Embracing Black Mardi Gras keeps the culture alive for the next generation ‘We have to keep our culture going. It’s for the black streets, it’s for the black neighborhoods.’

It’s Fat Tuesday in New Orleans, and folks are ready to “Laissez les bons temps rouler.” That’s Cajun for “Let the good times roll.”

For some young African-Americans who call this city home, Mardi Gras is as much about entertaining the millions of visitors who come to party as it is about preserving community traditions. Mardi Gras is historically known as the last day for people who fast for Lent to eat rich, fatty foods. Black Mardi Gras celebrations honor the history, resilience and artistry of black and Native American New Orleanians.

“These traditions are important because they were born in a time when black people faced both legal, social and economic segregation,” said Kim Vaz-Deville, the editor of Walking Raddy: The Baby Dolls of New Orleans.

The Baby Dolls were established in 1912 by prostitutes who worked near the French Quarter in a section known as Black Storyville. The clientele who frequented the French Quarter provided a source of income for these women, who were then called “baby dolls.”

“They were locked out of mainstream Mardi Gras events, other than being asked to work as servants for such events,” Vaz-Deville said. “They had to set up a way to enjoy themselves, and they did this by forming these clubs with specific themes that were grounded in the popular culture of the early 20th century.”

One of the most popular aspects of Black Mardi Gras is the practice of creating elaborate suits traditionally worn by various Mardi Gras Indian tribes. Today, the historic art form has been especially embraced by post-Hurricane Katrina millennials dedicated to keeping Black Mardi Gras connected to its roots.

“This is way bigger than Christmas to me. This is the biggest event of the year; honestly, it’s bigger than my birthday,” said Joseph Boudreaux Jr., the second chief of the Mardi Gras Indians Golden Eagles tribe.

Joseph Boudreaux Jr. (center) prepared for Mardi Gras with stepsons Terrance Williams Jr. (left) and Simeon Israel Jr. (right).

Allana Barefield

Boudreaux is a third-generation Mardi Gras Indian, a group known for its ceremonial dress and resilience. He said the Golden Eagles honor Native Americans who helped slaves escape bondage. As a result, various Mardi Gras Indian tribes use masking as a way to commemorate their shared oppression with African-Americans.

“We have to keep our culture going,” he said. “It’s for the black streets, it’s for the black neighborhoods, for the people who were not allowed to go on Canal Street to see the floats.”

For Boudreaux, his father and his three stepsons, celebrating and passing down black Mardi Gras traditions are a major part of their lives.

Terrance Williams Jr., one of Boudreaux’s stepsons, has chosen to honor Mardi Gras Indian customs by starting his own tribe. He formed the Black Hawk Hunters last year at the age of 15.

“I’m carrying on a culture that’s been around for over 100 years, and my generation has to keep it going,” said Williams.

He said most Mardi Gras Indians won’t form new tribes until they are in their 20s. To do so, he had to get approval from other tribal chiefs. Now that he is chief of his own tribe, he will also honor the legacies of other tribes and teach masking to younger generations.

Mardi Gras Indians start making new suits the day after Mardi Gras of the previous year. The elaborate beadwork, feathers and other accessories involved make the process expensive and time-intensive. Suits designed for Mardi Gras 2019 will finally be unveiled Tuesday.

“They’re not a real Indian if they don’t have a bead collection,” said Tahj Williams, a 20-year-old suit designer and Tulane University student. Williams likes to make unique designs, from her gloves to her headdress. The compliments she receives from young girls help inspire her. Last year, she created a red Mardi Gras Indian suit that was featured in Vogue magazine.

“People would only come out to see the men. There’s started to be an evolution,” she said. “The biggest moment for me is that people are starting to pay more attention to the queens,” she said.

Queens refer to women involved in masking. Their contributions to the process were overlooked for generations, Williams said. Tahj Williams considers queens to be the backbone of each tribe and the reason that the tradition survives.

