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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Rachel Luna/Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Colson Whitehead’s ‘Underground Railroad’ led him to Jim Crow Florida His new novel, ‘The Nickel Boys,’ is based on a real reform school notorious for its brutality

Elwood and Turner, the adolescent protagonists of Colson Whitehead’s new novel, The Nickel Boys, become fast friends at a brutal, segregated reform school in Jim Crow-era Florida, but they are opposites. Elwood is bookish, optimistic and gullible. While working in a hotel kitchen before being sent to the Nickel Academy, Elwood gets duped into dishwashing “competitions,” ending up doing the work of his older, wised-up peers. At home, he listens again and again to a Martin Luther King Jr. oration — “containing all that the Negro had been and all that he would be” — and after the Brown v. Board of Education decision he waits expectantly, and in vain, for a black man to enter the hotel’s whites-only dining room and sit down for a meal.

Turner is already at Nickel when Elwood arrives, so he knows how the world works. Turner, Whitehead writes, “was always simultaneously at home in whatever scene he found himself and also seemed like he shouldn’t have been there; inside and above at the same time; a part and apart. Like a tree trunk that falls upon a creek — it doesn’t belong and then it’s never not been there, generating its own ripples in the larger current.”

Colson Whitehead says he sees himself in the two protagonists, Elwood and Turner, in his book “The Nickel Boys.”

Penguin Random House

Whitehead, who is 49, says he sees himself in both boys. We were having lunch at a diner on New York’s Upper West Side, where the author spent his high school years. He recently moved back to the neighborhood after 18 years in Brooklyn. “It’s really boring and the food’s terrible, but we don’t go out much and my wife’s parents live here,” he said.

The idea for the novel came in 2014, after Whitehead came across news reports about the discovery of numerous unmarked graves at Florida’s Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, which serves as the model for the Nickel Academy. Throughout its 111-year history, Dozier, which shut down in 2011, was known for brutality: beatings, rapes and, yes, murder. Dozier was segregated, but there was one building, “The White House,” where both black boys and white boys would be taken for beatings and worse.

When he first read these accounts, Whitehead was writing The Underground Railroad, which was published in 2016 to wide acclaim. It has since won both the Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award, and it is being adapted into an Amazon series by Barry Jenkins. The novel follows an enslaved woman’s escape from antebellum Georgia. It’s a haunting, brutal, hallucinatory journey set against the backdrop of several fantastical conceits, including the central one: What if the Underground Railroad were, in fact, a real subterranean railroad?

“Usually I do a serious book and a more jokey book,” Whitehead told me. “The Nickel Boys was a departure because I had just finished Underground.” He was planning to write a detective novel, but current events intervened.

“It was the spring of 2017 and Trump was trying to get his Muslim ban, and I was angry and discouraged by the rhetoric you’d see at his rallies,” Whitehead said. “I hadn’t written anything for a year and a half, and it was time to get back to work. I could do the detective novel or The Nickel Boys. I thought that with the optimistic figure of Elwood and the more cynical character of Turner I could draw on my own confusion about where we were going as a country.”

Unlike with The Underground Railroad, for which Whitehead drew upon stories from former slaves collected by the New Deal-funded Federal Writers’ Project and other historical accounts, there are living survivors of Dozier.

“It was a horrible place,” said Jerry Cooper, president of The Official White House Boys Association, an alumni group of sorts for the abused. Cooper, who is white, said, “We didn’t have interaction with the black boys, aside from maybe when we saw them bringing produce to the cafeteria. They were in one area of the campus, and the whites were another. And if the guards caught you interacting, you’d be sent to the White House — no matter your color.”

Cooper, who was at Dozer in 1961, told me African Americans may have had it worse overall because their work detail involved toiling in fields under the burning Florida sun. “But there wasn’t any difference in the beatings,” he said.

Cooper recalled a 2 a.m. trip to the White House, where he was placed facedown on a mattress and given 135 lashes with a 3-foot leather strap. “I passed out at around 70, but a boy waiting outside for his punishment kept count,” he said. “I still have the scars. That night I realized what it must have been like to have been a slave.”


But neither Cooper nor his ancestors were slaves. Many of Whitehead’s ancestors were.

His mother’s side of the family hailed from Virginia. Her father was named Colson, as was another enslaved forebear, “who bought himself out of slavery,” Whitehead said. His father’s side of the family was rooted in Georgia and Florida — “there’s an ancestor on that side from whom I got the name Turner” — while his paternal grandmother emigrated from Barbados through Ellis Island in the 1920s.

