Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Sundance Festival Debuts Several Must-See Black Films

As the COVID-19 pandemic continued to hold its grip on our return to normalcy, the Sundance Film Festival kept things moving forward by offering its attendees a virtual experience for the second year in row. Although a limited number of events were held in Park City, Utah, and at satellite theaters across the country, the switch from in-person to virtual did not cost the festival its greatest commodity: an array of quality films on the horizon. Therefore, in the spirit of Black History Month, make note of a few must-see films and documentaries about and by persons of color heading to your local theater or your favorite streaming platform soon. 


I thought perhaps I was being a bit over-zealous when I selected Director Carey Williams' film "Emergency," as my festival kickoff pick, since it debuted at 11 p.m. on a Thursday night. I needn't have worried since the rollercoaster ride writer K.D. D├ívila takes viewers on not only kept me wide awake, it also kept me on the edge of my seat. "Emergency" follows straight-A college student Kunle and his carefree best friend, Sean, as they plan for the most epic night of their lives by attempting to be the first Black students to complete their college's legendary end-of-semester, frat row, multi-parties stroll. However, their plans are suddenly and frighteningly interrupted when a quick pit stop home finds them discovering an unidentified white girl passed out on their living room floor. Faced with the decision of calling the police and possibly risking their own lives under such questionable circumstances, Kunle, Sean, and their Latino roommate, Carlos, must find a way to de-escalate the situation and save a life while not risking their own, simultaneously pitting the roommates--and their ideologies surrounding police brutality--against each other. Although leveraged by several comedic moments, the laughs will in no way allow viewers to avoid asking themselves that critically important question: "What would I do in this situation?" "Emergency" is slated for a spring release in theaters and on Amazon Prime. 


When I saw Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter of the legendary Roots hip hop band listed among the executive directors of the documentary, "Descendant," I was confident it would not disappoint, especially after viewing Questlove's much lauded 2021 Sundance debut, Summer of Soul. Directed by Margaret Brown, "Descendant" tells the story of the Clotilda--the last slave ship that illegally arrived off the coast of Mobile, Alabama in 1860--and its enslaved ancestors who mobilized after emancipation to form Africatown, which still exists today and remains populated by the ship's descendants. Although the ship was intentionally destroyed after its final voyage in an attempt to erase history, the desperate search for any pieces of the ship's remains are fueled by a community fighting against the threat of also being erased due to "industrialized racism" and their fight to keep their rich heritage and legacy alive. Of important note, after "Descendant" debuted, it was announced that it had been picked up for worldwide distribution by Netflix and Higher Ground, Barack and Michelle Obama’s production company. Now if that doesn't give it the stamp of approval, nothing will. Check it when it drops later this year. 

jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy

It's safe to say that the antics of Kanye West as of late have been akin to a trainwreck you can't look away from. Ironically, I couldn't look away from "jeen-yuhs" either, but for a completely different reason. Now make no mistake about it: Kanye is always going to Kanye, but it's something engaging about seeing young Kanye; southside of Chicago Kanye; producer-only Kanye, desperate to be a something more than a beats maker and even more desperate to convince those around him that he could be. The documentary, which was born one fateful night at Jermaine Dupri’s birthday party in 1998 when Clarence "Coodie" Simmons, a Chicago public access TV host, first interviewed the 21-year-old, follows West and his move from Chicago to New York City to land a record deal. Simmons decided to keep his camera rolling, and recorded West for years, highlighting the hustle of his now friend and budding producer through his rise to global icon. Although Sundance only debuted part 1 of the trilogy, which included scenes of a young Kanye pacing the Roc-A-Fella hallways playing any staffer who--often irritably--would pause from their duties to give his early version of "All Falls Down" a passive listen to the intimate conversations captured between Kanye and his mother, Donde, it was enough to make me look forward to parts 2 and 3 for a closer look at the man behind the music and often the mayhem."jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy" is set to debut on Netflix February 16th. 

