Hours after authorities announced that the grand jury in Ferguson, Mo., would not indict police officer Darren Wilson for killing unarmed teenager Michael Brown, The Strivers Row – a performance collective in New York City — began posting poems to its Facebook page.
One was “Sing It As The Spirit Leads,” Joshua Bennett’s forceful ode to black excellence written after George Zimmerman was acquitted in 2013 of killing Florida teen Trayvon Martin. Bennett begins by echoing the last stanza of a Lucille Clifton poem: “Come, celebrate with me. Every day something has tried to kill me and failed.”
Bennett performed the poem a year ago at Kent State University, where he told the audience that he writes to dig at the truth and help listeners and readers shed shame. “Poems should be archeology,” he said. “Write the things that cost you. Every poem has to cost you something if it’s going to be good.”
Here is a snippet of his poem, “Sing It As the Spirit Leads“:
I exist in excess of my anguish.
I am not invisible. I am a beam of light
too brilliant for untrained vision.
I am not target practice. I am not a bullseye with rhythm.
This breath is no illegal substance.
A ballad for the youngest son
How he survives beat cops that
see Caesars and seize up
scream “Freeze! Hands up!”
Watch Joshua Bennett perform “Sing It As The Spirit Leads” in full above.
On a recent sunny Sunday morning, four celebrated American writers rose early to meet for breakfast and chew over the merits of Kentucky Fried Chicken.
“I worked as a Kentucky Fried Chicken hostess,” said novelist Louise Erdrich, who won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for A Plague of Doves. “And I’ll just say it: the secret ingredient is sugar.”
Marlon James, whose ambitious new book about Jamaica, A Brief History of Seven Killings, is already anointed one of the best of 2014, insisted that KFC tastes better when eaten outside the United States.
“It is a joy to be back in Dayton and to be with such fantastic writers,” declaring Adam Johnson, who won a Pulitzer for The Orphan Master’s Son, his tour-de-force story set in modern North Korea. The Stanford University professor said that such warm, KFC-infused chatter “can only happen in Dayton.”
The fourth member of the impromptu breakfast club, Gilbert King, saw “Devil in the Grove,” his narrative of a game-changing civil rights battle in Jim Crow Florida, win a surprise nonfiction Pulitzer in 2013. He stayed mum, however, about fast-food chicken.
All four writers relished one another’s company and the rest of the throng convened for the 2014 Dayton Literary Peace Prize, an outgrowth of the Bosnian Peace Accords negotiated in 1995 at the Wright-Patterson Air Force base outside Dayton.
Begun in 2006, the initial Dayton prizes attracted “about 13 people for the first gathering,” said Sharon Rab, founder and co-chair of an honor that elevates literature fostering “peace, social justice and global understanding.”
Just eight years later, more than 300 readers assembled to hear Johnson, who won for fiction last year; James, who did the same in 2010 for his first novel The Book of Night Women; King, last year’s runner up in nonfiction and Erdrich, the winner of this year’s Richard Holbrook Lifetime Achievement Prize. The lines were longest to speak to her.
“Part of my work has been to tell stories about ordinary people who do extraordinary things,” Erdrich said. “My role is to be there as a writer and never to judge my characters — to understand the basis of behavior when it is cruel.”
Wearing a warm smile and dark, modest clothes, Erdrich’s beautiful posture reflected a kind of moral erectness. “I am not a peaceful writer; I am a troubled one, longing for peace,” she told the organizers. She declined to pose with a book when a reader coaxed her, and she rejected the notion that writing centers her.
“No, I don’t think it helps me find personal peace,” she said. “But I am addicted to the joy that comes over me when I write a good paragraph, or even a good sentence.”
Erdrich, 60, described taking her first plane flight from her North Dakota home to attend college at Dartmouth, where the school teams were still informally called Indians. “The outrage and the uproar that happened at this Ivy League college at changing their name was shocking to me, but after many years, they did it.”
She noted that the University of North Dakota has finally retired its “Fighting Sioux” moniker and reported that sportscasters in her hometown, Minneapolis, won’t even say the “R word,” the nickname of the Washington, D.C. football team. Its roots lie in the bounty hunters were paid in the 1860s for dead Native Americans.
