When I arrived as an undergraduate at Kent State University, I participated in Kupita, a week-long orientation for students of color in which faculty and seasoned students tried to prepare us for what lay ahead: four years as the rare black and brown faces on campus.

Those lessons stung in spots, massaged in others, and left us exhausted – rather like the new film, “Dear White People.”  Set at the fictitious Ivy League school Winchester University, the debut movie of Justin Simien follows four main characters as they figure out what blackness means to them. Not to mention managing all the expectations accompanying that identity.

Viewers meet Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P. Bell), the All-American legacy who squashes his own aspirations to please his father, the dean of students. His sometime love interest is Coco Conners (Teyonah Parris), who wonders why black people have to be so pissed off all the time. The gay black loner is Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams) – he wants solidarity but stumbles onto the staff of the all-white student newspaper as a token. And then there’s Sam White (Tessa Thompson), the militant Lisa Bonet lookalike who is burdened with the responsibility of being the loudest voice fighting for black students on campus.

The story begins with Troy and Sam running for “Head of House” in Armstrong-Parker, the historically black residence hall. Sam’s platform is the repeal of the recently passed Randomization of Housing Act, which threatens the safe space black students have long called their own. Troy runs on the fact that well, he’s Troy. Sam wins. The contest sets in motion a prickly battle over racial pride and identity against a backdrop of clueless white students and hyper-vigilant black students.

This tension culminates in a racist “Unleash Your Inner Negro” party thrown by white staffers at the school’s humor magazine. Blackface, crude wigs, and gaudy gold jewelry assault the senses. An older white man sitting beside me let out a low “Wow” in disbelief as the images flashed. (It’s easy to forget this isn’t purely fictional — so Simien tucks into his end credits some actual photos from “blackface parties” at colleges all over the country.)

After the flames cool from the party, the walls begin to come down for our main characters. Everyone inches a little closer to discovering who she or he truly is, even if no one is ready to make any bold declarations just yet.

Simien, 31, wrote and directed the film, which he began working on eight years ago. In 2012, he financed a concept trailer with his income tax refund, launching a crowd-funding campaign that raised more than $41,000 toward production costs. After studio executives promised distribution if “Dear White People” made it to the Sundance Film Festival, the film walked away this year with the U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Talent.

Some of Simien’s visual devices are unnerving — extreme close-ups and scenes shot from below make the characters appear to look down on the viewer. Add the piercing dialogue about race and I squirmed in my seat. Still, Simien deserves props for not being afraid to “go there.” In less than two hours he covers the presumed sexual prowess of black men, the cultural struggles of biracial people, homophobia within the black community and stereotypical Hollywood imagery financed by white people. There’s a lot to unload.

The actors all deliver stellar, if occasionally heavy-handed, performances. Sam, in particular, often sounds like she is reading a dissertation when she speaks. But I believe the academic posturing was intentional, a way to remind viewers that micro-aggressions like “Can I touch your hair” are indeed rooted in years of racial friction.

“Dear White People” is playing nationwide. It is not a perfect film, but well worth seeing. Do the Right Thing – and check out a rising star.

When Atlantic Monthly correspondent Ta-Nehisi Coates’ spoke in Cleveland in August about reparations, he touched only briefly on the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, in Ferguson, Mo., earlier that month.

“All I want to see is some history of the housing there,” he said. “We can begin with Mike Brown laying on the ground and folks rioting. But there’s just a whole host of questions behind that. How did his family get to live there? What are the conditions like? What’s going on there?”

Researcher Richard Rothstein at the Economic Policy Institute has dug up some of the answers in his new report, “The Making of Ferguson: Public Policy at the Root of its Troubles.” On Twitter, Coates called it the “best researched piece I’ve seen to come out of all this.”

Policies on zoning, segregated public housing, bank redlining and federal subsidies diverted from black communities all did cumulative harm, Rothstein argues.

“Government policies turned black neighborhoods into overcrowded slums and white families came to associate African Americans with slum characteristics,” Rothstein writes. “White homeowners then fled when African Americans moved nearby, fearing their new neighbors would bring slum conditions with them.”

In his own column covering Rothstein’s report, Coates reiterates: “The geography of America would be unrecognizable today without the racist social engineering of the mid-20th century.”

Rothstein calls for a more systemic lens to address decades of discrimination: “When we blame private prejudice, suburban snobbishness, and black poverty for contemporary segregation, we not only whitewash our own history but avoid considering whether new policies might instead promote an integrated community.”

The full report is available on the Institute’s website. Rothstein will speak at the City Club of Cleveland on February 13, 2015. Tickets will be available at a later date.

