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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Daniel Boczarski/FilmMagic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Reg Innell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

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

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

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

And then the woman who created Sula died.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can’t nobody fly with all that shit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Jack Mitchell/Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Me? Me?”

Oprah and ‘Moonlight’s’ McCraney on the inspiration of Toni Morrison New OWN series ‘David Makes Man’ strives to carry on her legacy 

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — After the news spread Tuesday that famed author Toni Morrison had died, Oprah Winfrey and Oscar-winning writer Tarell Alvin McCraney were scheduled to meet with a small group of journalists to discuss their new series David Makes Man, which debuts on OWN next week.

Before they dived into the drama, which focuses on an academically gifted black boy who must balance a challenging home life with the world’s expectations, they reflected on the brilliance of Morrison.

“What she represented for me is this idea that where we’ve come from and everything that came before us lives in each of us in such a way that we have a responsibility to carry it forward,” said Winfrey, who starred in the 1998 film adaptation of Morrison’s Beloved.

“I remember one of my first conversations with her — and I don’t remember what the question was — but she said, ‘I’ve always known I was gallant.’ The word gallant. Her assuredness about the way she could tell stories, and her ability to use the language to affect us all, is what I loved about her.”

Oprah Winfrey (left) and Tarell Alvin McCraney (right) attend the after-party for OWN’s David Makes Man premiere at NeueHouse Hollywood in Los Angeles on Aug. 6.

Photo by Rachel Luna/Getty Images

McCraney, too, was powerfully influenced by Morrison’s language and stories.

“I was in grad school … and was the assistant of Mr. August Wilson. … The Bluest Eye production that we did in Chicago … toured around the country,” McCraney said, fighting back tears. “It was very difficult for me to think that my job was to follow in those folks’ footsteps. So rather, I sort of thought, I’m reaping the benefits. Does that make sense? Rather than trying to repeat or to try to forge anything like them, I would take what they gave and sort of try to expand it, or not even expand but just filter it through me.

“When I read Tar Baby, it was one of those moments where I was like, ‘I know this Southern boy. Ooh, I know him so bad.’ I know wanting after a person so wonderfully, and then to sort of turn around and see Florida life in that way that I hadn’t seen since Zora Neale Hurston … I thought to myself: Well, that’s what I’ll do. I will engage, I will reach into my pocket of my corner of the world and show it as best I can.

“And so I’m grateful for that legacy. I’m terrified of it in ways that you would of your grandparents, of your aunts, your uncles, your mother and your father. You want to be noble, you want to stand up in front of it. But you also know that in order to truly do it, you have to bare yourself, flaws and all. There is no way to really be a part of that legacy, to really add to it, unless you show your full self, and that means the warts and all. And that’s the terrifying part of it.”

David Makes Man is the first TV project from McCraney, who won the Academy Award for best adapted screenplay for 2016’s Moonlight. Winfrey said the pitch for the show was the strongest she’d ever heard. She said she was emotional hearing it and fought back tears because she feared it’d be unprofessional.

McCraney’s storytelling is reminiscent of Morrison’s work, she said. The series, which also is produced by Michael B. Jordan, tells a story of black boys that we rarely see.

“I knew that if he was able to do just a portion of what the pitch represented that we would have something that would be in its own way a phenomenon,” Winfrey said. “Most of the stories I’ve read growing up were always about black girls, beginning with [Maya Angelou’s] Caged Bird. I’m always looking at coming-of-age black girl stories.

“So sitting in the room with Tarell was the first time I thought, Wow, I really don’t know very much about black boys, nor have I ever actually thought very much about black boys. … So I thought that the series in the way that he pitched and presented it would offer the rest of the world an opportunity to see inside a world that we rarely get to see.”

“I remember one of my first conversations with her — and I don’t remember what the question was — but she said, ‘I’ve always known I was gallant.’ ” – Oprah Winfrey

This new series is in the line of projects that Winfrey is most interested in bringing to her network, she said. Like Ava DuVernay’s Queen Sugar, this is yet another layered, rich story about black life.

“I’m looking for people to see themselves, because I think that’s where the ultimate validation comes from. One of the lessons that The Oprah Show taught me, one of actually the greatest lessons that The Oprah Show taught me, is that everybody has a story, and that everyone in every experience of their life is just looking to be heard, and that what they really want to know is, do you see me? Do you hear me? And does what I say mean anything to you?

“And so, having this audience of predominantly African American women who supported me and came to the network in droves, I just want to offer stories that allow them to see themselves and every facet of their lives. I want to continue to do more of that with artists and creators who inspire me, and thereby inspiring the rest of our community to see themselves in a way that lifts them up and that is meaningful.

“I don’t want to create anything that wastes people’s time. I’m not looking for Pollyanna stories. I’m looking for stories that say, ‘This is what life is, and this is how it is, and this is how you get through it.’ “

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.”

New documentary reminds us that even Toni Morrison had to fight off the haters After she won the Nobel Prize, there were still critics who said her focus on black women was too narrow

For years, one take has ruled the internet as the quintessential example of screwing up as utterly as a critic possibly can.