Also on stage at Sinclair Community College was this year’s fiction winner, Bob Shacochis, sporting a silver mane of hair, a wry smile and an open-throated shirt. His novel The Woman Who Lost Her Soul ranges over 700 pages, 50 years and four continents as it explores the unintended consequences of American foreign policy. Shacochis, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Haiti, told the audience in downtown Dayton that the “woman” in the title is the United States.
The nonfiction winner, Karima Bennoune, grew up partly in Algeria and partly in the Midwestern United States. Her book, Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here, draws on global fieldwork and penetrating interviews to document hundreds of instances of resistance to radical Islam. Bennoune, a professor of international law at the University of California-Davis, decried how little is known about the resisters, and called to task Westerners on both the left and right who exaggerate and distort the stories of people in Muslim countries. She pointed to her father’s courageous resistance to censorship in his Algerian classroom, and the Afghanis who fought for the lives of their cultural treasures against the Taliban as if the statues “were their children.”
“If you want to know what Muslims think, you may want to ask them, Bill Maher,” she said pointedly in Dayton. “God bless Ben Affleck in calling out Maher, but he is wrong to say ISIS couldn’t fill a AA ballpark in Charlotte, because it could. Bill and Ben should actually start talking to people who know more about this than we do.”
As the runners-up in fiction and non-fiction took the microphone – Margaret Wrinkle for “Wash” and Jo Roberts for “Contested Land, Contested Memory” – they enhanced an intellectually vigorous, warm, collegial session. Wrinkle, a seventh-generation daughter of slave-holders, spoke about the spiritual underpinnings of her slavery fiction, and Roberts spoke eloquently about listening to all types of people ensnared in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Publisher, editor and composer Christopher Cerf, who moderated, beamed at the end. “As someone who has heard about the death of publishing far too much, as you can see, it is not dead yet, and not dead in the cause of peace.”
When Gina Prince-Bythewood last directed a big-budget film, Barack Obama had yet to be sworn in as president. Now she’s back with “Beyond the Lights,” an appealing new film that chronicles the rise of Noni Jean, a Rihanna-esque R&B singer who meets trouble on the road to superstardom.
The film begins just a few weeks before the release of a raunchy debut album from Noni, played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw of “Belle.” The lewd lyrics upend a career trajectory that Noni had hoped might mimic Nina Simone’s. Overwhelmed by the realities of becoming a “product,” Noni perches precariously on a balcony after the Billboard awards, planning suicide. Kaz Nicol (Nate Parker), the LAPD officer assigned to her security detail, reaches her just in time to save her from falling.
After this damsel-in-extreme-distress opening, the pair begins a lovely game of peeling back one another’s layers. The plot moves briskly, emphasizing what the characters are not saying. Much is conveyed with a sly glance or a wide-eyed look of innocence. Two veterans anchor the film: Minnie Driver as Macy Jean, the momager looking out for her own interests, and Danny Glover bringing his signature gruffness to the role of Capt. Nicol, Kaz’ father.
In this stellar ensemble, Mbatha-Raw shines, impeccably capturing Noni’s vulnerability and eventual discovery of self. The last third of the film is a wonder visually, as, scene-by-scene, Mbatha-Raw strips down from the packaged veneer and steps into a more authentic persona. Parker’s Kaz brings depth in what could have been a cliche role. The chemistry between the two leads is undeniable.
As a rare African-American women behind the camera in Hollywood, Prince-Bythewood understands the difficulties. Her last film, “Secret Life of Bees,” was the only top-grossing movie from a black female director released in 2008. Since then, women have directed fewer than five percent of the major studio films.
“People ask me if I feel discriminated against as a black female director, and I actually don’t — because I’m offered movies all the time to direct,” she told Flavorwire. “What’s discriminated against are my choices: I like to direct what I’ve written, and what I like to focus on are people of color. So that is absolutely the tougher sell, and the films that you have to fight much harder for, because the people making decisions are going to green-light films that they identify with and that make sense to them, and there are no people of color running studios.”
“Beyond the Lights” showcases what can happen when stories are told by the people yearning to tell them. The movie enters wide release this weekend.