We Need to Talk About Cosby

Sigh. Actually, make that super heavy sigh. Before comedian and now director W. Kamau Bell's documentary of the fall of America's favorite TV dad--Bill Cosby--could hit the screen, the debates had begun regarding whether Bell should have embarked on this project at all, which many saw as a betrayal to the black community. However, just as Bell stated the loss of an icon was one that he struggled with personally, it quickly becomes evident that he was not alone and that "we" all needed to talk about this loss as a family. This is why--akin to Bell's relaxed yet quirky conversational approach to the hard-hitting subjects he features on his weekly CNN series, United Shades of America,--the documentary feels less like "trial by armchair jury" and more like that late-night conversation you have sitting around with family after Thanksgiving dinner, when everyone is too full and too tired to keep it anything less than real. With that, Bell digs into Cosby's nearly 50 years in show business as one of the most recognizable Black celebrities in America and what his work and actions say about America then and now. With commentary from such notable analysts as Jemele Hill, Dr. Marc Lamont Hill, Dr. Todd Boyd, fellow actors and long-time friends of Cosby, and, most importantly, several of Cosby's victims-turned-survivors, "We Need to Talk" urges us to reconsider not only what we know about Cosby but also about the culture that produced and celebrated him. The documentary which is currently airing on Showtime, is delivered in four, hour-long segments. 

That's it; that's all for now, folks. As you trudge through these last few months of a more-brutal-than-expected winter, may these hot releases and the promise of those to come, keep you entertained until we're all back outside. Continue to stay safe!

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Monday, December 27, 2021

The Insecure Finale: Was It Molly's Show All Along? - A Think Piece

Of course I'm being facetious with the title of this blog post. Even those who haven't watched a single episode of Insecure are sure to have at least heard of its powerhouse, multi-hyphenated star and show creator, Issa Rae, who took her "The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl" (ABG) YouTube series in 2011 and parlayed it into a 30-minute sitcom and runaway hit over at HBO in 2016 that garnered upward of over a million viewers each of its five seasons. Although ABG dealt singularly with Rae's many, well, awkward adventures while navigating life as a twenty-something, single, African-American, Los Angelean, the HBO sitcom would partner her with a cast of characters as besties also on a similar journey in figuring out this thing called life.
Enter Molly Carter, the sharp-dressed attorney/homegirl and ride-or-die friend that Issa's character would describe as someone "white people lovvveeddd and black people lovveddddd." Then there was Kellie Prenny, the sexually liberated, financier who would never enter or leave a room without dropping a (often inappropriate) quip that would leave everyone in stitches. And rounding out the crew was Tiffany DuBois, the conservative, boo'd-up-since-college, wife, publicist and AKA sorority sister to Molly. Mix this cast of characters with a sprinkle of the highs and lows of dating, job woes, family drama, a few freestyle raps, and you got the hit we've all come to know and love, and whose ending we now mourn. On Sunday night, Insecure dropped its equally anticipated yet dreaded series finale for those of us who saw ourselves as the fifth friend of this squad that we got together and "ki-ki'd" with each Sunday night. We wanted to know where they'd go from here? What we'd do without them? But most importantly, we wanted to know where--or make that who--Issa's character would ultimately end up with? 

In season 1, episode 1, we found Rae's character lamenting a five-year relationship with boyfriend, Lawrence, that felt like it was going nowhere, in particular after he had lost his job, was attempting to create a new app and probably, unbeknownst to himself and Issa, was existing in a state of depression. Rae's character would also comment that four of those five years saw Lawrence trying to get himself together. After his dropping the ball on celebrating her birthday, leading Issa to hit up a nightclub with Molly and "coincidently" run into Issa's ex, Daniel, the series would take us on an additional five-year rollercoaster ride of breakups, makeups, side chicks, side dudes, baby mama drama, career changes, friendship fallouts and makeups, and even a shot in the eye (if you know, you know. LOL).  Alliances were created in the form of the "Issa Hive" and the "Lawrence Hive," i.e., viewers taking sides on how both characters should navigate life without the other character. And all the while Molly, Kellie, and Tiffany would navigate equally--if not more challenging life obstacles--postpartum depression, the death of a parent--hell, even one character's own death (hey, you'd have to see it to understand), reinforcing how the uncertainties of life can often leave us feeling insecure about the choices we've made in life. 

