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In “Shine Bright,” music critic Danyel Smith makes it plain she wants “credit to be given where credit is due.”  

Subtitled “A Very Personal History of Black Women in Pop,” Smith puts the story of Black women singers into her shimmering pop music memoir, interweaving their stories with her own rise as one of the nation’s preeminent music writers. The result is intoxicating.  

Scan the table of contents and the usual suspects are there: Mariah Carey, Janet Jackson, Aretha Franklin. But Smith makes the inspired choice to include those with a smaller spotlight — among them 1960s girl group The Dixie Cups, Linda “Peaches” Greene of ‘70s duo Peaches & Herb, and Broadway songbird Stephanie Mills, who had a string of hits in the ‘80s. 

An Oakland native, Smith, 56, received her first paid writing assignment in 1989 — covering a Natalie Cole concert for ten cents per word. By 1994 she had been named editor-in-chief of Vibe magazine, making her the first woman to helm a national music magazine. A few years later she moved on to become an editor-at-large at Time, Inc, and editor at Billboard, The Root and ESPN’s The Undefeated. 

That swift rise was at times scalding. Smith battled racism and sexism in multiple professional settings. “I hadn’t gone to NYU, or Columbia, or Brown,” she writes. “In fact, I had no college degree. I was unmoved by Basquiat. I did not view New York City as the center of the cultural universe. I could feel the energy, though, of fools feeling I was an inch too East Oakland, years before I was told.”  

Music served then, as it has most of her life, as a balm; she came to lean even heavier into the beats and lyrics of her favorite artists. As a child, she dwelt in the shadow of her alcoholic stepfather, whose cruelty might have inadvertently pushed the young creative into a career as a writer.  

Smith recalls an incident in sixth grade where her stepfather ripped out pages of her diary and burned them, angry that she had been writing about him. “You want to write something?” he dared her, pointing at a window. “Describe the fucking sunlight.”  

This story is tucked into her chapter on Gladys Knight, who also navigated abusive men to achieve success. The chapters read like mini magazine profiles, with Smith inserting her story organically, an approach that might not have been tolerated at Billboard. At times, it can be a little disorienting (wait, what year was the interview with Janet?). But the richness is in the details — Smith dug up what sandwiches Gladys Knight ate at her tenth birthday party. 

Smith shares that she was driven to create a more complete, truthful record: “What if no one ever gets [Black women] right? What if our spirits and stories are never truly known? It could so easily be that we — except for our songs, our art, our children — were never here at all.”  

“Shine Bright” puts light on some of the complex Black women who make the immortal American music. By including herself, she helps readers understand why.

The typical story set in New Orleans begins and ends somewhere in the French Quarter, but Sarah M. Broom’s meaty new memoir “The Yellow House” stretches our attention seven miles east, to the neighborhood where she and thousands of others live beyond the glitz of the city’s most famous district.

Broken into four movements spanning nearly a century, “The Yellow House” is the story of connection, longing and migration. Who belongs to a city, Broom asks over 300 pages. Whose stories are worth capturing and telling?

She begins her family’s story with the title dwelling. The house sat for 50 years in New Orleans East, more than 40,000 acres developed in the 1950s. It was built on what was “largely cypress swamp, its ground too soft to support trees or the weight of three humans,” Broom writes. Still, NASA’s massive Michoud Assembly Facility went up in 1940, anchoring the idea of a vibrant community to young families.

These promises lured in Ivory Mae Broom, Sarah’s mother. Widowed at 19, a mother of two, she used $3,200 from the life insurance payout to purchase a small green house on Wilson Avenue in 1961. Over the next five decades, the household would swell to hold twelve children. Sarah is the youngest — her eldest sibling, Simon Jr, is thirty years her senior.

Broom, 39, captures the life of her family with vigor. Her storytelling is most vivid when she writes about her father Simon Broom, Ivory Mae’s second husband. He died when Sarah was just six months old, collapsing in the bathroom. But his presence looms large as the writer relies on interviews with her mother and various siblings to paint a portrait of a man she never knew.

“My father is six pictures,” she writes. “These photos can be shuffled around, pinned up on my wall in various configurations, held up high in the palm of my hand, and then dropped to the ground and still they are only six pictures.”

