Denver president of basketball operations Tim Connelly decided to stay with the Nuggets instead of possibly bolting for Washington
In Northwest Baltimore’s Park Heights neighborhood, more than 100,000 people are expected to gather Saturday to watch the 144th Preakness Stakes at the rundown Pimlico Race Course.
However, few residents of this depressed, low-income and largely black community will be attending the second leg of thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown. But for generations, they have made extra cash allowing race fans to park on their front lawns and selling cooked food or trinkets from their stoops. Corner stores and carryout spots have charged fans anywhere from $5 to $20 just to use the bathroom. Even the drug dealers clean up on Preakness Day.
“The white folks come up here once a year to gamble and get drunk. Some of them come across the street and buy a little weed or some crack. The police just sit there and don’t do nothin’ because they get paid off by the corner boys to look the other way,” said 51-year-old Ray Johnson, who grew up in the neighborhood. “When the race is over, they get outta here before it gets dark. They don’t give a f— about this neighborhood until the next year.”
Park Heights is one of several Baltimore neighborhoods where gun violence is endemic. But residents here also have concerns about whether the city will continue with its revitalization plan demolishing unsightly and deteriorating buildings – or even the racetrack. And they are not alone in pondering the possibility of this home to horse racing being torn down, and its signature event – the Preakness – being moved to Laurel Park racetrack midway between Baltimore and Washington, D.C.
Eight miles away from Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, where businesses have struggled to attract tourists since the city’s Freddie Gray uprising in 2015, bright yellow hydraulic excavators rest their arms and dirt-caked bucket lips on vacant lots along Park Heights Avenue. They’ve ripped through arched windows, gnawed out rotted beams, and scooped up brick foundations from boarded vintage row homes and dilapidated businesses built many decades ago.
Melvin Ward, the 58-year-old owner of Kaylah’s Soul Food restaurant, came to Park Heights with his family when he was 5. “I saw this neighborhood when there were no black people here. My family was one of two black families in this neighborhood. It’s gone far down since then. I don’t think the neighborhood will get worse if they move the Preakness to Laurel,” Ward said.
Until the Martin Luther King Jr. riots of 1968 combined with a mass exodus of whites and professional blacks to the suburbs, this was a largely close-knit Jewish neighborhood with thriving specialty shops, synagogues and Hebrew schools, and homeowners who swept the alleys. The entire stretch of Park Heights, from Park Circle to Pimlico, quickly transformed racially from almost entirely white to largely African American.
In 1947, Life magazine declared that horse racing was “the most gigantic racket since Prohibition.” An estimated 26 million people went to the tracks at that time. Big races attracted all kinds, from nuns to black numbers runners to then-FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who traveled from Washington, D.C., to Pimlico on Saturdays in a bulletproof limousine.
Along Park Heights Avenue, decades of divestment and a grim litany of urban problems are evident. But the sites won’t be captured for television audiences on Preakness Day. Viewers won’t see the dumped mattresses, tires and garbage on desolate blocks, the high concentration of liquor stores and convenience shops. Nor will they see the hollowed-eyed, gaunt drug addicts lurking along the sidewalks or nodding off at bus stops.
Residents here joke that most viewers outside Baltimore probably have no clue that the Preakness happens “in the middle of the ‘hood” instead of beautiful horse country.
If you stand at the corner of Park Heights and West Belvedere avenues, you can see there’s a commercial district neighboring the track where the Preakness has been held since 1873. There’s detritus and despair, thick veils of cigarette smoke, the smell of liquor and urine heavy in the air.
Over the past few months, the Canadian-based Stronach Group, which owns and operates Pimlico, has been locked in a feud with city officials over Pimlico’s future. It has become increasingly clear that Stronach wants to move the Preakness from Baltimore and tap $80 million in state funds to build an upscale “supertrack” in Laurel Park, where it has invested a significant amount of money.
City officials want to revitalize Pimlico and keep the Preakness, but a study conducted by the Maryland Stadium Authority estimated that it would cost more than $400 million to rebuild the racetrack.
Tim Ritvo, Stronach’s COO, indicated that Pimlico is “at the end of its useful life” and is no longer a safe and viable site for the Preakness. Baltimore filed a lawsuit alleging that Stronach “systematically under-invested in Pimlico” while pouring most of the state funds it receives into improving the Laurel Park facility. Former Mayor Catherine Pugh, who recently resigned over financial improprieties, argued a rotting, unsafe race complex helps the company justify moving the Preakness from Baltimore.
In mid-April, proposals to finance improvements at Laurel Park were debated and failed in the Maryland General Assembly. Stuck in an unfortunate status quo with no real agreement on how to move forward, Baltimore’s new mayor, Bernard C. “Jack” Young, is expected to continue Pugh’s efforts to fix Pimlico and build a new hotel and grocery store for the community.
Local media coverage has indicated that popular bars and restaurants in areas such as Federal Hill, Towson and Fells Point would feel the pain if the Preakness leaves. They’ve raised bigger questions: Does the wider racing world care if the race is moved out of Baltimore? Does the Preakness have to stay in the city for it to retain its cachet? In all this debate, missing from the conversation are black voices, which reveal a deeper story about the social costs of sports as America’s inner cities are struggling to reimagine themselves by using sports stadiums to spur economic growth and demographic change.
The fate of Pimlico as home to the Preakness and as a racetrack is also balanced against the views of its African American neighbors, who have seen their communities deteriorate even more over the past half-century from absentee owners, intentional neglect, the war on drugs, and other failed local and national American policies.
Do the people of Park Heights really care about keeping the track — perhaps the area’s only surviving historic landmark and focal point? Would Pimlico’s Canadian owners be so willing to leave if the surrounding neighborhood were white and middle class? Stronach Group did not respond to requests for an interview for this story.
A number of residents like to put on their conspiratorial hat when they talk about what’s happened to the racetrack. Many residents believe that the owners let the track rot to justify a move to Laurel Park. The conditions at Pimlico symbolize how the city has neglected black communities for decades, and they see letting Pimlico and the rest of the neighborhood die as the start of gentrification.
Most people here halfway accept that the Preakness might leave Park Heights. “They’re moving it to Laurel. Period!” declared Roderick Barnette, a 56-year-old resident of Park Heights.
The question is: What then? How will the site be used? Would Sinai Hospital on one side of Pimlico obtain some of the land if it becomes available? If any of the land is redeveloped for housing, would it be affordable, market rate or a combination?
“Pimlico is not a sign of life for this neighborhood,” Ward said. “Horse racing is dead. The Preakness does nothing for the community. If it leaves, things will be the same as they always are here.”
Andrae Scott, 37, whose father owns Judy’s Caribbean Restaurant, on Park Heights Avenue across from the track, said white people come through not to buy food but to use the bathroom, which they are charged for, since many come in drunk and vomit. “They’re already pushing black folks out of the area. You can already see them knocking down houses and tearing up streets,” Scott said.
Fears of gentrification and displacement are legitimate. Baltimore ranks fifth among cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Washington, San Diego and Chicago for the highest rate of gentrification and displacement of people from 2000 to 2013, according to a recent study by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition.