A bold decision to start a school in an underserved Cleveland neighborhood, made by the leaders of a 150-year-old institution, has born early fruit. Test scores are up among 112 kindergarteners and first-graders at Stepstone Academy, and the work has garnered an Anisfield-Wolf Memorial Award.
OhioGuidestone, formerly the Berea Children’s Home and Family Services, launched the new charter school in 2012, picking a building on E. 32nd St. and Carnegie Avenue in Cleveland’s Central neighborhood.
The newly enrolled youngsters, living in one of Cleveland’s poorest sections, tested that August in the bottom 10 percent of students nationally. Nine months later, 85 percent of the children had made more than a year’s worth of progress, and the student body’s average achievement score ranked near the top 25 percent nationally.
“We just adore this work and these kids we are serving,” said Richard Frank, executive director of OhioGuidestone, crediting “momentum learning” that capitalizes on both teacher-led and online instruction.
Frank accepted a plaque and a check for $20,000 from Robert E. Eckardt, executive vice president of the Cleveland Foundation, which administers Edith Anisfield Wolf’s funds. The men accepted warm applause from an audience gathered for the Center for Community Solutions’ annual breakfast. It celebrates a cadre of inspirational volunteers and the Anisfield-Wolf winner.
That annual prize goes to “a community organization that has performed outstanding service during the previous 12 months, service that goes beyond normal and expected activity,” Eckardt said.
“The success of Stepstone Academy’s first year carried over into the 2013-1014 school year, with 80 percent of students returning to the school in August 2013,” he said. “Stepstone Academy is well on its way to having a transformational impact on the lives of students, parents, and the Central neighborhood.”
This fall, Stepstone added third grade and enrollment climbed to 260 students, with an additional 50 preschoolers in Head Start, said superintendent Susan Hyland. It plans to add a grade each year.
The neighborhood has no other charter school, high illiteracy, and the majority of its residents living below the poverty line, Frank said. To address “the poverty and homelessness,” OhioGuidestone created Stepstone 360 to surround student families. It works as “a gateway to access services and resources that help solve the tough problems blocking student achievement.”
Frank voiced OhioGuidestone’s pleasure at being selected for the Anisfield-Wolf prize, and with a dollop of emotion, declared “this school has been an act of love each and every step of the way.”
Poet Russell Atkins, his hair a white halo, his torso tucked into a wheelchair, rolled onto the stage of the East Cleveland Public Library, where he silently accepted a dozen orange roses and the accolades of a crowd.
More than a hundred well-wishers gathered on a sunlit fall afternoon to honor a poet whom Langston Hughes and Marianne Moore considered a peer. “As a community, as a collective, we can tell Russell Atkins, ‘job well done,’” said Sheba Marcus-Bey, the library’s executive director, as applause swelling around her. “He stood his ground as an artist and allowed us here in Cleveland to get on the literary map.”
Atkins worked long decades in Cleveland as a composer, a musical theorist, and a poet who co-founded Free Lance, one of the oldest black-owned literary magazines, in 1950.
At 89, Atkins looked happy to see old friends. Wearing a slight smile, he answered a smattering of audience questions. Asked if he might write again, Atkins said, “I want the poetry I write to be different, something else. I’ll have to think of it first.”
A dignitary from Cleveland State University re-presented Atkins’ honorary doctorate, which had been lost, and an arc of friends stood near him on stage to take turns reading exemplars of his avant-garde poetry.
“It might be 60 years after the fact,” Marcus-Bey said stoutly, “but we are right on time.” Poet Kevin Prufer, a University of Houston professor, traveled from Texas to help honor the subject of his book, “Russell Atkins: On the Life and Work of an American Master.” It published last year in the Unsung Masters series of Pleiades Press.
Prufer, 45, has agreed to become Atkin’s literary executor and Emory University in Atlanta will be home to Atkins’ remaining papers. Tragically, six boxes—manuscripts, letters and musical composition scores—were sent to a landfill last year when Atkins was hospitalized, Prufer said. A few letters from Langston Hughes and Marianne Moore do remain, including one from Moore describing how she recited some of Atkins’ experimental verse on New York radio.
“I resist the notion that Russell Atkins was this strange hermit poet,” said Prufer, who grew up in Cleveland Heights. “He was in the world. I do think poetry has caught up with Russell Atkins, this idea that poetry can enact the thinking mind.”