But the Yellow House (which got its nickname when Ivory Mae purchased yellow siding in the 1990s) was never quite the oasis the Brooms were seeking. The place somehow bogged down into a perpetual state of disrepair. Simon built a poorly constructed and incomplete addition to the back of the house, the walls exposed and the bathroom unfinished. The family took to “carrying boiled water through the house and to the bath in our red beans and rice pot.”

The house, as Sarah writes, became more of a shackle for her mother, trying to manage its upkeep while simultaneously raising 12 children on a nurse’s aide’s salary. Her refrain was “You know this house not all that comfortable for other people” whenever one of the children wanted to invite a friend home. Non-relatives rarely crossed the threshold during Sarah’s childhood.

The Katrina section, simply titled “Water,” is gut-wrenching. Most of the Brooms were safely out of harm’s way when the hurricane hit in August 2005, but two of her siblings, Carl and Michael, didn’t make it out of New Orleans East before the onslaught. Carl rode out the storm at his home, while Michael hunkered down at a girlfriend’s apartment.

“You thinking that’s mannequins floating by you, but when you get by it that body smell so bad, it then swoll up big,” Carl told his sister. “Man that ain’t no mannequin, that’s a dead body.”

The water knocked the Yellow House off its foundations and the city later abruptly bulldozed it, ending a chapter of the Broom history for good.

Post-Katrina, the memoirist takes a job in Mayor Ray Nagin’s office, lasting only six months as a speechwriter before burning out. “More and more I began to feel that I was on the wrong side of the fence,” Broom writes, “selling a recovery that wasn’t exactly happening for real people.”

Broom is a master at the minutiae, conjuring a neighborhood hovering below its potential, neglected by the powers that be. The house itself is so carefully depicted you can see the hand-sewn curtains and the frayed edges of the kitchen linoleum.

For all its attention to detail, “The Yellow House” is slow to ignite. Broom lingers in her mother’s and grandmother’s childhood too long, giving too many peripheral characters space that feels unearned. With such a wide family tree – Broom currently has 50 nieces and nephews – it’s impossible to flesh out each relative. Still, she brings to life those she knows best.

The memoir does balance personal narrative and journalistic inquiry, with Broom centering the city of New Orleans at every turn. The streets, the homes, the neighbors all feel grounded in time.

Her story, and the larger story of the Broom clan, is worth finding, well off the beaten path.

“Call soul food what it is: the edible scripture of the Black aesthetic, the culinary answer to jazz, memory food of a people.”

That’s a tweet from Michael Twitty, a culinary historian from Maryland, who sees Cleveland as “the deep north.” To stay warm, he kept on his light grey jacket as he addressed the audience at the Cleveland Natural History Museum gathered for his December talk, “A Place at the Table.”

He begins with a question: “What if the enslaved could tell their story through food?” The story of American history, he argues, lies within the story of the foods people in bondage ate and the meals they cooked for others. It grieves him that so many hadn’t been properly acknowledged or recorded.

Via his food blog,, Twitty seeks culinary reconciliation. He has poured years into researching the origins of Southern cuisine and the agricultural connections between West Africa, the Caribbean and North America. His tweets at @KosherSoul are just as rich.

A childhood trip to Colonial Williamsburg sparked young Michael’s interest. The splendor of the kitchen in the Governor’s Palace fascinated the 7-year-old foodie. “My father was a Vietnam vet and all he wanted to see was guns and the cannons going off,” he said. “I had him in the kitchen for an hour and a half, staring at this beautiful pheasant. . . I actually flirted with the pheasant.”

It’s fitting then that the Twitty family – both living and ancestral — features prominently in his work. He started The Cooking Gene, a crowdfunded culinary tour of the South, five years ago, as he traced his family tree through two centuries. Along with a host of scholars and chefs, he visited the lands they worked and in some cases, sought to meet the descendants of the people who owned them.

Twitty’s first book, of the same name, will arrive in 2017.  A few prospective publishes worried that Twitty’s identities – a black, gay, Jewish man – would be too much for readers. “This country is the only place I’m possible,” he retorted. “How dare you deny me the one thing America can give me – my uniqueness. My possibility.”

