The bitter harvest of Richard Bibb: A descendant of slavery confronts her inheritance The families of slave owners and the people they enslaved gather for a ‘reunion’ in Kentucky

RUSSELLVILLE, Ky. — That morning, I took my measure of the place. I toured the former Bibb plantation house turned museum and explored the nearby work cabins. I paid attention to the ways the ground shifted beneath my feet. By early afternoon, I’d settled in the community room to talk with the museum director who got the idea to bring together the descendants of the slave owners and the enslaved when some of the white families arrived for a tour. I heard their voices in distant parts of the house and sensed the anger rise in my throat. It was dark, sudden, impolite. I was not ready to meet these people. They had done nothing to me, yet I felt as if they had.

Do not come in here, I warned silently.

Their voices got closer and I grew more anxious, though you wouldn’t have known by looking at me. We wear the mask. But it felt like mine was about to slip.

The author, Lonnae O’Neal, watches from a window of the Bibb House as guests begin to arrive for the reunion.

Nate Packard for The Undefeated

I had joked with the only Bibb cousins I’d ever known that we were being lured into a trap. But now, the trap was real. It was all plantation houses and the ghosts of black people and white voices coming closer. I had stepped into a house of mirrors. I wanted to escape.

A couple of could-be-relatives reached out to shake my hand, and I extended mine to them as well.

Why had they come? I wondered.

Lord, why had I?


2.

The Bibb House was built around 1815 in this small Western Kentucky town about an hour north of Nashville, Tennessee. It was originally home to Maj. Richard Bibb, an officer in the Revolutionary War, his second wife and the scores of people they enslaved. In 1832, Bibb sent 31 of them to Liberia. When he died in 1839, his will freed 65 others, who were also given money and land. His white descendants included a U.S. senator and the originator of Bibb lettuce.

Granville Clark, a lawyer and president of Historic Russellville Inc., and genealogist and museum director Michael Morrow began restoring Bibb House nearly a decade ago. Along with four other historic buildings located in Russellville’s Black Bottom, an area settled by freed black people before the Civil War, it became part of the SEEK Museum (Struggles for Emancipation and Equality in Kentucky).

Clark once fought to the Kentucky Supreme Court for the Bibb House, which had changed hands several times, to be a public charitable trust and hoped it could serve as “a realistic memorial to the Old South.” But deciding what that means is a whole different fight. And not simply with white people.

I did not know if I had it in me.


3.

The invitation to come to Russellville had kicked around Facebook for months before I saw it. It was the first reunion of the descendants of Richard Bibb and the descendants of the people he enslaved and emancipated.

My first thoughts came out in a string of curse words. Miss me on those plantation happenings, I told my cousins, but part of me couldn’t let it go. My father’s mother was Susie Bibb, and this was the first time I’d heard a word about her people. The first time I’d ever heard tell of any such thing as white Bibbs. A couple of white descendants were working on a documentary and would be filming at the reunion. I felt the ground shifting beneath me as I considered my options.

A copy of a sign advertising the sale of two boys on display at the SEEK Museum in Russellville, Kentucky.

Nate Packard for The Undefeated

I have constructed a life with the resources and standing that allow me to encounter white people on my own terms — to decide for myself when and where I enter. But the Bibb reunion would be a departure from that. It represented something aching and unresolved that put me and mine on the shoulders falling down like teardrops side of a power dynamic. Something painful and frightening.

Clark emailed me a photo of Catherine Bibb — or Granny Kate, as she was known — taken around 1900, when she would have been in her early 60s, and said we might be related. Of all the money and land left to the enslaved people who Bibb freed when he died at 86, Catherine, who was 3 at the time, was given the most: 250 acres. That preferential treatment supports the family oral history that she was Richard Bibb’s daughter.

Granny Kate was fair-skinned, with straight dark hair. She founded a school and a church on the land given to the formerly enslaved on the outskirts of Russellville, in what became known as Bibbtown, where she acted as the unofficial mayor. Granny Kate looked like my grandmother, Momma Susie.

She stared out from the photo and I felt implicated in her gaze. Dead black people are always judging. Having put their own burdens down, they’re always asking the rest of us what we’re going to do.


4.

I can read stories of the white Bibbs in American history books. But my black grandmother isn’t in those books. Susie Bibb was an American original, and she demands to be accounted for and remembered.

Susie was one of nine siblings raised in the coal mining and railroad town of Centralia, Illinois. She was the smartest of them all in math, she used to say, but the family had no money for college. So she wept bitter tears and got married at 18.

My grandfather was a hotel chef who eventually opened a restaurant and tavern in the black part of town. My grandmother, who specialized in making pastries from scratch, worked there when she was younger. But I rarely remember her leaving the house as I got older, and rarely smiling. My grandparents’ front door was never locked, and a steady stream of people would walk in, morning to night, and stand before Momma Susie to ask for money to pay bills, to buy diapers, to tide them over until payday. If she liked the terms — high interest rates or food stamps, as I recall — she’d leave the room to reach under her mattress for money. If she didn’t like the terms, she’d tell them she didn’t have it.

A reunion guest looks at a display of photographs and drawings showing the enslaved people freed by Maj. Richard Bibb. On the mantel from left to right: Andrew Bibb, Catherine Bibb Arnold and Martha Bibb.

Nate Packard for The Undefeated

She never used any kind of muscle. She simply never lent again to anyone who didn’t repay her.

Momma Susie doted on the dogs, which she cooked breakfast for and might bite her grandkids if we got too close. So she’d yell at us, reasonably, to get our damned asses out of their way. She’d warn us, too, about men, husbands especially, or sometimes white people. But mostly she’d preach — often in loud, compound expletives — about the importance of college, about getting your education so you didn’t have to depend on anyone, and about having your own money. She was a bitter black woman, and she spoke bitter black words into three generations of college graduates and postgraduates.

Momma Susie’s black family is not to be mistaken for that of the white sons of Richard Bibb: pro-slavery U.S. Sen. George M. Bibb turned Treasury Secretary Bibb, or John Bigger Bibb, who developed Bibb lettuce.

Lord, don’t you get mad about it — there was a U.S. Coast Guard cutter Bibb, but Susie Bibb loan-sharked in her pajamas from an armchair in her living room for most of my childhood.

These facts are always in historical conversation. Seven generations from Maj. Richard Bibb, these facts remain grafted onto us. They were the fire last time. They are the fire this time. They explain almost everything.


5.

Richard Bibb fought with the Virginia militia in the Revolutionary War, after which he inherited land and enslaved people. He moved to Lexington, Kentucky, where he was a land speculator and acquired around 200,000 acres from Kentucky to Arkansas. He later moved to Logan County, where the former Episcopalian became a Methodist lay minister with anti-slavery leanings. He grew tobacco, had a whisky still, raced horses and became one of the richest men in Western Kentucky. When his first wife died, he and his second wife moved from the country into Russellville. He was heavily involved in the American Colonization Society, which sought to send black people “back” to Africa, where the people he’d enslaved had never been. (On the 1832 trip to Liberia, a number of children died of cholera before they got there.)

His will, which freed everyone he’d enslaved, also gave them tools, livestock, $5,000 and roughly 3,000 acres, which the executor, his son John Bigger Bibb, deeded to them 40 years later. John’s brother George wrote a legally famous letter advising him how to continue to control the money and the land.

An 1897 Louisville Courier-Journal article about Richard Bibb said:

“Since his youth he had cared for them, and before that they or their parents had belonged to his father. He believed slavery was wrong and was taking the initial step toward putting into execution a long cherished plan. He was about to send one-third of his slaves to Liberia; the others he intended to liberate at his death. He had read a chapter in the Bible and had given out a hymn, and when his prayer was finished, many a black face was bathed in tears, and the slaves gathered about and shook Old Master’s hand for the last time and heard the accent of his kindly voice.”

This idea of Bibb as an emancipator is a source of local and white Bibb family legend. It is noted on the plaque in front of Bibb House and was an animating fact of the reunion. To me, it was simply a reminder that a complex 250-year system of human trafficking and violent plunder could only be sustained by intersecting applications of pressure and release. It just meant that Richard Bibb was arguably better than some. The gauzy lore feels like the columns and porch added to the Bibb House decades after the Civil War to lend the whole enterprise an air of magnolia.

“In an old conventional view, Kentucky was supposed to be more benign in its slavery,” said Jack Glazier, author of Been Coming Through Some Hard Times: Race, History, and Memory in Western Kentucky and a retired Oberlin College anthropology professor. He calls it a self-justifying myth. “It was without question a brutal and depraved system. That’s very much the case in Western Kentucky,” where tobacco farming required large numbers of people.

The slave quarters in the attic of the Bibb House, which is now the SEEK Museum in Russellville, Kentucky.

Nate Packard for The Undefeated

After the Civil War, there was an out-migration to Illinois, said Glazier. “There’s a real story there.”

It’s the part of the story where I come in.