“I can’t wait to see what happens 20 years from now, for my kids and grandkids to start getting into the culture,” she said.

But in some ways, the culture has been stagnant, she said. Tahj Williams can’t form her own tribe like Terrance Williams Jr. can. Women are not allowed to do so because, throughout history, men were the ones looked at as leaders.

Anita Oubre’s Mahogany Blue organization at the Jung Hotel in New Orleans. They are Victoria Spotts (left), Christina Bragg (right), Trinette Pichon (upper left), Karena James (upper right) and Oubre (top of the staircase).

Allana Barefield

Still, the male-dominated culture has not deterred Williams from embracing it. She wants to show other women that they can get involved.

For Tahj Williams, this black Mardi Gras culture not only helps younger generations lay claim to their heritage, it gives them purpose and the structure and discipline needed to commit to their craft.

“I don’t think we shine a light on my generation enough and the positive things that we are doing,” she said. “They [society] don’t show you these young chiefs or young children who participate in Mardi Gras Indians to keep them out of trouble.”

Waldorf Gipson IV attends Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He’s part of the Young Men Jr. Olympian Benevolent Association Inc. (YMO), a masking group that works to increase access to health care for black communities. The 135-year-old organization is also the oldest “second line” social aid and pleasure club in New Orleans. A second line is a tradition in New Orleans in which members dance in a parade as they follow a brass band.

“We do this for everybody, not just for ourselves,” said Gipson.

YMO consists of six divisions, all of which were organized at different times. Gipson is a part of the Furious Five, which was founded in 1985. “This means everything to me. I’m 20 years old, and my daddy started this 34 years ago, so I was born into it,” he said.

Like Gipson, Victoria Spotts also had a parent who participated in Black Mardi Gras traditions. Spotts, 31, joined her mother’s organization last year. It’s called Mahogany Blue and is within the Baby Dolls sisterhood.

“I absolutely love it; it’s pretty much a natural high, parading through the streets of New Orleans, empowering other women to do the same,” Spotts said.

Black Mardi Gras events will come to a close Tuesday, as Mardi Gras marks the end of carnival season.

These black women owned 2017 Meet the women who shook up sports, culture and more

Yes, 2017 was a rough one. But it was also a year of black women fully stepping into their power. From athletes to activists to writers to filmmakers to curators, these black women are truly Undefeated.

 

Serena Williams

Serena Williams waves to the crowd as she leaves the court with the Daphne Akhurst Trophy on Jan. 28 after winning the women’s singles final of the 2017 Australian Open against her sister Venus Williams at Melbourne Park in Australia.

Scott Barbour/Getty Images

What a year it was for Serena Williams, arguably the greatest athlete ever. She won the Australian Open, her 23rd Grand Slam singles title, while eight weeks pregnant. She gave birth to her daughter, Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr., in September and married longtime beau and Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian in a dream wedding in November — and Nike just named a building after her. She’s already making plans to defend her Australian Open title in 2018.

 

Dee rees

Dee Rees poses for a portrait in New York City on Oct. 11.

Kholood Eid for The Undefeated

Dee Rees, who made the critically acclaimed Pariah and the Emmy Award-winning Bessie, has directed a new American classic with Mudbound, a sprawling post-World War II epic that follows the lives of a sharecropping family and the family that owns the land. Although the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been resistant to movies distributed by Netflix, if there’s any kind of justice in the world, Rees, a product of historically black Florida A&M university, will be nominated for an Academy Award for best director.

 

the nigerian women’s bobsled team

From left: Brakewoman Akuoma Omeoga, driver Seun Adigun and brakewoman Ngozi Onwumere.

Courtesy the Bobsled and Skeleton Sports Federation of Nigeria

You’ll do well to remember the names: Akuoma Omeoga, Seun Adigun and Ngozi Onwumere. They have made history as the first African team to qualify for the Winter Olympics in the bobsled category. And this will be the first time Nigeria has been represented in the Winter Olympics. All three women are sprinters, and Adigun, who founded the bobsled team in 2016, competed in the 2012 Summer Olympics. The team will head to Pyeongchang, South Korea, in February to compete for a medal.