Some residents want the Preakness to stay. Prince Jeffrey, 28, is a Nigerian immigrant working at the EZ Shop directly across from the racetrack. On Preakness Day, his store can make upward of $2,000, versus his daily average of $600, with sales of junk food, chips, water and crates of juices. “I think they should leave it. Development would make the whole area better. If they move the track, this place will go down,” Jeffrey said.
LaDonna Jones, 53, believes that Pimlico’s owners have sabotaged it to have an excuse to leave. “Some other tracks across the country have live racing from now until late fall. This track runs races for two weeks for the Preakness. They don’t try to get any additional business.”
Jones noted that there have been efforts to arrange concerts there, but the number of outside events has declined — Pimlico is not seen as a welcoming place.
Her friend Roderick Barnette, who is convinced that the track will be closed, said, “There’s no money here. This is a drug haven. White people come here once a year, they gamble, make their money and get the hell out. In Laurel, they can make more money because there’s more white people. I’m just keeping it real.”
When Jones suggests that “they can revitalize here,” Barnett interrupts. “This is Park Heights! This is a black neighborhood! They’re gonna get rid of all these black people around here just like Johns Hopkins did downtown.”
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Jones concedes while noting that “this racetrack matters to black folks here. It’s part of their life and the way they’ve always lived. They look forward to the races. They make a little quick money. If it shuts down, Pimlico will be just another vacant building and another eyesore for Baltimore City.”
Overall, Park Heights residents seem less concerned about losing the Preakness than addressing more immediate problems of crime, poverty, broken schools, lack of retail and jobs, food deserts, poor housing, shabby services, disinvestment and endless failed urban renewal plans over the past 30 years.
Beyond the once-yearly activity and attention that come with the Preakness, Park Heights still creates a sense of possibility in the face of its challenges. Some Caribbean groceries sell fresh foods. The recent election of Baltimore City Council president Brandon Scott, who grew up in Park Heights, is seen as a sign of hope. While Park Heights is generally a hard place to live, it is a community where some decent people find joy in the face of uncertainty and believe in the spirit of the place they call home. The fate of the Preakness will have an impact, but it will not define them.
Meanwhile, the latest news is that the Preakness will stay in Baltimore another year. But beyond 2020, the future of the race remains unclear.
Comedian and actor Dave Chappelle will be honored with this year’s Mark Twain Prize for American Humor from the Kennedy Center.
It is the nation’s highest honor for comedy, and as a recipient, Chappelle, 45, joins the ranks of previous winners Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Richard Pryor, Whoopi Goldberg, and Lily Tomlin. The Washington, D.C. performing arts venue announced the decision Tuesday afternoon.
The honor is especially meaningful for Chappelle because he’ll be feted in his hometown of Washington, D.C. He started sneaking into comedy clubs when he was 14 and spent years honing his craft at the DC Improv Comedy Club.
It’s also special because Chappelle tried, somewhat unsuccessfully, to memorize Twain’s words to audition for a spot at his alma mater, the Duke Ellington School of the Arts. In spite of Chappelle’s addled memory, and lackluster acting abilities, the selection committee for the public high school saw something in him, and Chappelle graduated in 1991. In 2015, he returned home to surprise graduates as that year’s commencement speaker.
Chappelle didn’t have an interest in acting at the time, and like many a comedian, he’s had turns in not-so-great films and some better ones. He’s come quite a ways since Half Baked. Robin Hood: Men In Tights arguably remains a slapstick classic. He was totally believable as the sensible George “Noodles” Stone in A Star Is Born, one of the best films of 2018.
“Dave is the embodiment of Mark Twain’s observation that ‘against the assault of humor, nothing can stand,’” Kennedy Center president Deborah Rutter said in a press release. “For three decades, Dave has challenged us to see hot-button issues from his entirely original yet relatable perspective. Dave is a hometown hero here in Washington, D.C., where he grew up. We’re so looking forward to welcoming him back home.”
Chappelle has mystified his public since 2005, when he bailed on his eponymous Comedy Central sketch show after two seasons, at what then was the height of his commercial success. But he has eased back into public life with sold-out shows at Radio City Music Hall and his Juke Joint series, which combines music and comedy and other forms of live performance. He also recorded two specials for Netflix, both released in 2017: Equanimity and The Bird Revelation.
The gala and ceremony for the Mark Twain Prize will take place October 27 at the Kennedy Center and will air on PBS on Jan. 6, 2020.
Washington, D.C., apparently is the capital of the Gentrification Nation too.
Want to see the effects? Just take a stroll through the environs near Howard University’s main campus these days and you reflexively say, “My, how times have changed.”
Gone are many of the decaying structures and dilapidated blotches of disrepair. And gone are some of the small black businesses and shops that were the lifeblood of a once-vibrant community.
Look up and you will see high-rise thickets of fancy apartment complexes dotting the landscape around Howard, which in recent years has sold some of its properties near campus to raise funds. Look down and you will see the new cafes and coffee shops.
Those are signs of gentrification, not only in Washington but also in cities such as Houston, home of Texas Southern University, another historically black institution.
To understand the change of scenery around Howard, you must study the metamorphosis of Washington as a whole.
Gentrification sweeps through D.C.
Check the city’s gentrification numbers. According to the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, which advocates economic support for economically distressed locales, Washington had the highest intensity of gentrifying neighborhoods in the United States between 2000 and 2013.
Furthermore, Washington’s population was 71.1% black in 1970; in 2015, that number had plummeted to 48.3% during this new age of gentrification and black displacement. Also, the white population in areas surrounding Howard’s main campus was about 4% in 2000; by 2015, it had increased more than sixfold.
Of the eligible tracts for gentrification, Washington leads the nation with a 40% intensity rate; second is San Diego, double digits behind at 29%; third is New York at 24%.
Gentrification can mean new residents. With different cultural likes, dislikes, habits. And behavior.
Such as dog walking.
Howard students know this firsthand. And they don’t like it.
Because their campus has been a dog park for some area residents — white pet owners.
Students say it’s their grass and their walkways, regardless of the gentrification projects that have altered the landscape surrounding the university.
“Seeing dogs on campus isn’t an uncommon thing. I have seen them relieve themselves and the owners don’t pick it up,” Kenneth Fling, a freshman psychology major from Buffalo, New York, told The Undefeated outside on a breezy, blue-sky day at the main campus. “Here, we take the culture of our campus and our community very seriously.”
The first part of Fling’s comment is a key point of contention among many Howard students: non-student pet owners allowing their dogs to defecate and urinate on campus apparently without taking any responsibility.
On “The Yard” — that priceless, grassy commons — which students consider hallowed territory, the pulse of their universe.
Call this situation Howard’s get-off-my-lawn moment.
It would be foolhardy to believe that Howard was the nation’s only historically black college or university in a dense urban spot feeling the effects of a culture clash that’s exacerbated by gentrification. Travel about 1,500 miles southwest of Washington to Houston, the nation’s fourth-largest city.
There, Texas Southern University is in the throes of its own challenges that, in some respects, are more problematic than the dog issue at Howard.
While the hot topic at Howard is about the pets, the concern at Texas Southern is about the pocketbooks.
According to the Houston Defender, a black-owned newspaper in the city, the number of black residents in the Third Ward, as of 2017, had decreased by at least 10% while the white population had doubled, as education and income levels have risen. Other effects of gentrification can include an increase in home and property values, an improvement in safety matters and a rise in credit ratings for residents.