When Twitty hosts cooking demonstrations on former plantations and historical sites, he dons the full 18th century attire of those in captivity. He uses tools that would have been readily available to that population – cast iron skillets feature heavily – and recipes that would have been intimately familiar to the enslaved people on the plantation. Think okra and rabbit soup or mashed black eye pea fritters.

From the lectern in Cleveland, Twitty was careful with his language. He mentioned “enslaved people,” not slaves. “Slaveholders,” not master. They were “freedom seekers,” not runaway slaves. “Better yet, patriots,” he insisted. “Not slave rebels—patriots. They only wanted what America promised.”

In his work as a culinary historian, he has mastered the art of preserving culinary history, deftly maneuvering his way around a reluctant elder to slowly ease down their guard as he tries to capture their recipes. His first tip? Present yourself as a helper, not a pest. “Don’t be lazy; do some work. Wash the dishes, sweep the floor,” Twitty advises. Only then can you sidle up with questions about ingredients. Another tip? “Keep some measuring spoons in your pocket.” All the better to measure what the elders tend to eyeball.

He also brings dearly won kitchen wisdom to our political moment: “With these incidents of hate that we see, we have a choice. And that choice is to feed people. Feed them knowledge. Feed them love.”

 by Gail Arnoff

“I was not sorry when my brother died.”

So begins Tsi Tsi Dangarembga’s semi-autobiographical novel Nervous Conditions, the story of Tambudzai, a teenage girl in (the former Rhodesia now Zimbabwe) who lives in two worlds: that of her parents, poor farmers who earn a meager living, and that of her aunt and uncle, whom the British colonists have chosen to receive an education in England and eventually to run the missionary school.

I fell in love with Tambu in the first few pages, and as I introduce her to more readers, I have discovered that they take her to their hearts as well. This includes participants in a Books@Work group, women who are thirty to sixty-five, and college students in a “Questions of Identity” seminar. Until I requested it, the Cleveland libraries did not even own a copy of Nervous Conditions, but I consider Nervous Conditions a classic deserving of a wider readership.

When I mention the title, people often think that I am referring to a book on psychology. However, the title comes from a quote by Franz Fanon, a psychiatrist, writer, and revolutionary who declared in his seminal work The Wretched of the Earth (1961) that “the condition of the native is a nervous condition.” Dangrembga’s semi-autobiographical novel suggests that like the natives living in what was called Rhodesia until 1980,Tambu also struggles against her condition, not only as a native, but as a girl living in a patriarchal society.

The plot is complex, but fairly easy to follow as Tambu sets out to explain, in the opening chapters of the book, why she is not sorry her brother has died.  (No spoiler alert here, as it is best to let Tambu explain herself.)  We meet other members of her family, including Jeremiah, her lazy, demanding father; Mainini, her mostly submissive mother; her Uncle Babamukuru, who heads the family and the mission school; Maiguru, Babamukuru’s college-educated wife who continues to kowtow to her husband’s many needs; and Nyasha, Tambu’s troubled female cousin, who plays a major role in introducing Tambu to a new world.

The Books@Work group related easily to Tambu’s brave response as she comes to understand the patriarchy of her family, members of the Shona group. Many readers recognized themselves in Tambu’s spirited rebellion and determination to become an educated, independent woman.  Several readers recounted their own teenage adventures, as well as those of their teenage daughters. We laughed often when sharing stories of sneaking out to see a boy or taking that first sip of beer. In more serious discussions, we listened to a participant who grew up in Nigeria and another married to a man from Zimbabwe. Both provided insights into customs and issues that frame Tambu and her family. These women’s experiences added richness to discussions fueled by Tambu’s resourcefulness and tenacity.

My college students, much closer to Tambu’s age, were often outraged — particularly at the patriarchy and the colonialism. When Babamukuru and his family return from England to Rhodesia, their acquaintances treat them differently. They have become, as Nyasha says, “hybrids.” At her uncle’s house Tambu is shocked when Anna, a woman working for the Babamukurus, kneels down in front of the two girls to tell them that dinner is ready.  Nyasha tells Anna to get up, but “Anna continue[s] her message on her knees.” These scenes shocked some students, most of whom have never seen the stark discrimination and race separations confronting Tambu and her cousin.

