Friend or Foe: What’s behind Jay-Z’s surprising partnership with the NFL There are a million and one questions about the new alliance. The answers are a combination of money, power and the movement.

It could be just one. Or, more probably, it’s a combination of all four. Jay-Z’s history tells us that the reasons behind the partnership between the NFL and rap’s first billionaire likely revolve around money, power and the movement. And the potential to become the NFL’s first black owner.

For the past decade, the NFL has been at the epicenter of the definitive culture war in sports, from concussions and CTE research to domestic violence, as well as issues of social justice dramatized by exiled quarterback Colin Kaepernick. For the NFL, the cost-benefit analysis of this arrangement is clear. The league brings in one of the most famous celebrities of the past half-century who has donated time, money and attention to some of the very topics on which the NFL is accused of being tone-deaf. The league needs to recover its cultural cachet, and a big part of that means reaching out to black fans, at least some of whom swore off the game after Kaepernick’s exile.

Wednesday’s news conference at Roc Nation’s New York headquarters grew out of talks that began in January between Jay, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft. (Kaepernick and former San Francisco 49ers teammate Eric Reid reached a settlement with the NFL over their collusion grievances a month later for a reported $10 million.) Roc Nation’s partnership with the NFL is set to include entertainment consultation, which includes helping curate the Super Bowl’s halftime show. But, according to Jay, the kicker was the ability to bolster the league’s Inspire Change program through a variety of avenues, including “Songs of the Season” that will entail inspirational songs from a handful of artists played during television broadcasts and “Beyond the Field,” which will feature voices and perspectives of NFL players on a multitude of topics.

Responding to questions about whether this partnership negates his previous support for Kaepernick, who still doesn’t have a job in the NFL, Jay said that it was about figuring out the next step. “I think we’ve moved past kneeling, and I think it’s time to go into actionable items.”

He continued: “No, I don’t want people to stop protesting at all. Kneeling, I know we’re stuck on it because it’s a real thing, but kneeling is a form of protest. I support protest across the board. … I’m not minimizing that part of it because that has to happen, that’s a necessary part of the process. But now that we all know what’s going on, what are we going to do? How are we going to stop it? Because the kneeling was not about a job, it was about injustice.”

Colin Kaepernick onstage at the W.E.B. Du Bois Medal Award Ceremony at Harvard University on Oct. 11, 2018, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Photo by Paul Marotta/Getty Images

It’s impossible to say it’s not about money too. Jay’s career is a case study in the pursuit of wealth. Being broke is childish, he quipped on 1997’s “I Love The Dough” alongside The Notorious B.I.G., and I’m quite grown. On “Imaginary Player,” he raps, You beer money, I’m all year money. Two billionaire conglomerates don’t come together without a return on investment. Morally, sure. Hopefully. But financially, absolutely.

The deal gives Jay the power to program annually the most watched concert in the country and one of the last remaining mass-market entertainment experiences of any kind. Roc Nation will co-produce and consult on entertainment presentations, but it boils down to one real production: the Super Bowl halftime show. In a world where the internet has all but eliminated the concept of must-see viewing, the Super Bowl draws hundreds of millions of people to a live broadcast. But it’s also a moment that, especially for black artists, has become a picket line of sorts. A considerable amount of the backlash against Jay thus far has focused on the perceived hypocrisy over his criticism of Travis Scott’s decision to perform at Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta this year.

Jay said Wednesday that Kaepernick wasn’t the rationale for his criticism of Scott. “My problem is [Travis] had the biggest year to me last year and he’s playing on a stage that had a M on it,” Jay said, referring to Maroon 5, the headline performer. “I didn’t see any reason for him to play second fiddle to anyone that year, and that was my argument.”

And while some are uneasy seeing Jay pictured laughing with Goodell, it’s not exactly the first time Jay’s been before the court of public opinion’s firing squad.

Damon Dash (left) and Jay-Z (right) during Dash’s birthday party on May 4, 2004, at La Bodega in New York.

Photo by Johnny Nunez/WireImage

From Roc-A-Fella Records’ demise and his split with its CEO, Damon Dash, to activist Harry Belafonte questioning Jay and Beyoncé’s commitment to social responsibility in 2013, Jay continuing his partnership with luxury retailer Barneys after its “shop-and-frisk” practice ignited debates about racial profiling, and criticism of streaming company Tidal — Jay’s longevity isn’t due as much to winning every round as it is to being able to take a punch.

Now, the haymakers are coming from Kaepernick’s supporters. And it seems from Kaepernick himself.

Kaepernick’s girlfriend, Nessa, and brother-in-protest Reid criticized the deal for helping the NFL clean up the mess while Kaepernick can’t get a job in the league, even as he said last week that he was still ready to return. This week, Kaepernick put up an Instagram post commemorating the third anniversary of the start of his fight against systemic oppression. He then took to Twitter on Thursday afternoon thanking Reid for his loyalty from day one as well as the fans who still see Kaepernick as the face of a movement. Life’s irony is oftentimes wickedly poetic. Their fidelity to Kaepernick and the cause he raged against the machine for call to mind one of Jay-Z’s hardest bars from 1996’s “Feelin’ It:” If every n—a in your clique is rich, your clique is rugged / Nobody will fall ’cause everyone will be each other’s crutches.

Jay-Z’s support and praise of Kaepernick is well-documented — he once wore his jersey during a Saturday Night Live performance and dubbed him an “iconic figure” who deserved to have his name mentioned along with Muhammad Ali. Now, Jay has aligned himself with the same institution that has kept the Super Bowl runner-up quarterback off the field since the 2016 season. And in pursuit of the next phase of equality, he’s seemingly alienated the one athlete who brought the conversation into the living rooms of every house in America.