 

tiffany haddish

Tiffany Haddish was the breakout star of the most successful comedy of the year, Girls Trip. She became the first black woman stand-up comic to host Saturday Night Live. In addition to a Showtime comedy special, she appeared in Jay-Z’s video for “Moonlight,” which satirized Friends; published a book; starred in The New York Times‘ annual “Greatest Performers” portfolio; and next year, she’ll be producing and starring in a satirical thriller with John Cho. The question for the last black unicorn isn’t “What will she do next?” but “What can’t she do?”

 

munroe bergdorf

Munroe Bergdorf is a British social activist, DJ and model who in August 2017 became the first transgender model to appear in a L’Oréal campaign. She was fired after the Daily Mail surfaced Facebook posts where she spoke out against racism and white supremacy and called for better understanding of systemic injustice. The 30-year-old hasn’t let any of that stop her, though. She signed a new contract with the U.K. beauty brand Illamasqua, is working with The Huffington Post on a new docuseries and continues to speak out against racial and social injustice.

 

sloane stephens

Sloane Stephens of the United States reacts after receiving her check for her victory against compatriot Madison Keys in the women’s singles final at the US Open tennis tournament on Sept. 9 in Flushing, Queens, New York City.

Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images

Sloane Stephens made history in September when she won the US Open vs. Madison Keys. She also became only the fourth black woman to win a Grand Slam singles title, after Althea Gibson, Venus Williams and Serena Williams. What makes Stephens’ success all the more remarkable is the foot injury and subsequent low ranking she overcame to get back to the top. Another victory Stephens completed this year? Graduating from Indiana University East with a degree in communication studies.

Jesmyn Ward

Author Jesmyn Ward hit the “nerd lottery” this year when she was awarded a MacArthur “genius” grant. She was one of 24 people honored by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation with a $625,000 prize. Ward, who wrote the award-winning novels Salvage the Bones and Sing, Unburied, Sing as well as the James Baldwin-inspired essay collection The Fire This Time, teaches at Tulane University in New Orleans and lives in her home state of Mississippi.

rujeko Hockley

Curator Rujeko Hockley has been shaking up the art world with her focus on exhibiting works by black women artists. Hockley, who was the assistant curator of contemporary art at the Brooklyn Museum before heading to the Whitney Museum of American Art, organized the traveling exhibit We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965-85, which is now on display at the California African American Museum. She was also recently tapped to co-curate the 2019 Whitney Biennial, an exhibit of contemporary American art, typically by young and lesser-known artists.

Wnba teams

Top: The Indiana Fever kneel during the national anthem before the game against the Phoenix Mercury on Sept. 21, 2016, in Indianapolis. Bottom: The Phoenix Mercury stand and kneel during the national anthem before the game against the Minnesota Lynx on Sept. 30, 2016, in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images; David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images;

While NFL players have been garnering attention this year for kneeling to protest police brutality, WNBA players have been consistent in their social activism, and it started before 2017. In addition to kneeling, players from multiple teams have been catching fines for wearing T-shirts in support of #BlackLivesMatter and have held news conferences to speak out against police brutality.

lena Waithe

Lena Waithe

Steve Granitz/WireImage

Lena Waithe, who penned the instant classic “Thanksgiving” episode of the second season of Master of None, made history this year as the first black woman to win an Emmy for comedy writing. Waithe also wrote and produced The Chi, a TV series for Showtime based on her experience growing up on Chicago’s South Side. It premieres in January, and if she isn’t nominated for multiple awards, we will eat our hats.

ava duvernay

It’s Ava DuVernay’s world, and we’re just living in it. In this year alone, DuVernay earned a Peabody, a BAFTA and four Emmys for 13th, her documentary about mass incarceration in the United States. She also produced season two of the critically acclaimed OWN drama Queen Sugar and hired all-women directing teams for each episode. DuVernay also landed on the cover of Time as part of their “First” series and will be releasing her adaptation of the classic fantasy novel A Wrinkle in Time in March 2018.

maame biney

Maame Biney takes the corner on her way to victory in the women’s 500-meter A final for a spot on the Olympic team during the 2018 U.S. Speedskating Short Track Olympic Team Trials at the Utah Olympic Oval on Dec. 16 in Salt Lake City.