The headline “Beyoncé: She’s No Ashanti” graced The New York Times’ review of the singer’s debut solo album, Dangerously in Love. It persists in reminding us of the possibility of committing a boo-boo so grand it becomes synonymous with “strong and wrong.”

I was reminded of that headline after seeing the documentary Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, which premiered earlier this year at Sundance and is now playing in theaters. Directed by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders (The Black List, The Women’s List) for the PBS series American Masters (no airdate has been announced), the film reveals how a number of cultural institutions failed to recognize the genius of Morrison, even as she created a body of work that disrupted a largely white and male literary canon.

The new documentary Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am showed that Morrison was subjected to the sort of doubt that black women are all too familiar with.

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders/Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Reviewing Sula for The New York Times in 1973, one writer chided Morrison for her continued focus on black life: “… in spite of its richness and its thorough originality, one continually feels its narrowness. … Toni Morrison is far too talented to remain only a marvelous recorder of the black side of provincial American life.”

The film shows Morrison’s response to that kind of critique through archival footage from Charlie Rose’s talk show, pre-#MeToo revelations: “The assumption is that the reader is a white person,” Morrison tells Rose. “That troubled me.”

Similar worries persisted for years. In 1988, 48 black writers published an open letter in the Times protesting the fact that Morrison had not won a National Book Award or the Pulitzer Prize.

The critique of Morrison wasn’t only about race. Some African American men weren’t shy about their complaints when she was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature for Beloved in 1993. The novel was inspired by the real story of an enslaved Kentucky woman named Margaret Garner. Garner ran away, and when the man who owned her tracked her down, Garner killed her children, slitting one’s throat and drowning the other, offering mortal escape from lives of bondage and degradation.

“I hope this prize inspires her to write better books,” Stanley Crouch told The Washington Post. “She has a certain skill, but she has no serious artistic vision or real artistic integrity. ‘Beloved’ was a fraud. It gave a fake vision of the slave trade, it didn’t deal with the complicity of Africans, and it moved the males into the wings. ‘The Bluest Eye’ was her best. I thought something was going to happen after that. Nothing did.”

It’s frustrating to discover that Morrison, one of the greatest writers of her generation, spent years being dismissed.

Charles Johnson, who won the National Book Award in 1990 for Middle Passage, grumbled about Morrison’s commitment to writing through a lens of feminism and black cultural nationalism.

“When that particular brand of politics is filtered through her mytho-poetic writing, the result is often offensive, harsh,” Johnson said. “Whites are portrayed badly. Men are. Black men are.” The award, he added, “was a triumph of political correctness.”

It’s frustrating to discover that Morrison, one of the greatest writers of her generation, spent years being dismissed. For as long as I have known the name Toni Morrison, she has been synonymous with envy-inspiring genius. When I was a child, her 60 Minutes interviews were appointment television. Her books, dense with complex themes and rich with metaphor, were among those my parents would allow me to read before they were truly age-appropriate. Morrison was so exceptional that rules could bend to allow for the consumption of her words. (Meanwhile, Judy Blume and Terry McMillan had to be secreted away from the public library near our house and read under the covers.)

And yet she was subjected to the sort of doubt with which black women are all too familiar, because of her race and because of her gender. It’s the disrespect that propels so many black parents to forcefully instill in their children the directive that they must not hide their intellectual lights under bushels but instead sport them proudly. After all, the chances that someone else will care to illuminate such gifts are slim.

“I am very, very smart early in the day,” Morrison says to the camera in The Pieces I Am, purring with the swagger of a woman who knows she has the goods as she explains her writing process. She begins at 5 a.m. (a habit that began after she gave birth to two sons) and continues till noon. She doesn’t particularly care for afternoon or evening scribbling, and her preferred method of recording her thoughts is in neat cursive on yellow legal pads.

In one jaw-dropping moment, Paula Giddings, author of When and Where I Enter, a history of black women in America, shares that she worked as an assistant at Random House when Morrison was there as a full-time editor. Morrison asked Giddings to type up pages of her legal pad in exchange for a homemade carrot cake. Years later, Giddings realized that she’d been transcribing a draft of The Bluest Eye.

The critique of Morrison wasn’t only about race. Some African American men complained when she was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature for Beloved in 1993.

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders/Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Visually, The Pieces I Am is largely static, relying on still photographs, scenes from the deck of Morrison’s home in Lorain, Ohio, and the art of Jacob Lawrence, Mickalene Thomas, Kara Walker, and Kerry James Marshall spliced between footage of interviews with the author’s friends, colleagues and admirers, including Giddings, Sonia Sanchez, Walter Mosley, Fran Lebowitz, The New Yorker theater critic Hilton Als and Oprah Winfrey.

“She’s the architect, the midwife and the artist,” Als remarks.