However, we trusted by the end of the series--as we often hope for ourselves--we'd see a glow-up for all of the characters that would make all of the lessons learned and hardships endured worth it. And in many ways Insecure hit its mark: Molly, after more failed relationships than we care to count, found herself at the altar with, as one viewer put it, her "economic equal" and law firm colleague (who she once saw as her nemesis), loving her safely and unconditionally like she always wanted and deserved. Kellie who, for as long as viewers can remember, rallied against the idea of parenthood, unexpectedly announced her pregnancy after a year-long relationship with a partner who, from the few words spoken and calming energy he exuded, let viewers know he just lets Kellie be Kellie, which is always what she needed. And Tiffany, who begrudgingly (and fearfully) moved with her husband and toddler to Denver in the middle of the final season was slowly finding her new stride all while being pregnant with a new life. And then there was Issa. 

In all fairness, Issa's character experienced her share of life-changing pivots during the series as well--quitting her job at the "We Got Y'all" nonprofit, which assisted inner city youth, without having a real career path plan in place and taking a gig as an Uber driver and an apartment manager in the interim to make ends meet; embarking on relationships with a few promising suitors (who she ultimately sabotaged futures with); and stepping out on faith to throw her own neighborhood block party to showcase local talent. Ultimately, the latter, would lead her to her true passion in the last two seasons in the form of starting her own nonprofit--The Blocc--designed to help artists of color in L.A. find spaces and platforms to showcase their work. Even a huge blowout with Molly in season four, which threatened to end the friendship forever, found her more introspective and them closer than ever by the series end. Yet the proverbial cloud that hung over the series for five seasons was whether Issa and Lawrence would find their way back to each other. And, spoiler alert, they did. 

Despite the history of cheating on both of their parts, ultimately leading Lawrence to a new relationship that would produce a son and Issa struggling to accept his new reality, the "love conquers all" adage reared its head and the closing scene showed Issa leaving her nonprofit's new brick-and-mortar office in L.A, cruising in her new Lexus to her new home, and opening the door to find Lawrence and his now pre-school aged son waiting with a cake to wish her a happy birthday. The sparkling diamond on Issa's left hand let viewers know without a word being uttered about it that the two were now engaged. Mic drop. Series end.

Like most, I was filled with a mix of emotions: joy that each character seemed to have found their happy ending; sad that they'd no longer be there each week to provide us the much needed escapism from our own realities. Afterward, there was time spent on social media platforms enjoying the shared feelings and much-deserved praise for Issa and her writing team's ability to create storylines that engaged viewers across demographics (case and point, on the night the finale aired, I got calls from one of my sisters who is in her 60s as well as texts from my nephews who are in their 20s, all wanting to discuss the show's end and how they felt about the choices each character made).

Then there was the group texts between friends sharing their thoughts on possible alternate endings, reminiscing on situations that got the characters to where they are, and creating imaginary futures for them beyond the show's end. I crawled into bed spent yet seemingly at peace, but--as a friend I spoke with later likened to a stomach bug--something was bothering me but I wasn't sure what it was. Then it hit me: Issa hadn't really grown as much as she was being credited with, making the celebration of her "happily ever after" a bit questionable. I immediately grabbed my phone and shared my "a ha" moment with a friend and she quickly replied that there was a reason she couldn't sleep either, and she wasn't sure why until I had possibly unearthed the reason: the return to Lawrence was a bit unrealistic and, as one person tweeted, somewhat irresponsible (as evidenced by the number of viewers contemplating calling ex's and getting that old thang back) leaving an unsatisfying taste in my mouth. 

Now don't get me wrong: anyone that knows me knows I'm the biggest champion you can find for Black Love. But I'm also well aware how most women approach and process breakups, especially when the woman is the "breaker-uper." Issa set in motion the breakup with Lawrence in season 1. And although women are often labeled as being "emotional," when it comes to break-ups we're largely analytical, meaning we've turned that thing around in our heads a million times, back and forth, up and down, and running multiple scenarios of the aftermath before actually pulling the trigger. It's rarely done haphazardly nor with huge regret. Sadness? Of course. Regret, not often. 