Harry How/Getty Images

Maame Biney, a 17-year-old from Washington, D.C., who was born in Ghana, just qualified for the Winter Olympics in speedskating, making her the first black girl to do so.
This tweet really says it all:

Author Jesmyn Ward talks about enduring hurricane season, the South, and what it means to be a MacArthur ‘genius’ She has a deep love for the South, but isn’t sure she wants to finish raising her children there

Winning a MacArthur “genius” grant can be a little bit like winning the nerd lottery.

Not only are you recognized for your intellectual prowess and contributions to society, but it’s publicly announced to every major media outlet in the country that your bank statements will be a bit bigger. MacArthur fellows get $625,000, with zero strings attached, spread over five years.

“It didn’t feel real until everyone knew, and then, of course, you speak to people that you haven’t spoken to in years, and everyone congratulates you,” said author Jesmyn Ward, one of 24 people honored by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation this month. “It’s a huge, huge honor, but it is overwhelming. It is overwhelming. Everyone immediately wants to borrow money.

“Everyone is already like, ‘Oh, so we’re rich now. We’re rich.’ ”

Ward, 40, was already a superstar. Her novel Salvage the Bones won the 2011 National Book Award, and this year her latest novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing, is short-listed for it. Inspired by James Baldwin, Ward also edited a 2016 essay collection, The Fire This Time, which assembled thoughts from luminaries such as Isabel Wilkerson, Kiese Laymon, Clint Smith, Edwidge Danticat and Emily Raboteau.

Ward, who teaches at Tulane University, grew up in Mississippi with modest means. After stints in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and New York, she elected to return, buying a home in DeLisle, Mississippi, a 57-mile drive to New Orleans and her university job. Salvage the Bones, which followed a poor black Mississippi family in the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina, was inspired by her own experiences living through the storm. Despite her deep love for her home state and its most vulnerable citizens, Ward is not sure how much longer she’ll remain there.

We talked about writing, the strangeness of becoming a public figure, making it through this year’s harrowing hurricane season, and the hyper-abbreviated nature of black childhood, which Ward explores in Sing, Unburied, Sing. Her latest novel follows a 13-year-old boy named Jojo, and his young mother, Leonie, who serve as alternating narrators. They’re poor and live in rural Mississippi with Leonie’s mother, who is dying of cancer, and Leonie’s father. Leonie decides to take a road trip with Jojo and her toddler daughter, Kayla, to pick up their white father, Michael, from prison. Every generation of the family is grappling with death and unresolved loss in some way, but Leonie is particularly striking because of her inability to reckon with the death of her brother, Given, who was murdered by a white schoolmate.

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

What is the moment like when you find out that you’ve been awarded a MacArthur grant?

It’s totally surreal. When it’s happening, when they’re telling you that you’ve won a MacArthur grant, it just doesn’t feel real. It’s such a huge award and such a huge honor that it’s never the call that you expect to get. I don’t think it feels real until the announcement. When everyone else finds out, that’s when it feels real. [The MacArthur Foundation] prepares beforehand, because they send a video crew out to your house and you spend an entire day with them.

Most writers are not extroverts. Once you started accumulating this snowball of acclaim, what did that do to you?