In a short documentary film, Prufer compared Atkins to William Shakespeare in his inventiveness with language. Poet Mary E. Weems declared she had long been mesmerized by him.
A quartet of admirers—Yassen Assami, Robert McDonough, Diane Kendig, and Mutawaf Shaheed—approached Marcus-Bey in July about honoring their friend.
“I was a student of Russell Atkins for 35 years,” said Shaheed, even when, as a young man, he was unaware of it. “He was different from the rest of us. We were wild and arrogant and he was very patient.” Assami compared Atkins’ work to that of Thelonious Monk on an elevator—very tight. McDonough said it took courage to read Atkins’ challenging, beautiful poems in front of him.
Kendig pointed out that Norman Jordan, who had traveled from West Virginia to honor his old friend, and Atkins were two of the few poets still alive whom Langston Hughes included in his classic, “The Poetry of the Negro 1946-1970.”
Members of the audience joined voices to read a 13-line Atkins poem “Idyll,” published in 1976:
snow brings restraint
and takes you by the arm:
snow’s religious morals over
the landscape relaxes
with a minister’s smile
and it’s hands folded
across a great belly
elsewhere, snow will
not keep a pair
snow hates the body
“He is a quiet, humble, unassuming genius,” Marcus-Bey said. “We are reaffirming his cultural legacy.”
by Tara Jefferson with additional reporting by Karen R. Long
“Kent State University, how ya feeling tonight?” actress and LGBT activist Laverne Cox boomed as she took the podium in the university student center. Dressed in a bright green shift dress and black cardigan, Cox thanked an audience that waited hours in line to hear her speak.
With her high-wattage smile and impeccable grooming, Cox is reveling in the spotlight of a breakthrough year. In June, she became the first transgender person to land the cover of Time magazine. A few months later, she broke another barrier: nabbing an Emmy nomination for her role as Sophia Burset on the Netflix comedy ensemble, “Orange is the New Black.”
In November, Cox will accept a woman-of-the year award from Glamour Magazine, alongside U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power and actress Mindy Kaling. Her standard talk, “Ain’t I A Woman?” takes its title from abolitionist Sojourner Truth’s speech at the 1851 Ohio Women’s Rights Convention. Cox delivered it again the following night to a boisterous, sold-out audience at Case Western Reserve University, where President Barbara Snyder introduced her. “What a coup for Case Western Reserve,” said Synder, surveying the crowd. “And what a tribute to Laverne Cox.”
And as advertised, Cox’s declaration of womanhood was forceful: “I stand before you a proud African-American transgender woman. I’m an artist, an actress, a sister, a daughter. I am not just one thing. And neither are you.” Once beaten to the ground by junior high kids, Cox has been catcalled and kicked as an adult on the streets of New York. “Hurt people hurt people,” she observed, urging members of marginalized groups not to turn against each other.
Speaking without notes, Cox provided a sober context to her own ascendancy: 78 percent of transgender students experience harassment at school. Seventy-two percent of all anti-LGBTQ homicide victims are people of color. Forty-one percent of transgender individuals attempt suicide at one point in their lives – as young Laverne did in sixth grade.
Born in Mobile, Ala., to a single mother seven minutes before her twin brother, Cox remembers taunts stretching back to her preschool days: sissy and “the f word.” Her mother’s response to the bullying was curt: “What are you doing to make them treat you like that?”
As a grade schooler, Cox begged her working-class mother for dance classes. She finally agreed, with one condition: No ballet classes. “My mother thought it was too ‘gay,'” Cox said with a shrug. “Maybe it was the tights.” Nevertheless, weekly tap and jazz class was transformational. Finding a passion can be life-saving, she noted.
When Cox went on a third-grade field trip to Six Flags, she bought a decorative, hand-held fan at the gift shop, eager to imitate Scarlett O’Hara. This caused a teacher to phone Cox’s mother with a warning: “Your son is going to end up in on the street in New Orleans wearing a dress if you don’t get him into therapy.” Cox’s mother did take her to see a therapist, who asked if the child knew the difference between boys and girls. “There is no difference,” Cox answered firmly.