But it pays to remember that discussions similar to the ones now surrounding Jay were held about Kaepernick months ago. Kaepernick, too, aligned himself with a billion-dollar corporation in Nike in a move that drew criticism from some who felt he corporatized his cause. Did Kap, too, sell his legacy for a check? Even Uncle Luke weighed in on the issue. The truth of the matter is that Jay-Z wasn’t required to obtain Kaepernick’s blessing. But for some, Kap’s lack of involvement is a near unforgivable sin because it may have the effect of making his NFL banishment a lifelong sentence.

Jay-Z (left) and New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft (right) attend the launch of the Reform Alliance, a criminal justice reform organization, at Gerald W. Lynch Theater in New York City on Jan. 23.

Photo by Shareif Ziyadat/Getty Images

What does success look like in this deal? Bringing more money and quantifiable action toward social justice and educational reform is one metric. A halftime show capable of tapping into the culture and being comfortable with that messaging is too.

But it feels like there’s something else underlying the rollout. Playlists, podcasts and access to players are all opportunities Jay could’ve captured on Tidal. At Wednesday’s announcement, Jay attempted to figure out who a reporter’s question was directed toward, himself or Goodell, by quipping, “I’m not the commissioner yet.” It was a way to lighten the mood while whimsically planting a seed. Connecting the dots, this feels like it could be a path to future ownership in the NFL.

It’s a long game. Attempting to fix the league’s image might be the most uphill battle of Jay-Z’s career — especially while he’s trying to use the platform to benefit his own business interests. It’s capitalistic. It’s selfish. But it’s also a business model that he’s repeatedly used over the last quarter century.

And if it does succeed, he’d become the first black power broker in a league that has acquired a reputation for silencing black voices, not privileging them. Debates will rage on over whether it’s a savvy or snake move by Jay. But any potential buyer of an NFL team has to be someone who at least 24 of the league’s 32 team owners want as a member of one of the most exclusive (yet anything but inclusive) clubs.

How Jay handles the NFL’s inevitable next controversy, whether it be another Stephen Ross public relations debacle or President Donald Trump weaving his way back into league storylines as the 2020 election year approaches, will be interesting to watch. N—as said Hova was over, such dummies / Even if I fail I’ll land on a bunch of money, he rhymed on 2007’s “Success.”

The boast is only partially true now. Jay-Z’s bank account is secure. But his future is now intertwined with a league he blasted just last summer — and seemingly on the opposite side of the aisle from the one player who made this newfound partnership possible. It’s not a stretch to say this could be the most important and daunting blueprint of Jay-Z’s career.

Today in black history: W.E.B. Du Bois is born, a black woman is elected Manhattan borough president and Gen. Frank Petersen is put in charge The Undefeated edition’s black facts for Feb. 23

1868 — Happy birthday, W.E.B. Du Bois. William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, whom the world would come to know as W.E.B. Du Bois, was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, where he lived until heading off to attend college at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. Du Bois’ experiences in college opened his eyes to the severity of racial discrimination in the South. After graduating from Fisk, he returned north to attend Harvard University, where he earned a doctorate in 1895, becoming the first African-American to do so.

1929 — Baseball catcher Elston Gene Howard is born in St. Louis. Howard led an active life as a child, but it wasn’t until his teenage years that he was taken seriously as an athlete. While playing baseball, Howard was approached by Frank Tetnus Edwards, a former Negro Leaguer and St. Louis Braves staff member. After persuading his mother, Howard played with the Braves over the summer. In 1965, Howard signed a $70,000 contract with the New York Yankees and became the highest-paid player in the history of baseball at the time.

1929 — Joe Louis knocks out Nathan Mann in three rounds to take the heavyweight boxing title.

1965 — Constance Baker Motley is elected Manhattan borough president. Motley was a civil rights lawyer who became involved with the movement after being discriminated against while attempting to enter a public beach. Motley began her studies at Fisk University, then went on to New York University before earning her law degree from Columbia Law School in 1946. In 1964, Motley became the first black woman elected to the New York Senate. Motley broke barriers once more when she was elected the first female president of Manhattan borough the following year.

1979 — Frank E. Petersen Jr. is named the first black general in the Marine Corps. Petersen was determined to serve his country despite racial discrimination. Petersen attended school in Topeka, Kansas, before attempting to join the U.S. Navy. In his first attempt, Petersen was asked to take the entrance exam over again because administrators believed he’d cheated. In 1950, two years after the desegregation of the armed forces, Petersen enlisted in the Navy. Two years later, Petersen, now a Marine, completed flight school and was commissioned as a second lieutenant. Petersen also became the Marines’ first black aviator. He served as commanding general for the Marine Corps Combat Development Command and in 1988 retired as the first black three-star lieutenant general. Petersen died on Aug. 25, 2015, of lung cancer. He was 83.

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

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

FICTION

The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo (YA)

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


Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi (YA)

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


My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

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


A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley

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


The Talented Ribkins by Ladee Hubbard

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


Dread Nation by Justina Ireland (YA)

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


An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

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


Wild Beauty by Ntozake Shange

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


Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires

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

NON-FICTION

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


The Revolt of the Black Athlete by Harry Edwards

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


Ali: A Life by Jonathan Eig

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


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

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


There Will Be No Miracles Here by Casey Gerald

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


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

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


Heavy by Kiese Laymon

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


Becoming by Michelle Obama

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

Nikki Giovanni knows everyone needs a good cry and she bares all in her new collection ‘A Good Cry’ reveals the poet and activist’s thoughts on life, growth and pain

The understanding of the intersections between race, gender and national consciousness has long been part of the unique genius of one of the most celebrated poets of our complicated times. Nikki Giovanni has been shedding her light on our social consciousness through riveting literary work since graduating with honors from Fisk University in 1967.