However, on the other side of the ledger … well, let Sherridan Schwartz, a visiting professor in the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern, tell it:
“In recent years,” Schwartz told The Undefeated, “luxury development and gentrification have made the Third Ward mostly unaffordable to the faculty and staff of TSU [except for a few executive-level administrators with higher incomes]. Now those employed by TSU have to find more affordable housing farther away, primarily in Houston’s suburbs like Pearland and Missouri City.”
To compound the gentrified problems, public transportation, especially bus service, can be affected in a negative way. Food and utility prices can skyrocket.
Also, in some neighborhoods around Texas Southern, similar to incidents in Washington, new residents have vehemently complained about publicly played music, lingering crowds, noise and block parties — often staples of many predominantly black communities.
Darnell Latney knows all about those staples.
For 48 years, Latney has been a part of Georgia Avenue, a street that directly borders Howard’s main campus. He’s seen the full scope of changes on this thoroughfare, which stimulate much-heated debate in the neighborhood, Latney said. A barber for 22 years, he works at Joseph’s Barber Shop, mere steps away from the university. And he is adamant about what he calls a disservice to a longtime predominantly black community encompassing Howard.
“It’s all about economics and raising the tax base,” Latney passionately told The Undefeated. “They are just using gentrification to get rid of black people in this area. We are not being displaced but replaced.
“At one time, D.C. wasn’t like this at all, from about the 1990s on back. Now everything is so expensive that the average black person can’t afford it. Georgia Avenue is a long street. It used to be an 80% black neighborhood that catered to 80% black businesses. Not anymore. I’ve seen a lot of black businesses close down in the past six years on Georgia Avenue — all because of gentrification. And this dog stuff is another sign of what’s going on around here.”
The tension regarding Howard’s dog controversy ratcheted up even more when dog owner Sean Grubbs-Robishaw, a white man who lives nearby in the Bloomingdale neighborhood, announced it was time to relocate.
No, not him — the 152-year-old Howard campus should depart, he proclaimed.
In an interview with television station Fox 5 DC, Grubbs-Robishaw, who admitted to traversing Howard’s various open patches of grass with his dog to reach a nearby reservoir that’s a popular spot for pet owners, barked, “So, they’re in part of D.C., so they have to work within D.C. If they don’t want to be within D.C., then they can move the campus. I think we just need to work together, and I don’t think it should be a he or there or here . . . it’s our community, and that’s how it should be.”
Yes, he jolted us when he said “move the campus,” the higher-education domain of such illustrious Howard alumni as poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, singer Roberta Flack, former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy and California Sen. Kamala Harris. And note that Grubbs-Robishaw has since been derisively referred to by a hashtag on social media: #GentrifyingGeorge.
“They [dog owners] just don’t realize that this is sacred ground,” Hidaya, a Howard student who didn’t want her last name used, told The Undefeated.
The temperature of these dog days had gotten so hot that several media outlets, from Essence magazine to MTV News to The Guardian newspaper in England, have carved out space for coverage. And a petition has even been started to effect change regarding the dog debate.
Ironically, while students and dog owners on Howard’s main campus have been in the midst of a seemingly adversarial relationship, on the university’s so-called West Campus, located in a traditionally wealthier community that houses Howard’s law and divinity schools about 3 miles away, students and dog owners have maintained a symbiotic association.
“We do events each year when, during final exams, area dog owners bring their dogs over so we can pet them,” second-year law student James Walker III of Atlanta told The Undefeated.
For stress relief.
Does it work?
“I don’t partake in it myself, but I’m sure it helps, as the data has shown it works,” said Walker, whose parents both graduated from Howard’s School of Law.
Final exams are scheduled this week and next.
West campus students, neighbors get along better
Walker said it isn’t unusual to see dogs on the grounds of Howard’s West Campus, a predominantly white area off Connecticut Avenue, and added there’s a communal environment with the neighbors.
There doesn’t appear to be an antagonistic relationship with the surrounding West Campus community, he said.
There could be three reasons, besides the communal engagement:
- The much smaller West Campus is a bit more isolated than the more open and sprawling main campus, which, of course, draws more foot traffic.
- The dog owners on the west side appear to be very responsible in picking up waste material from their dogs.
- The West Campus isn’t in the crosshairs of gentrification projects, unlike the main Howard campus.
The dog conundrum on the main campus became so polarizing that university president Wayne A.I. Frederick publicly announced that pet owners are prohibited from bringing their animals on the grounds.
He said: “We recognize that service animals are a necessary aspect of modern-day life and we will accommodate them as needed. We appreciate pet owners respecting our campus by not bringing pets on to the private areas. Howard is a private institution nestled in the heart of an urban city and we’ve shared a long-standing positive relationship with our evolving community for more than 150 years, which we look forward to continuing in the future.”
However, a few students indicated that they still have seen some non-student pet owners and dogs on the main site after the release of the president’s message, although freshman Fling observed, “I have seen a decline in dogs on campus.”
The animal regulations imposed by city’s Department of Health, in association with the mayor’s office, appear to be on Frederick’s side.
Alison Reeves, interim director and public information officer in the office of communications and community relations for DC Health, told The Undefeated, after consultation with the agency’s general counsel, that “the leash law applies to dogs off of their own fenced property. The pet waste laws apply to anyone off of their own property. Whether anyone is or is not allowed on Howard’s campus is a function of whatever rules Howard would have in place and provide notice of to the public. Any person on private property could be considered to be trespassing if not allowed on the property, but that would be up to Howard to enforce.”
Much of this issue between dog owners and students revolves around respect and reverence in the nation’s capital, which now doubles as the Gentrification Capital.
Howard freshman Ahzaria Garris, a criminology major from Norfolk, Virginia, told The Undefeated:
“It’s the principle behind the situation with the dog owners. They don’t interact with us; they don’t even look our way. They seem to keep tunnel vision, minding their business and just hurrying along. If they interacted with us and actually cared about the school, it would be different.”
Simply put, Howard students don’t want their main campus to go to the dogs.
A year before his death in 2016, Muhammad Ali published an autobiography titled The Greatest: My Own Story.
Although the former heavyweight champion boxer never got to tell his story on film, a new documentary from HBO Sports comes pretty close. Directed by Antoine Fuqua and executive produced by LeBron James and Maverick Carter, What’s My Name | Muhammad Ali is culled from at least 1,000 hours of video and audio footage and focuses on Ali’s boxing career, narrated with his own words. It will air May 14 on HBO.
What’s My Name | Muhammad Ali debuted Sunday at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York. Ali’s widow, Lonnie, attended the screening, which took place on the 52nd anniversary of Ali’s refusal to be inducted into the U.S. Army to serve in Vietnam. The decision resulted in Ali being stripped of his world heavyweight title, which he later reclaimed two more times.