Greenfield-Sanders has known Morrison since 1981, and their ease with each other is apparent in Morrison’s candor and body language. Even as she reveals that there’s a private part of herself that few will see, Morrison is witty, charming and a little mischievous. “The moment I got to Howard [University], I was loose,” she tells her interviewer, grinning. “It was lovely, I loved it … I don’t regret it.” Now 88, Morrison remains an inspiration for many reasons, but especially because she believed in her own talents long before the institutional arbiters of such things caught on to them.

“I was more interesting than they were,” Morrison says. “I knew more than they did.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

24 books for white people to read beyond Black History Month These great reads will help any reader discover the rich range of the African-American experience

For many years I was a clueless white guy. I suffered from one-ness. What I really needed was two-ness, and maybe three-ness and four-ness. I came to see my whiteness not as privilege but as insufficiency, thanks to W. E. B. Du Bois and his 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk.

In a remarkable passage, the great scholar, author and activist described the Negro as “a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world, — a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eye of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideas in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

Here is the good news. I am not there yet, but I am gaining on two-ness. My white skin is no longer a prison of cluelessness. With the help of African-American friends and colleagues, I am beginning to see America through the eyes of not the Other but others. Through their generosity, I have been invited to ask questions. I heard or saw things I didn’t understand. I did not yet know how to learn, nor did I have the courage to ask a question that might come off as racist. My fear was met by encouragement from the likes of Rev. Kenny Irby, DeWayne Wickham, Dr. Karen Dunlap, Keith Woods, Dr. Lillian Dunlap. “Don’t worry,” they indicated by one means or another. “Ask away. No one is going to leave the room or show you the door.”

Some of my clueless questions:

“When I see a police car, unless I am speeding, I think protection. Tell me why when you see a cop car you may think oppression?”

“I don’t get the absence of so many black fathers in the lives of their children. What is up with that?”

“I have learned to hate the N-word. When I hear it from black rappers, should I be offended?”

“I keep running into this idea of ‘good hair’ vs. ‘bad hair.’ As someone with very bad hair, I think that anyone with any kind of hair has good hair. What am I missing?”

There came a time during these interrogations when I felt a little fatigue setting in from my colleagues. And then Karen Dunlap, my boss and president of the Poynter Institute, made it explicit. It gets tiring, she explained, bearing the burden of white people’s ignorance about black people and African-American culture. “You know,” she gave me a Sunday school teacher look, “you could read something.”

Read something. Yes, read something!

And so I have. Over the past two decades I have developed quite a nice collection of what I might generally describe as African-American literature, some of it written by white journalists or scholars but most of it created by black poets, playwrights, scholars, novelists, essayists and critics. My collection is now large enough to be displayed, and I recently did just that in the library of the Poynter Institute.

I am not claiming this to be an expert collection of works, and certainly not a model one. But it is my collection, and I believe it has made me a better friend, colleague, parent, citizen and human being. I offer this list, with brief annotations, at the END of Black History Month to encourage readers not to limit their learning to the shortest month of the year.

So please learn, grow — and enjoy.


  • My Soul Is Rested: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement in the Deep South, by Howell Raines. A superb oral history of the key moments and key figures of the struggle.
  • The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother, by James McBride. “What color is God?” a dark-skinned boy asks his light-skinned mother. “God is the color of water.”
  • Reporting Civil Rights (Parts One and Two) Library of America edition of great American journalism on race and social justice, 1941-1973.
  • The Authentic Voice: The Best Reporting on Race and Ethnicity, edited by Arlene Morgan, Alice Pifer and Keith Woods. Rich examples reveal the power of inclusiveness in all the stories we tell.
  • The Sound of Freedom: Marian Anderson, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Concert That Awakened America, by Raymond Arsenault. A great biography of a great American artist by the historian who also gave us Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice.
  • Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice, by Phillip Hoose. Before Rosa Parks became an American icon, a young teenage girl, Claudette Colvin, refused to give up her seat on a bus. Written for young readers, but important for all.
  • The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander. First came slavery, then came segregation, then came mass incarceration.
  • Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Framed as a letter to his adolescent son, the author digs down to consequences of the continuing exploitation of black people in America. By the author who has made the most eloquent case in favor of reparations for continuing effects of slavery.
  • Beloved, by Toni Morrison, winner of the Nobel Prize for literature. “Stares unflinchingly into the abyss of slavery.” Another must-read is The Bluest Eye, a terrifying novel about cultural definitions of beauty and the tragedy of self-hatred.
  • Fences, by August Wilson. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for drama, this play depicts what it means for a father to love his son — even at times when he doesn’t like him.
  • Woodholme: A Black Man’s Story of Growing Up Alone, by DeWayne Wickham. An orphan, black and poor, grows up to be one of America’s most prominent newspaper columnists.
  • Crossing the Danger Water: Three Hundred Years of African-American Writing, edited by Deirdre Mullane. If I had to recommend a single volume, this anthology would be it: more than 700 pages of history, literature and insight.
  • In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, by Alice Walker. Glowing essays expressed in what the author of The Color Purple calls “Womanist Prose.”
  • March (Books One, Two and Three), a trilogy, graphic-novel style, on the life and times of congressman John Lewis, with Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell. A work for adults and young readers.
  • Extraordinary, Ordinary People: A Memoir of Family, by Condoleezza Rice. This family memoir by the former U.S. secretary of state carries us back to when she was 8 years old and her young friends were murdered in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.
  • Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63, by Taylor Branch. Widely hailed by critics of all races as “a vivid tapestry of America.”
  • Race Matters, by Cornel West. From W. E. B. Du Bois to Cornel West, African-American intellectuals have helped Americans of all colors understand the sources of racism and the need for change.
  • The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, James Weldon Johnson. The 1912 short novel narrates what it means for a person of mixed race to “pass for white” within the system of American apartheid.
  • The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation, by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff. Winner of a Pulitzer Prize. The stories behind the stories of civil rights, including the inspirational courage and leadership of African-American journalists and publishers.
  • On the Bus with Rosa Parks, by Rita Dove. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, her poetry captures a unique vision of the love and spirit of those who struggled against segregation.
  • Soul on Ice, by Eldridge Cleaver. Bought this as a college student in 1968 along with Look Out, Whitey! Black Power’s Gon’ Get Your Mama! by Julius Lester. Written from a California state prison by a key figure in the Black Panther movement.
  • Black and White Styles in Conflict, by Thomas Kochman. Are black people and white people the same — or different? Turns out, the answer is “both,” according to the white sociologist who drills down into American culture to reveal the sources of our misunderstanding.
  • The Fire Next Time, by James Baldwin. Framed as a letter to his young nephew on the 100th anniversary of emancipation. A searing call for justice.
  • The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. The poet was black a black man in a white world, a gay man in a straight world. His experience of two-ness created, I would argue, one of the most impressive bodies of poetry in American history. Were there not an unofficial color line in the Pulitzer Prize judging, he would have won — and more than once.