Nevertheless, students who come from places quite different than 20th century Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, are drawn again and again to the characters in Nervous Conditions. “I found myself relating to [Tambu’s] thought processes and parts of her personality, in particular the way she takes on the role of observer in many situations,” wrote one first-generation American whose parents are Chinese. Another student said that reading the novel was “like walking into a swimming pool: I felt pretty cold when I first started reading, but I got warmer and more engaged as I got to know the characters and began to puzzle out the themes.” Yet another young man was surprised by his connection to Tambu and wrote that “though I did not know what to think at first, Nervous Conditions and Tambu have garnered a special place in my heart and I thoroughly enjoyed watching both of them exceed my preconceptions and expectations.”

For both groups of readers, Dangarembga’s writing seemed more straightforward than lyrical; it is the responses of her characters that kindled interest. Tambu “does not look back on her life with kind or insensitive eyes,” one student wrote. “Instead, she is pragmatic and honest.  She acknowledges the nostalgia that may or may not have seeped into her narrative, but otherwise, Tambu is a shrewd and reliable narrator.  I appreciated Tambu’s fairness.”

Maybe it is especially that “fairness” that wins over readers.  Tambu tells her story without pronouncing judgements or offering solutions. She reports that she has gone through a “process whose events stretched over many years and would fill another volume, but the story I have told here, is my own story, the story of four women whom I loved, and our men, this story is how it all began.”  Dangarembga wrote another novel, a sequel to Nervous Conditions called The Book of Not.

Next up: my book club will discuss Nervous Conditions.  We have just read two novels by African authors, Disgrace, by J.M. Coetzee, and Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who won an Annisfield Wolf award for Half the Yellow Sun in 2007. These novels are as different from one another as one can imagine. I am keen to hear yet another group’s response to Nervous Conditions, and I hope that my friends, like me, will open their hearts to Tambu, just as the other groups have.  But that is a tale for another time.

IMG_8206_adj_4x6Gail Arnoff received her B.A. from Western Reserve University and her M.A. from John Carroll University, where she currently teaches in the English Department. She also facilitates a seminar, “Questions of Identity,” in the SAGES program at Case Western Reserve University.

In its second season, ABC’s “Black-ish” has hit its stride. Now comes the best evidence of its ability to create a television classic: the February 24 episode called “Hope.”

The story, and the series, centers on the upper middle-class Johnsons. For this installment, the parents disagree on how to talk to their four children about police brutality.

The episode is confined entirely within the Johnsons’ living room/kitchen as the broadcast news of no indictment of the police officer spills in—a cinematic choice that ratchets tension. Viewers must pick a side: Agree with Dre Johnson (played well by Anthony Anderson), the realist who wants to arm his children with the truth, which will extinguish their innocence? Or side with Dr. Rainbow Johnson (vividly embodied by actress Tracee Ellis Ross), whose belief in the justice system is shaken, but not broken?

The elders (played by Lawrence Fishburne and Jenifer Lewis) lend comic relief as well as survival strategies. “If you’re going to talk to the cops, there’s only seven words you need to know,” Grandma Ruby warns the children. “‘Yes, sir,’ ‘No, sir,’ ‘Thank you, sir.'”

From start to finish, the episode is timely and urgent—using Ta-Nehisi Coates‘ “Between the World and Me” to enter the discussion, with nods to James Baldwin, Sandra Bland, and Freddie Grey along the way. As a black parent, I found the hour-long program heartbreakingly familiar—and pitch-perfect in the melding of levity and reality.

It’s hard to remember a mainstream network show taking such risks. “Modern Family” may be the highly rated lead-in, but it rarely references race or ethnicity, except to wring a stereotype or two for humor—usually at the expense of Sofia Vegara’s character, the Colombian trophy wife.

NBC’s The Carmichael Show, starring comedians Jerrod Carmichael and David Alan Grier, featured a protest episode last summer, with the writers focusing mostly on the absurdity of rioting and racism. “There was a DJ down there,” said matriarch Cynthia, who is played by Loretta Devine. “You don’t play music on a laptop at a protest. You sing! Everybody knows that!”