“Usually I do a serious book and a more jokey book. ‘The Nickel Boys’ was a departure because I had just finished ‘Underground.’” — Colson Whitehead

“A lot of my family history is lost to slavery,” Whitehead said. “And some that’s out there, I didn’t know at the time of writing Underground.” After it was published, some of his cousins reached out to chide him. “They’d say, ‘Didn’t you know about this, and this and this, about our history?’ ”

Whitehead grew up in Manhattan to upper-middle-class parents and spent his summers at the family vacation home in an African American enclave of Sag Harbor, New York. “The first generation came from Harlem, Brownstone Brooklyn, inland Jersey islands of the black community,” writes Whitehead in his fourth book, Sag Harbor (2009), a semiautobiographical novel that captures a nerdy, carefree adolescence. “They were doctors, lawyers, city workers, teachers by the dozen. Undertakers. Respectable professions of need, after Jim Crow’s logic: White doctors won’t lay a hand on us, we have to heal ourselves; white people won’t throw dirt in our graves, we must bury ourselves.”

Whitehead’s mother’s family owned three funeral homes in New Jersey, and his parents owned an executive recruiting firm. His mother and father became the parents of two daughters, then Colson and a younger brother. On paper, it was a Cosby Show existence. But as Whitehead recently told Time: “My dad was a bit of a drinker, had a temper. His personality was sort of the weather in the house.” (There are two sad examples of such temper in Sag Harbor, including one in which the father repeatedly punches young Benji, the protagonist, in the face as an ill-conceived demonstration of standing up to racial taunting.)

Colson (right) grew up in Manhattan in the 1970s with his brother Clarke Whitehead (left) and their two sisters.

Courtesy Colson Whitehead

After attending private schools in New York City, Whitehead went to Harvard. Growing up, he had immersed himself in comic books and horror films. “I wanted to write horror, science fiction and comic books,” he said. “A lot of writers my age had similar influences,” he added, citing Michael Chabon, Junot Diaz and Jonathan Lethem. “Then, in late high school and college, I started to think, Maybe I don’t have to write about werewolves.”

He was approached by another young African American writer at Harvard, Kevin Young, who is now an accomplished poet, the poetry editor at The New Yorker and director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. “I was working with a friend on reviving a black magazine from the 1970s, Diaspora, and she had met Cole and said he could be our new fiction editor,” Young said. “We hit it off instantly, and I published his first story.”

After college, Whitehead worked for five years at The Village Voice, eventually becoming the television critic. It was there he met writer-photographer Natasha Stovall, whom he married in 2000. (They later divorced.) He wrote a novel, but it was turned down by publishers and his agent dropped him.

“I was depressed,” Whitehead said. “But I wasn’t going to get a real job, and no one was going to write my books for me, so I understood I needed to get going. That’s really when I became a writer.”

His second effort, The Intuitionist, was published in 1999 and is set in a simulacrum of fedora-era New York, where there’s a war brewing within the city’s powerful Department of Elevator Inspectors. The protagonist, Lila Mae Watson, the first black female inspector in the department, is tasked with investigating a mysterious elevator crash. The book was well-received, including comparisons to debut efforts by Joseph Heller and Toni Morrison.

In 2001, Whitehead published John Henry Days, a multilayered, encyclopedic narrative thematically tied to the legend of John Henry, the railroad laborer who is said to have bested a steam-powered drilling machine. The following year he won the MacArthur Foundation “genius” award. Other novels (Apex Hides the Hurt, Sag Harbor, Zone One), a historical exploration of his city (The Colossus of New York) and even a poker memoir (The Noble Hustle, spun off from a Grantland article), followed. But it was The Underground Railroad (with a boost from Oprah’s Book Club) that launched Whitehead into literary stardom.

“It’s been remarkable to see Cole’s journey both in terms of his writing and as a person,” said writer and publisher Richard Nash, whom Whitehead met at Harvard and to whom The Nickel Boys is dedicated. “I remember going to one of his readings for his first book, The Intuitionist, at a bookstore in Soho. His hands were shaking, he was so nervous. And now I fully expect in a few years you’ll see his name crop up on the betting lists for the Nobel Prize.

“Especially with the last two books, it’s clear that’s where he’s headed.”