Fuqua touches upon Ali’s friendships with Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. and the boxer’s refusal to submit himself for the draft. But everything is presented through the lens of boxing, from one of Ali’s earliest punches — when, as a toddler, he knocked out one of his mother’s teeth — to his last in the ring, when he lost to Trevor Berbick in 1981. Fuqua doesn’t address Ali’s personal relationships, nor the accusations of domestic violence or infidelity that come up in Jonathan Eig’s biography. The film takes its name from an exchange Ali had with opponent Ernie Terrell, who insisted on calling him by his birth name, Cassius Clay. Ali was so angry he called Terrell an Uncle Tom and repeatedly shouted, “What’s my name?!” at him during their subsequent fight, which Ali won by unanimous decision.
Fuqua is best known for his collaborations with Denzel Washington, including Training Day, The Equalizer and a 2016 remake of The Magnificent Seven. The Pittsburgh native attended West Virginia University on a basketball scholarship and now uses boxing to stay in shape. We talked about his new documentary, Ali’s patriotism and the class divide in sports that are characterized by risk of traumatic brain injury.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
What do you think of dictums like “stick to sports” or “shut up and dribble”?
That’s just silly, and that’s an ignorant thing to say. Just because someone plays sports or does anything doesn’t mean that they don’t have an opinion. I think it’s shortsighted and a very immature way of thinking about an athlete. Athletes have an amazing platform, and a lot of them are highly intelligent people and they can be influential. Most of them have lived on both sides of the tracks, especially African American athletes, so there’s a pretty unique perspective on the world. When you come from not much and you make a lot, that’s a long journey and that’s two different worlds. So a lot of times there’s a very interesting, complex perspective that should be heard.
What were your conversations like with James and Carter about how to make an Ali documentary that would manage to stand out?
They were pretty clear. We all love him. We all love what he stood for, and the man he was. We all agreed to be honest about the journey, his journey. We all eventually came to the conclusion: It has to be from his voice. Ali has to tell his own story; avoid as much talking heads as possible unless it’s him talking. There’s been a lot of documentaries, some well-done documentaries, but there’s never been one where Ali’s telling his entire story. There were things that we discussed that we thought were important, which was ultimately let’s show his greatness, but let’s also show some of his weaknesses.
One of his weaknesses was he was chasing greatness, always. That’s not a weakness, but he was at a place where they just wanted him to stop fighting. But how do you say that to someone like Ali? He has that gene in him, and I think that’s what makes him so amazing. Like the scene when he has the torch in his hand and Parkinson’s is at its worst, he lifts the torch twice. He didn’t have to, he did, the crowd went crazy, he came down, he did it again. Every time I see the movie it makes me smile. I think that ultimately, collectively, we walked away going, ‘What a wonderful life. What an amazing, well-lived life.’
He never loses his charisma.
Never, never. He never blinked. And he stood by his principles. He lost a lot; he paid a heavy price for it. But he seemed cool as ice, always. Even when he was in the ring, leaning against the ropes, taking some beatings at times.
Those are so hard to watch.
Even though you knew the outcome, as we made the doc, there were days where I was sitting there sweating, like, ‘Come on, Ali.’ It was rough, but it was a beautiful journey because I was not disappointed in anything that I saw. We found footage that no one’s seen before. Nothing about his life was disappointing for me. It was all very inspiring, even the low points.
This documentary gives little snippets of his life, but always in relation to boxing. Why did you decide to frame this story this way?
Boxing is the thing that put him on world stage. The boxing is the thing that — when he’s beating the guys and, saying, ‘What’s my name?’ — to me it’s the metaphor of his life. Fighting is the metaphor of Muhammad Ali’s life. It doesn’t matter to dig into how many kids he has and who he’s married to or not married to, because that’s a given. I’d rather his children did a documentary about him. I think that belongs to them, it doesn’t belong to us.
What we need right now more than anything, I think, is leadership in athletes. What is your platform, and what are you going to do with it? He had a platform and he did greatness with it. He showed us how to stand by your principles: When things were wrong, to speak up about it. He showed us what it means to be physically beat down and get back up. I think that sometime that’s more important than getting into the headline gossip, which a lot of people want to get into, which you could do about anybody’s life that lives a full life, but why?
What do you consider to be gossip?
Gossip, some people get interested in who he was with and who he wasn’t with, who he married and who he didn’t marry, what woman he was with. I mean, come on. There’s enough of that. He was a handsome, beautiful, charming man — use your imagination. Women loved him, he loved women. Men wanted to hang around him.
I don’t think Muhammad Ali’s story’s done. Somebody can go and do whatever they want to do. In my dream, I hope Laila and his children will tell a version of him one day, for them. But it should be done by them. My goal was to show the man that I admire, love, and I’m inspired by every day.
One of the things that becomes apparent is how much power white members of the news media, especially Howard Cosell, had to shape the public’s perception of Ali. Whether it’s calling the Nation of Islam a “racist cult” or framing his two wins against Henry Cooper as tragedies. Was this a way to hand that agency back to him from the beginning, and not just once he’s famous?
We all deserve that. We all deserve to have an opportunity to tell our own stories. He’s not with us anymore, so the closest I can get to that is what I’ve done. I was just telling the story through his eyes as we shaped it and gathered the material. When I have an opportunity to allow a man, especially a black man, to tell his own story, I’m going to do it.
The way this film is structured makes Ali’s decline from Parkinson’s feel like it’s evident much earlier in his life. We associate Parkinson’s with the tremors, but his speech pattern started to slow down in his 30s.
That was intentional to show that journey, because that was another fight. In the end of the documentary, the goal was to show you all the Muhammad Ali fights in the ring, out of the ring, with the military, the government, the loss of Malcolm, his friends, things like that. Being a black man, just because you change your name, the world turns on you because you changed your name, like you don’t have a right to change your name. But also, the internal battles that come from the wars you’re in in the ring: the pounding, the beating, the fighting, the stress.
I’m not a doctor, so who’s to say it was just the punching that led to Parkinson’s? But it certainly, I would imagine, it had a lot to do with it. Then, imagine the stress he was under during that time period. Black people were getting shot down and hung by trees still. He had all the close friends around him getting murdered, like Malcolm, like Martin, Kennedy. His name was as big as theirs, so imagine walking around every day with a target on your back, and as loud as he was. And going against the military.
So the goal was to also find footage where you start to see that, and I’m happy you noticed that. He was in a lot of battles; it wasn’t just the ones in the ring. But he still came out as great, he still affects us, we’re still talking about him. Even when his voice was taken away, one of his biggest attributes, his charm, his voice, his physical abilities were taken away, right? It’s biblical in a way. That’s why at the end, when he lifts the torch twice [at the Atlanta Olympics], I love him even more, because he was still showing us, he was still speaking to us as loud as he always has. That’s ‘I’m still here, man. I’m still the greatest.’
When I went to Jordan and Israel and places like that, I saw T-shirts and stuff with Muhammad Ali around the world every day. His name was known around the world. It’s amazing. How can someone say, ‘Shut up and dribble?’ Is that person’s name known around the world? I don’t think so. Is that person inspiring anybody? I don’t think so. But LeBron James is. Muhammad Ali is.
Do you think we can call Muhammad Ali a patriot?
Absolutely. A man goes to the Olympics, wins the gold medal for this country, comes home, goes to a diner just to get a burger, and they tell him, ‘We don’t serve n—–s here.’
And he says, “Well, I don’t eat them!”