Black-ish creator and showrunner Kenya Barris pitched the show numerous times before it found a home at ABC. The difference this time, he said, is that he fought to keep his voice honest, to explore stories that were explicitly about black family life.

“I’m a huge fan of Norman Lear’s work, and I’ll talk to him in a sort of a mentoring kind of way,” Barris told Vice. “I still think of this thing that he said: ‘It’s hard enough to do ‘my boss is coming over and my wife burnt the pot roast’ anyway. That’s hard comedy to do in itself. But then when you take out the mundane ideas and put in something like, ‘Oh yeah, somebody got shot by a cop!’ in that mix it starts to become . . . whew, something else.”

“Hope” felt like a successor to Lear’s cutting edge sitcoms, infused with the 21st-century flavor of Black Lives Matter. “Blackish” has already troubled the waters with episodes on the N-word, wealth inequality and gun control.

Episode 16 is a fresh watermark in American culture.

misty movie“A Ballerina’s Tale” is a delightfully intimate portrait of Misty Copeland—full of close-ups, uncomfortable silence, and peeks behind the curtain of one of the nation’s most prominent dancers. Documentary-maker Nelson George spent three years filming.

Balletomanes already know much of the biography: As one of six children raised by a single mother in San Pedro, California, Misty found refuge from a sometimes unstable home at the local Boys & Girls Club, where she first took a ballet class at 13. In the 20 years since, she has become the face of modern dance, appearing everywhere from The Late Show With Stephen Colbert to Prince’s Welcome to America tour. But that fame didn’t happen overnight.

When she was 17, Misty moved from California to New York to join the American Ballet Theatre’s (ABT) Studio Company. She arrived to find herself the only African-American dancer among a corps of 80. Copeland, a beautiful woman who smiles with her whole face and shoulders, admits she felt inadequate, struggling with racial and body image issues. She numbed herself with sugary vices like Krispy Kreme donuts: “I didn’t want to go to class; I didn’t want to have to look at myself in the mirror.” 

In 2012, the director selected Copeland to dance the Firebird, in Alexei Ratmansky’s Firebird, a game-changing role, and her first turn in a principal role as a professional soloist. Her ABT mentor Susan Fales-Hill invited powerful black women to see the performance—BET President Debra Lee attended—and congratulate Copeland on her success. The dancer was in excruciating pain, dancing through multiple stress fractures in her leg. But for Copeland, there was no other choice but to take the stage: “I understood that I had to make it work. I knew that the night stood for something so much bigger than me and beyond what I could even imagine.” 

Her stellar Firebird led to a dinner with George, an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. Copeland’s work was his first ballet experience; he was hooked. He wanted to document the way the ballerina was remaking the art, and the audience. Copeland agreed: “What I’m trying to do is get people in the door because I think once they get in the door of the theater, they’ll see the beauty and just how incredible the art form is.”

George and Copeland started shortly thereafter, filming orthopedic surgeons debating whether to put a steel rod in her leg, and later, her return to the stage.

She triumphed, dancing Odette/Odile in Swan Lake, the first African-American woman to do so. A little over a month later, she smashed another barrier, becoming the first black women promoted to principal ballerina at ABT—a goal a decade in achieving.

Viewers mark the mental and physical fortitude it takes Copeland to reach the top—Copeland is on her feet (excuse me, on her toes) for hours a day, running between class, rehearsal, physical therapy and work as a spokesperson for Under Armour, Dr. Pepper and Coach.

An informal city sidewalk gathering of Copeland friends and fellow dancers to toast to her massive new Under Armour billboard is perhaps the most touching moment. The “I Will What I Want” campaign signaled a shift to ballerinas glorying in athleticism and strength, right alongside NFL quarterback Tom Brady and NBA point guard Stephen Curry. A moment I was waiting to see—Copeland speaking about achieving her dream of principal ABT dancer—went missing. George just tucks in a simple note toward the end.  

While the film is solid on Misty’s professional endeavors, the documentary fails to flesh out Misty the person. Outside of a cameo from Leyla Feyyaz, her best friend and a former dancer, viewers don’t see who makes up Copeland’s inner circle. The same gap occurs with her family, although Copeland has explained that the narrow focus on ballet was intentional: “I didn’t want this to be a ‘Misty movie’—I wanted to show people what ballet was,” she told Jezebel.