Whitehead has his critics. In a stinging review of John Henry Days, The New Republic’s James Wood (now at The New Yorker) pointed out instances of sloppy writing, such as using “deviant” for “divergent” and “discreet” when the intended meaning was “discrete.” Wood went on to note that Whitehead “tends to excessively anthropomorphize his inanimate objects” to “squeeze as much metaphor from them as he can.” Whitehead returned the favor a few years later when he satirized Wood in a Harper’s Magazine essay.

But Whitehead’s style has evolved, and his writing has become more precise. In The Nickel Boys, the anthropomorphization is sparing and powerful, as when he describes the shackles employed on defenseless boys who were beaten to death: “Most of those who know the stories of the rings in the trees are dead by now. The iron is still there. Rusty. Deep in the heartwood. Testifying to anyone who cares to listen.”


After our lunch, Whitehead said he was considering making chili for his family — his wife, literary agent Julie Barer, 13-year-old daughter, Madeline, and 5-year-old son, Beckett. “It’s hot, but there’s something about chili, it’s so hearty and satisfying,” he said. Cooking is a passion, and he’s been perfecting his meat smoking skills at his new vacation home in East Hampton.

Colson Whitehead’s book, “The Underground Railroad,” launched him into literary stardom when it was published in 2016.

Timothy Smith for The Undefeated

When he was writing The Nickel Boys, Whitehead said, he was struck by the parallels between the 1960s and today in terms of race relations. As a father myself, I was curious about how he broached the subject of race with his own children.

“It comes up more when we talk about police,” he said. “[My son is] really into cops and robbers. So when we’re walking around and he sees a police car with its sirens blaring, he’ll say, ‘They’re going to catch a robber.’ And I’ll say, ‘Maybe it’s an innocent man. Maybe it’s just a dark-skinned guy driving a nice car.’ ”

Whitehead couldn’t remember when his daughter first became aware of race — when she discovered that, to borrow a phrase from one Nobel Prize-winning writer, the world is what it is.

“That was a long time ago, and I can’t recall a particular moment,” Whitehead said. “But the thing is, everyone figures it out sometime.”

New book looks at the beef between Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes, two of literature’s brightest stars Just like Shaq and Kobe or Tupac and Biggie, beef crops up across the culture

Few stars shined brighter in the Harlem Renaissance firmament than Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes. On the surface they seemed to have little in common: She was the folksy anthropologist, novelist and playwright with a down-home style reflecting her Southern roots. He was an urbane poet. But they shared the same literary mission: to capture the black vernacular on page as a means of reflecting the complexity of the black experience. They were fast friends.

Until their beef, which proved unsquashable. Their bond and its fracture is the subject of Yuval Taylor’s new book Zora and Langston: A Story of Friendship and Betrayal. Taylor sticks to this particular schism, but it’s hard to read about Hurston and Hughes’ conflict without thinking about other examples of cultural beef, from hip-hop to sports.

The break between Hurston and Hughes is an age-old story, defined by driving ambition, hunger for credit and jealousy. Other parties were very much involved, from Charlotte Osgood Mason, the elderly white New York doyenne who opened her checkbook for and lavished praise upon writers who fed her infatuation with black primitivism (more on this shortly) to Louise Thompson, a typist who grew close to Hughes, much to Hurston’s chagrin. Hurston and Hughes were never romantically involved, but they shared a powerful emotional bond that Hurston guarded fiercely.

“Zora and Langston” book cover.

WW Norton

More important was what Thompson was typing. Hughes and Hurston had long dreamed of collaborating on a folk play, Mule Bone, which, as Taylor writes, “seemed to draw on all of Zora’s strengths and few of Langston’s.” They worked on the play together and apart and with Thompson. She came to think of it as her play. He came to think of it as his. They each had versions copyrighted. They both sought legal recourse. It was a messy dispute that led to both a creative rupture and a death blow to their friendship. The play itself wasn’t staged until 1991, long after both principals had passed away.

What’s beef? The Notorious B.I.G. answered the question from a hip-hop perspective: “Beef is when you need 2 gats to go to sleep/Beef is when your moms ain’t safe up in the streets/Beef is when I see you/Guaranteed to be in ICU, one more time.

Notorious B.I.G., of course, knew about beef. His disputes lived on vinyl, where rappers had made sport of dissing each other for years. LL Cool J made his name largely by taking on other rappers: Kool Moe Dee, Ice-T and too many others to count. There may have been genuine animosity in some beefs, but for the most part they were artistic jousts, provoked when someone said something on some stuff, or when one artist committed the sin of biting another’s style.