It’s difficult, especially because I am naturally a shy person, or at least I was, in high school and afterwards for years. One of my friends … while I lived in New York, would introduce me, and he would jokingly say, ‘This is my mute friend,’ because I would never speak. It’s really odd for me to now have to develop and assume a public persona and to share. I have to figure out how much of my private self am I willing to reveal. How comfortable am I, will I attempt to be, when I’m sharing my life with other people? It’s something that I have to work at.

When did you first realize there’s Public Jesmyn and Private Jesmyn?

I didn’t really realize that I would have to develop a public persona until Salvage the Bones was nominated for the National Book Award. That’s when everything changed for me, because I wrote Where the Line Bleeds as my first novel, my baby novel. A fair amount of people read it, but it didn’t get a ton of serious reviews and I didn’t do a lot of interviews. And then Salvage the Bones came out, and the reception was better, but it was before it was nominated for a National Book Award. Then everything changed, and then of course once I won, everything really changed.

I devoted years of my life to becoming a better writer. I’ve learned how to read like a writer. I worked on my craft and just tried to improve with everything that I produced, with everything that I created, but I never really thought about what it would mean to actually get better and get good enough to the point where other people start recognizing it, and then you’re reaching more people, wider range of people, reaching lots of readers. Suddenly you have an audience.

“One of my friends … while I lived in New York, would introduce me, and he would jokingly say, ‘This is my mute friend,’ because I would never speak.”

Writing is such a solitary thing, so it was a total surprise for me when I realized that my life as a writer would not just consist of me sitting in a room typing or reading.

But you know what helps? Teaching, because I’m a professor, and that helps me a lot. I was put in plenty of situations where I had to think quickly, speak quickly, plenty of situations where I had to attempt to be eloquent and to learn how to talk about something that I was very passionate about, because that’s what teaching demanded.

Is it more difficult talking to a roomful of college students or talking to reporters?

It’s definitely talking to a roomful of college students! This has not happened to me at Tulane, but I’ve definitely taught at other schools where the college students I’m teaching do not think that I am the smartest person in the room, and in fact they think they are the smartest person in the room. That’s always a little difficult to navigate.

What did you mean by “learning to read like a writer”?

For me, that meant reading poetry to attempt to figure out how figurative language can create beauty, how figurative language can make a reader feel. I read poetry to also figure how sentences can create rhythm, how paragraphs can create rhythm.

I read literary fiction to attempt to figure out what was pleasing to me as far as a prose style. I also read literary fiction to figure out how to develop a character, how to make a character come alive on the page. I read literary fiction to figure out pacing and how to balance narration and scene, and what was pleasing to me as a writer, what kind of balance was pleasing to me, whether I liked lots of dialogue and a little narration or more narration and less dialogue.

And then I read other genres, like fantasy, like sci-fi, like children’s books, middle-grade books, YA books, even romance, because I feel like those genres taught me different things about — I feel like I wasn’t necessarily reading them to learn lessons about prose and about what I felt worked well and what didn’t. I think that those books taught me things about how to create suspense, about plot.

What are you excited to be reading right now?

I have a poetry anthology next to my bed. Czeslaw Milosz. A Book of Luminous Things. That’s nice, to have books that I can open up and read a short piece and get some satisfaction from knowing that I’ve read something.

I recently read a children’s book called The Girl Who Drank the Moon, which was amazing. In the last two chapters, I was tearing up the entire time. It was insane, but it was such a pleasure to read that because I could just enjoy it. I feel like it’s easiest to turn off my writerly brain when I’m reading children’s lit. It’s just a lovely, beautiful book.

You have spent a lot of time thinking about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. What was it like for you living through this hurricane season?

It’s been difficult, especially seeing the devastation in Houston, seeing the devastation in Puerto Rico, seeing the devastation in Florida, being witness to the current administration’s ambivalence towards that suffering, and sometimes outright hostility that echoes some of the ambivalence and hostility that at least New Orleans, and somewhat the Mississippi Gulf Coast, that we experienced during Katrina. It’s hard, and I didn’t realize how difficult until I saw Houston was flooding, and I thought, ‘I should write something about this,’ and I couldn’t write a thing. I couldn’t write anything, and then I realized how deeply affected I was and how haunted I was by Katrina and by what happened after Katrina.

