s choreography, screams bougie black contemporary Atlanta. Yet Shakespeare’s text remained the same. There were no signposts in the dialogue to direct you to the inspirations for Leon’s aesthetic decisions. They simply existed.

The thing I appreciated about the lack of explanatory commas was how it rearranged the power dynamic between artist and patron to something more equitable. What Leon did with Much Ado is move the baseline for cultural literacy in the theater audience. There were things about black life that you’re expected to know because it’s unthinkable that you wouldn’t. And he did it by pairing it with the words of the most universally known and respected playwright in human history: Shakespeare.

Fairview takes a different approach, running head-on at the white gaze, even during its unconventional curtain call. The play challenges the white gaze by making it a part of the show in a way that highlights how such narcissism spills into the consumption of black art.

Fairview starts out as a conventional-seeming work about a black family celebrating its matriarch’s birthday. But lighting and sound changes in the second act reveal to the seated audience that it’s actually witnessing white people watch a play about black people. The second act is a repeat of the first, except the actors are muted while a soundtrack of unseen white people comments about what’s happening in the plot and their own attitudes about race. Finally, the white people physically inject themselves into the story as if they bought tickets to some sort of blackness immersion theme park ride.

Fairview leaves audiences unable to deny the influence of the white gaze and pushes them to question their own complicity in perpetuating it. Toni Stone seems to have succumbed to it. And Leon’s Much Ado ignores it. Here’s to more art that offers up blackness without apology or explanation, expands definitions of cultural literacy and challenges audiences of all stripes to do the reading.

The ESPYS Collection Portraits of past and present stars set the stage for this year’s awards show, July 10 at 9 p.m. ET


How Yankees outfielder Clint Frazier became MLB’s king of custom cleats Fear of Gods, Space Jams, Travis Scotts — Frazier has worn them all and more on the filed to bring some swag to baseball

The night before a game against the Boston Red Sox in mid-April, Clint Frazier might as well have been a kid picking his outfit for the first day of school.

The 24-year-old New York Yankees outfielder wanted to look fresh for the first series of the 2019 Major League Baseball season between the two rival teams. He specifically envisioned pairing Yankees pinstripes with one of his favorite pairs of sneakers, the Nigel Sylvester Air Jordan 1s. But to take the baseball field in basketball shoes, Frazier needed some help. So he sent the Jordans to Anthony Ambrosini, founder and owner of Custom Cleats Inc., who’s been converting basketball and lifestyle sneakers into wearable footwear for grass and turf for 15 years.

“I texted Clint saying I got them,” Ambrosini recalled, “and he said, ‘Can you have them for me for the game tomorrow?’ … I told him, ‘It’s 10 o’clock at night, and I haven’t even started them.’ ” Yet Frazier pleaded, and Ambrosini obliged. He went into his Long Island, New York, shop after hours and added metal spikes to the bottoms of the shoes. By the next day, they’d make it to Yankee Stadium, ready for Frazier to lace up before the game.

In the bottom of the fourth inning of the Yankees’ 8-0 win over the Red Sox on April 16 — when the two teams partook in the league’s annual celebration of Jackie Robinson Day — Frazier launched a 354-foot home run to right-center field, with Robinson’s No. 42 on the back of his uniform and Nigel Sylvester 1s on his feet. It had to be the shoes, right?

“Look good, feel good. Feel good, play good. Play good, get paid good,” said Frazier, paraphrasing the timeless saying from the great Deion Sanders. “I’m trying to do all those.”

That’s certainly been the motto for the Yankees phenom. In the first few months of the season, Frazier has become Major League Baseball’s king of custom cleats. In 39 games, he’s worn 13 different pairs — from Air Jordan 6s to high- and low-top Air Jordan 11s, Nike Fear of Gods and Air Force 1s, as well as multiple models of his most beloved sneaker, the Air Jordan 1. All of his cleats have been converted by Ambrosini, marking a partnership that’s really only just beginning.