My cousin Marvin Vaughn, a financial analyst for an energy company in Houston, drove to the reunion with his mother, Sharon Bibb Vaughn. His grandfather, Morris, and Momma Susie were brother and sister.

As we sat in the car watching people go in and out of the Bibb House, Marvin told me a story that Morris had told him about Charlie Bibb, our great-grandfather, about whom the only thing I’d ever heard was that he was mean and yellow. “I guess he got tired of his kids talking about that they were hungry,” Marvin said. He went to the grocery store in the white part of Centralia, said his children were hungry and asked the owner if he could get some food and pay him back later. When the grocer said no, Charlie B. bagged the food anyway, and when the grocer tried to stop him, “Great-grandpa Charlie knocked him to the floor and told him, ‘Look here, I need to feed my kids. When I get the money I will repay you, and this is what I owe you.’ ”

I hadn’t known my grandmother had gone hungry. It explained some of the preoccupation with money that ran through our family. Explained other stuff as well.


Something else Uncle Morris told Marvin: His grandfather was the son of a slave owner in Kentucky. It was another story I’d never heard.

Marvin came to the reunion because something bothered him. If the white Bibbs were so wealthy, “Why did we get such s— portions?” If we had gotten a fair share, how might that have changed our lives? These are Bibb family questions, but they stretched out across America like the arms of Jesus. Marvin came to the reunion because he wanted to land on some truth and help put a face to it. “We could be a part of the family that they don’t even talk about,” he said.

And neither did we.


6.

Two months ago, the white ancestors who hovered over my features never crossed my mind. I couldn’t name one.

But that was about to change.

Suddenly, I wanted to hear the stories. I wanted to see the documents and learn what had happened to these people and what that said about me.

The morning before the reunion, I pulled up to Michael Morrow’s research office in the Black Bottom, three blocks from the Bibb House.

Maurice Hardy (left), his wife, Latisha (right), and their son, RayShawn Payton-Kilgore, explore the upper room of the SEEK Museum.

Nate Packard for The Undefeated

“I’m Lonnae O’Neal, my people are from Centralia, Illinois,” I said to Morrow by way of introduction. “My grandmother was Susie Bibb. Her father was Charlie Bibb.”

“Her father was Charles Smith Bibb,” Morrow said, correcting me. “And his mother was Pocahontas Wright.”

Morrow held the door open for me, but I needed a minute. I had never heard my great-grandfather’s full government name. Had never heard of my great-great-grandmother at all.

Morrow, 57, was raised on stories of Bibbtown. He had a speech impediment, so he hung around old people, who were less cruel and would let you listen as long as you sat still. He dropped out of college to care for his sick mother. He worked at a neighborhood food hall, did a little bootlegging and some such, but he remained fascinated by family histories and started keeping notes. People got word and started giving him their artifacts, and telling him their stories.

In a few keystrokes, he pulls up documents where my great-great-grandfather is listed as mulatto on the 1850 census in Russellville. In 1860, he’s listed as black. By 1870, John and Pocahontas lived in Centralia, where John and Pokey, as they called her, were listed as white, and they had a 6-year-old son who’d been born in Russellville, and a 2-year old daughter and an infant son who’d both been born in Illinois, as were the seven children who followed.

“Now let’s do one more thing. Let’s go to 1900,” Morrow said and showed me a census record for Charles Smith Bibb, 13, the first name where I know where I am. Then he shows me a later census with the names of my grandmother and her siblings as children. “The amazing thing is, we got the slave documents. We can prove this all the way back to slavery,” Morrow said. To a woman named Old Keziah. But the documents also leave some unanswered questions, including the identity of John Bibb’s father. Morrow has been putting the pieces together for decades, and he thinks there’s a good chance my great-great-grandfather John was the son of one of the white Bibbs.

It was too much life to hear about in one day. And we hadn’t even gotten to the reunion, which would start the following day. I closed my eyes and pictured Granny Kate, who I asked for strength.

“I think one of the reasons why African American people tend to stay away from this is because of the trauma,” Nicka Sewell-Smith, a genealogist and consultant for Ancestry.com, told me later. (Sewell-Smith also shared that her great-great-aunt Sarah was married to a different John Bibb.) People are getting killed because of race now, “and I’m going to introduce additional trauma, historical trauma, into my life?” she asked.

It’s a history that can’t be sanitized. “So we just move away from it because it’s painful and we don’t know what to expect, and we have to check our emotions,” she said. “You don’t want to lash out at someone who’s not involved just because you don’t know how to properly process, and a lot of our experience has been to just deal with it and push it down.”

Sewell-Smith reads part of Richard Bibb’s will, which frees those he’s enslaved on Jan. 1, 1840, nearly a year after he died. Some of those emancipated seemed to sell their land, but it’s hard to say since slavery was still law and some of those who’d been emancipated were re-enslaved. John Bigger Bibb moved to Frankfort, where he continued enslaving people as he perfected his lettuce. He had agents look after the land and the formerly enslaved, doling out piecemeal the $5,000 that Richard Bibb left them and not officially handing over the property until 1881.

“There was a monetary value placed on us, and because money was involved, people were going to document things,” she said. “There’s a tangibleness of slavery that you get when you can see the names of your people associated with these enslavers.” She was plainspoken, but I had a hard time following her. I think it was because I was unable to think of my ancestors as fungible. I kept attaching them to the names of my children, then viscerally resisting the thought. I eventually succumbed to the sadness of it all.

Clark, 64, who attended segregated schools until sixth grade, calls the SEEK Museum a chance to teach a history of both slavery and emancipation that he hadn’t learned growing up.

We’re “lucky to have a site that does deal with both edges of that story,” Clark says. “It wasn’t emancipation that was as pure and as perfect as you want it to be, but it lets us talk about these things.” He thinks America may finally be ready to have these conversations. But I have my doubts. I am reminded of recent stories of white anger over talk of slavery, also known as American history, during plantation tours. (This, by the way, is partially why black people prefer to sit with each other at lunch.)

From 1883 to 1908, 14 people were lynched in Logan County, the second most in Kentucky. In 2008, Morrow put up an exhibit about the 1908 lynching of four men in Russellville that led to a change in postal laws to prevent people from sending postcards of hanging, swinging, charred bodies through the mail. The men killed hadn’t been involved in the argument over wages that had left a white overseer dead; they simply passed a resolution at their local hall to help the accused raise money for a lawyer.

Morrow got a call when somebody finally cut down the “lynching tree” 20 years ago.

Descendants of Richard Bibb look at old photos and maps in the front room of the SEEK Museum.

Nate Packard for The Undefeated

The night before the reunion, as part of Western Kentucky’s annual 8th of August emancipation celebration, a statue of Alice Allison Dunnigan, the first black female journalist credentialed to cover the White House, was unveiled in Russellville’s Black Bottom neighborhood, which is on the National Register of Historic Places but had a tough time getting the city to pay for streetlights and sewers. Several of Russellville’s elected officials were there. None of them is black. Of the nearly 7,000 residents of Russellville, nearly 20% are black, and more than half of those residents live below the poverty line.

The Black Bottom sits on a flood plain and has a history of getting deluged. A half-mile away, the Confederate Monument, erected in 1910, which is also on the National Register, sits atop a pedestal.

Sometimes, white people tell themselves fictions, but they need us to play along. When we disbelieve them or don’t co-sign, they turn punitive or murderous. And that’s why we didn’t believe them in the first place.

“I don’t want everybody to come together and have a Kumbaya moment,” Morrow said of the reunion. “Our people have had so many Kumbaya moments. I want everybody to come together and be real about what has happened. If they are real, maybe people can go back and start changing things.”

They are asking for our truth, I told Morrow, but I don’t think they really want to hear it.

“I don’t think it makes any difference whether they want to hear it or not,” he replied.


7.

Rachel Knight and her brother, Jonathan, are descendants of Richard Bibb’s daughter, Lucy Slaughter, and grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Their grandmother chronicled their family history in the 1960s with a lengthy entry on the major. After the 2017 white supremacy rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that left a young woman dead, Rachel, a doctoral student at Teachers College, Columbia University, wanted to learn more about their family history. Jonathan, a filmmaker, was looking to make his first documentary. A woman they’d known growing up happened to be a professor of African American studies at the University of Kentucky and connected them with a black doctoral student and journalist to help produce it.

Traci Ellis delivers a speech at the Bibb House near the end of the day’s events.

Nate Packard for The Undefeated

“Our country hasn’t dealt with issues of our country being founded on slavery,” Rachel Knight said. And neither had their family. “Our family had a history of enslaving people,” but growing up in the North, “we don’t talk about that history that much.” When she found her grandmother’s entry about Richard Bibb, “I was like, well, why isn’t that a story that we talked about?” When she learned the Bibb House was still standing, she and her brother brainstormed about adding something meaningful.

Morrow and others questioned the siblings about the proposed documentary before agreeing to cooperate. “I trusted them to do what’s right,” Morrow said. I had no such trust. As a journalist, I’m always on the lookout for the ways whiteness, power and self-interest align.