None of this would have been possible without the trailblazing black ballerinas who came before Copeland. Viewers should stay through the credits for the ‘black ballerina curtain call,’ which includes Raven Wilkinson, Janet Collins and Carmen de Lavallade. “It’s my favorite part of the whole documentary, the end,” Copeland says in Elle magazine. “I always get teary eyed.”

“A Ballerina’s Tale” is now available in select theaters and on iTunes. 




At 84, Toni Morrison is full of reflection on her successes and incidents where she might request a do-over.

“It’s not profound regret,” she told NPR’s Terry Gross. “It’s just a wiping up of tiny little messes that you didn’t recognize as mess when they were going on.”

Morrison’s press tour for her eleventh novel, God Help the Child, has been full of little fascinating admissions like this. (My favorite parts of the recent lengthy New York Times profile are the quick revelations that Morrison has never once worn jeans and that she considers sleeping on ironed sheets one of life’s greatest luxuries.)
Her vulnerability is heightened during the NPR interview as she riffs on the pains and shifts that accompany older adulthood. As she has aged, her circle has become smaller; as a result, “there is this boredom or the absence of something to do.”
But the conversations all lead back to her novel, a haunting tale of childhood traumas sans redress. Bride, the main character in God Help the Child, is a dark-skinned cosmetics executive struggling with the weight of rejection that has plagued her entire life. In her review for Newsday, Anisfield-Wolf manager Karen Long calls the novel “hypnotic” and praises Morrison for her vivid language and pacing: “Morrison has a Shakespearean sense of tragedy, and that gift imbues “God Help the Child.”

One consequence of Ferguson: viewers can now watch the documentary “White Like Me” cost-free.

Tim Wise’s anti-racism documentary will stream free online for a few weeks.  The Media Education Foundation, which produced the movie, chose the promo code “blacklivesmatter” for viewers to redeem.

Wise, 46, raised more than $41,000 on Kickstarter for the movie, which adapts his 2005 memoir, “White Like Me: Reflections On Race From A Privileged Son.” The 2013 film features insights from Princeton University’s Imani Perry; Michelle Alexander, author of 2012’s “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness”; and Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree.

A brisk 68 minutes, “White Like Me” is a forceful, persuasion piece, designed to explain the basics of white privilege, racial bias and systematic discrimination to viewers who haven’t considered America’s legacy of white supremacy.

“Racial bias still effects the way we view others,” Wise says in the opening sequence. “And when we fail to recognize that, we not only continue to do an injustice to people of color, we end up doing damage to white folks as well.”

The film focuses almost entirely on the 20th century. A good chunk of the narrative is framed around sweeping social programs of the 1930s and 1940s—including the G.I. Bill and the creation of the Federal Housing Administration—which almost exclusively benefited white people, as Ta-Nehisi Coates demonstrated in his landmark piece in the Atlantic Monthly published earlier this year.

Such historical content is buttressed by the “post-racial” language thrown around after President Barack Obama’s first election and the rise of the often incendiary Tea Party.

Perhaps a few members will find their way to this compelling feature. Likewise, in classrooms, Wise’s frank work as the potential to open a few eyes.

Watch “White Like Me” for free, with the code “blacklivesmatter.” 

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.

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.

One of my close friends, Shanelle Smith, shoved a thick book in my hands as we met for lunch. “You have to read this.”

It was upside down; I flipped it over. U.S. Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor beamed from the cover. “It’s very good,” Shanelle said, tapping the cover of My Beloved World  for emphasis. “It’s my Lean In.”

Back in March, Shanelle and I had talked at length about Sheryl Sandberg’s “call to action” for working women as part of our informal book club. The child of two auto factory workers, my friend was turned off by Sandberg’s “middle class to riches” story, peeved that Sandberg had never met some of the barriers that low-income working mothers encounter. (Sandberg’s “working mom confession ” that her child had lice while on a private jet evoked zero sympathy.) Most women reading Lean In would never see the boardrooms Sandberg frequents, but I found enough truth nuggets to make it worthwhile.