As a boarding student at the Alabama School of Fine Arts in Birmingham, Ala., four hours from her hometown, Cox began to experiment with her appearance, taking weekend trips to thrift stores. She altered the outfits into “Salvation Armani” and wore them with pride, a recollection she accompanied with a saucy flip of her hair.
After two years on scholarship at Indiana University, Cox transferred to Marymount Manhattan College and arrived joyfully in New York. The club scene in the early 1990s gave Cox a community. “I didn’t equate ‘transgender’ with being successful,” she said. “But when I met [these women], all my misconceptions melted away.”
Spooked when strangers would heckle her as a “maaaaaaan” in the street, Cox moved from experiencing this as a failure to a revelation.. “I realized — if someone can tell that I’m trans, that’s okay. That’s beautiful. I accept who I am and that’s something I have to work on every single day.”
In November, Cox wrapped season three of “Orange is the New Black.” She kept mum on the details, except to say that her forthcoming storyline is “freaking juicy.”
For a stretch in the 1970s, television producer Norman Lear had nine shows on the air at once—with four in the top ten Nielsen ratings. He marvels at his own prodigious output in Even This I Get To Experience, a new witty and exhaustive autobiography.
Born in 1922, young Norman got off to a bumpy start. During the Great Depression, when he was 9, his father Herman went to prison for selling fake bonds to a Boston brokerage house. Norman shuttled among various relatives in Chelsea, Mass., while his mother and sister moved two hours away to New Haven, Conn. This abandonment would haunt Lear most of his life. By the time his father was released, Norman had found a new role model: his uncle Jack, a publicist. This, he decided, is what he would be when he grew up.
After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Lear enlisted in the Air Force, flying on more than 50 bombing missions and finding time to marry the first of three wives. After his return, he packed up his family and headed west, lucking into a writing gig for Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. He quickly realized — both monetarily and emotionally — that comedy was home.
When Lear began his career in television in the early 1950s, he found the medium soulless. “For twenty years—until All in the Family came along—TV comedy was telling us there was no hunger in America, we had no racial discrimination, there was no unemployment or inflation, no war, no drugs, and the citizenry was happy with whomever happened to be in the White House,” he writes.
Lear wanted more realism, and he used his “rascal” father as inspiration for Archie Bunker. Many of his iconic shows—All in the Family, Sanford & Son, The Jeffersons, and Maude—wrung comedy from serious subjects: racism, poverty, drugs and abuse. Maude Findlay’s abortion storyline was the first time a leading character on a primetime show underwent the procedure. The episode aired in 1972, a year before the landmark Roe v. Wade decision decriminalized abortion in the early months of pregnancy.
Actress Esther Rolle made a vivid impression in her supporting role as Florida Evans, Maude’s housekeeper, and Lear recruited a few black writers to script a spin-off featuring Florida and her family. The resulting show, Good Times, was the first television show to feature a two-parent African-American family. It debuted to high ratings and proved to have wide appeal, attracting a viewership that was 60% white.
But such a high-wire act brought new challenges. Lear recounts going toe-to-toe with Rolle and co-star John Amos in the writer’s room. Rolle and Amos insisted certain lines be scrubbed, arguing that black people didn’t use certain vernacular. One story involved Jimmie Walker’s character, J.J., painting a black Jesus. Rolle considered the episode blasphemous. Lear was tickled: “Odd that the largely white writing staff of a show about a black family was defending the notion of a black Jesus to a black woman.”
When Walker’s J.J. ad-libbed “Dy-no-mite!,” he thrilled audiences but dismayed Rolle and Amos, who found his portrayal too buffoonish. Weighted by distrust and exhausted on both sides, Good Times wheezed to six seasons. The idea for Lear’s next sitcom, The Jeffersons, came out of a Black Panthers’ critique. Lear recalls the men stopping by his office to demand better representation: “Every time you see a black man on the tube he is dirt poor, wears shit clothes, can’t afford nothing.” George Jefferson, owner of a successful dry cleaning chain, was born.
Lear estimates he helped develop more than 100 shows, producing The Facts of Life, Who’s the Boss and 227. In 1999, President Bill Clinton awarded him the National Medal of Arts for “changing the way we look at American society.”