“My goal is to have as many pairs of custom cleats as I can over the 162-game season,” said Frazier, who’s batting .270 with 10 home runs and 28 RBIs. “I’m trying to bring a little swagger to baseball.”


With the fifth overall pick in the 2013 MLB first-year player draft, the Cleveland Indians selected the then-18-year-old Frazier out of Loganville High School, near his hometown of Decatur, Georgia. Frazier, who was named the Gatorade National Baseball Player of the Year during his senior season, had already committed to play at the University of Georgia. Yet he decided to sign with the Indians and go straight from high school to the big leagues.

Frazier wouldn’t make his MLB debut until July 1, 2017, less than a year after being traded from Cleveland to New York and emerging as the No. 1 prospect in the Yankees organization. He spent his first season in the majors endorsed by Under Armour before Adidas signed him in 2018. Heading into his third MLB season, Frazier was due for a change.

“I dropped my contract with Adidas,” Frazier said, “and told myself I was just gonna go the solo route and convert shoes into cleats.”

Frazier could’ve bought pairs of Air Jordan 11 cleats that debuted in 2018. He also could’ve waited until late March, right before the start of MLB’s regular season, when the Jordan Brand dropped a collection of Air Jordan 1 cleats. But what he truly sought was the liberty to wear whatever he wanted on the field. Frazier was anxious to start commissioning conversions. He just had to find someone capable of transforming any sneaker he imagined into a cleat. In mid-February, three days before Yankees position players were scheduled to report to the team’s spring training facility in Tampa, Florida, he took to Twitter in search of a customizer:

Most of the replies pointed Frazier in the direction of Custom Cleats, and one of his teammates specifically referred him to the company’s owner. Coming off double-heel surgery in 2018, veteran Yankees shortstop Troy Tulowitzki had Ambrosini make him pairs of LeBron James’ signature Nikes that proved to be more comfortable to wear than traditional cleats as he recovered from the injury.

“Troy took those LeBrons to spring training, and I guess Clint saw them,” said Ambrosini, who began making cleats in the early 2000s while playing in the minor leagues within the Montreal Expos organization. The first pair he converted was Kobe Bryant’s Nike Huaraches for his younger brother and Class A teammate, Dominick Ambrosini, a sixth-round draft pick by the Expos in 1999. Now the elder Ambrosini does custom baseball and golf cleats for athletes all across the country, including Chicago Cubs All-Stars Anthony Rizzo and Jon Lester, retired seven-time Cy Young Award-winning pitcher Roger Clemens and future first-ballot Basketball Hall of Famer Dwyane Wade. Business is booming at Custom Cleats Inc., which boasts 100,000 followers on the company’s Instagram page.

“I got a text from Tulowitzki’s agent,” Ambrosini continued, “letting me know that Clint was gonna give me a call.”

Frazier’s first commission was a pair of “Shadow” Air Jordan 1s that he wanted to wear in spring training. Ambrosini completed the conversion and shipped the shoes down to Florida. Frazier was so excited once they arrived that he sprinted from the mailroom of George M. Steinbrenner Field into the Yankees’ clubhouse to open the package. Ambrosini had passed Frazier’s test. And the focus shifted to what he’d wear during the regular season.

“I don’t think anybody knew how serious I was about trying to make this a real thing,” Frazier said. “I told Anthony, ‘Look, man. This is kind of my vision. I want to make this into something big. I want to continue to send you a bunch of shoes to make into cleats throughout the year.’ ”

Their system is simple: Frazier cops size 10.5s in the dopest kicks he can find and sends them to Ambrosini, who replaces the rubber soles on each pair of shoes with custom-manufactured spiked cleat bottoms. He can turn around a sneaker in less than a day before having it hand-delivered to Yankee Stadium or shipped out to Frazier if the team is on the road.