The poet, activist and professor has reeled audiences into a world of power and self-awareness for decades. Now she’s captivating a new audience with new verses of grief, sorrow, laughter, growth and healing in her powerful new collection, A Good Cry: What We Learn from Tears and Laughter.

She recalls her relationships with loved ones who have gone on, including her late mother, Yolande Cornelia Sr. She colorfully and sometimes playfully draws space and time through raw emotions. Giovanni’s writing extracts a pureness at heart, by expressing moments of truth that should provoke tears but that many so often repress.

“I know crying is a skill. … Maybe I will learn,” she writes. “My mother did when she thought I was asleep.”

Crying is necessary, as Giovanni expressed. Especially after the death of a family member, friends, loved ones or others who have made a deep and lasting impact on the lives of others.

“My mom died some years ago,” Giovanni told The Undefeated. “There’s so much to do, and you’re holding things in. And then my aunt died. And so again, you’re holding a lot in, you’re trying to get things done. I was thinking, you know, I could use a good cry. And my doctor’s always teasing me, and I tease him too. He’s a nice guy and he’s cute, and he’s always saying things like, you know, you have to learn to take it easy and stuff like that. And I thought, and said to Gregory at one point, I don’t think that I need to take it easy. I think that what I need to do is to learn to cry. And I’ll get it out. So he and I have been arguing about that ever since, because I think that everybody needs a good cry.”

A Good Cry reveals in-depth emotions about Giovanni’s thoughts on the late Ruby Dee, poet Maya Angelou, Fisk University, her roots, her home state of Tennessee, Black Lives Matter and even sports.

Giovanni’s work, as described on her website, has “spurred movements, turned hearts and informed generations. She’s been hailed as a firebrand, a radical, a healer, and a sage; a wise and courageous voice who has spoken out on the sensitive issues, including race and gender, that touch our national consciousness.”

Now, Giovanni takes readers to the most intimate part of her life: drawing the geography of her heart and how it has shaped her. She reveals her family history to put the reader into her development through childhood and adulthood. Her energy offers a glimpse into the mirror of her soul and yours.

Her selfless acts over the years are also displays of the respect she has for herself and others. Her arm bares the words “Thug Life” after the rapper Tupac Shakur was gunned down in Las Vegas and later died in 1996.

Giovanni’s life is multitudes. She loves watching football. Her favorite sport is tennis. Included in her new collection are pieces about the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Black Lives Matter, volleyball and the Delta Sigma Theta sorority.


How do you feel this particular piece of work differs from the other pieces in your body of work?

A Good Cry is more vulnerable. You know, as you grow older — I’m a big fan of growing old, by the way, and I think it’s important as you grow older, you’re learning more and you’re looking at the world a little differently. When you’re young, you’re impatient, you think, ‘Oh, I gotta get this done, I gotta get this done. I gotta make people understand.’ And then you start to get a little more mature, and it’s like, well, let me share this and let me share that. And I think that’s kind of wonderful to just to try to figure out where you are and how you’re going to go forward with it.

What do you think involves learning how to cry?

It helps to have a good friend, and so if you can cry with a good friend, you’ve got a really good thing going. But it also helps to just accept the fact that things are not going, or things are going as you, things, are changing. And you really want to make a difference. You want to let it out, and then you want to go take another step. And I’m at the stage now that several of my friends have lost their parents and or losing their aunts and uncles. You know, these things are going on. And it’s sad. And we’re always saying to people, oh, you’ll, it’ll be all right, you’ll get over it. But you won’t get over it, and it won’t be all right.

You have to deal with it, you have to bring it in and say, OK, this is why I’m upset, this is why I’m crying. And I think it’s important. And of course I love the blues, so the blues definitely lets you let it out. That’s why the blues was invented. It gets the emotion out. And I think A Good Cry is a much more emotional book than any of my other books.

I read your piece in The Huffington Post you wrote that really intersects race, sports and culture. And I really liked the last few lines of it. ‘Kneeling was a sign of love … our athletes who are kneeling and asking the Constitution, will you be mine?’ How do you think that sentiment can be communicated going forward by athletes?

The athletes are doing what they understand, what they want to do. They’re doing their job. I’m a football fan. And you are watching all the people in the stands, many of whom are of course not black. And they’re cheering for the players on the field, many of course who are. And then they’ll come off the field and not like black people. It’s like, you know, y’all got to get over it. If you’re going to cheer for us, then keep it up — you cheer on the field and off the field.

You were born the child of athletes. What’s your favorite sport?

Tennis. I used to play. I watch it. My mother was quite an exceptional tennis player, and she played during the days of segregation. They had the black tennis tournament, which was at Wilberforce. And Mommy made it to the finals one year and played Althea Gibson. Of course Miss Gibson defeated Mommy, but it was so great, she had the runner-up trophy. I wasn’t born then, but I love tennis. When Mommy was here, we went to the tournament every year. They have a tournament in Cincinnati just before the US Open.

Which tennis player do you love to watch most?

I am a big Venus [Williams] fan. Oh, my. If somebody said Venus is playing, you know, in Timbuktu and I’d say, ‘Oh, OK, if I can get a flight.’ I just love her; she’s such a classy young lady. And she’s come through some health issues and she’s held that together. Venus isn’t a friend, they’re too young, but when you meet her, she is just gracious. She’s just a gracious young lady. And there’s so many trashy, ugly, stupid people in the world that running into people like Venus is so wonderful. She’s my favorite athlete, period. I cheer, and I always will. Serena [Williams] is great, it’s not that. It’s that Venus brings it all together. Venus is the princess of tennis. She brings it all together.

Graduating from an HBCU (historically black college or university), Fisk University, how do you view the relevance of the education of HBCUs now?