The charm, right? And then they’re going to send him over to a country to go kill some people that never did that to him? A war that we didn’t even really know why we were there, to this day. … I’m very patriotic, I love this country, but that’s some bulls—. Let’s call it for what it is, that’s exactly what that was.
What did you think of the concussion crisis within the NFL before you started working on this documentary? Did your thoughts change in any way? Ali says over and over, he doesn’t want anybody to pity him. He was always reiterating how much boxing had given him. But it also eventually took away his voice.
I grew up playing football. My family and friends would go play for the Steelers. [Fuqua’s uncle John “Frenchy” Fuqua was a running back for the Steelers from 1970-76]. I box now every day; I been boxing for 20-something years. What I’m happy about is I think the NFL is taking serious steps, they have been, to try to help prevent damage. It’s a violent sport, there’s only so much you can do, but I think they’ve been handling it really well. The guys get hit, they’re taken out the game and they don’t get to go back in. They get tested right away. I think they seem to be showing great concern in trying to do something about it. But that’s all you can do is do the best you can do, make better helmets, have better protocols. But it’s a very violent sport, and if you ever played or been around, especially guys at that size, on that level, that’s like being hit by a Volkswagen. There’s only so much you can do.
I go to the fights. I’m friends with a lot of fighters. It’s the nature of the sport, to be punched in the head. Punched in the body. I watched the refs, and they do try to stop it as fast as they can if they see someone in trouble — most of the times, not always. But most of the times, everyone seems to be trying to get in there as fast as they can. Those sports are complicated and difficult because they’re violent sports. The nature of the sport is to hit each other.
Why are you so committed to boxing in your own life?
Boxing has a lot of metaphors. Boxing’s a great sport; it’s definitely chess, not checkers. People think it’s just swinging and punching, but that’s not boxing. The whole objective of boxing is get the other opponent to help you kick his a–. You trying to outsmart somebody. It’s not as primitive as people think it is. It’s a great sport to just learn some life skills, to know when to bomb and leave, when to catch your breath, when to stick and move, when to go for broke, how to get back up. And it challenges you on those things, so that’s what I love about it. It’s just you and the other guy. You don’t have help. It’s all about what you’re made of, what you have in you. So it challenges that, when your lungs are burning, your ribs are hurting, guy’s trying to punch you in the eye or jab a bit. It’s like, ‘Do I really need to do this?’
Economic stratification has a huge impact on defining who goes into football and boxing. If you can afford to put your kid into something that doesn’t carry the same risk for potential brain damage, you’re going to do it.
There’s certainly classism. … It’s just opportunity. If you’re poor living in a ghetto — I know when I was — you bounced the ball, you hit a ball with stick. You punched each other or you play football. There was no golf courses that were nearby, there was no lacrosse. There’s no polo.
But some of those sports, you don’t get camaraderie, you don’t learn how to play as a team player, you don’t physically always get challenged the same. There’s plus and minuses to it all. Classism will always be here, and the gladiators will always be the gladiators and some people will always be in the stands. It’s just the fact of life. It’s not going to ever change, ever. If they took away boxing and football … there’ll be another sport.
For some people, like myself, like LeBron, like Ali, Michael Jordan, sports was a way out. I got a scholarship to West Virginia. That was a way out, that was a way of getting out the streets, getting out the ghetto. But also, you love it. It was a place to go that felt safe. It was a place to go to create a family outside of your family, with your teammates. To get that feeling of success, to win, that’s something that you can’t put a price on.
When top NFL draft prospect and Alabama standout Quinnen Williams announced he was signing with Young Money APAA Sports in January, his agent, Nicole Lynn, knew she’d be in for a ride.
Perhaps it was because she was signing a top defensive lineman, a 6-foot-3-inch, 300-pound Outland Trophy winner, to the same agency that reps the name and face of rapper Lil Wayne and all that comes with the Young Money brand. Or, she knows that if Williams does indeed go No. 2 overall as projected, Lynn will become the first African American woman to represent a top-five draft pick in the NFL. Either way, Lynn is living out her dream of helping athletes fulfill their full potential, an act that is along the same lines as Lil Wayne’s vision.
“Lil Wayne got into the business for the same reason I got into the business,” Lynn said. “He wanted to give back to players. He wanted to help them when football was over. At the end of the day, we can all identify with this. Lil Wayne doesn’t need this money, this sports money. It isn’t for that. He’s doing it for a bigger purpose, and I love that. I love working with people every day that walk with the same purpose, and that’s superpowerful.”
Off the field, Williams is described as the prototypical gentle giant with a magnetic personality, pleasant to be around, a team player. On the field, however, Williams is the epitome of a competitor: controlled and focused on the task at hand. Menacing to some and a true challenge to others. In his last season at Alabama, Williams started 15 games and led the team with 70 total stops, 12 quarterback hurries, 18.5 tackles for loss, 7 sacks and a safety.
It wasn’t much of a shock when he was one of four players from Alabama to enter the NFL draft, but Williams also became one of the growing number of athletes to join a sports agency attached to an entertainment company. After signing to Young Money APAA Sports in January, Williams became one of eight agency clients in the 2019 NFL draft class, joining Mecole Hardman Jr., D’Andre Walker, Gary Johnson, Jakobi Meyers, Dennis Daley, Emeke Egbule and Jamal Davis II.
Williams will also join a mixed list of more than 60 veteran athletes as well as up-and-comers represented by Young Money APAA, including second-year Washington Redskins running back Derrius Guice, New England Patriots defensive backs Devin and Jason McCourty, Jacksonville Jaguars running back Dimitri Flowers and former NFL wide receiver Nate Burleson.
Williams was exactly what Young Money APAA Sports envisioned when the agency was founded. After signing, Williams was also in awe of his new Young Money family.
“I signed with, like, basically Drake and Nicki Minaj. That’s crazy,” Williams told ESPN.
With Williams, Lynn was stepping into territory out of her usual realm of veteran players, and she learned to appreciate everything that comes with the sought-after player.
“When I met Quinnen for the first time, I was shocked to see that he was just as impressed with me as I was with him,” Lynn said. “He told me that he couldn’t believe I had never repped a first-round draft pick but he wanted to change that. He believed in me, and I am forever grateful.”
Lynn’s career as an agent began only four years ago. Before she entered the world of sports agency in 2015, she was a financial analyst at Morgan Stanley. But Lynn soon realized the hours she clocked every day took her away from what she actually wanted to achieve.
“I always knew I wanted to be an agent, or that I wanted to do this role,” Lynn said. “I didn’t necessarily know what it was called. I knew that I wanted to help athletes; I knew I wanted to help to maintain their wealth.”
Lynn did a little more research and learned that the sports agency world checked the boxes of everything she had wanted to do. Armed with new information, she applied to law school at the University of Oklahoma, where she had earned a bachelor’s degree in business management, in 2012 in anticipation of taking the agent exam. From there, Lynn landed a six-month internship with the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) in Washington, D.C.
“My goal was to learn how to be an expert in all of the benefits that a player gets,” Lynn said. “Their insurance, their annuities, etc. And I figured that would be something that would set me apart as an agent. Agents don’t do that, so I wanted to be different and have an expertise in that, and life after football.”
After a stint with the NFLPA, Lynn landed a job with the PlayersRep Sports Agency, at the time a top-10 agency, where her focus would be offering the best services to potential athletes and future clients.