I told Jonathan Knight I’d only learned there were white Bibbs a few weeks before and he seemed surprised. “I don’t mean this to sound harsh,” I told him, “but you all aren’t centered in our lives.”

He and his sister worried a film could seem exploitative, so they were trying to listen to criticism and challenge their own privilege. “Of course it’s hard,” he said. “But I really want to be up for doing it.”

“In my experience, white people don’t have the muscle for this conversation,” I said. Jonathan assured me that they did. I decided to take him at his word.

I noted that they’d asked my cousin, attorney and author Traci Ellis, to facilitate a discussion about race, and that white people were good for asking black people to do work — physical, emotional, spiritual — for free. “Black people are always you all’s raw material,” I said. The “you all” wasn’t specifically Jonathan and Rachel. It was a collective, a cohort of whiteness, organized in a system of racialized privilege. The royal you all.

Rachel owned her house in Brooklyn, New York, and I pointed out that my daughter lived in a Brooklyn townhouse split into three apartments where she splits her rent with two roommates. I felt angry, though she had done nothing to me. So few white people show up for these conversations that the ones who do come in for a lot of the work of the race. I wondered aloud if we were going to talk reparations.

After hours of talking, Rachel, who hadn’t been feeling well all day, looked peaked, and I felt for her. “It’s a lot, I know,” I said. “It’s a lot for us too.”

Speaking our racial truth can feel physically, socially or financially unsafe. There’s a wide berth we often give white people so as not to make them uncomfortable or angry. But in the shadow of the Bibb House, I couldn’t do it. The black ghosts of Russellville weren’t having it.

I don’t know if she got it. But I finally understood why I’d come to the reunion: to give the white Bibbs, as stand-ins for the people who baked inequality into America, their bags to carry. And all their crosses to bear. The ones that have been forced on black people that rightfully belong to the whole nation.


8.

The morning of the Bibb reunion, I wore a green dress to remind me of the green chair my grandmother sat in as she received borrowers. I lingered in the hotel parking lot praying to Momma Susie that I might represent her at this gathering.

Chairs and tables covered the front lawn and dozens of people, black and white, from 28 states, were milling about, with more steadily arriving. The center hall of the Palladian-style Bibb House museum features two pairs of iron shackles under glass that were found in the dirt on the grounds. In an adjacent room, a copy of an enlarged notice hangs on the wall: “One or two likely Negro boys, about 10 years old” for sale.

I forced myself to approach a middle-aged white woman in one of the upstairs rooms.

Old shackles found on the grounds of the Bibb plantation house on display at the SEEK Museum.

Nate Packard for The Undefeated

Michelle Anderson, a schoolteacher from Redlands, California, was a descendant of Lucy Booker Bibb and Thomas Slaughter. She was there with her son and daughter-in-law, both professors at Knox College in Illinois.

Her cousin took a DNA test, which is how she found out about the reunion, the documentary and Richard Bibb. The stories are powerful, “but you know it’s historically what it is, and we just embrace it to understand and, you know, make at least sense of it today.”

It all sounded perfectly reasonable, but I wanted to get away. The shackles. The 10-year-old boys for sale. The picture of Granny Kate staring at me. Minute by minute, this place felt oppressive, frightening and surreal.

I excused myself to talk to Latisha Hardy, from Louisville, Kentucky. She was there with her husband, Maurice, and their son. Until a few months ago, she hadn’t known there were white Bibbs either.

Maurice had white people in his Georgia family tree and understood the push-pull of wanting, but not wanting to be there. “It gives you feelings you don’t want to feel,” he said. “Because you know their money is built off your work.”

I sought out my cousins Ellis, from Oak Park, Illinois, and her sister, Amber Johnston, from outside Atlanta. Their late father and my late father were brothers. “This is opening up some stuff I didn’t even know I felt,” said Ellis. “I’m trying to hold that in.” To not come unglued thinking about “the wealth and the atrocities that happened in this house.”

White people kept coming up to her, “and they’re being appropriate, and wanting to talk and wanting to engage, but I feel like I need a minute,” said Ellis. “I might need forever.”

Ellis said she thought of Charlie Bibb, who had been an abusive man, and how abuse ran through the Bibb family, “and I never interrogated that further.” But now, she was thinking of “post-traumatic slave syndrome” and generational trauma. Her son, Jalen, 25, had visited the lynching exhibit the night before, and this morning he decided to stay at the hotel instead of attending the reunion.

Several Bibb descendants gather in front of Arnold’s Chapel Church, which was founded by Catherine (Granny Kate) Bibb in Bibbtown.

Nate Packard for The Undefeated

Her sister, Johnston, said they left Atlanta three hours late because she obsessed about retwisting her nearly waist-length hair. It’s similar to how black people dressed up for demonstrations and marches. It’s part of the armor we don.

When the formal program began, Morrow talked about discovering Maj. Bibb’s will and how he’d made finding the Bibb descendants his life’s work. “The Bibb family and these Bibb slaves have went all over America and done all kinds of things,” he said. The Bibb story is “a story about race. It’s a story about family. It’s a story about slavery. It’s a story about wealth. It’s a story about abuse. It’s a story about neglect.”

Ellis stepped to the lectern on the Bibb House lawn and told the hushed crowd, “When I pulled up, voices started in my head. Normally, I don’t hear voices.” She sat alone in the house’s 110-degree attic, the sleeping and work quarters for the enslaved, and she held a quilt. Spending time in the building and on the grounds, she said, “one of the strong feelings I had was rage.” She urged us to honor our feelings and have a “courageous conversation” about race.

My cousin asked the descendants of the enslaved what they would want to say to the descendants of the slave owners. And much later, when the moment was far behind us, I thought of plenty of words.

They went like this:

We are not like you.

We are not going to do to you what you did to us.

We are not going to burn your teenagers alive or put your grandmothers to work scrubbing our floors. We won’t break every bond of fellowship or citizenship to gain advantage, and then lie to ourselves and others about how precisely we’ve hoarded privilege in every institution of American society. We won’t call the police every time we feel uncomfortable or are made to share space. You are so afraid of us, of our anger and emotion, only because you know what you would do. It’s everything you’ve already done. This is why you’re always marveling at our power to forgive, because you, yourselves, do not.

That’s what I would have said later.

But in that moment I had just two bitter words. I said them out loud. And I meant every bit of them.

My cousin Sharon whipped her head around and tried to shush me, but I just faced forward steadily. I didn’t apologize. I said what I said.

I believe it was the ghost of Susie Bibb, answering my prayers.

Ellis had us break into groups and gave us a series of questions about race. My table included Michelle Anderson’s son, Jon, a scholar of African languages and linguistics at Knox College, and his wife, Nathalie Haurberg, an astronomy and physics professor at the college.

Toward the end of the program, I asked our table if white people talked to each other about race and what they said. Anderson stood up to tell the full group his answer: “No, I don’t think those conversations really happen. I think they happen in small circles, but in general, they are missing and I think a lot of people wish it would all go away. Each of us, as the white cousins here, as I will refer to them, are only where we are in life because of our black cousins, and we need to face those privileges that we have lived with for 200 years as the result of this house and the house across the street.”

Traci Ellis’ grandson, Christian, who is almost 2, takes a nap during the family reunion at the SEEK Museum.

Nate Packard for The Undefeated

Ellis ended the program by facing the house to tell the ghosts of those enslaved by Richard Bibb that we had returned. That we were their wildest dreams.

I was spent, more invested than I’d wanted to be in desiring something meaningful to come from this gathering. I hugged those who’d sat at my table. A few white people came up to talk to me about their family, to share their opinions on race relations, what they’d done in the civil rights movement, and about the president. I could hear them better this time.

Rachel looked stronger, I thought. She was glad they had helped convene the reunion.

The next day, eight carloads of black Bibbs, the extended Knight family and a couple of others toured Bibbtown. I sat with Amber’s children on the steps of Arnold’s Chapel Church, founded by Granny Kate. The last resident of Bibbtown, Marilyn Gill, had died a few years earlier in a fire so hot it melted coins. Her nephew died of a heart attack a few weeks after that.

“Some of you all might still own property here,” Morrow told us. “More brains are better than one, and I’m hoping you all can start to sort this out.” He hoped we would help find out about every acre Maj. Bibb gave the black Bibbs and who was heir to what in 2019. That we would join the struggle for truth, and the land beneath our feet. We are each other’s harvest.

I followed Jonathan back to Russellville until it was time to turn down a different road. I pulled up alongside him. Hard to know what to say through open car windows to a man whose ancestors had enslaved yours. So we just said goodbye. I was glad to have met him. It was a start, I thought.

Or maybe it was no such thing at all.

At some point, my cousins will likely do a more sophisticated DNA test to figure out more precisely if and how we might be related to Maj. Richard Bibb, and perhaps we’ll figure out if we have a claim to some of that Bibbtown land.

But it felt like such an old fight. And at that moment I was ready to get back home to my carefully curated black life, where the ground was steady beneath my feet and the old ghosts were much more quiet.