(L) Tupac Shakur. November 10, 1994.
(R) Rapper Notorious B.I.G., aka Biggie Smalls, aka Chris Wallace rolls a cigar outside his mother’s house in Brooklyn January 18, 1995.

Getty Images

But by the time Notorious B.I.G. hit his peak, a larger and more serious beef had taken hold. His beloved East Coast hip-hop scene — or at least his label, Bad Boy — was engaged in a protracted verbal war with the West Coast and Tupac Shakur. Tupac and Biggie, like Zora and Langston, had been friends. But this falling-out was different from that bitter literary feud, and even from previous hip-hop beefs. It involved bullets, first when Shakur was shot in New York and blamed Biggie’s crew, then when Tupac was shot and killed in Las Vegas, and finally when Biggie met the same fate the following year in Los Angeles. This was no mere creative dispute. It was a lethal feud that exploded into murder before anyone could really register what was happening.

Beefs may take different shapes and result in different degrees of consequence. But they usually have things in common, including peripheral figures fanning the flames. Think Suge Knight, in Tupac’s corner, and Sean Combs, representing Biggie, and the myriad voices throwing in behind each party. As it turned out, Hurston and Hughes had the same flame-fanner, the meddlesome Mason, whose mission was to cultivate black artists and provide them with money and resources — but only if they did as she wished. That meant conforming to Mason’s view of blacks as gloriously primitive, closer to nature than anyone else and therefore more pure. “Mason’s fondest hope,” Taylor writes, “was to make a difference to the world through a mystical connection to the primitive, which would overwhelm the malign forces of civilization.”

Her nickname was Godmother. “If one split that word into its constituent parts,” Taylor writes, “and joined them with an ampersand, it would describe well how her acolytes regarded her.” Hurston referred to her as “My Mother-God and her “true conceptual mother — not a biological accident.” Accustomed to such devotion, Godmother was also used to getting what she wanted. What she didn’t want was her two star scholars writing a play together. She opened her checkbook for Hughes to write novels and poetry and for Hurston to collect folklore. She saw the playwriting business as an unnecessary distraction from her mission.

Unfortunately for Godmother, Hughes and Hurston really wanted to write their play, and the more Mason objected, the more determined the two writers became. Godmother also sowed competition between the two by signing them to different contracts, allowing Hughes to keep the rights to his work while Hurston had to sign over her folklore to Mason. Godmother even prevented Hurston from showing her research to anyone else without Godmother’s permission.

On the one hand, as Taylor writes, “While Langston was being paid to create, Zora was being paid to collect.” To make matters worse, Hurston wasn’t allowed to keep what she collected. Is there any wonder Hurston envied Hughes’ deal, or that tensions between the two simmered, or that both sought to assert authorship over what was planned as a joint effort?

Third parties aren’t always the prime culprits behind beef. Hughes and Hurston had plenty of ego and hunger for the credit they thought they were due. These are qualities they shared with many of the beefing athletes of today, especially in a sport such as basketball that requires sharing the ball. Not even a team like the Golden State Warriors is immune, although they’re good at publicly patching up conflicts. (Of course they are. They’re good at everything.)

NBA beef tends to be very public, largely because of the league’s popularity and also because the star players are rarely shy. When Kyrie Irving demands a trade because he doesn’t like his role on LeBron James’ team, the world is going to find out.

Kobe Bryant #8 and Shaquille O’Neal #34 of the Los Angeles Lakers look on during an NBA in 2001.

Sam Forencich/NBAE/Getty Images

The defining NBA beef remains the one between Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, which effectively broke up the dynastic Los Angeles Lakers of the early ’00s. O’Neal, the big dog, insisted on regular feeding down low. Bryant, the rising star, was a lot more interested in shooting than feeding. You had two superstars with vastly different styles, each convinced that his style was the best way forward. Their hunger for credit was as powerful as any felt by Hurston and Hughes.

They won three straight NBA championships together, sniping much of the way. Eventually O’Neal was traded to Miami, where he won another championship alongside Dwyane Wade. Bryant won two more with the Lakers. After the trade, O’Neal referred to Bryant as a Corvette and to himself as a brick wall. O’Neal at one point tried to cast Lakers coach Phil Jackson in the Godmother role, blaming him for mismanaging the team and the beef.

Unlike Hughes and Hurston, who lawyered up over the fate of their aborted collaboration, or Tupac and Biggie, who ended up dead, Shaq and Kobe, like most sports beefers, played out their battle on the court and in the media. They also de-escalated their feud in subsequent years, with each player taking turns playing the other.