In building this list, I emphasize again that it is only special in that it is mine, and in that it has led me to a place I wanted and needed to be. There are countless worthy works not on my list, and countless more that are soon to be written. If I may borrow a phrase from the late Julius Lester: Look out, Whitey! Read some of these books and, who knows, you may get a clue. May there be two-ness in your future — and more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Selah Marley, granddaughter of Bob Marley, is driven to succeed now The product of Lauryn Hill and Rohan Marley, Selah is charting her own path on her own time

Selah Marley doesn’t know where her inner drive comes from — not really, anyway. She hears the whispers — from friends, family and the media — about how much she’s accomplished in her 18 years. All she knows is something inside her fuels her to go harder, do more … go faster.

Her parents, Lauryn Hill and Rohan Marley, know where that drive comes from, no question about that. It was there since day one.

“I was driving through the tunnel,” Rohan Marley recalled of the day Hill was expected to deliver, “and I had to drive through the gate because I didn’t want to stop. I even went down a one-way road, and a policeman told me we should go to another hospital, and still went my way. I was determined to get us to a safe place — and her mother and I wanted to take her to a certain place, regardless of what was going on — so she’s truly a product of that kind of drive and determination.”

Indeed, Selah Marley has a lot going for her, and it doesn’t hurt that her mom is the infamous L. Boogie Hill and her grandfather, Bob Marley, is an icon in every nook and cranny of the world. And maybe that’s something else that’s making her go so hard.

Her modeling resume, thus far, warrants a raised eyebrow. She’s worked with Chanel, Calvin Klein, Kanye West’s Yeezy Season presentation and Beyonce’s Ivy Park, and she broke Twitter earlier this month when she landed the April cover of the U.K. Sunday Times style magazine.

“Honestly … I feel like I’ve done a lot, but I still feel like I have a long way to go,” said Marley, who grew up in Miami, Los Angeles and South Orange, New Jersey. “I don’t feel like I’ve done enough, honestly. Maybe I’m in a little bit of a rush, and not appreciating enough. But I still feel like I could be doing better. I feel like I need to go a bit more in-depth, showing who I am and stepping out on my own,” Marley continues, her Jersey twang coming through.

As a little girl, Marley wanted to be Lauryn Hill. Who wouldn’t? If your mom was the neo-soul legend who killed them softly with her melodic lead voice of The Fugees in the early ’90s, you’d want to be her too. But Marley said that yearning caused some strife, at least internally.

“When I was younger, my mom was a huge icon for me,” Marley said. “I was always, like, ‘Yo … if I could be like my mom, that’s lit.’ And it wasn’t necessarily in a music way — just like, her essence. My mom is like a powerful woman. But the thing is, I still had a lot of love for music, and I had a little self-doubt, like, ‘I don’t think I am as good as my mom.’

“I’m not trying to necessarily copy my mom; it’s in my DNA … it’s been passed down to me. I think she’s one of the greatest. But now, the funny thing is, I know who I am, but I was still like, ‘Yo – that’s Lauryn Hill; that’s my mom.’ ”

No doubt, Hill had made her mark. Following the release of her full-length debut, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, the baby-faced Jersey girl was one of 17 black figures on Time magazine’s cover throughout the 1990s (out of 525 covers). Only five — including Bill Cosby, Bill T. Jones, Toni Morrison and Oprah Winfrey — worked in arts and entertainment. Hill was the only musician. She was just 23.