We need the black education, and like all other schools, we need to have non-blacks coming to our schools. I’m a Fisk graduate, and if you look at what Fisk has brought, W.E.B. Du Bois invented sociology. The Jubilee Singers took the spirituals around the world. They became the Jubilee Singers because they were invited to England to present themselves, as it were — they stayed for quite a while — to Queen Victoria. And she awarded them ultimately 50,000 pounds. And they were able to save the school because the school was going bankrupt. And they stayed and she had the court painter paint a lovely portrait, which is right there in Jubilee Hall. And they became the Fisk Jubilee Singers in honor of Victoria.

It’s like, we’re going to let you sit anyplace on the bus now, so you don’t need your own school. Well, of course you need black schools, and you need the history that we teach and we need the diversity that these schools offer. So I’m very proud.

Do you recall the first time you knew your words had so much power?

Not really. You know, people will quote you. I think that probably people really liked Ego Tripping. And people would come up to me and I would say, wow, they were treating that poem like we treat some of the songs we like. Like when Aretha walks in, people go RESPECT.

So you have an idea that people enjoy your work. And I do so much with history, and I think that maybe I’ve opened up some doors that people haven’t considered before.

Are you enjoying your time at Virginia Tech?

Oh, my, yes. I like teaching and I like young people, and I know I’m one of the people who needs a rhythm. If I didn’t have a routine, I would get work done but I wouldn’t be as disciplined. So it’s very nice. I teach one class and I get up and I go into my office; the kids can drop in. I also get other work done while I’m there. But it’s nice to go and have an office and to sit and, you kind of get work done at a different rate. And I’m lucky because the sun, I have a corner office.

I know you’re still asked this all the time, but can you shed light on your ‘Thug Life’ tattoo?

Oh, my, yes. You know, when Pac got shot I was hoping he would pull through. I was really hoping, and he didn’t, as we know. And my mother was with us still. And I said to my mother, I said, ‘Mommy, I’ve gotta do something, I think I’m going to go get a tattoo.’ And she said, ‘Oh,’ because your mother, I don’t know about your mother, my mother did not want me to have a tattoo. And she said, ‘Where are you thinking about putting it, baby?’ My mother was never one of those people that said no, but she was like, and where you going to put it? And I said, ‘Well, I’m thinking about running it down the side,’ which I was. I was just going to run it down the right-hand side. And I could see that that shocked her — that was understated. And she said, ‘Well, I can see your point, Nikki, but you won’t be able to look at it if you do that.’

I said I’ll put it on my arm. You know, Pac had it on his abdomen. But I’m a girl, and he was in way better shape than I am. And I couldn’t put something on my abdomen and then pull my blouse up and share it with people. So it was on my arm. And I wanted his mother to know that we all miss him, that he was special to us.

What are you a fan of?

I’m a big fan of Black Lives Matter. I think it’s important, and I think we should acknowledge that, that Black Lives Matter are the people who made the Klan take their hoods off. But now the Klan has to come during the daylight. They have to let us know this is who I am. And I think it’s so wonderful, because without Black Lives Matter, that wouldn’t have happened. I think that’s wonderful. I think Black Lives Matter, and of course you’ve seen too, you know, White Lives Matter, All Lives, you know, you see that everybody’s got this response to it.

We’re the people who’ve been getting shot down, innocent people. Unarmed people being shot down. I love to see what the kids are doing. And it just gives me great pleasure to think that my generation has helped to bring this next generation up. And so I’m very proud that they’ve taken what we have to give, what we had to share, they have taken it and taken it to the next step. I think it’s wonderful. They should be very proud because they’re doing their job. I’m sure that their grandmothers sitting there saying, ‘Yeah, that’s my baby.’

Without Charles Burnett and the L.A. Rebellion, there is no ‘Moonlight’ Why the motion picture academy is honoring the director of a film about slaughtering sheep

There’s no Moonlight without Charles Burnett.

Burnett, 73, is the director best known for his feature debut, Killer of Sheep. But beyond that, he’s the auteur behind To Sleep With Anger, arguably the best performance of Danny Glover’s career. His 1994 film The Glass Shield, which starred Ice Cube, was an exploration of corruption and racism within the Los Angeles Police Department. With 23 directorial credits to his name, Burnett has had a massive impact on independent filmmaking.

On Saturday, he will be honored at the Governors Awards ceremony, where the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recognizes contributions to the film industry. Its honorees usually include individuals who might not have been acknowledged with Oscars awarded during the academy’s ritzy annual televised fete, and they often include artists who have used their platforms to advocate for social change. Harry Belafonte, for example, received the board’s Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 2014.

Nearly 40 years ago, Burnett was an upstart director at the forefront of a movement of students of color enrolled in UCLA’s film school. His thesis film, Killer of Sheep, made on a tiny budget, was beautifully poetic. It was about black people who didn’t have much money, and it starred first-time, untrained actors.

The film follows its main character, Stan (Henry G. Sanders), who works in a slaughterhouse killing — you guessed it — sheep. He hates it, but he needs the income to support his family.

Killer of Sheep is a meditation on blackness, broke-ness and social mobility. It’s a look at how doing something you hate for eight hours a day deadens your soul. And when that job involves taking life from another being, it becomes difficult to separate yourself from that killing and it can make you feel personally targeted by Murphy’s law. There’s a point in Killer of Sheep where Stan is planning to sell an engine to make a little extra cash. Alas, when he and his friend hoist it onto the back of a truck, it falls off almost as soon as they start driving. The engine block gets cracked, rendering it useless, and so they just leave it in the middle of the street, because really, what’s the point?

While he was able to work more than many of his UCLA classmates, Burnett didn’t engage in filmmaking as a way to get rich. Throughout his career, Burnett sought to highlight the humanity of black people and to stay true to his politics. When he wasn’t making his own films, he often served as a cinematographer on others.