And then I realized that again, when we were preparing for Hurricane Nate. Nate was a Category 2 storm, and we were losing our minds. I was trying to get a solar-powered generator. I was stocking up and preparing in a way that you would prepare for a Category 5, and yet so was everyone else. It wasn’t just me. It was everyone else here, on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, in New Orleans. That’s the long shadow of Katrina. I think that every time it happens, that we’ll react like that, because of Katrina, because we’re still struggling with it. I think there’s a lot of unresolved anxiety and terror that people carry from our experiences in Katrina.

In Sing, Unburied, Sing, you bounce back and forth between Jojo and Leonie, who are both young, as narrators. Jojo is forced to grow up faster than his years, and Leonie, his mother, doesn’t quite feel like a real grown-up yet.

I think that black childhood is not something that’s granted to black children in America, and so I think that my characters reflected that. Jojo, his experience reflects that in the present moment, as he’s going through it, but I feel that Leonie is the kind of character who comes to life when a black person has — when their childhood has been denied. When that childhood has been stolen, she’s the result, where she’s sort of stuck in this extended adolescence, especially with her selfishness and her inability to process hardship, to face hardship and to live with hardship and to thrive, really. That’s what happens.

“I feel like it’s easiest to turn off my writerly brain when I’m reading children’s lit.”

It’s funny, because then I think about Richie’s character, who is a ghost. He’s a ghost, and he should be nearly as old as Pop is, but yet he, too, is stuck in some sort of adolescence because his childhood was taken away from him, because he was robbed of his childhood.

I think about Mam and I think about Pop, and I wonder why they did not break, why they don’t seem broken in the way that Leonie’s broken, or that Richie is broken.

When I think about Kayla and Jojo, I don’t think that they will be broken people like Leonie or like Richie. I think that they’ll be like Mam and like Pop, and maybe the reason why I don’t think that they will be broken people, and maybe the reason why Pop and Mam aren’t broken, is because there was something there that sustained them. I think for Mam, it was the love of her family, and also these things like black spiritual traditions, voodoo and hoodoo and herbal medicine. I think that that sustained her. With Pop, I think it’s family. I think that that definitely sustained him, and maybe a sense of community that he has or a sense of responsibility that he had to that family and to that community.

You go so hard for the South. So often it’s discussed as a place where the best thing about it for black folks is that they can leave. What makes you want to stay there?

I am writing about the kind of people who I grew up with. I’m writing about people who are like my family members. I’m writing about people who are like people who live in my community. I think, because I’m writing from that place, that I can love them, but I can also be critical of them. And I think, too, that I’m very aware of how history bears on the present in the South, and of how it complicates people’s lives, and how it is this really underacknowledged force in the region. I want to acknowledge that, and I think that that’s also what is fueling some of that critical eye.

I wanted to come back for so long, and I am here now, but I have gotten to this point in my life where I can’t say that I will stay here forever.

Why not?

It’s just motivated by my kids, because I have a 5-year-old daughter and I have my son, who [is now] 1. I love my kids, and I want the best for them, and I don’t know. I feel like, in some respects, that I would be failing them if we stayed here through the years when they were teenagers, because this is not a kind place, in many ways, and I worry for them. I want them to live, and I want them to thrive, and I don’t know if this is the best place for that to happen.

Is there any place in America that’s safe for them, where they can be children?

I know that there’s nowhere in this country where they could be completely safe, but I do feel like there are places in this country that would be safer, and made safer, because of where I have worked, because of where I’ve gotten in my life. Classwise, I could afford them different opportunities that if I were poor, or if I lived in poverty, and if I were moving to the Northeast or Chicago or the West, they’d face more dangers. But there’s some opportunities that I can give them because of where I am right now.