“When I do things like model or sing, it’s always, ‘There’s Lauryn’s daughter,’ ” Marley said. “Yes, Lauryn Hill is my mom. When people say that, they’re thinking a certain way — and they’ve already put you in a box, and now I have to fit into your box. It creates a little friction, but I’ve gotten over that.

“It is what it is; I try to embrace it. I’m like, ‘Yo, these gifts have been passed down to me.’ Everyone has gifts — but I got some special gifts passed down to me, from both my parents. I now have a chance to show who I am. I’m totally here for it.”

Marley maintains that her mom is her No. 1 fan and partner-in-career. When the calls come in and the offers are made, it’s Hill whose brain gets picked first — usually via text. An admitted phone-aholic whose guilty pleasure is Instagram, Marley just completed her freshman year at New York University, where she is enrolled in the Gallatin School of Individualized Study. She enjoyed the freedom to create her own curriculum, where her studies focused on showing the link between science and spirituality and how all religions connect.

(L-R) Lauryn Hill and her daughter Selah Marley celebrate Lauryn Hill’s birthday at The Ballroom on May 26, 2015, in West Orange, New Jersey.

Johnny Nunez/Getty Images

But as her fledgling modeling career gained momentum, it became harder to manage school and career.

“I enjoy learning,” she said. “It’s a gap year. I just needed to go through my freshman year to know that I needed a gap year.”

Her parents, who have five kids together (including Marley), have her back, providing support and love in their own respective ways. From dad, she said, she gets structure and foundation. From mom, she gets compassion and understanding.

“My dad is more direct, whereas my mom is a little more abstract,” Marley explained. “I think there’s always going to be one energy that’s a little bit more influential, but I definitely try to take from both of them because they bring so much to the table for me. But … my dad? My dad does not play.”

At the end of 2016, when she was invited to walk the Chanel pre-fall show in Paris, dad called to check in and heard his daughter complain about having to find her own way — and being alone. When dad asked her why she was alone, she admitted that she had missed a flight.

“I said, ‘There you go,’ ” said Rohan Marley, who made his mark as a football player at the University of Miami and is now an entrepreneur and founder of Marley Coffee. “I told her that things are going to be expected of you, no matter who you are or where you come from. There’s a timing to everything, so if you’re going to do this, you’re going to have to respect the work, the process and why you’re doing it. It’s the way you carry yourself. Some people carry their football everywhere they go; you have to carry this career with you and be humble about it.”

At 5 feet, 3 inches tall, Selah, whose name was given to her by her grandmother Rita Marley, worries little about fitting the mold — and is instead working to create her own lane.

“I’ve been lucky,” Marley said. “Fitting the mold wasn’t something that I was consumed with. That was all the more reason to expand on this other side of myself. If I’m using my platform to show more of myself, not just as a model, other opportunities are going to come, and I’m seeing that happen now.”

If you could be any athlete — past or present — who would you be?

I think I would be Serena Williams, because she’s done so much. She’s such a powerful woman. I love what she’s done as a black woman in America. I thank her; I appreciate her and I thank her. And she’s dope.

You come from a rich musical family. How do you find out about new music, and what do you like?

I find out about music from different people. I’ll hear a song, and it’ll catch my ear and I’ll be like, ‘Oooh! I need this song.’ When I heard ‘3005’ by Childish Gambino, I was like, ‘Oh my God! What song is this?’ I OD’d on it. I just fell in love with his music.

What’s your favorite Lauryn Hill song, and why?

I don’t know all of her Fugees stuff; I know her more as a solo artist. I would say her song ‘I Get Out’ — off her Unplugged album — is the one. Just because that song is so liberating and has such a deep message. It’s just all about freedom.

What about your grandfather — Bob Marley?

I would have to say ‘Natural Mystic,’ ‘Running Away’ and ‘Redemption Song.’

‘Natural Mystic’ — because it basically speaks of that unseen world.

I love ‘Running Away’ because the message is clear: ‘You can run, but you can’t run away from yourself. You can’t hide from yourself.’ And ‘Redemption Song’ just speaks to looking at yourself in the mirror, and forgiveness.

What does Undefeated mean to you?

Undefeated to me … it’s like chasing your dream and not taking no for an answer. People may pull you down, but you don’t let that take you over. It’s always being able to overcome.

How I learned to love myself as a black woman My Aunt Cornelia taught me to find my true self

Last week, my family gathered in tiny New Hill, North Carolina, for a memorial service to celebrate my aunt, Cornelia McDonald. She had died in January at 65 after living for five years with cancer that ultimately left her weak and in a morphine haze for much of her final days.