The fact that the academy’s board of governors is bestowing an award upon Burnett the same year Moonlight won best picture makes for a lovely tribute and a fitting piece of symmetry. You see, the film that won best picture this year had the tiniest budget of any best picture. It was about black people who didn’t have much money. It starred first-time, untrained actors. It was the first film with an all-black cast to win best picture. It was lauded as a work of cinematic poetry. And Moonlight was helmed by a black director, Barry Jenkins, who, with both Medicine for Melancholy and Moonlight, seems to have carried forth Burnett’s legacy in black independent film.

Killer of Sheep is a meditation on blackness, broke-ness and social mobility.

“There were many movies that should have been recognized before — at least up for an Academy Award or nominated,” Burnett said. “But I hope that what Moonlight does, the effect it would have or should have is that maybe Hollywood would look around and start releasing films that previously they thought would never make it, you know that … no white audience would be interested in. This sort of proves them all wrong, again and again. You know, so I hope it has a big change that they can start recognizing the potential of people who are really interested in seeing human stories, not just the typical car chases and violence continually being represented over and over and over again.”

The L.A. Rebellion

Burnett was part of a movement of filmmakers now known as the L.A. Rebellion. It comprised about 50 filmmakers, including Burnett, Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust) and Haile Gerima (Sankofa, Ashes and Embers), who attended UCLA film school between 1970 and 1992. Besides black students, it included Chicano and Asian students as well, all working to create a movement that rejected the confines that Hollywood had created for anyone who wasn’t white. The movement began when filmmaker and professor Elyseo J. Taylor began a program in the film department called Film and Social Change. Moonlight’s best picture win, in some ways, was a culmination of mainstream recognition of the principles for which the L.A. Rebellion had long been advocating.

The perspective of the L.A. Rebellion was originally informed by living through the Watts uprising of 1965, chafing at police violence and racism, housing segregation and discrimination. It’s filled with curiosity about black people’s African origins and their connections to their ancestors, and a love and commitment to seeing the beauty in themselves. Often, the works were more experimental than traditional Hollywood fare, rejecting three- or five-act structures with easily identifiable protagonists and antagonists. The work of the L.A. Rebellion was like a black American New Wave, influenced by Third World Film and Italian Neo-Realism because Hollywood was so centered on whiteness and white conceptions of blackness. L.A Rebellion filmmakers didn’t see a place for black authenticity, so they created one.

It was distinct from ’70s blaxploitation and more in the vein of the 1961 adaptation of playwright Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, although — and this is hugely significant — unlike A Raisin in the Sun director Daniel Petrie, these directors were actually black. They had far more control over the images they were presenting than Hansberry did when she agreed to work on the film version of Raisin, one of the notable depictions of a regular black family in Chicago.

Blaxploitation, which became so popular and so profitable in the 1970s, “didn’t show us who we really are,” Burnett said. “It was basically things that were entertaining at the expense of who we are as people and how it would affect generations to come. It didn’t show us who we are; it didn’t have any empathy.”

Burnett recounted a time, after one of his films had been shown at a festival, when an audience member told him he didn’t realize black people had washing machines.

Washing. Machines.

“I remember … seeing Japanese represent themselves on-screen and I was so surprised and taken, and I started looking at people differently and you see the effect of this constant barrage of distorted images, what it can do to you,” he continued. “So you can sort of understand how people looking at your films, the films of color, you know how it sort of opens their eyes and it makes you aware of people as human beings. I think that’s what art does, it makes you aware of these subtle things that we all share.”

Of all of the L.A. Rebellion filmmakers, Burnett had the most prolific career. Killer of Sheep, now nearly 40 years old, is a breathtaking work, even more so when considering Burnett made it while still a student.

“I was in New York, just starting my music video career, when Charles Burnett’s film — ‘The Sheep Movie,’ as we call it — sort of rattled everybody. … Like, wow, this is a real director,” said Paris Barclay, who in 2013 became the first black and first openly gay person to be elected president of the Directors Guild of America. “He’s one of the reasons why I thought, ‘Hey, a black man can do a feature film like this and rip my heart out? Why can’t I do this?’ It’s one of the things that led me out of music videos into doing feature film and then later television.”

Even though Saturday’s award is going to Burnett, it feels like a win for other directors from the L.A. Rebellion, such as Dash and Gerima. After they spent years outside the Hollywood system, the academy finally invited Dash and Gerima to join its ranks in 2016.

‘Hey, a black man can do a feature film like this and rip my heart out? Why can’t I do this?’

University of California, San Diego professor Zeinabu irene Davis, one of the last filmmakers of the L.A. Rebellion, is largely responsible for curating and preserving its history, which she compiled in the documentary Spirits of Rebellion: Black Independent Cinema From Los Angeles. (She expects Spirits of Rebellion to be released on home video in the next year or so.)

“The legacy of Charles in American cinema is something that should be celebrated in a big way,” Davis said. “You know, too many times in the cinema history books, when you read about black cinema, most of the times it’s just a caption on the side. A still image from Killer of Sheep, and then just a caption underneath it. If you get really lucky, then it might be a paragraph. But I think that there should be more recognition of the contributions that the L.A. Rebellion film movement gave to American cinema, and especially American independent cinema in general. It should be honored, and it should be celebrated with more than just a brief mention.

“I wish there was more places where people could actually get to see his work, or more venues that would honor his work.”

This is what influence looks like

Burnett’s thematic, aesthetic and emotional markers are all over Moonlight, if you know what you’re looking for.

To the filmmakers of the L.A. Rebellion, it wasn’t just important to create works that captured black people as they were, it was also important to include their communities in the storytelling, training them to be crew members or casting them in their films. That was also partly out of financial necessity — it took a village to make a film.

That’s a tradition Jenkins continued with Moonlight, and in interviews he’s talked about the fact that residents of Miami’s Liberty City housing projects appreciated having the Moonlight film crew’s lights around at night. Their presence helped make the neighborhood safer because drug dealers would shoot out the streetlights.