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.”

Today in black history: The Dominican Republic is free; happy birthday, Marian Anderson and James Worthy; and first black woman becomes lawyer The Undefeated edition’s black facts for Feb. 27

1844 — The Dominican Republic gains its independence from the border nation of Haiti. The countries share the island of Hispaniola, and both had been under Haitian rule for more than a couple of decades, first by the Spanish and then by the French.

1872 — Charlotte Ray, the first African-American female lawyer in the United States, graduates from Howard University School of Law. Ray was also the first woman admitted to the District of Columbia bar and the first woman admitted to practice before the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia. Sadly but predictably, her practice could not withstand discrimination and prejudice, so she packed up and moved to New York, where she became a teacher and got involved in the women’s suffrage movement.

1902 – Happy birthday, Marian Anderson (1897-1993). Born in Philadelphia, Anderson became a world-renowned opera singer and the first African-American soloist to perform at the White House and also performed at major music venues.

1961 – Happy birthday, James Worthy. Born in Gastonia, North Carolina, Worthy played 12 seasons for the Los Angeles Lakers and was a seven-time NBA All-Star, a three-time NBA champion and the 1988 NBA Finals MVP.

Obama and Curry join together for My Brother’s Keeper Alliance A new program, MBK Rising!, is set to ‘bring opportunity for youth and community leaders to connect, learn, and share’

OAKLAND, California – Former President Barack Obama sat on a stage next to 23 young men of color, looked toward the audience and said solemnly, “Trayvon [Martin] could have been my son.”

Obama spoke those words Tuesday afternoon as part of a town hall discussion at the Oakland Scottish Rite Center in the first national meeting of the Obama Foundation program MBK Rising! Obama and Golden State Warriors all-star Stephen Curry participated in the event, discussing the importance of mentoring, being a role model and their personal influences before taking questions from the young men on stage.

My Brother’s Keeper was an initiative started by the Obama Foundation following the death of teenager Trayvon Martin in 2012. Martin was a 17-year-old African-American fatally shot on Feb. 5, 2012, in Sanford, Florida, by neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman. Martin’s death led to national protests over racial profiling.

“Every single day there were young men of color who were being shot and killed … Every single day there were young men who were dropping out of school. Every single day there were men who were more likely to go to prison than college,” Obama said. “The requirement was for society to wake up and find ways where we can come together and say to all of our young people, but particularly young men of color who, according to a whole lot of educators, were having a more difficult time in society for a whole range of historical reasons, we have to be able say to them that, ‘You matter, we care about you, we believe in you and we’re going to make sure you have the opportunity and the chances to move forward just like everybody else.’ And through out of that, we decided to start My Brother’s Keeper.”

To kick off MBK Rising!, a national convening hosted by My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, participants attend a Day of Service at MLK Elementary School in Oakland, California, on Feb. 18.

The Obama Foundation

The goal of MBK Rising! is to “bring opportunity for youth and community leaders to connect, learn, and share.” The MBK Alliance, now part of the Obama Foundation, also is focused on encouraging mentorship and reducing youth violence for young men of color.

Obama and Curry also talked about fatherly influence — or the lack thereof. The questions from the young men on stage were about the large incarceration of people of color, receiving and giving support to women, police issues, the influence of music, high school discipline, masculinity and expectations for greatness and respect.

“From the moment I was elected president I was constantly thinking about how we make sure that everyone in this country has an opportunity and every child is valued,” Obama said. “This is the greatest country on Earth. And there are still people who are able to rise despite disadvantages. The fact of the matter is that there are a lot of late bloomers who are still left behind and a lot of young people who sadly don’t have the resources, don’t have the support, don’t have the attention that other humans have.”

Curry once wore a pair of customized My Brother’s Keeper Under Armor Curry 4 sneakers during a road game against the Washington Wizards for charity. The hand-painted and autographed shoes were auctioned off for $28,000, according to EBONY.com. Curry also spoke about the importance of mentoring and said he and his Warriors teammates believe it is necessary to make an impact in the Bay Area and in their hometowns.

“How I carry myself, how I speak, what I am educated on, my willingness to try to meet people where they are, can make a huge difference whether it is five seconds, 10 minutes, multiple run-ins. We all have the platform and the responsibility to shape somebody’s perspective,” Curry said. “That one moment can be a difference-maker for a lifetime. I can speak for my teammates and a lot of people in this league that we have a social responsibility to take a stand for things that we believe in and look out for the next generation.”

To kick off MBK Rising!, a national convening hosted by My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, participants attend a Day of Service at MLK Elementary School in Oakland, California, on Feb. 18.

The Obama Foundation

Curry’s conversation with Obama came two days after the two-time NBA MVP played in the 2019 NBA All-Star Game in Charlotte. Curry and Obama, a huge basketball fan, have built a friendship that has led them to playing golf together several times and have dinner in San Francisco on Saturday night. Curry and the Warriors also celebrated their 2015 NBA championship with Obama in the White House but didn’t celebrate 2017 and 2018 titles with President Donald J. Trump.

The crowd booed when Obama mentioned a high school initiative changed by Trump administration. Obama responded by saying, “Don’t boo. What do I always say?”

The crowd responded, “Don’t boo. Vote.”

The friendship between Obama and Curry was easily visible as they opened their session in lighthearted fashion and had some fun along the way while talking about serious subjects.

Obama introduced himself as “Michelle’s husband” and Curry as “Ayesha’s husband.” Obama joked that he “lost his job” as president and is now retired and focusing on the Obama Foundation. Obama also said he helped Curry become the greatest shooter in NBA history, but “no one wanted to see my jump shot.” They also debated about who was better rapper: Drake or Kendrick Lamar.

“Even a Bulls fan has to acknowledge that he has been fun to watch with the Warriors,” Obama said of Curry. “He’s the greatest shooter of all time because I gave him some tips about five seasons ago.”

Former President Obama surprises participants in the Young Leaders Track for a class photo during MBK Rising! in Oakland, California, on Feb. 19.

The Obama Foundation

Curry would later get a laugh from joking about Obama’s age. But Obama got the loudest roar after joking about Curry’s past injury woes.

“Why don’t we tell the kids about some of the struggles with your ankles?” Obama said.

Before the Obama-Curry conversation, Grammy award-winning singer John Legend led a discussion with Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin; Rev. Wanda Johnson, the mother of Oscar Grant; and Rep. Lucy McBath, the mother of Jordan Davis. All three mothers lost their sons to gun violence. McBath said all three women are fighting against injustice to help the nation. Fulton added that the three women have to be “the voice for the voiceless.”

“We continue to champion and fight with every breath of our being because we know it matters,” McBath said.

Said Fulton: “It’s not about Trayvon anymore. It is about everyone is in here.”

The event concludes on Wednesday with panel discussions that includes former NFL receiver Victor Cruz, Black Panther filmmaker and Oakland native Ryan Coogler, actor/producer Michael B. Jordan, actress and activist MJ Rodriguez and Queer Eye star Karamo Brown.

Future Hall of Famer Stephen Curry, whom so many doubted, is headed home for All-Star Two Davidson College friends chat — about hoops, activism, family — and dreams that came true

Nov. 14, 2007. Stephen Curry’s first major — splash. He’d just scored 24 points en route to nearly upsetting No. 1-ranked North Carolina, losing by only four points. He definitely didn’t spend that night sulking over the heartbreaking loss, or celebrating the fact that he was leading SportsCenter for the first time.

Instead, he was in my dorm. Helping me with a project. I’d asked for his assistance earlier in the week, not expecting him to show up after his big game. But there he was, low-key and helping out. That’s what Stephen Curry does. And Steph and I are friends — we were at Davidson College at the same time.

We used to hang out before parties, kick it at the library and binge on late-night chicken Parmesan. It’s been nearly 10 years (April 23, 2009, to be exact) since Curry declared for the NBA draft, and this weekend he will return to his hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina, as a shining star who shined brighter than just about anyone thought he would. Three-time NBA champion. Six-time All-Star. Two-time league MVP. And the leader of one of the most indestructible juggernauts in all of sports: the Golden State Warriors.

“At first, at Davidson, I was able to just enjoy basketball without the NBA cloud over my head.”

We’ve kept in touch over the past decade as any college friends do, seeing each other on his various stops across the country, texting after life moments big and small, and reminiscing on the Davidson days that helped set us on our respective paths. I’ve watched him grow from the kid at Davidson to a dad and husband in the Bay Area. I’ve been awed by the player he’s grown into on the court — but never surprised at the man he’s become. For example, I wasn’t surprised when he made national headlines for taking on President Donald Trump by refusing to visit the White House after the Warriors won the championship in 2017. Curry had participated in activist efforts at Davidson, unafraid of consequences.

As we look to his return to Charlotte, I asked Curry to hop on the phone and look back at the moments that got him here. This isn’t an interview. This is a conversation between two people who were friends with dreams — mine of one day writing for a place like ESPN, and his of being one of the most dominant forces in sports. We talked about Davidson moments that shaped him and the decadelong journey to where he is now. This isn’t Stephen Curry. This is Stephen.