Sports can be an oasis of civilization compared with so many other fields of battle. It’s where beef, for all its sound and fury, can be just another part of the game.

Daily Dose: 12/18/17 Diddy wants to buy the ‘North’ Carolina Panthers

Well, what a day. Our president, John Skipper, stepped down, noting his own substance abuse issues as the reason. The Undefeated does not exist without Skipper, which is a plain fact. Going to miss that guy.

Tavis Smiley is fighting back. The longtime PBS host, who has built a career being one of the most prominent black faces in media, was suspended for allegations of sexual misconduct, which we’ve obviously seen a lot of in recent months. Now he’s attempting to defend himself in the public eye, but it appears he doesn’t fundamentally understand the nature of the problem. To claim that you have cards and letters that prove your relationships over the years were consensual, well, that’s not really the point here.

Prayers go out to Seattle. Earlier today, an Amtrak train derailed, killing multiple people. Perhaps as important, though, the optics of a train dangling off a bridge in a relatively big city in America, with seemingly no relief in sight, is really disheartening. How we feel about American infrastructure efforts is very much regulated by what we can see, and this is not good. The stories of what happened to the people actually on the train are extremely harrowing and worth a read.

George Zimmerman is back on his bull#!@. Now that Jay-Z is making a docuseries about the night that Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin, an incident that sparked a revival in the attention on the deaths of unarmed black people, particularly at the hands of people in positions of authority. Reminder: Zimmerman was a self-appointed neighborhood watch person. Not some officially appointed guy. Now he’s throwing shade at Jay, like he wants to get in a confrontation with him too. Yeah, that’s gross.

The situation with the Carolina Panthers is bad news. Owner Jerry Richardson has been accused of a whole lot of really foul things, including openly telling women to turn around so he could look at their behinds and allegedly requesting that a black employee apply suntan lotion to his face. Now, in an attempt to get away from it, he’s selling the team. Tina Becker is now running the team, and Diddy has said he wants to buy the squad, but he doesn’t know their name (he called them the “North Carolina Panthers” in a video) and he has no idea who the quarterback is.

Free Food

Coffee Break: There’s a new novel from Zora Neale Hurston coming out, and I could not possibly be happier about this. The legendary writer has long since left us, so the notion of new work coming from one of the best minds in human history is really exciting.

Snack Time: If you haven’t seen Star Wars: The Last Jedi, what are you doing with yourself? In all seriousness, though, check out this story of Kelly Marie Tran, who is the breakout star from the film.

Dessert: If you need something to zap your productivity, here you go.

‘Marshall’ turns Thurgood into the contemporary hero Americans want, but ignores the one he was Not enough of the real NAACP lawyer shows up in Chadwick Boseman’s portrayal

Marshall, the new film from director Reginald Hudlin about the late Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall, comes from a production company called Super Hero Films.

It’s an appropriate moniker, given that the star of Marshall is Chadwick Boseman — or, as he’s sure to be known after February, Black Panther. But it’s also appropriate given the way Marshall presents the man once known as “Mr. Civil Rights” as a swashbuckling, arrogant, almost devil-may-care superhero attorney barnstorming the country in pursuit of justice and equality.

Written by Connecticut attorney Michael Koskoff and his son, Joseph, Marshall is not the story of the first black Supreme Court justice’s entire life. The movie takes place decades before Marshall was ever nominated to the court. Instead, Marshall provides a snapshot of young Thurgood through the course of the Connecticut trial of Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), a black chauffeur who was arrested in 1940 for the rape, kidnapping and attempted murder of his white boss, Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson).

Marshall, at the time an attorney in the NAACP’s civil rights division and seven years out of Howard University School of Law, travels to Connecticut to defend Spell. When the white judge presiding over the case refuses to let Marshall be the lead lawyer on the case, Marshall enlists a local Jewish attorney, Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), as the puppet for his legal ventriloquism. Marshall feeds Friedman his strategy, arguments and ideas and sits on his hands as he watches Friedman clumsily make his way through them.

Hudlin ends the film with an image of Marshall after he’s pulled into a train station in the Deep South. A mischievous smile creeping across his face, he grabs a paper cup to get a drink of water from a whites-only water fountain. Marshall tips his hat to an older black gentleman who’s watching, clearly astonished, and continues on his way.