Killer of Sheep does not follow a conventional plot structure because it’s about existing with its main character, going about a day the way Stan does, and understanding why Stan feels the way he does. It’s meant to be contemplative. Moonlight functions similarly with its main character, Chiron. The difference is that it’s divided into three acts, and Chiron is played by three different actors at distinct points in his life.

There’s something striking about Killer of Sheep’s depiction of the dangers of ordinary life, from a scene of children playing on train tracks that has you holding your breath until they’re all safe to Stan’s work in a slaughterhouse. It’s shot in black and white, and the emphasis of the film is on understanding how Stan’s work and financial struggles color his interactions with his family and the way he lives his life. The film boasts an extraordinary soundtrack, which features music such as Paul Robeson singing “The House I Live In.” A tender scene between Stan and his wife (played by Kaycee Moore) is punctuated with Dinah Washington’s “This Bitter Earth.” It’s completely wordless yet utterly effective, not unlike the beach scene between Chiron (Ashton Sanders) and Kevin (Jharrel Jerome).

The bathtub scene in Moonlight, which shows Little (Alex Hibbert) heating water on the stove of his apartment, then carrying it to the tub, feels directly tied to Burnett and his insistence on capturing the unglamorous, everyday life of poor black people and finding the beauty and profundity in it. So do the scenes in which Jenkins captures black children playing, similarly elevated by Nicholas Britell’s score.

“[Burnett’s] someone that’s been long overlooked but is a seminal figure for many of us, along with Spike [Lee] in the late ’80s,” Barclay said. “We were just thinking, who are our voices out there? Who are we emulating? He was one of those people.”

So why is Burnett still a cult figure while Lee is probably the best-known black independent filmmaker of our time?

1) Lee is enormously prolific. He’s like a shark that never stops moving. He’s constantly creating, producing and influencing, and as a result he’s made about three times as many films as Burnett — some of which, admittedly, have been clunkers.

2) Lee is unapologetically outspoken. His Driving Miss Daisy rant is the filmmaker version of Allen Iverson and “practice.”

3) He helped establish his identity by putting himself in his movies. He has, essentially, branded himself. We don’t just know Lee as a director, but as Mars Blackmon, as a man who goes hard for Brooklyn, shows up at AfroPunk and never stops supporting the Knicks. He’s a New York institution.

Burnett, on the other hand, like so many black American jazz artists and social critics, found that he was far more celebrated overseas than he was at home.

“I think that was a saving grace in many ways, going over there and being written about in all the major magazines and newspapers,” Burnett said. “If you know your history, you sort of understand that — not that you accept it — but it makes you aware that things repeat themselves. And also gives you a sense of connectedness in the sense that you can look back at people like [James] Baldwin, Chester Himes and all those folks … like W.E.B. Du Bois. How we’re doing the same thing, and you feel a much closer connection with those folks you know because you experience what they experience. Like Josephine Baker. It’s both a plus and a minus.”

Because we’re still starved for equitable representations of blackness in pop culture despite the explosion of it in the past few years, it can be easy to overlook the parents of such images, especially if you didn’t learn about them in film school. That’s not just because we have short collective memories but because their work is often hard to find. To Sleep With Anger, which won multiple Independent Spirit Awards, can be streamed on Amazon video, but Killer of Sheep is only available on DVD, as is the director’s cut of My Brother’s Wedding. Similarly, when Gerima made Sankofa, the 1993 film that shares its name with his Washington, D.C., bookstore, he couldn’t acquire distribution, so he toured the film himself. It’s still not available on DVD or through a streaming service.

I asked Burnett what needs to happen for the traditions of the L.A. Rebellion to continue, to be remembered, to travel farther than the confines of the art house.

“There needs to be more of an education of the audience that you have to realize that if you see a film that you can respond to, you have to go out and support it immediately,” Burnett said. “You can’t wait for it to come on DVD. You have to show the studios and the producers the fact that these films are appreciated and they can make money, because if you wait till they come on television or on DVD or whatever it is, it loses its importance and effectiveness and influence, and towards influencing studios and people with money to finance these films.”

Writer Margery Miller Welles deserves to be the first woman in the Boxing Hall of Fame Author of the book ‘Joe Louis: American,’ she was a rare woman writing about sports and race

The International Boxing Hall of Fame (IBHOF) has a category of inductees called “Observers.” The group currently has 38 writers, artists and journalists, including the likes of Howard Cosell and W.C. Heinz. All 38 are men.

It is time for a woman to join their ranks, and I have someone in mind. Her name is Margery Miller Welles, one of the unsung pioneers of boxing journalism. I have called and written letters to the IBHOF without results.

With this essay, an update of one I wrote in 2003, I am upping the ante. Margery Miller Welles should be invited into this Hall of Fame, not just as the first woman but as someone whose life story and life’s work should be an inspiration for all those who would tell powerful stories about the “sweet science” of boxing. She was also willing to talk about the connection between sports and racial justice in America — and she did it two years before Jackie Robinson crossed the color line into the major leagues.

What first caught my eye at the antiquarian book fair in Florida was the book cover, an image of a brown boxing glove punching its way through a stack of newspaper headlines. Joe Louis: American was the title, and Margery Miller was the author. The back of the dust jacket told a story almost as interesting as the one inside the book. This biography of the “Brown Bomber” was published in 1945. The author, Margery Miller, was only 22 years old, a recent honors graduate of Wellesley College and a devotee of boxing, having seen her first championship prizefight at the age of 15. The accompanying photo shows a sweet-faced young woman with full eyebrows, her chin tilted toward the future.