Hey, man, trade deadline expired about an hour ago. Congratulations on making it through. The Warriors didn’t trade you this year.

(Laughs.) Oh, I was locked into The Jump Trade Edition trying to make sure I made it through.

What does it feel like, coming back to Charlotte for an All-Star Game 10 years later? Where’s your mind right now?

I’m extremely excited. All-Star Weekend in general is usually fun. … Every city has something unique to offer. I know Kemba [Walker] is hosting in Charlotte. He’ll be playing for the Hornets and whatnot, but unofficially it’s like a little mini homecoming where I get all the sights and sounds and familiar faces.

When I graduated from Davidson in ’08, after the Elite Eight run, people were asking, ‘What’s that Steph guy going to do in the league?’ And I’d say, ‘He’s going to play forever because he can shoot, right? And he’s going to make some All-Star Games.’

That was a kind of crazy prediction back then.

Now it’s 10 years later and you’ve got a couple of MVPs, some championships. What did you think you’d be at this point?

My whole goal going in was I want to play 16 years, just like my pops. He set the bar; that’s what I want to get to, but do it my way. I guess I fell in love with the moment and spreading that joy in myself, working on my game and trying to figure out just how to win in the league, and focus. It was a hard lesson to learn my first two years. I’ve exceeded my imagination. … It’s kind of surreal to be where I’m at, [and] now to be back in Charlotte … but I’ve still got a lot to accomplish. Obviously, I’m in my prime, so the story’s still going, but it’s just crazy to think that I was outside of the [Davidson College] Belk [computer] lab on the phone with Ayesha trying to find out if I was even going to enter the draft.

“One thing I do technically regret, in terms of how fast this all came, is when I brought Riley on the podium.”

I remember [April 23, 2009] you texting me when you decided to enter the league. You were like, ‘I’m in the library, and I don’t really know why.’

(Laughs.) Bro, yes! That night I was still writing a paper or something. A sociology paper, I think. Pulling an all-nighter, just confused. I don’t know why I was doing my paper at the time, trying to figure out what I’m going to do with my life. I finally decided … to make that jump. And obviously, everybody knows how much I love Davidson, how hard it was to leave, but looking back, that obviously was the right decision.

And I always think about the end of your freshman year, when we were in [Curry’s Davidson teammates] Lamar Hull and Boris Meno’s room.

Yup.

Every Friday or Saturday night, [all of us] freestyling, listening to Lil Wayne. My dream was to be writing stuff at ESPN, and now I’m doing that. About you winning MVPs in the NBA. Back then, in Lamar’s room, nobody could imagine that any of these things would be happening.

One of my favorite stories is when I was passing out tickets to freshman dorm rooms, knocking on doors and stuff, trying to get people to come to games. Everybody’s reaction was so subdued and chill … everybody was sort of reserved about everything. It’s surreal to be having the conversation we’re having and doing the things we’re doing, representing ourselves and our school. That’s what makes the whole story so unique … humble beginnings.

Instagram Photo

What’s interesting about you that other players don’t really have at the top levels of the NBA, especially when I think about, like, LeBron James or Kevin Durant, is that they knew really young that they were going to be NBA players. That seemed not to be the case with you. When did you realize you were definitely doing this?

When I went to Davidson, that was my goal, but I didn’t really know. It wasn’t like a chess game where I would position everything so that I could be an NBA player. I was able to have a ‘normal’ college experience where it’s just about playing ball, hanging out with my teammates, going to school. Then we go to the [2008 Elite Eight] tournament run, we lose to Kansas, and the first question I get after … is, ‘Yo, are you declaring for the draft?’ And I’m like, ‘What?’ Like, ‘No. What are you talking about?’

That was a genuine response, because it wasn’t necessarily on my radar like that. I was just playing ball. Then, between my sophomore and junior year, that’s when I first really started to assess my game in terms of being an NBA player and understanding what I needed to work on if I want to get drafted. But even so … I hesitated when it came down to making the decision. … It wasn’t like I wasn’t destined to make that jump, but in my head it was still a question mark. It took me a while to get there and to get committed.

But then when I finished my rookie year, I was trying to catch up to Tyreke Evans for that Rookie of the Year verdict … playing 40-plus minutes every game, so I really felt like I had complete control … in terms of knowing what type of player I wanted to be. And you kind of imagine that player to be an All-Star type of guy. I just had ultimate confidence at that point towards the end of that rookie year. But at first, at Davidson, I was able to just enjoy basketball without the NBA cloud over my head.

Obviously, you’re not an underdog anymore. Does that make you think back to the days when you had nothing to lose? Did you enjoy that more?

Nah, once you get to that championship level, you understand what that feels like to be the best in the world at something. You’re right, my whole motivation, and my process [back then], was really identifying with the underdog mentality. Now, it’s an entirely different experience from one that I had and love, but I love it now too.

Now, when we’re trying to go for three [championships] in a row, there’s media drama, free-agency drama, inner squad stuff we’re going through. … It’s all because we’ve been at the height of our game and people will try to pick us apart, trying to find cracks in the armor. … It’s because we’re playing for something that matters. I love being in that situation every year — and I hope that doesn’t end anytime soon.

I remember we went to an All-Star Game in Houston, what, six years ago?

I was down there for the 3-point shootout.

We were able to go to the game together. You were able to walk across the street to the game from the hotel by yourself, essentially, with no problem or fanfare. That was just six years ago.

That was the last time that I actually didn’t make the All-Star. I remember the ’fit I had: the three-piece suit without the jacket with the nonprescription glasses and this stupid hat that Ayesha made me wear. We got to walk two blocks from the hotel to the game. Maybe one person said, ‘What’s up?’ But it wasn’t like it is now at all. I wanted to go to the game just to get that experience. It definitely sucked not making it, but that was motivation. That’s probably the last time that happened, where I could be incognito, I guess. But now, I think Ayesha, she’s more recognizable than I am at this point. It’s pretty crazy, the difference in the last few years.

Then, a few years later, you’re getting called out by the president.

Right.

That seemed to take people by surprise. It seemed people didn’t expect that you have these ideals that you stick to. When we were together at Davidson, I saw a bit of that mindset develop. How did that evolve to the point of where you felt comfortable speaking out against the president?

It’s mostly just being around like-minded people, people that were even bolder than I ever was in terms of speaking up for what they believe, speaking up for black students in a majority-white student body. I gladly helped spread the message of what we were fighting for on campus. To be honest, I’m not just saying this because I’m talking to you, but the way that you and [poet, author and Davidson alum] Clint [Smith] and other people that I see that I still follow on social media — and how you guys use your voice and your wisdom, education, and just how articulate — you guys are consistent in speaking up. That … emboldens me to … use the platform I have … when it comes to going to the White House or not, making those decisions, and trying to go see President Barack Obama and things that he has going on in the community, trying to just respond in different ways to make a difference.

That all started at Davidson. Just … being around people that inspire me … that’s where the seed was planted … and we all branched out into our respective worlds. We continue in that fight, so I’m going to stay on that mission in any way that I can.

A lot of athletes feel hesitant about the possible backlash of saying the wrong thing, but you speak with confidence in these situations.

I’m not going to please everybody. In terms of the international world of politics … that comes with the territory. And where sports and politics kind of cross over, just in terms of [us having] a microphone in our face every single day. They’re asking us questions about what we believe. You can obviously shy away from it if you want to. You can play it safe. I still want to make sure I’m very educated on what I’m talking about, which is why I don’t talk about everything. As NBA players, we live in a bubble. … Our lifestyle’s a little different, and you have to make sure you stay plugged in, because we all have families, we all come from communities that real stuff is happening [in] and have to support to make sure you stay in tune.

Instagram Photo


You got married around when I did, and I think Riley is a couple months older than my son? So whenever I see you, it’s always about family and how crazy this family experience is.

It’s been an amazing journey. I never thought when I met Ayesha at the end of my sophomore year … I didn’t know where my life would lead me. It’s funny … she had no basketball, sports background at all and knew nothing about the NBA … so we were wet behind the ears in terms of not knowing what we were getting into. And every step of the way, everything that’s happened, we kind of dealt with it together, and it’s helped us mature a lot faster than we … expected. I think even as parents, understanding how we’re going to raise kids not only in this crazy society we live in but one that we’re so visible [in], and people are kind of locked into every step we take, every word we say. One thing I do technically regret in terms of how fast this all came is when I brought Riley on the podium [during the 2015 NBA Finals].

Oh, yeah.

I’ve always wanted to … share what I get to do, and all the experiences I have, with my family. I didn’t know how much that would blow up and how much of a splash she [would make] on the scene. If I could take that one back, I probably would, just because my goal is just to … give my kids the best chance at success and at seeing the world in the proper way … trying to give our kids the best chance to be successful and have a normal life in terms of treating people the right way, having respect, not getting too bigheaded and feeling like everything’s about them. The lessons I’m teaching my kids right now at ages 6, 3 and 7 months, it’s wild to think about. Surreal.