The biggest laugh during Ari Shavit’s serious, passionate talk about the Middle East came at the end, when a questioner at the City Club of Cleveland asked the Israeli journalist about the Kurds.

“Look,” Shavit said. “There are no good guys. There are no Canadians in the Middle East.  So you have two options: You opt out and say, ‘I’m a purist; I don’t touch it; it’s all contaminated.’ Or you say, ‘It’s a rough world out there, and promoting the lesser evil is doing the right thing.’”

In “the world’s most unstable region,” Shavit insisted that the United States must stay in the game: “I think the distinction should be not between moderates and extremists but stabilizers and de-stabilizers. America should lead an alliance of stabilizers. . .Jordan is better than Syria. And the Kurds are very, very promising.”

Shavit, 57, a columnist for Haaretz, a major daily newspaper in Tel Aviv, made his first trip to Cleveland in September to receive the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in nonfiction for his first book, My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel.  The book, five years in the making, received enormous critical attention for being frankly critical of the displacement of Arabs from their land in 1948 while still insisting on the morality of Zionism.

Speaking slowly, Shavit began his remarks as a gracious guest, praising the decency of the American Midwest and placing the City Club — the longest running free speech forum in the United States — in the line of civic institutions that the French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville celebrated as essential to the American experiment. Shavit reiterated his respect for the United States, and stressed the continuity between “your great democracy” and Israel’s “frontier democracy.”

He underscored this parallel: “This summer was traumatic for both democracies…We had rockets and tunnels and you had beheadings. Who would have thought of it just a year or two ago that we would once again see this Medieval evil.”

Shavit identified two hazards depleting Western influence in the Middle East: “the fatigue of two wars and an economic crisis that took the oxygen out of the room,” and what he described as an “intellectual weakness” among Western elites, chastened by this history of imperialism, in confronting “Third World evil.”  Shavit spent much of his half hour elucidating the perils of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons. “Nothing is more evil than ISIS but other are more dangerous,” he warned.

The former paratrooper and philosophy major insisted that he is still an optimist, a believer in the vibrancy of his people and his hosts.  “We have an amazing Israeli society,” Shavit said, pausing, as if weighing the messiness of democracy. “But we have horrific politics—worse than yours.”

When former poet laureate Rita Dove graced the stage of the Akron Civic Theater October 16, she took a minute to give thanks to her hometown.

“It’s wonderful to be back home,” Dove told the crowd, adding that she was thankful for the opportunity to “give back what was given to me.”

The Anisfield-Wolf juror was the headliner for Project Learn of Summit County’s annual “Night of Illumination,” a fundraiser to improve literacy. The figures are sobering: an estimated 18 percent of the adult population in Summit County read at less than a fifth grade education. For more than 30 years, Project Learn has worked to improve literacy rates among adults, offering free classes and workshops. During the afternoon, Dove met with 30 students from these classes for an intense writing session. Two of the writers – poet Trinity Brooks, studying for her GED and Bulgarian immigrant Albena Makris, mastering English – read their work aloud for the Civic Theatre crowd.

Dove, 62,  won a Pulitzer Prize in 1987 for her book “Thomas and Beulah,” a collection loosely based on her maternal grandparents in Akron. She invited the audience to journey through her poems and the life that inspired them, beginning with childhood.

“I found a whole world of possibility in books,” she said. “I read everything – the back of cereal boxes, comic books, all the books my parents had on their shelves.”

Dove said she can remember every page of the first book she read–Harold and the Purple Crayon, a transformative text she picked up when she was 3. The 1955 book’s message – “you go where you need to go and if the road isn’t there, you build it” – became Dove’s mantra. Her poem “First Book” is dedicated to the wonder of a small child learning to read:

Open it.

Go ahead, it won’t bite.

Well…maybe a little.

More a nip, like. A tingle.

It’s pleasurable, really.

You see, it keeps on opening.

You may fall in.

Sure, it’s hard to get started;

remember learning to use

knife and fork? Dig in:

you’ll never reach bottom.

It’s not like it’s the end of the world –

just the world as you think

you know it

Dove’s first foray into poetry came a few years after her discovery of Harold. In fourth grade, her teacher gave her class a broad prompt to make “something creative” for Easter. Little Rita, a quiet, bookish child, wrote “The Rabbit with the Droopy Ear.”

It was the first time, Dove remarked, that a poem had “come together” for her. She was hooked: “The bug had bitten me. I wanted to write all the time and feel that good all the time.”