Especially when she was receiving chemotherapy, even the faintest scents could set off waves of nausea. So in her final months, her bedroom in the Chapel Hill apartment she shared with her youngest sister didn’t smell like much of anything. But the Aunt Cornelia I knew smelled like well-traveled sophistication: a mix of Thierry Mugler’s Angel perfume, the buttery softness of whatever fabulous leather handbag she happened to be carrying, and good lotion.

She didn’t always smell like that.

Aunt Cornelia grew up the daughter of sharecroppers in Wake County, North Carolina. Her father, an abusive man who died when Cornelia was 14, repeatedly moved his wife and 10 children from one backwoods locale to the next, none of which had indoor plumbing. In her memoir, I Wanna Tell You My Story, she wrote:

Each shack we lived in was even more dilapidated than the last. I was so ashamed of these shacks that whenever someone came to visit, I would run and hide ….

The shacks were unbearably hot in the summertime and extremely cold in the wintertime. I remember using my coat on top of the cover because the fire would go out. In the middle of the night I would shiver trying to get myself warm.

In the summertime, we fell asleep wherever we could because we were so tired from working hard in the tobacco fields. The gum from the tobacco would stick to our hands and our hair.

The old shacks were surrounded by a well and an outhouse. One of my chores was to take the slop jars from the house. I would gag all the way to empty them deep into the wooded area, far from the house.

Because she hated the slop jars, and the outhouse was not much better, Aunt Cornelia often wet herself as a child, a habit that was probably exacerbated by the fact that my grandfather used to beat her with a brush broom. When she went to school, she was ostracized because she often smelled.

I thought about that story as I sat in a chair in Chapel Hill after one particularly perilous night near the end, holding on to her hand. Her skin, as usual, was soft and incredibly smooth. Aunt Cornelia would always light up with pride when her doctors remarked about her skin and how well she took care of herself. It signified how far she had come and the example she set for me. While she was still alive and lucid, I began to thank her.

“Thank you for loving me even when I wasn’t easy to love,” I said.

“Thank you for seeing me.

“Thank you for teaching me about black people.

“Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”

Thank you for teaching me to love myself

One of my earliest memories of Aunt Cornelia occurred when I was about 5 or 6 years old and this unfamiliar woman showed up at our house. She was 6 feet tall, sporting a wide smile and a booming voice. She had dark brown skin like my father, and her natural hair was cropped close to her head.

She didn’t look like anyone I’d ever met before, certainly not in the small North Carolina Air Force town I called home, where my parents reacted with mortified laughter when I came home one day and told them I wanted to take clogging lessons.

I was in a community theater camp that summer. Small yet imperious, I informed Aunt Cornelia I was writing a play. Snow White, I said — an adaptation, clearly.

You can be a tree,” I told her.

I couldn’t know the memories that childish proclamation must have evoked. In I Wanna Tell You My Story, Aunt Cornelia wrote about how cruel her classmates could be:

I will never forget the days when I was on my way to class and the cool guys were standing on the school steps making fun of all the uncool people. I felt especially good about myself this one day. My sister Geneva had bought some deodorant, my mom had gotten a piece of green cloth and made me a shift dress. I had on green fishnet stockings. When I passed the guys walking into the building they said, “Ho ho ho! Green Giant!” Everybody laughed – including the teachers. I just wanted to disappear into the ground.

You can be a tree
Jesus.

Even when I could have been a giant trigger for her, even when I said hurtful things without knowing it, she didn’t retreat into herself (a favorite tactic of mine as I grew up). She loved me anyway. She had faith that I wasn’t just a tactless little brat. She spoiled the dickens out of me and, like all good aunts, took it upon herself to rescue me from bouts of parental insanity. She found humor in the phantom pain that echoed through her and helped me overcome my own awkwardness in the world.

My sister Carol, Aunt Cornelia holding me, and my Aunt Barbara, holding my cousin CJ.

She saw how we were the same.

Of all the lessons she gave me, learning to love myself and my body was the most difficult. It was much easier to find reasons to despise myself, and they occurred with such abundance: my hair is too short, my arms too long, my feet too big, my belly and thighs and face too round. My general nature is just all-around difficult. And I’m prone to cataloging and internalizing slights.

Aunt Cornelia grew up wishing she looked more like her sister Florene, who had lighter skin and longer, more loosely textured hair than she did. I wanted hair like my sister Carol, who is 11 years older than I am. She had long, loose, bouncy curls that grew more rapidly than my tightly coiled naps. Our mother, who is not African-American, is a petite, olive-skinned Dutch woman. My father used to recount his grandmother jokingly advising him to marry a light-skinned woman so his children wouldn’t be ugly.

Like Aunt Cornelia, I grew up longing for normal-sized feet, not the podiatric monstrosities that had me in a ladies size 10 shoe when I was 10 years old. She was “Green Giant.” By the time I was in fourth grade, to my classmates I was “Bigfoot.”

Like feet, outsize bosoms are common among the McDonald ladies, and they present similar challenges. It’s difficult and expensive to find bras that are pretty and feminine and also perform well as over-the-shoulder boulder-holders. My mother was responsible for buying my bras when I lived at home, and once I’d reached a C-cup by eighth grade, it didn’t take long for me to notice that the ones she bought for me didn’t correspond with my size. They were always too small, as if she was trying to will my body to stop growing in inappropriate directions.