What is a lesson in basketball, or parenting, or activism, whatever, that you could tell 2009 Stephen Curry?

This is almost too on the nose for what’s going on right now, but find out who you are quick, because that’s the foundation … and the thing that you rely on no matter if things are going your way or not, if you reach your goals or not. Find out who you are, be comfortable with it, embrace it and let that be the most consistent thing that you can … rely on. I’d say, just the hoopla and craziness that’s happened these last 10 years, there were plenty of opportunities for me to kind of lose my mind, lose my sense of self and lose a sense of reality. It’s just wild to think about what’s thrown at us on the daily that we kind of have to kind of roll with. These wins and losses and championships, it’s important, it’s what we work our a– off for, but in the grand scheme of things, is it that serious for it to change who you are? I hope to have accomplished that and hope to keep on that path.

Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir endured the heartache of choosing faith over basketball The former Memphis and Indiana State player helped overturn a FIBA rule banning hijabs

A look at the intersection of sports, faith and religion

College basketball star Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir was faced with a choice: faith or sports.

Faith won.

Abdul-Qaadir, now 28, played her entire high school and college career in a hijab. She wore tights under her shorts and a long-sleeved shirt under her jersey. Her face and neck were exposed, but her hair was covered.

She didn’t make the WNBA in 2014, so she sought to play overseas and possibly work her way into the league. Those plans were derailed when her agent told her about the International Basketball Federation’s (FIBA’s) headgear rule: It wasn’t allowed.

“It was devastating,” she recalled. “I struggled with being a Muslim. Having to choose between my hijab, which is essentially my faith, it is more than a piece of material. But to give up my passion was a struggle.”

She joined the #FIBAAllowHijab campaign to garner support to change FIBA’s policy, and it paid off. In 2017, FIBA changed its rules to allow head coverings such as the hijab, tichel and turban in international competition. But after three years of training, rather than jump back on the court, she’s decided to stay on the bench.

“I’m still making peace with the decision,” she said. “People still call me and ask me to play for them.”

FIBA had defended its initial stance on religious headgear as a way to prevent injuries and promote a religiously neutral environment. In 2014, FIBA communications coordinator Simon Wilkinson told Ummah Sports that FIBA rules and regulations “apply on a global scale and make no distinction between the various religions.”

“This measure is in place for reasons of safety and uniformity on the basketball court in particular. This article makes provision for only one exception — headbands no wider than 5 centimeters, which allow for hair and sweat to be held back in order not to disturb the player.”

Abdul-Qaadir, however, saw the policy as a form of discrimination. She saw a life without basketball or her hijab as simply wrong. At one point, Abdul-Qaadir considered playing without a scarf.

“Why can’t I go overseas to a country where nobody knows me, take off my scarf for 40 minutes and put it back on afterwards?”

But that thought never sat well.

“Am I going to give up who I truly am to please this organization who doesn’t want me to represent who I am?” she asked.

Abdul-Qaadir still holds the high school career scoring record in Massachusetts. Her 3,070 total points broke the record of WNBA star and fellow Massachusetts native Rebecca Lobo, whose total of 2,740 points had stood unchallenged for 18 years. Abdul-Qaadir then became the first NCAA Division I athlete to wear a hijab, first at the University of Memphis (2009-13) and later at Indiana State University. She finished her collegiate basketball career there, averaging 14.2 points per game.

President Barack Obama invited her to the White House in 2015 to break the Ramadan fast and again for the White House Easter Egg Roll, where she won a game of H-O-R-S-E with the president. Her journey prompted a documentary film, Life Without Basketball, which was shown Nov. 10 at the DOC NYC film festival.

The NCAA requires athletes to get a waiver to wear “head decorations.” Requests must include why the hijab would not be a danger to other players, a description of the material and how the hijab would be worn. Even if a waiver is granted, referees can still bench a player if they think the hijab appears to pose a danger to other players.

The NCAA was not able to confirm how many waivers have been granted since Abdul-Qaadir started playing. However, they did say that one waiver was granted for the 2016-17 season and another for a different athlete in the 2017-18 season.

The WNBA permits players to wear religious head coverings, but no player has ever competed in one in the U.S. since the league’s inception in 1996. International soccer’s governing body, FIFA, only allowed players to wear hijab in 2014.

Earlier this year, Abdul-Qaadir played in the Arab Women’s Sports Tournament, where more than 1,000 women competed in basketball, volleyball, table tennis, fencing, archery, shooting, karate and more. The basketball competition allowed teams to have up to three American players, and she played for a team from Somalia and scored 31 points in a game against Jordan. Abdul-Qaadir said she was recruited afterward by several pro teams outside of the U.S. but declined the offers.

Although the hiatus from high-level basketball hasn’t diminished Abdul-Qaadir’s love for the sport, it forced her to focus on other things.

In 2015, she earned a master’s degree from Indiana State and started her own campaign, Muslim Girls Hoop Too, which encourages Muslim girls to play sports and openly express their faith. Two years later, Abdul-Qaadir got married and started Dribbling Down Barriers with her husband, A.W. Massey. The program facilitates play between Muslim and non-Muslim athletes to get people of different faiths to be comfortable with each other. She now works as an athletic director and volleyball coach for a pre-K through eighth grade school in London, Ontario.

Instagram Photo

Now, she spends time sharing her story and encouraging Muslim girls to play basketball.

“I need to stand up for the girls who are going to come after me,” Abdul-Qaadir said. “If I don’t open up these doors for them, who’s going to do it? And there’s going to be another Muslim girl who wants to ball and be good enough to play and they’re going to have to make this decision, and I don’t want them to.”

If only black America could work together as well as the NBA champion Warriors Yet, professor Michael Eric Dyson says, ‘black folks are a league, not a team’

The Golden State Warriors will hold their victory parade in Oakland, California, Tuesday, celebrating the franchise’s third NBA title in four years.

This season’s accomplishment was heralded as the triumph of a great team and teamwork.

The Warriors are a team of stars, superstars, young players, veteran players, strong personalities and unique talents.

After the final game June 8, a few players hinted that internal pressures and undisclosed distractions had made 2017-2018 a particularly vexing campaign. Yet, the Warriors survived to win their third title since the 2015-2016 season.

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of tumultuous 1968, I find myself wondering whether far-flung black America could use the Warriors’ brand of teamwork to achieve a championship in an atmosphere of clickbait self-centeredness and narcissism.

The civil rights movement was a testament to the bravery of little and the concerted action of many. Just as the Warriors had their issues, there were tensions and rivalries with the movement but the brutality and persistence of white supremacy were often enough to force alliances.

“We’ve always had disagreements and scuffles,” professor Michael Eric Dyson said. “We’re going to have skirmishes. All black people don’t have to agree with all black people in order for black people to succeed.”

“We’ve always had disagreements and scuffles,” professor Michael Eric Dyson said during a recent conversation. “We’re going to have skirmishes. All black people don’t have to agree with all black people in order for black people to succeed.”

We were discussing Dyson’s new book, What Truth Sounds Like: Robert F. Kennedy, James Baldwin, and Our Unfinished Conversation About Race in America. The book centers on a 1963 conversation between Robert F. Kennedy and a group of handpicked black celebrities and activists about the smoldering racial tensions in America. Kennedy became annoyed when his guests offered a no-holds-barred assessment of racism, including the Kennedys’ culpability.

The book’s overarching themes were the need to speak truth to (white) power and the need for white power to listen.

I told Dyson that I felt African-Americans spend far too much time persuading the white power structure to listen. I used a sports-team analogy, suggesting it was like Tyronn Lue, the Cleveland Cavaliers coach, going to the Golden State locker room before a game and asking Warriors coach Steve Kerr to take his foot off the Cavaliers’ neck.

Why should he? They are opponents.

Just as Lue worked tirelessly — and ultimately unsuccessfully — to devise a strategy to defeat the Warriors, more time and energy is needed to get our own locker room, the black team’s locker room, committed to winning. That’s because racism is deeply rooted and an omnipresent opponent.

We must do everything it takes to achieve victory: prison reform, police accountability and economic justice. We must be as committed to the proposition of teamwork toward this end.

Dyson accepted the metaphor of the black team but argued that African-Americans are far too diverse and varied to be a single team.

“Black folks are a league, not a team,” he said.

On top of that, he argued, you have to figure out who’s on your team. Everybody who is your color isn’t on your team.

Regardless, great teams bolster the NBA. The majority of franchises are in disarray. Some teams are talent-laden yet never win. Some, such as the New York Knicks, the NBA’s most valuable franchise, don’t have to win to turn a profit. Some black “teams” are like that as well, where individual success is valued over collective success.

The beauty of Golden State, and before that a franchise like San Antonio, is understanding the vision of collective gain vs. individual gain.

I raised the issue of teamwork and great teams with David West, the Warriors’ 37-year-old veteran forward. West is a veteran of 15 NBA seasons. He came into the league in 2003. West has been with four teams, has been in the playoffs but did not win a title until he joined Golden State.