The scene exposes how Marshall is more of an exercise in reflecting contemporary black attitudes about race and rebellion than it is connected to the way Marshall enacted that rebellion in his life as an NAACP lawyer, solicitor general under Lyndon Johnson, and then as a member of the Supremes. It’s certainly ahistorical. The real Marshall was a skilled politician, which made him an effective courtroom lawyer. He was charmingly persuasive, according to those who knew him, able to persuade white Southerners to do his bidding even against the wishes of fire-breathing racist sheriffs.

“He wasn’t an activist or a protester. He was a lawyer,” Marshall’s NAACP colleague, attorney Jack Greenberg, said in a 1999 documentary that asserts Marshall always followed the rules of the segregated South during his many trips there.

In any fictive portrait based on true life, a certain amount of interpretation is expected. But Marshall fundamentally changes our understanding of Marshall as a person and a real-life superhero. Thanks to accounts from family, colleagues and biographers such as Juan Williams, we know Marshall was smart, strategic and conscious of preserving his life and safety so that he could live to fight another day.

Hudlin superimposes modern conceptions of black heroism onto a period courtroom drama. He’s not the first to do so, of course. Both the 2016 adaptation of Roots and the now-canceled WGN series Underground told historical stories calibrated for a modern audience that wants and deserves to see black characters exhibit agency over their fates. Combined with the decision to cast the dark-skinned Boseman and Keesha Sharp as Marshall and his wife, Buster, Hudlin’s choices feel reactive to the colorism and racism in modern Hollywood. That choice ends up flattening an aspect of Marshall that certainly had an effect on his life: his privilege as a light-skinned, wavy-haired lawyer who grew up as the middle-class son of a Baltimore woman with a graduate degree from Columbia and a father who worked as a railway porter.

If ever there was a couple who fit the profile of the black bourgeoisie, it was Thurgood and Buster Marshall. Casting Boseman and Sharp may be a way to thumb one’s nose at the screwed-up obsession with skin tone that pervaded the black elite in the early 20th century and continues to block opportunities in modern-day Hollywood, but it also erases part of our understanding of how Marshall moved through the world.

Marshall possessed a terrific legal mind and used it to hold the country accountable to its founding ideals. He was a pioneer for daring to think that equality could be achieved by challenging the country’s institutions, but he also expressed a deep reverence for and faith in them. He would have been seen by whites in the South as a Northern agitator, and he knew it — the real Thurgood slept with his clothes on in case a lynch mob decided to confront him in the middle of the night. Altering Marshall so much in a movie meant to celebrate him ends up cheapening the gesture. It’s like making a biopic about Barack Obama and turning him into Jesse Jackson. He just wasn’t that type of dude.

It wouldn’t matter so much that Boseman’s Marshall strays so far from the real man if it wasn’t for the fact that Marshall tends to exist now mostly as a Black History Month factoid (even though multiple biographies have been written about his life and work).

Thurgood, a 2011 HBO movie starring Laurence Fishburne, goes too far in the opposite direction. Clips of Fishburne show a stiff and overly reverential character better suited for a museum video re-enactment or a Saturday Night Live sketch.

I sound like the story of Thurgood Marshall is a Goldilocks conundrum. Fishburne-as-Marshall was too stiff. Boseman-as-Marshall was too loose. Maybe a third attempt will get it just right.

Every time I see a film by a black director or that stars black people and I love it unreservedly, I experience a mélange of awe, reverence and respect that comes from witnessing an amazing work of art. And then comes the wave of relief.

Because the stakes are so high — every so-called “black film” must succeed to secure another! — you feel some kind of way about having to type all the reasons a film doesn’t work, knowing that those words have consequences but still need to be expressed. In short, it’s the feeling of “I don’t know if I like this, but I need it to win.”

I hate this feeling. If ever there was a selfish reason for wishing the film industry would hurry up and achieve racial and gender parity, this is it.


Hudlin’s directorial oeuvre is squarely commercial. His gaze is unfussy, with few stylistic flourishes, likely influenced by his past 15 years directing episodic television. His last movie was Wifey, a TV movie starring Tami Roman. His last feature was the 2002 romantic comedy Serving Sara, starring Matthew Perry and Elizabeth Hurley, but he’s probably best known for Boomerang, House Party and The Ladies Man. Thus it’s no surprise that Hudlin directs Marshall as a crowd-pleaser, but the nuances of Marshall’s life get lost.

What’s disappointing about the way Marshall is translated for the big screen is that real-life heroes come in a variety of forms. They’re complicated. They’re not saintly, nor are they all hot-headed crusaders. And that’s OK.