Her creativity intensified during trips to the local library. “I can’t remember a time I wasn’t around books. That was the entryway into writing. It gave this shy child courage.” The poem “Maple Valley Branch Library 1967” is an ode to that place, its librarians and the willingness of her parents – Ray Dove and Elvira Hord — to let their daughter read any book she chose.

Dove read two poems from “Thomas and Beulah,” named after her grandparents. She told her audience, “There was no greater pleasure in my life than to get the Pulitzer for them, for my family and for Akron.” But she didn’t rush, and she had long conversations with her mother and her titular characters. “It took me a long time to write these stories,” she said. “I didn’t want to embarrass anyone. I wanted to get it right.”

During her tenure as the U.S. poet laureate from 1993-1995, Dove discovered people were afraid of poetry. “My response to that was to stick poetry wherever I went. I wanted to bring poetry into the world.” She took particular note of a letter from a mother declaring that young children should be exposed to poetry as soon as possible, for poetry is simply “making the language your own.” Children who are exposed to poetry in all its splendor, Dove said, usually have higher self-esteem and are less likely to feel like no one understands them.

Following the life cycle, Dove acknowledged the beginning of her courtship with Fred Viebahn, the German-born writer and her husband of 35 years. Her love poem “Heart to Heart” mashes clichés about the heart. It was fitting, Dove said, because their love is “anything but cliché.”

The twosome took up ballroom dancing more than a decade ago and the learning curve was steep: “There’s nothing like turning into stumbling toddlers when you’re in your…past-40s, let’s say,” Dove quipped.

The physicality of the sport (and yes, Dove maintains ballroom dancing is a sport) lead to Dove to write, “An Ode To My Right Knee.” This poem was particularly challenging in its own way. Upon crafting the poem Dove decided that every word in the same line would begin with the same letter. The last line — “kindly, keep kicking” — drew chuckles from the audience.

The evening ended softly, on a perfect note with Dove’s “Dawn Revisited”:

Imagine you wake up

with a second chance: The blue jay
hawks his pretty wares
and the oak still stands, spreading
glorious shade. If you don’t look back,

the future never happens.
How good to rise in sunlight,
in the prodigal smell of biscuits –
eggs and sausage on the grill.
The whole sky is yours

to write on, blown open
to a blank page. Come on,
shake a leg! You’ll never know
who’s down there, frying those eggs,
if you don’t get up and see.

Toledo attorney Lafayette Tolliver, 65, estimates there were fewer than 300 black students on the campus of Kent State University during his four years a half-century ago. “We pretty much knew everyone there because that’s how few of us there were,” he said. “We were there, we did it, we graduated. It was quite an exhilarating time.”

Interested parties can glimpse that mid-American black student experience in a new photography exhibit, “Coming of Age at Kent 1967-1971: A Pictorial of Black Student Life.” Culled from Tolliver’s personal collection, these images depict a pivotal time on college campuses, as black students at predominately white institutions began organizing for more resources, taking cues from the burgeoning civil rights movement. It was also a pivotal time at Kent – the National Guard shot four unarmed students May 4, 1970.

When Tolliver arrived in 1967 to study in small-town Kent, the student-founded organization Black United Students was beginning to solidify. “We were looking to have immediate impact,” Tolliver said, ticking off their goals: more black professors, larger black enrollment, more black studies courses. Their overarching goal was to “make it less of an isolated experience for students.”

Young Tolliver worked on staff for the college yearbook and daily newspaper, majoring in photojournalism. “I was the only black student taking pictures of black life. Whenever you saw me, you saw my camera,” he recalled. He graduated in 1971 with his bachelor’s in journalism, but the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. shifted his career ambitions to law: “I wanted more leverage.” He attended law school at the University of Toledo and practices mostly discrimination, civil rights, and bankruptcy law.

Earlier this year, Tolliver gave the university thousands of negatives from his collection; archivists selected more than 30 to display at the Uumbaji Gallery in Oscar Ritchie Hall. He hopes it will inspire more people to dig into the archives for similar historical context.

“I just wanted to make sure somebody documented this life that we were going through,” Tolliver said. “I wasn’t just taking pictures for my personal use. I wanted to have a record: we were there and we made an impact.”

The exhibit runs from October 11 through October 23, and is free and open to the public. Tolliver will give remarks at a reception 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. October 18 during Homecoming Weekend at Oscar Ritchie Hall on the KSU campus. To register, visit bit.ly/tolliver

Half of a Yellow Sun is now available on iTunes and other video streaming services. 

by Lisa Nielson 

The film adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Half of a Yellow Sun is subtle and engrossing.