Yes, there are exceptions to every rule but, it's for that reason that when women initiate break-ups, they often don't return to those relationships--ever--which makes Issa's being stuck in this regret for five years, even having it overshadow almost every decision she made, only to have her return, unthinkable. Unlike Molly et al., who used their failed relationships to propel them forward toward growth, Issa's relationship became a proverbial albatross around her neck that she was never able to unshackle herself from all the way to the final frame. And as my friend pointed out, a framing shot in which she didn't even appear authentically happy. In fact, it was a decision we felt was primarily motivated out of fear of letting her past life completely go and out of an angst of seeing everyone move on to their new lives quicker than she anticipated. Lawrence was always "home base"; a safe space she needed. And we all know when you're in need more than you're in want, your decision making can be greatly impaired. And that's when I realized this was Molly's show all along. 

If fans are honest with themselves, that warm joy we felt as the credits rolled were really about Molly's story arc, not Issa's. When we first met Molly, she was overworked at her firm, holding her family together, maneuvering through multiple dating apps, and juggling hope and heartbreak like a champ. She tried on various relationships and, when they didn't quite fit, she wasn't afraid to move on and trust love again. We watched her challenge herself by dating outside of her race--a suggestion many African-American women have shunned in keeping hope alive for their IBM (ideal black man)--and when roadblocks would emerge in both her relationships and career, Molly ultimately did the bravest thing one can do: admit she might be her own biggest obstacle and got herself a black therapist to help her navigate this thing called life. In the end, she was thriving at an all-black-law firm (no longer shackled by the corporate myth that it has to be "white to be right"); had taken the reigns on securing her parents financial future in the nick of time (shoutout to Kelly with the assist); and had experienced enough self growth along the way to usher in the love of her life. Now THAT's a glow up and the personification of going from insecure to secure AF. Which is why Issa's constant back track to a relationship that never brought out the best in her felt like somewhat of a letdown. 

Ultimately, what Issa did was constantly change but not necessarily grow. And that became the greatest lesson we could've all taken from the ending of this series just as we prepare to exit one year and enter into the next. Do our new years resolutions, next moves, or future plans reflect areas that will promote growth or are we simply changing, be it jobs, relationships, area codes, or social circles? One of my favorite sayings is "wherever you go, there you are." If the change is not deep within; if we're not engaging in activities, behaviors, self-care, or relationships that promote growth from our core, then all we're doing is moving in circles, not really going anywhere or--perish the thought--returning to the old familiar when the going gets tough (a la Issa and Lawrence). 

Hell, perhaps their love story was true love after all and so their reconnection was kismet. But while we celebrate the now cultural icon that is Insecure and many laud Issa's character for finding her way back to Lawrence, I'm choosing to give Molly "all her things" for reminding us all that the greatest relationship you can ever have--even before finding true love--is the one you have with yourself, and that that discovery of self is most often found by having the courage to move forward and move forward boldly. As a wise person once said, "If you're scared to go, go scared." 

And to the actresses--Issa, Yvonne, Natasha, and Amanda--who portrayed these characters courageously for five seasons and allowed us to see ourselves, celebrate ourselves, laugh at ourselves and, ultimately, forgive ourselves, you deserve it all. We don't know what we're going to do without you, but we're grateful for the reminder you gave us of what we can do with love, laughter, Black Girl Magic, and a little bit of help from our friends. Kudos, ladies, and Happy New Year to all of my Sistas! May the glow up be within your grasp.

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Tuesday, November 23, 2021

No Wealth Greater Than Health: A Thanksgiving Reminder

It is without question that the COVID-19 pandemic brought an amount of loss and grief that remains incomprehensible. Thus, as we enter the eve of another Thanksgiving, it's safe to say that what many will be most grateful for--as vaccinations allow us to safely gather with family and friends this year--is the opportunity to do just that: gather. Yet for the many that will have the opportunity to embrace loved ones, there will be just as many experiencing empty spaces at dinner tables; managing the void of familiar laughter in rooms; reflecting on the absence of warm embraces at front doors. Like a callous thief, the coronavirus indeed robbed so many of us of so much and, for those of us who experienced those losses personally, it was a painful reminder that there is no greater wealth on earth than your health. 