One of the most admirable aspects of Loving was that it was a historical drama with the patience to tell the story of Richard and Mildred Loving, portrayed by Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga, as the quiet, country people they were. They seem as unlikely a pair to make civil rights history in the film as they were when they lived. But Loving came from the Focus Features division of NBCUniversal, a production house known for unconventional work. Marshall is not an art house film, and I don’t think it needed to be to tell Marshall’s story. Hidden Figures was another historical drama meant for wide consumption. It’s not perfect, but Hidden Figures was so full of charm that it overcame the white saviorism added to Kevin Costner’s character, which didn’t exist in Margot Lee Shetterly’s book.

The shortcomings that separate Marshall from Hidden Figures and Loving are the same ones that give it the feeling of a TV movie. Aside from focusing on one specific area of Marshall’s life rather than the whole of it, Marshall does little to escape or subvert some of the most irritating biopic tropes.

For instance, the screenwriters jam Boseman’s mouth full of exposition about his accomplishments rather than demonstrating them. He rattles them off to Friedman in the form of a verbal resume.

The movie includes a nightclub scene that functions as little more than a non sequitur to shout, “HEY, THURGOOD MARSHALL WAS FRIENDS WITH ZORA NEALE HURSTON AND LANGSTON HUGHES. DID YOU KNOW ZORA AND LANGSTON HAD AN ICY RELATIONSHIP? BECAUSE WE DID!”

The three aren’t around long enough to discuss anything substantive. Their interaction doesn’t serve as foreshadowing for some other part of the movie. They’re just there because they all lived in Harlem. It’s little more than fat to be trimmed in a nearly two-hour movie.

But the most obvious weak point may lie in the flashbacks to the interactions between Strubing and Spell, which are filled with so much melodrama that they’d be perfectly at home on Lifetime. It’s not that those tropes don’t have their place. It’s just not on a screen that’s 30 feet high.

Boseman, as watchable as ever, makes Marshall a winking, confident wisecracker with a disarming smile. He’s full of smarts and bravado, communicating the real off-hours aspects of Marshall’s ribald sense of humor.

In the future, though, I hope screenwriters and filmmakers have more faith in the capacity of audiences to appreciate all kinds of heroes. As tempting as it is to superimpose modern politics onto historical figures, it can be more edifying to simply let them breathe so that we can appreciate their efforts within the context of their own times. Such context allows us to more fully understand the cost of their struggles and celebrate them all the more for winning.

R. Kelly story makes us realize that no one cares about black women The evidence is clear: In this country, some women don’t matter

For far too long, I’ve been arguing about the basic worth of black women and girls. It’s tiresome, and frankly, at this point my face should really look like I belong with these guys:

Members of the Blue Man Group.

AP Photo/Ariel Schalit

And as long as I’ve been arguing, both in my personal life and in my professional one, that black women and girls matter, Robert Kelly, better known as rhythm and blues singer R. Kelly, has been a central and contested point of that discussion.

Fifteen years ago, when I was a freshman at Howard University, I got into a heated argument with the boy I was seeing and his friends. The now-notorious video of Kelly urinating on a 14-year-old girl was available for consumption on the internet, to satisfy either a sick curiosity or darker urges. (It later became the central piece of evidence in his 2008 criminal trial for making child pornography in which he was acquitted of all charges.) It was widely referred to as the “R. Kelly sex tape.”

The boy, who was 19 at the time, and his friends argued that Kelly was not guilty of rape and certainly should not be held responsible for engaging in sex with an underage girl.

“Did you see what she was doing in that tape?” he asked. “She didn’t look 14.”

“It doesn’t matter!” I remember screaming, my words echoing through the halls of Howard’s architecture studio. “SHE’S STILL 14! SHE’S A CHILD!”

The boys’ opinion was so commonplace that it didn’t even register as scandal, let alone as the sort of sentiment you kept to yourself if you didn’t want to be seen as a rape apologist. This wasn’t an idea he was too ashamed to share. Quite the contrary.

I was furious and hurt. I was supposed to be at a place surrounded by men and boys who loved and respected black women. But we had differing opinions, not only about how respect was defined but also who was deserving of it. It was clear that they’d learned that some black women simply didn’t matter.