The book cover of “Joe Louis: American” written by Margery Miller

I purchased this first edition for only $15 — a bargain, it turns out, since the same edition was being offered at five times that rate online. But my investment carried a much more valuable dividend: the discovery of a pioneering sportswriter, a woman grudgingly recognized as one of the most knowledgeable boxing journalists of the 20th century, her work drawing praise from fans as disparate as Eleanor Roosevelt and Joe Louis himself.


Here’s what I’ve learned about her, mostly from newspaper clippings stored in the Wellesley archive: Margery Whitney Miller became interested in boxing in 1935 as a 12-year-old girl living in small-town Vermont. While many other girls played jacks and jumped rope, Margery read about the fights of Joe Louis and listened to bouts on the radio. She studied the work of boxing historian Nat Fleischer, who took a keen interest in her work and to whom she would dedicate her book. In 1938, she attended her first heavyweight championship fight with her father, the return bout between Louis and Max Schmeling, the German icon.

While Miller’s prose, as a young writer, is straightforward and analytical, her description of the end of this legendary bout at Yankee Stadium is exuberant:

“Schmeling went down three times. When he got up the third time, his legs were sand and his hands hung useless at his sides. He looked like a grotesque drunk who could neither think nor act … ‘Oh, Joe! Oh, Joe! Oh, Joe!’ The crowd now came near to having only one voice. It howled and shrieked. It stood on its chairs and tore its hats to bits. It jumped up and down in its frenzy. ‘Oh, Joe. Oh, Joe.’ It drowned out the formal announcement of Louis’ victory. Seventy thousand people had gone insane.”

Whatever fascination the young Margery had with boxing until that moment, it transformed itself into passion with Louis’ demolition of Schmeling.

White racists in the America of the 1930s were hard-pressed to choose between Louis and Schmeling. White Americans did not like black champions. They had proven that with their endless search for a “white hope” when the arrogant Jack Johnson reigned as champ. For a pugilist of such prodigious power and speed, Louis was a modest and unassuming athlete, less threatening to the white sensibilities of the time, more accommodating, more Booker T. Washington than W.E.B. Du Bois. While revisionists have come to downplay the political or racial animosity between Louis and Schmeling, the two fighters became part of American sports mythology, like Jesse Owens in his victories during Hitler’s Olympic Games of 1936.

Miller carried her passion for boxing onto the campus of Wellesley College in 1942 and eventually into the composition classroom of professor Edith C. Johnson. By then, she had developed a reputation as something slightly unnatural, a dancing bear, a young woman who earned the nickname “Cauliflower” from her college friends, not for her cooking but in honor of the deformed cartilage of a prizefighter’s ear. Miller, whom The New York Times described as “slim, pretty, brunette,” wore the nickname like an orchid corsage.

She chose the life of Louis as her senior thesis, and it was published by the time she graduated in 1945. She developed the work upon a strong hypothesis: that Louis was more than a great fighter and a huge public celebrity.

“My brother used to kid me about my theory,” Miller told the Daily Argus of Mount Vernon, New York, in a 1975 interview, “but I made up my mind come hell or high water I was someday going to write about Louis. My message was going to be that if one poorly educated Negro, with little opportunity, were able to handle being a celebrity gracefully, what might we expect if we recognized ability, race and color.”

While Miller does not ignore the champ’s flaws — and cannot foresee the latter, sadder stages of Louis’ personal life and professional career — her narrative reads like hagiography, with one daring difference. The saint is a black man, and the author is a young white woman, writing a full decade before the Montgomery bus boycott.

For its time, Miller’s writing on race and America seems remarkably progressive, as in this description of the crowd at the first fight between Louis and Schmeling:

“A large Negro delegation from Harlem arrived early to occupy the cheaper seats and await the appearance of their hero. They drank their pop and read their programs in high spirits. One of them, their boy, was going to fight and win before the forty-two thousand customers in [Yankee] stadium. They identified themselves with him. Each success he had scored in the past had given them a new measure of self-respect. Most of them didn’t mean to boast about Joe, any more than he himself would boast. But they could cheer for him, couldn’t they? They could worship him as the living proof that a Negro could succeed against white opposition, if given half a chance.”

There was more gritty and determined writing about sport and race in 1945, to be sure, by the likes of African-American author Richard Wright, but it takes a combination of archaeology and sociology to unearth it. Even if Miller could not approach the sizzling insight of a “native son,” she should occupy a place in journalism history accorded only to the true trailblazer. As her contacts in the fight game might have said back then, the kid had moxie.

Current Books published 10,000 copies of Joe Louis: American, a work that was translated into six languages and earned praise from the likes of Roosevelt, who testified that she had stayed up all night reading the book. Miller was probably the only author interviewed by The New York Times who was asked her weight. Her answer reveals a lot about her character, sense of humor and devotion to her craft: “I myself weigh 112 pounds — a flyweight.”

Miller covered boxing for the King Features Syndicate from 1945-47, then turned her talents to editing trade books for E.S. Barnes & Co. in New York. In 1953, she became one of the founding writers for Sports Illustrated. I own a copy of the first issue of SI, and the first piece on boxing in the history of the magazine, a short feature on Rocky Marciano, was written by Miller.

Along the way, Miller overcame many jeers from unenlightened colleagues about her reporting from the locker room — a foreshadowing of the terrible treatment female sports reporters would receive in later decades.

A classy and grateful Louis sent her this message, according to her sister Marilyn Willey: “You tell Miss Miller that if she will call me in advance, I’ll be sure to be wearing my terry cloth robe and she can come back anytime.”

Let’s focus in on this almost shocking bit of history. In the 1980s, as more women took up sports journalism as a profession, they struggled for equal access to athletes. That included reporting from the locker room. The stories of verbal abuse and invective against those female journalists, by athletes and other journalists, remain horrific. It appears that Miller was able to negotiate this controversial territory more than 30 years before it became a major social issue!