For the many who contracted the virus, it was simply inevitable. As the virus came and grabbed hold of persons of all ages, races, and socioeconomic backgrounds, it showed itself as unforgiving, non-selective, and relentless. And with 5.15 million deaths worldwide (and unfortunately continuing), it remains a phenomenon unlike any we've seen in over a century, after the 1918 Spanish Flu, which claimed upward of 50 million lives. And much like the Spanish Flu, COVID-19 was a battle many just couldn't win. However, when it comes to managing health that is still within our control, the pandemic served as a wake-up call that we must be diligent in doing so not only for ourselves but for our loved ones as well. 

I was personally reminded of this recently when a close family member was left in wait about a possible diagnosis that would have most definitely put their mortality in jeopardy. What was most interesting was how their possible diagnosis had also impacted everyone around them who was quietly fearing the worst yet praying for the best. The angst and worry was palpable; the wait felt like an eternity. Yet all praise to the Most High, the results revealed my loved one was in the clear. Thanks to early screening, they were able to get ahead of a diagnosis that continues to claim the lives of so many. Much like the fear that had overwhelmed us as a family, it was soon replaced by a joy that consumed us, lending itself to a gratitude that would make this Thanksgiving more special than it has been in a long time. 

This is when I was reminded that our responsibility for managing our health is not just about us; it is about those that love us as well. For those of us blessed to have access to affordable healthcare, not taking advantage of pre-screenings, annual exams, and routine checkups is simply irresponsible--and dare I say--selfish. And for persons of color, not only should many of those screenings happen sooner than for others, but the impact of not doing so if often so much greater. For as many of us have seen, when a person's health is in jeopardy, it is often loved ones who will bare the brunt emotionally, in sacrificed time and, often, financially. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control, if everyone in the United States received recommended clinical preventive care, over 100,000 lives could be saved each year. That's 100,000 less heartbreaks, 100,000 less tears and, subsequently, 100,000 less loved ones laid to rest. 

Yes, death is inevitable but premature death often remains preventable and the power is often in our very own hands. So as we slowly begin to emerge from a most painful pandemic in which we didn't have much control, take this Thanksgiving to not only be grateful for your health and the health of loved ones who are still with us, but let us all commit to remaining diligent with our own health care not just for our sake but the sake of those who love us the most. 

 Have a safe and happy Thanksgiving!

For a complete guide to annual health screenings by gender and age, click here

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Monday, August 16, 2021

'Respect' for NextAct Cinema

Although a tad late, it was most likely an article I stumbled across recently that brought me to learn of NextAct Cinema--Maryland's only minority owned, independent, boutique-style movie theater. So, as this self-ordained cinephile prepared for the release of the highly-anticipated Aretha Franklin biopic, "Respect," I knew exactly where I wanted to be sitting to see it. Nestled northwest of Baltimore in the quaint suburb of Pikesville, NextAct opened its doors in March 2019 by brothers Anthony Fykes and Robert Wright, who wanted to elevate their love of cinema normally enjoyed in their at-home theatre room to a larger platform. That platform became a twin screen, 86-total-adjustable-leather-seat movie house complete with in-seat dining and an array of food menu options (in addition to the traditional movie fare of popcorn and candy) including crab cakes and personal pizzas to salads and quesadillas to soups and deli sandwiches courtesy of the adjoined Pike's Diner and Crab House. 

However, the brick and mortar that houses NextAct is not new to the cinematic landscape, as the building was once home to Pikes Theatre, which opened in 1938 and continued to show movies until closing in 1984 and transforming itself into a restaurant/catering business that also closed in 2004. Pikes reopened as a movie theater from 2013 to 2016 before closing its doors once again until Fykes and Wright brought their dream to reality and the rest, as they say, is Black history. 