Rather than interrogating why a 14-year-old would have this sort of sexual knowledge (someone “older and wiser” must have taught her), and whether the sharing of such knowledge was remotely ethical, the boys had immediately identified the girl as a slut. This wasn’t just a moral judgment, it was one that absolved them, and other men, of any obligation to see this girl as just that — a girl, on the short end of a screwed-up power dynamic.

Her worth was tied to her morality, which was tied to her sexual experience. And since she appeared to be experienced, and inappropriately so, she was disposable. She certainly wasn’t worth bringing down the musical empire of someone as famous and important as Kelly, they thought.

This is a message women hear over and over again, from the trial of Stanford swimmer Brock Turner to the high-profile rape cases out of Steubenville, Ohio, and Maryville, Missouri.

And it’s one that carries a special resonance for black women and girls. We make conscious and unconscious decisions about who matters and who does not. As Zora Neale Hurston put it in Their Eyes Were Watching God: “De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see.”

In November 2013, Mikki Kendall created the hashtag #FastTailedGirls to discuss the premature sexualization of black girls and how we punish and blame them for it rather than hold black men and boys responsible for their actions.

Even when they realize something’s wrong, black women and girls are continually pressured to keep their mouths shut to protect black men who commit violence, sexual or otherwise, against them because of some warped definition of racial solidarity. Every once in a while, that pressure bubbles over and into the news, as it did in the 2016 Buzzfeed News story about the way accusations of rape are scuttled at Spelman, Morehouse and other historically black colleges and universities. It sprang up further when another anonymous Spelman freshman, driven to leave the school, started a Twitter feed, @RapedatSpelman.

“Spelman has taught me to be a free thinking woman and also to be a woman who has to keep her mouths closed to protect her ‘brothers,’ ” she tweeted.

In 2015, Jewel Allison, a writer and music educator who accused Bill Cosby of sexual assault, revealed that she’d kept the assault a secret “because [she] didn’t want to let black America down.”

And now we’re talking about R. Kelly again.

We were talking about Kelly in 1994 when he married Aaliyah when she was 15.

We were talking about Kelly in 2002 when a video appeared to show him sexually assaulting a 14-year-old girl.

We were talking about Kelly again in 2013 when The Village Voice revisited the accusations against Kelly.

And yet he’s still free, he’s still rich and, according to a new Buzzfeed News story from former Chicago Sun-Times reporter Jim DeRogatis, who broke the original stories, Kelly allegedly has been brainwashing young women and holding them inside a “cult.” Kelly issued a statement denying the new allegations.

Hats off to DeRogatis. But it only takes a cursory glance at the news and events of the past few years to see the fuller context of how black women and girls are dismissed in America:

  • Black girls are perceived as less innocent and less in need of protection than white girls, according to a new study from the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality. The study’s authors call this phenomenon “adultification.” Little wonder then that state legislatures across the country send the message that the bodily autonomy of young women and girls doesn’t matter, in the form of laws that still allow adult men to marry girls as young as 12.
  • Black women suffer from higher rates of death from domestic violence, and yet the Mississippi Legislature refuses to make domestic violence grounds for divorce, essentially throwing women away to be battered. “Mississippi Goddam,” indeed.
  • The then-president of the United States created a program called My Brother’s Keeper that targets boys of color. But girls of color, specifically black girls, are suspended from school at higher rates and endure systematic criminalization designed to push them out of school.
  • When black girls and women are fired from their jobs or suspended from school for having “inappropriate” or distracting hair.
  • When Marissa Alexander doesn’t enjoy the same protections offered by Florida’s Stand Your Ground law when attempting to protect herself from domestic violence as George Zimmerman was.
  • When the “Grim Sleeper” is able to kill at least 10 black women, and possibly as many as 25, over the course of two decades because no one bothered to engage in meaningful detective work when they went missing.

The parents of the women Kelly is allegedly holding will soon hold a news conference about their accusations, DeRogatis has said. It’s noteworthy that these parents refuse to be cowed by Kelly’s money and social standing.

But beyond that, a public event like this serves another purpose: It says that for once, when it comes to black women, someone gives a damn.

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

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

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

She didn’t always smell like that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you for seeing me.

“Thank you for teaching me about black people.

“Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”

Thank you for teaching me to love myself

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

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

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

You can be a tree,” I told her.

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

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

You can be a tree
Jesus.

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

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

She saw how we were the same.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you for seeing me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ll figure it it out,” I said.

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

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

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

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

“B-O-B?” I asked quizzically.

“Yeah! A Battery Operated Boyfriend!”

Thank you for teaching me about black people

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I knew exactly what she meant.