Unlike Sandberg, Sotomayor isn’t dispensing career advice. The first Hispanic and only the third woman on the U.S. Supreme Court makes it clear that her story is personal.

Readers looking for a view into the inner workings of the Supreme Court will be disappointed. Sotomayor ends the book after her appointment to the U.S. District Court in 1992, calling it “inappropriate” to reflect on a journey still taking shape. That judiciousness has gotten her far in life.

Even without contemporary elements, her story is strong. Growing up with an alcoholic father who stayed sober just long enough to prepare dinner every night and a mother who worked long hours to avoid arguments, Sotomayor became self-reliant at an early age. Diagnosed with diabetes at 7 years old, she learned how to give herself daily insulin injections. 

Her diabetes also spurred her career ambitions; on a visit to the doctor she received a pamphlet on careers she could aspire to as a diabetic. She noticed that a detective — an occupation the 10-year-old Nancy Drew wannabe considered her path to becoming a judge — was not on the list. She was undeterred. The pamphlet incident is now her go-to anecdote whenever she speaks to the juvenile diabetes crowd.

Sotomayor reminds readers repeatedly that she has reached the height of her career precisely because of her background, not in spite of it. She believes her devotion to her community guided the “small, steady steps” that led to the Supreme Court. She writes about her years at parochial schools in the Bronx, where she first learned the joy of passionate debate, and her study at Princeton and Yale Law School, where she learned to advocate for diversity and move in the world on a grander scale.

“Until I arrived at Princeton, I had no idea how circumscribed my life had been,” she writes, “confined to a community that was essentially a village in the shadow of a great metropolis with so much to offer, of which I’d tasted almost nothing. I honestly felt no envy or resentment, only astonishment at how much of a world there was out there and how much of it others already knew.”

As she ascended in her career, first as an assistant district attorney and then as a private practice lawyer, her drive had ramifications for her personal life. She writes about the collapse of her marriage, noting that it was an amicable split and she remains friends with her former husband to this day. As for having children, Sotomayor took pleasure in being the “fun aunt” instead of having children herself: “The idea of another life utterly dependent on me, the way a child needs his mother, didn’t seem compatible with the professional necessity of living at this punishing pace.”

Reading this book in 2013, it’s good to remember that women of Sotomayor’s generation broke barriers as the first minorities to attend and graduate from institutions that had only recently started affirmative action practices. She detailed several instances of “casual” racism/sexism: the school nurse questioning her acceptance to Princeton; a law firm recruiter pushing her to admit that affirmative action is destructive; judges calling her “honey” in the courtroom. In spite of these slights, Sotomayor remained focused; her grit thrilled me.

Each chapter is a love letter to the values of hard work and dedication. As Sotomayor told committee members before her appointment to the federal bench: “I’m not intimidated by challenges. My whole life has been one.”

For readers who want to know what it was like to be nominated for the Supreme Court, here’s an excerpt from her interview with Oprah earlier this year:

Chances are, Joyce Carol Oates’ latest work is unlike anything you’ve ever read before. “The Accursed” takes readers on a wild ride through Princeton, N.J., in the years 1905-1906, viewed through a host of characters who are all struggling with their own demons as the result of the Curse (always capitalized).

In the weeks leading up to the book’s release, the Princeton University professor and Anisfield-Wolf jury member completed an interview with the Seattle Times in which she explored some of the themes in the book more in depth. Oates began writing the novel in the 80s and left it alone for more than 20 years while pursuing other projects. She came back to it a few years ago and emerged with a novel some are calling Oates’ best work yet.

As Stephen King said in his New York Times review, this book just might be “the world’s first postmodern Gothic novel: E. L. Doctorow’s ‘Ragtime’ set in Dracula’s castle. It’s dense, challenging, problematic, horrifying, funny, prolix and full of crazy people. You should read it.” His review is fun, which is always a good sign for the book at hand. He showcases the complex and ambiguous nature of the novel, leading readers down a path he himself isn’t 100% sure exists and feeling comfortable without a firm grasp on the truth Oates presents. But such complexities often make for good storytelling.

Read an excerpt of “The Accursed” here and let us know if this title makes your list of books to read.