Co-owners, Anthony Fykes and Robert Wright
A Huffington Post article on NextAct Cinema stated that according to the Motion Picture Association of America, "the number of frequent African-American moviegoers soared from 3.8 million in 2015 to 5.6 million in 2016. However, many black communities across the country are 'cinema deserts' and lack any movie theaters at all, much less any that are black-owned," thus making NextAct timely, relevant, and much needed. In fact, in a March 2020 Washington Post article, Fykes stated, "There are only two other black-owned theaters that we know of. One is in Richmond and one is in Las Vegas." The Huffington Post article went on to state, "even though black-owned movie theaters are rare today, there is a long history of successful theaters that were catered to African-American patrons. Those theaters not only served as places for black people to watch movies but as communal spaces when they were being excluded." Because of this, it's no surprise that Fykes and Wright have also used their theater space for live jazz, happy hours, karaoke, comedy shows, and birthday parties as an effort to extend its reach and further engage the community. 

Therefore, as I comfortably settled into my seat, awaiting my turkey club sandwich and fries to be brought to me while engaging in small banter with other patrons who'd reserved a seat for the Saturday 1 p.m. showing of "Respect," it was not lost on me that I was there to see a movie about one who broke barriers and opened doors, in a theatre operated by two black men who are committed to doing the same. Whether on the screen, behind the camera or, in this case, behind the proverbial theater curtain, supporting NextAct Cinema was a wonderful reminder that there are many parts to play in moving minority entrepreneurship as well as the culture forward. Fykes and Wright have placed their names in the history books and called "action" on their own dreams, while serving as an inspiration to everyone who enters their theater doors with a dream of their own to do the same.

NextAct Cinema
921 Reisterstown Road
Pikesville, MD 21208

Sources: Black Enterprise; The Baltimore Sun; The Huffington Post

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Sunday, July 4, 2021

Happy Juneteenth...Again

One of my most beloved quotes is from the great late poet Dr. Maya Angelou who stated, “…when you know better, you do better.” It’s served as one of the most profound quotes I’ve held onto that has helped me give myself grace when learning from personal mistakes or, better termed, “life lessons.” Which is why on this Fourth of July/Independence Day, the question “Independence for who?” makes it so easy for me to replace waving flags, gawking at fireworks, and singing the National Anthem with sojourning on the couch and watching Ice Cube’s “Friday” trilogy for the umpteenth time. Don’t get me wrong, I—like most Americans despite ethnicity—reveled in all the pageantry and festivities of the holiday for years, which unofficially marks the peak of summer and the beginning of “cookout season.” But if the last year has reminded me of anything, from the health disparities underscored by the COVID-19 pandemic to the growing economic divide to the continuous yet unpunishable murders of men and women of color, is that this country still has a long way to go before it can authentically celebrate its passage of 1776’s Declaration of Independence, which was to guarantee life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and the promise of equality for all—although written while more than half a million black Americans were enslaved at the time of its signing. Le sigh. 

This is why Juneteenth—a day commemorating the emancipation of African-American slaves on June 19, 1865 (yes, two whole years after President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation issued on January 1, 1863 officially outlawed slavery in Texas and in all of the other states of the original Confederacy)—is so much more meaningful for me to celebrate. And why although President Joe Biden officially signed the day into law this year to be recognized as a federal holiday, makes no difference to me, since it was an honor for me in recent years to use my personal leave time to take the day off from work in reverence to. In fact, I actually have great reservation about Juneteenth becoming a federal holiday for fear the day may become like any other holiday for most and misappropriated for mattress sales and “ladies free before 6:19 p.m.” club promotions, but I digress. 

Therefore, for that reason and before the possibility that the richness of Juneteenth is dismantled, I was ecstatic to commemorate the holiday this year with family at the historic Leimert Park with its two-day celebration of Black liberation designed to “educate, entertain and activate” through art, music, food, and performances. Spending that time intentionally with family and the extended family of “skinfolk” was the perfect reminder that regardless of our progress, we must continue to celebrate, and uphold one another and the many facets of our culture, if we are to continue to survive and thrive within a country that regularly reminds us that July 4, 1776 was and is just another day for us.
Thus, while I’d never turn down a good ol’ grilled hot dog or hamburger offered to me on this fourth day of the seventh month of the year, my inactivity is solidified with an excerpt from abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass’ famed 1852 speech to the Rochester Ladies' Anti-Slavery Society, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” in which he states, “…I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common….”

On that note, and to my African-American brothers and sisters, Happy Juneteenth…again.

Sources: Wikipedia, Britannica

Angelou and Douglass Image/Photo Credits: N/A