David West of the Golden State Warriors poses for a portrait with the Larry O’Brien NBA Championship Trophy after defeating the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 4 of the 2018 NBA Finals on June 8.

Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

He has won two titles with Golden State.

West said the most important element for Golden State this season — and for successful teams in general — was “the ability to put aside personal agendas for the time that we are together. When we go to practice, guys aren’t bringing their issues into practice. Guys aren’t bringing their own ‘I’m going to do it my way’ into the group environment.”

West mentioned the Warriors’ morning music locker-room playlist as a small but poignant example of the give-and-take that forms the backbone of a successful team.

“Usually, wherever you go, the young guys rule the music,” said West, who played with New Orleans, Charlotte, San Antonio and Indiana before joining Golden State.

At Golden State, the distribution of music is generationally diverse, from Gordon Bell, the 23-year-old center, to West. The music is a thread that connects generations and sensibilities.

“You might hear Earth Wind & Fire and Kool & the Gang one morning. You hear Michael Jackson another morning, and you might hear Kodak Black the next morning,” said West.

The tone is set from veteran players Stephen Curry or Kevin Durant or Draymond Green; it’s set for everything from music to free-flowing, no-holds-barred conversation in the locker room.

“In terms of what we talk about, nothing is out of bounds,” West said.

Talent matters and continuity matters. But there are teams that have talent and continuity that do not win.

On the team or in the movement, teamwork requires selflessness and sacrifice that might mean putting oneself in danger or at risk to achieve a greater good.

Each generation, of players or activists, must decide what is that greater good. What is the connective thread? The common denominator?

On the sports team, the thread is winning. On the black team, the thread varies from generation to generation.

In his book, Exchanging Our Country Marks: The Transformation of African Identities in the Colonial and Antebellum South, historian Michael Gomez writes about Denmark Vesey’s insurrection of 1822 when people of African descent “born in either Africa or the Americas, coalesced for the purposes of realizing a common objective.”

Gomez pointed out that even free blacks cast their lot with those in legal bondage “after sober assessment revealed that their own status was precarious if not illusory.”

In Vesey’s failed rebellion, the unifying element was religion, though that ultimately was not enough to overcome social and ethnic differences. In 1968, we were unified by the brutality of a deeply racist system determined to sustain itself.

In 2018, sports and high-profile sports stars making statements and taking stands have become a unifying thread. The NFL champions Philadelphia Eagles, largely because of the protest of black players, did not go to visit the White House. The Warriors twice have said they would not attend if invited.

West said social consciousness seeped into the Golden State locker room where there were several conversations over the last two seasons about whether to protest during the playing of the national anthem. There were agreements and disagreements, but nothing got in the way of the ultimate quest to win a third NBA title.

“Black people have to give up the notion that we have to be unified in order for us to have progress,” said Dyson. “We do not.”

Commitment is more crucial than consensus.

Whether achieving an NBA title or the endless quest for freedom and justice, there must be a commitment to achieve collective victories.

The Warriors’ parade Tuesday, their third in four years, is a testament to dedication, vision and the power of teamwork.

Lynx celebrate WNBA championship with D.C. students Team opts for community service after failing to get White House invite

Cheryl Reeve believes her Minnesota Lynx epitomize what a champion should be. They aren’t just tremendous basketball players, they’re leaders in their communities, whether in Minnesota or the nation’s capital. And that is more important to Reeve and her players than being fêted on the South Lawn of the White House.

The Lynx did not receive an invite to the White House after winning the 2017 WNBA championship. The team, which plays the Washington Mystics on Thursday, came to D.C. a day early to work with Samaritan’s Feet Shoes of Hope to distribute shoes to children from low-income families as part of their championship celebration.

The team arrived Tuesday and distributed shoes and socks from Nike, Jordan Brand and DTLR on Wednesday at Payne Elementary, a school where 30 percent of the students are homeless. Members of the team also hit the blacktops to go over basketball drills with the kids and then returned inside to be celebrated in the school’s auditorium. The Lynx ended the event with a photo op with the 2017 WNBA Finals trophy.

“I want to say thank you to these players for being such amazing athletes, incredible role models and choosing to be here today to show how champions act,” Reeve said as the team stood on the stage to be recognized.

Asked how this post-Finals celebration stacked up with her other experiences, four-time WNBA champion Maya Moore spoke fondly of being invited to the White House under the Barack Obama administration after winning titles in 2011, 2013 and 2015.

But she said spending the afternoon playing basketball and giving out new Jordans to more than 300 elementary school students made this celebration stand out.

“I’m so ridiculously blessed to have so many memories at the White House, so many great ones,” Moore said Wednesday while standing on the blacktop. “This will probably be more unique. We made some great memories with these kids. … We’ll definitely remember this.”

Asked about President Donald Trump’s decision to not invite the Lynx to the White House or whether they would have gone if invited, most of the players said they wanted to focus on the kids and the positivity of Wednesday’s community service.

Trump disinvited the 2018 Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles to the White House this week and rescinded an invitation to the 2017 NBA champion Golden State Warriors last fall. Three leagues with predominantly black workforces — NBA, NFL and WNBA — have been spurned while leagues with majority-white workforces, the NHL and MLB, have been celebrated at the White House.

“Obviously, it does [bother me that the president is targeting black athletes],” Lynx guard Seimone Augustus said. “The NBA, the NFL, they’ve all been very vocal. The players — LeBron [James], Steph [Curry] and all of them — have been doing their job as far as letting people know their stance on the situation. And we’re going to continue to do our part. We’ve been doing this since last year with the anthem, but today just was a day where we felt like it was more important for us as a team, as a unit, to do something way more special than whatever is going on with the chaos of the White House and the invites and all that stuff.”

In July 2016, the Lynx stepped into the social activism spotlight when they came out with black-and-white warm-up shirts that read “Change starts with us. Justice & accountability.” On the backs of the shirts were the phrase “Black Lives Matter”; the names Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, two black men killed by police; and the Dallas Police Department emblem (five officers were shot to death during a protest after Sterling and Castile were killed).

The Lynx players also linked arms during the national anthem, while the Los Angeles Sparks went to the locker room before Game 1 of the 2017 WNBA Finals.

Asked about the disparity in teams visiting the White House, Reeve said:

“I think it’s a confusing message. I don’t really want to take a deep dive into the diversity piece. I think it’s plain for people to see. And I think for us, we say we’re not going to let anyone steal our joy. At the end of the day, we don’t need the White House to celebrate our championship. This was an incredibly meaningful day and a way to commemorate it and showing how champions act, and what we’re about and what our league is about.”

Michelle Obama’s book cover shows a first lady who knows the rules and then changes them One of these is not like the others

It’s the hair that tells you everything you need to know.

Last week, Crown Publishing released the cover image of Michelle Obama’s forthcoming memoir, Becoming.

The cover image fits squarely within the genre of first lady memoirs released since Betty Ford’s The Times of My Life in 1978. In a closely cropped portrait, the smiling first lady looks directly into the camera, inviting you to take a peek into her life and her journey to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

There’s a predictable homogeneity to the styling of the portraits of Ford, Rosalynn Carter, Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush. All of them feature the immovable hairshell that had come to typify political wife coifs: a wash-and-set preserved with an Aquanet halo of formality, fortified against the threat of a stiff breeze.

And then there’s Michelle.

The cover picture on Becoming places Obama within the tradition of American first ladies while also projecting her individuality. Her hair is styled in soft, beachy waves that are swept away from her face. It looks unpretentious, inviting and approachable, but it is still done. No one wakes up like that.

And, unlike her predecessors, Obama’s hair looks as though it would be right at home if you sat her in front of a wind machine. That is to say, it would actually move. Obama confidently bares a shoulder in a jersey top, the sort of thing one might don for a stroll along the boardwalk or while on vacation in a small town in Spain. All of it offers subtle visual nods to the casual, modern accessibility Obama brought to “The People’s House” during her tenure in the East Wing. The flowing nature of her hair and top are suggestive of the kineticism that came to define Obama: her love of dance and fitness, her willingness to infuse workout gear into official White House photographic dispatches.

The covers of these first lady memoirs serve as artifacts. They’re products of their time that tell us something about what we expect of America’s First Hostess. They capture ideas about famous femininity that exist outside of the Hollywood red carpet but that are still removed from everyday American life.

There were those who found Obama’s mere existence in the role of first lady offensive. She was not occupying the White House as a maid or a cook, a gardener or a florist, all honorable positions to be sure but ones defined by their roles in service to the presidency, an office that, before her husband’s arrival, had been 100 percent white. While Obama’s race was always integral to understanding the backlash against her, said backlash wasn’t always couched in explicitly racist terms. Instead, for instance, there were public debates about whether Obama violated some unwritten rule of decorum by baring her arms so much. Obama always operated within the parameters of protocol set for the first lady, she just did so as a round-the-way girl who grew up in a small apartment on the South Side of Chicago.