The underlying message I took was that my body was unruly and made others uncomfortable. The worst was when adults would talk to my parents in front of me about the curves that had suddenly sprung from nowhere, as if I didn’t know what they meant.

Me, my sister Carol, and our mother Lilian. I was 14 here, and I’m looking down, mortified, because someone just said something about my bust.

Aunt Cornelia tried like hell to spare me the pain of bodily dissatisfaction. She’d tell me to look in the mirror and tell myself I was beautiful and capable and amazing, like the Soraya she saw. Most of the time I didn’t heed her instructions. They seemed cheesy, and frankly it felt like lying to myself.

But Aunt Cornelia kept delivering perfectly customized compliments as I grew into adulthood. “Who taught you how to beat your face like that?” she’d ask if I showed up with a fully made-up face — and she didn’t bull– me because she knew I’d spot it immediately.

At the beginning of January when I came to visit, I took a shower and came out to her bedroom wrapped in one of Aunt Cornelia’s big plush towels. “I’m gonna flash you,” I warned her. I opened the towel and did a little shimmy and she laughed.

“You’ve got some nice t—–s!” she exclaimed. “That’s how mine used to look.”

I had put on a black and pink balconette number, and my aunts cooed in awe. “That’s a pretty bra,” Aunt Gail said through the iPad. “Where’d you get that?!”

I walked them through the glories of Figleaves and HerRoom, not unlike how Aunt Cornelia introduced me to mail-order catalogs full of specialty sizes of ladies shoes.

After years of unsolicited jeers, come-ons and street harassment, I put on weight after college and part of me was happy with the sexual invisibility that came with it. But that didn’t last long, and I grew frustrated and unhappy with myself again.

I learned to embrace my body and its imperfections when I stopped obsessing so much about what size and weight it was and focused more on what feats it could accomplish.

When I triumphantly called Aunt Cornelia to inform her I was training for my first triathlon and relay the sense of satisfaction I felt when I completed my first 30-mile bike ride, giant thighs and all, she told me about experiencing similar revelations after running the Bay to Breakers race in San Francisco. Now, my sister and I are training for a triathlon this fall, which we’re doing together in honor of Aunt Cornelia.

Thank you for seeing me

Aunt Cornelia showered me with all sorts of fabulous stuff my parents would not buy, as aunts do. But more importantly, she let me pick out clothes and accessories that corresponded with my personality and not someone’s idea of what a “good girl” should look like.

When I was in high school, she took me shopping at a Loehmann’s in Los Angeles and bought me a pair of $200 Via Spiga boots that had a 4-inch stiletto heel. Aunt Cornelia was well-acquainted with the melange of horror and dread that accompanied the prospect of having to wear men’s tennis shoes or hideous granny clodhoppers as a result of being the owner of a pair of enormous, narrow feet that looked like boats protruding from too-skinny legs.

I didn’t have to say it out loud. She’d been there, too.

Aunt Cornelia and me in front of her apartment in Santa Monica, California, during a visit when I was in high school.

Aunt Cornelia didn’t just let me be myself, she encouraged it, and when she noticed me shrinking into some preconceived notion of what someone else said was cool or appropriate, she’d remind me it was OK to be me.

“I love that word: agency,” she said to me once.

I was 20 when I exhibited some agency of my own.

I’d finished an internship at a paper in Mississippi, and my father had come to help drive the Mazda he’d bought for me back to North Carolina, with a pit stop at my sister’s house in Atlanta. In the course of casual conversation, my editor told him that I’d recently taken a weekend trip to Florida to visit my boyfriend, and this clearly bothered my father.

I remember him bellowing through most of Mississippi, and probably Alabama too, about not wanting a daughter with “hoochie mama tendencies.” (This was before “slut shaming” became a common part of the lexicon, but that’s exactly what it was.) Mostly I remember cringing into the passenger side door, trying desperately to will myself to disappear into it.

By the time we reached Atlanta, I’d had enough. When it was time to leave my sister’s house and continue to North Carolina, I’d decided to stay. I handed my father the keys to the Mazda and took out all my belongings.

“How are you going to get back to school?” he asked me.

“I’ll figure it it out,” I said.

I was so scared. I didn’t know much of anything, but I did know I never wanted to feel again the way I’d felt in that car.

My aunt believed in having control over every aspect of her life. Aunt Cornelia was the first adult I ever heard say the word “p—y,” as in “No, I don’t owe you any p—y just ’cause you took me to dinner and you drive a Mercedes” — a line from a story she told me about a onetime suitor. He did not make it to a second date.

She went through a phase of sexual conservatism, which she ditched for a more sex-positive approach after having a growth removed from her uterus. This was also after she’d directed and starred in a production of The Vagina Monologues.

That was when Aunt Cornelia began to dispense unsolicited advice concerning the quality and frequency of orgasms: “Girl, you better get you a B-O-B.”