“We kicked around ideas about shoes we wanted to do. One night, Clint called me from Flight Club,” said Ambrosini of the popular sneaker boutique in New York City’s East Village. “He was on the phone like, ‘Yo, man. What shoes should I get? I’m staring at all these shoes. There’s so many options, I don’t know what to pick.’ I’m like, ‘Just pick something that you love, that’s comfortable and that’s got the colors that you can wear.’ ”

Clint Frazier of the New York Yankees in action against the Kansas City Royals at Yankee Stadium on April 20. The Yankees defeated the Royals 9-2.

Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

That’s right: Frazier has to remain compliant with the MLB uniform guidelines. He hasn’t run into any trouble so far, although he’s broken out all different kinds of flavors with his cleats. Frazier made his season debut on April 2 in a pair of “Olympic” Air Jordan 6s. He hit his first home run of the year on the road against the Baltimore Orioles wearing those “Shadow” 1s from spring training. A day later, still at Camden Yards in Baltimore wearing the Shadows, he went deep twice in one game.

“It almost felt like whenever I wore a new pair of cleats, I’d hit a home run,” Frazier said. “That’s why I was breaking out different shoes. I was like, ‘Damn, man. I just hit a home run in all of them.’ ”

His next homer came against the Red Sox in the Nigel Sylvester 1s. Last year, Queens, New York, native and professional BMX rider Nigel Sylvester collaborated with Jordan Brand for his own edition of the Air Jordan 1. Frazier loves that shoe so much that he has two pairs: one that he wears off the field and another that he got converted into cleats. Sylvester had never seen or heard of the flashy, red-haired Yankees outfielder until the night his friend sent him a random direct message: “Yo! I’m at the game and homie is wearing your shoes as cleats.” Sylvester was flattered by the gesture.

“Being a New York City kid, I definitely have a spot in my heart for the Yankees,” Sylvester said. “To see Clint hit a home run and run the bases in my shoe — bro, it was so crazy. Definitely a moment in my career I will never, ever forget. … He’s brought a level of excitement to the game that’s needed. … At the end of the day, he’s being creative, and I always respect creativity, especially on such a big stage.”

The day after the game, Sylvester showed Frazier some love on Instagram, and designer Jerry Lorenzo (the son of former MLB player and manager Jerry Manuel) commented on the post. Similar to Sylvester’s collaboration with the Jordan Brand, Lorenzo, founder of the stylish streetwear label Fear of God, has teamed up with Nike for two collections of his own sneakers. Frazier saw Lorenzo’s comment and slyly replied, “I got something for u on Friday.”

That Friday, April 19, Frazier whipped out a pair of the Nike Air Fear of God Shoot Around. Oh, and the heat didn’t stop there. He’s also worn a collection of Air Jordan 11s in the “Win like ’82,’ ” “Space Jam” and low-top “Navy Snakeskin” colorways. Two weeks before the release of the “Cap and Gown” Air Jordan 13s, Frazier had them on his feet in the batter’s box.

“Clint definitely represents the hypebeast culture as far as style,” Ambrosini said. “That’s what makes him stand out so much. He’s so in tune with the awesomeness of all the sneakers that are out, and he’s not afraid to get out there and wear them. There’s a lot of guys I do conversions for that at first glance you really can’t tell it was a sneaker — it blends in so much with the uniform. … But Clint is finding the coolest shoes. … They’re so sick and they stand out so much that that’s what’s making him stand out too.”

Frazier has even paid homage to a true Yankees legend with pairs of Derek Jeter’s “Re2pect” Air Jordan 1s and low-top Air Jordan 11s. In 1998, shortly after the official launch of the Jordan Brand, Jeter became the first baseball player to be endorsed by Jordan. Now, 11 active players represent the Jordan Brand in Major League Baseball: New York Yankees pitcher Dellin Betances, Boston Red Sox outfielder Mookie Betts, St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Dexter Fowler, Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Gio Gonzalez, Yankees outfielder Aaron Hicks, Los Angeles Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen, San Diego Padres infielder Manny Machado, Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina, Boston Red Sox pitcher David Price, Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia and Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Taijuan Walker.