Aware that the presence of additional melanin and enslaved ancestors would set her apart, Obama tried to define the role of first lady instead of letting it define her. She broadened the swath of people who allowed themselves to feel a sense of pride and kinship in the White House and its occupants. They, too, sang America.

There’s no more better illustration of this approach to embracing one’s role as a symbol than Obama’s official portrait. Oh, sure, it follows the rules of official portraiture in that it is a likeness, created with paint and a canvas, of the first lady. It hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. But Amy Sherald’s portrait looks more like a two-dimensional illustration than those of her predecessors. It is a work of geometry and simplicity, devoid of the florid brushstrokes that have come to typify such portraits. Instead of being depicted somewhere in the White House, Obama is seated against a pale blue background. The entire portrait has a desaturated quality. In contrast to Obama’s trademark openness, her likeness is unsmiling, distant. It suggests there’s still some mystery to Obama. There are elements of Obama that few have seen, and she prefers to keep them to herself.

You have to go back to Eleanor Roosevelt, depicted with pencil and book in hand, to find another radical departure from the form. Roosevelt is depicted atop versions of her various selves, laughing or deep in thought. Her hands show up knitting, removing her glasses and removing her wedding ring. Roosevelt’s portrait is one of a woman who contained multitudes and wanted everyone to know it.

Obama’s portrait, like Roosevelt’s, suggests a woman who understands the significance of semiotics. So does her book cover.

The portrait is one thing, but then there’s the title. “Becoming,” of course, carries multiple meanings. It can refer to Obama’s process of growing into herself and getting comfortable with the spotlight of being America’s first black first lady. Obama has alluded to that process in her Instagram feed as the book’s Nov. 13 release date draws nearer. The posts, accompanied by detailed captions explaining their relevance, suggest an evolution.

Instagram Photo

Instagram Photo

Instagram Photo

Instagram Photo

But “becoming” also offers a graceful pushback against those who continually insulted her looks because they found the presence of her brown skin in the White House to be an affront. As an adjective, rather than a verb, becoming is an assertion of beauty, like fetching or comely. To be becoming is to have found a look that suits you, and it’s clear from her book cover that Michelle Obama has found one that suits her.

Alice Marie Johnson’s family appreciates Kim Kardashian’s efforts to bring her home Her son and daughter-in-law share her compelling story of mercy and hope

Alice Marie Johnson was sentenced to life in prison in 1997 after a conviction on eight criminal counts for a first-time, non-violent drug offense. Her son, Charles Johnson, remembers that time like it was yesterday.

“I was coming home from college and the court date was postponed to the next day,” Charles Johnson said. “On that day, they didn’t want the family to go, so she and her boyfriend at the time just went. A couple of hours passed and he just came home and told us that they kept her. And they found her guilty, and it was the day before my birthday, my 20th birthday.”

The guilty verdict from a jury trial changed the course of life for Johnson, the mother of four, grandmother and great-grandmother. She has spent more than two decades in prison, with several failed attempts to be granted clemency.

In December 2016, President Barack Obama granted clemency to 231 prisoners, but Johnson was not on the list.

“I think that was more of an up-and-down,” Charles Johnson said. “Every time you’d see another list come out, you’d look at it just to see if her name’s on it, and it’s not. To me, I think I was more worried about her, because it was such an up-and-down thing for her to get really happy and really depressed every time a list came out.”

Johnson’s story caught the attention of Kim Kardashian West, who went to the White House on Wednesday, Johnson’s 63rd birthday, to meet with President Donald Trump about prison reform and a pardon for the minister, writer and mentor.

Kardashian West reportedly heard of the story when a video of Johnson was posted on Mic’s Twitter account. “Life offered me no opportunity for parole because there is not parole in the prison system,” Johnson said in the video.

In a letter obtained by TMZ, Johnson thanked Kardashian West for her support.

“There are no words strong enough to express my deep and heartfelt gratitude,” Johnson wrote. “Ms. Kardashian, you are quite literally helping to save my life and restore me to my family. I was drowning and you have thrown me a life jacket, and given me hope that this life jacket I’m serving may one day be taken off.”

“It’s amazing that Kim Kardashian even looked at this and decided that this is something that she wanted to take hold of. It’s crazy,” said Shontoria Johnson, Charles Johnson’ wife. “This is all a part, I guess, of the war on drugs, epidemics that have hurt our communities for a while.”

For Charles and Shontoria Johnson, memories aren’t enough. The newlyweds, who’d known each other for a little more than 18 years, are waiting for the day when Johnson can come home to her family and pursue her dream of helping others in her shoes.

“I think it’s so scary to think that she might die in jail and never be able to really be with her grandkids,” Charles Johnson said. “They’d never get to see how super or great she is in person, just over Skype or over a phone call. When she left, Justin was maybe a year-and-a-half. She really loved having Justin around and keeping him. I may have changed his diaper twice when he was a little kid. She wouldn’t ever let me. She was like, ‘You don’t know what you’re doing.’ She’s very giving, so she’s always been a very giving person. Always was the life-of-the-party kind of thing, dancing and embarrassing me in front of everybody. She didn’t care. She just liked having fun.”

According to Shontoria Johnson, Johnson is anxious, nervous and hopeful.

“She feels like this the furthest that we’ve ever got, and she’s just very excited at this point. We’ve gone through a lot of this together, this family, and it was very difficult going through the ups and downs and highs and lows of hoping for the best and being let down at some points, but we’re very hopeful at this point.”

Johnson’s daughter Tretessa Johnson started a petition for clemency on Change.org that has more than 260,000 signatures to date.

“My family’s life changed forever when my she was sentenced to life in federal prison,” Tretessa Johnson wrote. “She was one of thousands of first time, nonviolent offenders who were given long mandatory prison terms. She had lost her job and became a telephone mule passing messages between her coconspirators.”

In December 2016, Johnson explained how she got involved with a Memphis, Tennessee-based cocaine trafficking operation in a piece for CNN.com. She said she needed a way to make ends meet during a difficult time in her life. According to Mic, she couldn’t secure employment after losing her job at FedEx, where she had worked for 10 years, due to a gambling addiction; she got divorced, and had just recently lost her youngest son to a motorcycle accident.

“No mother should have to bury her child,” Johnson wrote. “This weight was unbelievable, and it was a burden I couldn’t sustain. I made some very poor decisions out of desperation … I acknowledge that I have done wrong. I made the biggest mistake of my life to make ends meet and got involved with people selling drugs. This was a road I never dreamed of venturing down. I became what is called a telephone mule, passing messages between the distributors and sellers. I participated in a drug conspiracy, and I was wrong.”

Charles Johnson wasn’t aware of any of his mother’s illegal activity.

“I had no idea at all, to be honest,” he said. “Even after the court stuff, I don’t even think I even learned exactly what she was convicted of for a few years, because I just didn’t want to know. It didn’t matter if she wasn’t around. I think most of the time when we even talk, we don’t even talk about the court case. We talk about other stuff, family or kids or whatever.

“When she was arrested, I just figured she’ll get an appeal and be out in a week. I just keep thinking that over and over until we lost the house. Then it was OK a year. OK next year. Then I thought, ‘Why isn’t she out yet?’ I was in shock and didn’t want to face it. Then when they moved her to California, it was real. She isn’t coming back. Anger and depression is probably the best way to say it. She was so hopeful that I had to be as well.”

The hardest part for Charles Johnson is not being able to see his mother interact with her grandchildren.

“Even my youngest son, Chris, I think he’s anxious to see her,” he said. “He’s done the Skyping, so he really wants to meet her. Just having her around, being a grandmother to everybody. I think that’s the biggest thing. Also just catching up and taking her out and actually being able to do something for her birthday for a change except just singing ‘Happy Birthday.’ ”

“We’re a blended family,” Shontoria Johnson said. “We need the opportunity to be able to connect with her. He’s met her via Skype and talked to her about school and things of that nature. She’s definitely welcomed him, and he’s taken to her too. She’s a person that you fall in love with immediately.

“I watched Charles go through all those emotions, and I had to support Charles through those emotions and also with speaking with Mama Alice on Skype, I could see her emotions as well, and at some point, it seemed like she had pushed back from everything. It was an interesting time. It was disheartening,” she said.

“I think right now, I guess I can say I’m more ‘I’ll believe it when I see it’ kind of thing,” Charles Johnson said. “It’s like I’m hopeful, but until she’s actually in the car driving here, I don’t know how I really feel. At this point, at least we know the president actually knows who she is and what’s going on with her, so this is the closest I can say she’s ever really came to it.”

While in prison, Johnson has been writing and performing plays on most of the holidays. She’s also a minister.

“She’s really trying to help and mentor a lot of people in there be better when they come out, if they get out, or just while they’re in there, just become better people as a whole,” Charles Johnson said.

“I think she uses that as an outlet to connect with people that she wouldn’t normally connect with, to help them be a better person, to mentor them, and to be, like I said, the great personal mother that she is,” Shontoria Johnson said.