“B-O-B?” I asked quizzically.

“Yeah! A Battery Operated Boyfriend!”

Thank you for teaching me about black people

Aunt Cornelia taught me to trust my own judgment about how I should run my life. And she taught me about black people and how wonderful we are.

She used to work as a pediatric nurse for UCLA’s hospital, until the 1994 Northridge earthquake prompted her to skedaddle back to my grandmother’s house in Holly Springs, North Carolina. She brought back all sorts of treasures with her, among them an embroidered settee, masks, sculptures, vases and mud cloth from Africa, and an Ernie Barnes print of two men playing basketball and another of four men running track. It was such a contrast with my parents’ house, which my aunt described as “nice, but Waspy.”

“What’s Waspy?” I remember asking her.

My parents had a classical, jazz and NPR household, which made my Another Bad Creation cassette tape, a present from my sister, practically contraband. But in Aunt Cornelia’s car the radio was tuned to hip-hop and R&B, and when she started going through menopause, we’d cruise up Durham’s Highway 55 with the windows down in the middle of winter, blasting Lauryn Hill.

One summer, my aunt was an artist-in-residence teaching drama to children in a Durham housing project called Few Gardens. The same summer, I was a day camper at Duke Young Writers’ Camp. Aunt Cornelia used to roll up to Duke’s campus in a big, un-air-conditioned eyesore of a van, usually with her charges, and pick me up.

She didn’t say anything to me, but I saw the way she treated the kids and took heed. My aunt wasn’t condescending, and she wasn’t overly prescriptive. She taught me there’s no shame in being poor, that it’s not a moral failing. Watching her work, I learned important lessons about respectability politics and not looking down your nose at other black people.

Aunt Cornelia, chilling in a hammock at my grandmother’s house in Holly Springs, North Carolina.

In her book, she reminded her readers not to judge people — not if they were poor, not if they smelled. “You never know what someone’s going through,” she wrote.

My parents didn’t want me to go Howard University, but it’s one of the best decisions I ever made. And I probably wouldn’t have made it without Aunt Cornelia.

My father, who’d attended North Carolina Central because educational segregation and economic circumstances demanded it, didn’t think I should go to a historically black university. He thought I could do better. I proudly told my parents Howard was the school of Toni Morrison and Thurgood Marshall and Zora Neale Hurston. It was more than good enough.

When I was at Howard, I started to believe that the lessons Aunt Cornelia had been trying to teach me began to take root.

I was at this place with all sorts of black people, from all sorts of backgrounds, and plenty of them were smarter than I was. The girls, in their impossibly high heels and their perfectly coiffed hair, seemed like they were from a different planet. My freshman year, I was perfectly happy to walk around with a bright pink L.L. Bean backpack, wearing hippie skirts and Jesus sandals and drinking from a Nalgene bottle. I went to Amnesty International meetings and anti-Iraq War protests.

That summer, my parents wanted me to come back to North Carolina. But I had other designs, ones that set me on the path to where I am now, here at The Undefeated. I shared a rented rowhouse on Florida Avenue for a summer, working an unpaid internship with BET.com during the day and a paid job at the downtown Barnes & Noble at night. When my earnings fell short, Aunt Cornelia helped cover my rent, subsidizing the work I needed to do to become a professional writer.

She was a fantastic live storyteller, a woman who created The Moth for herself before The Moth was a thing. She would sweep into a room or onto a stage with perfect posture and a brightly patterned scarf wrapped intricately around her head. She had a way of relaying painful incidents that would cause audiences to erupt into peals of laughter, the kind that made tears spring from enjoying yourself so much. Aunt Cornelia remains the writer who was my biggest inspiration, champion, and the most trusted judge of my work.

Having an aunt who was a poet and playwright who performed pieces about poverty and abuse and being the descendant of slaves was like having your own personal Maya Angelou, except much cooler. She used to randomly break into Nina Simone or Tracy Chapman. Now, I sing Erykah Badu lyrics aloud to myself.

Four years at Howard taught me I could wear my hair natural and paint my face as I pleased. I could develop whatever sense of style I desired, sport a giant Afro or a sleek blowout. More than anything, it taught me that I could be whoever I wanted to be, and be black doing it, and that was enough. Howard taught me that I was enough, providing the most powerful bulwark of all against a world that still insists in myriad ways that I am not, and that black women just like me (Hello, Rep. Maxine Waters and White House correspondent April Ryan) are not enough, either.

I arrived at Howard a feminist, but my experience there showed me what was possible in a world where blackness was valued and celebrated. It made me impatient with racism and white supremacy. It changed me from a person who looked at such ills and thought they were bad to one who finds them unacceptable.

And when I returned home after four years there, I didn’t have to say any of that out loud. It was in my body, in the way I carried myself, in everything about me. Aunt Cornelia took one look, and she just knew.

“I don’t know what they teach y’all at Howard. But thank the LORD,” she said, drawing the word out into multiple syllables, “you didn’t stay here.”

I knew exactly what she meant.