Impressed by her book, the editors of the Christian Science Monitor asked her to write a weekly sports column, which she did from 1946 to 1961, covering the sport of boxing from the careers of Louis to Muhammad Ali. Such was her expertise and her skill as a writer that she was asked to revise the section on boxing for the Encyclopedia Britannica.

She met her husband, Samuel Welles, in 1954. Welles, a Rhodes scholar, was the Chicago bureau chief for Time Life, which owned SI, and he had gotten a tip about the boxing underworld that he wanted to pass along. He was surprised and delighted when the sports magazine’s boxing expert turned out to be Miller. Their engagement and marriage a year later were covered on the society pages of The New York Times. They had three children.

My lingering impression of Miller is as “Cauliflower,” the Wellesley student who’d visit the training camps in Boston while most of her classmates were in the library or going to parties. “I’d call up Jack O’Brien, who used to promote fights at Mechanics Hall and the Boston Garden,” she told The New York Times shortly after her college graduation. “And he’d say, ‘You’d better come in. There’s a good mob here.’ ”

Miller died in 1985 in Charlotte, North Carolina, at the age of 61 after a long bout with cancer. She deserves enshrinement into the IBHOF.

I’ll give the final words to her granddaughter Donna Welles, who is based in Washington, D.C.: “Joe Louis was a great man. My grandma is remarkable because she saw this before others did and acted without fear. Sportswriters don’t make athletes great; they explain to people who don’t understand why they’re great.”

Donna Welles, who studied international affairs at Georgia Tech, has written about sports, including boxing, for the website Global Voices Online. Her grandmother would be very proud of her.

On this day in black history: W.E.B. Du Bois is born, a black woman is Manhattan borough president and Gen. Frank Petersen is in charge Black History Month: The Undefeated edition Feb. 23

1868 — Happy birthday, W.E.B. Du Bois
William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, who the world would come to be known as W.E.B. Du Bois, was born in Barrington, Massachusetts, where he spent his time learning and mingling within European-American neighborhoods until heading off to attend college at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee.

It was Du Bois’ experiences in college that opened his eyes to the severity of racial discrimination and unjust laws in the South. Du Bois graduated from Fisk and traveled back up north to attend Harvard University, but still remained troubled by Jim Crow segregation. Du Bois earned his doctorate from Harvard in 1895 — the first African-American to do so.

Du Bois, steadfast in his beliefs, drew inspiration from Pan-African movements. In one of his first published essays in a 1903 book, The Negro Problem, Du Bois spoke in depth about The Talented Tenth, a group of elite intellectual African-Americans who would provide leadership for other African-Americans in communities. Du Bois spoke his mind without hesitation, calling out educator Booker T. Washington in one instance for what Du Bois interpreted as Washington not demanding equality for his own. Du Bois pushed others to publicly protest the injustices in America.

Du Bois would go on to write a slew of books and essays. On Aug. 27, 1963, at the age of 95, he died in Accra, Ghana, one day before Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington.

1925 — Politician Louis Stokes born
Louis Stokes was born to Charles and Louise Stokes in Cleveland. After the death of her husband, Louise Stokes spent her time cleaning houses to make ends meet while living in a local housing project and raising Louis and his younger brother, Carl, with her mother’s help.

In 1943, Stokes began his three-year stint as a personnel specialist in the U.S. Army, which ended with an honorable discharge after his tour of duty. Stokes returned to Cleveland, where he attended Cleveland College of Western Reserve University, earning his law degree from the Cleveland Marshall School of Law.

Drawn by civil rights cases, Stokes joined the Cleveland chapter of the NAACP. In 1968, Stokes made his first run for office, which began his decades-long political career. Stokes went on to become mayor of Detroit and the first African-American to become a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

1929 — Baseball catcher Elston Gene Howard born
Baseball catcher Elston Gene Howard was born to Emmaline Webb and Travis Howard in St. Louis.

Howard led an active life as a child, but it wasn’t until his teenage years that he was taken seriously as an athlete. While playing baseball, Howard was approached by Frank Tetnus Edwards, a former Negro Leaguer and St. Louis Braves staff member who immediately began to recruit Howard. After convincing his mother, Howard played with the Braves over the summer.

It was the beginning of many tryouts and roster spots with various teams. In 1965, Howard signed a $70,000 contract with the New York Yankees and became the highest paid player in the history of baseball at the time.

1965 — Constance Baker Motley elected Manhattan borough president
Constance Baker Motley was a civil rights lawyer who rose when women, especially black women, were seen but not heard. Motley decided at the age of 15 that she wanted to pursue a career in the legal field. Eventually, she became involved with the civil rights movement after being discriminated against when attempting to enter a public library.

Motley dedicated herself to working to help others, first beginning her studies at Fisk University, then New York University before earning her law degree earning from Columbia Law School in 1946. In 1964, Motley became the first black woman to be elected to the New York Senate. Motley broke barriers once more after being elected the first female president of the Manhattan borough in New York the following year.

1979 — Frank E. Petersen Jr. named the first black general in the Marine Corps
Frank E. Petersen Jr. was determined to serve his country, despite racial discrimination impeding his original plans.

Growing up during segregation, Petersen attended school in Topeka, Kansas, before attempting to join the U.S. Navy. In his first attempt, Petersen was asked to take the entrance exam over again because administrators believed he’d cheated. In 1950, two years after the desegregation of armed forces, Petersen enlisted in the Navy. Two years later, Petersen, now a Marine, completed flight school and earned commission as second lieutenant. Petersen also became the Marines’ first black aviator.

From there, the sky was the limit for Petersen, who continued to climb the ranks. In 1979, he became the first black Marine general officer, served as commanding general for the Marine Corps Combat Development Command, and retired as the first black three-star lieutenant general in 1988. Petersen died on Aug. 25, 2015, of lung cancer. He was 83 years old.