Directed by Nigerian playwright Biyi Bandele, the film stars British actors Chiwetel Ejiofor and Thandie Newton, supported by a strong ensemble cast of Nigerian and British actors. Half of a Yellow Sun received mixed reviews in the US and Europe, and was further overshadowed by Ejiofor’s critically acclaimed 12 Years a Slave. In an additional complication, the film was originally supposed to open in Nigeria shortly after its release in Europe and the US, however, the Nigerian Film board stalled its Nigerian premiere due to concern over scenes depicting the Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970).

In Adichie’s novel, the story is told through three specific viewpoints; however, the adaptation uses an omniscient perspective. Perhaps to render the events and story less complex or more appealing, the film focuses more on romance than politics. The film centers on the lives of two sisters raised in privilege, Kainene (Anika Noni Rose) and Olanna (Thandie Newton). We meet them on the cusp of the civil war, and follow shifts in the complex relationships the sisters share with one another, their lovers, and, ultimately, their sense of nation.

Central to the film’s story are the interactions between the sisters and their lovers, Kainene’s English lover, the writer Richard (Joseph Mawle) and Olanna’s lover, Odenigbo (Ejiofor). Both sisters find themselves in the nascent Biafran state as a result of their work—Kainene takes over the running of their father’s company while Olanna teaches at university—and personal loyalties. At the start of the conflict, the sisters are removed from and seemingly uninterested in the underlying ethnic conflicts, though as the violence moves closer, their lives are changed forever.

In a recent interview with PBS, Adichie told host Tavis Smiley that the film was well done. “I like the art of it,” she said. “It captures Nigeria in a way that’s really beautiful.”

Shot on location in Nigeria, the director favors intimacy, warmed by sepia tones, natural colors and subtle textural changes in the scenery. Bandele highlights the contrasts between interior and exterior settings so that the landscape and environments become a vivid aspect of each scene. He also integrates archival footage of news stories and interviews of key political leaders, which helps outline the historical context for those unfamiliar with the war. Though pressing more on themes of romance, the film is a captivating and accessible adaptation, and serves to presents the complexities of an important event in modern African history.

Lisa Nielson is the Anisfield-Wolf SAGES Fellow at Case Western Reserve University. She has a PhD in historical musicology, with a specialization in Women’s Studes, and teaches seminars on the harem, slavery and courtesans.

“When you’re not born in the U.S. and you’re a person of African descent, in some ways identifying as black becomes a political choice,” novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie told Tavis Smiley during a recent appearance on his PBS show. “I’m very happily black.” 

Adichie was on hand to discuss her most recent novel, Americanah, now available in paperback. A love story that spans three continents, Americanah is about many things—with race and immigration at the forefront.  

“I wanted to write about a kind of immigration that is familiar to me,” Adichie said. “When we hear about Africans emigrating, we think of people who have run away from burned villages and war and poverty. And that story is important to tell but it’s not the story I know. I wanted to talk about the Africa I know, which is that the middle-class educated people are leaving…because they want more choices.” 

The pair discussed Adichie’s decision to come to the United States at 19, her refusal to speak with an American accent, and that “creative terror” that strikes when she sits down to write. The interview is worth watching in full. Take a look: 

New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow opens his memoir, “Fire Up In My Bones,” with a face full of tears.

“I had never thought myself capable of killing,” he wrote. “I was a twenty-year-old college student. But I was about to kill a man. My own cousin, Chester.”

The murderous impulse is triggered by a brief, casual phone call from his older cousin, who molested Blow when he was a young boy. The brief event splits his life into two. “Trauma stays alive and stays with you,” Blow, 44, told Mother Jones. “You relive it every day, so those scenes are incredibly fresh.”

Blow ultimately changed his mind and returned to his dorm, cleansed of the anger that he carried for more than a decade. That betrayal informed his perception of the world and his place in it. As a child, he took pains to adapt to his new reality, first immersing himself in religion and finding solace in the arms of his first girlfriend, then throwing himself into his schoolwork with vigor.

Like many sexual abuse survivors, Blow never spoke of the abuse to his mother, Billie, with whom he had a particularly close relationship. As the youngest of five boys, he is her shadow, accompanying her through most of his waking moments. It is this reluctance to leave his mother’s side that caused his first label to stick: Mama’s boy.

“Daddy’s boy,” not so much. His parents’ tumultuous relationship led to the couple calling it quits when Blow was young; his father only made sporadic visits thereafter. “The only time I ever saw a person actually shoot a gun at another, I was five years old, and it was my mother shooting at my father,” Blow wrote.