Enter Lil Wayne.
Young Money APAA Sports was officially established in 2016 after years of conversations and idea exchanges between rapper and Young Money Entertainment CEO Lil Wayne and manager and Young Money COO Cortez Bryant.
In 2017, Young Money APAA acquired PlayersRep Sports Agency, where Lynn worked at the time, to help grow the new brand. With the new acquisition came more clients and experienced agents, including Lynn. The agency also enlisted the help of Adie von Gontard, a sports-savvy businessman whose grandfather owned the St. Louis Cardinals and great-grandfather founded brewing company Anheuser-Busch.
“With this specific agency, which, effectively, is the same agency with a twist — that’s kind of the way I look at it — it’s been great,” Lynn said. “The addition of Lil Wayne, Cortez, Mack Maine and Adie von Gontard, it has been just really great. We already had a really good agency with great agents and players, so now we just have been taken to the next level. Some of the rooms maybe we couldn’t get in before, we can get in. Some of the marketing deals we weren’t able to accomplish, we’ve been able to accomplish. So all it did was just really take us and put us into a different category of agencies.”
In its three-year existence, Young Money APAA went from three certified agents to more than 50. The sports agency now represents more than 80 athletes across sports, including football, basketball, boxing and softball.
Lil Wayne and Bryant have been sports fans their entire lives but decided they wanted to contribute more to the sports industry. The two drew parallels between sports and music and began formulating ideas for how a sports agency would fit with their well-established entertainment company. After having a firm grasp on what it’d take to develop the agency, the two discussed what the main focuses would be.
“I think that it got more serious because we’ve got a couple of friends that are athletes,” Bryant said. “They were kind of telling their testimony and their stories, how they were hooking up with agents and basically after the contract phase they were kind of out on their own. They didn’t have anybody to guide them or to help them along the way. We saw that, and we understood that most these guys had cross-trained backgrounds, coming from poverty-stricken neighborhoods growing up and coming into a whole lot of money at a very young age. We’ve had our fair share of bumping our heads.”
Taking everything into consideration and realizing this is something they truly wanted to do, Wayne and Bryant began the formal process of turning their dreams of a sports agency into reality.
The first order of business after establishing Young Money APAA was client services and ensuring that the only thing athletes had to worry about was becoming better in their respective sports. The agency would handle the rest. They laid out in clear terms what they were offering to potential clients and promised that they’d help their players build a solid brand.
“Even if they have the longest career, they’re still going to be superyoung with a lot of life left after that,” Bryant said. “We try to help structure that vision and help them grow while they have that opportunity and this window to be successful and make a lot of money. We want to ensure that they’re making the right decisions, financial decisions, and try to do the right thing to build their brand outside a deal so that when they’re ready to hang it up or, Lord forbid, something happens, you have a plan set up post-sports, a vision that can take them throughout their lives and take care of their family.”
Although Bryant believes the agency is still fighting to be respected as one of the best in the industry, it’s still clawing to be the best and improving each year. There’s no end in sight.
“As an agency, I want to make sure that we establish ourselves with integrity so that we can create partnerships for our athletes that can help them in the long run,” Bryant said. “People come to the brand because they know what it’s done and that it’s established. So corporate brands, they tend to partner with us because they know with our portfolio and our roster of artists. … Right now, I’m in a cultivation state. I’m out here breaking doors down, trying to figure it out on the sports side.
“We’re still young. People don’t know me. These people must think that Wayne is signing these contracts and he’s negotiating deals. They don’t understand that we have a whole team and we really built a reputable company. We have agents outside in the cold to talk to. We’ve got agents on board with us with 20-plus years of experience. We value ourselves in doing good business around the board; that’s not gonna change. We built integrity in the Young Money brand, and we’re planning on doing the same thing in sports. People don’t get it, and that’s OK. They’ll get it one day.”
Although Lynn’s achievement in signing Williams is just one of the highlights in her still-rising career, there’s still an uphill battle as one of the few female sports agents in a predominantly white, male-dominated field. Of the 830 NFLPA-certified agents, only 5% are women.
“I had to get used to being the only one in every room that I walk in,” Lynn said. “Even as an attorney, I work in a male-dominated field. But there’s just something different in sports because you are really the only one, right? Every room I walk in, I just have to assume there’s gonna be no women in the room. I have to assume that I will be identified, or when somebody needs me they will assume that I am the marketing rep, or that I’m a girlfriend of a player, or that I’m a wife. Their first thought will never be that I’m an agent.”
Lynn acknowledges that these numbers won’t change overnight, but with support and backing from a sports agency like Young Money APAA Sports, the future is bright.
“First and foremost, obviously you want him to be a good football player. It makes your job easier,” Lynn said of her clients. “But I tend to represent a lot of veteran players. Not on purpose, but those are the ones that typically flock to me, mostly because they are older, they’re more mature. A lot of times they’re married, they’re with kids, and they appreciate what I bring to the table. They appreciate that I care about their entire family, and so my hope is to work with individuals that are just good guys, just good guys that love the game and just want to be great. You don’t always have those clients, and that’s OK. I think it’s great to be a light in darkness. So I get the opportunity to work with guys who aren’t like that sometimes, and I do everything I can to turn it around.”
Her honey blond hair was like a halo of gold under the stage lights.
An Egyptian cape wrapped around her body. She mesmerized the audience.
Beyoncé’s groundbreaking performance at the 2018 desert concert paid homage to HBCUs by showcasing black culture and talent. “When I decided to do Coachella, instead of me pulling out my flower crown, it was more important that I brought our culture to Coachella,” Beyoncé said in her Netflix film Homecoming.
Beyoncé made history for being the first black woman to headline Coachella. During that performance, she announced the Homecoming Scholarship Awards Program under her BeyGood initiative. She offered $25,000 each to students at Xavier University in Louisiana, Grambling State University, Tuskegee University, Morehouse College, Wilberforce University, Texas Southern University, Fisk University and Bethune-Cookman University.
I attend Xavier and I was one of the recipients. And I’m graduating on May 11!
It felt like just yesterday I was dancing in the living room with my father as Beyoncé performed “Love On Top” at the 2011 MTV Video Music Awards. We both smiled at each other, in awe of Beyoncé’s talent as a visionary and entertainer. Every time we heard her voice over the radio or when we blasted her music in our house, it gave us goose bumps. My dad and I always connected through music. When he died my junior year in high school from cancer, I was in disbelief. But it was Beyoncé’s music and presence that taught me to stay strong and that no dream of mine was too big.
I decided to leave my hometown of Boston and attend Xavier University of Louisiana to reconnect with my dad’s roots and carry on his legacy in New Orleans, where he grew up. My dad taught me how to write and reminded me that everyone has a story to be told. When I stepped foot on my HBCU campus, I hit the ground running by getting involved in journalism.
Two years ago, I had the chance to meet Beyoncé at a party that her sister Solange was hosting for NBA All-Star Weekend in New Orleans. I thanked Beyoncé for her music and for getting me through losing my dad. She responded, “I’m so sorry for your loss, and thank you for being such a supportive fan.”