Three of Frazier’s teammates are Jordan guys, and 11 of his 13 pairs of custom cleats are Air Jordans. But landing an endorsement deal isn’t necessarily on his mind.

Clint Frazier of the New York Yankees bats during a game against the Baltimore Orioles at Camden Yards in Baltimore on April 4.

Rob Tringali/SportsChrome/Getty Images

“Jordan is my favorite brand,” Frazier said. “I obviously would love to be a part of the brand one day, but I also don’t want to lose my independence or my freedom with the ability to wear whatever cleat I wanna wear.”

Instead, Frazier has modeled his movement after another athlete who’s embraced not having a shoe contract: veteran Houston Rockets forward and NBA sneaker king P.J. Tucker.

“I’m not a huge basketball guy, but I know who P.J. Tucker is from the buzz he’s created because of all the shoes he’s wearing,” Frazier said. “That was kind of my goal, to build off of his platform. In baseball, we don’t have a lot of guys that have done this.”

No shoe deal means Frazier has an expensive hobby — especially if he’s doubling and tripling up on pairs of certain sneakers to wear off the field, during batting practice and in a cleated version during games. Frazier is definitely a sneakerhead, although his collection isn’t as big as you’d think. “I probably have 50 to 60 pairs,” he said. “But that’s gonna continue to grow — I know that. And I know my cleats collection is gonna probably be bigger than my actual shoe collection.”

Inside the Yankees’ clubhouse this season, a few of Frazier’s teammates call him “Canal Street Clint.” It’s a notorious nickname due to the reputation of that area of New York City. Basically, Canal is the mecca of knockoff designer merchandise, a place you go to find cheap Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Prada and more, albeit fake or counterfeited. Frazier doesn’t shop there, but he earned the moniker because what he plays in aren’t real cleats made for baseball. But they’re real to him, and the people who’ve taken notice: clubhouse attendants from opposing teams who come to his locker asking if they can see a few of his pairs, pitchers and catchers he spots staring at his feet, and even the dudes whose shoes he’s wearing.

“Guys have worn dope a– shoes on the diamond, but the way that Clint’s doing it, it’s kinda crazy,” Sylvester said. “He’s flipping shoes that aren’t meant to be cleats into cleats. Which is so dope.”

Despite the jokes, Frazier plans to keep the customs coming.

“I’m creating a new wave of style in baseball,” he said over the phone from a West Coast road trip in late April, two days after suffering a Grade 2 left ankle sprain with two partially torn ligaments. The injury kept him off the field for 11 games. But when he returned in the second week of May, of course he did so in style.

Frazier debuted five pairs in seven days, including superstar rapper Travis Scott’s “Sail” Nike Air Force 1s and his new Air Jordan 1s, perhaps the most hyped sneaker release of the year. On Twitter, Scott gave Frazier his stamp of approval.

For a game on Mother’s Day, Frazier and Ambrosini teamed up with famed sneaker artist Dan “Mache” Gamache for a pair of custom-painted Air Jordan 1 cleats, featuring his mom’s two cats.

In late May, Ambrosini shared a photo of his latest creation: a pair of suede “Cool Grey” Kaws x Air Jordan 4s, which dropped in March 2017 for $350 but have skyrocketed in value and now resell on GOAT in a size 10.5 for $1,435. The caption on the post read, “Tag someone that might take @kaws to the diamond.” Of course, most people shouted out Frazier, including Houston Astros outfielder Derek Fisher, who commented, “@clintfrazierr might be the only one insane enough.”

And Frazier responded, confirming everyone’s inkling.

“What if i told you those are mine,” Frazier wrote under the comment, “i just haven’t worn them yet?”

The plan: Debut the Kaws 4s at Yankee Stadium when the Red Sox are in town this week. For a four-game series against Boston, it was only right that he broke out a fresh new pair of custom cleats.

But with four months left in the season, the question is, what else does Clint Frazier have in his bag?

“I’ve got some stuff in the works,” he said. “Just keep watching.”