I don’t know a single educated black person who has risen to a certain place in society who doesn’t have family members who aren’t as lucky.

It’s difficult. I do what I can, but I think that — how do I say this? I do what I can for my extended family, but I think that their ideas of what I have and the demand on what I have are different from my knowledge of what I have and what I have to give. It induces a lot of guilt, because you want to help. When you’re personally in that situation, you want to help your extended family. I feel guilty because I’m in this position, and they’re not, and then I also feel guilty that I can’t do more. But I can’t. I’m not a millionaire. I’m not a billionaire. I’m a thousandaire.

How much did the death of your brother figure into Leonie and the way she’s working through Given’s death?

I was worried about that when I discovered Given’s character, when it worked out that Leonie had a brother and that he died when they were teenagers. I was worried about writing him, because I know that readers know about my brother, and I didn’t want them to confuse me with Leonie. I didn’t want them to confuse my brother with Given, but I felt like Given was the key. Given was the key to understanding Leonie. His death was the key to understanding her — who she was, her trauma, and understanding why she does what she does. And so I felt like I had no choice, in some respects. I had to write him.

But then, those fears eased a little bit once I got further into the manuscript because their relationship took on a life of its own. It became real, and it was very different from my relationship with my brother. And so, once I got to the point where I felt like their relationship took on life, I was like, ‘Oh, we’re nothing like each other.’ But knowing that Leonie lost a sibling helped me to really understand her, understand that pain that she basically shies away from dealing with and living with.

You talk about the resilience of Mam and Pop, but I wonder if her cancer is basically her internal grief welling up inside her?

I read an article … that was about health and racism. The article was making the argument that racism is a stressor, and that that stressor affects black people’s health in many different ways, and that when you control for class, that still you see a big difference in the health outcomes for black people at a certain class and health outcomes for white people in a certain class.

That was really striking to me. They’re looking at things like heart disease, like diabetes, like maternal health. They’re looking at things like premature births, and then the health outcomes for the children. The article was really making the argument that racism has lasting effects, health effects on black people. I was thinking about that a lot while I was writing Sing, Unburied, Sing.

Is Nico Marley, Bob Marley’s grandson, NFL-ready? A star linebacker at Tulane, the young Marley wants to show that he’s got game and not just a famous last name

Rohan Marley goes a little bit LaVar Ball when he talks about his son Nico. So much so that the spotlight-grabbing father of former UCLA basketball star Lonzo Ball might even approve.

Nico, the grandson of reggae legend Bob Marley, just might be as good as advertised — only you’ve likely never heard of him. That’s where his father comes in. The doting dad is determined to let the masses know, even at the risk of sounding like another over-the-top helicopter sports dad.

But just as the Ball brothers’ game speaks for them, Nico’s story stands on its own merits. He ended up at Tulane University without fanfare. Tulane was the only Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) school to offer him a scholarship coming out of Cypress Bay High School in Weston, Florida. And only two Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) programs, Duquesne and Barry universities, showed interest.

Instagram Photo

An undersized linebacker — he came to Tulane in 2013 weighing just over 180 pounds on a 5-foot-8 frame — Nico has grown accustomed to being the underdog, even with that famous last name and a dad who isn’t afraid to spit.

“Coming out of high school, I heard people say, ‘He’s just a high school player — he’s not built for [college],’ so it would be weird if I wasn’t the underdog,” said Nico, who was born in Haiti and lived in Jamaica for two years before moving to Miami when he was 4. “It would be weird if I was a top prospect, because [being an underdog] is all I know. When I got to Tulane, I was just a guy who got an extra scholarship. People figured I’d just be a special teams guy. I don’t think they thought I’d end up being who I became. I’m so grateful to Tulane for giving me my only Division I opportunity, but I knew they had some doubts about me.”

Curtis Johnson, Tulane’s coach at the time, saw Marley’s height. He also saw his potential.