With each passing year, it became increasingly difficult for my newly single mom to cover the cost of my out-of-state tuition. But last summer, my worries faded away. I was interning in the sports department at the Tampa Bay Times and saw the news on Twitter. I saw a “Congratulations” tweet and realized I was one of the winners. I was speechless, and couldn’t believe the announcement was real.
I prayed on this. Waited.
And the dream came true. Thank you @Beyonce and @XULA1925 for believing in me. And thank you to @jemelehill who my essay was about. Thank you for being an inspiration to black female journalists like myself.
Y’ALL I AM A BEYONCÉ RECIPIENT pic.twitter.com/1KEQCUMDHI
— Allana J. Barefield (@_AllanaB_) July 23, 2018
The outpouring from the public was something I had never seen before on my social media. Other recipients said they felt that same love. The Tuskegee winner, Caleb Washington, screamed when she saw the news on Twitter. She was interning at Goldman Sachs.
Caleb Washington, a senior from Demopolis, Alabama, majoring in sociology, is among the eight recipients of the @Beyonce Knowles-Carter and @BeyGood's $25,000 2018-19 Homecoming Scholars scholarship award.https://t.co/ko0XTexUvo pic.twitter.com/Kx0wAyMkaq
— TUSKEGEE UNIVERSITY (@TuskegeeUniv) July 23, 2018
Washington transferred from the University of West Alabama during her junior year. She played basketball and was on an athletic scholarship. But she gave it up, the sport and the scholarship, to focus on getting into law school.
“The Beyoncé scholarship was like a safe haven because it replaced the athletic scholarship,” she said. “Tuskegee has prepared me through the trials and triumphs of operating and managing your day-to-day. At an HBCU, it prepares you for corporate life.”
When Washington watched Beyoncé’s performance, she felt that it was an honor to be black. “I felt so proud. In a sense, I felt validated to be a soon-an-HBCU grad and be part of this culture,” Washington said.
If it wasn’t for Beyoncé’s scholarship, recipient Cletus Emokpae said, he would have not received his master’s degree in mass communication and would have been homeless. The Grambling State alumnus got into a car accident the day before he heard the scholarship news.
“I called my mom and broke down and cried because she understood, after a while you get tired of always having to struggle,” he said. “At what point does the grind start to really showcase the fruits of your labor?”
For Emokpae, this scholarship finally showed him that his hard work was paying off. When he first got to Grambling, he could not afford housing.
“One of my professors took me in just so I had a place to stay to get my work done,” he said.
“People can say a lot about Gram Fam, but when it comes down to it, when you need somebody, they will be there for you. No questions asked.”
As Graduate student especially at an HBCU, this is huge Graduate students are the least supported, least funded when it comes to paying for a higher education. @Beyonce thank you, because if you only knew what this year was like for me to have to pay for school.
— Be Like Butta Baby (@Cletus_RealTalk) July 23, 2018
By attending an HBCU, “it’s like a homecoming every day,” he said. Emokpae was proud to see how Beyoncé incorporated a band into her performance.
“People don’t even go to the football games for the football games anymore. They really go to see the bands,” he said. “And the bands at HBCUs are really like the pulse for a lot of these campuses. It runs deep.”
Beyoncé explains in her documentary that she handpicked her band members and dancers to make sure it felt like a homecoming, her HBCU.
“I wanted all of these different characters, and I wanted it to feel the way I felt when I went to Battle of the Bands, because I grew up seeing those shows, and that being the highlight of my year,” Beyoncé said. Her father attended Fisk University, and as a young artist she mentioned that she grew up rehearsing at Texas Southern and Prairie View.
Beyoncé has touched so many lives through her music, projects and philanthropy and as a businesswoman altogether. From this scholarship alone, one woman impacted eight different lives. As a result, we will always be connected and grateful for her support.
Homecoming has only increased my respect for Beyoncé. I continue to sing her songs that I used to belt out with my dad as a little girl. The only difference is, he’s looking over me as my guardian angel.
There is a widespread and poorly considered tendency to romanticize modern rural America, from Carhartt commercials to the new comedy series Bless This Mess, which features Lake Bell and Dax Shepard as naive city slickers inventing a new life in Nebraska.
But in her feature film debut, Little Woods, writer-director Nia DaCosta dispenses Waldenesque illusion in favor of a look at the quiet desperation that comes with being poor and a woman in middle of nowhere. The result is a snapshot of two sisters caught in the gritty binds of Little Woods, North Dakota, a miserable natural gas boomtown with little more to offer besides too many men and not enough well-paying jobs.
Tessa Thompson plays Ollie (short for Oleander), an industrious hustler nearing the end of her parole looking to start a new life if she gets a promising job in Spokane, Washington. Ollie used to make a living running opioids across the Canadian border before she was caught. She lives in a foreclosed house that belonged to her mother, who died of a terminal illness.
Her sister, Deb (Lily James) is a waitress who lives with her small son Johnny in a trailer parked in a lot with a bunch of other trailers belonging to people who can’t afford anything else.
The two women find themselves calling on desperate measures. Ollie can’t bring herself to leave until she knows her sister and nephew are safe, and so she plunges back into the opioid business once more, just long enough to make a haul that will pay off half the $5,800 needed to keep the bank from seizing the family home. Deb is pregnant, and in need of an abortion. The nearest American clinic is hundreds of miles away, a back alley arrangement has fallen through. Without health insurance, it costs anywhere between $8,000-$12,000 just to give birth in a hospital.
DaCosta, who is slated to direct the coming remake of Candyman, constructs the shots in Little Woods in a way that amplifies the town’s suffocating limitations. This is not the rural America of Terrence Malick, full of open spaces and ripe with possibility. Instead, it’s desolate and depressed, and danger lurks everywhere in the form of men who don’t respect boundaries. When Ollie goes lurking about a truck stop in the middle of the night to serve new customers, it’s absolutely harrowing. Thompson plays Ollie with taut, barely contained fear, curled up like a spring, keeping the audience waiting for the moment her little life, and the possibility of a better one, collapses into nothing.
DaCosta’s vision of the American West has more in common with the one playwright and actress Heidi Schreck brings to light in What the Constitution Means to Me (currently running on Broadway) as she speaks about her great-grandmother, a Scandinavian mail-order bride her great-grandfather ordered from a catalog. It’s a vision where women are scarce and their rights and safety are scarcer. Schreck’s ancestors lived in Washington, where they earned a living as loggers clearing the state’s untamed natural resource. Schreck uses What the Constitution Means to Me to reflect on the ways the women in her family were barely people in the eyes of the U.S. Constitution, but regarded as children or property under the purview of men.
In the generations since, not much has changed, depending on where you go. In Little Woods, the natural resource is natural gas instead of wood, but the threats to female bodies are just as common, the violence against them just as casual and routine. Ollie gets roughed up by the local opioid magnate when she briefly starts selling again. Deb faces danger the night she tries to procure a fake Canadian health card that will allow her to get an abortion in Winnipeg, Manitoba, covered by the country’s national health insurance.
DaCosta draws her audience in by daring them to hope for better, and closes with a peaceful shot of the wilderness that bridges Canada with the United States. But she never romanticizes the wildness of the West. Too many women are still falling victim to its ills.
This was the point, my dad once told me, that I knew you were interested in women.