His life in small-town Louisiana changed drastically as Billie worked at a nearby chicken factory to provide for her sons. Among their new pastimes: hunting for treasure at the local dump, eating clay dirt from a roadside ditch, and scouring wreckage on the interstate. But, Blow noted, no matter how tight money became, his mother never cancelled her subscription to the local paper.

His father’s absence created an “emotional, spiritual loneliness,” Blow admitted. He looked to relatives, neighborhood boys and schoolmates to show him how to be. That thread of masculinity—how you define it and live it on a daily basis—permeates Blow’s musings from adolescence to adulthood. Childhood friends are defined by where they fall on the sexuality spectrum. An early sexual encounter with a girlfriend leaves him shaken after he realizes he doesn’t know how to perform “as a man should.” The yearning to belong pushes him to pledge during his freshman year at nearby Grambling State University in Louisana. Blow, plagued all his life by accusations of being “soft,” earns respect from his fraternity brothers for being able to endure the most pain during hazing.

He entered college as a pre-law major, a stepping stone to his then-career aspiration of becoming Louisana’s first African-American governor. But it was an English professor who, after Blow submitted a particularly strong essay, convinced him to focus on a journalism career. He landed at the New York Times as a graphics intern (a position created especially for him) where he rose up the ranks to become the paper’s visual op-ed columnist.

The ending is abrupt—he fast-forwards through college and on to the present day in roughly half a chapter—but it’s a credit to his storytelling that you still want 50 or more pages. He ends with a message of self-acceptance, a vow to “accept myself joyfully, fully, as the amalgamation of both the gifts and the tragedies of fate, as the person destiny had chosen me to be — gloriously rendered, deeply scarred, magnificently made, naturally flawed — a human being, my own man.”

“Cleveland has always been incredibly nice to me,” novelist Zadie Smith said as she took the podium at Case Western Reserve University. Her last visit to Northeast Ohio was back in 2006, when she was on hand to accept the Anisfield-Wolf prize for fiction for her third novel, On Beauty.

This year, Smith was the first author to appear at Writers Center Stage, a literary series sponsored by the Cuyahoga County Public Library and Case Western Reserve University. Clad in a tan blazer and jeans, Smith began her talk, entitled, “Why Write? Creativity and Refusal.” The title borrows from George Orwell’s 1946 essay “Why I Write.”

Smith, 38, told the audience that she appreciates the wisdom that comes with experience. “I much prefer writing at this age than when I was 24,” she said. Her debut novel, White Teeth, was published when she was 23.

Smith’s talk focused on the overwhelming trend of writers striving to become megabrands and conflating popularity with significance. “Most of my time with students is spent trying to press upon them the idea that creativity is about something more than finding the perfect audience for the perfect product,” Smith said. “To my mind, a true ‘creative’ should not simply seek to satisfy a pre-existing demand but instead transform our notion of what it is we want.”

Some of the best creative writing can be found in hip-hop, Smith says, but now, looking at artists like Kanye West and the L.A. rap collective Odd Future, rap music has become less about the message and more about the “branding opportunities.”

Smith, who teaches creative writing at New York University, tells her students that the reality of the publishing industry has changed. “I have to ask them sometimes, ‘Why do you think all the writers you admire are teaching in this building?’ A day job is a day job and historically writers have always had one,” Smith said, adding that her father had aspirations of becoming a photographer. Instead, for years he held a job folding and distributing pieces of direct mail “that you toss in the rubbish bin as soon as you get them.”

Earlier in the day, Smith spoke with a more intimate audience of university faculty and students for a free-flowing session about the writing process. “My experience with writing is writing sentences,” she said plainly. “What I’m thinking of is different kinds of sentences. It’s very hard for a writer to fool themselves about what they’re doing.”

Smith recently attended the PEN awards in New York where she presented the Lifetime Achievement prize to Louise Erdrich, a 2009 Anisfield-Wolf winner. What struck her, she said, was how many male winners mentioned their children as they accepted their awards. “Fathers are more involved now than they’ve ever been in the course of human history,” she said. “Dickens had 10 children. Tolstoy had 13. But they weren’t helping to raise them. This shift is going to change how we write, what we produce.”

Her writing process is informed by the realities of her life. A mother of two small children, she commits five hours a day to write at the library, and she brings her lunch with her to avoid wasting time. “Some writers say they won’t stop for the day until they’ve written 5,000 words,” she said. “But I couldn’t do that. It would be a cycle of failure.”

Instead, Smith said she fights the profound anxiety of a writer’s life and uses it to her advantage. “I wrote an essay that will be published soon about the advertisement that I can see from my apartment, because I literally never leave the house,” she said. “Some writers can go to Africa, traveling all over the world. But you have to do what you can with what you have and make the most of it.”