“If you have a smart guy who can run, who leaves it all out on the field and plays as reckless as he does and is an exceptional leader, you have to take as many guys as you can like that,” said Johnson, who compiled a 15-34 record in his four seasons at Tulane, including three with Marley.

“Besides his size, which is a big factor for everyone, this guy could have played anywhere in the country with his speed and athleticism,” Johnson continued. “He’s a tackling machine, a sideline-to-sideline player who tackles with more impact than most guys much bigger than him. I mean, he was everything you wanted in a linebacker.”

Marley excelled in Tulane’s environment, starting every game of his collegiate career, amassing 319 total tackles (204 solo) and etching his name in the Green Wave record books, becoming the school’s all-time leader in tackles for loss with 50.5.

Tulane Green Wave linebacker Nico Marley tackles Navy Midshipmen fullback Shawn White behind the line during the second quarter at Navy Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

As a junior, he earned first-team All-AAC honors despite Tulane’s 3-9 record, something else that may have kept him under the national radar.

“He missed one play his entire career at Tulane – not a series, a play – and it was Senior Day, when the coaches let the seniors play,” said Rohan Marley, who played alongside Warren Sapp, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Ray Lewis at Miami, himself leading that team in tackles with 95 in 1993.

Despite the numbers, Nico, 22, still carries the underdog tag. No NFL combine invitation came after he graduated last May with a business marketing degree. But his dream of playing at the next level burns.

“I didn’t get a combine invite — and, again, it would have been weird for me to get one because of everything I’ve been through,” he explains. “I don’t expect people to put me at the top of their list. I thought I earned one, but it’s whatever,” said Marley, who headlined a list of Tulane prospects who worked out for NFL scouts this month.

Nico Marley (2) celebrates after picking up a fumble

Tulane University

Of his NFL chances, Johnson, the one coach who gave him his collegiate shot, believes Marley is built for Sundays.

“I think we made a big mistake not playing him on special teams more,” the coach said reflectively. “He would’ve been a special teams demon. In the NFL, that’s 25 plays a game. As soon as someone sees him run down on a kickoff, size don’t matter there. If he shows his athleticism, somebody will give him a look.”

Let Rohan tell it: All his boy needs is a chance. “[Nico] can play nickel,” he said matter-of-factly. “He’s a package player. He’s a Bob Sanders type,” Rohan said, referring to the retired longtime Colts safety. “Get him on the field and he’ll make plays. He’s a playmaker.”

Nico hears his dad and smiles. He’s been hearing him his whole life and credits him with molding him into the player he’s become.

“He played football, but he never pushed [the sport] on me,” Nico said of his father, an entrepreneur and founder of Marley Coffee, an organic coffee plantation and farming business in Jamaica’s Blue Mountains. “He taught me the game — what to look at, who to watch, every little detail — from how to prepare for games to getting my body right and my mind focused. He made me understand that the game is 90 percent mental. Pregame rituals, getting your breathing right, focusing just on your task.

“He would watch games and film on me, and he would know every move I made, good and bad. I wouldn’t even have to tell him.”

Nico and Rohan Marley

Courtesy of Nico Marley

Rohan’s catch-a-fire mentality was passed down by his own world-famous father, who, he says with a genuine laugh, was a fitness freak and competitive beyond measure.

“My old man was the kind of man … when he’d come and pick you up, he’s not coming to pick you up to hang out with you. He’s coming to work you,” Rohan Marley said. “You’re either going running or to play [soccer] … everything to do with fitness. You have to do the situp bench, the ab wheel. You have to be fit.

“My dad, one time late at night I was sitting in the yard … it was, maybe, midnight. He drove in, pulling up in one of them big buses. I sat there, and he looked at me — I’m thinking I’m in trouble. He goes upstairs and comes back downstairs with boxing gloves, and we started boxing at midnight,” Rohan said with a laugh. “That’s my dad.”

Like father, like son.