I was 6 years old, waiting for a haircut from our regular barber, Clarence. (To this day, I don’t know Clarence’s last name. He is my Cher.) My older brother and I took out about 20 of the pocket-sized weekly magazines, lined them up in a row and flipped each to Page 43 — it was almost always Page 43. We probably didn’t even need the table of contents; we knew exactly what we were looking for.
We found out on our own that we liked girls right there in between the pages of Jet magazine, in “Beauty of the Week.”
On April 9, Johnson Publishing Co., which published Jet magazine and its sister publication Ebony magazine from the 1940s until 2016, filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District of Illinois, effectively ending the black-centric publisher’s 77-year run.
In 2016, Johnson Publishing sold Jet and Ebony to private equity firm Clear View Group. Last week’s filing will not affect either of those publications. Nevertheless, the fate of Johnson Publishing brought back thoughts of “Beauty of the Week,” which placed just ahead of professional wrestling and Power Rangers on the Family Feud-like board of my pastimes.
Your level of fondness for “Beauty of the Week,” the magazine’s famous section dedicated to black women decked out in swimsuits, depends on your perspective.
For some black men, it was somewhere between adoration of the black female body … and Lawd Have Mercy. Whether on the bus, in the barbershop, on the end table at your grandmother’s house or even in prison cells, from teenagers to middle-aged men, some among us went straight to the centerfold of Jet as soon as we set our eyes on the pint-size glossy cover. Black boys and men (and women, too) ogled the pretty brown-skinned women with the voluptuous curves and breathtaking smiles. And while it wasn’t Penthouse or Maxim’s Hot 100, Johnson Publishing exploited black bodies and sexuality, sometimes printing photos that straddled the line between tasteful and lustful.
At the same time, “Beauty of the Week” brought black female bodies into the mainstream, said Cornell University professor Noliwe M. Rooks, whose research focuses on beauty, race and fashion. As a pushback against pinup girls in other magazines of the early 20th century, Johnson Publishing founder John H. Johnson created a domain for black women and their sexuality. These images were a sharp contrast to the all-white bodies presented in other publications. And though Jet was never known for featuring plus-size women, its models came in different colors, sizes and shapes — the antithesis of the blond bombshell.
“They’re not stick figures,” Rooks said.
Stick figures they were not. At the time, I was way too young to understand the meaning of sex or even what it was, but I could somehow recognize black beauty (among other things) and how it differed from other suggestive images on television. Sure, there were the hidden dirty magazines around the shop of my dad’s trucking company, or the always-weakened-signaled Channels 32 and 33 on the “black box,” but I just knew there was something different about the women on the 5 1/8-by-7 3/8-inch pieces of paper.
Former Jet editor-in-chief Mira Lowe came to the publication during its twilight in 2007 but grew up reading the magazine, admiring the risks Johnson Publishing was willing to take with black women featured so prominently on its covers and throughout its pages. Before Jet and Ebony, black women simply didn’t appear on magazine covers. Vogue (1974), Glamour (1968), Life (1969) and Playboy (1971) didn’t put black women on their covers until almost 20 years after Jet’s first issue in 1951.
“Jet helped with the penetration in the black community,” Lowe said. “[It] laid the groundwork and was the pioneer to what we see today in mainstream magazines.”
Dudley Brooks, who was Jet and Ebony’s photo director from 2007 to 2014, said Jet was forward-thinking at the time in choosing to showcase black women in a way they hadn’t been before.
The early incarnation of “Beauty of the Week” debuted in 1952 in the centerfold. One of the first models was Florida-born Ruth King, who was working a clerical job in a New York City court when she appeared in the Aug. 14 issue. As would come to be Jet’s trademark, King’s full-page portrait was accompanied by a short bio and body size measurements that Sir Mix-a-Lot would rap about some 40 years later.
Outside of King, it wasn’t just aspiring models looking to be the next “It” girl appearing in “Beauty of the Week.” There were women majoring in speech at historically black colleges and universities, beauty consultants from California, and aspiring politicians and musicians. There was Beverly the waitress, Denise the inhalation therapist and Noni, who liked to deep-sea fish and Jet Ski. These women were everyday girls who were given the opportunity to show the world what “normal” looks like.
But there were also those who used “Beauty of the Week” as a launching pad. Former television personality and author Janet Langhart Cohen graced the section in 1966. She told Jet in 1986 that it’s “where I got my start.” Ja’net Dubois, who played wisecracking neighbor Willona Woods on Good Times, appeared in 1977. The most famous of the bunch was blaxploitation film actress Pam Grier, who was set to star in 1971’s The Big Doll House when she posed for the magazine in a two-piece bathing suit in Chicago.
“I think it was just after I finished Black Mama White Mama, and things were starting to blow up, and they said, ‘You’ve got to do Jet and Ebony,’ ” Grier told The Undefeated in 2016. “You can see I am so rough. I just seemed not like the beauties of today: toned and tanned and shiny. I was ashy, no makeup, my hair was all over the place.”
While “Beauty of the Week” was an opportunity to uplift and portray black women in a non-disrespectful manner, at the end of the day it was what it was.
“It was eye candy,” said Brooks, now the deputy director of photography at The Washington Post. “Things that used to be considered normal or accepted widely years ago move on.”
The women, for the most part, were photographed solely in swimsuits and, from 1959-93, were accompanied by their body measurements.
The photos have been called a “quick dose of random, incongruous cheesecake” meant to offset the more serious news stories in the magazine, no more obvious than in 1955 when Jet published the gruesome images from Emmett Till’s funeral just 26 pages ahead of 15-year-old Judith Stewart in a two-piece bathing suit.
The merits of presenting black women in next to no clothing can be argued every day of the week, but, at the same time, the editors and art directors appeared ahead of their time in the mid-20th century, showcasing women of various skin tones, waist sizes and hair lengths. A 2011 research study found that Jet presents “a larger female body size ideal … contrary to mainstream Caucasian media’s practices,” which may reflect a “broader definition of female attractiveness.” From Saartjie Baartman to former first lady Michelle Obama to Serena Williams, black women’s bodies have been ridiculed, mocked and simultaneously ignored for centuries, but Jet (and older publications such as Tan) had the audacity to put black women front and center for the world to see.
There’s not much I remember about my childhood. I vaguely recall learning to ride my bike or almost getting lost at a Six Flags theme park or dressing up for Halloween. But “Beauty of the Week” is one of those things that sits in the back of your memory, never being forgotten. I haven’t picked up a physical copy of the magazine since the early 2000s, but I can envision being in my grandparents’ living room as everyone else watched television, wading through the first 42 pages of the latest Jet, anticipating which pretty woman I’d get to see that week, like an adult L.O.L. Surprise! doll box. (Jet switched to a digital-only operation in 2014 and hasn’t posted a “Beauty of the Week” on its website in more than a year.)
When I was commissioned to write this story, I was told by my editor to keep it classy and tasteful. But crossing that line never crossed my mind. “Beauty of the Week” didn’t make me the man I am today, in that clichéd kind of way, but I can say without a doubt that it helped me learn to appreciate and respect black women and their bodies.
And now, the dissolution of Johnson Publishing means a part of Jet’s soul is gone forever.
And with it, a part of my adolescence.